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Can New Tech Replace In-Class Learning?

When Bette Midler asked last month on Twitter, “What’s wrong with this picture?” the responses across social media revealed the differences in generational approaches to both culture and technology. While Midler was slammed for her tweet, I sympathized with her intent which seemed not to judge per se the women in the picture, but rather which interrogated the social ethos of our desire to persistently keep our heads bowed to our electronic devices. This dilemma was posed earlier last year when American photographer Eric Pickersgill presented “Removed,” a series of photos which demonstrate the alienation and isolation that new technology manifests as Pickersgill had removed the mobile devices from his images, revealing a social landscape of people isolated from on another: a couple in bed back to back with their hands extended; two men at a barbecue not talking to each other and instead looking down at their open palms; and a couple intimately seated together while both staring at their outstretched arms, palms open to the vanished mobile telephone.

Despite the generational abyss that the reactions to Midler’s tweet reveal, her question is salient and one that we ought to all be asking—not only of others but of ourselves. This kind of interactive rupture between humans is one negative aspect of new technology that we rarely think about since most of us tend to appreciate the positive aspects while chalking up the rest to a sort of necessary “collateral damage.” But are human relations really something we ought to be sacrificing in the name of new technology?

I noticed the encroachment of new technology as it was foisted upon professors while I was teaching at universities from the mid 1990s. Having created an online information portal for my students, I was neck-deep in new technology and the ways it would allow students to keep up with missed classes, to have access to course requirements and even to learn how to construct a bibliography for their research papers. But I became suspicious when certain information systems were bought by universities in the late 1990s in an attempt to streamline teaching while also moving to homogenize all pedagogic approaches. I grew increasingly worried about how the individual styles of professors became consumed by these systems which ended up turning teaching into a rote exercise of regurgitating information where the professor is nothing more than a bureaucrat. It was, in effect, the twenty-first century version of the professor reading from the yellowed pages of lecture notes from years before, a sort of academic Taylorism if you will.

And since the late 1990s, there has been an explosion of online courses by reputable academic institutions like MIT which offers free online courses and then far lesser known institutions which operate entirely online with graduate programs that are unaccredited and GMAT courses that are used to assist students to pass programs admissions exams. When I see online courses pushed in lieu of in-real-life learning, I have to wonder if this is simply not yet another exercise of new tech capitalism coming to gather more bodies who see a street-side advertising the latest website where you can pay for a degree that may very likely have little to no value in the real world. And when I see report after report demonstrating that students who are most in need of classroom learning do not benefit from the online model even though they are being pushed into it, I have to wonder if I might be correct in my initial assumption. One report even states that online education is the fastest-growing segment of higher education and its growth is overrepresented in the for-profit sector which begs the question as to why online learning is ignoring the many criticisms made by faculty about the quality and value of online education which many view as inferior to face-to-face education.

I spoke with other educators and parents who have chimed in on this growing trend where educators in museums, schools and universities focussed upon technology such that inevitably we might all resemble the very women in the photo which Midler criticized. Grant Simon Rogers, a former museum worker from the UK specializing in Learning and Access, tells me:

More and more museums and galleries have ‘reviewed’ their visitor engagement policies especially in their education/learning offer, from face to face contact, facilitated by museum professionals, in favor of a digital, web supported option. There is also a perception that the young visitors in this picture should somehow “get” the collections, which is what the Education/Learning departments were set up to achieve in the first place. As a footnote, I feel really sorry for the three girls in the picture. It appears to be a classic case ‘They should be interested’ but who is to say they are not using the museum app. The reality is that they are probably, a little tired, enjoying the sense of being in the museum rather than interacting with the entire collection. They may have given their all on a few earlier paintings. And of course, no museum can compete for everyone’s undivided attention for their whole visit. I worked in the National Gallery for over thirty years and would happily say that the vast majority of our visitors had no idea what to expect from their visit. I was in the position to ask them “Why they were there?” For some, it was a tourist tick list, for others, because their partner wanted to visit. Many found it an impossible question to answer, other than the happy vocal few who admitted that they only came in to use the free loos.

Emily Newman, a Devon-based mother, notes how she has recently had to buy a tablet for her six-year-old son in order for him to log into apps for math games at school. She states, “The games are repetitive and meaningless. Needless to say we don’t use these apps and pen and paper and books are adequately keeping him flying along at nearly the top of the class. It disturbs me that children so young are being introduced to interacting anonymously online with other people and suggestive content.” Ultimately, Newman is left questioning if new technology is helping children or simply allowing them access to other anonymous users with little concern for learning much less child safeguarding.

As one person wrote regarding the Middler tweet, “This points to the issue of the way kids are taught in schools. If the expectation was that they were going to be tested on what they saw, this would draw their focus away from the experience and toward the source materials.” And fundamentally, when we use technology with the aim of responding to key points and future testing, one can only sympathize with the young women in the photo.

As skepticism grows towards online learning and other new tech modalities used in public education and museums, there are many who wonder how to resuscitate online learning for the benefit of learning. Fundamentally, the new goal with new technology is how to keep in touch with the human element of learning while being mindful of the reasons why and practices through which we are learning in the first place.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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