Does technology play a substantial role in the future of education?

How will our education system function, twenty years from now? Here’s a debate: does Internet and information technology help us learn? or do they simply distract us?

Personally, my teenage years were spent in this awkward technological transition where I went from being one of the few kids in class who knew what Microsoft Office is, to someone who is now surrounded by Mafia war and Android addicts. After observing how people grew accustomed to information technology, I doubt the answer to the aforementioned question is a simple yes or no.

How come?

the reasons are simple.

Will distance learning replace classroom instructions? Unlikely. To say that it will, is to say that education and learning are no more than sitting through lectures, reading textbooks and handing in assignments. If that were the case, then why aren’t Bill Gates’ or Steve Jobs’ classmates all IT entrepreneurs and innovators? Not to mention that both Bill and Steve dropped out of college, it is quite apparent that effective education and effective learning just aren’t that simple.

Will reliance on the Internet lead to diminished learning outcomes? Open to speculation. The honest truth is that the analysis presented above interpreted some data, but failed to provide the whole picture. Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, when I was teaching myself webpage design and programming, the persons who’ve had substantial exposure to information technology, were mostly college-educated and highly resourceful. In fact, heavy Internet usage in those days, were associated with higher degree of education and higher salary.

So what has changed? here’re some cues: the Internet went from a graph of distributed, hand-coded webpages (in other words, most content publishers on the Internet had to set up their own websites), to a conglomerate of out-of-the-box blogging and social services. The computer gaming industry, now makes more money from massive multi-player online games where users interact, than from single player games with complex game engines and intertwining plots.

The demographics are changing. We certainly don’t pull out statistics from the 90’s and attribute the Internet as the cause of high degree of education, why would we look at a couple of easily distracted students and start lashing out on the Internet? The argument against using the Internet runs on the same logic that disparages educational games just because of a negative correlation between academic achievement and time spent on computer games.

However, correlations are not causations.

From the information presented in the analysis on the Internet, can we reliably say that using the Internet leads to superficial thinking? or must it be that superficial thinkers tend to use the Internet? both seem rather bizarre conclusions to be drawn.

Perhaps it is neither. Perhaps Internet as a medium can be used differently, and each individual’s preference dictates what kind of and how much information he or she digests; of course, this in turn determines the beneficial and detrimental effects of the Internet on this particular individual.

While some individuals access the world wide web to look up targeted information (for example, specific pages wikipedia, google search, mapquest, new york times), others access the very same world wide web in an aimless fashion, for arbitrary amusement suggested by others (for example, recommendations given through youtube, digg, reddit, facebook). It may be that many who stay on the Internet spend much of their time surfing aimlessly and performing fast-switching tasks, but that says very little about the effects of the Internet, if any.

Why? because without the Internet, people could still be distracted while watching TV, hanging out at diners, listening to the radio or even just strolling through a park. It is very important to understand that correlations are not causations, and it is important, especially for educators, to refrain from drawing rash conclusions from correlations, and arbitrarily scapegoat technologies and ensuing phenomena that appear grotesque to our generation.

Since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, the federal government has invested an immense amount of resources to promote scientific investigation of education (e.g. What Works Clearing House). It has been a tough battle, as historically, education has not been a data-driven field that focuses on experimentation. Despite our struggles, I firmly believe that a scientific paradigm for educational policies and learning sciences is crucial to exorcising superstitions about what influences technologies and educational systems have on our students and learners at large.

When judging technology, it is absolutely critical to assess the quality of information being delivered, as well as the cognitive and meta-cognitive processes in the recipients. Sometimes, technologies that have historically been pegged as counterproductive to learning, say, video games? can enhance interest in learning and yield profound learning benefits when used appropriately.



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