covereng.jpg (71094 bytes)
1x20.gif (45 bytes)
Technology and Its Impact: Some Very Educated Guesses
The big question at the recent Quest conference was, "Should educators be worried about technology?"
guesses1.jpg (29811 bytes) About 300 delegates from across North America gathered at the Education on the Eve of Possibilities symposium to discuss how technology is changing education and how it can enhance the role of teachers.

By Rick Chambers

When a group of futurists, jurists, academics, technologists, writers, media experts, business leaders and teachers gathered in Toronto last October to look at education as it was poised to leap or lurch into the next millennium, technology quickly became the focus.

The occasion was a symposium, “Education on the Eve of Possibilities,” organized by former Royal Commissioner Avis Glaze and colleagues at the York Region District School Board. More than 300 delegates came from across Canada and the United States for the three-day conference.

Featured speaker John Naisbitt, futurist and author of Megatrends and High Tech High Touch, said that technology has always resulted in social change but, right now, there is a feeling that social change has not kept pace with technology. Many people are feeling overwhelmed or left behind.

Evan Solomon of CBC Newsworld and Shift magazine, said that technological evangelists inflict technological language and its anxiety on us. Technology is not predatory and needn’t be feared. Raising anxiety levels is self-serving for the technologists, and the rest of us shouldn’t be taken in. Television did not replace radio but changed it. Radio did not replace newspapers but changed them. Similarly, the World Wide Web will not replace the education system, but it will change how students learn.

Bernard Shapiro, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, suggested that lagging behind technology was not so bad. He said that you don’t have to be on the cutting edge of technology to lead a happy and productive life. You may never win a Nobel Prize, but your life will unfold appropriately anyway. Even John Naisbitt said that a computer in every classroom may not be as important as a poet in every classroom.

Yet it is undeniable that educators need to help students understand technology and its uses. Norman Henchey of McGill University said that education was not immune from the effects of technology any more than were the banking industry, health care, manufacturing or architecture. Finding an entry point, however, is difficult.

Both Shapiro and Naisbitt pointed out that many technological innovations manifested themselves in consumer technology and entertainment. Blending high tech with "high touch," manufacturers and the entertainment industry have cashed in on the public’s search for meaning, spirituality, nostalgia and human relationships. Naisbitt gave several examples: the re-introduced Volkswagen Beetle with its nostalgic retro appearance and new technology under the hood was an instant hit. Apple’s iMac computers with their dazzling colours and simplified operations have made them bestsellers to first-time computer buyers. Nokia cell phones and their multi-coloured jackets make technology fashionable. Swatch watches combine reliable technological time-keeping with outrageous fashion statements. Titanic linked the high tech discovery of the sunken vessel to the "high touch" love story at the heart of the film.

In fact, because technology outside the school is so closely linked to entertainment, the educator’s challenge is to help students take technology beyond "edutainment." Technology is not content; it’s a conduit and should be used in the service of curriculum. Technology can provide access to information and perhaps even to knowledge. But education is more than a collection of facts.

John Polanyi, Nobel Prize-winning chemist from the University of Toronto, said that learning depends on narrative. Isaac Newton’s story about gravity emerged when he was able to take some facts and create a reasonable and understandable narrative. Later, Albert Einstein enlarged on Newton’s story of gravity. Inevitably, others will enrich that story further.

Students need to learn how to forge links between disparate facts, and tell the stories about how the facts are connected. That is the process of discovery. Teachers bring the power of narrative to the learning experience because truth comes not from facts but from the narrative about the facts. In one sense, computers will enrich the profession of teaching and will enhance what teachers do, namely help students to tell the stories that they discover.

Polanyi said that teachers are living examples of what it means to be educated. Teachers, for many students, are the human face of learning. In the world of technology, what is important is the filter, and the filter is the teacher. In this medium-is-the-message age, technology is only the medium; teachers help students to articulate the message.

Computers invite and, in fact, demand solitary work; on the other hand, schools are social places where human interaction is not only encouraged, it is inevitable. "High touch" is "high time" in many classrooms. There has been much talk about having a computer in every classroom. More important, according to Shapiro, is having human interaction in every classroom. As he has said before, too many teachers are engaged in distance education when proximity education is what is needed.

It follows that if technology, and especially computer use, is a solitary activity, one needs to re-assess how a teacher’s time can best be used. If knowledge (facts) can be learned elsewhere, the role and purpose of schools will change. Teacher time should be preserved for what teachers do. Technology should be used for what technology does. Undeniably, teachers add value to the technology, but should students be required to use the technology in the presence of a teacher?

An underlying assumption in the discussion about education and technology is that the technology is universally accessible. As school districts scramble to use reduced budgets to wire their schools, learn the software, and give an Apple to every teacher, the question of equal, democratic and demographic availability becomes a serious issue. Will technology in schools be used to widen or close the gap between economically diverse communities?

As Carl Glickman asked, what do we mean by public education and democracy? "Freedom" means that the free determine the public domain. Public education in a democracy should create the environment and capability for all people to learn with free expression, in a marketplace of ideas, in the pursuit of truth. If every child is equal, then every child has an equal right to education and to all that that entails, including access to technology.

In a democracy, one must assume that "politics" is not a bad word, and educators must inform the public and policy-makers about the balance that is needed in schools in a technological age. Rosemary Brown has said that policy-makers are often so uninformed that they don’t know how much they don’t know. Educators must address the political issues surrounding technological accessibility and inform those who make the policy decisions.

guesses2.jpg (67311 bytes) Nobel prize winner John Polanyi of the University of Toronto told symposium delegates that for many students, teachers are the human face of learning. In the world of technology, where the medium is the message, teachers help students to articulate the message, he said.

Bernard Shapiro emphasized that the focus of 19th-century schooling was on preparing students to engage in self-government; the focus of 20th-century schooling has been on creating wealth. Robin Brayne of Victoria recalled that the factory metaphor for school emphasized inputs, outputs, quality control and a one-size-fits-all mentality.

Turning out productive workers, however, is not the sole focus of education, according to Jim Turk of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Courtney Pratt, Acting President and CEO of the Learning Partnership, said that the current emphasis on mathematics, science, and technology was overdone because it was too narrow.

The purpose of technology, according to Shapiro, is to provide access to learning, and to make learning engaging "so that you’ll want to do it again." In that sense, technology is the gateway to lifelong learning. Currently and perhaps distressingly, research is showing that only the best-educated people are the lifelong learners, but technology will provide the opportunity for schools to plant the seed.

The strong consensus from the speakers was that technology could enhance and enrich the work that teachers do to prepare students to engage productively in a democratic society. As so many at the second Quest symposium reiterated, learning how to build relationships and to relate to others is central to education and crucial to democracy. Learning how to get along with each other is not necessarily accessed through technology. Teachers, working with students, will help them learn about building relationships.

Quest Second International Symposium on Education, "Education on the Eve of Possibilities"

The second Quest symposium, "Education on the Eve of Possibilities," was held October 21-23 in Richmond Hill. This international gathering was presented by the York Region District School Board in co-operation with the Ontario Public Supervisory Officials’ Association, the Northern Centre for Instructional Leadership, the Learning Partnership, and the Ontario Educational Communications Authority (TVOntario).

Again this year, Avis Glaze, associate director of the York board, with assistance from Gord Campbell, Tom Clark, Jim Forbes, Sylvia Terpstra and a large team from the school board, hosted more than 300 delegates from across Canada and the United States for the three-day symposium. The audience was composed of teachers, principals, superintendents, trustees, school council members and parents.

The Quest conference lineup of speakers, workshop leaders and panelists featured national and international educators, business leaders and commentators, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, John Naisbitt, author of High Tech High Touch: Technology and Our Search for Meaning, Nobel prize winner John Polanyi of the University of Toronto and Evan Solomon, co-founder of Shift magazine and host of CBC Newsworld.

The third international symposium, "Liberating Genius," is planned for April 2001. Watch the calendar of events in Professionally Speaking later this year for registration information.

Rick Chambers, who taught English for 27 years, is a program officer in the College’s Professional Affairs Department.