Humanity Harmed by Technology?

I got to talking to a bunch of my students this week about the idea of virtual schooling after mentally wrestling with Shirky for awhile.  I kind of assumed that they’d be all for the idea of digital learning spaces.  After all, they’re the same kids who crave digital learning opportunities and who spend the majority of their time away from school connected.

So I was a bit surprised when the general consensus was that virtual schools was not something they were terribly interested in at all.  “I don’t come to school for learning,” student after student said, “I come because I want to see my friends!  If we went to school online, we wouldn’t get the chance to hang out with one another.”

While they didn’t realize it, their opinions revealed another one of Shirky’s central conclusions about digital tools:  Technology will NEVER replace human interactions primarily
because humans are deeply drawn to face-to-face interactions.

Throughout his text, he uses examples of digital improvements throughout history that caused great panic from people who believed that humanity would be harmed by technology.  His primary example is the telephone.  Since it became ubiquitous,
people have worried about the impact that it would have on the travel
industry and face-to-face interactions.  Why would you go and meet with
someone in person, the fear goes, if you could communicate with them in
an affordable way from home?

The crazy part is that even as long distance phone rates have dropped
remarkably  (did anyone else ever get grounded for a month because of
the $83 phone call to someone you fell in love with at summer
camp?), the travel industry hasn’t suffered at all.

As Shirky says:

“We gather together because we like to, and because it is useful.
Assuming that videophones or email or virtual reality will reduce the
overall amount of travel is like assuming that liquor stores will kill
bars, since liquor stores sell drinks much more cheaply than bars do.
In fact, the reason people go to bars is not simply to get a drink, but
to do so in a convivial environment.”

Shirky’s point is a simple one:  For most people, “digital worlds” and
“the real world” aren’t different spaces with different people.  They
are overlapping versions of the same groups.  Technology just “greases
the wheel” of interactions between individuals.

His quote:

“The internet augments real-world social life rather than providing an
alternative to it.  Instead of becoming a separate cyberspace, our
electronic networks are becoming deeply embedded in real life.”

So what does this mean for schools?

Do schools become hybrids?  Places where students from across disparate
geographical areas primarily interact with one another electronically
and then come together a few times a year?

Or do schools themselves stay largely unchanged—with the
exception being that learning is extended far beyond the school day by
electronic interactions with peers?

Or do people finally realize that
they don’t need formal school buildings at all—instead, building
networks of learners “practicing” together both online and offline?

One thing I’m certain of is that we’d be foolish to leave these questions unanswered!

11 thoughts on “Humanity Harmed by Technology?

  1. generic viagra

    Dod you know the Powers of Darkness are not powerful enough to destroy us?
    Otherwordly beings that wish Humanity harm? So they try and get in our Hearts and Minds and make Us angry, so We will destroy Ourselves?

  2. Kimberly McCollum

    Like Ariel, I see a place for a hybrid model of schooling. I think that the balance of digital/and face to face learning opportunities differs depending on the individual and one of the benefits of technology might be the flexibility to better meet student needs for interaction. More independent and/or introverted learners could choose to have more digital learning experiences, which would allow less independent or more extroverted learners to have more face to face interaction with teachers and peers.

  3. Gilbert Halcrow

    Be driven by the learning first (the social) and the blend of analogue (face to face) or digital (face to interface) will be found in our schools. The perennial dichotomy is making it an either/or choice rather than a cost benefit choice.
    It is about creating pedagogy and resources that encourage students to engage in the Right Technology at the Right Time, (RTRT) based on the most effective means to solve the particular challenge they face.
    Problem is if the pedagogy offers no choices in its design then the technology use will only add the efficiencies of digitalisation. I think this is the sort of learning (Skinnerian instructional) students perceive as ‘our’ version of on-line learning to be and this also adds to the resistance to such ideas.
    I am coming to believe that too much talk about technology in schools is driven by technologist and that suggestions of on-line schools is the nth degree of this paradigm. As in remote properties in Australia there maybe little choice – but even in the world famous ‘School of the air’, the radio classroom has a highly social component to it.
    There is still not enough intelligent discussion on the issue being offered by anthropologists or social observers; but it is starting now and as educators (who operate in a highly social environment) we need to listen.
    Most of students recreational on-line activity is to reinforce their analogue peer group relationships; in the same way that discussion of TV shows with peers was social collateral and in the 60 – 80s.
    I watched TV, home videos, spent hours on the phone and played Space Invader machines with my friends in the 80s; the Internet has just put it all that under the one umbrella and added real time interaction. The media that you transact with, Web 2.0 or not, only has value when collectively engaged with; and the preferred form of engagement is still with an analogue group.
    I’ll push Shirky’s bar vs. liquor store analogy further to suggest why both digital and analogue interaction is popular with our students, and how they are already demonstrating cost benefit choices in their private life that we fail to offer in schools.
    In countries like UK or HK where alcohol is sold in convenience stores; a 711 can serve as a ‘social’ space to those disenfranchised from bars (either by age or income) Ethical and legal matters aside, in an ‘open environment’ adaptability and the most efficient choice path prevails – the trade off between a limited social space verses cheaper alcohol is the best choice for those with that ‘option set’.
    The social will always prevail as Shirky notes, and perhaps students’ resistance to on-line school has more to do with the pedagogic model offered on-line than the actual use of technology. In addition however, I think that a complete on-line school is some sort of techno-modernist dream; more at home in an Asimov novel than reality and I get why the students wouldn’t want it!

  4. Ariel Sacks

    Bill, though I feel somewhat in over my head with this topic, I decided to weigh in over at my blog, http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/shoulders_of_giants/2008/06/tools-change-no.html. I tried to make a case for the idea you mention of the hybrid model of schooling. I add that anything we do in education needs to be explained and rationalized through a developmental framework. How does the addition of asynchronous online discussion further the development of a student, for example? I can think of many ways. How would the disappearance of the physical school place further the development of children? I argue, it wouldn’t.

  5. Bill Ferriter

    The Virtual Teacher wrote:
    I am also interested in the types of connections that can for between people in virtual classrooms. What happens when there is no face-to-face? I would love some of you to read my blog post: Can Personal Connections Exist via the Internet?
    You know, I think my initial reaction to this question is yes, personal connections can exist via the internet. After all, I’ve got tons of them—people who I’ve only known virtually who are as important to me and my own growth as anyone who I’ve met in person.
    But I also think I’m a bit of a rare bird. I think the vast majority of people are drawn to face-to-face relationships. While they can develop connections with others online, they’d really rather have digital tools enhance offline relationships instead of replace offline relationships.
    I’ll never forget the conversations about the students at Philly’s SLA High during Educon. While the students were as digitally savvy as any in America, they tended to enjoy digital connections with their face to face peers more than they valued the opportunity to connect with students beyond their community.
    That’s forced me to rethink my use of digital tools a bit. Instead of pushing for international partnerships at every turn, I’ve started to look inward and create opportunities for my kids to use digital tools to learn together.
    Any thoughts?
    Bill

  6. The Virtual Teacher

    I think the reaction of your own students is especially telling. They have always experienced school as a place where they can hang out with friends, so that has become an essential part of the way they view school. What if the students go to the school building to attend virtual classes (Thus being supervised for the day, and able to hang out between classes)?
    On the other hand, what if these students had only known virtual schooling? They would work collaboratively with peers regardless of geography. Would they see the need to be in a school the hang out, or would they meet local peers after school hours at various activities? What about students who are geographically isolated? Virtual schooling opens up such an enriching variety of classes and contact with peers that may not otherwise be available. Think of the student who’s family moves frequently, but who could continue an uninterrupted school year, connecting with the same group of friends. I think that we will at least see hybrid schools which will allow these students to participate in the classes with those who are physically present.
    I am also interested in the types of connections that can for between people in virtual classrooms. What happens when there is no face-to-face? I would love some of you to read my blog post: Can Personal Connections Exist via the Internet? and share your thoughts.

  7. GingerTPLC

    You wrote:
    Do schools become hybrids? Places where students from across disparate geographical areas primarily interact with one another electronically and then come together a few times a year?
    I think this is the optimal choice for many, but not all kids; we need a continuum of services, since we’re leaving the “one-size-fits-all” mode. With Virtual schools interacting face-to-face, it’s the work they do outside the f2f interactions that can really make or break the f2f meetings.
    Our charter school, Turning Point Learning Center has a Virtual component to it where they currently hold on-site PBL academies. Next year they’re planning to connect these opportunities to other Virtual schools in Kansas who are doing the same thing.

  8. Adam

    I agree with the last comment. The shift might happen in the amount of time someone spends in a traditional environment learning. For example, Jason might show up to school in the morning and chat with his friends (face-to-face) before he checks in with his lead teacher about the content he is working on. After meeting with his lead teacher he will check his calendar to see how many seminars he is signed up for that day and the time that the seminars will meet. Based on his calendar he will either go to his first seminar, meet with one of his learning teams, or go to his workspace and log in to his learning management system to begin his work for the day. His learning management system will have all of technology tools that he needs to stay connected, learn online, and produce products to show mastery of content. Just a thought to be expanded on…….

  9. Joh

    To go off on yet another tangent, schools provide supervision of young people whilst both parent participate in the workforce. I love this discussion and the ideas it presents. Since becoming a teacher (admittedly in a secondary college so older students than yours Bill) I have been very aware that before any learning can take place in classrooms, social cohesion and harmony must first be addressed.
    This could create a shift in focus for schools from being the knowledge provider, to becoming a social/learning space provider and mentor/guide for individual students.

  10. Bob Heiny

    Good questions, Bill. I suggest another question that’s central to learning as the primary reason for public schools:
    How will advanced electronic technologies affect what people learn in public schools (however they exist), what we learn when not in public schools, and how these distributions affect student learning rates and breadth?
    I agree, we’d be foolish to ignore such questions.

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