Tag Archives: technophobia

On Emergent Learning and Robots

“Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be.” -Arthur C. Clarke

Got this quote from a lovely TED Talk from the mind of Sugata Mitra, education researcher.  It’s a quote that makes a scary kind of point, one which resonates throughout the Talk and leads to what I deem Professor Mitra’s final conclusion: “Education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”  (Actually, I believe the Professor would properly call this a hypothesis, not a conclusion.)

What all this implies is that, in an age of robot instructors, teaching is even less technical, even less well-defined, than we already perceived it to be.  Professor Mitra’s advocacy of the “Granny Method” – teaching through encouragement, even if the instructor doesn’t necessarily understand the subject matter – points this up, with weight behind it; the Granny Method works.  I’ve seen it – in my own life and in the classroom, I’ve seen countless examples of people encouraging and driving education who have no idea exactly what the child they’re pushing to excel is supposed to be doing.

Does that mean a content expert isn’t a significant boon to a child’s learning?  Not remotely.  But in a 1:1 education environmentthat expert does not have to be in the room.  Children these days can easily have a face-to-face conversation with Dr. Michio Kaku, if they want to (and the good Doctor is available; tricky, he’s popular).  All it takes is Skype and a moment of his time.  (To make this very clear: this is something which would take place only/most likely in my wildest dreams, but it’s way more possible in 2013 than it might have been in, say, 1995.)

It should also be noted that, even after hearing Professor Mitra’s stories about the (seemingly) miraculous results of his Hole in the Wall experiments, I remain unconvinced that these results imply that teachers are unnecessary.  Recall that throughout his TED Talk, Professor Mitra makes regular reference to students teaching each other.  Not only is this an amazing outcome of the experiment – and a fantastic opportunity for these children to witness and reflect on their own learning – but it’s proof of the effectiveness of teaching, of being there to encourage learning.  Such proof is only enhanced by Professor Mitra’s anecdotes about the “Granny Cloud”.

I come away from this experience reflecting on the degree to which my culture’s general perception of teachers – the pointdextery stereotype, the ever-correcting, bespectacled arbiter of content, the veritable robot at the head of the line of desks – is fundamentally off-target.  We should be aiming for teachers who embody the Granny Cloud – or Grandaddy Cloud, or Ungendered Encouraging Older Person Cloud, if you prefer – always encouraging, always challenging, always praising effort and learning – things which people of all generations and all levels of tech-comfort can certainly recognize and appreciate.

In closing, I wanted to post a link to this post, a product of a blogger who is in no way my geekier, less education-focused alter-ego.  It treats on technology’s nature as a human product – not the terrifying force which will replace us; our tool, not our successor – as long as we know how to use it, and how to keep it in perspective.

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Google Is My Brain(?)

This week I read the first half of Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams”.  I was delighted to find what I think was a reference to Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Future”, a book which made a huge impression on me and heavily influenced my decision to become a teacher.  (I’m talking about section 70, where Godin references Kaku’s thoughts on net-enabled contact lenses.)

I highly recommend reading both.  I’ll summarize Godin’s main theme (so far as I’ve read): American public schools were designed (in the early 1900s) to produce compliant, complacent workers to fill positions on assembly lines in American factories.  But most Americans don’t work on assembly lines anymore.  Our economy is no longer based squarely on manufacture and export – the jobs of the future require thinkers, dreamers, innovators, and the current American public education system is not producing those.  We’re producing yesterday’s workers for tomorrow’s jobs, and we can’t afford not to change that.

This idea sparked spirited discussion among my cohort of aspiring teachers.  Many were hesitant to leap on the radical freight-train that Godin was calling all of us to board.  At the beginning of class, several of my colleagues each week are tasked with writing on the board a series of “eyebrow-raising” questions for discussion, regarding that week’s reading.  One of the really interesting ones which we didn’t get around to discussing much dealt directly with one of the most radical ideas in what we read of Godin’s work; I wanted to take some time to address it here:

“Is there a problem with not needing to ‘know’ anything and just being able to Google it?”

I’m sure there are a lot of teachers – a lot of Americans in general – who find Google (and a variety of similar data-retrieval tools) to be a repugnant blight on knowledge.  The assumption many make is that when you can simply call up data on your computer, that means that you don’t have to do any thinking in the process, don’t have to retain the information because you’ll know going in that you can just Google it again later, and by and large will just let your machines do your thinking for you.  It’s easy for people of this perspective to conjure images of a not-too-distant future where human brains have become largely useless mush, people have become happy idiots, and our machines have taken over all the important tasks – including feeding us, clothing us, and smiling in a superior fashion at our simple thoughts and words.  Or, conversely, annihilating us all, having deemed us a useless appendage or potential threat.

I may have described only a tiny wedge of the American population – but I’m using hyperbole to make a point.  There’s a high degree of technophobia still present in our culture; Godin outlines it nicely when he describes how one of the top terms searched on Bing (Microsoft’s factory-standard search engine) is still “Google”, and how, subsequently, one of the top terms searched on Google is “Facebook” (Godin 68).  I know for a fact that my parents and grandparents still experience a high degree of intimidation when faced with a computer screen, and a simple dialogue box with the prompt “search” or, even, “what would you like to find?” is tremendously comforting in that situation.  Is that wrong?  No, it’s just how they feel.  But do we want our children to feel this way, when confronted with technology?

I don’t agree with treating Google as “the lazy way” to learn.  Conveying that attitude is just going to perpetuate American technophobia.  It’s going to make students resistant to those incredibly useful data-retrieval techniques when they actually have to retrieve data for something – be it as simple as how to get to that thing at that one guy’s house, or as complicated as drafting an analysis of the feasibility of converting one’s office-building to solar power.  Why would we deny students the usage of these tools in our classrooms, when we know how useful they are going to be in the professional world of the near-future?  Of the now?

And to assume that the availability of Google (and other tools) induces a lack of ability to retain knowledge, or think, entails dishonesty about what really happens when you search for something online.  People don’t Google something that they don’t care about.  Google is just a tool, not in any sense less valid because you don’t have to undertake a mighty quest to a public library to use it.  Why do we feel that we need to make the acquisition of knowledge difficult?  Don’t we want the opposite?  Isn’t that part of why we’re entering the field of education in the first place – to make knowledge easy to acquire?

Let me just go ahead and Google something right now.  I mentioned solar power before – that seems like a good start.  Upon Googling “solar power”, I clicked on the first three links I got.  One brought me to the Wikipedia article on the subject, which gave me a good outline of the basics and a long list of references for more detailed investigation.  (Wikipedia, by the way, is another oft-disparaged tool that I’ve heard a lot of people scoffing at lately.  Nobody seems to ever scroll down far enough to see the huge lists of outside references and external links.)  The second link brought me to a Bloomberg article on how Hyundai is installing a massive solar array on the roof of one of its factories in South Korea; this array will provide clean energy for some 3200 households.  The article also had numerous links to other information about Hyundai, as well as contact information for the reporter who wrote the article.  Finally, from my original Google search, I got a link to a story in The Hindu (an Indian newspaper) about Rajasthan, an Indian province and a leader in the country’s sweeping efforts to convert to greener energy; the article also touched on the fact that India is currently the 5th-ranked nation in the world in the area of wind-power generation.

So in the space of 15 minutes, I’ve learned the basics of solar power technology, and discovered massive efforts underway in two different countries to implement it.  Did I know those things twenty minutes ago?  Not really.  And one of the most valuable things that Google helped me discover here was a wealth of links to further information, as well as avenues for connecting with other people interested in this topic.  So I have almost limitless possibilities for further investigation.  Who knows where I might eventually end up?

Am I going to lose all this information 15 minutes from now?  Not likely.  I’ve just embarked on a marvelously engaging experience, right before your eyes.  I’ve opened the door to connect with other human beings in disparate parts of the world, all striving toward a fascinating goal.  Google helped me do that.  If I didn’t have Google (or were too afraid to use it), I would, right now, have no idea that solar power will soon provide energy to 3200 Korean households.  I would have missed out on an uplifting and world-expanding fact.

So: is that what we want our students to do?  Miss out on things, because they’re not in the book, not part of the lesson plan, not something we’ll be getting to at this grade level?  Google is not an excuse to “not know” things; it’s rather the opposite.  Google makes it inexcusable not to know something.  To bring this back to Godin: when our society has this power to retrieve any data at any time, what is the use of ramming data into the skulls of our students, admonishing them that they must retain it?  They know it’s not true, which is why they don’t – many of us know the pain of having to re-teach concepts we thought our students should already be “solid” on at this point.  Instead of making them memorize these things, why don’t we spend more time challenging them to use them for something?  Like they’ll have to as adults?

The long and short is that Google is here, has been here for a long time, and isn’t going anywhere.  Why not use it, instead of encouraging students to mistrust it, scoff at it, even fear it?  The more comfortable they are with any number of web tools, the better equipped they’ll be to connect, to invent, and to dream – which is what we need them to do.