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Ed Webb

Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind? - NYTimes.com - 0 views

  • My father would have been unable to “teach to the test.” He once complained about errors in a sixth-grade math textbook, so he had the class learn math by designing a spaceship. My father would have been spat out by today’s test-driven educational regime.
  • A career in computer science makes you see the world in its terms. You start to see money as a form of information display instead of as a store of value. Money flows are the computational output of a lot of people planning, promising, evaluating, hedging and scheming, and those behaviors start to look like a set of algorithms. You start to see the weather as a computer processing bits tweaked by the sun, and gravity as a cosmic calculation that keeps events in time and space consistent.

    This way of seeing is becoming ever more common as people have experiences with computers. While it has its glorious moments, the computational perspective can at times be uniquely unromantic.

    Nothing kills music for me as much as having some algorithm calculate what music I will want to hear. That seems to miss the whole point. Inventing your musical taste is the point, isn’t it? Bringing computers into the middle of that is like paying someone to program a robot to have sex on your behalf so you don’t have to.

    And yet it seems we benefit from shining an objectifying digital light to disinfect our funky, lying selves once in a while. It’s heartless to have music chosen by digital algorithms. But at least there are fewer people held hostage to the tastes of bad radio D.J.’s than there once were. The trick is being ambidextrous, holding one hand to the heart while counting on the digits of the other.

  • The future of education in the digital age will be determined by our judgment of which aspects of the information we pass between generations can be represented in computers at all. If we try to represent something digitally when we actually can’t, we kill the romance and make some aspect of the human condition newly bland and absurd. If we romanticize information that shouldn’t be shielded from harsh calculations, we’ll suffer bad teachers and D.J.’s and their wares.
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  • Some of the top digital designs of the moment, both in school and in the rest of life, embed the underlying message that we understand the brain and its workings. That is false. We don’t know how information is represented in the brain. We don’t know how reason is accomplished by neurons. There are some vaguely cool ideas floating around, and we might know a lot more about these things any moment now, but at this moment, we don’t.

    You could spend all day reading literature about educational technology without being reminded that this frontier of ignorance lies before us. We are tempted by the demons of commercial and professional ambition to pretend we know more than we do.

  • Outside school, something similar happens. Students spend a lot of time acting as trivialized relays in giant schemes designed for the purposes of advertising and other revenue-minded manipulations. They are prompted to create databases about themselves and then trust algorithms to assemble streams of songs and movies and stories for their consumption.

    We see the embedded philosophy bloom when students assemble papers as mash-ups from online snippets instead of thinking and composing on a blank piece of screen. What is wrong with this is not that students are any lazier now or learning less. (It is probably even true, I admit reluctantly, that in the presence of the ambient Internet, maybe it is not so important anymore to hold an archive of certain kinds of academic trivia in your head.)

    The problem is that students could come to conceive of themselves as relays in a transpersonal digital structure. Their job is then to copy and transfer data around, to be a source of statistics, whether to be processed by tests at school or by advertising schemes elsewhere.

  • If students don’t learn to think, then no amount of access to information will do them any good.
  • To the degree that education is about the transfer of the known between generations, it can be digitized, analyzed, optimized and bottled or posted on Twitter. To the degree that education is about the self-invention of the human race, the gargantuan process of steering billions of brains into unforeseeable states and configurations in the future, it can continue only if each brain learns to invent itself. And that is beyond computation because it is beyond our comprehension.
  • Roughly speaking, there are two ways to use computers in the classroom. You can have them measure and represent the students and the teachers, or you can have the class build a virtual spaceship. Right now the first way is ubiquitous, but the virtual spaceships are being built only by tenacious oddballs in unusual circumstances. More spaceships, please.
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    How do we get this right - use the tech for what it can do well, develop our brains for what the tech can't do? Who's up for building a spaceship?
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