Beware geeks bearing modems

September 1, 2000

Is education being devalued by high-tech training? Paul Taylor thinks it is.

Education is floundering not so much in a sea of troubles, but under a flood of inappropriate technology. The rise of Bill Gates has taken the critical edge off the epithets "geek" and "nerd", yet calling someone a Luddite is enough to foreclose any criticism of our brave new online world.

High-tech heretics are finding it difficult to compete in the glibness stakes with feel-good mantras such as "lifelong learning". These soundbites distract us from more substantive issues, such as the possibility that lifelong learning is in danger of being defined as having to spend the rest of our lives learning what we were once taught by the age of 18.

Even within the market logic of the myopic tendency to view education as training, students should be wary about gaining short-term, non-transferable technical skills that quickly become obsolete, and concentrate on the higher order educational qualities that really do last a lifetime. Information technologies exist - therefore we are under pressure to use them in as many contexts as possible: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The technology-sponsored devaluation of education is underwritten and reinforced by a wider cultural commitment to its McDonaldisation. Almost overnight, students have become customers with rights and no responsibilities, and previously intellectually coherent courses have been replaced with their "extra-value meal" equivalents: discrete, stand-alone modules. Keeping the metaphor going, even the double hit of soft-drink caffeine and sugar is represented by the new obsession for stimulation. If you do not stimulate, you are not teaching effectively. Deep knowledge gained by wide-reading and long reflection is out, lateral associations, de-contextualised informational (Mc)nuggets and hypertext links are in.

Names such as the University for Industry and the National Grid of Learning reflect the government's commitment to subtle conflation of the distinctive values of training and education. If you doubt the difference, imagine your son or daughter coming home from school and saying: "It was great today, we had sex education," and contrast your ensuing anxiety level with that you would have felt if they had said instead: "Guess what? We've had sex training." Despite the rhetoric of the "knowledge economy", certain differentiating connotations of knowledge and information are conveniently overlooked in the rush to build this new National Grid with its vision of a lap-top on every desk. The iconoclastic qualities of new technologies have, thus, found a receptive cultural environment.

The British Computer Society asserts that "schools of the future are likely to be framed (or limited) by 'walls of the mind' rather than by organisational or building structures". The implication is that students may need to reconfigure their minds to suit the technology. The tail is now wagging the dog.

Institutional forms of education are under threat from a combined commercial and utilitarian, technologically sponsored philistinism that would make Mr Gradgrind proud. Knowledge's age-old key connotation of "intellectual perception" has been supplanted by the e-knowledge substitute that merely necessitates a non-reflexive facility with large quantities of information. Even this interpretation of the shift may be overly generous given that for information to be more than just data it needs to be presented in a structured form.

The internet liberates information from the constraint of dusty book covers but simultaneously drags the browser into a quagmire of unverified data. It frequently devalues, or ignores completely, the wealth of knowledge and sophisticated information-filtering processes built up over centuries by a series of professionals ranging from editors to librarians. The internet's huge reservoir of potential information is its great advantage and its much more seldomly acknowledged weakness. It is an inherently fragmented source of information, as Clifford Stoll points out in Silicon Snake Oil: "Data isn't information, any more than 50 tons of cement is a skyscraper."

New interactive technologies are introduced to the educational process with scant prior evidence of their pedagogic benefits and with the axiomatic threat that failure to adopt them means that you will be left further behind in the IT race to no one knows where. Marshall McLuhan seems to have been proved right, the medium now dominates the message: form is increasingly becoming more important than content. The next time you hear someone selling the stimulating properties of online education remember the warning of Hannah Arendt: "There are a great many authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect... but it is still an open question as to whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say."

Paul A. Taylor is a lecturer in the sociology of technology at the University of Salford.

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