Marcelo Dascal

Technology and learning: Prospects and pitfalls

Tel Aviv University

Note for discussion

Every lasting and widespread technological innovation involves, along with its prospects for a better life, the need for costly adaptations, which - in the atmosphere of excitement that surrounds and promotes the novelty - we tend all too often to forget. My purpose in these notes for discussion is to remind ourselves of some of the costs involved in the use of advanced technologies in learning, so that we can soberly evaluate its prospective gains. Being aware of these costs, in turn, may help us to orient the technological development of educational tools so as to minimize such costs. The term 'learning' has two meanings, both of them relevant for our discussion, for they are intimately related. In one sense, 'learning' refers to the process of acquisition of knowledge or skills. In the other, it refers to knowledge itself, i.e. to the 'product' one is supposed to acquire through learning, as well as to the kind of person one becomes by having knowledge. This second sense used to be very important in the past: one of the main objectives of education or "Bildung" was to lead youngsters to become "learned" persons and, thereby, to play a model role in society.

It is important to emphasize a third component of the meaning of 'learning', which is obscured by the use of expressions such as 'acquisition of knowledge'. It is the active character of both the process of learning and the results expected from it. This component is relevant to both meanings of 'learning' discerned above. The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire has coined the expression "the banking model" for the conception that equates education to the transmission of knowledge from those who have it (the teachers) to those who are supposed to receive it (the pupils). But such a passive acquisition of ready-made contents is not what one expects from a learner, especially in a world where everything - including the relevant contents - is changing so rapidly. What a learning process must achieve is, at the very least, to develop in the learner the capacity (a) to use innovatively the knowledge acquired, (b) to acquire further relevant knowledge, (c) to adapt to changing conditions (which may require, for example, learning a new profession), and, eventually, (d) to generate new knowledge and transmit it to others. Needless to say that for these expectations to be fulfilled, the learner must develop the appropriate thinking (as well as emotive) skills.

It is - I submit - by reference to both senses of 'learning', particularly in their active aspects, that any assessment of the contribution of any technology to enchancing learning must be assessed.

But such an assessment must also take into account the costs involved. By "costs" I do not mean here the economic investment, although this should not be disregarded: the massive introduction of high-tech educational tools may have an effect similar to that of high-tech medicine on the overall level of health care. What I have in mind are the costs related to learning itself. Under this rubric, we should include at least the following: (a) the cognitive effort required to adapt to a qualitatively and quantitatively new situation engendered by the (massive) introduction of a new technology; (b) the eventual human suffering involved in such an adaptation; (c) the effects - possibly negative - on the quality of learning (in both senses) in the new situation; (d) the eventual use of the new technology for anti-learning purposes; (e) the eventual concentration of educational privileges and control in the hands of fewer individuals.

It is not at all obvious that all these parameters converge, be it in the case of the new technologies we are interested in here, be in the case of their predecessors. A brief historical excursus might be useful, at least for comparative purposes. Risking oversimplification and even, perhaps, wrong identification of predecessors, we might perhaps set up the following outline of the relevant technological/institutional "revolutions" that had an impact on learning.

The invention of writing.

Gains. Permitted the fixation and preservation of oral traditions. Allowed access to distant (time- and spacewise) sources of information. Formalized blueprints for thinking and expression. Called into question the monopoly of the leaders of small communities as owners and transmitters of information.

Costs. Usefulness depended on a new skill, "literacy", whose acquisition required considerable effort (higher in non-alphabetical writing systems). Created a new caste of "professionals", who provided writing and reading services, and tended - as all such groups - to preserve their guild privileges. Permitted the mystification of "the written text" at the expense of other forms of human creativity. Granted prestige and power to those in care of important manuscripts and to those able to interpret them. The highest forms of learning became focused on the acquisition of the ability to manipulate written material, and to obtain the privileges attached to this ability.

The invention of printing

Gains. Reduced dramatically the cost of written material, making it available to larger segments of the population. Rehabilitated the value of "vulgar languages", that had hitherto remained virtually non-written. Permitted the circulation of a plurality of ideas, other than those contained in the "classical canon". Removed learning from the hands of the clergy.

Costs. Created the need - and the problems - of widespread translation. Required literacy in more than one language or else condemned one to parochialism. Permitted the publication of texts not previously submitted to critical scrutiny of any sort, thus undermining the equation "written = valuable". Initiated the "flood of information", thus creating the need for selection of what to read along with professional critics, reviewers, guides, etc. and of specialization. Initiated the development of a "publishing industry", guided by economical interests.

Mass education

Gains. Made learning available to larger segments of the population. Created a more or less uniform citizenship, capable of beginning to participate in social decision-making. Permitted some socio-economic mobility. Provided generalized thinking and communicating skills.

Costs. Replaced the natural setting of learning - the home - by the school. Replaced old-style personalized well-trained tutors by superficially trained teachers incapable to attend to individual needs and interests of pupils. Invested teachers with intellectual authority, over and above the traditional authority of parents and relatives. Demanded standardization of curricula and teaching materials. Had to settle for minimal standards of achievement. Unable - in most societies - to reach more than the initial stages of education. Provided, in many cases, only superficial literacy and learning, which was taken to be "the real thing", and was a cause of much frustration on the part of the learners who thus believed.

Dissemination of personal computers

Gains. Simplification of many learning tasks, especially those of a more mechanical nature. Possibility of returning to the tutor model, respecting the individual rhythm and needs of students. Re-introduction of play as a powerful learning device. Possibility of learning at one's leisure, at remote places. Relatively large choice of low-level standard learning topics. Costs. Proliferation of non-educative games, easily accessible, with consequent danger of addiction to them. Habituation to excessively "user-friendly" levels of demand and modes of communication, with consequent mental laziness. Thinking habits shaped by what the programmer has built into the program. Operation at a minimal level of computer literacy. Learning programs developed only for easily standardized materials. High investment required for production of such programs leads to phenomenon of "textbook fixation", with updates comparable to barely "revised editions". High cost of updating equipment for new software requirements limits use in many homes and school systems.

Widespread availability of the Net

Gains. Access to universal "data base" of information on all possible topics, from all possible sources. Possibility of distance learning. Possibility of personalized tutoring. Possibility of intellectual (and other) exchanges worldwide (including with those experts or authorities one deems to be the most important ones in one's field of interest). Decentralization and non-standardization. Need to exercize one's judgment in selecting information and programming one's auto-didactic learning. Possibility of relatively easy dissemination of one's ideas. Costs. Exposure to any kind of information, without criteria for its organization and evaluation. Extremely enhanced problem of selection. Enormous waste of time due to lack of content-based and judicious search engines. Learning dissolves as a specific activity, becoming intermingled indiscriminately with play, chat, news, gossip, sex, etc. Lack of clear problem-solving and thinking paradigms. Loosening of standards of (self-)criticism.

By trying to draw this very schematic historical cost-benefit sheet - which you are invited to complete and criticize - my intention has not been to be skeptical about the contribution(s) of technological innovations to the enhancement of learning. On the whole, it seems that we have made quite a lot of progress, since the invention of writing, in deepening and broadening learning (in both senses), as well as making it available to proportionally more people everywhere. But this has happened only in the long run, and in the wake of many ups and downs, where peoples' expectations were, more often than not, frustrated. The question is what will happen with the last two stages in my outline. We are full of expectations and phantasies, of course. But so far these stages have been driven more by market-forces than by any vision and sober evaluation of what they realistically can and should yield. It is to such tasks that we should devote our attention, I think.