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Executive Director Pete Upham shares his periodic reflections. directors cut

October 2011

Scoping the Torrent

Note - this piece is an abbreviated and modified version of a talk delivered at Avon Old Farms School in June 2011 at FinalsiteU, an independent school technology conference.

Public speaking is one of the final refuges from email, and for that I am enormously grateful. Have you ever answered a phantom call or message, certain your Blackberry was vibrating? You too? And I’ll confess I occasionally find myself in conversation with someone—a colleague, even a family member—and suddenly, I can almost hear the click and bell of my email program dropping one morsel after another in my Inbox. If you’ve ever seen the I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ethel attempt, vainly, to pack chocolates arriving with ever greater speed on the assembly line, you know the anxiety this creates. Cue the music to the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Not many possess the bravery of Donald E. Knuth, Computer Science Professor at Stanford, who dropped email altogether in 1990 with the following justification:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.
 
Donald E. Knuth, Computer Science Professor Emeritus, Stanford 1

This is not an anti-technology speech, which would be a curious keynote address for a technology conference. But it is not a pro-technology speech, either, so perhaps it is a curious keynote after all.

I know that there are IT directors, Heads of Schools, Admission Deans, and other administrative species in the room. In the interest of simplicity, let’s do a quick sort.

Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand.
 
Archibald Putt (pseudonym) / Putt’s Law 2

Show of hands: Who belongs to the first type? Who belongs to the second?

If it’s not already clear, though I manage little and understand less, I’m a believer in technology. I may not have been one of the earliest disciples, but I’m an acolyte now. In my clay-footedness, I find common cause with one of the most profound philosophers of the last 100 years:

Change is good. You go first.
 
Scott Adams, Dilbert cartoonist 3

Nevertheless, I’m onboard now. Apart from my own gadgetry, I’ve even pushed TABS into some new hi-tech ventures. Yet though I’m a believer, I’m a foxhole believer—desperately clinging to life and fear in equal measure, barricaded behind connections—450 on LinkedIn and counting; making my animal sacrifices to the digital gods. Deep down, however, I’m an agnostic, even a skeptic. I have my doubts, my concerns.

First, a word from our sponsors:

Do you realize if it weren't for Edison we'd be watching TV by candlelight? 
 
Al Boliska4

Seems like something Yogi Berra should have said, no? But indeed, let’s give credit where credit is due. The Stone Age wasn’t very romantic. I’m in my early 40’s. Were it the Stone Age, I’d be an old man by now, cast off on an ice-floe. Technology has had quite a run—saving countless lives, enabling the creation of the libraries of the world (see: printing press), opening the storehouses of the libraries of the world (see: internet), facilitating modern farming and food production, making possible air travel, and giving me the chance to auto-pay my Verizon bill (see: unlimited text messages).

Moreover, predictions of technology’s imminent demise—or even just limitations—have a long history that would make for a comical mashup.

It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology, although one should be careful with such statements, as they tend to sound pretty silly in 5 years.
 John Von Neumann (ca. 1949) 5

And this from one of the fathers of modern computer architecture! At least he was sufficiently humble to acknowledge the limits of his own speculation.

Indeed, we are so enamored with technology that we compare ourselves to it, sometimes unfavorably, in ways both obvious and disguised. This is not new:

Because we do not understand the brain very well we are constantly tempted to use the latest technology as a model for trying to understand it. In my childhood we were always assured that the brain was a telephone switchboard. ('What else could it be?') I was amused to see that Sherrington, the great British neuroscientist, thought that the brain worked like a telegraph system. Freud often compared the brain to hydraulic and electro-magnetic systems. Leibniz compared it to a mill, and I am told some of the ancient Greeks thought the brain functions like a catapult. At present, obviously, the metaphor is the digital computer.
 John R. Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science 6

Still, even the most hardcore Geek squad wannabes would have to acknowledge that technology is not perfect.

For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.
 
Alice Kahn 7

Such is our dependence on technology that when the computers “go down” at the local grocery store, all commerce ceases immediately. The cashiers stand immobilized—as if they themselves had been unplugged from outlets—and stare at you with mild panic.

Before we travel too far down the road of scribbling out a master list of pros and cons, let’s back up (which I realize assumes we’ve made forward progress), and get our terms semi-straight. First off, what do we mean by technology?

Well, dictionary.com offers several definitions:

From the American Heritage Science Dictionary:

  1. The use of scientific knowledge to solve practical problems, especially in industry and commerce.
  2. The specific methods, materials, and devices used to solve practical problems.

From Merriam Webster’s Medical Dictionary:

  1. the science of the application of knowledge to practical purposes : applied science
  2. a scientific method of achieving a practical purpose

Applied science. Practical purpose. Problem-solving. Wow, under these definitions, to oppose technology one would have to oppose science, even education itself.

In everyday use, my definition of technology leans closer to this one.

Technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born.
 Alan Kay 8

Or, in my more wistful moments, watching my four kids, my wife, and myself, all sitting together in the living room, as we each stare into a different screen:

Technology… the knack of so arranging the world that we need not experience it.

 Max Frisch, Homo Faber 9

But in fairness, let’s revisit the more tendentious definitions I gleaned online. They’re so clinically neutral, so unobjectionable, so anodyne, with perhaps just a hint of mom and Apple pie and capitalism.

The use of scientific knowledge to solve practical problems.

The problem, if I may risk a tenure track appointment in the department of linguistics at Bill Clinton University, is the word, problem.

Well, what constitutes a problem? Most of us would agree that finding a vaccine for AIDS would solve a practical problem. But, taking the other extreme, what problem, exactly, does chat roulette, a fairly pernicious website, actually solve? Well, of course, it does solve a problem in a narrow sense: it provides a practical way of accomplishing something that some group of people want to be able to accomplish—i.e., interacting online randomly with strangers, a number of whom may not be wearing clothes. But it begs the question: is this something we should want, something we ought to accomplish?

In one sense, technology is intrinsically amoral. A gun is inert. Windows Vista does not have a conscience (if it did, it would be a guilty one). And yet, in another sense, technology—as the enterprise of solving problems, human problems—is tangled up irretrievably in human concerns.

We are moral animals—not in the sense that we are good; frankly, we might possibly learn a thing or two about goodness from goldfish and gorillas—but in the sense that, when challenged, we almost invariably seek to defend, explain, or justify our behaviors or beliefs in moral terms. I did what had to be done. What was called for and appropriate. The lesser evil. I was in the right. It wasn’t my fault (translation: it was someone else’s)—all variations of a moral case.

And yet so often, in our lives and in our schools, our everyday use of technology, which typically floats in the big grey sea that lies between an AIDS vaccine and chat roulette, slips into the fog and escapes our moral scrutiny. In most schools, technology is now a big ship—logistically, financially, and otherwise. And yet we allow it to sail through our harbors and dock in our ports with scant inspection. By this, I do not mean that IT staff are doing a poor job maintaining equipment or that they’re making lousy operational or strategic decisions: rather, I’m alleging that school leaders are often doing a poor job of asking questions. The questions that need to be asked are not technical questions, in the narrow sense; they are pedagogical questions, social questions, child development questions, moral questions. In the absence of these questions, we simply accept technology as it is and as it will be, in just its current and future configurations and benefits and demands and uses. We treat technology as inexorable as the tides—rather than something we have forged with our own minds and selected through our own choices. And in doing so, we model for students the same worldview we have unwittingly adopted: that we are somehow—whether enthusiastically, reluctantly, but in any case unavoidably—in service to the machines.

Lewis Mumford hammers this nail with force:

Western society has accepted as unquestionable a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most primitive taboo: not merely the duty to foster invention and constantly to create technological novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered, without respect to their human consequences.
 
Lewis Mumford 10

A few weeks ago, I was listening to my neo-liberal NPR in my neo-conservative car, when a story was introduced about an “educational revolution” underway in a rural North Carolina county—not far from where I live. Well, my neo-educator ears perked up. It took a few minutes of nattering to get to the bottom of this revolution: a new laptop program. Aside from the painful sense of irony I experienced listening to the school Board member’s near rapturous evangelism (sounding a bit like someone enthused about visiting Cuba to propose communism to Castro), I was struck with greater pain by what seemed the complete absence of an underlying plan, program, or objective. In this case, the technology seemed neither integral nor even adjunct to the philosophy and program of the school. Rather, it seemed a substitute for philosophy and program. Devices in place of ideas. A lazy fill-in, backed by the brand cachet of a popular technology company.

While the story I’ve relayed concerns the public sector, I’m equally concerned about what I witness in the independent school sector, especially my corner of that starry universe, boarding schools. Why? Simply put, the intensive, comprehensive, and systemic nature of boarding schools makes them more sensitive to changes in, well, system dynamics. Now, without question, there are countless examples of schools that integrate technology with forethought, wisdom, and care, but I fear there are more examples of schools that are searching for answers, and, finding none quickly, buying iPads instead.

Let me share an anecdote close to home. Recently, the TABS Board met for its summer meetings. Over dinner, one of our Trustees, the head of a well-known and respected school, shared a story from his campus. Not long ago, a teacher intercepted him on his daily stroll around campus. Alive with excitement, the teacher urged the Head to visit her class the next day. He wouldn’t regret it, she assured him. After pushing a few fundraising calls to the afternoon, he was able to squeeze in the class visit. He sat down, and the teacher launched into the lesson. She was playing the smartboard like a virtuoso, and she was as dynamic, and passionate, and engaged as he’d ever seen her. But then his line of sight wandered to the students. Save for a slight bemusement at her animation, their faces were flat and unmoved. She was engaged all right—with the technology.

This story, while true, is admittedly also a bit of a straw-man for my argument. Every instructional technology specialist worth her salt might have seen it coming. And yet, this story is clichéd in part because it’s so common. The issue is about more than teacher training. It’s about the significant investments schools are making in tools, tablets, websites, Facebook pages, and all the rest, often with only a cursory examination of the major philosophical, educational, and community life questions raised by the introduction of these technologies. We’ve more or less accepted all of it, the whole torrent of it. Drink from the fire hose first; ask questions later.

The moral vision I’m describing and for which I’m calling—really just recalling—is in essence a vision of the human person. This vision serves as the conscience of our industry. When all else fails, it is our attention to the human person, in his or her totality as an integrated mind and body, psyche and spirit—an individual—that makes our schools worth preserving and fighting for. It’s a vision, lived daily. Everything we do, everything you do, falls within the ambit of that vision. The teachers you choose to employ (or not), the facilities you choose to build (or not), the schedules you choose to amend (or not), the curricula you choose to deploy (or not), the technologies you choose to adopt—or allow—or not—are hardly exempt from this vision. In fact, every choice we make as educators is suffused with moral sensibilities and consequences, overt or hidden, no less so in technology.

…the question, "What will a new technology do?" is no more important than the question, "What will a new technology undo?" Indeed, the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently.
 Neil Postman 11

Do we ever ask this question?

If I might extend Neil Postman’s formulation just a bit, we might regularly ask ourselves, what problem are we solving? Is it a problem worth solving? What new problems might be created in the process? How does this problem interact with other problems? What’s the hierarchy of problems? Does a particular technology advance, distract, or retard our efforts to serve the children we are trying to educate?

More Postman:

…technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school…
 Neil Postman 12

If this is right, we should be more deliberate as educators to incorporate technologies in ways that reinforce the cultures of our schools. In most cases, these cultures are built on relationships. And these relationships, in turn, should not be seen as the frosting on the cake of independent school education. They are, in fact, the yeast without which the cake is a different thing entirely—and not especially appetizing. Technologies, especially technologies that by their design seem to insist on serving as intermediary rather than assistant for that relationship, should be critiqued with as much energy as they’re currently embraced. A crotchety old teacher from my own boarding school days once opined to our class of Precalculus misfits that the purpose of a liberal was to propose new ideas, and the purpose of a conservative to make sure only the best ideas were adopted. In many areas of school life, we may need more liberals. In the technological realm, I believe we need more conservatives.

Indeed, the consequences for neglecting to reflect deeply about technology can lead one to a loss of academic focus and confusion about the fundamental skills and competencies a school is seeking to impart. Every technology presumes and imposes, though always so politely and subtly, its own tasks and skills and modes of learning.

Postman goes further, arguing that every technology reflects an educational idea or ideology:

…every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.
 
Neil Postman, The End of Education 13

Even the most rudimentary observation of trends in technology, culture, and education shows this to be true. The rise in video as the most powerful if not dominant medium—even increasingly in schools—encourages certain kinds of thinking and learning experiences characteristic of the medium—visual, fast-paced, expressive—at the expense of learning experiences in other media which may bear different fruit (for examples, the language-based reasoning cultivated by intensive reading and writing; or the iterative analysis and reflection natural to studying paintings and still images). Note that I said “different,” not worse or better. I have my own views about the relative value of these various skill sets and practices, but even if I am dead wrong, my point stands: these new technologies do not stand on their own: they interact as dynamic variables with the cultures and curricula of our schools, from the classroom to the dorm to the dining hall.

Since change, especially in technology, is happening more quickly than ever, schools that wish to remain true to some identity, whatever that may be, must approach change with insight and intention over speed.

Communities of the mind are collections of individuals who are bonded together by natural will and a set of shared ideals.
 Thomas Sergiovanni 14

Notice he did not say “bonded together by fiber-optics.”

There are three constants in life... change, choice and principles.
 Stephen Covey 15

Changes in technology are darn-near inevitable. The choice of why and how, when and where, to use technologies remains yours. Our schools aspire to prepare young men and women for the future. As you go about helping them develop the habits of mind, the cornerstones of character, and the interpersonal skills the next generation needs—heck, every generation since the dawn of man has needed—may you be guided by the enduring principles that have been the grace and greatness of independent schools.

And for those who fear that technology will one day overrun us more definitively, I offer this concluding consolation:

Not even computers will replace committees, because committees buy computers.
 
Edward Shepherd Mead 16

Until next time,

Pete

 

1 http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/email.html
2 Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat: How to win in the Information Age, Wiley-IEEE Press, 2006. Page 7
3 Attributed to Scott Adams. No authoritative source found.
4 Attributed to Al Boliska. No authoritative source found.
5 Attributed to John Won Neumann. No authoritative source found.
6 Searle, John R. Minds, Brains, And Science. Harvard Univ Pr, 1984. Page 44.
7 Attributed to Alice Kahn. No authoritative source found.
8 Hong Kong press conference in the late 1980s. en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Alan_Kay
9 Homo Faber, Mariner Books. (1994) ISBN 978-0156421335. Page 178
10 Attributed to Lewis Mumford. No authoritative source found.
11 www.mat.upm.es/~jcm/neil-postman--five-things.html
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Attributed to Thomas Sergiovanni. No authoritative source found.
15 Attributed to Stephen Covey. No authoritative source found.
16 Wall Street Journal – June 18, 1964

 

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