IT: The Great Debate
Earnest Hummingbird
Office of Creative Solutions

This article was published in Teaching Perspectives 8 (Fall, 2007), pp. 9-11. It was originally written in partial fulfillment of the certificate reqirements for the online certification program offered by the Institute for the Advancement of Teaching in Higher Education (IATHE), January - April, 2007.

This spring I visited a campus debating society which debated the following motion: Be it resolved that media influences learning in a positive fashion.

I was able to write down, in shorthand, the opening speeches of the debate, and I copy them here for your edification and entertainment. Unfortunately, I do not know who either of the speakers were. I trust they will forgive my quoting them in full in the never-to-be sufficiently praised journal of this university.

Proposer of the Motion:

Gentlepeople of the jury, my learned colleague, a notable Luddite with an amazing power of failing to see the light and a consequent inability to make a powerful point will argue that technology in teaching is doomed. He will say that what was good enough for our grandparents is good enough for us, and he will argue further not that we should turn back the clock, but that the clock should never have been started in the first place. These are unsupportable arguments, as I will clearly demonstrate to you.

In the first place, technology has been with us for an amazingly long time. What do I mean by this, you ask? Well, a stylus and a slate is technology; and these have been around for 5,000 years or more, since humankind first taught itself to write. A fire drill that creates heat is technology and the art of fire making has been with us for tens of thousands of years. Indeed, along with the ability to laugh at ourselves, fire differentiates human beings from the beasts, for where animals fear fires and flee from them, humankind has tamed fire and by controlling it has changed the environment in which we once used to live.

But technology is more than just the use of primitive instruments. Writing, for example, is an organizing principle and fire making is a mere precursor to the art of organizing the daily feed, not eaten raw at the site of the hunt, as the animals do, but brought back to cave and tent, to be prepared in a social organization that again differentiates humans from beasts.

Do we still eat our food, cooked or raw, in cave or tent, or protected from the wind in natural scrapes? Of course we do not. For our civilizations, and there have been many of them throughout the course of history, have advanced and as they have advanced, they have brought new forms of technology to the fore. Human beings grow, they advance, they develop new technologies, they learn to manipulate new technologies and this manipulation is a learning process in the course of which we teach our young, not to scrape and survive with a minimal living for themselves, but to stand on our shoulders, and see further than we were ever able to do.

Gentlepeople of the jury: the technological clock started a long time before time was measured by clockwork. Indeed, time itself is a part of the technological process, the organizational process, which enables humans to organize, regulate, and improve this wonderful world in which we all live. We are competitive by nature. To compete, we must be at the cutting edge, to be at the cutting edge we must continually advance our knowledge and develop to even greater depths the organization of our society and the technologies which we use to advance our children’s knowledge.

Without technology, and I include the new media we are developing on a daily basis, we would not be here; we cannot, as my learned colleague would have us do, just dismiss the technological advances which have brought us where we find ourselves today and which will further enhance the places in which we will live tomorrow. They are a part of us, as our blood is part of us. We cannot separate the body from its blood and still talk about the entire human. Nor can we separate the media from teaching and learning to isolate one aspect of the world wide network, that single body of intelligence that we are in the process of creating.

The media which are the subject of today’s debate are only steps forward in the technological struggle that advances us and our ideals, our knowledge of the world and the world around us, the teaching that we give to the next generation, and the ability that we all need to predict the future needs of ourselves and of our very survival on this fragile planet. Through these media we can have instant contact across time and space. We can spread ideas faster than they have ever been spread before. We need no longer work in isolation, for we can be together and work in teams that need never meet face to face for their work is there before them. Our teaching must keep up with these new technologies and our children must learn to grow with the new media, indeed to help the new media advance as they become part and parcel of their daily lives.
Gentlepeople of the jury: these are cogent arguments. I beg you to support the motion: Be it resolved that the media influences learning in a positive fashion.

Opposer of the Motion

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: my learned colleague has called me a Luddite and indeed, in a certain sense, I am a Luddite, and I am proud of being a Luddite. Quite simply, I do not accept that every technological advance is good; for some technology is a step back into the dark ages. However, I do agree that certain elements of technology, when controlled and used in a sensible fashion, might, under the right circumstances, be a useful addition to traditional teaching and learning.

However, I will suggest to you that we are not using technology in a meaningful fashion to positively enhance teaching and learning. The crux of my argument will therefore be that we have not yet learned how to use technology correctly; we are in fact using technology incorrectly and, as a result, the media we use influence learning in a negative fashion. Incidentally, my learned colleague, apart from telling us that to be at the cutting edge of technology is good, scarcely managed to link technology and teaching in a meaningful fashion. In fact, like a good advocate, he carefully danced around, and thus avoided, an issue that he knows he cannot defend.

What is meaningful teaching? It is the joining of minds, not of machines. It is the look on the face of a flesh and blood student when a new idea is grasped and a problem is understood. This occurs in a face to face discussion with the teacher, not online. It happens only in traditional classrooms, in traditional seminar rooms, in tutorials, in face to face dialogue between flesh and blood people.

I will suggest to you that the electronic world of media and multi media has grown totally out of control. We no longer talk to other human beings for we are isolated from each other by ear plugs. We keyboard on our computers, and never meet face to face. When we do meet face to face, it is virtual face to virtual face and we talk to our screens, while dealing with plastic and LCD images, never with flesh and blood.

Obsessed by the computer’s magic, we sit for long hours each day with no human contact other than when we rush out to purchase endless supplies of coffee, coffee without whose caffeine we cannot even keep awake at our keyboards. People who use technology to excess, and we all do, are more comfortable with their machines than they are with other human beings. We have, ladies and gentlemen, isolated ourselves from our own humanity. And this is, quite simply, the greatest sin that we, as human beings, can commit.

We talk about synchronous and asynchronous learning and about virtual meetings in chat rooms in cyberspace, but we have forgotten that Chronos is the God of Time. And time on the computer, like time in prison, has lost all meaning. Time is history, and we have forgotten the meaning of history. Those of us who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Saturn, the son of Chronos, devoured his own children as we allow ours to be devoured. Mistake after mistake, day after day, errors copied and repeated ad nauseam, seculae seculorum, to the virtual end of virtual time. On our computer screens, everything seems to be happening now, in a space that is so small, that we cannot distinguish Africa from Asia, Newfoundland from New Zealand, for they are all the same size and in the same place: on our computer screens.

What is the difference between 1066, 1666, and 1966? I warn you, this is a trick question, for the real answer is “one or two slips of a finger on the keyboard”. The dates, for they may even be dates, have no meaning anymore. 1066: the Battle of Hastings; 1666: the Great Fire of London; 1966: England wins the World Cup of Asociation Football, better known as soccer.

Yet on our computer screens there is no yesterday, no today, and no tomorro; there is only this instant, this virtual instant during which you are reading my words and grasping at the straw of our new virtual reality. Is it raining where you are? Snowing? How do you answer that question? I know people who check the weather channel to see what is happening outside their house because they have become afraid to look outdoors and see the real world for themselves.

As for the workplace, it is everywhere and we are no longer able to escape it. Email mounts up and follows us where ever we go; spam is enormous and rising; the blackberry, which has no more merit than a raspberry, is alive in our pockets, constantly texting us, and we, like a nation of Pavlov’s dogs, twitch nervously in response every time the cell phone rings. Have you ever wondered why is it called a cell phone? It is called a cell phone because we are imprisoned by it. This prison is not a convenience, not a way to precious knowledge: it is an invasion of our privacy. It is an invasion of the private space between our ears in which, and thanks to which, we must learn to grow as individuals.

For the future of the human race does not lie in our ability to connect with a computer screen. It lies with our ability to talk together, one on one, in the flesh. Without the advancement of human relations, of the one on one contact of traditional teaching and learning, we as a civilization are doomed.

Let me remind you of the old ethical question: if you could press a button and become an instant millionaire, knowing that by doing so, someone in a far off land would die so you could have his money – would you press the button? Such questions have become meaningless: we press that button everyday and not one person but thousands of persons die. Not only do they die, but we also record their final sound bytes and we listen to their deaths as we view them in virtual reality, and it is all meaningless to us because it is all happening in virtual reality with virtual sound bytes with virtual screams on a miniature screen.

It is not technology that influences our teaching positively, but how we use that technology. Believe me, when we talk media in teaching, we are talking captive audiences chained to their chairs, as lifeless as those who sat in Plato’s cave, watching the virtual shadows on the virtual walls, and like Plato’s automatons, we have become unable to get up and leave the room in order to see the real world.

One final question, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: we used to ask “Who shall assess the assessors?” We must change that question and ask: “Who is programming the programmers?” And we must also ask why? And to what ends?” Albert Camus, the Nobel Prize winner for literature, once divided the world into two parts: les meurtriers et les victimes, the assassins and their victims. Unless we can teach our children how to think critically, how to think for themselves, how to think away from the pernicious computer and its virtually real screen, with its virtually real semi-truths, we are in grave danger of again dividing the world into two parts: the programmers and the programmed.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, media influences teaching, but in the most malicious and damaging way possible. I implore you to vote against the motion.

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