“Observations of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”


For a period of time I collected statements that I thought were interesting or caused you to think (see “A Collection of Sayings”). I should probably put some of following observations on that list but they are here because this piece follows “Thoughts of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”; of course, it is entirely possible that some of the statements there could easily fit here as well.

In 1990, as part of our research on the nature of computer networks and computer literacy Marcin Papryzcki, George Duckett and I suggested that the on-line courses would be developed as a natural progression in computer technology. But the development of such on-line courses and the change of real and physical classrooms into virtual classrooms has done little to facilitate learning. The drill-and-practice problems that seem so common place in the real classroom are now part and parcel of the virtual classroom.

Three years ago, in “The Future of Education”, I first published the idea that on-line learning was not necessarily going to be a boon to education. In December of 2009, I wrote “The Grinch in the Classroom”, in which I wrote about the ways to improve our schools and it wasn’t by putting our schools on-line. I noted in January (“The State of Education – 2012”) that there is research to show that on-line education doesn’t necessarily work.

The following observations are an out-growth of those thoughts:

  1. No matter what type of technology one is talking about or using, be it a computer (main-frame, desktop, laptop or mini), a calculator (with or with graphing capability), or a “smart” phone, two things are certain:
    • The device in use is only as smart as the person using it.
    • If you are using the device to gather information or solve a problem and you know nothing about the problem, you are apt to get the wrong answer as quickly as you can get the right answer and not know the difference.
  2. Much can be said about productivity software (word-processing, spreadsheets, presentation software, database, etc.) but it still remains that
    • If you cannot spell, spell-checkers are of no-value and if you cannot write, neither are grammar checkers.
  3. We have the technology to change the world but the technology by itself can do nothing. Students in America have the same technology as students in Egypt but I have yet to see the ground-breaking changes in America that took place in Egypt and other Middle-East countries during the Arab Spring of 2011.
  4. If the tasks that you will be doing do not require technology, then learning new technologies does little to prepare you for those tasks.
  5. Based on this author’s experience at various community colleges and four-year schools, while students at both the pre-college and the college level are well-versed in texting and other similar communication methods, they are unable to translate those communication skills into writing and the use of word-processing programs. This may be very anecdotal in nature but when you see the same thing occuring in a variety of settings, one may presume a certain degree of truth to the observation.
  6. The advent of the personal computer has also seen the development of hardware and instrumentation for the chemistry and physics laboratory. Much development has gone into developing experiments that utilize the instruments. But, while some students may be comfortable using hardware in experiments, there is some reluctance or inability to include the output of said experiments into a formally produced lab writeup. Often times, the printout containing experimental data is stapled or otherwise attached to the lab writeup/report. Students may know how to prepare a document and they may know how to use a spreadsheet but they do not know how to utilize both at the same time.
  7. Even with the advent of on-line document sharing processes, most students do not know how to work together cooperatively. I am not sure that most instructors know how this works either and if they do not know how to share documents, they are probably unwilling to let their students do it.
  8. I truly believe that most instructors are not capable of utilizing the computing power of their desktop machine to its maximum capability. Even with the prepared database of questions that most text publishers provide, most instructors could not create individualized exams that would allow students to work together without cheating.
  9. On-line instruction is the next “big thing”, especially in college instruction. It allows perhaps an unlimited number of students to take a course at any time while not worrying about classroom size. It would appear that all the instructor has to do is maintain a reasonable set of office hours.
    • Yet, many instructors are given only rudimentary instruction in the use of the on-line instruction software and there is very little interaction between student and instructor or other students in the classroom.
    • The one good point is that students do have the opportunity to post thoughts and comments about items being covered in the course but there is very little “real-time” interaction.
    • Despite the rise of on-line instruction, much of the work is still essentially drill-and-practice work with very little instructional creativity involved. Most text book companies will provide the materials that can be uploaded as the course work material and simply transpose the problems from the end of the chapter and the back of the book to subsections on the computer hard drive.
  10. In courses that require laboratory time, there is no ability to run “real-time” experiments. And we will not go into the nature of safety and liability when experiments are encouraged but can only be done in uncontrolled and definitely non-scientific environments.
  11. Final observation – We need to focus on doing something with what we have, not simply creating new applications or devices. And if we don’t start doing that soon, we will not have anyone capable of creating new devices.

Clearly, there are some people out there who are creative; we would not have the state-of-the-art technology that we do. And one only look at the Mars Rover “Curiosity” to know that there are some people who can envision ways of utilizing technology to obtain new information. But the ones who did create “Curiosity” are not the ones in school today and those are the ones where the focus needs to lie.

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One thought on ““Observations of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”

  1. Pingback: “Systems Or People?” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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