I began by quoting a comment on their blog:
More computers in school classrooms isn’t necessarily the answer – return to this later. Important question…studies finding ICT isn’t necessarily translating into better learning outcomes.And now here is what I wrote in response:
Rather than return to the question later, maybe this needs to be the starting point. That is, if we begin with the question: how can we get more computers in the classroom, or how can we get students to use computers more frequently and efficiently, then we are bypassing the question of purpose and goals. What are we trying to accomplish as educators? What are our educational objectives? Is mastering the technology an end in itself?
At one communication conference that I went to some years ago, there was a keynote speaker who was a school superintendent from Brooklyn, and he was talking about how they brought computers into the elementary school classroom to teach writing, and how wonderful it was that they could just write on the screen, and rewrite, delete and edit with the computer. My friend and mentor, Neil Postman, was sitting with me and he raises his hand to ask a question: "Why can't you do that with a paper and pencil?" Well, the speaker starts to say something more about word processing, and Neil again says, "But why can't you do that with a paper and pencil?" And the speaker really couldn't answer that question.
Neil had a reputation as a neo-Luddite, and took the extreme position in such arguments in order to make his point about our uncritical attitude towards technology. But the point is that it is important to be able to answer the question, in regard to technology, of "what for?" Why are we using it? What are we trying to achieve? I believe there are legitimate applications (and Neil would not deny that), but we need to be able to articulate them, and stick to them.
So, what I would emphasize is the need to determine appropriate applications of a given technology. If we don't know why we're using it, then we end up being used by it.
This is also true of the various formats being used. For example, years ago a colleague in our department brought in a faculty member from another school, who made a presentation and demonstrated the use of online applications for teaching. One of the things he showed us was how he made his lectures available to download. I asked why he didn't just provide a written transcript instead, and he had no answer. Is recording a lecture, for example, the best way to make information available, or is it more effective to distribute it in written form where it is easer to review and jump from place to place?
To be able to consider appropriate applications, it also helps to foster an analytical and critical attitude towards technology. That goes to the heart of what media ecology is about. And, by the way, you can call that a form of literacy, but personally I think phrases like "media literacy" obscure the fact that reading and writing, literacy in the sense of being "lettered," refer to an entirely different medium than film, or television, or the web.
In thinking about these issues, I also find it useful to make some distinctions. For example, one factor is access to information. Increasing access has a democratizing effect that also undermines authority (not always a good thing), and can lead to information overload--Postman's argument is that we solved the problem of too little access a long time ago, but we keep at it, much like we solved the problem of too little food a long time ago, but our instincts still tell us to eat.
Another factor is the evaluation of information, and its synthesis. This is what is desperately needed now, and in part, it's why blogs are so popular. And note the fact that the United States government agencies had bits and pieces of information about 9/11 before the terrorists struck, but were unable to properly evaluate the threat, put the pieces together, synthesize the information.
A third factor is production--is it better to give than to receive? We know that new technologies have been making production easier and easier, but there still is a gap. Back in the middle ages, the Church sometimes taught people only to read, and not to write. We are not fully empowered unless we can do more than merely access information. And production helps in thinking critically about the information we access, knowing the variable and often arbitrary human factors that go into the creation of media content.
A fourth factor is social interaction. It's not what you know, it's who you know. Information and interaction are quite different, and access to information is not nearly as helpful in many situations as access to social networks (hence the glass ceiling in organizations). Many people who are computer whizzes don't know the first thing about navigating social networks or simply interacting with others in a respectful manner. And that has traditionally been one of the basic lessons of schooling--how to behave.