My Entry Into The Great American Think Off: Does Technology Trap Us or Free Us?

A few years ago, a student at my school was the victim of a devastating house fire. Upon learning that the student, an avid reader, lost her bookshelf of favorite titles, teachers combed their personal libraries and local bookstores in hopes of surprising the teen with a replenished bookshelf. The cause of the fire was old, faulty wiring—the only blame to be laid was at the foot of the landlord. As terrible as the fire was, the fire did not knowingly choose to devastate the family’s home. It was a tool of civilization that slipped its harness. In the proper times, when used judiciously, fire is the tool of civilized people.

The same can be said of technology. Does technology trap us or free us? That question presumes that technology is able to independently initiate action, knowingly determine how, when and why people will use it. Despite gains in cognitive robotics and the growing ability of our “smart” devices to anticipate our needs and wants, at this point, people are still the sentient force guiding the creation and evolution of the array of technologies we have surrounding us on a daily basis. Technology doesn’t either trap us or free us; human wisdom is the operating system determining when we are chained and when we soar. The shortage of wisdom to guide our use of technology is the heart of the issue.

Evidence abounds that we use technology in ways that hurts us on a societal level and on a personal level. Technology has changed the realities of childhood, for instance, in ways that my parents’ generation would never have tolerated when they were raising my generation. The idea that children would be “safer” in the house with electronic “games” than playing freeze tag until twilight throughout the neighborhood? Preposterous. Children as young as kindergarten spending multiple days taking computer-administered tests to assess their “progress?” The PTA would have been in an uproar. The incessant screen time that my children and students view as normal averts their major bugaboo, boredom, and leaves them in a consuming haze—the limits to watching that were common in my childhood are nearly unenforceable and unimaginable now. Even the idea that teens and preteens “need” a phone in case of emergency—were there emergencies that previous generations never learned about because the ubiquitous cell phone hadn’t been invented? People—parents and children, friends and lovers—expect constant, instant communication because the tool for it exists, not because the bulk of us face daily crises.

The degree of intrusion and surveillance that we accept knowingly is staggering, and the fact that we not only accept most of it unquestioningly, but we feel reassured that we are “safer” because “they” can watch. In return for the promise—or illusion—of security, we sacrifice privacy and autonomy. As parents allow corporations to follow their children’s browsing, watching and traveling to create more targeted advertising, we all agree that it’s basically harmless, and.. well..it’s not as if we could stop it anyway at this point. It’s easy to shrug, then immerse ourselves in Netflix or YouTube to see the latest viral video.

But technology is a tool, and there are innumerable benefits and advances that are possible because of our ability to design better technologies. Medical “miracles” happen because technology works. My friend has a grandson with SMA, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and technology gives that baby both a higher quality of life and reason to hope that progress towards a cure is coming. Because of technology, also, information and support is only a mouse click away. For every scary story of sexual predators or bullying teens, there’s a counter story of lives changed for the better because of the wonder of instant, credible information and support that is available because of technology. And, as last fall’s Ice Bucket Challenge proved, the internet can be used to raise awareness and funds that last long past the fad.

When the first cavewoman got the great idea to harness fire for cooking as she was trying to decide what to do with a dead Mammoth, it was progress. There were probably cavemen screeching warnings about the danger then, too. But wisdom and knowledge won out, and generally, we appreciate fire as an indispensable tool. Unless we develop wisdom soon, we will allow technology to trap us—but let’s focus the blame where it belongs. Technology is a tool, and if it becomes our jailer, it’s because we let it.

Practical Math

Note: I wrote this in 2012. It’s still all true, maybe even more true–except for the number of tech-related devices I carry at a time. My phone now replaces most of those!

I like technology. In my purse right now, I have a Livescribe pen, a digital camera, a couple USB cords and a recorder that I can talk into and download what I say into my computer, where it appears as typed words—often word soup, but even that fascinates me. Technology makes sense to me the same way that shopping for shoes makes sense to some women I know. I’m certainly not going to be the person who claims texting hurts communication, or that twitter is killing society–a sizable portion of my life in online, and I’m a firm proponent of tech in education.

However, the fact we can technologically do something doesn’t mean it’s the best way to accomplish the task. Just because we have the toys doesn’t mean we should play with them. To be bluntly specific, because of technology, we are turning students into accountants.

Every high school I know of requires teachers to keep their gradebooks online, and those gradebooks can be accessed by parents and students from any computer with internet access. That sounds like a terrific idea, giving the parents and students detailed information so the home can partner with the school to improve the student’s understanding and achievement I like being able to tell students to look online to make sure I credited all the assignments they have emailed me or to understand why their grade changed dramatically in the past week. Having continual access to a student’s grades is the type of idea that makes a great sound bite and gets unilateral support—who can oppose parents and students having the data to understand the progress the student is making?

Welcome to the dark side of the online gradebook.  One issue is that students live in an “instant gratification” society, and the ability to see their grades in real time feeds that jones. This week, I’ve had students hand me a paper, then say while they are still holding onto it, “So what’s my grade now?” If I haven’t put it in by the end of the class, there’s so much sighing and eye-rolling that I feel as if I’m surrounded by a flock of Scarlet O’Haras.

There’s another trend that shows students are becoming accountants After accessing their grade, some students will decide that they’ve “learned” enough, and not even attempt an assignment that doesn’t impact their grade in a concrete way. They’ll calculate points and percentages, then determine if the homework assignment will make a noticeable difference—it may seem as if every little bit helps, but in practice, that’s not true. Students who struggle with the state math tests often have a Einsteinian grasp of “gradebook math,” even with weighted grades or categorized assignments.

The flip side of that is students who don’t have the score they (or their parents) want, so they audit their points with the fervor of an I.R.S auditor who is bucking for a promotion. Every piece of paper they’ve written their name on needs to be accounted for, and they often try to dicker for missing points or the ability to turn in very late work—they almost always have a ten point paper from seven weeks earlier that would pull them up a percentage point, getting them that much closer to athletic eligibility or the next higher grade.

What do grades mean? Does having the technology to micro-manage grades lead to the student “learning” more? Maybe instead of having more trainings to make sure teachers and parents can use the technology correctly, we need discussions about how to use it wisely.

Things I Don’t Believe In, Education-Related

Note: I wrote this in 2012, and I predicted that within ten years, the traditional college freshman-style research paper would change dramatically. I’ve taught college courses this year (2020), and yes, they have changed quite a bit. Citation styles are very different, expectations and paper types are different–change is in the air. 

When was the last time you curled up to read a research paper? When was the last time Oprah or Dr. Phil or Matt Lauer suggested you really needed to catch the hot new research paper that everyone else was reading?

Never?

Research papers–the standard, gotta-have-footnotes/citations/endnotes with a Bibiliography/Works Cited/References at the end type paper–don’t exist outside of a very specific climate. Even if you have written one, you probably never read one, except the examples your English teacher provided as a model. Unless you read professional journals, you probably haven’t read one outside of the English class where you wrote one.

As a highly qualified teacher, a part-time college instructor, and a fairly smart cookie who spews words for fun, I have a professional opinion about research papers: they suck. If that’s not clear enough, how’s this: as a benchmark of student success, the process of producing a standards-based paper following the current MLA or APA guidelines relies on an antiquated educational paradigm and provides inconclusive data about a student’s critical thinking ability, research capabilities, and essential writing skills.

With all that said, I believe whole-heartedly that we need to push critical thinking and research. Teaching students to ask good questions, be curious, and to engage in meaningful discussion about ideas–whether face to face, via technology, or in a written format–is crucial. Getting them to evaluate the quality of information they find and put it in a context is paramount, too.

Learning to write a research paper, following spacing guidelines, formatting rules, and worrying about punctuation, transitions, and the mechanics of good writing do not further all of the things listed in the previous paragraph. In fact, the emphasis on learning to write the formal paper de-emphasizes the crucial skills listed above. Form matters more than content, at least most of the time at the high school level.

In fact, I’m going to don my Amazing Kreskin hat and predict that in a few years–a decade at the most–the “research paper” is going to change format dramatically, with the wide-spread acceptance of first person (which is usual now in some journals) and hyperlinks to sources instead of traditional citations. We’re on the verge of that change now.

The research paper as it’s taught and written in high school is a completely artificial form of communication, and needs to change to utilize the technologies we have now while emphasizing the baseline research and critical thinking skills that are even more important in the age of information glut.

The “research paper” needs to give way to a more relevant form of writing that reflects those concerns and priorities.

And part of the reason? Research papers thrive in the hot-house of academia, but not out in the world our students live in. Not in the world we live in, either. The skills to write a correctly formatted paper can be learned with relative ease when they are truly needed–and that’s not at the high school level. The research and critical thinking skills, yes. Emphatically. But the hallowed formal “research paper” that I spend weeks teaching? It sucks.

iRemember

“My most significant relationship is with my phone.” Yes,that sentence did slide out of my mouth Thursday, hours before I learned Steve Jobs died. And since my twitter feed exploded with tweets about his death, instead of analyzing how pathetic my relationship with my phone is, I’m considering my relationship with technology in general.

The first personal computer I used was an early Mac. As a grad student, I was the editor of a journal called “Perspectives,” which featured reviews of new children’s and YA books with whole-language approaches for teachers. I got the gig because of my writing and literature skills, but the first time I used the Mac, I figured out how to copy and paste–a skill that the professor who sponsored the journal had been unable to master in the three weeks he had owned the computer. That was my first hint that I “get” technology.

So even though I own almost no Apple products, Jobs was important in my daily life. MacWrite–the early word processor on the Mac I used–changed my writing process entirely; the “prewriting/drafting/editing” paradigm that I had to teach my students was obsolete by the time I started teaching…at least for people who had the ability to use a word processor. Writing was, and is, a more fluid, organic process, and the “steps” make no sense when you’re doing them all simultaneously.

As I remember it, when Windows was finally invented, I was thrilled because it meant my school could afford “fake Mac” type computers (since Macs were well beyond our means). Jobs’ and Apple’s invention of the iPod spurred a whole industry to catch up by creating mp3 players, then the iPhone again pushed innovators to try to re-imagine what phones could do. And the iPad, as ridiculed as it was when it was announced–well, the whole tablet industry uses the iPad as the product to beat.

Jobs was not essentially a technician. Many people invent or design amazing things…that no one uses. Before the iPod, few people were wandering around thinking that what they really needed was a way to stuff their entire CD collection in their pocket. Before the iPhone, no one was sad that they didn’t have a phone that could surf the net or answer email from. My students don’t understand that; they’ve had access since they were born. The world they know is radically different than the world that their 30 year old teachers came into, and a whole sci-fi novel away from what I was born into. Steve Jobs’ vision–and marketing team–were a major part of our society’s transformation.

I own a Windows-based PC, and my Android phone is rarely more than an arm’s reach away. For reading ebooks, I have a Kindle, not an iPad, and my personal mp3 player is from Creative Labs, not Apple. But my tech usage is a key part of my identity, so I wonder who the next Steve Jobs will be–because there will be another innovator. Everything that can be invented hasn’t been, yet. Somewhere, in a garage right now, there is a kid tinkering with code, surrounded by soldering tools and random technological parts, thinking, “ok, this time it has to work.”

And that’s how Steve Jobs will live on.

 

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Disclaimer: I’m a fan of media. When I finish writing this, I’m heading to watch a couple episodes of Buffy. I own an impressive collection of dvd’s and cd’s–although not as good as my daughter’s. I raised her right, I think. I have oodles and oodles of music on my Amazon cloud, which has some but not all of the same music as my iPod, which still only has part of my collection. I use streaming Netflix and Hulu Plus pretty much daily. I like media.

BUT…..the Mexican restaurant I like now has television screens everywhere I look. So does Applebees and the Beer Barrel. And McDonalds and Burger King. And WalMart. In fact, WalMart has small screens at the end of some aisles, just in case you get bored making your way between the big screens, I guess.

AND….now my high school has random huge screens in hallways. We have enough trouble with kids blocking the intersections between classes; now there’s a constant stream of…I’m not sure what they will play….to distract the human roadblocks even more.

Then I went to put gas in my car today, and the pump was blaring country music at me.

When did America become allergic to silence? When did people become so boring that any entertainment is better than conversation? Recently, I went to a popular restaurant in Lima–one big room–with 8 televisions all on different programs, all with subtitles and sound, AND music was playing as well. Major sensory overload–and impossible to talk. I didn’t even attempt to stop my daughter when she pulled a book out of her purse to read as she ate; conversation was impossible. I sat there reading twitter and RSS feeds; yes, I see the irony in that: more media saturation, when that’s what I’m grousing about.

I didn’t say I’m holier than anyone else in this case. If I could find a Sy-Fy/Alt Bar, playing Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Buffy, and other favs, I’d be there. Especially if they had amazing nachos like Applebees used to have.  But, if my hypothetical bar existed, I promise I’d be there arguing Kirk v. Picard, and counting the times Luke whined–not just sitting there comatose, senses too overloaded to function.

Eating Knowledge

The story By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benet shows a civilization that has been decimated by “eating knowledge too fast,” as John the Son of a Priest says as he explores the ruins of modern day New York City. John observes that there must be a balance between wisdom and knowledge or a civilization isn’t safe.

I could rant and point fingers about the educational reformers, creating a culture of accountability while neither employing or espousing wisdom. And some other day, I might. But this week at my school, the value of having teachers with wisdom as well as knowledge was made clear.

A young, healthy teacher died suddenly. One day, he was lecturing, badgering kids to complete assignments, interviewing to become principal, even. The next, we were explaining to his students that he died that morning as he was getting ready for school.

Testing can be mandated; work hours can be mandated. Even the content of the classes and the knowledge the teachers possess and impart can be mandated. And knowledge is important–no argument about that.

But students are not widgets or cogs in the education machine. Students are not merely “stakeholders” in the process, either. They are people, with all the weaknesses, issues, emotions, and baggage that our reality shows parade across America’s television screens daily. We can make the acquisition of knowledge more efficient and effective,  but there’s a tipping point where the educational system will become so weighted towards “knowledge” than the human element will be gone–the ability to bring school to a standstill to hold sobbing students, when needed even–and there will be no wisdom left to find in our classrooms. That’s what was most clearly illustrated this week as my school dealt with that teacher’s sudden death.

There is little wisdom in our statehouses and our leaders; our churches and holy places are too often focused on big screen projectors and growing their market share. If we do not want John the Son of a Priest’s tale to be prophetic, schools may be our last hope for finding the balance between knowledge and wisdom.

Orwell Was Right

Note: I wrote this before Edward Snowden, and when the world was more innocent, even post-9/11.  

Clandestine. That’s a word I don’t hear very often any more–a fabulous word with rather seedy, sinister undertones. Civil rights. That’s a phrase I don’t hear very often, either. I think there’s a correlation there.

You doubt me? Consider Chicago. The video surveillance system there is so massive that it’s reasonable to say that most people who are not in their homes (and maybe even then, depending on their windows), are probably under surveillance. The article that I linked to mentions a recent suicide victim whose last 20 minute drive through the city was recreated via a network of public and private video cams.

That bothers me. In real terms, that means citizens have lost the presumption of privacy. Heard of Big Brother? He’s watching, and there’s no outcry–we’re all surfing online, reading facebook status messages and giggling at YouTube videoes instead of decrying our lost privacy. Even the ACLU, which has extensive info on their site about data, internet and biometric privacy, seems oblivious to the intrusion of cameras as we run routine errands…or, yes, have clandestine meetings.

In 1992, actress Joan Collins sued Globe magazine because they had used a telephoto lens located on public property to take pictures of her on private property. The court found that her claim was valid under the intrusion tort, one of the legal ways the right to privacy is delineated. (This piece from the U Penn on celebrities and the right to privacy was fascinating…time for law school applications? Maybe….) The courts have ruled many times that celebrities and other famous people have less legal expectation of privacy; in other words, Sean Penn really doesn’t have the right to beat up photographers in public places if they are a reasonable distance from him and not physically threatening him.

But what about me? Supposing I’m heading to the store at 3 a.m. in my jammies–bra-less and bed head, driving carefully and not indulging in any of the seven deadly sins or breaking any of the ten commandments. Then, I get to the store, realize my purse and my money were still on the kitchen table. I never get out of my car, turning around and deciding that the 3 a.m. run for TP was not happening; we’d use paper towel till the sun rose. The whole time, I’m either on my property or in my property–my Honda–can a picture from a security cam show up on the front page of the newspaper? Even more interesting, can one taken on a cell phone by a student in the car next to mine at a stop light be circulated to all his contacts?

I used that article about Chicago in both my senior English class and my Advanced class last spring, and I was appalled. Even the more thoughtful students were enthusiastic about the spider web of cameras surrounding Chicago, and the cameras that are throughout Lima in places–including our school. The students believe they are in danger, and that the world–even their hometown–are scary places. Almost without exception, they believed they are safer with the cameras watching. Even a discussion about whether the cameras function as a deterrent or as a means for retribution didn’t shake their conviction that they are safer with cameras watching, just as looking at crime data for our city didn’t convince them that their presumption of danger was disproportionate. (No, I didn’t say all that in those words…it took a long, long time to express and discuss those concepts in language that was generally accessible. It’s summer. I get to use my native language.) The arguement that almost bothered me the most was, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, why does it matter if there are cameras?”

That’s missing the problem. That’s missing the erosion of civil liberties, and the escalating power of technology as it’s used with little wisdom or thought. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. That’s the concept that is too often lost in the name of progress–and I’m a techie, not a Luddite in the least. Ben Franklin said, “Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security.” Amen.

Summertime….when the living is……well, …….

When I was little, I wore shorts and sleeveless tops and played outside a good share of the day, screen door slamming behind me as I hustled out the back door. No worry about sunscreen, no discussion about how hot and sweaty I might get–it’s summer. If I got hot, it was expected–it was summer, after all. And I could always get a glass of ice water and sit in front of a fan if I wanted a break from playing–or, at times, sitting outside reading. Surprised? Not if you know me.

Now, I’m sitting here debating whether to turn on the air conditioning. It’s a bit over 80 degrees in the apartment, but I have windows open and a fan going. In fact, I spent part of the afternoon putting the screens in the doors and rearranging the minuscule living room so that I would have a better cross breeze. I like fresh air and all that.

But…my hair is hot. Sweat is trailing down the back of my head, dripping onto my t-shirt collar. My feet are hot, too. My socks are a bit damp, and my ankles itch. Maybe I should take a shower. Maybe I should buy a pair of shorts. Or…I could turn on the AC and be comfy cool, thumbing my nose at Mother Nature’s hot flash. Summer–ha. No reason for us to be anything but cool as Kerouac.

Being me, this isn’t a question of personal comfort (or Beth’s comfort, either; she can deal). If I turn on the AC, am I perpetrating a system that creates soft, weak people, people who are disconnected from nature and the natural rhythms that our foremothers honored? My Cherokee and Iroquois ancestors survived in less hospitable surroundings than I’ve ever encountered (well, except for my junior prom. No native ever braved that–but I have faith they could have). Am I buying into a consumer mindset that is creating unsustainable expectations about the pampered quality of life I should have?

The personal is the political. Think globally, act locally. Both true. Both cliches I believe. This is a moment that tries men’s souls, the summer patriot, etc (Yea, Tom Paine is sticking out his zombie-tongue at me). I do believe that I should not turn on the AC, that a good person–one concerned about the environment, one interested in connecting with nature–wouldn’t mind the rivulet of sweat trailing from her ear down her bra…but right now,….well…I’m going to go sit in the Lotus position under my maple tree, decide what Thoreau would do.