The torrent of Facebook-related scandals has incited deep reflection on the role of technology in our lives. We simply do not know all that our new technologies are doing to us. At this point, understanding ourselves, both individually and as a society, cannot be so easily distinguished from understanding technology. The two reflect and causally interact with each other. So we should also be reflecting on what we are doing to technology.
The question of how new technologies are shaping human life is about who we are. It is philosophical. We cannot simply defer to scientific studies or experiments. The tendency to do so is part and parcel of the problem.
What are the methods of philosophy? We use phrases like ‘critical thinking’ and ‘self-understanding’. The skills are general and fundamental—not tied to any specific iteration of technological sophistication. So they are good places to begin.
Framed in this way, the pragmatic question is about whose job it is to instill critical thinking skills and skepticism in citizens. How do people come to know themselves? The answer centers around education.
At a recent conference about university pedagogy, I was tasked with responding to several presentations about the use of technology in education. The vast majority of the presentations were anecdotal success stories about specific pieces of technology in specific situations. (Many discussions around teaching turn into bragging sessions for people who take themselves to be good teachers. And they often are good teachers.) Against the backdrop of the news from the tech world, much of what I heard sounded all too familiar.
Given our role in fashioning citizens of the future, my worry is this: because we want students to understand the role of technology in the world, as our pedagogy becomes more intermingled with technology, we display a lack of the same skills we are seeking to instill. We don’t know ourselves. We aren’t skeptical enough. There is something hypocritical on display.
That is a big and deliberately provocative claim. So I offer some caveats. I am not claiming that we should strip technology out of pedagogy in all cases. Many teachers are forced to use it in various ways. In those situations, it is worth discussing best practices. And many of the other problems we find in teaching institutions are related. However, the issue of whether we should introduce more technology when it isn’t strictly necessary is different. Many academics and educators are skeptical of using more technology in classes. They tend not to do it. So my audience is mainly those who have welcomed and pushed the changes, like the presenters at the conference, who I think represent a fairly pervasive attitude.
We are consistently reminded of the pernicious effects of technologies that initially appear benign. When we notice the effects, we find that we have built the cause so deep into our world that we cannot easily make changes. In fact, we only notice the effects because we built the technology deep into our world. This is not an argument that we should shut down innovation. Rather, it is the familiar call for critical thought: the construction and our adoption of a piece of technology should be preceded by careful ethical deliberation about its effects. It is a reliable rule that, at the time of our open armed acceptance, we do not fully understand the depth and scope of a technology’s influence. Many of the effects end up being negative.
What reason do we have to think that this won’t be true of the use of technology in pedagogy?
What is ironic is that educators are trying to teach the skills that would equip us to think about the potentially damaging effects of that which seems good, convenient, and efficient on the surface. Yet, self-referentially, we tend not to employ those skills when considering the increased integration of technology in education—a move made to bolster the inculcation of self-reflection. If there is a group that we would hope to be cautious and reflective, it would be academics and educators. So it is worth thinking about whether we are contributing to the same exact pattern that is being unearthed all around us (and has occurred countless times in history). Namely, are we diving head first into something that we don’t fully understand and getting overly excited by short term and myopic successes? If so, wouldn’t we be failing at one of the most crucial parts of our job?
I can give an example of a lack of self-knowledge in this context. A particularly alarming feature of the discussion about technology in pedagogy is that advocates tend to parrot the same rhetoric that tech companies use to sell their own products. They talk in nebulous terms about ‘community’, ‘narrative’, and ‘giving voices’. It all sounds anodyne. But it is precisely because the language is so vague that we interpret whatever happens as confirmation. Companies have so successfully dictated the terms of our discussion and manufactured so much demand that it becomes difficult to talk about the products in another way. When we adopt the products, we adopt the language. And the language paints the products in a positive light. The sales pitch has succeeded. We are buying the story of what these technologies are here to do for us.
The core of the rhetoric is the idea that innovation is inherently good, that novelty is equivalent to quality. With this conflation—and the fact that plenty in education needs to change—it is easy to portray what we are doing as success. We are conditioned to like new tech and therefore its uses. But when we rightly split these concepts apart, it becomes difficult to evaluate quality. Innovation and novelty become mere change. We need a separate argument that the change is for the better. Since we are talking about something new, the argument would be difficult to make and assess. To invoke the rule again, even if we can point to positives, how confident are we that there won’t be long term negative effects? Shouldn’t this question be at the core of education?
Our use of new technology in pedagogy is an acceptance of the tech world’s message of wide-eyed innovation. I mean this in a couple ways. First, more money is being dumped into tech companies. The image, endorsed and spread by educators, that new products are improving education conveniently coincides with the profit imperative of corporations. That suspicious alignment of interests is a perfect occasion for critical reflection. Could some of the standards that determine good teaching be in part dictated by those who have an interest in building more technology into the core of pedagogy?
Second, the message we are adopting is not without ethical and political assumptions. When we bring technology into classrooms, in that very act we are projecting a set of values. The classroom itself becomes a depiction of the proper role of technology in our lives. We are advertising it. Yet the proper role of technology in our lives is precisely what demands critical engagement. We are skipping a step. And yet it is precisely the step that we need students to engage in.
For example, despite the prevalent broader political discussion, there is a painful lack of consideration of the surveillance and privacy issues raised by the increased use of technology in education.
I will end with a more concrete point. We face the question of automation, which many people are foolishly prone to dismissing. By incorporating more technology into our teaching, we are helping to build a new infrastructure around education. What will that infrastructure be used for in the future? How will the role of human teachers change inside it? Even if we are benefiting the students with our use of technology, it is important to consider who else we are benefiting. What does the trend portend for the teaching profession? What world are we building for the scholars of the future? Do they have a place in it?
We don’t know the future. Yet our use of technology in education determines not only the future of the teaching profession but also the future of the world. We know what type of citizens we want to see. We know that our relation to our technology is becoming more and more central to what it means to understand ourselves. To equip students for the world, teachers must understand themselves too. That involves understanding their relation to technology. We get daily reminders of how little we understand. So teachers should better display the skills they are seeking to instill in students. The future depends on it.