The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress." ...  ...Mahatma Ghandi.

Commentary of the Day - Oct. 19, 2000:  A Response to Dr. Shapiro's Review of Taming the Beast - By Jason Ohler, author

“When it comes to cars, the only thing I care about is whether they get me where I want to go.”

This is essentially what Dr. Shapiro said about educational technology when he concluded his review of my book, Taming the Beast, by saying:

“When it comes to educational technology, what the IP wants to know is does it work well enough to assist learning to make the investment of time and money worthwhile.”

This perspective totally ignores the environmental, social, and personal impacts of technology that are very much changing the heart and soul of our culture and which are very much in public discourse these days. Newspapers are reporting about technological issues daily that challenge us ethical and morally, from genetic engineering, to access to data bases full of personal information, to advanced weaponry systems. His statement about technology is tantamount to ignoring issues of pollution, safety, and social re-organization that are attributed to cars.  At the very least, Shapiro’s perspective is myopic and irresponsible. At the worst, it is dangerous, encouraging the use of technology without any concern for context whatsoever.

That Dr. Shapiro does not like my style of writing is certainly his prerogative. It was intended to be a combination of media presented in book format, a bit like being on the web and reading a book at the same time. I drew my inspiration from some of McLuhan’s work and other post-modernists whose style he and the world are free to dislike.

But I find particularly disturbing the fact that he ignored the main points of the book entirely. Given that, let me state them here.

1. We must use technology not just effectively and creatively, but wisely as well. I have been in the field of educational technology for almost two decades. I am proud to say that the motto of my Educational Technology Program has always been “to use technology effectively, creatively, and wisely...”  Shapiro’s analysis of my book suggests he is only concerned with the first, and perhaps the second, of these. After many years of helping others learn to use technology I am concerned primarily with the last: wisdom. Technology can be used effectively and even creatively, and unwisely at the same time. If we want good workers who pursue their lives within a vacuum of efficiency, fine.  But I would suggest that most of us want good neighbors as well, and that pursuing community is at least as important as pursuing efficiency and effectiveness. In order to have this, we must consider technology within the much larger context of wisdom. Being concerned only with whether technology "assists learning (well enough) to make the investment of time and money worthwhile" encourages teachers and students to look at life in very small terms. As the power of technology increases, this is exactly what we don't need.

2. We need to cultivate perspectives so that teachers, students and citizens can begin to see and evaluate technology on a personal level. Also very disturbing is that Shapiro failed to mention the basic vantage point my book cultivates in order to evaluate technology, which I will summarize here.

The book suggests that everyone - we, as well as our students -- should be encouraged to become our own investigator for the Science and Technology Administration, a fictitious government organization whose job it is to anticipate technology's impacts proactively before the technology is released into mainstream society. I am not suggesting that the government should create such an organization but that each one of us needs to become our own STA agent.  I am also suggesting that to be technologically literate needs to include not only knowing how to use technology but also how to understand its impacts, something which I encourage schools to pursue vigorously. We want students to understand not only how to use technology, but when and why.

An investigator for the STA considers three basic areas of technological interest: What the technology does, what goals and biases are implicit in the design and construction of the technology, and the technology's impacts on everything from the environment, to other cultures, to the future technologies. It attempts to give readers a mind map to use to begin seeing how technology changes our lives, communities, and environment so they can be more informed students, teachers, citizens, voters, workers, people. It says that our children should see technology clearly as a part of their lives with impacts that have repercussions. It further says that just as there are healthy and unhealthy lifestyle choices that our kids can make about what to consume and how to spend their time, so too are there similar kinds of choices that can be made about the use of technology.

3. We must provide actual assessment tools that empower teachers and students to make their own decisions about living a technological lifestyle. Dr. Shapiro objects to my “missing the point” on the use of a T-Balance in order to try to understand the e-book. Let me reply by stating I have not missed the point but simply do not agree with his, which I find presumptuous and lacking any belief in the readers' power to make their own informed decisions.

A major goal of my book is to give readers the tools to empower themselves and their students to draw their own conclusions-- that is, to become their own agent of the STA -- rather than to rely on academics to do it for them. Typically, teachers approach understanding the somewhat heady issues addressed in my book by requiring students to write about them in essay form, essentially relegating consideration of such issues to the upper grades. In my book, I suggest a number of tools that can be used -- particularly at younger grades -- to get students thinking about a balanced perspective of technology so that THEY, and not myself, Dr. Shapiro, or anyone else, can make their own informed lifestyle decisions. These methods include using bubbling diagrams, T-balances, circle diagrams, and a number of other thought tools that encourage students to begin to “see” technology before they can evaluate. Shapiro’s premise that I, the writer, need to draw the conclusion for the reader I think is sadly mistaken and ultimately ineffective.

4. We must cultivate a balanced perspective about history and technological gain and loss. Dr. Shapiro suggests that I have a negative view of history. That is inaccurate. I prefer to think that I have a balanced view of history, and that I see -- and encourage the reader to see -- the advances that technology offers and the opportunities it closes off to us. As I say in the book, every technology connects and disconnects. With every new opportunity we lose an old one. It is up to us to see this in a balanced way and begin to make more informed lifestyle decisions than we currently are. I hope my book helps readers do that. It is with profound sadness that I report that Shapiro missed this important point entirely.

5. There is a difference between religion and research. Religion says “I have made up my mind and I will look at the world to find data to support what I already believe.” Research, on the other hand, says, “I will do my best to suspend my biases (although doing so entirely is impossible), and let the world teach me.” It appears that Dr. Shapiro came to my book with his mind made up about what is important about technology. Because of this he missed an opportunity to widen his focus and see the “big picture.” I would have welcomed with an open mind disagreement with the main points of my book. We need such debate. But given that he missed all the main points of my book, this was is not possible.

The Irascible Professor replies: I appreciate Jason's response to my review of his book, which was admittedly rather negative.  However, I disagree with many of the comments that he has made in his rebuttal.  Most importantly, I do not think that I "missed the point" nearly as often as he implies.  Rather, in many cases I don't agree with the point he has tried to make.

I certainly agree with Ohler that technology should be used wisely.  Few would disagree with that view.  However, the difficult question is what constitutes wise use of technology, particularly in the field of teaching and learning.  I'm not at all convinced that the book helps to answer that question.  I also disagree with the notion that every technology engenders both gains and losses that have to be treated in a balanced way.  That is a false dichotomy.  For example, the introduction of smallpox vaccine seems to me to be an example of a medical technology that was all gain.

In any case, I encourage readers of The Irascible Professor to make up their own minds.  Read the book, and let me know what you think.

Printer friendly version

[ home | web rings | links | archives | about ]

The Irascible Professor invites your comments.
©2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.