The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

Putt's Law: Technology is dominated by two types of people: Those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand..... ...source unknown.

Commentary of the Day - August 11, 2000: Review of Taming the Beast - Choice & Control in the Electronic Jungle by Jason Ohler.

This slim volume (136 pages) by Jason Ohler, director of the Educational Technology Program at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, is an imperfect attempt to provide guidance in the selection of educational technology.  The book starts out with some promise by relating the author's early experiences in attempting to use "technology creatively, effectively, and wisely".  However, much of the remainder of the book is morose philosophical discourse on the negative aspects of technology in "postmodern" society.

The book suffers from the author's excessive use of "nonlinear" elements that interrupt the flow of the text and detract from the arguments presented.  Unfortunately, a book is not a web page, and the frequent sidebars and  the asides that are interposed in the main text only make it difficult to follow the main argument.  One gets the sense that the author was trying too hard to maintain a "postmodern", deconstructed view of technology.  Most of the arguments made by Ohler depend on either his own opinions or references to the works of other cultural "gurus", rather than on empirical evidence.

While many of the concerns about the effects of technology on society raised by Ohler are important (and likely valid), his treatment lacks balance.  This is partly the result of an overly narrow, backward look at the history of technology.  While the problems created by technology are highlighted, the gains made by society by employing technology largely are ignored.

Like it or not, the use of technology is what has distinguished humans from other animals.  Indeed, without the use of simple technology, early humans would have had a difficult time competing for sustenance.  In our modern age we sometimes feel overwhelmed by the pace at which technology is developing.  However, few of us seem ready to give up the conveniences offered by these technological advances.  What we need, however, is the knowledge to make informed choices about the technology that we choose to use.

This is particularly true in the area of educational technology.  The key question always must be will it help our students to learn more effectively, and do so with a reasonable investment of time and money.  Frequently, these questions cannot be answered well by an a priori philosophically driven examination of the new item of technology.  Instead, they must be answered by direct, empirical tests.  Ohler ends his book with a detailed examination of one such item - the so-called "Ebook".  He uses a lengthy "T-balance" ( just a two column matrix that compares the advantages and disadvantages of various "traits" of the new technology) to analyze the usefulness of Ebooks.  However, this misses the real point.  Namely, will substantial numbers of people prefer Ebooks over traditional books.  Will people find their extra features (those not found in traditional books) sufficiently compelling to make them dominant in the marketplace?  If users do not perceive intrinsic extra value in the Ebook technology, it is bound to fail.  But this is something that can be determined by tests with small but statistically significant sample populations of potential users.

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.
Taming the Beast - Choice & Control in the Electronic Jungle is published by TECHNOS Press (ISBN 0-7842-0873-5)

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© 2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.