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Stone 2011 three views of technology in liberal education


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Stone 2011 three views of technology in liberal education

  1. 1. Three Views of Technology in Liberal Education by Sharon L. M. Stone When thinking of what a well-educated person should know about technology, weusually begin with skills: how to operate the hardware, install the software, download files fromthe Internet, organize documents and messages, and find information through search engines.And when applying technology skills to higher education, we tend to think of certain activitiessuch as writing papers, creating spreadsheets, running statistical tests, and even collaborating onprojects through either network-based or web-based platforms. However, there are other concerns, especially for a student in the liberal arts tradition.These concerns include questions about how humans and machines interact with each other and,perhaps, change each other. How does a person interested in social justice respond to thegrowing digital divide? How dependent should engineers and architects and nuclear physicistsbe on simulation programs? Does that sort of technology make our world safer or moredangerous? In higher education, students need to engage with technology on multiple levels and frommultiple perspectives. A simple orientation to the digital landscape, while still necessary, is nolonger sufficient. The power for learning and collaboration available to students through digitaltechnologies is valuable enough to merit systematic study for the purpose of achieving masteryof these tools; the potential for harm to both individuals and societies as a result of the infusionof technology into our lives, however, should also be examined and understood. This paper willdiscuss how technology issues fit into liberal education from the perspectives of utility, power,and vulnerability, and will make recommendations for essential general education requirementsthat will support student development and undergird their future studies in arts and sciences,graduate school, or professional programs.The scholarship of opportunity As a matter of disclosure, I should note that I have a generally happy relationship withtechnology. However, this was not always the case. When I was growing up, anything related tocomputers was taught in math departments, and I could never find the same fascination withnumbers as I had with words. I avoided elective math classes, but did try a BASIC1programming© Sharon L. M. Stone, 2011
  2. 2. Stone – Three Views of Technology 2class. I never quite understood why everyone else was so electrified by the results of the codewe had written. I came to the conclusion that programming – and all technology – was forpeople more attuned to the mathematical world than I. Then the advent of desktop computers and word processing brought beautiful, wonderfulwords to the computer screen. Now I could see the point of technology. Not only was I able totype, revise, and save documents, I could also write macros thanks to my shallow delving intoprogramming. The computer would obey my wishes, filling in names and addresses at a two-keystroke command. Then came the mouse and Windows and color monitors, and, heaven helpus, the Internet! Graduate school also became a possibility for me because the degree program Iwanted to enter was offered online. So I spent hours at my computer desk in Japan and attendedclass at California State University, learning how to build online educational environments andcollaborating with students from six or eight different time zones. Today the online environment has evolved so that the need for expensive coursemanagement systems is no longer necessary. Or, at least, not as necessary. For a while,Blackboard and WebCT owned the virtual educational landscape by providing platforms whereinstudents and teachers could meet, exchange files, and keep track of grades. However, there werelimitations, usually related to the server space a college needed in order to maintain the platform.The solution to the space problem was – and is – to purge content files a few days after the endof each semester. All discussion transcripts, readings, and submissions simply disappear –unless the users have the foresight to copy and save them to their personal computers. Now, with the advent of what are known as Web 2.0 tools, much of the same educationalactivity that used to require Blackboard can now be done through other means. One of these isthe wiki.2Wikis are flexible and easy to create; they also allow groups to collaboratively writepapers and create presentations. I must admit that I reacted with hostility the first time aprofessor required use of a wiki. I simply could not appreciate the wiki‟s facility forcollaborative writing and editing. I initially resisted the idea of writing text that my classmatescould change or even delete. After all, I wanted to be graded according to my work, mycontributions, and my ideas. If others inserted themselves into my sacred text, how would theprofessor know which of the many voices was mine? The thing I couldn‟t see at the time was the relevance wikis have to the real world. Howoften is my work really my work alone? Students spend a great deal of time working for a grade,© Sharon L. M. Stone, 2011
  3. 3. Stone – Three Views of Technology 3but not learning how to work with others. Content knowledge is important, but it should bebalanced by the wisdom gained from solving problems with other people. This is the sort ofdemocratic pooling of resources originally intended by Ward Cunningham.3 If truth be told, scholarship has always been based on conversations among learners; itjust used to take much longer to share ideas and respond to them. Technology has enormousutility in this regard – that is, its availability, flexibility, and adaptability to a variety of settings.It supports what I call the scholarship of opportunity. I‟ve been able to upload files to awikiduring class to share with my professor and classmates, even though I hadn‟t known aheadof time that those files were going to be relevant to our discussion. In other words, the wikiallowed for spur-of-the-moment integration of learning.Ialso can write papers from severaldifferent computers in short chunks of time as I move from work to class to home. Rather thanwasting ten or fifteen minutes waiting for a meeting to begin, I can access Google Docs, write afew sentences, and leave them in the cloud for future retrieval. This idea of the scholarship of opportunity mimics the old habit of scribbling notes onnapkins, except that the scribbles are already digital. Students today can save time, collaboratewith peers, and generate writing when the ideas are fresh – all thanks to digital technology.However, contrary to popular belief, the current generation of undergraduates – often called“digital natives”4 – really doesn‟t know how to transfer itsconsiderable skill with social media tothe academic environment.5These students need professors to guide them and professors need toacquire competence with digital tools in order to integrate them with the learning experience.The two sides of power The speed and flexibility of digital technology contribute to its utility, but these attributesalso feed into its power. Information is now a global commodity. Being able to find, store,retrieve, and transfer information to the appropriate people in the appropriate settings gives anindividual an enormous amount of power in our society. This can also augment the power he orshe already has. For example, the collaboration discussed above in the context of a single classroom orcampus can also occur across geographical boundaries. It can occur across time zones. With theassistance of translation programs, it can occur across languages. Once, collaboration in thevirtual environment required a great deal of imagination on the part of the participants. Most© Sharon L. M. Stone, 2011
  4. 4. Stone – Three Views of Technology 4discussion took place asynchronously through textual messages. Although this asynchronousformat is still powerful, especially as a bridge across time zones, the human experience of it canseem pretty austere. Now, meeting platforms have video capability and most networkinfrastructures can support the huge amounts of data zipping back and forth between camerasand computer screens. Researchers can collaborate or prepare for joint presentations withoutmeeting in person. This saves money and time, two additional sources of power. The power of technology to support individuals with disabilities also is incredible. I firstencountered this type of power during my master‟s coursework. As I mentioned above, Iattended class from eight thousand miles away and routinely collaborated with fellow students inthe U.S., Europe, and Africa. However, I witnessed the breaking of another barrier the semesterwe had a teaching assistant who was blind. She monitored our discussions,often guiding ourunderstanding of the readings. When we had technical difficulties, she help us troubleshoot tofind a solution. Another person in my classes had multiple disabilities resulting from complications afterbrain surgery. We chatted frequently because he also had taught in Japan and missed livingthere. His disabilities included fine motor difficulties, vision problems, difficulty swallowing,and some cognitive difficulties especially relating to language. However, he finished theprogram with help of both the online format and assistive technology. I met him in person atgraduation. The impression his tenacity made on me has influenced my choice to work withcollege students with disabilities. Yet just as is true with other avenues to power, technology can be used to oppress asreadily as it can be used to liberate. There has been much discussion about the digital divide andthe barriers those without access to technology face with regard to civic involvement oremployment opportunities. The logic of the argument that those without information technologycannot succeed in the information age seems incontrovertible. And, in response, the likes of BillGates and George Lucas6 have sponsored programs aimed at improving schools through gifts oftechnology. The result of such philanthropic efforts has been to change the nature of the digital divideitself. Now the problem is pedagogical and sociological rather than material, where teachers inlower-income districts use technology to fill time rather than to support students‟ creativethinking.7Technology also lends power to malice. Bullying through social media has become a© Sharon L. M. Stone, 2011
  5. 5. Stone – Three Views of Technology 5major concern of parents, educators, and students. Unfortunately, such behavior does notdiminish as studentsage: each of the types of cyberbullyingappearing in schools has also beendocumented on college campuses and in the workplace.8The third problem with the power oftechnology is economic. Technology can allow the relocation of factories or supply lines toother countries; it can, in some cases, even replace individual workers. This can become anirreversible shift as technology evolves and those with no access to it cannot acquire the skillsneeded to use it. Each of these problems involves the ethical dimension of technology. Students in liberaleducation today will soon be leaders in education, law, business, and government. They need tograpple with these issues now so they can understand the ramifications of their decisions in theyears to come. They need to realize that giving computers to schools is not enough when thesociological factors that underlie teacher expectations and practice have not changed. They needto recognize that misinformation and disinformation can harm not only individuals, but thefunctioning of a diverse and accepting society. Finally, they need to weigh the impact of thekinds of business decisions that used to be “tough calls” – but are now immeasurably easierbecause of technology.The soft underbelly Yet, for all of the power it grants, technology also creates a zone of vulnerability. Everyreader of myths or fairy tales knows that a dragon cannot be successfully attacked from above.However, a well-placed strike at the soft underbelly will bring even the most cunning, fearsomedragon to his end. Although fanciful in nature, this metaphor aptly describes our own situation.Because of the power of our technology, we can see everywhere, hear everything, and travel toany place around the globe. And we have become dependent ondigital technology for all theseactivities. Everything today – literally everything – depends on some kind of microchip. This isa dependence that goes beyond any need for electricity. Even if the lights stay on, aninterruption in the network will bring universities, legislatures, hospitals, and armies to a sudden,ungainly stop. We‟ve seen stories in the news recently where entire governments have entered this sortof limbo as the result of cyberattacks by unfriendly neighbors.9Modern hospitals have moved toelectronic record-keeping and depend on networks for appointments, lab tests, x-rays, and even© Sharon L. M. Stone, 2011
  6. 6. Stone – Three Views of Technology 6food service. When a network goes down, doctors cannot prescribe medications. Even anattempt to circumvent the system by writing ink-and-paper prescriptionswill fail because thepharmacy also relies on digital networks for all inventory, tracking, and drug interactioninformation. Banks are equally vulnerable, as are our very identities. Students need tounderstand the gravity of these threats and learn how to guard against them. Students need torealize that e-mail lasts forever, that their whereabouts can be tracked through the photos theypost on Facebook, and that the emergency for which their supposed account administrator needstheir passwords is really a trick to gain control of their personal information. But beyond security issues, some believe continued interaction with digital technology isdangerous to our brains. In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,Nicholas Carr warns that, yes, the medium is the message10 and, further, it alters the thoughtpatterns of the messenger. He offers historical examples of how the advent of pivotaltechnologies changed not only ways of communicating, but also the skills needed to think inways compatible with the new form of communication. For example, Gutenberg changed theglobal economy by making printed books affordable; he also changed societal and educationalpatterns when reading became a common skill. The desktop typewriter transformed every authorinto a printer of sorts, but it also reportedly changed the style of Friedrich Nietzsche from fluid toforceful.11It‟s more than simply exchanging one tool for another. Certain technologies actuallychange the way their users think. The question Carr and others12 raise is this: To what extent are we really the masters ofour creation? Carr has plenty of critics.13 But the truth remains that something is qualitativelydifferent in 21st century society compared to 18th or 19th or even early 20th century society.Perhaps it is better now. But voices like Carr‟s are insistent enough to merit consideration. Arewe really better human beings for all our powerful inventions? Do we control them, or do theycontrol us? Liberal arts students in the 21st century should grapple with the sorts of issues Carrraises.Settling on the best course of action In this paper, I have attempted to show how beneficial, as well as how dangerous,technology can be. A common assumption seems to be that students in the 21st century are soaccustomed to digital technology that they don‟t need guidance in using it for academic© Sharon L. M. Stone, 2011
  7. 7. Stone – Three Views of Technology 7purposes. Another common assumption follows, which is that highly intelligent students cansomehow, perhaps intuitively, navigate the treacherous shoals of cyberspace. Yet students stillfall prey to phishing scams. And they stilllose assignments they insist they submitted becausethey didn‟t understand the inner workings of Blackboard. To overcome these challenges, entering students should be required to take a basictechnology course, perhaps offered in the format of a freshman seminar. This course wouldcover the instructional technology used by their institution, including the course managementsystem, wikis, and blogs. But it would also teach best practices for research in the library‟selectronic databases and how to best organize one‟s files on a personal computer. Studentsshould also learn the basic structure and limitations of networks, so they understand why servicesslow down at certain times. And they should receive in-depth instruction in security measures sothey can protect themselves now, and in the future translate that knowledge to the workplace. In addition, a liberal arts university should require an upper-level course in the ethics oftechnology. In such a course, students would read and discuss the sorts of issues mentionedpreviously, applying theoretical frameworks from various disciplines to problems such asoppression and liberation through technology, the digital divide, globalization aided bytechnology, the economics of technology, and political ramifications of free or restrictedtechnology. This approach would allow for the integration of ideas from students‟ major areas ofstudy with the most current of events. In the end, we must realize that technology does not exist for its own sake. Further, it ismore that just a new tool in the hands of a new generation. It is powerful, useful, and dangerousand merits special consideration by the academic community.1 At the risk of casting doubt on the scholarly value of this essay, I direct the interested to this Wikipedia entry aboutBASIC: later sections need support from citations, the introductoryparagraphs reinforce my observations about the mathematics-based nature of the early technology. Also, see thisearly web page (November 25, 1996) from the University of Michigan-Dearborn web site: Wiki is a term from the Hawaiian wiki-wiki meaning, “quick.” The idea is to create pages anyone, especially non-programmers, can edit so that content can be built quickly and democratically. Take a look at an early wiki historyat may also find the related site, at tobe helpful background reading. Notice that the page design is text-based and quite austere. Today, the availabilityof service providers such as Wikispaces ( gives users the option to create attractivepages that include text, pictures, embedded videos, and podcasts.3 See the site in note 2 above.© Sharon L. M. Stone, 2011
  8. 8. Stone – Three Views of Technology 84 For the digital native/digital immigrant argument, see Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants.Onthe Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.Prensky‟s claim appeals to emotion and intuition yet has little basis in research. Many havecriticized his theory for this reason (see note 5 below).5 For a critique of the digital native/digital immigrant theory, see Bennet, S., Maton, K., &Kervin, L. (2008). The„digital natives‟ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39, 775-786.doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00793.x Also see Hargittai, E. (February 2010). Digital na(t)ives? Variation inInternet skills and uses among members of the “Net Generation.”Sociological Inquiry, 80, 92-113. doi:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00317.x6 Bill and Melinda Gates are strong proponents of a multi-pronged education improvement agenda that includesinnovation (i.e., technology) as well as teacher supports and educational research grants; see their web site fordescriptions of their projects and philosophy at http://www.gatesfoundation.orgGeorge Lucas founded Edutopia 20years ago to support educational improvements, both through technology integration and through other strategiessuch as project-based learning and teacher development. His foundation web site is For a discussion of the “didactic divide” in districts with students of lower socioeconomic status, see Fulton, K., &Sibley, R. (2003). Barriers to equity. In G. Solomon, N. Allen, & P. Resta (Eds.), Toward digital equity: Bridgingthe divide in education (pp. 14-24). Boston: Allyn& Bacon.8 Willard, N. (2010). Educator‟s guide to cyberbullying, cyberthreats& sexting.Center for Safe and ResponsibleInternet Use.Retrieved from Also see the University of Wisconsin law school library web site forresources on campus and workplace cyberbullying: The intertwined economies of countries like the U.S. and India are the subject of this Wall Street Journal blog post: Banks and governmentagencies share this vulnerability. And, because of our interconnectedness, through fiber optics as well as formaltrade agreements, an attack in one location can affect others around the globe. This additional blog entry in theWashington Post highlights the problems security experts face because of the hidden nature of such threats: Carr agrees with Marshall McLuhan‟s dire prediction about the changes electronic media promised, in 1964, tobring to American society. See the original work in an updated volume: McLuhan, M. (2003). Understandingmedia: The extensions of man, critical edition. W. Terrence Gordon (Ed.), Corte Madera, CA: Gingko.11 This observation was made by Nietzsche‟s friend, Heinrich Köselitz, according to Carr. See Carr, N. (2010). TheShallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, New York, NY: W.W. Norton, pp. 17ff.12 Sherry Turkle is a professor of the sociology of technology at MIT and has written extensively on thepsychological and ethical challenges those who work in virtual worlds encounter. In Simulation and Its Discontents,she chronicles the shift in thinking patterns among scientists and designers who began their careers using physicalmodels but now routinely relegate model-building to computers and simulation programs. Turkle, S.(2009).Simulation and Its Discontents, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.13 Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, is one notable example.© Sharon L. M. Stone, 2011