Correlation, No Causation, in Observed Changes in Education / by Jack Viere

Thomas and Brown write as though there were a self-apparent change in the 20th and 21st centuries, specifically in the context of education. “What happens to learning when we move form the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the twenty-first century, where technology is constantly creating and responding to change? The answer is  surprisingly simple.” Well, I simply disagree. Not only is this question self-fulfilling in that obviously, a fluid infrastructure is preferable and effective to the assumed stability found in the 20th century, but what other assumptions are Thomas and Brown operating under? Their subsection called “Sam’s Story” epitomizes the early 2000s ubiquitous techno-optimism I ranted about last week. Where is the data that shows a connection between effectiveness in learning and new forms of media like Scratch?

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Carnes writes, “Last fall [of 2010], President Obama warned that the United States could not succeed in a global economy so long as it ranks as low as 12th in the percentage of young adults with college degrees. ‘We've done OK in terms of college-enrollment rates,’ he explained, but ‘more than a third of America's college students’ fail to earn degrees.” In other words, if adults with college degrees is an acceptable proxy to measure effective in learning for Carnes, then how have new cultures of learning positively impacted this conceivably measurable change? I admit that new types of media require new ways of learning in some instances. But does that translate into a paradigmatic shift in how we learn? I don’t think so.

Out of the “Four things lecture is good for,” I agree with Talbert that “sharing cognitive structures” is soundly dependent on the lecture style of education. But the successes of modeling thought processes, giving context, and telling stories are not solely dependent on the lecture style. That’s just my opinion, but in any case, these three styles (and even sharing cognitive structures) presumably work well in other alternative, non-lecture styles of education. The uses and abuses of technology are just one of these alternatives.

The general assumption of this week’s readings posits that technology somehow unprecedentedly changes education in ways that non-lecture styles of education were not able. I disagree with this assumption, primarily because the “somehow” is widely left unexplained. Moreover, the assumption operates in the limited realm of “new technology requires new ways of learning.” This is different than arguing that new technology causes a paradigmatic shift in how we learn. I would accept the former assumption as true--returning to what Thomas and Brown call surprisingly simple--of course you need a new learning manual to operate your new iPhone for the first time. But just because everyone has an iPhone now does not mean that the change in the United States’ ranking in the global economy, nor college graduation rates, can be attributed to the wide-sweeping social phenomenon of “new media.” Assuming that these rates are proxies of education, regardless of whether or not they go up or down, there can only be a loose correlation made on a macro level between tech’s effectiveness on education.

Look, another way of understanding my skepticism is to consider the “tragic” scene of walking into an undergraduate classroom where all the students are on their laptops and phones (as Allia Griffin puts it). I have discussed this pre-class scene several times before. While I did not live during the pre-internet/pre-smartphone era, I have been told by plenty of professors who did live during that lost “Golden Age” when students still had newspapers, books, and other forms of distraction that kept them from talking to one another. (Or perhaps people were always just unfriendly and the sinister, nefarious consequences of digesting social media only make that social truth more plain than it was before). Yes, there will always be an anecdotal life experience that contradicts this perspective, but this doesn’t seem to be any different than people who claim that on an individual level, there are serious changes taking place when we consume digital media. Other than the simple fact that change is in fact taking place, there isn’t some sort of new culture of learning in this century that polarizes us from the previous one.

We’re not somehow smarter or more effective at learning just because we all have access to iPhones....