July 18, 2017 | Academic Affairs

By Roman Kossak

sphere with question marksIn the 2016-2020 CUNY Master Plan,  we read:

Technology affects virtually every aspect of college communications, operations and structures from admissions to advising, from pedagogy and curricula to how research is conducted, disseminated and evaluated. Most important perhaps is that conduct technology has given rise to a generation of students who have never known life without a computer or the internet. CUNY’s students live in a digital world—they are digital learners, immersed in the 21st century media culture. They take in the world (and much of their lives) via the filter of computing devices. The university faces a challenge not just to keep pace withhese realities, but also to appreciate and anticipate the learning experiences that technology enables.

Approaching Technology in the Classroom: Future Shock Now?

This is a very serious challenge. The world has changed, and much of what we do is subject to reevaluation. The pace at which everything is changing can be overwhelming. We are now living in the Future Shock so presciently described by Alvin Toffler in the 1970’s. However, now since we live in it already, fear is not an option.  We need to take a calmer look at what is going on, and to seek for optimal ways to benefit from the newly created technological tools. On the one hand, there is the tempting opportunity to experiment boldly and adopt new methodologies on a mass scale. On the other hand, we need to be cautious, since we do not know how the new technologies will affect our economic and political systems (and so far, what we see on the political horizon is not too encouraging), and we do not know how the constant exposure to algorithmically thinking and acting machines will have on our mental and physical well-being.

Team-Teaching with a Computer?

In addition, we need to be aware of economic pressures. A recent New York Times article How Google Took Over the Classroom, describes how education reform in the U.S. is driven by ideas and marketing policies developed by Google, Apple, and Microsoft. The article is eye opening even for those of us who have closely watched advances in the use of technology in education. Natasha Singer reports: “Today, more than half the nation’s primary, and secondary school students—more than 30 million children —use Google education apps like Gmail and Docs, the company said. And Chromebooks, Google-powered laptops that initially struggled to find a purpose, are now a powerhouse in America’s schools. Today they account for more than half the mobile devices shipped to schools.” The article describes how big makers of hardware and software have made major headway in secondary education, and how the scale of it is raising concerns.

Electronic Devices: Friend?  Or Fiend?

When I commute to work, quite often I am the only person in the crowded subway car who is not looking into a screen of an electronic device. Everyone, regardless of gender, age, or fashion preference is immersed in the virtual world. What do they look at so intensely? What kind of experience is it? Is everyone just quietly killing time on the train, enjoying entertainment or social media interactions? That could be—except that psychologists are warning us that constant immersion in the virtual world is not that benign. Much has been written about it lately. Here is just one article with the title Our dopamine-driven brains are turning us into internet search fiends.  Electronic media are addictive, and are often addictive by design.  More and more, we get to know the world through  its digital representations, and less through real lived experience. Constantly browsing, googling, checking and responding to messages, we hardly have time for anything else.  Soon we will need computer-free sanctuaries, where one can relax, and be with one’s own thoughts, rather than with the constant barrage of attention grabbing images and slogans.

The Disruptions of Technology: Long-Term Effects

In the recently published book, with the ominous title AND: Phenomenology of the End, Franco “Bifo” Berardi writes:

“The universe of receivers–human beings made of flesh, and frail and sensuous organs– is not formatted according to the standards of digital transmitters. Although the neural system is highly plastic, and can mutate according to the rhythm of the infosphere, the format of the transmitter does not correspond to the format of the receiver. So what happens? As the electronic universe of transmission interfaces with the organic world of reception, it is producing pathological effects: panic, over-excitement, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, information overload, and the saturation of neural circuitry… As the amount of information demanding our attention expands, there is less and less time available for elaboration. The technical composition of the world has changed, but the modalities of cognitive appropriation and elaboration cannot adapt to this change in a linear way. The technical environment is changing at a much faster rate than culture, and than cognitive behavior in particular.”

Coming to Terms with Technology

The infosphere is here to stay. In time, we will learn how to use it properly. But harnessing it so that it can help, rather than merely distract, our students will take a serious interdisciplinary effort. In the meantime, we need to exercise caution.

In education, like in many other areas of social life the guiding principle should be: First do no harm.

#TeachingwithTechnology; #InternetDistractions

Roman Kossak is a Professor of Mathematics at Bronx Community College and the City University Graduate Center

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photo: Pixabay stock, CC license, no attribution.