2.1: Chapter Introduction
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Information technology exerts strong and active influences on the humans who experience it. In this chapter, I explore those effects and describe how they define aspects of economic, political, and cultural life as well as the schools that reflect those realities.
What we think, how we think, and what types of thinking we value depend largely on the nature of the information technology we experience. The effects of information technology on human cognition are so deep that many are unaware of the degree to which it affects us, or even that it affects us at all. Scholars refer to such deeply embedded aspects of civilizations as paradigm mediums. Brad Mehlenbacher (2010), a scholar at North Carolina State University, observed, “Once these developments are in place, it becomes exceedingly difficult to disentangle them from predictions about the future” (p. 7), and he continues, they “form the very core of our systems for understanding, conceptualizing and promulgating knowledge” (p.7). For individuals whose experience is immersed in these paradigm mediums, they determine what is expected of other people and what will comprise the environment they perceive to be natural.
Humans tend to become aware of the effects of paradigm mediums only during those periods when they change in significant ways or when they are replaced. The current generation of educators is working at the historical moment when digital information consumed on screens is replacing print information consumed on paper, and we are observing changes cognition and education similar to those observed throughout history when paradigm mediums changed. The strategic goals that focus efficacious IT management in schools will be grounded in emerging paradigm mediums and intended to allow students to participate in a world that is dominated by digital information. In this chapter, I explore the nature of the influences of information technology on society and its schools. Understanding the nature and extent of these influences will prepare school IT managers to articulate strategic and logistic goals that accurately reflect the technology-rich nature of society. The role of microcomputers in curriculum and instruction has been debated since they first arrived in schools; some educators advocate for quick adoption of every new tool while others advocate for avoiding digital technology altogether. Disparate perceptions of emerging information technologies among educators is not a new phenomenon. In his 2011 book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, James Gleick noted that Plato criticized those who sought to teach writing when he observed, “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom” (p 30). The wisdom of Plato did not require writing. Gleick goes on to quote Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century philosopher, who commented on preliterate cultures (those that lack writing), “There was no method: that is to say, no planting of knowledge by itself, apart from weeds and common plants of error and conjecture” (p. 49). For Hobbes, no writing meant no wisdom. In the time between Plato and Hobbes, writing expanded throughout society, it disrupted patterns of information use, and redefined what it meant to be “educated.” Plato perceived writing as a degradation of human skills, so he rejected the emerging information technology and recommended that others reject it as well. In this, Plato lost. We can predict similar loss for those who advocate we avoid the technologies emerging today.
We are in the midst of a disruption similar to that caused by writing, and literacy skills that have been useful for generations are no longer sufficient. My grandfather graduated from the University of Vermont in 1939 and I have some of his textbooks on my bookshelves along with the textbooks I used while an undergraduate student at the same institution 49 years later. The content of the textbooks (we both studied biology) is vastly different, but the literacy skills useful for his books were equally useful for mine (including our shared habit of writing in our textbooks). While alternatives to print media have always played a minority role in curriculum, digital media are increasingly the mode of content, and are coming to dominate in some content areas. In a 2014 report on National Public Radio (Kestenbaum, 2014), the growing trend of publishers replacing printed textbooks with digital versions was detailed. Publishers are motivated by the single use nature of digital texts; each student who enrolls in a course must purchase access to digital textbooks whereas students can recycle printed textbooks until the professor adopts a new one.
The emergence of computers and other digital devices, the information accessed through them, and the capacity to rapidly manipulate information using them is challenging deeply held beliefs about cognition and learning. It is no longer tenable to argue that technology is marginal to the curriculum, nor is it tenable to use computers and associated technologies as an add-on to the curriculum to be used for enrichment purposes. It is only through using digital technologies to access, manipulate, create, and disseminate information that students fully participate in 21st century society. Because this shift from print to digital information is still incomplete and the technologies are still emerging, strategic goals for schools will be actively renegotiated to reflect changing technologies and associated societal expectations into the future.