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Book Review: 'Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology'

By Jenna McWilliams / November 2009

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"Our fear is that social cohesion and equity inherent in the promise of public schooling will be undermined by (the Knowledge Revolution)."

Allan Collins and Richard Halverson make this statement early on in their fascinating, but ultimately somewhat short-sighted book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America (2008).

This fear comprises the lynchpin of the authors' thesis: that new media technologies are changing how, where, and why learning happens as well as what role schools play in that learning. The results of this shift, according to the authors, aren't good.

The premise of the book is this: that formal schooling has had a good run, but the valued practices and content established inside of education is increasingly contradictory to the practices and skills required for successful engagement with an increasingly collaborative, interest-driven, and participatory culture.

The authors divide stakeholders who are engaged with this issue into two distinct camps: The "technology enthusiasts," who believe new media technologies can and will transform education as we know it, and the "technology skeptics," who believe the culture of schooling is so deeply inscribed into its very structure, and so nearly immutable, that integration of participatory practices into schools based on an antiquated industrial-era model of learning and knowing is nigh impossible.

The technology skeptics, they write, believe:

"that schools will not change in the face of new technologies. The school system has become locked in place, making it difficult to change the core practices without disturbing the current equilibrium. So the skeptics feel that new technology, although it will be adopted for the library or media center and for tech prep and computer science courses, is not likely to penetrate the core of schooling."

The authors are not detached observers intent on chronicling a cultural phenomenon. They present enthusiasts as uncritical utopians who embrace a Field of Dreams approach to new media—"If you build it, they will come."

Skeptics, on the other hand, are the pragmatic and reflective ones. They have removed their rose-colored glasses. They are educational idealists mugged by reality.

It takes all kinds.

How Schools Fight the Movements
There's good reason to approach these issues with deep skepticism. As the authors point out, the school system is deeply complex, with components existing in mutual interdependence. "Once established, it is often difficult to move a complex system from its equilibrium."

The authors highlight three strategies developed by school institutions to deal with threats to their equilibrium.

1. Condemn the technologies. The American Federation of Teachers condemned technology in the 1950s when it declared it was "unalterably opposed to mass education by television as a substitute for professional classroom techniques."

2. Co-opt the technologies. If that doesn't work, co-opt the technologies by integrating only the elements that fit within the organization and intended outcomes as already established. The authors say this strategy is what drives drill-and-kill programs, such as Math Blaster, which schools have taken up readily. Math Blasters and its ilk reinforce the long-established learning objectives of traditional math programs.

3. Marginalize the technologies. By allowing teachers to create "boutique programs alongside of the general school context," technologies are marginalized. The value of this approach is that it allows schools to appear to concede to the push toward new content without altering the foundational elements of the school system.

The Inside Man
The authors' analysis of how, when, and why schools refuse to shift to meet new cultural needs is by leaps and bounds the most valuable section of this book—and their take on how schools resist change is made more salient by the fact that Collins, a professor Emeritus of education and social policy at Northwestern University, has been a key figure in educational research for more than 40 years.

But Collins and Halverson are more than pessimists. They approach what they call the "Digital Revolution" with trepidation and anxiety that borders on phobia. They take up the mantle of people like Robert Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone bemoans the loss of community, democracy, and civic engagement.

Collins and Halverson argue that the emergence of interest-based online affinity spaces is resulting in a cultural "fracturing" as a result of which "citizenship and social cohesion goals are likely to be undermined." What's more, the emergence of new media technologies and accompanying practices portends an increase in unequal access to education and opportunity. "Technology so far," the duo writes, "has been a force for increasing inequality rather than decreasing inequality."

They explain:

"It is clear that public schooling has produced a much more tolerant society, where people encounter many different ideas and types of people. Will this all be cut short by the Balkanization of education?

To buy into this concern, you have to agree with the premise that formal education is the cure for, instead of an additional cause of, social inequity. You have to accept on its face the assertion that "[a] major goal of education has been to extend students' horizons." You can't be the kind of person, for example, whose immediate reaction is to retort, "But which students? Whose horizons? And with what kinds of learning materials? Who gets to decide what counts as learning?"

I'm not afraid to set myself firmly in the enthusiasts' camp, though I take issue with the authors' depiction of us as overwhelmingly optimistic, utopian idealists. Many enthusiasts are deeply skeptical about the goals and failures of formal schooling, and we therefore see great value inherent in the new practices emerging around new technologies.

We know, after all, that schools embrace the kinds of discourses that align with the goals of the dominant cultural groups. In America, those groups include white, middle class men, and the extent to which students can align their interactions to those embraced by the dominant cultural group is exactly the extent to which they can "succeed" at school. As for the rest, well, there's always vocational school or open-enrollment community college.

The funny thing is that Collins and Halverson appear to feel the same way. It's not that they believe schools are inherently fair or even the best we can do; it's just that the alternative—the social upheaval implied in a full cultural embrace of the digital revolution—is far worse.

Near the end of the book, Collins and Halverson say, "Even those of us who don't embrace technology in our lives now must understand the possibilities of the new technologies from the inside, if we want to guide the future of education." But it's impossible to understand the technologies from the inside if you don't, won't, or can't embrace the valued mindsets emerging around those technologies, and this is a step they appear unwilling to take.

Comments

  • Tue, 16 Feb 2010
    Post by Ehud zamir

    Im a great believer on involving tech and elearning in education. Here are some interesting papers about e-learning: http://www.wepapers.com/navigate/774/Online_Education_and_E-Learning

  • Sun, 29 Nov 2009
    Post by Jenna McWilliams

    Jon--I know! I've been a big fan of Halverson's work, which is partly why I felt so let down by the book. I was looking forward to a text that toed the cutting edge, a text that pulled its readers toward a future we have barely envisioned.

  • Sun, 22 Nov 2009
    Post by Jon Aleckson

    Jenna you may have unleashed a debate here. Professor Rich Halverson has been very involved in using technology to help teachers teach and student learn in new ways. He is a "technology enthusiast." Maybe the authors should be criticized for not being clear about their own views, but you definitely got their motives wrong. The Postman comparison went too far!

  • Sun, 22 Nov 2009
    Post by Lisa Gualtieri

    Allan Collins, one of the authors of Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, responsed to this review at http://blog.acm.org/elearn/

  • Sat, 21 Nov 2009
    Post by Peter Shea

    The authors seem to have inherited Neil Postman's pessimism about the baleful effects of post-industrial technology.