It is often stated that technology is merely a tool. The typical argument goes something like this: it’s not the technology itself, it’s what you do with technology that counts. This notion fails to recognize that technology itself embeds a message. Ever since the first personal computers emerged a little over thirty years ago, computer technology has changed education. As Christian educators, we recognize the latent potential in creation for computer technology and how it is a gift from God. However, technology often changes things in subtle ways, and it requires discernment as we decide how technology ought to be used in education.
The book Responsible Technology defines technology as:
A distinct cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God by forming and transforming the natural creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for practical ends or purposes (Monsma 19).
This definition recognizes that technology is a human cultural activity; it is more than just devices, it is what we make of the world (Crouch 23). Second, it recognizes that technology is a response to God, one in which we have both freedom and responsibility. Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, suggests several questions we can ask when evaluating new cultural developments. Two questions in particular acknowledge the extraordinary power of culture (and hence, technology) to “shape the horizons of possibility” (Crouch 29). When it comes to technology, the first question to ask is what does it make possible? And second, what does it make impossible or more difficult? (Crouch 29) With regards to computer technology, most people have no trouble with the first question and identifying all the new possibilities that it brings. A less obvious question is how computer technology will make certain things harder or more difficult. This second question is one you are unlikely to hear at a learning technology conference or from a technology vendor, but it is a critical question to ask.
The second question makes little sense if one views technology as “just a tool.” The view that technology is merely a tool misses the significant point that technology not only has a structure, but also a direction (Wolters 49). The direction of a technology is not merely how the tool is used, but the values it embodies. Neil Postman argues in his book Technopoly that “[e]mbedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another” (Postman 13). In other words, technology is value-laden, and these values make some things possible, while at the same time making others more difficult. These values involve a range of modalities including economic, legal, aesthetic, social, and cultural aspects. Furthermore, we are gradually shaped as certain ways of thinking and knowing are amplified and others are muted. In the oft-quoted words of Marshall McLuhan, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
McLuhan went even further when he coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” This aphorism emphasizes the fact that the values embedded in technology are far more significant than any content they may carry. This is not just the case for computer technology, but applies equally to older technologies like the television, automobiles, and the printed word. For example, the printed word as a medium has profoundly shaped education. But the content often distracts us from the values that are sculpting us as we use a technology, be it printed word or something else. McLuhan put it this way, “the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” (McLuhan 18).
Some have gone even further by suggesting that technology is not a choice, but rather a requirement. Postman dubbed this idea technopoly, the submission of everything to the sovereignty of technology (Postman 52). Jacques Ellul wrote that “it is not in the power of the individual or the group to decide to follow some method other than the technical” (Ellul 84). This so-called technological imperative suggests that once technological developments are underway, they can be unstoppable.
The definition of technology given earlier suggests that technology is not an autonomous force, but something for which we have both freedom and responsibility. However, the attitude of the technological imperative does manifest itself when educators are pressured to adopt computer technology simply for its own sake or just because “we need to keep up.” I wince when I hear pedagogical decisions being made as if we have no choices because “that’s what is used in industry,” as if students were nothing more than little office-workers-in-training.
A recent flurry of writings citing new research seems to indicate that voices like Postman and McLuhan were more prophetic than many realized. In his recent book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, leading neuroscientist Gary Small explores how digital media appears to be changing the very structure of our brains. The digital revolution has “plunged us into a continuous state of partial attention,” and in this state people “no longer have time to reflect, contemplate, or make thoughtful decisions” (Small 18). In a widely-read article, Nicholas Carr reflects on what the web has made more difficult: “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” 57). Carr developed his ideas further in a book entitled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In this book, he observes that we are turning into “pancake people—spread wide and thin as we connect with a vast network of information” (196). His book draws on dozens of studies by neurobiologists and educators who all point to the same conclusion: “When we go online we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning” (115–6). Carr acknowledges that it’s possible to be thinking deeply on the Net, “but that’s not the type of thinking that the technology encourages and rewards” (116). When it comes to online research, readers don’t tend to read carefully; they simply scan for the low-hanging fruit of information.
A 2009 study at Stanford University investigated the effects of multitasking, a common mode of operating with students who are “digital natives.” Contrary to the general impression that multitasking can be productive, the study concluded that multitaskers were much more distracted by “irrelevant environmental stimuli” (Ophir et al. 15583). Their conclusions found that intensive multitaskers are “sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information” (15585). Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich couched this finding more succinctly: We are “training our brains to pay attention to the crap” (Carr, “The Web Shatters Focus”).
Another 2009 research study investigated the effects of screen-based technology in education. According to their research, screen-based technology improves “visual-spatial skills,” while at the same time it weakens “deep processing” and “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection” (Greenfield 69). Certain types of knowing are enhanced, but at the expense of other ways of knowing.
These kinds of findings bring new meaning to the words of Psalm 115. This psalm warns about idols, indicating that who trust in them will become like them (v. 8). An undiscerning trust in digital technology will gradually mold us (and our students) into patterns of thought that mirror that of a computer. As this happens, we gradually lose our abilities to contemplate, reflect, and rest. Once again, we may shape our machines, but they will also shape us.
Some independent schools have chosen intentionally to limit the use of computers by younger students. The Waldorf Education Web site states that “the appropriate age for computer use in the classroom and by students is in high school.” As a rationale, they claim it is more important for students to “interact with one another and with teachers in exploring the world of ideas.” Likewise, the Steiner Australia Education Web site states that “Computer skills of all types are becoming more necessary in today’s world, but we don’t believe it’s appropriate or relevant for children to become involved with them from a young age.”
How can Christian schools offer a responsible and distinctive approach to technology use? First, we need to avoid the pitfall of being “one-eyed prophets,” seeing only the good or the bad in new technologies (Postman 5). Christian schools also need to resist the pressure of a technological imperative, and instead start by asking what we may gain and what we may lose with new technologies. Students should have variation in their media diet, since each media amplifies some things more loudly than others. Students should not only be taught with media, but also about media and its hidden messages. Even so, it is frequently difficult to discern the message and impact of new technologies. In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, author Jamie Smith makes a strong case that we are not just “brains on sticks,” but rather lovers who are directed by our hearts. Our hearts, in turn, are shaped by practices and everyday “liturgies” (Smith 88). These liturgies include our technology habits and practices. We need to be vigilant about the many powerful and subtle ways technology shapes us.
We can be thankful for computer technology and for the many things it makes possible. However, we need a posture of humility as we muddle through the unexpected issues that will almost certainly accompany new digital technologies. We can also learn from each other, as schools share best practices, and lessons learned from not-so-good practices. Rather than passively allowing the messages in digital technologies to shape and sculpt us, we need to keep the primary purpose of Christian education in mind: to be intentional about shaping hearts and minds for service in God’s kingdom.
- Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic Monthly. July/August (2008): 56–63.
- Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
- Carr, Nicholas. “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains”, 24 May 2010, Wired Magazine, 3 December 2011, <http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_nicholas_carr/>.
- Crouch, Andy. Culture-Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
- Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. New York: Vintage Books, 1964.
- Greenfield, Patricia M. “Technology and Informal Education: What Is Taught, What Is Learned.” Science 323.5910 (2009): 69–71.
- McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.
- Monsma, Stephen (ed.). Responsible Technology: A Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986.
- Ophir, Eyal, et al. “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106.37 (2009): 15583–7.
- Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
- Small, Gary. iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. New York: William Morrow, 2008.
- Smith, Jamie. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.
- “Stiener Education Overview”, Stiener Schools Australia. 3 December 2011. <http://www.steiner-australia.org/other/overview.html>.
- “Waldorf Education: Frequently Asked Questions”, Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. 3 Dec. 2011. <http://www.whywaldorfworks.org/02_W_Education/faq_about.asp>.
- Wolters, Albert. Creation Regained. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985.