Extra Credit Reading Assignment

This optional but reading and participating is extra credit. However, I’d encourage you to read it as I think you will find it interesting. You might even enjoy the whole book.

Below is a PDF of 2 chapters from a book entitle The Difference Engine: Computing, Knowledge, and the Transformation of Learning by Eugene Provenzo. The whole book is interesting, if a bit weird, but these two chapters in particular offer something of a counterpoint to our discussion thus far. So far, the majority of this course has focused on the potential for technology to transform the learning experience when used properly. We have focused our attention on understanding and defining the nature of proper uses and how to recognize and develop them. However, I am of the opinion that while technology does offer powerful opportunities its use is not neutral. In other words, there are potential hidden costs that we should be aware of. Ideally, these costs will be minimal with transforming uses, but that is not a guarantee and it’s unlikely all uses are or will be transforming.

I suspect that modern society is at a crossroads. We entered this crossroad around the turn of the millennium and it will take us about 20-25 years to figure out where we are heading. As we are near the midpoint of this journey, it is possible to look at what has transpired over the past decade or so and being to make predictions about the future. If you have been paying attention, it’s not hard to see that technology is greatly reshaping our world. People are becoming more connected but not always in personal ways. We are inundated with information that we largely have to ignore. We are increasingly distracted and there is evidence to suggest that how we access and filter all this information is actually rewiring our brains (see Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains for an interesting take on this). None of this is necessarily bad. Our cultural evolution may simply be heading in an unfamiliar direction which will ultimately become both normal and familiar (E. M. Forester’s short story “The Machine Stops” describes such a society though not in a very positive light).

As we wind down the course, this last reading assignment offers an alternative view of technology. It is merely food for thought. It is NOT intended to call into question whether or not we should be using technology at all, but to remind us that technology is not neutral and that we should be cognizant of hidden messages and how a technological interface can color, or even impede, learning experiences.

As a whole, the book seeks to define how the Internet and hypermedia tools combine to create the difference engine and its role in how we access and process information in the digital age. Anyone interested in understanding the potential broader implications of technology and in particular its impact on society and education should read the entire book. For now, we will look at chapters 5 and 6. Sorry for the quality. Not sure where that line came from.

Post your reflection by 12/1 for credit.

Difference Engine chaps 5&6


4 thoughts on “Extra Credit Reading Assignment

  1. I found this reading very interesting and especially liked the short story The Machine Stops by Forester. It was a very inthralling read and I could almost imagine the world that was described as a reality. The son in the story is constantly fighting the world that is underground and completley dependant on “the machine”. The mother is perfectly satisfied with the idea that the machine is her religion and life. I think that the same case exists in our society now in the way that some people are enthralled and satisfied to become so dependant on technology while others are skeptical and defy against it. I love that the reading brought about a concept that the future will be so entertwined with technology. I have done some reading prior to this class about how the internet can rewire brain activity. So when we discussed the ways to use technology in a healthy manner and combine it with 21st century thinking I gave a sigh of relief. in chapters 5 and 6 the message I got was that too much technology or the imporper use of technology can take over the natural learning process. But if technology is used in a good and tranforming way it can enhance brain activity and maybe it is not so bad that our brains are changing it seems like an evolution not a regress in humanity to me.

    • That was my takeaway as well. Good and purposeful uses of tech should result in positive outcomes. However, I remain skeptical that society in general is following good and proper approaches. In the absence of good teaching about the pros and cons of tech, I see society going slowly down the path of “The Machine Stops”.

  2. I think these chapters force us to ask some realistic and serious questions about tech and society. We need to ask these questions. Not so we can hole up in an analog shell and shun the digital world, but so we can figure out how to tap into the power of technology without selling our souls. Everyone, especially students, needs to learn what it means to put information online – both how they divulge information (intentionally and not) and how they access and use information. People complain that technology is making us less human and less connected, but in some ways it is doing the opposite. We are more connected, in different ways, and much less private. People choose to put a lot online that in the pre-digital world people didn’t want to share.

    As many of our authors have suggested, there isn’t much value in teaching what students can look up, Along these lines, I overheard some students on the way to work today. They were discussing their “stupid” teacher who assigns lots of points to “pointless” activities. They had to do some compare/contrast chart and one student said he just looked it up online and copied it. We would probably call that cheating, but for the digital student it’s dealing with pointless work in the most efficient way. We need to make sure we are teaching in ways that have a point. If students can just look it up then how much of a point is there? The true test of the 21st century teacher is to design learning opportunities that require students to look up and use important information but for reasons that go well beyond just finding/knowing the information. My daughter had to memorize the first 20-some elements on the periodic table recently. Why? When I asked I was told scientists need to know this. I’m sure they do but they end up remembering important details that they frequently use but they also know how to use resources and look up stuff when it’s needed. An 8th grader doesn’t need to be able to recall this information as they can easily look it up when they need to use it. It’s not even in the standards – memorizing the periodic table. And this is a school that claims to do standards-based grading but recall of details not connected to the standard can’t possibly be standards-based.

    I think the definition of “smart” is changing. It’s not about knowing details, it’s about knowing how to access and use information in innovative ways to solve problems. The former will win some money on Jeopardy. The latter will cure cancer, solve the energy problem, send people to Mars and beyond, create new devices for less invasive surgery, design new tech gadgets to make our life even better, etc. They will also be the garbage truck driver who figures out a better way to route trucks or the tech support person who can drop the script, listen to what you say and offer up a solution. In other words, people who can think, act and solve

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