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What is the relationship between computers and learning? And where does school fit in?

Posted by jturner56 on September 13, 2015

I was remind of these questions when I came across Valdemar Setzer’s (2000) Review of Arguments for the Use of Computers in Elementary Education. Drawing on contentions from Papert and Oppenheimer, Setzer calls for a more humane approach to education (no argument from me) and sees computers for learning as something to be left with older learners (debatable). While predating debates on digital-related issues of information singularities, personalised choice and distraction, interestingly it did include Papert’s prediction regarding the impending pressure of home and personal computing on educational reform.

What it raised with me was revisiting the basis on which I view computers in school education. My belief, forged in the 80s, is that through cognitive feedback loops computers can help build stronger relationships with learning through personal ownership connected learning, and meta-cognition (thinking about thinking). Digital constructions at all levels play an important part in evidence of learning. Strongly influenced by Papert, it remains relevant to my contemporary considerations (although the connected part was added later, reflecting the impact of TCP/IP technologies and a belief in Socratic reconceptualisation.)

Like the Book as an extension of personal and social connection with learning and memory, digital can amplify and extend cognitive potential for

  • information access
  • personal and social constructions and publishing
  • personal learning (including motivation and engagement)
  • widening connections

While demanding new approaches to inquiry, adaptability and creativity that embrace digital affordances.

What is your belief built on?

As for the implications for schools, after 30 years we are still debating what digital in school education means. Perhaps Audrey Watters (2015) is right when she points to the ongoing arguments over the purpose of public education regarding “God, country, community, the economy, the self”. Digital is often slanted towards the latter two. Perhaps as Shapiro (2014) notes, we are in ideological battles where the the curmudgeonly old oligarchy defends its kingdom with the promise of “progress,” but offers only more of the same.Depending on one’s view, the system is “stuck”, “constrained”, “impersonal”, “viewed through an industrial prism”or “violating principles of spirit, motivation and naturalness” (CEA 2011).  Yet it endures. Perhaps because of certification defensiveness, social conservatism, justifications of meeting perceived needs (“just needs to improve”), mirroring of social structures, or just plain economic efficiency. Or perhaps because viable alternatives have to date not become embedded to a systemic level and therefore the battleground remains as it was (even while limited “alternative” abound). I see school as a mirror of the society we aspire to, not the other way around.

Education remains at the forefront of the battle for “a future world that is better than the one we live in” (Shapiro 2014). Good teaching remains at the core of this. Digital is significant, but only part of this while schools remain a people business. Long may it do so.


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