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§ 3. Saturation and Education

One of the underlying assumptions in the technology transfer currently underway in the developing nations around the globe, especially in terms of furthering economic and educational development, that being that computers are vital to education, is increasingly under scrutiny back in the industrialized world. Here in Canada, where we seem to pride ourselves on being one of the most reliant in world on computer-aided education and communication, recent studies have begun to show an undeniable downside to placing computers in the classroom. Obviously in terms of education, literacy and skills, we in the West are suffering from a vastly different sets of problems than in most of the world.

Much of Africa is suffering from a flight of its best and brightest to Europe or the US, leaving behind a serious shortage of technical and educational skills. Straight-forward literacy, never mind computers, are the major priority of many of the developing nations when it comes to educating their next generation. Returning for a moment to the question of quality educators, however, its ironic that many parts of the US suffer a related problem. Just as in much of the developing world, in the affluent US, there are simply far too many children to teach given the pool of available teachers. The priority and respect given the educating field (particularly in K-12 schools) for the past few decades has meant most next generation of potential teachers opted long ago to pursue other career paths. 1 The result, in California, as in the Philippines, as in Sri Lanka, there is the desperate and mounting need for tens of thousands of teachers, and no one seems to have a clear idea where they will come from. For the poor countries, they cannot afford to educate the teachers themselves (or keep them from leaving when they can) while in the rich countries potential instructors do not see the profession as suitably rewarding. 2

In Canada, happily for the time being, there seems to a balance between the available pool of qualified, credentialed instructors and the funds available to pay them, and while the Federal government tends to push education as a priority, most of the additional funding seems to be earmarked (not surprisingly) for more computers, not more teachers. Student-teacher ratios continue to climb as a result. This brings the matter back to the way information and knowledge is now increasingly and rigidly framed by expensive technologies. A study conducted by the Angus-Ried group in September found that Canada came second in the world, behind only Sweden, in terms of student Web access (74% had access at school, 71% from home). Industry Canada's SchoolNet project stated, in conjunction with the study, it aimed to have 250,000 Net-connected computers in Canadian schools by 2001. 3 The three teachers quoted in the story were all enthusiastic about the move. Three months after that poll appeared however, a study conducted by Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology at Simon Fraser University found conclusively "a computer in the classroom disrupts the learning process by elbowing aside traditional teaching techniques ...a computer is merely a new medium...it has no special power in and of itself to turbo-charge the learning process." 4 The author of the report found, after studying 25 schools in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Atlantic Canada, and speaking to parents, teachers and administrators, that almost everywhere 'teachers are being re-deployed from teaching to network administration...that's probably not a good idea." 5

§ 4. The Prioritizing of Information

In the end, as the history of emergent information technologies has shown, human choices have been the constant to shape and sway the priorities of research and the applications of our global networks. What information we privilege along those lines (or whether we need all these technologies in the first place, given some human environments) will depend on where we set the priorities. Education, in this concluding chapter, is for the most part is (or should be for the economic and political reasons stated above) a universal concern. If knowledge and information access increasingly govern a citizen's viable place and participation in the world, then without proper use of education resources and strategies there can only be dire consequences both at home and abroad.

One Canadian critic of educational policy Heather-jane Robertson, who wrote extensively in her 1998 book No More Teachers, No More Books: The Commercialization of Canada's Schools , that one of the most grievous mistakes in setting priorities for resource allocation was the belief that "access to an increasing quantity of information is the same thing as thinking and learning," and "information equals knowledge wisdom and possibly virtue." She goes on to argue that is seems hopelessly naive to believe 'kids join street gangs or work in factories or use drugs because they lack a search engine or database'. Robertson asserts there is a latent assumption in the way information technology is packaged and marketed, whereby one is 'empowered' or 'liberated' by the mere presence of the device or software itself. Software packages titled Freedom, Enliven or Flash all share this sense, as do the slogans which market products, Microsoft's 'Where do you want to go today?™' being the most obvious example.

The overwhelming push for technological integration raises countless other issues: the notion of copyright and proprietary information vs. the free circulation ideas or the widening threats made possible to individual privacy, political dissent and civil liberties are just two examples of which there is a massive literature. Yet intellectual property and privacy are in many ways Western entitlements, even luxuries, which have emerged from cultures and economies affluent enough to support the ideas behind them. Basic quality education is the first rung on any ladder out of poverty, and that holds true whether the child is in a school without electricity in Malaysia or a inner-city high school in Chicago. When governments around the world (after being exposed to massive corporate lobbying and marketing) begin pushing almost universally for massive expenditures in technology (not teachers or books or programs or food) for schools, then a serious examination of priorities has to be undertaken. 7 There is nothing inevitable, pre-determined or indisputable about the place of technology either in our schools or in our lives, but it is in the interest of the information industry to make it seem so.

In the end, the private sector forces which are now so heavily influencing education, publishing, cultural and information policy have long settled any question of commodification. There is no little doubt that there is money to be made in the sale and packaging of information which in many cases used to be free - a booming business in marketing databases and on-line client directories (with data largely amassed from phone books and government statistical reports) is only one example. The question is do we, as a society, want to turn the education of children and the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next, or one culture to the next, over to the same on-line data barons? This may sound dramatic, but hopefully the situation outlined above is sufficiently dire to warrant some caution. Recalling the hierarchy of epistemology proposed earlier, we have already seen the corporate world chew through two steps of the chain - data marketing in the early 60s and 70s, then information, in the 1980s and early 1990s. The IT giants are now beginning to take serious eye of the 'knowledge and wisdom' sectors of our society, primarily education and culture, which has led to the birth of 'knowledge management' software and strategies. Yet knowledge and wisdom, as we all must intuitively know, are not machine driven, they are human processes based on internalizing outside observations and reflecting upon them in the right environment. They are, in other words, the purvey of educators. Not computers.
1 Louis Uchitelle, "Making Sense of a Stubborn Education Gap," New York Times, July 23, 2000, Sunday edition, A1, A3.

2 The dismal level of respect, funding or priority given to education has also arguably spread through several generations of youth. Harper's reports the average number of words in the written vocabulary of a 6-14 American child in 1945 was 25,000. Today, the average is 10,000. ("Harper's Index", Harper's, June 2000, 11) Americans are not alone in this problem apparently, as British companies like Marks and Spenser are now spending millions of pounds to hire teachers who will tutor their employees on basic grammar, spelling and punctuation. See "British business at a loss for words: bosses fret over decline in basic writing skills," Globe and Mail, July 22, 2000, A17B.

3 Krista Foss, "Canadians at forefront of Web use in schools," Globe and Mail, September 11, 2000, A1.

5 Editorial Board, "Three R's - no computers," National Post, December 2, 2000, A17.

6 Ian Bailey and Mary Vallis, "Computers Disrupt Classrooms," National Post, December 1, 2000, A1, 9.

7 Heather-Jane Roberston, No More Teachers, No More Books: The Commercialization of Canada's Schools (Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1998), 98.

8 Again, Robertson's book has to be credited for its amazing scope and sense. Whether she tells the sad tale of Malay schools tying to connect to the Internet before they have reliable electricity, or about computers shipped into a classroom just before a Presidential visit, and they just as quickly removed after the media have departed, her sources are exhaustive. Heather-jane Roberston, "Technology in the School", No More Teachers, No More Books …, pp.121-162.

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