Superhighway or Road to Nowhere




What impact, if any, is the use of computers and other digital technologies having on the
learning process of today’s student? To what extent or degree are we as teachers responsible, or
should be responsible, for the ‘proper’ integration of technology into our classrooms? Research
and inquiry into this realm have proposed both positive and negative aspects to computer versus
traditional learning. There are, without question, cultural and educational benefits and dangers of
technology and computer usage for students. As educators, we have a significant role to play in
ensuring equal access to technology, and in realizing its full educational and creative potential.
Public debate about the impact of new digital technologies have been marked by a kind of
schizophrenia which often accompanies the advent of new cultural forms. On the one hand, these
new forms are seen to have enormous positive potential, particularly for learning; on the other,
they are frequently seen to be harmful to those who are regarded as particularly vulnerable. In
both cases, it is children - or perhaps more accurately, the idea of childhood - which is the vehicle
for many of these aspirations and concerns.
This was certainly apparent in the early years of television. Amid current fears about the
impact of television violence, it is interesting to recall that television was initially promoted to
parents as an educational medium. Likewise, in the 1950s and 1960s, television and other new
electronic technologies were widely seen to embody the future of education: they were described
as ‘teaching machines’. Even here, however, hopes of a utopian future were often balanced
against fears of loss and cultural decline. Television was seen both as a new way of bringing the
family together, and as something which would undermine natural family interaction. The
medium was extolled as a means of nurturing children’s emotional and educational development,
and simultaneously condemned for taking them away from more wholesome or worthwhile
activities.
This kind of schizophrenia is also apparent in contemporary responses to digital
technology. On the one hand, there is a form of visionary utopianism, particularly among
educationists. Seymour Papert, the inventor of ‘logo’ programming language, for example,
argues that computers bring about new forms of learning, which transcend the limitations of
older methods, particularly linear methods such as print and television (Papert, 1993). It is
children who are seen to be most responsive to these new approaches: the computer somehow
releases their natural creativity and desire to learn, which are blocked and frustrated by old-
fashioned methods. According to Papert, the computer is ‘the children’s machine’.
Such utopianism is also increasingly popular in the area of literacy. Some writers, for
example argue that digital technology will bring about a new form of democratic literacy. It will
bring the means of expression and communication within everyone’s reach, and thereby
‘enfranchise the public imagination in genuinely new ways’. This leads in turn to what might be
called a form of political utopianism. Jon Katz (1996), for instance, regards the Internet as a
means of children’s liberation: it provides children with opportunities to escape from adult
control, and to create their own cultures and communities. “For the first time’, he argues,
‘children can reach past the suffocating boundaries of social conventions, past their elders’ rigid
notions of what is good for them’. It is children, according to Katz, who will ‘lead the
revolution’.
This utopian view forges a connection between a particular mythological construction of
childhood and a parallel mythology about technology, which is powerfully reflected in
advertising for computers. Ads for Apple Macs or Microsoft work hard to counter popular views
of technology as somehow unnatural or inhuman, and therefore threatening. They often focus not
on the scientific specifications, but on the magical promise of the technology: the computer is
represented here as a window onto new worlds, a way of developing children’s intuitive sense of
wonder and their thirst for knowledge.
In this respect, there are striking parallels between the new age utopianism of some
academic writing about computers and the rhetoric of the sales pitch. What is perhaps more
disturbing is how these arguments have been taken up by politicians and policy-makers.
Representatives of all the main political parties now frequently suggest that the ‘information
superhighway’ will offer a solution to all the problems of contemporary schooling - as though
this technology would bring about learning in and of itself. (The Clinton administration has been
advocating the National Information Infrastructure arguing that computer-based instruction is
cost-effective, enabling 30% more learning in 40% less time at 30% less cost (Tapscott, 1996).)
On the other