Tablet teacher: how tech is changing education

Michael Arnold considers the culture clash between the television generation and today’s tablet generation…

In a recent article warning parents about the evils of modern technology, an elderly doctor writes about a father who had brought his son in for a check-up. The doctor examined the child and pronounced that he had a chest infection. He was surprised at the boy’s reaction – instead of turning to his dad for more information, he leaned into his iPhone and said, “Siri, what is ‘chest infection’?” This, scolded the doctor, was symptomatic of the modern condition – an erosion of the relationship between real human beings and its replacement with an over-reliance on machines.

I don’t know about most people, but I find myself siding with the fairly cool dad here – partially because I hope my own kids will learn how to do research for themselves whenever they have a question they need clear, authoritative answers to. My main objection, however, is that I recognize this argument, and I don’t find it particularly compelling. It’s exactly the same complaint that was made about the advent of the World Wide Web, the personal computer, the portable music player, and the television.

Kids playing toys

The argument against technology is an old Luddite protest born out of a fear of change, and it has a lot to do with the fact that pretty much everyone born within the last century has lived through an era defined by such change. Long gone are the days when children had the security of growing up in the same environment that their folks were familiar with: the world that we inherit from our own parents is never the same as the one they knew. As parents ourselves, it’s not easy to be confident guides for our children born to new technologies – all those things that didn’t exist back when our own parents were struggling to guide us through the inventions of their time.

Siri is no human

It was only several decades back that televisions became a feature in every home. As with all such things, parents found themselves wondering whether or not it was healthy to allow their children to sit in front of the telly instead of letting them play outside. At the time, heavy criticism was made of parents who would (rather guiltily) see the TV as a godsend that could keep their children occupied for up to two or three hours.

Detractors called it the “idiot box” – a technological idol that could jellify the brain and ruin healthy childhoods. Forward- thinking liberals went as far as banning their children from watching any TV at all, so that they’d have more ‘quality family time.’ Looking back, this kind of parenting move seems a little extreme – by switching off the greatest medium of communication of their age, they deprived their children of unprecedented exposure to human drama, stories with actual morals, and information about the outside world, and tended to rear socially awkward youngsters with limited insight into the human condition. The rest of us were watching wacky cartoons that, for all their silliness, still managed to convey what happens when people lie, what happens when they’re jealous, and how to have the strength to forgive.

Rather less credence is given to the demonization of televisions nowadays.This is largely because (unlike the generations before ours) we grew up with it, and we’re not only comfortable but eager for our kids to enjoy the kind of quality entertainment we remember having back then. If anything, we’re more disappointed that the modern cartoons don’t have the same warmth as they seemed to in those days – I know I’m not alone in having downloaded episodes of fondly-remembered children’s shows in the hope that my kids will enjoy them as much as I did (and generally being disappointed with their lack of interest in the lame storylines that I hadn’t noticed at the time).

I see the same arguments being rolled out about tablets and mobile devices. When the iPad was invented, Steve Jobs – just as much a notorious hippie as he was a tech guru – wouldn’t let his kids play with it, and pretty much for the same reasons as the anti-TV brigade used a generation before him. Despite having unleashed the things on the rest of us, Jobs thought the iPad would rob children of opportunities for hands-on learning – and given the borderline addictions most of us have with iPad-generation devices, I can see his point.

As a parent, however, I’ve decided not to follow suit. Watching my kids use our devices constructively, I’m proud of the personal developments they’ve made in terms of their creativity, their language skills, their appreciation for music and art. I don’t believe they’re being deprived of human contact while they’re interacting with a device – to say these machines are devoid of humanity is just as ridiculous as saying that there’s nothing to gain from reading a book because a book is not a person. While Siri is no human, she’s a product of human design that serves as a conduit to the largest repository of human knowledge that has ever existed – something I certainly hope my children will be able to use well. At the very least, she seems to have access to far better medical knowledge than I managed to learn by growing up with the TV.

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