Is technology an invasive species?

What are the limits to growth of educational technology? As explored in previous modules, educational technology is not neutral, nor is it somehow a happy medium between ‘part of the problem’ and ‘part of the solution.’ There are environmental implications of ET that tend to be marginalized or outside the normal scope of discussion.

In his 2007 keynote address at the Building Learning Communities conference, Dr. Zhao fittingly describes the birth of educational technology as a solution looking for a problem. This description fits the analogy of educational technology as an invasive species – one that alters the interrelationships of all organisms and subsystems within an ecosystem in order to survive and thrive.

Most of us have seen this invasive behaviour of educational technology in our lifetimes. When I was in secondary school in the late 1980’s, we would have one hour of computer time where we would be led to our school’s computer lab, taught some basic commands and word processing – temperature was maintained at 18 degrees Celsius, food and drink was not allowed and any disruptive behaviour resulted in a revocation of computer privileges. Educational technology was still in the early stages of the invasion lifecycle. As my generation progressed through undergraduate studies, we were encouraged to write and submit assignments on computers and those who could afford them had Macs in their dorm rooms. I could barely afford the books for school, was intrigued by computers and preferred working after the computer lab had closed, so I made it a habit of working in the Physics department, where a few dozen geeks worked all night and dabbled in this new curiosity called the internet. For some of us, computer use had evolved from a privilege to an obsession as the resources became more widely available and the invasive species became available for wider usage and proliferation. This usage evolved and spread in educational institutions, in Physics departments, computer labs, classrooms and dorm rooms and among all classes of students. Educational technology uses had expanded beyond sanitized labs and evolved from a privilege to a necessity. How did this alter the educational ecosystem?

The technology, we are assured by the producers, is an enabler that is designed to be user centric. However, the ecosystem has been altered significantly by this invasive species and we must ask the question – who has gained and who has lost? How have the values inherent in educational technology perpetuated themselves through the diffusion of the carrier technology, its cultural and social attributes? Technology carries and perpetuates its inherent values just like invading species carry bio-chemical attributes. Some of these attributes are alien to the ecosystem, and injurious to the survival of existing species. In order to understand the values carried by technology, we must examine them as bio-chemical attributes. The attributes that allow technology to strengthen the ecosystem are those that introduce biodiversity and strengthen the existing species. These can include the ability of educational technology to facilitate easy and open access to a wide variety of materials, ability to make the learning more learner centric (i.e. cater to individual learning styles) and potential to engage learners in a wide variety of skill building by engaging them in multimodal initiatives that develop multiple intelligences. Thus, educational technology, the invasive species, provides existing species (teachers, learners, schools) opportunities to develop and evolve.

However, educational technology also has impacts that erode the existing strengths of biotic species in the ecosystem. Technology, in general, is altering our information processing abilities. With the ease of access to the Internet, online databases and web-enabled sources of information, we are moving towards a model that is discussed in Nicholar Carr’s article: Is Google Making Us Stupid? In his article, Carr quotes the playwright Richard Foreman who talks about how our intelligence is evolving: the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available. Thus, the connected world enabled by Google has spread our intelligence wide and thin – like a pancake. This kind of information processing wherein we rely on our connections with other people, a kind of distributed neural network, is transactive memory – a term coined by Daniel Wegner, a social psychologist, in 1985. Carr thinks that this is making us stupid, but he may have rushed to judgment. Our intelligence is evolving. Deep processing and focus is being replaced by multi-tasking and task switching as strengths. By rewarding a different set of skills, technology is enabling some by disabling others. Moreover, the promise of wider access is moot. MOOCs are built on the promise of open and equal access to learners despite their economic differences. However, research demonstrates that less than 10% of MOOC students complete the courses they start and less than 5% are from lower income countries. These observations demonstrate that attributes of educational technology, such as ease of access, multi-tasking and task switching can also weaken the ecosystem and existing species.

Are there limits to the growth of ET within education? In other words, is the carrying capacity of education fragile in ways that can only be explored ecologically? Zhao and Frank seem to suggest this.

Frank and Zhao recognize that an ecosystem resists the proliferation of an invasive species if it imposes pressure on existing biotic and abiotic components to change existing processes. This is true of the adoption of educational technology in schools as well. To the extent that educational technology is an invasive species, it imposes stress on biotic elements such as teachers, learners and administrators, as well as abiotic elements such as infrastructure to change existing pedagogical practices, learning strategies and administrative processes. The response to this stress is resistance. Within the educational ecosystem, schools are a subsystem with teachers as keystone species. The keystone species exerts a controlling influence on the environment, i.e. through their control over educational practices teachers impact the adoption of educational technology. However, pressure on the environment persists because the school subsystem is subservient to the Federal, Provincial and District school boards in the hierarchy of the ecosystem. Thus, if there is downward pressure for technology integration from the higher levels in the hierarchy, then the school will continue to feel pressure to adopt technology. The resistance of the keystone species and other biotic and/or abiotic systems will be overcome through the pressure imposed by higher levels of the hierarchy. This is evident in the professional development programs, formal and informal means imposed on teachers to adopt technology, the allocation of funds for technology and the development of infrastructure to facilitate technology integration. Since the educational hierarchy is a complex social, political and technological structure with countless elements, hierarchies of subsystems and complex network of inter-relationships, Frank and Zhao make a valid argument that it must be studied as a complex ecosystem.

What is Zhao and Frank’s argument? Is technology an invasive species?

Frank and Zhao argue that school systems are analogous to ecosystems because: (i) they can be arranged in a hierarchy of influence (Federal > Provincial > District > School); (ii) strive towards homeostasis (equilibrium); (iii) have a combination of biotic (teachers, learners, administrators) and abiotic (infrastructure, technology) elements. Their argument for using the classification of schools as ecosystems and the elements within schools as analogous ecological components is to find a unifying framework for studying the invasion of external technological invasions as invasive species. Frank and Zhao’s framework allows them to isolate schools as dynamic communities with internal and external inter-relationships. This framework can be used to establish boundaries around the school in order to study the individual elements as species, subsystems such as classes and the underlying inter-relationships. However, establishing these boundaries does not make it a closed system. As the study of technology as an invading species demonstrates, the school ecosystem is influenced by external pressures, such as mandates from school boards to integrate technology into the curriculum. As Tolkein says in The Lord of the Rings: The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.

The analogy of technology as an invading species works well if we consider schools as ecosystems. This allows us to study the lifecycle of the species, the pressures to adapt that it imposes on existing species and other ecosystem-based mechanisms. Frank and Zhao analyze these relationships in depth and also the relationship between the invasive species and the keystone species. They find that keystone species utilize rational choice theory to adopt the invasive species to the extent that it benefits their self-interest. Thereby, they focus on different forms of usage and professional development accepted by teachers to facilitate the proliferation of technology.

Frank and Zhao make a strong case for studying technology as an invasive species. However, they fail to pursue some of the analysis necessary for understanding the lifecycle, traits, impacts and success of the invasive species. Some of the basic questions that they fail to address are: Does the proliferation of the invasive species strengthen the ecosystem? What are some of the benefits obtained? What are the costs imposed by the proliferation of the invasive species? Consideration of these questions would have strengthened their arguments and made a stronger case for studying technology as an invasive species in an ecosystem. Another weakness with Frank and Zhao’s framework is that they assume homogeneity to computer use and teachers which allows them to classify them as species. I believe that if they recognize the nuances in these species they could gain a better understanding of the diversity, as well as the interactions therein.

What ought educational technologists do in response to the scope of Pitman’s findings on the implications of technology on child development? 

Pittman starts by listing how Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child lays out guidelines for media technologies to provide: (i) information and material of social and cultural benefit; (ii) international cooperation in creation and provision of (i); (iii) children’s books; (iv) special regard for linguistic needs of indigenous children and minorities; and (iv) guidelines for protecting children from information injurious to their well-being.

She goes on to list the ways in which media technologies such as TV, DVDs, computers, Internet and mobile phones have invaded children’s lives in the developed world. She finds that the use of media technology has potential for harmful impact in areas of: (i) child development; (ii) Violence; (iii) Eating disorders; (iv) Harmful substances; (v) Suicide; (vi) Sexual behaviour; (vii) Sexualization of children; (viii) Child pornography; (ix) Child mental health; (x) marketing to children; (xi) obesity; (xii) physical health and development; (xiii) interactive impacts; (xiv) mobile phones; (xv) cyberbullying; (xvi) sexual solicitation.

The range of harmful impacts range from the severe criminal offenses of child sexual abuse to the socially oppressive practices of commercial exploitation of an easily influenced target market. For all of these harmful effects, educators must inform, educate and lead by example. The media technologies mentioned by Pittman are as new to us as they are to the digital natives. In many ways, the digital natives are more wired into these technologies than the digital immigrants. Our educational systems, social and communal infrastructure were not designed to accommodate contemporary media technologies. As we struggle to catch up with the digital natives, we must rely on a balanced approach for introducing our students to new technologies. The new does not always remediate the old. Our wisdom and moderation is necessary to ensure that we are adapting only the beneficial with due consideration for the costs entailed. However, we can only control the media technologies introduced on our watch in schools. At home, we must influence parents and communities to influence public policy so that the invading media technologies do not act as predators devouring the traditional social practices, values and the innocence of children.

What are the possibilities of slowness and SOUL? Or is speed the only hope?

Slowness and SOUL remind us that just because we can go fast doesn’t mean we have to. I learned the value of slowness when I started driving with my children in the backseat. This experience made me realize that: (i) I am now responsible for the lives of others and I am the one with his hands on the steering wheel and his foot on the pedals. I have been tasked with ensuring the safety of others and slowness reduces the risk of accidents on the journey. (ii) Slowness is its own reward when you are enjoying the company. A drive is all about getting to the destination when you are driving alone. At best, you will hear some good tunes as you speed from point A to point B. However, with passengers in the back seat, the tunes might not always be your choice, but they serve greater value than drowning out the noise of traffic. My children solidified their knowledge of the alphabet, learned nursery rhymes and stories on our long drives. If I had sped from point A to point B, they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn. (iii) Speed also allows time for reflection. The journey takes on significance. I serve as the guide in conversations with my children and I enjoy the experience.

Slowness allows us to reflect and engage in critical thinking. You don’t need kids sitting in the backseat to engage in higher order thinking, but you certainly need time. We need to adopt media technologies without sacrificing the luxury of reflection for the sake of doing more meaningless tasks at a faster rate.

 

Pitman, Susan (2008) The impact of media technologies on child development and wellbeing. ozchild

Zhao, Yong & Frank, Kenneth A. (2003) Factors Affecting Technology Uses in Schools: An Ecological Perspective. American Educational Research Journal, Winter 2003, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 807–840

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