Sunday, January 29, 2012

Let's replace all the teachers with iPads (and other great ideas)

A futuristic lesson once all the teachers and other impediments to a Brave New World have been done away with 

There's been quite a bit of talk on the peak oil blogosphere this week about machines and, more specifically, our addiction to them. Cars and TV have come in for quite a well deserved bashing, as have various other things such as gadgets and computers.

I think there's a growing awareness that the traditional master-slave relationship between human owner and machine is not quite what it seems. Take modern cars, for instance. Your average middle to top range new car comes packed with so much technological gadgetry – from GPS locators to onboard entertainment systems and engine management computers – that fixing it, should a problem arise, is beyond the ken of practically everyone. If a single element of a circuit board in the engine management module is damaged the entire vehicle is rendered useless until either the circuit board is repaired (unlikely) or the entire module is ripped out and replaced with a new one (the normal solution). This is not what you might call resilient, to say the least, and yet people, for all their grumbling, continue to buy these things.

It's all a far cry from the kind of good old clunky mechanics of yesteryear – and here I'm particularly thinking about a VW Kombi van I owned in my mid twenties. It was lime green and made a monstrous racket when you drove it. I rescued it from a scrap yard in London and did my best to restore it to functionality. Things quite often went wrong with it but when they did it normally required not much more than a Haynes manual, a set of wrenches and a hammer. I'm no mechanic, but I'd just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, so was quite into fixing mechanical things as a way of expanding my knowledge of the universe (yes, I know ...).

Indeed, taking this one step further, I recall fondly travelling on buses in India, which seemed to break down on every journey, and the resigned-looking driver would inevitably climb underneath the vehicle with a hammer while the passengers stood around drinking chai and smoking bidis. After a few minutes of frightful whacking noises the driver, covered in oil and dust, would re-emerge and whatever mechanical ailment had occurred would inevitably have been cured.

You try fixing an iPad with a hammer. I mention iPads because I have a colleague with one and, like most people with these things, he seems to be constantly trying to justify owning it. Furthermore, as an Apple evangelist, he is always trying to get me to 'see the light' and buy one ('But wait until the iPad 3 comes out.'). Needless to say he may as well save his breath – I can't afford one even if I wanted one – but he thought he had delivered the killer justification last week when he demonstrated an electronic textbook he had downloaded, proclaiming it as a vision of the new future where students wouldn't need to buy books and, by extension, wouldn't have much need for lecturers or teachers either.

It goes without saying that this demonstration ticked all the techno religion boxes of being 'interactive', 'open source' and 'social media friendly' etc, etc. Instead of students needing to purchase piles of books all they had to have was a tablet and a subscription – and think of all the trees that would be saved!

Yes, but... What about the immense energy intensive infrastructure needed to create an iPad? The colossal government expenditures in the form of grants, university departments and Phd stipends needed to train and keep the highly specialised service personnel who work in these industries? The constantly changing models that render any piece of hardware older than a couple of years obsolete? Is that really such a great use of resources? I speak as someone who once wasted nine months of his life learning to program industrial robots as part of an Msc. in IT.

But these are the kind of questions that are not taken seriously and I just got 'that' look – the one that people use when assessing whether I might be crazy or not. I'm getting quite used to 'that' look and tend to avoid conversations with techno evangelists for that very reason – but in this instance I was cornered and other people in the office were listening in.

He went on to say that, being constantly connected to the publishing firm, the content could be updated ad infinitum – so if an error was noticed it could be silently corrected by the editors. This set alarm bells ringing in my journalistic ears. What if someone wanted to change things for less than honest reasons? Like a government changing lessons on history or evolution or whatever else might be deemed controversial. Or perhaps publishing firms would start slipping adverts for Disneyland into geography lessons.That won't be a problem, he said with a wave of his hand, there will be editing logs which independent people would scrutinise (more expense, more complexity).

I conceded that this might be a good idea for the kind of highly complex and constantly changing subject matter in the realm of things like computer sciences and engineering – but for more subjective subjects it would be a disaster.

And what of the teachers? You know, the flesh and blood beings with whom we entrust the important act of passing down useful information to our offspring? It's not hard to envisage cash-strapped schools and colleges cutting staff numbers and increasing iPad numbers. What would these redundant teachers then do?

Oh, I know, they could become freelance online eBook editors and get paid half the wages they had before and with the added benefit of no job security or pensions. Another great way to save resources.

But whatever concerns there may be about replacing paper books and teaching jobs with silicon books and Steve Jobs it doesn't seem to be stopping schools rushing headlong into this brave new world, with many across the UK adopting a strategy of buying iPads instead of books and subscribing to eBooks instead of, er, pBooks.

So there again, we have something with a high level of resilience being replaced unthinkingly by something with a low level – at an increased cost – all because the dominant evil twin paradigms are high technology and increased efficiency. Ebook developers point out that with children's lower attention span they are unable to concentrate on long texts and need to have whizzy graphics to demonstrate, say, rainfall patterns and DNA structures. If that is true then eBooks will reinforce that trend and pretty soon we will have teachers Tweeting lessons to pupils who will then read them on their hand held devices as they chow down in McDonald's (if you have eBooks and eTeachers surely the next logical thing is the eClassroom). And, incidentally, the children these people are talking about are American children who have had their concentration levels zapped by exposure to too many cartoons and advertising – why should they be the exemplars for a system being imposed on our not-quite-so-short-attention-spanned kids?

So, I won't be buying my kids laptops, iPhones or iPads any time soon. Our eldest, at eight, is now the only child without a mobile phone in her class and the teachers have told us in no uncertain terms that we had better get her one sharpish if we don't want her to be bullied. I find this incredulous (gawd, don't get me started!).

As far as I am aware there was never any trustworthy conclusive proof that mobile phones didn't cause brain tumours – or that scientists couldn't pin firm proof on it, or something (but nevertheless the ones involved in the study stopped using mobiles soon afterwards). And isn't there a wave of cyber bullying going on with kids texting and FBing each other hateful messages causing some of them to commit suicide? And yet here are the teachers saying that we are being irresponsible parents by trying to protect them from such insidious influences.

Jeez – maybe they should be replaced with iPads after all.

Well, I was going to write about my new bicycle – truly the only machine that I'm addicted to - but I guess that will have to wait for another day as it's snowing outside right now and I want to go and slide down a nearby hill with the kids on a piece of plastic (a low tech way to spend a Sunday morning).


  1. Funny you should mention the resilience of Indian autos. I had the same experience, albeit in Nepal. Halfway to Kathmandu from Lumbini we pulled into a little roadside repair shop and they got to work on it. No need to order parts. In the time it took for me to have fried noodles (chow min) and a brief stroll around the village we were back on our way.

    The psychological dependence on 24/hr internet nowadays is something I personally have found a bit troublesome.

    When I was in Japan doing my MA degree there I lived in an international dorm and half my friends were either glued to their iPhones (screwing around on Facebook) or sitting with their laptops on their laps (half the time screwing around on Facebook or Youtube) to the point I concluded that just texting them would get a better response. You try to vocally communicate with them and just get hesitant grunts in response. It really is a psychological addiction and some people are starting to "live" in cyberspace. You try to take them away from it for more than a little while and they show symptoms of withdrawal.

    In my undergrad I recall in the first few years nobody had laptops and the uni was just starting to introduce WiFi. This was also the time when mobile phones were only starting to become widespread, too. Within a few years everyone had mobile phones and was browsing the net with campus WiFi (often during class). The result was people sitting in class chatting on MSN or browsing Facebook, quite clearly ignoring the instructor. It wouldn't have been a problem, but when someone suddenly starts jumping out of their seat laughing for no reason connected to the lecture, this is distracting to other students.

    Mind you, when you take into account the commercialization of education and the commodification of academia, does any of this matter? The world's universities cater to business interests. They'll introduce iPad lectures and eClassroom stuff for the simple fact that the powers that be are so much in the palms of business interests.

  2. Hi Jeffrey. Ah yes, I remember those Indian (and Nepalese buses) buses – they would quite often conveniently break down at food stalls!

    Seriously though, when I went to school, just glancing at your watch was enough to earn a detention. Nowadays it seems that many kids (and university students) are constantly responding to a never ending series of interruptions via FB, Twitter, texts etc etc. This being a relatively new phenomenon, nobody knows what the long term effect will be on kids’ ability to concentrate and form reasoned opinions – rather than knee jerk reactions. It doesn’t bode well, but I guess we’ll see.

    As a matter of fact my job involves a lot of time spent of FB and Twitter and all the rest of the current techno hyperchatter. But once I switch off my computer and go home I try not to let these things intrude upon my mind. Life’s just too short.


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