When real is better than virtual

kodak_dc220_zoom_frontMy first full time professional job was working in a science and technology centre in Geelong. A big part of the role of this centre was to make new technologies available to local high schools. One of our popular offerings was around digital photography. Students would take photos with a Kodak digital camera and process them using photoshop. These classes were exciting for students and their teachers were amazed by how quickly images could be manipulated – comparing the single click actions in Photoshop to the days of darkroom work that would be required to achieve the same effect.

It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered the joy of developing my own black and white photos when I did an evening course. Yes, certainly it took a lot longer to work in the dark room but the experience of timing the exposure and development of photos and watching in the low red light as my pictures appeared in front of me had a totally different learning effect on me than clicking on the right option in Photoshop. It wasn’t so much that one experience was better than the other – both would lead to the same effect – but more that my subjective experience of ‘learning’ was much greater during the evening course.

The premise of this post is that while high-tech is a significant enabler of learning, it should not be adopted blindly without understanding the relative merits of low-tech alternatives. In particular we should be careful to understand not just what we gain but also what we lose from using the virtual over the real. Working with such an awareness will lead to more appropriate adoption of technology and a richer set of learning outcomes.

Don Ihde in Technics and Praxis talks about the amplification/reduction effects of technology and the fact that it is important to be aware of both the positive and negative effects that may be associated with the use of any technology. This is a great moment to take an aside and just remember that the term technology is broader than just devices and internet. Doug Horton’s article that claims teaching is technology creates a fantastic perspective on this.

Technology assisted learning lends itself to basic teaching of skills and capabilities – of transmitting knowledge. While it is certainly also possible to be creative in a virtual or online environment, this creativity is very constrained as it is limited by the narrow rules of the system. True creativity therefore requires direct interaction with people and the natural environment.

In his book Last child in the woods Richard Louv talks specifically about the example of heart surgeons who leave university with a high level of theoretical knowledge but without having ever physically pulled apart a pump. Thus the most highly qualified heart surgeons are completely incapable of doing their jobs when starting their hospital intern-ships. Louv also talks in great detail about the broader impacts of limiting student access to nature, which leaves the question whether excessive focus on technology is in fact not only limiting learning but also the physical and mental well-being of our students.

In our own household we can relate to this need for balance. Our current battle with our primary school aged children is Minecraft vs. real craft. It is clear that the kids are stimulated creatively when building and exploring their worlds in Minecraft. But similarly it is also clear that this is a creativity that is bounded by rules that are about as blocky as the graphics that go with them. Their real world craft – be it with clay or wood or fabric – engages them in fine motor skills, allows for far greater variation and is much more conducive to real original thoughts.

As with everything the result is that there are benefits to both technology supported learning and technology-‘free’ learning activities. The former allows for much greater breadth of information and speed of access and allows concepts to be explained through rich media. The latter allows for a broader range of real creative outcomes, is more granular and promotes a deeper tactile level of understanding – including fine motor skills.

It is interesting to see that this year the NMC Horizon Report has picked up on the need to balanced our connected and disconnected lives and it will be fascinating to see how this topic evolves. It is also interesting to note that the NMC Technology Outlook for Australia also sees the need to balance our connected and unconnected lives as a key challenge, and includes the need to be authentic in both learning experiences and assessment as being additional considerations.