Cyber-school possibilities

"The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning" by James Paul Gee From the book jacket
"The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning" by James Paul Gee From the book jacket

Digital instruction offers ways to make subjects come alive. But it can also isolate.

Posted: February 11, 2013

The Anti-Education Era

Creating Smarter Students

Through Digital Learning

By James Paul Gee

Palgrave Macmillan. 256 pp. $17.

Reviewed by Paul Jablow

When Philadelphia's new school superintendent, William Hite Jr., started looking for ways to entice students back who had left the School District, one of his first stated goals was to start a new cyber school.

Hite was hardly claiming to be a pioneer in the area of fully online curricula. He wasn't calling it the ideal educational option. He was instead responding to reality: The growth of cyber charter schools throughout Pennsylvania - there are now 16 - often operating in conjunction with homeschooling.

Online education has been around since the start of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, but its explosive growth in recent years has embraced cyber charters, entire courses offered by major universities, and all steps in between.

Not surprisingly, educators have come to see it as a two-edged sword for reasons James Paul Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University, describes well. It can engage students more fully in the real world or it can isolate them. It can foster creative thinking or help schools teach to the test.

But the devil is in the digital details, and this is where the author falls woefully short: There is no evidence in the book that he has spent any appreciable time in schools or on a university campus other than his own to demonstrate what works and what doesn't. He asks the right questions, but gives little insight into who is answering them well, how, and why.

To cite one example, a professor at a local college recently offered an online poetry class in which all assignments were to be done on a collaborative basis, with one report submitted by each group of five people. That design, of course, would have been impossible in the pre-digital age, given the students' different personal schedules.

But as it turned out, there was little real discussion among the students, a few of whom diligently participated while others went along for the ride. It was hard to see whom the idea benefited except perhaps the professor, who avoided having to grade 20 assignments per week.

That said, there are some provocative ideas here on what digital learning should strive for.

"Imagine," Gee writes, "a technology that would allow individuals who are engaged in discussion or debate to offer not just arguments, but experiences to each other . . . . This fantasy is, perhaps, a greater possibility now with digital media and virtual realities.

"Via websites and digital design tools, people can organize themselves into large 'knowledge communities' and produce products, knowledge, and designs of all sorts."

He notes, however, that the same explosion of technology makes it easier to immerse oneself in a cocoon of people like ourselves and views like our own.

Elsewhere, Gee asks us to "consider how we talk about teachers, pupils, and schools. Some people choose to call students 'consumers' or 'clients' and talk about 'auditing,' 'inputs,' 'outputs,' 'performance indicators,' and 'efficiency gains' in schools. This is the language of business. Applied to schools, it asks us to view schools as being like factories or stores that make and sell things."

It is also the language of educational conglomerates that have moved wholesale into the field of online education, from standardized tests to entire curricula.

"As a society, we cannot trust the Internet alone to be our primary educator," the author writes. And here he supplies ample evidence. Some of it, ironically, comes from the late Steve Jobs, who championed the idea that creativity often occurred most easily in physical spaces where people from "different and unexpected backgrounds" bumped up against each other, a situation unlikely to occur in its purest form either in schools or online.

We have a wealth of digital tools including video games, online forums, virtual worlds, and search tools, the author notes, but "they are not used, or are poorly used in schools and colleges. Too often, they are separated from, rather than blended with, face-to-face interactions, physical spaces, and deep educational uses that go beyond entertainment. All these tools are like crayons: They are just tools that can make and do good things (e.g. art) or make a mess (e.g. crayon all over the walls."

He seems less convincing - and perhaps a bit naive - when he notes the importance of parents' constantly talking to their preschool children and says parents now need to go a step further and "involve children in interactive talk around video games."

How this is supposed to happen is anyone's guess in a single-parent household where the mother is working two minimum-wage jobs and the grandmother caring for the children probably has limited or nonexistent computer skills, if there is even a computer in the home.

One final note. There should probably be some sort of sanction on publishers who come up with catchy titles with no relationship to a book's contents. The Anti-Education Era certainly fits that description.

Paul Jablow, a former Inquirer reporter and editor, freelances from Bryn Mawr.

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