Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Blame it on computers

After years spent acclimatising to technology, senior high school students need remedial handwriting classes.

Inter alia, the Herald reports of one (private) school requiring all senior essays to be handwritten. "Handwriting is an important expression of a student's personality", says the headmaster.

He could be right, but he reminds me of a late primary school teacher who made the class use fountain pens for the whole year. We did it; things got scratchy or messy at times, and often it looked good. But I doubt anyone seriously went back to fountain pens after that year. Old technology. Less convenient, less available, more expensive.

In a similar way, that headmaster is barking in the dark - inasmuch as he expects to see personality significantly expressed through handwriting well into the future.

Technology's the issue, although writing is not an artifact begging for a solution. Although letter writing is clearly a dying art, writing in general - and writing legibly - will always be important.

The Herald asked me if I thought computers were making handwriting worse, and of course I said yes. I certainly type a lot more and write a lot less, and my handwriting has certainly got worse. But this is just a less fortunate side effect of technology, and it's futile to rail against the use of computers in general. They are tools, and ipso facto they help us achieve many things much faster. The best we may hope for is simply to maintain good legibility.

Coincidentally, the previous day someone had claimed to me that watching tv - and using computers -was making people more less intelligent.

[Most of the time I ask, the kids tell me that what they're watching doesn't excite them. Sounds like they're doing what I did when young: passively watching a lot of rubbish that is seldom actively enjoyed. But despite the multiplicity of options - multiple channels, cartoons before and after school, and dvd - they watch less than I did (by parental direction), and I've not been harmed by the experience, having grown out of it.]

I hope I'm not misrepresenting Helen's views, but I understood her to also say that other staff at her university (and not just her) complained that the maths students of today were dumbed down by computers, and as a consequence were less skilled at problem-solving: less imaginative and less able to access the toolkit of mathematical techniques. She was also suggesting studies verified this.

I would be rather skeptical of such anecdotes unless I saw the research evidence. I would be skeptical about causality issues around this, and I would staunchly maintain the status of computers in particular as a uniquely important tool - to access, process and store information of all kinds. As a tool, it takes care of the mundane, allowing people to extend themselves further in the direction they were already headed. Even those who are less inclined to extend themselves - there has always been such people - will still gain from the use of computers.

At the advent of mass television broadcasting, it was touted as a powerful educative medium. We may think that promise has been lost - missed - by the usurpation of commercial imperatives, but today it is being used to a wide variety of ends, according to inclination - even including learning. Would those who use it passively as a timewaster have spent their time much better if it were not around? Moot.

I suggest it is often easy to misread the impact of technology.

No comments: