According to a Statistics Canada study, there is nearly one computer per student in Albertan schools. // Creative Commons
Pop culture is full of cyborgs like Darth Vader in Star Wars, the Borg in Star Trek or Neo in The Matrix. While cybernetic organisms are a mainstay of science fiction, Secondary Education professor Cathy Adams sees them everywhere, even in classrooms. Whether it’s the smartphone in your pocket or the computer you work on, Adams says technology is a cybernetic enhancement and it functions as an extension of who we are, how we live and how we learn.
When it comes to technology in the schools, there is no shortage of debate on the impact it can have on students or if it should be there at all. Adams, who researches digital technology integration across educational environments, as well as ethical and pedagogical issues involving digital media in schools, says it’s not a simple discussion.
Can you explain what you mean when you say students and teachers are cyborgs?
Adams: We tend to think of ourselves as autonomous from our technologies and our technology-textured environment; we are free to choose this or that technology and we alone decide whether we use it for good or for ill. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that technologies are not neutral, and that we have become the human beings that we are today only in and through our relationships to our technologies. Our professional practices, our political and cultural lives, and even our personal relationships are increasingly supported by and made possible by and through our technologies. We need to see that we humans are--and always have been--cyborgs.
Actually, most theorists don’t describe us “cyborgs”; the word in the academic literature is “posthuman”, which tries to take account of the socio-materiality of our situation. When I talk about teachers and students as cyborgs, I am drawing attention to this special human-technology relationship and posing some key questions about our future with technology.
Some parents are concerned about their children having too much “screen time”. How can an educator balance those concerns with integrating technology in the classroom?
Adams: There are different ways of approaching this question. One way is through media ecology. To see a classroom in terms of media ecology means to reflect on what a healthy, balanced and diverse media environment ought to be, especially in relation to different development moments in a young person’s educational life. Of course, most teachers often don’t have a lot of choice in the types of technology they have in their classrooms, but it is still possible to be thoughtful and deliberate in choosing when and how to use it and plan to do so in a way that is balanced and developmentally-sensitive.
When a particular technology is introduced into the classroom, we need to ask: what changes does that enact? Pencils, paper, desks and a chalkboard create a very different environment than one-to-one laptops and interactive whiteboards. Clearly new kinds of activities and ways of thinking are made possible in a new media environments. But there is a basic law of media that we all need to be aware of: every technology enhances one or more aspects of our lives, but it always comes at a cost.
What do people find surprising about this concept of technology users as cyborgs?
Adams: In my course, EDSE 577 Pedagogy of Technology: Teachers and Students as Cyborgs, one of our exercises is a 24 hour technology “fast”. Before embarking on this, we talk about which technologies we are going to abstain from using, since it’s nearly impossible to be without any technologies. We’d have to be naked in a forest somewhere! We usually limit the fast to 21st century technologies, which means not checking email, social media or even looking things up on the web. Of course, the day tends to also be interrupted by phantom cellphone vibration and periods of boredom.
In the end, it’s not unusual for one or two of our class to not make it the full 24 hours--but that is learning. But overall, the message is clear: our lives are intimately entangled in our devices.
Technology is changing rapidly. How can educators keep up with limited budgets?
Adams: I’m a strong advocate for coding in Kindergarten to Grade 12 because computing science is core to much of the infrastructure deciding and supporting almost every aspect of our lives today. Just as we need to learn mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology to understand our world, so too with computing science. I’m not talking about turning everyone into programmers, software architects or data scientists, but of developing this basic literacy for a more critically-informed citizenship. And I’m also not talking about students learning how to use digital technologies. I’m talking about learning some of the basic principles behind this powerful science, how software and hardware are designed and built, the special languages used to write software programs, about algorithms and why should we care about them, how to think computationally and more.
Some are surprised to learn that there is actually little need for any sophisticated technology or even a computer to teach some of the most basic principles of computing science. While these technologies are powerful cognitive tools that our children need to use early so they can leverage them later, there are also some good reasons for not including them in the early grades, such as developing basic literacies first and focusing on social development.
Digital technology is a very big ticket item in often very limited school budgets. We need to step back and consider when, how and more importantly why we are bringing each and every digital technology into the classroom, especially in the early years.
What are some ways educators can integrate coding into their classrooms?
Adams: Today K-12 coding is a global movement. On account of this, some excellent educational resources are out there and freely available to teachers and parents. I recommend checking out code.org for example: the online lessons are fun, current and easy to set up. Both children and adults will benefit from trying these out, and gain a new understanding of what is meant by “coding”.
A number of years ago, Tim Bell and his New Zealand colleagues developed a curriculum called Computer Science Unplugged. It consists of social games and simple practical activities for kids to try out and learn some of the basic principles of computing science without ever needing to touch a computer or look at a screen. These lessons will serve our children extraordinarily well in understanding and being able to critically assess our changing digital technology environment, now and into the future.
To learn more about Dr. Adams’ research about technology in K-12 classrooms, check out her book Researching a Posthuman World: Interviews with Digital Objects or watch this interview with Global News Edmonton.