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Education, Technology, and the Human Spirit

"Education, technology, and the human spirit" is a phrase that might be confusing to those who fear that these three elements cannot fit together well at all. They see technology as an irreversible force driving education to become ever more mechanistic, impersonal, and divorced from important community and societal values.

Others see technology as supporting education that can be more individualized, personal, and nurturing of communities and of the human spirit. They may recognize this phrase as a doorway into a new place—a place where they can continue building something worthwhile together.

But information technology can also be the excuse and the means to new goals, new accomplishments, and new visions in education. As we see more clearly that education is changing in response to new technology, we also see that we can make choices. Will we allow technology to change education and to change us—in ways that we do not predict and may not prefer? Or will we make decisions and commitments to use technology to enable the kinds of change that matter most to us?

Many people already seek to understand and improve the human condition that underlies any educational activity. And some recognize and try to improve the spiritual dimension of education—one that might be deeply hidden, actively denied, or set aside as irrelevant or inappropriate. Many of the people making these efforts rarely talk to each other or even acknowledge each others' existence, legitimacy, achievements, and goals.

During the past seven years I have helped hundreds of groups use several "Fundamental Questions" as they consider changes brought on by new choices for information technology in teaching and learning. The conversations that result often help the participants understand more clearly what is really important to achieve in technology-supported education. More recently, we've begun to suggest the following steps:

Think about some examples of teaching and learning you have appreciated in your own experience. Think about the changes in education that now seem possible or unavoidable. As you recall these instances consider the possibilities of change you are now facing:

  1. What do you most want to gain?
  2. What do you cherish and most want not to lose?
  3. What or whom are you thankful for?
  4. How can information technology help/ hinder what matters most to you?

As you explore your answers to these questions, list specific ways of using information technology to effectively link education, technology, and the human spirit. These questions can be even more stimulating when asked in a way that encourages you and your colleagues to consider not only your professional goals, but also your deeper personal aspirations. I expect that in these new conversations we will understand much better what people mean by the "human spirit." As that becomes clearer, I hope it will also become more influential.

Education, Technology, and the Human Spirit Success Stories

Blind Teacher, Deaf Student
Norm Coombs, a blind history professor (emeritus) at Rochester Institute of Technology, reports that electronic mail has enabled him to develop effective teaching/learning relationships with some of his students who had certain characteristics that made it unlikely to happen otherwise. For example, he describes a deaf student with whom he learned to communicate at a distance and in his own office. In the office, Coombs typed his ideas into his computer which displayed the results in large characters—easy for the student to see and read. The student could type her ideas into the computer and software converted her text into audible speech—easy for Coombs to hear and understand.

Undergraduate Success Story
An undergraduate leader in a highly structured and successful Student Technology Assistant Program began her first encounters with no self-confidence and frequent self-deprecating comments. During the next two years, she discovered her own ability to fix technology problems and help others gently, respectfully, and authoritatively. She earned the respect of her student colleagues, faculty members, and technology professionals. Instead of dropping out, she opted to continue her studies beyond what was needed for her bachelor's degree—long enough to fulfill her hopes of becoming the top student manager for the entire program.

Unsuccessful Tele-personality
A tenured professor received top marks in student evaluations for many years. He agreed to teach one of his favorite courses via two-way video teleconference for a group of students at a satellite facility. He delivered the same lectures and asked many of the same questions he had been using successfully in the past. But he wasn't getting the kind of active participation he had enjoyed from his students in the classroom; the student ratings of this new course were very low. The structure of the teleconference cut out the informal time that had been supporting his face-to-face sessions: arriving early and staying late, sharing stories relevant to the subject matter.

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