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Machines are Dumb

The "technology revolution" is mis-named. Instead, we are in a human revolution, a revolution in human capabilities. In the span of a few decades, humans have learned to think with their fingers, to imagine that a flat screen is really as big as the world, to create new personae for themselves, to expand their social interactions in number and kind, to write and design in new ways, to visualize complex concepts, to find information in seconds, and incorporate that information into a constantly evolving awareness. People are doing all this, not machines.

No one is served well by the common conceit that the technology does all this. We then invest in technology because we believe that hype that the software can do things it can't. A salesperson or a technology advocate dazzles us with a demonstration of rapidly cascading screens, colors, visuals, and graphs that make us believe if we too have that software we'll get the same results. We wouldn't assume we could perform a Schubert sonata as well as a concert pianist, but for some reason we believe we can "play" the software as well as the software performer.

Hype has affected our reason and has led many to fear technology as itself the agent of change. Hype has led us to believe that if we unleash software on our campus, a major change will occur. About 23 years ago, I and a bunch of others believed that if we provided word processing software to students they would become better writers. They would revise their writing more, we thought, just because it was easier with computers than with paper. We forgot that revising writing is a thought process and not a machine attribute.

If we believe the machines are making all the changes in the world, we are anthropomorphizing them, making them into agents of change. This leads to the fear that machines will take over. We talk about "emergent technology" as though the machines are rising from the depths with intentions. The fear of technology is bad enough because that leads to resistance to using legitimate tools of our trade, but imagining technology as an agent also sets up impossible expectations. In focus groups or interviews or in written comments in questionnaires, we hear about or read about how "the technology didn't work." I have heard the phrase "ePortfolios don't work." Again, this is like saying, "The piano didn't work; I couldn't play Schubert like the performer on stage."

If we in higher education wish to learn the most and leverage the most during this knowledge revolution, we have to recognize the active agent in the revolution. The active agent is humanity. We humans are discovering aspects of our abilities and imagination that we didn't know about before. Centuries ago, we discovered things that could make nice sounds and we found the musical talents and abilities that humans have. Now, we discovered digital technologies that help us solve problems, communicate, and create in ways we didn't know about before.

And the hype should be about how we have discovered new abilities in ourselves, not about dumb machines. The magic is not out there but in our heads.

However, we have fallen into the trap of thinking dumb machines will do it all, that we can merely form a committee, review the technology options, choose one, deploy it, and the magic will follow. Hmmmm. What happened? Not to belabor the point, but would we put pianos in classrooms and expect students to become musicians? "Oh, all they do is plunk the keys; pianos didn't work."

My guess is that most people in higher education have figured out that adopting technologies for teaching and learning is not quite as simple as we once thought or as technology companies wish us to believe. But what should we believe? How should we frame technology adoption in higher education?

Say a department at a college or university decides to adopt a student learning portfolio. First the teacher herself or himself must become a portfolio "performer," someone who can teach students to use a portfolio. This would mean the teacher would use the portfolio herself before assigning students to do so (one would not assign a book one has not read, after all).

Secondly, the faculty in the department will need to identify a purpose for adopting the portfolio so they know how to design their curriculum and so they then know how to assess this innovation.

Third, the faculty have to relate the portfolio to the goals of the course and help the students see how it fits in and how it benefits students.

The success of the portfolio innovation in this department depends on faculty members understanding what talents and abilities their students can discover in themselves when they use the portfolio. This is why the faculty members themselves have to spend a semester using their own portfolio to discover in themselves what talents and abilities come forward.

When we plan and implement based on the human elements of the innovation, we make sensible and wise plans. When we forget that machines are dumb and therefore expect miracles and agency from them, we falter and make incorrect and misleading conclusions. We are the smart ones, the ones in control, and we are the revolution and the emergent miracle.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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