It's rare to see a technologist—much less one with the profile of Jaron Lanier—warning about the misuse of technology, but, in an essay, appearing in this past weekend's New York Times Magazine, that's just what Lanier did. The thrust of his argument: education technology is creeping into the classroom, but we have to keep learning from becoming too algorithmic and keep the brain thinking creatively.
Lanier's father began teaching sixth-grade math in middle age. And, in his days, there were no standardized tests that he needed to prepare his students for—thus he was able to eschew a textbook he found riddled with mistakes in favor of teaching his students math via the building of a spaceship. But, today, the specter of the data-driven education system would make it very difficult for Lanier's father to teach a class in that manner.
The future of education in the digital age will be determined by our judgment of which aspects of the information we pass between generations can be represented in computers at all. If we try to represent something digitally when we actually can’t, we kill the romance and make some aspect of the human condition newly bland and absurd. If we romanticize information that shouldn’t be shielded from harsh calculations, we’ll suffer bad teachers and D.J.’s and their wares.
He worries that technology appearance as an endless data stream—think Facebook profiles and the synthetic experience of having Pandora choose music for you based on your likes and dislikes—will condition kids to assemble data from different sources and pass off those amalgams as ideas of their own (rather than sitting down to really consider a subject and form their own thoughts).
When you see programs, such as New York's Quest to Learn—which teaches its students primarily through video games and is also profiled in this week's Times Magazine—you get an idea of Lanier's hopes can be enacted mostly correctly. These kids are designing video games (as well as playing them) and learning how to make podcasts as part of their curriculum.
It's an exciting pilot program that unfortunately may be held to one data driven standard: Can these kids pass proficiency tests?
Photo via Gillian Laub for The New York Times.