MITZEL: Technology is changing the world

Technology is changing the world. It is inviting us to the future where robots, automation, and software will complete basic tasks and open avenues not yet imagined. In 1965, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, noticed the number of transistors pe...

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Technology is changing the world. It is inviting us to the future where robots, automation, and software will complete basic tasks and open avenues not yet imagined. In 1965, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, noticed the number of transistors per square inch doubled every year. He posited a theory, now known as Moore's law, that technology would continue a trend of doubling every 18 months. This pace of technological growth is projected to continue into the future and the growth will be exponential as new technology builds upon former discoveries. In 2001, Ray Kurzweil wrote that "every decade our overall rate of progress was doubling, "We won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century-it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate)." Thomas Friedman made the observation that if Volkswagen Beetles improved at the same rate as microchips under Moore's Law, they would travel at approximately 300,000 miles per hour and would get close to 2 million miles to the gallon. They would also cost four cents each. The big question for educators is what this rapid advance means for the state of education. What role does higher education play in preparing the workforce of the future?

The answer begins with a philosophical examination of how one learns. Educational theories abound and most current research indicates that humans learn constructively, that is, actively taking in new information and examining in light of what is known, or previously experienced, and building new knowledge. We see this learning begin at a young age as children seek to understand the world. The first teachers are parents, providing answers to the question why, and inviting the child to learn to walk, talk, read - all through guided instruction and practice. Learning is not static, and it is not contained in self, it is dynamic and constructed based on sharing of knowledge and interaction with others.

The purpose of higher education is not to train students for a career but to prepare them to be thinkers who can work with others well. A college experience provides an environment for learning where students are challenged to actively engage with faculty and other students to construct new knowledge. This process provides a foundation for critical thinking. The process is designed, not merely for transfer of knowledge, but to train students to engage in a scientific process of asking why and seeking to understand. It has been stated that the traditional three "R's" of education, reading, writing and arithmetic, will need to be supplemented with the four "C's:" creativity, collaboration, communication, and coding.

I am often asked if the increase of available technology makes the traditional college campus a relic. My heartfelt belief is the answer is no and my conviction is rooted in the answer to the question of how people learn. In the children's book "Fish is Fish" by Leo Lionni, a small fish is hearing about other animals in the world from his friend Frog. Frog tells him all about the amazing things in the world - birds, cows, men, women and children. As Fish sleeps, he dreams of flying feathered fish, cow fish with horns, and people fish that can walk upright.

The analogy of this book is that we construct learning based on our own experiences. Mechanisms for transfer of knowledge have been wide spread since information began to be recorded on scrolls - yet learning is constructed in relationships with others and experimentation in the world. College education is so much more than a transfer of knowledge; it is guided instruction and practice. The type of constructed learning that occurs in a classroom, through interaction with faculty and peers, and through experimentation cannot be replicated through interaction with technology alone. As educators we need to help students experience the world, and to see beyond their own experiences. Student surveys over the years have revealed that graduating seniors state that of their overall collegiate learning, 25 percent was received in the classroom environment. This statement does not disparage the high rate of instruction given by faculty members, rather it acknowledges the importance of group learning that occurs when a community of students is brought together. Through the various avenues including undergraduate research, athletic competition, social and academic clubs, volunteer work, and local internships, students take the knowledge they have garnered in the classroom and build upon those academic tenets through interaction with their campus and local community.


Technology can and should have a place in the classroom. Many faculty members incorporate technology to enhance student learning and offer lifelike simulations. A nursing simulation lab offers future nursing students opportunity to "treat" patients who present "real" and "changing" symptoms. Biology students use chlorophyll meters to measure the green pigment in plants and by capturing these measurements, they can indirectly measure the amount of nitrogen in a plant and learn how to adjust fertilizer applications. Three dimensional, animated videos can bring the joys and wonders of organic chemistry to life, and help students truly envision the wonder of nature.

As technology advances, it opens doors of opportunity to supplement education. The large lecture may not be obsolete, but it must be buttressed with more laboratory, active learning, and small group interaction for students to discuss merits of material and engage in discourse. We need to teach students how to think about thinking. We should provide them with foundational knowledge in the subject and then teach them, through modeling and activity, how to ask critical questions and how to work in teams to develop solutions.

Technology is changing the world. Technology, however, will only be valuable if it is used to make stronger human connections rather than creating individual isolation. We need to remember the items that one cannot code, or download: the praise of a colleague for work well done, a high-five from a teammate, the feeling of comfort garnered from knowing you are accepted into your small group of friends and colleagues. The future will bring advances we have yet to imagine and these discoveries will be made by the university students of today who are being challenged to participate in discovery. The value of higher education does not lie expressly in the transmission of knowledge from one being to another, but rather in the synergy of energy that occurs as active learning happens in the classroom, laboratory, and other areas of the university campus and community. We need to teach our students to continually embrace, with burning hearts, the childlike question of "why."

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