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The Columbia Daily Spectator

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Against the Machine

Posted: 03/14/2012 12:01 pm

By Po Linn Chia

When I first came to Columbia, I had no real concept of what a paper was. A paper, to my British-educated mind, was an in-class exam and not a take-home essay. It involved writing a thousand words in an hour and a half, in longhand, without access to reference materials. This approach was the antithesis of the technologically advanced classroom, but I still believe in it.

My final years of high school were spent in a technological backwater. It wasn't so much my school's fault as it was the impetus of my four slightly cranky British teachers. They had gone to Singapore to teach the humanities 30 years before, and they didn't intend to trade pen and paper for laptops or anything. People who brought 21st century technology to class were mocked. There were no textbooks, no PDF files, no online resources. To survive class, you had to write. It left you with only your wits and your memory to contend with 60-year-old men who'd been teaching the subject matter since before you were alive.

I am aware of the hypocrisy of taking a stance against technology in the classroom. I spend a good portion of my time outside the classroom glued to one device or another. I check my smart phone with unceasing regularity and live on my laptop in order to accomplish much of my work. And why not? Technology brings many benefits. As my fellow columnist Arvin Ahmadi mentioned in his column last week, it gives us access to information, an arguably more efficient form of note-taking, and the ability to collaborate easily with fellow classmates. To do without technology would seem crippling to productivity.

But I think there's a genuine reason why laptops are rarely allowed in seminar classrooms, and I think that reason extends beyond professors' superstitious dislike of the newfangled. Technology helps us to be better, but I'm not sure it helps us to be better thinkers.

For one, access to information is not the same as intelligent processing of information. Google and Wikipedia may put a wealth of information at our fingertips, but no search engine and no encyclopedia can tell us how (and when) to use the tools that the Internet has made available to us. I'm not so sure that the ability to look up a concept or name on the fly in class makes us better learners -- on the contrary, I think it makes us reliant on an external body of memory. As agents responsible for our own learning, I feel that we are obliged to go into a classroom prepared to engage with the topics at hand. That means spending time outside of class internalizing material as opposed to spending time looking it up in class. More importantly, we should also expect to leave with questions that can't be answered by briefly scrolling down a list of references.

Moreover, the notes that we take in class don't have to be hyper-comprehensive to the point of being verbatim. One of the reasons that the occupation of educator has not been replaced by a sort of teaching mechanism is that an educator provides his students, not with a list of equations or concepts, but with a methodology and a broader understanding of the material. If our use of technology enables us to copy what is said in class word-for-word then technology has proved itself a great tool of transcription. That does not make it a great tool for learning.

Ultimately, though, I am not arguing against technology's role in learning. As a tool for research and collaboration, I think technology has been a magnificent and irreplaceable enabler. Instead, I am arguing for a renewed ownership of our studies and thinking skills in the classroom. We should be able to stand, without crutches, on our own intellectual feet and do whatever legwork is required to make that possible.

We are not, after all, our machines. A man is but what he knoweth, not what he can looketh up.

Po Linn Chia is a Columbia College junior majoring in East Asian studies. She is chief of staff for CMUNNY and a member of the Global Recruitment Committee. Ever the Twain runs alternate Tuesdays.