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September 23, 1997

Technology & the Arts:

Are They In Conflict?

by John H. Strange

In the July 1997 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, Todd Oppenheimer, Associate Editor of Newsweek Interactive, contends that "school districts are cutting programs -- music, art, physical education -- that enrich children's lives to make room for technology despite the fact that there is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching and learning."

I do not normally read the Atlantic Monthly, but it was suggested that it would be a good starting point for a column about the arts and technology. Since I did not have a copy of the article, it was faxed to me. Now, without access to this technology, I would have had to do one of several things: go to the library when it was open, write or call the Atlantic Monthly and order a back copy, or find a friend who would lend me a copy of the July issue. Technology, in the form of a fax, saved me time and money. I had the article on my desk in less than three minutes!

Alas, some of the text was hard to read on the faxed copy since the original had been underlined by a previous reader, and had also been "hi-lited." The fax combined all those lines and colors in such a way that I wished for a clean copy of the article (but not enough to do any of the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph). So I went to the Internet. In less than two minutes I had a clean copy of the article and I had found several additional items of interest to me.

Along side the text of the article on the Atlantic Monthly World Wide Web page were three interactive buttons that would (and did, since I used them) take me to three additional sites. One took me to a set of pages containing several articles and commentaries written by many of the sources cited in Oppenheimer's article. Another interactive button took me to another site which contained many references to the issues covered in Oppenheimer's article and an excellent bibliography of books and articles relating to technology and education. The third interactive button provided a place to comment on Oppenheimer's article. (No comments have been listed as of September 9. But they will have a copy of this article before it is published on paper and you have a chance to read it. In fact, they will get a copy of this article less than a minute after I finish it. And all because of new technologies.)

Am I glad I have access to this technology which gives me instant access to an enormous range of information, and search tools that allow me to find what I want quickly and easily? Absolutely. In fact, I cannot imagine being without access to the World Wide Web (WWW) and the Internet.

Who is Todd Oppenheimer, I wondered. This was not indicated on the faxed copy of the article. Nor was it on the WWW page containing the text of the article. But elsewhere in the WWW site of the Atlantic Monthly I found a list of contributors to the July edition of the magazine. So now we know that Oppenheimer works with technology all the time.

In his article Oppenheimer quotes many people in support of his anti- technology position including Jane Heady, author of Endangered Minds, who described an English teacher who could readily tell whether a student's essay had been composed on a computer. The teacher claimed that if the essay had been composed on a computer because the ideas were disconnected. "They just write one thing, and then they write another one, and they don't seem to see or develop the relationships between them." Wow! And that is caused by using technology?

How much do you want to bet that Oppenheimer's article was written on a word processor? I think his ideas are rather disconnected: he writes one thing, and then another. Maybe that teacher was correct after all!

More seriously, Oppenheimer wrote his article on a computer. And so did I. We both spell-checked the products. And we would not do it any other way! I start this essay with these comments because they seem to me to totally contradict the general theme of Oppenheimer's article in which he argues that money spent on technology in the schools is inappropriate and detracts from the teaching of "improvised fundamentals: teaching solid skills in reading, thinking, and talking; organizing inventive field trips and other rich hands-on experiences; and, of course, building up the nation's core of knowledgeable, inspiring teachers."

Oppenheimer claims that choosing to invest in technology causes the arts to be abandoned -- the arts are the first things cut in any fiscal crisis. Why? I think it is because the reading/writing culture is in control and we don't believe sounds and pictures are as important as text!

But we are currently in a period of significant cultural change. I suggest that we are moving quite rapidly from a culture which depended in large part on the transmission of information in written form. Moreover, that information was primarily in the form of text. But now, a new culture is emerging: a culture not composed of readers and writers (as those of you who read this article are), but rather a culture of listeners and watchers who primarily get and exchange information in the form of multimedia products in which sound, still and motion graphics, still and motion picture are just as important, or even more important, than written data.

When I write such things or when I present these beliefs to an audience, I am often accused of advocating such a change. Far from it, I am merely reporting what I see. But do not despair even though all of your efforts to convert the listener/watchers into reader/writers will fail. (And when the listeners/watchers take over, which will not be too long in the future, all the rules we have put in place to support reading/writing will be abandoned and replaced.)

There is hope. What I find from my teaching and from my work with the listeners/watchers is that we can convert the listeners/watchers into listeners/watchers/authors. And that is a critical change. When students contribute to the dialogue and to the exchange of information, when they help to create the information products of their culture they are no longer identified as poor listeners -- he can't (or doesn't want to) read! Instead it is recognized that students have much to say and are eager to publish their products in the form of multimedia central to their culture.

Technology is central to the conversion of listeners/watchers into listeners/watchers/authors (or producers, or whatever terms is appropriate). A $1,000 computer, a digital source for audio and video ($300-$400), and software (no more than $200) is all the technology it takes. But technology is not sufficient. Doing these things must count in school. it must be seen as "appropriate." It must be encouraged, celebrated, rewarded.

Although I do not have "scientific evidence," come with me sometimes when I go to a middle school or a high school. We will take the students most resistant to this culture's way of teaching and learning and we will try my way of converting listeners/watchers into listeners/watchers/creators. I have no doubt that it will work because I have seen it happen countless times already!

And another thing. When pictures, sounds, graphics, motion pictures and motion graphics come into play, so do the arts. But unfortunately when we focus on graphics, sounds, pictures -- the stuff of the new multimedia culture -- we think they are not "serious" subjects but rather "fun." The old culture (the reading/writing culture of which you and I are a part) fears the replacement of words with pictures and sounds. And when that old culture makes fiscal decisions that reflect their priorities, their beliefs, their attitudes toward what is important, the arts lose.

My position is very different. Technology, instead of being a competitor to the arts, is a critical tool to make sure that the arts assume the central role which they have to play in a listening/watching/authoring world!

We must provide technology to reduce the great inequities that will occur in an age of information if we do not provide all of our students with access to these powerful new tools. And in doing so, we will open the way to make the arts central as we seek to move the new culture from a listening/watching culture to a listening/watching/authoring one.

I hope you now understand my position in this debate. I would make sure that technology is thoroughly infused into our schools. I would encourage a curriculum which honors the development and sharing of projects. I would make the arts -- the creation and use of graphics, pictures and sounds -- the key ingredient in the transformation, through technology, of a listening/watching culture into a listening/watching/authoring culture which is so important to our long term health as individuals and as a nation (which has already happened).

But we will not get there without technology. Nor will we get there if we fail to debate and discuss where we want to go and how to get there!


John H. Strange, Ph.D., is Professor of Behavior Studies and Educational Technology at the University of South Alabama.


The Harbinger, Mobile, AL