Is technology good for education? Although a recent book by Neil Selwyn, professor of education at Monash University, asks this very question in its title (Is Technology Good for Education? Polity Press, 2016), the question is not a new one.
The effects of emerging technologies on education have been discussed and debated since at least the time of the ancient Greeks when Plato dismissed the new technology of writing as undeniably bad for education. Since that time, countless technologies have influenced practices of teaching and learning, affecting the ways we think about and understand the world. Printed books, slide projection, moving images, computers and, of course, smartphones (that almost all our students carry these days), are just a few examples of once-new technologies that have been celebrated for their educational potential but also condemned as educational hazards.
An exhibition I am currently organizing with Brandi Goddard (PhD student in Art and Design, University of Alberta) at the Camrose and District Centennial Museum highlights some of the historical technologies used by educators in Alberta. Drawing on items in the Museum’s collection from local schools and schoolteachers, the displays present an early history of education in Camrose and ask visitors to consider how late 19th-and early 20th-century teaching materials compare to the resources we use for teaching and learning today.
Some of the materials on display, such as illustrated books, photographs and glass slides, demonstrate a faith in the power of technology to bring the objects of study into the classroom, if only in mediated form. Other items point towards a more critical attitude towards technology, and an insistence on engaging with objects themselves rather than with their technologically-mediated counterparts.
For example, nature study was a popular approach to teaching that eschewed technological mediation. Local teacher Margaret Fitzgerald’s teaching notes on nature study from the 1930s, found in the Museum’s collection, explain that the aim of nature study was “to waken and develop the child’s power of observation” and that “actual materials” should be used whenever possible in order “to give original sensations.” For nature study enthusiasts, no form of technology could replace the study of real things collected from the student’s immediate surroundings.
Perhaps the most unique set of teaching materials in the Museum’s collection are visual aids made by local teacher Blanche Hanson in the 1930s. Hanson repurposed glossy magazine advertisements, cutting out relevant elements and pasting them onto construction paper. One poster used to teach Canadian history features Samuel de Champlain and combines materials from three different sources. In one of the pictures, the top of a liquor bottle peaks out from the bottom left-hand side, revealing the picture’s origins as an advertisement for Seagram’s whiskey. Hanson’s adaptation of the Seagram’s ad shows how images featuring colonial narratives—here, putting Europeans at the centre of Canadian history—travelled freely across popular and educational media. It is easy to imagine how these narratives, once reproduced as colourful pictures, could become increasingly entrenched with each lesson. This phenomenon raises interesting questions for today’s educators: what narratives are disseminated by today’s educational media? And what role does technology play in shaping these narratives?
Our work on the exhibition is supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and we were assisted by Augustana students Ehren Loos and Dani VanDusen. We invite you all to come to experience the displays as the museum reopens for the summer this May.