Bridging the gap between “training” aspirations and outcomes

Douglas Englebart began his essay “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” (1962) with an explanation of what he meant by the first phrase:

By “augmenting human intellect” we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. 

Engelbart’s operationalization of this phrase is interesting because the de facto assumption is that we all arrive on the planet capable of augmentation, and the degree of our subsequent augmentation is largely based upon training. This is made clear in Engelbart’s discussion of the H-LAM/T system, which stands for “Human using Language, Artifacts, Methodology, in which he is Trained”. The specifics of this system are less important for my purposes than Engelbart’s fundamental expectation that training is the mechanism by which we are able to bring all of our innate, evolved, or created augmentations into effective and efficient practice. Engelbart asserted in his report that, for example, one would have no expectation that a person who had never encountered the concept of a car would be able to effectively drive a vehicle and engage in the complicated negotiation of traffic, driving regulations, and so forth, but that it was perfectly possible to incrementally train this person to do so over time. Similarly, in the latter section of his report, Engelbart provides a hands-on visualization exercise from the viewpoint of the reader wherein the reader sits down with a researcher and is trained to think about the process of documentation and referencing differently in order to make the most effective use of a hypothetical computer.

This concept of training being the key to augmentation (regardless of medium) is a crucial point when we think about the incorporation of new media into education. We’re all fundamentally capable–we begin as beings wired for augmentation and grow that ability over time–yet this leads inevitably (for me, anyway) to the conclusion that certain approaches to training are going to be far more effective than others at unlocking our ability to augment ourselves. Thus why I bring new media in the form of educational technologies into the mix. Unlike traditional human language, which we’re fairly well-wired to absorb like sponges at this point, the use of modern technological artifacts isn’t, per se, something that we evolved to be good at. Death by PowerPoint  is a common complaint amongst students and working professionals alike. We have tools that we often use in an attempt to train, but we don’t always use them in a way that actually augments the intellect of others. If we are going to use educational technologies as training mechanisms to augment the intellect of others, it’s important that we do so effectively. We want our audience to walk away with comprehensive understanding rather than the superficial grasp of the documentation concept achieved by Engelbart’s reader before the researcher pushed the reader to really apply critical thinking to the task at hand (rather than going off of the standard operating model of the time period).

A great example of this conundrum was covered by The Atlantic in a piece by Phil Nichols called “Go Ahead, Mess With Texas Instruments: Why educational technologies should be more like graphing calculators and less like iPads. An Object Lesson“. I was intrigued by the assertion in the title that an antiquated educational technology could be better in the classroom than an iPad, of all things. After all, iPads can access and beautifully display an almost infinite trove of knowledge via applications. How could a TI-83 possibly compete with that?

The answer lies in the calculator’s ability to be programmed. The author’s assertion is that students are able to learn actively, incrementally, and independently on these calculators (thus augmenting their intelligence) because they can code their own programs. One might ask “what about coding applications?”, which we discussed in class last week as an example of how the average user can become involved in the evolution of technologies. But that’s not truly an egalitarian or accessible option, especially for the average classroom, because, as Nichols observes:

Where Texas Instruments graphing calculators include a programming framework accessible even to amateurs, writing code for an iPad is restricted to those who purchase an Apple developer account, create programs that align with Apple standards, and submit their finished products for Apple’s approval prior to distribution. As such, for the average student, imaginative activities on an iPad are always mediated by pre-existing apps and therefore, are limited to virtual worlds created by others, not by students themselves.

I think this is a fascinating point. While Nichols is primarily focused on the K-12 sector in this discussion, it clearly applies to higher education as well. iPads are fantastic for some training purposes, but I buy Nichols’ argument that they have pitfalls when it comes to developing engaged learners. I seem to keep harping on this in my entries, but I think this is just a twist on the idea of mindful engagement. We have found a host of ways in which to augment the intellect through training using educational technologies, but the question of whether we are really accomplishing our aims is one I will clearly be revisiting in different iterations throughout this course.

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