At a School of Community and Public Affairs panel last Wednesday, a few dissenting voices spoke up against the current chorus of approval for the growing role of technology in education.
Marita Moll, head of research and technology at the Canadian Federation of Teachers, opened the panel by asking what price a university pays when it embraces technology as a cure-all for its budget crisis. She gave the example of "superclasses" for as many as 1,200 students, and costing up to $500,000 for multimedia equipment, money "which could be used to hire a lot of professors."
"Instead, classes like this can be taped, and in the future, a university in a budget squeeze could offer the course without having to hire a full professor.
Only some, much cheaper, teaching assistants would be needed."
Moll said that this scenario is unfair to both professors and students. She quoted an article by York University Professor David Noble in the latest issue of the Monthly Review.
"[Noble] even provides some examples where the original professors, having put together the lectures now being sold by the university, find themselves out of a job. Then they get hired on as teaching assistants in their own courses. That must be surreal, to say the least."
As for students, "when they are asked, [they] have rejected this 'cybercounterfeit' for education. Students have said they want the face-to-face education they paid for."
Maryse Fontaine, a client manager for higher education and research sectors at IBM Canada, countered that students are being offered a chance to prepare for the technical demands of the workplace.
"Why is the classroom changing [to incorporate technology]? Technical knowledge adds value to a student beyond his or her Bachelor's or Master's. everything else being equal, employers will pick the candidate with the most computer and technical knowledge. This is an investment in the future."
She said that both professors and students benefit from technology. With everyone just an e-mail away from their professors and classmates, "students have access to school resources 24 hours a day, not just during school hours.
Computers offer rapid communication between professors and students, and among students doing class projects, which complements, but never replaces, classroom interaction."
Peter McNally of the McGill University Graduate School of Library and
Information Studies blasted the lackadaisical preservation of texts common to the information age - a particular affront to a librarian.
"In the McGill Library, we have medieval manuscripts which are 1,000 years old, a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, which is almost 600 years old. Yet these blips on the screen - how long will they last? How many of you have valuable information on an old disk, and are unable to get in?"
The last word went to the pro-technology camp, who outnumbered the skeptics 3-to-2 on the panel. Mario Robert, president of Montreal knowledge management systems software company Novasys, said that only technology can keep up with today's information demands.
"Information on a given subject doubles about every five to seven years, so it is vital to be able to update content consistently. Information is not static."
Robert Bibeau, of the Ministere de l'education de Quebec's Direction des ressources didactiques, argued that technology is never inherently good or bad; the key is the use to which it is put.
"The Quebec government is spending $350 million to introduce technology in the classroom. When it comes to education, that money will be well spent if technology is used to create a learning environment. It's as simple as that."
The lecture was organized by SCPA students Shirley Callaghan, Nadia Therrien and Lynda Lyness.