May 7, 1998

'Technology is like a knife-you can carve, or do somebody in'

Gary Boyd keeps his faith in humanist values

by Phil Moscovitch

Educational Technology Professor Gary Boyd has spent more than 30 years immersed in the world of computers and high-tech tools. But he hasn't bought all the hype.

Asked if he believes that technology will reach its full potential, he answers, "I'm more optimistic about people realizing their potential. The technology is like a knife -- you can use it to carve something beautiful, or you can use it to do someone in." He adds, "I've got an awful lot of faith in the human spirit."

Boyd, who studied physics in university, began teaching at Sir George Williams in 1968. At the time, there was no Educational Technology Program, and studying the uses of television in education was all the rage. Boyd's main interests though, were, as they largely are today, in computers and their possibilities for education.

Thirty years after he started working in the field, "on the whole, we're still not doing a good job using computers in education." Ideally, he believes, computers can be used at lower levels to improve language skills through communication within real communities -- for example, students can use e-mail to communicate with peers in another part of the world.

At higher levels, and in the workplace, Boyd believes strongly in the power of the connectivity and anonymity computers offer. In Ireland, for instance, students at a Protestant and at a Catholic school worked out solutions to a variety of problems as part of a social studies project. And in the process, they gained a greater understanding of each other.

Computers could also help organizations make better decisions and negotiate solutions. "If you go into a computer communication space where people communicate under pseudonyms, there may be more of a chance of coming up with agreement based on arguments, and not who has the loudest voice or the most seductive voice."

Boyd, whose personal library holds over 10,000 books, takes a broad view of educational technology -- one that does more than just deliver specific information within narrow parameters. At its best, it can be the foundation for a more pluralistic and equitable society.

"A community is held together by allegiance to symbols and ritual ways of relating," he writes on his Web site. Rituals, whether those of scientists, merchants or religious orders, "are needed primarily to make life meaningful. . . . A current and historic problem is that one community, in the present case, the global business community, has become excessively predominant. The challenge to educational technology is to use the new media to restore greater pluralism of communal allegiance and performance."

Boyd is clearly troubled by the effects of both budget cuts and shifting priorities in education.

"In the 1960s and early '70s, professors were looked upon as the main assets and in some cases, the precious jewels of the universities. Now the chief celebrated asset of the university seems to be its corporate and individual monument-seeking donors!" he said by e-mail.

In an interview, Boyd adds, "education as job training is a notion that short-changes students and short-changes society."

Maureen Gittens, who works at the Canadian Space Agency and graduates from the Ed Tech Master's Program this spring, was supervised by Boyd. She had nothing but praise for him. "Gary Boyd has been extremely supportive. He's actually someone you can sit down and talk with. He has a listening ear and he doesn't judge. He's there to listen, to help, and, hopefully, to uplift," she said.

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