Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tools and Education

I wonder what the net effect of having a spell checker will be on the quality of education, particularly with younger generations. I personally have found that I often do not even find the mistakes, I just click through them and make the corrections. I will spell the same word wrong over and over. Spell checker could seriously set back someone who does not know how to spell well or is learning to spell by making it too easy to avoid learning. I wonder what high school and middle school teachers think about this? Are their students typed assignments without error, but their written notes atrocious. I wouldn't be surprised if it is degrading their education.

Once I noticed that I was avoiding spelling and becoming complacent I started to make a strong effort to avoid using spell checker in the traditional fashion. I think if used properly it can be a learning tool. Typically now I use it to check the words and then if I really can't spell it I see what the computer thinks. Then if I am not feeling too lazy I manual type out the correct word. This helps to cement the correct spelling into my memory, reducing the chance that I will make the same error again. At a minimum I try to look at the correct spelling and notice where I was making the mistake. I think since I started doing this my spelling ability has increased. (grammar is an entirely separate issue.)

Like most technologies, they can either make you lazy, or if used properly, they can aid your learning. It is up to the user to decide.

I had a professor in my undergrad who would curse calculators up and down. Preferring to instead do manual calculations. He thought that calculators were degrading the younger generations minds. They can, but only if you let it happen. Again, you can treat it as a positive tool and let it help you, or you can depend on it and have it weaken you.

I had thought of this topic along time ago, but it was reawakened by a question during my PhD proposal presentation. My math professor, Dr. Kupershmidt, asked me if I had done all the algebra by hand or with computer software. I told him I had done it by hand, expecting a positive response, instead he asked, "Why?" I suppose the true skill is in knowing when to use the tools and when to avoid them. In my case I think I did the right thing because it would have been cumbersome to make the computer go in the right direction with the math. However, we should not be afraid to use our tools out of self righteousness or any other reason as well. It is a careful balance.

In the end, we are humans, the reason we are here is because we make tools. We just need to make sure they do not become our demise as well.

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