Do all the new devices around the world that we now use to get information and communicate separate or bring us together?
That either-or question has been debated since the telegraph, telephone, radio, and television became common technologies. The question pinches again with the swift spread of smart phones, social media, and dependence on the Internet.
Sherry Turkle’s recent book title, Alone Together, says it all. High-tech devices offer the fantasy of connection and companionship without personal intimacy, she says. Thus, people feel even more lonely after they “friended” someone on Facebook or texted 25 times in 10 minutes someone they just met.
What is missing from Turkle’s argument is a baseline for comparison of now and then. Has there been a “golden age” where most people felt connected to family, friends, and community? We do not know from Turkle’s book because she does not compare explicitly the present moment to an earlier time. She does implicitly compare, of course, since that it is the basis of her argument.
COMPARING THEN AND NOW PEOPLE USE OF PUBLIC SPACE
Rutgers sociologist Keith Hampton recently tried to answer the question of whether technology is driving people apart or bringing them together by comparing sociability of people in public places over thirty years ago and now. Here is what he did.
Hampton found time-lapse films taken in the late-1970s for an earlier study done by sociologist William Whyte in various urban public places such as New York City’s Bryant Park and the steps of the Metropolitan Art Museum.
Then Hampton and graduate students between 2008 and 2010 used cameras atop a 16-foot tripod to film both areas. They described and analyzed a total of 38 hours of film from that earlier period of Whyte’s research in public spaces and their current research. They compared the two time periods by sampling from 38 hours of film at 15-second intervals accumulating nearly 10,000 observations, coding individuals on film for sex, group size, “loitering”, and phone use (for the 2008-2010 data).
What Hampton found is that being sociable in public places has increased since the late-1970s. Of course, critics have said that Hampton filming public spots in the middle of the business day rather than other times of day, would affect results. Or as Sherry Turkle pointed out when a reporter asked her about Hampton’s findings, she said that Hampton might be right about public spaces but technology still may have, for example, “corrosive effects in the home: what it does to families at the dinner table.”
Does Hampton’s use of then-and-now film of people in public places settle the debate over technology’s effect on sociability? Hardly. But his research does compare two points in time which is sorely missing in assessing effects of technology on everything from mixing in public spaces to intimacy, to companionship, to, yes, even schooling.
I make this leap to teaching and learning and the the effects of technology on both because there have been “then and now” studies comparing teacher access to and use of technology with students.
COMPARING ACCESS AND TEACHER USE OF ELECTRONIC TECHNOLOGIES IN CLASSROOMS
When one considers that information electronic technologies, beginning with film, radio, television, and desktop computers, have been in schools since the 1920s, comparative data are available to determine to what degree teachers and students then had access and how those devices were used.
Until desktop computers came along, most of the earlier technologies for communicating information were infrequently available to students. Teachers were the gatekeepers and even they had limited access to film projectors, radios, and instructional television in the decades after the 1920s. For those small numbers of teachers who did use these devices, generally they were used for the entire group of students at one time. Most teachers and students might see a film or hear a radio program, or view a TV program monthly or a few times a year.
With the onset of desktops in the 1980s, laptops in the 1990s, and now hand-held devices such as smart phones and tablets, access to these tools have broadened considerably for both teachers and students. Since the early 1980s when computer labs and one computer for every classroom were the reform du jour, the swift spread of electronic devices has lowered the national ratio of computers to students from 1:125 in 1984 to 1:5 students in 2009. In many schools, across the country, that ratio is now 1:1.
It is clear, then, compared to earlier periods most teachers and students now have access to a variety of machines for gaining information and communicating with one another. There are baseline data for comparing access in different time periods.
But access is not classroom use of devices.
USE OF CLASSROOM DEVICES THEN AND NOW
When it comes to teacher use of desktops, laptops and now tablets, there also have been changes over time in frequency and duration of use. It is clear that since the early 1980s and with the rapid spread of electronic devices and software, more and more teachers are using computers for classroom lessons. In a study of teacher use of machines that I did in the mid-1980s, I predicted that a minority of teachers would be using computers in their lessons decades later. I was wrong.
Where I was correct, however, in comparing then and now was that high-tech champions (and vendors as well) expected that teachers using these devices with students would shift from teacher-centered practices to student-centered ones. Comparing then and now, that shift has not occurred (see here, here, and here)
So do all the new devices around the world that we now use to get information and communicate separate or bring us together? Even with the innovative research of Keith Hampton comparing two points in time, the question remains unanswered.
Not so for gauging teacher access and use to computers for the past three decades. The answers, using “then and now” comparisons, are available.