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Knewton Reads: “The Information” and the Impact of Technology on Thought

Posted in Knerds on April 23, 2012 by

James Gleick’s “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” was the pick for this month’s Knewton book club. The book covers the history of information — from the invention of scripts and alphabets to the Morse code and the arrival of the Information Age. We’ll be posting reviews throughout the month; read others here.

In “The Information,” Gleick flies through centuries of early history, describing monumental changes in the representation of thought from oral language to pictographs, to ideographs, to written language. He presents the argument that these developments in language represent a much more significant development: changes in the representation and levels of thought. Citing Eric Havelock, Gleick argues that written language enabled conscious thought, converting experiences to a prose of ideas, which triggered a change in the human psyche to embrace abstraction. In contrast, Plato took a completely different view on the impact of the written language on human thought, arguing that the “innovation will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it… [offering them] the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.”

While they held two opposing arguments, Havelock and Plato shared the belief that there were huge implications from the development of a new technology — writing– on human thought and wisdom. As Gleick goes on to argue, the current technological innovations enable other forms of information, such as bytes, which can be seen as changes in the representations of thought. Applying this to the education space, there are many arguments synonymous to Havelock and Plato’s, on whether or not educational technologies will be effective in furthering students’ thought capabilities, or in Plato’s words, delivering greater “wisdom” to students. Havelock and Plato’s arguments provide important insights to that question, that while “educational technology” has become a term and a sector of its own, it encompasses a large span of technologies — from computers to Knewton’s adaptive learning engine, and possibly even writing itself.

In this context, it seems that the jury’s still out on the broader question of whether educational technologies are increasing our wisdom or knowledge, even for an old technology like writing. Our best bet is to narrow down that question on technology by technology basis. While we may never be truly able to resolve the debate until we delve into epistemological questions of defining wisdom, we can measure possible proxies of ┬ástudent knowledge, performance, or proficiencies, and the impact of each technology on those proxies.

Here at Knewton, we’re doing our part by measuring our proxies. We are starting to see some really interesting data on the impact that our technology can have on student learning. In the process, we’re making some gains toward the epistemological question too, by continuing to refine our measurements of those proxies. For now, we’re working on them internally, but we’re excited to share these out with everyone very soon.