Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Human Memory and Technology in Education

This is the first in a mini series of posts exploring issues regarding technological enhancement in learning and education, featuring two papers that have appeared in the “Cheating Education” special issue of Educational Theory. This post is provided by Kathy Puddifoot, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Durham and Cian O’Donnell, Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Bristol. They introduce their paper "Human Memory and the Limits of Technology in Education".




Have you ever had the intuition that there are risks associated with students or teachers supplanting traditional methods of learning with the use of technologies that store and provide easy access to information, such as cloud storage, note-taking applications, open access sources like Wikipedia, or social media resources?

It can be difficult to articulate exactly what is problematic about the use of such technologies. They provide a way of storing accurate representations of information that can be easily searched, edited, copied and shared. The technologies can compensate for the limits of human memory, which is limited in terms of accuracy, storage capacity, and the ability to search and access information. 

However, the task of our paper is to articulate one specific risk associated with the use of the target technologies. We argue that the use of the technologies risks impeding one of the most important goals of education: the transference of learning.

Transference of learning occurs when information that is learnt in a certain educational context is used in another context, either inside or outside of education. 

For example, a student might learn in their history class about the problems that occurred within a particular country at a particular point in time due to the rise of populism. They might form a general representation of the dangers that can be associated with populism, and apply this learning when they consider what is likely to have been the case in other countries where populism has historically been prevalent. On noticing that populism is on the rise, they might apply their learning to what is going on in their own country right now. Transference of learning is a crucial goal of education: educators aim to provide knowledge that can be applied in different contexts.

Our claim is that human memory systems serve various functions that facilitate transference of learning. They link together information about different events, build abstract representations that contain the gist of an event without including details that might not be found in related cases, and allow memories to be updated in light of the most recent information that is available. 

The same functions are not performed by information storage and access technologies. Therefore there is a risk that the functions will not be performed at all if such technologies supplant human memory systems. The increased use of these technologies within educational settings could therefore prevent transference of learning.

The argument in our paper is built upon a rich body of research from cognitive science, computer science, neuroscience, and machine learning. Work in each of these domains has challenged the view that memory operates like a storehouse, passively storing discreet files of information, instead highlighting the active nature of human memory systems. 

We acknowledge that the storehouse view of memory might suggest that the technologies we discuss should supplant ordinary learning depending on human memory systems, because the technologies would operate as better storage facilities. 

However, we argue that the the more accurate view of human memory systems as actively engaging in processes of linking information, abstracting and updating existing memories that is provided by a rich body of research that we discuss strongly suggests that the increased use of technologies in education risks impeding a crucial goal of education, i.e. transference of learning.

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