Thanks, but I can see the view just fine from here.

Technology and Education: 3-D Printers and Typing Lessons

When I was little, my older brothers taught me how to build with Legos.  It seemed only a matter of simple engineering that brought the creations of our minds to life.  We constructed and tore apart those Legos so many times, they began to wear out.  My favorites were the pieces with moving parts.  We made no small number of planes, helicopters, space ships, villages, and odd contraptions that transported small of sticks, rocks, and other natural bits of interest around our play area.  With Legos, nothing was impossible with a little ingenuity and a healthy dose of imagination.  I couldn’t  envision a toy more adept at translating the visions of childhood fancy into reality.

My parents loved to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation in the late 80’s – back when each week’s show was new and played during prime evening hours.  I always wished I could have a machine in my kitchen that would make my food and drink materialize on command.  Never did my 8 year-old mind entertain the notion that futuristic technology like the food synthesizer would develop in my lifetime. While I can’t conjure up my breakfast just yet, I can use a MakerBot to print myself some bacon and eggs.  It’s only a matter of time before 3-D printers have the capability to use edible materials.

Just as I never dreamed I would see such advances in printing, I never anticipated the impact these technologies would have on the development of education.   My 7 year-old daughter told me a few weeks ago that she is learning how to type in school.  She told me this over my cell phone as I was working in my garden.  When I was her age, our phone was screwed to our kitchen wall with a cord we kids wished would stretch all the way across the living room.  I think I take my cell phone for granted.  I know for a fact that my daughter has never used a rotary phone in her life.  “We use Microsoft Word in computer class,” she said, as though everyone learns to type on Microsoft Word.  As though everyone has a PC to learn it on.

It’s true, MS Word has been a household fixture since before my daughter was born, but I learned to type on a typewriter that was revolutionary because it had the ability to erase a mistyped letter.  Microsoft Word’s versatility and variety of features allows it to be simple enough for a second grader to learn  how to type and complex enough to allow businesses to add charts, graphs, customized headings and other features (to name a scant few) to their documents.

What do these advances in technology mean for the education of our children?  I confess that I feel blessed to have learned to type on a typewriter.  In fact, I feel like my 7 year-old has missed out on the typewriting experience; she has missed the feeling of relief at loading the paper correctly, the fascination of watching each letter stamp itself on the page at her command, and the rhythmic clacking of the keys as they move under her fingers.  Why should I feel regretful that she learned on a computer?  Is there something about learning with less advanced technology that produces higher quality work?  Or am I just envious that MS Word wasn’t in my home until I was nearly an adult?

Our world’s advances in technology are changing the way we learn.  For instance, The Closet Transhumanist blog is part of an assignment for my Mass Communication class.  Instead of traditional reports this semester, my professor wanted his students to utilize new methods of communication and information exchange.  It doesn’t stop there, though.  While the blog itself is for my Mass Comm class, the subject matter – new technology as applies to the Singularity and Transhumanism – is for philosophy class that I’m taking in school.  I have to wonder if these two classes would have overlapped without the vehicle of social networking.  I rather doubt it.  The fact that they overlap at all speaks to the convergence that emerging technology keeps mentioning.  Everything seems to influence everything else.

So now we have printers that make 3-D objects instead of printing 2-D pictures of them.  Increasingly, 3-D printers are used in classrooms to help children with different learning styles.  In fact, schools across the country are beginning to develop personal learning environments that are tailored to the individual student.  The New Media Consortium’s 2011 Horizon Report: K-12 Edition says of personal learning environments:

“In concept, personal learning environments would encourage students to approach learning in ways best suited to their individual needs. Visual learners, for example, might be able to obtain material from a different source than auditory learners. Students using PLEs may further benefit from the practice of keeping track of, and curating, their own resource collections. Personal learning environments are seen as a way to shift the control over learning–particularly its pace, style, and direction–to the learner.”

Does 3-D printing assist kinesthetic learners?  It does perhaps, and it’s a hop, skip and a jump from synthesizing my breakfast, so initially, I’m eager to get one in my office and start creating whatever I can dream up.  But, at the end of the day, all of these creations, while beginning in my mind, come to fruition because of a machine.  Part of me gets to wondering:

Can a 3-D printed creation invoke the singular sense of reverence many of us feel when we touch, admire, and handle an object that has been skillfully made by hand?  The Amish are famous for their carpentry and quilts.  Does our future turn the task of making expertly-crafted furniture and bedding over to a machine?  Some artists believe that each piece they create holds a portion of the maker’s energy.  I am inclined to agree (comfort food made by someone who loves to cook is one example), and can’t help but wonder what sort of energy, if any, is infused into creations produced by a machine?

And regarding how this changes education, are we robbing our children of the opportunity to learn a trade, or are we simply allowing our advances to make room for new trades?  Are tech support experts, computer networking specialists, web hosting companies, etc. our modern-day carpenters, shoe makers, and tailors?  And what of the patience and self-discipline that are required for a handmade project to be completed?  How is our evolving education teaching these?

I think I miss my typewriter.

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4 responses

  1. Jon

    New improvements are almost always made because we aren’t satisfied with the way things are… The question that plagues my mind is are we doomed to this path that someone else chose because we will never be unsatisfied with the quality of our shoe cobbling equipment; because we don’t work with them anymore.

    October 24, 2011 at 3:45 pm

  2. CK

    I remember watching a video on saddle making and rope making and hearing the craftsman say, “If you ever feel like you need more patience, go braid a rope.” I thought that was so interesting. But, I think you are correct. We are losing so many amazing, hand craft skills as we invent machines to do our “mundane” work for us.
    My one year old kid picks up the ipad and know how to use it INSTANTLY. Haha. Not necessarily all bad… just interesting to watch as things change and evolve. I think it is kind of fun to witness.
    I really enjoyed going to a museum in Rupert, Idaho this last week and seeing things like telephone switch boards that my Grandma used to operate. Some day our kids will see our dishwashers and think, Wow, Mom? You really had to rinse and load that thing???

    October 24, 2011 at 10:59 pm

  3. TCT

    I know what you mean. I wonder about our dependence on technology in times of economic stress. My father is a master gardener not only because he loves to garden but also so he can share his skills (and his crop) with those who don’t know how to work the land. I have a feeling that “antiquated” trades like woodworking and blacksmithing will make a speedy comeback should humankind be suddenly without their technological appendages someday.

    October 24, 2011 at 11:43 pm

  4. lamuckraker

    Older generations always will speak nostalgically of the technology they grew up using. Only 18 myself, I’m sure I will find myself in your position one day. Technology is nothing to be shunned though, not that it can be. Technological advances are inevitable. We can only embrace them, and we should embrace them. Used properly, technology makes our lives easier. Advances are the result of human ingenuity and the belief that man can do better. And time and time again, we prove it to be true.

    October 28, 2011 at 8:39 pm

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