In response to my column about how handheld devices are affecting the reading and writing habits of young people, Donna Korman from Arlington, Texas, reported on some disturbing trends.
The district where she teaches sent her to an all-day workshop on using technology to enhance learning for English language learners. At that workshop she heard "three alarming statements":
1. Soon students will no longer need to learn how to read because everything will be read to them.
2. Soon students will no longer need to learn how to write because speech-to-text technology will make writing unnecessary.
3. Students don't need to remember information, only where to find it.
Although skeptical, Korman is dismayed by how technology is being misused in the classroom:
"We are seeing a push in the schools to incorporate more technology at the expense of reading and writing. Creating PowerPoint presentations is replacing writing essays. Answering questions on a video is taking the place of reading literature. With all the research that is surfacing about the harmful effects of technology, we can only hope that the trend reverses itself sooner than later."
With Korman's concerns in mind, I recently attended a different gathering of educators and educated people, one that gave me hope for technology's potential to shape our future in positive ways. It was a commencement reception for students earning their master's degrees in management of technology from the University of Minnesota's Technological Leadership Institute, where I teach communication.
At that gathering, Prof. Massoud Amin, who directs the institute, spoke of astonishing developments in technology, developments that might be taken as support for the alarming statements made by the presenter at Korman's workshop: plastic cards available by the time the movie "Mission: Impossible 5" is released that will allow you to select from more than 2,000 movies, smartphones linked to service providers with your secure confidential medical data that you can point at packages in a supermarket and be told if the product is medically safe or recommended for you, single fiber optics capable of holding all the information known to humankind.
Will these "technology triumphs" make reading, writing and remembering — in other words, thinking — obsolete?
Prof. Amin answered that question by reminding us that, for all its astonishing powers, technology is of most value when it is managed by intelligent, ethical people — in other words, when it is used in conjunction with the human mind. "The empires of the future," he said, quoting Winston Churchill, "are the empires of the mind."
Like Korman, I worry about the misuse of technology, and I find some of the trends alarming, but my conclusions run exactly opposite those of the presenter at her workshop.
Given the opportunities and challenges presented by our brave new world of technology, I believe that proficiency in reading and writing — even in altered and evolving forms — has never been more critical to our well-being. What better way to cultivate our minds, hone our intellects and sharpen our thinking?
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.