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Labun Jordan: Old School

(Host) New technologies are replacing some basic skills, like how to use a fax machine or keep a record player from skipping. As technology writer and commentator Helen Labun Jordan watches her ability to do things like write cursive fall out of fashion, she's also noticing how these changes force us to re-examine what underlying value old skills might have.

(Labun Jordan) The really smart kid at school used to be the one who had memorized the presidents in order and could give you the capital of any country off the top of his head. So, what happened to that kid the first time one of his classmates got a smart phone and could just Google the answers?

We might feel that looking up answers we once memorized is cheating, just like you still can't use spell check in a spelling bee. But it's hard to tell the line between that feeling and simply failing to realize that a particular skill has become obsolete.

When I was in school, the big debate was over whether math classes should embrace the sophisticated new TI-83 calculator. The TI-83 was the height of mobile computing - it graphed trigonometric functions with the push of a button, and once you saw graphing could be that easy, you never wanted to do it by hand again.

After the TI-83's the card catalogue came into question.

And today, even the basic lecture hall is faltering as online lectures become more popular.

There's a reason for these changes. Lectures online can be started at any time,broken into bite sized chunks, and replayed as needed. Calculators saved hours of dull point plotting. But changes like these can also be disconcerting. After all, some staples of education have been around since ancient Greece, so who are we to dismiss them?

While innovation impresses us with what it makes unnecessary, it also challenges us to identify what's valuable in the existing way of doing things.

Free, online lectures force us to re-examine the benefits of going to a university. Friday morning in a lecture hall may not be on the list. But the casual exchange of ideas among friends, a chance to work directly with instructors, and access to facilities that offer everything from genome sequencers to ancient art, are definitely benefits.

As for calculators, when I got to calculus class, our teacher banned all of them, even the old fashioned kind. He didn't want tidy answers, he wanted to see how we solved the problem, with an emphasis on logical thinking and understanding the concepts behind the numbers.

And though physical card catalogues are disappearing, frameworks for organizing information are not.

There are dozens of other learning activities that are old fashioned, but not outmoded. Writing students copy stories out by hand, like pre-Guttenberg scribes, so they can pay detailed attention to how the authors structured each passage. In 2012, the musician Beck caused a stir by releasing his latest album as sheet music. This a publishing strategy from Mozart's time that might be a good strategy for our time too, since giving someone else the means to create music is still an inspiring way to share it.

I'll agree that technological change is notable for what it replaces, but it's also notable for compelling us to think more carefully about what's valuable in our established ways of doing things.

Helen Labun has worked in Vermont nonprofits addressing issues in rural economic development. Today, she is Executive Director of the Vermont Fresh Network, connecting chefs to Vermont farmers in support of the local food economy.
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