New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman states in his op-ed article about the book The Second Machine Age: “Our generation will have more power to improve (or destroy) the world than any time before, relying on fewer people and more technology” (Sunday Review, 11 January 2014). As a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, I recognize technology’s important role in our education and leadership development as future naval officers. However, in this new digital age, I am disconcerted. Computerized systems are meant to enhance learning, but as a result of technological integration, we are beginning to supplant our critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that, as future leaders, we need. In this manner, digital amalgamation disrupts our education and professional development. Many thinkers are concerned with the implications of technological failure, but they do not address the question of what it creates—and, perhaps more important, what it fails to create.
Technology is changing what and how we learn. Regardless of midshipmen’s majors or service selections, we take technical courses, and new courses are introduced to ensure that we keep pace with the latest developments. For instance, two courses on cyber security are now compulsory for graduation, a cyber operations major exists, the Center for Cyber Security Studies has been established, and by 2018 a building on the yard will be dedicated to cyber. Clearly cyber plays a significant role in what we learn—of necessity, since the Navy we will lead upon commissioning is itself extremely technical.
Additionally, the manner in and frequency with which digital systems are integrated into the classroom is evolving. Professors have the ability to assign homework via programs such as Wiley Plus and Blackboard. This integration decreases the amount of grading, allowing instructors more time to provide students with extra instruction and enabling them to work on their research.
Midshipmen are expected to accomplish more than the typical college student, and technological integration is the means by which this is possible. Homework, used as reinforcement of concepts learned in the classroom, is for some classes entirely online. For instance, all my chemistry and physics homework is completed online, an excellent means of learning when carried out properly. However, problems emerge when one realizes the program seeks only the correct answer. It does not care how you get there or if you understand the concept; it simply knows whether or not your answer is correct. To free up some time in their overloaded schedules, midshipmen often turn to yet more technology.
Chegg, an online study aid, is available to anyone with Internet access. The Wiley and Blackboard programs provide variations on problems in the textbook, but in many instances “learning” means simply plugging in new numbers (which are provided) and following the steps outlined for the solution. Thus, students believe that time and energy can be saved by finding similar answers online. Furthermore, oftentimes when I encounter a difficult homework question, I use Google to search for a comparable problem. In an environment where we are expected to accomplish more, spending time problem-solving and thinking critically can easily be trumped by the desire to complete our numerous tasks. This mentality defeats the entire purpose of the homework, and correspondingly of learning.
The process of learning may, in fact, be turning into a technologically driven regurgitation of information. There may be no need to be proficient, because if we are stumped, the Internet provides a database of solutions. The situation deters many midshipmen from engaging in real intellectual pursuits. Not only does this disrupt learning, it also hampers our development as officers. Thus, in seeking to facilitate learning, technology, when misused, may have the reverse effect.
Technology is necessary for future naval officers. But the ability to resolve issues and conflicts without depending on it to discover the answer is also crucial. This expertise depends on the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills developed during our education at the Naval Academy. Thus, we need to think more about the use of technology and the effects of its implementation. We must use it appropriately: to enhance learning, not to replace it.