This post is a short reflection on some aspects of the influence of technology in learning, and is based on my experience as teacher of remote sensing and GIS in higher education settings. I nevertheless think that many aspects of this reflection apply to other fields as well.

A comfortable and amusing side of modernity is that we have at our disposal a plethora of fancy software that will, at a mouse click, create beautiful results without us having to bother about the boring details. This is particularly evident in computing, where we can rapidly get results from data, but more strikingly in visualization problems, where shiny colorful plots can be created in a second. This is all good and fine, but there are dangerous side effects of this.

The heavy price we pay for this handiness is that we very often forget, or even neglect to adequately learn, the essential ideas behind the methods and, in extreme cases, even their purpose. In this way, we unnecessarily expose ourselves to the risk of ignoring the potentials and limitations of our tools. I think that this is most clearly evident when it comes to visualization, a complex field in which many software packages today enable us to create shockingly colorful charts in an eye cast. In this sort of double-sided sword, the tools invite us to produce results rapidly thereby opening the door to forget fundamental aspects of visualization like scientific purpose and human perception.

Conceptual model of scientific visualization, with the three outstanding dimensions and their caveats.
Conceptual model of scientific visualization, with the three outstanding dimensions and their caveats.

Another trap lurking behind is that we may be caught unaware by the fact that we usually become addicted to specific software tools, particularly of the GUI variety, and might end up associating a given procedure with a sequence of clicks on virtual buttons, instead of ideas and equations that can be done in every computer language or even paper and pencil (albeit not recommendable!).

As a teacher in remote sensing and GIS I have seen this unfortunate situation in many higher-education settings, where for a sizable part of students learning goes as to learn some loose basics and then jump to click on programs and produce results. This is not learning, at least not for me. The seriousness of the problem is manifested by the typical question ‘ok, now, how do I do this or that?‘, meaning: ‘which button do I click on now?‘ I assume that this approach will be then transported to other settings, industrial or academic, as the now experts, pressed to produce rapid results but acquainted with performing series of clicks in a particular software package, become fragile to changes in software packages, tool configurations and new problems.

I believe that all this is avoidable. Focusing on the essential core of principles in a discipline can help people to construct their knowledge, upon which long-term academic excellence and professional expertise can be built. In this sense, I agree with the late mathematician Richard Hamming in that developing an attitude of learning to derive results from principles is essential. Learning the principles behind the methods is, as much as learning to learn, a cornerstone of lifelong learning. I believe that stressing on this approach is a way of helping our students become more adaptable and resilient in a changing world.