The development of low-cost powerful microprocessors coupled with artificial intelligence technologies have resulted in the so-called smart or intelligent technologies being implemented in devices that have everyday use. Smart phones represent but one category.
These devices connect us to not only people but to immense sources of information and knowledge; in addition to serving as a digital personal assistant (PDA). So having all these resources, literally at our command, do they make us more intelligent, creative and productive?
In considering this issue, the case of "open book" exams might provide a clue. Most academics will tell you that students generally do not do better in open book exams unless it is a multiple choice test or one of regurgitation. Why? Because knowledge does not equate to intelligence. The understanding and skilful application of knowledge to solve a problem would qualify.
So whilst the smart phone does put at our disposal a tremendous amount of information, we still need to use it effectively. In fact, there is emerging evidence that smart technologies might be having the opposite effect: making us think less and copy or plagiarise more.
Before the advent of the electronic calculator, arithmetic and mental arithmetic to be more specific, was taught to all. Singing of the two-times and three-times tables etc has been criticised as a mindless activity. But provided that one sang it enough times, it became embedded in our mental framework and this provided a frame of reference and a reality check.
One would know reflexively, for example, that seven times seven is 49. As an example, when doing or checking calculations on the bill in the mall or market, either mentally or with a calculator, you can "sense" when the numbers do not tally. It is amazing, at least to the dinosaurs schooled in mental arithmetic, that students now have no conception whatsoever when they arrive at ridiculously wrong numbers at the end of the calculations. So being endowed with a high-speed computing device does not necessarily make us more numerate. It certainly makes us more dependent and less analytical. Analysis and critical examination of data are fundamental to intelligence.
Smart technology can be effectively used by intelligent people to make them more effective but it does not endow intelligence. Maybe this would partially explain why, despite the enormous expense expended in all forms of education and the ubiquitous nature of computers in T&T, our productivity is still so low.
Maybe the thinking is that by "throwing" computers and degrees to one and all, we would produce a hard-working, intelligent workforce. This approach is typically Trini: spend the problem away. When would we learn that it does not work?
Computer-based technologies can be extremely distracting and hence may serve to reduce productivity instead of enhancing it. Many studies have shown that workers spend an inordinate amount of time either surfing the Net or checking and replying to e-mails. With enhanced connectivity, speed, rise of social and entertainment media, students and workers now spend less time on reflection, which is reflected in the ability to critically think and analyse.
It is noted in several studies that students now have drastically reduced attention spans. This naturally progresses to the work place. So individuals constantly flit from the task at hand to check their e-mail inbox or to text messages or get an update on cricket/football scores or their Facebook page or read and send group messages. It is estimated that, in some workplaces, this consumes two to near four hours daily.
Smart technologies can be a boon or a bane; it is up to the individual. In the national or societal context, guidelines and policies should be developed and instituted. It is both essential and critical that policymakers in the education sector understand clearly that technology serves as a tool or a partner at best and is more effective in hands of analytic and creative individuals. Above all, emphasis must be placed on learning, analysis and reflection if we are to use these technologies to create and innovate.