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Computers, Creativity and Cross-Cultural Exchange


“Too often, technology in education is used simply to put study materials online or for narrow exercises in arriving at a pre-determined right answer.” - Xiadong Lin

By Xiaodong Lin

In 2005, when I conducted a training on creative problem-solving for 500 teachers in China’s Shandong province, the organizers locked the doors so the teachers couldn’t leave.

To Westerners, the irony is obvious: what could be less likely to inspire creativity than locking people into a lecture? Yet we do the equivalent with computers and the Internet—tools with tremendous potential for stimulating people to think differently.

Too often, technology in education is used simply to put study materials online or for narrow exercises in arriving at a pre-determined right answer.

Yet these tools can enable people to connect, collaborate, discover and create—and not merely within a school or a community, but across cultures. Such interaction offers opportunities to redefine problems, generate solutions from multiple perspectives and reexamine one’s own assumptions.

Still, putting people with diverse values in contact doesn’t automatically generate creativity. My student Qing Xia has found that among U.S. and Chinese students collaborating on a project online, only those who exchanged information about their lives and personal values relevant to the learning tasks were willing to collaborate at a deep level, which in turn led to creative problem-solving.

The types of media through which people interact also matter. For example, 25 million people around the world play collaborative online games. Studies show these people often feel they have formed deeper, more meaningful connections with their collaborators than those they form through email or in face-to-face interactions.

Computer games aren’t a panacea for creativity, but they offer clues about how to stimulate it. People need exposure to multiple perspectives; the opportunity to redefine questions —because different values and viewpoints stimulate multiple approaches; to undertake work in a spirit of adventure; a tolerance for ambiguity; time to reflect on their work; and structure of some kind, because creativity isn’t innate—it needs cognitive and social guidance.
But perhaps most of all, to be creative, people need the opportunity to create something. Recently, when I asked my six-year-old daughter why she likes computers she said, “Because they allow me to make things that I dream.”

Xiaodong Lin is Associate Professor of Math, Science and Technology


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