Tuesday, 24 May 2011

stupid is as stupid does

Digital technology has gotten this reputation for curing all our ills as far as student engagement goes. The logic you hear often sounds like, "give the digital natives the technology and sit back! Prepare to be amazed!"

I happened to see "Chalkboard Jungle" on the weekend before my first year teaching in 2004. In the (1955) film the new English teacher is desperately trying to engage his angry and disenfranchised inner city students. He eventually finds that the 'new' film projectors catch their attention. He has a talk with one of the older teachers who asks hopefully if the new technology will cure their students' lack of interest. The young teacher shrugs, but he's not about to put down the one thing he's found that takes the heat off.

The frantic grasping at technology hasn't changed. This week someone kindly tweeted this:

... and she's right, it's not the technology. It won't make the teaching work, it won't make people wiser or smarter than they are. Our unwillingness to adapt to change is certainly causing chaos, but what might be worse is our belief that technology will somehow make better people.

In 2006 one of my students brought an Orwellian piece of media futurism into our media studies class:

The part that stuck with me was:

“At it’s best, edited for the most savvy readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper, broader, and more nuanced than anything ever available before. But at it’s worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow, and sensational.”

Pretty good description of modern media use, eh? This piece of speculation was originally written in 2004, and whether or not we end up in a Googlezon meganopoly or not, the simple truth that the internet and digital technology looks to empower its user with access to information remains true. Given great access to information, ignorant people will do ignorant things. Stupid people will enable their stupidity in new, interesting and more encompassing ways; digital media gives you what you ask for.

Believe it or not, technology will not magically cure idiocy, or make all students eager, insightful or, in some cases, even vaguely useful. Technology, be it cell phones, computers or even just internet access, has no inherent ability to improve character, or intelligence. While being morally ambiguous it also tends to hand over information with minimal effort, negating attempts to build self discipline and improve mental stamina around task completion. In the process academic skills, especially complex skills that require long developmental times (literacy, logic, etc), become a foreign concept to a mind that has trained itself around short term narcissistic social media navel gazing.

The brain is a very flexible organ. If we train it with asinine navel gazing, it will end up in a feedback loop that develops a very inaccurate sense of our abilities and self value; social media and technology focused around our wants and needs will kill humility stone dead.

The idea that teaching needs to change into facilitation only seems to feed this vacuum. The act of teaching involves a great deal more than making sure students know how to get to information and providing them with technology to do it. Teachers don't just model learning, they also model civil behavior, intelligence in action, and many other traits you hope students will notice and eventually emulate. Left to their own devices (pun intended), many of the digital natives develop habits that make the digital tools we are developing look more like lobotomy instruments rather than tools to maximize human awareness and learning.

Burying your head in the sand at the onslaught of change doesn't help; ignoring this will just make you irrelevant very quickly.

Adopting a pie in the sky belief in some kind of intuitive magic power children have over technology is ludicrous, actually quite akin to the burying your head in the sand (you're really just transferring responsibility to the magic children).

As mentioned in Davidson's article, we need to start recognizing that people are the prime movers and the technology just amplifies the activity, whatever it is. Until we start rationally looking at what is happening in our rapidly evolving mediascape and assigning responsibility to people's choices, we are going to find ourselves creating fictions and blaming gadgets. In rough seas like these, we need to appreciate some hard truths.