Blame The Technology, As Always

Speaking of doing things the way we always have,1 a report from a teachers union in Northern Ireland calls for “urgent action over the impact of modern technology on children’s ability to learn at school”.

Nothing new here. You’ve probably read many stories like this, ones where educators, parents, politicians, and others express concerns over changes they see in kids, brought about by (more blamed on) technology. They’ve been told for years/decades/centuries.

And this from an elementary teacher quoted in this BBC story strikes me as the fundamental error in that call for “urgent action”.

There’s a complete lack of motivation among many of my pupils – these gadgets are really destroying their ability to learn.

So, the technology is at fault.

Ok, I have to ask: is it possible the lack of motivation in your students has less to do with the “gadgets” and more about what and how you’re teaching? Could it be you’re blaming the technology when you should be considering other factors?

It’s not just in the UK. Many education “experts” here in the US also assume that the rest of the world can fundamentally shift around us, with kids having access to powerful communication tools and networks (and, yes, complex games), but the curriculum and instructional practice of school can stay exactly the same.

Blame the Internet!

I don’t understand some of the writers employed by the Washington Post. Maybe they’ve been living inside the bubble of the infamous “beltway” too long. Or possibly they’re trying to write satire and the point never gets across.

Take, for example, a column from today’s paper that starts with the line “If I could, I would repeal the Internet.”. The writer’s primary thesis, as best I can determine, seems to be that the “terrifying danger” posed by the threat of cyberwar far outweighs the “relatively modest” benefits of the web.

He then goes on to lay out a variety of doomsday possibilities (disruption of the power grid, decimation of the financial system, Chinese hackers, etc.) to be brought about by the Internet, evidently drawn from a report, a book, and conversations with cybersecurity experts (all of whom profit from worst case scenarios).

And then he ends the column with this conclusion.

All this qualifies our view of the Internet. Granted, it’s relentless. New uses spread rapidly. Already, 56 percent of U.S. adults own smartphones and 34 percent have tablets, says the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But the Internet’s social impact is shallow. Imagine life without it. Would the loss of e-mail, Facebook or Wikipedia inflict fundamental change? Now imagine life without some earlier breakthroughs: electricity, cars, antibiotics. Life would be radically different. The Internet’s virtues are overstated, its vices understated. It’s a mixed blessing – and the mix may be moving against us. [my emphasis]

Another shortsighted pundit placing total blame for a problem (or potential problem in this case) on the technology involved rather than on the other, more human factors of how it’s used. And ignoring the fact that digital networks are a relatively recent invention (especially the part where everyone can have access) and we are only at the beginning of their evolution and application.

A similar reasoned, logical argument* could also have been made for those earlier, life-changing breakthroughs he lists, plus ships, trains, chemistry, the telephone, television and many more. Especially early in their lifetimes when society was working its way through the disruptions they caused.

You can debate the benefits of having a ubiquitous, always on communications network available in every home and classroom (which it’s not, yet). Certainly we need to address many problems in the way the technology is used, with some people doing very silly and even stupid things with the power they have.

However, only someone who has not been paying attention over the past fifteen years or so could declare that the internet has not enabled many fundamental, positive changes for society.

I wonder if the editor responsible for this columnist thought he was kidding.

Update (later today): David Weinberger suggests we repeal the First Amendment and oxygen using the same reasoning as the Post writer, then provides a MadLibs version to do the same for anything you don’t like. You too can be a Washington columnist.

* That was an attempt at satire, in case it wasn’t obvious. :-)

Alternatives to Fear

Following up on that last post, in addition to the study summary, the Consumer Reports article includes, at the end, after all the scary stuff, nine ways to protect yourself online.

Most of them make a lot of sense, and not just on Facebook.

Think before you type. Even if you delete an account (which takes Facebook about a month), some info can remain in Facebook’s computers for up to 90 days.

Regularly check your exposure. Each month, check out how your page looks to others. Review individual privacy settings if necessary.

Protect basic information. Set the audience for profile items, such as your town or employer. And remember: Sharing info with “friends of friends” could expose it to tens of thousands.

Know what you can’t protect. Your name and profile picture are public. To protect your identity, don’t use a photo, or use one that doesn’t show your face.

So, why aren’t we teaching that stuff in school? Helping kids understand how to build a responsible and safe online presence.

As to the uproar over “cyberbullying” on Facebook elsewhere in the article, isn’t one child bullying another a concern regardless of where it takes place?  Bullying occurs on playgrounds, in locker rooms, and in malls. We don’t ban playgrounds, close locker rooms, and impose age limits on malls.

The problem is with the people involved, not the location, and that is how the problem should be addressed. This is less about Facebook and more about the need for adults to pay closer attention and communicate with the kids in their lives.

Fear the Web

Journalist and media critic Jeff Jarvis has a great post on the results of a survey about privacy and Facebook from Consumer Reports. He says the magazine is suggesting that the large numbers should shock us, when they simply reflect a new openness in today’s society. And progress.

He also makes this excellent point about how our attempts to “protect” kids from the web is doing them no favors.

Last night, a good friend of mine complained on Twitter that Google had knocked his 10-year-old son off when he revealed his age. My friend got mad at Google. Oh, no, I said, get mad at the FTC and COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) and its unintended consequences. It makes children lie about their ages and puts us in a position to teach them to lie. It has made children the worst-served sector of society online. The intentions are good. The consequences may not be. [emphasis mine]

In the end, Jeff is very correct in his belief that the fear mongering which comes from reports like this too often leads to inappropriate, overly-restrictive, and even dangerous legislation.

ISTE Quick Thoughts: Overcoming the Fear

So, on the first full day of ISTE the convention center is swarming with educators looking for the next big thing.

I don’t know if this qualifies but one of my goals at this conference is to gather as many ideas as possible around the idea of kids bringing their own devices to school and, more importantly, how to help teachers learn to make effective use of them. The rather large discussion we had around that subject at EduBloggerCon was an excellent start because it was largely very positive.

So much of what I read and hear on this topic is centered not on “let’s explore the possibilities” but on the fear of “what if the kids do something wrong?”. It was great to hear from schools that are actually making it work.

Someone in the EBC conversation said that in five years we’ll look back and wonder what the fuss was all about. I hope it comes faster but we do have a lot of fear to overcome in the meantime.