20 January 2008

The Fear

"Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, "Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance." so says, Henry Drummond - the Clarence Darrow character in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play Inherit the Wind. He continues, speaking directly to the jury and, of course, the audience

"Madam, you may vote, but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder-puff or your petticoat.
Mr., you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline." Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came, but for this insight, and for this knowledge, we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis."

Despite the fears of some religious extremists, today it is not "the pleasant poetry of Genesis" which is threatened, but certain "norms" of information transmission. Yet the fear described by that play, and by the Scopes Monkey Trial itself, is a real thing.

In a changing world, it is not surprising that people are afraid. It is, of course, least surprising that the people for whom the 'old world" has worked really well, will be most afraid. No one wants to be relegated to the old "dustbin of history," surely not those for whom status (as opposed to say, great wealth or great power) is the key to their identity. The current debate at The Economist's web site reminded me of this.

"Many would argue that online education is currently exacting such a price. Critics are already lamenting what is lost, particularly from interpersonal relations in the classroom, but the real test of online education will be what is on balance gained," says Douglas F. Johnson of the University of Florida in his chapter "Toward a Philosophy of Online Education" (in Developing Faculty to Use Technology, Programs and Strategies to Enhance Teaching, edited by David G. Brown). Posted on Stanford University's "Tomorrow's Professor" Blog.

He continues, "Creating a flexible leaning process and an environment that incorporates online technologies can attract more students and improve their access to learning opportunities while enhancing their understanding and retention of new information about both the process and the content of education. Such a learning environment can best target specific and rapidly changing educational needs.

"These changes do not mitigate the rationale for the traditional liberal arts curriculum, as many fear. In fact, they reinforce it, for what can be of greater value in a just-in-time, needs-driven world than a broad base of understanding, a demonstrated ability to learn a wide variety of subjects, and a proven track record of learning how to learn? Online education presents important opportunities o reach a mobile population, but it must be structured on clearly conceived concepts so that the cherished and time-tested educational purposes of the past may continue to add value to the learning needs of the present."

If you read the "con" comments in the debate (in which I appear by the nom de keyboard PostColonialTech) you will see the fear. There is a sense of lost control - Social Networking, it is charged, will somehow replace the art of teaching, it will destroy literature and received knowledge, it will turn content over to capitalists in pursuit of nothing but profit, it will replace face-to-face interaction.

All of these complaints assume two things - first, that everyone benefits from the "pre-technology" system - in this case the delivery of content in "teacher-controlled contexts" through books, lectures, and controlled dialogues. Second, that internet-based social networking cannot co-exist with other forms of human communication.

Both assumptions are wrong. Education must change, becoming far more flexible and far more learner-controlled, because it has not worked for most of the world. Not only do most students do "poorly" in school - that is, they get less than they need from the process - but much of the world suffers because so much of our "received wisdom" comes unexamined and untested against realities outside of the narrow experiences of academics. This does not place us on that "slippery slope" to where "nothing is true." Instead it means that we need to integrate, and challenge, a far more diverse group of voices than schools traditionally have done, and we must deliver content in many more ways than schools have done. And the technology of our age allows us to do both things - we can connect students in Kentucky to students in South Africa, and we can offer content via a wide choice of delivery systems - authentic voices, authentic experiences, real challenges - joined to content provided in a way which allows the highest degree of personal comprehension.

But yes, technology systems for education must exist within an educational context. So we must teach and model on-line behavior. Obviously we must teach on-line searching, and navigation, and discernment. We must encourage critical thinking in social network interaction, and we must demonstrate interactive expansion - from network form to Skype video conference in (how many?) deliberate steps... These are not "natural skills" - but they are skills our students must know if they are to succeed, to flourish, in the future.

So, it is ok to be afraid. Teaching will need to change. Teachers will need to learn new things. And the world will change. Nothing will ever quite "be the same." But fear is not a reason to stop progress. Fear is something humans overcome in order to progress. Social Networking, like mobile phones and web-based news delivery, will change education - and if we use these technologies well, if we teach them well, they will change education for the better.

Anyway, come read, and come join the conversation at The Economist.

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

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1 comment:

jon said...

Well said! Especially in a climate as hostile to education and critical thinking as the US today, and the highly-visible violations of trust by the highest-profile social networking sites existing today, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned. Add to this a combination of privilege-under-threat and generational issues, and this can easily turn to fear and hostility.

Or justifiable excitement about the promise of the new technology, without enough attention to the conditions that are needed to make it a positive force for transformation -- not reinforcing existing biases and hierachies. It's not like the "pro" side is covering themselves with glory in the debate. I know I shouldn't be surprised, but it was really appalling to me that neither side brought up any of the "access to knowledge" questions.

At any rate, your "interventions" in the debate continue to be extremely valuable -- and wow, even recognized by the moderator. Let's see, if the moderator's the first-class citizen, the debaters are second-class, the guest participants third ... you're all the way up to fourth-class now! How's the weather up there?

jon