14 February 2008

Stop focusing on format, Please!


Neil Shrubak, who wrote the best of all comments on the recent Economist debate on privacy v. security, sent me the cartoon above - attached to a previous post on social networking. It is funny, of course. But then, I wondered what it might look like if I altered a few words - even clumsily with a cheap paint program.

What's the point? It's this: Stop focusing on format! Stop!

Imagine that your child sits in his/her room all day reading books and writing letters. Yes, you'd probably say, "go outside and experience the world - go play in the dirt." And you'd be right. Parents have been saying this "forever." But you probably wouldn't blame books and writing for the ills of the world. You probably wouldn't refuse to allow your child to read or write unless you were in the room watching.

Formats change with technology - and they can change rapidly. In this era they are changing in ways which dramatically improve the access to communication for almost everyone in the world. MIT has its courseware on-line for free. Mobile phones allow me to conference with people across time zones as I rush from one part of campus to another. Digital libraries allow me access to books and articles I'd otherwise have no chance to read - and digital technologies can transform those readings into whatever format (text, audio, etc) is easiest for me to use. I - and your child - can now read The Guardian and The New York Times each day instead of just the local newspaper. Email, text-messaging, IM tools, Skype allow us to dramatically expand our range of friends. Social Networking tools allow groups long out of power to communicate and be heard.

But "forms" of communication change more slowly. And if we stopped focusing on format we could help ease these transitions. If we understand that email is the same as that old fashioned letter we might be better able to express to students how we once "tore up six versions of a letter before getting the message right," or how we "dropped that ill-considered letter in the postal box and regretted it later." If we understood that IMing and texting are really no different than that phone conversation we might tell students about a time when we said "the wrong thing" over the phone and it came back to haunt us. If we understood that everything from Facebook to Bebo are simply big bulletin boards, we could express how publicly posted information can get out of control.

But we see none of this. We are blinded by format changes and so we dismiss technologies and so we refuse to teach, to assist, to help.

Being online - I know I'm frightening you by saying this - is reading and writing, socializing and communicating, learning and teaching. So forget formats and think about teaching. Suggest great things that can only be read online. Or ask your favourite text-messager to try text-message fiction. Or insist that your Wikipedia over-user review the "discussion" pages (something they just cannot do with Brittanica).

Stop letting the format define your relationship with the work of your students, and you will find yourself being a better educator - and an educator better at preparing students for their futures.

- Ira Socol

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1 comment:

Neil Shrubak said...

1. Thank you for the praise of my opinion!

2. My sincere compliments on the way you interpreted my previous cartoon comment. This reallly drives your point home. Touche!