What will you do when technology changes and you can not keep up?
This is not a "new" question. It is a very old one. Whole cultures have collapsed, empires have fallen, corporations have vanished, and yes, languages have died, because of failures to embrace new technologies.
In 1890 there were at least 25,000 wagon manufacturers in the United States. Only one, Studebaker, survived 50 years later. They were the only one that realized that they did not "make wagons" - they made transportation devices.
The Chinese never adapted their gunpowder invention for warfare and it cost them dearly when Europeans showed up on their shores.
Languages which were separated from the printing press, Cornish for example, were wiped out.
Western Union rejected the opportunity to acquire telephone technology - after all, they ran the finest communications system in the Western Hemisphere.
I thought about this as I read about the slow death of VoiceMail. As I read that story I remembered the blog commenter - a university professor - who, just this year, insisted that his learning abilities would not be judged by "nonsense" such as his ability to "program a VCR." And I remembered a 'community leader' in my area who declared that he, "just [didn't] understand email or cellphones."
I barely use VoiceMail anymore. My phone converts it to text which I can read or listen to in my own way. I'm stuck with it at my office, but I beg people to email me instead. VoiceMail is a huge time waster, and it cannot be forwarded easily, cannot form the structure of my reply, cannot be copied and pasted into a calendar or other document. It was the vital technology of the Seinfeld era, but Seinfeld has been in reruns for a very long time.
And that professor may find that VCRs are dying even faster than VoiceMail. I think he can simply say, at this point, that he missed that entire two decades of information technology (and his ability to preserve and re-access important data).
As for the community leader, well, he is retired, which is good. His chances of economic survival in the actual world of work would be close to nil.
One of the things I often suggest is that new technologies will make new winners - not just in the world economy, not just in the marketplace, but eventually in the classroom. For the past 150 years a certain kind of straight-line thinking, a certain set of literacy skills, and a certain kind of slack-jawed staring attention has characterized those who "win" in education. Victory has gone to the compliant, the quiet, and those most comfortable when knowledge is divided into discrete boxes.
But those skills were the perfect fit to what is now an antiquated technology set - printed books, one-directional or perhaps "duplex" voice technology, the rectangular classroom within the school building used during the school day. Those skills are really a terrible fit with hyper-text, with information unconstrained by walls and borders and time periods, and with a workspace defined by multiple sources and multiple representations occurring concurrently.
This is why - I think unconsciously - so many academics and educators resist contemporary ICT so fiercely. Accepting these new technologies means that the advantages they were taught to prize in themselves - their study habits, their ability to focus, their willingness to depend on authoritative sources and to observe classroom rules - might prove to be their undoing. And the disadvantages they despised in others, ADHD for example, processing information via pictures instead of the abstraction of text as another, the disadvantages that have been labelled as pathological "disabilities," might prove to be advantageous in this new world.
That ADHD kid might be far better in front of multiple monitors with a dozen windows open and 15 tabs going in Firefox than the professor and former high school valedictorian who is really uncomfortable if a TV is on while she is reading. That Asperger's kid who processes images efficiently might be far better at analysing changing maps than the text-dependent historian.
And I have many colleagues who think of me as distracted and disorganised, but who turn to me all the time for the information I collect via Twitter and blogs, Skype calls and text-messages, and million moments each year when I right-click on a link and choose "Open Link in New Tab" or "Save to LaterLoop" or "Note This (Google Notebook)."
Much of education, of the educational establishment, is in real danger from this changing moment. When I watched a friend scramble through the binding process for her dissertation recently I felt like I was watching a horse-drawn carriage manufacturer around 1920, or a Greek bronze armaments maker in 800 BC, or maybe more accurately, a scriptorium around 1700. Beautiful work, lots of detail, lots of tradition, but it is all for nothing - the world has moved on.
I feel the same watching most classrooms, seeing most reading assignments, observing how assessments are conducted in educational institutions. Yes, that carriage is wonderful, but the cars will rush past it. Yes, that calligraphy is beautiful but you just spent six months creating a single book. Certainly, that bronze sword is beautiful but the steel weapon will cut it in half. Yes, you did wonderfully on the multiple-choice exam but I need people who can find information and develop new ideas, not repeat what I already know. Yes, you read that whole book, but I need to know the range of observations from these twelve sources around the globe.
The issue of being left behind is an individual one - and a potentially catastrophic one for anyone not rapidly approaching retirement age, but the much bigger issue is a systemic one. Will schools - as we know them - have any validity at all if they refuse to embrace the technologies of the contemporary world? Will the world have real room for an organization which trains straight-line thinkers when we need multi-taskers? Will the world continue to accept credentials from knowledge institutions which fail to teach the basic skills of current knowledge acquisition? Will anyone value a system which can not figure out a way to include - and thus learn from - the most inventive minds of our time? (from Bill Gates - college dropout, to Steve Jobs - college dropout, to Sergei Brinn - working on his PhD since 1993 - supposedly)
Two years ago I heard Dr. James Gee ask, "Why is the shortest proof [in mathematics] the better proof? Why is the student who finishes a test faster rewarded?" He argued that this focus on speed, on the short path, on what I might call "focus," not only left many students out, but was a fundamentally flawed educational model. "The shortest route to an answer got us into Iraq," he pointed out.
The shortest route to an answer also explains current US oil dependence, and why GM, Ford, and Chrysler are in such desperate trouble in North America today. Those car companies were "focused on shareholder value" when they were selling everything they could build. Perhaps if their CEOs were a touch more ADHD they might have looked around and seen other things along those horizon lines. Perhaps someone in the White House might have clicked on a hyperlink in a Wikipedia article and discovered something of the potential rifts in Iraqi society. Perhaps intelligence community operatives less trained in following procedures and with higher networking skills would have discovered Al Qaeda's threat to the US in August 2001.
Change is uncomfortable. Change is dangerous. Change is hard.
But change is essential. And change creates new possibilities. If you are the "traditionally successful" educator you may find yourself on the losing end of some of this - but you can give your students a better shot at being winners. And, maybe now is the time to jump on the Universal Design bandwagon. Allow those future winners to choose the learning tactics appropriate for themselves, and they might return the favor when they end up in control.
- Ira Socol
- About Ira David Socol
- Freedom Stick and Firefox Accessibility
- The Change.Org Posts
- IdeaChat 11 February 2012
- Counting the Origins of Failure
- Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions
- Today's "School Reformers" vs Real Change for Education - I
- Today’s “School Reformers” vs Real Change for Education - II
- The Toolbelt and Universal Design - Education For Everyone
- "Evaluate that!" - Schools for Children