07 July 2008

Left Behind

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.

Different Winners

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

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Anonymous said...

Hey Ira, as usual I think you're right on with most of this but I'm puzzled by your logic in the part in "Dinosaurs" about the shortest route. You criticize the old technologies for being slow, but in this section you seem to be suggesting that an emphasis on speed can be deadly. Fast = superficial, check.

The Wikipedia approach to complexity would not have kept G.W. out of Iraq. "Oh, it's complex, well we'll soon fix that, let's see how the Rangers are doing, Haliburton stock is up, Iraq? We've got that covered." Knowing about the fact of complexity does no good unless you then pay attention in detail to how it's complex, and think through systematically what that complexity will mean, rather than hopping around from link to link ignoring the inconvenient ones until you confabulate a pseudo-analysis that confirms your prejudices.

It's deliberate, systematic thinking that colleges can and ought to be teaching, and obviously failed to teach G.W.. So I agree that the new means of assembling and presenting materials for analysis are superior, but without disciplined selection and interpretation strategies all the information in the world is just a big pile of whatevah.

Tim Lacy said...


As I was reading your post, I thought about how fast and slow technological change occurs, and how that affects one's ability to keep up or catch uup. We go through periods of both, but the most problems happen during the fast periods.

I think one important question, in any field (beyond my fav, education), is how many technological iterations can one miss before becoming hopelessly outdated. It's obvious that you can miss one or two without hurting yourself too much (i.e. albums to dvds without touching casette tapes, 3.5" disks to flash drives without worring about ZIP compression, or Windows 95 to 2000/XP without the headaches of 97).

These might be bad examples, but it seems that problems occur when one misses more than two iterations. At the current pace of change, missing more than two means you're about 10 years behind.

So it's not a question of whether one has to change, it's a matter of when. Can we get the when down to an efficient science? - TL

irasocol said...

Damn - great comments:

Carl. Absolutely. Processing tons of information without the analysis and deliberate thinking is just "cramming for the test" in another stupid way. I guess my argument is that if all reading is assigned - if it comes from "on high" - we can't really teach analysis and discernment. But if we pull the world in, we can tear that apart and build those skills.

Tim. I think you are absolutely right. But actually, the question is, can you learn what you need to know? Or can you at least build the skills you need to cover for what you don't know? I'm one of those people who refused to learn the Dewey Decimal System, but I became pretty good at sweet-talking librarians into coming with me to find books. On the other hand, I needed to be able to time-shift certain TV shows, so I learned the VCR. I don't "need" Twitter, but if I don't want to learn it I need some other equally efficient system. Anyway, thus the decision-making on the adaptation is probably more personal than societal, but the question then becomes - how do we stay connected to the technology we should have? Who helps us with that? Who advises? And part of the answer is, I'd rather have schools do that than profit-hungry businesses.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

Ira, thanks for the clarification. Discernment is a great word for what I was fumbling for, and I agree that if we keep assigning the reading 'from on high' there's little chance students will learn it. But of course that also means they don't have it yet when they first are turned loose to go hopping around the links, so what's needed is a recursive process of guided exploratory experiment. You're stimulating me to think more about how to do this, especially if different students are going to go about it different ways. At the moment I start by assigning some reading, working through the process of critical analysis with the students, and then turning them loose to find their own with decidedly mixed results.

Tim, Ira's model is tools - I think of this as a version of pragmatism's suggestion that what we need to do, under what conditions, will shape the skills and knowledge we develop. So then the problem with teachers who are too far behind the tech curve is that they keep defining what needs doing according to increasingly irrelevant conditions. Students will of course 'game' that to their immediate advantage, but their development will be compromised since that old game cannot be generalized.

I don't think all old methods are irrelevant any more than I think all current situations are new. To me, it's a matter of thinking more carefully about what's needed. Sometimes, like with the clicker, a techy new solution is much worse than a venerable old one (the discussion seminar) to get students involved. I'll gladly skip that step.

Anonymous said...

in ira's post, too much of a us vs. them tone for my taste- aka the losers shall be the winners and the winners- losers. i like the common ground of teaching 'deliberate, systematic thinking' to all so that all can be 'winners'.

letting a kid loose on a laptop with an internet connection could make them into systematic thinkers. they might find good models to talk with and learn from. or they could find their own personal echo chamber where everyone agrees with them. the echo chamber can be avoided if students start with an open mind and are willing to see things from different angles. that is an attitude that must be cultivated at home and/or at school.

i read bush sr used to have advisors argue different sides of an argument and he would then choose which side to go with. i don't know what happened with bush jr.

irasocol said...

Carl: It is a complex process. You can't just open the library door and say, "find any book," and you can't say, "Google anything," so, we both throw things in front of our students and we teach them to challenge - to doubt - in effective ways. "Crap Detection" in the favorite phrase of a favorite teacher. And you encourage conversation, so any student's discovery can become every students' discovery. But it is surely much harder than assigning the readings and testing the expected meanings.

Vera: Point taken. Education has been a zero sum game for the past 150 years. That's why we have grades, honors programs, "high-stakes testing," et al. And we need to oppose that, no matter how tempting it is to see the coming revolution as one which reverses the field. But I'd be a bit careful with "teaching 'deliberate, systematic thinking'" - make sure it is not just the power elite's definition of deliberation and systematic. And make sure that deliberation and systematic thinking is rooted in eyes-wide-open observation, and creative thought, and deep imagination.

- Ira Socol

Rufus said...

It's weird because, on one hand, reading your essays really has convinced me that I need to update my skill set to include these technologies. On the other hand, you sometimes take this quasi-martial tone about it that makes it difficult to fully accept.

I mean, look, I've always seen my scholarly life as being a matter of having particular tastes. Just like some people enjoy collecting stamps, I enjoy studying history and translating things. I've never seen this as a winner/loser sort of thing, and I've certainly tried not to be I certainly hope I don't seem contemptuous of people who are interested in other things. I definitely don't see them as lacking in intelligence.

So, saying that knowing these new skills would be worthwhile is effective with me. But, sometimes this stuff about winners and losers comes off as hectoring, and if that was going to be effective with me, I'd have gone into computer science long ago after having heard "What are you doing studying history?! The computer science people are making it big!" for the hundredth time.

Anyway, overall, you're making your point. I just might dial down some of the "you have no choice" stuff.

Anonymous said...

I am delighted to discover your blog. I agree with your post, especially about the neglected and unvalued skills of ADHD and Aspergers people, and the shortcoming of our educational system in this regard. I was reacting to similar observations of my own here - http://joanvinallcox.wordpress.com/2008/07/09/quality-and-authority/
I am frustrated because I would like to teach the academic uses of the web; I think it's desperately needed, but, IMHO, many academic decision-makers don't know what they don't know. So I feel kind of "us vs.them" in dealing with them.

Anonymous said...

Late arrival, another example of dinosaur education. My Hubby suggested early in the school year that the science fair projects all be displayed in PowerPoint. Alas, the principle had already purchased the cardboard tri-folds.