March 11, 2007

Technophiles need some wisdom

Bryanappleyard Bryan Appleyard, who was speaking just before me at the Royal Society event last Thursday, writes in today's Sunday Times about his problem with politicians who ooze 'technophilia'. It's a good article that hits some of the points educational technologists feel they struggle with every day:

[...] babbling on about wonderful torrents of information is meaningless.... Politics will still require people of wisdom and judgment to sort the torrents and people will need a very rigorous education before they even look at a screen. This generation of technophiles had that education; their successors may not. [Link]

I went to school with very little exposure to the screen, though I had limited use of the BBC Micro at school and the ZX Spectrum at home. Fact is, I had an education about contexts of information which the teachers and consequently I understood. It was limited to things that hadn't moved in a long time: books, paper, what was on the board. Nowadays, I don't think the teacher profession at large is equipped with the digital literacy skills to teach tomorrow's generations what they need to gain wisdom and judgement in the midst of these torrents of information.

This generation stands (and we're already seeing it) to be swamped by information, to fear it, to see all information as useless and the journey to pick out the best bits as too long and arduous to bother with. This is where Prensky's digital immigrants and digital natives argument just sounds hollow to me: I and many readers of this blog are more 'native' than the vast majority of children, since we have both parts of the equation, the clicks, the information skills to make sense of large amounts of the stuff and therefore, to some degree, the wisdom and the judgement.

...My point was that, in a sense, politicians shouldn’t be getting excited about technology, they should be getting down to the much more boring work of preparing for its impact. This does not make headlines, but it is all that matters. Above all, technology should not be seen as autonomous. It is utterly background dependent and though we may not be able to control the technology we can do something about the background. That is what governments are for. [Link]

All too often in the public service we see a huge enthusiasm for new technologies. Good Thing. Everyone wants to blog, wiki-ise everything, send text messages to people to nanny them along...

Meanwhile, the people who surely should be technophiles, people like me, technocrats employed to advise on what technology might work for this or that purpose, we end up having to try to mould the background against which the technology lies. Bad Thing. Because we can't. We lack the clout to get background messages to those who can make a difference to background - the politicians - and the mainstream press find it easier to write snappy prose about podcasting with ever-younger children, cool funky uses of mobile phones to track truancy than to write about the subtle, long-term, watching-paint-dry changes in the culture of our world.

I wonder whether sometimes we've got the roles mixed up. I'd love to have more time to spend looking at how the latest tools could be used against a background of a population that understand along with me why these uses are beneficial. Instead, I spend 95% of my time laying the ground, convincing, advocating the background that we require first for the new technology to actually be of any benefit. I do this, not, as Bryan Appleyard suggests, because I think "that certain technological advances are good in themselves", but because I've seen the background and technology together in microcosms of success, in individuals' classrooms around the world, many of them in Scotland.

I just want others to see more success, too, and more happiness thanks to a more pleasant, comprehensible culture of understandable and plentiful information, wisdom to deal with it and make sound decisions, more creativity, enjoyment of work and learning not for ego or making widgets but for making new personal discoveries.

But who should be laying that cultural background? Politicians? Teachers? Parents? The mainstream media? Who will get that ball rolling a little quicker?

Update: The RSA have posted audio from the first part and the second part of the RSA conference on Social Media's impact on society.


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It's a cultural change, Ewan. In my own rueful experience, this means it is complex, and consequently slow.

"But who should be laying that cultural background? Politicians? Teachers? Parents? "
- Not politicians, unless it's in terms of making time and money available. Oh, and keeping class sizes down. Parents? Yes - if they are (a) interested, (b) up to it. And that will depend on your catchment area. So guess who it's left to? And teachers need to have all the old skills and enthusiasm as well as the new ones.
But hey - can I move to digital native status yet? :-)

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

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