The New Media Consortium is hosting a Symposium for the Future October 27-29. I was asked to write a few thoughts that might provoke conversation in preparation for the event. This is a re-posting of my Ideas for Thought. If you are an educator or involved in the world of learning, consider attending the symposium. Regardless, if these topics interest you, consider reading the other idea pieces by Gardner Campbell and Holly Willis.
It is easy to fall in love with technology. It is equally easy to fear it. In a setting like this Symposium, many of us fall in the passionate lovers camp, dreamily accounting for all of the wonderful things we’ve experienced through and because of technology. All too often, our conversations center on the need to get technology into the hands of learners, as though the gaps that we’re seeing can be explained away by issues of access. Push comes to shove, most of us know that there are problems with this model, but in a world filled with dichotomous rhetoric, it’s easy to get into the habit of being the proselytizer in the face of fear-mongering.
I want to push back against our utopian habits because I think that they’re doing us a disservice. Technology does not determine practice. How people embrace technology has less to do with the technology itself than with the social setting in which they are embedded. Those who are immersed in a techno-savvy, technophilic community are far more likely to embrace technology than those whose social world is shaped by other patterns of consumption and communication. People’s practices are also shaped by those around them. There are cluster effects to socio-technical engagement. In other words, people do what their friends do.
Rejecting technological determinism should be a mantra in our professional conversations. It’s really easy to get in the habit of seeing a new shiny piece of technology and just assume that we can dump it into an educational setting and !voila! miracles will happen. Yet, we also know that the field of dreams is merely that, a dream. Dumping laptops into a classroom does no good if a teacher doesn’t know how to leverage the technology for educational purposes. Building virtual worlds serves no educational purpose without curricula that connects a lesson plan with the affordances of the technology. Without educators, technology in the classroom is useless.
There are also no such things as “digital natives.” Just because many of today’s youth are growing up in a society dripping with technology does not mean that they inherently know how to use it. They don’t. Most of you have a better sense of how to get information from Google than the average youth. Most of you know how to navigate privacy settings of a social media tool better than the average teen. Understanding technology requires learning. Sure, there are countless youth engaged in informal learning every day when they go online. But what about all of the youth who lack access? Or who live in a community where learning how to use technology is not valued? Or who tries to engage alone? There’s an ever-increasing participation gap emerging between the haves and the have-nots. What distinguishes the groups is not just a question of access, although that is an issue; it’s also a question of community and education and opportunities for exploration. Youth learn through active participation, but phrases like “digital natives” obscure the considerable learning that occurs to enable some youth to be technologically fluent while others fail to engage.
Along the same lines, keep in mind that the technology that you adore may hold no interest for your students. They don’t use del.icio.us or Second Life or Ning or Twitter as a part of their everyday practices. And the ways that they use Facebook and MySpace and YouTube are quite different than the ways in which you do. We each approach technology based on our own needs and desires and we leverage it to do our bidding. In this way, we actively repurpose technology as a part of engagement such that rarely does one technology fit all. Yet, when we introduce technology in an educational setting, we often mistakenly assume that students will embrace the technology in the same way that we do. This never works out and can cause unexpected strife. Take social network sites as an example. You use this for professional networking; teens use it to socialize with their peers. Putting Facebook or MySpace into the classroom can create a severe cognitive collision as teens try to work out the shift in contexts. Most problematically, when teens are forced to navigate Friending in an educational setting, painful dramas occur because who you’re polite to in school may be very different than who you socialize with at home. Using technology that ruptures social norms in the classroom can be socially and educationally harmful.
As we talk about the wonderfulness of technology, please keep in mind the complexities involved. Technology is a wonderful tool but it is not a panacea. It cannot solve all societal ills just by its mere existence. To have relevance and power, it must be leveraged by people to meet needs. This requires all of us to push past what we hope might happen and focus on introducing technology in a context that makes sense.