This afternoon I happened to be reading an article on the Sunday Times of Malta, in the Education page, where one particular author was describing how children’s healthy growth and development is attributed to their interactions with the “three dimensional first hand engagement”. In short the author was pushing for a more “healthy” physical environment expressing doubts and a certain perplexity about the time that our children spend in the virtual and online environment. Although everyone is entitled to their opinions and of course to publicize their school’s agendas, I always believe that an argument is healthy when it is viewed critically from both perspectives. I do suggest that the author and others who might find the subject of children, digital literacies and the virtual environment interesting, spruce up their reading habits to include works from authors such as Howard Rheingold, Henry Jenkins and Jaron Lanier amongst others.
I do admit and agree that many parents express a certain amount of worry when children seem to spend a lot of time in front of screens and interacting with seemingly ‘inhumane’ content – content that has nothing of the “human touch” we are so used to. The author in the article, looks back on the time when she was a kid and she could play on the streets with other kids. This, I believe, reflects the thoughts of many, who like me and presumably the author as well, were kids two or three decades ago. However the world has come a long way in these two to three decades. The evolution that has happened in the way we, as humans communicate in these two decades, compares with more than at least two centuries since the birth of the first forms of telephone-based communication.
Quoting Howard Rheingold in NetSmart, “Digital Literacies can leverage the Web’s architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today’s digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic”. I find that this quote really summarizes my answers, when someone tries to push forward reasons why we shouldn’t include technologies and devices at school or when someone tries to stop the spread of social media in schools and in education. I was once shown a Facebook post, where a teacher, (more than one actually) were commenting on the use of games in the classroom. One particularly worrying update was this – “Games in schools!!! … what is education coming to? This is not the way we were taught and this is certainly not the way we should teach“. I find THIS post, more than anyone telling me that his son or daughter is spending time online, for two particular reasons. I would say that as a starting point, we cannot teach the way we were taught. The world has changed, the economy has changed, the society has changed, the community in which we are living has changed, and the expectations have changed. When I was a teenager, I remember that the job that was most popular amongst girls, was a job as a factory worker, a bank clerk or at most a teacher. I believe that the expectations, these days, in Malta and abroad are different; society’s needs are different, and in order to turn the wheel of our country’s economy it is important that the expectations change. So how can we, as teachers, affirm that we need to do things in the classroom the way things were done two or three decades ago?????
The second worrying issue is that these teachers, seem not to embrace the fact that change is not just important, but that preparing for change, is vital for the success of the individual and society in the 21st century. As Rheingold mentions, it is important that people acquire skills not just in terms of the content (from an academic perspective), but also in terms of how to best make use of those skills to work “in concert with others, in an effective way”. It is useless for teachers to say that the IWB is just a glitzy gimmick and keep refusing to integrate it in the classroom, just as it is useless for them to say that Facebook is “an unwanted distraction” in the classroom or that digital games are a “waste of time” and thus act as if these things do not exist. We, as educators, more than teachers, need to make sure that when our young people encounter these, beyond the classroom walls, they know how to deal with them, in a way that that they are empowered and not manipulated by the people behind the masses and overload of information that is thrown at us on a daily basis. My advice is this… let us not bury our heads in the sand. The reality is that we need to add a whole lot of skills which we need to help our young people acquire – and these are digital literacies, or rather the way in which our young people can start filtering and detecting the whole lot of crap that exists, and instead make critical use of it, in a way that is effective, efficient and that can lead us, as a whole community, forward. Let us embrace change in a way that can help us make the world a better place.