November 11, 2014 § 1 Comment
There have been many, many times in human history where an upheaval of some kind changes everything, and people have to recalibrate what they know, and how they do things: early agriculture, the printing press, religion, industrialisation, and the silicon chip have all posed new problems and opened up new opportunities for segments or the entirety of the human race at one time or another. During such periods, established wisdom and knowledge are of little use, and fresh maps are needed to chart the way through the unfamiliar landscapes of the new era.
The present modern times pose all sorts of new questions about where we are going and the best routes to take, and the Internet is not the most challenging of these when you consider climate change, nationalism, or global poverty. But it nonetheless is an unprecedented phenomenon and arguably a major element with regard to all the other challenges: a means of communication that operates more or less without boundaries, radically more democratic than any previous form of mass communication, posing scope for human intercourse that is in equal measure thrilling and frightening. But it is still very new: the World Wide Web has been around for less than twenty five years, and that is absolutely nothing in human scale. We should recognise that we are still at the very outer fringes of understanding how the Internet might impact on the distribution of knowledge, power and democracy across the world.
We, adults that is, are certainly not yet in a position to pronounce with any great authority to the young on the significance or value of the online world. Young people are dynamic players on this new stage, and are creating their own means of incorporating it into their lives. Whilst no more wise than anyone else about the implications of their activities online, they are often highly adept at achieving their own needs in their own ways. Certainly as adept as many of their teachers, who are inevitably caught up in schools’ anxieties about the Internet.
Its actual value in schools is quite trivial; a kind of children’s encyclopaedia in which to find the most findable and least challenging knowledge. Educators should instead be grasping the Internet with both hands, and making it the focus of exploration, study and deep use in formal education. It is not straightforward: the particular problem of understanding what this new thing means in our lives, and learning how to manage that, is something quite distinct from the familiar curriculum of formal education. There is no overarching or authorised knowledge of the Internet: it is only knowable in fragments, and in the partial understandings of different individuals and groups. And the solution should definitely not be to act as if we do know all about it by laying claim to expertise under the banner of something posing as authorised knowledge called Digital Literacy.
Rather, formal education should adopt a phenomenological orientation towards the Internet, and prioritise the collaborative exploration in classrooms of the different ways in which different people make sense of it, experience it, act in it, learn from it; and through those explorations, perhaps understand better how we might do those things better, more intelligently. Teachers and pupils, young and old, should bring their own perspectives and experiential knowledge to this exploration in equal measure, with equal respect. The goal has to be far more ambitious than learning how to be safe online: we should accord the Internet the central attention it merits as a defining aspect our modern age, and an indispensable medium of all that we might consider educational. Above all, this should be a democratic endeavour, quite free from the deadening paternalism of anything like Digital Literacy instruction.