Friday, October 24, 2014

The Debate about Digital Literacy: Moral Panics, Contradictions and Assumptions

The following is an edited version of comments I made as a participant on a "Digital Literacy" panel at the recent "Understanding Media Now" conference, hosted by the Association for Media Literacy.

We’ve been encouraged to be provocative here, so to that end, I’ll tackle the question [posed by the moderator] of the “anxieties and opportunities presented by digital literacies” by first considering the often heated rhetoric surrounding this subject. In my reading for this panel, I came across many urgent exhortations: to heed the call of the “digital revolution” in education; to accede to the “imperatives” of “knowledge-age learning technologies”; to attune ourselves to educational “combustions that are as inevitable as they are mysterious;” to prepare a “creative class” able to meet the challenges of the “Knowledge Economy” brought about by the “Knowledge Revolution.”*

I also came across the phrase “moral panic.” I learned that it is a term used in sociology and cultural studies to describe a public response to perceived risk, especially risk stemming from a change in values or practices from one generation to the next. For instance, in the 50s and 60s, there was a moral panic surrounding youth culture and rock and roll, and another one surrounding television; there was a lot of public handwringing about what these new phenomena were going to do to youth and by extension to the wider culture. I think it’s safe to say that in the case of technology in particular, nearly every significant advance or invention has precipitated a moral panic. It stands to reason, then, that digital technology, which has become such a salient part of our lives, and our kids’ lives, would elicit a similar response. 

I'm not suggesting that all discourse about digital literacy is a form of “moral panic.” Certainly the conversations occurring at conferences such as this one, especially the many expressions of enthusiastic optimism regarding the educational possibilities of digital technology, are difficult to square with any notion of panic. But it occurred to me while listening to these conversations that enthusiasm and panic may be two sides of the same coin—mirror responses to uncertainty in the face of change. I do believe that the sense of urgency pervading the debate about digital literacy comes from a kind of fear: a fear that we, as teachers, parents and citizens, will be unable to get on top of the game-changing new digital technologies before they get on top of us and our kids. So maybe the concept of “moral panic” is useful, even if it is not entirely apt, in that it allows us to see the debates over media and digital literacy in the context of a history of public worrying about technology—including educational technology. (Remember all those TVs perched on metal stands in classrooms of the seventies?) As such, the notion of moral panic may be able to give us some perspective and breathing room to think through what if anything needs to be done. 

What is to be done? It seems to me that the urgency surrounding this question is compounded by a tension at the heart of the debate, a tension having to do with the term “digital natives.” This metaphor has been rightly criticized for lacking explanatory power and for glossing over the diversity of children’s experience. But it is nonetheless a concept that continues to inform the debate about digital literacy and to contribute to its urgency. Article after article, position paper after position paper, tells us that our kids have been born into this new digital world, face-booking, snap-chatting and texting away from toddlerhood, yet we adults don’t understand it, our schools don’t reflect it, and the kids are floundering as a result. But the contradiction is that if the current generation of school-aged kids are digital natives, why would we need to teach them to be digitally literate? What could we teach them? Did we have to teach kids of my generation how to watch TV or talk on the phone? Or how to make televisions or phones? 

Hovering at the edge of these questions are two mostly unexamined premises propping up the argument in favour of integrating technology into the curriculum. One is the premise that if something is ubiquitous in our kids’ social environment, it must be brought into the classroom, either as a subject area or as a teaching tool. Why? Because it is ubiquitous in kids’ social environment. But if we were to follow that (circular) line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, we could end up with an argument in favour of, for instance, incorporating junk food into the curriculum—teaching kids to understand it and make it, perhaps in partnership with companies such as McDonalds. I’m not trying to imply that technology is comparable in its effects or potential educational value to junk food; the point is, rather, that the argument from ubiquity is not logically sound and should perhaps not be used to drive curricular or pedagogical change. Ideally, curricular decisions should be driven by what we’ve decided we want education to be: Do we want it to reflect prevailing socio-economic and cultural trends, or to offer some form of resistance?

A second, related premise of the argument in favour of teaching digital literacy can be summed up by the phrase, “resistance is futile.” Digital technological change is "the new normal,"† the thinking goes, so we’d better get used to it, in our lives and in our classrooms. This argument from inevitability is as question begging as the argument from ubiquity: technology, outside and inside the classroom, is inevitable because it’s, well, already upon us—in other words, inevitable. But this argument is even more pernicious in my opinion, since it sidesteps the inconvenient question of the democratic control of education, ceding rhetorical victory to the discourses and arguments emanating from the very industries that stand to benefit the most from our unthinking acceptance of them. 

The presupposition of inevitability prevents us from engaging in simple thought experiments, such as, what if we decided tomorrow that in Ontario we wanted all our K-12 schools to adopt a technology-free Waldorf approach (as at least one school in the Toronto District School Board has done), or a low-tech, Finnish-style approach? What if we decided that education is not synonymous with anxiously attempting to render our country more economically competitive? I’m not arguing in favour of (or against) any of these positions, but the very fact that they seem so absurd and far-fetched shows that the rhetoric used in discussions about these questions is more obfuscatory than clarifying, and can have the effect of forestalling true debate. 

Which leads me to the question raised earlier about anxieties and opportunities surrounding digital technology and literacy. My own anxiety as a parent has to do with what the anxious rhetoric surrounding digital literacy can lead us to do. And by us, I mean parents and schools and governments. One thing that it has led us to do is to spend a lot of money on technology for schools, even though the research to date has failed to show a significant impact (good or bad) on learning. I’m not opposed to technology in schools, but when the provincial government announces that it will be spending 150 million dollars to put iPads in classrooms, while it’s making cuts elsewhere in education, it gives me pause. And when anxiety about digital literacy leads schools to embrace partnerships with companies like Google, which have terrible track records in terms of protecting users’ privacy—that also gives me pause. Which brings me to my final anxiety (well, I have many anxieties, but my final one for today): that the urgent focus on digital literacy—on embedding it throughout the curriculum—risks eliding the conceptual and practical distinction between education and training. As parents, I know we’re supposed to be acutely anxious that our kids may graduate from high school without possessing the so-called 21st century skills they’ll need to function in the global economy. But for one thing, digital technology is always changing, so we can’t predict what specific skills kids will need. And for another, I want my kids to be educated, not trained. I guess I'm old-fashioned enough or hopeful enough to think there can still be a difference. 

* Quotes from Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (New York: Teacher's College Press, 2009) and Michael Fullan, "There is Something Different about 2014," 

†See the People For Education report, Digital Learning in Ontario Schools: The ‘new normal’.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Digital Helicoptering

I recently participated in a panel on digital literacy, as part of the “Understanding Media Now” conference, hosted by the Association for Media Literacy. As part of my reading for this event, I came across the following description of what parent engagement might look like in the era of digital education:
[Child's mother] is able to find a moment almost every day to check in on class websites of both her children. Here she can see the homework that was assigned. She can click on her son’s name (Tommy) or her daughter’s name (Emily) and access a special parent portal where she inputs her unique password. It gives her a timeline for outstanding homework and future homework. She can also log in to classroom instruction to understand exactly what has been taught so that she can better support her children’s learning from home. She can access a log of marks to date and see for herself how each of her children is doing. The assessment plan is available so she knows each of the assessments completed and/or planned and also their relative importance. This helps her to focus her kids toward aligning their time commitments appropriately. She can also access their class schedules online with test dates included which helps her to make sure that she steers clear of important school dates when booking orthodontic appointments for the kids. There is even a place for two- way communication with the teacher so that if an issue comes up the teacher can let her know and vice versa. She can also access Tommy’s IEP online and make notes to herself about possible input she would like to provide at the next teacher conference.*
To which my response is WHAT?! So plain old analogue helicoptering is a very bad thing that will come between a kid and her grit, but digital helicoptering—courtesy of “Big Mamma” in this scenario—is A-ok? With advocates for digital technology like this, who needs detractors?

*“What if: Technology in the 21st Century Classroom,” Ontario's Public School Board's Association, p. 21.

Monday, August 4, 2014

"How to prepare your kids for the social pressure cooker of camp" (or why I don't send my kids to camp)

I first came across the article, "How to prepare your kids for the social pressure cooker of camp," in the June issue of the North Toronto Post. I tried to comment but wasn't able to do so without a Facebook account. (The article irritated me, but not enough to induce me to join Facebook.) After a bit of online sleuthing, I found the same article on a certain overnight camp's website: it so happens that the article's author, who is a renowned restaurant critic in Toronto, is also the director of the "certain camp" in question. The article was cross-posted by the director herself to the camp's blog, and comments were—ostensibly—welcome. So I left a comment. A mildly critical comment. And then one day, out of curiosity, I revisited the camp website, only to find that the comment had been removed. I suppose its removal is not all that surprising. After all, parents who have thrown their kids into the camp's "social pressure cooker," in some cases for weeks on end, would be the people most likely to read the comment. But would it be a terrible thing to open up a true dialogue about the way kids' camps are structured and run? Would it be a terrible thing to question why we assume that "social pressure cooker" boot camps are good for kids?

This is the comment I left:
So why not schedule in some downtime? Why would I want to send my eight-year-old into a "hyper-stimulating,​" "high octane social pressure cooker"? What sane parent would? This description strikes me as encapsulating everything that is wrong with camp these days. Where is the camp for kids who want to enjoy nature, make friends, and have fun, but aren't interested in being "hyper-stimulated"?

(See also Camp Keep-Me-Busy)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

That Was Then, This is Now

The other day I was in a hair salon, and I got to chatting with a woman who was accompanying her elderly mother to her weekly hair appointment. The woman mentioned that she was a math teacher at a high school not far from the one my daughters attend, a school with a similar upper-middle class demographic. Since the teaching of math is an interest of mine, and the PISA results had just been released, I tried to engage her in conversation about the so-called "math wars" and the post-PISA hand-wringing about math scores in the province. She seemed oddly uninterested (for a math teacher) in any of those issues. Instead, she wanted to know where my kids went to school, who their teachers were, etc. She then proceeded to tell me an anecdote that seemed designed to let me know how lucky my kids are to be attending their particular secondary school.

She had no children of her own, she said, but her sister has two kids, now in university. After divorcing her husband, her sister wanted desperately to get her kids out of their current catchment area, and into the one which includes my daughters' school. Post-divorce, her sister could not afford to buy a house in our area, so she rented an apartment—much smaller than the house from which she'd come, the woman noted—to ensure that her children could attend my daughters' high school, X Collegiate Institute.

Why, I asked her, was her sister so keen to move into our neighbourhood, given that the high school in her old area has an excellent reputation and very high EQAO scores? The woman lowered her voice and said, conspiratorially, "My niece and nephew didn't feel comfortable there. There were too many, you know, Asians and Jews." I looked at her blankly; my mouth may have fallen open. "Mainly the Asians," she added, apparently hedging her bets. 

"The kids were uncomfortable," I asked? "Or your sister?" 

"No, the kids, definitely. So they moved into the apartment and went to X Collegiate Institute; they both ended up getting into the university of their choice, and they're doing great now."

I was trying to think of something to say, but I was tongue-tied because I was in a kind of shock at this display of racism, unexpectedly blatant even for our neighbourhood, which is perhaps the last bastion of homogeneity in Toronto (though, even it is changing—for the better). 

In any case, the woman did not give me a chance; she continued with another shocker: "At first my sister was worried, because around that time, they had just enlarged the catchment area for X Collegiate Institute to include an area of public housing. So a lot of black kids and gangs started attending. But the numbers weren't enough to make a difference."

I mumbled something about how I think X Collegiate Institute needs more not less diversity, then hastily made my exit from the salon. 

There is so much that troubled—and continues to trouble—me about this incident that I hardly know where to start. This woman appeared to be my age, and she lives in one of the most diverse cities in North America. And she is a teacher. That is perhaps the most troubling aspect. It is disturbing, to say the least, to contemplate the preconceptions about kids of colour—about any kid who is not as bleached and blue-eyed as she is—that this teacher brings into the classroom every single day. 

The whole episode got me thinking about the expression of racism today, versus when I was a kid. Is it really so different now, despite all the current talk of post-racism or post-racial societies? A recent study shows that of 3200 books for children published in in the US in 2013, 93 were about black people. And then there are incidents like this one described by my Twitter friend Sarah Carmichael (@sarahcasm). Sadly, the kinds of racist inferences (and interference) by strangers that Sarah describes in her post are not anomalies in the lives of bi-racial families. 

A while ago, I wrote a post about the ways in which racism manifests itself in my daughters' world. More recently, I wrote an essay* for an online journal, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, about the forms racism took while I was growing up. Sadly, I think that when it comes to racism then and now, the only valid conclusion one can draw is "Plus ├ža change . . . ."

*I am not entirely comfortable with the title of this piece, which was suggested to me by a person who thought its very provocativeness was part of the point I was making. I'm still considering changing it, though my previous title "Do You Have Anything Else to Say?" is risibly lame.