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.