One school of thought says internet-enhanced learning is the best thing since Socrates. Another says today’s students are so obsessed with virtual friends, virtual networks and virtual worlds that they have no idea who Socrates is. Some, according to Assistant Professor Mark Pegrum of UWA’s Graduate School of Education, say it doesn’t matter anyway, because they can Google him. Ah, say others, but how can they judge the value of the information that turns up in the popularity contest that is the world wide web?
You get the picture. Every time we open a newspaper – in our living rooms or in our web browsers or, increasingly, in our web browsers in our living rooms – we hear contradictory views about new technology. And not just in connection with education, either. The internet offers unprecedented freedoms. The internet heralds unprecedented dangers. It empowers kids to become creative and independent. It threatens their safety and privacy.
We’re currently in the midst of important conversations about the National Broadband Network, the Digital Education Revolution, and net filtering. Decisions made on these issues will impact, dramatically, on all Australians for decades to come. Yet people are more confused than ever about where we should allow the internet to take us – and crucially, about where we should allow our politicians to take the internet.
Unless we get a grip on the range of discussions going on around new technology, we’re in real danger of national decisions being hijacked by lobby groups or those with hidden agendas.
First up, we need a more sober approach to technological discussions about the digital snowball that’s threatening to bury us all in an avalanche of mobile devices and must-have software, not to mention the looming tsunami of tweets and status updates. While the situation may initially seem overwhelming, that’s often the case with new technologies. The telegraph, the telephone and the television all promised/threatened to rewrite the rules of human society. They brought changes, for sure. Yet humans stayed much the same … which is why the sorts of people who populate Socrates’ dialogues continue to stroll our streets.
The pedagogical discussions which have come to dominate e-learning in recent years are an overdue reminder that educational rather than technological principles must guide teachers and learners. Of course, there are serious differences of opinion when it comes to the value of technology in education, and these differences pit politicians against educators, administrators against teachers, and colleagues against each other. What we have to understand is that the disagreements are not really about the technology but the pedagogy. These disagreements, too, are almost as old as Socrates.
Social discussions of technology, which feature prominently in the media, flag up issues ranging from cyberbullying to the erosion of social relations. Online ‘friends’, it seems, require quotation marks. Not only are they not ‘real’, we’re told, they may actually be cyberpredators. It’s natural that there’s public anxiety around such issues. It’s irresponsible, though, to allow our discussions to be driven by the kind of hysteria that not only clouds the positive potential of the net but actually prevents us reaching out to kids who are in real danger, whether online or offline. When 95% of reported sexual assaults on children involve family members or acquaintances, an obsessive focus on internet safety can be a dangerous distraction.
Then there’s the disturbing underground rumbling of sociopolitical discussions which break through, here and there, into broader public consciousness. What does it mean when UK citizens successfully use Twitter to help undermine a court order gagging a major newspaper – or when the citizens of Tehran use Twitter, less successfully, in post-election protests? Who falls on the wrong side of the digital divide as neocolonial relations play themselves out online? Who doesn’t get to shop in the multicultural marketplace at the end of history? Socrates got to drink hemlock for putting these sorts of questions to the powers-that-were of ancient Athens. Are we prepared to put them to today’s powers-that-be?
Ecological discussions of digital technology among scientists and medical researchers may be among today’s least audible conversations, yet they’re among the most essential. The effects of digital technologies on our overloaded minds and bodies, not to mention our overloaded planet, require action beyond political polarities. If we can’t get our politicians to move beyond the kind of rancorous point-scoring that’s typified the ETS debate to date, there may soon come a day when the above discussions, and indeed all others, cease to matter.
All these discussions about new technology are important. But while some of the louder ones are mired in misconceptions, some of the quieter ones are reaching too few ears. We need a more sober and balanced approach to all these areas – technology, pedagogy, society, sociopolitics and ecology – and we need to find ways to connect up our fragmented discussions of them. Only then can we hope to come to a broader and deeper understanding of the advantages and drawbacks of new technology. And only then can we ensure the decisions taken on new technology in Australia reflect the understandings and interests of all its citizens, not just its more narrowly focused politicians and lobbyists.
You know what Socrates would say about that. And if you don’t – start Googling.
- First published in The Canberra Times, Friday January 22, 2010.
Academic Profile: Assistant Professor Mark Pegrum.