21 March 2009

No Educator Left Behind

The talk that I did for TVO's Big Ideas program last November, No Educator Left Behind, has enjoyed quite a fair bit of attention and acclaim, especially among the various conferences that have requested it as a keynote. Recently, a colleague who is editing a book on online learning communities asked me to contribute that talk to his volume, and so I now have a complete text of the talk. Because of the fussing that goes on with published books, I cannot yet make a copy available for general downloading, but if you'd like a copy for private or pedagogical purposes, (or if you'd like to invite me to give this as a keynote for your organization), you can ask me. In the meantime, here are some excerpts to give you the idea of the piece:

The Problem of Modern Education
The University, indeed almost all universities, and the primary and secondary education systems as well, are finding themselves increasingly out of touch with the needs of today’s youth, and therefore with the requirements of tomorrow’s citizens. When we see the size of the widening gulf between students’ everyday lived experiences in the world, and their experiences when they are incarcerated in classrooms and lecture halls, we know that there is a major inconsistency between the world of educators and policy makers, and almost the entire rest of the contemporary world.

In fact, we are facing a generation gap, the likes of which we have not seen since the fifties. Educators and policy makers seem to be tremendously ambivalent and confused by what is going on. So I am moved to ask, what is the role of education in a society, and therefore, what is the role of the educator? And if the context within which that role exists and is enacted changes, how must the enactment of that role correspondingly change? I suggest, therefore, that it is time to get back to the basics, to coin a phrase: to understand precisely how we arrived at the education system we now have in order to reframe our thinking relative to the education system we now need to be consistent with contemporary circumstances.

The Generation Gap
There is a generation alive that was socialized and acculturated in a world defined by modernity, structured by the mechanized, industrialized foundation of linearity, determinism, and fragmentation that emerged from the 17th century. And, there is a generation alive today who were socialized and acculturated – between the ages of approximately eight and ten – in the year 1995 and later. These are people who today (in 2009) are twenty-four years of age and younger. They are living in a world in which – according to them – the Internet never didn’t exist. They are living in a world in which Google never didn’t exist. They are living in a world in which everyone who matters is either a click away, or text message away, or a Twitter tweet away, or a posting on a Facebook wall away, among a variety of devices, all of which – regardless of what they look like, or how they functionally operate, or what they are called – are the precisely the same: they are connection devices.

Unlike we of the “fogey generation” who were socialized and acculturated in a societal ground defined by the effects of mechanized print, in which our experience with technology and media is primarily within a linear, hierarchical, sequentially causal context, today’s youth and tomorrow’s adults live in a world of Ubiquitous Connectivity and Pervasive Proximity. Everyone is, or soon will be, connected to everyone else, and all available information, through instantaneous, multi-way communication. This is ubiquitous connectivity. They will therefore have the experience of being immediately proximate to everyone else and to all available information. This is pervasive proximity. Their direct experience of the world is fundamentally different from that of us in the fogey generation, as we have had to adopt and adapt to these technologies that create the effects of Ubiquitous Connectivity and Pervasive Proximity (UCaPP).

Collaborative Construction of Identity
For the UCaPP generation, identity is established and constructed collaboratively, relative to a complex sense-making and meaning-making process that occurs when artefacts that individuals create and control interact among diverse contexts that are contributed by those to whom the individual is connected among one or more social networks. The UCaPP generation who “say everything” through diverse social media, from weblogs to Facebook, are not indulging in narcissistic wastes of time, or publicity-seeking through the realization of Andy Warhol’s iconic fifteen minutes of fame. They are instead rehearsing a fundamental existential imperative, answering the timeless question, “who am I?” with a through-the-break-boundary Cartesian redux: “I blog, tweet, and post, therefore I am.”

The 4 Cs
But in the UCaPP world, the reframing of identity as being collaboratively constructed suggests that the foundation of our contemporary education system must similarly be reframed. In my view, this means replacing the 3 Rs of the modern education system with the 4 Cs of an education system that is consistent with living on this side of the break boundary. Those 4 Cs are Connection, Context, Complexity, and Connotation.

Education is What Remains
I have suggested that the “what” of education is about locating oneself in the context of society’s structuring institutions. But what about the “why” of education – why do we do it? I have always maintained that education is what remains after you have forgotten everything that you have been taught. With an obsessive emphasis on outcomes, skills and test scores, the focus shifts from what remains to what is taught. This is a very dangerous course for society, because a society is formed of “what remains” – the social values, the moral and ethical sensibilities, and the ability to effect transformation in the face of systemic injustice. A primarily instrumental focus in teaching content ironically encourages ignore-ance – literally, the learned ability to ignore much that is politically, ethically, and morally problematic in our world in favour of that which is instrumental, efficient, and merely economic. Don’t get me wrong: Instrumental and functional learning is important as skills and specific capabilities comprise the basic building blocks for any civilization or culture. However, all learning must be contextualized by the broader notion of education: that which remains. Eliminating or minimizing this vital consideration – which is the prevailing tendency among all first world countries today – negates any potential societal benefits of skills, job training and instrumental learning.


The entire piece is an hour to watch, and less to read (depending on how quickly you read about 7,500 words), and is available on request.

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9 comments:

Downes said...

> Because of the fussing that goes on with published books, I cannot make a copy available for general downloading

Not an excuse.

I publish articles in books on a regular basis and have always managed to have a version of the article online.

You _could_ have posted the article, but chose not to. You have to take responsibility for your own decision, not pass it off onto some publisher.

Mark said...

Since the book isn't mine, and I don't yet have the clearance contract to potentially modify relative to my article, I've DECIDED not to create a controversy with the European publisher and do it this way.

But then again, there are always those who like to take cheap shots, I guess.

Christopher D. Sessums said...

I think you have a done a nice job approximating the "next" here. Without the benefit of reading your complete analysis, I can only comment on what has been presented.

As an education researcher and university instructor, I'm not sure you adequately frame the "problem of modern education." Where in the literature do you find evidence to suggest that there is a generation gap and that that gap is causing a problem with modern education?

Looking over Pew data sets on the Internet and American Life, I can see generational categories and evidence that the Internet is used differently by different age categories. However, these data do not adequately account for differences in adoption and use of technology as you suggest. So I am wondering, what is your empirical evidence for such an assertion?

Mark said...

Christopher, you state it yourself: you don't have the benefit of the complete analysis. You can watch it on the TVO video which is linked in the post, or you can email me and I'll happily send you the transcript. Note that since this is framed as a keynote, it "breezes over" the rigorous citations. However, the argument is based on the discourse of the Toronto School of Communication, beginning with the particular reading of Western history that is in McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, and drawing from the works of Havelock and Innis (among others). It's happened twice before, and it is happening again (sorry for sounding all BSG here.)

There is one other aspect that must not be forgotten. Empiricism only goes so far in identifying inflection points - break boundaries - and is generally useless in identifying long term, systemic effects. Those will become quite clear to empirical researchers only a century from now, as McLuhan observes, walking backwards into the future. It is not the uses, but the changes in the patterns of social dynamics enabled by the new technology that are important, and these sorts of questions are impossible to empirically research using conventional methods. (See my paper "How Do We Know: The changing culture of knowledge" for some insight into this argument.)

Mark said...

Do you have an embeddable version of this address? This would be a great help in the training I m currently doing in trying to change educator bias towards the technology I am trying to get them to accept.

Mark said...

I don't have an embeddable version. If you go to the TVO page for this particular episode, there is a button on the player labelled "get this," which provides a number of options for hooking up the video in various social media sites. One of them might be helpful for what you are seeking.

Christopher D. Sessums said...

Thank you for your response. You are obviously a gifted thinker. Perhaps I spend too much time considering these same subjects and fail to see the forest through the trees.

Your reason for avoiding empiricism, in a philosophical sense, seems sound as it does not currently favor your particular point of view. However, I feel your generational theory breaks down in a phenomenological sense--that people are shifting in their lived experience of technology as we speak. There will always be those who resist new media, both young and old. So how does your theory avoid categorical imperatives and account for the dynamic case of the fluidity human nature?

Mark said...

Christopher, thanks for another good question. Actually, I don't avoid empiricism entirely (my current research is an empirical study). My critique of what passes for empiricism today focuses on the limitations of the scientific method - essentially, it can only find what it's looking for, using a very particular, and very limited, instrumentation. If the phenomenon being sought is not subject to the instruments, it (apparently) doesn't exist. And that's problematic in a complex world.

So (as I say in the piece) we have to become a little more clever, and a little more subtle about our empirical methods in order to detect the changes occurring.

I agree that people are shifting in their lived experience of technology as we speak, and this is clear and evident if we only look back 50 years, and contemplate the change in the media of electric (sic) communication, and the ensuing effects, comparing, say, early television with YouTube (to use a very simplistic example). However, a generation that is socialized in a world in which the Internet never didn't exist (therefore rendering it environmental) experiences the phenomenon of collaborative construction of identity, for example, whereas we fogeys who view the technology as strictly instrumental view social media as merely a new means of broadcasting.

No one can resist new media, irrespective of whether they use it directly or not. For example, my mother-in-law (mid-80s) goes nowhere near a computer, but in no way can resist the complexity effects of new media (you should see what happened to her retirement portfolio) that are pervasive in our world. Further, historically, our society has collectively not been able to resist the effects of new media through the ages, whether that new medium was phonetic literacy in ancient times, the printing press in the middle ages, or electric communications that define our time.

For me, the issue is not what happens over 5 years or 50 years, but what happens structurally over 500 years, and how can we act today to ensure the livability of changes and effects that would otherwise be seemingly inevitable. To (mis)quote Marshall McLuhan, there is no inevitability so long as we are prepared to become aware.

Christopher said...

Ah so... the "long now!" Now I see where you are going. My apologies for not picking up on this sooner.

Being a gambler of sorts (Kenny Rogers really did understand the meaning of life), I am willing to bet that you sometimes feel somewhat lonely considering your desire to act today to ensure the livability of the changes and effects that are sure to follow! This level of forward thinking strikes many as odd especially in light of the current state of the world. Even existentialists had the foresight to allow that the more freedom we have, the more responsibility we have.
I will continue to follow your travails and see how things work for you. You've piqued my curiosity!