I use the Internet most days, and Shockwave Flash’s tendency to crash is driving me mental. (I know, I know – much worse things happen in life.)
Shockwave Flash? I have no idea what Shockwave Flash is. I’ve no idea what it does. I’ve no idea why my computer needs it. I’ve no idea what happens when it crashes. I’ve no idea what a flash crash actually IS. All I know is – these crashes are driving me crazy.
Occasionally my computer lets me know that some other so-called plug-in has crashed, and that it’s screwing up the computer and causing it to malfunction. It even asks me if I’d like to terminate the plug-in. I feel like thanking the computer for this information. Terminate it? I feel like telling the computer that I’d like to get hold of the plug-in, and kick the living daylights out of it.
I have no idea what a plug-in is, or what it does, or how it does it, or why it crashes. Would we sell cars or aircraft that have inherent tendencies to crash? Maybe we do. Maybe crashes are bound to happen if vehicles and aeroplanes are not driven or flown properly. Could it be the way I drive the plug-in that causes it to crash? If so, I’d like to know. Who can I get to tell me? Who can teach me to drive these things better? Should I pass a plug-in driving test?
The point I’m making, I think, is that I’m techno-illiterate. I’m like a car driver who has no idea what all those metal things and plastic things which lurk underneath the bonnet actually are – what they do and how they work. Knowing about these things may not make us better drivers, but it might help us to carry out preventative maintenance, or help us to do the right thing if the car stops working.
Should we worry about creating a small techno-elite, whilst the rest of us stay ignorant, clueless and helpless? Should we worry about current levels of techno-illiteracy?
There’s a zeitgeisty thing happening in the field of ‘digital literacy’ which could improve the quality of all schools and of all teaching.
Consider the main editorial in yesterday’s Observer:
Teaching technology: we need a digital revolution in the classroom
The government, in rewriting the schools syllabus, has a chance to make ours a nation truly in tune with the 21st century
There’s an old saying in business: if you don’t know who the sucker in a room is, it’s probably you. A similar adage can be applied to technology: if you don’t know how to control the systems you’re using, these systems are probably controlling you. As John Naughton argues in his special report for this week’s New Review, Britain is in danger of producing a generation of technological suckers: people who know how to word process a letter, buy apps for their iPhones and to search in Google, but have no understanding of the inner workings of these services.
This is, above all, an issue of education and training. For more than a decade, the teaching of information technology in schools has focused on using software rather than understanding systems; and on treating computers more like magical boxes than tools to be programmed and critiqued. With the government’s recent decision to throw away this old syllabus and replace it with something better fit for 21st-century purpose, we have an opportunity to rectify a dangerous imbalance and set a new standard. It’s an opportunity we can ill afford to miss – and that touches on some of the most fundamental questions surrounding what role computer technologies can, and should, play in 21st-century life.
Understanding modern computing means far more than typing at a desktop machine or picking up mail on a smartphone. Whether we’re meeting friends, reading books, checking our bank balances or going shopping, computer systems increasingly mediate every aspect of our lives – and shape the ways in which we both see and are seen by the world. Opting out is no longer a serious option, while ignorance risks simply handing over control to those, from corporations to fellow citizens, who may not have our best interests at heart.
Another key passage, and maybe the most important passage within this editorial, says this –
Paradoxically, there’s a particular hazard here in cleaving too closely to current corporate needs, for the skills required to serve the market leaders of the present are not the same as those needed to build the market leaders of the future. Training a workforce fit to tread the corridors of Facebook and Google is all very well. The ultimate test, though, will be whether we can give the next generation the tools and understanding with which they’ll build the Googles and Facebooks of the future.
Achieving this means embracing the unique properties of an interactive medium within classrooms: software systems that can precisely measure and personalise pupils’ progress, and that encourage both collaboration and competition; shared ownership of progress and objectives between teachers and pupils, with course materials themselves available for all to access – and debate – online.
Building a convincing 21st-century approach also means not being afraid to learn lessons from other fields: incorporating and building upon social media services rather than excluding them, and bridging the divide between the perceived fun and relevance of leisure technologies and so-called “educational” tools.
The editorial then concludes with this –
As John Naughton argues, this makes a proper intellectual grasp of computing fundamentals – from algorithms and heuristics to coding and computational problem-solving – especially important. Such terms may sound abstracted, but they are principles with practical implications across almost every walk of life. Digital technologies offer increasingly the foundations for building – in areas as diverse as scientific research and musical, visual and even literary creation. Modern film-makers, performers and artists have just as urgent a need to understand the systems they’re using as accountants or administrators.
Similarly, as phenomena from WikiLeaks to the Arab Spring have shown, digital technologies are also the medium through which new political and social forces are making themselves felt. From political engagement and activism to shifting notions of civic participation, networked technologies are the vehicle for an increasing proportion of public life. Better education about the nature of digital tools, here, is more than an economic or even a political necessity: it is a basic social good.
Ultimately, as anyone who has worked in education knows, fine intentions count for little without the human resources to back them. In this sense, bringing technological innovation and best practice to the classroom is much like the art of building a successful syllabus: the result should set good teachers free to teach, and enable the best possible use to be made of their time and attention.
This is where the government has most to prove. All the goodwill and gadgets in the world can’t inspire a class to learn if the person running the lesson doesn’t know – or doesn’t care – what they’re talking about. Getting this right will require considerable resources, vision, rigour, and the acknowledgement that the most important factors in securing our digital future remain all too human.
An interesting challenge for the teaching profession to consider. More tomorrow.