Sunday, April 21, 2013

Should Any Child be a Brand?

      You know things are bad when even normally even-keeled ed tech writers like Will Richardson are losing their way around an issue.  Richardson is on the right side of most issues.  He's anti-testing, and pro-art and creativity.  But when it comes to theorizing about kids online and the future, he stumbled badly in this recent blog post.  In the post, he's arguing that students need to create and manage their "brand" online.  From the use of the scare quotes to the backtracking in the comments it's clear he's not entirely comfortable with this idea.  It's also clear, he doesn't see a lot of other options.  This is, however, one of those moments where taking a step back and thinking through the implications of what he's proposing is going to be beneficial for everybody involved, especially the kids.
      Let's start with what a brand actually is.  Advertisers and entrepreneurs created brands as we know them in the late 19th century to help distinguish products in a national market place.  No longer did buyers (who are transforming into modern consumers as part of this process) make their purchases based on local reputations and knowledge bases.  You weren't buying Farmer Joe's milk or Baker Mary's biscuits.  You were buying Carnation Milk ("best in the land, comes to your table in the little red can" as one jingle writer put it) and Nabisco's biscuits.  To distinguish these products, the advertisers and industrialists created brands that turned commodities (like milk and wheat) into goods. 
     If we are branding children, we are treating them like commodities.  We all know what happened the last time we treated people like commodities, right?  Let's have a quick reminder shall we?

The issue isn't that Richardson wants to commodify kids.  The problem is he can't see anyway out of it.  As a historian that rings some bells.  He's like Thomas Jefferson flailing about for some solution that he can't see to a problem that he wishes he didn't have.
     The problem here is the way we think about education.  We no longer talk about education as a social or moral good.  We talk about it almost exclusively as an economic transaction.  In so doing, we dehumanize the very people who are most vulnerable.  Students become the dollars spent on them rather than somebody's child; teachers become their retirement packages rather than experienced, knowledgeable professionals; school buildings are no longer community centers but fixed costs.  
       We can think our way out of this, of course.  But it starts with us thinking of education not as an economic transaction, but a social one. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Technofuturism, technophobia, and technoskepticism

        After a not so brief hiatus as a blog writer, and a rather extensive career as a commentator at a couple of blogs, I’m returning to blogging full time.    If you don’t know who I am I once wrote posts like this:  Yes, I spent a week crafting a post decrying the lack of a historiography of the tampon.  And while I will continue to decry historiographical gaps when I see them, I don’t intend to focus this blog on that.  
      Instead, my main topics will be on the discourse around and practice of teaching World and US history specifically, teaching generally and more often than not, teaching with technology specifically. It’s this last theme that I’ll be ruminating on today. 
I’m going to discuss three key topics that help guide my understanding of how to use technology in the classroom.  Technofuturism is a willful belief that technology a) always makes the world better b) has no major costs or trade-offs associated with it and c) is essentially value neutral in terms of who it favors and who it harms.  Technofuturism  is evident in those who see MOOCs and fully wired campuses as the future of high school and undergraduate teaching.    As a teacher/historian I find this really frustrating.  Every claim for the MOOC has been made for radio, movies, filmstrips, and television.   The central assumption of technofuturists is that knowledge and content are relatively equivalent, that expertise is easily translatable and that the only things worth knowing are right answers.  Technofuturism is an ultimately depressing ideology built around the deskilling of teaching and the concentration of power and prestige into a few highly paid individuals via the privatization of education.  I have absolutely no desire to take part in manifesting my own technological obsolence, especially when it appears to offer no tangible benefits to my students.  
      The second term is technophobia.  A lot of scholars and teachers, but fewer everyday, are hesitant to use modern technology in the classroom.  But few of us are doing so in ways that are helpful to students.  Sure your syllabus and assignments are online, but how else are you using modern technology inside and outside the classroom?  Technophobia is marked by tendency to reject technology until it’s benefits are so overwhelmingly obvious that the decision to use the technology is a no-brainer.  Or, in fancy language, technophobes wait until the adoption of technology appears to be a natural decision because the technology is so thoroughly assimilated that all countervailing discourses have disappeared. 
     Finally there is technoskepticism.  If you didn’t see it coming, this is my preferred platform.  Technoskepticism asks a set of questions any particular technology, be it hardware or software or cloud.   What does this technology allow me or my students to do that they couldn’t do without it?  What costs in terms of dollars and time are associated with this technology?  What am I giving up in adopting this technology?  Lest you think that I’m using technoskepticism as cover for technophobia here is a partial list of programs and applications I’ve used with students and colleagues in the last few years that have passed this test:  wikispaces, Twitter, Smart Ideas, Smart Notebook, Sketch Up, a wide variety of apps that are now under Google Drive, Blogger, Google Earth Tours,  GarageBand, and iPhoto.  
     The point of being a technoskeptic isn’t to say no to technology, it’s to say no to crappy technology and to say yes to good technology.