opinion In Australian society, so much of the ongoing narrative about the current generation of students in our schools is focused around the different way that they understand and use technology; and so much of that narrative is focused around fear.
Every second week a story pops up about a new way which technology can harm children. One week it’s cyber-bullying, with dramatic pictures being painted of abusive schoolyard bullies using blogs to hound fellow students into depression. Next it’s children inadvertently stumbling across Internet pornography, or using Facebook to harass teachers, spreading false rumours about them which could cost them their employment. And of course, there’s the ever-present threat of ‘sexting’.
Even the mundane can be troubling. Students, we’re told, no longer sit quietly in classrooms learning and working with their peers as older generations used to, faithfully solving problems from textbooks and respectfully listening to their teachers. Instead, the demon lure of technology seduces them away from their studies; distracting them with a constant series of text messages from their friends, pop-up instant message windows, YouTube videos and Facebook. School assignments are plagiarised from Wikipedia or outsourced to India. Teachers falsely believe they are in control of a class, when there’s actually a secret undercurrent of dissent undercutting their every attempt to impose discipline.
Underlying all of this constant hyperbole and outrage is a concept which has long found favour in anthropology, political science and even psychology: The idea of ‘the Other’ — a grouping of people or concepts which are alien to ourselves, and by extension, which help us define the limits of what we classify as “us”, or “we”.
Young people these days aren’t like us, is the dominant message. They’re different. They don’t obey. They can’t be controlled. They just want to muck around. They don’t want to learn. They’re into drugs, sex and dangerous music because they’re exposed to it too early via the Internet. They won’t make good workers when they finish school. They won’t get jobs. They’ll drop out and have teenage pregnancies. They’ll get into gangs. Generation Y, video games, Nintendo, social media, society will collapse and it’s all technology’s fault!
As a narrative, this idea of a ‘different’ generation of students passing through Australian schools armed with technology is a powerful one.
It allows the ‘adults’ of older generations such as politicians, social commentators, businesspeople and often even parents to easily apply what is perceived as a blanket trend to the next generation of young people. A thousand marketing articles are published discussing the different ways in which today’s young people can be better targeted through ‘social media’. Politicians call for Facebook to be banned or brought under control, religious groups attempt to have violent computer games banned and bureaucrats bulk issue laptops to school students in an attempt to address the needs of ‘digital natives’.
And it allows adults to more strongly reinforce their own identity construction — telling themselves they were part of a better, simpler time, when life wasn’t so complex and difficult to understand, with so many competing technological demands. A rose-tinged view of the past which aids in framing (or, perhaps more accurately, mis-framing) the policies of the future.
But, as with so many uses of the ‘Other’ in societal discourse (think of how Australian politicians regularly characterise refugees seeking to reach our shores, for example, or the historical injustices perpetrated on indigenous Australians), this one-sided narrative often obscures the real truth about what’s really going on inside our education system right now, and with young Australians in general.
Perhaps the deepest thinking I’ve witnessed recently about the actual complexities of what’s going on in schools has come from a one hour documentary produced by Queensland-based ICT analyst house Longhaus. It’s available online — and there’s a trailer below:
Longhaus’ documentary, entitled The Connected Generation, does begin by raising all of the same fears and stereotypes that the Australian media loves to perpetuate about technology in schools and the changing nature of today’s youth. After 20 minutes of watching it, you’re gasping for air and asking yourself how society will cope with this radically different generation. In the first part of the documentary, students are strongly characterised as ‘other’ than the viewer — different, alien, constantly having hidden conversations which ‘normal’ adults can’t penetrate. Chilling classical music plays in the background and it seems as if the doom of Australia’s education system is nigh.
However, at about a third of the way through the documentary, it takes a radical shift towards a more meaningful discussion.
At that stage, insightful, modern teachers enter the discussion to highlight how classrooms, educators, schools and even the nature of education itself are gradually shifting along with the technology and the students. Students admit they don’t know where things are going, and highlight the ongoing need for structure, guidance and the importance of schools as a focus for learning. Educators stress the ongoing and enduring fundamental nature of deep student and teacher relationships — despite the fact that on the face of it these relationships may be changing in some ways — moving online and moving outside hours through social media.
Supportive teachers who integrate technology into the learning process and are aware of the constantly shifting dynamics of students’ digital lives. Principals who are evolving their schools to become more flexible, more interactive and more student-focused. Departmental bureaucrats who are evolving curriculums to become more relevant in an age where legacy subject matter is quickly proven out of date by Google. Parents who are not isolated from their children’s lives, despite the fact that education and adoption of technology differs between generations.
What Longhaus paints is a picture of a more multi-faceted educational environment: Where technology is not only a threatening force for social disruption, but also an opportunity to free everyone in the process from unnecessary strictures; not only a tool employed by students but also one taken advantage of by teachers; not solely a factor which might impact on skillsets in demand by workforces but a factor which might create new ones.
In one memorable moment, several students laugh as they dream of an educational future with “no more textbooks, no more school uniforms and no more teachers”. “We might even have no teachers at all,” speculates another. “We might just have robots as our teachers.”
“I think students would like to think that teachers maybe won’t be needed any more in the classroom of the future, that we’ll all be online and we’ll be talking to robots,” chuckles a teacher shortly after in the documentary. “But I think what needs to happen is that step back from technology, and just remember it’s about education and that really can only come from collaborative learning, from meaningful learning activities and from social interaction.”
It’s this more complex future that I’d like to see discussed more when we think about technology in education — a meme which is only going to grow. Moving away from the binary idea of bulk-ordering laptops or even tablets for schools and focusing specifically on how those devices could be used to enhance educational outcomes. Moving away from the idea of banning bits of the Internet in schools and towards the idea of incentivising students through social media and video game theory to visit and use useful Internet sites. Moving away from the idea that ubiquitous mobile phone ownership by students is a threat to classroom discipline, and towards ideas about how it could be used to enhance collaboration between students.
It’s only when society at large starts to look at technology in education in this light — which, I think, many students and teachers in Australia’s education system already are — that we’ll get past this fear, uncertainty and doubt surrounding how young Australians use technology differently and begin to realise that using technology in education isn’t what you are; it’s what you do, and that our young people aren’t somehow fundamentally different from us; they just got access to better tools at a younger age.
For many of us who are older, it’s about time we caught up with them.