Education Opinion

The Age of Opposable Thumbs

By Anthony J. Mullen — July 05, 2010 4 min read
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Denver Convention Center


I am a pilgrim in a strange land. A young man dressed in a lime green laptop costume stopped me in front of an exhibition booth. He spoke loudly through an opening where the space key should be. “Are you a digital native or digital immigrant?”

I am only vaguely familiar with the designations made popular by Marc Prensky but I did not want to be labeled by an adult-size foam laptop.

“Neither,” I replied. “I’m a digital hybrid.”

The laptop froze (literally) for a moment and then rebooted itself. “A digital hybrid?” he asked.

“Yes- I live in both domains,” I replied.

The laptop reluctantly accepted my moniker and then graciously gave me a free pen and a glossy brochure promoting mini laptops.

The International Society for Technology and Education has convened in Denver and the large exhibition hall is teeming with thousands of visitors. Digital natives, digital immigrants and a few digital hybrids have gathered from throughout the United States and the world to participate in one of the largest conventions dedicated to integrating technology and education. The ISTE convention is a perfect marriage of entrepreneurs and educators wedded to the belief that technology can help improve teaching and learning.

“Could I interest you in learning more about online learning classes?” a young lady asked.

My head was spinning from all the sights and sounds of the exhibition floor and I was slow to respond. The sales rep probably assumed I was a foreign visitor because she dropped a pocket-size calculator in my ISTE bag and told me to have a nice time in the United States. I probably should update my suits.

One of the tangible benefits of attending a large technology convention is the swag. My bag quickly filled with a collection of pens, flash drives, tee shirts, CDs, DVDs, pocket calculators, and coupons for free coffee and lunch. All I had to do was stop by any booth, open my swag bag, and a smiling person would deposit a small gift or a piece of candy. Technology conventions remind me why Halloween was so much fun.

A teacher from Oklahoma stood next to me and boasted how she was able to get inside the exhibition hall a few minutes before the show opened at 9:30. “I headed straight to an online learning company booth that gives out free wireless mice,” she said in a soft but furtive voice. “I got a wireless mouse for all my fifth graders.”

She then gave me a sneak preview of the contents of her swollen swag bag. It was filled with dozens of wireless mice and colorful mouse pads. “You should get to the good booths early,” she suggested.

I thanked her for the advice and walked away feeling confident that the sooner spirit is still alive and well in the great state of Oklahoma.

A group of middle school children deftly weaved in and out of the crowded exhibition hall. They were wearing yellow shirts with red stripes and moved with the grace and synchronicity of a school of tropical fish. But the truly amazing feat was how they managed to navigate through the crowd while still performing tasks on their cell phones. It was then that I realized how disconnected I was from their world.

The middle school students were living in a world dominated by opposable thumbs and I was living in a world managed by my left and right index fingers. The Age of Opposable Thumbs had usurped the forefingers largely responsible for accessing the Digital Age and I missed this seminal moment.

“Here, try this,” a woman’s voice said.

I turned around and was face-to-face with an elderly woman who handed me a small plastic device that resembled a child’s play phone.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s an integrated classroom management system,” she replied. “You can store quiz and test grades, attendance and disciplinary records, and any other data required of your classroom or school.”

“How does it work?” I asked.

The octogenarian instructed me to grip the device with my fingers and then use my thumbs to operate the keys. “It’s really simple to use,” she added. “It’s as easy as texting on your Blackberry or I Phone.”

I didn’t want to admit that I did not own a Blackberry or I Phone. Such a confession would seem sacrilegious in this temple of technology. And I felt a little embarrassed that a woman born before the electric typewriter was created had joined the Age of Opposable Thumbs before me.

But I was learning a few things about myself and the students I teach.

The ISTE convention is a window to the future of education and I was only peeking through the blinds. 21st learning will mandate the use of educational technologies that promote a student-centered rather than teacher-centered classroom. The landscape of contemporary classrooms is being radically transformed by interactive technology tools such as laptops, interactive whiteboards, and an array of digital devices that will forever change the way in which we teach and learn. The group of middle school children I observed showed me how they would like to learn and what I need to do as a teacher to help design a stimulating and productive learning environment. But I’ll write more about that topic in my next blog.

The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.