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Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

The Message in the (Digital) Bottle

By Todd R. Nelson — December 13, 2000 4 min read
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Right now, it’s the kids who are leading the the grown-ups into online learning. We need to reverse that.

Bravo to Gov. John Engler of Michigan for his enlightened Teacher Technology Initiative, which would put more computers into the hands of teachers. I’d love to see that happen here in Maine, where Gov. Angus King has hitched his educational wagon to a similar star. His laptops-for-7th-graders initiative didn’t go over so well in the legislature last year, despite the support of educational luminaries such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Seymour Papert. As an educator, I was disappointed. Here’s why.

Unlike their teachers and parents, most K-12 students have never had a classroom without a computer. As John Perry Barlow says, this generation is “native to the technology.” But how do these natives use their powerful medium? Chatting. Passing time. Catching up on what’s in, what’s not. Looking at dumb stuff. Just like I do. It’s hard to resist sending bits of e-mail mirth to correspondents around the planet.

Clearly, the technology magnifies, but does not alter, certain behaviors. Yet we continue to expect our digital revolution to redefine fundamental educational behaviors. Why is that? Consider who is leading whom into online learning. Right now, it’s the kids leading the grown-ups. We need to reverse that in the case of teachers.

We should not confuse the rewiring of neural pathways with the nuturing of intellect or the fashioning of the soul.

Whether or not the Internet will change as many things as we think it will depends on what we ask of this digital genie. As with any new technology, we are tempted now to focus on what will be different, rather than on what will remain the same. Learning online means going farther, faster; gathering more information, more swiftly; increasing students’ responsibility for discovery; even tinkering with when “schooling” occurs. Does this redefine our notion of “classroom” and “teacher”? Sure it does. Just ask the kids. Is this medium the message? Yes ... but. And that “but” is worth educators’ consideration.

This medium has trained the brains of a generation to process information in nonlinear, mosaic patterns. But we should not confuse the rewiring of neural pathways with the nurturing of intellect or the fashioning of a soul. Cyberspace is interactive. We create the medium’s message with each interaction. Television, that other medium promoted in an earlier age for its revolutionary potential, is now viewed with cynicism because of what critics call its “derisive tone” and lack of serious content. If that same kind of cyncism co-opts cyberspace, the current attitude toward media as transient and disposable may become permanently hardwired into the culture. “Dumb is in,” as TheNew Yorker‘s film critic, David Denby, has noted.

In his nonfiction work The Message in the Bottle, the late novelist Walker Percy made prescient distinctions between the “news” and the “knowledge” we find in the bottles of information washing up on our metaphorical shores. News that the inhabitants of a neighboring island are cannibals might be useful, he suggests, but it would not be useful for as long as the knowledge that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Most 7th graders can apply this metaphor in a classroom discussion. But they are not aware of how frequently they are being required to uncork these bottles of information.

Living in the present context of hyper-textual overstimulation, we don’t always know when we’re being “messaged.” The Internet blurs customary boundaries of time, identity, authority, and truth. Virtual reality is a tacitly accepted virtue; virtual truth should not be. Once we’ve honed the question in our World Wide Web search, we still need to know how to question the results. There are realities in virtue. Which brings us to the notion of community.

Once we honed the question in a Web search, we still need to know how to question the results.

Many experts don’t like the rigid structure of the Direct Instruction reform model, but a sizable body of research says it can raise achievement.

Bruce Sterling, the author of The Artificial Kid, said this of cyberspace: “It ain’t no Amish barn-raising in there.” His ironic juxtaposition of a stable, timeless agrarian community within a world of technological infrastructure has resonance. Is a yearning for human connectedness at work in our new world of “cyberhoods”? Communities are formed by people sharing commitments and responsibilities. Only the Amish can hold an Amish barn- raising. Every community finds its own way to discipline and celebrate itself in order to create a feeling of belonging.

What true learner doesn’t welcome a democratic, fenceless intellectual range to roam, one whose gardens have the expansiveness of the imagination and the durability of big ideas? Our kids, the digital natives, may just help us, their teachers, learn to play among these gardens, showing us how to enact the poet Marianne Moore’s sense of finding “imaginary gardens with real toads.”

But these natives still need our help. There are cannibals about. Communities thrive when they contain mentors and role models. Information-age mentors will need to sponsor and understand the most powerful tools available. This changes the nature of our work. The kids have a considerable lead on us in this department. We need to catch up.


Todd R. Nelson is an educator and columnist for the Maine Association of Middle Level Educators. He lives in Castine, Maine.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as The Message in the (Digital) Bottle

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