Want to know something cool?

One point of view, taking note of sundry "cool" things that affect-- or could affect-- the education business.

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Interaction Age: Is this Nuance? Nope ... this stuff matters!

Want to know something cool? Technology—computers, mobile phones, PDAs, messaging in various forms—has become much more intuitive, so that the upward curve in “power” (Moore’s law of doubling chip speeds at increasingly fast rates with inversely proportional prices) is almost identical in shape to the curve of “usability.” This is hardly earth-shaking news, but the accessibility of technology brings new challenges to parents and teachers.

Five years ago, schools across the country scrambled to teach productivity skills for the Internet Age. Web page development and multimedia skills were considered fundamental to participation in the World of the Web. Today, we face Web 2.0, RSS, XML, SMS, VMS, IM and podcasting … the Web is less and less about visiting pages, and more and more about locating and retrieving information. We don’t “go” to see things on the Web so much anymore; now, we call for it and have it delivered.

We used to wonder how we would ever sort through the millions of websites out there to find the one we wanted to visit. Google and Yahoo and MSN stepped up and made finding things a lot easier. Where ISPs used to offer five whole megabytes of space for each account’s “personal website,” they now offer free blog space—Web logs—that require no more skill than it takes to write an e-mail (and some blogs prove it!). Where the class of 2000 had home pages and e-mail, the class of 2005 has blogs and multiple IM accounts. Personal publishing can’t get much easier than it is today, and it’s also easier than ever to find the information you want and have it “fed” to you.

A Catholic high school in New Jersey recently found itself in a quandary. The school had long-established rules about using school resources to create personal online content. But faculty found themselves in a bit of a bind when it came to student blogs created off-campus. Concerned with the safety of their students, the school began to enforce an edict which forbid students from blogging about themselves or their school, even when those blogs weren’t created with school computers.

Given the potential for seemingly innocent information (friends’ names, likes and dislikes, extracurricular activity schedules, etc.) to be found and misused by predators or miscreants, it’s not hard to understand the risks. And because the school in question is parochial, they are within their rights to monitor and mandate student behavior outside of their physical jurisdiction, as a condition of enrollment.

But what about public schools? Teachers and faculty can act in loco parentis, but only according to relatively narrow statutory parameters, and jurisdiction ends at the edge of school property. First Amendment considerations, gray areas of authority, and liability concerns make for unclear boundaries within which school officials can regulate student behavior once they leave school.

Perhaps the answer lies in the curriculum. We can’t prevent kids from venturing out into the vast Unknown, but maybe we can teach them to do it more safely. Where we need to teach computer applications and technical skills when they were required to participate in the World Wide Web, perhaps we can take advantage of the relative simplicity of this more accessible Web 2.0. We can take some of the time we used to teach the practical skills, and use it instead to teach the more esoteric skills required to participate responsibly and safely. Call it the “skill dividend.”

I’ll teach my kids to drive, and I’ll spend time explaining which pedal does what. But I’ll spend more time teaching (and worrying about) the less tangible aspects of driving. Awareness, contingency planning, safety, how to avoid problems before they occur … these are the things that take time and experience to master, but they are precisely the kinds of skills our kids need to become a full-fledged member of the new online community.

We have to do what we can to protect them, but we can’t count on ‘net nannies’ and filters and keyword blockers and anti-whatever to do the job completely. When we teach accounting, we teach more than how to add debits to Cash and deduct credits. When we teach business, we teach more than supply and demand and price and profit. We have to move beyond teaching the mechanics of technological literacy; we must teach our kids to be careful, responsible, productive participants in the world of frictionless interaction. The innovation of the Industrial Age led to the Information Age; and now the accessibility of information brings us to the dawn of the Interaction Age. And that's very cool ... but we’d better figure out the terrain in some of those gray areas pretty quickly.

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