A few days ago, I opened my Facebook profile, and made a pleasant discovery regarding the status of my personal image makeover. An anonymous friend had answered a question about me on one of those I-am-too-bored-to-do-offline-work-or-study applications. And, his/her verdict was that I am cool. This, let me tell you unequivocally, is much coveted for those of us whose noses have spent much more time in old and new paper volumes than in salons, parks, or bars. Not that we do not go to salons, parks and bars, but the latter visits, you see, are social obligations. For the highs still come from that smell of fresh ink or yellowing pages.
So the mind turns to the book of the future: what will happen when the iPad arrives? Will libraries turn into museums? Will we have to insert coins into a vending machine to pay for a guarana capsule with a bonus book-smell hit? What if the hit isn’t legalised and in fact becomes so prized that it can only be bought in dark alleys and clandestine spots? But wait, I seem to be implying, in all of the above, that the idea of knowledge, ancient or transformed, is actually becoming cool for a change. This is no Bill Gates philanthropy or Steve Jobs enigma - it is just “Tech Chic”. Hallelujah!
Before I drown in a sea of technological determinism, beyond the reach of political policy and social practice, there are noteworthy points to be made about the technology-knowledge relationship (especially as it stands in contemporary Australia). When the Labor Party under the leadership of Kevin Rudd was campaigning for federal power in 2007, much was made of Julia Gillard’s “Education Revolution” and the plan to provide a laptop to every student. Now, almost three years later, Skills Australia has assessed the nation’s literacy and numeracy skills, and the verdict is a sombre one for policy-makers, educators, and employers alike.
I am not suggesting a link between laptops being used for leisure over education, and that being somehow responsible for poorer school and university performance (even though the tabloid current affairs programs, with or without empirical research, would have us believe that is undoubtedly the case). As someone who arrived in Australia as an overseas student in 2003, the very same computer hardware with appropriate software and an internet connection was invaluable in keeping in touch with friends and family, preparing assignments and keeping up-to-date with the world. Now, as a university tutor and guest lecturer, I see students of all backgrounds relying on technology for education and socialising, and the two activities are no longer seen as mutually exclusive.
Case in point are certain courses in the Bachelor of Media program at the University of Adelaide that I’m currently involved with, where the course coordinator uses contributions to a Facebook group as evidence of participation and capacity to engage with both peers and the course content. There are occasional issues of appropriate discourse, but by and large, the ability to post a range of audio-visual material makes Facebook an ideal pedagogic platform for a number of disciplines. Moreover, it is not another site that students need a reminder to check - it is built into the social fabric of their everyday lives, and employed for both personal and professional networking.
Of course, with its Pandora’s box full of privacy and ethics concerns, not all educators are likely to look favourably at Facebook and comparable social networking sites. Also, there is unlikely to be unanimous consent regarding its use in formal learning contexts among scholars of education. Nevertheless, my own experiences and action research lead to me believe that social networking in the guise of Facebook, blogging, photo and video sharing is also a Pandora’s box of hope if we view it as a tool rather than a taboo.
If the Australian Government is keen to raise literacy and numeracy standards, and increase the numbers of those seeking post-school qualifications, creating more courses and places isn’t the only answer. Those being educated need to be engaged, and addressing them in their language is an appropriate incentive. This doesn’t mean SMS talk, but rather refers to the interactive elements of Web 2.0.
Gone are the days when I procrastinated by playing a solitary game of Solitaire on my ancient Celeron processor. These days, I check the news on my phone while waiting at the tram stop, or meticulously read my Facebook friends’ feed when faced with a writing block. So now I can call it an iBlock because, like all the iDevices and their non-Apple counterparts, it connects even as it blocks and isolates. Whatever the offline enthusiasts and face-to-face pundits may say, tech-connectivity is cool for the forthcoming generation of decision-making citizens. So we might as well transfer our epistemology to HTML, and pray that e-methodology is as memorable as the printed word.
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