A friend forwarded me a post from the owner of a listserve for English teachers. The post was from February 1998 on the topic of computers in the classroom with this query for today's audience: Are teachers still scrounging for computers, or are computers plentiful and cheap? Do classes still use computers or are we on to other tools?
So much has changed these past 14 years. In 1998 we were on the middle of some very wonderful things using technology in our classrooms. Students were producing webpages, hypertext webpages that were the next and natural iteration of the codex that superseded scrolled text. The advancement of learning and shared information was huge when the scroll made way for the codex with its indexing and multiple pages filled with data and more accessible. We know what happened to the scrolls especially in the libraries of Alexandria and Pompeii. Today The Vatican, Oxford, The Library of Congress as well as many other locations house the tomes of the ancient modern world. Now Bartleby, Project Gutenberg, The Internet Public Library, Google Books, Librivox, and others have taken the time to digitize these classic codex tomes and remaining scrolls. When I taught, my scholars used these online sites to access the texts I could not have in my class or school library in addition to the burgeoning collection of online newspapers and magazines. We were reveling in the democracy of the Internet and in education as inspired by our giants like Jefferson, Dewey, and Freire. The webpage is a natural transition from the codex because it starts with an index page that has hypertext links to further pages that contain more text. The text my scholars made were their multi media webpages that were essays written in their English Class. I was lucky to continue this practice from 1993 until 2012.
Today, I am retired. I left with my scholars still making webpages. When we once had a plethora of places to construct free webpages, we now have few and with too many limitations. Fewer provide sites where the user can write their own HTML. Now they are basically wizards. That's not making webpages. Because of the limitations of the current webpage building process, I was forced to resort to the lesser medium, The Blog. For me the blog was a step back to the days of the scroll. The blog scrolls like ancient times or like toilet paper.
Another hindrance to the advancement of technology in education has been the filter. The leaders of today, like the leaders during the Inquisition, are convinced they know better and enforce their misguided mores on the rest of us. Ironically the very things that they filter are blocked from teachers but not from the students. Teachers have had very useful sites blocked for the wrong reasons while our scholars are accessing and updating their Facebook accounts which are not blocked successfully.
We have plenty of computers in our schools, but they are not being used very well. Sites like Wikipedia are feared and bad mouthed and yet encyclopedias and texts edited with bias from publishing houses that are more interested in profits than in truth are pushed on us. The mistakes of printed texts will always exist as long as those books exist in our schools and are past on from affluent schools to less affluent schools as the former upgrade. This is a situation when we should burn books. On the other hand, web based texts upgrade immediately, correct mistakes, and even in some cases archive these changes so future scholars can watch the evolution much like how the OED operates. Teachers are more comfortable using prepared sites from those publishers for a price rather than doing their own research online. We are getting lazier and have missed a great opportunity to create our own curriculum from the Internet.
What is happening is that our scholars are now using handheld devices because all they need is to produce 128 character tweets or Facebook entries. The sad irony is that Facebook is about to go public for billions of dollars and that represents the dumbing down of America. Just the other day I heard about the editing of Scott's novels, because they are too long. Today is Dickens' 200th birthday and I wonder what his or Twain's reaction would be to the state of writing in our social networking society. These are writers who used the serial to develop tomes. Now we are going backwards to a limit of 128 characters. That's characters, not words. Words left us awhile ago for letters and word parts. We have not used the technology well in our schools and we are suffering. The result is the proliferation of Facebook and tweets. This does not bode well for literacy or humanity.
And then on the other hand literacy and perhaps democracy are blossoming in China and Egypt. While reading an interesting article in New Yorker called "Working Title" Leslie T Chang, stories that were started on the Internet became best selling novels but without sex. They were Horatio Alger type books aimed at the growing middle class working society of China. In Egypt, what were once democracy creating tweets and Facebook entries, a former Google employee, Wael Ghonim, used a Facebook page to communicate has now written, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir.
However this and the fate of technology in our schools reminded me of Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." Facebook is our new Handicapper General. Once upon a time computers provided us the opportunity to be producers and to evolve from codex to hypertext. Instead we have regressed to the scroll and 128 character limitations. The opposite democratic effect is happening in American schools where we are now tracked, monitored, and bombarded with targeted ads. Social networking is not freedom, it is the opposite. It portends the fears of 20th Century SciFi that are now a reality.