The New Digital Divide?

I have on occasion been frustrated – dare I say critical – of the sometimes glacial pace of change in the broader educational community when it comes to embracing the use of ICT. I occasionally say things that might make me appear less compassionate than I really am. But believe it or not, I really do have a great degree of patience and time for anyone who is genuinely interested to know more about how to effectively integrate technology into the demanding job of teaching kids every day.

A week or so ago, I returned from the CEGSA (Computer Education Group of South Australia) conference in Adelaide where I had the great pleasure of giving one of the keynote addresses. I got to meet so many wonderful, dedicated educators who were there giving up two days of their holidays to come and learn more about technology and how it can be effectively used it with their students.

The people I met at CEGSA are already the “believers” however. They were attending the conference, presumably, because they already understand the important role that technology is playing in education. They are probably the people that get looked up to in their schools as the “geeks” (in a good way) and are the people that others turn to when answers about technology are needed. And yet, I can’t help but see that there is still a wide gap in skills and understanding between even the group that turned up at CEGSA. I hope that if any of them read this they don’t take it the wrong way, but I was a little surprised that even this group was so unconnected in so many ways. A quick show of hands, while hardly a scientific way to measure, indicated that there was a surprisingly small number of those who blogged, used Twitter, or understood the use of basic Web 2.0 resources like Flickr or I’m incredibly glad they were there, but I was a little surprised because I’ve come to take so many of these things for granted and sometimes find it hard to get my head around how other educators can possibly not be tapped into this stuff.

So on the one hand, I’m a little surprised that the level of connectedness -the Web 2.0ishness – was so minimal in this particular group. On the other hand, I’m unbelievably excited that so many teachers are wanting to find out more about this stuff, to move to that next level for their own personal understanding and growth in the use of ICT.

What scares me a little are those on the other side… the vast majority of the teaching profession who have never been to a conference like this. The ones that will turn up to school on Monday and either not make any real attempt to create a technology-rich environment for their students, or who still think that PowerPoint is pretty cool. Our schools are full of teachers – many of whom are outstanding educators with enormous passion and energy – but who do not understand the pivotal role that technology plays in the lives of their students.

I think what often shocks me the most about teachers who don’t take technology very seriously, is just how far behind they really are. They don’t have any idea just how out of touch they are with the kids they teach each day… kids who in most cases are far too polite to say anything about their teachers’ lack of technology understanding. But trust me, they know who you are…

Some of the classic excuses for why some teachers don’t integrate technology might include the following… how many have you heard before?

  • “Im retiring in a couple of years anyway” (yes, but your students are not)
  • “I’m too old to learn this stuff”
  • “I’m too busy, I don’t have the time”
  • “I have too much content to get through” (this one is usually followed by “you just don’t know what it’s like”… ah, yes, I do.)
  • “I don’t really like computers” (you don’t have to like them, you just have to use them)
  • “I just don’t understand technology” (as though they think no one has noticed that yet)

The scary thing is not the folk that turn up to an event like CEGSA in order to learn more to move ahead. My hat is off to them.

And the scary thing is not even those folk who resist that progress because they don’t get it or don’t want to get it..

No, the scary thing to me is not the particular characteristics of these two groups, but rather the huge divide that is being created between them and the impact it is having our profession. It is the new Digital Divide.

We used to talk a lot about a “Digital Divide”. Usually we were referring to the inequitable technology gap between the rich and the poor, the “information-haves” and the “information-have-nots”. But I think I’m getting rather more concerned about the widening gap between the “information-wills” and the “information-will-nots”.

There is a group – and a relatively small group at that – who are extremely active in the edtech community. I won’t mention names, but if you’re a blog reader you probably know who they are. The educators that ARE connected, networked and wired. The ones who really get it. They blog, they tweet, they podcast, they wiki. They store their bookmarks in and their photos in Flickr. They know their way around Second Life and belong to numerous online communities. They get excited by Flips, iPods and IWBs. They’d rather have a Flashmeeting than a staff meeting. To the rest of the world they are freakily geeky, but they are at home in the digital world inhabited by their students, regardless of whether they are native to it or not.

Then there is the other group. Those who still don’t get it. They still think that textbooks are the definitive source of learning. They never turn on the interactive whiteboard in their room. They don’t have a presence on the web, and they wouldn’t know how to Google it if they did. Their idea of technology integration is to “research it on the Internet” and the “get the kids to make a PowerPoint”. They either can’t see the point of technology at all, or they have almost no real understanding of how technology can be embedded into their classroom. They just. don’t. get it.

A new Digital Divide is emerging as the connected educators find each other. A few years ago, these bleeding edge edutechies were the exception. They were isolated in their schools. They did great things with kids but worked mostly in a vacuum because they were so rare that there was usually no one in the school to share their craziness with. But the rise of networked intelligence has changed that. These people are finding each other and forming alliances. They are conversing and sharing with each other. Their networks are amplifying their voices, and allowing them to connect in ways that their less connected colleagues don’t really understand, and through this connected amplification, they are starting to have a real voice. There has been a lot of talk for a long time about the need for schools to shift their thinking, to bring themselves into the 21st century where their students live. But that talk has been largely dispersed across disconnected individuals who were unable to have any collective voice.

In the last 18 months or so, I’ve been noticing that these disconnected individuals are starting to band together, connect much more strongly with each other through the social networks Their voices are getting louder and they are encouraging each other with their sense of community, sharing and openness, and as they bring their collective voices together it is throwing the gap between them and the laggards into sharp relief. This widening void between the “wills” and the “will-nots” is, I think, changing the game a little.

Paradoxically, the “will-nots” main fear is usually expressed as a concern that they will lose control over their students. A fear that if they even consider dipping their toes into the waters of educational technology that their students might realise they really don’t have all the answers. They resist technology because they think that to try (and fail) will expose this weaknesses to their students, but they fail to understand that by NOT trying it they are doing far more to expose their weaknesses anyway. It must be hard for a 21st century student to respect a teacher who steadfastly refuses to get with the program.

That’s not to say that these people are bad teachers. Sometimes they are exceptionally good teachers who relate to the kids in lots of other ways that have nothing to do with technology at all. But as long as they refuse to come to terms with technology in any sort of meaningful way they will always have this digital divide between them and the natives that makes them just that little bit less effective than they could be.

If you’re in the middle of this divide and trying to cross it, you know how much work it takes. But it has to be crossed eventually, and the best time to do it is before it becomes uncrossably wide.

Image: ‘Slam: I <3 Public Libraries – The+internet+is+closed

Age Shall Not Weary Them

I’ve been trying to remember the very first time I went online to the Internet.

I started thinking about this when I read about the recent passing of Olive Riley, a 108 year old woman who regularly wrote on her Blogger account and was known as the World’s Oldest Blogger.

Olive passed away this week on the NSW Central Coast, just a few months before her 109th birthday, God bless her. In the newspaper article about her passing, her Grandson notes how she was regularly communicating with people from as far away as America and Russia.

I suppose I take for granted just how easily we can communicate with people from far away places. A quick glance at the Live Feed widget on this very blog shows me that in the last few hours I’ve had hits from India, America, Norway, Canada, the UK and of course all over Australia. A quick peruse through my open Skype contact list shows a similar global diversity, with people listed there from virtually every continent except Antarctica. It’s all too easy to take this for granted these days but the fact that we can connect like this, sending our little binary bits flying around the planet in mere milliseconds, is still a pretty amazing thing when you stop and think about it.

So, when was the first time you ever saw the Internet?

For me it must have been early 1995. I remember it well because I had a student whose father worked for the company that was contracted to do the 3.5″ floppy disk duplication for the original Microsoft Windows 95 release. (Yes, remember when operating systems could be installed using floppy disks?) This student was a very smart, very geeky kid (he taught me to code in HTML) and he came to school one day and said “dad wants to know if you’d like to see the Internet”… (apparently I had been trying to teach something about this new thing called the Internet and he thought it was clear I had no idea what I was talking about, so wanted to set me straight). I said yes of course.

So I went in and visited his dad at his work, had a look at the disk duplication facilities for Windows 95, and then he took me to his cubicle and typed a few weird UNIX commands into a terminal. A few seconds later, some more text appeared on the screen in response. Apparently it had come from Singapore, where an FTP server had responded to his request and was allowing him to browse through some files. Although it was all UNIX command-line stuff (real men use Shell script!) I was fascinated by the idea that a computer in Sydney was communicating with a computer in Singapore, right there before my very eyes!

Not long after that, I wanted to give it a go myself so I managed to hook a modem up to an LC575 Mac, work my way through the setup of the required TCP/IP stacks, and somehow got it connected. I was so excited to be able to browse the Internet (not the WWW, mind you!) using a text-based browser called Lynx. I somehow found my way into the University of Minnesota library and browsed the catalog. I thought it was so exciting and I was just fascinated that I could send these little packets of data all the way across the Pacific and back.

But that was not my first foray into going online. It was maybe a year prior to that that I’d discovered eWorld. Ah, eWorld! If you never saw it, eWorld was Apple’s first attempt at creating an online community. It had – as you’d expect from Apple – a pretty, graphical interface that used the metaphor of a town, called eWorld, to let you wander from place to place. You could send emails by clicking on the Mail Centre, read the news by going to the News Stand, visit the Leisure Pavilion to find out about health and lifestyle news and so on. eWorld was very cool (and very expensive… it cost me $US10/hour to use, paid out of my own pocket, and I used it with kids in my classroom) but it was essentially a closed community. This was not the Internet, but rather a private protected community for Apple users.

However, in 1995, Apple updated eWorld to include a few new buildings and a picture of a highway going by the town. This highway was labelled “Internet”, and you could click on it to take the fast lane out of the safe haven of eWorld and out into the big bad unknown world of the Web. It was the wild west, highly unregulated, hard to find stuff, very random, but very interesting and a lot of fun to explore. It had plenty of weird places to visit… I remember the first real website I ever saw was the Virtual Cemetery, a list of obituaries for people who has died. I can’t find it anymore of course, although there seems to be plenty of others to take its place.

It’s hard to believe that this was only 13 years ago. Just 13 short years ago, there was no real Internet to speak of, at least nothing that you’d recognise as the Internet of today. No online banking. No eCommerce. No online dating. No Amazon, no Google, no eBay. No Web 2.0 and not even Web 1.0. We’ve come an awful long way in a very short space of time. Next time one of your high school students makes a joke about your age, remind them that the World Wide Web was not invented when they were born. Puts it in perspective doesn’t it?

And as for Olive, I hope she rests in peace in some Virtual Cemetery somewhere. At 108 she still had a sense of curiosity and wonder at being able to communicate so easily with others around the world.

She sounds like one pretty cool old lady.

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Has Social Networking become the New Society

In light of my recent post about living the moment rather than being consumed with documenting it, I was interested to come across this post by Joel Adkins. Joel is musing about the idea of “Twitterati”, a class of edubloggers who seem to approach their attendance at conferences as though they were getting an inside scoop on breaking news. He raises some great questions aimed at the very same issues I was thinking about.

Along the same lines, I stumbled across this article that talks about how, when attending a conference, it would be nice if the presenters would make a greater effort to be “in the moment” with the audience in front of them, rather than being so concerned with how to share that moment with others who aren’t.

I think Joel hit the nail fair on the head when he posed the question “Has Social Networking become the New Society?

I think I’m as connected as the next person when it comes to having a finger on the pulse of the online world. Just like many of the people reading this blog, I spend considerable chunks of my day connecting with others using digital tools. Between email, Twitter, Google Reader and a confusing array of social networking sites, I can be continually connected to the conversation if I choose to. I can tap into the constant stream of edu-techno-babble on any of my 4 computers, my iPod touch or my mobile phone. I can send a Tweet, check an email, browse through Google and upload to Flickr from just about anywhere at just about anytime. And although I will continue to do so, and I consider it an important literacy to be fluent in that digital environment, I’m also coming to understand that part of being digitally literate is also knowing when NOT to use it. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should be.

There seems to be an ever-expanding collection of social networking environments that I dip my toe into just to see what they are about… but the more I do so, the more I wonder why. At the moment, I belong to a ridiculous number of dedicated social networking sites like Facebook, PlaxoPulse and LinkedIn, as well as being part of the built-in social networks within services like Flickr, Diigo, and so on. Then of course there is Twitter (when it’s working!) and the several mailing lists and online communities I belong to. Oh, don’t forget the dozen or so Ning groups I’m a member of and the associated social networks that accompany them. Many of these networks contain the same people.  I get “friend” requests from people I’ve never heard of.

And I’m starting to wonder how many social networks is too many? Has, as Joel asked, social networking become my new society? (The funny thing is that the one social network that really hasn’t grown much lately is my real life social network… how sad does that sound?)

At the moment, I’m preparing a keynote presentation for next Thursday at the CEGSA conference in Adelaide. Titled “Learning is a Conversation”, it was going to be about how educators can use these tools of connectivity and how we can be part of a true lifelong-learning environment by using those tools to engage in the ongoing conversation taking place around us. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the balance we need to find in our lives as we take part in those conversations.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that this ongoing conversation is incredibly important to be a part of and I can’t imagine being disconnected from it. The endless stream of emails, tweets and blogposts, although sometimes a little overwhelming, is certainly an important part of what I need to grow as an educator and to keep challenging my thinking. What I am finding however, is that I need to temper it against the need to live in the moment and enjoy the real face to face time. I don’t really need to send Tweets every few minutes or blog four times a day. I want to know about all the new Web 2.0 tools out there, but I’m realising that I don’t need to commit to every single one of them. It’s OK to clear my feed reader every so often if it’s obvious no way I’ll ever get through looking at it all, and it’s OK not to be there for every single live event taking place on the Web right now.

When Al Upton originally invited me to speak at the conference, I planned to do all sorts of geeky techno stuff for my presentation, which was, after all, about engaging with the global conversation. I had thoughts of running live backchannels, sending live streams to the web, using Twitter to bring a global audience into the room and so on, and while those things might be fun to do and may expose some of the technologies to people that don’t know much about them, I’m reconsidering just how much extra value they will bring to the whole thing. Yes, I might UStream it if I can do it unobtrusively, and yes I’ll probably record it just in case I want to podcast parts of it later, and yes I’ll probably demonstrate a few useful connective technologies like Skype and Twitter, but I also want to focus on really being there and talking to the living, breathing human beings in the room.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting older, or just growing up.

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