Technology: a two sided discussion

Have recently been reading The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr and it has got me thinking about technology, how we use it and its impact.

On one side we can draw the conclusion that technology is helping us and is beneficial.   It aids us in planning, augmenting out memory.   So I can use my calendar and tasks to help me organise my days, weeks, months and years and to manage the various tasks which I have to undertake.   Technology can augment our knowledge and ability to research through the use of google to search for information on demand including when on the move or even during the pub quiz night when the quiz master isn’t looking.    It can help us improve our writing through not having to be as concerned with spelling, etc as your word processor will either point out errors or even correct them for you.    These are just a small number of ways in which technology can be beneficial.

There is however a flip side.   As we rely on the spellchecker we become less able to spell new words.   We also possibly don’t check our spelling as carefully as we might have done previously as we assume the software will have done this for us.    I can definitely vouch for this as I have read things I have posted in the past only to identify spelling and other errors which I hadn’t noticed prior to posting.   I am confident part of the reason I didn’t notice is my confidence in the software as it pointed out many errors as I wrote the post, which I then corrected, so therefore I assumed it had picked up all the errors.

Moving on and taking the issue of memory and google, google might lead to us believing what we read without checking.    This however is the subject of teaching on technology use.    It also sorts the search results based on complex algorithms to try and provide us the information which we seek.   The algorithms have popularity at their core and therefore the search items tend to represent the popular and common beliefs as opposed to more fringe and lesser known beliefs.   The days of finding an unusual book in the library leading to significant learning at a tangent to a persons initial thinking are disappearing as we never move much beyond the first couple of pages of search results.     I also wonder that in this convenience of knowledge where we have a quick search and then results, there isn’t the same questioning and evaluation of the information being returned.    Its a bit like the impact convenience food had on society.   The convenience made things easier but did it make things better?   Its also a bit like the autopilot in planes, it made the job easier for the pilot however in doing so had the undesirable impact of reducing pilot flying ability.

As to my organisational skills, I am now reliant on my outlook calendar and through it I can easily manage my days however when presented with an issue such as double booking or a high priority event arising, am I as capable in managing?

Technology is helping us in many ways by augmenting what we can do or by allowing us to focus on higher order activities by automating lower order thinking activities however at what cost?    I think a bigger concern is are we conscious of the implications and costs and what about our children who may never had to manage things pre-computers, using a library or a paper diary or a dictionary.   If students no longer know how to manage their time on paper or how to find books in a library, is this loss of experience, skill, etc. a concern or is it inconsequential?    Do we spend time and make them conscious of the other side of technology use?


Being digitally literate

Have today started a new blog site called “Being Digitally Literate” focusing on ideas around developing digital literacy in students.    My hope is to create a site which explores and asks questions as I explore and ask questions, and that by doing so it might help others to also explore ideas.

As a starting point I have decided to re-post my first entry from the site below:

What does it mean to be digitally literate?

We often speak about the importance of developing digital literacy in our students.   The issue with the intention is the lack of clarity as to what it means to be digitally literate, the areas which should be covered in developing such literacy and also the methods or approaches which should be used in this development.

I intend to post my thoughts on this matter over the coming weeks and months.   I will admit that I suspect a number of my posts will pose more questions than they answer, however my hope is that the act of posing questions will promote further thought even if this is just within myself.

To get the ball rolling I would like to just define in very general terms what I believe we are looking to achieve in developing digital literacy.    I believe the fact we are even discussing digital literacy is an acceptance that we are living in an increasingly digital world.   We are surrounded by ever increasing levels of technology in our work life, social and home lives.     As such the previous literacies, of languages and communication, including reading and writing, and of mathematics are no longer sufficient.   We need digital literacy.

Given this seeking to develop digital literacy is seeking to ensure that our students are sufficiently literate with this new technological world and with its technologies, to be successful in their lives.   To be able to understand the technologies and use the technologies appropriately and effectively.

Does the above definition cover what is meant digital literacy or is there something missing?   

Digital Literacy and big brother

Further to my recent post on digital literacy I thought I would revisit one of the areas I mentioned in a little more detail.    The implications of technology use makes for an interesting discussion with students in that there are some implications which we are well aware of, some that we are less aware of and more than likely a whole heap of implications which we haven’t as yet realised.

Taking the implications which we are currently aware of and discussing online safety, or e-safety as we previously called it, has serious implications and as such is being discussed in schools.    We are already discussing with our students about the dangers of people misrepresenting themselves on the internet, the dangers of posting too much personal information on the internet and fake news, which has been the subject of discussion in schools for some years, again hitting the headlines.   I remember teaching about the spaghetti crop failure as a way to illustrate about fake news some 10 or more years ago.    We are also discussing and teaching about the permanence of online data and how once the post, photo or video is out there it is impossible to delete.    Online privacy and security settings are also a topic of discussion with a particular focus on social media usage among our students.

The above are what I consider to be the main areas of discussion in schools around technology use.    Some lesser consideration is given to the impact of search engines such as google.    As we all use google to search for information, we all end up getting the same search results.    This potentially has the impact to narrow our focus as we seldom look beyond the first few results in google, the results which represent the popular answers.     This in turn might obscure from us alternate lines of thought and resources which previously we may have come upon in a book leading us to explore different pathways and possibly even arrive at alternative or even better solutions.

Sticking with google we also need to recognise the purpose of the site in that Google is a business.   As such they need to make money which they achieve through advertising.    What are the implications of their need to sustain or even increase their revenue on the search results they return, the way the present the results and also their gathering of data in relation to the searches we do?    Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc are all businesses so we need to bear this in mind.

This brings us nicely to another implication in the data gathered about us.    If we are logged in to google when we run a search, and we have location services on then google will have gathered information about us in details of the search, the time and the location.     They can, from this, build a profile of our search habits, our interests, our geographical locations and search habits in different locations and at different times.   From this they may be able to work out where we live, work and socialise including the frewuency of each.     Combined with the search habits of our family members they may then be able to start building a profile of the family.    Are we happy with this?     When I think about it I also give thought to the TV series Criminal Minds where the FBIs Behavioural Analysis team are able to gather basic information from a crime scene before providing a detailed profile of the offender or Unidentified Subject, Unsub, for use by law enforcement in arresting the said Unsub.   Through googles data gathering they can identify a lot about us as individuals and our families, beyond the data they gather, by statistical analysis.     And this extends way beyond just Google with Facebook, Target, Amazon, etc. all gathering “Big Data” for use in statistical analysis for the purposes of identifying trends and profiling.

A bigger question which may be how might the data gathered be used in shaping peoples views and perception.    This was raised in relation to Facebooks coverage of the US elections.    Through profiling of users a site or service may choose to feed users with materials targeted at them in order to change their voting or other preferences.     For example, as a user my profile may show that I am very focussed on human rights, via my search habits and postings on social media, so the service shares with me articles and incidents where the actions of the party which the service do not want me to vote for have infringed on human rights.    At the same time they may show me materials on where the party they want me to vote for have taken noble actions in relation to human rights.     When I find myself ready to put my cross on the voting ballot paper I remember one party which was good in relation to human rights, an area I focus on, while the other party were not.   I therefore tick the form accordingly however how much of my decision was influenced by technology and profiling?   Was it my decision at all?

Looking at emerging technologies, the internet of things (IoT) is definitely growing in profile.   As such more and more devices are being connected to the internet including fitness trackers, home security systems, heating and lighting control and many more systems.   We also have devices such as Amazon Echo and googles equivalent device.    Each of these devices gathers more data about us and our habits.    This data in turn can be used to infer further data about us through statistical methods.  Is this Orwells big brother becoming reality as we introduce more technology into our lives, allowing more and more data to be gathered about all we do?

I am very much for the use of technology.   The key though is in the need to consider the implications and act accordingly.   The world generally, in my opinion, exists in balance and therefore for every gain or benefit of technology there is a flip side, whether we know it or not.     With our students who often eagerly adopt new services and tech for their perceived or advertised benefits the key is the need for us as educators to ensure that they have considered the other side.


Digital Literacy

A post be @trainingtoteach on twitter got me thinking about what we mean by digital literacy.    This instantly caused me problems as it covers a rather broad spectrum.   As a result I decided to write this post in the hope of gaining some insight in thinking about digital literacy and trying to type up this post.

My first thoughts on “what is” digital literacy weren’t really getting me far so I decided to take a slightly different approach.    I decided to approach it from the other side of things and what is NOT digitally literate.

Not being digitally literate would involve being unable to make use of digital technologies.   By this I don’t mean being unable to make use of specific apps but being unable to make use of technology to solve a specific need or problem.    I think the need for a problem or a task is key as we don’t just use technology, we use it for a purpose.

Giving some consideration to what the problems might be and communicating with others, research, managing ourselves and others (e.g. online calendars and productivity tools), creating content to meet a specific need and modifying or combining existing content to create new content all jump to mind.   This seems to align a little bit with the so called 21st century skills.    I suspect with more time I could arrive at more problems or better define them however the focus of this post is on what it is to be digitally literate.

When encountering a problem we first need to be able to identify that technology could help us.   Someone who isn’t digitally literate may be unable to arrive at this conclusion.   Next a non-digitally literate person, upon realising technology can help, may not know what tools to use.    A person who is not digitally literate would be unable to progress from here as they would know little of the available tools plus be unable to carry out research to identify tools that would be able to help.   They would also lack the ability to use communication and collaboration tools such as twitter, email, etc. to ask others for support.     Even if they can identify tools they may have difficult in identifying the best tool for the given situation. They would lack the knowledge, understanding and skills required in identifying what technologies tools to use as well as why a specific tool is the best option.

Assuming a person manages to get past the first phase and identifies appropriate software and hardware the next phase would be to make use of the technology to solve the issue at hand.    A person who was not digitally literate may be unable to use the tools at hand.    They would lack the skills and experience.  They would also be unable to use research tools, etc. to try and learn a new tool.   They wouldn’t be able to use trial and error or intuition and the hopefully appropriately designed user interface.    How to use the technology would present a problem.

Another area a non-digitally literate person would have difficulty with would be finding and creating resources.   They wouldn’t know where to find images or audio files for use and would also have difficulty with creating their own files.

The issue with resources brings me nicely to another area where the non-digitally literate user would have difficulty.   They wouldn’t understand the implications of using resources from other users.   They wouldn’t understand copyright or licensing including creative commons licensing.     The failure to understand implications of technology use would likely extend beyond just copyright into areas such as online safety and privacy.    They may not understand the implications of posting a personal image on Facebook with poor privacy settings.

So being non-digital literate is not knowing what do use, why to use and/or how to use it.    It is also not understanding the implications of technology use.    I cant help thinking that this isn’t any different from having the skills and experience to use any tool, technological or not.   If I am a tradesperson do I not need to know which tool to use and when.   Do I not need to have the skills to use it and an understanding of the implications of its use?     When we talk about language literacy are we not talking about using the correct terms, syntax, etc. and therefore knowing what, why and how to use the tool of language, along with the implications?

So why are discussions of digital literacy so complex?