The Unhelpful Dichotomy

I sat in on a fascinating discussion about blogging  today on Connected Learning (recording here), but came out annoyed and frustrated, feeling like I’d witnessed yet another echo chamber on educational technology.

It seems that there now exists a two-sided model for discussing the intersection of education and web technology, wherein both parties disdain the other’s point of view.

In one corner, we have the edu-techno-utopians, which includes many wonderful people whose work I deeply respect. They want learning out in the open, freed from the constraints of systems (and sometimes schools), where students control their own web spaces, their own digital identities, their own destiny.

In the other corner, we have the cautious majority, worried about exposing our young people to bullying, stalking, identity theft, unemployableness (is that a word?) and other harm. They want protected spaces, gentle slopes of learning, adult control of the environment.

Until recently, the two parties (and many others) were engaged in active and productive discussion. Now their explorations have hardened into positions, pro or con, for or against.

The edu-techno-utopians answer concerns about privacy and protection by declaring that control of ones own digital identity is the key. While that may be true, they rarely acknowledge how totally unprepared most people are to engage at this level. Most people do not know what a blog is, much less how to moderate comments (or turn them off) or prevent spam. They do not know which of the online things they do can be seen by others. They still type URLs into the Google search bar.  They think their Facebook status updates can only be seen by their friends when they haven’t changed the settings to do that. The only technology where common understanding could be said to be fairly accurate is email.

With respect to Gary Larson’s cartoons about dogs , I illustrate the problem like this:

The edu-techo-utopians seem to have a sink-or-swim mentality when it comes to throwing people out onto the web, with a delightful tolerance for failure and vulnerability that many mortals do not have. They want to encourage this tolerance in everyone, but don’t have much regard for differences in temperament or personality. Most of the edutech gurus were educated in types of educational environments they now deride, have read lots of books, and came to web technology when it was still young, free and individually controllable. They learned over a long period of time, yet are impatient with others who want to do the same. They are also, with very few exceptions, individualistic personalities who don’t care that much what other people think of them (I know because I’m one too). It’s uncomfortable for them to acknowledge that most people are not like them and don’t really want to be.

The cautious majority include people who know they don’t understand the web, and people who know they do. The ones who know they don’t understand, and say they don’t understand, are blasted for being ignorant or lazy. The ones that do understand the web, but raise various concerns, are treated like they’re living in a past idyll that doesn’t exist anymore, or are refusing to participate in the way of the future. They keep the world of the web at arm’s  length, and are uncomfortable with efforts toward openness. Some are concerned about the legalities of copyright, or the protection of minors, or being made fun of. They see the world changing in a way that exposes people unduly, places objects above people, subsumes real life to screens and gadgetry, and prevents authentic face-to-face contact. Some just don’t want to learn about any of it – “technology” is a section in a magazine, and you can just skip it and move on to sports.

They see the other side as proselytizers of an unfinished faith, and its proponents as special cases. The crazy tech folks are people to admire for their mad skilz, but not people one emulates. The cautious majority want their children to grow up with an understanding of all this stuff, but by learning from teachers who control that environment. Many teachers and professors also belong in this group. Some are very much aware of their shortcomings when it comes to understanding technology, and want to stay where they’ve been told it’s safe – inside the learning management system.  They will innovate in there if at all. They are often busy people who want to spend their time teaching their subject, not learning the intricacies of the web.

Until the two sides begin to appreciate the other’s view, there will be no progress. Ironically, the cautious majority is more open to learning new technology than the edu-techno-utopians are to developing models based on lack of knowledge. Any roomful of faculty shown a new technology will have some people leave excited to learn more. But only a few utopians (and I love them and can name them) leave a room after talking to concerned or ignorant teachers wondering how best to create models, processes and environments that take their needs into account.

That’s gotta change.



10 thoughts to “The Unhelpful Dichotomy”

  1. Did it come across this starkly? That’s a shame if it did, the conversation felt a bit more nuanced from within, but I guess that’s always the problem. As to how unprepared people are, we are doing a pilot that gives people there own domain and web hosting, and I don;t think the technology is that out of the realm of possibility. What’s more, I just don’t talk about it, I am paid to help people cocneptualize it, so the edutech utopianism is part of my salary and DNA 😉

    1. Not necessarily just this morning, not just this one conversation, but overall, yeah. A pilot that gives people their own domain and web hosting sounds great to people like me, but there isn’t instant understanding of what a domain is or what web hosting is, or how that relates to a blog. I know because we’re doing this too on a smaller level. Technology is not out of the realm of possibility for people to learn, but we’re really starting too far out on the curve.

  2. Card carrying utopian, I own, but I do not have disdain for people just entering. But if that is your perception, and that I respect you, I pause to consider ir. It was sinking in that I have had a long road to this place, and I was once very green.

    Frankly, all of our students we have “tossed into the waters” are not left to sink or swim with sharks. This is as brand new to them as anyone you work with. We do a ton of individual hand holding and helping them up the curve. And Its not a mode that works for anyone, but to me, its an experiment in an approach.

    Frankly I don’t like duality thinking either; we are in a continuous spectrum.

    There are two kinds of people, one who say there are two kinds of people and….

    1. It’s interesting. I wasn’t mostly thinking about students, though I did mention them in terms of digital identity since that’s what was being discussed this morning. In my experience all utopians have a great tolerance for students when they’re learning in their field, but certainly they often pass off the lack of web knowledge to other people, such as those manning helpdesks. The disdain and impatience I’m seeing is rather for those who object to technoutopianism and want to be more careful. It isn’t so much students being left to sink or swim – it’s usually fellow educators. Those are the folks I want comfortable on the web, so they can work effectively with students. When they take a set position, nothing much gets done.

  3. I’d maintain that we don’t even have a common understanding about email. For some, it’s a big storage tub of to-do list items from work. That’s a different email than email for someone working overseas getting a “letter from home” or for a young couple just getting to know each other (flirting; trading ideas about the weekend). Differing capacities for video, chat, storage, and document integration also make email more than one thing. Technology researchers call this ability for understandings about technology to differ so widely “interpretive flexibility.” You’re spot on that it’s all about how we make sense of things together and how we interact with each other. I’m the processes of cleaning up a journal article about interpretive flexibility in educational settings right now.

  4. Shouldn’t comment without listening to the Connected Learning recording but I’ll skip it. The struggle to express myself at some sort of authentic level is exhausting enough without introducing additional mediation devices like all the tools we are expected to be adept at to qualify as net citizens.

    Sometimes (most times) I just want to have a conversation and don’t want the gee whiz part that I’m doing it with someone half way ’round the world to even come up. My life is complex enough.

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