Consider that a divorce

June 23, 2009 at 2:00 am 5 comments

The Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, back when he was but a humble Hollywood actor said to his wife (played by Sharon Stone in Total Recall) “consider that a divorce” and shot her, boom, kaput, dead. Now that he’s the Governor of California, he has affairs of state to consider. And he’s been reflecting recently on textbooks. You know, the sort of things kids use and learn from at school. Arnie is saying “consider that a divorce” to school textbooks and has announced his plan to terminate them.

Now, I have ranted before about the sorry state of education as I see it (and I have some expertise in this area being a Uni Adj Professor and having been a teacher). You can catch up on my rants here and here. But I didn’t realise that Arnie was such an authority on education – did I miss something? – has he been a teacher? For he says this:

Kids, as you all know, today are very familiar with listening to their music digitally and online and to watch TV online, to watch movies online, to be on Twitter and participate in that and on Facebook. So basically kids are feeling so comfortable today, as a matter of fact, as comfortable with their cell phones and their keyboards as I did when I was your age, when I was a kid, with my pencils and crayons. So this is why I think it is so important that we move on from the textbooks. The textbooks are outdated as far as I’m concerned”.

Anyway, Arnie’s Digital Textbook Initiative, is clearly fueled by his need to slash California’s costs as the State is facing a budget gap of US $24.3 billion. The average textbook costs California around US $100 and in 2008 the State spent $350m on textbooks and can no longer afford it. Schwarzenegger believes initial savings from the plan will be between $300-400 million. In 2010, California high school students studying maths and science will be provided with access to online texts instead of the traditional printed textbook. California is the first US State to introduce such an initiative. But let’s not get carried away by Arnie’s rhetoric that kids have embraced new online technologies and so going digital is now the best way to learn in classrooms. 

I hope he’s thought this through. I’m happy to offer The Governator some free advice:

  • make sure you don’t simply convert textbooks to a digital format and leave it at that. Think about how to make the digital learning environment interactive, collaborative, fun. And you might have to train a few teachers whilst you’re at it. I would doubt that every teacher in California tweets or has a Facebook page, so you’ll need to think about how they’ll teach using digital media.
  • consider California’s digital divide – around 75% of Californians report having computers and internet access at home, school or work – but just over half (55%) have internet access at home. Those from a Hispanic background report considerably less internet access (48%). Have you read the open letter to you from The Children’s Partnership? – which urges you to consider the School2Home initiative aimed at addressing the Digital Divide by getting computers and high-speed Internet access into the hands and homes of middle school students in underperforming schools throughout the state. An estimated 400,000 students and their parents in 539 underperforming middle schools would benefit from School2Home.
  • are you going to provide every kid with a laptop? To get kids to do their homework (at home), you’ll need to provide the technology – how much is that going to cost?
  • make sure you read reports on comprehension rates of digital versus traditional book.  Go here Arnie for the New York Times article The Future of Reading Online, RU really reading? Or check out Nicholas Carr’s article in The Atlantic “Is Google Making us Stupid?“. Before you terminate textbooks, reflect on the words of a cognitive neuroscientist – “Reading a book, and taking the time to ruminate and make inferences and engage the imaginational processing, is more cognitively enriching, without doubt, than the short little bits that you might get if you’re into the 30-second digital mode”.
  • check out the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus experiment. 27 seventh-graders were asked to look at the site and judge whether the information provided was trustworthy (this would involve critical thinking skills). Nearly  90% of them missed the joke and said the site was a reliable, trustworthy source and that the tree octopus (a fictional creature) exists.

It’s intriguing. I am probably reading more than I have ever read. Text messages, Twitter streams, hundreds of blogs, newspapers online and I design interactive modules for Uni students. But occasionally I wonder if I am merely skimming fragmented bits of information; if I am being given the time to pause, reflect, marinate, digest, interpret, consider and make the connections. Am I just hovering over the surface and not diving deep? I haven’t given up reading books that I can hold in my hands. I don’t think I ever could. I like to dog ear a page or write and draw in the margins. I like the linear, sequenced progression the printed page gives me.

Richard Foreman in an essay entitled “The Pancake People, Or, The Gods are Pounding my Head” made this powerful statement:

“I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality – a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West…..But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self – evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense culture inheritance – as we all become “pancake people” – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button”.

Think about it Arnie. Do you want future generations of Californians to be “pancake people”?


Entry filed under: Education, Schools and schoolchildren. Tags: , , , , .

The decline of civility? Designing for social interaction

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. creativespark  |  June 23, 2009 at 8:25 am

    “The Pancake People, Or, The Gods are Pounding my Head” What a great name for an essay! =p

    I was reading this morning that California has enough money left to last them another 50 days. Ouch.

    I wonder if we have to be pancake people? I often wonder how much poorer I’d be if I just shut a few of those information taps off and stopped the floor from getting flooded. Or what if I shut them all off? Would my life be emptier or fuller? Would I think more about things or less?

    I wonder whether with information now we’re sometimes confusing “need” with “want”.

    And I wonder whether we’re a product of our times and our upbringing. We grew up in a time of information scarcity and so, on some level, we see information as important, desirable, collectible and worthy of time. Do people who grew up in a time of information abundance see it in the same way? Lots of things point to them not… and perhaps living richer lives because of it. Twitter has few users in the young “digital native” demographic, for example. Twitter users tend to be oldies. And ask anyone under 30 about their blog feeds and they’ll look at you like you’re an alien. Sure, they spend a lot of their time on Facebook, SMS and IM with their friends… but that’s what social interaction is these days. They spend very little time dealing with information from strangers.

    Richard’s right about the pancake people, but maybe fighting that is the equivilant of your granddad telling you about how it was so much better in the old days when…

    And so maybe it’s not a question of Arnie “wanting” future generations to be pancake people or not. Abundance of information is here to stay. More, as you say, than we can cope with really. And the more we try to cope, the more we sink under it. Maybe it’s inevitable that the way we’ll need to deal with this is to “outsource” the knowledge until we need it, giving us space for the “luxuries” of things like socialising, hobbies and meditative space.

    Just random thoughts.

    =) M

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  June 23, 2009 at 9:08 am

    and they are great random thoughts Marc as usual! I winced a bit at your comment about Twitter – have just recently started on Twitter. But I suspect you are 100% right. A 26 year old who works with me looked at me oddly the other day when I was carrying on about Twitter and blogging. Said he doesn’t, he won’t. He uses his iPhone and that’s it.
    So yep, the “younger generations” would probably not even bother asking the questions I’ve been asking!!! mmm….must see if I can find a Gen Y guest blogger to do a guest spot.
    And meditative space: like your idea there Marc.

  • 3. Paula Smith  |  June 23, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    Why is it that when budgets start getting squeezed, information and libraries in particular, seem to get hit first. It’s not like we need libraries or librarians is it, I mean we have google!

    Yesterday evening I watched my son try to find some library books on the topic of “plants”. I attempted to help him by making helpful suggestions about refining his search criteria, and he looked at me blankly, as if I had been talking Martian!

    Having textbooks purely in electronic format may be more cost effective in the short term, but if all children have to do is open the e-book and hit Ctrl F – and find “plants”, when will they learn to critically evaluate a question, search effectively, narrow or widen parameters, and use these skills when evaluating material, reduce arguments to component items.

    We learn so much from books in terms of our thought processes, and our approach to learning that simply digitising the resource and making them electronic will never compare.

    And what exactly is the governors plans for dealing with power outages, digital preservation, disaster recovery etc. If all our children have our electronic textbooks – what happens when the server crashes?

    And thats not even getting me onto the way in which lessons, and delivery of material by teachers will have to change. And change costs money – perhaps the governor needs to think about this and consult more widely before wielding his little red pen.

  • 4. Andrew Hill  |  June 24, 2009 at 12:37 am

    I’ve been meaning to blog lately about two books I am reading – “The origins of the mind” and “Aging Well” – as well as the dry stuff from work about supporting virtual teams – and let me throw in a little Buddhist philosophy too (Ego is an illusion), as I want to comment on your previous post as well

    Seems that change is the thing that creates memory, as staying in your groove is not memorable – it’s pleasant yes, like pulling a blanket around yourself is, but it doesn’t construct what the authors refer to as ARN (adaptable representational networks) the networks of distributed intelligence that we call on to solve novel changes in our environment. The only thing to be conscious of here is the ‘Black Swans’ we encounter as our World enters a new paradigm which we have no previous experience to correlate against.

    Anyway, starting to meander. I think the problem with 24/7 immediacy is that we are expected to respond so quickly – reflection is being neglected as we embrace an ‘always on’ persona. But like a child, we experiment enthusiastically as we build our ARN’s and start to understand the con’s as we explore the pro’s.

    Both books also speak about how we see ourselves as seamless, yet (Buddhism philosophy again, the self is an illusion) we are a series of experiences that subtly change us over time. I am conscious of my thoughts as I write this, but these thoughts are a consequence of all the experiences that have gone before it, they are not the same as they were yesterday. ‘Aging Well’ was a longitudinal study of people starting back in the 1930’s to today. Several members completely changed their stories without realising it, retro-fitting their explanations to fit with their current feelings. As Benjamin Franklin observed “The golden age never was the present age”.

    As for digital delivery of books, I agree with many of your observations, we still have a way to go in breaking down digital divides, but implementing this is sometimes the only way to drive change. ePaper is the way of the future, like it not, for a number of reasons, not least sustainability. And their affordances are just different, you can’t compare oranges to apples (Although we can’t help creating prototypes of ‘fruit’ of associative networks)

  • 5. thinkingshift  |  June 25, 2009 at 5:24 am

    amen Paula!!


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