A library on my wrist: technology, information, and education

Apparently the relatively affluent middle class in the United States and other industrial nations can look forward to wearable computers in the form of an Apple watch or Google glasses. Presumably these devices will be able to use Wi-Fi and/or cellphone networks to connect to the Internet, which means that it will require even less effort for us to look up any piece of information we want. We won’t even have to stick our hands in our pockets or purses to pull out that cellphone — the information superhighway will be on our wrists or in our eyes all of the time.

For educators, this means rethinking our approach to learning. In the past we insisted that children memorize things, and even now, when we encounter someone who can instantly recall an enormous variety of facts both significant and trivial, we tend to view that person as very smart, even though we’ve known for quite some time that memory is not the same as intelligence. Anyone who watched Rain Man knows the difference.

In an environment where all human knowledge is instantly accessible, what’s the point in forcing students to memorize facts? Wait, I know the answer to this one: so they can regurgitate those facts on easily-scored multiple-choice assessments. But set aside our national obsession with testing for a moment and ask yourself: if the purpose of public education is to prepare students for the future, then why should we bar the tools of the future from our classrooms? Instead of focusing on rote memorization of facts that can be easily looked up within seconds, why not focus on teaching students how to analyze, interpret, and evaluate those facts?

The previous paragraph serves as an example of my point. When writing that last sentence, I couldn’t remember the specific name of the particular classification of learning objectives that prioritized higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and interpretation. I went to Google and typed in “analyze interpret evaluate create remember,” and one of the top five results was an explanation of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This entire post is the result of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation: I read the New York Times story about the Apple watch, which got me thinking about technology and education, which in turn made me rethink educators’ backwards approach to personal technology in the classroom. Of course writing this post would have taken slightly less time if I could have just instantly remembered the name of that taxonomy, but not everybody has that type of (to borrow computer terminology) instantly searchable random access memory.

Pocket computers are already a reality, and yet it seems as if most public schools in the United States ban their usage, if not their possession. This seems exactly the opposite of what we ought to be doing. The common arguments against cellphones in classrooms is that students will use them to cheat, to send each other inappropriate messages, to play games when they should be working. But students can already do all of those things without cellphones. Students cheat, pass notes, and play games with paper and pencil. Why haven’t we banned those? Students read fiction for fun when they should be reading their math textbooks. Why haven’t we banned novels in public schools?

Obviously paper, pencils, and books have a proper educational purpose, and we teachers know that if we catch students using them inappropriately, we can provide proper consequences. We don’t ban those educational tools outright on the very real chance that someone might misuse them. But that is precisely our approach to personal computing technology in the classroom. We could be using SMS tools like PollEverywhere or ClassPager; we could challenge students to read about current events on their phones’ web browsers; we could have students collaborate with Skitch, examine Molecules, or prewrite with Popplet. Instead, we forbid the technology, mainly out of fear and ignorance.

Another potential objection to personal technology is its promotion upon dependence: those things don’t work without batteries, the Internet, and so forth. But that objection is somewhat disingenuous. The vast majority of us don’t teach our children how to preserve meat, trim wicks, or build fires from scratch any more, and no one says “But if the power goes out, what then?” Likewise, it’s no good to respond to the ubiquity of Internet access with “What if the power goes out?” or “What if the Internet is down?” because the Internet will be (or already is!) a commonplace feature of modern life, just like electricity, and outages will be (or currently are) brief and rare.

I look forward to teaching in a classroom where every student has the Internet at their fingertips (not to mention all of their textbooks in digital form) because I would much rather spend my time teaching students at the upper end of Bloom’s taxonomy. Instead of simply memorizing the formula for calculating velocity, the date of Gutenberg’s famous invention, or the correct conjugation of dormir, let’s make sure our students can use this information in meaningful ways that will enhance their daily lives in the future. And part of that daily life will be wearable computers.

Tools for critical consumers of media

I’ve discovered a couple of really useful tools for people who want to become more critical consumers of the news media—people who perhaps feel that they’re not really getting the full story, or that the news media isn’t quite doing the job they’re supposed to do, but aren’t quite sure how to articulate or confirm their suspicions.

The first is the SMELL test developed by John McManus, one of the people who developed the seven yardsticks of GradeTheNews.org. SMELL is an acronym:

S stands for Source. Who is providing the information?
M is for Motivation. Why are they telling me this?
E represents Evidence. What evidence is provided for generalizations?
L is for Logic. Do the facts logically compel the conclusions?
L is for Left out. What’s missing that might change our interpretation of the information?

The SMELL test is a simple, straightforward guide to vetting information of any kind, not just news, but it certainly applies to news reports. Professional journalists could benefit from applying the SMELL test to their own stories, such as the foreign policy reports that are filled to the brim with anonymous official sources making unsupported assertions.

The other tool is a guide published by the Foundation for Critical Thinking called “How to Detect Media Bias & Propaganda.”

mediabias  At 46 pages, this slim handbook is packed with useful information. Sections are devoted to topics like “Myths that obscure the logic of the news media,” “Forms of objectivity,” “Fostering sociocentric thinking,” and “Steps in becoming a critical consumer of the news.” The case studies are mainly from 2000-2004 and involve the runup to the Iraq war and the war itself. I would really like to see a second edition of this handbook devoted to more recent news stories, such as the revelation that the US media was fully aware of the US drone base in Saudi Arabia but chose not to report it — not for fear of revealing critical national security information, but to avoid causing political unrest in Saudi Arabia that might end up interfering with Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

I’ve been purchasing these guides for my Journalism 1 students for the past few years; I think it will go very well with McManus’ SMELL test and the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model (which we already cover in class). Even if my students don’t end up working as journalists, I like to think that they will be more critical consumers of news media and thus better citizens.

It’s a circus of empty ritual, but we’re all going to focus on it anyway

I haven’t been updating as frequently as I would like and that’s partially because I’ve been in Denver with my students who were covering the debate between President Obama and Governor Romney.

Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that my students were covering everything but the debate itself. They examined the impact of the debate on the surrounding community; they talked to the protesters whose issues were shut out of the national discussion; they spent time trying to track down advocates for the homeless to learn if Denver officials prepared for their time in the spotlight the same way that governments around the world usually do: by sweeping the homeless off the streets.

Even though my students did a very good job (in my opinion) of looking for the stories outside of the debate circus, it was still difficult for them to not get caught up in the hysteria over political and media celebrities. When we obtained credentials to cover President Obama’s rally on the morning after the debate, everyone was giddy about the fact that the media area (filled with big names like Chuck Todd and Jake Tapper) was just a few dozen feet from the Presidential podium. I had to remind them that we were surrounded by thousands of regular people, all of whom had relevant stories to share.

I suppose it’s not surprising that teenagers would be impressed by the presence of powerful, famous people, but what’s shameful is that the national professional news media experienced exactly the same reaction. Cable news outlets devoted their entire day to speculation about the debate, and then afterwards it was nothing but talk about what was said (and unsaid) in the debate with heavy doses of horse-race reporting.

Kudos to Democracy Now! for producing “Expanding the Debate,” a three-hour special that welcomed third party candidates and took a sharp look at the ways Republicans and Democrats have worked together to exclude third parties from the debate.

My students are already planning additional coverage for the VP debate at Centre College, the election itself, and the inauguration in January 2013. I’m looking forward to seeing what they produce.

When students are lauded for circumventing censorship

As mentioned in the previous post (thanks to Storify), some of my students won recognition from the SPLC and my favorite media critic for their creation of The Red Pen. When students at our school win a significant national award like this, it seems like a no-brainer for our student press to cover the award.

But this was different. The students had won an award for essentially doing a defiant end-run around administrative censorship. To cover this story would bring up past controversies and possibly cause a new one.

As their adviser, it’s not my job to tell my journalism students whether or not they should run a story about this award. It’s up to the students themselves to decide. I will remind them of the principles and ethics of journalism; I will ask them to consider all of the stakeholders involved; but ultimately the decision is up to them.

In some ways, journalism educators and journalism students work in an environment very different from professional journalists. We have a captive audience, no competitors, and (in many cases) don’t rely on advertising. Student journalists don’t get paid and they can’t get fired. But there are a lot of similarities: high school journalists and professional journalists cover real people and real issues; their coverage can have a real impact on people’s lives; and they have publishers who can either be a boon or bane to the journalistic process and integrity of the publication. While it’s true that journalism students can’t be fired, journalism advisers certainly can (one recipient of the SPLC’s award is an adviser who was reassigned as punishment for supporting his student journalists), and I would argue that journalist students ought to take that into account when considering controversial topics.

No matter what happens in high school, the student journalists will eventually graduate and presumably head off to college and/or the workforce. But the adviser has to keep working there with the same administration; she or he has to keep paying their mortgage, feeding their children, and otherwise maintaining a livelihood.

This is one reason why student journalists ought to be responsible for their own content (and fighting their own censorship battles): they have less to lose than the advisers. The other, equally important reason is that student journalists learn nothing from having adults make their decisions and fight their battles for them. Dealing with controversy is part of being a responsible, professional journalist; the actions of the Red Pen’s editors demonstrated that they’ve learned quite a bit along those lines. For that reason, I couldn’t be prouder of them. But I’m still not sure how the other student journalists in the building should cover news of the award. We don’t want to be seen as poking the administration in the eye, and yet at the same time we don’t want to completely avoid the issue out of fear (that darn chilling effect).

Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.