Computers, Literacies & Schools… Oh My!

I found some of the most fascinating readings of the Flickering Mind book were in the Introduction section. I really liked how Oppenheimer made the connection between the Chinese word ‘crisis’ and the situation with education and technology. He writes, “In Chinese script, crisis consists of two opposing characters, one symbolizing danger, the other opportunity” (p. xiii). I agree that such opposite extremes are possible with technology in schools and Oppenheimer does a great job illustrating such a point throughout the book. He epitomizes such a point by writing, “Computer technology is redefining the continuing inequalities in our methods of teaching the rich and the poor, toying with the requisites of the human imagination, and altering public hopes about school reform” (p. xv).

After many pages of similar examples, I was fed up with the ongoing history of the corporate influences in education decisions about technology integration all the way up to the federal government. Beyond the unfair tax breaks the companies were receiving, the rash decisions made for high levels of spending were obscure! I laughed when I read the statement, “Anyone who hears the term window of opportunity should always pause for a moment of reconsideration” (p. 48). It seems this advice has not been taken over the many years of technology integration in schools.

“While computers clearly boosted enthusiasm for writing, the quality didn’t necessarily follow” (p. 41). I think this point really shows one of the downfalls in tracking the progression of impact computers have for learning. Even Steve Jobs stated that it is dangerous when technology perceived as the solution for schools’ problems (when he was not with Apple of course). As Jobs mentions, it is not a bad thing to use computers in the classroom, but that cannot be considered alone. Such a point was made with the New Jersey school example where the school had great improvement that the media and Clinton publicized as due credit to the computer programs that were introduced, but the truth was as Oppenheimer wrote,  “The answer is a handful of embarrassingly well known, basic changes” (p. 54). Such changes include smaller classes, stricter rules, and so forth.

Focusing back on the computers, I think a huge part of it is the teacher training. You can’t just place the computers in the classroom without giving the support needed for using them for both technical and curriculum means. The lack of support was nicely demonstrated in the example he gave of a school teacher’s interaction with a tech guy in NYC,  “What are you doin” Ben (teacher) asks as McKinson wires the modem. “You have to explain all this to me. How am I going to work this when you’re not here?” (p. 64). I feel like this goes back to the tradition saying, give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man how to fish and he eats for a year (or something like that).

Extending from this, I was happy to read, “students with learning disabilities have, on the whole, made strides on computers much more consistently than has the general school population. (p. 42). This is at least promising and something I am thinking about studying further since I have worked with special populations previously and started to note my own findings similar to this. I think my beliefs in technology’s potential for such students aligns with Meier’s (a librarian) belief that the key to learning was is so much in the accumulation of factual knowledge, but in developing children’s inner capacities of inquiry (p. 65).

Thinking more about student performance, I am glad the author at least briefly looked beyond the school setting. “When people go looking for reasons for poor student performance, usually the last place they point their fingers is at the students themselves or at the pressures, or lack thereof, in those students’ homes and personal lives. Yet if the preponderance of research on this topic is to be believed, that is precisely where the heart of the trouble lies” (p. 135). I completely agree with this and wonder how to get more parents involved in working with developing healthy, responsible and educational uses of technology and media at home?

Going to the absolute ideal situation, I cannot help but share the same questions Oppenheimer poses, “What will computers deliver once all the equipment is in place, the teachers are trained, and all the kinks are worked out?” (p. 120). Will schools ever be able to reach such a state with constantly changing technology?

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I found the Koltay article very relevant because I spent the last year working with Renee Hobbs (cited in the article) and studying media literacy. I have definitely grappled with the various literacies that exist and have tried to clarify the similarities, differences and implications of such.

I still believe I align most with media literacy because it dominates my past experiences and it is the term I was introduced to such concepts with. I also love its breadth of inclusion. As stated in the article, “The study of media literacy is highly interdisciplinary, using the tools and methods of sociology, psychology, political theory, gender and race studies, as well as cultural studies, art, and aesthetics” (p. 212). It also incorporates various past literacy approaches (from more of a reading literacy angle) such as critical literacy, new literacies (introduced by the New London Group), and multiliteracies.

My greatest adoration with media literacy is its incorporation of all media – ‘old’ and ‘new’.  It is not caught up in just the digital frills of today’s technology, but can also be applied to newspapers, textbooks, maps, photographs, TV ads and so forth. This component of media literacy was emphasized to me while I worked with Project Look Sharp in Ithaca, NY. All educators interested in this should check out their website because they offer a plethora of free curriculum kits!

In regards to information literacy, I most often think of the library community. While reading the article I noticed almost every time the term was defined, the ALA (American Library Association) was referenced. It is important for individuals working in various fields that approach similar concepts to work together as much as possible to reach similar goals. On more of a local level, I have been wondering how students from the Library and Information Studies program at UB can work with students in other education departments (such as LAI like myself) to hold events, do research, or present on how we can move forward together in this area. Librarians have been doing information literacy for a while and can add a lot to media literacy discussions.

As far as digital literacy, I fought such a term for a long time since I fear it’s narrow implications. However, the one exception I believe that digital literacy best addresses is the Internet. The article notes, “Digital literacy is composed of different literacies, thus there is no need to search for similarities and differences with other types of literacy” (p. 216-217). I agree that it does incorporate some components of information literacy and media literacy, however I do not believe that exempts it from comparison. If it cannot be compared, I believe it is almost as if it is set on a pedestal and better than the others.

As the article touches upon, I think one of the most prominent initial challenges advocates for any of the literacies mentioned face is the unclear understanding of the specific ‘literacy’ they use. I hope to help such confusion specifically for media literacy by being an active member of NAMLE (the national association of media literacy education). If change is to happen on a large scale, people need to understand the terms you’re using to fully comprehend what goals you want to reach. The big question is how do you simply explain such complex notions of literacy without diluting your objectives?

Referenced Work:

Koltay, T. (2011). The media and the literacies: media literacy, information literacy, digital             literacy. Media Culture & Society, 33(2), 211-221.

Oppenheimer T. (2003). The flickering mind: The false promise of technology in the             classroom and how learning can be saved. New York: Random House.

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