Sunday, December 18, 2011


Sometimes the alternative to black/white isn't grey - it's orange (tweet from Alfie Kohn)

I'm in 2 reading groups - in one we meet once a month and discuss a novel we have read, we take it in turns to host the meetings and it's always a great night out.  The other is a professional book group with members from different local schools.  This group meets once every 2 months to discuss a professional book we have all read.  We meet in a wine bar and again it's a great night out.  But somehow, for the next meeting of our reading group, we seem to have a bit of overlap.  The book we are reading is not a novel at all, but a book called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr about how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember.

For the professional book group I always read the book on an iPad.  I download into Kindle Cloud Reader where I can annotate and read on any device (iPhone, Macbook or iPad) though I've only really read these on the iPad as I find the phone too small and I cannot highlight or annotate on the laptop.  For the other reading group I always order "real" books from Amazon, but for the next group, because it's a non-fiction book, I have put it on the Cloud Reader too.  As you can see in this respect with my reading I'm a bit of a black and white person and non-fiction for me is usually read electronically!

In the prologue to The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes about the controversy that has occurred whenever a new medium has appeared.  Even as long ago as the printing press, its supporters liked the "democratization" that came with giving access to more people, while others regarded it as the "dumbing down" of culture.  Carr refers to this as an Eden -v- Wasteland attitude and I've heard the same arguments today regarding screens -v- books.

I wrote recently about how search empowers students to be in control of their own learning.  Today Google has gathered up and sorted information and ideas from around the internet so that it's relatively easy to search for the answers to questions that students have come up with during their inquiries.  However in Chapter 1 of The Shallows, Carr argues that skimming through the vast amount of information online has led to changes in our brains and in the ways we want to absorb information.  He writes:
Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.
Whether we think this is good or bad, I think it's no longer in doubt that the internet has allowed us to find things out quickly and Web 2.0 has allowed us to share our ideas with a greater audience.  Many would say the internet has made us more creative and informed.  I know that several times a day now I visit the BBC website and quickly scan for news stories from around the world that I'm interested in.  This past summer while I was at my mother's in England without an internet connection, I didn't use the BBC website at all but instead watched the half-hour news programme on television in the evening.  Not having a television at home ourselves, I found it an easy, passive way to get informed about what was happening in the world, but I also became very irritated that there were no links I could click on for more information about the stories I was seeing and hearing, and no way of skipping past the ones (mostly sports and celebrities stories) that had no interest for me at all.  Watching a news programme on the TV was very linear and took away my choice and I didn't like it.  I also didn't like the fact that I was getting one person's (or organization's) view of what was important - I missed the diverse viewpoints I get on the web.

Students these days don't read a page from left to right and from top to bottom in the way I did when I read a text book at school or at university.  Now they skip around and scan for the important information. I was recently teaching a couple of classes of Grade 4 and Grade 5 students to take good notes as part of their units of inquiry and I taught the students in those classes how to use the headings to help them skim and scan efficiently through books and web pages - later I realized that I hadn't once suggested that they read the whole thing.  Afterwards I questioned whether this was in fact a good approach to suggest to the students - am I just adding to the trend that these students are experiencing in having information doled out in quick, short, disjointed bursts?

I am definitely a "digital immigrant" as I didn't use a computer at all during my schooling.  However in Nicholas Carr's book I came across a new term that I think applies to me much better.  He writes about Analogue Youth becoming Digital Adults - this is what has happened to me.   What I've noticed is that although I still read novels and still get absorbed in a good book, I'm doing this less than before as I'm reading more non-fiction than I used to.  I'm reading blogs and news stories and eBooks.  I don't know if this is because my brain has now become rewired to more easily accept short chunks of reading, or if it's just a time in my life when I an questioning what I'm doing more as an educator and so choosing to read what other educators are writing more than I choose to read a novel.  Perhaps it's simply a matter of my children growing up and leaving home and my focus turning more on my job and so I'm reading more about trends in education and technology as I want to delve deeper into how one can transform the other.  For me I don't think it's a simple question of avoiding the extremes of black and white and coming up with a grey compromise somewhere in the middle.  When I think of my life as a digital adult it is not grey at all - it's orange!

Photo Credit:  Praying by Luz Adriana Villa  Attribution 

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