TED Talks and the Future of Literacy

There’s been a lot of discussion about integrating technology in the classroom — and much of it negative.  There seems to be this backlash against technology because it’s “dumbing down” our kids.

Personally, I don’t see this at all.  I may not be the most technologically apt — in fact, I’m quite happily incompetent and spoiled when it comes to technology in general; both of my parents and many of my friends have careers centered on working with computers and technology in general, so I’ve never had an issue that I couldn’t have someone else fix for me — but I certainly value technology as a tool.  A tool that can be employed effectively in the classroom, too.

I think that when we see students “ritin leik dis” and sloppily copy-pasting from Wikipedia on their homework assignments, we automatically blame the accessibility of technology and how it is “overwhelming” our students.  I think this is akin to the medieval practice of, literally, “shooting the messenger.”  I hate the one to be Negative Nancy, but if our students don’t know how to construct a proper sentence or spell their words — that’s not technology’s fault, it’s ours.  Accessible and open technology only help to reveal which skills are lacking in our students.  When students plagiarize from Wikipedia we can’t shift the blame over to the internet encyclopedia, we need to confront our students over their intellectual dishonesty.  Chances are they could have easily gotten a copy of World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica from a local library and plagiarized from there.  Wikipedia just makes it easier (and frankly, it’s more reliable — which you can read about here, here, and here).

Stupid people have always existed — the internet has just given them a voice.  That’s sort of cynical and a tad sad to think about in relation to our students, but it’s accurate.  We read in Mike Rose’s introduction to Lives on the Border that nearly every generation or so has a “scare” in which they doubt the abilities and competencies of the next bunch of whippersnappers.  So it may be easy for us to judge those younger than us and have concern for their futures, but I bet our teachers did the same to us.

So instead of wallowing in this depressing truth, I’d like to spotlight some of the positive impacts technology is having on our society, even affecting the way we think about literacy and its constructs.

This first TED Talk is from Erin McKean, who discusses what the next evolution of the dictionary should look like.

McKean takes apart the construction of the dictionary and proposes something radically different; transforming lexicography (and really language as a whole) from and exclusionary practice to an inclusive one.  One could deconstruct grammar in the same way.

Personally, I will cling tight to my Strunk and White Style Guide and the MLA Guidebook, but it is good to explore our language and its construction in this way.  It helps us to decide if the constraints already in place are beneficial or if they are constricting and limiting the way we perceive language (which can truly impact how we see the world).

In this next TED Talk, the poet Rivers recaptures some of that “serendipity” which McKean laments in the previous video.

Rivers not only engages us in a whirlwind and serendipitous adventure, he also directly engages with language and technology — together.  Rivers is just another great example of how we can integrate true literacy with ever-advancing technologies.  I’m sure that the bards or old were highly disturbed by the advent of movable type-print.  But instead of lamenting the passing of an old age, we can (and should) embrace the move forward.  Typography sparked a literacy revolution which impacted all aspects of society; similarly the Technology Age will give more and more people immediate access to gargantuan amounts of raw knowledge, platforms from which they can speak previously unheard words, and the ability to form and maintain relationships with people all over the globe, and beyond.

So, we should not nay-say like apocalyptic fear-mongers, instead we should look for ways, like McKean, in which technology can help craft literacy.  If we use technology like a tool — which it is — then we can use it to help build and enhance our lessons and our students’ understandings.  Technology doesn’t need to be burdensome and bothersome; it should be conveniencing and engaging.

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