Thursday, April 05, 2012

Talking about a digital revolution

I have a lot of respect for academic and Guardian columnist John Naughton, who regularly contributes measured responses to debates about technology. However, I think he is misguided in jumping on the coding bandwagon and turning it into a big deal in last Sunday's Observer. So the editorial leader of that paper has some fiery talk about a digital revolution (in the classroom). Here's a quote: ‘For more than a decade, the teaching of information technology in schools has focused on using software rather than understanding systems; and on treating computers more like magical boxes than tools to be programmed and critiqued. With the government's recent decision to throw away this old syllabus and replace it with something better fit for 21st-century purpose, we have an opportunity to rectify a dangerous imbalance and set a new standard.’ It's true that ICT is dead in the water, but across the sectors there have been some highly creative uses of software in just about every subject area. Don't knock it! There have also been some very important moves in critique, but I'd be the first to argue for more in this area. But Naughton's manifesto hangs far too much on coding. He says 'every child should learn some computer science from an early age because they live in a world in which computation is ubiquitous' - well that's not really a justification, and anyway a lot hangs on what he actually means by 'computer science'. The devil is in the detail. He argues against the economic rationale (I'm not convinced that government ministers would go along with this) and suggests that the real issues are moral. He fears that children will 'grow up as passive consumers of closed devices and services, leading lives that are increasingly circumscribed by technologies created by elites working for huge corporations such as Google, Facebook and the like.' Well, there are probably worse things, but actually I think he is dead right. It's just that computer science and coding are unlikely to deliver anything more than the sort of divisions that already exist in classrooms. I'd put my money on the sort of critical media literacy that colleagues have been writing about for some time now. That comes from the best work on digital literacy and the best of media literacy. Yes ICT in schools is 'a toxic brand', but computer science and coding could go the same way. There are parallels in language education and English teaching. Despite the hours spent on grammar teaching, and reviving grammar teaching for the 21st century, its impact on students' language and literacy is very hard to demonstrate, and it mostly ends up showing that some kids are better at grammar than others. Attempts to show how we can be manipulated by grammar (see Hodge & Kress, 1988) were impressive, but despite the best efforts of the LINC project, they had little purchase in schools. Structure may not always be the best way to critique meaning. I happen to believe that meanings are negotiated and critique comes when meanings are contested - and that should be at the heart of the enterprise of public education. If new media are about the meanings we make, then I think that this is a more productive place to begin than coding.

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