Sunday, May 26, 2013

Grazing, Gaming, Changing, Creating and Crystal Balls

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Jamie McKenzie's 1994 article "Grazing the Net: Raising a Generation of Free Range Students" reads a lot like articles today that discuss the importance of digital literacy. Moreover, his metaphor of information as food is one that has recently been discussed on TEDtalks by technologist JP Rangaswami in March 2012. 

The future that McKenzie writes about, in his insightful and entertaining style, is here. I would further argue that it is not only here, but has gone beyond some of his insights. Not only is there are a major push to teach digital literacy in our schools, but some are arguing that digital literacy includes the ability to code programs. On an episode of CBC's Spark author Douglas Rushkoff argues that young people should learn to code to understand the bias of digital technology. He states that "programming is the new literacy of the digital age." The question becomes whether "we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it?" 

So "our future" requires to not only consider the message but, as proposed by Canadian philosopher of communication theory Marshall McLuhan, to consider how the medium carrying that message is constructed. Much of today's online media, particularly social media, has made us the product, and many of the devices we use make us passive consumers with little understanding of how the software and hardware works. There is a strong movement at to bring the opportunity to code to younger students, not just to prepare them for career opportunities but also for digital literacy. 

The "toolkit" of which McKenzie speaks has grown larger. Students can no longer just be "infotectives" of just the information, but also how that information is constructed and presented, and how we interact with it. 

I particularly liked McKenzie's observations on facing an overabundance of information. How do we screen out "the garbage, know what is propaganda and what is distorted?" Sometimes just finding information on an issue or topic can leave one in a state of paralysis because it seems overwhelming and conflicting. Hence, one reason why so many medical professionals warn patients about information they find online about medical conditions! Some sites are filled with anecdotal experiences where authors make claims that this type of food or that type of medication cured their illness. It is human nature to sometimes jump on a bandwagon without demanding evidence that is based on good research while also considering other variables that can affect each situation differently.

In his discussion on building and testing models, McKenzie was predicting the power of the Internet to bring together scores of people to solve problems. In 2008, researchers created the game Foldit to help solve the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme. Within three weeks online gamers had found a good solution. Foldit is still being used, and a new game called EteRNA was developed. The use of games for solving real world problems is something Game Designer Jane McGonigal is passionate about. In her TEDTalk presentation, she discusses the deep focus and motivation that occurs when gamers are immersed in the game world. She believes there are ways to take the feelings generated in games and place them in gaming situations to help solve real world problems. Powerful online collaboration is occurring everyday with gamers, and she argues games can be created that can help solve real world issues so we are not predicting the future, but creating it. More information can be found at

When you consider what is happening with online gamers solving real world problems and McKenzie's conclusion that students "will join electronically with brothers and sisters around the globe to cast a spotlight on earth-threatening issues which deserve attention and action," you have to wonder if the guy had his own crystal ball.

Not only is McKenzie's future here, I would say it has surpassed his discussion. The need for students and educators to be active participants in the discussions and literate in digital technologies and media is more important than ever.

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