Curriculum Leadership Vol. 2 No. 14, 21 May 2004
Inflated claims have been made over the last twenty years about the implications of the technological revolution for education. Since desktop computers entered education systems in the late 1970s, they have been touted as the new technology that will radically improve education. In the 1980s, they were promoted as tutors and drill masters. In the 1990s, the Web was hailed as a means to allow students to stay at home and be taught by 'master' teachers from around the world.
We now know that many of these early predictions were simply incorrect. Just as Thomas Edison wrongly claimed that the motion picture was destined to revolutionise the education system in the United States and replace textbooks, predictions that 'hyperlearning' will enable virtually anyone to learn anything anywhere, anytime, are far-fetched. The provision of technology alone is insufficient to transform education, or to equip students to operate effectively in society.
The dismantling of our schools and universities does not seem imminent. The role of teachers remains vital in the online era. And even if cash-strapped systems could provide an efficient email service linking teachers, students, administrators and parents, and access for students to a lot of online information, this would not be enough to guarantee a quality education.
However, it is also clear that the technological revolution has lead to significant changes in the way we work, play, form relationships and communicate, and that it has profound implications for the ways we teach and 'do' education - implications that are not necessarily benign.
Doing Literacy Online does not rehearse directly what might comprise a 'quality education' in the age of the Internet, but the contributors share some understandings. The Internet could be seen as the perfect medium through which students can collect and exchange information, or study alone. But when education is perceived as a deeply social practice that requires time, and at least some face-to-face interaction between teachers and students, then the Internet is more likely to be seen simply as one among several media for teaching and learning.
None of the contributors advocate either learning-at-a-distance or face-to-face learning as the only approach to education for the future. Indeed, the overwhelming view is that striking an effective balance between the two is essential. When ICTs are available in schools and universities, finding ways to use them well does seem a worthwhile goal, particularly in situations where resources are scarce, and there is an imperative to do more with less. It is also vital to give young people the skills and agency they require to use ICT, and the capacity to assume a critical and informed approach to it, both within and beyond the boundaries of formal educational institutions.
The contributors also share some understandings about literacy. All go beyond the mistaken assumption that literacy is a basic skill, easily transmitted by teachers and inherently powerful. All acknowledge that the communication landscape has changed and continues to do so. They recognize that multiple languages and multiple cultures within nation states are accompanied by growing diversity in the communication media. The impact of cinema and television is already apparent, even in the poorest households; and today, the impact of computers and the Internet is increasingly apparent, shifting literacy practices around the world, changing the mix of signs, symbols, pictures, words, sounds and gestures.
The 'new' literacy practices associated with the use of ICT do not simply represent a break with the past: the old and the new interact in complex ways, producing hybrid rather than wholly new practices. Just as new media achieve their cultural significance by reshaping earlier media such as perspective painting, photography, film and television, the literacy practices associated with the use of new media draw on established practices, incorporating and refashioning, rather than radically transforming them. Educators need to be aware of the continuities with earlier forms, but also of the ways in which both the context and the medium for literacy education change where they are caught up in the use of ICT.
Are we in the midst of a revolution, a period of radical social transformation, mediated by new technologies? However sceptical or uneasy some people may feel with the massive changes linked to ICT, we cannot afford to ignore them. All of us who are involved in perhaps the most significant part of civil society, education, need to pay attention to the social and cultural changes associated with the use of ICT. The challenge is to find ways to use what new technologies have to offer in productive ways but, at the same time, to help our students become critical and capable users.
When we examine the complex connections between technology and literacy in Australian culture and its education system, we need to make intelligent use of the range of tools of inquiry we have at our disposal. Literacy and technology education, both policy and practice, must be subjected to scrutiny. In their politics, in their focus on both the macro and the micro, in both global and local contexts, the chapters in Doing Literacy Online make a contribution to this important project.
This an edited extract from Doing Literacy Online: Teaching, Learning and Playing in an Electronic World, edited by Ilana Snyder (Monash University) and Catherine Beavis (Deakin University), published by Hampton Press, May 2004. ISBN: 1-57273-540-6
A version of this extract was published in Education Age, 17 May 2004.