June 6, 2024

Nancy Flanagan: A Semi-Elderly Teacher’s Reflection on the Digital World and Education

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Nancy Flanagan spots some of the problems with the march of tech in the education world. Reposted with permission.

So—I’m a retired teacher, with more than three and a half decades of classroom practice under my belt. Supposedly, I should be sitting at home, enjoying sunsets and repeating how glad I am that I’m no longer in the classroom.

I actually know a few retired teachers like that—glad to be golfing, disinterested in educational politics—but not many. For those of us who invested our lives in public education, what’s happening in public schools right now is an insult to the low-paid, little-understood work we did to build good citizens in divergent communities; it’s a betrayal of our commitment to our students.

Watching curricula being destroyed and public schools defunded by voucher schemes is soul-crushing. Maybe the most frustrating thing is the naïve belief that technology is going to save us, that students most need screen-delivered, standardized content, not face-to-face human relationships with well-educated adults, who can help them make sense of disciplinary knowledge.

Every aspect of becoming truly educated depends on our students’ ability to comprehend and evaluate information. To think that students aren’t negatively impacted by the unfiltered digital stew surrounding them is worse than naïve. We have not served our students well, offering up their test data (legally mandated, of course) to corporations, or letting them zone out digitally, while in school with their fellow humans.

I remember, back in the 1990s, my colleagues’ collective consternation over Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto, when they were the hot ticket with our middle schoolers. Does spending six hours a day in front of a screen, shooting things or wrecking cars, have an impact on students’ curiosity or kindness or any other pro-social habits? Guess we were going to find out.

I thought of that when I read this headline: Uvalde families sue Instagram and Call of Duty maker over deadly school attack. ‘Unholy trinity’ of Instagram, Activision and Daniel Defense accused of ‘working to convert alienated boys into mass shooters.’

The NYTimes recently ran a feature article on a family whose 13-year old daughter was spending her whole ninth-grade school year without the internet, a phone, a computer or even a camera with a screen.

The benefits of learning to live without dependence on social media seemed pretty obvious to me. Communication with her family would happen the old-fashioned way: letters, via snail mail. A school year like that—this was a boarding school, in the Australian wild, hundreds of miles from home—could shape a personality, even a lifetime. A year at this school also costs $55,000.

So—some people are willing to pay big bucks for their children to develop apart from 24/7 connectivity. And there seems to be a building wave of acknowledgement that digital media has done a number on teenagers. Not to mention our neighborhoods, civic organizations, schools and families.

Half of all adults in America get ‘at least some’ of their news from social media. And the results of that—the mistrust of mainstream media, the ease of delivery, the alternative facts—means that ‘truth’ is illusive in the political realm, a situation that matters greatly right now.

We used to argue, back in the day, about the advisability of using white boards, if the ability to ‘publish’ student work online would make them more motivated, and whether calculators would render students unable to, well, calculate. One-to-one devices were going to be the saving grace.

But it turns out that corporations were way ahead of us—Google, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, X, Tik-Tok—and pretty much in control of what our students see and potentially think. For better and for (much) worse, schools are now fighting for their share of the attention economy.

Social media outsources the monitoring and managing of this colossal data load to poorly paid workers in Africa and Asia. Ever had your innocent Facebook post taken down as “inappropriate?” That’s why. Mis-information and dis-information are now central to public life.

No, technology and digital media are not going to save us, or drag our schools into the 21st century. Technology, in fact, has made possible the distribution of propaganda that threatens our lives and core beliefs. And social media harvests its core product—information and content—from us. And from our children. For free.

I just finished reading (old-fashioned book) Our Biggest Fightthe in-print manifesto of Project Liberty: ‘leading a movement of people who want to take back control of their lives in the digital age by reclaiming a voice, choice, and stake in a better internet.’ 

Sounds good, no? I’m less sanguine than the CEO of Project Liberty, Frank McCourt Jr.. about the prospect of a citizen-led withdrawal from the addictive hold social media has on American adults, and especially on American kids. McCourt says we need great stories to turn this around, and reclaim the power of the internet—and I’m not saying he’s wrong. Only that teachers and schools have been trying to tell great, non-digital stories about our history and values for decades, and it’s an uphill battle.

You may have noticed that this semi-elderly retired teacher has so far avoided the topic of AI. I’m only too familiar with being pitched on the magical powers of a developing technological marvel to make things “easier” for schools, teachers, learning, etc. etc. Peter Greene has posted a number of great blogs on the folly of believing AI is what we educators have been waiting for.

Here’s Sarah Kendzior’s take:

What gets marketed as “artificial intelligence” is plagiarism: scraped off bits of real people’s ideas, devoid of context or credit.

Google’s AI Overview is worse, though. It seems set on killing you.

“How many rocks should I eat each day?” people asked Google. AI Overview responded that people should eat at least one small rock per day because they contain healthy vitamins and nutrients. The source was an Onion article, but AI cannot discern satire.

And so it goes.

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