Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Does the internet make us virtuous?

I have been wanting to write this post for some time. I need to preface it of course. I first discovered the internet towards the end of 1991. Back then USENET was the thing, internet discussion boards and groups for all manner of topics from the ridiculous to the sublime. Even back then I got hooked to social groups like Alt.Callahans, and even started an (well two quite by accident) interactive fiction group Alt.pub.Dragons-inn and Alt.Dragons-inn. I remember the first graphical browsers like Mozilla and Netscape, writing html raw and thinking WYSIWYG editors were a godsend.

Nowadays I blog, tweet and spend waaay too much time on Facebook, discover new bands on Youtube and occasionally befriend them on MySpace. Why do I stress all of this? Because I want to claim I am a Luddite!

Now Luddites were artisans who thought that their way of life was threatened. I guess in the long run they were right. More broadly, modern Luddites are worried that introduction of technology too quickly or inappropriately is damaging.

Note that this is very different from taking some sort of primitivist stance that says all technology is bad. I don't remember the name of the fellow but it seems he only uses pencils and his web writings are transcribed. So here's my rant.

I teach an theoretical as well as practical subject - meteorology. As well as teaching deep knowledge, we want competent forecasters with skills, knowledge and attitude. The attitude includes due care and dilligence, punctuality, etc. Skills and knowledge are learned but also taught in the usual sense (we give lectures, write material for pracs, tutes, etc) but attitude can only really (in my view) be modelled.

My question is, in our use of Web 2.0, LMSs etc, what attitudes do we model? When we adopt the latest technology to run our new apps, etc - do we model wastefulness? Is it clear our old technology is recycled? I recently read an article that suggested fast broadband was a right, presumably under an extension of eduction as a right. Apart from the whole issue of what human rights are, what they are based on and the hopefully obvious obscenity that someone could call this a right when most of the world starves, etc, a right to what end? Does this model impatience? How much speed is enough (not enough if you are stealing someone else's copyright via Bit Torrent).

Hopefully everyone knows Wikipedia is dubious at times (although also useful). Do we model mediocrity and a distaste for the expert who has invested years of their life in prefering the wisdom of the crowd? And that we won't pay for anything if we can get it for free, no matter the potential risks in quality? I note with some satisfaction Scholarpedia's appearance - free but peer reviewed.

When we encourage mashups, do we model lack of real creativity, just the endless recycling of other people's material? Note I do like mashups to a point, sometimes they speak louder than the creator intended (like the editing of Pulp Fiction into all the occurences of motherf***er).

My point is this - in a world of dwindling resources, isolated plugged in individuals with little sense of history or respect for anything beyond themselves (generalisations I know but spend time on social media), don't we as teachers have to model virtues (rather than impose them yes)? Long gone are the days of the Greeks with small classes and devoted disciples learning ethics with subject matter, etc. But I still think that we want to help students become good citizens and not simply knowledge or skill experts - people who live with vritue.

Ok, so this is a rant and no I am not anti-technology, naively worried about being put out of a job. It is just that not everything that is new is (immediately) useful.

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