Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tech-worshipping rhetoric

As part of EDCMOOC, I've been glancing through the Technology Enhanced Learning (tel.ac.uk) report. It rests on a reasonably sound premise that since much of society uses technology, so education should prepare us for real world tasks. Further, it should do so with purpose built or designed technology for learning.

What bugged me however, in the desire to see this happen is the following quote (p7)

Computational thinking is a powerful and general way of exploring how systems and processes work, including societies, the spread of diseases, interacting technologies, and our own minds and bodies. As the world becomes more and more automated and digital, the language of computers needs to become the fluent second language of learners.

These kinds of new knowledge are the understandings required in the 21st century. We are living in a world of increasing interdependence and complexity. Science and maths underpin so much of everyday life yet too few people understand how they are done. Quite simply, this knowledge is currently owned by the 21st century digital priesthood – we have yet to democratise it. This knowledge is essential if we are to be productive and engaged citizens.

I'm often confused by the rhetoric of the democratization of knowledge when it is obtained in this case by hard work, personal giftedness and a solid application to formal and/or informal education. True, opportunity is also an issue - economic or social disadvantage, but that's not being critiqued here. Certainly more can be done in computer education, but to use the religious slur (perhaps highlighting the author's bigotry towards religion) of digital priesthood as if they were holding back knowledge deliberately goes a bit far. While programming skills can be taught simply, stating that knowledge should be democratized won't automatically make everyone smart enough to program a supercomputer, though it may help in other tasks, including using interfaces to get useful jobs done. You can lead horses to water but not everyone can drink to the same depth.

This idea of priesthood also ignores what I said earlier - those who understand made the effort to do so and may have been attracted to this because doing medicine or economics for the money didn't attract them, or they were brighter than those who'd rather pontificate about technology than have the ability to understand and use it.

In short, metaphors carry a world of meaning. It's religiously discriminatory for the author to use priesthood as a way of tarring people in a bad light, it's also possibly blaming the innocent for the crimes of others. Finally, using democracy to speak of technology is probably ill-placed. Equal access, yes. But I can't vote to be smart or talented or informed; I can, if given access, attempt to learn something so that I can be productive and engaged.

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