Faced With a Choice: Overcome the Tech Fear

I find myself doing my limited best to co-teach a class in Social Media Studies this year. Recently, I had a brief conversation with a dubious, honest parent who said, “And you teach this with the Assistant Head? I thought you’d be the people policing this stuff, not promoting it!” Yesterday, via social media, (ironically), we received a query from another source about whether we would be teaching our students about the developmental damage that technology is doing to them. These are not unreasonable questions, or ones that should be dismissed without careful thought and an acknowledgment of the genuine concern behind them, but they lead me to conclude that we have a lot of work to do if we are truly to give all of our students the rich opportunities that technology can provide.

Last year we were lucky to have a Think Big Day at our school. In partnership with the Telefonica Foundation, 180 of our Middle School students got to work alongside experts from Mozilla and Technology Will Save Us to explore the potential of electronics, design and programming with a key message that anyone can become a maker of technology. As a school, K-12, we share a common commitment to educational technology and to providing our students with opportunities to experience and embrace cutting edge, developmentally-appropriate technology. Yet, it is easy to fall behind in such a fast-paced area of educational opportunity. The potential for the future of our students is enormous.

Neelie Kroes has been designated the European Union’s Digital Agenda Commissioner for good reason: a very real crisis is emerging in the tech sector in Europe. At present, it is estimated that 900,000 jobs in ICT can’t be filled and there are 100,000 more jobs in this sector being created each year. Not only do our schools need to be offering our students opportunities to take on these roles, we should be encouraging our young people to create new opportunities, to design solutions to the problems we do not yet know about.

In planning our Think Big Day, we decided that a single event, no matter how great (and great it was – see the video), was meaningless if it did not bring about change in our school. And so we now offer a Social Media class. We have cultivated a growing following on Facebook and Twitter. We introduced a course called Design.Code.Play. We upgraded our Robotics course to a program called Engineering Design. We are teaching a unit of coding to every student in mathematics. We have plans to add a Maker Lab and a Design Studio to our science facilities. We hope to work with recent graduates who, through the wonderfully innovative  SAM are doing impressive things in the Maker Movement. It is all promising and exciting, but still technology elicits as much fear as it does excitement in some people.

I remain confident that we are doing the right thing. I look to the work of people like Marc Prensky who, in his recent book, Brain Gain: Technology and the Quest For Digital Wisdom, looks at both sides of the half-empty, half-full glass in a compelling fashion. For Prensky, digital wisdom comes about through a symbiosis of mind and technology. This wisdom is about finding balance, about our personal attitudes, and about accepting that fear is natural when major change is happening. Our job is to ensure that technology is being used wisely. Ultimately, the impact on our young people, when technology is used wisely, is positive. Prensky believes, and I agree, that “what technology is doing to people’s minds” is something we should be celebrating. Moreover, his advice to schools articulates the work ahead of us:

“We must stop focusing primarily on technology’s dangers, as we currently do. An enormous part of the “computer” education offered today tends to be of the “this-is-a-bad-website” or “don’t-put-a-naked-picture-on-the-internet” kind. Many adults think they are extremely clever when they discover something “bad” about the internet … Yes, these exist … [but] let’s move on to something positive we can do with this technology.”

We are faced with a choice. We can police the internet or teach our students to use it wisely, to harness its potential to achieve amazing things. We choose to think big.