Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hijacked by Gutenberg

In the cacophony following the publication of Growing up digital, wired for distraction (Matt Richtel, NYT) there have been a flurry of articles and blog posts. The story of poor Vishal, the 17 year old now immortalized for not reading more than 43 pages of Cat's Cradle during his summer break, has added grist to many a mill. (Maybe the article should have been about choosing a more relevant and engaging book.)

These are, indeed distracting times. If I am honest with myself I have to recognize how difficult it is for me to unplug, to stop compulsively checking in on my online world.  You will get no argument from me that our young people are highly distracted with their digital lives. (Maybe the article should have been about the importance of teaching time management skills at an early age, and not leaving it up to the immature teen brain.)

What has been interesting to me is the "ah HA!" response. The gleeful vindication that all this technology is distracting teens, and us, from REAL engagement. From REAL critical thought. From REAL learning.

Take, for example, Clifford Stoll's Newsweek article The Internet? Bah! in which he states "What Internet hucksters won't tell you is that the Internet is one big ocean of unedited data, without any pretense of completeness. Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data." Really? (Maybe this article should have been a request for a librarian to teach him how to search effectively.)

In the midst of the hubbub appeared what is, to me, the most elegant response to Richtel's article. Jeff Jarvis, board member of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, asks Who says our way is the right way?

Citing research done in Denmark, the Gutenberg Parenthesis is generating a lot of interest. The theory is that we are leaving Gutenberg's "structured, serial, permanent, authored, controlled era of text and returning, perhaps, to what came before the press: a time when communication and content cross, when process dominates product, when knowledge is distributed by people passing it around, when we remix along the way, when we are more oral and aural."

This describes the behaviors I see on a daily basis. Add to the possibility that Gutenberg and the print mentality of learning, the concept that information will ever be "complete", that the print based knowledge that has served us so well for centuries may actually be limiting the potential and power of the human brain, and Richtel's hand wringing is actually damaging.

This is an evolutionary time featured by profound, abrupt change. It is hard, it is frightening and it can be divisive. It can also be joyous and elevating.

Don Tapscott, original researcher and author of Growing Up Digital (1997) and the subsequent Grown Up Digital (2009) addresses changes in brain performance, social skills and yes, education, in this scholarly response  New York Times Cover Story on "Growing Up Digital" Misses the Mark.

In defense of teens and the digital environment Tapscott poses, among other things:
"Rather than creating dysfunctional brains that can't focus, the evidence is just as strong that experience being "bathed in bits" is pushing the human brain beyond conventional capacity limitations. So-called multitasking may in fact result from better switching abilities and better active working memory. Young people are likely developing brains that are more appropriate for our fast paced, complex world."

There are two sources (among many) that have helped me process and make sense of this changing environment, and my role as a teacher librarian. Joyce Valenza's stirring response to the charge that libraries and librarianship are anachronistic remind me of where I need to focus my energies. As always she brilliantly articulates the rights of students to an education that values and teaches the skills necessary to navigate this faster paced and evolving world.  Indeed, if Matt Richtel had a librarian like Joyce he never would have written this article.

Please take a moment to read - and listen - to this.
What librarians make. A response to Dr. Bernstein and an homage to Taylor Mali

Always ahead of the information curve, Libraries and Transliteracy is a scholarly blog dedicated to making meaning and deep understanding of the new multiple literacies necessary to be truly educated today. Some good foundational material can be found in this post:
On Defining Transliteracy and Why Transliteracy Matters

We are shifting from centuries of tradition to a new model of thinking, learning and sharing. Libraries stand at the fulcrum of this change. As librarians it is our responsibility to deeply invest ourselves in this ongoing conversation.

A final thought on the role of libraries from  On defining transliteracy:

Libraries are on the front lines of traditional literacy initiatives. But, libraries are also the vanguard for information literacy and digital literacy. In fact, if you can call it a type of literacy, you'll probably find it in a library. This is important because it follows that libraries should be the natural proving grounds for exemplary instances of transliteracy.

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