Monday, July 1, 2013

Generation Touch-Screen

Those who can use technology have an advantage over those who cannot use technology.  That’s obvious.  For some time this has been explained as another example of the haves vs. the have-nots.  The divide caused by a lack of access to early exposure, training, and opportunities (predicated on financial / social mechanisms such as positive parenting and school district educational offerings).  I see this in the classroom.

Every semester, approximately 8% (yes, I keep purely anecdotal, statistics on all sorts of things) of my students do not know how to do simple computer-based activities such as using a word-processing program like MS Word, navigating to a folder on a network drive, or saving and then retrieving a document on that same network drive.  On the other end of the bell-curve are those students who are uber-proficient.  Once in a while someone brings in a laptop or tablet and adds the classroom printer to their device, via wireless routing magic.  Please don’t tell anyone as this is against college policy.  I give these examples merely to demonstrate the haves vs. the have-nots.

My guess is, we are nearing a point where there is going to be a split in the traditional two-cell dichotomy.  In a few years a third type of student is going to emerge and this student will be stuck somewhere in the middle of the computer-skills illiterate and the computer-skills proficient.  These students will represent the touch-screen generation.

Most tablets, cell-phones, and newer laptops and desktops have touch-screen options.  If all one does with technology is consume media (movies, books, music, videos, and web-related social networking) ala the Kindle for example, there is no need to learn about network drives or files or how to type a cogent sentence.  There will be those who know very little, those who can navigate visual user-interfaces to see what they want to see, and those who sit bored as I try to help the others.

For educators, this poses philosophical and practical challenges.

The touch-screen and the icon (like the little picture of the trash can; the recycle bin on the computer screen) hearken back to the pictographic form of written communication.  For the previous fifteen centuries or so, mankind has favored script-based communication for recording information and for passing that information forwards, with deep roots in math, language, and history.  As a comparison, the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were pictographic while the ancient Sumerian cuneiform represented the more script-based written language.  Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule because throughout history one can find examples of pictographs.  Consider the relatively recent and universally understood lady with a skirt verses the man in trousers on many public restroom doors.  Nevertheless, it has been impossible for many, many years to write one’s doctoral thesis using such symbols.

The question arises, can knowledge be created, organized, presented, rearranged, and moved forward using a less than script-based paradigm?  How can a student express their own thoughts and ideas on a subject when they are lacking in basic scripted language skills?  I’m not saying it can't be done.  Go learn ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics before telling me otherwise.

It reminds me of the world imagined by Hermann Hesse in his 1943 book Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game).  The protagonist of this book, Joseph Knecht, rises to fame by playing a knowledge game wherein all fields of study, to a very granular level, are represented by glass beads and the players of the game receive accolades by rearranging them in new and wonderful ways.  As a side note, Hesse seems to have envisioned something similar to the internet, at least as best as a writer in 1943 could have done it.

Are the touch-screeners reaching out in a new way or have they devolved into something that is going to hurt them academically?  In the short term, the answer is probably.  But in the long-term, say ten years from now, I’m not so sure.

On a more practical level, what’s the role of the educator in all this?  Obviously, those who are technology illiterate will remain so, and should be given opportunities to learn how to do these things.  And those who love technology will continue to excel in that field, often as a natural outgrowth of their other passions.  But, what of those who know only the touch-screen?

The classes I teach focus on other matters, though I do offer to help those learners who need a crash course in how to create, save, and retrieve a file.  But these mechanical skills are a means to an end.  What I’m curious about is whether or not the touch-screen offers a new means to the same end.

Presently, the technology allowing for a more image-based knowledge articulation isn’t widely available on an accessible scale.  Today, my hands are tied, as are those of all educators.  We will be stuck making the same offers for the same type of help for those who have grown up in touch-screen land.  Yet, increasingly, students will arrive looking for a continuation of what they know best; accessing information in a visually intuitive fashion, while still relying heavily on technology.

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