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Editorial: Media illiteracy

Technology itself may not impact education until teachers and students take control of its potential.
Education is what will help today's graduates effectively navigate the flood of digital media now at their fingertips.

Default Lines column from June 2010 edition of eSchool News—President Obama caused quite a stir among the technorati with his commencement address at Hampton University last month.

You might have heard about it: Supposedly, one of the most technologically savvy presidents in our nation’s history—and someone who largely owes his Election Day victory to the power of social media in connecting and engaging today’s youth—decried the tools of the iGeneration as instruments of evil. Or something like that.

“You’re coming of age in a 24-7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter,” Obama told the graduating class of this historically black Virginia university.

“And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations—none of which I know how to work—information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment.”

With this latter statement, the president set off a firestorm of media criticism—ironically proving the point he made in the preceding one.

“BlackBerry-loving President Barack Obama declared war on technology,” proclaimed FOX News on May 10, suggesting something at once both sinister and hypocritical about the president’s remarks. “Obama mystified by iPad,” read the headline in InformationWeek, which apparently can’t tell the difference between a self-deprecating joke intended for cheap laughs and a startling admission of incompetence.

Even our friends across the pond got into the act. “U.S. president Barack Obama has launched an extraordinary attack on iPods and other high-tech gadgets by claiming they are bad for democracy,” read the lead in the Daily Mail of London. The publication was alluding to the next line in Obama’s speech, where he said: “All of this is not only putting pressure on you; it’s putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.”

Now hold on a minute. Is that really what Obama was saying—that “high-tech gadgets … are bad for democracy?”

Far be it from me to speak for the leader of the free world, but I think the “pressure” the president spoke of referred to the potential for distraction that new technologies bring, as well as the torrent of information—some true, some not so true—that technology can deliver in today’s 24-7 connected world. And really, what’s so controversial about that? (Ask any educator who’s tried to keep students on task when using technology in her lessons, and I’m sure she would agree.)

Technology is merely a tool. It’s not inherently good or bad in itself; these value judgments depend on the uses to which it is put. I’m pretty sure a former University of Chicago law professor and avowed BlackBerry user understands this, too.

Anyone who’s been paying attention these last few years should know that Obama also recognizes technology’s potential as a tool for learning, or “empowerment,” as he said in his speech. Earlier this year, for instance, his administration released a new National Education Technology Plan that calls for “always-on” internet connectivity, delivered via mobile devices and available to students and teachers both inside and outside of school.

Ed-tech advocates might have some legitimate concerns about how the president has chosen to support school technology in his 2011 budget proposal (see Associate Editor Meris Stansbury’s story “Education groups rally support for EETT“), but no one should question his support for technology itself as an instrument for learning.

If the media who were so quick to pounce on Obama’s comment about iPods and Xboxes had listened to the rest of the president’s speech, they might have noticed he offered a solution to the challenges he described.

“Class of 2010, this is a period of breathtaking change, like few others in our history,” Obama said. “We can’t stop these changes, but we can channel them, we can shape them, we can adapt to them. And education is what can allow us to do so. It can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time.”

In other words, education is what will help today’s graduates effectively navigate the flood of digital media now at their fingertips.

Obama’s speech holds an important lesson for schools: Investing in new technologies won’t make a (mega)bit of difference unless students learn how to harness these tools for a deeper understanding of their world.

Savvy educators, like Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling, already know this. Wessling uses technology to make her lessons engaging—but she also teaches students to be “life-long learners and genuine thinkers.” (See “Teacher of the Year: Education ‘must be learner-centered.'”)

That means teaching students how to think critically about what they are reading and hearing, so they become smart consumers of information.

Judging by the media firestorm that resulted from the president’s address, it’s a lesson many members of the Fourth Estate could use as well.

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Dennis Pierce

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