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Viewpoints: Technology has Alberta at historical crossroads

November 4, 2014 Philip McRae, ATA Executive Staff Officer

Gathering evidence on how hyperconnectivity is reshaping our lives

“We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.”~ Marshall McLuhan, 1962

In my research, teaching and scholarship, I have had one foot in curriculum studies and the other exploring rapidly emerging technologies. I have always been fascinated by the way technology is taken up in the field of education and across society, with a preference to explore the sociological implications of technologies on learning rather than fixating on the technological tools themselves.

When people talk of technology as just a “tool,” it is envisioned as an innocent object — value free and in the service of whatever subjective goals we choose to ascribe to a device. According to this view, technology is culturally neutral and innocent. However, such a view ignores Marshall McLuhan’s caution that, just as we shape our technologies, so do they subsequently shape our habits of mind and physical selves.

We now know that technology use in our society is not monolithic. Age, gender and education level all determine how students might use and be impacted by digital media, just as the socioeconomic status of students and teachers, along with the diverse attitudes and values of students and their parents and peers, will all have significant influence on the way emerging technologies enter their lives.

As teachers, we need to be especially thoughtful of the optimal and developmentally appropriate uses of technology with young children. It is staggering to think that Canadian children 8 to 18 years of age now spend an average of seven and a half hours a day in front of screens (television, video games, computers and smartphones).

This lived reality for our children and youth has started to raise questions about the impact of online digital activities on offline health and mental well-being. As a father of two young children, I had a wake-up call in October 2009 in the form of a recommendation from the Canadian Pediatric Society: children under the age of two should not be exposed to any screen time whatsoever (the American Academy of Pediatrics adopted this same recommendation back in 1999 and reaffirmed its position in 2001).

To move away from a space where the effects of media on children are presented as polarizing moral questions or issues in education, I began working in 2011 through the Association with a Harvard pediatrician and professor of society, human development and health at Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Michael Rich. Dr. Rich has helped educate thousands of Alberta teachers and parents about the paradoxical nature of technology in that it holds both promise and peril for individuals, families and communities.

Just this year Dr. Rich and I have embarked on a project called Growing Up Digital (GUD) with an aim to avoid determining which media products are good or bad, and instead focusing on media consumption and exposure and their impact on social and health outcomes for children and youth.

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Finally, let us not forget that, as Albertans, we are at a historical moment, a crossroads of exponential change where emerging technologies will relentlessly (re)shape our lives and those of our children — socially, economically culturally and physiologically. It is a time when digital technologies have expanded our world and paradoxically compressed our own individual sense of time and distance.

It is not difficult to imagine a rapidly approaching future where the lines between carbon (people) and silicon (technology) will begin to blur beyond recognition, a time when everyday things are connected to the Internet at all times and in all places, when objects appear to have intelligence as they draw information continuously from a global mesh of digital connectivity.

In our future classrooms, objects will continuously draw information from the Internet in real time. For example, the globe in a social studies classroom might show earthquakes, storms or international events as they occur by pulling information directly from the web; or the cafeteria’s Internet-connected refrigerator might monitor food quality via sensors, notify the school when the milk is about to expire, and suggest foods that should be purchased to provide a healthy diet for students.

This “Internet of Things” (hyperconnection to the hive) will begin to have a profound influence on the nature of our connection with objects, information, people and knowledge. It will begin to turn innocuous objects into sensors and, on a micro scale, begin to change the process by which we collect and access information and interact with people in real time. In a decade’s time, we will likely be immersed in a world where online/offline boundaries will have blurred to nonexistence and where human beings will be supported by machines talking to machines.

With the GUD Alberta project, we will have some robust evidence to help inform the profession as to the social, mental and physical impacts of technology on children and youth. As we swim in a sea of emerging technologies and envision their power to transform our public education system, we must not forget to ask ourselves what it is that we ultimately hope to achieve. ❚

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