Is the digital dream over?

The Australian financial review this week posted an article in its education supplement about the government axing of digital education. It framed this new dilemma as an attack on computer science, school funding and the political economy. Leading with President Obama’s recent plea to American youth to ‘learn to code’ and computer science by presenting the Abbott government as out of step with the world.

Yes folks, don’t let anyone tell you that science isn’t more important than the arts. Go make something your country can sell. The article called upon numerous I.T people to comment on how damaging this is for children’s future prospects and where Australia will fall behind other nations such as Estonia.

From left: Charlotte Russell, Sarah Newman and Elizabeth Gordon from Tara Anglican School for Girls check out some new technology. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Children were represented only by a staged image of three private school girls holding laptops outside an exclusive Sydney girls private school.

Seymour Papert says, “The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a child of the pleasure and benefit of discovery”

What was glossed over in this article is a foundation problem with the social construction digital education rhetoric and the three billion dollars of tax payer money that has gone into it since 2007. Computer science is not digital education or digital basics. In the last decade, computer science has suffered from a stagnant and increasingly irrelevant content-approach, which has seen girls especially show little interest in year 9 onward. My local high school still advertises”logo” as it’s programming language to prospective students and plenty more use visual basic in the HSC. This is a signpost for when ‘time stood still’ in the computer science lab, and the ‘digital revolution’ hit them with such a back-draft, most are now running machines and equipment that are slightly above landfill in public schools. However, some schools have cutting edge everything — if you can afford it. Children are not able to discover computer science outside of consumer culture these days. Computers are so common, few people find them interesting.

This has been the impact of technological determinism on computer science in public education. It was driven by a  new approach to growing up digital was to subscribe to the ‘here comes everyone‘ rhetoric of issuing everyone with a computer, regardless of their history or interest — or academic eyebrow raising.  Sure a few teachers in public education use media and technology well, but the system neither rewards them nor can spot an amazing applicant from a cookie-cutter Office user. The key to getting job in public school is being in the system and presenting yourself as a perfect copy of the system ideal. The criteria for advancing technology based education is not the skill or experience one has, but how well your resume matches the boiler plate. So why is the discontinuance of on-going funding for a model that works for a minority and favours more flexible private schools such a terrible idea?

The revolution didn’t bring the equality it was supposed to — despite the efforts of public system staff who rolled out a massive program into schools. It created a commercial windfall for commercial brands and consultants at the expense of computer science.  It also created new competition between teachers and the illusion that corporate social responsibility strategies are in actual fact a form of philanthropic generosity. Computer science has been reduced to a collection of apps and ‘stuff we like’ conferences, attended to by self-styled futurists. The result has been a bonanza for marketing and groupthink, and no significant difference in education, if one is to look at the declining adult literacy levels in Australia and a stagnant high school culture filled with gender bias and urban advantage.

Lets get a few things straight. Most parents are not freaking out over media use and there is a massive gap between higher and lower income families for static and mobile technology use. Parents are less likely to turn to media or technology as an educational tool for their children over other activities and “joint media engagement” drops off from the age of about six. As the views of parents are rarely included in online teacher groupthink dialogues, research like this (ie, beyond Horizon and Pew) clearly shows how delusional much of the edtech rhetoric has become in order to support commercial agendas.

Do not feel sorry for the death of digital education,  be alarmed that schools have steadfastly refused to adopt or even support media studies curriculum proposals by international scholars such as David Buckingham for decades. The I.T. approach wrongly hands the power to English and Computing teachers on the assumption that slugs and snails make puppy dog tails.

Children who are deliberately targeted by the media have a civic right to know what the media message is, not just which brand to buy. Encouraging them to create code is simply politics as the real ideology inside the message is to consume it. A media literate society will be less malleable, a trained one makes money for the few. I’m pretty sure the current government culture does not promote an expansion of media voices or empowering choice. It barely acknowledges to the woeful connectivity and high costs of internet access, leaving little evidence of a desire for global online anything, let alone a workforce of computational teleworkers and entrepreneurs.

What the whining in this article is about is that the feed trough of free public money to pursue the ‘things we like’ fetishistic consumerism of edtech which cannot point to strong evidence that three billion dollars has moved society forward or harmed children. The ‘but were trying, stop being negative’ is part of the problem. A disorgansed and confused body of social activism benefits the institution. At the center of this problem is not bad teaching, it’s neoliberal policy and marketing being presented to teachers as scholarship and reform.

Media education is essential if children are too understand the media and learn to self mediate their use towards their own future and not one created by marketing departments and the tiny number of industrialists who hold power in Austrslia. Given the modernist ideology anchoring schools combined with neoliberalism, most children are likely to attain the same results at the end of school with our without the instrumental, brand and tool market commonly called educational technology.

To introduce media studies  means removing power from those who have it, and creating a critical syllabus which trains teachers about media as well as how to use it. If media isn’t important enough to study in its own right then what does it say about the millions of hours and dollars being wasted each week on methods which are unproven and fail to deliver on the populist’s rhetoric?.

More interesting is how this attempt at moral panic to ‘save our children from ignorant futures’ is now relegated to what is traditionally the marketing of private education in the Australian Financial Review. Itis a far cry from Rudd’s digital revolution headlines. There’s little in this article to suggest ‘they’ are interesting in saving everyone, just hoping to continue getting public money for what is essentially damaging to the vast majority of kids.

*tapped on a phone (as usual).

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2 thoughts on “Is the digital dream over?

  1. Interesting POV. Computer science is not about preparing for industry – it’s about teaching problem solving and algorithmic design. Whether that be with Logo or any other language is irrelevant; the skills should be transferable. Media education has it’s place and value. That’s not necessarily instead of Digital technologies!

    • I am not saying instead. My point is that Computing Science has been THE approach and that has been eroded into “digital education” and glosses over the need for media studies. Making something has to have a purpose and those purposes are influenced by media constructions .. ie the Obama speech and the AFR piece.

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