What can McLuhan teach us about integrating digital technology in schools?


Like George Couros and many others, I have been experiencing a bit of writer’s block these past few weeks. For reasons I cannot (or could not) explain, I continued to have wonderful ideas which came from my experiences with children, but I could not gather them together into cogent form.  For me, there is a deep, simmering discontent I have not been able to name.

As I’ve stated in previous posts, I enjoy my morning commute because it gives me the chance to listen to podcasts. And this week, I have listened and re-listened to Clay Shirkey talking about Marshall McLuhan and how he informs us about life in this digital age. Slowly, I’m starting to understand my feeling of ennui as a deep questioning of closely held principles because of the presence of digital technology.

“Innumerable confusions and a feeling of despair invariably appear in times of great technological transition” (Marshall McLuhan)

If you follow any of the major education hashtags on Twitter such as #cpchat or #edtech, you are aware of the debate going on regarding the use of technology in schools.  Facebook, iPads, smartphones, Wikipedia, BYOD, wireless, all of these media challenge traditional classroom practice, and provide new ways for us to do things. By virtue of their presence, they provide a gateway into a new digital universe, and as such issue a challenge to the current education culture. They are successfully convincing our students that this medium, with its Facebook and Tumblr, is better than the one we currently have. We, as educators, are experiencing a new power dynamic where the student is on the verge of busting the monopoly of knowledge that schools once had.  Compounding this, the huge challenge we have is that these new media take familiar things like schools and classrooms, and lets them operate at a scale that is completely unfamiliar. It brings into question so many of the foundational issues, we don’t even know where to seat ourselves.

 “As technology advances, it revises the characteristics of every situation again and again. The age of automation is going to be the age of do-it-yourself” (McLuhan)

This is an age of networked intelligence. It’s not uncommon to hear of students blogging with Texas, or Dubai, or Bangalore, anywhere there’s something interesting going on. To our students, knowledge exists “out there”, in real time, not in libraries or with specialist teachers struggling to keep their attention.  They text and IM one another, and experience knowledge as a social construction event where they are participants, not recipients. They are witness to the flattening of our world, and the demolition of power structures by such cultural revolutions as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring (both of which were built on the back of simple, amateur media tools like Facebook and cellphones). They are not merely passive consumers; these media have taught them that they can indeed create and transform, the result of which has been an emboldening to ask difficult and challenging questions. Who is The Teacher, in the world of Salman Khan and Wikipedia? Where does knowledge reside? How does it come into being?

Media are tools, extensions of some human faculty. They are always a prosthetic of some human desire (McLuhan)

Finally, I’ve been asking myself about the role of our schools to bring children into our culture, if indeed that happens at all any more. For people of my age, schools used to be a place where the adults controlled the flow of information, and children were initiated into the culture under their guidance. Children learned, adults did the talking and guiding, or so went the story. But now, these new media have revolutionized cultural and social dynamics in ways we’re not used to, and cannot understand. For example, people my age grew up believing, anything I can see was meant for me. If it wasn’t meant for me, such as adult content, someone who was a gatekeeper “hid it away”. We were also brought up to understand “that’s none of your business”. But now, because of sites such as Facebook (which gets nearly 200 million visits daily), everything is everyone’s business, and we’re all equally entitled to pass judgement on whatever we have an opinion about. Via social media we are exposed to banal information about strangers’ haircuts, girlfriends, video games, and other information which was never intended for us; it’s intended for their peers and friends. And within these posts, it’s clear the cultural institution of “shame”, as described so eloquently by Neil Postman, is all but extinct.  Anything goes in this peer oriented digital space.  No one is watching the gate.

Herein lies another great challenge for educators and leaders; we’re not used to messages that are in the public, but aren’t for the public. Wikileaks and other organizations have brought down institutions by placing before the public information that was never meant for them. Understandably then, everyone with a digital footprint is extremely cautious, for fear of information being leaked, misinterpreted or taken out of context. And anyone who puts themselves in an exposed position, like a teacher, is equally wary.  What camera lurks out there to capture who-knows-what video, which goes viral on YouTube and makes the top ten on RateMyTeacher?

So, I’m slowly coming to understand my feelings as a barometer for the paradigm shift currently incubating in our schools, all of which is a result of the presence of these new media. It is indeed a time of great cultural change, and I’m only beginning to understand it.

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About Ron Sherman

I am the principal of Salmo Elementary/Secondary School, a small rural K-12 school in the Kootenay Lake School District. Happy to be part of the Grand Conversation, moving learning forward and joining with great people every day. Runner, triathlete, skier, blogger, loving husband and father of 2 great boys
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