Friday, June 19, 2015

The trouble with e-learning

Most young people have a palpable passion for e-learning. Yet I'll admit being reluctant to sign up my kids up to BYOD. It stands for "bring your own device".

Many ACT schools are making it compulsory. Students will have to bring their own device as their school provides high-speed Wi-Fi. Fast internet access has already been rolled out to most secondary schools. With money confirmed in this month's Barr budget, in a few years it will be rolled out to every primary school.

My concerns are not about cost, although there are equity issues especially for low-income or larger families. Schools are selling Chromebooks for a few hundred dollars. I am more concerned about the potential impact on my kids' attention-span, memory and sleep as the policy more intensely ties our home to the school's digital classrooms and homework load.

Social media sites will be blocked by the Wi-Fi system on campus. E-learning in the classroom is not limited to the internet but a BYOD world is essentially an online world, urging kids to be logged on more often and where social media is an enticing collaborator. A fellow parent calls social media "the new smoking". Like smoking, it's addictive. Another friend says it's more like alcohol, widely regarded as innocuous.

Like alcohol it may harm developing brains. Parents aren't the only ones concerned. "My sister, with her iPad, is always on Instagram," a young adult tells me. "I worry about her. She's 12 years old. She's posting selfies all the time. I am pro selfies because it's one way to control your own image but she's taking images of down her top."

There's a lot of pressure on young people, especially girls, to "show". In the context of feeling an intense need to be accepted by peers, they become anxious about missing out socially online.

Neuroscientists have concerns about the self-referencing demands of e-technology, its need for snap decision-making and multitasking. They think today's students might have fine-tuned these skills to the point of cutting their attention spans. If so, they are less able to pay attention, less able to learn.

This week's Digital Pulse report released by the Australian Computer Society and Deloitte Access Economics points to benefits associated with the inclusion of information and communications technology in schools. But its focus is not on computers improving learning outcomes per se, but on the importance of building the technical capacity of the workforce. It's about economics rather than well-being. I'd prefer a broader conversation about how we conceptualise childhood and life-long learning.

At times devices switch on learning. At other times they get in its way. "It's so easy to be distracted when you're online," a university student tells me. "In lectures, a student was on her phone, on Tumblr the entire time. Why would you bother attending?"

For some school students, the responsibility of taking their own potentially expensive device to school may ask too much of them. Bags can be dropped or kicked. Even among adults, phones and tablets don't last long. They're sticky-taped together.

It's good to know the ACT police are going into schools to tell students about the real risks of social media and to urge them to keep personal information offline.

But schools have an obligation to do more; to talk about privacy and to point to evidence that online classrooms actually assist educational outcomes. At the very least their introduction should be monitored closely against student results. Schools need to convince us that their teachers are on board and will receive the right training. And they mustn't assume we will all be agreeable. They should show us they will support students to look after their devices and help them engage mindfully with the technology. They should support students whose families can't afford to pay for the devices.

Across the ACT, engagement with parents is patchy. Some schools ensure parents can log in and see all the messages students get, from timetable reminders to resources. They are actively supporting the transition, with tips about syncing good online habits at school and home.

Meanwhile, in our homes the battle to contain technology (and be clear about the point of it all) goes on as adults work out boundaries not just for their kids, but for themselves - when to unplug and when to reconnect. Relationships are being tested in this untried territory as our hyper-consumer culture tries to assimilate something new and suddenly ubiquitous.

Technology can become a stumbling block in the parent-child relationship. We can either resist it, or accept that it's a big part of society and work to get the best of it. Good luck to us all.

First published in The Canberra Times, June 19, 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Legacy of racist laws not easily erased

A seminal moment in Martin Luther King's early life was getting a bus across town to Booker T. Washington high school.

People of his colour were told to sit at the back. "I would end up having to go to the back of that bus with my body, but every time I got on that bus I left my mind on the front seat," he wrote. "And I said to myself: one of these days I'm going to put my body there where my mind is."

"I had seen police brutality with my own eyes and watched Negroes receive the most tragic injustice in the courts," the preacher and civil rights activist said in the mid-20th century. "I also learned that the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice."

These days anyone can ride in the front. Barack Obama occupies the White House. But barriers remain that prevent the true joining of bodies and minds, and not just in the United States.
In Ferguson, Missouri, and in South Carolina police officers routinely shoot unarmed black men in the back. Community leaders encourage blacks to keep cell phones and cameras charged, to "ensure fairness when something happens". Racism in North America, land of the free, Australia's long-term strategic ally, is literally killing black men and leaving many on death row. As Obama says, this runs deep.

It runs deep here too. Australia lives with a legacy of racism, not easily erased. The overblown reaction to Adam Goode's war cry, an expression of culture some found confronting, tells us the dominant culture is uncomfortable with intimations there are others. Survival and resistance have become essential to Aboriginality but this minority keeps being told to get back into its box. Amnesty International reported this week that young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders 24 times more likely to be in detention than other Australians. The Human Rights Commission's social cohesion survey finds 18 per cent of us have experienced discrimination because of ethnic origin, religion or skin colour. It's not happening 'out there' but in our neighbourhoods, local shops, at work.

The late Malcolm Fraser believed Australia's asylum-seeker policies were racist. He once joked about organising a boatload of British asylum seekers to see how differently they would be treated.

I was reminded of this reading press gallery journalist Latika Bourke's new book about her life, From India with Love. She describes being tired of being seen through the prism of colour. Despite her accent, her surname and her fondness for wearing thongs, she still feels she has to explain to strangers that she is Australian.

Challenge yourself. Do you use a basic knowledge of race to cast all people of a particular ethnicity (or religion) in a particular light? That kind of casual racism and discrimination stops us from being genuinely curious and kind. What we don't understand ends up being confronting rather than an opportunity to learn. I bet the members of the United Patriots Front, who clashed with anti-racism protesters in Melbourne on Sunday were motivated by fear rather than inquiry.

For some years a set of YouTube videos has been doing the rounds. United States psychologists place children of different backgrounds in front of a white doll and black doll. They ask the children which is the pretty doll, which is the nice doll and which is the bad doll. The children consistently say the white doll is both nice and is pretty. The black doll is bad. The African-American children say it as well.

Racism's twin is desperately low self-esteem. For those at the receiving end it can feed defensiveness and paranoia. It exists between cultural and ethnic groups well as between black and white. Kon Karapanagiotidis, the head of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says 'wogs' (used here as a term of endearment) can be as casually racist and uninformed as 'Aussies'.

How do we overcome it? As a parent I take nothing for granted. It's small and symbolic, but when I went in search of dolls for my babies to play with, I tried to find ones of all hues (why do most stores still stock only fair-skinned Barbies?). As the current Human Rights Commission campaign says, racism "stops with me". It's everyone's responsibility to think about their own lives, stand up to prejudice and talk about it to friends and family.

US Democrat congressman Jim Clyburn, an African-American, says we shouldn't be complacent. "We make a mistake if we view the movement of history and the movement of society as being on some kind of lineal plane. It's not that way," he says. "It moves like a pendulum on the clock. It's always going left and right, back and forth."

A lot of us might have thought this stuff is behind us, but really it's in front of us.

First published in The Canberra Times, June 5, 2015