Cyborg or Cyberpunk?

July 7, 2015

In a newspaper column carried in Fairfax newspapers in January 2015, the Fairfax technology writer, Blayne Slabbert, offers an analysis of why many people are afraid of technology. To sum up his case, he argues that Hollywood has promoted movies like Terminator and Robocop, where the antagonist is an evil machine predisposed to harming human beings. This has fixed in the public mind that technology is a scary prospect.
He goes on to asset that “People have always been afraid of technology. It started with trains, planes and automobiles and now it’s phones.” How does this assertion stand up to what we know and observe, our prior knowledge? Not very well. If people were afraid of these mechanical marvels why did they appear to be fascinated by them? Why do so many people own and regularly use cars, talk and read about them, complain about rising petrol prices and traffic jams? Surely this shows that people are fascinated by technology not afraid of it. The person who does not drive or who speaks out about the evil cars cause to the planet, is seen at best as eccentric. I can not agree with Slabbert’s main contention.
Further, in Terminator II both the villain and the hero are cyborgs making for a confusing claim that all the cyborgs are evil and the original Robocop was the hero. I hope Slabbert’s tech savvy is better than his movie knowledge!
He is really writing about people who do not use smart phones, who are not on Facebook and who are fearful Internet banking will mean they will be robbed. What percentage of the public hold these views? I don’t think it has been reliably measured. Instead we have pundits who assume that older people are digital immigrants or perhaps stay at homes. The media obligingly feed these fears with stories about people who do use these technologies and are bullied in cyberspace, have their privacy invaded by agents of the state and their life savings stolen at the stroke of a key by an anonymous thief in Moldova. Perhaps this is where this fear has its beginning.
The issue is worth exploring because industries where a detailed knowledge of ICT is required, are finding that some of their employees are reluctant to engage with the world of cyberspace. My experience though is that these employees either watched Robocop and Terminator to the extent they make Arnie jokes like “I’ll be back.” or they are blissfully ignorant of this aspect of our cultural space.
I also observe that, when the situation comes to compulsion, these employees either resign or learn the new technologies – and very few resign. What is really the case in my profession – teaching – is that some teachers limit their engagement with new technology, or do not initiate the use of technology in their practice. They use email and accept student work by email attachment but do not want to use Dropbox. They let students use word processors and spreadsheets but do not teach students how to use such technologies to their fullest extent. They make up text rich PowerPoints but do not experiment with transitions or adding sound effects and certainly have little knowledge of Prezi. Is this a problem of fear or just the same old problem that some people feel comfortable in their own space and see no need to extend their practice into new fields?
Curiously, I notice this is the same with students, the so called digital natives. Many of my students use Hotmail but feel no need to accept my invitation to move on to Gmail. They can use Facebook to chat or download pictures but not to assist in their studies. They can find ways to plagiarise their assignments but not set up a simple search using boolean logic. They can use a word processor but not the spell checker or formatting tools and have never used a spreadsheet.
Could it be that these people, adults and adolescents alike, do not suffer from a phobia but simply have no curiosity about what is over the next hill? Christopher Columbus wanted to know what was over the horizon. Most people in Europe at that time, never even considered there was something over the horizon. If adults have any fear about using technology, it is more a fear of seeming less than adequate, of appearing foolish in front of their managers and their peers.

Wide Reading

July 14, 2014

Exploring C21 Literacy

It’s a common complaint in English departments acorss the country and probably the world – they’re just not reading.  We all know that there are plenty of reasons why young people are opting out of reading and we all try our best to encourage reading inside and outside school.

This year, in addition to library visits where my junior classes take part in book waterfalls, book speed dating and other activities designed to turn them back onto reading, I’ve launched another blog. Initially this was to share my own reading experiences with my students and point them to sites to inspire their reading. what I found was, they just weren’t using it and if they were, I certainly didn’t know about it.

I’ve now sent invites to 58 students with a view to them being able to post about their reading as well as comment on posts.  It seemed…

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Kindle or kindling

July 12, 2014

A column in The DominionPost (Plastic not as fantastic as real books 20 December 2013) by Rosemary McLeod argues against the e-reader and for the tactile experience of reading a physical book.
While she asserted she was not being a luddite, I couldn’t help comparing her to Socrates in Phaedrus: “if men learn this [writing] it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves but by means of external marks.” Then there was Johannes Trithemius who wrote in opposition to the invention of printing, yet had De Laude Scriptorium Manualium printed so it would reach a wider audience
Socrates, a master of irony, would have appreciated that the only way we know today of his distrust of writing is because Plato wrote down his argument. In the same vein, Rosemary McLeod asserts that e-readers are not the way to read the classics yet over ninety percent of the classics can only be read on an e-reader since they are out of print. These works, have been preserved on sites like Project Gutenberg so can be downloaded and read on e –readers. McLeod mentions Jane Austen specifically. While Pride and Prejudice is always in print and other novels are widely available in second hand book dealers and libraries, I doubt the apocryphal works such as Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon are available to most readers in book form.
Dale Spender in her book, Mothers of the novel, makes the point that Jane Austen was part of a greater tradition of women writers. There will be many who would like to follow up on her claims and perhaps appreciate where Jane Austen fitted in to her contemporary literary scene. These writers are also unavailable to modern readers, yet you can download Fanny Burney’s novels from Project Gutenberg and The Digital Library, – provided that you read them on an e-reader.
There may be many compelling reasons for not using an e-reader, but arguing they are unsuitable for reading the “classics” is not one of them.

Barraco Barmer

July 9, 2014

Karl du Fresne in a column in the DominionPost, alerts us to the Twitter feed of Gemma Worrall, a hairdresser from Blackpool, who wrote that it was scary “our President Barraco Barmer” was tangling with Russia.
Du Fresne sees this error as a fault of he new social media that Worrall and her ilk can express these ill informed opinions instantly, easily and have these opinions widely disseminated.
My first observation is that by writing about Gemma Worrall’s tweet, Karl du Fresne is contributing to the process he claims to dislike – disseminating her opinions to a still wider audience than her followers on Twitter. I’m sure the circulation of the DominionPost is much larger.
Du Fresne is a professional journalist and journalists have a love hate relationship with Twitter. Many have Twitter accounts and tweet regularly. They then publish their Twitter user name to garner more followers, yet they will write negatively about what appears on Twitter. They trawl Twitter looking for tip offs and suitable people to interview. Both my son and niece have appeared in the DominionPost following tweets which were followed up by journalists.
Yet journalists regard citizen journalism with suspicion for fear that the public will go to amateur journalists for their news, what du Fresne calls “Instant opinion, zero knowledge”. Would that professional journalists and their editors were free of this charge themselves.
He goes further, treading the line about Twitter and narcissism. First I note the DominionPost prints three or four tweets of the utmost banality every day. The biggest surprise is that I read them. He goes on to say “Add to that Worrall’s obvious belief that the world needed to hear her considered views on Barraco Barmer and Russia and you have a lethal concoction of foolishness and conceit.” In my view du Fresne’s combination of sarcasm and exaggeration is not pleasant either. A lethal concoction indeed! Who could have been harmed by this? “Considered views..” How could we be sure Worrall saw her comments in this light? “Conceit..” I’m not sure Gemma Worrall thought the world was hanging on her every word ready to take away some gem of brilliance. Twitter would have told her how many followers she had. That her comments have had such currency is due to the re tweeting process and columns like Karl du Fresne’s.
Should we dismiss Twitter as a platform for narcissists? Certainly, many seem to think their words carry a lot of weight but is tweeting much different from the small talk of the past, the phone calls, the post card craze of the 1900s… the talk in the pub, the coffee house or the salon? While narcissists, do find Twitter a useful platform to display their plumage, for many others it is just another way of engaging with their circle of friends just as writers, politicians and musicians use their Twitter accounts to connect to their audience.
Nor can we discount whether Gemma Worrall is what Karl du Fresne considers her to be, a hairdresser or a hoax or a clever piece of ingenue satire. Even if she is the genuine article, this type of error is in the nature of what used to be called School boy howlers until we became more gender inclusive and much more understanding of human frailty.

The missionary Position

October 23, 2013

What are the Digital Natives doing with all the bandwidth and access to the internet?  Those who subscribe to Mark Prensky’s theory that our youth are Digital Natives seem to also be saying that the Digital Natives are leading the way in adopting new technologies and in finding new ways to use those technologies.  Every now and then we catch a glimpse, as if in a glass darkly, of where these natives are guiding the tourists in their world of cyberspace.

What it suggests to me is that we are not being lead to the promised land or even a glimpse of that marvel.

When Vodafone launched a 4 G service in February 2013, they began tracking as many as 20,000 users (and you thought it was the GCSB or NSA!)  to see how they are using this cornucopia, this Aladdin’s cave. The results are depressing.

Big spikes in usage are recorded at large public events, not surprisingly. Nor is it surprising that these big events are concerts by popular musicians and sporting contests in the major codes.  That translates to Beyonce and the All Blacks, not the Symphony Orchestra nor the New Zealand Ballet.

What are these people doing on their smart phones?  Vodafone’s consumer director, Matt Williams seems to think it is uploading photographs of themselves and their friends, followed by photographs of the performers on the stage or on the paddock.  There is a spike of uploading then they switch to downloading the pictures their friends have taken.  Not a lot of attention seems to be paid to the activities they came to see.

The net is full of comment about Gen Y being narcissistic.  I’m not too keen on condemning a whole generation whether that is Digital Immigrant or Gen Y but we do know who are more likely to pay for tickets to see Beyonce and who have the disposable income.

What the research from Vodafone shows is that bread and circuses occupy the public mind as firmly as they did in the days of the Roman Empire.  It also tells us that the digital natives will still have to be taught how to use the internet to some purpose.  Watching the America’s Cup? Yes.  Looking for solutions to real world problems? No. Matt Williams also calls it a virtuous circle of increased consumption.  Words fail me.

If the Digital Natives are not going to teach themselves digital literacy then someone else will have to teach them to read.  What could we call such people? Digital Missionaries anyone?

Digital natives or just lost boys?

September 21, 2013

The industry reporting new findings in research into brain development often teams up with the commentators on what makes the generations different.  Recently Rhys Blakely in The Times quoting The Wall Street Journal and HR Magazine commented on a trait of the Millennial Generation, an unwillingness to leave home.  Well certainly my son has returned to live at home but I hadn’t noticed it was a major new trend.

The journalists in question, however, are agreed on a cause and an explanation.  The millennials are the first generation to be connected 24 hours a day. When the Woodstock Generation went away from home they might call once a week.  Now everyone has a phone and they call home three to four times a day.  This higher connectivity translates into hyperdependence.

HR magazine asserts that computers and cellphones have changed brain development by altering the development of the pre-frontal cortex.  Millennnials don’t leave home because they are not yet ready to do so.

Well, we’ve heard that line before, that computers have altered the way millennials brains are wired, although I’m not sure Marc Prensky was  specific about the pre-frontal cortex; nor did he express concern about his digital natives delaying the moment when they left home.

The theory exposes itself right from the start.  Millennials, when they go away from home ring up repeatedly. Hang about – isn’t the claim that they won’t leave home?  So they leave home, develop this hyperdependency and so can’t leave the home they just left.

Next, do we have neuro-scientists who support this view? Certainly Rhys Blakely quotes other journalists so I guess the answer is no.

Can medical imaging show us that the pre-frontal cortex hasn’t developed? Rhys hasn’t mentioned this trivial detail.  We can assume he is correct and dispense with the need for scientific evidence.

When I test the theory against what I know, I consider that for centuries, families spanning several generations lived in the same household.  They still do in traditional societies.  I can recall here in New Zealand stories of people reaching the end of their lives,  having continued to  live with their parents and eventually take over the family home.  People who were behaving like millennials a hundred years before the millennium and all without cell phones and computers.  Then there were parents who wanted the child to stay home to look after the parent in their old age.  My aunt stayed home to care for my grandmother, but I never enquired about the state of her pre-frontal cortex.

Many of us left home for further study in other towns or to seek job opportunities.  Young people still do.  They go home to their families because it is cheaper.  Other young people leave home to have more freedom. Still others quarrel with their families and walk out, a sort of divorce. In fact, it is possibly because their pre-frontal cortex is undeveloped, that they leave home, not the reverse.

Then there is the argument that cell phones make us more connected. I can recall parents who – before there were cellphones – purchased a separate telephone line for their adolescent so that child could spend every free moment on the phone.   Then there were the rural households sharing a party line.  What do Rhys Blakely and his fellows consider to be hyperconnectivity?  Certainly the cell phone made it possible to be on line before we get home but excessive use of telephones is not something new.

Let’s just say that this claim is not yet proven.

Creativity for the Common Man

April 12, 2012

Yesterday, I attended a meet up on the subject of Creative Commons. This was organised by Jane Hornibrook, Public Lead, Creative Commons, Aotearoa New Zealand

I see Creative Commons as a new approach to how people can use someone else’s intellectual property in a way which promotes sharing but also recognises the person who created the work. This is done by licencing the work under a Creative Commons licence.

Jane Hornibrook, explained at the beginning the six main types of licence used by Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand.

1. Attribution  

This licence lets others to pass on your work or to alter it in some way even incorporating it in something of their own. You can even sell the result, as long as you acknowledge the original creator.  This is the least restrictive form of creative commons.  The other forms build in restrictions on what you can do with their work.

2 Attribution-Non commercial

This licence lets others do everything they can do under an attributions licence, but you do not allow them to do so for commercial purposes.

Attribution-Non commercial-No Derivative Works

This licence lets others use your work and distribute it, but they can not change your work in any way.  They must attribute it to you and provide a way for a third party to contact you.

Attribution-Non commercial-Share Alike

Here other users can use and alter your work provided it is not for profit.  They must identify you as the author and any work they create from yours must be licenced in the same way, that is non commercial.

Attribution-No Derivative Works

This licence lets others to copy or circulate your work to third parties, but they must state you are the author and they can not change anything.

Attribution-Share Alike

This licence is much like non commercial share alike but allows commercial uses.

The people attending the meeting came from a wide range of organisations and not all were interested in the application of Creative Commons in the school setting but the discussion introduced lots of new ideas for me.

On my way home, I read Interface November 2011 and thought the material there may have been of more use.

However, Jane followed up the meeting with this list of links to follow.  It will take a while to read them all but here there is a lot of very useful information here.

http://www.meetup.com/Creative-Commons-Wellington/boards/view/viewthread?thread=22252182

A way of thinking about attribution. –

Best practice for marking and attributing  http://wiki.creativecommons.org/Marking/Users

A good Australian guide sheet  http://creativecommons.org.au/content/attributingccmaterials.pdf

The Curator’s Code http://curatorscode.org/

Creative Commons search tools to use in the classroom. –

 DigitalNZ for NZ content (use the pull-down filters) http://www.digitalnz.org/

Flickr API search tools, like this one from Creative Commons Korea http://eng.letscc.net/

and music platforms

Jamendo  http://www.jamendo.com/en/creativecommons

Freesound for sound effects http://www.freesound.org/

The CC Search Tool  http://search.creativecommons.org/

Use a Google Advance Search and tweak the ‘usage rights’ filter to crawl the wider web http://www.google.com/advanced_search

Professional Development for teachers on copyright and CC. –

See this open course for teachers which anyone can work through, at any time http://wikieducator.org/Open_content_licensing_for_educators/Workshop_schedule

A video to explain CC to NZ kids and teachers. – CC Kiwi http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeTlXtEOplA

Sources of Creative Common material
Te Ara (Encyclopedia of NZ) text resources are now CC from Ministry of Culture and Heritage. –

 http://www.teara.govt.nz/

The Koordinates platform is for mapping data, and holds all sorts of layers (Humanities/Geography applicable) –

http://koordinates.com/

Te Pataka Matahiko Digistore

http://www.elearning.tki.org.nz/Teaching/Resources/Digistore

Applications of Creative Commons in schools

NZTA Remix competition for schools http://education.nzta.govt.nz/competitions/the-nzta-remix-competition-safer-journeys-for-teens

Mix and Mash competitions (school categories + school guides) http://mixandmash.org.nz/schools/

The OER Movement – (Open Education Resources) the Creative Commons licensing of teaching materials.

The source page for New Zealand schools and Boards of Trustees who want to implement an OER policy. It includes profiles of schools who have done this.

weCreate: Creative Commons for School Leaders http://wikieducator.org/WeCreate/Resources

See ‘NZGOAL’, a framework that guides state agencies on how to think about open access and apply Creative Commons. –

NZGOAL (Government Open access and Learning) framework  http://nzgoal.info/

An explanatory page about OER from Creative Commons – http://wiki.creativecommons.org/Creative_Commons_and_Open_Educational_Resources

Edited version of Links from Today’s Creative Commons in Schools Meetup ©2012 Jane Hornibrook; http://www.meetup.com/Creative-Commons-Wellington/boards/view/viewthread?thread=22252182

Wise old heads

May 18, 2011

The commercial popularity of medical self help books seems to be a testament to the desire of the digital immigrant to prevent the spread of tropical diseases in the digital homeland, or at the very least to enjoy a greater quality of life than any previous generation has experienced.  Concerns about dementia, coupled with new discoveries in brain scanning can also illuminate a major theme of this blog: a critique of the Digital Natives Digital Immigrants model.

In a new book, Secrets of the Grown up Brain: the surprising talents of the middle aged mind (2010),  Barbara Strauch argues that brains actually get better at lots of things with age.  She challenges the factoid that we lose up to a third of our brain cells as we age.  In a healthy person, the brain stays reasonably intact.

As Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s  fictional detective was fond of saying, our brains consist of grey cells, but they do not work alone.  They are connected by bundles of nerve tissue, which are white in appearance and these white cells are covered in a fatty substance called myelin.  (So there is some truth in the insult hurled at Billy Bunter, Owl of the Remove at Greyfriars School.  We are fat heads.)  However, current thinking is that the more myelin we have, the better we think, because the myelin has some function in helping the white matter connect the grey cells.  Current research appears to suggest that the process of covering the nerve fibres with myelin continues well into middle age, and, moreover, that this is a good thing.  Strauch refers to the result as “great connected brains”, able to think better, see patterns, connect ideas.

If you follow this blog, you might expect that I will now link Strauch’s findings to Marc Prensky’s idea that young people’s brains are wired differently.  What all the brain research reveals, is that our brains are plastic, so Prensky is partly correct.  The net generation, through their exposure to and use of digital technology, do think differently, but do they think better? Strauch would suggest better thinking comes with maturity.  I think the more interesting conclusion is that our brains are capable of change throughout our lives.  It is not that the Net gen brains are wired differently, it is that all of us are changing in our mental capacities throughout our lives.  In colonial New Zealand, a British immigrant who adopted coarser colonial ways was said to have “eaten his toot”;  “toot’ being a corruption of the Maori word, Tutu, for a poisonous berry responsible for the deaths of large numbers of sheep.  It seems we can all “eat our toot’ and become digital natives.

It may be a fact that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but it is a factoid when we apply that adage to human beings. Toot! Toot!

Amazons or Athenians, what tribe is this?

May 17, 2011

In the legends of Ancient Greece. are the stories about warrior women, the Amazons, whose queen Hippolyta was finally subdued by the Athenian hero Theseus.  The story of their marriage forms the backdrop to Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer’s Nights Dream.  The moral for the Greeks, presumably was that men were the superior sex.  Modern thinking has debunked that view, but it comes to the surface again in pseudo scientific guises

In a book published in 2006, (The Female Brain) the science writer Louann  Brizendine developed a thesis that women’s brains work differently from men’s.  One piece of Brizendine’s  evidence was seized on by a large audience, the claim that women uttered 20,000 words a day against the 7,000 spoken by men.  The Daily Mail for example argued “It is something one half of the population has long suspected – and the other half always vocally denied.”  The Washington Post : “Women talk too much, and men only think about sex…you need a Ph.D. to figure that out?”   The book went into numerous translations with much the same effect .  The German publisher wrote in their blurb “Warum gebrauchen Frauen 20 000 Worter am Tag, wahrend Manner nur 7000?”

However, none of the people who seized on this claim actually bothered to look seriously at her evidence.  The Female Brain certainly is a weighty tome with about thirty percent of the text given over to footnotes, making the book look academic.   Fortunately, Mark Lieberman from the University of Pennsylvania did comb through the book looking for the evidence and found just one reference to support this claim.  It came from a book by Alan Pease and Allan Garner.    Pease is the author of self help books on letter writing and body language which always struck me as more entertaining  than useful.  Lieberman read their book Talk Language: how to use conversation for profit and pleasure  (2003) (Pease Training Corporation) and found that Pease had no evidence to support the claim either.

See Liberman’s blog  http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/

There is research however in the linguistics literature which argues the exact opposite.  Janet Homes, for example in Women, men and politeness found that men spoke more, on average, than women.  Liberman lists a lot of the research into the incidence of talkativeness and none of it supports Brizendine’s claim.  In the year following the publication of Brizendine’s book, a study published in Science tracked 210 women and 186 men and found that women used about 3.5 per cent more words than men.  Given the result, the size of the study and its methodology, this scarcely validates Brizendine’s claim.  Perhaps the most compelling argument is that Brizendine finally agreed to remove this assertion from future editions of the book.

Why then did so many people seize on this claim and why do commentators still continue to present it as fact?  In his study of this controversy (You are what you speak) Robert Lane Greene labelled this tendency the “intellectual id”, the eagerness with which people will believe something they almost desperately want to believe is true.  William James put it another way;  “A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices. “  The fact is that we tend to form an opinion, then we look for evidence to support our point of view, while rejecting that evidence which contradicts us.

I suggest, that as with Louanne Brizendine, so with Marc Prensky.  As I have argued so often in this blog, his Digital natives, Digital Immigrants argument is fallacious.  There is no more evidence there is a generational difference in brain function than there is a gender one.

I want an iPad

January 19, 2011

Fleur Britten writing in The Sunday Times looks at the phenomenon of young children (i.e. under the age of five) using iPad.  Her discussion ranges over familiar themes:  the dangers of addiction, the question whether using iPad reduces the amount of physical activity, the value of interactive devices in cognitive development and in learning problem solving skills.  It’s a new device but the issues have a familiar ring going back to the debate about the educational value of television.

I thought it might be interesting to look at this from the Prensky analysis 0f Digital Natives.  Strangely neither Britten or her panel of experts uses this analysis.  Instead she suggests that it is Apple’s intuitive devices, the icons and the touch screen which means even a very small child can navigate the device.  Certainly there are Youtube videos of small children operating iPad’s.  Is this proof of Prensky’s claim about children being digital natives?  Well, there are just as many YouTube videos showing cats operating iPads.  I’ve never seen a cat looking at a television screen but cats can operate iPads because of the touch screen and the fact that they get a response.  It’s a little difficult to tell from the videos whether these are old cats or young cats, so we could decide if cats are digital natives or immigrants, or if this is determined by their age.

It’s great that small children can operate iPads but like Fleur Britten, I suspect that is a product of the clever design of the iPad.  I would expect older people to be able to operate one just as well.  The fact that one of the parents quotes in the article, believes her child is better at using the iPad in my view proves nothing.  This is one parent’s opinion and it can be explained by the child practicing more than the parent.

Another thought I’ve had occurred to me after my wife remarked about how her one year old grand niece could use a cell phone.  The parents of these under five year old’s are themselves the digital natives of yester year.  Prensky wrote his article ten year’s ago (2001) when today’s young parents were teenagers and certified digital natives.  If they are now digital immigrants, when did that happen?  Surely it is becoming more obvious that digital natives/digital immigrants is just not explaining what is going on.


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