Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Homework Domework

The last 10 days have been hard work. We are doing the opening plenary at an ITU-sponsored conference in Oslo next week, and have had to pull out all the stops to get a paper together on the theme of why it is important to problematise digital literacy when all the experts who frame policy seem to know with such comfortable self assurance exactly what 'it is' -- and for most of them, we suggest, it is the current incarnation of what we used to call 'functional literacy' back in the 1980s.

What has really stitched us up, however, is finding out after we agreed to do the plenary that the closing one is being done by Lawrence Lessig. It could have been worse. He might have spoken before us, and then the obvious would have been well and truly evident. Nonetheless, we have toiled and toiled on this paper to make it as much as it can be of what it might be.

The occasion, of course, upped the ante for getting up to date on Lawrence's work. It has been a while since Code, and his most recent book, Free Culture, was one of Businessweek's Ten Best Books of 2004. The McGill bookstore had a copy, so I have sailed into it with mucho gusto.

Early into the book, around pages 45-50, Lessig is talking about the way the law is closing down scope for learning on the part of digitally 'at home' youth, by making it illegal to 'tinker' in all sorts of ways. He cites part of an interview he did with John Seely Brown in relation to Brown's concern about "the learning kids can do, or can't, because of the law" (p.47). He quotes Brown as saying that we need to "understand how kids growing up digital think and want to learn". Yet, says Brown, "we are building a legal system that completely suppresses the ... tendencies of today's digital kids ... We're building an architecture that unleashes 60 percent of the brain [and] a legal system that closes down that part of the brain".

The extension of that argument, so far as we are concerned, is too obvious to bear making, but we have never been afraid to state the obvious. Precisely the same argument holds, every bit as strongly, for education. We are not talking any conspiracy here, although it is tempting. Rather, we think that what is involved is a kind of alignment of tendencies that currently work out for a very happy 'marriage' on the part of those whose privileges and advantages would be undermined by any approximation to a democratic unleashing of creative energies. Teachers who aren't familiar with new technologies and don't want to have to become so find their predilections supported and reinforced by policies that close down all kinds of tinkering in the name of 'risk', 'duty of care', and the importance of ensuring that everyone can meet minimal standards (which is what they are) of basic print literacy. The one way kids HAVE to do it is the sure passport to suppressing creative drive and the capacity for innovation -- the rewards of which must be maintained for a small minority.

Official definitions and 'standardised operationalisations' of "Digital Literacy" are the educational equivalents of the current legal overstretching of 'property rights' in law, in the service of protecting the overbloated interests of corporations and other elites.

We all know that, but as I said, we've never shirked stating the obvious.

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