When I was 25, I believed that the anonymity of online discussions would allow the exchange of ideas without prejudice, and raise the level of human discourse. I’d been communicating online for five or six years. The web was brand new. Most of the forums were text based. There was lots of Usenet and mailing lists. And it didn’t matter who you were or where you were from. We didn’t judge people based on skin color or physical attributes or handicaps. We couldn’t see those things. Your ideas stood on their own merits.
I remember teaching middle school kids about this wonderful world where stereotypes and pre-judgement were relics from a more primitive time. I even did some original research around anonymity in online discussion forums. The hypothesis was that students were more likely to engage in deeper conversations online if their real identities were unknown to the other participants (but known to the moderator). The result was that there was no significant difference.
And the civil discourse didn’t really happen either. There were flame wars before there were trolls. Sometimes it’s fun to push someone’s buttons. It’s fun to wind up the toy and let it go. As it turns out, the lack of accountability that goes along with anonymity can bring out the worst in people. And it doesn’t take many of those people to destroy reasoned, civil discourse.
When I was 35, I believed that the democratization of the means of dissemination would give voice to the voiceless, and allow more perspectives to be heard. Those are big words. Let me put it more simply: everyone is a publisher. Even the relatively simple process of setting up a web site and having access to a global audience had become MUCH easier with the advent of weblogs and wikis. It really did become easy for anyone to publish anything and reach an enormous audience.
We were no longer shackled by the editors and publishers and news outlets that controlled the means of publication. I can say whatever I want (and I did). I set up news feeds and RSS links and all kinds of stuff to tune in to these alternative sources of information. Chris Anderson came up with his Long Tail idea. There’s room for everyone’s ideas on the Internet. You don’t have to figure out whether it’s worth the investment to publish something, because publishing is basically free.
But the movement away from a few broadcasters has led to misinformation, fake news, and the breakdown of such fundamental concepts as “truth” and “fact”. For every opinion, there is an equal and opposite opinion, and in the interest of fairness and equal time, we give voice to the crazy. Now, we have people who are intentionally destroying their own credibility, because they can’t be held accountable for their words if it can easily be proven that they’re lying most of the time. So we use words like “alternative fact” and “believe” a lot more than we used to, and we’ve lost touch with ideas like trustworthy and authoritative.
When I was 45, I believed that technology could save public education. Technology would allow differentiation and authentic assessment in ways that previous generations could only dream of. Every student would have an individualized plan, and the learning activities would be tailored by a caring, intelligent, and perspicacious teacher. Students would have some flexibility to explore topics and ideas that interest them, and they would complete projects, conduct original research, and produce deliverables that demonstrated their learning in novel ways. Along the way, they would learn to collaborate, express their creativity, and communicate effectively in a variety of media. They would apply innovative thinking strategies to take ideas and concepts from different disciplines and combine them in new ways to solve challenging real-world problems. And all of this would happen in public schools using best practices, innovative teaching strategies, and cutting edge resources that would be unmatched by the private/online/charter/alternative schools.
So we worked through all of the challenges. We put devices into all students’ hands. We built the infrastructure to make the technology work reliably and efficiently. We spent years on professional development. We talked a lot about assessment and homework and learning activities. We focused on the importance of portfolios and depth of knowledge and learning standards. And then we bought document cameras so teachers could help students complete worksheets as a class.
I wonder what I’ll believe when I’m 55.
Photo credit: Wikimedia commons.