A year ago I blogged about 21st century literacy skills, asking whether we were still using definitions of literacy that are out of sync with our new, technological world. Since then, I have had the privilege of watching my son negotiate his first year of intermediate school in a laptop class. Make no mistake, he is in an innovative and challenging school, and observing his learning, both planned and accidental, has been fascinating, but it leaves me with more questions than answers.
I have no doubt that the experience of being connected to his peers on a more or less continuous basis has enabled him to develop relationships. The school uses Adium as the social networking tool (students are banned from accessing Facebook at school or on their school laptops) and my son seems to spend an inordinate amount of time chatting online. So in that way, I suppose he is improving his skill at building relationships with others. Or is he? When I browse his chat history (and I do, because I'm a parent and I believe that is my responsibility) I am overwhelmed (and relieved, I admit) by the superficiality of the communications that take place. Is a relationship based on a dialogue such as:
friend: nm u
son: nm. brb
friend: k kewl - g2g, etc., etc. (find translations here) really a valuable or meaningful relationship? Certainly, it is cross-cultural - in fact it is an entire sub-culture of its own and it gives me a headache to read it, but how far is it going towards that wonderful goal of solving problems collaboratively? Certainly he and his friends are very proficient in the use of these tools, but for what purpose? nm?
There have also been some tough lessons for him this year around the ethical responsibilities of the online environment. These lessons have been the products of chance rather than planned, and have probably been much more powerful as a result. Learning about the dangers of posting criticisms and gossiping online is invaluable, but the lessons can only be taught if there is someone monitoring the discussions. More often than not, there is no one. And so instead of students being helped to address those ethical considerations, bad, even dangerous, habits are entrenched.
Having said all that, I have recently been watching my son engage with his first virtual world, Minecraft. This challenges him on a whole range of levels. He interacts with a group of friends all building in the same world, he has to share ideas and collaborate online, and, he tells me, all in a context that has taught him all about architecture! It certainly has engaged his interest and his creativity, and would devour hours of his time if allowed. And it has provided him with a place to apply other forms of learning. Yesterday we watched some of the 9/11 memorial coverage. Somehow, despite living almost his entire life in the post 9/11 world, he'd never really been aware of the specifics of that day, and it made for some sombre conversation. What has interested me however is the outcome of that conversation: his new build in Minecraft is a tower that will be more resistant to terrorism. Sad, but a really concrete example of engaging with the responsibilities of the new and complex environments we live in.