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The Jig is Not Up: Responding to Alexis Madrigal's Essay

 

A few days ago, a tech writing I admire a great deal, Alexis Madrigal, published an essay  called "The Jig is Up: Time to Get Past Facebook and Invent a New Reality" about how we’ve reached the end of the line in our current technological paradigm—he wrote, “I can take a photo of a check and deposit it in my bank account, then turn around and find a new book through a Twitter link and buy it, all while being surveilled by a drone in Afghanistan and keeping track of how many steps I've walked. Now what?”

As further evidence, Madgigal points to the ennui felt by tech writers who wonder if “we’ve run out of things to say,” and to the tech start-up cycle, which leads to start-ups copying successful tech business models without really innovating. He wonders, “when's the last time you saw an iPhone app do something that made you go, "Whoa! I didn't know that was possible!?"

He leaves us at a hopeful place, however: “Still, I want us to get back to those exciting days where people were making predictions about the affordances of the future that seemed wonderful and impossible.”

I’d like to start off by saying that I applaud Madrigal’s honesty and courage; as a writer whose dominion extends to the areas he’s just been critical of, he will likely feel the fall-out in one way or another. I, too, would like to live in an exciting time where the affordances of technology seem “wonderful and impossible.” And I’d like to posit that that time is...now.

Madrigal seems a bit like the politician whose idea of connecting is to say: “My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs." 

While Madrigal acknowledges that the future is evenly distributed now, he might not have a sense of how uneven it is. As a former teacher, and someone who studies educational technology, I have a sense that Madrigal’s attitude comes from repeated exposure—and while his current relationship with technology may not be as sparkly now as Lana Del Ray’s dress, at one point it was. At one point, the author felt like technology like iPhone was capable of teaching him something magical, providing opportunities to share it with others, and to kick-start his creativity and desire to create and learn.

I’d like to tell him this: there are thousands, probably millions of young people, who are attending classes who are awaiting their opportunity to feel as alive as they do when they are on the same social networks Madrigal thinks are, like, “so 2007,” and who would love to be able to learn in the same way that they do when they’re out of class—by watching an informative video on YouTube, by sharing it via social network, by commenting on someone else’s page or profile, by being captivated by something they never imagined via StumbleUpon, Twitter, Pinterest, or some other site, that for them, is brand-new and enthralling.

I’ve visited many of these schools, even taught at a couple, and know that using the same technology that Madgigal derides as not being enough would be a huge improvement to the really unimaginative, uninspired, walled-off thinking and learning that happens in a lot of these schools.

These are people who are pushed to think in one way, write in one way, learn in one way when the rest of their technology-enhanced life is collaborative, creative, dare I say, emancipatory?

These are students whose literacy skills are derided as not real, or important enough to match those taught in school.

These are students who face a rapidly changing world with an outdated set of competencies that might have worked a hundred years ago, give or take a couple decades.

My research investigates the use of social media for learning, specifically learning that responds to what many have called the “wicked problems”: those complex, changing problems for which past solutions don’t apply. I am intrigued by the use of social media because, to me,  its popularity and diversity represents a willingness to think, learn, and share together. I would agree with Madrigal: we are not there yet. Part of my job will be to try to push schools, and other informal places of learning, to think about the kind of learning we want to see happening—for ourselves, our students, and for society in general. Then we can, and should, incorporate educational technology in ways that, while to derivative to Madrigal, may represent real innovative ways of teaching and learning. 

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