I have just come back from a week’s holiday by the sea-side. It was a glorious, if short vacation. I was determined to be the ultimate road-warrior, posting photos on the beach to Facebook, and so on. I was able to access the Internet using an HSDPA card, but the cell network was so weak connection speeds were crippling. But what killed connectivity on the go more than anything else was the complete inability to read anything on the computer screen. The magnificent glare of the sun was the kiss of death to mobility! I was able to do very little work then! That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!
I mention all of this because the preparations for a sea-side holiday were, for my children, aged 14 and 11, completely different from the time when I was a child. No bucket and spade, no beach-ball! But plenty of computer games and DVDs were packed. Instead of spending long hours at the beach, my children were keen to get back home to watch a film, or play computer games! There’s that famous joke about being offered a choice between going to heaven, or to lectures about heaven, and all the Germans choosing the lectures! My screenager, offered a choice between the beach and an app called Beach, would choose the app every time!
I had a sense of loss, then, when pondering this holiday, and the memories of myself as a child, in the pre-digital age. And yet I am mis-representing the matter. My sons did play in the sea, they did build sand-castles, they did root around in the rock-pools for shells and comb the beach: they did everything I did, but they also needed their digital fix! When we got home to Johannesburg, the first thing they did was boot up their computers and meet up with their friends online. To be frank with you, that was the first thing I did as well, as soon as I had washed off all that unpleasant sand and sea-salt in the hair!
I think we sometimes jump to conclusions when we assume that the next generation is so different from us, when we worry about the future of reading or what SMSes will do to spelling. We need to keep up with the changes around us, and using digital media in our teaching is part of that, but we also need to realise that screenagers are really no different. The crucial change is the extent to which experience is mediated digitally. This fundamentally alters the educational terrain, but it is no more earth-shattering than the generation gap which opened up in the 1960s between the pre-war producer society and the post-war consumer generation.
The school of the future will undoubtedly be a more digital affair than schools are now, but I’m not convinced that we won’t also be taking kids to the sea-side, so to speak. And that to me is the challenge: how to marry the best of the past, with the best of the future.