The Information Age: Access Is Only the First Step

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

In the beginning was the word. Early man developed the ability to share his sensory world through spoken communications. Speech and language allowed mankind to share private sensory experiences publicly. Speech was superimposed on the breathing system, leaving the body free to engage the world. Receptive language was received through the ears. This system was global in nature and did not require light. Essentially the speech and language system was superimposed on the global warning system of the human animal. In fact, the communication system can be detected even in noise. This system worked for mankind and enabled them to share skills and knowledge from one individual to another.

However, the spoken word is a fleeting signal or a capsule in time. Being limited in time it was not completely stable. Some five thousand years ago a major step forward came when mankind began to write. First there were pictographic symbols and then phonetic symbols and codes. The written word bound mankind in space and time with a stable format for communications. Skills, knowledge and experiences could be handed down in time and space. They could be transmitted over distance and from one generation to the next over time. The written word was a tremendous advance in human knowledge, as were the management of that knowledge and its storage in libraries. However, scribes and scholars served as gatekeepers since often they were the only literate members of society.

With the invention of the printing press inexpensive books emerged. Universal literacy meant that the common man had access to the world’s knowledge. All he had to do was learn to read. Since around the 1700s printed books meant that universal literacy and schools could become available for the common man. However, it was not until the 20th century that universal literacy and schools became available worldwide. One result is that English is becoming a worldwide common language.

Today radio, television, computers and the internet are making the world’s knowledge more accessible. It is accessible not only in printed codes but actual real world experiences and dramatizations are presented in full motion color. In Boston I can see and hear the agony of the devastation of an earthquake in Japan, the ravages of Irene, or the uprising of people in the Middle East. Through my ebook I can have access to a thousand or more volumes of library books. I can search countless questions in moments. Hard printed bookstores are going out of business and being replaced by ebooks with countless links to primary documents. The very act of publishing is undergoing a radical change. The ETC Journal is an example of the new publishing techniques.

Our modern public schools evolved in the 1700s as a result of cheap printed books becoming available. We are told today that the iPad is the hottest product in the world. The question is, will iPads and the internet change our very concept of schools and learning? The ability to link to primary sources and to audiovisual reports vastly increases access to information. The processing of information is increased. The question is, how will we use that increase? We are in a time of rapid change. We are in a time of access to mountains of scientific knowledge. We are in a time when vast numbers of individuals, even individuals in high places, reject the accuracy of scientific evidence and prefer myths to scientific data. Without logical reasoning and comprehension, increased information is useless.

We truly live in the best of times and the worst of times. It is up to us to develop and use this cornucopia of information for the betterment of mankind.

7 Responses

  1. “The question is, will iPads and the internet change our very concept of schools and learning?”

    Not by themselves, they won’t. Software will be the huge enabler. Speaking generally, this software will be designed specifically for education. We’ll see a transition to automation of differentiated learning and then to truly individualized learning. These steps will evolve to real student-centered learning as I understand the term — and there are more than a few definitions out there.

    “Without logical reasoning and comprehension, increased information is useless.”

    People constantly refer to these abilities as 21st century skills or critical thinking (as a new thing) when these were part and parcel of Aristotle’s approach to learning thousands of years ago. What’s different in recent times is the emergence of democracy. In a democracy, we absolutely must have a citizenry skilled in thinking well. Without it, we see politicians rejecting science (whether they agree or not) and citizens swallowing the lies whole.

    The current Edutopia edition focuses on critical thinking in our high schools. Their example is from history/social studies/civics classes. The other place you’ll find it is science classes. These two pillars form the crux of potential critical thinking learning. Yet, the focus of all testing these days is on mathematical and language skills. Yes, you must have some of these to be able to engage in the social studies and science classes but not very much. I believe that exciting social studies and science must include plenty of critical thinking and that this excitement will lead to more interest in those basic tools.

    Lest some accuse me of being one-dimensional, I hasten to add that creative arts (2D, 3D, performing, etc.) add a very important dimension to all learning. Creative writing goes beyond language skills into the arts as well. And the analysis of literature can also engage critical thinking but not, in my view, the basics of spelling, grammar, and arithmetic.

    “We truly live in the best of times and the worst of times.” A bit of hyperbole but with lots of truth at its heart, this statement requires that we look at the flood of information, much not factual, and the increasing power of computers and software and decide how to deal with these two juggernauts. Possibly, the human brain is not ready for what’s happening now but must deal with it anyway.

    The problem has evolved to the point where people are deciding which sources of information to use based on feelings, which are readily manipulated by Madison Avenue and K Street. If you choose an information source that one of these manipulators created, then you find yourself in a spiral without exit and become a pawn of their schemes.

    So, we should celebrate schools, such as those spotlighted in Edutopia, wherein critical thinking becomes the prime mover of their existence.

    Now, how can we expand that success into more and more schools until our people are safe from wanton demagoguery? How can we most quickly and efficiently equip enough of our citizens with Carl Sagan’s “baloney detection kit,” which he claims every scientist obtains in the course of their training for scientific research?

    Note that critical thinking does not mean abandoning emotions or love of art. It means that when necessary, this thinking tool is brought out and used. Then, it can be placed back in its scabbard ready for the next challenge.

    What would a nation with over 50% true critical thinkers look like and should we welcome such a situation? I, for one, would gladly embrace it.

    • I would like to see a nation with critical thinkers. I have been involved with political discourse for much of my life and I wonder at the people who do not seem to comprehend what they read. Unfortunately, we often fixate on narrow partisan myths both positive and negative aspects about the people we elect to represent us. I have often said a politician who makes 51 % of their decision correctly is ahead of the game. Too often we throw away our participatory democracy with sound bits and non debates on critical issues.

      In our nation we are at a critical time when we are making hard choices on the status of our schools. If we fail those who would learn we fail the nation. WE cannot afford to neglect our school children. WE need true debates in the political process and not slogans and Fairy Tales.

  2. My apologies. I put Aristotle when I meant Socrates. Maybe I should do a bit more critical thinking myself. ;-)

    • “Aristotle” is OK: Socrates never wrote down anything, or if he did, no traces of his writings survived. So what we know of his teaching is second-hand: via his contemporaries Plato and Xenophon. Aristotle was Plato’s student, so in a similar relation to Socrates as Saul/Paul of Tarsus to Jesus.
      Aristoteles was also perhaps more into teaching than Plato: he was the preceptor of young Alexander of Macedonia, and lastingly marked education in the West, in particular with his formalization of logic: see the Wikipedia article about his Organon.
      The problem is that educators – who for centuries were Church people with a love for authority and authoritativeness – went a bit overboard in adopting him: “Aristoteles non posuit hoc, ergo non est ita”, Aristotle did not state this, therefore it is not so”.

  3. […] The Information Age: Access Is Only the First Step […]

  4. I agree with Harry that the software we design to use in our technology is the essential element that will bring about change. However the new social technologies are the foundation for that software to be used on. I am a bit discouraged when I look at my huge number of television programs available to me on my cable television and find so few of the of the thousands of programs available that I consider worthwhile. If I were to invest money at national levels in educational technologies I would invest in developing high levels of software content.

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