In Pursuit of Digital Wisdom

We live in a culture where the dominant communication and entertainment media are digital. These media are ubiquitous in nearly every area of our lives. This, we cannot change. The proverbial horse is out of the barn. What we can do, however, is try to harness the horse. This metaphor – of harnessing the power of digital media and technology – is at the core of the concept of digital wisdom, particularly as it pertains to what we, as influential adults – parents, teachers, religious leaders – do to educate and guide the next generation to adulthood and to accomplish a generational transfer of the best of our accumulated knowledge and our shared culture.

We have constructed a specific educational culture with a value proposition and product delivery model that hasn’t changed much since its inception. Now, we find ourselves in the middle of a technical culture that is very different from our educational culture. This technical culture has a completely different business model and has probably changed more in the past 6 months than our educational culture has over the last century. Because of its unbridled nature, it now threatens to deconstruct the existing business model of education. This may or may not be a bad thing, but either way, it is at least worth attending to and, as some of my colleagues say, worrying about.

To date, the primary question regarding digital media and technology in education has been, “What tools and technologies do we employ to facilitate and/or enhance learning in our hyper-connected, wiki world?”

I believe this is the wrong question. Or at least it’s not the primary question we should be asking.

Rather, we should be asking, “What kinds of people do we seek to build as we prepare them to enter, occupy, navigate and succeed in this world?” Once we answer that question (and we should have that answer momentarily…), we should be asking, “How do we go about building them within the context of this new culture?”

Among the things we address when we’re building the next generation of functional adults, is literacy. It remains paramount in education and nobody will argue that basic literacy, in its myriad forms and complexities, is unimportant in a digital world. After all, much of what we encounter on-line comes in the form of text-based communication. Print is not dead, it just lives in a new house.

That said, there is now so much more for our kids to process and master than print, and it comes at them in so many more media, that we are forced to consider traditional literacy as necessary but not sufficient for success (let alone survival) in a digital world. As some have argued for many decades, and I would argue also, we need to embrace and institutionalize, through formal curricular channels, a broader vision of literacy. This would include what many are calling digital literacy. And this involves more than a modicum of digital wisdom.

In pursuit of digital wisdom, we have to ask some critical “culture” questions which, I propose, have to do with larger issues of contemporary epistemology. What are the characteristics of the culture of education? What are the characteristics of the culture of technology? How do the characteristics of each culture map to each other? If we drew a Venn diagram of these cultures, what characteristics would fall into the overlapping sections? What, in each culture, is worth keeping and what is worth losing or getting rid of?

The exploration of these questions, among others, is foundational to the purpose of this project because the answers may just help us figure out how to harness the runaway horse that is digital technology.

Primum non taedium.

If educators, like doctors, had to take a Hippocratic Oath, and they had to take the oath in Latin, their first pledge should be this: Primum non taedium. For those that don’t speak Latin, that means, first, do not bore me. In fairness, this idea of doctors pledging to “first, do no harm” is apocryphal. The Hippocratic Oath doesn’t use this exact phrase, but it does promote the ethical standard that doctors should abstain from doing harm. As a sometime patient, that seems entirely reasonable, if incomplete. But start there. I sometimes express the same sentiment to my hairdresser. At least don’t make me look ugly. We can move up from there. So, to educators, who have so many tasks to perform, this foundational “ethical” standard should remain: first do not bore me. How to go about living that out is fodder for future posts.