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Taking the long view …

Yesterday I went with my family to visit Mount Vernon. My uncle was visiting from California and, since they live near the estate, my parents wanted to take him there.  They invited me to go along knowing my odd fascination with all-things-George-Washington.  It was a beautiful day to walk the grounds and tour the mansion while imagining what life was like back in the late 1700’s.  (See it for yourself @ Later that evening, at a bar in old town Alexandria, we got to talking about things that have had the greatest impacts on human society since GW’s day: such as television and the internet.  As I think it over, I am stirred by a number of new thoughts.  I am thinking more about how the long view informs my attitude towards modern life (and technology). I’m sharing my musings with you, because lately I’ve fallen in love with Google software: Google Docs in particular, which is a bit frightening to me. Is it good to put all your eggs in a Google basket?

1932 Histomap of Human Civilization:

The Entire History of the World—Really, All of It—Distilled Into a Single Gorgeous Chart.

(Click to enlarge, then use <Ctrl> and <+> or<-> to zoom in or out.)

The pace of change is so sped up today, it is hard to recognize how recent and dramatic these changes are. Since George Washington’s time, we’ve undergone the industrial revolution (think steam engines), the machine age (bringing electricity, automobiles, and radio), the atomic age (adding space exploration, photography, and television), the information age (using computers everywhere), and now the big data age (where Google owns the world!).

My concern is that we humans cannot yet see what will be the impact of these rapid changes.  My uncle is one of the first generations to have grown up with a television in his home and, before we can even learn what television means to human evolution, we have nanotechnologies and biotechnologies, and petabytes, exabytes, and zettabytes of data impacting the world today.  Each of these innovations are revolutionary in their own way. Who knows what is in store for us tomorrow?

The news is abuzz with people imagining drones coming to drop packages from Amazon on specially designed helipads hanging off their apartment windows.  I wonder what’s to stop a network of super small drones from conducting surveillance operations on great swaths of humanity for governmental and/or commercial agencies?  We’ve recently learned that the government has, for all intents and purposes, burrowed a virtual wormhole into the data collected by commercial software companies so they can suck up all the information they want–just in case they might need it later.  The services I get from Google and Amazon are fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but when I say the software is free, I am failing to see the real price I am paying: I’m actually paying in privacy and freedom dollars.

As a teacher librarian, I need to educate students about the long-term implications of socializing and doing their work on the internet.  I also need to show them that the learning products users are creating online, such as class assigned PowerPoints published to the web, are freely available to others, while much of the most reliable information on a subject is locked behind a pay wall.  It is my job, as a media specialist, to help them decide what kind of future they want: perhaps greater open access to all information AND greater control over personal data — or are those things mutually exclusive?

If both television and computers can come into being in the space of my uncle’s lifetime, what might come into being in my grandchildren’s lifetimes?  We are only eight generations past George Washington.  If you measure time in lifetimes instead of 25-year generations, it only takes three and a half to get back to 1776!  In an amazing article that discusses this further, Kevin Kelly states:

“…we can imagine only 13 lives (and perhaps fewer if longevity increases), linking us and the year 3000 AD. Between you and the year 3000 AD stand only 13 lifetimes. In terms of lifetimes — which are steadily increasing due to medical progress — 10 centuries is just next door.

But in technological change terms, 10 centuries is a distant as another galaxy. Consider all the revolutions that have happened in the last century: automobile, the pill, digital communications, jets. Now times it by 10 or 100 more. Landing in the next millennial will be like landing on an alien planet.”  The Technium: 13 Generations

When we say we are equipping students to function in a 21st century world, do we have confidence we are imagining that future clearly?  My take-away from these musings is that teachers need to keep refreshing their technology skills and one of the best ways to do that is let students teach us about the latest software applications and to work together to see how to employ them effectively in the service of education.

I am lucky to have young adult children who keep me informed.  Last year my daughter encouraged me to start using Google Docs (  She explained that it backed up her work constantly without her having to remember to save and that it made her work more portable with its availability from any device with internet access.  She didn’t tell me how useful it and Google Presentation were going to be in my grad school coursework as I teamed up with two or three classmates at a time to plan, compose, and present formal papers and slide shows.  I think Microsoft and Apple have missed the boat in this area.  Google has given the world a tool–for free(?!)–that does much of what Microsoft and Apple charge lots of money to do and it enables me to collaborate and work anywhere, without requiring any hardware hurdles to be surmounted except one: access to the internet.

Sample of collaborative editing using Google Docs.
Sample of collaborative editing using Google Docs.

Just today, my husband had the day off and wanted to take a laptop with him while he ran errands so he could use Word to create an outline for a training manual he is writing for the hospital where he works.  Our daughter had hidden the laptop power cord somewhere so he had to take my iPad.  I showed him how to create a Google Doc that he could work on while waiting at Mr. Tire.  I assured him he could download the document to MS Word format when he got back to his own computer at home or at work.  It occurs to me now, that he ought to invite his collaborators to edit the document in Google Docs before he downloads it to MS Word for final revisions.  I predict he and his colleagues will be using this software regularly in the near future.

Another exciting feature I am only beginning to learn about is Google hangout.  This morning, I saw an eye-opening example of how it can be used in school in an archived recording of an actual hangout conducted by the awesome Joyce Valenza and attended by many other well-known librarians.  Give it a gander: 

This video got me excited to imagine how I might use it at school, and I particularly like the idea of using it as a television broadcasting program.  It was instructive hearing some details on how students didn’t have to have an account to access the broadcast, but could still interact via other means, such as Twitter.  One could conduct a class and record it, then post it online for absent students or for viewing as a refresher.  One educator is using it to conduct club meetings online at a time that works better for the members and doesn’t require transportation (unless the student doesn’t have internet access).  I do worry, though, that this type of tool further blurs the separation between work and home life.

I read somewhere that our recent change to a sedentary lifestyle is out of step with human evolution.  Our bodies can’t evolve fast enough to adapt to the loss of regular daily stresses to our muscular-skeletal structures, which are so necessary for good health. [This article addresses the increased likelihood of osteoporosis as a result:]. This is just one more example of the unforseen consequences of rapid changes in technology.  Consider the raging debates over the merits of the Common Core Standards, PARCC tests, and teacher evaluations.  On the one hand, much of what I’ve learned about the Common Core seems educationally sound and is, frankly, quite exciting. On the other hand, for the same reasons I hesitate to use Google for everything (not wanting them to have a monopoly, for one), I hesitate to blindly embrace all the changes to education coming down the pike.  Do your own investigations to see what I mean.  Here are two places to start: first a video created by the Pearson Foundation in favor of educational reform

and second, a website making a case for mistrusting the Pearson Foundation as one in which conflicts of interest and possible corruption charges could be made:  Boycott Pearson Now | United Opt Out National: the movement to end corporate education reform

When we educators talk about preparing our students for the 21st century, one thing we must do is try to stay updated on the latest technological advances that will make students more valuable in the workplace. 21st century learners also need to embrace the rapid pace of change and learn to adapt and retool more and more frequently.  However, as critical thinkers, students also need to examine the choices they make today for their possible impacts on the future, for themselves and the grandchildren they will have someday.

See for an article on historical eras.

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