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Trapped in Complexity

By Leslie Everitt

WWGD (What Would George Do?)

If George Washington somehow hitched a ride in the Tardis and got out in my backyard in the year 2013, he would have be amazed at many things, not least of all coming inside to hear the classical music issuing from the little, glowing tablet with metallic buttons in a tray that I hold on my lap. In his lifetime, the only way to hear classical music would be to listen to a live performance of it. I’m sure he would love to learn how to use such a device and might even be willing to put more time into learning how to get his favorite pieces to play using the Slacker Radio™ app than I am willing to do. However, I expect he would soon feel overwhelmed by all the technological advances surrounding him in my home: dishwasher, telephone, flashlight, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, lawn mower, car, blender, coffeemaker, electricity, batteries … let’s not even talk about the TV programs coming to me via FIOS and the resources on the World Wide Web.

Heck, I feel overwhelmed quite often, such as when I am browsing the web and start to feel how impossible it is for me to appreciate all there is to enjoy and use in the time I have available. How about our students? When we give them research assignments to do and they look for resources on the web, it can seem as if that information is getting buried under more and more new sites as the web grows larger every minute. Of course, many students aren’t discriminating enough to feel the elusiveness of the hunt and are easily satisfied by the first hit they make in their attempt to search. Perhaps those students are simply trying to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

The Whirlwind of the Web

As a former 10th grade English teacher with a demanding agenda and state-wide tests at year’s end, I didn’t often make time to deal with my students’ feelings. Sometimes I treated my 10th grade Honors students as if they were college students, and, while there were some students who rose to that level of expectation and did quite well, others need more scaffolding. After I become a school librarian that is one area where I want to improve. As I discover what a vast store of free electronic–and often interactive–learning resources are available online (much of it free of charge), I am struck with the idea that each time I suggest or assign the use of one resource, I ought to seek out alternative sites that are easier and/or more fun to use. Students can self-select the level that is right for them and teachers can help by labeling each link as best for beginner, proficient, or advanced students.

Helping students get better at negotiating current technology is imbedded in many of the NETS for Teachers standards, as in #3: “Modeling Digital Age Work and Learning”; particularly #3b: “Collaborate with students, peers, parents, and community members using digital tools and resources to support student success and innovation.” Helping students get better at locating reliable sources by providing fun and instructive software tools is also part of NETS standard #2c: “Customize and personalize learning activities to address students’ diverse learning styles, working strategies, and abilities using digital tools and resources” (International Society for Technology in Education, 2008). It will take work to meet such high standards.

Or, is the Web a Whirlpool?

George Washington might look at some of the ways we spend our time and suggest we use more productive, simpler methods of accomplishing our aims, since he would see that we seem to be wasting our time. If George was watching me, I would feel even guiltier about the time I spend online than I do now. When I start to read blogs and tweets and I follow the links to learn more about new (and admittedly exciting) content, I feel like I am being sucked into a time-eating vortex. However, as we play with technology and learn its ins and outs, we can uncover tools to help us do miraculous things that would make old George quite envious. He might wish he could bring some of our technological advances back with him, when he returns to the 1700’s in the Tardis.

However, it would be impossible for him to do so because we live in an age of far more intense specialization than was true three hundred years ago. As stated in an article written by Dr. Bush, the head of R&D in the US during WWII, “Had a Pharaoh been given detailed and explicit designs of an automobile, and had he understood them completely, it would have taxed the resources of his kingdom to have fashioned the thousands of parts for a single car, and that car would have broken down on the first trip to Giza” (Bush, 1945, p. 3). So it would be with George Washington. Even to create the electric toothbrush, which I imagine he would covet, he would need the work of so many specialists to create all the components that it might take his whole lifetime to build this one item (made of plastic, using a battery). And who needs the headache? Due to the slowness of communicating new knowledge in George’s era, I doubt he ever felt as overwhelmed by the advances of science, technology, and information access as we do. People may be tempted to sit back and let others discover what new technologies are worth employing, but to avoid exploring new innovations will keep us from being vibrant professionals who excite and motivate student learning or help recharge the batteries of our colleagues. So, the take-away message is surfing the web is good (up to a point—the point when moss starts growing on your shoes).

Librarians to the Rescue

The Bush article, even though it was written sixty years ago, speaks of the complexity of the modern age and suggests that modern man is forced to specialize, since no one can hope to know everything in her field these days, much less in the entire world. The problem is that, in spite (or because) of this level of specialization, we are still ignorant of much of the work of other specialists and they cannot all be aware of ours. Who can hope to use even half of the vast stores of knowledge that are growing larger each day? What good is knowledge if it is inaccessible? How can we hope to tell our fellow humans about the conclusions we have made and spare them the struggles we endured? How can we be sure our conclusions are sound and that we took into account all the relevant information already in publication?

This is why librarians will always be valuable–as long as they come up with some answers to these questions. However, if librarians, being information specialists, are as lost as everyone else, what is it they can do that can’t be done by a lesser paid, less educated individual or by a computer system?

Rallying the Troops

When I was reading Gwyneth Jones’ blog, The Daring Librarian (http://www.thedaringlibrarian.com/), I was awash with ideas for how I might follow Jones’ example and collaborate with teachers to create new programs such as a school TV program. The next thing I knew hours had passed due to my following links on her blog to create an avatar, googling clever new names in order to come up with a “brand” for my blog space, and fantasizing about winning even a fraction of the awards on her page (!) (sounds a bit egotistical, but I imagine students will benefit from having a teacher who competes and innovates). This time might be called wasted or, and I prefer this view, it could be called learning. The authors of Meaningful Learning with Technology argue that “flexible thinking is as necessary for teachers as it is for their students in today’s shifting times. Emerging and rapidly changing technologies demand individuals who are prepared to experiment, adopt, or discard technology tools as they appear, evolve, become successfully entrenched, or fall by the wayside” (Howland, 2012, p. 21). Sometimes sitting “by the wayside” looks far more comfortable than being stuck in traffic on the information highway, but when that traffic jam breaks up and we start speeding away, the wind in our faces wakes us up and tells us we are living a life of adventure. This educational adventure may lead to places we’ve only dreamed of going before, if we convey that excitement to our students and take them with us on our journey.

Come to think of it, George might be so excited by the revolutionary (heh, get it?) advances in the 21st century, that he might choke down his horror over the pollution, consumerism, and other flaws of the information age and actually ask to stay here to be part of the amazing changes that we are experiencing every day. However, the only way he would he enjoy the miracles without feeling distraught by the literal and metaphorical enormity of the world today would be through the help of a trusty guide: a librarian perhaps? Chaaaaarge!

finis

References

Bush, V. (1945, July 01). As we may think. The Atlantic. Web. Retrieved Oct. 03, 2013, from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/.

Heyimcarlk (Taylor) on DeviantArt (2012). George Washington lightsaber. George Washington Lightsaber. Deviant Art. Web. Retrieved Oct. 06, 2013 from http://heyimcarlk.deviantart.com/art/George-Washington-Lightsaber-214497347.

Howland, J. L.; Jonassen, D. H.; Marra, R. M. (2011-03-14). Meaningful learning with technology (4th Edition). Pearson. Kindle Edition.

International Society for Technology in Education. (2008). Nets-t standards. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/docs/pdfs/nets-t-standards.pdf?sfvrsn=2

Zir (2009, Jan. 20). Current TARDIS seen at BBC TV Centre and taken by me Zir. Digital image. TARDIS1.jpg. Wikipedia. Web. Retrieved Oct. 5, 2013 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TARDIS1.jpg#file.

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