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Conversation Starting Points
Author: Justina Spencer, Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation | June 17th, 2014

This month, we asked a number of educational experts the following question: How can you relate the following parable to learning and the role of school and educators in our digital world?

The parable and this issue's Conversation Starting Point is an excerpt from a commencement speech delivered by the late author David Foster Wallace to Kenyon College in 2005. To read the speech in its entirety, please click here.

"There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

Here are some reflections by Will Richardson, Maria Langworthy, and Susan Einhorn:

"'What the hell is school?' It's a question we should be asking, especially when we're carrying around a world filled with content, knowledge, teachers, and technologies in our backpacks, all of which allow us to learn on demand regardless of time or place. "School," as we've traditionally thought of it, is now anywhere we want or need it to be.

So today, why do we need that building down the road where students and teachers congregate during certain months at certain times around certain subjects meted out in certain ways to meet certain outcomes?"

-Will Richardson:

"Amid our current introspections on the speed, challenge and dynamism of the digital world, too many of us - myself included - get all caught up in the fog of the now. We neglect to consider our lives and its pressures within larger historical contexts, and to fully appreciate the dynamism, the real world problem-solving, the 'doing dispositions' and simple human kindness that were also an inherent part of earlier eras.

For the past 18 months or so, I've been reading the Little House on the Prairie books with my two little girls, which are stories about a girl named Laura and her family's adventures in becoming settlers on the frontiers of the American plains in the 1800s. A far cry from digital. The stories are rich with descriptions of their self-sufficiency in building their cabins, growing their own crops, making their own butter, and putting out wildfires that threatened their lives. They tell of the tragedies of illnesses, which left one sister blind; of locust plagues and droughts that destroyed their crops; of the vulnerability of their entire lives to the vagaries of the weather. These people had 'doing dispositions' that enabled them to survive, to get back up after their homes burned to the ground, and to continuously reimagine and restart their lives. They lived in a different and certainly not less challenging environment than the digital one we face today.

So, the "How's the water?" parable can be said of most anyone in any era when mindfulness is lost amid the deluge of the now. That is one of the beauties, perhaps, of aging. The 'now' recedes as we contemplate the bigger picture of things. Perhaps asking about the water or commenting on the state of weather is not so much a mundane platitude, as it is reminder of the big stuff in which we really float."

-Maria Langworthy

"Signing up for a new website. Accessing an article on the digital divide. Need to provide my email address.

I used to do this automatically, but these days I hesitate. What will providing my email address one more time mean to me or cause to happen? What am I giving up besides my address?

Those of us who have been working in educational technology for a number of years are often immersed in an environment focused on the new knowledge economy, using a lens of technology and computation to view, well, everything, with the belief that technology opens up new opportunities in all areas, whether learning, commerce, development, community-building, just to name a few. Technology = good. Closing the digital divide is the key to closing the economic divide. Providing all people with personal, portable digital devices means each and every person has the opportunity to participate fully in both her community and the world as a whole.

But this narrative, the one we recite over and over again, while I believe a good one, may not be the only one. And sometimes I need to stop and think - to shift my perspective - to consider where this flood of technology and technocentricity is taking us. Are we guiding its development and flow or are we being swept along, surrendering to what we feel is a currently not uncomfortable inevitability? Don't get me wrong - I am an avid user of a range of technologies - but sometimes, we need to recognize, I need to recognize, that the 'technology is good' worldview is not the only worldview. Every benefit is, in some mirror-world harmful, every step in one direction a step away from another, maybe equally worthwhile alternative. As our work becomes less physically arduous, it becomes more time-consuming and competitive, and our sense of separate, private self a mere delusion as we merge into the connected whole. Even providing my email address, one more time, has consequences.

We need to be mindful that technology, while neither good nor bad, may bring about outcomes that we never anticipated. If we are not mindful now, remain blithely unaware and 'go with the flow' of technology - that's a choice, too, a choice that will have consequences later. This is true not only for us, as adults, but for our children, who only have lived in a digital world and may not even realize there are choices.

So, time to not only enjoy the water, but to recognize it for what it is and think about where it's going."

-Susan Einhorn

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