Clearings in the aestetichal wilderness


Internet usage in schools is by and large aesthetical. This may be an appropriate basis for developing a didactics of the Internet

Sometimes I get curious, why I (and that extraordinary I‘m not, my fiancée kindly tells me) keep asking questions which my fellow beings don’t find important?

 

Like what value we get for the fantasillions of Euros, Dollars, and Kroner we use on computers in schools? If you think that computers + Internet just are tools for traditional learning, it’s just natural; we, who are beyond the age of thirty has sort of recollection of the overhead projector, haven’t we? What is the computer but an advanced projector or electronic Xerox?

 

I’ll turn your attention toward how our teenagers use OUR computers and the Internet in school – depending on if you have paid the tax collector recently, of course. And I’ll propose a way out of this wilderness, where the school and its means of (re) production of information have engaged in a conflict. It’s a very discrete conflict, because we don’t see any wounded carried away from the battlefield, but it is fought anyway. One may call it a battle in the aesthetical wildernes.

 

What happens when we give a bunch of young Sapiens unlimited access to the most powerful information-network mankind has ever welded together?

 

They play magic games, of course, which might enchant a bleak everyday and they communicate intensely and heartily with friends and fiends about everything which can cast a little daylight into the school’s dungeons.

 

They participate in clans and interest groups, engage in discussion forums, and file-sharing, Instant Messaging; watch truckloads of commercials and videos from You Tube - and whatever turns young people on in both mainstream and underground culture.

 

All in all, the use of computers + Internet, in relation to the school’s distribution of knowledge, is not impressing. Our young folks of cause also use computers as notation-boards, write essays on them, do their math etc, and that’s all well, because it’s what we, the grown-ups want them to do: be serious and get to know something tradable which may turn out to pay their pensions.

Do you remember the old times, when we wrote small notes and passed them by in the class? Do you remember what we wrote? Me either. But the words were important in the situation. The messages in Instant Messaging are of the same kind; horizontal knowledge-sharing about relationships, smalltalk conserning file-sharing and the like - but not much information on a level which, in the schools optics, may legitimate the use of Internet. The kids are all right, but they don’t get that wise by using Internet by themselves – or so it looks like. To me – and I have researched a bit in the matter - it doesn’t seem that we are getting value for all the money we’ve spend on computers in the school, at least not in relation to access to the Internet.

 

It seems to be as simple as this: Mainstream culture on the Internet is distracting from the real thing: acquisition of knowledge. Conclusion: get the youngsters unwired and let’s get down to business: teaching and learning.

 

It might not be as simple as that.

 

If you have followed me as far as here, it’s very likely that you are either a parent or a teacher – or in both positions. Now we have got to know each other a little bit, may I ask you a perhaps indiscreet question? How do you use the Internet, on a daily base? No, no, I’ll tell you – or rather the statistics will – please go to www.fdim.dk and find the full list for Danish internet-traffic of the week. Unless you are very atypical, and perhaps you are because you keep on reading this rather esoteric stuff, I don’t think that your youngsters or students learn their Internet-behaviour from strangers?

 

To my opinion the learning which takes place through use of Internet is aesthetic. It is about taste and who you are, or want to be, in relation to cultural goods.

 

It has always been an important task for young people to “find themselves”. Today the Internet is their good big helper in this project. It helps them to get acquainted with other people; they learn about how to get along with strangers and how to get to know something useful about them. This is part of what the Germans call “Bildung” – shaping oneself in a form – but today the ideal form is the form of others behind the screen: http://www.arto.dk

 

This aesthetical learning – or aesthetical Bildung - is presumably mostly unconscious. It is not cognitive monitored with a conscious purpose. And because the teachers and parents don’t know much about it, this process not reflected in the theory of learning. The teachers just know that this Internet-behaviour collides with the school’s official politics; and it takes attention away from them, which is humiliating. But where is the teacher who may partake in a competition with a Brat Pitt or Christina Aguilera?

 

If you want to know a little more about what students with unlimited access to the Internet learns, you are welcome to visit another text at this site. 1

 

The problems or conflicts between students and school in relation to usage of Internet might be caused by:

 

1) A parental and perhaps hypocritical attitude towards teenager’s use of popular culture. 2) teachers have a “pastoral” attitude towards popular culture (we know what’s good stuff for you and it’s certainly not Christina Aguilera!) 3) teachers and parents have mindsets, which are a little outdated, because we haven’t learned how to use and learn by the Internet in a young age. It hasn’t become an integrated part of our cultural environment.

 

This is likely to be some of the main causes of the conflicts, and it would be downright foolish to abandon or limit access to Internet, because of the adults’ failing ability to use the Internet in an appropriate way in school.

 

Let us discuss the questions:

 

How to handle the Internet in relation to a conscious and planned learning? How do we let our sons and daughters make sense of the vast amounts of news, art, intelligent blogs, indispensable texts from our cultural heritage etc. etc. which is so easily accessible through the wonderful Internet?2

 

I think these questions calls for a didactics of the Internet.3 This task presupposes that we know what we want people to know. And that we – as teachers and parents – know how we ourselves handle and distribute this knowledge. It also presupposes that the student, considering the new situation of access to knowledge (and thus to power) - partly - needs to take a role as his/ her own teacher.

 

It will take some path-breaking questions to get that far. Questions which might lead to questions, which maybe time after time lead to practical answers which none of us is in a position to see right now. As I’m in a process of writing towards the right questions, this is not pretending to be anything but a short and preliminary discussion.

 

If use of Internet has some learning qualities what, then is the indispensable knowledge one has to acquire in order to behave in the Internet-culture?

 

This may be one of the discussions about the brass tags of didactics we must ask for, if we want to know what is good - or necessary - to know about the culture of the Internet, and what’s not.

 

Of course the notion “good” depends on what mindsets and ideologies we want to promote.

 

If our ideal type of human is independent, critical, democratic and caring; someone who love to have knowledge of the nation’s history, literature and language, then such an ideal human being would probably in the first place need to know something technical about the history and structure of the Internet – its system of domains, the way links are handled, the etiquette and topics of discussion boards; something about how the national cultural interests are maintained virtually.

 

It would also be handy to acquire a bit - or more – knowledge of the rationale behind the big collaborative projects in the realms of Open Source, the cultural and economic implications of the immense file sharing in services like Bit Torrent; the meaning of tantalizing phrases like “The long Tail”, “crowdcasting”, “narrowcasting”, “direct mail”; to know something about big cultural corporations and their storytelling etc. etc.

 

As you see it’s not easy for me to separate the technical level from the cultural ditto. This might indicate that a certain amount of knowledge about our culture’s technical approach to nature and man also is needy. That one of the Westerners’ characteristic features is that we view nature (and ourselves) as a resource, at least according to Martin Heideggers "Die Frage nach der Technik".

 

After this sketch for a technical clearing of the wilderness, let’s turn our attention to the principles and purposes of negotiation of rules for the use of Internet in the school. Why negotiations?

 

Before students could make sense of the Internet on their own it seeem likly to me that they need to take (at least partially) control of the situation. This implies an appropriate sharing of power. This again calls for a discussion of the age-oldconcept of the class in the classroom. This concept has from the dawn of time been: one teacher teaches one or two dozens of youngsters, they behave or misbehave, the teacher encourages, punishes and evaluates. The teacher has hitherto had a well-nigh monopoly of the means of communication; this was his base of power. Let’s face it: the balance of power in the Internet-connected classroom has tipped. It’s time for a chat about quid pro quo.

 

It’ - By the way it's not that clear to me what (or where) an Internet-class is, because behind the screen the student’s attention could be anywhere in cyberspace. Some philosophers would say that their intentionality is divided. Is anybody home?

 

What didactical rules of negotiation do we need? I don’t know at present – but a way towards enlightenment might be to understand how knowledge actually is negotiated at discussion-boards, in games etc. Knowledge is power, so we say. What power-laws of knowledge reigns in the virtual world? By what means do people get acknowledgment or respect? Probably not in any other ways than the well-known, but who knows by now?

 

The rules of negotiation has to be worked out from epistemological and ontological bedrock; if not we won’t know what knowledge we might use to handle knowledge in the actual situation.

 

The – presently at least information-empowered - students call for another concept of what a class is – an individualistic but collaborative (and situated) concept. Contradicting, isn’t it? Not necessarily. It might be complementary.

 

I think the coming of the Internet also means the coming of a a didactics of (or for) the individual – in a virtual context. I think that students at the second and tertiary level don’t know they need a set of practical rules for handling their acquisition of knowledge on the Internet – and a plausible theory for why it is so. Such rules would help the student in getting real power over his own handling of knowledge.

 

Probably it will be wise – and that’s no new proposal – to engage in integrating learning and Internet-gaming. The big questions might be to understand how and why an aesthetical process – the game - contains cognitive (and “Bildung”) options. Facts might be easily contained in a game, but the most interesting feature of games, from a teachers view, must be the fact-finding and problem-solving process.

 

How may our handling of knowledge be knitted together theoretically? I will propose to do so with the help of cultural theory.

 

On this stage my essay-processor has run out of power. I will return to the topic later - when the present influenza has left me. Thank you for your attention. Please feel welcome to drop a line.

 

EKS

Footnotes

 

2 A note about the author: a happy owner of text-processors since 1985, “wired” 1996, website 2002.

3 I use the word didactic in a continental meaning. In short: didactics is the discussion of what knowledge is relevant for whom, and with what purpose.