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I’ve been surreptitiously enjoying the ongoing “spat” of sorts between the MacArthur Foundation and Matt Richtel and other New York Times writers and contributors. It’s been a feisty and useful debate that demonstrates the still-robust nature of the very productive tension between empowerment and protectionist impulses on the American media education scene.

Why is it this fall season I see so many real benefits associated with picking a fight? (Hmm..perhaps this is a topic for me and my therapist!) In my view, the empowerment-protectionist tension captures exactly the genuine paradoxes at work in the lives of many teachers and parents today. Who doesn’t have a significant “love-hate” relationship with digital media, mass media and popular culture?

After nearly $80 million of MacArthur hoopla has been spent on demonstrating the wonders of digital media and learning, the NYT writer Matt Richtel has been exploring some of the omissions, paradoxes and contradictions in the enterprise,  nearly always featuring some of the MacArthur scholars in response to various and sundry critiques. For example, I especially enjoyed the October 23rd story on the children of Google executives who attend a Waldorf school where technology is not used.  When Richtel then wrote about the amplification of teenage identities and the resulting potential negative impact on human attention, intellectual curiosity and emotional responsiveness, the folks at MacArthur’s Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning hammered out a critique.

Dismissing or Trivializing Educator Concerns

There are some annoying characteristics about how this generally healthy debate gets played out in the blogosphere, however. I’m especially frustrated by a certain dismissive attitude about educators’ questions about or resistance towards the use of digital technology in education. Teachers who resist e-books are sometimes treated like pariahs, for example. Several times, there’s the insinuation that older teachers simply have to die out, like the dinosaurs. Perhaps I’m just too sensitive, but it doesn’t feel quite right to make teachers feel guilty or ashamed of their anxieties or their lack of interest in using technology. In my view, teachers’ attitudes about media and technology are a highly significant place of inquiry – a place of conversation and dialogue, not a “problem” to be “solved.”

The healthy tension between the NYT and the MacArthur Foundation mirrors an instructional practice that I have used with both educators and college students for several years (something I have written about in my new book, Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom). Called “Our Love/Hate Relationship with the Media: A Four Corners Activity,” the lesson never fails to generate meaningful dialogue about the many paradoxes associated with our complex and multifaceted engagement with print, visual, sound and digital media. Through a structured dialogue activity, participants inevitably reveal their capacity to articulate both their many “loves” concerning media and technology along with sensitive and often poignant reflection about those aspects of life with media and technology that they “hate.” The lesson works because it enables participants to deepen their awareness of just how many different aspects of contemporary life and cultural values are inflected by media and technology. Such dialogue naturally builds an appreciation for the many valuable perspectives across the whole continuum of attitudes and beliefs and it results in a clearer understanding of the practical need for digital and media literacy education in both higher education and in K-12 schools.

A Timeless Concern: The Impact of Media on Human Development

In critiquing the idea of neuroplasticity and the potential impact of digital media on attention, the MacArthur post actually quoted a silly Tweet from Siva Vaidhyanathan, stating “there are no wires in the human brain.” And so when Chrisopher Chabris demolished MacArthur’s own Cathy Davidson in reviewing her new book about the brain, attention, learning and technology, one line was particularly resonant:

Like many authors who embrace new ideas rather than build on what has come before, Davidson sets out to destroy the old beliefs, as if burning down a forest in order to plant new crops.

Perhaps that’s what’s most frustrating to me about the overall tone of the MacArthur digital media and learning project. Framed as “something completely different,” digital learning may lose touch with its deep roots in inquiry learning, creating ed tech champions but alienating the larger mass of classroom teachers who don’t get all doe-eyed and gushy over apps, cell phones and gaming in schools. That’s why it was so refreshing to see a nicely balanced, sensitive and nuanced piece from the New America Foundation’s Lisa Guernsey about the best approach to address digital and media literacy in the elementary grades. In my experience, I’ve found that elementary educators perceive many subtle ways in which media and technology displace other forms of expression and communication in problematic and limiting ways. Their concerns about media, popular culture and technology are worth respecting. But because they also fully embrace the opportunity to educate the whole human being, elementary educators can often make use of popular culture, media and technology in creative ways that support the development of students’ imagination, creativity, collaboration and communication skills.

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