Sep 17 2011

“The Postliterate Era”

Image courtesy Doug Belshaw, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons 3.0

Stephen Wilmarth pens the fifth chapter of Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World (2010), entitled “Five socio-technology trends that change everything in learning and teaching.” In the chapter, Wilmarth outlines emerging technologies and their impacts not just on education, but on society as a whole. Amidst the introduction to the chapter, the author creates a phrase–almost in passing–that deserves a closer look. After making the argument that each time societies/cultures makes substantial technological leaps, education has to to be transformed in order to utilize it. Everything from symbolic alphabets to the printing press ushered in new eras of educational development. Reading, writing, and arithmetic, the author contends, “are the outcomes of social adaptation to prior technological change and invention.” And so, says Wilmarth, we are in need of adaptation to technological changes that are bringing us into what he terms “the postliterate era.”

Without opening the gigantic proverbial can of worms that exists in trying to define what “literacy” means, the postliterate era is defined as that time after skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic are sufficient to be contributing members of society. For a post-agrarian society, modernizing and industrializing meant standardizing learning so that every citizen could eventually grow to work in one of the  many factories that our blossoming economy was producing at an unsustainable pace. I’ll examine the global economy and what it means for  education in the next article, but for now, it should just be noted that with an increasing number of manufacturing jobs leaving the U.S. for cheaper labor elsewhere in the world, students need new skill sets in order to be viable in a global society.

Wilmarth explores the concepts of social networks, social production, a semantic “web,” media grids, and bio-engineering as the future skills of the postliterate era. Many of these ideas are extremely difficult for most to even conceptualize, let alone determine how they will react, proact, or even just adjust their definition of classroom learning. Social networks and social production go very much hand-in-hand in that without the social network in place, social production would not exist. Individuals had personal websites on the Internet long before the word “blog” was ever coined, but it would be hard to argue that these created true “social networks.” Sure, they  may be the spiritual ancestor of the modern social networks, but social collaboration in the form of co-authored blogs, collaborative documents (spreadsheets, presentations, etc.), online discussions, video chats and more are the true beginning to social production.

A semantic (and later, intelligent) web is also easily paired with media grids. In essence, educators–and indeed society as a whole–need to stop thinking of the Internet as merely a way to send e-mails and watch funny cat videos. Instead, in the very near future, the Internet exists as a very real space where people of many backgrounds can converge, collaborate, create, and discover. The semantic web is already seen in areas such as social bookmarking, Google searches that “learn” to predict what you’ll be searching for and sites you’re likely to visit, and news aggregators that “learn” what type of news you like to read and what you don’t, such as Google News or the new Editions iPad app from AOL. An expansion of this technology when paired with virtual spaces (Wilmarth mentions both World of Warcraft and Second Life) will create an environment that is rich with experiences for students that will allow them to abandon their traditional four-walled whitewashed classroom.

Finally, the fifth area of the postliterate era is bio-engineering, which has burgeoned first from the discovery of DNA then to the complete mapping of the human genome. Wilmarth makes the astute observation that, “we can rail against the challenge to God and nature that such science suggests, but technology once introduced into the world never completely disappears.” While one could use the ancient Egyptians and the Dark Ages to argue this point, he is fundamentally correct. Whether or not we think the exploration into genetic manipulation or the convergence of animal behaviors with computer intelligence is ethically or morally “right” or “wrong” is almost a defeatist discussion, when our time would be better spent on how we can use this technology to better humanity instead of destroy it.

The primary lesson to be gleaned from the discussion of the “postliterate era” is asked and answered in Wilmarth’s rhetorical question, “Should we still be looking at disciplines as separate, distinct and unassailable by anyone outside the walled gardens of the academy?” Each of these five areas that exist in the postliterate era are interrelated and depend heavily on the interaction with “the outside world,” and require that students understand that they are only just one small part of a very large, very connected world.

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