Connect to the wired world, but it's wisdom that counts

20th October 2006 at 01:00
It had been a fraught day. By late afternoon, I admit, I was not sharp. The class waited while I gazed at the remote control, wondering where that pesky little pause button had got to now. "You're holding the remote upside down," Jamie piped up helpfully.

So I am, Jamie. So I am. My media class is very young, very male and very wired. Despite extensive work on stereotyping, they are also very attached to the belief that women and the elderly can't work machines. Since their idea of elderly includes anyone over 30, that puts me in the drawer marked "hopeless case".

The long-predicted division that would see those unwilling or unable to come to terms with new technology branded as illiterate, and those who surf and click their way through life with ease, seems to have coalesced into a division between old and young. Two stories in the press illustrate this.

Story number one. At Dundee's flagship teaching hospital, a new parking scheme which used a computerised keypad flummoxed so many older people who tried to use it that the car parks gummed up. In what was described as "touching scenes", desperate wrinklies had to grab passing teens to help them figure their way out of imprisoning technology.

Story number two. A three-year-old has bought a car on eBay. He paid Pounds 9,000 for a pink Nissan Figaro. Nice one Master Jack Neal.

Once the argument about literacy used to involve talk of apostrophes and syntax. Now, it is centred on the ability to master an increasingly complex technology. The new illiterates, it seems, will be destined to miss Coronation Street because they haven't mastered their DVD hard disc programming, or be imprisoned in a car park because they can't figure out how to key in a number plate.

Thirty years ago, James Martin, a physicist, was the first to imagine how the internet would work. Now in his seventies, he predicts that in our century babies will be logging on in their prams, and those who haven't mastered computer skills by the age of six will be left behind. Master Neal is no child prodigy but an indication of what's to come.

We've been warned before about the wired world. But still people made jokes about getting the kids to programme the video and shrugged their shoulders as they muddled along. Now that muddling along is no longer an option, we, as educators, have a duty to respond.

The e-citizen course run in colleges, for example, aims to equip people with the skills to manage their ordinary, but increasingly high-tech lives, covering essentials such as emailing, using the internet, and online banking.

I embrace the use of technology in education. I'm a big fan of virtual learning environments. I am, as my colleagues frequently remark, "fond of my gadgets".

We need to remember, however, in our headlong rush to be wired, that James Martin is also warning about a skills and wisdom gap. Along with others, he is concerned that a wired world will produce highly-skilled, quick-thinking people with fast responses, but who are unable to analyse and synthesise meaning. We need to nurture wisdom as well as skills.

So, while we wire up our wrinklies, we need to ensure our youngsters can do more than click their way through the wired world at breakneck speed. We need to value wisdom, and the skills the computer doesn't have.

I know how the remote works. What Jamie didn't realise was that, by 4pm, I like to hover at the wisdom end of the continuum. That's why the remote beat me. Nothing at all to do with being female or old.

Dr Carol Gow lectures at Dundee College

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