A Defining Issue of Our Time

By Panell, Chris | AMLE Magazine, August 2019 | Go to article overview

A Defining Issue of Our Time


Panell, Chris, AMLE Magazine


Jade is a quiet 12-year-old girl who has been in my English classes here in Hong Kong for the past two school years. Because of her in-class demeanor, it took me by surprise when Jade off-handedly mentioned that she has over 4,000 followers on her YouTube channel. It turns out, Jade has been teaching many more kids than I have this past year through her online videos.

Jade has a privileged position in our society. Unlike many of her peers, who can only follow the channels of others, Jade has figured out how to mix words, images, sounds, and ideas to effectively communicate her message in her DIY productions.

We have so far arranged our society so that only a privileged few can successfully communicate in the language that is integral to the operation of our cell phones, tablets, smart TVs, and video game consoles. We ensure this continues to be the case by focusing on math facts and syntax when we teach digital programming classes in isolation from the rest of the curriculum, an approach that only appeals to a fraction of our student population. The result is self-evident: the present divide that exists between those who can instruct our devices what to do and those who can only be instructed by them.

Jade has crossed that divide and is fluent in speaking digitally. She is participating in creating a new kind of literacy.

Those who are fully digitally literate are able to read beyond the surface of electronic texts in order to understand how they function. To be digitally literate means that you can craft the words that express your ideas and then connect those words to other texts through a variety of media. The presentation of words has new meaning, as does the way in which the user interacts with the text. Words are increasingly experienced within an ongoing and interconnected digital conversation.

In an unjust society, only a small subset of the population will be able to speak in such digital conversations. In a just society, we will all be able to do so.

Schools have a central role to play in determining which type of society we will have. Providing opportunities across the curriculum for students to read and write digitally and to speak the language of technology is a denning issue of our time.

Inspired by Jade's example, my Year 8 English teaching team asked our students this year to create YouTube videos on any topic of their choosing. Essentially, we asked our students to create a visual essay. After about two weeks of continuous work time, in which students were absorbed in their tasks, I was amazed by the results. Many of the students in our international middle school are English as an additional language learners, and they often struggle with completing traditional essays. Yet out of nearly 50 students in my two English classes, nobody "forgot" to finish this assignment. Students who have been reluctant to participate in conversations were drawn into working with others by discovery of their shared interests and a desire to make technology do the things they saw it doing for others.

Our kids gained more because they had the power to create what they wanted in a situation where collaboration and conversation naturally led to a better product. For middle schools today, these 3Cs-choice, collaboration, and conversation-seem to be a particularly strong basis for allowing students to begin to speak digitally.

Another cornerstone in creating schools that encourage students to cross the digital divide is to acknowledge that programming languages are exactly that, languages, and should be taught as such.

I first contended this in a 2003 essay entitled "Teaching Computer Programming as a Language" (published in techdirections), based on my experiences teaching both entry-level programming and English courses. I wrote then that, "In the end, it is language that we are teaching, and that should guide the activities used in our programming courses" (Panell, 2003, p. …

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