Education, technology and consumerism

Don't get me wrong: I am an enthusastic user of technology in learning. I won't go through my bona fides, but for the last fifteen years I have been using the internet and other media to give my students better access to a greater range of voices and the opportunity to find their own voices.

However, I am concerned that in our enthusiasm for technology in learning, we may be advancing the consumerist culture and an increased focus on acquisition. As we value the newest technology and reward early adapters, we tie the virtues of learning to the virtues of spending. The corporations that produce these technologies sometimes market themselves as benevolent entities concerned with making the world a better place; educators can reinforce that marketing, unwittingly or otherwise, through their own enthusiasm for the technology. In our excitement about new media literacies, we fail to reinforce the inquisition and evaluation of more traditional media literacy.

In addition, most of the social networking sites that serve us so well have a consumerist function. Students think of Facebook as a utility for their benefit, not fully cognizant of the data being gathered about them as consumers and potential consumers and the degree to which their use of the 'Like' button is a form of marketing. (I was fascinated by the Social Network film, which on the surface seemed highly critical of the founder of Facebook, but essentially reinforced the 'Facebook as social utility' concept by  repeatedly observing that he wasn't in it for the money.) The same can be said for Google and Twitter, of course. (After all, haven't I 'marketed' this blog on Twitter?) As we encourage students to use these sites to communicate and learn, we are plunging them into the world of consumerism.

I am not arguing for the abandonment of technology. But talking to students about social networking sites last week I realized they have no idea how they worked. And as I thought about that, I noticed that I have two glowing corporate icons sitting on my desk, and they are always there, lit up, when students are present. Would I put a glowing soft drink icon in my classroom? And I considered how I allow phones to be flashed around in class because they have educational functions. It got me thinking.

I would like to emphasize to students how much they can do and learn and create with very little technology, and what is available from libraries and other sources. I want to talk to them about the business plans of the internet services they use, how they as consumers fit into those plans and how they can be savvy users. I want to model doing more with less, celebrating the process and output while downplaying the niftiness of the gadgets. I want them to maximize use while minimizing consumption.