Over the summer I read Thomas Friedman’s latest book, Thank you for being late. Ten years ago, I enjoyed reading his award-winning book, The World is Flat. I refer to The World is Flat in my teaching, because it contains some useful concepts and metaphors that I think help make sense of 21st century globalisation, particularly: the global IT platform, the 10 forces that flattened world trade, and globalisation multipliers (which reduce the impact of distance and geography on the patterns of trade).
The cover note of Thank you for being late, suggests that it is an essential guide to the present and the future. It is subtitled an optimists guide to thriving in the age of accelerations. Friedman suggests that the triple impact of rapid technological change, environmental change and continuing globalisation are combining to create a world that is transforming so rapidly that we are all in danger of failing to keep-up. A good part of discussion on the second day HEA conference in July 2017 and much of the material in the HEA’s Rising to the challenges of tomorrow publication and debate, centres on similar themes. In particular colleagues urging us all to keep-up with technological change or you will get left behind.
I have to confess that I have already been left behind. I don’t Twitter, don’t Facebook and don’t look at my email on a smartphone in meetings, lectures or at the dinner table. To me this is a kind of badge of honour. I hope I am not the luddite that some of you may think I am for being a Facebook refusenik. I can see the benefits of technological enhanced learning: the engagement that can comes from the use of incorporating mobile phone response ware in class; I encourage my students to look things up on the internet in some of my seminars and I participate in online teaching. However, I am not looking forward to a world where technology dominates the shape of our lives, and changes the way we behave to each other. I’d rather maintain a world and maintain my pedagogic practice with technology as a useful tool.
Thomas Friedman is clearly enthralled by some of the technological innovations and innovators he encounters while researching his book. He is tells his readers about the power of big data and the importance of mobile phones and apps to modern lives. He reveals that many young people would rather give up sex than their mobile phones. But when he eulogises about the benefits of Uber, the connectedness derived from Facebook, LinkedIn, WeChat etc. and the fun to be had with the real time streaming app Periscope, his enthusiasm seemed somewhat naïve to me. He wrote the book in 2016. Since it was published we have all read about the aggressive business tactics and toxic culture at Uber, we have heard about the way Facebook uses client data and how it has enabled the phenomena of fake news and we now know about some of the less pleasant users of Perriscope. Perhaps Friedman overlooked these problems and the naysayers because of his determined optimism. I don’t share his unquestioning optimism.
Interestingly for those working in higher education, Friedman also charts the impact of technological innovations on universities. He includes stories of those following on-line degree programmes in previously low participation parts of the world; for example, a maid in Jodhpur, India - equipping her children with a low cost laptop so they can watch MOOCs produced by MIT. But despite the wonders of technological change he ends the section on higher education by referencing the importance of human contact and the need to feel like someone is interested in your personal development. He suggests that even in this new era of artificial intelligence, intelligent assistance will still be needed. This is an interesting point, one which we must not forget. Putting it into practice, it is not enough for an online tutor to set-up an icebreaker event at the start of an online course, the tutor needs to respond to the information offered, encourage students to offer a bit more at appropriate moments. It is the tutor’s role to foster the development of a learning community, not just a connected community. Facebook changed their mission statement in 2017 from Making the world more open and connected, to Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. This change seems to reflect the realisation that the technology to connect people is not enough. It needs to be used to bring people closer together.
A few weeks ago I read a short article in one of the Sunday papers about the generation that has forgotten how to talk. The basic argument was that since the advent of calculators, people have forgotten how to do arithmetic; since the introduction of SatNavs, people have forgotten how to read maps and know little of basic geography. In the same way, the widescale use of text, and messaging apps is beginning to have the same impact on dialogue. The author, a young journalist confessed that she avoided talking as much as she could because it was random. She could not control the encounters if she opened-up to a conversation with a colleague, fellow commuter or even some of her friends. She said she routinely emailed colleagues sitting next to her, she shut herself off on public transport behind earphones and her screen and perhaps worst of all, when in an Uber (her words not mine) with a friend she will message the friend sitting next to her so as to avoid the possibility of the driver joining-in the conversation.
Why is this important? For the last couple of years, a colleague of mine, Francis McGill, St Georges Medical School, Grenada, has been conducting research on the ability of her medical students to communicate with their patients, as they obtain a medical history. Francis has become increasingly concerned that young medical students are finding it increasingly difficult to exchange basic information and empathise with their patients. Similar concerns exist around the ability of business students to communicate with colleagues, clients and potential customers. One sometimes feels that some students would rather email or text than speak.
My concern with the rush to adopt technologically enhanced learning is that it may have unintended consequences for our learners. Dialogue remains important, a sense of community remains important. We must not forget that intelligent assistance is and should remain prioritised above the use of artificial intelligence. As Facebook have realised, being connected is not the end position, it is what you do with the connection that is important. As educators we must not forget to talk to each other and our students. We need to pay attention to what people are saying and to ensure our students can engage in intelligent conversation with the wider community with the aim of bringing the world closer together not allowing our students to shut themselves off from the world around them, behind a screen and their earphones.
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 The title comes from the idea that the busy modern lives leave no time for quiet contemplation and reflection. If someone is late for a meeting, Friedman thanks them because it has afforded him a few moments to contemplate the world around him.