tweeting twilight

For a recent assignment in one of my classes, I was tasked to uncover and explore an issue that is trending in the discussion of Young Adult Literature.  I could have found plenty of topics relating to the overuse of certain character archetypes or the efficacy of having a profit-driven publishing industry decide what is best for kids to read (books are written for girls because more girls are reading.  you’d think that if someone wrote a book for guys, more guys would read?  pish posh, that doesn’t make us money).  Instead, I decided to do what I do best: look at recent trends in technology and articulate their effects on society.  I love looking at the evolution of tech and the way it’s been changing our world, and I’m exploring more and more ways of using it to the benefit of kids in the classroom.  I also happen to love books and reading the exciting stories in YAL.

My initial idea was good, but limited.  There are plenty of folks out there who are already exploring the integration of social media and the modern classroom, and I’d be lying if I wasn’t already considering the effect that twitter will have on shakespeare.  There are, however, better ways to use these phenomena of social networking and social media to increase literacy and involvement in literature.  We always think of “technology” as shiny, expensive objects that are mostly intended for a specific audience.  The fact is that “technology” is everywhere.  Understanding how the mind works, how people react to different social stimuli, how societies react to changing world conditions; all these are technologies that we can leverage to help kids read.  In this case, in this post, I’m not concerned with the latest Apple product, but rather the utilization of our collective human experience to create a better English classroom.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Josh Elder, author of Mail Order Ninja, hearing him speak about the use of comics/graphic novels in the classroom, and grilling him about the possible perils and pleasures of having this unique form of literature in front of this country’s young minds.  Josh makes some good points, and I’d like to focus down on just a few for the purpose of my arguments here.  Josh opened up with establishing the graphic novel in the landscape of literature, namely that graphic novels and comics are the landscape.  Prose, in his point, is a wholly subsumed subsidiary of the experience of a comic.  If you add pictures to words, it becomes a comic.  If you remove words from a comic, you still have…a comic.  This is important because we are used to reading certain kinds of literature in certain ways.  Comics and graphic novels demand new skills from us, a new way of digesting information.  The world of pictures and text is also one that gives us the ability to give the gift of literature to a much wider audience.  Authors want that, teachers want that, and more people want that every day.  Why, then, does literature have to be confined to prose?

There are kids who may have wanted to read at one point, but are now living in a state of fear.  These kids started out with their classes, learning their alphabet, learned to piece some sentences together, and, at some point, hit a wall.  In some cases, these kids may have even missed the whole alphabet thing.  A friend of mine had the opportunity to participate in City Year not so very long ago, and would tell me stories about his experiences.  He told me some heartbreaking stories of kids who desperately wanted to read so that they could feel better about themselves, feel like they were moving forward and learning something.  Sometimes these kids could barely read, falling behind in simple texts and books far below their grade level.  In some cases, these kids were even having trouble identifying letters in the alphabet.  One story he told me involved a student who could only recognize two letters.  When I consider my upbringing, the stress my parents placed on getting a good education, this story is absolutely amazing to me.  Two letters.  How can a person find any measure of happiness when they are constantly bombarded by symbols and signs they simply cannot recognize?  Is that a quality life?  It’s no wonder that so many kids become violent when they’re literally assaulted every day with reminders of their own inadequacy.

Interestingly enough, there are things they can recognize, but mainstream culture tells us that these things have no value when it comes to education.  They can feel music, understand movies and the plots contained therein.  With a little bit of digging, I’m sure they’d be able to identify and articulate abstract concepts that the intelligentsia believe themselves to have a monopoly on.  Movies, music, and comic books/graphic novels communicate in a language that we do not have to learn.  They can be a way for us to understand things that we have no first-hand experience with, no empirical evidence of.  The theory of multiple intelligences tells us that people can learn in a variety of ways, and that there are many ways to teach any type of subject matter.  A good teacher needs to recognize this.  We, as a society, still hammer home this idea that literacy only happens one way – with prose.  If a student has a difficult time understanding what they’re reading, or if they reach a point in their education where reading becomes more of a stressor than a means of conveying information, we need to find a way to teach this student and make sure he or she understands what he or she is learning.  If educators (and I place myself in this category) do not find a way to teach this student, we have failed.

Let’s bridge this over to the tech space.  What browser are you using right now?  I can guarantee you that there’s someone near you right that is using a different browser, yet, they can view this information in the same way you can.  Underneath each and every single web page is a mountain of code, a language that you most likely have never learned, may not recognize, and maybe never even seen.  Yet, you’re looking at this language expressed in a way that you can digest.  Are you tracking me here?  The web is insanely complicated, and developers are constantly striving to simplify the way we interact with it.  They’re trying to see what we want to do, not giving us another hurdle to overcome.  What’s important to these developers is that you receive what they’re putting out into the world.  That was the entire purpose of language, of literacy, of printing books.  Somehow, though, we got stuck on this idea that the written (or printed) word was where the buck stopped.  Our world is packed with so many forms of communication, and more are being discovered all the time.  Developers are scrambling over each other to be the first to utilize these new technologies to deliver content to the end user.

Someone please explain to me why we’re not taking the same approach to education.

There are kids in classrooms who are staring at pages in books the same way you’d stare at the almost infinite amount of code that is running the page you’re reading right now and thinking to themselves, “I wonder what this all means?  I wonder what it would look like if I could see it?” They know there’s something there, and they want access to it!  There’s something in the way, though.  It’s this singular approach to literacy that we have adopted as a society.  We know this, we understand it, but by constantly perpetuating the same memes in education, we’re telling them, “Look, this just isn’t for you.”

It seems counterproductive, doesn’t it?  Let’s fix it.

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the bottleneck

so i had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day regarding all this hullabaloo with google’s forays into the fiber market and how they’d like to bring superfast 1000 Mbit/s data into the home.  i think that’s a great idea…but there are some shortcomings to that plan (which i’m sure google is thinking about).

even if they’re thinking about it, i’m still gonna talk about it.

so google said something recently about how it wants to make the web faster.  i think that’s a great idea.  now, they’ve moved beyond the theoretical “let’s try real hard to make stuff more efficient” into the “let’s just GO FAST” realm.  i’m not sure if i think that’s the best way for them to be using their might.

the internet is a vast sea of stuff, right?  getting access to this stuff takes bandwidth, and having all this data served up to your eyeballs and earholes is what so many telcos make their money off of.  doing the same thing is what makes google a ton of money, as well.  this leads them to the interesting position of having a distinct interest in making sure lots and lots and lots of data gets into your head as quickly as possible.  basically every time you use the internet, you’re making google some money, so it makes sense that they’d want you to use it MOAR.

they also have the right idea in serving up data instead of creating more programs and applications.  we’ve had fast computers for a while, and they keep getting faster.  the problem is that they always feel slow, since the code that is being written to run on them is trying to take advantage of the new horsepower.  you get more complex code, more operations occurring per second, and the overall experience doesn’t change, despite shelling out tons of cash for a new rig to browse the internet.  this is really bad.  we get locked into this cycle of buying new stuff, just so we can run an upgraded version of the same program we had last week, only now it does more, so it needs more power.

at what point do we hit saturation?

google says now.

really, we don’t need more powerful programs and applications, we need more data.  this is important, since the applications we have now can do everything we need them to do if we can just get them the data fast enough.  you can also leverage the power of supercomputing clusters around the country to take care of calculations and operations that would make your dream machine at home cry since you can pass them huge chunks of raw data and tell them “here do something with this,” and they’ll say, “ok!”

all that is so awesome!  but…it’s sorta limited in the same way the current internet is sorta limited.  currently, the state of the internet (true broadband) is basically limited to phone booth-style execution.  you go home, or to work, or to a coffee shop, and your internet is fast in these places because they have landline connections to the ISPs.  if you want mobile internet, you need to suffer through “3g” service provided by your mobile provider, or go with someone like clear or sprint for 4g.  in most cases, both of these “solutions” are really stopgap measures, since they don’t provide the sort of coverage that a truly mobile solution does.  sure, i could walk into a clear store and walk out with the ability to log onto my gmail from anywhere in chicago…but what if i wanted to visit some friends in wisconsin?  what if i had to drive to southern illinois for work?  i’d be out of luck.  not truly mobile, and not truly broadband, but somewhere in between, really.

this is where google should be focusing.  the current state of this data fetching is unreliable because our infrastructure lacks consistency.  i may be able to get great reception when i’m at home, but i’d rather have great reception when i go to my doctor’s office on the fourth floor of a small office building.  is that too much to ask?  how about if i’m on the subway?  at a mall?

this is where the future needs to be.  it’s one thing to have a person at home, browsing at lightning fast speeds, but it’s another to be able to have a similar experience while walking down the street checking stocks or watching a movie.  at some point, a person hits their limit of how much data they can absorb simultaneously.  even right now, i’m not trying to load 20+ pages simultaneously.  loading one or two as i think of new ideas is pretty common, but by the time i’m done typing in the query for the second page, the first has already loaded.  granted, my usage may not be typical, but it’s not so far out of left field that one could call me a “power user.”

so google, if you’re listening, focus on the mobile space (like you said you would).  forget fiber, give me the ability to access your pages from everywhere, and i think we’ll have a mutually beneficial relationship.