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Research in the Bladerunner Age

In that fantastic movie Bladerunner, the main character Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is tasked with finding replicants – basically robots which look like humans – amongst the population and destroying them. However, in this postmodern sci-fi fantasy the replicants have become so close to humans in appearance and behaviour that it is almost impossible to tell the real from the unreal.

Indeed in a shocking twist at the end of the film we discover that Rick Deckard himself is a replicant. This work of cinematic genius has long been a paradigm for the postmodern world we live in – one in which it is increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. And yet the film was made well before the invention of the internet which has heralded an age of mass information and misinformation. It is now estimated that one week’s worth of the New York Times has about the same amount of information as someone in the 18th century might encounter in their lifetime1.

It is certainly the case that we are bombarded with information these days, but how do we know what to believe? Moreover, do we even pay attention to the information we receive? Have you ever read the iTunes Terms and Conditions?2 Mass information has made us lazy and so it is perhaps not a surprise that the second most used search engine in the world, after Google, is YouTube. Why do we like it? Because we don’t have to read anything – we can just watch the video.

How do we know what to believe when we do a YouTube search, or a Google search for that matter? The honest answer is that it is difficult. It used to be that most research was done in libraries. Someone had deemed the books in the library worthy of publication at some expense and the library had deemed them worthy of purchase at some expense. The library therefore acted as a filter. Some rubbish would no doubt still get through, but most sources were trustworthy. With the age of the internet things have got much more difficult, and when we cannot verify the source or the sources a site has used we are in trouble. I was very taken by a story someone told me once about a teacher at a very famous public school who handed out some notes from Wikipedia which he felt were particularly good. To his surprise (and possibly embarrassment) it turned out the notes were written by one of the boys in the class.

In this sort of environment there are all sorts of difficulties facing young people as they grow up. Research skills have become more important than ever and with them needs to come a critical eye. Pupils need to able to spot a reliable source, analyse the quality of evidence, identify flaws in arguments. Now we might think pupils are good at this – in some ways they seem much more tech savvy than adults. However, their digital fluency is often limited in ways we wouldn’t expect. And this is partly because the internet, and its instant responsiveness, have made us lazy.

There are two things we therefore need to do as schools. The first is to educate pupils in how to undertake online research in a more sensible and critical way. This is something which schools must start on from a young age. Secondly, we need to, at times at least, exploit the new processes with which pupils are engaging. The University of Exeter recently revealed that it now communicates with students via Twitter rather than email, as the students found email to lack the immediacy they crave. More significantly, schools, particularly in the USA, have started to use a technique called flipped learning. This involves pupils doing what we would traditionally think of as homework in class, but preparing for class by watching a short video clip on a new topic or concept. Typically the video will last a few minutes, but schools find pupils watch clips several times. Brave teachers create their own videos, but most make use of the wonderful (reliable) resources out there, such as the Khan Academy (khanacademy.org) and TED (ted.com). It’s worth checking these sites out: the Khan Academy is particularly useful for those grappling with difficult concepts in Mathematics.

At Truro High School we are about to start reviewing our provision across the curriculum and across the year groups to ensure our pupils are digitally fluent while also digitally critical.

 

 

 

1This sounds true and it could well be, but I don’t know for sure. I found it on a YouTube presentation. It raises lots of questions. Where is this 18th century person living? Are they educated or not? Are they literate? How was this calculation made? What is the source of this statistic?

2 In the irreverent cartoon TV series, South Park, there was an episode where they imagined that by hitting ‘agree’ to the iTunes terms and conditions, people were agreeing to give up many of their basic human rights to Apple. This was based on the premise that Apple could put anything in these terms and conditions, as no one reads them.

Published by: Dr Glenn Moodie
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