The Atlantic: Go Ahead, Mess with Texas Instruments

I wrote an article for The Atlantic on Texas Instruments graphing calculators as part of its Object Lessons series. Education, at its best, isn’t just concerned with convention but also with when and how conventions should be subverted. The article argues that some educational technologies are better at balancing these aims than others – e.g. the programming environment embedded in TI calculators allows them to balance convention and subversion in a way that other devices (e.g. iPads) don’t. Here’s an excerpt:

“Texas Instruments graphing calculators offer a much-needed reminder of the tremendous educational potential that lies latent in our most common objects. Though many devices enter our classrooms for different reasons — they are not neutral. Some are used to reinforce the authority of formal teaching; some engage students in the process of imaginative discovery. By balancing conventional and subversive academic possibilities, these latter objects show us the real potential of learning technologies. Not as sterile knowledge-delivery devices policed by authorized educators, but as boundary objects between endorsed educational utility and creative self-expression gone rogue.”

Read the full article, “Go Ahead, Mess with Texas Instruments” here.

Spreading Literacy, Spreading Internet

internetorgOn Wednesday, Facebook announced that it, along with a coalition of several mobile technology companies, would be launching Internet.org, an organization aiming to dramatically increase Internet access to “the two-thirds of the world who are not yet connected.”

For those familiar with Mark Zuckerberg’s mission for Facebook, this new enterprise is a natural extension of his goal to “make the world more open and connected.”

While in the past many have read this mission as a vague but harmless ideal, in the aftermath of the NSA revelations, it is easier to see just how ideologically charged it is. By not sharing a larger purpose for which “openness” and “connectedness” might be marshaled, the statement implies that these are ends in themselves. It suggests an inherent link between “connectedness” and “progress” – all while avoiding any clear explication of what exactly this “progress” is advancing toward.

Alexis Madrigal, in an excellent analysis of the one-minute Internet.org promotional video, rightly points out that in a post-Snowden world, any claims about “openness” and “connectedness” leading inexorably toward peace or progress have a ring of absurdity.

While the techno-utopian underpinning of Internet.org is interesting, I’ve been particularly fascinated with how its argument for expanding the Internet parallels early 20th century discourse about spreading literacy internationally. “Literacy” at that time – much like the Internet in our time – was reified as something of intrinsic value, something with innate powers to stabilize and democratize. However, history as shown that these rosy characterizations of literacy were entrenched in questionable ideologies. By using this history of literacy as a lens through which to view Facebook’s recent announcement, we can see how many of the same misguided assumptions are at work in Internet.org’s enterprise.

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