From education to employment

David Collins crosses the Digital Divide

It’s strange how an innocent remark can trigger a degree of minor panic but that was happened to me a week or so ago as I walked the college corridors.

A Business Studies student was talking on his mobile to a friend and I distinctly heard him say. "E-mail? You’re not surely still using e-mail. That’s so nineties!"

I know it’s a sign of age if you can remember the time when apples and blackberries were fruits and the only place that there was any connectivity between them was in a pie but e-mails out of date? Surely not?

There’s nothing new of course about a generation gap. Very few teenagers have ever been able to speak ‘adult’ or vice versa – Like you know what I mean like you know what I’m saying? – but the rapid development of new technology has undoubtedly widened the divide.

For the teacher in the classroom, who has just mastered the art of importing video clips into his powerpoint, it’s depressing to know that there isn’t a member of the group in front of him who isn’t a regular Youtube contributor or who hasn’t already surreptitiously recorded his latest gaffe and distributed it to their 200 Facebook friends.

The speed of technological development and the alacrity with which it is embraced by the youth of today is breathtaking. Babies, I am sure are now being born ipod ready and the average teenager has already developed an extra sideways joint on their thumb or how else can they text faster than I can think?

Today’s teenagers are instantly and constantly connected one with another. If you don’t believe me , just take away their mobile phone. You might just as well have sent them to Siberia. What amazes me is that this hasn’t been built into our criminal sentencing policy. If it were, the crime rate would plummet. The prospect of a phone free existence would be just too much to bear.

There is a real issue here of course for the teacher – and for the teacher student relationship. The balance of power in the classroom is shifting towards those on the right side of the digital divide. Like everyone else I’ve absolutely no idea where this is going next – and neither I feel has anyone else. Our success at predicting the future of technology has been a bit limited to date. Popular mechanics in 1949 for example they confidently stated: "In the future computers will weigh no more than one and a half tons." Maybe the next step will be for students to run the IT classes for their teachers? Or perhaps someone will develop a VLE that the ordinary member of staff can use rather than only those in the secret club of computer lecturers and the under 19s?

There are some technologies of course that all generations can equally enjoy. The Wii is a wonderful tool for improving hand eye co-ordination – especially if used in a room without a hanging lightshade. And where would we be without SatNav? I must admit I wouldn’t now leave home without "Dolores". Even when I haven’t a clue where I am she is a constant source of comfort, her dulcet tones gently telling me to "Perform a U-turn while possible". My wife of course hates her – The correct response, she insists, should be "Why didn’t you listen to me in the first place? Now look at the mess you’ve got us into".

It’s not of course all good news. Texting has done for spelling what pot noodles have done for healthy eating. And Facebook is so competitive I daren’t go on it with such a pathetic number of friends. Less than a hundred and you are in the running for geek of the year.

Maybe the answer for those of us approaching retirement is to buy a plot of land in Second Life and call it "Bemused Island" – a haven on the internet for folks like me who don’t dislike technology but just can’t keep up with it. My avatar would be modelled on granddad in The Simpsons and my fellow inmates would spend most of their time trying to decipher what was going on, using Skype no doubt if they/we only knew how to. Anyone know the exchange rate for Linden Dollars?

Dr David Collins CBE, President of the Association of Colleges (AoC)


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