True Story

Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg presses did not immediately enable people to overthrow monarchies, drive the Protestant Reformation, and invent science as a collective enterprise. The interval between the technological advance of print and the social revolutions it triggered was required for literacy to spread... Digital literacies can leverage the Web¹s architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago.

Rheingold, Howard; Weeks, Anthony (2012-02-24). Net Smart (Kindle Locations 133-145). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

A few months ago, my friend took her car to the dealership to get an oil change. The dealership will remain "nameless," but I myself have been there before and they give you free coffee, free WiFi while you wait, and even a red rose when you leave (I kid you not!).

My friend is a teacher and so she appreciated the free WiFi as she was able to work on grading her report cards as she waited on the oil change.

The good folks who changed her oil, also took a look at her battery. A service man came back to my friend with bad news: she needed a new battery.

"How much?" my friend asked.

Answer: $249.99 --- including labor and disposal of the old one. My friend asked for the battery type and 5 minutes to search the web for a better price (grades would have to wait). The service man gave her the information and she set to searching the web.

She thought $249.99 sounded a bit high as she remembered her husband recently buying one for less than $100 and she knew how to install the battery herself.

A few minutes later, the service man returned and said that he could give her the battery for $199 (install and disposal of old battery still included).

My friend thanked him for the information, but said she was still searching.

A few minutes later, the service man returned: He could go as low as $149 (install and disposal still included).

My friend asked for a few more minutes to keep searching... to keep searching, mind you on the free WiFi that his dealership was providing.

2 more minutes later, the service man returned: $99 for the battery, install and disposal.

My friend thanked him and graciously accepted his final offer.

Now, I'm sure many of us are not that shocked at the "mark-up" on the price of the battery, but I think we can all celebrate in the cool and shrewd bargaining exercise that my friend conducted only by wielding the power of a search engine. In reality, she could have just told the guy she was searching the web and continued working on her grades. He knew from the beginning of the exchange that he was done for: she had the power. She had the information.

I started this entry with a quote from Howard Rheingold's new book Net Smart, which I highly recommend. I love his idea that the invention of the Gutenberg press did not start revolutions the very next day. No, people had to learn how to read, which in a sense meant that they had to learn the programming language of the new tool.

The tools we have today are the same. Twitter wasn't invented with Arab Spring in mind, but it is clear that social networking tools have helped in planning and organizing radical change.

New tools require new learning of the new literacies (or programming languages) before their many potentials (positive as well as negative) can be realized. (By the way, Rheingold's book is an amazing examination of this, as well the celebrations and the cautions that should be recognized).

If we as teachers fear learning or integrating these new "digital literacies" into our classrooms, is it the same as being afraid of teaching the reading literacy that has taken hold largely in part due to Gutenberg? I realize that this argument is a bit of an oversimplification. However, new literacies will in fact continue to develop and have the potential for significant disruption, much like what happened 500 years ago.

The small story of the "battery barter" shared above is exactly the type of story we should be telling our students. We need to be sharing examples of how the new technologies and access to limitless information leads to having more power. It's not just about saving $150 on a new battery; it's about the possibility of being able to be informed about nearly everything. (Which of course, begs the next question: how do we know that we are using reliable information... don't worry: Rheingold's got that covered too).

It is essential that we teach our students how to successfully use a search engine (once again, I recommend Alan November's Web Literacy for Educators), how to validate the information they find, and how to use that information ethically and responsibly.

There are plenty more skills we need to talk about daily in our classrooms, and my latest, favorite book to think about all that is Rheingold's Net Smart.

What books would you add to the list? What stories would you share with your students to show the power of being able to harness the power of information?