Is the Internet a barrier or a bridge for young adults?

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Is literacy in danger because of technology? Will students stop reading and writing all together because they spend lots of time on the computer?

I have talked to some parents who legitimately worry about their children slipping away from the traditional ways of books, pen and paper. Afraid of change and yearning for a return to the good old times, some worry that technology they do not understand or use will destroy the childrens motivations to read and write. Not familiar with sites such as Facebook, Twitter, deviantART, YouTube and other blogs or forums, some parents cannot participate in the activities of their children, adding a fear of being disconnected from their children and leaving them with feelings of inadequacy.

Along the same lines, science fiction shows such as Syfys upcoming Caprica, will display a world where technology is run amok, used by a lazier younger generation. Yet its doing the exact opposite in our world: its sparking a definite, driven creativity thats enabled by technology, rather than hampered or perverted by it.

My students and I worked on a project to explore the Battlestar Galactica universe, where I participated in online discussions with fans on the SyFy forum. I discovered groups of educated persons worldwide joined by the same passion for this show, often discussing philosophy, psychology, science and politics. In this particular fandom, young women especially would not only participate to the forum, but flood the web with related creations on LiveJournal and other social networking sites, writing fan fiction, publishing digital art and editing music videos. This new creative virtual dimension, where people communicate without restrain under the protection of anonymity, exists away from every day life. I started to wonder how widespread this phenomenon was, who it appealed to, and if this was happening with some of my students.

A high school student sits in detention. During class, she does not take notes, never hands in homework and none of her teachers can make her write a decent essay. Yet during detention, she writes to publish online. Based on existing characters, her stories are fan fiction, which explore relationships with surprising sharpness, unfolding in psychological drama, and often based on personal experience. Certainly not all of these writers are poorly-achieving young high school students. The diversity of fan fiction writers is staggering, from the high school and college student, to the professional writer, the stay-at-home mother, the professional career woman or the retired grand-mother. But from my limited experience, I have noticed that it is mostly a female phenomenon, although I have not yet found any studies, which addresses the reality of this gender discrepancy or its causes.

Clearly, difficulties with language mechanics do not seem to be the reason why such students do not write in the classroom. So what is? 38% of all writing done by Stanford University students was done outside of the classroom according to a literacy study by Dr. Andrea Lunsford at Stamford University, reported in Wired Magazine by Clive Thompson. There are over 425,000 Harry Potter fan fiction stories online as of October 2009, on the website fanfiction.net. Rebecca Black at the University of California, Irvine, in a study of English Language Learners (ELL) and fan fiction finds that literacy is clearly improved by technology. When students publish fan fiction online, they are getting valuable feedback and training from their peers, which helps them greatly learn the proper uses of the English language. As in Dr. Blacks study, talking with students, I find that they get valuable input in the non-threatening environment found in fan communities. United by a common passion for fandom and under the cover of anonymity, they publish their stories, which get reviewed by others fans without judgment in feedback that is often instant. When I asked a student why she liked to write fan fiction rather than school essays, she replied that she writes for a real passionate public and that most high school essays are not creative writing. Reviews she gets are completely devoid of other motivations and done in pure altruism.

Students work together to correct each others language and grammar and share valuable input on their writing. They also explore ideas they would otherwise certainly not address in class, by fear of being judged by a teacher. Their creativity investigates unabashed territories such as psychological drama, romance, often with sexual content, or very difficult themes related to the world they live in and are exposed, such as abusive relationships. Because of the anonymity provided by pseudonyms on websites, they can step into new identities, free themselves of the burden of their lives and explore ideas freely uncensored. The quality and the depth of some the writing is often very surprising.

Technology is a tool, like a hammer and a chisel. With a hammer and a chisel, you can make beautiful sculptures, but you can also hurt someone and destroy property. Or you can leave the hammer and chisel in a drawer and ignore those tools. Creativity is the key and it is shifting into new realms because of the availability of new technological tools, allowing everyone to share their work unlike anytime before.

Literacy will always remain about communication. In a world that seems to become more and more cold, where real human connections seem to be more difficult to make, where young men and women are burdened by unrealistic images of physical perfection they aim to but cannot attain, and where students are isolated into preset social groups, technology allows them to communicate directly mind-to-mind without the barrier of physical appearance or social and economic background.

Whether parents or educators like it or not, students have found new ways to connect and, maybe, it is time we start learning from them.…

Running Out of Time, Part Three

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We left the UN with a sense of wonder at the realization that we had been part of something truly special. We left with the idea that maybe we could do something to start changing the world.

But we also got challenged to enter the Visions for Tomorrow challenge of the NBC Universal Digital Media competition, by making a short video about some issue addressed by the show. During the one month that followed, the students and I worked to construct a movie about the role of women as leaders, inspired by the portrayal of the president of the colonies in Battlestar Galactica, Laura Roslin, played by Mary McDonnell.

It wasnt easy. The students tasks were many: they did research on their project and pulled a number of articles on women representation in the media, which they analyzed to develop their ideas and wrote a full proposal and script for their video. The students met several times and develop a set of questions to ask Mary McDonnell, as we were interested in interviewing her. They also set up schedules to interview their schoolmates and did the filming, obtaining permission to work in the school and borrowing a digital camera.

I worked with the students to obtain necessary permissions to interview Mary McDonnell and others, to reprint pictures and get consent forms from the students families. We had extensive discussions on copyright issues, which made them aware of the laws on this topic. Finally, my students learned to digitally edit the sound and video of their movie, as well as several aspects of post-production.

The students learned so much more by developing their ideas and doing their own movie instead of passively listening to a lecture in a classroom. They acquired new technology and literacy skills, and the opportunities presented to us at the United Nation panel and through the Digital Media Competition were phenomenal. The skills acquired by the students were real professional skills, which they will definitely use in any work they will chose to do in the future. To me, it is the best that education can offer: learning by doing and active participation. This was a one in a lifetime opportunity and I learned so much from it as a person and as a teacher.

On June 9th, our team won the SyFy Channel award for our video entry on women in leadership roles and was rewarded for their hard work. But it is more than just winning a prize, it is about learning real life skills, it is about learning not to be afraid to state an opinion publicly. It is about learning not to shy off from trying to change our world. Right now, students in high school want to present a picture perfect image of themselves to gain access to colleges in a time where competition is more harsh than it ever was and money more scarce.

Nobody wants to take risks anymore. Students work for short term goals, immediate rewards, number grades, for reference letters and perfect transcripts. Those who do not have the ability or the social support to gain access to colleges plainly give up and get hooked to pop culture, mundane ideas or even destructive behaviors. On only rare occasions have I seen students learn only for the pleasure of acquiring knowledge, the elation of understanding the world around us or for the thrill of research and discovery.

I have seen students who really wanted to contribute to the world around us with a sparking desire to change our world for the better. But such students are getting rarer and rarer, and often their spark is extinguished by the demands of the society around them: do not make waves, stay in line, and mostly, oh please, do not think too much.

Only through education, we will start changing the attitudes that mold our world. Programs like the UN panel with Visions for Tomorrow and ThinkQuest NYC, challenging students to use the media and to explore the world in a different light, whether it is through a science fiction show or any other media, are rethinking the way we educate our children. Such programs are pioneers in the way education should be; they give power back to the young generation. Make no mistake: education is our only tool to save our world.

We are running out of time. What are you going to do about it?

See the video produced by Christine Rogers and her students by clicking here, and be sure to check out part one and part two of Running Out of Time.

Running Out of Time, Part Two

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We, all of us, have the responsibility to buy the extra time, which will maybe ensure our survival as a civilization. And I have been wondering what we can do about it. The human species with its genius and its ability to understand the world and the universe has devised all the technological advances to make our world a better place; we have the knowledge, the science and the resources.

Have we just become too lazy using our gifts and abilities to fight for our humanity? Have we become too selfish and greedy to really care about the world around us?

I am just a teacher. My power is limited. I get up every morning hoping that my actions will change a student and bring someone to awareness of the world around us. I can change only one life at a time. I deal every day with a mountain of paperwork, antiquated educational practices and spiteful fearful attitudes from some colleagues. So when the opportunity presents itself to reach another level of education, I dont take it, I grab it and I hold it tight. This is indeed what happened in March quite by accident, or was it?

In March, I was invited by ThinkQuest NYC to attend with three of my students the United Nations panel on war and terrorism, featuring the SyFy show Battlestar Galactica and organized by Visions for Tomorrow. I had just come out of the hospital, where I had received treatment for multiple sclerosis and I was barely recovering from the aggressive intravenous medications and the emotional shock of confirming this diagnosis. Actually, watching BSG had kept my mind busy during that time, and I had held on to the distraction it provided like a life line against the realization of my own mortality. I became quite a rather recent fan.

Immediately I had seen the achievement of the show in addressing our deepest and darkest side, how it mirrored our world, with its addiction to fear and intolerance, how it asked critically the meaning of being human. It did not impose any answers either, but forced the public to think about those questions. By bringing students to this panel at the United Nations, Visions for Tomorrow and ThinkQuest opened up these reflections to education and students.

One of the classes I teach is bioethics. I use a lot of movies and media material to introduce complicated ideas to students, who might not have the literacy level allowing them to read and understand complicated philosophy texts and who otherwise would never be exposed to those ideas. In a time where the media are embedded in our lives, why not teach with them. Students are using technology, Twitter, Facebook, they are blogging, creating their own movies and designing their own websites. It is amazing to explore the creativity developed over the internet by the younger generation. They are tuned in the media a lot more than ever before and turning away from traditional methods of learning and creating.

Maybe the future of education will be out of the classroom and really in the field, creating and communicating with others world-wide with technology. Who says learning has to be boring? My students that evening at the United Nations learned valuable facts about the world human right situation and skills. I learned that I can teach differently. I learned that we will change our attitudes towards the world only with education, because the younger generation needs to be made aware of the world problems and address them with compassion.

Stay tuned for the conclusion part of Christine Rogers three part series, Running out of time. You can find part one right here.

Running Out of Time, Part One

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At the World Science Festival in June, Mary McDonnell said, with visible emotion, I no longer suffer from the illusion that we have a lot of time. On a spiritual and political plane, Id like to be of better and more efficient service, because it really feels like were running out of time.

We are certainly running out of time.

I have been feeling that way for a while. This feeling, tenuous at first, barely there, has been amplifying steadily over the past few years. It has made its way slowly to a conscious level in my mind. It really started with the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, which killed thousands of people and instilled poison in our souls, eating at our liberties and our humanity through insidious ways. Arent the best civilizations tested by fire?

I have been reading the data on global warming and realizing that our days on the planet are counted. Earth will survive, but the little wisps of biological protoplasm with some hint of consciousness that we are might not. Unbeknownst to the universe with billions and billions of stars in a vastness that is unfathomable to the limitations of the human brain, we might just become extinct.

With us, poetry, literature, art, great accomplishments of scientists, the beauty we created, what makes us human and genius, the real wonder of our existence and all of our civilization will disappear. It is not just an ecological peril; there is war, genocide, epidemics, poverty, malnutrition, torture, abuse, hate and anger: a bleak picture of the state of human rights in the world.

I have been thinking about our running out of time, when I see our society more preoccupied with petty greed and profits than justice and equity, and when I see our short term goals put forward in a materialistic society at the price of our very survival as a culture, as a civilization and as humanity.

In our very privileged American society, most of us have food, fresh water supply, soap, electricity, shoes, doctors. For most of us, our basic needs are fulfilled, compared to the majority of the population of third world countries. Still, there are many Americans for which those basic needs are lacking. We tend to take all of our good fortune for granted. It is so easy to retreat in comfortable lives and forget all about the world around us. But we cannot hide from time running out, because we have reached a tipping point, where our survival depends entirely on our change of attitudes.

Stay tuned for part two of Christine Rogers three part series, Running out of time.

Does TV Matter?

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I have recently begun working with the good folks at the Sci-Fi channel and last Thursday, the 11th, I had the extraordinary opportunity to live tweet a special event at the Manns Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Topic: the role of television in helping society explore the big issues of the day, as well as the big issues of tomorrow.

One thing that made the event so extraordinary was that it was framed as a panel discussion with stars from the recently concluded Battlestar Galactica (Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell), producers of the show (Ronald D. Moore and David Eick), and two representatives from the United Nations dealing with many of the issues in fact human rights, torture, justice that shows like BSG deal with in fiction. But as the UNs Craig Mokhiber told the audience at the Mann last Thursday, Theres not much fiction in Battlestar. (Note: the BSG crew ran a similar panel at the Worlds Science Festival at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.)

What Mokhibar meant, of course, was that the thoughtfulness and rigor that the BSG team applied to the show gave them a command of these issues that was closer to reality than fantasy. He later added: The UN has struggled to deal with these issues. The creative community is better at communicating these themes.

The UNs participation in Hollywood, a repeat performance of an event at UN headquarters earlier in the year, was led by the UNs Department of Public Information. So when Mokhibar spoke about the UNs struggle with these issues, he is mostly talking about the communication challenges. Creatives the folks who were being honored at the Mann event have a special facility for dealing with matters on a level that is more human, accessible and perhaps ultimately more effective than the tools of a public information officer. But what the panel also seemed to be suggesting is that creatives might have a responsibility and role for doing that thing they do at the service of big, important causes. Thats a question that might provoke a negative response not just from the world of policymakers, but from the creative community as well. Theres a simple answer to the question does television matter? (i.e., fiction-based series versus the news) and the answer is that entertainment matters, for all work and no play make us into very dull boys and girls.

But the answer is too facile, and it ignores the role that fantasy, science fiction, and adventure writers actively have taken in exploring big issues. As an erstwhile creative before communications, I ran a professional theater company I have long been cognizant of this tendency among writers, actors and producers. The best dramatic work whether on stage, in film, or TV has always explored the big issues of the day. And the province that Sci-Fi occupies exploring how these issues might play out in the future is special, but only different in kind. At a time when many industry watchers are wondering about the future of TV, the success of BSG to connect with a global audience should provide the industry with the courage necessary to support this kind of work. Its not only the right thing. Theres an audience for it, too.

So, let me ask the question again, does television matter? And if it does, what on the TV matters to you?…