I read a surreal Twitter exchange recently between an astronaut and William Shatner, the erstwhile Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame. The actor queried whether Commander Hadfield was tweeting from space. His response? “Yes, standard orbit Captain. And we are detecting signs of life on earth.” This convergence of science fiction and science fact is serendipitous. But it also points to a greater issue. The world imagined in the past is increasingly becoming aligned to the world we live in today. The canny observation “be careful what you wish for” has never been so pertinent.
So how does today’s world shape up to the imagination of the last century? The showcase TV programme which reported on innovation in my younger years was “Tomorrow’s World”. The cool theme music and urbane Raymond Baxter heralded a range of ideas which challenged our perception of the possible. One of the show’s presenters was Maggie Philbin who in later life shared her reflections on the many and varied inventions demonstrated on ‘Tomorrow’s World’:
”I would love to say I recognised their significance immediately but often the technology was fragile or incomplete – a mixture of space age and Stone Age – and the real potential was hidden… During my years on the show I saw the mobile phone downsize from one you could fit in a suitcase to one you could carry on your own but which cost £3,000. I remember BT lending me one for a weekend, so I would get the hang of it. I had given the number to my husband, who rang me while I was on the train home. I like to think I was the first person to say: “I’m on a train!” The whole carriage stared and shared my excitement that it was indeed possible to make a call on the 18.35 out of Paddington…”
Ms Philbin’s point about not necessarily identifying the transformational technology is as relevant today as it was then. It is now a truism that digital technology is transforming our lives in quite fundamental ways. The virtual world is as prevalent in our lives as the real, raising all kinds of issues we had never anticipated. This is arguably the greatest challenge for educators today.
Illustrative of this is social media. Let me take Twitter. For many, Twitter is a self-absorbed platform for individuals who want to share their every waking hour with “followers” foolish enough to take an interest in them. I thought that too. However, it is clear that something quite extraordinary has happened over the last year in the world of education. Recently the Times Educational Supplement ran a piece on the rise of the educational ‘tweeter’ during 2012 (or tweachers!). Across the globe Twitter connects a broad spectrum of people who are united in their interest in learning. And Twitter is very democratic. It matters little if you are a senior member of staff or a professor in a university; what matters is that you have something to contribute to the on-going debate about the future of education in our different schools, in our different countries.
Certainly for me, Twitter has opened a window to a fantastic world of ideas and thinking which I find stimulating and challenging. Indeed at times dialogue between tweeters can take on a Socratic quality. Which is really the point. Far from “dumbing down” our thinking, Twitter has provided a vehicle for promoting genuine and meaningful debate across continents. And who would ever have anticipated this back in 2006 when the world of Twitter was born?