You Can’t Explain Mars

What if you’d been born blind, and then, through some neurological intervention, you could suddenly see? You might say, “Fabulous!” But as Oliver Sacks tells it, more often than not, the newly sighted person isn’t sure the change is such a good thing.

Sacks, a neurosurgeon who writes compellingly about patients with unique neurological disorders, describes patients who ask if they can go back– to not seeing, or not hearing.The adjustment to the new world is simply too much– the patient has to re-build his or her conception of every aspect of life, from people and relationships to places and things. They can’t bear it.

When I talk with people about Web-based programs, the benefits of collaboration using these programs, or of being active in social media sites, I feel like I’m trying to describe Mars. Some people listen politely. (Or sometimes not so politely.) Others say, “Oh, no thank you,” and keep their eyes trained on what they know and love. Others take a look, then slam shut the door to go hide under their beds. And some of us have not only been to Mars, we’re ready to settle in.

A View of McCool Hill from the Husband Hill at Columbia Hills, Mars. Photo taken by rover Spirit. Photo: NASA.

A View of McCool Hill from the Husband Hill at Columbia Hills, Mars. Photo taken by rover Spirit. Photo:NASA.

Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (2006) describe the need to develop a new mindset for seeing and living in this digital world of ours. They say we’ve been accustomed to living in a mindset of the 19th & 20th century industrial age. This holds that the contemporary world is the same world it’s always been, where we live and relate to others based on shared ideas about ownership, privacy, property, texts, face-to-face interactions, etc.– with the addition of some very sophisticated technologies. In other words, Mars is orbiting in its customary path, and maybe someday humans will get there.

The second mindset holds that we live now in a world that is different in ways we never imagined, because of what the new technologies make possible: collaborating in ways that aren’t contingent on time or physical location, creating and publishing individually and independently, becoming active in a larger culture that is becoming participatory in new ways, and on and on. In other words, if you’re not doing anything tonight, want to hang out on Mars for a while?

Star Trek Communicator

Last night, I felt as though I had traveled back from Mars and was having a hard time locating my communicator– you know, that thing Captain Kirk & Spock and the rest of them used to use to talk to each other, including translating alien languages? I was in class, one of the final I have to take to fulfill course requirements for the doctoral degree I’m slogging working toward. The class is examining the impact of ICTs on social institutions. I couldn’t understand why I felt like I needed my communicator. Then I realized what I was hearing.

It was all in the verbs. Not “we’ll have to learn how to xyz” but “we’ll have to defend ourselves against xyz.”   Banking, privacy, ownership– there was a verb to cover all the dire technological possibilities, including having computers like the Jeopardy-playing, IBM-supercomputer Watson take over the world.

I’m learning a lot, about how to listen, and how identify my own biases that would limit conversation with others. But I’m also frantically reconstructing a vision of an older world, one that feels increasingly limited. I don’t want to go back. Instead, I hope to emerge from the semester with more concrete ideas about how to nudge new perspectives into dialogues with people who don’t like to travel.

In the meantime, Scotty, beam me up.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2006). New literacies: Challenge of mindsets. In New literacies: Everyday practices & classroom learning (2nd ed., pp. 29-62). New York: McGraw Hill.


Star Trek Communicator ©2009 Davidbspalding licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Mars Landscape: NASA

6 responses to “You Can’t Explain Mars”

  1. Jim Burke says:

    This is great, Karen. I was looking at their work this afternoon as it happens. I suspect you will have to graduate so you can build the world you want to see and live in. Thanks for this.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Jim. Although, it seems that I don’t have to graduate to participate in one of the new online worlds that feels like home, i.e., the ECN.

  2. Steve Shann says:

    Nice Karen. I’ve sent the link to a colleague of mine, who will love what you write.

    • Karen says:

      Steve! It’s great to hear from you. Thanks for your kind words. I know people talk about the digital divide all the time, but it’s starting to seem to me to be a ‘visual’ divide as well. I look forward to reading more about your own work– your blog’s been quiet– but I also know how intense university teaching & researching is!

  3. Megan Poore says:

    I really like this post, Karen. It very much describes the environment that Steve and I are working in at the moment. In particular, we have a lot of ‘older’ learners who aren’t anywhere near Mars orbit and are afraid of going there. That’s OK, because we’ll move them gently towards the launchpad before slinging them into space. And by the time they’ve finished their journey, they’ll be looking forward to touchdown (ack! what a mess I’ve made of the lovely metaphor you started!).

    But I think you’ve really nailed it when you identify the “defend against” posture. Our students already have degrees and usually a considerable amount of expertise in their fields, which in some cases leads to an attitude of “Just show me a few teaching techniques and give me my degree — I’ve already learnt stuff”. This makes it difficult, because it’s a mindset that doesn’t admit that there is NEW STUFF to learn. Again, they’ll come round by the time we’ve finished with them, but it’s only because we’re giving them enough oxygen to flourish!

    Mate, a fascinating and insightful post. Thank you!

    • Karen says:

      Megan, thank you. It’s good to know that educators half-way ’round the world are suffering in the same ways…. Er, that came out wrong. 😉

      Clearly we could make a bundle of cash if we would just surrender and write TheTeaching Manual that students often seem to think we are keeping from them. I think that’s why I like the Lankshear & Knobel chapter so much. By the time students finish reading it, many have an “ah-ha” experience about their own thinking, going so far as to label themselves as being a Mindset 1.0 or a Mindset 2.0. Much better for them to self-identify than be labeled, eh?

      The other analogy students liked was that of putting old wine (curricula, teaching practices, etc.) into new bottles (computer games for the sake of it, for ex.). Last summer, as students thought about curricula, the catch-phrase I kept hearing was, “no, no– that’s more old wine.” I think they worked hard. I loved watching, and nudging from the sidelines.

      We’ll get there, but it’s not going to happen overnight, eh?

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