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Brand New Name, Same Old Fear?

By now you may have heard this story, where Google CEO Eric Schmidt last week in a Wall Street Journal interview said young people should be allowed to change their names when they grow older to escape digital records of their youthful mistakes. And I've been spending portions of the last week considering that our youths (or their prospective employers) could be so collectively shamed by their early years that they will seek to rid themselves of all records of them in a Winston Smith-like maneuver.

But it does refocus the debate on the Internet's impact on education. When you cover educational technology, it's easy to discern the palpable excitement so many hold about the potential for the Internet to improve teaching methods. What's less obvious is the reality that the Web could reshape the fabric of the subjects themselves—particularly history and other humanities.

When our 20-somethings are 70-somethings, how will we teach history to teenage grandchildren who can view images of 9-11, Katrina, Obama's election, the Red Sox breaking the Curse of the Bambino, and the Wardrobe Malfunction with a mouse click (or whatever we use by then)? Will we ask them to research Grandpa's war stories from Iraq or Afghanistan, or Grandma's Peace Corps travails from Ethiopia or Paraguay, by digging up the thoughts of 50-year-old blog entries? Will the stages of life seem as rigid to children who've seen and heard their young and verile ancestors in videos? Will mortality seem as distant?

Yet Schmidt's comments hint we may be unwilling to explore such a future if we can't save digital face. And the larger assumption is that, while technology will evolve further, our morals and social consciousness about what is acceptable for our friends, employees, bosses, children and parents to know of our lives is not. We reason that videos of a wild night of experimentation with the fraternity boys (or sorority girls) will be just as damning then as now.

In June I got to sit down with Blackboard K-12 president Jessie Woolley-Wilson to discuss the results of a recent study update on the prevalence of online learning. Included in the report was the finding that a third of parents questions had enrolled in an online course, a finding Woolley-Wilson said indicated that the days of unilateral knowledge flow from the old to the young was over. The question is whether each one of us is prepared for the honest exchange of information across generations. Smith's prediction would suggest many of us aren't.

When my grandfather passed in January of 2008, my mom and uncle crawled up into the attic and scrounged for all the old faded photographs they could find to display at the service. For the first time, I saw Grandpa crouching around a dynamite switch in the Pacific, watching Mickey Mantle with Mom (then 8) in the original Yankee Stadium, and leading a meeting of an insurance salesmen at a local hall. I understood the depth of his life—as imperfect as it was—like I never had before. And I wished I had felt as moved to honestly discuss life with him when I was still in college, and he was still able-minded.

Our digital capabilities could give us the opportunity to foster that connection. Only if we don't run from it.

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