Monday, September 19, 2011

Unplugging to Plug in Powerfully

I’ve been waking up too early:  my “back at school again” lists of things to do keep playing in my head.  Usually I succumb and get up to start on my list, beginning by answering emails (sent to me by teachers very late at night, no doubt after they've done their marking and lesson planning for the day – why do I keep hearing that teachers only work from 8:30 to 3:00?).  On this particular morning as I answered emails, I kept my twitter feed open and followed a couple of good links, read several articles, tweeted two, revised my to-do list for the day (adding the items that woke me too early), noted two birthdays from my Facebook “friends” and sent messages, and researched which screencasting tool would work best in an elementary classroom before I was distracted by the sunrise sky filling my window.   

I had been reading lately about the positive effects of getting “off the grid,” that reflective downtime is necessary to learn, remember and come up with good ideas, that moral and emotional reasoning, in particular, demand adequate time and reflection, that we are “hooked on busyness” (and my morning routine and sleepless nights suggests I am), that our obsessive clicking, the endless stream of information, the constant connection with anyone and everything, our relentless pursuit of “friends” and “followers” is reducing our capacity to think deeply, relate meaningfully, or to know ourselves.  Indeed, as one researcher contends (in an article that tries to find the benefits of our attention deficits), our digital distractions are “a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought.”   The final argument that made me back away from my screen (in an article that is part of the firehose of information that streams across my desktop daily):  people learned significantly better after a walk in nature.  (An interesting recent study showed that students with ADHD have less severe symptoms if they have regular access to open green space.)  So despite my list, I resolved to walk my way into deep thought and good ideas with the sunrise.  (Did you follow the links?  There are hours of distractions embedded into this short post!)

As I walked (the morning air was soft, warm), my mind began to flip through its own archive of clicks:  I remembered the Slate writer who set up fake birthdays, three in a row, to show the shallowness of Facebook birthday greetings.  He says we are using social media, first as a self-promotion (look how many friends I have and how many of them wished me a happy birthday – or how many articles I’ve read and created as links in my blog or tweeted for my “followers”), but also to fool ourselves that we’ve made connections.  Real connection, he argues, takes more effort than a 30 second post.  It’s more, even, than a retweet or “twitter love” or a comment on a blog post (although it is nice to have comments on my blog posts).  Breathing in the fresh sea-scented air, I began to regret my cheery FB wishes earlier (and my childish glee in comments and “followers”). 

Of course we get caught up.  When there are more than 750 million active users on Facebook spending cumulatively over 700 billion minutes per month at the site), when millions of twitter users send 1 billion tweets per week, when there have been 500 new blog posts since you started reading this one - we begin to accept the norms these new media create.   Now our grandmothers, banks, department stores, NGOs, writers, reporters and schools all blog, tweet, and post to Facebook.  It must all be good, right? 

And therefore, it goes without saying that the tools to access these social media so you can access your friends any time of day, check your RSS feeds, “like” pictures on Facebook, and post interesting tidbits to Twitter are essential.  And, of course, if they are essential, and their uses are good, we need them in schools; children, too, should use Facebook, twitter, blogs, instant messaging, polling, video and more to connect to information instantly, to find what they need immediately, to follow their passions, to personalize their quests. 

At the top of the hill behind my home overlooking the glittering ocean and the red sky, I began to question my morning routine, the screen-facing hours, to wonder if technology matters more to education than quiet moments and fresh air.  My mind clicked to the recent NYT article that revealed years of technology implementation has not improved test scores forces us to at least ask questions. The first question, I hope, is – what are these tests testing and is it relevant?  But it isn’t enough to simply dismiss the findings as another black eye on testing.  We can’t keep saying that because Facebook is used by millions, it is good; because technology is pervasive, we must therefore buy technology for schools.  Industrialization must have taught us a lesson or two. 

We want to be sure to ask – what do we, as educators, want to do with technology.   Right now our conversations seemed to be mired in more and better.  More computers.  Bigger computers.  Smaller computers.  More friends.  More followers.  More programs.  New programs.  Apps, apps, apps. More links.  More sites.  But just as more money doesn’t bring more happiness, more technology won’t bring better education.  Quoted in the NYT article, education researcher Brian Goodwin says of the pinnacle of “more” – a device in every students hands: “Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring — for better or worse.”  If technology isn’t amplifying students’ ability to do the things we traditionally test for (reading, writing, math, general knowledge), what is it amplifying?  And is it good? 

I love technology.  I love the possibility, the creativity, the choice, the now-ness.  I love being able to read or learn whatever I want whenever I want; I love being connected, that I can see my family, my friends, colleagues when they are far away, that I can participate in a conference as I did recently – live! – half-way across the world in London. The possibilities for education are dizzying.  And yet, you can have an extraordinary education without technology and a shallow one with it.  While it is no doubt true that technology can only amplify what already exists, the amplifying power of our current technologies is so vast, its reach so pervasive, the change it brings, as Neil Postman warned, not just additive, but ecological, that we must be much much clearer about what is important in education. The danger of amplifying indifference, ignorance, banality, shallowness, inequities, injustice is greater now than ever before. 

Technology is a given.  What is still up for grabs is how we’ll use it.  I think it will take a lot unplugged thinking so we can plug in for powerful learning.  

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