Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Digital Communication, Part I

For anyone who is in education, it’s impossible to avoid references to the “six Cs” of 21st century education. In case you’re not familiar, the “6 Cs” refers to the skills and knowledge that educators and business leaders have deemed necessary for the future success of our children in the world marketplace. The 6 Cs are:

1.     Collaboration,
2.     Communication,
3.     Creativity,
4.     Critical Thinking,
5.     Cross-Cultural Competency, and
6.     Character

For this blog post, I want to focus on communication. Lately, I’ve been think a good bit about how we communicate in today’s digital world, how that communication has changed since I was in school, and how we best go about teaching communication to students who are “digital natives.”

To start with, I think there are some very good things about our connected, digital world of communication. Social media certainly has its utility. For example, I have 1,989 “friends” on Facebook. Through Facebook, I’ve been able to reconnect with former students, friends and acquaintances from high school, and relatives who live in other parts of the country. I’ve also met people online who have common interests I never would have met, otherwise. Here at HA, we have Skyped with job candidates and hired teachers from as far away California, Minnesota, Utah, China, and Latin America. My children still keep up with their friends from Tennessee, where we lived five years ago. 

Furthermore, I have almost unbelievable access to information. When I first graduated from college, I subscribed to a half-dozen magazines in order to get my news. I don’t subscribe to ANY magazines anymore; I read them on my tablet and phone. In fact, my cell phone gives me access to more information more quickly than I could have EVER imagined when I first started teaching. Additionally, the novel I just finished reading was on Apple’s iBooks. I didn’t have to go to the bookstore or even order it online. I wanted to read it, and POOF, it was on my iPad AND my phone. I could have bought it at the bookstore, or I could have ordered it on Amazon for much less money, but I didn’t want to have to wait for the actual book to arrive. After all, I now live in a world where I demand and receive instant gratification.  

Similarly, I can give feedback to students and parents almost immediately through email and through my web-based Google Classroom. My students in my AP Economics class have a free, online textbook, with links to relevant primary sources and websites, and I can post announcements and changes to my students in real-time, after they leave my classroom. I have to say, as a teacher, it’s pretty awesome.

So, I suppose all of this is good – or at least it’s not bad. But I can’t help but think that in the history of mankind, we have never been so connected, yet, so disconnected. I find myself asking the question: “Is the communication in which our children are engaged authentic.” For example, have you noticed that when you go on vacation that our kids don’t seem to miss each other?

I can remember that when my family went on vacation, I missed my girlfriend and my buddies. I couldn’t wait to see them when I came home. Plus, my girlfriend and I would spend hours and hours on the phone, actually talking.

Not anymore. 

After we returned from fall break this year, I asked my kids if they wanted to get together with their friends, and the response was condescending. “DAAAD!”, they snarled (with a hint of an eye-roll), “We’ve been TALKING the entire time we’ve been gone!” There was no sense of urgency to see their friends. In fact, they told me stories about some of the funny things that went on during break in the cyber-world of Instagram. It actually occurred to me that the kids tell stories of happenings on the internet in a way that resembles the stories I’ve told about my fraternity days. But the kids’ stories aren’t about wearing a goofy costume to a date party or swimming in the campus fountain. Their stories are about clever memes or “LOL” retorts.

Moreover, it’s not just the fact that our children are communicating online, but the amount of time they are spending “plugged in” is worrisome to me. A 2015 Pew Research Center report indicates some not-so-shocking data about teenage social media and electronic usage. 92% of teens (aged 12-17) go online, daily, and 24% report being online “almost constantly” (Lenhart, 2015). Still further, 88% of all teens have cell phones or smartphones at their disposal (Lenhart, 2015), and according to the Common Sense Media, teens spend an average of nine hours per day using media online (Tsukayama, 2015).

So, I’m posing the question, to which I honestly don’t know the answer. Is today’s communication real or even healthy?  To me, something seems very wrong, but maybe it’s just a bad idea whose time has come? Maybe I am just old-fashioned? Maybe, I’m like my grandparents who thought rock and roll (and Elvis Presley, in particular) was the source of all evil in society? I mean, to our children, Snapchat IS authentic communication. Our children DO feel connected and DO feel they are engaging in genuine dialogue. Just because I don’t think it’s authentic doesn’t mean it isn’t. 

In my next blog post, I’ll delve into some of the research on social media and screen time, and also talk about some of the ways we can use online tools to our educational advantage.