Several days ago Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, spoke to the Choate Rosemary Hall faculty. The talk featured the core theme of her book with an educational spin. Thus, the dilemma of managing new technologies so that we are able to continue being human while grappling with the onslaught of communication devices that create the illusion we are interacting with each other  was translated into a school setting. As teachers, is there a way we might model behaviors that would permit us to effectively and appropriately utilize collaborative tools while still maintaining quality face to face contact with our students? The operative question we were all left with was: “how hard would it be to do this?”


Sherry Turkle

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I spend a great deal of time with my technology toys, and like to think I use them effectively for collaboration with my students and colleagues. I look at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn through Flipboard on my iPad, as they are part of my Personal Learning Network. Each day, however, there are periods of time when I am living in a technology blackout. My thirty minute morning walks everyday are technology-free; that time is reserved for recharging my mind and body, and while I may be reflecting on issues here at school, my brain is forced to rely on its own resources during that process. At the end of the day (whenever that occurs), I come home to my significant other, and we have a conversation about our day stripped of any props including TV or music from the iPod. It is just my partner and me interacting in the same room, close together, using our five senses sans electronics.

As Sir Ken Robinson speaks about cooking in his kitchen, I experience the writing process. I have my word processor  or blog editor open, I’m not checking emails or texts, I don’t like interruptions, and I’m not reading an RSS feed while I write. Professor Turkle confirmed that we cannot multi-task, even though reliable sources such as the New York Times claim we do.

Without a complete frontal lobe, I understand that our students may not be able to make the distinctions I am able to make. But Professor Turkle clearly made the point that adults with full frontal lobes are as prone to being confused about the differences between “real communication” and digital or virtual communication. If we overcome that challenge, we are then unable to prioritize the appropriate use of both forms of communication given all of the demands made upon our busy lives. Thus, if we are unable to model good judgment in the world of communication and personal interaction, how can we expect our students to do the same?

The challenge of finding the balance that Professor Turkle seeks between our real world and the virtual world is a bit of a trick. As I think about my courses, I fully buy into the notion that they are F2F discussion-based classes because that pedagogy is the sine qua non of the boarding school and because we still haven’t topped the educational effectiveness of the Socratic method of learning or the spirited discussion of the Greek Agora. On the other hand, classrooms are a bit like musical chairs. when the music stops, everybody changes their demeanor in the rush for a chair. Outside the classroom, how does one perpetuate the kinds of exchanges that occur in the classroom? If we view learning as a 24/7 experience, then virtual communication becomes an effective substitute (but not a replacement) for the F2F exchange. And while the boarding school setting provides more opportunities for F2F contact, virtual communication is very scalable for reaching those students who have shorter school days. The same rules apply for adults, who are continually learning as well. The primo solution to a specific pedagogical or course content challenge is a F2F conversation with a colleague. When that conversation ends in the real world, however, it continues in the virtual world with the “wisdom of crowds” and the spectrum of knowledge that is provided to me by the entire world, or at least those I choose to follow on Twitter.

We who work in technology are often branded as the folks who got us into this mess that we love to hate, who created the illusion that virtual is as good as F2F. In our enthusiasm for progress we have to bear some of the responsibility for the dilemma that Professor Turkle describes so eloquently in her book. But like any skilled guide who gets lost in the woods, we are most likely to find our way out of the mess, and I see that charge as the challenge from Sherry Turkle. Let’s zoom out of the jungle of social interactions so we can see the forest through the trees.

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