The Wrong Set of Digital Lenses?

Have you ever had one of those weeks where your mind is simply flying with thoughts about teaching and learning that just won’t stop? 

Then you’ll understand exactly where I am today!

You see, I’ve spent the past few weeks developing a course on blogging in education for the American company Pearson Achievement—and it’s given me a chance to spend time studying some of the best bloggers and blog resources….all while getting paid!

I’ve probably read most everything that Ewan McIntosh has been writing lately—between posts by Jeff Utecht and Clay Burrell.  All have some pretty remarkable posts that remind me of why blogs have become my primary form of professional development and reflection.  Literally—I could learn more for free by scrolling through my feed reader than I could in a thousand years worth of in-service training sessions!

And until about 2 hours ago, I planned to write about Jeff Utecht’s great K12 Online Conference presentation on sustainable blogging because it is changing the way that I’m thinking about the work we do in my classroom with blogs.  It’s truly a worthwhile twenty minutes that I’m certain to return to soon.

But I just walked away from a meeting that has gotten me thinking about the state of digital learning in our schools.  I had lunch with a decision maker who was interested in hearing more about the potential for establishing digital partnerships between students in the States and students abroad. 

Over the course of our conversation, my colleague mentioned that one challenge is convincing others that digital relationships are real relationships.  "So many times," he mentioned, "The people that I work with shy away from digital opportunities because they believe that you can’t truly know someone unless you have a face-to-face opportunities to get to know them."

Does that sound familiar to you?  It sounds all too familiar to me! 

Many teachers that I meet seem resistant to digital dialogue simply because electronic relationships "don’t feel real" to them—and I can’t say that I blame them.  After all, most of today’s teachers have grown up in an era where technology just didn’t play a very significant role in one’s day to day life—and anytime email constitutes the extent of your digital interactions with others, you’re bound to be skeptical about the value of a relationship built online! 

But is it possible that those teachers are making judgments about what kinds of relationships are "real" by looking through their own (somewhat tarnished) digital lenses?

Think about it—-our students have spent their lives connected.  They’ve sent thousands of instant messages and texts.  They have personal web pages and blogs.  They play online versions of video games with "partners" thousands of miles away.  They spend hours behind a computer screen, plugged into an iPod or talking to someone on their cell phones, don’t they?  They’ve got webcams and they’re not afraid to use them!

In my personal life, I had a first-hand experience that got me thinking the other day.  My 3 year old niece who I’ve only met twice Skyped me.    I was pretty certain that she would struggle with the idea of "talking" to me online…and I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

As soon as she figured out who it was staring back from the computer screen, she started talking as if I was in the same room—"Hi, Uncle Bill!  I love you.  I went to the zoo today and saw the animals."  Heck, when we were finished talking, she even put her cheek up to the webcam and asked me for a kiss.

Amazing, huh?

How would our students define "real relationships?"  Do you think digital interactions are any less "real" to them than the face-to-face friends that they have?  Is it possible that the digital relationships that we find dissatisfying are becoming nothing more than a natural extension of "human connections" in their tech-driven world?

Is the very idea of "relationships" changing?. 

2 thoughts on “The Wrong Set of Digital Lenses?

  1. Larry Ferlazzo

    I’m a high school teacher who uses a lot of technology with my students, and I have forged a lot of professional online connections. I also was a community organizer for nineteen years prior to my switching careers four years ago.
    Out of this combination of experiences, I have to say that I believe the point made by some of your colleague’s peers who:
    “…believe that you can’t truly know someone unless you have face-to-face opportunities to get to know them.”
    Of course, there are always exceptions. But, generally, I have not seen in others (including students), nor do I feel, anywhere near the same level of connection with people “virtually” as in-person.
    You can find evidence for this in countless examples of community and election organizing. Candidates have been successful in using the Internet to raise money. However, many campaign staff will also tell you that the Internet is not that effective of a tool to get people to actually do much else — that’s why the bulk of their organizing efforts are connecting to people face-to-face.
    Again, that is not to say that there’s no value in online relationships for teachers or for students. My students are able to connect with others in different countries and learn from them. I’m able to do the same with colleagues from around the world.
    However, I believe technology is most effective when used as a tool to develop and deepen face-to-face relationships.

  2. Trina

    But is it possible that those teachers are making judgments about what kinds of relationships are “real” by looking through their own (somewhat tarnished) digital lenses?
    I think so. I’m considerably older than the students being discussed here, but I’ve formed many powerful relationships through online interaction. I don’t consider my best friend any less my best friend just because we met online and still interact mostly online and via cell phone. Yet it’s somewhat difficult for people who haven’t experienced this kind of genuine online relationship to really “get” it.

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