Maintaining Digital Balance. . .

I’ve been engaged in a ton of conversations lately about the value of digital tools to teachers and students, and have been reading a remarkably interesting strand of posts from teachers that are choosing to disconnect from digital networks primarily because digital collaboration has become all consuming and has left participants with a sense of being divorced from what’s real. 

Consider this post from Joe Henderson, who writes:

Lately I’ve had the overwhelming feeling that I’m leashed to my computer. This is a difficult feeling for those that really know me, as I love to be outside. I love everything about it, from the mud to the bugs, and everything in between. So, I am trying to fight back, if only in my mind.

Two things did it for me. First, it was a subscription to Twitter. For those that don’t know, Twitter is kinda like public instant messaging. It can be used for trivial matters (updating people on the status of your dog’s allergies), or for serious collective matters (most commonly, the usage of blogging as a pedagogical tool). Dina is studying how it changes language and relationships. It basically owned my soul on Sunday and I spent gobs of time surfing around and had nothing to show. So I quit Twitter. I’m sure it has great potential, but so do I when I’m actually doing something productive.

Now, I can certainly relate to Joe’s feelings of being leashed to the computer, that’s for sure.  Just today, I made a rare trip to my car during the school day and I thought to myself, "Man, I can’t remember the last time I was outside during the daylight hours on a school day." 

That bothered me.

But I’m also bothered by the trend towards "either/or" thinking in conversations about educational technology.  We either believe that technology is the end all or we think it’s consuming so much of our lives that we’re becoming socially inept and emotionally deprived.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. America, after all, is the land of either/or aren’t we? Heck, “You’re with us or against us,” was George Bush’s first words in the War on Terror and competitive dialogue seems to shape every interaction that we have—whether it be about instructional strategies, presidential candidates or favorite $3.00 coffee companies!

What I’ve been playing with over the course of the past few months is finding the balance between using tech as a tool that improves the quality of my teaching and saves me time versus as a time sink robbing me of “real” experiences (although, I’d argue that virtual experiences can be as real as face to face relationships.)

Personally, online time hasn’t been stealing from areas of my life that were particularly valuable to begin with! Primarily, I’m finding that online reading and interactions are replacing time that I would have spent in front of the television or silent reading anyway.

I used to get home, turn on the telly, have a bit of dinner and stare—with my wife—at unfolding dramas on the boob tube (or within the pages of books.)

Now, I get home, have a bit of dinner, and jump into a digital conversation where I’m an equal participant in a knowledge-building process. I read and respond to blogs, send out a few tweets, moderate Voicethread comments…..and go to bed about 3 degrees smarter than I was before hand. 

Jeff Utecht called this a shift from being a simple consumer to a producer of knowledge in a recent post on the Thinking Stick. Consider this bit of interesting research that he cites in his post:

Nearly half of 18-24 year old social networkers (45%) told Future Laboratory researchers that if they had 15 minutes of spare time they would choose spend it on social networking sites rather than watching TV, reading, talking on their mobile, or playing video games. The impact of this trend is so significant that a quarter (25%) of respondents state that the rise in social networks has decreased the amount of traditional television they consume.

The best part of this trend towards social networking in my professional life is that these kinds of powerful conversations simply weren’t available to me before! I was limited by time and location. The crush of a typical school day would limit the quality of interactions that I could have with peers, and meaningful, ongoing PD opportunities were few and far between.

Now, I can tap into powerful conversations about teaching and learning on my schedule.

In fact, I find that I’m less satisfied with experiences that don’t allow me to be a participant than I ever was before….and have found ways to participate in the digital world without feeling leashed to my computer.  I’m losing time that I would have spent "sit-and-getting" from the Sopranos, Law and Order, Jerry Springer—-or whatever other mindless show would have filled my hour of free time before collapsing into bed. 

The key for maintaining balance for me has been remembering that it’s MY SCHEDULE! Not the computer’s, or the people in my Twitter network, or the people writing great blog entries. If I want to engage in my growing social network, I do.

If I want to sit in the sun and read, I do that too. The control remains with me.

This whole strand has gotten me wondering whether another lesson for digital educators is teaching kids how to maintain balance in their own lives—digital or otherwise. 

I know that’s not something I’ve ever systematically taught before (and I’m not sure it should be my responsibility anyway), but it is certainly a skill that our kids will have to master to be successful in a world where digital opportunities to interact are constantly available.


5 thoughts on “Maintaining Digital Balance. . .

  1. Dina

    I gotta get that Twitter data from my brief sojourn posted, this reminds me… (Do you have a list of potential posts a mile long like I do?) The data speaks quite well to your balanced approach, actually: after two weeks, it didn’t change my life, but it did yield good fruit.
    The either/or approach always stinks, agreed– it’s just plain superficial, no matter what context in which you place it. But I do think you downplay the absolutely transformative– not always positively– nature of digitalife, particularly for our young people– and even in small doses.
    I’ve outlined this at The Line several dozen ways, but the one that continues to worry me is the fundamental concept of aloneness the Internet fosters– disconnected not only from each other, but from our physical world. In terms of our *actual* human needs and existence, the idea that we are, and can exist healthily, completely under our own steam, is a pure falsehood. It’s that simple.
    In addition, you’re a smart, educated digital immigrant, and as such, you’ve got access to both 1.0 and 2.0 worlds, plus the power and discipline to switch between them at will. We cannot assume that our students have the same tools, or perspective.
    For example, you say that you’re connecting to peers “on your schedule,” and that’s a good thing. Agreed– it’s good for you. Good for me too. I’ve never had richer interactions professionally than this year, mainly around the blog.
    You also know, however, that there exists realities in life that do, and in fact should NOT, occur “on your schedule,” or according to your expectations. (Maybe your expectations are unreasonable, biased, uninformed, or just plain sucky, as mine so often are.)
    And so you know the value of patience; of subsuming your needs and wants at times to a greater good. You know the value of enagaging in dialogue, of working to understand someone or something else’s reality, of delayed gratification. I’m not saying digitalife *can’t* foster these things; only that there is so much about it, woven into its very fabric, that does not.
    As so as digitalife encroaches on our kids more and more, my question is: will THEY know these things? I worry about it. A lot.
    As such, yes, it IS our job to provide that ability to “code-switch” to them– perhaps more than anyone else.
    That’s what REAL digital literacy is all about.

  2. Linda Bilak

    Great post. I have a hard time with the “beware technology is taking over education” theorists. I work in the same building as Joe and Dina-trust me- our kids are safe. Do kids get enough other experiences? No, they reduced the non-mandated classes like p.e.,art, health, music in order to cram “what matters” aka what we can test for three days on paper. Now I am logging off and heading outside-cause I can.

  3. Bethany Smith

    I agree with you that it is hard to balance life and work – but it always has been. I guess what has made it “muddy” is that computers are part of our life and work.
    My solution – not to give up digital tools forever, but have “electronic free days.” There are some days that I make a point to not bring my laptop home – or weekends where I don’t have my cell phone on. Sometimes you just need to “unplug” – and sometimes you have to force yourself to.

  4. Mike

    Balance? Here’s mine: If some form of technology will allow me to do something I need to do that I could not do without it, or if it all allow me to do more effectively something I routinely do, I’ll use it, but under no circumstance will I spend any time trying to invent things to do simpy to allow the use of “technology.” Nor will I try to shoehorn lessons into a several sizes too small technological shoe for the sake of being able to use technology.
    It’s a tool, not a revolution, not a way to pass the itme, not a substitute for books, not a substitute for person to person interaction, and absolutely not a substitute for good teaching.
    Yes, technology might allow my students to digitally “talk” to students in far off lands–for example–but why is that necessary? Why is that more effective than what we all bring into the classroom each day? I don’t suggest that sort of thing may not be necessary, or at least potentially useful, in some classes, but that depends on the curriculum, doesn’t it?
    There need be no “balance” between digital and human interaction. Just between effective and trendy, transitory teaching.

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