Fear & Mourning in the Age of Digital Education

Photo Credit: Andrew and hobbes, “Reaching Out,” Flickr: @N06/3344044448/in/photostream/ (Creative Commons License)

Recently, with the full support of my administration, I hoped to introduce a number of digital initiatives for my middle-grades students. In particular, I hoped to upgrade the teaching of language arts at my school to include online discussion and blogging, two key contemporary means of encountering and making meaning with language. I wasn’t naïve. I did expect to experience a bit of pushback questioning my integration of digital reading and writing into a course where they had largely been absent. What I didn’t expect to encounter was a Wall of Fear and Mourning.

Why are we still afraid?

  • Because students might converse openly and publicly, and without supervision before they are ready
  • Because work created by novice learners might be seen and judged by others
  • Because student work online might lack rigor; and
  • Because instruction in technology might replace instruction in more critical skills in reading and writing.

I respect these parental concerns. They show me that the parents I need to partner with are deeply committed to assuring that their children’s education will provide them with the skills that will be critical to their future success. They indicate that parents worry about their children’s safety and happiness, which is as it should be. And they show that many parents are fundamentally uncertain about what to do about the changes in education — and the world — that have shifted the ground beneath their feet and altered a vision of their children’s future that they thought they understood.
Interestingly, much of the commentary I’ve heard lately reveals deeply held suspicions about social media. “Facebook is evil,” one student told me recently, repeating what I presume are his parent’s comments over the dinner table. An extreme statement, yes, but in some ways, I suppose, this student’s retort suggests how much the news media’s negative emphasis on social media has translated into unfair characterization of all the conversations students have in digital spaces.
Although digital media can certainly amplify negative behaviors children experience – or participate in – I believe we may be getting too carried away if we jump onto this particular anti-social media bandwagon. What about the ways digital media help students make a difference for good? And wouldn’t it make more sense to help students understand how to conduct appropriate discourse in online situations?
Do parents start out by monitoring their children’s first digital interactions — in child-friendly websites, phone texts, or chat sessions in video games — in order to teach them how to engage in a polite disagreement or lively conversation online? Do parents model such behavior for their children?
Regarding the question of quality, such comments make me wonder if the parents who voice them have yet made the significant shifts in reading and writing online that have happened for so many of us in the past decade? Do they watch TED Talks, read the Huffington Post, upload content to YouTube?  Maybe, maybe not.  Or does their view of digital social media come from whatever is trending on Twitter or from the anonymous vitriol allowed by some online news sources in the form of comments? Have they ever seen the thought-provoking social commentary in the art posts of Maira Kalman’s blog for the New York Times or the informative videos about social networking made by Common Craft?  Have they taken the time to investigate the thorough documentation of Hurricane Katrina on Wikipedia?  If they are concerned about their children’s education, have they discovered Edutopia? Are they ready to deny their children access to the digitized intellectual marketplace?
If students are going to learn how to manage their privacy and, at the same time, share openly in a society that values transparency, when and how will students gain that valuable expertise? If contemporary parents want their children to succeed as effective communicators with the media and in the environments that will undoubtedly be part of their lives, when and where should that instruction happen?

What are we still mourning?

  • A simpler, easier world to navigate
  • A more uniform and standardized approach to learning
  • A time when we were all unplugged; and
  • Our own innocence.

I agree with parents that we have much to mourn. Our children’s world is way more confusing and complex than ours ever was. It was certainly much easier to be passive recipients of knowledge curated by our teachers and schools than it is now to learn how to process and manipulate the huge amounts of information at all of our fingertips.
When I took charge of my own learning as a high school student, it meant bicycling to the local library and scanning the shelves for what I wanted to read next. Those memories are powerful markers in my own growth, but I have had to accept that they are gone for the most part. Families are right to look for opportunities to talk face-to-face over a meal without the interruption of an in-coming text or the glare of an LED screen as distraction.  We should all take walks in the woods and leave our devices at home. Yet for most of us these are matters of finding balance rather than turning our backs on a technology-rich culture.
We can’t change the way the world is simply by denying the changes that have happened. Mourning our losses is necessary for all of us, but as cultural anthropology professor Michael Wesch of Kansas State University said at a conference I attended a couple of years ago, once a major shift in a culture occurs, you can never go back to how it once was.

A Proposal for Parent-Educator Partnerships 

Last weekend, I found myself in numerous conversations with education leaders about how we need to work more closely with parents if we want to help schools remain relevant and meaningful resources for learning. As the missing stakeholders in the conversations about the ways education must respond to the changing world, parents need to meet educators on common ground and begin exploring ways to meet the needs of today’s learners.
What might happen if we met in the middle and started to grapple with some of these problems together? I am thrilled to see new resources for such partnerships emerge. The homeschooling movement is already there – I find much to inspire me at the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum on Facebook. Similarly, I am excited about new resources that have emerged to meet the shared needs of parents and educators. A Platform for Good, for example, promotes positive and productive use of the Internet in a safe environment. Quib.ly brings together parents and educators in an online community to discuss issues of concern to all of us. Will Richardson’s new book Why School? boldly lays out the issues we all must face if we have any desire to remain relevant and meet the real needs of children.
I find myself musing about ways to nurture parent-educator partnerships on a more personal level. I wonder if we might explore essential questions in face-to-face conversations and discover places where our roles and concerns for young learners overlap. I consider how to facilitate regular evenings of conversations about shared interests that honor the contribution of each constituency’s perspective. I think about building the kind of trust that comes from voicing real concerns and listening intently, from truly knowing one another, and from demonstrating respect for varying points of view. I propose that we work together to solve problems and find greater opportunities for all to learn.
As an educator who is passionate about making the best possible environment for today’s students, I extend my hand to all parents, whether they embrace the opportunities that abound in digital learning spaces (as many do) or whether they are still grappling with the fear and mourning that comes with change. To all parents and educators, I say, we must find a way to do this essential work together.

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Lisa Noble

Thank you. I got weepy as I read this. One of the things that really hit me was your comment about people not having made the shift to reading and writing online. I think this is a HUGE part of the issue, and I find it particularly rampant among my colleagues. When I share a blog post (as I will yours), or talk excitedly about attending a webinar, people look at me a little bit funny.
Here's what I wrote this summer, and for me, it ties in to what you're talking about. I am starting to realize that my own kids learn a ton about social media by being with me as I'm interacting with my PLN. The people I talk to regularly are as real to my kids as those I teach with, and they get very excited if we get to meet them face-to-face.
I'm looking very forward to what you share along this journey.

Ruth Glass

I enjoyed your comments on several levels. Among other things, it's always helpful to encounter folks experiencing frustrations similar to one's own. I particularly appreciated Michael Wesch's note that, once a major cultural shift has occurred, it's impossible to return to how things once were. Don't we all run into teachers and parents -- and sometimes ourselves -- who are truly stuck in wanting things to be different?
At Lake Tahoe School, we implemented a 1:1 iPad program for 5th - 8th grade students this year. The plan was to roll out the initiative over a carefully planned 3-year path. Given the sources of our financial support and enthusiasm of same, we pretty much just dove into the deep end, dragging faculty with us. The upside has been significantly greater than I feared. Among other things, there was no opportunity (3 years!) for the gap between those on board and those not to grow. The wall of fear and mourning was knocked down pretty quickly. No one except our IT guy was an expert; everyone else was forced to learn together. All teachers were at pretty much the same level as we began training at the beginning of the summer. If I hadn't figured out something, you had, and vice versa. The new level of collaboration has transformed some of our teachers.
Bringing parents on board has included the complications you suggested. We created a parent advisory board to act as one-to-one resources for others with questions. We've offered a few training sessions. We held a Technology Forum, open to all parents, to share what we are doing on all levels. We have much to learn, but we're moving along. My advice to others is jump in. Technology changes so quickly, that what is cutting edge today will be obsolete in 3 years.

Susan Davis

Lisa, thanks for sharing your family story about connecting via Twitter and story sharing on the web. Such a positive story needs to be told -- and heard.
Ruth, I appreciate your dive in and learn story about your faculty. It reminds us that a sense of sink-or-swim urgency can sometimes work to our advantage.
Please continue sharing your stories and suggest ways of connecting with parents. I hear sad tales of technology offerings for parents that are unattended and ignored. Let's keep brainstorming about how to get through to some of our most essential stakeholders.

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