Fear & Mourning In The Age Of Digital Education

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3-apps-creative-showFear & Mourning in the Age of Digital Education by Susan Lucille Davis was originally published on Getting Smart.

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.

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

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