Technology, Social Interaction, and Connectedness

May 12th, 2011

In reading over some of the comments in the Times article that discusses The Harlan Institute Teacher Advisory Network’s Erin Olson, and her use of social media in the classroom, I was taken aback by some of the harsh comments. People are convinced that teachers using innovative technologies in the class is detrimental to students, and that this is a mistake.

Here is a smattering of the comments:

The ability to form coherent and insightful thoughts and convey them in a spoken manner is a skill that is developed in traditional spoken discussions within the classroom. The introduction of a verbal media to do so detracts from this. While proponents of this technology induced discussion point out that this allows for an easier flow of thought for those students who are not outspoken, allowing them to replace verbal communication with written snippets discourages and delays the development of spoken fluency, a skill needed in the professional world.

This comment speaks directly to a concern that increased technology will make people even more isolated:

1. Kudos to the teachers who are trying to engage their students any way they can, but the overall trend that this type of necessity speaks of is one of isolation. The generation that is still in school today has taken technology to a new level, replacing face to face interaction with a digital facade that allows for all sorts of perversion. Social skills that are already deteriorating due to the increase in screen time will only erode further as such school-sanctioned activities gives credence and validity to what is already endemic of the age groups in question.

6. As a university professor, I disagree with the students who believe the technology “gives them a voice.” It allows them to hide behind the technology and provides a false sense of security. Part of our jobs as educators is to teach effective communication in multiple forms – listening, speaking, and writing. If technology allows a substitution for verbal communication, it is a failure.

And my favorite from Tom from Boston (who is probably a Red Sox fan)

8. No. Just…no. Simply because something is easier doesn’t mean it is preferable. This is especially true in academia. It is the teacher’s responsibility to teach these children how to communicate in an adult fashion; how to own up to your ideas and defend them in a public setting. Allowing students the passivity of such tools inhibits their development as mature thinkers. Whether in high school or college, students must learn these skills. What are they supposed to do in job interviews? There are few professions for which a command of spoken communication is not central.

It is this comment, specifically, that I wish to address in the context of using technology to promote educaiton.

I am reading a fascinating book now, titled Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by renowned physicist Michio Kaku. The article explores how the increase interaction between humans and technology will progress over the next 100 years. Kaku focuses in particular on how technology will impact human interactions. He notes with a sense of history that at every dawn of technological innovation, detractors (Luddites?) feared that this new technology will diminish human interaction. I think these comments represent a new wave of unfounded resistance to change. In fact I have dubbed myself somewhat of a pioneer in this field, wiling to take the arrows.

Lest we forget that when the telephone was first introduced, detractors feared that they would diminish human interaction.

Af first, it might seem strange talking to an empty room. But remember, when the telephone first came out, some criticized it, saying that people would be speaking to disembodied voices. They wailed that it would gradually replace direct person-to-person contact. The critics were right, but today we don’t mind speaking to disembodied voices, because it has vastly increased our circle of contacts and enriched our lives.

As we have seen, the telephone has not replaced human communication. In fact, it has opened up a world of connection unimaginable a century ago.

Likewise, video teleconferencing, as cheap as it is, has not replaced in-person meeting.

Some also envisioned the “peopleless city.” Futurists predicted that teleconferencing via the Internet would make face-to-face business meetings unnecessary, so there would be no need to commute. In fact, the cities themselves would largely empty out, becoming ghost towns, as people worked in their homes rather than their offices.

To be sure, there are more people deciding to work from their homes or teleconference with their coworkers, but cities have not emptied at all. Instead, they have morphed into sprawling megacities. Today, it is easy to carry on video conversations on the Internet, but most people tend to be reluctant to be filmed, preferring face-to-face meetings. And of course, the Internet has changed the entire media landscape, as media giants puzzle over how to earn revenue on the Internet. But it is not even close to wiping out TV, radio, and live theater. The lights of Broadway still glow as brightly as before.

Interaction and social connectedness does not diminish. It just changes form. Social media is but the next evolution in technology’s trail  in changing communication.

What ends up happening is not a decrease in connectedness, but an increase, albeit in a different form. To those clinging to antiquated visions of human interaction, no doubt students tweeting and texting each other looks like a lonely form of isolation. But, these kids are more connected than any of the adults. They keep in touch with more friends, talk to more people, and have a wider net of influences; something unimaginable just a decade ago. Perhaps the previous generation views these interactions as superficial, fake, or virtual. Hardly. Only to the untrained eye.

Let’s take a historical perspective. On the one hand, compare a close-knit family that lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere. All communication came from one another. All news was internal. Other than rare visitors, the entire world existed in a bubble. Now, compare this to the average cosmopolitan New Yorker. He receives all of his information from people he does not know (even if they come in dead tree form). Perhaps he talks with people he knows well at a coffee shop once in a while, and sees his family a few times a year on holidays. To the family on the farm, the New Yorker would seem awfully isolated. He never sees his family. He learns everything from absolute strangers he didn’t know. What kind of human interaction is that?

You see, it is all a matter of perspective. Technology changes the perspective. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Frankly, I would prefer to be on the right side of history, and not be in the group that fears the telephone, or the computer, or social media. And that is the approach I take towards education.

Perhaps the commenters would be interested in HarlanCONNECT, a virtual mentoring program  hosted by the Harlan Institute that allows students to connect with attorneys and lawyers using Skype. The same technology that enables the backchannel supports Skype chats. In this YouTube video, you will actually see student’s from Erin’s class. I can assure you that they were focused on the lecture, actively participated in the backchannel, and learned so much about the Supreme Court. I was quite impressed.