Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The network is down

cc image via flickr by Jeramiah Ro

Yesterday Burlington Public Schools did not have wifi for the entire day. I know, all bold, OMG, Exclamation point. The cause was a fire in Boston that disrupted our service. The situation was out of our control and we could only wait. Early in the day there was slight panic, but it eventually subsided by the afternoon. Students took to their backup generators (personal smartphones running on data plans) and teachers sought the opportunity to revise digital lessons, integrate simple conversations, and go about the day as if nothing had happened out of the ordinary.

And this simple, yet profound occurrence got me thinking.

In all facets of our lives we are becoming increasingly dependent on technology. In Burlington, we have a lot of technology throughout the district. There are roughly two thousand student iPads (wifi only), roughly 400 faculty and staff laptops, and all of the personal devices we bring on the network on a daily basis. We’re continually shifting our resources to digital formats and relying on digital workflows to manage our classrooms. What’s lost with consistent technology use is the simplicity of the time before technology and how to function in its absence.

Shelly Turkle discusses this idea in her work, “Alone Together”. It’s a worthwhile read and also comes in the form of a TED talk. She discusses the idea of screen time and how we have gone from a society where we pick up a phone to share a feeling, to a society that posts something online to receive a feeling. Networks, and the technology that we use to access them make us all feel as though we belong to something and are a somewhat active participant in major events. However, most of us that grew up and know how society functioned before the dependence on technology can step away occasionally and appreciate life without technology. Those who have only know this world, have a harder time.

A few years ago I wrote a post titled, “Focus”. My assertion was that the hardest skill for the 21st Century learner to master would be focus. And I still believe this to be true. How will our students function in the absence technology? How will they ever appreciate the concept of listening to a speaker, processing the remarks, and formulating a well-thought response that may or may not elicit a constructive debate? How will this generation react when the wifi goes out?

I’ll argue that this is not a simple “technology is a distraction” discussion, rather technology has become a mild addiction for many of us and for our students. It’s wise to step away occasionally and engage in simple conversations or listen and observe what lies beyond the glowing screen. When we do this, we reconnect with ourselves and gain a deeper understanding of the world around us. We reconnect with real conversations, real emotion and real relationships.

Experiencing a day when the wifi goes out is a great learning moment. It reinforces our appreciation for what we have and what we are missing. Therefore, I’m posing a challenge. Take a few days each year, month or week and turn off the wifi. Remove yourself from all technology and experience the world, people, and conversations happening around you.