Seven years ago my family of two working adults and two primary school aged daughters possessed one television, one desktop PC with a dial up internet connection, and two mobile phones able to make and receive phone calls and text messages. This same household, with the daughters now 17 and 19 years of age, presently accommodates three televisions, two desktop computers, three laptops, four smartphones, three tablets, several ipods and two eBook readers. All except the televisions are internet connected via wireless broadband. The least used of these necessary adjuncts to modern life by a long way are the televisions and desktop computers. Discussions with friends in similar households indicates this is not in any way remarkable.
In a very short amount of time we have become a society where we are always connected to the world via a variety of portable devices. This connection crosses boundaries between home, social spaces, entertainment activities, learning environments and workplaces. For my generation, this change has occurred so quickly that we are still trying to grapple with what it means in terms of how we function as a society and interact as a community. For young people, even older teens, this is simply the life they have grown into. They do not agonize over whether online socializing is better or worse than in person – they simply do what they see as most convenient or appropriate for the situation.
This always connected state raises challenges for traditional family interaction. Where previous generations of teens had to “endure” family outings and visits, and some time was spent doing “nothing in particular” today’s teen is safe in the knowledge that they can spend the time on Facebook with their friends or watching YouTube videos all using their phones. While there is convenience in family members always being able to easily contact each other, spending time together without the intrusion of the wider world requires a high degree of parental determination.
The challenges for educators are perhaps more acute. Schools face the dilemma of preparing students for a life in the wider connected society, while also creating an environment conducive to focused learning of both skills and content in a physically and emotionally safe space.
This challenge of embracing the good that the internet has to offer in terms of content and connections while minimizing its distractive and at times destructive impact, is explored by Leander (2013). Leander considers the views of teachers in a high school where policy dictates all students have a laptop. Hodas (Cited in Leander, 2013, p.59) noted that previous technological innovations including overhead projectors and photocopiers favoured the traditional teacher-centric model of classes in that they were primarily a means of delivering teacher chosen content. Leander (2013) noted some teachers expressed concerns about the laptop innovation including safety issues with online interaction – especially in the context of a girls school, pupils making inappropriate comments about the school online, distraction in the classroom away from discussions led by teachers, and the physical barrier between the teacher and students created by the laptops themselves. I can imagine these concerns would be familiar to anyone working in schools now. Younger teachers were seen to be more comfortable with these innovations. What Leander (2013) found was that some teachers were dealing with these concerns by limiting their use of the laptops to only where it fitted with the already defined curriculum or pedagogical practices. Designated internal online discussion venues were also created as a way of shutting out outside influences. Leander (2013, p. 73) concludes by suggesting this approach of “avoiding” the technology will not work given that students already have wireless access to the wider aspects of the internet on their own devices.
I have mixed views about this. Part of what schools do is teach content and sometimes to do so requires the undivided attention of students. Discussions within a classroom may also lose much of their value if a significant number of the class is physically present but digitally elsewhere. Further, as someone who has spent many years training and recruiting university graduates in the workplace, I know at some point educators need to impart the skills of focusing and concentrating on sometimes pretty dry content. However I agree with Leander (2013) that it may be ineffectual to attempt to shut out the world too much given most students will be carrying personal devices that bypass any restrictions. I also believe that educators of young students need to some extent to “let go” of what has always been done in an effort to consider the possibilities of what might be done with new technologies. Perhaps some of that content may become less dry.
Leander, K., (2013). You won’t be needing your laptops today: wired bodies in the wireless classroom. In C. Lankshear & M. Knobel (Eds.), A new literacies reader: educational perspectives (pp.57-75). New York, NY: Peter Lang.