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To Act or To Be Acted Upon

September 16th, 2009 jonmott Leave a comment Go to comments

One of my favorite scriptural passages reminds us that we all have a fundamental choice to make in life–to act or to be acted upon. Certainly there are many things in life that are beyond our control. But we have the choice–every day, every hour, every moment. We can choose to let external forces push us forward to a destination not of our choosing or, instead, to take what comes and continue to chart our own course, pursuing goals we define, completing projects we choose to complete, notwithstanding our external environment.

Sailors call this “tacking into the wind.” A headwind might seem an insurmountable force working against the forward progress of a sailboat. But experienced sailors now how to set the sails to harness the power of the headwind and propel the vessel forward.

Today, we and our students face shifting technology winds. In our learning spaces we are beset with numerous challenges that can sometimes feel like strong headwinds–technology compatibility, reliability, security, plagiarism, copyright issues, hacking, bullying, pornography, privacy, and even addiction. So, do we act in the face of such challenges and act, or do we passively allow ourselves to be acted upon? A recent study conducted by researchers from the Cranfield School of Management and AJM Associates suggests that adolescent and teen “addiction” to technology is causing poor academic performance. Since the full 25-page report is only accessible for a $25 fee, I haven’t read the entire piece (I need to eat lunch this week). Accordingly, I cannot judge what the authors suggest we do about the “techno addiction.” But the comments in the official press release suggest that technology is acting upon us and our students.

Andrew Kakabadse, one of the study’s authors proclaims:

“Our research shows that technology obsession hinders spelling skills, implicitly encourages plagiarism, and disrupts classroom learning.  Despite school policies restricting mobile phone usage, students use the phone frequently, with the majority making calls from the toilets. The mobile phone continues to be a prime channel of social communication during the school day.”

He further observes:

“Shockingly, a high proportion of teenagers (59.2%) admitted to inserting information straight from the internet into schoolwork, without actually reading or changing it.  Almost a third (28.5%) deemed this as acceptable practice despite recognising that such behaviour is considered plagiarism.”

While we should certainly be concerned about plagiarism and other potentially negative implications of technology use, suggesting the technology is the culprit and that we should somehow try to control it is like a sailor attempting to control the wind. As individual teachers and learning technologists, we have little if any control of the technology landscape in which we and our students interact. We and our students have mobile phones, iPods, and ubiquitous access to the Internet. If we are worried about inappropriate use of these technologies, disconnecting and powering down are not the answers. As Kakabadse himself notes, students are bringing their technology to school “despite school policies restricting” them from doing so. Rules, restrictions, and technical barriers are not going to keep technology out of the classroom, let alone prevent inappropriate usage of technology.

Low-Tech Texting

Low-Tech Texting

Our job as teachers and as mentors is to harness technology for our own purposes, to use it to accomplish our goals, and to help our students to do the same. Instead of futilely trying to control the wind or wish it away, let’s tack into it. Let’s be creative and find new ways to leverage the technologies we all have at our fingertips and in our pockets. (For example, instead of banning cell phones from the classroom, how about using them creatively to foster student engagement?)

Technology is not the bogeyman. Low levels of student engagement in the classroom is not a new problem. Remember low-tech texting?

Technology can be used for good or for ill.

Given the choice, I opt to act and not to be acted upon. I choose to proactively use technology for purposes of my choosing, to accomplish my goals.

And I opt to teach my students to do the same.

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  • lukefernandez

    It’s not easy making sense of the specter of technological determinism or how we should act when we perceive it; your use of the ship metaphor and the reference to Mormon scripture offer some interesting framing devices to make sense of the problem. Some of what you say seems to resonate with Nicholas Carr’s criticism of Mumford in The Big Switch (c.f. http://www.gartner.com/it/c... p.22 ). It’s difficult to untangle exactly where you stand vis a vis Carr and Mumford in passages this short but they are nonetheless provocative. Following your framing devices (and without falling prey to a simple technological fatalism) how much can “I opt to act and not to be acted upon” when the technological wind (as Carr implies) is mixed in with larger socio-economic forces?

  • Just like the "low-tech texting" I wonder how the plagiarism figures relate to plagiarism in a non-digital age. Technology is a tool -- we choose if it benefits or harms us.

  • Jared & Joel--

    Good points about not just accepting bad uses of technology as facts of life. We do need to help students understand what is appropriate and what is not and reinforce good behavior via appropriate incentives. And while we ought to come up with creative ways to leverage technology in the learning process, there are times when it's appropriate and ideal to turn the technology off. There some intimate learning conversations that technology would tarnish. We need to work these issues out in our own minds and then model good practices for our students.

  • Joel Galbraith

    Another enjoyable post. obviously there are bounds to acting and charting one's own course to reach the organizations goal. One doesn't want to appear to be out of step with the organizations goals.

    I find it a bit disturbing that the same argument is commonly used by proponents of legalizing marijuana or gambling--i.e. "outright banning doesn't stop the inevitable, we should focus more on regulation". I agree with your analogy and also prefer to find productive ways to use "disruptive" technologies...but somewhere also still believe in the ban.
    -Joel G.

  • wwsiwyg

    Is the marijuana or gambling example a fair analogy though? Are there a lot of good uses for marijuana (besides the medicinal cases) and gambling? You believe in the ban - does that mean altogether - so the educator who wants to incorporate a new learning opportunity cannot because the tool is banned? I might be reading you wrong, but it sounds as if you believe in restrictions and guidelines but it doesn't actually sound like you believe in the ban the way it has often been attempted.

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