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Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

Sensibility and Social Media

“The key to living well in a high-tech world is to spend much less time using technology”

Author: Geoff Sanderson, Chief Program Evaluation Officer at McKinney ISD, TX.

As a public-school administrator with primary responsibilities for strategic planning, I am constantly engaged in cross-office discussions.  And like many of my colleagues, I’ve had the opportunity to supervise a range of different departments.  I do not consider myself an expert on educationally-related technology, but I’ve directed this work in various capacities and consequently figure I am above the novice stage. In a separate message board, I recently wrote about digital citizenship in the context of and in response to a parent-child discussion. I’m a dad and was presented with one of those moments where I just didn’t feel too terribly bright and was short on a thoughtful response. My son commented one evening that he disliked the tone of the political commercials he was seeing and did not understand the reason [his words] “why all they do is talk bad about each other.”  In that moment I remember thinking that he was 12 and I wasn’t and I was wondering the same thing.  So I did a little research as I’m prone to do.

One of the organizations I’m affiliated with is the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and, among other things, ISTE has developed a framework for school folks on how to rethink education and create innovative learning environments. A major component of this road map addresses digital citizenship which attempts to promote safe, smart, and ethical decisions online. And while the exchange I mentioned earlier involved a television commercial, there does appear to be a growing challenge for consumers in filtering through the veracity of a given communication. Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor and lead author of a recent study that explored students and their ability to evaluate online information, gets right to the point.  “Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there.  Our work shows the opposite to be true." Consider this for a moment – a key finding from the Wineburg study – 82% of students can’t distinguish between sponsored and unsponsored content.  This was a 12-state, nearly 8,000 kid study which surveyed middle school, high school, and college level students!

More recently I was reading this article about the soon-to-be released book, Digital Minimalism. In it, author Cal Newport suggests “the key to living well in a high tech world is to spend much less time using technology.” In fairness to Dr. Newport, he is an expert I suspect in click bait so I imagine the tag line was by design. He’s a graduate of prestigious universities, holds multiple degrees, and currently is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. His writings lean more towards the self-improvement genre and his opinions on peer-to-peer networks will probably generate some strong emotions in response. While we as educators wrestle with how to teach students the skills needed to successfully navigate this digital age, Dr. Newport is arguing abstinence in the form of quitting social media all together. He even has a TED Talk defending his position and with nearly 5.2 million views, his ideas have at least piqued the curiosity of a sizable number. Moreover, his age bracket doesn’t allow for a quick dismissal as simply the rant of the antithesis to a young hipster.  Without going into all his research, I found his message at its basic form to encourage individuals to conduct a cost benefit analysis when making decisions around social media usage.  And maybe he’s on to something as emerging studies begin to explore the relationship between social media and decision making while lawmakers have even reintroduced the Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) Act with bipartisan support. The CAMRA Act was initially proposed in 2005 and sought to investigate various online platforms that are designed with habit-forming features and its impact on human development.

Digital citizenship is such a multifaceted construct that any call to teach it requires quite a bit of unpacking. I suspect at the heart of every good teacher is a desire for his or her students to develop the requisite skills to independently navigate a given circumstance – monitor and adjust isn’t just a mantra for the adults. From my perspective, any strategy for success begins with knowledge gained by examining issues through diversity of thought. If our young people are struggling with discriminating between fact and fiction, maybe we can all benefit from reading a bit more of Dr. Wineburg’s research. I hear a lot of counsel to students that often emphasizes the permanence of the internet but our guidance doesn’t always match expected norms. What can we do better to engage students in legitimate debate on topics of interest that honors and respects differences in their discourse? As moderators, how do we tailor our own bias and not just meet kids half way, but go more than that proverbial mile?  I frequently tell my own children it doesn’t matter how smart you are if no one is willing to listen to what you have to say. As we become more and more dependent on various technology, perhaps now more than ever the skills required to build relationships become most important. I believe this end goal was embedded within Dr. Newport’s words of caution although, to be honest, I do not see advocating complete abandonment of social media as a viable solution to the perceived problem. I do believe a more measured response would be attempting to negotiate some general agreements on responsibility and appropriateness. While the scope of this thread may be limited to the K-12 audience, what community is better positioned for responding? We see the daily struggles that accompany students in their efforts to seek acceptance, and for many, these growing pains are a natural part of their social emotional learning. Yet across generations, the “X” factor the internet brings to this one is indeed in its magnitude. At a time when it seems as if there are no take backs, we must remain steadfast in our support. I don’t have all the answers or even too many for that matter but I’ve got some ideas. I suspect you do as well so maybe we can collectively continue the conversation…     

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