Sunday, January 22, 2012

Changing Communication in Modern Society & the Classroom

Last night was very nearly a winter apocalypse in the Bellm household. Our furnace would not blow hot air!!! AHHHH!!! After waking up partially frozen at 2:30 in the morning from repeated nightmares about teaching linear inequalities, with a shivering furry kitten tucked against my face, I had had enough. 

It took close to 20 minutes of flipping switches, resetting breakers, wiping and blowing dust off fan parts, and a lot of prayer. I finally got the heat on. By then the thermostat read a chilling 60 degrees. I have to thank Yahoo Answers and various other google help sites for giving Zombie Math Teacher the courage to continue flipping switches until the heat was restored; thus saving a ton of money on repair man visits.

What did people do even twenty, thirty years ago in similar emergencies? Simple! Spent a lot of money calling in help. Or waking up and alienating more knowledgeable family members in the dead of night for advice. Or bribing them to come over and take a look. Or getting out a hammer and banging random parts. Very unlikely would the individual have enough resources at hand to solve the problem on his/her own.

Which got me thinking... how differently we communicate and solving problems these days... in life and in school especially, due to all of the technology at our disposal. What do we do when something goes right or wrong, and we need to share it with others? Which resources do we find most effective? How do we relate to each other in our various roles in life because of the new communication that is available? And most of all, how much easier have our lives become as a direct result of technology?

Hence the first pie chart. It is a rough breakdown of the time I spent completing various communication tasks during my early teen years. The internet was in its infancy, and I rarely used it for anything educational because there wasn't much to look at. I didn't have an email, nor any friends with emails, and Webcrawler was the fastest search engine around. What did we do when we needed help with homework? How did we find out what our grades were? What did we miss at school when we were sick? We had to TALK to someone to find out! And that took a lot of time. And small talk. Think of the time wasted with the "how are you's" and the "what's the weather like" and "say hello to your mother for me" blah blah blah's.

People ask me how I keep a blog, and manage a website, and teach and complete all the prerequisite tasks associated with running a classroom, and keep a family and house, and have any time to sleep. The best answer I can give... is that I DESPISE SMALL TALK. I HATE TALKING ON THE PHONE. I probably save an hour to two hours a day because I am a really, really fast typer and reader, and because I text and email, compared to picking up the phone and making calls. Is this good or bad? Who can say?

This is not to say that any of us tech-savvy peeps have become antisocial; far from it. We just start conversations on the internet, and carry them into real life, and often times finish those conversations again in the digital world. Does that devalue the communication? I don't think so. Now turn this around for the classroom, and you will see how my communication has changed in twenty odd years.

Time that was spent in person, or on the phone twenty years ago, with probably 50-60% meaningful communication taking place, has now been transferred to the digital world. Virtually devoid of small talk. Phone conversations, with no possible way of recording the important information other than illegal phone-tapping or copious note-taking, have been nearly eliminated. This can be taken as a good or as an evil.

We all know that email chains and reply-all's can be a horrendous nuisance. There are many situations in which meetings and phone calls are easier and more effective. But for mass information posts, missing assignments and grading needs, the internet is really one of the best tools in a teacher's arsenal. Parents and occasionally administrators will often ask, "why didn't you just pick up the phone and call?"

But it is difficult to pinpoint at what point an individual student or parent is in need of this communication. Is it for a drop in a grade? Or sick/absent work? Or classroom behavior? What does the parent prefer? Is the email documentation and parental response necessary, compared to a phone log?

My prediction is that digital ethics and accountability is going to be an increasing issue of notice in classrooms in the next ten years. What older generations of parents, teachers and administrators prefer and expect, will continue to clash with what younger generations prefer and are willing to experiment with. I do not know how a balance will ever be reached, or if one is possible, with the amount of new data and technology that continues to be available every day.

What I do know, is that working in the profession, and being willing to try new things, is that I often feel like I am balancing on the tip of a knife. There are no clear boundaries for new technologies. How do you know what is acceptable or unacceptable until you have tried it? Is it worth jeopardizing your career to be an innovator, when there is no guarantee for success? There are no easy answers.

It will be interesting to look back on this post in another twenty years and to make a new pie chart for 2032. What challenges will be at the forefront then? Will still exist? Will furnaces have become self-aware and capable of fixing themselves, thus rendering all HVAC service providers jobless?

Oh wait. The world is going to end in 2012 after all. What am I talking about. Silly zombie.

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