Hooked on technology? Or, on relationships (and learning)?

{Cross posted on TechLearning Advisor Blog}

SpeedGeeking by superkimbo in bkkCreative Commons License photo credit: superkimbo in bkk

I spend a lot of time online, so, New York Times health columnist Tara Parker-Pope’s recent writeup Are You Hooked on Technology? really hit home for me. (It’s actually a collection of several thought-provoking articles on this subject.) I was most intrigued by these questions by St. Bonaventure University’s Kimberly Young, a leading researcher investigating the addictive nature of online technologies and the effects they can have on people’s “regular” (read: offline) lives:

  • Do you frequently form new relationships with fellow online users?
  • Do others in your life often complain about the amount of time you spend using technology?
  • Do you always check your e-mail messages before doing other things?
  • When you’re online and someone needs you, do you usually say “just a few more minutes” before stopping?
  • Have you ever chosen to spend time online rather than going out with others?

I immediately started thinking about how online interactions shape professional learning. I often wonder about the impact of time we spend with our online networks vs. time we spend interacting with our colleagues face to face.  So, I revised her questions:

  • Do you frequently form new online relationships with teachers outside your district?
  • Do colleagues in your district question the amount of time you spend using technology in your classroom?
  • Are you more likely to e-mail a distant colleague or use Twitter to seek an answer a question than ask someone in person?
  • Imagine you’re engaged in an online activity and a colleague stops by. Are you able to immediately break away and give them the attention they deserve?
  • How much more likely would you be to choose to spend time exploring ideas and issues online via your personal learning network rather than interact with your local colleagues?

There are many forces and issues at work here. Clearly anything that improves someone’s knowledge on a particular subject is helpful, but if that comes at the expense of personal relationships developed with co-workers, isn’t that counterproductive? Even so, it seems logical that, depending on the subject matter, the knowledge and skills in the “Twitterverse” or our “Personal Learning Networks” (PLNs) exceed what is available in our own schools, making them a logical “go-to first” choice. Why would you ask a colleague a question if they had no relevant background or experience in that particular area? Nonetheless, online relationships give us easy access to vast quantities of people – and information – we simply wouldn’t have otherwise. To me, therein lies the problem…

IMG_4092.JPGCreative Commons License photo credit: 松林L

Online relationships provide like-minded educators with a free, 24/7, all-you-can-eat buffet of knowledge, but because WE define it, the selection often isn’t very well balanced. Most people tend to load up their PLNs like oversized plates at the local buffet, piled high with the stuff we enjoy the most – people who do the same kind of work, who work at the similar schools, who think the same way we do, or who like the same things. The result is a lack of variety in terms of intellectual perspective in our PLNs. It doesn’t mean the information is flawed, it just means it’s not as balanced as it could be. And it exacerbates the tendency to overconsume, and therefore, appear “addicted.”

There’s more. Linked in the same article, you’ll find Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price, by New York Times reporter Matt Richtel. Granted, this story is mostly about a technology entrepreneur living in Silicon Valley, not an educator, but I saw some eerie parallels between by my family’s life and that of the Cambell’s. For one, the constant presence of technology, particularly during social family time. It’s a concern for my family, to be totally honest, as my wife and I have been trying to find a way to implement a ‘power down hour’ when we’re all together with screens and devices off. (We haven’t quite sold our daughters [age 15 & 19] on the idea yet.)

Take a look at the photo below, from my friend and colleague Wes Fryer, titled The replacement for Saturday morning cartoons:

The replacement for Saturday morning cartoons by Wes FryerCreative Commons License photo credit: Wes Fryer

Don’t worry, Wes has plenty of other pictures (and so do I) that document a well-rounded family existence. :) Still, Wes’s excellent blog post, Saturday morning in a 1 to 1 household, echoes Clay Shirky’s words about how technology has supplanted ‘passive’ entertainment like Saturday morning cartoons. There is real educational value in our online interactions, they are more active, interconnected, cerebral and, frequently, involve another human beings at the other end as a fellow player or opponent. You can’t say that for reruns of Spongebob Squarepants. But I digress…

What about the allegation that smartphones, cellphones and personal computers are needless intrusions in our lives, increasing stress and making it harder to concentrate? According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, “almost 30 percent of those under 45 said the use of these devices made it harder to focus.” The study cites some positive findings, including “most said the use of devices had no effect on the amount of time they spent with their family.” As I think is evident in the photo above, technology doesn’t have to take away from family time. Sometime it enhances it.

My Droid IncredibleHere’s a slightly different take on the issue. About a week ago, I got my very first smartphone, a Verizon Droid Incredible (“DInc,” as it’s called). So far this phone has lived up to its name in every way and is actually REDUCING the amount of time I spend connected. It’s improved my focus, and, most surprisingly, it’s even helping me shed other electronic devices.

Having the DInc with me means I am just a few swipes & taps away from Twitter, email, text messages, voicemail, the web and more. Before, if I wanted to check in online, I’d have to fire up my MacBook or Toshiba netbook, or find a desktop PC. Once done with the task at hand, I’d often get distracted and end up bouncing around the web, doing nothing particularly productive. With the DInc, I handle what I need to, log off, and put it away. As a result, I’ve decided I no longer need my Toshiba netbook. My DInc is easier to carry and does the majority of I needed the netbook for – connecting to & learning from other people via the web. Like danah boyd says, “we’re addicted to our friends, not the computer.”

To wrap this up, I’ll close with this question: does the confluence of technology (both hardware and software) in modern daily life represent a distraction that costs us in terms of reduced real-life interactions with other people? Or does all this technology make us more connected, more efficient, and more effective in our work and personal lives, enhancing our learning every day?

I’m going with the latter. How about you?


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15 Responses to Hooked on technology? Or, on relationships (and learning)?

  1. Wow, I am saving this one to share. Thanks for putting this in perspective, Kevin.I’m with you:)

  2. David says:

    wonderful thoughts and very well argued and “fired”.

    I’m going to be very outspoken in my comment.

    I really believe this whole debate about online/offline is false. It is an illusion, a false one created by our own ill view of “reality”.

    I think that what happens online is as real as anything offline. It is part of one whole, not a separate thing. This is what our kids are telling us and what we have to come around to.

    If you criticize online presence or “too much” (whatever too much is) you should also criticize all the banality in our lives, all the unproductive moments, all the minutes/hours we spend lying in bed waiting to get up, waiting in line trying to get there, driving our cars trying to be somewhere…. life consists mostly of this “nothing” .

    Is this of no value? No! It is how “present” you are. This is THE PRESENT. It happens online or off – this now.

    Articles, essays portraiting online activity as something “unreal” are ignorant of what exactly “real” is and means. Relationships are defined in many ways, those who want to put them into neat packages are dinosaurs. IMO….

    But your post is a keeper. Thanks for such insightful and well written stuff.


  3. reallyrosie says:

    One spin is as good as any other….

  4. @Susan, thanks! Of course, now after I’ve posted it, I want to revise/edit some more, but I’m holding back. Really need to let these posts sit for a long time before publishing!

    @David, you are so right. Your comments remind me of the argument people make that Second Life and other virtual worlds “aren’t real life.” SL and other virtual worlds absolutely ARE real life, it’s just a different kind of reality, one augmented by technology, but people interacting virtually are every bit as real as anyone else.

    @reallyrosie, tell me more…

  5. Great post! :)

    Made me think and analize my own online habits. I’m afraid I do spend too much time online. There’s always lots to read, to share and not enough time to properly digest it all. I’ll admit I sometimes get lost in “bouncing around the web, doing nothing particularly productive”, but for the most I do believe that “technology make us more connected, more efficient, and more effective in our work and personal lives, enhancing our learning every day”. It’s all a question of finding the balance between the online and the offline worlds that actually works for us.
    A while ago I came across “the hierarchy of digital distractions” – http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/the-hierarchy-of-digital-distractions/ – Check it out and decide where exactly you stand on there. :)

  6. reallyrosie says:

    Ok. Here’s my 2 cents: until us older techies who came into pc in the late 80’s earlyb 90’s retire and our colleagues who didn’t come into tech at the same time also retire these belly button lint examinations will continue. Tech is not new but it is still a new enough and speedily evolving phenomenon that people are still examining it from all angles as if to say “what the heck just happened?” We are not likely to find an answer to this musing in this century. And until people stop commenting on the use of tech tools, we won’t stop worrying it.
    I wish this would stop already. Tech is here to stay (until the next blackout) and there are other topics (like how to weather the next blackout!) that are more compelling. I wish “tech” would/could be seen as innocuously as “telephone”.
    [This is not to say your post isn't well put together and your ideas well presented. Just to say we don't need to defend our use or perceived overuse to anyone.]

  7. @reallyrosie, thanks for the comment. I definitely agree, this is like the discussion of technology integration … we need less discussion and more integration … so that it’s not something that is noticed or special, it’s just “how it is.” My sense is we’re at an inflection point with regards to all of this, and that’s why we’re feeling the pain, so to speak, and that it’s a topic of study and commentary. Makes me wonder what it was like not so long ago (10 years? 15?) when little of these influences existed in our lives. I know I had a lot more “free” time, but I don’t have anyone/anything to blame for the loss of that than myself…

  8. Donna Bills says:

    I think what we are talking about is time management. We need to
    be making concious choices about how we use our time. To make room for new learning and new technological activites, we have to choose what we can give up or modify to add these into our lifestyles, both personal
    and professional. If you are losing too
    much sleep and neglecting old friends and fiamily, you may making poor choices. If your students know about blogs, wikis and wordles but can’t add or write a coherent sentence, you may have a professional problem. Like any technogical advancement since the invention of fire the benefit or destructive power lies in the choices of the users.

    Right now I should be doing the end of year filing in my office and I am commenting on a blog. But I have ,also, avoided that task by chatting with a colleague about her summer
    plans. Balance , moderation and self-discipline are challenging but valuable traits for any

  9. Donna, you are absolutely right – balance is the key – but doesn’t it seem that it’s HARDER today than ever before? Maybe every generation feels that way. Everyone reacts to stressors differently … I wish I could recall the study I heard recently that looked at stress levels today vs. the recent past. The conclusion is things are much more stressful now. Bottom line, whether it’s omnipresent technology, student behavior, high-stakes testing, or some other factor, at the end of the day, it’s up to us to make choices that get our students where they need to be knowledge-wise. In a word, yes, balance. :) -kj-

  10. Jon says:

    I am going to say I think it is a good thing to be hooked on technology, people need to make their own choices, they only thing I would like to say is whether the technology is engaging, there is no point using online anything if you are going to be a observer and/or consumer ie those kids on the computers, are they drawing, programming, building websites/ writing in blogs or just playing games. If they are creating technology is a good thing if they are consuming technology is no different to television.

  11. reallyrosie says:

    I don’t think so because tv is totally passive. Playing a game is interactive. if the kids are just watching a video, then there’s a slight resemblance because there’s usually a link at the end or a way to respond and there are choices that tv does not have. A computer is not a glorified boob tube.

  12. Joe says:

    Technology is no more a distraction than it is a tool, it is, what it is, to each of us based on how we use it in our lives. The person defines his/her environment and circumstance. Technology is a opportunity as much as it is a burden. It can help us or hurt us depending on how we use it and our level of self-awareness about our own behavior.

  13. @Jon and @reallyrosie – I agree about the value of interactivity on video sharing sites but the vast majority of people don’t take advantage of the commenting features. For them, the consumption is a passive event.

    @Joe – well said – but when television first came on the scene, its impacts were felt first by the early adopters. Eventually, TV changed society forever (just think of how pervasive TV is in our lives). Wondering if that analogy holds here as well. What do you think?

  14. reallyrosie says:

    Re: impacts of tv first felt by early adopters…

    Um, maybe! Why? Because the impact then actually was more interactive with families sitting about watching together and commenting to each other.
    Hit & run reader doesn’t mean thoughtless or unconcerned. There could be a seed planted in a reader’s mind that will blend with others and then be (hopefully) synthesized (not plagerized) into a different thought.

    Tech is constantly evolving & won’t be categorized.

  15. Just read a great article that ties into this discussion quite nicely:


    Good stuff…


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