Overcoming Digital Dualism

Digital dualism is the belief that the on and offline are largely separate and distinct realities. Digital dualists view digital content as part of a "virtual" world separate from a "real" world found in physical space. 

I had a great day yesterday at Dakota Collegiate in Winnipeg. This is a school that is in their 3rd year of a BYOD initiative and for the most part, they are making some wonderful headway. My observations and conversations with them suggest they are really trying to be thoughtful in their implementation. Like any large school, some are more comfortable and trying to push the envelope and others are in need of time to explore more and yet others still are questioning the value of the technology as a connecting device. 

I had the opportunity to speak with the entire staff in small groups throughout the day. Our conversations were very interesting. We discussed a range of topics from asessement, attention, pedagogy and more. Yet for many they still were very concerned and uncertain about this idea of connection. Their concerns mirror how many educators view online connections. 

…people, especially young people, have logged on and checked out. They have traded human friends for Facebook friends. Instead of being present at the dinner table, they are lost in their phones. Writer after writer laments the loss of a sense of disconnection, of boredom (now redeemed as a respite from anxious info-cravings), of sensory peace in this age of always-on information, omnipresent illuminated screens, and near-constant self-documentation. Most famously, there is Sherry Turkle, who is amassing fame for decrying the loss of real, offline connection. In the New York Times, Turkle writes that “in our rush to connect, we flee from solitude … we seem almost willing to dispense with people altogether.” She goes on:

I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices. So I say, look up, look at one another.

While the Cape Cod example is Kerry/Romney-level unrelatable, we can grasp her point: Without a device, we are heads up, eyes to the sky, left to ponder and appreciate. Turkle leads the chorus that insists that taking time out is becoming dangerously difficult and that we need to follow their lead and log off.


To summarize:

Online connections are a poor man's replacement for face to face, physical world, interactions. Had I read that yesteday, many teachers would have stood up and shouted, "Amen!" Certainly everyone would read that and relate or agree to various degrees. But…..

This perception is a huge hurdle to get over and often creates angst and tension among staff, students and administration. I need to do a better job articulating and helping folks understand the differences. Believe me, I share many stories of connections and examples yet when we sit down to discuss the possiblity, they focus on how their students feel the need to connect/text with their friends in lieu of conversations and interactions in physical spaces. They also talk about the shallow interactions with content. I completely acknowledge these issue and that's where Howard Rheingold's work on attention literacy becomes important. I think in part the issue is they only see online connection as a supplment to offline relationships. They understand and appreciate Skyping with a family member, they might even see Skyping with a guest expert. They don't understand or value the seemingly or varying purposes of connection. I like how the article quote above goes on to say:

we have been taught to mistakenly view online as meaning not offline. The notion of the offline as real and authentic is a recent invention, corresponding with the rise of the online. If we can fix this false separation and view the digital and physical as enmeshed, we will understand that what we do while connected is inseparable from what we do when disconnected.

This is still someone abstract until you begin to understand, value and appreciate what these connections look and feel like. Most educators and students don't know what it's like to forge connections with people youve never met. For me, face to face interactions for many of my professional colleagues supplement my online interactions. The notion of digital dualism is largely the crux of what holds education back from valuing  these connections. This doesn't suggest we can't discuss manners and norms but it also can't be shrouded with superiority or nostaligia. Those two perspectives will always remain so long as folks only see their connections as supplement or a second choice. 

My struggle remains in helping people understand that our world now includes digital connections not simply as supplements to relationships but embedded and at times equal to or at least different from traditional non-mediated relationships. Like our computers today, we feel a need to label this and distinguish them as "technology" if only to understand their "newness". Perhaps someday we'll not point out these differences and see online connections as less meaningful. For now, I don't know how to help folks get over that idea without them experiencing it for themselves. I also don't want this conversation to be about making people feel like "I get this and you don't". That's when the discussion becomes more polarized.

Any thoughts?


Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shareski/5185900567/

Thanks to Jon Becker for the links