Disconnect to Reconect

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It is surprising to think that the little devices we carry with us have such a hold on us.  We constantly check in on our Facebook accounts, take photos, post them and check for likes and shares.  Very few of us go without cell phones for more than a few minutes let alone a few days.  The concept of unplugging has become a bit of a buzz word these days and the concept has been explored by tech wizards and numerous blogs.  Unplugging or detoxing has been lauded for it’s merits as an activity to cleanse the mind and the soul.  But is it all it’s cracked up to be?  Is it necessary to unplug when everything we do is linked to tech and social media?  Life is about finding balance and it just seems as though in the fight between screen time and living in the moment, screens are winning by a long shot.

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The reality is that it’s actually healthy to take breaks from social media and technology from time to time.  Many studies have shown that cognitive function and memory are affected by constant social media checking and idle web surfing.  The brain is like a muscle.  Although it doesn’t move, it does require time to develop and grow after new information is added.  We could consider this processing time.  In fact, studies have shown that taking a break from screens and tech periodically can recharge the brain and improve memory.  Here are some other interesting stats…

  • 84% of cell phone users claim they could not go a single day without their device. (source)
  • 67% of cell phone owners check their phone for messages, alerts, or calls — even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating.(source)
  • Studies indicate some mobile device owners check their devices every 6.5 minutes. (source)
  • 88% of U.S. consumers use mobile devices as a second screen even while watching television. (source)
  • Almost half of cell owners have slept with their phone next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls. (source)
  • Traditional TV viewing eats up over six days (144 hours, 54 minutes) worth of time per month. (source)
  • Some researchers have begun labeling “cell phone checking” as the new yawn because of its contagious nature. (source)

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I think we’ve all experienced situations such as the ones mentioned during the debate by Dean, Janelle, and Kyle.  I still find it incredibly rude when someone is in the middle of a conversation and the other person pulls out his/her phone.  As stated above, you may have even compulsively pulled out your phone when you saw someone else doing it (much like yawns being contagious).  Now I am not saying that I am without reproach in this regard.  I too carry my phone with me almost all of the time.  I do try to keep it in my pocket when in social situations and having kids has really opened my eyes to the dangers of not living in the moment.  I have been at countless swimming lessons, soccer games and play dates during which not a single parent was actually engaging with their kids or watching them at all.  What could distract these parents from watching their 3 year olds having a blast in the pool or scoring a goal?  As I look around the field or pool deck I consistently see moms and dads hunched over cell phones and tablets, unaware of what’s happening around them.  I am not in a place to judge at all.  Maybe these parents are responding to urgent emails.  Maybe they are preparing something for work the next day.  But, I can imagine that at least some of these parents are engaged in social media activities.  Here is another viewpoint on unplugging shared by a teenager named Lane Sutton, a tech and social media wonderkind.

So, I practice being in the moment.  I make a concerted effort to be in every story, joke or activity with my kids because they are such little sponges.  They notice what we may not always perceive.  My little girl said to me the other day, “Daddy put your phone away and come outside with me.”  She’s 2 and she is already realizing that with my phone in front of me she does not have my full attention.  I realize that we will never be able to denounce technology.  It is now too ingrained in our lives.  Social media has a stranglehold on the way in which we interact with the world.  Even my 87 year-old Grandmother checks her Facebook profile on her Ipad daily to see pictures of her grandchildren and great grandchildren.  The key has to be moderation.  Take some time this week to take a break from social media and screens and take part in an activity you love without posting the results or waiting for likes.  Enjoy the smiles on the faces of your family members without snapping a photo.  Get some exercise without posting your workout to social media or fitness apps.  You’ll find rejuvenation of mind, body and soul.

Here are some other great reasons to unplug:

1) Leave behind jealousy, envy, and loneliness

2) Combat FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

3) Find solitude (there is value in having alone time)

4) Life is happening right in front of you (don’t miss out for FOMO)

5) Promote Creation over Consumption (take time to create something)

6) Once the device is gone the level of addiction can truly be understood (as we all know when we have forgotten our phones)

7) Life is about flesh, blood and eye contact

Everything in moderation, as someone once said.

-Almost everything will work again if you unplug for a few minutes….Including you!-  Anne Lamott

 

 

 

 

 

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Can We Fight the Future?

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In many ways I’m disappointed that this class has come to an end.  Discussing edtech issues with fellow educators from all over the country has been a privilege.  I have definitely had to evaluate my point of view and it has undergone changes again and again.  I have been challenged to think critically about how I use technology in my classroom and I have even been presented with issues that I had not previously considered.  It was intriguing to speak with fellow educators who have very different viewpoints on educational technology.  It was very encouraging to discover that whether teachers are for or against edtech, a genuine love for students and a concentration on their needs was foremost.  Throughout the course I came to several key realizations which I will attempt to summarize here.

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The first debate covered the merits of technology in the classroom and I came to the conclusion that technology for the sake of itself is a perilous venture.  Each integration of technology in the classroom must be weighed and measured for it’s ability to enhance the learning for students.  Teachers should not be scared to abandon certain aspects of their edtech strategy if it proves inefficient or contrary to learning.  Secondly, we discussed whether we should be teaching content that can be found on Google.  I came to a strong realization that there are certain pieces of information that must be scaffolded and therefore must be memorized.  However, I also am a strong believer in challenging students with critical questions and real world problems that cannot be simply searched.  Practical application and skill development are key skills for the 21st century.  When it comes to the role of technology in our health and wellness, I came away with the notion that in many ways screen time, online bullying, and the stresses placed upon children due to technology are indeed affecting our youth.  Although there are many instances in which technology can provide health benefits, if we are truly considering all health aspects including mental health, it seems as though a balanced approach to tech use with youth is warranted.  Ian makes a great point about the resiliency of kids which i think is necessary to keep in mind.   In the fourth debate we tackled the question of openness and sharing in educational settings.  I am still of the opinion that we need to do right by our students and be cautious with how and why we share on social media.  However, some of the greatest lightbulb moments in my classroom have come from making connections with classrooms and individuals from around the world.  It has truly opened my students eyes to a different worldview.

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Tech for equity was another tough topic to tackle but due to my experiences overseas, I still had to come to the conclusion that although technology has made great strides for equity and that the bar continues to be raised, there is still much work to be done.  There are definitely many more marginalized voices being heard because of technology but at the same time, without equal access for all, it can hardly be equitable.  Social media is a huge reason why so many more people are interconnected.  However, it is also clearly playing a major role in the development of children in our society.  As previously mentioned, the sheer number of hours spent in front of screens on social media is staggering compared to even 5 years ago.  In my opinion, this is also an area teachers must approach with good modelling and a balanced strategy.  The appropriate use of social media for positivity must be a part of every classroom.  As Andy states in his summary, “with the right dosage and application, technology has the ability to enrich our lives, not harm them, but it must be used appropriately, responsibly, and we must be explicitly taught directions for use.”  If not, we will continue to see students who are depressed, overweight, stressed out, lacking sleep and unable to communicate face to face.

Lastly we discussed the corporatization of education and the role that companies now play in the future of our children.  Once again I was reminded that these types of decisions must always be made with students’ best interests in mind.  Education is a market that is ready to be tapped by many companies that would love a piece of the pie.  We need to ask ourselves, what’s the cost to our kids? and is it worth it?  I’m looking forward to discussing the overuse of technology and the necessity of unplugging from time to time as well.

In general I have come away with several key learnings from the course this term.  I’m calling these Luke’s Keys to Edtech Use.  Although they may seem simple, when applied to the issues discussed above, they have proven to be extremely good reminders when implemented in practice.  In essence, we will not be able to fight the future.  This is the way the world is headed.  What we can do is insure that students are first and foremost, that we are giving kids a balanced education, and that we are modelling what it means to live in a digital world.  Can we fight the future?  I certainly think we would be foolish to try.

Luke’s Keys to Edtech Issues

  1. Keep Kids First
  2. Take a Balanced Approach
  3. Model Model Model

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In the spirit of the debate format of the class, Steve and I decided to record a podcast in which we tackled and summarized some of the issues presented in this course. We expound upon these in the following podcast.  We also researched some helpful links in our show notes to further explore these topics.  Please enjoy the debut episode of “Steve’s Wrong vs. No I’m Not”

It’s Just Business: Corporations in Schools

There is no shortage of examples of ways in which corporations have partnered with education over the years to offer financial support.  Coca-cola, Crayola, Apple, Microsoft, Nike, Addidas…the list goes on and on.  Financial support is something that, in this day and age, schools cannot afford to turn away.  Government funding for public education has been dismally low ever since the recession and as is evidenced in the recent decision by the Sask Party government to renege on their earlier funding promise.  School districts are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to funding, especially in the United States.  In many districts, funding is granted due to performance of the school or district in question on various academic and standardized tests.  This makes great business sense for companies because they are able to build community relationships, while also garnering support from partnerships.  In Calgary Public schools for example, the Board of Education is entertaining the possibility of more corporate involvement in their system.  The truth is that corporations want to be involved in public education but they also want some recognition.  The important consideration becomes whether the corporate involvement in schools is actually providing enhanced learning for students.  In many instances this decision may come down to a trade off of funding or support for corporations in exchange for some advertising exposure for students.  So what is it that corporations want in partnerships with public education?

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This depends on the individual situation.  There are legitimate companies who truly want to bring educational improvements to the classroom but it is a rare occurrence to find situations in which funding or support is given without any expectancy of return.  The returns wanted from these companies vary but they can prove to be detrimental to the learning happening at the classroom level.  One of the biggest negatives in these situations is the possibility of creating ‘haves and have nots.’  For example, if Coca-Cola is going to provide funding for a new school gymnasium, they will want their name to be associated with a successful school.  Therefore, schools who already have success in academics or athletics will probably unfairly attract corporate sponsors.  This leads to a disparity in school districts and the further alienation of at risk students.  Another problem arises from the advertisements and marketing geared toward students.  In one instance, M and M’s produces a primary level math text book that teaches students to count using their candy.  McDonald’s sponsors the Go-Active Fitness Challenge which, to me seems quite ironic.  Unless the goal of the challenge is to work off the calories from your latest Big Mac.  These kinds of programs encourage consumerism among students.  The strategy is called Trojan-Horse Marketing and it gives companies access to one of the biggest untapped markets of future buyers.

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Many parents are worried about the public schools having these types of business relationships because of the potential impacts on kids.  In this documentary called Corporations in the Classroom, teachers and administrators both share differing views on the role of businesses in the community.  Some in the education community feel as though having corporate sponsors is a necessary evil in order to be able to fund the programs and learning experiences that truly inspire students.  On the other hand, some feel that although companies should feel a responsibility to schools and communities, support should come without strings attached.

The other issue in corporate involvement becomes apparent when corporate educational partners have a vested interest in testing.  Pearson has become a hot button issue with many educators due to their involvement in virtually all aspects of our education system in Canada.  The standardized tests are often written and provided by companies like Pearson, who also provide textbooks and learning resources for schools.  In these instances, especially in the US, standardized test scores are linked to government funding.  Therefore, once again, the schools from higher socio-economic areas will tend to score higher on these tests thereby resulting in more funding.  The No Child Left Behind policy resulted in increased testing for students with funding linked to success on these tests.  Dean Shareski would certainly argue that the Pearson example in Canada is an extreme one and that the majority of corporations involved with schools are invested in improving education and enhancing learning.  As he stated during the debate on Tuesday, “it is naive for educators and school divisions to think that we can do this on our own.”  I think it is a telling sign of where public education ranks on the list of societies’ priorities in this day and age.  If a little bit of extra advertising is what we are concerned about, the question should be asked, how much advertising are our students exposed to on a daily basis?

Is it really so bad that we have corporations vying for a spot at the table of learning?  It seems as though the balance must always be struck but the key question has to be are we putting students first?  That’s the bottom line.  Every monetary decision must be framed in this way.  Are we doing a disservice to students or are we enhancing the learning that is happening in the classroom?  Once we lose sight of students best interests, it may be too late and the soul of education will already be gone.  Have we gone too far?

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Is Social Media Making us Unsocial?

Growing up in the 21st century means that childhood is defined by, and inextricably linked to, social media.  Children as young as grade 2 or 3 now have personal devices.  Children in elementary and middle school have multiple social media accounts even though many of these require minimum ages of 13 or 14.  It has become a way to connect, to chat, to post our thoughts, feelings and emotions.  It provides answers to questions, gives feedback, and affirms or negates our feelings.  It acts like a catalog of all the information available to us which is shared by others.  It documents our lives in incredible detail if need be.  Social media helps students connect with other students across the globe, collaborate together, post progress and receive feedback.  It is a force of the 21st century world and it is a crucial part of our lives that cannot be ignored.

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However, can we accept blindly every new app and innovation that comes along without knowing how they impact us?  Of course we should right?  I mean, technology is always good, it always moves us forward, it always makes life easier and simpler.  After-all, many of today’s modern conveniences were once new inventions as well.  The difference here lies in the deeply personal aspects of these social media platforms.

As Alison Graham explains, the goals of social media platforms are connections and socialization but it seems that the more we participate, the less social we actually become. Personalized technology that becomes so ingrained in our psyches that we literally become addicted to the likes that somehow indicate we have worth in this world.  Herein lies the problem, with the blind acceptance of social media platforms, it shifts focus away from others and onto the self.  As time goes on, the socializing aspect for which the apps were designed ceases to be the true driving force behind their use.  The self often becomes the true reason for the constant posting and checking for likes.  One researcher even tells of a young man who’s desire to take the perfect selfie drove him to suicidal tendencies.   It tends to drive narcissism to the point where phycological trauma can occur.

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People will argue that these anxieties have always existed and that alarmists are making too much of what we call social media addictions.  When I was growing up, social time with friends was just that…time to socialize.  Talking and laughing about what had happened that day, riding our bikes to another friend’s house to see if we could organize a soccer game.  Some would argue that we look back at our childhood through rose coloured glasses in which we see a delightful world free of stress and anxiety.  Of course stress and anxiety still existed before the age of social media.  However, the difference lies in transparency of lives lived completely in the online environment. If your social status, well being, and self worth comes completely from what is said about you on social media, it’s little wonder that students can not handle being without their phones.  A recent CNN documentary called #Being 13 looked at 13 year olds across the United States and their lives lived on social media.

  • 61% of teens said they wanted to see if their online posts are getting likes and comments.
  • 36% of teens said they wanted to see if their friends are doing things without them.
  • 21% of teens said they wanted to make sure no one was saying mean things about them.

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The Huffington Post released a study in which parents were asked if children were more susceptible to mental health problems in this day and age.  The results indicated that social media was one of the driving forces behind mental health issues for youth.  This is something that cannot be escaped whether it’s negative feedback on a selfie, bullying comments posted on your Facebook wall, or being left out of a group of friends.  The digital online life follows students back to the privacy of their homes each night. Compulsively checking and rechecking to see what others have said about them has become normal for many teens.  This new phenomenon, which has been deemed lurking,  tends to lead to late night with little sleep as students scroll through feeds, answer texts or hit like and follow to show that they are “socially engaged” in popular culture.

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So what does this all mean?  First of all, as adults in a digital world it once again comes back to the idea of modelling proper social media use.  What warrants a post or picture being placed online?  Who will we allow to see it?  What message are we trying to convey with this content?  I always ask my students to THINK before they post anything.

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Secondly, it’s important to set limits for social media use.  This falls on the shoulders of the parents but it is something that can be discussed at school as well.  Have students reflect meaningfully on how much they are online.  What are they doing during those hours and are they balancing for a healthy lifestyle that involves enough sleep and exercise?  It’s perhaps unfair to compare our childhood with the one in which students now find themselves.  However, it is more than fair to help students find a balanced and healthy approach to life.

 

 

No Fair: Does Technology Support Equity?

Technology is the promise of the future.  It is touted as the great equalizer.  The tools that will bring education to the underprivileged, those with disabilities and those on the margins of society.  It has the promise of breaking down barriers, of helping us all communicate better and of bringing equity to the world.  But, is technology living up to these promises?  What is the evidence that we have indeed begun bridging the digital divide?  In a recent Financial Post Study, evidence suggests that even in a developed country like Canada, disparity with regard to access and internet fluency not only still exist but are being exacerbated.  As is noted in the study, age and income both play significant roles in who accesses technology and also how it is used.

“People with some post-secondary education (and who were no longer students) had Internet-use rates nearly 10 per cent higher than people with just a high school diploma, and nearly 50 per cent higher than those without a diploma.” -Financial Post

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The question has to be asked, can technology really bridge gaps such as income disparity?  After-all, at the end of the day the technology has the potential to allow access to a myriad of learning opportunities.  People have access to apps like duolingo, coursera, MOOCs, online information hubs, and translations tools.  The problem is not necessarily the programs and software but the access to internet service and hardware.  How can these services be considered equitable learning opportunities if students do not all have access to the technology?  In addition, it has become clear that technology, even when applied across a range of different socio-economic classrooms, does not benefit all students in the same way.  Harvard Education has undertaken a study outlined in the video below that indicates that the use of a platform such as wiki as an example, is disproportionately benefiting those students who come from higher income brackets and have higher socio-economic status.

So what is the solution?  Clearly the teachers and innovators need to have a strong social justice focus as we engage in these questions.  As mentioned in the video, tools that are specifically designed and targeted at low income and marginalized youth can have a greater impact than simply applying the same broad technology strokes to the entire class and expect the technology to magically transform our students.  Technology in education is an amazing gift and I use it every day and am so thankful for it, however, it can not take the place of personalized learning.  Due to issues of access and socio-economic status, we are still not able to offer the same advantages to these students as the privileged already receive.

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Growing up in Africa meant I was able to experience a different world of education than what we are accustomed to here in Canada.  My friends went to school in which they had 1 pencil for every 10 students.  This meant that as the students sat in rows on the dirt floor, the first person in the line would copy down the notes, pass the pencil on to the next person and so on and so forth.  Is it equitable that these students do not have the opportunity to experience technology in their education?  Maybe not, but it may not be that far off.  Programs like Youth Learning, and the Text to Change project are being implemented in third world countries in order to engage youth in technology and give them a voice in a digital world in which they were not citizens.

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“Technology has the potential to be a huge force for good but it is not a silver bullet, a fix-all solution to how to fix the education and employment problems for young people in developing countries,” says Kenny. “Yet one thing is clear – it will undoubtedly play an increasingly important part of millions of young people’s lives across the world.”-Charles Kenny

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Technology has tremendous potential to affect positive change in the lives of millions of people who are not currently a part of the world you live in right now.  The ease with which we can access and share information across the world in this day and age is unprecedented.  In our own schools here in Saskatchewan, tech tools are allowing creativity to flourish in those that would not otherwise have an outlet.  They are giving hope to those can can’t access traditional learning environments, they are giving a voice to the voiceless.  But the work is not done.  As you are reading this, just remember that there are millions of others around the world right now, and probably in your city or town, who have no way to read this blog.  As educators, let us not be caught in the techno-colonial trap of presuming that as we bring technology to the poor and downtrodden of society, we will be the saviours once again.  Equity must mean more than simply providing the same tools to all.  Personalized learning is the key to success.  We must ask ourselves, what are the individual needs of this student, of this class, of this community?  For many students throughout the world, physiological needs will supersede a simple piece of technology.

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Then again for others…

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The More We Share, the More We Have

I’ve been thinking recently about openness, sharing, and their places in education.  As technology has made its way further and further into education systems across the globe, the ability to share information has been  made vastly more accessible in recent years.  With a powerful device in almost every student and teachers’ pocket, there are limitless possibilities to how information and learning can be shared.  Teachers are using sites like Twitter, Facebook, Edublogs and Wikispaces to document and share their learning with the wider world.  Open course sites like Coursera, and Massive Open Online Courses are changing the way that information is disseminated and online collaboration tools such as Google and Mindmeister have afforded people the opportunity for amazingly creative works.  This is truly the age of open source learning.  However, open source learning without sharing is moot.

So, is sharing all that it’s cracked up to be?  We now live in a world in which sharing every minute detail of each moment of our lives has become normal.  We share photos of what food we’re eating, the shoes we just bought or the thoughts that pop into our head.  With openness comes inherent dangers as this video demonstrates.

Due to these types of online sharing in which no filter is applied, I have often asked the following questions, how much sharing is too much?  Is sharing inherently dangerous?  What is the role of online sharing in education?  Do the benefits outweigh the costs?  In my teaching career thus far I have been what I would call a cautious sharer.  I have a very detailed form that goes home to parents on the first day of school explaining the different platforms we use and allowing parents to give permission for the use of student photos.  We have student blogs but they are viewable only by parents, teachers or other students.  We also have a class twitter account but tweets are composed by myself or in conjunction with students to share what we are learning in the classroom.  Often the tweets are focused not on students themselves but on the projects or learning happening in the classroom.  Is this true sharing?  I think it’s a start. However, it is limiting in many ways.  First of all, the students’ writing is seen only by classmates and a select few parents.  Opening the blogging platform to open comments would allow more readers and therefore, more feedback and engagement.  Studies have shown that as students perceive a larger readership, their writing improves.  The connections formed with other classrooms through Twitter could be strengthened by allowing more control to be passed to the students.  So why is it so hard for me to open up our learning environment and allow deeper and more meaningful connections?

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There are several factors that can tend to negate the full potential of connected and open online learning in classrooms.  Firstly, there are inherent risks involved with sharing information online regarding what students are doing.  Location services and GPS tracking in many apps can compromise the safety of students.  There are also many instances in which students need to be protected and anonymous do to court orders or protective custody.  Secondly, there must be an incredible amount of trust between teachers and students in order to allow students the control to share and connect openly and freely.  Obviously this looks different for various age groups.  High school students for example,  are often quite capable of deciding how to share their learning online.  However, this does necessitate some deeper conversations around what should be posted.  For younger students who lack the same discernment skills, this must be modelled and taught. Douglas Park School’s Aaron Warner is a great example of this mentality.  He routinely teaches and models the use of social media and online sharing with his Grade 7/8 class and eventually turns the reigns over to the students.  I believe this is one of the key components of open classrooms.

Education is not a secret, although aspects of good teaching practice can seem illusive at times.  It is a public and necessary part of our society.  I often cringe when parents express to me that they don’t know what is going on in their children’s classrooms.  With the tools we now have at our disposal, parents should have a clear and complete picture of their child’s experiences at school, even if the student themselves is vague on the details.  This was demonstrated during the debate with the short skit about what was being learned at school.  If there is something tangible and real to demonstrate, students will also be more engaged in the sharing process.  There is also a permanent record of what the learning goals are, steps taken to achieve them, and what the outcomes are.

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As is demonstrated by the above sets of data, teens and young adults are some of the most pervasive sharers of information online.  In addition, the reasons why people share online are telling according to the New York Times study.  Let’s look at some of the top reasons people share online and apply an educator’s lens shall we…

1.To share relevant Information…Teachers and students should both be in the habit of sharing information.  Information is wealth and whether it’s teachers sharing lessons and resources with one another, or students sharing their successes and failures (failures?..yes I said failures because this is when true learning occurs).  Application: Teachers need to model for students which information is relevant and useful to be shared as well as who to share it with (how public?).

2. To support causes or issues they care about… This seems like a no brainer.  What a great opportunity to engage students in meaningful conversations about what’s going on in the world around them.  Students can be surprisingly charismatic, caring and engaged when it comes to supporting causes in the community or around the world.  Many times the students are the first to take action, quickly suggesting a support video for Laloche students, or organizing a bake sale to raise money for Cerebral Palsy. This is how meaningful connections are made and global citizens are produced.

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Application: Let students share their passions and the things they care about.  Pick a list of causes that the class wants to connect with or support.  Discuss what it means to be a global citizen.  Challenge students to dream big and to change the world.

3. Connecting with others who share their interests… This is a great opportunity to network with other classes in your age category.  It also allows a chance to model who should be in our followers or friends lists as individuals.  Some of the best lessons I’ve used have come from connections with other classrooms in Saskatchewan and throughout the world.  As students share interests on blog sites or through Twitter, they build a wider audience and engage with the world outside the classroom.  Genius hour is a great example of this.  When we look at genius hour projects of other 7/8 classes the students up the anti.  Application: Let students explore passion projects.  Encourage students to share what they are learning or what they’ve created.  Model at first and compose Tweets or posts together as a class.

4. Expressing self identity and feeling of involvement in the world…This is an opportunity to model the permanency of our digital identity.  Students should build an awareness of how the class is perceived online and what our digital footprint will be.  Discuss with students which parts of our identity we wish to share with the world.  How involved should we be?  Application: Extend this thinking to students’ own personal sharing.  Engage them in discussions about how they should present themselves online.

Let’s take the time and get this one right.  Let’s show our students the power of positive sharing through meaningful connections.

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The Greatest Wealth is Health

When I first considered the question of whether the use of technology is making our youth unhealthy, I had pretty much made up my mind on the issue.  I grew up in Mali, West Africa and as such was in a continuous technology lag zone.  Living in a developing country meant that even land line phone connections were spotty at best, there was no internet until 1998 or so and cell phones were non-existent in rural areas until about 10 years ago.  I grew up climbing trees to pick mangoes, hunting lizards and birds with a slingshot, or riding my bike on the goat paths that stretched for miles around our village.  I loved growing up in Africa and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  I have a bit of a different worldview when it comes to technology and that is that simpler is sometimes better.  But wait…isn’t technology supposed to simplify my life thereby making my life easier and stress free?  The issue of whether technology is making us unhealthy is one in which there are many factors to consider.  Not the least of which are the inherent problems with some of the studies and reports that have been released in recent years on both sides of this argument.

On the one hand, I feel like one day I’m going to wake up and realize that North American society has gone the way of the humans in Wall-E.  Studies have conclusively shown that obesity rates in North America are on a steady incline and that this is due in large part to diet and a sedentary lifestyle.  Some students are spending more time in front of screens at home than hours in the school day.  I usually ask my Grade 7 students during our digital citizenship and health unit how many hours they spend in front of screens on average per day.  When I first started teaching, it was usually around 2-3 on a school day.  Now the average is around 6-8 hours.  Aside form the risk of obesity due to lack of exercise, there is also the risk of sleep loss.  For students who are still developing and in need of at least 9-10 hours of sleep a night, the devices and screens in their bedrooms mean that many of them do not get to sleep on a weeknight until around midnight or later.  We then expect these students to arrive at school and begin functioning at full capacity on their school work.  In addition, the physical activity that students are engaged in at school is nowhere near the 1 hour a day minimum necessary.  Not to mention, the social and emotional toll of the barrage of bullying, slandering and trolling that students endure on their online profiles.

On the other hand, is it prudent to simply pull all technology out of the hands of our youth? After all, there exist numerous benefits to the use of technology in the lives of students. Apps like snapchat, instagram, and skype allow students to stay connected and socialize. Fitness and sleep tracking apps like fitbit allow students to get exercise and track their progress.  Not only can technology provide entertainment, it also allows for amazing creativity.  Youth are doing things with technology that at one time used to be reserved for computer science engineers.  There are numerous safety benefits, to tech use as well as  from GPS tracking and mapping systems, to home security.  There is certainly also the question of technology playing a key role in all our students’ futures.  If we simply try to cut out technology, we may be sabotaging the futures of our students.  It is simply a part of life in the 21st century and students need to have these skills in order to succeed in this world.  As described in this NPR Podcast, screens are simply another step in the long line of tools that have affected and changed our lives over the years.  But at what cost?  In a 2014 study described below, students displayed difficulty when asked to identify facial emotions and non-verbal cues after usual amounts of media use.  Those that were removed from devices scored much higher.  This is ironic because the thing that most youth spend their time on using devices is socializing.  Could it be that our youth are losing the ability to have face-to-face interactions and if so, what does this mean for the future?  

 I believe the key with this issue as in many issues of technology is an approach of moderation.  Kids need to experience skinned knees, scrapes and inventing a new version of hide and seek.  They need to observe conflict, use problem solving skills, and learn to cooperate.  They need to recognize when someone is hurt, feel the pang of empathy in their chest and ask what they can do to help.  They need to get a sunburn, get soaked from running through the rain, plant a garden.  Many teachers and parents will immediately identify the difficulty in motivating teens and younger children to unplug and engage in other activities.  This can be daunting but it has to be all about balance.  Recently a school in Stockholm, Sk created an outdoor classroom to promote learning outdoors.  Students and teachers attest to the growth in natural and authentic learning experiences.  Schools can play a significant role in promoting healthy learning and lifestyles.  How can individual teachers and parents play a similar role?

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Here are 10 tips for a balanced approach to tech use so everyone stays healthy.

  1. Discuss tech use openly with students (children).
  2. Model appropriate balance of tech use (give children your full attention).
  3. Get outdoors (exercise together as a class or as a family).
  4. Support your child’s social life online and offline.
  5. Support the child’s interests whether these are online or offline.
  6. Teach meta-cognition and emotional self-awareness.
  7. Prioritize offline connections.
  8. Make quality time together without devices.
  9. Watch for trouble such as online bullying and intervene if necessary.
  10. Set limits on screen time if necessary and follow them as well.