An Encounter with an Interviewer

Earlier this week, I was asked to respond to an inquiry from one of our high school students. He’s writing an article for the school paper about technology in the schools, and he had several questions about how technology has changed society and school since the start of the millennium. Because this was an inquiry about the high school, my remarks are more 9-12 focused than they normally would be.

Which changes in technology have you noticed in the past 8 years?
Reporter Clipart The biggest change I’ve seen is 24/7 access to technology and networks. We’re connected now in ways that weren’t feasible just a few years ago. Look at something as simple as a phone. In the last decade, we’ve switched from the idea that phones are tied to places (home phone, work phone, etc.) to phones that are tied to people. Everybody has a phone, and it’s with them and on all the time. We’re not using email as much anymore, because it’s too slow. Now we’ve moved on to text messaging and Twitter and other more immediate forms of communication.

The other big thing is social networking. The Internet has become a much more interactive place. In the 90’s, we were talking about using the web for research. There are all kinds of resources available out there. We have to be able to find them, filter them, figure out what’s relevant, and then use them in responsible ways. Now, that’s only part of the picture. You can go to CNN and read a story and then comment on it. Or blog about it. And people read those comments and make their own comments about your comments. You can create your own music and video and upload it and share it and remix it and do some really creative things. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that 2/3 of teens create content and post it online. That’s a huge change from just a few years ago. You can also keep track of what your friends are doing and reading and thinking about, and what their friends are up to. We’re building our own networks to tell us what’s important. The Internet has become interactive.

How have they affected our lives?
These changes affect where we go for information, and how we consume it. A generation ago, everyone read the morning newspaper and watched the evening news. That’s how we found out about what was happening in the world. That changed in the 80’s with the advent of the 24-hour news channels. Now, we find out about news as it’s happening. That means that we get the story in pieces. We have a hard time figuring out where the credible sources are, and who has accurate information.

That also means we tend to get inaccurate information, so our understanding of “truth” is constantly changing. On 9/11, if you were watching CNN, they were reporting that the plane hitting the North tower of the World Trade Center was a horrific — but accidental — crash. They were trying to figure out how the plane got off course, or what conditions led to this. It wasn’t until the second plane hit that anyone realized we were under attack. Of course, by the time the news came around at 6:30 that night, we knew a lot more. And when the papers came out the next morning, we had a much better idea of what was going on. But that initial rush was kind of chaotic, and, to a large degree, inaccurate.

Earlier this year, we had a gas leak at the high school, and the building was evacuated as a precaution. No one was quite sure what was going on, and the rumors started almost immediately. Lots of people have cell phones, and they started messaging each other and their parents. Within a few minutes, the high school and board office were getting calls from parents and the news media wanting to know what was going on. I think a lot of adults were frustrated by that, because no one was really sure what was happening, and the school didn’t want to give out inaccurate information. But the technology meant that it was easier to get the information out. Once the school had a handle on the situation, the AlertNow emergency notification system was used to contact parents and let them know what happened.

What technological changes have been made to the school and how have they helped us?
Looking back at the last eight years, a lot has changed. It’s actually hard to believe that we didn’t have computers in every classroom until 2003. In that time, we have also added 30 laptops to the media center, more than doubled the number of desktops in the media center, and added two computer labs. We have wireless network access in the media center and cafeteria (and sometimes outside), so students can use their own devices to access the Internet. We’re doing a lot more with online learning tools like WebAssign and Moodle. While some students see that as a bad thing, those tools help keep homework relevant and tie the work you’re doing outside of class with the things happening in class. At the same time, it helps the teacher make more productive use of class time.

The addition of SMART Boards this year has changed instruction in a number of classrooms. Teachers are excited about sharing their notes online, reviewing material covered earlier, and using some of the built-in software tools to enhance instruction.

Which changes have proven detrimental to society?
I think we’re now in an always-on society, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. If I turn everything off and get away from the technology for the evening, I return to about 40-50 email messages, 30 Twitter messages, 4-5 missed Skype conversations, and a couple voicemail messages. Sometimes we get hung up on the idea that if we’re not connected, we’re missing something. We’re not spending as much time reading and thinking and writing and interacting face-to-face. Look at this interview. I’m typing this in an email message [and, later, editing it in a blog post], and you’re presumably going to read it at some point and do some copying and pasting and rewording in order to write your article. But we’re not interacting, so we both miss the personality and spontaneity of a real conversation. So while this is more convenient, we’re still missing something.

I think we also don’t realize the permanence of things we share online. Once something’s on the Internet, it’s out there forever. I’ve found things online that I wrote in forums in 1989. From a student’s perspective, it’s hard to wrap your mind around that. How are you going to feel about that picture or video or blog post in 15 or 20 years, or what are your kids going to think about it when they find it online? When you Google your parents, you probably don’t find much. But that won’t be the same for your kids. A lot of employers (including some people in the school district) look at social networks and blogs and in all kinds of places for information about their applicants. So maintaining your online image is something you have to worry about now.

Our school?
It’s easier to hit and run. A lot of people are fooled into thinking that they can be anonymous online. So they say things about people that they wouldn’t say to their faces. Or they take things that don’t belong to them. Or they destroy or deface someone else’s work. I think we’ve seen an erosion of that sense of personal responsibility — that I am responsible for the choices I make and the actions I take.

What do you see in the future of technology?
Smaller. Faster. Cheaper. I’d like to see us stop buying textbooks. Most of your books are around $100 each. That’s a lot of money, a lot of paper, and a lot of pounds in the backpack. I’d like to see us moving toward digital books that you can put on your mp3 player, or a little laptop or pda.

I also see us doing more with connective technologies. When I was in college, I worked for a company that made auto parts. One of the pieces we made was the tail light assembly for the Ford Thunderbird. It had about 30 light bulbs in it. We would make the parts in Ohio, and ship them to Asia. There, they would pay workers a few cents an hour to put the light bulbs in. Then, they would ship them back to the US to put them in the cars. Of course, they did that because it was cheaper than paying someone here to put the light bulbs in. And that was 20 years ago. With the Asian and Indian labor markets opening up, we’re seeing a lot more of that kind of thing. Increasingly, they’re doing more skilled jobs, too.

Globalization is here. You’re going to be working with people from all over the world. Lots of people in education are talking about 21st Century Skills. We need to prepare students to be innovative thinkers and collaborators. You need to be information-literate. Technology will help with all of those. But the biggest thing it can do is put you in touch with other people who aren’t living in Ohio, or the US, or North America. I regularly use Internet telephony software to talk to people all over the US, in Canada, in Europe, and in Australia. Ironically, I can call up my friend Jason in Sydney, Australia, and talk to him for free. But I have to pay extra to call into school from home because it’s “long distance.” When this whole crisis erupted in Tibet, I knew someone who has lived there, and talked to him about it. When the wildfires were burning in California last fall, I knew someone who lived a few miles from there. It makes the world a much more personal place. And those are the kinds of experiences students need to be having too. And it’ll come.