Maybe it was a bad question.
On a five-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”, please rate your agreement with the following statement: Technology helps students develop communication skills.
It was one question of many on our recent Technology & Learning Survey. We asked teachers, parents, and students about their beliefs regarding technology’s role in education, how the district’s technology program is working, and what we can do to improve.
The communication question came from several places. It was one of the so-called “21st century skills” that we talked so much about in the early days of the century. It’s included in our Vision of a Minuteman as “Communicates Truth.” It’s one of Apple’s Elements of Learning that we’ve based much of our professional development on over the last few years. In short, it’s one of the reasons that schools often cite for wanting to increase use of technology in the classroom. We want our students to learn to leverage technology to become better communicators.
The average response to this question on the survey (out of 5) was 3.14. With the thinnest of margins, our stakeholders agree that technology helps students develop communication skills. Really, the .14 is within the margin of error, so essentially this question is a toss-up. And there’s little consensus on the issue. While 18.7% of respondents strongly agree with the statement, another 11.4% strongly disagree. Nearly a third of the people answering the question feel strongly about the issue, but they don’t agree on which end of the spectrum they’re on.
I thought this disagreement might be the result of mixing all of the results together. We have teachers, parents, and students all represented in the survey, and their lenses can be very different. So I broke out the results by stakeholder group and grade band. While teachers (especially at the elementary level) tend to agree with the statement more than the other groups, there is a wide variety of answers within each of the eleven subgroups. We really don’t agree on this issue.
The comments on the survey added a little clarity. Technology gives students the opportunity to interact with one another online. They can create documents, presentations, multimedia products, web sites, blog posts, and a host of other kinds of content that can easily be shared and disseminated widely. Students can participate in online discussions, video conferences, virtual worlds, and collaborative spaces with fellow learners both within and beyond the school. Of course technology helps students develop communication skills.
At the same time, though, technology doesn’t help students learn to read body language, or shake hands and look someone in the eye, or stand at the front of a room at a podium and make a presentation. Those people skills are important too, and there seems to be a real fear that technology makes students less likely to learn how to interact with others in the real world. Will you please just put down the phone for five minutes and talk to me.
Like many things, I did this backwards. My own story defies the conventional wisdom. As an introvert, I’ve always gravitated toward prose. I’ll take an online discussion forum over a class discussion any time. I’m the kid that would choose to write the 10 page paper instead of the 5 page paper if it meant I could skip the presentation. My brain doesn’t work fast enough for real-time discussion. I need to reflect before I speak. Even without the technology, I didn’t develop the people skills growing up.
But it was my experience online that taught me how to overcome that. When I was dragged from the safety of my blog into a weekly webcast, I had to learn to be articulate in the moment. Sure, there were only about 30 people listening live, and no one expected me to be the smart one on the panel. But those things were recorded, and smart people listened to them, so I had to learn to interact with real people in real time and try not to sound like an idiot as often as possible.
I’m not going to say I got good at it. But I did get better. I got better enough that I can talk to a crowd now without rehearsing what I’m going to say. I’ve already made a fool of myself online countless times, and the audio is out there to prove it. What could this group of people possibly do to me now?
I’m certainly no model communicator. I still prefer email to phone calls. I can’t focus for more than 90 minutes in a meeting. Most of the people in my office will tell you my people skills leave a lot of room for improvement. But I can be articulate verbally because of the technology, not despite it.
Students need all of this. They should be able to make persuasive arguments in conversations and online forums and in videos and text messages and formal presentations. They need to understand the art of storytelling and have the ability to read the room, even if that room isn’t an actual room. Someday, we may shake hands again, and they should be ready for that. But they should be equally comfortable building the same kind of rapport with people from a distance, with a mask on, or behind a video camera, or on the phone. They’re going to be communicating in all kinds of ways, online and offline. They need to be prepared for that. And technology will help them develop those skills.