This past weekend, my family and I headed south to visit family in Illinois. This is where I’m originally from, and most of my family members still reside there. The highlight of our trip, besides the “really awesome” pool our two kids enjoyed at a hotel in Rockford, was the Halloween party hosted by my aunt and uncle in Seneca.
Cell phone service was very limited. It was just as well. Everyone who was there I rarely got a chance to see in person. We spent time with each other next to the night fire, sharing our news and our personal highlights. More than once, a relative referenced a picture and/or comment one of us made on Facebook (usually about our kids). We shared a laugh about the event that we would not have known without social media. These connections served to bring us closer together.
Online interactions are a mere shadow compared to the connectedness we experience when we physically come together as people. It’s not always easy, especially for introverts such as myself. But it doesn’t mean I should avoid it. Contrast this with my first day back at school: I started the week by leafing through the latest issue of EdTech: Focus on K-12 magazine. In one of the front pages is a highlight of tweets reposted within a section titled “Connectedness”. Here is a sampling I found, collected from a recent “#SatchatOC” chat:
#SatchatOC Topic: How does social media and connectedness advance professional development for educators?
— Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) September 4, 2015
A1 rendering the power of digital tools to improve teaching, learning and connectedness in our now flat world #satchatOC
— Cindy Truett (@cindytruett) August 9, 2014
How should we be defining connectedness? Many of us view this concept through the lens of social media and online networks. Do we prioritize our digital connections over the those we are in close proximity to every day? Can we be simply connected and still experience a feeling of connectedness?
My preferred definition of “connectedness” within the education profession comes from Parker J. Palmer, in his classic resource The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (Jossey-Bass, 1998, 2007). Palmer defines connectedness as the ability of teachers “to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (pg. 11). This web extends beyond our online connections.
While there is no question about the role of social media in education, we may view these digital networks as the main way for educators to pursue new knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, this mindset might lead to further distancing ourselves from the possible relationships right in front of us: Our colleagues in neighboring classrooms, departments, and schools. Have we successfully mined the possibilities that these potential face-to-face interactions will provide? My guess is no.
In her new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015), MIT scientist Sherry Turkle documents studies describing the negative effects of keeping a largely online network of human connections:
- The mere presence of a phone changes what people talk about, for fear of being interrupted by a text message or notification. (21)
- Online messaging leads to less emotional connections compared to in-person conversations. (23)
- People who use social media the most have more difficulty reading human emotions, including their own, when compared to those not as connected. (25)
- For young people, online life is associated with a loss of empathy and a diminished capacity for self-reflection. (41)
- People don’t like posting things online that their followers won’t agree with – everyone wants to be liked. (50)
This concerns me. What do we unknowingly give up when we add on and delve more deeply into online connections? Do we reduce our capacity for connectedness in our efforts to become “more connected”? I’ve attempted to counter these tendencies in my own role as a school principal. For the last two days, teachers have come together in face-to-face conversations regarding professional goals for the school year. When I listened to their ideas, I put aside my digital tools and gave them my full attention. Full disclosure: My phone was still present. Still, as I offered suggestions, I paid attention to how they responded physically, such as facial expressions and their eyes, as well as what they had to say. These verbal and nonverbal cues guided our conversation.
One of the best feelings is knowing that you are being listened to. It’s hard to articulate, but you know it when it happens. You feel appreciated, acknowledged, and supported. There are certainly situations where online connections are the best option. Usually it is in the absence of in-person conversations. But when the opportunity for a real conversation presents itself, is it a priority or merely a formality?