Friday, January 25, 2013

The Pacifier of the Digital Natives

Today, an amazing thing happened (and by "amazing" I of course mean "commonplace and universally understood") with one of my classes, which took place in one of our school's computer labs:

The Internet went down. 

Sure, you're as shocked and amazed as I was, because this has to be the first time in the history of the digital era that it's ever happened. #sarcasticmantotherescue

To be kind to our school district's technology folks - which I will admit I have not always been - loss of Internet doesn't happen nearly as often as it has in the past. Internet service has been pretty reliable, with the occasional momentary glitch. It's simply that you only notice it's down when you need it - like when you have a classroom full of students who are using Web2.0 tools to complete the great assignment that you re-tooled to integrate technology. Like today. 

In a nutshell - and in the usual dramatic genre - here's what happened:

The scene is a computer lab in a typical upper-midwestern classroom. Students are working at individual workstations, while their teacher - a devastatingly handsome, mild-mannered, unflappable type - is assisting when necessary. 

HALF OF THE CLASS: Hey, the Internet is down! Lammers, what are we supposed to do! We can't work on the assignment! AHHHHHH!!!

OTHER HALF OF THE CLASS: Hey, the Internet is down! Cool! We can't work on the assignment! I'll just go online do do something else and - whu, wait - the WHOLE internet is down?! Lammers, what are we suppose to do? We can work on anything!  AHHHHH!!!

ME (holding up both hands and forcing a smile): All is well! Remain calm! Nobody panic! I't's just a temporary situation! All is well! All is well!!! AHHHHH!!!

The Internet suddenly comes back, and a nanosecond later, the room is silent, save for the tapping sound of busy keyboards and hoarse breathing of the now shaking and "disheveled-to-the-point-of-homliness" teacher. It's as if, as far as the students are concerned, nothing has happened at all.

Don't get me wrong, I really like this class - and while it's not exactly how the moment played out, the flavor of the moment is close. As soon as the internet was back up, it was like the acrid smoke in the room from the crash of the web was replaced with the fresh air of a mountainside meadow, complete with wildflowers and soft chamber music. Fresh oxygen in the form of digital information transfer equaled life. And I was amazed.

It seems that every few months, a survey or poll is conducted regarding people and their reliance upon cell phones - or perhaps more correctly, their smart phones. The punchline to these polls is a question along the lines of how would you live without your phone. Answers inevitably vary by age, but the digital native response typically is that they wouldn't know. I normally take that info with a grain of salt (because you're never certain how the question was worded) but it doesn't take a lot of imagination to to see how that answer is reasonably accurate. Today's incident in my classroom highlighted two things: 1) many students immediately realized that they wouldn't be able to accomplish the assigned task (even though a "plan B" using non-web based tools on the computer was a perfectly viable solution), and 2) many students realized that they wouldn't be able to do anything at all.  Let me reiterate: I like these students a lot and they do good work. The shock to me wasn't that the students went right to work when the internet was back up - but rather the immediacy of the moment that separated panic and confusion from normalcy and calm. The pacification effect was impressive. If I didn't know better, I'd say that somehow my students were invisibly connected to the internet. (OK, that one's for you, conspiracy theorists.) 

Brooklyn Bridge, August 14, 2003
It begs a question of those of us who teach or integrate technology into our lessons: while we are preparing students to learn with technology, should we also be teaching them what to do when it's not available? I'm not a big believer of the "Road Warrior" future, but I do think that there will be a day - and my hope is that it is only a day - where our online and web-based infrastructure is either attacked or broken on a large-scale. I don't think that will be a great day for anyone. While my faith in people who work very hard at protecting our electronic lifestyle is sound, I can't forget the image of thousands of people walking home across the Brooklyn Bridge after a large scale power outage in the Northeast US. The well organized and run system of transportation was significantly compromised and overtaxed to the point of ... walking. Do our students know how to "walk" without their technology?

The fact that I'm using an online media to pose this question is not an irony that is lost to me. (My love of the DittoMaster machine may pay off after all.) I have asked myself the question I have posed - and I admit, I would have a rough go of it. However, because I lived in the "Land of No Internet," I am confident that I could exist. It's dealing with those who won't know how to that worries me most. 

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