Communication within a virtual classroom is key. The next series of posts discusses the rationale for good communication, and I will include methods, tips, web tools, and examples of effective communication.
But first, how has communication changed as a result of technology?
Defining communication skills in regard to current technology in an unbiased manner requires the same skill as stringing Odysseus’ bow and shooting an arrow through twelve axes. Outside of The Odyssey, this is an impossible task. Too often a debate reduces down to whether communication is better or worse with the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, email, blogs, ad infinitum, and debaters will often choose the philosophy and their evidence to support whatever position they already believe in. Opinions are already formed, and science tells us that people are not likely to change their minds about deeply held beliefs even when confronted with facts. So instead of a debate or an attempt to determine which aspects of technology benefit communication skills and which aspects are detrimental, perhaps the best approach to defining these skills in regard to changing technology is to use the process of evolution as a model for understanding.
Western thought tends to understand change in terms of progress: things are either getting better or getting worse. This trend helps reinforce a misconception about evolution: that when things evolve, they get better, more advanced, and/or better designed. We are all familiar with the image that depicts the evolution of man as is shown below (Figure 1), and the first image reinforces the idea of progress by showing the development of the brain. A larger, more capable brain is an advancement! But what we don’t hear as much, and what Dr. Marlene Zuk points out during her talk “Paleofantasy: What Evolution Tells Us About Modern Life” on April 4, 2014 at Los Angeles County Natural History Museums’ First Friday event is that the change from moving on four feet to walking erect actually caused childbirth to become more difficult. Dr. Zuk best illustrates this idea that evolution does not seek a goal but rather continues changing life to be “just good enough” by discussing an insect that mimics a leaf (Figure 2):
“You look at that and think, ‘Oh it is absolutely perfect. It is in perfect harmony with its environment because it’s even got little brown spots on it that make it look as though it’s got little decayed parts of the leaf….And in the case of the insect, that material that’s used to make the dark spots is melanin, the same thing that darkens the pigments of our skin and of our hair, and it’s also used in this insect’s immune system. So an insect that’s got really, really good dark spots might be able to fend off disease not very well and vice versa. So that’s a very tiny point, but the same thing writ large applies to every single living thing. What that means is that evolution proceeds not by getting us more and more perfect but by getting us just good enough.”
If we have this understanding that technological changes neither represent a progression toward perfection nor a digression from it, but are rather a mix of trade-offs, we can have a more valuable discussion without feeling the need to determine if the result is either good or bad. What we need to determine is how technology changed past behaviors and assumptions and what skills we need to keep, change, and acquire to help us hear and be heard. Though there are several avenues into such a discussion, there are three technology trends that have disrupted the way we communicate the most: the increasing speed of the Internet, the screen, and the avatar.
The Internet’s speed and connectivity, now nearly ubiquitous, collapsed distances between individuals and accelerated communication among them. We have the ability now to create friendships with anyone with who has Internet access. Social networks can spread our influence beyond our geographic location and add to the breadth of our social contacts. Friends receive our messages within seconds of our sending them, and because of this, composition can be hasty. Also, because we have the ability to receive messages instantaneously, we sometimes assume we should. For example, students often email their professors late at night with questions about the next day’s assignment, and this habit has caused some professors to ban students from emailing them.
The screen, too, changes communication drastically. Screens can display information, video, music, pictures, games, and messages. Just having a screen that can do all of this has complicated the way we think about and talk about interacting with it so much that clichés are hard to avoid when describing it. In fact, the very metaphor we use to describe a screen’s function belies the writer’s bias. The screen is a “window” allowing users to view the whole world. The screen is a one-way mirror allowing users to see but not be seen. The screen is a portal that allows users to enter other worlds. The screen is a doorway providing an escape from the real world. The screen distracts, connects, disrupts, supplements real life. Here, context is everything when determining social etiquette, and probably the best we can hope for is that our communication skills will adapt to be “good enough” to match each particular social situation.
Finally, the avatar is either a replacement or a substitution of the user’s identity online. At one time, it was possible and, for some, desirable to be completely anonymous online: screens and avatars facilitated this. We felt the need to protect our privacy online through a username and a fictional or limited profile. By remaining anonymous one could act without accountability. Internet repercussions for negative behavior, like being kicked off a network, existed, but since users were not individually tied to a screen name or avatar, a troll could easily create a new account and continue trolling. This still happens today, but perhaps less so since more people are connecting accounts to their online profiles, which share information about a person’s life offline. For example, bloggers can connect their blog to Twitter and Facebook. Since media and culture encourage everyone from celebrities to company employees to encourage branding, people use these different platforms to exhibit the identity they want others to perceive. Privacy, too, seems less important as we share more information willingly with more people. Returning to accountability, since screen names, email addresses, and handles are easily tied to the actual user, people are now more accountable for their actions.
These changes in communication affect the way classrooms communicate. Take the option of a virtual classroom as an example. More means of communication do not necessarily mean more communication, but for classrooms, they do. Students see their parents emailing and texting coworkers or their managers from home or while stopped at a traffic light, and they copy this behavior with their teachers. More students use digital media to ask for guidance, and likewise, teachers use technology to open dialogues with students and to send reminders. These trends are advantages, but there are some disadvantages. Students sometimes struggle to manage the etiquette, and some may argue that rather than following a digital etiquette set by parents and teachers, they are creating the norms. For example, teachers fear that students will compose essays in text filled with emoji, but in my experience, this is not the case. The cognitive divide between a formal essay and a text message is so wide that students seem to understand that different media demand different forms of speech.
Classroom teachers also fear that students will be unable to pay attention to them because they will be so involved with their phones. This fear is actually the new normal; a few weeks ago, I attended EdCamp Atlanta 2014, and during every session, teachers were on their phones. Were they looking up materials referenced in the presentations? Were they texting their fellow teachers about the class, or were they texting their friends about lunch in an hour? Who’s to say? EdCamp Atlanta encouraged participants to text throughout the day, so teachers did. Were this not the case, would most teachers still be on their phones? Who’s to know? However, many good tweets came from the day, and I suppose most users were competitive in their tweeting by trying to compose the most informative, most creative, most influential tweet. This experience can be replicated in the classroom, as well. So this shows how teachers’ fears have become an accessible norm now encouraged in classrooms.
Technology broadens communication and has the potential to deepen connections and content. There are still concerns and potential problems like distracting screens or fading privacy, but students and adults will adapt. The best classrooms will anticipate changes and be proactive by incorporating them into instruction. Future posts will suggest ways teachers can be proactive, but if you have any ideas of your own please post them below.