Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Reaching for our devices as a security blanket

Photo retrieved from Valerie Harris' WordPress
Picture this: You're at a casual bar with a few of your friends. You're all sipping on your beers and mixed drinks and the conversation shifts between schoolwork and finals to work problems and then to boyfriend issues. The music is playing in the background; an occasional glass drops on the floor and shatters. That annoying girl is screeching because the DJ is finally playing "her song". Sounds like a typical weekend night on a college campus, right? Totally accurate.

But continue the scene in your head. How many of your friends have their smartphones on the table in front of them, next to their beer or mixed drink? How many of them have their phones in their hands, texting or catching up on Twitter? It's pretty likely that they are.

An article from Psychology Today called "Cell Phones are Changing Social Interaction" by Ira Hyman says that "Young adults also use text messaging as their primary method of contacting friends – over 80 percent report texting as their preferred method." As a young adult, I can totally attest to that statistic--I avoid calling people like the plague. We use texting because it's convenient and causes less of a disturbance. The same article says that young adults use their phones in all kinds of situations, "We asked about a lot of contexts – having dinner with friends, in line at the store, in church, intimate situations, at the gym, having coffee with a friend". 

Sometimes when I go out with my friends, we play a game called "phone stack". The rules of the game are as follows: Everyone puts their phones in a pile in the middle of the table, and the first person to touch his or her device is obligated to buy the table the next round of drinks. What does this mean for us as a society? Are we totally wrapped up in our technological lives that we miss out on what's happening in real-time, right in front of us? This game always proves to be extremely difficult for at least a couple people in the group.

Personally, I'm not a huge phone user when I'm out with friends, especially at the bars (which I'm so grateful for, and so are my Twitter & Snapchat accounts!). However, I do find myself drawn to take my Samsung Galaxy SIII in situations when I'm alone. It's a strange feeling to describe, but I cannot be alone in these feelings. I'll paint you a few little pictures of examples when this feeling overtakes me...
  • I'm sitting alone eating lunch in the Union. Gotta take my phone out.
  • I'm meeting a friend for coffee at Starbucks but she's running late, per usual. Can't imagine sitting alone so I whip out my phone and read up on the latest tweets.
  • I walked too quickly to class and my professor hasn't shown up yet, so I'm waiting outside in the hallway. Better check my Instagram so people walking by don't think I'm a friendless loser.
Are you seeing a pattern? When we feel alone we turn to our devices to ease our anxiety about feeling alone. Sherry Turkle does a wonderful job of explaining this phenomena in her TED Talk, "Connected but Alone?". She says, "Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device." She talks about how we view being alone as a problem--if you're alone than you're weird. An article called "7 Telltale Signs Social Media is Killing Your Self-Esteem" from Salon by Jodie Gummow lists this uncomfortable feeling as reason number two. She says "social media is a very lazy way to be in relationship with somebody and impacts on the inability to be alone.". 

Photo from Spain (that's me on the right!)
These women have a point. We're growing up in a generation in which we rely so heavily on technology that we can't even sit alone and feel disconnected for a moment. Even when we're with friends and there's a brief lull in conversation, we lack the skills to pick it back up. Instead we reach for our phones to console us. Although it seems almost impossible to fix this problem, I know from personal experience that it is indeed possible to hang out with your friends without your smartphone and not explode from sheer anxiety of what you might be missing out on social media. My sophomore year of college I studied abroad in Spain for a semester; I spent the whole five months without my precious (at the time) BlackBerry. Yet somehow I managed to have a blast -and-a-half. I made some of the best memories in Spain and you know what the best part is? I wasn't distracted for even a minute my by damn cell phone.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Team vs. Individual Work

Photo retrieved from YoVenice flickr
In terms of which is more successful, the debate between team work and individual work has persisted for many, many years. The first real-world example that came to mind when thinking about teams versus individual success was sports. Sports! Weird, right? I'm not a super athletic or sports-lover in any way, but the Olympic athletes popped into my head as I thought about this controversial topic. Think about it--how did Shaun White get to where he is now? He's been competing as an Olympic athlete since he was sixteen years old. As an individual. He gets complete credit for all of his tremendous accomplishments. What about the United States' Men's Olympic Basketball Team that won the gold medal in 2012? They were just as successful as Shaun, but the credit is spread among the whole team, but is it spread evenly? How do we know that Lebron James contributed equally as Kevin Durant? We don't.

Photo retrieved from Wikipedia
In a classroom setting, the debate between individual student work and team work exists in almost the same way. There are valid arguments for each side, as this article by Grethel Gahler from Toggl Blog describes. Grethel says that a benefit of working individually lets you be your own boss and make your own decisions; you decide what to do and when. Personally, I prefer working individually. I am a hard worker (most of the time) and I try my best to avoid procrastination. It drives me up the wall when I'm forced to work in a group setting and I have to play mom and constantly remind a team member to get things done so we can keep the ball rolling--it makes me irate. I've had a few good experiences in group settings in which all of my team members contributed in a timely manner, but only a few.

This article from the University of Arkansas gives an abundance of reasons why group work is more effective while identifying ways to increase the success of group work. Some strategies for group work include:
  • Plan for each stage of work
  • Carefully explain to your class how the groups will operate and how students will be graded
  • Give students the skills they need to succeed in groups
  • Create group tasks that require interdependence
  • Make the group work relevant
While I realize there's no perfect answer to this question, as a future educator I realize that just because I prefer working alone doesn't mean all of my students will too. It's important to switch up group work versus individual work for the sake of meeting all of my students needs. Much like every other topic, strategy, theory and method, it's for the students!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Steven Johnson at UNI

Last week I went to a hear Steven Johnson speak on my very own campus. Steven is a popular science author and media theorist. He has done awesome Ted Talks and has published a handful of books, like Everything Bad is Good for You and Where Good Ideas Come From. He spoke to a surprisingly large crowd on a weeknight last week about technology and media in our society today. He was a great speaker and I really enjoyed listening to him. Although I was encouraged to go by my professor for my Technology & Human Communication course, I'm glad I attended--UNI payed almost $20,000 for him to come speak! He's pretty much a big deal.
He started out his speech by talking about markets and networks. He had a chart on his PowerPoint that intrigued me--it looked something like this:

Market Individual

Old billionaires who have lots of money

Market Network

Companies working off of each other to make money—example, iPod + battery, Apple buys the batteries

Non-Market Individual

Amateurs working on their own or small groups because they love it—example, Ben Franklin

Non-Market Network

No traditional ownership over an idea, passing ideas freely, the most active
“The Fourth Quarter”

He focused his speech on "The Fourth Quarter" section of this chart and gave so many great examples of things that we use every day that meet these standards. It was great to hear him speak highly of Wikipedia, because I love Wikipedia and all that it stands for. He refers to Wikipedia as a "peer network" that isn't owned by anyone but is maintained by a large amount of people. Wikipedia consistently outdoes Encyclopedia Britannica and it excelled at an amazing speed after its creation. The Internet, email, and GPS are all great examples of the "Fourth Quarter"and we use them every day!

He told a story about how the city of Portland, Oregon, there is a psychedelic intersection that has undergone "intersection repair". The intersection is painted in a beautiful array of colors and there's a 24-hour tea station available. The repair was all voluntary, which gave the people of the neighborhood the power to re-invent themselves and their neighborhood in their own personal way. A blog I read called The Show So Far describes the area perfectly, and even provided some photos. These people fit in "The Fourth Quarter" as well--the intersection arose by a group of people who don't have ownership over the area but rather work together to improve it.

He told another story, my favorite one, was about how in New York City in 2009, there would be days where the entire city would smell just like maple syrup. When it smelled like pure breakfast food, people would freak out! Around this time, the 311 resource was becoming popular. 311 serves as a non-emergency number that citizens can call in and report any type of activity that would serve for the greater good, like potholes, homeless people on the streets, or even information about an specific event going on. Eventually, so many people were calling in to report the maple syrup smell to 311 that they began tracking the frequency and the dates of each time it happened. Finally they were able to determine that these "Maple Syrup Events" were caused by the wind pattern carrying the smell all the way from a factory in New Jersey that manufactured fenugreek seeds, which produce flavors and fragrances in food. You can read the hilarious but informative article here.

The point of all of Steven Johnson's stories are all connected by one idea--the power of the masses working together for one cause can be tremendously great. Wikipedia, the Internet, 311, Kickstarter, and the intersection in Portland are all super examples of the power of "The Fourth Quarter". So I'll leave you with a question, what's next for us? What will be the next big Non-Market Network idea?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

21st Century Skills

Photo retrieved from IMDB
When I think of 21st Century Skills, my first thought goes to Zenon, Girl of the 21st Century. Remember that late 90's Disney Channel classic? It was one of my favorite movies as a kid. Zenon was a girl who lived on an orbiting space station in the year 2049 and manages to get herself into sticky situations on a fairly frequent basis. She somehow has the skills, as a 13-year-old girl, to save herself, her friends, and her parents from very unfortunate events. In the first movie, she saves the entire space station from crashing down to the earth! Back to my point. When I think of 21st century skills, I think of Zenon. She's a futuristic girl who thinks critically and has knowledge that applies to the future--which is the most important part for our future students! Our future students don't need to learn the same things we did or in the same ways we did when we were in elementary, middle and high school. What we learned is outdated. What's happening now is 21st century skills.

21st Century Skills are the requisite skills and knowledge that today's students need in order to become successful and productive citizens in the 21st century. These skills include:

  • Core Subjects (3Rs) and 21st Century Themes
    • English, reading or language arts
    • World Languages
    • Arts
    • Mathematics
    • Economics
    • Science
    • Geography
    • History
    • Government and Civics
  • Life and Career Skills
    • Flexibility and Adaptability
    • Initiative and Self-Direction
    • Social and Cross-Cultural Skills
    • Productivity and Accountability
    • Leadership and Responsibility
  • Information, Media, and Technology Skills
    • Information Literacy
    • Media Literacy
    • ICT Literacy
  • Learning and Innovation Skills (4Cs)
    • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
    • Communication and Collaboration
    • Creativity and Innovation

Photo retrieved from p21
These are the skills we need to help our students build. It's important to keep in mind the bigger picture of why we teach. I don't want to teach Spanish just so my students can speak in phrases about what they like to eat for lunch, I want them to see the relevance in learning a World Language and how that can make them more marketable as a person. I want them to see the purpose of learning a language for traveling purposes and to compare and contrast our culture with cultures of others. It's easy to forget about these skills, but we have to keep in mind the bigger picture. After all, wouldn't it be cool of one of our students turned out to be a real-life Zenon?