Have you noticed the revolution exploding around us? I am sure you have, because it is impossible to miss it—although the fact that it is tumultuous, as all revolutions are by nature, might be something we do not always consciously grasp. Make no mistake, however: a revolution is swirling, and although it does not seem at first glance to be violent, its impact is just as potentially destructive as any fierce upheaval. We are literally living through a digital revolution that has dramatically changed, not just our lives, but our very perceptions about life (for a quick video about the impact of Social Media alone go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yxuljHX09I&feature=youtu.be; disclaimer: the sources for the information are not provided).
Everywhere you go, people are ‘plugged in’ on their phones, laptops, and other devices. In many ways, this has positive implications: it allows us to communicate with our friends and loved ones to a degree that was impossible even just a decade ago; it helps facilitate our business communications; it gives us instant access to information on a scale unprecedented in human history; it aids us in our daily tasks of tracking our responsibilities and appointments, managing our bank balances, and keeping in touch with others. But, as I think we are all aware, this technological revolution also has negative consequences, from increased social isolation to decreased ability to focus (go here to view a series of articles from the New York Times related to this: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/features/timestopics/series/your_brain_on_computers/index.html).
Have you noticed that it is becoming increasingly difficult to experience another person’s full attention? Ten to one, whatever you happen to be doing, whomever you are with is not just interacting with you, but also answering a phone call, texting a message, or searching the Internet for the latest detail of information they just have to put their fingers on right then and there. There seems to be no end to the potential for the disruption and distraction available, even when ostensibly there is a social ‘moment’ going on…say, for example, a conversation around a dinner table.
This irony—that everyone is walking around constantly ‘disconnected’ because they are so ‘connected’—has even become so obvious that people are beginning to make jokes about it. Consider the image below.
This image, and other media messages like it popping up everywhere from memes to movies, seems to unveil a profound realization on the part of our culture that this incessant synthesis with a realm that does not directly involve interacting face-to-face with each other, or being involved with the very real environments that surround us, is a sort of disappearance of the self into cyberspace. It is rather like an excursion into a no-man’s land where, although we are usually communicating or being entertained, we are in fact completely isolated; we are all alone. Without vital, in-the-present-moment physical fellowship with others, we instinctively seem to understand that we are somehow less alive—less than human. We are becoming quite “Zombie-like,” if you will.
News reports are now regularly discussing the situation that the continuous stream of digital-immersion is bearing some disturbing negative fruit alongside all the apparent benefits. This is not simply happening with respect to our relationships and our sense of community, it is impacting the education of our children. As home educators, we have to ask questions like: How can we best deal with this digital revolution in a productive, healthy way? How can we continue to use this technology as a tool that helps us to live better lives rather than as a medium which takes over our lives?
There are some very obvious ways in which we can achieve this. Of course, we can limit our use of digital media. This simply calls for turning off the TV, monitoring Internet time (especially Social Media), curtailing video gaming, and using our ‘mobile devices’ sparingly. But let’s face it: we live in a world that is dominated by technology. It is an integral part of our lives, not to mention the lives of our children now and in the future. They need to learn how to navigate in this media-saturated world: to live with this pervasive and invasive technology; they need to understand how to manage it. That means we have to train them to use it. The remainder of this article offers some thoughts on how we can incorporate the use of media in our homeschooling so that our children learn to dominate technology as a tool rather than be tyrannized by it.
After having homeschooled for about two decades, in the midst of this unfurling digital revolution, I see the purpose of the use of technology in education as basically two-fold:
• Using media to help augment student comprehension (i.e. for didactic purposes); and
• Modeling for our students the use of technology as a device to enhance clarity, aesthetics, and persuasiveness.
Of the two, the second is by far the more important.
A general guideline I would recommend for the use of technology in your homeschooling can be summed up as follows:
Utilize technology now and then, primarily for modeling purposes. Avoid using it in every subject and avoid using it all the time. The primary emphasis in all teaching should be word related, and include face-to-face communication through speech, examples, and demonstrations. As the generations that have preceded us have shown (when children of the past, for example, have exemplified much higher levels of literacy), virtually all that needs to be achieved in education can be accomplished through the use of the written word (text), through spoken word (presentation), and through demonstration with something real. No digital media (other than teaching about how to manipulate the media itself) should ever be necessary to fulfill the tasks of education.
When considering the use of technology in your homeschooling, keep the following kinds of questions in mind:
• What will help engage my student(s)? If the technology will augment, enhance, and engage, then brief usage may be appropriate. This models the use of technology to attract and hold the attention of an audience. But bear in mind that while “bells and whistles” are fun and entertaining they are never a replacement for the substance of a topic. Avoid “edutainment.”
• What will assist my student(s) to come to greater understanding of the subject? If the media will help increase comprehension, and is not so lengthy that it will distract and cut into face-to-face teaching and discussion time, then it might be appropriate. This will model the use of media for explanatory, didactic purposes.
• What will encourage my student(s) to connect ideas creatively? Critical thinking skills are much touted these days as being the goal of education (personally, I think they just ought to go back to the old fashioned habit of simply calling them ‘thinking’). However, how exactly do we define such skills? One definition (see Harvard.edu link here) defines critical thinkers in the following ways: they engage in “combining ideas or information in new ways,” “making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas,” and “reshaping goals in ways that reveal new possibilities.” If the very brief use of technology can help your student(s) creatively draw connections and reshape ideas, then it may be appropriate.
• What will help my student(s) grasp the proper relationship between the message of a presentation and the use of technological media in a presentation? In other words, how is the media a tool? If you can help students see how they can briefly use technological media—which is clearly a fundamental part of our world today—to create effective presentation and communication, then it may be appropriate.
• How much time will the use of this media take away from self-learning and face-to-face interaction? This is the most important question. Homeschooling parents need to be interacting face-to-face with their students and to be discussing what is being learned with their children. Technology should never be the only way in which students receive information. Limited technology may be used to augment student comprehension of concepts and ideas, but students need to be actively processing what they learn with others, and then presenting what they learn to others.
Obviously, occasional use of technology is therefore appropriate and periodic use is encouraged. I would advise homeschooling teachers to intentionally share the reasons for the use of any technology with their students. That is, explain to your students what technology you will be using and why you are using it so they can see that your actions are conscious and have purpose; thus students can begin to understand how they too can use technology in this way, primarily as a tool for presentation, clarity, and persuasiveness in their communication with others.
Finally, there is the question of student use of technology as they learn to present what they have learned to others. Students do need to practice using different media as parts of their presentations and in their conversations. This would include everything from writing essays and speeches to using bullet-note outlines or index cards in presentations to creatively utilizing white boards, posters, hand-outs, Power Point presentations, and short media (video/audio) segments.
The purpose of using varied media is not to provide the students with a crutch so that they do not have to do the hard work of thinking through what they are learning and presenting; rather it is to allow them to practice using different types of media to augment and enhance the clarity and persuasiveness of their communications.
I believe educational use of technological media (in any setting, not just homeschooling) should always bear this primary goal in mind: modeling for the student how media can be used as a tool. The more important teaching should always be done through words: texts, conversations, and presentations. Any first grade student can be taught to use technology—most five year olds are already adept on computers, electronic readings devices, video games, and so on. It is a far more important thing to teach students to engage in live interaction, conversation, collaborative learning, and leadership.
Perhaps the most popularly touted critical thinker of modernity, Albert Einstein, is reputed to have said that “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Pondering these words, and heeding the advice of C.S. Lewis, we should cling to and praise the reality of parents and teachers who daily meet their students face-to-face with intentionality, and obstinately preserve “the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.”
C.S. Lewis predicted that the “man-molders” of the “new age will be armed with the powers of an omnipresent state and an irresistible scientific technique,” such that society will get a class of powerful elites “who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please” (The Abolition of Man). I urge us to old fast to the shape of mankind that we recognize as being most authentic, rejecting all that encourages us to be less alive. The ultimate goal of education is to nurture students who become more fully human, not less so. If the use of technology in your schooling is achieving the latter, avoid it like the plague.