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Birth, Death, and Education Technology

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My second daughter, Wren, was born a week ago Saturday, and the experience had me thinking about how emerging technologies interact with ancient human practices.

For instance, humans have been having babies, well, really since the beginning.

When my wife went into the hospital, the midwife tried to find the baby's head through palpating my wife's abdomen, and she couldn't locate the baby. There were immediate concerns, ("Is the baby transverse?!?") So she went and got an ultrasound machine, rolled in this marvel of modern technology, looked around for a few minutes, and found the baby's head facing the correct direction. Little Wren had just had drifted a little bit to starboard. So the midwife proceeded to order a medical intervention: she asked my wife to roll onto her left side and let gravity pull the noggin into position. Modern diagnostics, ancient treatment.

I thought a lot about that interaction with the ultrasound; how perhaps an older midwife might have spent a few more minutes poking and prodding and might have found the head with her hands without the expense, stress, and additional encumbrances of the machine. Or perhaps that's the wrong counterfactual, and the certainty that the machine provided afforded a comfort and certainty worth all the cords and rigamarole. One of the challenges of research in deeply human experiences is that controlled experiments are often impossible or unethical: when we choose to intervene with technology, we often don't know what the alternative would have been.

Some parts of the birthing process do seem amenable to technology intervention: even birthing education. Some friends of ours, due with their first girl in a few months, took a "flipped" birthing class. From the description:

This childbirth class is a combination of 3 hours of guided home learning through provided reading and online materials, plus a single 3 hour in-class session at Isis to practice techniques and ask questions. This is an innovative "flipped classroom" model, in which participants do provided reading and view online materials and videos at home, replacing the traditional "lecture" portion of the class, before attending the interactive practice portion in class.

Our friends watched a bunch of videos at home on their own time, and they then got together in a classroom with other couples for a shorter session focused on breathing, positioning, and connecting with each other. The approach makes some sense to me: half of the birthing class we took was just watching videos together. Why not do it so you can gape, cry, giggle, and panic in the comfort of your own home? The main loss, it strikes me, is the intangible benefit of spending a whole day in a room with other pregnant couples, building a broader sense of community with the other people who will end up in your maternity ward, day care, and school system. The chance to have a few more awkward bathroom breaks (birthing classes schedule a lot of breaks) to strike up a conversation with a neighbor or get the gumption up to ask the instructor that one question.

A few days after our healthy baby girl came into the world, I got an email from a PR firm. I get these about every day now, and I always read them but pretty much never respond. (Dear PR Firms: If you want me to write about your amazing new app, have a third party conduct a research study that provides robust conclusions about the efficacy of your product.) This one, however, I thought was worth a mention. I'll reproduce it in full, to avoid the "churnalism" practice of plagiarizing press releases into articles:

Hello Justin

The demand for professionally educated funeral directors is high and now there are new high-tech instruments revolutionizing the careers of this generations funeral directors.

So I thought that you might be interested that The Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science will be utilizing a high-tech funeral planning software system into their Capstone curriculum starting this year. This software, Advisor by Aurora Casket, will allow students to prepare themselves for the future of funeral planning. What used to be recorded on pen and paper, can now be recorded on any Wi-Fi device with cloud capabilities.

In their last term at CCMS, students are put into teams and assigned a scenario in which they must plan and execute an entire mock funeral. Instead of recording and planning this assignment the old fashioned way, students are able to use Advisor to collaborate from virtually anywhere, making the planning process easier, more organized and interactive.

"Our students are so accustomed to using technology in their daily lives that this program will come as no shock to them, but more of a help. As generations become more tech-proficient, the traditional funeral planning process will go away. We are preparing our students for the future of our industry," said Joe Main, Instructor and Clinical Supervisor at CCMS.

I thought that this would be a nice niche story for your publication because of the uniqueness of the program and the studies. Please let me know if you are interested in learning more about CCMS or Advisor and if you would like an interview with professionals from the organizations.

So here's technology helping us with the end of life as well. I'm not totally sure why it's helpful to be able to plan a funeral from "virtually anywhere," since most funeral preparations require the very physical interaction with a recently departed human being. Like the birthing class, it does seem to me that you could probably shift some parts of funeral director education online, making things more convenient for students or saving costs and maybe even making some things run better. Maybe an app does make learning the trade a little easier. But I think of the distinguished way that two well-dressed men from a local funeral home respectfully entered my mother's home on the day that she died to wheel her away and prepare her for an eternal rest, and it's clear to me that the most important part of the funeral director's job— to treat people with dignity at a difficult time— probably isn't something that's best conveyed with a video or practice with an app.

But from flipped birthing to cloud-based funeral planning, we now have an edtech system to carry us from cradle to grave, from dust to dust.

(For those who have become friends and acquaintances through conversing around these missives, my wife and Wren are very well.)

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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