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Technology and Behavior: It's a 21st-Century Thing

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Like clockwork, several times a year particular kinds of conversation pop up on one or another of the independent school listservs. It begins with a query from someone--one can imagine the incident, the frustrating faculty meeting, or the painful conversation that generated this--asking about some policy or another relating to technology: electronic plagiarism, perhaps, or evil (or more generally, childishly heedless) deeds perpetrated on Facebook. This week it's been headphones.

Early on, one predictable message is added to the interchange. Properly, some wise person reminds the group that it's not about regulating the technology, that the solution lies in addressing behavior, not gadgets. Although Acceptable Use Policies are necessary in our digital schoolhouses, the basis of these must be simple principles of human behavior.

Quite right, quite right.

And yet.

The other day a report appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on a conference held at the Center for 21st-Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee called "The Dark Side of the Digital." Here, scholarly minds--not Luddites, but concerned experts engaged in the work--discussed topics from equity issues around MOOCs to the shaping of our social and economic environments by technologies that serve us "smart" choices based not on freely sought or acquired knowledge but on our previous behavior. This is big stuff, meta in every way, and ultimately these may be the important questions of our time.

But the dark side of digital in schools is often something much simpler. Ask any administrator who has spent days to sorting out a middle school Facebook episode or a teacher who feels obliged to process every student essay through Turnitin or Google. Ask the serious kid whose project partners find far more allure in their online social lives than in the task at hand. Ask a school head who has had to huddle with attorneys over the extent of the school's jurisdiction in cyberspace or whether a student's online meanness falls under a state anti-bullying law.

By extending the range of certain kinds of misbehavior and by making it easier for other kinds to occur, technology has in fact complicated life in schools. Although the benefits far outweigh technology's added burdens, these burdens are real, and they have entered the daily landscape of schools, classrooms, and the shadowlands in which certain parts of kids' social lives transpire. It's kind of silly to pretend that these complications don't exist, that it's just behavior, plugged in.

The worst effect is that these complications have fed teacher, administrative, parent, and even board-level fears that impede the positive and productive application of technology in schools. Banning smartphones and confiscating headphones are "solutions" only a step away from prohibiting Wikipedia, blocking all social networks and games, or keeping student computers out of the library--or even the classroom. All these devices, all this access, can exacerbate bad behavior, some think, so me must keep the lid on, tightly.

I don't know whether this attitude has been more prevalent in independent schools than in others. Like teachers everywhere, independent school faculties can create a powerful inertia by going their own way, either in quiet or fearful denial or by stubborn non-compliance.

A few years back this attitude was widespread, but increasingly I get the sense that banning or ignoring useful technologies is becoming a thing of the past. Slowly, teachers and school leaders are getting the message that technology is the main mode of transport on the road to our educational future.

A month or so ago I wrote of lockdown drills as "the uninvited guest, the evil witch, at the feast of '21st-century learning.'" I think I was overly focused on that one thing; there are lots of uninvited guests, not just one, that appear whenever society undergoes a transformation. Certain kinds of student malfeasance, we are forced to admit, are made simpler by digital wizardry, and all we can do is recognize this and make the best of it. But malfeasance has been with us always.

As educators, we pit ourselves every day against the most savage of enemies: ignorance, anti-intellectualism, apathy, prejudice, meanness. We can no more unplug in our struggle against these foes than our forebears should have thrown away their slates and books because a few students scribbled profanities or a few authors wrote hate and lies.

I imagine that for a few more years I'll keep coming upon discussion threads in which technology provides the medium but where the real struggle is how to address behavior and enact values, how to appeal to the better angels of our students' and our own natures. It's the work we do.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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