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The New Digital Divide

Digital Divide.jpgTweeting. Texting. Messaging. Friending. Skyping.

Technology has brought people together when they couldn't be further apart. Yet it has also pushed people apart when they couldn't be closer together. It's not that we've become less interested in each other, but rather less capable of paying attention to each other. That's because our attention is being divided--if not dominated--by whatever gadgets are within our grasp, giving new meaning to the term "digital divide."

And even when common courtesy tells us to focus on the people in our presence, many of us can't do it. That's right, can't do it. The lure of technology is so strong that we're unable to resist it. As a school leader, for example, I noticed teachers responding to my emails during class. This wasn't because I had a drop-everything-for-the-boss policy. In fact, I expected teachers to ignore almost anything that could distract them from their students. Yet there they were hitting send just moments after my emails had arrived.

Why did they do this? Inbox anxiety. If it's in there, you've gotta get rid of it--NOW. The problem is so acute for some of us that we not only disengage from students but also risk the wrath of our supervisors. (No, teachers did not incur my wrath. How could I be mad when I suffer from inbox anxiety too? But we did talk about it, and agree that something had to change.)

The effects of this digital divide are also evident at meetings and workshops, where some people pass the time by texting, emailing, or surfing. Others participate 21st century style by tweeting sound bites for the benefit of their online PLNs (Personal Learning Networks). This is great in theory but, contrary to what we may want to believe, humans aren't great multi-taskers. So, by the time you've knocked out 140 characters on a smartphone or tablet, you've probably missed other tweetable moments. One repercussion of this--which I've experienced as participant and presenter--is people repeating each other's comments or asking questions that have already been answered. Come on everyone, of course we should cultivate and learn from our online PLNs, but let's not forget about our onsite ones.

So, how can we be sure to only plug in at the right time and the right place? Well, if you can't resist a temptation, you need to remove that temptation. A moratorium on mobile devices?! No, but there are times when engaging with students and colleagues requires disengaging from those devices.

Still, left to our own devices, how many of us are going to disengage from our devices? That's why I, for one, can always use a reminder. This summer I took part in a coaching and leadership institute put on by Metamorphosis, an organization founded by my colleague Lucy West. At the opening session, Lucy asked everyone to refrain from checking email or texting during the institute.

I've been to dozens of conferences, and this was the first time I heard anyone make such a request (note that I said heard anyone, since others may have done so while I was texting or checking email). And I've never been part of a more engaged group of educators. Not once during the 5-day institute did I notice anyone texting, tweeting, or emailing instead of listening to presenters or interacting with colleagues.

Of course, there won't always be someone there to help regulate our digital doings, so self-regulation is essential. And again, this means removing the temptation if you can't resist it. I do this in my work as a consultant by turning off--not just silencing--my phone when I'm with clients. Schools hire me to give them feedback based on what I hear and see in their buildings, so that's where I need to be--physically and mentally. This doesn't mean I forgo all technology on the job. Nor does it mean that my work isn't enhanced by what I learn from my online PLN. But that learning happens on my time, not my clients' time. (Now if I could only self-regulate better at home!)

I encourage you to be similarly prudent on your students' and colleagues' time. And I look forward to your thoughts on this post: comment below or email me--but not during class or a meeting.


Image by GECC, with permission

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