Maintaining digital balance. . .

I’ve been engaged in a ton of conversations lately about the value of digital tools to teachers and students, and have been reading a remarkably interesting strand of posts from teachers that are choosing to disconnect from digital networks primarily because digital collaboration has become all consuming and has left participants with a sense of being divorced from what’s real.

Consider this post from Joe Henderson, who writes:

Lately I’ve had the overwhelming feeling that I’m leashed to my computer. This is a difficult feeling for those that really know me, as I love to be outside. I love everything about it, from the mud to the bugs, and everything in between. So, I am trying to fight back, if only in my mind.

Two things did it for me. First, it was a subscription to Twitter. For those that don’t know, Twitter is kinda like public instant messaging. It can be used for trivial matters (updating people on the status of your dog’s allergies), or for serious collective matters (most commonly, the usage of blogging as a pedagogical tool). Dina is studying how it changes language and relationships. It basically owned my soul on Sunday and I spent gobs of time surfing around and had nothing to show. So I quit Twitter. I’m sure it has great potential, but so do I when I’m actually doing something productive.

Now, I can certainly relate to Joe’s feelings of being leashed to the computer, that’s for sure.  Just today, I made a rare trip to my car during the school day and I thought to myself, “Man, I can’t remember the last time I was outside during the daylight hours on a school day.”

That bothered me.

But I’m also bothered by the trend towards “either/or” thinking in conversations about educational technology.  We either believe that technology is the end all or we think it’s consuming so much of our lives that we’re becoming socially inept and emotionally deprived.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. America, after all, is the land of either/or aren’t we? Heck, “You’re with us or against us,” was George Bush’s first words in the War on Terror and competitive dialogue seems to shape every interaction that we have—whether it be about instructional strategies, presidential candidates or favorite $3.00 coffee companies!

What I’ve been playing with over the course of the past few months is finding the balance between using tech as a tool that improves the quality of my teaching and saves me time versus as a time sink robbing me of “real” experiences (although, I’d argue that virtual experiences can be as real as face to face relationships.)

Personally, online time hasn’t been stealing from areas of my life that were particularly valuable to begin with! Primarily, I’m finding that online reading and interactions are replacing time that I would have spent in front of the television or silent reading anyway.

I used to get home, turn on the telly, have a bit of dinner and stare—with my wife—at unfolding dramas on the boob tube (or within the pages of books.)

Now, I get home, have a bit of dinner, and jump into a digital conversation where I’m an equal participant in a knowledge-building process. I read and respond to blogs, send out a few tweets, moderate Voicethread comments…..and go to bed about 3 degrees smarter than I was before hand.

Jeff Utecht called this a shift from being a simple consumer to a producer of knowledge in a recent post on the Thinking Stick. Consider this bit of interesting research that he cites in his post:

Nearly half of 18-24 year old social networkers (45%) told Future Laboratory researchers that if they had 15 minutes of spare time they would choose spend it on social networking sites rather than watching TV, reading, talking on their mobile, or playing video games. The impact of this trend is so significant that a quarter (25%) of respondents state that the rise in social networks has decreased the amount of traditional television they consume.

The best part of this trend towards social networking in my professional life is that these kinds of powerful conversations simply weren’t available to me before! I was limited by time and location. The crush of a typical school day would limit the quality of interactions that I could have with peers, and meaningful, ongoing PD opportunities were few and far between.

Now, I can tap into powerful conversations about teaching and learning on my schedule.

In fact, I find that I’m less satisfied with experiences that don’t allow me to be a participant than I ever was before….and have found ways to participate in the digital world without feeling leashed to my computer.  I’m losing time that I would have spent “sit-and-getting” from the Sopranos, Law and Order, Jerry Springer—-or whatever other mindless show would have filled my hour of free time before collapsing into bed.

The key for maintaining balance for me has been remembering that it’s MY SCHEDULE! Not the computer’s, or the people in my Twitter network, or the people writing great blog entries. If I want to engage in my growing social network, I do.

If I want to sit in the sun and read, I do that too. The control remains with me.

This whole strand has gotten me wondering whether another lesson for digital educators is teaching kids how to maintain balance in their own lives—digital or otherwise.

I know that’s not something I’ve ever systematically taught before (and I’m not sure it should be my responsibility anyway), but it is certainly a skill that our kids will have to master to be successful in a world where digital opportunities to interact are constantly available.