Digital Nation – Geeks May Be Normal, but Are They Listening?

Jessica KnottBy Jessica Knott
Editor, Twitter
Published 18 Feb. 2010

Hello, my name is Jessica, and I’m attached to my Blackberry like a sand burr to a pant leg. When I’m not sleeping, I’m answering e-mails, texting my friends and checking my Twitter account. Embarrassing fact: I’ve been known to text message my ever-patient husband from another room of the house to ask him to bring me a soda. I believe in gaming as education, in building social networks and making education engaging and effective using technology. I identify as a girl geek and revel in technology as a powerful life-enhancing tool.

That said, as with all things, I believe that moderation is key in technology, lest our lives be overtaken by the flashing Blackberry LED or the pressure of harvest season in FarmTown. I view life through the lens of higher education practice and scholarship. Sherry Turkle’s statement that “students need to be stimulated in ways they didn’t need to be stimulated before” is powerful and holds many implications for teaching, learning and design with technology. Does this mean we should design every lesson of every course as an adventure in learning? Not necessarily. But consciousness in regard to technology-assisted content delivery is of the utmost importance not only for student engagement but in ensuring that students are processing the information and transforming content into knowledge.

As a PhD student and practitioner of online learning, my laptop is a critical tool in my knowledge construction and application. As concepts are presented in classes or meetings, I often Google them to see elements of what I’m learning at play in “real life.” This allows me to transcend physical walls and immediately familiarize myself with the practices and applications of what I’m learning. However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel the tempting lure of my Facebook friends or the intense need to check my Twitter stream. Fighting these urges, while difficult, is necessary for me to truly process the information I receive. When I fall prey to temptation I later find holes in my understanding that may not have been there had my multitasking not interfered with my concentration.

A further example of the power of distraction comes in the form of how I watched this video segment. As I watched this video, I took notes but found myself checking e-mail, responding to professors and answering the questions of co-workers. How much of the information in these segments did I really process? More importantly, what did I miss?

The front page of The Chronicle Review for February 5, 2010 screams “Attention Deficit? Distraction and the Data Deluge.” Scholars are increasingly concerned about learning retention and the digital age, seemingly for many of the reasons I stated above. Are we engaging with the content or are we sort of engaging with the content and sort of engaging with everything else around us? Technology is a powerful engagement tool, but course design is incredibly important in that it should guide technology use, channeling cognition and facilitating exploration. We need to make them listen; more importantly we need to make them want to listen.

With technology comes responsibility. Be it a conference back channel or a course lecture, expectations for use must be set and outcomes made explicit. Ample opportunity for exploration and self-reflection is crucial in any learning environment, and technology can facilitate this in ways that were impossible even 15 years ago. It is important, however, not to lose ourselves in the technical abyss. We are not educators of technology, we are educators harnessing technology. This is an important lesson not only for our students, but for us as individuals. As you watch “Digital_Nation,” I encourage you to reflect upon your own practices. How much of this segment do you see at work in your own life? What do you find problematic or concerning? And, most importantly, how can you not only co-exist with technology but most effectively take command of what it has to offer? This program is an eye-opener on many levels, not the least of which is thsese implications for the future.

(Disclaimer: This reaction essay contains my own thoughts regarding Digital_Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier. My thoughts do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan State University, Libraries, Computing and Technology or Virtual University Design and Technology. Please feel free to contact me at with any questions or concerns.)

Further Reading:

Divided Attention by David Glenn, The Chronicle Review, February 5, 2010

Appraising Information Abundance by W. Russell Neuman, The Chronicle Review, February 5, 2010

From Distraction to Engagement: Wireless Devices in the Classroom by Berlin Fang, Educause Quarterly

Student Engagement and Technology in the Classroom, Tech Ticker

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