Sunday, May 5, 2013

On Connected vs. Connecting

            We teachers, these days, talk a lot about using technology to get connected.  In general, I’m all for it.  When developing new courses, revising old ones, or brainstorming new assignments, I usually put out calls on Facebook for help.  But getting connected means nothing, if you aren’t connecting.  I have a few folks that I’ve never actually met in person who I’ve come to know virtually and eventually even sometimes had voice conversations with.  Others have remained folks who remain as only virtual entities, just bits and bytes and blog exchanges in my memory and the wayback machine.  Some of these folks, I might have met along the line anyway, but many are the types of folks who I just never would meet in my real life but they have made my teaching and my world richer and more full.  Russell Arben Fox, for example, is someone who I first crossed paths with back in the days of Invisible Adjunct’s blog in 2003-4.  Russell and I, it turns out, lurked about the same early corners of the internet.  We both read Tim Burke’s Easily Distracted.  We both played D and D as kids.  Russell is a Mormon fascinated with Jews (and all world religions).  I’m a Jew whose intellectual work required me to immerse myself in the worldview and culture of the Latter-day Saints.  We were a match made in heaven (or the celestial world?).  I know how old  Russell’s daughters were when the read each Harry Potter book.  I know his atrocious taste in music.  But outside of one long, desperate phone conversation several years ago, we’ve never spoken or met.  In short, over the last ten years, not only did I get connected with Russell, I’ve been connecting with him – on a personal and professional level ever since. 
            This last week, I made a new connection.  My school was fortunate enough to host Miss Navajo Nation, Leandra Thomas.  Ms. Thomas won her crown (which is handcrafted silver and studded with turquoise and coral), by winning a contest that required her to, among other things, butcher a sheep, speak to judges solely in Navajo, and answer complicated questions about Navajo history and government (in both Navajo and English, but not at the same time).  She spoke with kindergartners, fourth graders, fifth graders, and tenth graders.  Over the two days she was visiting, she was greeted and hugged.  For many students, she was the only Native American they’d ever met.  For others, she was a charming young woman who successfully pursued her dream.  And to all of us teachers, she was a reminder that there is always something besides teaching. Prior to winning the title she taught elementary school in Flagstaff, Arizona.  We could have had a virtual visit or two with Ms. Navajo, but it wouldn’t have been the same for mostly white, mostly privileged students.  Nor would it have been the same for Ms. Navajo.  Seeing our school, our students, and our teachers led to her asking us almost as many questions as we asked her.  I look forward to working with Leandra in the future when she returns to the classroom.  Over the course of the two days, we didn’t just get connected, we were connecting. 
            Too often the technofuturists gives us a vision of technology that is all about getting connected and not about connecting.  The dismal educational experience envisioned by Salman Kahn and advocates of robograded MOOCs sees getting connected as an end in of itself.  They’ve lost sight of the true end of education, to learn the art of connecting: between peers, between teachers and students, between parents and teachers.  And yes, even connecting with administrators.  Because if we connect just to connect, we forget our connections to the worlds around us.


My picks for best read(s) of the week. 

This week via Alec Couros, I read this magnificent tirade:  warning contains strong language:  It’s a compelling discussion of the history of MOOCs and why that history matters to today’s debates.

Also Tim Burke’s lovely column on why the humanities matters:The Humane Digital  


  1. Beautifully said, David. (Though I think my taste in music might better be described as "omnivorous" rather than "atrocious.")

  2. Those are good points, but c'mon... do you really want to assert that MOOCs couldn't be a viable replacement for the huge 800-student sections of freshman courses put on by more than a few large universities?

  3. Nice post, David. I'll always argue for humanizing oneself to allow those connections to happen—it's hard to connect w/ a Twitter robot.

  4. Russell, perhaps we can agree on "indiscriminate" to describe your musical taste.

    Vince, thanks.

    Rob, MOOCs could absolutely replace the types of horrible courses you describe and do it just as badly. But the costs to those unis in terms of lost funding harms the whole department, and the whole university and likely further shifts resources from the public to the private sector. Do you really need Harvard and Stanford or some for-profit MOOC getting your dollars rather than a second-tier state uni? Given the fact that the tight job market today means that the professoriate is stronger than ever, I'd rather see an honest discussion about what MOOCs can and can't do, what the many types available look like, and the costs and benefits of each of those types rather than the current David Brooksian "MOOCs, because!" level of debate we have now. I strongly recommend you read the hacked education column by Audrey Waters I linked to which is a far more complex discussion than space allows here.

  5. I hope you regularly copy "Easity Distracted" entries to Oz the Great and Powerful. . . I send along various references to "entrepreneurism" in education, but I think Tim's stuff is the most thoughtful and cogent reminder of what the humane letters are for!