Finding the Opportunity in Educational Technology: Breaking the Undertow

As part of an update to the Board of Trustees of Asheville School, I included this statement in 2006:

“In the Academic Office we have been thinking about a number of challenging questions.  For example, as a faculty we have noticed that students are struggling, more than in the past perhaps, with the vast number of distractions available to them. … The truth is that the omnipresence of information flowing onto campus and into our students’ lives via various technological routes is a new and unique challenge to an environment such as ours.  How we address this issue will, I believe, be the defining conversation of our school curriculum for years to come.  I expect we will have to be flexible in ways we cannot yet foresee; we will have to be unpopular in order to preserve what is most valuable in our program; and we will have to visionary in our approach.

It is strange revisiting my own voice from the past, and stranger still is the recognition that I might have written the sentence above last weekend rather than six years ago. That said, the volume of information flowing into our students’ lives has expanded so dramatically since that time that the distraction produced by those “various technological routes” would already seem quaint by today’s measure.

Interestingly there is at least one aspect of what I wrote that is quite dated. While I might write the same sentence today, the meaning that underpins my thinking has changed. Most notably, when I wrote that the flow of information presented, “a new and unique challenge to an environment such as ours,” my thinking was confined essentially to the threat that this new world presented to the learning equilibrium of a small boarding school in North Carolina. “Challenge” is an interestingly neutral term—it can mean threat or opportunity. Today I am thinking more about the challenge being an opportunity to extend and deepen the experiences our students have in school. Of course, challenges are in the end both threat and opportunity, but whether we choose to operate more out of the fear that threat sparks than we do the excitement that opportunity involves is significant in determining our approach and, I believe, our success in creating a school equipped to meet the needs of its students.

When I was a child I loved the ocean and whenever we were at the beach, I was in the water. I remember the feeling of undertow, and the sense that if it was just a bit more powerful it might drag me out to sea. In a world that changes, and apparently will continue to change, quickly, it is all too easy to behave as if change is a powerful and somewhat nefarious undertow gaining power until it will inevitably pulls us to sea. When I wrote the sentence in 2006, I was afraid of a technological undertow pulling the school off its feet and out to sea. For me, the last several years have broken the power of that potentially debilitating metaphor.

[I wrote about swimming in the ocean once before in a post entitled: “With and Against the Waves”]

2 thoughts on “Finding the Opportunity in Educational Technology: Breaking the Undertow

  1. John Burk January 20, 2012 / 9:43 pm

    Like you, I think language is critical, and I worry that sometimes the metaphors and stories we tell about technology focus too much on dangers and risks, and not enough on opportunities and benefits. I think you are right technology will always present challenges, but we have the choice to view them from a framework of fear or hope. Unfortunately, despite the clear evidence all around us that by almost every measure the world we inhabit is safer, more open, and more welcoming than it ever has been, I worry that our human inability to judge risk and our fascination with the sensational, especially when amplified by the media, will drive us toward the fear based mindset.

    Your surfing/ocean metaphor is an apt one, and it makes me think of the sensational fear of an animal that occasionally ends up causing beach closings—sharks—those perfect predators of the ocean, lurking just off shore, ready to devour us if we stray too far from shore. Based solely on media reports, I imagine one could easily conclude that shark attacks are on the rise, and that they present a real danger when visiting the ocean. But scratch below the surface, and you’ll see these risks are tiny, and any recorded increase in attacks is most likely increases in human population and more people spending time at the beach. Of course, the reality is far more benign—the most dangerous part of your trip to the beach is almost assuredly the car ride to get there, to say nothing of the fact sharks have far more to be afraid of from humans and the fishing industry than we do from the occasional shark attack.

    Here’s to doing all we can not simply to avoid the fear of the undertow, and instead harness the true potential of the ocean.

    • J Ross Peters January 20, 2012 / 9:58 pm

      Thanks for this thoughtful response, John.

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