#PLA2016: Sherry Turkle and the Power of Conversation

Turkle notes  pla 2016

This morning at PLA, I heard Sherry Turkle speak on her current research into conversation, a continuation of her work on exploring what happens to people mediated by, through and with technology.  It was a useful talk – lots of stuff worth remembering in there.  

I was struck by her emphasis on empathy and intimacy, and I share her concern about people building robots to replace people without considering what’s getting replaced1 . Technology isn’t a replacement for empathy, intimacy, or conversation, she says, and I agree. 

Some hurried thoughts on the talk, written in between morning sessions, are below.

Writing Is Conversation, Too

At the beginning of her talk, Turkle setup a dichotomy of email versus face to face conversation. She used an example of office hours where students come to visit versus her students’ preference to write, and receive, “perfect emails.” I didn’t care for the example, though I understood what she was trying to say – that the edited and perfect life is a preference for many, that anything but our best polished self isn’t worth sharing or communicating. It felt like she was dissing writing.

The problem was that I don’t think she allowed for the possibility that writing, via email or text or pen and ink or any other format IS a conversation tool.  A darn good one.

There’s a reason to pause while constructing a thought, either as a sentence or as a spoken statement – and the delivery of one’s self, in intimate and empathy building ways, is just as valid when done via a letter, a postcard, an email, a text, or whatever instead of a face to face conversation. Intimacy and empathy can certainly be fostered via written exchanges.

The need for people to be people with each other isn’t about the modality of our interaction – it’s about the intentionality we put into it. And, of course she knows and believes this, otherwise she wouldn’t write books – the only way to spread her message would be face to face, a return to a pre-literate culture. And I don’t think that’s consistent with her messages, essential messages, at all.

I want teachers and students and library people and pretty much everybody to spend more time thinking about what’s on their mind, and writing/speaking/typing it in some way to someone else. But I don’t want folks to confuse the method of delivery of a message with the value of the message itself.  Email isn’t evil – but it can be used to send plenty of evil. Texts aren’t the devil – but the devil sure knows how to text. You get the idea. And can extend the idea to any place where writing can be shared among people. The platforms aren’t necessary the problem – it’s what we do – and don’t do – with them that matters2

One point I’ve missed mentioning is the notion of the edited life versus the messy life. The messy bits, she argued, are where learning and love and intimacy and empathy happen. She’s right about that – but I’d push to say that plenty of the messy can and does happen not face to face but via writing and other ways of communicating. I hope she allows for that in her thinking, and that we will allow for that in the learning experiences and spaces we create for ourselves and others. I’ve often referred to this space as “first draft thinking.” I want folks to share their early drafts often, and I think this is one reason why. There’s power in the rawness of the early thinking. We learn from the pushback that happens after we start saying things.

Technology Isn’t The Problem with Attention and Empathy – Mindlessness Is

A recurring theme of Turkle’s talk was that phones and folks’ use of them were somehow causing the problem of loss of empathy.  That’s not quite right. It’s the mindlessness of phone and technology use that causes the loss of our personness. We need to not respond mindlessly to that – but to be intentional about how we engage with technology. So don’t blame the phone, and don’t ban the phone. (A common school reaction.) Instead, work to build ways to help people manage their technology, and to pause and allow time for reflection about how, when and where to use it. 

If you’ve a quiet area that’s intended for reflection, perhaps a shoebox on the table for temporary device storage is a good idea. A local fast food restaurant makes quarantine boxes available for devices at their restaurant. I think they call them “family time” boxes, intended for device storage during the meal. That’s a killer idea, one that I will implement at my house for dinner time soon.

We Have To Be Intentional About What We Want to Be/Make/Experience

It’s not enough to be less mindless – we have to be more mindful. 

A bigger theme of her talk is that we have to be mindful and intentional about what we want our worlds to look like, and how we want to be in them. There’s a place for solitude, she argued, in helping us to figure that out. We have to know ourselves in order to be able to share those selves with others. Yep. She says the best line in her book is: “Technology can make us forget what we know about life.” And I mostly agree – but I’d push a bit and say that one of the big problems with the way that we interact with each other is that we don’t take time to consider what we actually DO know about life, or what we want to know more about. 

And we certainly, at least in formal learning situations, are far too quick to decide for others what they know about life, and what that means for them. We’ve got to look after each other better. 

After hearing this talk, I’m certainly off to get a copy of her latest book. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you’ve gotten into it already. Tell me about it in the comments. 

  1. I also wonder if the replacement, if it’s “good enough,” can actually lead to more empathy and intimacy for people – but that’s a different blog post. Likely about Turing tests. []
  2. That’s not to say that the way we build these platforms isn’t important, too, but again, that’s a different post. []

Writing 1.0: An EduCon Conversation

EduCon 2.1 is coming up in about three weeks, and with it, for me, comes an exciting (and downright scary) opportunity to facilitate a conversation that I’ve been having off and on for a very long time. Here’s the description of the session:

The Internet as a medium, or way of communicating, is dynamic, complex, exciting, amazingly diverse, and, in plenty of substantive ways, pretty much nothing new. We have made connections through printed texts and oral stories for generations, other media have filled the gaps between peoples and cultures. There is, to quote a rather old text, “nothing new under the sun.” And yet there’s something about the nature of the Internet, and how it functions, that helps to flesh out a vital component of the writing process that was never quite visible before. Call it connective writing, or hypertext, or what you will, but the almost tactile connections we can make between texts and folks online are dynamic and significant. There’s nothing new about making text to text connections, but there’s sure something powerful in the representation of those links as semi-tangible things.
As we move forward into the new read/write web, I think it’s of value to reconsider both the “reading” and “writing” sides of the equation. We’ll save the reading for another conversation. Come to a session where we will revel in, and experiment with, writing and the power of language, thought, diction and connection to create and discover the world and ourselves. We’ll use some very 1.0 methodologies and some very 2.0 basic tools to think about how we write, what we write, and what we do and don’t do when we write and when we ask students to write for school.

I’m really interested, through the conversation, to move back a step, at least as far as my own self and career and knowledge of teaching and learning is concerned, and to refocus myself and my work around why I got into technology work in the first place – namely, because I saw computers as excellent creation and publication tools – they were and are very good for composition of all shapes and sizes.

I dig writing, and all the interesting writing’s being done on computers these days (or at least it’s being published via computers – Moleskines are still full of really excellent stuff).

One sideline, and perhaps even tangential, conversation that I keep thinking about is the shift to mobile devices. I’m writing this post on an HP Mini 1000, a netbook with a decent keyboard. I didn’t get interested in ultra mobile computers or smart phones or the like until I saw that I could use them to thoughtfully communicate in my favorite mode – text. (My XO is another story – while I’ve learned to type pretty well on its little keyboard, I own that machine more out of a desire to better understand a philosophy of product development and learning than out of a desire to have a tiny laptop for me to use. Oh, and supporting what I believe to be a good cause didn’t hurt, either. You could also argue that the XO created the market for the device I’m typing on. But I digress.)

I’ve written blog posts and e-mails and tweets and lots of other types of messages, posts, and whatnots on all sorts of devices. Cell phones, computers, typewriters, word processors, etc. And I just can’t function as a digital writer without a full sized keyboard.

What I worry about, in our rush to take everyone and everything mobile (and I am very much interested in mobile technology myself, don’t get me wrong) is that we’ll end up with tools that won’t really do what we need them to do. The tools themselves, as always, have the potential to shape what we think about, how we thinking about it, and what we do with those thoughts.

When I think about school and learning, I think about writing. Our learning tools need to have easy and useful ways for putting words and ideas into them as well as getting those words and ideas back out. Right now, I think mobile tools are more about consumption than they are about creation. (Thanks to Chris Craft for the right tweet at the right time to help me figure out that phrasing.)

And that scares me. In our conversation, I hope we get to talk about this notion I have that I’m certain that much of what we’re trying to do with technology today is work that we, or our predecessors, were trying to do with their technology yesterday – teach writing well. We all should be helping students develop the ability to draft and revise and edit and be their own crap detectors and learn to think about whom they were writing to, and to tailor their compositions to that/those audience(s). That basic framework works for text, video, audio, still pictures, and any combination thereof.

I hope you join me in some time spent writing, thinking, and talking about how writing remains so essential to learning and how technology, specifically the read/write web, assists us in fulfilling the promises and opportunities of strong writing communities and might be altering our societal reading, writing, and thinking paradigms. (One question of many for me on that front – What does it mean when the text that you are reading not only suggests that you consult another source, but it can take you to that source? In real time?)

I’m looking very much forward to it. I hope you are, too.

(You are coming to EduCon, right? It’s not too late to register – and if you can’t be there in person, the plan is to stream all of the great content from the event – so you can still participate.)


The Funky Hybrid

I want to put you into the middle of a conversation that I’ve been having with myself and the media for almost four years now by putting you in the middle of a conversation that’s been running on Mark Glaser’s PBS blog, MediaShift. In an entry posted today (that I learned about from Tim), Mark continues the story of Alana, a student in a journalism course at NYU who has been blogging her class. Mark brings us into the story:

After New York University journalism student Alana Taylor wrote her first embed report for MediaShift on September 5, it didn’t take long for her scathing criticism of NYU to spread around the web and stir conversations. Taylor thought that her professor, Mary Quigley, was not up to speed on social media and podcasting — even though the class she was teaching was called “Reporting Gen Y.” And Taylor felt that NYU was not offering her enough classes about new media; she cited the requirement that students bring print editions of the New York Times to class as one example of their outdated mindset.

Not surprisingly, Quigley was not happy with the story and was upset that Taylor had not sought permission to write her first-person report about the class, and told Taylor it was an invasion of privacy to other students in the class. By Taylor’s account, Quigley had a one-on-one meeting with Taylor to discuss the article, and Quigley made it clear that Taylor was not to blog, Twitter or write about the class again. That was upsetting to Taylor, who had been planning a follow-up report for MediaShift that would include Quigley’s viewpoint and interviews with faculty.

What follows in Glaser’s post is a very thorough examination of the issue and the specifics of policy at NYU and the opinions of several of the journalists and teachers involved in the events, as well as some other thoughtful commentary, especially the commentary from Floyd Abrams, whom Glasner labels as “a veteran media lawyer who has argued First Amendment cases before the Supreme Court.”  Abrams, asked if he felt blogging a university class would violate the privacy of other students in the class, answered:

My own view is that while student commentary that is critical of ongoing classes can lead to a level of tension in class at the same time it makes extremely difficult a teacher-student relationship…it does not violate the ‘privacy’ of the classroom and should not be banned or punished. Would it be illegal to do so? It certainly wouldn’t be unconstitutional since NYU isn’t a state school and thus subject to First Amendment limitations. Whether it violates NYU rules I have no idea. I would be very surprised, however, if NYU permitted a student to be punished for writing such a critique. Surprised and disappointed.

The comments to the post are getting quite interesting, too, as journalists and teachers hash out the place of social media like Twitter and blogs in the university classroom, specifically as tools for teaching and practicing journalism.

I’d strongly encourage you to read Glasner’s post, the original piece by Alana Taylor, and the comments showing up in both places, as well as on other sites.  They’re continuing to complicate for me the nature of a classroom, whether it is a public space, a private space, or some funky hybrid that exists in between.

While university classrooms, where the students are adults, are different from K-12 classrooms, I continue to think about the nature of classroom spaces and discourse, and the stance that public educators should be taking in regards to the environment that we’re finding ourselves in these days, where students are plugged in and networked via devices that we have no control over.  More and more, students are literally bringing their own networks and publishing platforms with them to school.  And that means the nature of classroom spaces will continue to become more public, whether or not we want them to.

This isn’t a new issue, but I find the fact that journalists and media folk are stuck in the middle of the same mess as the rest of us both reassuring and frustrating.

So here’re a few of my (continuing) questions:

  • In a world where the tools and the access are no longer (and probably never really were) within the control of “us,” the educators, what limits do we set on their use at school that actually begin to balance students’ rights to communicate and reflect and process with the  legitimate educational and institutional need to control some of what is and isn’t “public” information?
  • How do we balance minors’ needs with the fact that we work for public institutions and should be open to public oversight?
  • How does transparency mesh with some of the more delicate issues in the classroom?
  • Where do students’ rights to talk about their experiences begin to conflict with other students’ right to privacy?
  • Are public school classrooms fundamentally public spaces or private ones?  (Or that funky hybrid in-between?)

Blanket bans of personal technology or of writing about certain situations or classes don’t and won’t address these needs in a meaningful and educational relevant way.  We need to be thoughtful now about how we teach students to share as the ability to do so becomes even more pervasive in society than it already is.  If I’ve learned anything in the last few years, it’s that there are no easy answers here.  And for the most part, we’re dodging the questions at school.

I’ll share some of my thoughts about how we might proceed in a future post.



Jennifer Jones tweeted a link to this video this morning, and I think it’s a fine example of what a connected organization, in this case Abilene Christian University, and connected teaching and learning,  can look like. 

We’re getting to a stage in the learning game where we should be thinking about ways to help students create connections to each other and to their learning.  Handing students and teacher a device that connects students and serves as a platform for the teaching and learning in a system just makes sense, even though it’s not always a socially or culturally or politically accepted idea.  That needs to change.  Soon.  I feel like the political climate for 1:1 (or even 1:3, or 1:10) continues to improve – but we’re still in a transitional place between analog and digital instruction. 
    I can’t say that the iPhone is THE device – I couldn’t imagine writing anything of substance on the iPhone or any other tool without a reasonable keyboard – but I understand why they featured it, as I do think it’s a game-changer, in terms of its functionality and ease of use.  Of course, there are plenty of other game-changers coming to the table at the moment.


Friday Night Twilight

    I’ve had a cold all week that’s been slowly taking away my ability to think and to communicate at the same time.  I’ve been striking back as best as I can, but last night, after the very enjoyable fireside chat session with the K12 Online folks, the cold won the battle. 
    I caved and took some cold medicine.  Now, irony of ironies, I can’t sleep, as all of the thinking I was trying to do today was sort of backed up in my brain until now, so I’m learning instead.  So long as there’s no talking, I think my brain can keep up with my typing.  Maybe.
    Thanks to Rick, I spent some time this evening at YouTube.  Here’s a video that pretty much matches our reaction to finding Cathy’s Book on the bookshelf.
    Sean Stewart, one of the authors of Cathy’s Book, has an on ARG’s.  Since he’s been involved with the artform/genre/mindtrip since the beginning of the artform, I think he counts as an expert.  You should definitely read in its entirety, particularly if you think gaming has a place in schools.
This is a little jumbled, I know, between the cold medicine and the excited synapses going off and fighting for control of my intellect.  Forgive me.  There’s lots of synthesis to do between Stewart’s words and lots of the great conversations going on about how to tell a new story in school.  This might be one of those ways to teach the new story in schools — or I’m mixing my metaphors.  Either way, I blame the virus. 

On the idea of ARG’s not being a new experience, Stewart writes:

By the way, I do NOT assert that the Beast was the first, or greatest,
example of massively multi-player collaborative investigation and
problem solving. Science, as a social activity promoted by the Royal
Society of Newton’s day and persisting to this moment, has a long head
start and a damn fine track record. Not to mention more profound
investigations and way more scandalous gossip.

We just accidentally re-invented Science as pop culture entertainment.

Can you imagine the classroom power of reinventing our content as pop culture entertainment?  Sure, there’s some dangerous ground there — but plenty of potential in there too.
    Feels like the cold’s taking over again — off to rest.  And read.   Before I go, though, I’m curious — how many of you actually dialed the number on the cover (650-266-8233)?  What was your reaction?


Have You Seen Cathy’s Book?

    I’m teaching a book club class in the afternoons for students who want to take their independent reading a little further.  We meet twice a week, discuss their reading and generally do book clubbish things, such as share ideas, questions, and, occasionally, chocolate.   There are only two students in the class at the moment, and we’ve been together for nine weeks, so we’re starting to get used to each other as readers and thinkers. 
    We pick the books that we’re reading together, and so it was a pretty normal day when we arrived at a local book store to pick out our next text, as well as some new books for the library that I had ordered.
    Of course, the book we had selected wasn’t in.  But we found something else.
    A student handed me a black, hard cover book, with the words "Cathy’s Book: If found call (650) 266-8233" written with what appeared to be silver marker on the cover.  She asked me what I thought.  On a hunch, I asked her if she had her cell phone with her.  She pulled it from her pocket, at which point I instructed her to dial the number. 
    She was nervous about that, so she asked me to instead. 
    I’m going to interrupt this narrative to ask you to dial that number, so long as it’s reasonably cost-effective for you to do so.  If you’ve a Skype account, it’s probably a free call for you at the moment — go ahead and dial.  I’ll wait. 
From the moment we heard that message, we were curious.  Then, we opened the book.  Alongside a pretty standard looking book was a pouch full of documents and other stuff: ripped up photographs, a menu, some old letters, and some other odd items.  We shared the find with the other student in the class, dialed the number for her, she took a listen, and we headed to the register with our new read in hand.
    This is an interesting book. 
    Written by one of the creators of  I Love Bees, an early incarnation of an ARG (alternate reality game), Cathy’s Book is a puzzle wrapped inside a book and scattered around lots of voice mail boxes, collections of documents, websites, and .  .  .  well, we’re not sure what else yet.  We just know it’s addictive and contagious.  At least one other student here at school is waiting to read the book, and we’re all reading voraciously; we even met up today during lunch to check in on the progress that we’ve each made.  (All of us had discovered different clues that allowed us to access various hidden puzzles.  We needed each other to make the picture begin to be complete.  VERY COOL.)
    I like the idea of a novel that uses a narrative that exists in lots of places.  I’ve written about this before, but I really, really think there’s potential in these types of stories, stories where we have to access different types of information and begin to make sense of what’s real, what’s relevant, and what’s important to the story. 
    After only a day of reading Cathy’s Book, I’m hooked, as are my students.  The only problem I see with that excitement is that in a week or two, we’re going to need another book that engages us in this way. 
    Got any ideas?


Using the Phones Instead of Banning Them

    Great post from Terry Freedman on possible uses for cell phones at school.  Who needs those pesky clickers that only do one thing — can’t we set up cell phones to do that job and so much more? 
    Another question: how long do you think it’ll take some smart thinking company to put together some hardware and software just so we can capitalize on cell phones in our classrooms?  It’s taken my school more than a year to set up a wireless network — and it’s still not complete — but the cell companies already have multiple, fairly reliable, networks that penetrate into most, if not all, schools now. 
    I’d gladly spend a little bit of money to piggyback some of our work on one of those networks, particularly since most of my students already carry phones.