Thursday, August 7, 2014

Are We Virtually Connected Or Are We Connected?

I attended elementary school in the early 80s. My school pictures are filled with a lot of vests and big feathered bangs. At one point or another, every one of my classmates came to school with the "bowl cut," when mom stuck a Tupperware bowl on your head and cut around it. I knew every one of my classmates, and not just because I grew up in a small town in upper Michigan. Our families relied on one another for information, for advice, and for support. We didn't turn to the web to figure out how to sign our children up for a bus to and from kindergarten. We didn't scroll through the school's online portal to to learn about which standardized tests were being given and when. Instead, we asked the parent who had a child older than ours. We talked with our neighbors. We built our community, both students and parents, through face-to-face connections and informal mentorships. And having just spent the morning clicking and filling out online forms so that my soon-to-be kindergartener is signed up for the correct bus and so that I receive text messages and phone calls and email alerts of every change, I'm beginning to question how impersonal school has become.

I find this ironic having just spent the summer attending and presenting at a wide variety of education conferences where many of the presenters, myself included, are sharing strategies and ideas for addressing individual learners needs.  Recently, while attending a session at the EdTech Teacher Summit in Chicago, I participated in a two hour session in which we wondered about the impact of individualized learning on the development of learning communities. When I look at how I am connecting with my own child's school, it is increasingly impersonal. Our avenues for learning about the school are typically through a screen of one sort or another. And when information is not emailed or posted to an online portal, it comes in the form of paper...lots and lots of paper.

When I attended kindergarten orientation in early summer with my son, he was led to a room with other soon-to-be school-age children and sent through a series of "stations." At each station, he met briefly with a teacher or school staff member who assessed his "level" in 10 to 15 minutes. Can you read this word? Can you count to 10? Do you know your phone number? I stayed in the auditorium with other parents where we were handed a bag of papers that contained procedural information about getting our student's health and dental records for the school but which also contained packet after packet of homework we were to go over with our child during the summer months. Yup, pre-kindergarten homework. Handwriting exercises and shape sorting games, basic math problems and sight words. And my son's school is not unique. Just a few weeks ago blogger Philip Kovacs posted "An Open Letter to My Son's Kindergarten Teacher," and like Philip and his son, my son and I have not opened that bag of homework.

However, what surprised me most was a little brochure tucked into our parent packets on Virtual K, an online kindergarten program that the school encouraged parents and students to access as a supplement to their half-day kindergarten program. The staff member standing before the parents at kindergarten orientation explained that the school used the virtual program to provide the instructional time that kindergarten students needed to be successful in later grades but which the school couldn't provide in person. Wait! What? So our schools are encouraging our youngest students to disengage with the school community in order to learn from a screen?

Technology has opened up so many avenues and possibilities that were not available to students of the 80s like me. When used well, technology can connect and engage both parents and students to the larger school community. And we see so many examples of teachers and schools doing this well: teachers who email welcome letters during the summer and encourage students to share their pictures and descriptions of summer adventures through blogs and online bulletin boards, schools that use Google Hangouts to virtually meet with students over the summer, and teachers who share video playlists introducing new students to their future classroom and learning adventures. However, each of these examples illustrates how technology is used to supplement the community that is also being built in person. Without that face-to-face connection, technology instead serves as a wall to divide parents and even students from the school. Simply moving all those handouts and information to an online space does nothing to build a sense of connection to a school. Just because information is easily accessible, does not mean that community is. It is worrisome that during kindergarten orientation parents are told with pride about online kindergarten. Remember that poster that hangs in nearly every faculty workroom -  "All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten"? Read through it. Most of these lessons cannot be learned online.

But it's early. The school year hasn't officially started, so perhaps I am wrong. I just hope that my son and I have more opportunities to be connected to our school community rather than virtually connected.

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