Tuesday, March 22, 2011

BSU Blogfest -- Day 2

Because the theme for today is the role of technology in relationships, I’ll introduce some of the family blogs. Our dog even helps sometimes, by not climbing on my laptop when I’m blogging! We call her “Blog Dog” whenever she cooperates like that.

Paloma Helps (India)

I do not actively post on this blog, but I do provide some ideas for our daughter Paloma, who is preparing and raising funds for a future service trip to India.

Celebrating the States

Pamela Hayes-Bohanan is a BSU librarian and Spanish professor, and the only other “Hayes-Bohanan” in the world, as far as I know. Over the past couple years, she has created a few blog projects with very specific content and defined timelines – each a calendar year. Because the projects include both writing and real-world activities, I have been involved in each of these in various ways. For today’s post, I will just mention the one that has been the most geographic. In fact, I sometimes draw on the Celebrating the States blog for my geography classes or for my other blogs.

The Happy New Year post (from the last day of 2009) explains how this blog was planned. I must say it was both enjoyable and informative, as we explored movies, books, and food related to each state, sometimes involving our friends in the festivities. I sometimes enter a state name in the blog’s search box to bring back an favorite from last year, and I invite readers of this blog to explore it.

Una Nueva Receta Cada Semana

This year, Pam's blog project once again involves food, but it turns a bit inward, as one of the main goals is to introduce more variety to the family diet by using the underused resource of recipe books we already own. Again, the blog's kick-off post provides more context. Follow this blog for some interesting meal ideas and occasional food-related movie reviews.

Once again, now is the time  for the Blog Fest daily theme question:
What role does technology play to help or hinder relationships?

I began using computers for educational purposes thirty years ago, when they were generally not networked, and the “good” computer in my high school lab had 32k of RAM and no disk drive (only a cassette tape for permanent storage). Some government and industry computers were networked in those days, but nobody I worked with was even aware of that fact yet, and we were happy to write simple, stand-alone programs. By the end of the 1980s, I was using some basic networking protocols – such as chat and ftp – strictly for academic purposes as we were finding ways to use desktop computers to tap into the power of mainframes, mainly to run statistics or process satellite images.

Eventually, we learned of something called http and the web, which we saw simply as ways to find academic resources and old-fashioned local bulletin boards. My wife Pamela and I were among the very first people to use the internet – successfully, I might add – as part of a job-search strategy. This was at a time that the web was available, but no browsers or web search engines existed, but the network was beginning to pull together local bulletin boards. It was in this way that I found a listing for a job for Pam in Texas while we were living in Arizona – an amazing feat in 1994, which only happened because both the employer and I were unusually interested in computers. When we moved to South Texas, I actually attended meetings of active internet users, of which there seemed to be only a few dozen in our area.

The first time I created a web page, its sole purpose was to provide academic information to students in a night class I was teaching, because the class was at a campus far from my home, and I had no office hours. Eventually, I became adept at integrating technology in my teaching, through various generations of courseware, from Lotus LearningSpace and WebCT to BlackBoard and now Moodle.

I mention this ancient history by way of explaining that I see social networking and even the web itself as a relatively new add-ons to internet technology, though I know that for many people – either younger people or later adopters – sites like Facebook and Google are the primary lens through which the internet is viewed.
I see a lot of advantages to social networking on the one hand and the ability to find answers to questions quickly on the other. Because of my life history of moving around quite a lot and my more recent work in international education, I have a lot of friends and colleagues in far-flung places.

Prior to the advent of Facebook, I would think of these friends frequently but actually communicate with them rarely – often going years between visits or even letters or emails. Facebook has not reconnected me with all of the interesting and wonderful people in my life, but it has helped me to do so with many of them, and to share bits of wisdom or news on a fairly regular basis, in turn making our face-to-face reunions a bit richer. And with the people I do get to see on a regular basis, social networking helps us to share community and professional news, commiserate about politics, and to get people together for actual events in the real world. I have also found it a useful tool for promoting social movements, such as an effort (stalled at the moment) to develop a creative coffee concept for our campus. The multi-directional connections made possible by social media mean not simply spreading an idea online, but rather using online communication to develop the idea in cooperation with others.

Just as social networking has made connections with people easier in many ways, search engines and the proliferation of information-rich web sites have helped connect people to information. Standing in a kitchen in Vermont last week, we were trying to remember the name of an actor. The youngest person in the room grabbed a laptop that was sitting on the answer and found the answer. The rest of us knew how, but resisted the urge.

Of course, as I write this, I can remember that scene but neither the question nor the answer to it, which brings me to one of the most serious difficulties with both social media and search engines: fragmentation. The ability to connect quickly – with people or with ideas – also allows for disconnecting quickly. It means that whatever there is to do right now, there might be something “better” in five minutes, so we become less willing to commit to plans. Because we can go online to accomplish one thing but be quickly pulled to another, we might not do that one thing very effectively. We now have the technology to access information that is unprecedented in depth, volume, and ease of access. But because there is so much available – and because it is so easy to move to a different task – we often settle for whatever nugget of information we find first. Anything that is beyond the first page of a Google search is likely to be left unread.

The human mind is capable of absorbing much more intellectual food than we often provide it. The deployment of information to our homes, laptops, and now to our phones, means that a mind need never be idle. Driving a car requires focused attention at times – such as when entering a rotary – and relatively little attention at others – such as when driving on an empty road. Our phones can now bring conversation – and even texting – into fill those relatively idle moments.

Classrooms are similar to automobiles, in that the amount of attention required fluctuates from minute to minute as the class unfolds. I’ve noticed that any time I mention a number, students become focused and find something to write with. And when I’m posing a difficult question or leading to a suspenseful point in a story, students are in rapt attention. But in the necessarily slower-paced times of describing a system or series of events, attention can waiver. Prevoiusly, professors in this circumstance might be competing with passing distractions of various kinds or the temptation to pass notes. With rapid access to social media and the web, however, the stakes have been raised. Minute-by-minute, a professor – or anybody wanting face-to-face attention from another person – is potentially in competition with – quite literally – with every person each student knows, plus a world-wide collection of information and entertainment resources. Students (or colleagues) who fail to handle this temptation effectively can create dramatic responses, such as the one below. I am given some hope, though, by students who are giving this problem serious thought -- sometimes even blogging about the need to step back from an approach to time and relationships that is far too frenetic.

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