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Making meaningful connections

Illustration by Karl Sebire

I was recently out to lunch and sat at the adjacent table were a group of friends, perhaps of middle secondary school age. Our food arrived around the same time and as I hungrily attacked my meal, I began to observe a very different ritual unfolding at our neighbour’s table.

With an almost synchronized display of eagerness, smartphones were held at the ready, having been easily accessible as they all sat atop the table, jostling for space amongst the salt and pepper. One girl began to move and manipulate her food as she worked out her fish & chips’ “best side” for its Instagram photo shoot, whilst another quickly updated her Facebook status to inform all those who had been deemed worthy “friends” that she was currently having a better time than they were. Texting and tweeting and touchups of their lunch continued for some time as I continued to devour my meal, this behaviour in my periphery distracting me somewhat. Before too long, phones were once again set down for a brief rest and one of them exclaimed with disappointment “My lunch has gone cold!”

Technology’s ubiquity in modern society is inescapable. It invades our meal times, family life, social life and school life. For digital natives however, who have grown up not knowing a world without such ready access to technology, it is an almost essential element of day-to-day living. Taking away a teenager’s access to the Internet is now tantamount to cutting them off from their entire world, or ‘social network’. Technology has not invaded Australian teenager’s lives so much as it has been compulsorily introduced by the implementation of the Digital Education Revolution (DER), launched by Kevin Rudd in 2007. Since then, schools across the country have been gradually adapting to students from Year 9-12 having their own personal laptop. Though beyond just personal computers, the rapid uptake of smartphones doubled last year, with 9.2 million Australians going online via their phones in 2012. The challenge presented by this ever-increasing prevalence of technology is how to manage its use so that students can both harness its power, whilst also being aware of its drawbacks and dangers if not used appropriately.

Having worked in the boarding community for almost a decade now, I have witnessed first hand the dramatic shift occurring in social interactions and learning abilities since the introduction of the DER several years ago. Whilst in the boarding house recently, a student asked me the definition for a word relating to their homework. When I suggested they go look it up in the dictionary, they exclaimed that they couldn’t because their wi-fi wasn’t working. This simple response was indicative of a mindset of many students who have now become so reliant on technology that their ability to approach situations in the old fashioned analogue way are completely alien. In a recent survey I conducted, results indicated that students were now more likely to ask Google a question than a teacher or parent. For staff, both in the classroom and the boarding environment, educating students to be good ‘digital citizens’ is now integral to a modern education. With schools incorporating laptop use across the curriculum and smartphones being an almost indispensible tool for boarders living away from home, staff need to be at the forefront of managing a medium that is constantly evolving. This is no mean feat, with the students in our care often far more tech-savvy than the ‘digital immigrant’ adults tasked with their pastoral and academic welfare.

The challenge presented to students is one that they cannot possibly be expected to undertake on their own and the best approach for educators is to be proactive, engaged and involved. Teenagers have been presented with an educational resource that offers collaborative and creative capabilities beyond anything students have enjoyed in the history of education. However, the line between a laptop being a tool for learning and a device for recreation is increasingly difficult for young minds to delineate. I know the challenge myself that working online can present. As I type, I’m constantly bombarded by an overflowing inbox, accompanied by the cacophony of beeps and bells chiming across an array of social networking sites. If I deviate from the task at hand, I know that checking a simple link sent from a friend could lead me down a path of distraction that will take me further and further away from the job I sat down at my computer to complete. Having dedicated several years to studying the impact that technology can have on behaviour, I am all too aware of its vices. So one must question how a developing teenage mind can remain just as focused when distractions from an online existence are an almost constant for them. Not maintaining connections online is almost, if not more, socially troublesome than the trials of the traditional schoolyard. This increasing dependence on technology and a yearning for validation through intangibles such as ‘Likes’ and ‘Friend counts’ is contributing to issues such as internet addiction, an inability to maintain focus on specific tasks and a considerable impact on absorbing content in the classroom and beyond.

Boarding staff are therefore responsible for ensuring that students are aware of the implications of technology misuse and develop effective strategies to manage it. Limiting internet access to specified times, enforcing log off periods before bed, providing school networks that offer safe and secure internet use and monitoring students’ wellbeing are all essential measures that need to be taken. Gone are the days of being able to identify bullying simply by witnessing the actions and behaviour of students. Students are now at the behest of bullies and detractors whenever they log on and adults are often left completely oblivious to any such torment. Educating students in how to behave when using social media and adapting real world skills and expectations to their digital landscape will encourage them to interact safely and sensibly online. If we present the students in our care with this technology, then the onus is on us as educators to ensure that it is used in the best possible way. If we are unable to do this, then we have failed to successfully prepare young people for life in the 21st Century.

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