Sunday, June 1, 2014

Stop saying "balance is key" when discussing technology

The above tweet was sent to me in response to my post explaining why innovative educators should look down on upon a new video called, "Look Up." But I disagreed with this balance-seeking Tweeter. "Balance is key" is a common refrain heard by innovative educators and their students. It is meant as a reminder that tech has a place... but only as long as it's balanced with non-tech.

We are a society that seems to embrace balance without question. It is easy to speak those words or nod in agreement when others convey the sentiment. I mean, what can be wrong with balance? It seems easy to agree to this condition. If this has been you - STOP.

We don't need to balance technology with non-technology.Technology is a tool and resource that we have at our disposal to use effectively and efficiently for our needs. For many people technology is the way they do business, pleasure, fitness, and more, and that's okay.

If you're wondering why...

Think about it.

When you talk about reading books, do you often hear, "balance is key?"
When you talk about fitness, do you often hear, balance is key?
How about writing? How about talking to friends? How about networking with experts? How about playing chess?  How about making documentaries? How about solving complex equations? How about social action?  How about doing research?

All those things can be accomplished with tech though it often is not obvious to the observer. What looks like screen-staring is often something even Luddites can value.

If we are lucky, being passionate about any of the things mentioned above allows us to enter a state of what is called flow. Flow is “characterized by complete absorption in what one does”. Sir Ken Robinson talks about the “element:” the intersection between what one loves and what one is good at. These terms describe what is felt and what it looks like to be simultaneously happy and productive.  It is a good thing.  

Those who have flow experiences are often deeply satisfied with their lives; the community and the world has seen and benefited from that level of dedication. If passionate dedication happens “behind the screens,” why diminish the accomplishment and call for “balance?”

We value and praise all that is mentioned above: Serious athletes, voracious readers, published writers, expert networkers, creators of amazing works in writing, audio, or video.

Technology is a tool that can help us be ALL of those things more effectively and in ways not possible without it. When conversations involving technology end with "balance is key" there's an assumption that those who use it somehow are defaulted to a state of imbalance. That's simply untrue. In fact, technology can be the very tool to enable us to achieve a healthy balance with body, mind, and spirit.

It is important that we enable students and educators to have “flow” experiences, and help them seek their “element” any means they choose. This is especially true when it comes to our digital native students (like Travis Allen, Aaron Iba, and Nick Perez) who are frustrated by being held what they call “prisoners of their teachers’ pasts" unable to learn and thrive with the tools of their world once inside a school building.

Instead of telling others to balance their technology use with non-tech activities, think about what it really is that you want them to balance. Discuss that.

For example, perhaps you feel face-to-face interactions are becoming a lost art. While you may prefer to see a face, healthy interaction with others is a result of a healthy and creative environment, whether that interaction takes place in a text, on a phone, in a Facebook group, in a Google Hangout, during a Twitter chat, or over a garden fence. The great thing about technology is that geographic limitations are removed allowing for powerful global connections, even if you weren't born in a neighborhood where you could easily make them.

In her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Danah Boyd found that teenagers would love to socialize face-to-face with their friends but adults won’t let them. “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other,” Boyd says. “They’re not allowed to hang out the way you and I did, so they’ve moved it online.”

In his Wired Magazine article on the topic, Clive Thompson makes her point. “It’s true. As a teenager in the early ’80s I could roam pretty widely with my friends, as long as we were back by dark. But over the next three decades, the media began delivering a metronomic diet of horrifying but rare child-abduction stories, and parents shortened the leash on their kids. Politicians warned of incipient waves of youth wilding and superpredators (neither of which emerged). Municipalities crafted anti-loitering laws and curfews to keep young people from congregating alone. New neighborhoods had fewer public spaces. Crime rates plummeted, but moral panic soared. Meanwhile, increased competition to get into college meant well-off parents began heavily scheduling their kids’ after-school lives.”

Boyd points out an uncomfortable truth. When we stop scapegoating technology and start discussing the real issue, we may just find we are the cause of the very thing bothering us in others.

The tension is understandable. Most adults were raised to experience life and learning in tech-free environments, but young people are experiencing something quite different. Students often find themselves frustrated by the dry, tasteless and fragmented learning tasks that adults romanticize. They want to be connected and empowered by the devices of their world, but an adult society often stands in the way.

The next time you find yourself afraid that the “overuse” of technology is a harbinger of the end of civilization as we know it, calm down. It is. But, behind those screens you might very well be surprised to find people who pursue their passion in a way that makes them most productive. To achieve a healthy balance, we need to create, accept, and embrace environments where passionate learners can thrive in the ways that work best for them. Once we do that, we are free to move toward that key concept of balance.

HT to lisa cooley (@coollit) for editing and contributions

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