Thriving Online with Unclear Guidelines

It is only when the routines break down, when the guidelines are unclear, when no one can tell us what to do, that we make real choices and become the creators of our own lives, communities, and futures. Then we become the agents of our own fate. These moments can be as frightening as they are exhilarating.

Marshall Ganz, “What is Public Narrative?”  2008

Every day, I can wake up and turn on my iPhone, check my Twitter feed, update my facebook page, and send an e-mail with the glow of the 3.5 inch screen brighter than the morning light, before even rolling out of bed.  I can choose to spend my day searching for new apps, completely immersed in the world of digital technology in countless ways while I carry on with my daily chores, face-to-face conversations, and lesson planning.  Or, I can take a deep breath, think about my intentions and goals for the day, and monitor myself with mindful use of technology.

Image from

Nobody is teaching me how to harness the power of digital and social media in productive ways, but I’m trying to figure it out.  On the other hand, are young people even aware of what their lives could be like with more restrained and effective technology use?   Teaching students how to thrive online, rather than perhaps become addicted, distracted, lonely, and overwhelmed, isn’t part of any curriculum I’m aware of.

But it should be. 

It seems as if we’re at a cultural crossroads where we can help shape our culture and our fate as digital citizens.  We can reclaim the sense that we–and not technology–are the impetus behind evolving culture.  I’ve had a tendency to believe that changes brought about by technology, relating to communication, attention, and screen time, are forces beyond our control, but I’ve got to grasp on to some hope that we aren’t steamrolling towards a less “human” era, where everything we do in some way relates to constant connectivity, gadgets, and multitasking.

Mr. Ganz, a Harvard University professor, wrote about the importance of narrative in forming policy, effectively influencing his audience by telling a story of self, of us, and of now.  I’m going to take a page out of his playbook in making my case.

The Story of Self–I’m thirty years old, grateful to have grown up in an era without a smart phone in my pocket.  During my adult life, I’ve been exhilarated, annoyed, challenged, and hopeful about the way digital technology can shape our lives.  But the guidelines are unclear.  I enthusiastically embraced using cell phones in class as a middle school teacher, but have recently changed my tune.  I’ve noticed my own habits, checking e-mail incessantly at times, waiting for a new “like” on my blog posts, and became anxious after reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.  Could I still give my unfettered attention to longer texts, either in print or on the screen, without being tempted by a hyperlink or vibration in my pocket?

The Story of Us–I sometimes can’t believe what I see as a high school teacher.  There are so many possibilities to use digital and social media in productive ways, yet we seem to have a generation of youth who hasn’t been guided in any meaningful way.  The guidelines are unclear.  Teens and preteens default to allowing themselves to be constantly distracted by inane and belligerent banter, instead of seeking out ways to communicate and connect to enrich the self, community, and the greater world.  Few educators seem willing or able to teach ever-evolving technology etiquette and skills.  But we can still make choices as individuals and as a society.  Harnessing the addictive and alluring qualities and functions of technology, it seems, does not come naturally to people.

The Story of Now–I am giddy with excitement every time I read something that provides countless “ah-ha” moments.  Net Smart: How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold, is one of those texts.  I’ve finally come across a book that convinces me why I should use Twitter, how I can effectively juggle my various online accounts, and how I might begin to teach students to thoughtfully engage in the digital world, among other tidbits.

According to Rheingold, there are five key new digital literacies:

1.  Attention–do you set goals and intentions, then monitor yourself when your technology habits help or hinder your efforts? 

2.  Crap Detection–do you triangulate at least three sources before passing along “breaking news” or other information on the internet?

3.  Participation–what is your level of digital participation?  Are you a curator?  Creator?  What is your digital footprint and how are you helping to shape it?

4. Collaboration–do you know about cooperation theory and how it has led to an explosion of possibilities online?

5. Network Smarts–have you considered your centrality?  That is, the number of people or networks who go through you in order to connect, versus your sheer number of contacts?

The above is a mere fraction of what Rheingold asks us to consider.  Let’s take an empowered stance, be open to critiquing our own technology use, and push for more digital mindfulness in school.  I’m eager to begin the school year and incorporate some of the above ideas, but I know I won’t find direction in my curriculum guides.  I’m hopeful and ready to act.  According to Ganz, this bodes well:

…if  we are hopeful, our curiosity is more likely to be triggered, leading to exploration that can yield  learning and creative problem solving. So our readiness to consider action, capacity to consider it well, and ability to act on our consideration rests on how we feel.



  1. Healy is an interesting woman. She has extensive experience in the classroom and she is a thorough researcher. Her conclusions are most thought-provoking. Her books should be required reading for all teachers — and parents of young children. I will be most interested to read what you think!

  2. Just ordered it. I keep going back and forth, but never straying too far in either direction of the argument, as I continue to read great books and articles on tech.

  3. Who thinks they are the best things since sliced bread?! Hardly me!
    I know that it is a massive challenge to figure out what technologies to use and how to use them, but it is foolish to ignore the fact that if we don’t educate our kids (older students) how to navigate the digital world, we’ve got even more ignorance coming down the pike.
    I agree, kids in early years should have very limited tech. use. Only when the brain is more developed do i think it’s more practical and safe to start encouraging mindful tech. use. I guess I’ll have to go through these choices as a parent some day…

  4. I wish you would read Jane Healy’s “Failure to Connect” and let us all know your take on it. She has serious reservations about the efficacy of using technological devices inthe schools — especially in the early years. You seem to think they are the best thing since sliced bread!

  5. It is really tough to figure it out, because the system is so far behind. Too much of our district PD is still focused on improving scores on old-school, pen and paper tests, rather than exploring the rich possibilities inherent in digital reading and writing.

  6. I, too, am glad I didn’t grow up with all the distractions children of the cell phone era accept as normal. You nailed it with the constant inane crap that passes as communication.
    I am also struggling with how to use this technology in a meaningful way in my HS classroom, with little PD available right now to show me how. What to do?
    So, I started my own blog. Just. Enjoy your thoughtful prose

  7. Thanks, Jacqui. It’s an issue that has bothered me for years. We follow along blindly behind our technology seldom asking why we are doing so or where we are going! I have blogged about this. Thanks for the response.

  8. Hugh, understand your point, but I guess I’m focusing on individual consumer choices with regards to our day to day lives.
    As far as the technological imperative, it’s scary. As many great tech. developments as there are, there are just as many that as destructive and superfluous. Futurists scare me.

  9. “We can reclaim the sense that we–and not technology–are the impetus behind evolving culture.” With all due respect, I doubt there was a time when we were in control of our technical prowess; I don’t think “reclaiming” it is an issue. There is every reason to think that we are in the grips of what Jacques Ellul in 1950 called “the technological imperative.” If it can be done it will be done — with no questions asked. (His first clue was WWI and the topper was the Atom bomb.)

  10. I love this as usual. I am so grateful to you and inspired by you that you are trying to think through this. Much is still to be learned about all this, but it is great that you are being so intentional about this. Thanks for another excellent post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s