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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Technology and Debate

I believe it was former national news anchorman Tom Brokaw who lamented that the internet instantly allows us to communicate with and befriend people all over the world, yet holds the possibility that we are left not really knowing the person living next door. Like most everything else, technology can be both a positive and a negative, depending on how we exercise its potential.

Technology is a vital tool within our schools. Schools are critical elements of a vibrant community. At times the two do not constructively intersect.

Public school education is a fertile ground for debates. In part, since most people have attended schooling of some kind for at least thirteen years, the shared experience leaves many people with a deeper knowledge and broader perceptions about education than they might have on small engine repair or architectural design or any other subject that is far less common in experience.

The leadership of a school or school district is not always right. “What is right,” when juxtaposed with the mission of the school, is more important in my opinion than “who is right.” Advanced degrees and specific titles are not dictators in a democracy. There are many subjects regarding education that could pose as focal points for productive consideration by diverse constituent groups in a community. The responsibility of a leader is to articulate positions on issues, whether they are popular positions or not, and attempt to convey them with appropriate explanations and context, and a willingness to adapt to changes or new information that might alter a previously made decision.

Oftentimes, the busy schedules of parents prevent them from making a regular commitment to attend meetings at school that could afford opportunities for discourse on subjects and concerns. That’s certainly understandable at a time when financial stress has prompted many to extend work hours or obtain additional work, or parents are juggling family schedules, or they are struggling with child-care as a single parent. Many schools maintain an active social media presence through facebook, twitter, or blogs, which combine to offer channels inviting an open and expanded virtual assembly over a time frame that accommodates varied schedules.

However, it seems like the ability to bring people closer through advancing technologies has also contributed to a fracturing of conversations and the creation of partisan camps. Most issues have multiple sides that can spawn differences of opinion that may lead to emotional expressions in support of particular points. Rather than promoting opportunities for many people to participate in an engaging dialogue examining possibilities, issues that could be discussed in a large format may be reduced to narrower conversations among people who share similar beliefs. Instead of accessing forums via readily available social media platforms, groups identify their perspective on an issue and then retreat to separate and private forums (i.e. facebook pages) based on common beliefs and a reluctance to entertain differing thoughts. This splintering effect provides some comfort to those refraining from a full scale discussion through semi-private exchanges that reinforce each other’s opinions and reaffirm their sentiments. But, as a consequence of people seeking refuge with shared beliefs we all lose the prospect of learning something new, contemplating or adjusting our position, or persuading opposing views to adopt our perspective or adapt their position. This smaller pool of perspectives in a more limited form of dialogue between people of similar opinions may leave some convinced that “everyone I know” thinks this way, or “everyone else feels the same way,” thus entrenching their original stand on an issue.

Additionally, the privacy of a faceless series of exchanges among people of similar beliefs can embolden people to extend their opinions beyond the boundaries they might otherwise hold when they are involved in a personal and real-time exchange of ideas in a more formal social setting. I suspect the language and emotions displayed in the narrower philosophical format of a private facebook page may not resemble an exchange people might evidence in a public forum at a school meeting. Such a prospect allows for feelings and expressions to escalate and eventually devolve to a degree of division that inhibits or prevents the cooperation among diverse groups that can enrich our school community.

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