Conference on Meaningful Living & Learning in a Digital World 2015

Like many of you, my inbox fills up quickly. If I check my mail before going to sleep, I wake up at 6:30 or 7:00 AM to 50+ new emails. A third are from people in different time zones. The other two-thirds are newsletters, Google news alerts (my daily me), ads and announcements. Amid that influx of emails, one subject stuck out last week, a conference on Meaningful Living and Learning in the Digital World, scheduled for May 27-29 in beautiful Savanna, Georgia. It was refreshing to see a conference devoted to the human side of learning and learning in an increasingly high-tech world.

As some of you know, my doctorate is in instructional technology, but in some ways, I hacked the program to focus upon the social, cultural, psychological, and philosophical side of life and learning in an technological world. In fact, to add more of a humanistic bent to my doctoral dissertation, I completed a second master’s in humanities while writing my dissertation.

I’ve always been drawn to questions about human implications, whether it was unexpected health implications of children’s early immersion in technology-rich contexts or what Neil Postman calls the Faustian bargain of technology. As part of this thinking, I’ve gone on inquiry walkabouts that included the study hacker culture, Amish culture, the history of the Luddite movement, and neo-luddite perspectives on technology. As much as I’ve an advocate for educational innovation and leveraging technology for social good, I continue to welcome the civil war that goes on inside of me regarding the unexpected and/or negative impact of technological advancements.

Our innovations will almost always develop faster than our ethics and moral compass in the digital world. That is why conferences like these are refreshing and important. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to make it this year, but I wanted to at least post this to demonstrate my support for it. Thank you to all who are making such an event possible!

10 Approaches to Making Educational Decisions

There is no shortage of educational trends and innovations. At the same time, professional educators know the importance of making decisions on some sort of basis. How do we decide when to implement a trend and when not do implement it? How do we decide whether to add interactive whiteboard to every classroom or how to do it, whether to adopt a 1:1 program, whether to use a particular curriculum or adaptive learning math software?

As we think about the decisions we make in education, I see ten common approaches to many educational choices: fashion-based decisions, personal preferences, reliance on educational traditions, reliance of authorities or expert advice, decisions based on reason, decisions based on faith and convictions, the use of reason, data-driven decision-making, and decisions based on relevant research. Following is a short reflection on each of these approaches, noting that decision are often not just based on one of these, but two or more of them combine to shape our decision-making style.

Fashion-based Decisions

These are the educational decisions we make because a given strategy, practice, or technology is fashionable. Closely related, we do it because others are doing it. We sometimes even hear educators talk about how a given idea or practice is “so 1990s” or even just “so last year.” It is rooted in the idea that newer is better, The older practice is likely not as good. Sometimes we make fashion-based decisions but there happen to be other good reasons for that same decision…they just didn’t play a role in our choice. One school might put interactive whiteboards in every classroom because it is fashionable or trendy. Another might do it for a completely different reason, like because they attended a workshop and learned about the specific benefits for teaching and learning.

It is not always easy to tell if we are making a fashion-based decision, because we sometimes still use the language of research, reason, or data when defending our choices. As a result, this is a messy process. Nonetheless, it can be helpful to check our motives by challenging ourselves to honestly reflect on what is really influencing the decisions that we make.

Personal Preference and Comfort

Sometimes we make decisions because we want to, because it is the comfortable thing to do. It might be because we are familiar with it, allowing us to avoid the something frightening unknown of some newer educational claim or practice. Again, we may try to justify our decision using the language of reason, data, or research; but when we are fully honest, we recognize that your decisions are based upon what is comfortable for us, even if it may not be the best for the learners or others.

Reliance on Authority Figures, Experts and Other Respected People

Whether it is a college professor, a respected colleague, or a well-known and respected figure in education; we sometimes based our decisions on the viewpoints and advice of these people. As such, we are at the mercy of their skill in suggesting the best options. There are times when we truly don’t know that much, and we don’t have the time or means to do the research ourselves. However, if we are going to be professional educators, that calls for us to take at least some ownership and responsibility for educational choices. This is a tempting option as it requires less time and effort, and because the field of education already tends to value respect for authority figures.


Sometimes we end up making decisions because of indifference. By not caring and not making any strong stand, we find ourselves pushed or pulled toward a given decision. As I recall from a classic Rush song, choosing not to decide is still a choice…and that choice has just as many implications as if one invested more time and effort in making it.

Compliance, Policy, and Regulations

Education is an increasingly regulated sector. As such there are sometimes largely non-negotiable decisions. Is there solid or research to show that 180 days of school is better than 150 or 190? Are credit hours really the most beneficial way to measure student progress toward a credential? What about the reasons behind certain graduation requirements or mandates? While some decision may have solid reasons behind them, others do not. Either way, the reasons behind the regulations are not always clear, and there is no small amount of political influence on school regulations. Nonetheless, some educational decisions are informed more by compliance with given policies or regulations than anything else.


There is a reason why some practices stand the test of time, and that is not to be ignored. I am not arguing that we should flippantly abandon traditions in our educational organizations. Traditions can be helpful and stabilizing. At the same time, tradition alone may not be the best justification for every decision. If the medical field only made decisions based on tradition, then current practice would be void of many helpful, promising, even life-saving practices and strategies. The same is true when it comes to our educational decision-making process. 

Reason and Wisdom

What is the reasonable thing to do? Using common sense and plain reason is an important part of functioning in daily life, not to mention providing a quality educational experience for learners. A good dose of common sense can be a powerful tool as we seek to make wise decisions about how to allocate resources, what will be helpful, and what will not. However, reason apart from some other tools for decision-making can also lead us astray. We can, for example, philosophize our way into some rather troubling educational predicaments.

Faith and Convictions

This is an important means of making decisions. There are underlying beliefs and convictions of everyone in the field of education. Reason alone does not work for most of us. For example, maybe something might appear to be the reasonable or logical thing to do, but is it ethical? Does it align with our core beliefs and convictions? Consider how the Amish make decisions about technologies. It could be argued that they are not anti-technology as much as they are pro-community. If they sift their technological decisions through their community-based values-strainer, some technologies don’t make it through. As such, leveraging our faith and convictions in decision-making requires knowing and articulate those convictions, and then using them in the decision-making process. Neil Postman’s questions to inform technology-related decisions can be a helpful tool in this process (

Data-driven Decision Making

Without convictions and reason, data is unhelpful. However, data-driven decision-making is about collecting the necessary data to help you make the best decision in a given circumstance. Should we buy interactive whiteboards for every classroom? How about collecting the most useful data to inform your decision? What is the teacher readiness? What training is necessary for teachers to use them well? What will the cost be and how will that impact our ability to spend on other important things? Or, perhaps we buy a few interactive whiteboard and collect data on how they are useful, whether they are improving student engaging and learning. Data-driven decision making is framing the most important questions related to decision, then collecting and analyzing the data that will help us answers those questions and make the best decision.

Decisions Informed by Relevant Research

Education is both an art and science. As a science, there is a massive body of research about the effectiveness of different practices, processes, strategies, and methods. Learning to read and review this research can help with decisions. While research on students in one school does not always directly apply to our specific contexts, reviewing the research can give us a better sense of the possibilities, the potential benefits and drawbacks of given educational innovations. Combine this with a data-driven approach and we have a robust way of making more informed and helpful decisions.

We are humans and not machines. As such, our decision-making processes are complicated. They are not simply a matter of making the reasonable choice, collecting the right research and data, following our gut, going with what is fashionable, or using some perfect recipe of these eight decision-making styles. However, I contend that a heavy emphasis upon the last four is especially important in the 21st and 22nd century. It is important to leverage reason, our convictions, relevant data, and a review of the best research on the subject. We can also benefit from respecting the educational traditions of the past but not blindly following the path of tradition in our educational practices. However, in this era of unprecedented educational change, innovation and experimentation, I am confident that reliance upon fashion-based decisions and personal preferences will quickly lead us down a dangerous path.

Helping Students Manage Digital Distractions in the Classroom and Beyond

At a recent conference (and some follow up chats), I invited people to suggest articles that they would like to see on in the upcoming year.  One person suggested an article on managing digital distractions. So, here is it.

Several years ago, I was presenting to a group of University faculty about the changing nature of teaching and learning in an increasingly digital world.  At one point, I invited faculty to break into small groups and develop a list of ways that they hope to respond to these changes.  One group of faculty, largely faculty that teach classes in the general education program, honed in on a problem that they saw in their classes, namely more students bringing laptops and cell phones to class.  The group collectively agreed upon a solution. Ban laptops and cell phone from their classes.  I’ve not stayed in touch with many in that group over the past few years, but one of them recently informed me that he maintains this policy.  Students in his class are prohibited from using laptops.  They must take notes in traditional notebooks or nothing at all.

This is certainly one approach to managing digital distractions, but it is not a viable option in the classroom that seeks to leverage laptops and mobile technologies for teaching and learning.  As more K-12 schools and a growing number of University departments are implementing 1:1 programs, the chance for digital distractions is greater than ever.

Of course, this is larger than school or the classroom.  Digital distractions impact many of us in school, work, home, while driving, while waiting in lines the store. Looking at the topic as an educator, my concern is not simply about managing distractions in the classroom, but about helping learners grow in their ability to balance the digital and non-digital aspects of their lives.  As noted by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, many of these daily experiences (browsing the web, checking email and texts, checking in our family social media outlets) provide an immediate gratification to the brain.

Carr writes,

“The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”

Similarly, in the introduction to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, he muses about whether our future is one that resembles 1984 or A Brave New World. In the former, we give up our freedoms to protect us from our fears.  In the latter, we are consumed by our pleasures and immediate gratification. Impulse control, postponing gratification, and reflection remain important aspects of life in an increasingly digital world.  Without these, we find it difficult to make decisions that align with our values and convictions.  Instead, we just follow our desires of the moment.

So how to we manage this?  I do not see how banning devices will serve as a helpful solution in most circumstances.  I certainly appreciate the occasional media fast, but what seems especially helpful is to provide learners with a chance to read, reflect, and discuss these matters.  Provide them with the opportunity to document their current digital consumption practices, to reflect upon their core values and convictions, to learn about important ideas and perspectives on life in the digital age, and invite them to develop a plan of action in various spheres of their lives.  Some sort of journaling or goal setting can be helpful.  In other words, I am suggesting that this is something that we invite student to decide (with proper mentoring and guidance) and not an authority making all the decisions in advance, preventing learners from being active participants in the plan.

This approach gives students the opportunity to exercise their ability to self-regulate and to grow as more self-directed, thoughtful, and intentional people.  Boundaries are still important, but within those boundaries, it is equally important to give learners a chance to think, plan and act in a way that aligns with their beliefs and values.  This is what will equip and empower them to do so once they are beyond the more frequent direction of authority figures like parents and teachers.

This can be done in any number of ways.  One option is to give learners a chance to develop drafts of a plan to manage their digital technologies (anything from mobile devices to computers an game consoles), explaining the reasons for the different decisions in different contexts (classroom, in the car, at home on weekends, while hanging out with friends, etc.). What type of person do you want to be? Workshopping these plans with peers and getting feedback from parents, teachers, and other mentors can also be a valuable part of the process.  After getting some external feedback, the learner can develop a second draft and use this as a guide for a set period of time, occasionally revisiting and refining the plan as needed.

As I’ve noted in any number of posts, technology is not just something that we use.  It uses us as well, and awareness about the affordances and limitations of technology combined with an awareness of how different technologies can help or hinder us from living out our own core values and beliefs can be quite powerful. This approach is in contrast to pre-developed lists of do’s and dont’s. While moderate use of such lists can offer important boundaries. Overuse of such lists risks preventing students from taking responsibility, being unnecessarily restrictive, and losing a sense of shared ownership in the task.

In the end, I’m simply suggesting that we help learners take the opportunity to think deeply about the role of digital tools in their lives and to help them take responsibility for making intentional plans and enacting those plans.







Blog Critiques of Peer Reviewed Articles & Peer Reviewed Articles About Blog Posts

A colleague recently drew my attention to a fascinating scenario that highlights the growing pains of scholarship in the digital age.  Dr. Mark Goodacre, Associate Professor of Religion at Duke University, describes it in this blog post.  He posted a rough draft thought on his blog and later discovered that it was critiqued in a peer-reviewed journal article.  Dr. Goodacre reflects on this situation, wondering how or if this will impact the way the he and other academics write in their blogs.  Blogging is not peer-reviewed, and many of us blog as a way of thinking out loud, sharing some of our rough draft ideas with the possibility of refining and expanding one of those musings into something that we might submit for peer review at a later date.  As noted by Dr. Goodacre, this gives scholars pause about what they write in a blog,how it is read, and how it is used.  Is it proper for one scholar to take the blog post of another and critique it in a peer-reviewed journal?

Other situations flip this question.  Consider this post that discusses whether it is ethical for a scholar to critique a peer-reviewed article in a blog post rather than doing so in a peer-reviewed source. In other words, is it proper to extend a scientific debate into the blogosphere and not keep it within the confines of the peer-reviewed community?  This question relates to the idea of post publication peer review, which often take the form of a letter to the editor or a follow up article, but now finds its way into blog posts, representing a sort of academic transmedia migration.

These scenarios highlight the changing nature of academic discourse in the digital world.   I see little evidence that these matters will be resolved in the near future, especially given the fact that the boundaries and form of formal learning are being re-imagined for the digital age.  The reality is that academic discourse and discourses in popular culture continue to mix in new and interesting ways, and I expect to see many more of these situations in the upcoming years.