Ghostly Distractions & Digital Doppelgängers

Cyborgs are all around us now, and they have trouble finishing a thought

If you popped into a current classroom from any time before the last five years you’d think your students had gone mad, or were in need of an exorcist. Being unfamiliar with the rapid miniaturization and personalization of electronics, you’d be left wondering what it is they are fiddling with on their navels, why they seem to be constantly thinking about something else, and why when you walk into your next class the students there already know what happened to pretty much everyone else in the school (and the ones who skipped) last period.

I was talking to a colleague the other night about this sense of personal dislocation in students, though digital vertigo isn’t a student only issue. The teacher in question won’t even make a Facebook account because he believes (perhaps rightly) that it means the internets will know where he is all the time. He was telling me about a difficult student who was giving him a hard time in class. This teacher has a great rapport with students so many other students leapt in and argued his point for him. Afterwards the difficult student in question seemed overly despondent and would not re-engage in discussion. I suggested that the disagreement in class may not have ended in the classroom but had become virtualized.  The idea that invisible forces were emanating from and reflecting back into the classroom was quite upsetting to this teacher.

The fluidity with which teens pass back and forth between physical and virtual space make them very hard to read, at many moments in their day they are literally in two places at once. That uncommunicative student may still be getting hammered on Facebook long after the physical confrontation is over; digital echoes of a verbal disagreement. The moods so common in teens anyway are amplified by these invisible, always on, invasive connections; their volatile minds are wired to always-on drama.

There was a time when you could read a class by the students you had in it. Relationships were obvious and management challenging but straightforward. If you had the nitro and the glycerin in the room  you could separate them, you can’t do that any more.  You can’t do that if you move them to a different class… or a different school.  I’ve had students who moved up to our small town to get out of the GTA and away from a bad influence only to be intimately connected with them on Facebook the moment anyone’s back is turned. Always on, always connected, always being emotionally amplified – that is the modern, connected high school student.

This creates some  interesting new psychology in the classroom.  That student who used to feel isolated for their poor behavior in class might be experiencing any number of unseen influences.  Instead of being able to modify poor behavior by moving a student, or placing them in classes where their bad influences are not, they are always connected.  Many of those connections may very well be morally supporting or even inciting them; they never feel isolated in their bad attitude and are always supported in their beliefs, even if it is hurting them.  In that sense you might argue for a lack of emotional growth because  you never have a chance to get free of a clique or bad influence.  In the other direction you’ve got the example above where a group of students may easily create an ad hoc digital mob and go after someone. This can happen so quickly and quietly that it’s almost impossible to consider let alone manage.

Working with the emotionality of high school students is challenging at the best of times, but with the drama-net of Facebook fully embedded in every student’s mind, administration struggles with the more obvious cyber-bullying while the subtle ghostly influences go unnoticed, thought every teacher faces them daily.

As students migrate to Twitter without realizing the very public nature of it (many think it similar to texting),  coercive social media becomes even more widely broadcast than just between Facebook friends. Suddenly we have social media as means of large scale slander, creating influence well beyond the intent of the ignorant person thinking their tweets are private.

This is a new social situation that affects early adopters while others remain entirely ignorant.  Many teachers don’t consider it at all because they have no experience with social media yet it increasingly influences the students in their classrooms. Kids whose minds are in many places at once, constantly being emotionally tweaked and influenced by social media inputs, not knowing how to manage this pervasive influence in an effective way.

Digital literacy considers media fluency, collaboration and critical thinking, but the extent to which digital media is influencing the minds of our students isn’t really on the table. Their inability to manage their own access (watch a student, they are Pavlovian in their use of social media, they can’t self manage) is only one part of the problem.  In the emotionally charged world of high school, social media pours gasoline on that fire, making teaching a challenge in ways that it never was before.

had to add a wee update. It’s Monday morning and the internet meme from the weekend that all the grade 10s are talking about is of a girl and her feminine hygiene product on youtube.  It sets new (low) standards on what teens are willing to do to get seen online.  

This race to the bottom in terms what teens are able to subject themselves to is radically changing how they approach both sexuality and social norms in general.  Teens nowadays have seen things that would have been virtually impossible for them to see even a decade ago, and this is entirely a digitized influence.

You really don’t want even think about what teens do for truth or dare nowadays, they’ve seen things that will make you ill, they dare each other to.  The entire nasty world is available to them and influencing them moment to moment. Yet another way that online  influence creates a classroom unlike any before.