back-channel


At the end of class the other day, a student who had some questions before an imminent midterm asked me when I would be available the next day for office hours. Now, I commute an hour each way to campus, and I had planned on good library time the next day.

I suggested a solution: “Why don’t you IM me if you have questions? I’ll be on-line most of the day?”

I have to say, the student’s response took me a little aback: “Why would I IM my professor? That’s just weird.”

My perspective came from thinking of IM-technology as a tool to enhance, enrich, and expand communication, one which is suitable for a variety of contexts, both personal and professional. While I certainly do use IM in a personal context, I am straining at the bit to think of viable ways in which to harness the “back-channel” potential of it in the classroom. And, while some meetings are best done face-to-face, during the busiest times of the year when every second seems to count, I must confess, I could be persuaded to hold a number of meetings electronically.

It occurred to me, though, that this student’s objections to holding conference via instant message conveyed an undercurrent of imputation–an imputation, in fact, of violation. I had unwittingly wandered into a DMZ between public and private domains. Although I, myself, never troll through Facebook, I have heard similar anecdotes about students expressing feelings of violation when their professors and administrators look them up or simply have a presence of their own on Facebook. I wonder how they will feel when future employers who have fewer qualms than I do about trodding into “private” public territory read about their undergraduate escapades? (Dean Dad has a great post about this! And Techist is using Facebook in very interesting ways…)

No doubt, there is a generational gap at work here, one in which notional boundaries between “public” and “private” are contestable. While I want to remain sensitive to students’ desire for privacy, it also seems to me to be the case that the academy can do more to embrace these tools and to help define the parameters of etiquette.

Readers, how do you tactfully negotiate the “public” and “private”?

In a recent post entitled “The Battle is (or Will be) Lost”, Will Richardson relates a story that Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, told at the Personal Democracy Forum. Disappointed that in weekly meetings his staff had their faces in their computers, he banned computers. The following week, thinking that his staff were all leaning forward in deep engagement, he came to find that they were all using their blackberries under the table. Richardson quoted Schmidt: “This is a battle that we have lost, and I think it’s fine” because it shows just how important these technologies are.

I found this story very interesting for a number of reasons. First, the CEO of Google, a company that has made all kinds of web-based interconnectedness and sharing of information possible, banned computers from meetings, rather than harnessing and capitalizing on the “back-channel” potential.

 

Second, his use of militarized language expresses more than just an experience of generational gap; he acknowledges that we are standing in the midst of a cultural and technological revolution that has happened, is happening, and will continue to change and shape the ways in which we communicate, explore ideas, and share information.

In this brave new world, what are our expectations for behavior? Should I assume, for example, that a student is not “paying attention” when his face is focused on his laptop? What if he is actually looking up the the floorplan of the Boule in the Athenian agora and instant messaging that link to another student who just made a very interesting comment on the relationship between civic space and citizen participation in the world’s first democracy?

Moreover, what if teachers and leaders were to encourage the using of these tools to foster interaction, independence, initiative, and collaboration within a learning community?

In his post, Will Richardson draws the proverbial line in the sand:

 

And so there it is. There is really the crux of this. We. Cannot. Win. This battle has been lost, the problem is most parents, and most educators just don’t get it yet. All this banning of cell phones and taking down wikis and filtering out blogs…all of it is our own little Iraq. It’s not working. It’s not going to work…More restrictions, more blocking, more battening down the information hatches is only going to drive it all underground and make the world of our kids less safe. And, it will deny us a chance to help our kids develop and employ the literacies they are going to need to succeed in their future.

 

I would only add that when we restrict, block, and batten down, we serve only to isolate ourselves. Rather, what we can do is embrace the possibilities by forging a new code of behavioral expectations that supports each contributing member of a community (a staff-meeting; a classroom) bringing her network and all the information and approaches to problem-solving that are expressed within it to the table.