Alone Together: A Meditation on the Future of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age
Review by Elise Morrison
Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Basic Books, 2011), asks us to stop for a moment, put down our smart phones, step away from our email, and consider the effects of digital technologies and robotics on our current and future interpersonal relationships. Once our eyes readjust from the enchanting glow cast by our constant screenal companions, we begin to see Turkle’s point: the quality and depth of our ‘real time’ relationships with our children, parents, lovers, friends, colleagues, and students has changed over the last decade, and not altogether for the better.
Drawing on ethnographic, sociological, and technological research conducted over a period of 15 years, Turkle describes a present and future in which increasingly sophisticated robots stand in for living beings in our intimate relationships. In these “new intimacies,” robotic pets are imbued with properties of ‘life’ and ‘love’ by the children and adults who interface with them, robotic nurses and babysitters efficiently monitor and ‘care for’ the very young and very old, and robotic lovers capably satisfy sexual desires without the need for reciprocation or the threat of infidelity. Then, turning to address a much broader swath of digital user-consumers, Turkle considers “new solitudes” that have come about through our increasing dependence on mobile communication technologies. She maps techno-social territories in which we ‘friend’ people that we never physically meet, conduct love affairs in virtual space via avatars that need not resemble us at all, sit at playgrounds and dinner tables plugged into our Bluetooth earbuds, and prefer having our heart to hearts safely limited to 140 character texts rather than lengthy ‘real time’ conversations.
The problem, Turkle insists, is not with the emergence of these technologies, but rather with the extent to which we choose to use – or allow ourselves to be used by – them. She neatly sums up our predicament: “We are not in trouble because of [technological] invention, but because we think it will solve everything.” And yet, she assures us, it is not too late. Now is the time for us to look past our blissful attraction to these seductive new gadgets and take a critical look at what they actually add to and, more importantly, subtract from our daily lives and human relationships. The benefits that these technologies give us – from greater ability to multi-task at home, work, and in between, to increased opportunity to “multi-life” through online avatars – bring with them serious risks. Experiences of ‘undivided attention,’ ‘intimacy,’ ‘presence,’ and ‘solitude’ fall by the wayside as we spend family meals, live performance events, faculty meetings, and even funerals and weddings distracted by our digital devices. Robotic substitutes threaten to de-humanize our interactions and erode the quality of our interpersonal relationships in a range of personal and professional settings.
As faculty and teachers of higher education, we too must think critically about the challenges posed by these changes. Although Turkle makes no explicit mention of a “My Real Teacher” robot, it is not difficult to imagine the marketing pitch behind robotic teachers or teaching assistants that could be programmed to assess student comprehension, explain complex problems and theories, and provide students with what would appear to be individualized ‘attention.’ Even if robotic teachers belong to too distant a future to concern us today, there are many more pressing issues that merit our consideration when it comes to teaching and learning in the digital age. Digital technologies have changed the ways in which we communicate with our students, assess their learning, and present our course material. The borders of classrooms and libraries have become permeable, shot through with digital search engines and reinforced with virtual archives. The techno-social phenomenon of Facebook that came into being on Harvard’s campus leads the host of digital distractions that call to our students both outside and inside our classrooms. How we decide to moderate the presence of digital communications technology in the classroom is up to each of us individually, but the impact that these technologies have on our students’ abilities to learn is a shared issue that merits our collective attention.
As Turkle puts it, “We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place.” And so we must ask ourselves: what is the place of digital technologies in our classrooms? There certainly is value in capitalizing on the educational capabilities of digital technologies. We may utilize digital archives, blogs, locative media, and even Twitter or Facebook in class assignments, aiming to make course content more accessible and attractive to our students and their fast-paced, highly connected lives. But what are the less visible costs to our teaching goals and our students’ learning? In a world that over-values multi-tasking in both personal and professional arenas, might we be remiss in overlooking the importance of giving our students the time and space to simply unplug, and to concentrate on a singular, sustained event happening in a present place?
At the beginning of a chapter entitled “Growing Up Tethered,” Turkle tells a story about a recent visit to a private high school in Connecticut. She asks a group of assembled students about their attachments to their digital communication devices: “When was the last time you felt that you didn’t want to be interrupted?” She is met with unbroken (though perhaps distracted) silence. The students can’t think of a single place where they do not welcome an intruding text message. Turkle goes on to observe, “A ‘place’ used to constitute a physical place and the people within it. What is a place if those present have their attention on the absent?”
Turkle’s question, applicable to any number of social spaces, has particular resonance for teaching and learning. While wandering minds are nothing new in the classroom, the current multitude of screens and communication devices place new demands on our students’ short and long-term habits of paying attention. Turkle notes that while career experts touted multi-tasking as the must-have skill to succeed in the digital age, many psychological studies have found that multi-taskers are unable to perform as well on any of the multiple tasks they attempt to accomplish. This observation should lead us to ask critical questions about how we use technology to create our teaching environments and prompt our students to learn. There are fewer and fewer places in which one can ‘turn off’ or ‘drop out’ of the constant stream of digital communication; and yet, Turkle’s interviews indicate that many of our students may in fact crave a break from their busy, over-connected social lives. As teachers, perhaps we can give the rare gift of a singular, co-present task, an opportunity to learn about the value of thinking and communicating in the present.
Digital technologies have not only reshaped our students’ habits of paying attention, they have also changed their habits of communication. In many of Turkle’s interviews, text messages are deemed far preferable to phone calls and even face to face conversations because texts can be composed and exchanged swiftly and responded to at the user’s convenience. Texts are more conducive to multi-tasking, and allow both communicators the chance to formulate their reply without the pressure of shared, co-present time. Some of Turkle’s younger interviewees even express acute anxiety over the pressures of a phone conversation, in which they must come up with clever, appropriate responses in real time. While it is unlikely that many of us text with our students, it is a safe bet that our office hours are far emptier than our inboxes. What is gained and what is lost in this shift away from time spent face to face with our students? Email interactions may cause students less anxiety than physically meeting with a professor during office hours, but are we doing our students a disservice by not developing their skills in sustained, real time academic discourse?
Turkle also points out that the language used in email and texts tends to be less carefully constructed because it is understood to be garbage bound – that is, it is intended to be read once and then deleted. Reading this, I see an even greater value to every academic essay and oral presentation we assign to our students. Very few arenas of digital communication demand careful thought, planning, and sustained argument. Giving students the opportunity to build these seemingly ‘old fashioned’ skills may be one of the most valuable things we have to offer them.
To save us from feeling like luddites, Turkle offers the term “realtechnik” to describe a more measured, deliberate approach to assessing and responding to the risks and benefits of this new digital era. “Realtechnik,” she writes, “suggests that we step back and reassess when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how we live with technology… It encourages humility, a state of mind in which we are most open to facing problems and reconsidering decisions. It helps us acknowledge costs and recognize the things we hold inviolate.” What will we find if we take a “realtechnik” approach to teaching and learning in the digital age? What decisions will we make for our classrooms, our office hours, our assignments, and our modes of communication with our students?
As educators, we hold a particularly important position with regard to navigating the challenges that these technologies pose to the next generation of thinkers, innovators, leaders, and social subjects. Many of our current students opened their first IM account in grade school. In a few years, we will be teaching students who were given toy cell phones before they could walk. No matter how ‘connected’ we have become in the last decade, the vast majority of us were educated in classrooms that were not ‘wired,’ ‘smart,’ or technologically slick. What did we learn in those rooms that we don’t want our students to miss? Turkle implores us to help the generation that has grown up with the Net to make conscious, informed, and balanced choices about the ‘place’ of technology in their lives. As the teachers of this generation, it seems that our duty might not only be to introduce our students to new worlds of information, but also to teach them the value of ‘old world,’ co-present communication and sustained, dare we say intimate, academic discourse.
Sherry Turkle will be speaking at Harvard on Monday, April 4th at 1PM in Harvard Hall. Visit http://bokcenter.harvard.edu for more information.