Alone Together: A Meditation on the Future of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

Alone Together:  A Meditation on the Future of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age
Review by Elise Morrison

Alone-Together Book Cover

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.”[1] 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?”[2]

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.”[3] 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.


[1] Turkle, 284.
[2] Turkle, 155-6.
[3] Turkle, 294.

Sherry Turkle will be speaking at Harvard on Monday, April 4th at 1PM in Harvard Hall. Visit http://bokcenter.harvard.edu for more information.

Sherry Turkle Flyer

51 thoughts on “Alone Together: A Meditation on the Future of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

  1. Very good article, Instructors have to adapt their courses according to their students knowledge of technology. On another hand , new technologies can make courses much more entertaining than few decades ago.

  2. Hi…..

    Everything has to undergo the process of change in this world.This is the process of nature.so, learning and educating is no exception. Teachers and instructors must bring change to their knowleddge and techniques with the passage of time, their way of teaching must conform to the requirements of the students.

  3. Nice article, we use more and more technology, but not many people really understand what it can lead to. In this century there will be many robots and we will all have problems with jobs, because of that.

  4. I appreciate the author’s premise–that the problem is not necessarily with technology itself but our relationship to it. For me, though, that relationship problem belies a bigger relationship problem: our relationship with ourselves as individual, intro-personal (as opposed inter-personal) development (or the lack thereof), if you will.

  5. All of the gadgets we have now can easily distract us from the task at hand. Without focusing, it would be hard for an experience to be truly educative. For something to really stick with us, it has to be meaningful, and it cant be meaningful unless we feel emotion or value towards it, and it cant do that without focus.

    These gadgets do connect with students, though, and so it would be a great thing to be able to bridge the gap between these things and the focus we need.

  6. I’m big fan of technology and I think it really extremely helps us every day. We now live twice as long then humans lived hundred years ago and lot of that time we have because of technology, it is really important to remember that. Robots are next big think and even education they will help us. Robots will be soon everywhere and I hope that even in education their use will be extended.

  7. Your blog is so good. Indeed, technology is a great help for us today. But we should not use it only to lessen our heavy works but also developing our relationships to each other.

  8. Im older, (in my forties), but I feel I have been immersed, and happily immersed in my technology (web, smart phone, video games) for a few years now; as mentioned, tethered.
    Ive noticed that my attention span is shorter and shorter and I no longer read as much as I used to. If this is happening for me, I worry about the effect this is having on kids who grow up being tethered and what they are (potentially?) missing out on the connection to our natural world.
    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  9. Great post I must admit Im one of those people who relies very heavily on technology and would feel lost without it. But I also feel that we have lost the art of face to face communication . As much as I love my phone and how I can communicate with people where ever I am I also hate it to and wish we didnt spend our lives texting and talking on it instead interacting in the flesh.

  10. Some would argue that technology has made the planet smaller and that communications are much easier, but there is a much higher level of isolation for many people who no longer know how to interact on a personal level. Excellent post.

    Jean Smith

  11. I can hand on heart recommend Sherry Turkle’s book. It is an amazing insight into just how technology, while beneficial on so many levels, has opened up a world of increasing solitude as people withdraw from society, and communicate increasing by social and other media supported by wi-fi enabled gadgets. If you think this is you, then get this book.

  12. I also worry about the isolating effect technology is having on our kids, but perhaps (only perhaps) we are worrying needlessly? The world as we know it, is changing. But every generation worries about its kids, and humans seem to have an endless ability to adapt.
    Its just a new world, and although different, perhaps nothing better or worse than ours is now.

    Very thought provoking.

  13. I think the social impact it the most devastating – as children become more dependent on cell phones, it becomes an inherent attribute to their self worth and thus disengages our future generations from real meaningful connections with people. Teaching the the value of such “gadgets” as merely a tool – like spokes in a wheel as a measure of overall development is imperative, otherwise i fear the future generation will lack self sufficiency, innovation and most importantly – values.

  14. As much as I love technology and have an unhealthy dependance on it , I think its destroyed a certain part of normal communication. I love it and hate it at the same time. Great post !

  15. I agree Turkle – technology is great and worth while to mankind… provided it is kept in its’ place. Technology is created to serve man, yet so often we find man the servant of technology! What a strange paradox.

    Thanks for your insights.

    James

  16. Children spend so much time using technology instead of interacting with each other they are losing the art of normal communication. I love technology but it does drive me mad sometimes and I wish things like mobiles didnt exist! Great post Thanks

  17. As Turkle wrote, “We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place.” Unfortunately where I live a young girl was texting & driving and killed a couple leaving their six children without parents. Quite a terrible example of of needing to put technology in its place. What does it say about us when we need, are addicted to, constant connection via our electronic devices?

  18. Alone together would be a very interesting read, the topic has been a growing interest of mine as of recent. I heard the other day how by watching TV (or online video for that matter, as it has really replaced television), one actually looses their imaginative strengths. The same way as a muscle would weaken without use. I find it an interesting discussion because the advance in technology and specifically the internet has granted us the unfathomable blessing of infinite information in a split second. Our interconnectedness though social media, and mobile devices have in many ways brought us closer together, however “artificial” it may be. It is also for this instant ability to communicate we have seen the uprisings taking place such as in Egypt. At this time I believe it is up to each of us to educate ourselves so we may live a more balanced life.

    Thank you for the post!

  19. The world as we know today is changing very fast.. technology and all. It is a reality that we must be aware of. However, we as human must take charge in these changes.

    Very nice and a thought provoking story.

  20. When I think of growing up in Africa with no technology around at all, it was a much quieter and easier time. The pressure now in an urban environment with all the gadgets and gizmo’s tends to blow my mind. This takes me back and reminds me of another age.

  21. People have become far too dependant on technology. Everyday on the way to work I see people not engaging in conversations but only sat with their face in front of their mobile communicating via SMS. I can’t see the future reverting back to old fashioned way of communicating. If anything people will lose the ability to speak and only engage through computers.

  22. What a title to the book!

    “Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other ”

    That is bloody true! Seriously, why are we so dependent on technology? But is that a good thing? I don’t know, I’m definitely going to check out this book! Hopefully there will be a Amazon Kindle version of it, so that I could read it on my Kindle on the train!

  23. Its an interesting perspective, but my experience has been quite the opposite: technology can make the world smaller and more connected. It all depends on how you use it. I would equate “tethered” to you smartphone or email as being more social, and not more isolated.

  24. If any ones interested there a quite a good documentary – “Transcendent Man” ….Basically, the notion that machines, specifically computers, will someday soon exceed the intelligence, cognitive, perceptual, analytical, and other mental powers of humans, and become “self-aware” and achieve consciousness…… good stuff!

  25. Being also an educator, I’ve seen first hand the relationships students have. Social skill need to be addressed to include conversation and peer interaction.

  26. Thank you for the very engaging review. I was discussing this topic with a client of mine recently, a high school math teacher, and she recommended this book. It’s very interesting how the author draws the parallels between what some may call an exaggerated future outlook and the world we live in today.

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