I woke up one morning last week with a bit of a jolt, recognizing in an epiphany that there is a contradiction, or at least a problematic tension, in the way I think about using digital media in learning and life.

After reading Howard Rheingold’s excellent Net Smart recently (review coming soon), and preparing a two hour presentation on Digital Citizenship, I’ve been concentrating more closely on the question of how we think and the metaphors we use about technology in our lives, in our learning, and in our classrooms.

For a long time, going back probably to 2006, I’ve been attracted to, and have often embraced and endorsed,  the idea and the metaphor of making technology “disappear,” or rendering it invisible.   A chief influence in bringing me to this understanding was the thinking and teaching of Howard Levin in San Francisco, which he shared in a 2006 presentation that year which I believe was for me the single most influential professional development session I have ever attended.   Entitled “Making the Laptop Disappear,” his talk about Urban School’s outstanding 1:1 laptop program used its funny and misleading title to confuse and then illuminate.  (It is, by the way, a great example of how as learners we proceed toward new and deeper understandings better when we first travel through confusion or misunderstanding.)  But even as the title, making laptops disappear, was something of a gimmick, it was also offered as a compelling metaphor for how we should view technology in the classroom, (or rather, how we should not view it), calling for a shift from foregrounded focus to backgrounded, integrated normality.

Levin’s idea, and forgive me if this is too obvious, is that the more we normalize the use of technology in learning, the more we become proficient and comfortable and consistent and regular in our use of it, and the more we make it subordinate to the larger learning goals and learning programs of each classroom, the less we will notice laptops as interlopers.   They will be neither jarringly disruptive intruders nor stunning new innovations; they will become effectively like pencils, so natural and normalized that there will be nothing to remark upon especially when encountering them.   Subordinating technology to learning goals and programs is of course incredibly important– but I am becoming less enthusiastic than I was about shifting technology to background, to render it less than fully conscious, to make it disappear.

A close parallel to Levin’s session title  is the often-quoted statement by Chris Lehmann, Principal of Science Leadership Academy, which I have emphatically endorsed in the past.   “Technology must be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.”    If I am interpreting him correctly, making technology more like oxygen, and more particularly, to shift our educational environments such that technology is, metaphorically, invisible,  is to make it more routine, regularized, embedded and normal, so much so that we don’t even notice it or think about it itself—we notice and think about instead only what we are using it for.   After all, how often are we conscious of our use of oxygen?  How often do we think to ourselves: ought I use oxygen this hour, or should I choose to use carbon dioxide instead?

Now let me reiterate:  I have enormous admiration for Howard and Chris; for me they are important thought leaders and role models, and I have endorsed both these points of view in the past.  But my thinking is shifting, and I think that disappearing invisibility is the wrong way to think about technology in learning.  I think we need to become more, not less, conscious of and intentional about our use of technology in learning and in life.   Now certainly I am no opponent: I fervently advocate for 1:1 laptop programs and widespread, vigorous, enthusiastic use of technology embedded in every classroom and ever y learning environment.

But just as easily as these digital tools can be used for good, they can be abused as well.    Plugged in connectivity brings me, my colleagues, and my students both phenomenal advantages for learning, creating, and producing, and at the same time it distracts and diverts us from our focus and our surroundings, and so much more.

Howard Rheingold gets this just right.   It isn’t easy to strike the balance of expressing genuine, forceful enthusiasm for digital lives while also calling for disciplined moderation about appropriate use, but in Net Smart he does so brilliantly:

When it comes to the interacting with the world of always-on info, the fundamental skill, on which other essential skills depend, is the ability to deal with distraction without filtering out opportunity.

The meaning of unproductive, like distraction, requires both context and a firm idea of one’s goals.  If your aim is to produce a certain amount of external output, as opposed to the more internal production f learning), then the invitations to serendipity, play, and digression that digital media offer are obstacles and dangers.   If your aspiration is to learn, help build community, and explore, then the issue gets more complicated.
Rheingold’s argument is that we have to become more nuanced about the value of digital media and digital tools in our work and in our learning: depending on our purposes and goals, the roles of digital media vary greatly.  Indeed, this is what he calls the fundamental skill of our age, dealing with distraction without filtering out opportunity.  But to do so, I think, we must become make digital media usage more, not less, visible.

Returning to metaphors such as technology as oxygen, let’s call to mind an old favorite we all are familiar with drawn from carpentry:  every problem looks like a nail if all you have is a hammer.   Every learning situation— every project, challenge, and endeavor we have before us—  is not a nail.   We are more sophisticated and effective learners and educators if we discriminate and distinguish each problem we encounter and choose, choose wisely and intentionally, which tool-  hammer or screwdriver, laptop or notebook, online communication or in-person conversation- is the right tool for the problem.

I experienced this myself first hand last month, while working hard to prepare a 2 hour presentation for a school board in New York City.  For several weeks in June, I opened my laptop and tried to focus on clarifying my thinking, generating new ideas and new frameworks, and organizing my talk—but failed.  It wasn’t coming, I was scattered, bouncing around, and unproductive.   Had I let the technology disappear, or be invisible, I wouldn’t have “seen” it as part of the problem. But I did—it wasn’t the tool I needed at that time, at that particular moment, to get done what I needed to do.    Instead, I took a break, read an important book on the general topic, took many walks, and dashed out notes on paper—before I was ready to return to the technology.   It was ironic, of course, in a sense, because my talk was a vigorous advocacy for far wider use of digital tools in our K-12 schoolhouses—but it wasn’t entirely ironic, because my talk was also for far wiser use of digital tools, and wisdom entails consciousness, thoughtfulness, intentionality—which invisibility does not support.

We need to ask our students and ask ourselves and ask our teachers when employing digital tools: is this moment, this activity, this learning experience, this project, the time when we gain from using a laptop (or mobile device or desktop or whatever)?  What are we using it for; what are we having our students use it for?   Am I being transparent with myself, and to my students, about what the value-add of using the technology now is?    

I hate robbing students of their discretionary latitude:  I want to respect their developing ability to make good decisions for themselves, and so one critical issue and hesitation for me about this Choose When to Use approach is the issue of disempowering students from making their own decisions for what the value-add of their technological tool is in a given moment.   In a recent piece, Lyn Hilt was writing about adults, not students, but her words resonate nonetheless:

After that first adamant directive: “Turn off your devices, folks,” I was brutally honest when completing the session evaluation that afternoon. The devices give us access to information; some people learn very effectively in that manner; we’re principals whose schools are in session and our people need to be able to contact us; oh, yeah, and WE’RE ADULTS.

I don’t like to draw sharp distinctions between adults and students, and everything Lyn says makes sense and most of her points are true for our students also.   It is not that I am asking teachers to blanketly ban digital tools, to “turn off your devices,” but to be choosier and clearer about whether and when to turn them on and off.

Educators will have to be savvy here: sometimes we need to make the decision that this is not a time for digital tool use, and respect our students by surely explaining why it is not; sometimes we ought to distribute this decision-making power to our students, but convey to them our expectation that they are able to answer to themselves and to us: why now?  Why are you choosing to use now? 

As I said above– I am only just now recognizing this underlying contradiction, or unresolved tension, in my thinking.   But in doing so, I hope I am progressing in my own clarity.  Surely it is not impossible to find ways to reconcile: surely we can embrace and accept the positive aspects about “invisible” integration while calling for, at the same time, more mindfulness in usage.    Metaphors matter, though, and I’m leaving those particular metaphors behind to work for more visible and more mindful ways of understanding digital tools in our schools.