Balancing Connectedness with Presence

November 8, 2013

Dr. Dustin Swanger 

We are a society that has become accustomed to being connected to each other through our e-mail, twitter, snap-chat, smartphones, iPads, facebook, etc.  Some would argue that we’ve become so dependent on the technology that we’ve lost much of our ability for face-to-face communication. This need to be connected is particularly prevalent with those who are in their early 30s and younger. While walking down the street, driving, eating, reading, and even talking with family and friends, they often are checking the screens to see what their friends and family have posted to keep everyone informed of their every action. We certainly wouldn’t want them to buy a pair of shoes and not tell the world.

While people will argue that they are “multitasking,” most studies have demonstrated that students do worse in a class, and people miss a lot of what is going on around them, when we are involved in something live and keeping in touch with others electronically. Some might remember the man in California who was walking out of his home to his car while looking at his phone and nearly walked into a bear that had wandered into the neighborhood. The bear had not tweeted his whereabouts.

While this constant need for connectivity may seem foreign to us with greying hair, it is very real to our younger citizens and students.  The challenge for colleges, and other institutions, is how we deal with it. At FM it is a discussion that faculty are having across disciplines. Some choose to ban electronic devices in their classrooms while others may ignore it.

The growing use of electronic tools in education brings another wrinkle into the balance. Electronic books, supplemental websites, even materials sent by faculty members themselves to students electronically, can imply that using the electronic tools are, indeed, a part of the learning experience. And, perhaps they should be. Of course, the flip side is the argument that students are cheating by using such devices as well. Balancing the presence of this technology in the classroom with keeping the attention of students is yet another challenge for faculty.

Outside of the classroom, some colleges are fighting this trend; others are figuring out how to use it. Some colleges have deployed technology in academic buildings that blocks cell signals, effectively eliminating communications. Others, like FM, have worked to enhance the wireless network on campus in an effort to use the technology.

Today, more tools are being developed for colleges to connect with students via their smartphones and tablets. FM uses New York Alert which notifies students on their cell phones if the college is closing or of an incident on campus that is significant enough to inform the college community. Some colleges are using the technology to survey students about services on campus. Students seem to be more likely to respond to such surveys than to take a pencil and paper survey or complete surveys over the Web. Some colleges use this technology everyday to notify students of events on campus. This is expected to improve communications and increase participation in campus events.

With every technological advance, our society struggles with how it affects our interactions.  We can fight the trend or figure out how to use it. I think we’re smarter if we do the latter.

Dr. Swanger is President of FM.

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