Sometimes I am struck by how much the world has changed within the scope of my own meager lifespan, whether in the world of education, in the world of technology, or in the realm of day-to-day life. There are many features of the contemporary everyday educational experience that were in the realm of science fiction or futurism only a few short years ago (such the proverbial Encyclopedia Galactica).
As I write this, I just finished up a morning video-conference meeting from the airport with my fellow Learning Design team members, about to board a flight. By the time I finish writing this article, I will be 30,000 feet in the air and working just as effectively as from my own office. It is no understatement to say that the connectivity of the 21st century has radically transformed the way we live, work, and learn.
When flying, I can never get over the fact that I am able to do something that humankind had only dreamed of doing for thousands of years, soaring high above the clouds, momentarily free from more earthly concerns. Of course, the connectivity of the contemporary world has encroached even on that momentary peacefulness of the clouds and sky, thanks to in-flight internet access. Yet it still feels magical, almost mythological, soaring through the air with an internet full of information at my disposal, almost like ascending Mount Olympus with the Library of Alexandria in tow.
The juxtaposition of the peacefulness of flying with the constant connectivity of the 21st century has made me reflect more on the virtues and the drawbacks of the 21st-century learning experience. Undoubtedly the instant access to educational resources has transformed certain aspects of education for the better. But just as connectivity has encroached even on the clouds as a refuge from the busyness of the 21st-century world, so too are students inundated with a barrage of connectedness, from social media to online news to impromptu late-night email announcements from their instructors, such that even supposedly quiet moments are seldom free from the sheer noisiness of the contemporary online learning experience.
This saddens me, as two valuable features of my own educational experience—looking back on it now from the tender age of 40—now strike me as almost anachronistic: reflection and focus. It’s not that reflection and focus are impossible to find in the contemporary educational milieu, but that they now require a more conscious effort to obtain. Unscripted moments of quiet reflection now seem hard to come by, as does any significant length of distraction-free time to focus on learning (or on anything else, for that matter!). No mindfulness or meditation app for your smartphone can make up for the spontaneity of thoughts, reflections, and novel ideas springing to mind seemingly from nowhere, as if from the muses of classical antiquity. And no productivity or calendar app can make up for the ever-present distractions that come along with constant connectivity.
Just as working from an airplane has certain challenges that can be overcome with good planning, so too can students overcome the social and technological forces working against them in their sincere attempts to learn and to make their way in the 21st-century world. The following are some lessons learned from working while traveling that seem likewise applicable to students learning and to teachers teaching on on the go:
- Plan ahead—Meetings and deadlines (assignment deadlines for students) come and go whether or not you are on the move, so it’s important to take them into account when planning your schedule.
- Bring your gear—My work requires certain tools: computer, mobile phone, webcam, high-quality microphone, and so on. Having a mobile work setup with easy access to the various tools needed for the job is an important part of working efficiently on the go or from any location.
- Stay connected—While this seems to contradict my previous lament about the drawbacks of constant connectivity, you simply can’t count on the presence of reliable wifi connections while on the move. Using my mobile device as a hotspot for my computer’s internet connection has been a lifesaver for maintaining productivity and connectivity.
- Take a break—Time for reflection and focus are equally important in the educational experience and in the professional world. Give yourself time throughout the day to think, reflect, plan, strategize, and even just to look at the clouds out the window, if only to remind yourself that we do live in magical times, soaring above the clouds with our magical tablets and smartphones in-hand.
While mobile-first design is a constant refrain in user-experience and instructional design circles because of the “on the go” culture of the 21st century, as educators I feel we have a responsibility to help students cultivate the time-honored virtues associated with a well-rounded educational experience. As instructional designers and educational technologists, we should be as concerned about helping students to achieve genuine focus, and to counteract the noise of their day-to-day connected lives, as we are about mobile accessibility. And we should help students carve out the time for quiet reflection (and self-reflection) free from the nagging email announcements from their online instructors. There is a fine line between using connectivity to help keep struggling students on track and creating additional noise, thereby exacerbating the educational problems of the 21st century. In other words, we educators and instructional designers should be part of the solution to the noisiness of the 21st century, not part of the problem.
As predicted, I am now in the air, at just under 30,000 feet in elevation. (Take that, Icarus!) Some people around me are working, some are learning, but most are distracting themselves from the existential angst generated by a lack of connectivity. Quiet reflection is always harder to face than distractions, musical or otherwise, because quietness forces us to confront the deepest questions within ourselves, to which there are no satisfactory answers: What is my purpose? Why am I here in the first place? What do I do with the little time I have on this planet? What does it all mean? It’s no wonder that we’ve sought out constant connectivity and distraction in the 21st century, although perhaps distracting oneself from the tough existential questions of life, free from the burdens of reflection and focus, has always been a part of the human experience from the very beginning, in any century.