The internet (and I will not capitalize that word unless it comes at the beginning of a sentence) pesters me to connect more frequently and with more people than I want. The expectations created of me as a web citizen also compel me to spend hideous amounts of time in front of my computer, which I resent and consider unhealthy. Some people around me seem compulsively driven to manage a complete and parallel existence online, whereas, I have been scaling back my own use of the internet for personal and professional connections over the last three years. Oddly, those three years correlate exactly to the years that I have worked in online education--specifically on initiatives to increase the "fruitful," "productive," and "high impact" use of the internet by young people.
My work often finds me playing advocate (salesman, really) for the educational and transformative power of the internet, or, more broadly, of connectivity. This is a bit awkward, since I dislike salesmanship about as much as I dislike the way that technology has crept into my life and the lives of those around me. At least for the reasons above, I have to revisit my motivations and ambitions for remaining involved in e-work.
Online mentoring is a concept with promise because it taps into a vast, global reservoir of lazy volunteerism (a cynic might note that it does so with unusual success because it appeals to the narcissism of frequent web users or to the need for validation that is felt by isolated people). In harnessing this social capital, it also has the potential to create and sustain communities around centers of learning that will inevitably make them stronger and help their students. I've watched too many tedious power point presentations about online learning initiatives that failed "for lack of local support." And I've heard from numerous web literate (and aspiring web literate) adults that they wish they could be more involved in the learning of the less fortunate young people with whom they identify. Also, statistically, at least in the U.S., one of the most common justifications that students advance for dropping out of the educational system is that they feel like there were not any individual adults who made the effort to understand and help them in particular. So, educational projects need support of the local community, adults want to help young people in safe and easy ways and young people are more likely to remain engaged in education when at least one adult takes a particular interest in them. That's a fairly idiot-proof little triangle. One of the things that prevents me from cashing out of this e-cage is that I want to see more intelligent and sustainable projects inspired by those three self-solving facts.
The other major trend in my efforts is bringing scattered classrooms together with different web tools. Since the schools involved in these projects are typically quite disadvantaged--comprised of students whose starting point is borderline web illiteracy--it is likely that the real benefit for participating students is the carefully prepared introduction to online existence rather than the opportunity to share rudimentary web pages with other children far away. This coached transition into web citizenship offers the possibility of teaching valuable lessons about being a good human to people who are just coming to understand all of the intricacies that constitute the online social contract that guides the behavior and self-presentation of web citizens around the world. Helping networks to form between people who have no other way of connecting is also a useful action--though there is still a lot of thinking to do about how to build online communities of practice that are worth the digital space they occupy.
Over the course of this year, I'll develop a much better understanding of how useful it is to connect scattered students to one another and how powerful it can be for groups to network together in an autonomous and self-directed way. If these tools turn out to be as powerful as their proponents suggest, I may have to continue this hobbling proximity to my computer and related devices.
This post has become a sort of introduction to the thinking behind the different initiatives that may get a bit more attention in coming months, or, it may be the only background that I offer into the professional currents that will impact my location, my travels and my thinking. In any case, if I venture into these issues again, it will only be because some specific events have actually changed my thinking on the way that young people can be better served by connective technologies. It will not be to further disrespect the internet nor will it be to communicate about online learning initiatives simply because they occupy so much of my time.