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Puppets on a String

Resources For Digital Fluency
By John Mikton
Puppets on a String

(Photo source: Jim McDougall from Glasgow, Scotland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Every storyteller has a bias – and so does every platform.”  Andrew Postman  

“My Dad Predicted Trump in 1985 – It’s Not Orwell, He Warned, It's a Brave New World.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 02 Feb. 2017

I am an addict. Are you too? Don’t you hate it when you can’t find your phone, and a friend has to call it?  Maybe the first thing you did this morning was check your phone and the last thing you did today was check your phone. Think of it, we walk and text, and even drive and text. Have you had this happen, you are in a social situation and you go to the bathroom to check an update? You are standing on a street corner and suddenly realize you are on your phone swiping at it, unconsciously. Then there is the feeling you get when you post a picture on a social media feed. The “likes” start coming in. It feels good, really good, and then you check back again and again. Or you post an update and there are no “likes.”  You start wondering to yourself what is going on.

You may have heard about B.J Skinner’s rat experiment. The first rat had a lever in its cage, and every time it hit the lever food would come out. The second rat in the same set-up hit the lever and nothing came out, no food. The third rat, same set-up. When it hit the lever a little food came out, then nothing, and then a lot, and then nothing again. The third rat developed an addiction. It quickly realized as long as it hit the lever it had a chance of getting some food. This is called the principle of variable rewards, that feel good, dopamine rush. Behavior design, as explained in the article Scientist Who Make Our Apps Addictive by Ian Leslie (1843 Economist October/November 2016), is a critical part of every app development. Tech companies employ behavior economists, psychologists, and psychiatrists in the creation, design, and curation of our app ecosystems to ensure we keep coming back.

So many of our interactions with devices are subconscious. In Eric Pickersgill thought-provoking photos series “Removed” (do spend some time on the link), he highlights the idea of being alone together. As Sherry Turkle so aptly describes in her book Alone Together, we are often physically together with another person in a space sometimes even intimately but our minds are burrowed in a phone.

As adults, we are quick to point the finger at kids for not being able to manage their screen time. Think of this, the first time an infant will interact with a digital device is watching a parent using one. What does it feel like for a child in a pram looking up at their parents see only a blank expression immersed in their smartphone?  The dinner table conversations are interrupted by parents checking work emails. Mary Aiken, in her book “ The Cyber Effect,” states that we are asking the wrong question. Mary Aiken writes, “We should not be asking at what age is it appropriate to give a digital device to an infant, but be asking the question when is it appropriate for an adult to interact with a digital device in front of an infant.”

An example of behavior design is Snapchat and the feature “streaks.”  The idea of streaks is that if you have a dialogue with a friend over 24 hours and you continue this over days, a flame emoji shows up. In tandem, a number counting your interactions keeps tallying. Should one of you stop posting, an hourglass shows up giving you a heads-up that the streak will disappear if you do not stay on. For many adolescents, social media relationships can be a gauge of their social capital. Streaks add a layer of complexity to the interactions.

I am not against digital devices. I have been working in education technology as a coach, coordinator, information technology (IT) director, director of eLearning, and head of education and media technology for over 17 years. I love the seamless and frictionless experience of our digital environments.

It is a fact that our online data (health apps, social media, dating, travel, online games, GPS, shopping, search, etc.) is collected, analyzed, and then sold to third parties, or curated to give us personalized online experiences with a clear goal to manipulate our behaviors. We as educators have an ethical responsibility to be skeptical of behavior design’s narrative. Let us challenge our learning communities to question the complexity and consequences of behavior design in our lives. Stuffing a digital citizenship lesson for 15 minutes during a Friday morning advisory is not enough. We need to make this narrative an integral part of the living curriculum.

Do we want to end up being puppets pulled by the strings of choreographed digital ecosystems which we do not control? I think it is important to understand that schools are most likely the last place where children interact with digital devices with balance and pedagogic purpose. We cannot take this for granted. If we ignore behavior design we will lose something, free will. We do not want to lose this.

Resources and Lessons To Support Leveraging Digital Fluency Into the Curriculum

A selection of lessons, guides, provocations, and how to focus on digital privacy, security, and wellbeing. These lessons and resources are appropriate for students in middle school and high school, and also a good point of reference for parents and educators. Many of the resources have activities and printable pdfs to support the learning.

The creators and developers of Firefox browser, a nonprofit organization, have created a curriculum framework focused on Web Literacy with resources, lessons, ideas, and additional resources. Each lesson is broken down into components. This is targeted at high school students but can be used in middle school with some tweaks.

This comprises 24 digital competencies. It focuses on eight critical areas of digital life: identity, use, safety, security, emotional intelligence, literacy, communication, and rights. These eight areas can each be developed at three levels: citizenship, creativity, and competitiveness. The interactive 24 digital competencies found on the link provide you with a breakdown of the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to explore with students, educators, and parents. This in itself is a meta-framework based on many different frameworks for nonprofit organizations and departments of education, a rich reference point and provocation to build lessons around.

This is a comprehensive framework of lesson plans, resources, and points of reference to support students from kindergarten to Grade 12, including a lot of resources for parents. You can subscribe and have lesson templates accessible to use or adapt for your own class and students. Their resources are exhaustive and provide a strong set of points of reference supported by a YouTube channel and newsletter.

ISTE International Society for Technology in Education, Edutopia, and many other education technology organizations have resources and reference points to further explore.

Curious and want to connect on this topic? Consider exploring the International Schools Information Technology Leaders and Digital Coaches Facebook group.

John Mikton is currently the primary technology for learning coordinator at the International School of Geneva, La Châtaigneraie. He is a trainer and course designer at the Principal Training Center and Teacher Training Center. He is a Learning2 Community mentor and coach and Farai Education Group consultant and coach.

John has 29 years of experience as an educator in education and media technology in international schools in Africa, Asia, and Europe, of which 17 years were in school leadership as an IT director, director of eLearning, head of education and media technology, and deputy principal.


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