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Posts Tagged ‘harm

Barely a month (week?) goes by without headlines about the link between using mobile device and some harm, e.g., poor mental health. We do not call those headlines a form of gaslighting because so many of us have bought into them.

Thankfully, this critique, Flawed data led to findings of a connection between time spent on devices and mental health problems, bucks the trend. That article summarised recent research and concluded: 

…simply taking tech away from (young people) may not fix the problem, and some researchers suggest it may actually do more harm than good.

Whether, how and for whom digital tech use is harmful is likely much more complicated than the picture often presented in popular media. However, the reality is likely to remain unclear until more reliable evidence comes in.

The thesis of the article: “The evidence for a link between time spent using technology and mental health is fatally flawed”.

The thrust of the article was that studies in the area of mobile device use and harm relied on self-reporting measures. It then argued how such measures were logically and methodologically flawed.

First, we do not pay attention to what we do habitually. Such activity is background noise, not foreground work. As a result, it is difficult to accurately remember how frequently we use mobile devices or apps.

Next, the author shared how he and his colleagues systematically reviewed actual and self-reported digital media use and discovered discrepancies between the two. He also outlined his own research of using objective measures like Apple’s screen time app to track device use. He concluded:

…when I used these objective measures to track digital technology use among young adults over time, I found that increased use was not associated with increased depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts. In fact, those who used their smartphones more frequently reported lower levels of depression and anxiety.

The author revealed that he used to be a believer of what the popular media peddled about the harm of mobile device use. But his research revealed that the popular media were simplifying complex findings: 

The scientific literature was a mess of contradiction: Some studies found harmful effects, others found beneficial effects and still others found no effects. The reasons for this inconsistency are many, but flawed measurement is at the top of the list.

We cannot simply read headlines, form conclusions, and craft far-reaching policies of mobile use, e.g., limit kids of age X to Y minutes of iPad time. Why? The measurements for the evidence of harm are flawed and the results of studies are mixed. 

We need to be critical readers, thinkers, and actors. We could start by reading beyond the headline, i.e., actually read the whole article and not propagating articles without first processing it carefully. This is more difficult to do than casually sharing a link, but it is a vital habit to inculcate if we are to be digitally wise. And with most habits, doing this gets easier with practice.

If you cannot help the few, how do you expect to help the many? Are you actually helping anyone at all?

I ask these questions of local schools that subscribe to LMS (learning management systems) or CMS (content) and teachers who use it only sporadically or superficially.

Parents must pay for each child’s access to CMS/LMS. We do not feel the pinch because subsidies make annual subscriptions very low [example 1] [example 2]. CMS and LMS companies have it on easy street because there is guaranteed clientele and lock-in.

Since parents are not financially burdened, there is no harm done, right? No. Not when you realize how such systems are underused or misused.

Schools rarely use these systems for actual learning. To this day, e-learning is relegated to e-learning days or a week while mainstream teaching still happens face to face the rest of the time.

The “e” in e-learning is still associated with “emergency” or “extra” instead of enabling learning. Challenge schools to completely replace face time with screen and computer/phone-mediated social interaction for an extended period and they will likely fail.

How much confidence do school administrators and teachers have in their LMS or CMS? Very little.

I know of schools that require teachers to “stand by” in schools while students stay at home. Other schools conduct e-learning days or weeks in batches so that their LMS or CMS is not overloaded. Even the confidence for emergency learning is not there.

That is how such systems are underused.

Now consider what happens when a teacher goes off on reservist duties or maternity leave. There is no confidence in e-learning as one or more relief teachers must step in (much to their not relief).

When the original teachers return, they might find that they have to re-teach or undo damage. They typically offer extra classes before and/or after school to make up for their absence.

I know of a Secondary school student who has to undergo psychiatric treatment at a local hospital. He has a curfew: He has to make his way to hospital and stay there after school. His single mother quit her job to pick him up from the hospital early every morning to escort him to school. This student’s mother was the sole bread-winner of the family and also supports the student’s sibling.

Teachers have to bend over backwards to accommodate the needs to this one student. You have wonder why an e-learning system is not utilized as an option.

If you think about it, these exceptional cases are becoming more common. Consider absences from school due to long term illness, family problems, juvenile crime, etc. Why should these children and their families suffer further by not having access to school?

CMS and LMS should be readied and positioned to provide experiences equivalent to that of school so that they are not put at a disadvantage. Schools and CMS/LMS providers have this social responsibility since such systems are being paid for and maintained ultimately by public or donated funds.

On the surface, a subscription to CMS or LMS seems to help many because schools can claim that every teacher and student has an account. But this does not mean CMS or LMS address the authentic needs of students such as learning when they legitimately cannot attend school.

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Earlier today I explained the background and rationale for my belief in doing the least harm.

Now I suggest strategies for providing the most help and provide an example of help that actually does harm.

One strategy I try to use is to create a long term relationship. Instead of a hit-and-run, I would rather position myself as a strategic shepherd who can keep change agents on track, or who they can call upon when someone cries wolf. This strategy works only if the group I am working with is open to this idea.

Another thing I do before getting involved in any project is to find out as much as possible about the person or group asking for help. I spend time and effort meeting and getting to know them. If I can, I travel the their physical location to get a feel of the place. I conduct focus interviews with a representative group of staff.

I do these things because it starts from a philosophy of doing the least harm.

However, there are others, particularly those outside the education arena, who walk in with different motivations.

Some educators in my network have voiced concerns about so-called education conferences. Thought leader @mcleod’s reflection on wasting opportunities at ed tech conferences is a must read.

I would like to raise two other concerns that are just as insidious. One is who is asked to “help”. Another is why the “help” is rendered at all.

A blunt question a few of us have started asking is: Why do we keep flying in foreigners who do not understand our context in to “help” us? This is not a xenophobic or racist-fueled question. It is a critical look at ourselves.

I am all for getting an outside perspective or two. It helps us think outside the box. But can we not help ourselves? Do we not have the expertise or the creativity? Given the circles I am in and the people I know, my answer is yes.

But I wager that we fall short in at least two areas. We are not as open as some folks are in the anglosphere and we may not be as articulate or charismatic.

While both these factors are a function of our culture, being open is also a matter of time. We cannot help but move with the times. Both the logic and economics of being more open are unavoidable.

The value placed in having a stage presence is a function of how conferences are currently designed. You sit and listen; they talk. As this is the worst way to learn, the speakers have to be very engaging to minimize damage.

But conferences do not have to be designed this way. The measure of success from the organizer’s point of view is bums on seats. Conference organizers need to be honest about how the other ends yawn in boredom, nod in dreamland, or steam in frustration.

I have made this point and mentioned strategies like unconferences while speaking at conferences. Conference organizers who attend my sessions and see me backchannel or jump off stage have asked me for strategic advice. When I give it, I get the “but, but, but” responses. Those “buts” will lead to unhappy butts in seats for a long time.

This leads to my second concern of why conference organizers choose to enter the messy field of education.

There is a lot of money to be made in our field and the conference organizers know it. They have done their market research, gap analyses, and risk assessment. They are entitled to make money. The question is how and why they do it.

I am all for people who want to help for the right reasons. I am against people who help but do nothing to mitigate the harm in the process. I go ballistic on people who are in it for the wrong reasons.

Consider the middle group. They might have their collective heads and hearts in the right place, but they still do harm in the short and long term. They bring in experts who do not share our context. Our leaders and change agents borrow ideas and try to implement them by investing time, effort, and money. These ideas tend not to work not because of resistance on the ground, but because they are superficial (see @mcleod’s post) or they need to be recontextualized.

The pace of change is greater than the pace of implementation. Shrewd conference organizers know this, and even if they use antiquated lecture methods, they can start the cycle again.

They enable insidious harm by not promoting contextualized self-help and by perpetuating the same strategies. Do not be fooled if they claim to have a mix of speakers; see who they highlight in their publicity material. Do not accept that you must pay a lot of money and attend boring lectures. Do not be tempted by free sessions that are cleverly disguised advertising or marketing.

We are as much to blame. It is our choice of who we listen to that harms us. It is our choice of fueling these conferences with our attendance that harms us.

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I remember little by way of content from my time as a graduate student. But one of the things that I will take to my grave (and pass along while I walk this earth) is a phrase from a mentor: Do the least harm.

What was the context for this phrase? It was a qualitative methods course I took a decade ago and we were discussing the value and methods of storytelling in research.

My mentor shared his experience as a consultant and told us stories about telling stories. What I learnt from him was that numbers might not move people, but good stories could.

He also told us how consultants or outsiders can do unintended harm even if they had their heads and hearts in the right place.

How can this be? As an educator/consultant/professor, we will do some harm when we suggest or implement ideas that disrupt for good or for bad.

Even the good will cause some harm. For example, some people may lose their jobs if technology implementation makes them replaceable. Or some teachers will have to change their ways or otherwise be labelled irrelevant.

The bad ideas, borne of greed or ill-conceived plans, will do even worse. Like a hit-and-run, we will not even be there to see those plans through as we drive off into the sunset.

His story stuck with me and defined what I did as a faculty member in NIE and now still do as an Education and Technology Consultant (ETC). I have rejected projects that could have been great ego boosts or provided great financial rewards.

For example, I resisted the urge to get involved in an education-related project in the Middle East. My instincts screamed no, and when I reflected on previous experiences, I understood why. I could have drowned in oil money, but I could have contributed to concept papers on change that would remain concepts due to overwhelming inertia.

I refuse to work with people or organizations that raise the hairs on my neck. This could be due to incompatible value systems or poor fit. Sometimes they are just rude or do not communicate in a timely fashion. I reason that if we cannot start well, we are unlikely to continue well.

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