Why there are no good apps for etiquette and education

Photo credit: Adam Fagen (Flickr)

During a recent family get-together, my sister-in-law who teaches high school chemistry rightly called me out for being digitally distracted. It was a forward head tilt that gave me away.

Most of us have been on both sides of the forward head tilt (let’s call it FHT), that precise moment in time when we go from a quick and casual glance to check a text, score or headline on our smartphone to all out engagement where our heads literally move closer to the screen. Suddenly, our brains prioritize that BuzzFeed photo gallery or random status update from the old junior high school friend more than the actual conversation we are involved in at that moment.

I’m probably on the giving or receiving end of an FHT at least 20 or 30 times per day, and this isn’t even factoring times while on the phone where there is now barely a need to even fake paying attention. As a trained mobile media professional who prides himself on the ability to feign interest in any conversation at any point in time, I thought I was beyond being busted.

What I didn’t factor in was that my sister-in-law witnesses dozens of FHTs each period several times per day. In fact, she probably sees more neck adjustments in one class than most chiropractors see in a year. While receiving a well-deserved ribbing, I got an education on how smartphones, tablets and other touchscreen devices  – while ultimately beneficial – all too often stand in the way of education.

“It’s like a herd of animals,” she said. “You see one head tilt forward during a lecture, and then the rest follow.”

Regardless of whether those and other students are following along digitally to what is being presented, something is lost when we lose direct connection between teacher and student in the classroom.

Only one way to teach eye contact

Educational technology in the form of apps, videos and other digital tools are having an immediate and profoundly positive impact on learning.

From short standards-aligned math games that 71 percent of recently surveyed K-thru-8 teachers believe improve student performance, to apps like Learn With Homer that can improve foundational reading in toddlers, to TEDEd videos that challenge preconceived notions and inspire continued intellectual exploration, there are more educational resources available at our fingertips today than can be found at MIT, the Sorbonne and the Smithsonian combined.

Too bad none of them can teach manners. Sure, there are thousands of apps, videos and websites that teach etiquette. They mostly provide advice on which piece of silverware to pick up first during a business dinner or how to conduct oneself on Twitter, SnapChat or other digital platforms. What can’t be downloaded or searched for is the ability to maintain eye contact with another human being for an extended period of time. Even if that knowledge could be passed along via a mobile device, there’d be no way to access it in crunch time without breaking the underlying rule.

There are no signs that FHT culture will slow down anytime soon. Smartphone and tablet screen addiction is so strong that we literally and routinely risk our lives for fixes while behind the wheel. We spend nearly half of our waking time processing information from a screen, and that’s before the Apple Watch and Google Glass (or whatever occupies the space beneath our foreheads) hits critical mass.

You might say, well, we’ve been watching about that much TV per day over the years, and the content on our mobile devices is probably of higher quality. While that might be the case, we used to at least have a better wall of delineation between the larger screens and the rest of life. Now that the screen is in our pocket, our attention spans become co-mingled between the actual and the virtual, harming our ability to be mindful for any significant period of time.

So we are left with a conundrum. The very devices and media delivery systems that provide us with unprecedented insight and understanding of the world are also distracting us from what is existing in front of our eyes.

In a culture where we will increasingly and rightly tap into an app, video or digital tool to learn a skill or collaborate with team members in our class or across the globe, the human race also needs to figure out a way to reconnect with what’s in front of us.

Thankfully, the combination of technological platforms including vision, taste, touch and the ability to listen and smell provide an immersive experience that enables direct interaction with one or multiple people around us. As we appropriately expand digital learning in the classroom and all walks of life, we need to create boundaries that preserve our organic sensory experiences (and sanity).

To paraphrase pop culture’s favorite mindful truant Ferris Bueller, “life moves pretty fast. if you don’t” stick your head up from your phone or tablet “every once in a while, you could miss it.”

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