The Disconnected 2022 Edition

brain connectIt's 2022 and I am reading an article in The Chronicle by Beth McMurtrie about how the pandemic forced disconnections in early 2020. On the other hand, we also became more connected to friends, offices, campuses, and stores through technology and media.

The article took me back to a keynote presentation I did back in January 2016. I titled that talk "The Disconnected." The talk grew out of the many references I had been seeing to people who seemed disconnected from many aspects of society.

There was the observation that there was a re-emergence of people who wanted to learn on their own rather than in schools. These autodidacts were a new group of learners that I felt might be reshaping school, especially in higher education which is a choice rather than a requirement.

In 2015, the sharing economy, the maker movement, the DIY do-it-yourself movement, and open-source coding were all topics of interest.

These trends were not limited to young people or students. Many people were “cord cutting” from traditional media. But the trend was especially evident in young adults. Even broader was a “rent rather than buy” mindset that was affecting purchases of media (music, movies, books, magazines), cars (lease or use a car service rather than own a car), rent an apartment or home and avoid the self-maintenance, mortgage and taxes.

In 2015, the “disconnected” comprised about 25 percent of Americans, according to Forrester Research. They estimated that number would double by 2025. Has it?

That new article is about students who seem to have disconnected during the pandemic and are not reconnecting now. Maybe they will never reconnect. 

According to McMurtie's article, fewer students are going to classes. Her interviews with faculty show that those who do attend avoid speaking if possible. They are disconnected from the professor and their classmates. They don't do the assigned reading or homework and so they have trouble with tests. They are disconnected from the course content.

The Chronicle had more than 100 people tell them about their disconnected students. Some called them “exhausted,” “defeated,” or “overwhelmed.” This came from faculty at a range of institutions.

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Why are they disconnected?

Reasons given by professors include pandemic-related items. Many students lost their connection with their college or their purpose in attending. Hours of online learning that they had not chosen and which may have been sub-par added to those things.

The students who seemed to have the most trouble with learning were the freshmen who seemed unprepared. But the observations that these new students seemed underprepared, both academically and in their sense of responsibility. One example was that students don’t fully grasp the consequence of missing classes. I was teaching long before the pandemic and all of those things were true of students back then too. 

So my question is whether or not those disconnected students of 2015 have become even more disconnected in the subsequent seven years, and if they have is it because of the pandemic or just a trend that started well before the pandemic.

McMurtrie also gives some things from the perspective of students. One student said that when she returned to the classroom after virtual learning many professors relied more on technology than they had before the pandemic. Ironically, that was something that many schools had hoped would happen; that faculty would be greater tech users when they returned to their in-person classes. Professors who never used virtual conferencing or flipped the classroom using a learning management system. That student may have seen her college experience as "fake" but the professors (and possibly their department chairs and deans) saw the experience as "enhanced."

I don't explain the disconnecting as only the result of social anxiety and stress or what psychologists describe as “allostatic load.”  I don't think this problem is temporary. I agree with some of the faculty whose responses are in the article who think the entire structure of college needs to change and that this is not a new problem.

None of us know what the solution might be.

Cut the Cord, Narrow the Stream, Reconnect

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Image by Yan Wong

A few years ago I was writing about how a lot of people were looking to save money on their TV entertainment by what was known as "cutting the cord" since it meant disconnecting from a cable service. Those services had boomed in the 1970s and 80s and had brought clear channels from local and distant services and led to the rise of services like HBO and Showtime. People are still cord-cutting, but things have changed.

We tired of $100+ per month channel bundles that included lots of channels we never watched. People wanted a cafeteria-style choice. Just pick the things you wanted. But cable companies didn't want to offer that. So, people began to drop their cable contract and replace it with streaming TV services and perhaps a TV antenna or device that offered local channels, news, and a kind of all-in-one bundle.

In 2015, I wrote about a group of people that I called "The Disconnected" and I did a presentation on how we might connect to the disconnected. The disconnections ranged from cord-cutting to ownership of things (home, cars, physical media) and possibly from education and the world. Since then, I have added other disconnected aspects of our lives.

The pandemic that forced disconnections in early 2020 has accelerated some of that. Ironically, as disconnected as we became to friends, offices, campuses and stores, most of us became more connected to media.

Cord-cutters still needed an Internet service and that connection became quite critical in these pandemic times. We needed it to continue working, learning and staying in touch with other people. Those connections are very important, but I also have been thinking about how connected we have become to those streaming services on our screens for entertainment.

The tech divide either got wider the past year or minimally became more obvious. Home Internet speeds should be at least 15Mbps (megabits per second) for each device you plan to have running at the same time. That means that those two TVs, the laptop and three smartphones and one tablet all playing at once would ideally have a connection of at least 105Mbps. That’s a lot to ask of a DSL or satellite service and from most cable company broadband services. Those people with access to fiber broadband or some other fast connection had a big advantage.

It is now almost a decade from dropping your cable connection and moving to streaming and now I am hearing more people complain about the cost of buying all the services needed to keep up with the content that all your friends are telling are essential viewing. 

What is the cost of having Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and others and also a bundle of live TV channels such as YouTube TV or Sling TV?

Yes, there are a bunch of free (ad-based) sources of streaming video too (Crackle, IMDb, Kanopy, Peacock, Hoopla, Pluto TV, the Roku Channel, Tubi TV, Vudu, etc.). 

You might also want a streaming device that connects to the Internet and allows you to show things on devices on bigger screens (Chromecast, Roku’s Streaming Stick, or Amazon’s Fire TV Stick. 

At one time, I could watch Disney films on Netflix, but Disney and most of the other content providers have now decided that they are better off offering their content on their own services. YouTube TV recently was removed from Roku. Battles will continue.

If you cut the cord, will you soon need to cut or narrow the streams flowing into your home?

Want to Buy My DVDS?

DVD rackI don't think it would be considered "cancel culture," but year-to-year we see technologies get canceled. This past week, my wife asked me to take the DVDs I have on three shelves and "either put them somewhere else - or get rid of them."

Get rid of them? But these are a lot of my favorite films and TV shows. And surely, some must be "collectible" and worth something. "Then sell them," says my practical wife, who says the same about my vinyl record albums and books. My sons, now in their 30s, agree. Their videos, music and books are all digital and take up no shelf space. That's part of what I once termed as a "disconnected" culture and generation.

Remember DVDs? They might have been a gift you gave for a birthday, Hanukkah, Christmas or bought for your own pleasure. Do they still exist? Yes. Are people still buying them? Not really, but they did get a pandemic bump in sales this year.

"The top title for the weeks ended April 25 and May 2 [2020] was Bad Boys for Life, and for May 9 it was Bloodshot and earlier hit releases such as Disney’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Sony’s Jumanji: The Next Level  hung on so that this was the first time DVDs saw yearly gains two weeks in a row since April 2014, when Frozen was driving industry sales. It’s the first three-week gain since late-August 2012, when The Hunger Games and Battleship were the top titles."

I was buying discs for films that I would actually rewatch and that rarely appeared on TV (pre-streaming). Some of them were films I had previously bought on VHS (a practice my wife could not understand). I did watch them. Not a lot, but I did. And I loaned them to friends. "You've never seen The Graduate, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Citizen Kane... ?"

The last DVD player I bought had "smart" features that my dumb TV at that time didn't have so that I could watch Netflix. But streaming video services became the thing and when I dropped by the original Netflix DVD mail service for streaming the player got dusty with lack of use. My sons had given me some TV series I love on discs as gifts (Seinfeld, 30 Rock, Taxi) because if they were available on broadcast TV they had commercials and you had no control over which episode to watch. Plus most DVDs had additional features that were interesting and not available elsewhere.

Now, those box sets are also gathering dust as entire runs of series like Seinfeld are available streaming and you can pick whatever episode you want to watch.

I subscribed to Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service early-on and it was pretty great. Of course, waiting for that next movie or episodes of a series was tough. Those red envelopes still exist but Netflix doesn't want you waiting for the mailperson. They want you to binge that whole season of Schitt's Creek today and just go from one video to the next.

There's a lot of streaming service competition. HBO, the grandpa of cable movie channels, has HBO Max and will be getting in 2021 Warner Brother films the same day that they hit theaters (assuming theaters are open again). Studios, like Disney, are launching streaming channels along with Hulu, Showtime, Amazon, and broadcast dinosaurs like CBS (with its Peacock).

DVDs and services like DVD.com are also a resource for people in areas with poor broadband access. The pandemic and online learning made it clearer than ever that access to fast Internet is NOT ubiquitous in America.

I was surprised to find that DVDs are still profitable. Netflix still has about two million DVD customers and made $37 million in profits in the 4th quarter of 2019, which breaks down to $17.34/user. Netflix’s streaming service sees a return of $13.09/US subscriber. (I'm sure those numbers changed in 2020 but I couldn't find an update.)

When I was involved with creating online learning at NJIT starting in 2000, we were sending out VHS tapes to students, moved to CDs, then to DVDs, and by the time I left more than a decade later, it was streaming.

There is another concern that as DVD catalogs and production disappears, so will some content disappear, perhaps forever.