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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?

Silos

siloesThe new semester is starting at most American colleges and I'm thinking about the silos on campuses. I don't mean anything having to do with agricultural programs which probably have a silo or two. I mean the figurative silos that are still quite real that appear in departments and schools on campus.

I had bookmarked a headline saying that "Facebook was granted a patent to silo group posts." That's about moderators of Facebook Groups getting more leeway in controlling who sees the comments made on their forums. Some have described it as a patent for shadowbanning - secretly restricting who sees a user's content.

My inspiration to write this post came from that social media story, but it set me thinking about education, especially higher education silos.

Silos are also increasing when it come to online and streaming media. Netflix, Disney, HBO, and other providers are "taking back" their content and siloing it in their own platforms. People have been unbundling and cord-cutting to lower costs and customize what comes into their home, but now they mean to rebuild and might need a half dozen services to get what they want. Ironically, this is how cable companies first emerged - by creating packages of channels for you.

A few years ago, a Forbes article stated that "College Silos Must Die For Students To Thrive" and asked "If academics — the heart of the university — do not silo students, then why are student-focused university departments siloed from each other? Wouldn’t student needs be better served if cross-functional sharing of institutional knowledge were common practice within colleges and universities?"

The authors say that the five functional areas of the university that are most important to students are Admissions (including financial aid), Academics, Student Affairs, Career Services, and Alumni Relations/Advancement. Typically, these five have minimal interaction with one another. They exist in silos.

Silos in higher education aren’t limited to departments. They include academic units, athletics, student support services, foundations, alumni, research and business operations. 

Why create a silo? Usually, it is to keep focus in one space and hold onto perceived "turf." The problem with silos is that they discourage interdisciplinary opportunities, which is probably something you will find written into many universities' mission and priorities.

I have worked at colleges where these silos existed. The bigger the institution, the more likely silos seem to occur. For example, you would find IT services housed within a college or school that did not share staff, software, equipment or practices with other schools within the university. In large state universities and university systems, as one example, it is not unusual to find multiple learning management systems being used. That means that training and support can't be "pooled" across campus. Faculty who teach in multiple departments or programs may have to learn and design for several systems.

There are pressures to break down silos. Technology is one pressure. Purchasing power and avoiding duplication of services are other pressures. Calls for transparency and accountability favor structures without silos. Take a look at your campus structure this fall and see if silos exist. Are they increasing or decreasing?