Technology, Reflection, and the Good Life

slide to power off

Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania went on a social media blackout this week starting Monday in order to get students thinking about their use of technology in their lives. This seems like a very interesting experiment, especially for a technology school. Depending on how it is executed it could be an educational success or a failure in which students are simply trying to thwart the university’s efforts.

Whatever the outcome, I like the sentiment behind this experiment. As librarians and educators we should be teaching students to be thoughtful, reflective individuals and to integrate technology meaningfully into their life. These skill are integrally tied to information literacy and are ones that they will desperately need as connected citizens in this society.

The value of digital fasts such as the one at Harrisburg are debatable (found via Librarian By Day). As we all know email can pile up, and important messages could be missed. Steven Bell suggests that simply taking time occasionally to power down and leave the screen for a while can be useful for reflection and rejuvenation. Like anything, I feel that it is best to maintain balance. Completely shutting down for a week and then playing catch up will have you stressed that whole week.

We realize that there is value in disconnecting sometimes. I recently started reading the book Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers. Powers draws on philosophers of the past to gain practical insights into our present technological age (ironically I’m reading this book on my iPad which is another piece of connected digital technology). He says that in order to make meaning of our digital interactions we need to create gaps in between them for reflection. These gaps allow for “epiphanies, insights, and joys.”

This makes sense. This has happened in my life and happens to everyone. My colleague Sarah is constantly talking about the great ideas that she comes up with in the shower. Periods of reflection allow us to create meaning. But do students feel the same way? Do they see the value in unplugging and taking time for reflection? In one of our information literacy classes at Champlain College we devote time to this. We talk about how research is not just finding information and throwing it all together. It is necessary to take time to think about how different pieces fit together and what your next steps will be. We actually give students five minutes to reflect in class. I like this lesson and want to flesh it out more and improve on it.

We don’t have all the answers ourselves as professionals. Some of us over-tweet, are buried in emails and are constantly re-acting when we should be acting. I don’t think a social media blackout is the answer for everyone, but I do appreciate additional attention to this issue. We should be creating more dialogue on our campus that discuss this issue of technology, reflection, and the good life. Librarians could be thoughtful leaders in these discussions.

Andy Burkhardt


  1. Jimmy Fallon said last night that their reflective papers would be titled, “We All Have Smart Phones, Dumbass.” 🙂

    Seriously though, I do think this is a good idea. An interesting NYT article about how your brain changes without technology was recently published: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/16/technology/16brain.html and relates to this discussion.

  2. I like the Jimmy Fallon joke. It is pretty true (and that is often many students’ attitudes). I also think that in the future we should reevaluate the research paper as THE project used for evaluation. Instead, in this multimedia world students should be creating things like videos, group led workshops, and smartphone apps for semester long projects.

    Also, great article. Thanks for sharing it! I do like the idea of going into nature for refreshment. I think being disconnected in that way could be really rejuvenating. It kinda makes me want to go camping.

  3. Heh, I read “Hamlet’s Blackberry” last month and am trying to finish my own post about it. It resonated with me, too, and confirmed the changes I’ve been proactively making in my life. I’ve made more time for reflection, which has really helped me. I just haven’t been able to make more time for blogging. :-p

  4. I know, I’m so into it. I don’t know if I’ve made some of the changes yet, but I know I want to. I’m also much more observant and recognizing myself jumping from task to task and being distracted and overly connected. Making reflection a priority and carving our (or even scheduling) time for it I think would benefit me a great deal. I can’t wait to read your blog post about it and your thoughts on it.

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