Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Teens, Technology, and Christian Leadership

Now that school is back in session, our guest blogger is Romeo Marquis, Executive Director of The Learning Curve Consortium. He explores ways in which we can learn together how to navigate the world of communication as Christ’s disciples. Far from being “kids’ stuff,” he says, our approach to media shapes our lives as believing parents, educators, and clergy. As a vehicle for transmitting our values to our young people and to others, it also serves as a model for them in lifelong learning.
“I hate computers, I hate the future, I hate progress, I hate that things are moving so fast that unless you work at it every day you are left so far behind.” So began the journey for a teacher in an online graduate course I recently taught. The story has a positive ending, however. Her final thought in our online forum was, “I look forward to the future now and to my participation in what it has to offer.”

I truly admire teachers who show growth as this teacher did. They work hard and sometimes it can be a real challenge for them to embrace technology, especially if they are not accustomed to working with emerging technologies. The same can be said of parents, pastors, and others who work with teenagers, yet have not kept pace with ongoing changes in the technology field. The danger, of course, is that while they are in positions in which they can have positive influence on teenagers, they will continue to fall behind them in their use of computing devices and the Internet.

Have you already begun a new academic year? So have I, although perhaps not in the same way. As a teacher I belonged to the BT generation – Before Technology. I was also a high school principal for twenty years. I’ve also been a college administrator and online instructor. Today I work mostly with teachers over the Internet. We work to develop the online environment in safe and constructive ways.

I began teaching high school science decades ago when the major piece of technology at my disposal was a slide rule. Remember those? I had a huge one mounted at the top of my chalkboard so I could demonstrate its use to my students. We didn’t even have calculators in those days, either. This was one of the few tools I had that could be classified as “technology.” The others were a 16 mm movie projector and a 35 mm slide projector. At one point I was given an overhead projector. Wow! Those were the days when technology was safe and completely under my control as a teacher. Not so today!

Today I truly enjoy my laptop, my tablet, my smart phone, and just about any gadget I can get my hands on. I suppose I’ve become somewhat of a geek even in my seventies. I use these devices to help teachers bridge the gap between past and present in classrooms. To do that, we have to use the Internet, fully realizing that it can be a risky place. However, it is also rich in resources not only for teaching and learning but also for Christian living.

I am also a lifelong Catholic, a husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. I get concerned when I hear some parents and teachers say that they are too old to learn about these new technology tools. That’s a real problem. When we adults fail to accept today’s digital environment, we inadvertently enable teenagers to enter the high-risk online environment without adult leadership. So now let me set the stage for a multi-faceted view of technology not only as an educational and social tool, but also as a gift from God – a gift not only to teenagers but also to parents, teachers, pastors, and all who are responsible for teenagers in one way or another.

Several years ago I listened to a homily explaining how we Catholics can make this a better world. The priest’s closing remark was, “And it is not about high technology.” To this day I cannot understand the connection between that remark and the rest of the homily. Why do we often blame technology for its dark side? That’s like blaming the snow for a car accident. The snow didn’t cause the accident; the driver who failed to adjust to changing conditions did. As long as we continue to blame inanimate things for our failings, we will never see the true picture.

Technology is a gift; like most gifts, it can be used for good and it can be used for evil. When we focus primarily on its dark side, we tend to come up with an abundance of rules to control it or even to block it. Remember the days when the Catholic Church published the “List of Forbidden Books?” Did that work? The list was discontinued. Today we have the World Wide Web, YouTube, My Space, Facebook, Twitter, Moodle, and more. We have personal computers, laptops, netbooks, tablets, and smart phones. All are gifts. We can choose to use them for good or for bad. We can choose to ignore them or even pretend they are not there. Let’s consider an example of such a technology.

In its early days, YouTube was a place where anyone with basic Internet skills could upload their videos for others to see. It didn’t take very long for teenagers to discover that they could find some pretty racy videos simply by entering a key word or two. Over time, YouTube became a legitimate search engine now owned by Google. Can we still find dangerous and untrue information on YouTube? Of course. Suppose your teenager tells you that the Holocaust never happened and that he knows that’s true because his friend showed him a Web site as “proof.”  This example really happened!

Parent, teacher, or pastor, how would you respond if you heard a young person claim that the Holocaust never happened because he read it on a Web site? Many adults react in a kneejerk sort of way by seeking to block certain Web sites or by criticizing today’s technologies, as seen in the example of the homily I already mentioned. Instead, we can search YouTube for lots of helpful information. We can find videos about any topic that interests us. We can watch videos about our faith, we can follow presidential elections, we can watch Vincent Price render his version of “The Raven,” and we can watch videos about Newton’s Laws of Motion. We can also find videos describing the reality of the Holocaust, why it happened, how it happened, and how we can learn from it.

Actually, this really isn’t about YouTube at all. It’s about how we adults can choose to help our teenagers make wise decisions regarding technology – computers, laptops, smart phones, tablets, and the Internet. Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) once said, “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Human beings are incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. Together they are powerful beyond imagination.” What wisdom! How, then, should we approach this gift of technology with our teenagers?

Many adults must catch up to today’s online environment. Sometimes it’s like trying to catch a seventy mile-per-hour bus by increasing our speed from thirty miles per hour to thirty-five. However, we must be prepared to teach and lead by example whether at home, at school, at church, or at work – everywhere. Every adult who has influence over teenagers must accept the challenge described by the teacher quoted at the beginning of this article. That choice on our part is already having a profound influence on the growth of our young people, whether or not we recognize it.

Teacher resource,
grades K-8;
Media Mindfulness,
grades 9-12.
 Our teenagers can choose to apply technology to reinforce human dignity or to deface it. Those choices are best made when they experience human dignity from us adults. The Catholic Church’s stance on technology affirms human dignity. To be convinced of this it’s enough to glance at the fifteen major Vatican documents on communication and its scores of related messages, plus the U.S. bishops’ documents, such as its Social Media Guidelines. In addition, go to the Daughters of Saint Paul Web site to discover an approach that highlights technology and other media in a healthy, wholesome, and Christian manner. A parent or teacher or pastor who embraces and models the positive aspects of 21st century technology in this spirit provides much needed moral leadership to our teenagers.

Fortunately, many adults are changing the way they think about the gift of technology. The good is far stronger than the bad. As we embrace this gift and model its use, we can take real strides to help our teenagers choose the good over the bad. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Parents: Take an interest in how teenagers use their technological tools. Talk to them. “What are you working on?” can lead to a wholesome and productive discussion. Insist that your teenager uses the computer in an open area like the living room, the den, or the dining room, rather than in a secluded bedroom. Make the decision to learn about the tools your young people are using. They are not as complicated as you might think. Ask some of your friends who are already computer savvy to show you what these tools are all about. Maybe your own teenager can give you a few lessons. Learn how to use email and texting. Find out about Facebook and Twitter and other social networking sites. Talk to other adults who use these tools.
2. Teachers and administrators: Insist that computer placement allows for open view of the screens rather than in study carrels with front and side panels. Teach and model critical thinking. Ask teenagers how they make their decisions about Web sites that they use as references. Do they know who the authors are? Do they understand the structure of a Web site address (URL)? Do they know how to determine the validity of a YouTube video before deciding to use it in a homework assignment? Do they understand that anyone can post information on the Web and on YouTube, even if they have little or no expertise? Are they “friending” others in Facebook without knowing who these people are?
3. Pastors: Integrate Web based technologies, human dignity, and the Gospel message. Talk to your parishioners – adults and teenagers. Support technology based workshops for the adults in your parish. Insist on the teaching and modeling of faith based use of Web based technologies in your religious education programs. How else are we to get our young people off to a good start? It’s much easier to help them learn the right habits early than try to have them catch up once they’ve developed bad habits.
Intelligent and wholesome use of Web based technology doesn’t lie in whole scale blocking of information or even denying teenagers the tools they need. Nor does it lie in ignoring Web based technologies. It rests in focusing on Christian values and in affirming human dignity. It rests with parents, teachers, administrators, and pastors, who acknowledge technology as a gift and share that gift through modeling, through healthy discussion, through leadership, and through reasonable supervision. The alternative is to believe that kids will be kids and we don’t need to be concerned. Do we really have a choice? 

Romeo Marquis can be reached at

1 comment:

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