Does technology connect or isolate us?

What social connections mean about the way we teach our students

F.R. "Fritz" Nordengren, M.P.H.
F.R. “Fritz” Nordengren, M.P.H.

The Internet and mobile connectivity have increased the number of tools to communicate and build social connections. From the 1981 AT&T slogan “Reach out and touch someone” to Twitter’s “What’s happening?”, these tools have promised to improve our quality of life. The growth of these services creates opportunities in education to find new channels for students and faculty to share the learning experience. Coupled with the opportunities is the responsibility to understand their limits and the role of faculty mentors to prepare learners for professional practice.

As the number of social tools on the Internet increases and mobile devices offer new ways to stay in touch, it’s not uncommon to consider if the explosion of technology is bringing us closer together or creating distance between us.

At first glance, having many friends or contacts on social networks implies a great sense of connectedness. However, you likely have experienced the downside of electronic social circles, such as the recent party or lunch where other guests were staring into their digital devices and tapping messages to others. The connectedness of one-on-one conversations may be lost to the digital connectedness.

Understanding the importance of social connections and social capital gives us a key foundation for understanding how we can better prepare our students.

What is social capital?

Social capital is the study of connections between social networks. One of the books that brought social capital awareness to the mainstream interest was Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2001).

The premise is that while more of us are doing more things, we are doing them alone. His research synopsis shows that while more people are bowling, fewer people bowl in leagues. More people are employed in the professions, but fewer per capita are members of professional associations. The idea, he suggests, is that our social connectedness is decreasing, even as more of us participate in activities.

Parallel to his discussion of social connectedness and the rise in social networking technologies is the study of loneliness led by John Cacioppo. In the book Loneliness, the University of Chicago professor states that loneliness is unrecognized as a mental illness, similar to the lack of recognition given to depression decades ago. Among other traits, he adds, lonely people sleep less well and can’t think as clearly, which can have a direct impact on a student’s ability to learn and perform at his or her best.

Understanding loneliness and the impact of technology on social connectedness can help faculty adjust teaching and advising strategies, especially in the typical medical education. Students are often placed in large cohorts, organized into study groups and work together for a common goal. Students are also sent on rotations, often alone, and many times in a new city or environment. While a rotation appears to be a more “lonely” experience than the cohort learning, students may feel loneliness in both educational settings. One of the goals of faculty and academic advisors is to help create an environment where students can perform their best. Can technology play a role?

Digital connectedness: a case of “haves” and “have nots”?

A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, issued in November 2009, notes that “the extent of social isolation in America is not as high as has been reported through prior research.” It states the number of Americans who are truly isolated is unchanged or minimally changed since 1985. Rather, the more pronounced social change is that Internet and mobile phone users have larger and more diverse core networks.

The Pew study appears to set up a “haves and have nots” division of social connectedness, with technology users potentially being better connected. A future study that identifies core network composition may help us truly see whether and how these tools are changing the makeup of our social network.

What does this mean for teaching and learning?

As use of online social networks appears to grow, what strategies can be employed to help learners? The answer can be inferred from the U.S. Department of Education study titled “Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.” The meta-analysis includes 51 study effects, 44 of which were with older learners. Among the findings are these three outcomes:

  • Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.
  • Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction and purely online instruction.
  • The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types.

This suggests that by arranging a curriculum to offer blended learning – a combination of online and face-to-face instruction – students are likely to have better performance. As educators, we recognize that some forms of instruction benefit from lectures in a large lecture hall. Other kinds of learning are best done alone and can more effectively be delivered via a web-based module. It is the role of the educator to recognize the limits and varying needs of individual learners.

It is also important to recognize that blended learning is not “add on” learning; it doesn’t mean simply adding five hours of web-based learning to an already full syllabus. Instead, identifying portions of the learning that can be moved out of the lecture hall and into the student’s computer allows lecture time to be concentrated on application, practice, and a higher level of learning.

Timing is a factor, too. If web-based instruction or the use of social media communication tools is incorporated late in the curriculum, it may be too late for the student, especially for one whose potential for loneliness is high, to use and relate to the faculty member and advisor in a digital world. However, using these tools early in the program, perhaps even as part of orientation and ongoing through the curriculum, the student may be likely to both use the tool for social connectivity with faculty and continue to use the tool for learning reinforcement. The faculty member’s role in the social network is to help students understand the role of social connectedness and to navigate the changing world of technology.

Finally, the affective domain in health care education includes our role as models of appropriate behavior and the use of digital, ever-present tools to our students. Early use of online tools in the curriculum can demonstrate best-practice modeling and begins the formation of social ties for later learning. As we model what we consider the appropriate use of these tools, we likely will influence their use by our students in professional practice.

Fritz Nordengren, MPH

Fritz Nordegren was an Assistant Professor at DMU from 2007-2014. He is an award-winning documentary storyteller and digital content strategist.

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