Human Connections in the Classroom: Before and During 2020 Health Crisis

Ann Walsh

Ann Walsh

Anne Walsh, M.A.
West Chester University of Pennsylvania

As an educator in the Information Age, I find myself reflecting on technology and the realization that I am part of the world population who, once, had very little technology, but grew to become technologically savvy as our careers dictated. As an educator in communication with a background in technology, it was important for me to realize this relationship with technology in terms of communication. One of my most interesting positions, earlier in my career, was as a technical trainer. I traveled around to small and medium-sized businesses offering free courses teaching professionals about this up-and-coming change in the business paradigm: The Internet. Looking back, I was among the first “pushers” of this addiction to technology, this immediate reliance on access to information. As you will see, I have made efforts to become part of the solution because it is now an issue of basic human connections.

Many people go about their days with technology in the palm of their hands with the ever-popular smartphone. On a college campus in the United States, one can observe students and faculty alike walking around oblivious to the physical world around them. Add earbuds to the equation and one is completely cut off with communication with other humans. On a busy traffic day on roads around campus, drivers must be hyper-vigilant not to strike unaware students with their car. Safety issues aside, we walk around in a world that only we alone are experiencing, keyword: alone. One has to ask the question: Will communication ever go back to the way it was meant to be as nature intended? Humans are not hardwired to function this way. As a communication scholar, this is a question I’ve asked myself often; and too often, the answer is a defeated, “no.” It has been a recipe for a human connection/communication crisis.

In the past several years, I have taken this change in the way we communicate, or more to my point, fail to communicate, as a professional challenge. At the beginning of each semester, I notice, when students begin to file into the classroom they are on their phones. They are typing away, straining their eyes, looking at what are essentially machines, out of touch with their physical surroundings. I made it my mission to do whatever was in my power to change this behavior. As a result, by the end of every semester, I observe students speaking to each other more, sitting down and making eye contact, smiling and conversing … connecting with human beings in their presence. The process for making this happen is calculated and takes minimal effort on my part. It’s a three-part process.

First: Incorporate a strict “no cell phone use” policy in the room. This rule comes with an exception: I make it crystal clear to my students that I understand that we all have important people who need us in their lives, so if something major is happening (such as expecting an important call from a doctor, or a family emergency) they can tell me privately and I encourage them to set their ringers to silent and to leave the room to answer that important call. Generally, this rule is not abused in my classroom. However, while it is true that I have a “no cell phone use” policy, there is not one class period without at least one or two students breaking the rule and their need to check in on their phone overpowers their better judgment. Instead of singling out the guilty party, I pause and look down. These occurrences tend to happen less and less throughout the semester. The proclivity to tune into these electronics is diminished, albeit forced.

Second: I strategically initiate conversations with students when they first arrive. I look at them and ask a direct question. It could be anything: “Did you watch the debates on television last night?” “Do you have any questions on your assignments?” Just that simple action will get the attention of the individual and other students in the room, and ultimately one or two will join in on our conversation. Is conversation contagious? Another question for another day.

Third: I employ a flipped-class approach, providing podcasts of lectures with accompanying presentation notes available through the university-provided online learning system. Although this is technology-mediated, it is completed outside of class. As homework, students listen to these and take notes so our time together can be spent working with one another, using and developing skills. I pair this approach with service-learning. My students are assigned a service-learning group project. This enables them to communicate about important issues and needs in our society. As they make progress on their assignments, they will start speaking with their groupmates when they enter the room each week. Research, writing, and conversations occur. Collaboration occurs. Leaders emerge, and connections are made. It is a joy to observe.

Service-learning allows students to make a meaningful contribution to their communities, enables learning about diverse perspectives and an appreciation for social justice (not to mention enhancing future career interests). With some creative thought, service-learning can be implemented in most academic disciplines. It involves three things: research, engagement, and reflection. In my class, the research consists of delving into a societal issue, for example, domestic violence. Engagement involves connecting with a local resource, in this example, the domestic violence center in our county. Reflection requires looking back on the experience and writing about it with thought-provoking question prompts.

Assignments encouraging connection, interaction, positive goals and enforcing a strict “no cell phone” policy in the classroom, can help stunt the depletion of human connection in this smartphone-dependent world. Oh, to recall the days of library card catalogs, microfiche, paper memos … and here we are today with instant access to information in the palm of our hands. Technology has proven to be a blessing and a curse; after all, I would not have had the chance to flip my class approach without the use of technology. Nor would I have been able to adapt to the sudden change to teaching/learning, due to the international health crisis of March 2020. With the change to the pedagogical approach to teaching strictly on-line, I took the same in-class approach, except we met on ZOOM instead of in person. At the time of this writing, we are two weeks into the new class forum. I am relieved to see, that technology acted as a very effective means for communicating, and maintaining personal rapport with my students and with each other, under the circumstances we all found ourselves in. Not without some challenges (bandwidth issues, difficult personal circumstances, the inability to provide direct service to service-learning efforts, to have the ability to see our students in person, etc.).

The possibility for future research is endless if you are in the field of psychology, communication, sociology, business, philosophy, social work, physiology, education, exercise sciences, medicine, healthcare, law, and more. Such research could help find at least a partial solution for this human connection crisis resulting from the ever-growing reliance on technology. Research that focuses on the benefits of using service learning as a means to bring back the human connection among students in the classroom is another research area.   Even more research is called for since higher education went suddenly digital in March 2020. I look forward to what future research on digital education will bring. From living in a paper world, growing professionally in the Information Age, to seeing how technology saved education as a whole in the Spring of 2020, this has been one strange technological trip. Still, one quote I came across (on social media nonetheless, Author Unknown) during this health crisis rings true: “I think that when the dust settles, we will realize how little we need, how very much we actually have, and the true value of human connection.”

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