Cultural Shifts in a Fast Changing World

Below is the text of an opinion paper I wrote for class regarding cultural change in a digital age. I thought is was relevant to post here because I share some thoughts regarding Missouri Senate Bill 54, now the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act of 2011.

If I tried to enumerate all of the ways that digital technology is, has, and will affect culture, we would surely be here many days. But to underscore my thoughts on the matter, all I need to do is point you toward section 162.069 of Missouri Senate Bill 54. It reads as follows [emphasis mine]:

SECTION 162.069 - By January 1, 2012, every school district must develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications. Each policy must include appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with sexual harassment policies, and appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites. Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Former student is defined as any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated. --(Amy Hestir Student Protection Act of 2011)

What you see in this now Missouri law is a visceral reaction to an alarming trend of sexual abuse by teachers of students. But what you also see is a fundamental misunderstanding of the shifting nature of how teachers and students communicate and relate to one another in the digital age. I believe society at-large does not understand how new technologies have transformed the teaching and learning relationships between students and their instructors (or at least provides a solid platform for facilitating change). Learning relationships have shifted from being based solely in a place (a school building), to a more holistic anytime, anywhere relationship focused on learning and is facilitated by new communication tools.

While teachers used to only be available between the hours of 8:00am to 3:00pm, interaction, sharing, and learning can now take place at any time of the day and from any location. This new Missouri law I believe, unknowingly undercuts the digital platforms that can facilitate educational change, not to mention cast suspicion upon a key component of the learning process: a sense of trust between learner and teacher (it could successfully be argued however, that abusive teachers have eroded that trust, not a protectionist law).

Teachers are already voicing their opinions regarding the unintended consequences of this new law. For example, what if a teacher is also a youth worker at a local church where it would be acceptable to carry on a Facebook faith-centered relationship? What if a teacher’s teenage child was also their class? Would parents be forced to unfriend their own children?

In general I feel that society trends toward only reactionary responses when it comes to digital change. This reactionary feeling is also mirrored in churches and congregations as well. It is the constant “black or white” thinking of many congregations that stifles the potential work of the Gospel in new and exciting ways. That is not to say that every “new thing” to come along is wonderful, but with scripture as their guide, communities of believers can make good choices and discern what change are beneficial and which ones are not. The church does its best work by wisely interpreting all change¸ whether digital or cultural, through the lens of scripture. As a wise pastor once told me, “the answer is rarely ever either/or, but most always both/and!”

The one value that must remain constant, regardless of shifting cultural norms, is wisdom. The ability to discern a situation, interpret a new idea, or look to future consequences is something that must be maintained. It is wisdom that must drive adoption of new technologies and the shifts that they bring, and it is wisdom which helps us cope with those difficult choices.

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