“Media Fast” and study abroad

A great article from the Washington Post tells the narrative of a communications professor at American University who gives her students an assignment to shut off all their media devices for 24 hours, then write about it.

A few weeks ago 79 Academic Directors (ADs) from our study abroad programs came to campus for orientation. During this time I helped present a session on Web 2.0. to help them better understand the media habits of our students. Over half of our ADs aren’t American citizens, and while Facebook and Instant Messaging definitely has a global reach, many of these staff had limited experience with these technologies, and many others want nothing to do with them whatsoever. The overwhelming consensus among all of the ADs is that they’d prefer their students spend more time exploring the culture instead of wasting away in internet cafes.

When I was in college (nearly 10 years ago), study abroad really was a completely immersive experience. Email was limited, and many students on my program tended to opt for visits to museums, rather than long afternoons searching for the one internet cafe with no sign, in a back alley, of a small town. I remember handwriting (or typing up and printing) nearly a hundred letters to post to friends and family back home. I think maybe I signed onto Instant Messenger once when I was in Turkey, but for the most part, I was completely isolated in the world that was studying abroad.

When I was in graduate school (nearly 5 years ago), my study abroad experience was a lot different in terms of technology. I blogged nearly every day, sent emails to family and friends, and even used Voice Over IP to call my family back home.

These days students have blogs, Facebook profiles, text messaging, VOIP, twitter, Instant Messaging, and maybe they open up their email from time to time. Even if study abroad programs ask their students not to use technology, it’s unlikely that they’ll get full compliance. It’s just too much a part of their daily routine in feeling tapped into their world. And more so, it’s just too much a part of their parent’s world not to be connected to their kids in that way.

The convergence of these two very different types of players - students who are hard-wired to BE wired and ADs who want nothing more than to spend months disconnected from the world in a tiny Nepalese village - calls for a 1 part creativity, and 2 parts compromise. As a result, our presentation wasn’t intended to get our Academic Directors to start using these technologies, rather to give them information relevant to their work: helping them understand the technologies, how their students are connecting with the rest of the world (and how frequently), and how quickly these communications can facilitate the transfer of information. To drive this point home, we shared the Post article as optional reading, and I was impressed when hardly any copies were left on the front table once everyone exited the room.

Overall I felt we were successful with the session. We kept the content light and fun, and gave real life examples from RSS readers that parents might set up about their child’s whereabouts, to Flickr geotagging, and a real-life texting anecdote where a student camping on safari in Africa sent her AD (who was in the next tent over) a text saying “I think a lion is licking my tent!” I even - for better or worse - shared my own Facebook profile, with the status message saying “I am presenting on Web 2.0 right now!”. The result, lots of laughter. The feedback was very positive, and for an audience that isn’t too keen on technology in the first place, comments people made to me like “this was the most enjoyable presentation so far!” were big reminders that any information, when presented in the right context, can be appreciated and absorbed.

Thanks to Rob for the link.

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