Random Thoughts

The Blurred Lines

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Today at school I answered personal e-mail, updated my Facebook status, Tweeted, looked up flights for winter break, and even read articles that didn’t pertain to school.

Flickr ID: Señor Codo

And they say we’re becoming less productive at work.

What really is happening is the line between our work life and our social life is becoming blurred more and more every day.

It use to be easy to tell the two apart. The paper mill in my home town use to blow the whistle every morning at 6am and every evening at 4pm. We all told the time by the paper mill and for the workers it was a clear line between work life and social life.

For anyone working in the information or knowledge field, and anyone who has a cell phone and/or an Internet connection that whistle is meaning less and less.

And we all have our excuses but the truth of the matter is when we’re constantly connected we can constantly work and play. Sure I use some of my work time to do social things, yet I get home from work after 3pm and answer work e-mails, text faculty members about a computer problem, and work on lessons and things that need to be done. So it’s an even swap. I’ll use some of your time, you can use some of mine.

Of course teachers have always worked after school hours and if any profession deserves to take a little social time on the clock….it’s educators.

But educators are not alone, it’s a change we’re seeing in society. This hyper-connected, always-on, world we now live in is making it so our social life and work life are always intermixing. It’s your bosses ability to call you on the cell at 9pm to talk work, or the idea that you’ll read and answer e-mails via your BlackBerry after you leave the office. The employers are taking advantage of this hyper-connected world as well….why do you think they bought you a company cell phone? They still only pay you to work 8 hours a day.

So here’s the question:

If these two industrial worlds are collapsing to create a new singular world, what are we doing in schools to help students manage their time in this new world of constant access?

Many schools instead of breaking down the walls continue to build them up. You can’t be social while you’re “at work”. We don’t want you on Facebook, get off your phone, and don’t even think about texting in your hoodie!

Schools still believe, for students anyway, that when you’re at school it’s all about business and when you’re out of school then you can play. Yet we know this is not the world we now find ourselves in….and we know because we’re all in it!

I’m wrestling with this right now on just how much we should be blurring the lines for kids. When a student is give “free time” in class to finish an assignment is it OK if they decide to use that time to check Facebook, as long as they understand later that night we’re going to take their time to finish the assignment? After all “free time” implies that it’s my time right?

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. Another excellent post Jeff. I completely agree with you that for many professions, the on and off work schedules are melting together. I think the on and off tasks are too. I’m currently in my office at school reading and replying to your educationally relevant post. Is it work?

    What I struggle with is how much of a separation we should try to “artificially” create between these on and off schedules, and these on and off tasks. Should I really bring some grading with me when I go to my nephew’s soccer game?

    That’s the problem with blurred lines: they’re blurred, and different people will draw their own line differently. Either extremes seem non-sense though so we need to be helping kids wrestle with these questions too.

    • And that’s just it. There are times when I love switching off. At the movie theater for example or when I’m getting a massage. 🙂

      But there are plenty of other times when I love that I can get work done in the taxi on my iPhone, or answer e-mail while waiting for a meal at a restaurant.

      The line is individualized and as educators I think it’s our job to have these conversations with our kids.

  2. Jeff,
    You provide some excellent commentary about the blurring of the lines. Thank you for your post. Unfortunately for myself I am in one of those districts that continues to build up some walls, however I differ from most here when it comes to use of time. The comment you made about “Schools still believe, for students anyway…” is the prevailing thought here regarding teachers as well. I find myself challenged and troubled by this type of thinking. I respond to your question with a “Yes”, it is OK for students to be utilizing their free time in a manner of their choosing. I frequently allow students to choose their own time management. Keep in mind I teach at the high school level, and it usually ends up being a small portion of time at the end of the period. But, if students wish to finish an assignment for another class, visit with a friend, or something else, so be it. While I have faced criticism for this, I feel it is another avenue of teaching students responsibility and ownership. I may comment to them at times about their inefficient use of time and offer suggestions as to how it can be more productive, but feel that they need a reprieve from much of the mandated time restraints and directives that they are surrounded with each day.

  3. Very interesting question, Jeff.

    As someone who lives in this purgatory between work and free time constantly (running a web marketing company and working as a professional photographer/writer in my free time), I’d say the blurred lines are not necessarily a good thing.

    There is no down time. As long as the students are getting real down time when they are out of the school environment, I’d say that’s a very fair trade off.

    On top of that students need to learn how to concentrate. If they are allowed to make their own decisions and do as they please in school, they may never learn to focus properly. That’s a disability which will hinder them for their entire working lives, limiting many careers.

    So, sure I’d say schools should be locked down with no mobile service and no access to social sites. There’s enough of that as soon as any student leaves school grounds.

    You wouldn’t argue that students should be allowed to drink beer on school premises, would you? Beer drinking is also a healthy and convivial activity in social time.

    • Drinking beer at 16 is illegal by law. Owning a computer, iPad, cell phone by the time you’re 5 is not. I do agree that we need to teach kids to focus on a task. Sports are good at this, so is hiking and deep discussions in the classroom. The problem with locking down social sites and mobile services is you really can’t do it.

      And here’s going to be an even bigger problem in a couple years. As more and more stories like this one about a girl who pretends to call the police on an iPod touch to scare away a kidnapper make the headlines, parents are going to expect their kids have a cell phone, and expect that they be able to use it in school. We can’t actually block access to mobile devices at school, and if we complete shut students off, like you suggest, how are we going to teach them how to stay safe in these new social environments?

  4. Good post, Jeff. For me the metric for both educators and students is no longer the hours spent, but tasks accomplished. If it gets done, who cares where and when?


    • Totally agree……yet we have teachers that believe you need to be “on task” every minute in their classroom. For elementary students I get it, they need help focusing and need the support. But by high school come on these kids are balancing activities, sports, school, and sometimes job. Helping them find a system that works regardless of where and when things get accomplished should be our priority.

  5. Great post Jeff. A great example of teachers “playing” when they should be working is to watch them at meetings, trying to hide the fact that they are checking Facebook or to come into a class and watch them change a screen that was buying airline tickets. Why is it that grown adults, who have been deemed professional enough to work at a school, must feel guilty for the time they spend online at school?

    The way I see it, if you are getting your work done and giving the students what they need then you are free to stay connected with your learning. I like to have my students see that I am always “on” Let them see that after I have spent the time we spend together as a whole group, and they are on task that I too am reading a blog or sending a Tweet. I will roam around the class and make sure everyone is on task and doesn’t have any questions, but I see no reason why I can’t check my Twitter feed at the same time.

    People are sometimes shocked that I Tweet from class. “But aren’t you teaching? ” They ask. I guess my definition of teaching and their’s must be different. I usually tweet about what is happening at that moment in class, or I take questions students ask me that I don’t know and I send them to see what comes back. My kids get a sense that our classroom is connected to something bigger, and that is because it is.

    I love the fact that the lines are blurred. If I have an administrator come into my class and see me tweeting, I would not hide it, but show them the power for breaking down the classroom walls and allowing all of us to roam around a bit to see what kind of information we can find.

  6. Great discussion topic! Of course we do personal “business” at work because we also do school work at home. It is a trade off and we probably do more work at home than the other way around. However, as my staff are hourly (to some extent) and they can get paid overtime for working after 3 PM and on weekend/holidays, I don’t want them making holiday plans and checking facebook at work. I know they’re not going to go home and continue to work. So the play time at work is making them less productive. As I like to set a good example for my staff, I have tried NOT to do personal business in the office. However, I find it impossible to do. There are just some things you can’t do in the evening – our banking for example. So what is the best way to handle this play/work distinction when you aren’t teaching children, but supervising hourly adult staff? Suggestions anyone?

  7. What strikes me most is the dichotomy between what teachers say and what they do. I’ve listened to many teachers complain about students constantly checking their Facebook and then watch those same teachers scurry to check their email while in class. I’ve also seen teachers worried about their students staying on task during class but who can’t stay focused during a meeting. It may be uncomfortable, but I think it is worthwhile to bring example like these up to teachers or administrators.

    In my role as Tech Facilitator, I’ve also made a conscious effort to send less email and talk to people face to face, as well as to not bring my computer to staff meetings unless directed to. A little modeling can (I hope) go a long way.

  8. Good Article Jeff, It echoes an ongoing conversation we are having at my school regarding use of cellphones and site-blocking. As educators do we practice what we preach?

    For me, definitely not. I like to take some time to post to twitter, read some articles and otherwise keep myself digital self active. But like you said My digital self is now more myself than before.

    The solution I feel is simple and echoes what @Intrepid Teacher mentioned – Demonstrate good examples. Showing students that when even at my desk I can “steal” a moment to check twitter for interesting posts or read a New York Times article or Facebook a friend… while still getting up and informally assessing student progress – Don’t we all do this? My Digital Self and Myself are entwined if not balanced. One does not outweigh the other, at least I hope not ;-).

    Well I guess this is what separates the good from the bad – Those teachers that hid the fact their facebooking and those that make it transparent. As well at those that teach from their desks and those that get up and circle around the classroom stopping to make sure students are on task.

    My only concern for highschool students is the over multitasking that can occur- And there has been so much digital ink spilled on the fact that students need to be able to focus on certain tasks without the distractions of streaming video, music, facebooking etc.

    It’s a tricky issue with students and I feel at this time my admin will never jump on board an “open the flood gate” policy towards allowing student use of phones, facebook, and flash-games (even when they’re on break). They will question – why is there no learning happening? Well…whose to say their isn’t?

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