Blog Archives

Time for Some Digital Spring Cleaning?

It’s that time of year when the snow finally melts (well, at least for those of us south of the Mason-Dixon line), the school year is wrapping up, and we’re all planning for summer. This is also traditionally the time when households go through “spring cleaning” as we clean out our closets or kids’ closets, re-arrange the jars of random screws in the garage, and finally knock out some items on our to-do list.

More and more, I feel like we need to do the same practices when it comes to our digital lives. We now spend hours of our day online, slowly building a digital version of ourselves. Our digital selves need a place to live, work, eat, share, and surf as well. Unfortunately, in this day and age of “check out this new app” or “sign-up here for more…” we are continually cluttering our phones and our amount of accounts to keep track of.  Data privacy has been in the news heavily lately, and having many different accounts out there opens you up for more risk.

It’s time we start a “digital spring cleaning” along-side the physical one, and you don’t have to wait until spring to do this. I like to use New Year’s Day as a benchmark to clean up my digital life, but found that doing it twice a year makes it much more manageable.  What follows are some tips that I’ve used over the years to keep my digital self from becoming a virtual hoarder.

Email Accounts for Different Purposes 

Somedays, email can feel like a never ending stream of junk mail. Ads about a funny t-shirt that went on sale to a product that will greatly enhance my…well you get the idea. One thing I started several years ago was the use of 3 email accounts. One is for personal information (I use this with friends and family) but not for signing up for things. The second is for signing up for things to try out or to set up accounts to some sort of online service. The third is solely for work-related items.

While this separation can help up the amount of junk you get in your work and personal email accounts, there are times when your email will still be used for spam, so you’ll need to remain diligent in which account you use to sign up for things. If this still doesn’t work, below is a plan B.

Unsubscribe and Purge Quickly

One service that has made my life much easier and my inbox much less cluttered is Unroll.me. This free service instantly lets you go through and identify messages that are spam and others that you may still want to receive but not in your inbox. It creates a list of all your subscription emails easily in a daily digest form. Quick bit of advice, you’ll want to update this yearly as it’s amazing how many other emails have found their way in my inbox since setting this up. (I just took a detour while writing this post and found I had over 300 emails coming into my inbox without my permission since the beginning of the year!)

Delete Some Apps 

Some apps you only use occasionally. Others you added and tried out, but never use any more. Besides taking up valuable space on your phone, these apps can clutter your screen or folders. On the iPhone you can check battery usage settings to see what you’ve used the past 7 days. Besides discovering that you spend way too much of your screen time on Facebook, this can also help you determine which apps are used heavily and which ones never appear in the list.

Review your security settings

When looking through the location services section of my phone, I was surprised by the amount of apps that were tracking me even when I wasn’t using them.  When it comes to social media like Facebook and Twitter, you might be surprised at the sheer number of 3rd party applications that are using some portion of your data. Go to your account settings on all your heavily used social media platforms and purge any 3rd party app connections you won’t need or maybe didn’t even intend to approve.

Manage “Notifistractions”

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about the amount of notification distractions or “notifistractions” we get on our devices. Many of these are not necessary and can cause you anxiety, stress, or worse-yet, distract you when operating a motor vehicle. I always recommend turning off all alerts with the exception of reminders or calendar events. That email or text message can wait, but also know that on most phones you can give some folks in your contact list “VIP” access.  This means you will get an alert from them if they send you a text or message.

Google Search Yourself

You never know what’s been posted out there about you. Maybe a friend posted a photo of you without your permission or maybe you are giving people access to your personal documents without knowing it. At any rate, it’s always a good idea to “Google Yourself” fairly regularly to see what information is out there on you. A couple of quick notes to be most effective:  1 – Make sure you are not logged into your Google account or in “incognito” mode. This is what the outside world sees when they search you, if you are logged into Google, you’ll get different results. Also make sure search your full name is in “quotes” to get the most accurate results.

Back-up any important videos or photos

Every year, I do an “end of the year” family video that encapsulates much of what we did as a family throughout the previous year. While doing this to reflect on the year gone by is fun and heart-warming, it also reminds me to back up all my photos into either a physical hard drive or some sort of long term cloud storage like Dropbox. After all – you never know when your phone might break, and it would be good to have all your photo roll data backed up regularly.

Clear Those Cookies and Empty Your Trashcan

If you are like me, you use your trash can on your computer as sort of a temporary folder for items. At some point, you have to “empty” your trashcan, else you run the risk of your garbage chewing up most of your storage. The same can be said for the cookies contained within your browsers. These can be used for tracking your data and search queries and should be purged fairly regularly. Take a moment to look at and empty these on your laptop and desktop and you might find that the performance may improve on your computer when you do this.

I hope some of these tips help….Now get to cleaning!

Giving Parents a Voice in a 1:1 or BYOD Environment

Our focus in education has always (or at least should always) been on the kids.  They are the reasons the school building exists.  However, we’ve blurred the lines in modern education between school and home. Once you start inviting technology into your school (via BYOD) or you start supplying the technology (via 1:1) you instantly put some pressure on parents to not only comply but be on board.

Where most districts fail (and where we failed initially) is that thinking a “parent night” type meeting or newsletter would be enough to notify parents of this disruptive change. I use the word “disruptive” here not as hyperbole, but to really drive home the point that many parents are not ready for the digital world that lies ahead for their teens.  Whether you are doing any type of mobile device initiative or not, there NEEDS to be conversations taking place on your campuses about this from elementary through high school.

I feel like as a district, we’ve improved from the unidirectional communication methods to more of a collaborative conversation with our parents around technology usage and their kids. I’ve written in the past about our Digital Parenting 101 course.  This semester’s 6-week course had over 130 parents involved and one of the best parts of the course is the discussion forums.  As an administrator it’s such a blessing to be able to have insight on the struggles of the community with screen time, gaming addiction and social media troubles.  It helps me stay informed as well as finding resources to help parents in this digital era.

Yesterday, we took the discussion a step further.

With the help of a parent (Jeff Brantley – father of 3 boys and a guru at facilitating discussion) and a couple of my team members (Tim Yenca and Kacy Mitchell), we started our first of many parent-led collaborative workshops.  In the spirit of sharing,  here’s just a few highlights and a fabulous infographic that Kacy designed to summarize the meeting.

Sticker Dot Activity (before the meeting begins) –

As parents walked into the meeting they were presented with some sticker dots.  Around the room, we had posted the top 5 biggest issues for parents (based on the discussions in the iTunesU course and informal discussions with community members).  Those 5 issues were:

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 9.15.27 AM

We gave every parent 5 stickers and told them they could place as many as they wanted on the posters.  In retrospect I would have only given them 3, which would have forced them to decide on just their top three topics.  Doing this tells the facilitators which topics are the most pressing for the parents.

Line-up Activity:

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Social Media partner activity

Following some brief introductions, we asked parents to line-up based on how “Social Media Savvy” they felt they were.  I first saw this done by Tim Lauer at iPadpalooza last summer.  Once the line was successfully flattened (they tend to group in the middle) we folded the line in half so that the least savvy person was paired up with the most savvy person.  Once in partners, they discussed their views on social media both with themselves and their kids.  After a few minutes, we had the pairs group into quads and continue the discussion.  This served a couple of purposes:

1. It forced the parents to be in groups with people other than their friends, thus avoiding the “echo chamber effect.”

2. It opened up discussion amongst each other around ideas and strategies when it comes to social media.

Round-robin Activity:

Staying in their teams of 4, the groups then went to one of the 5 topic posters around the room. It worked out that there were 5 teams in the room, but you could have them combine if there are more. Once at their poster they were given three different color post-it notes to relay either strategies, problems, or quotes they hear around their house about these topics.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 9.15.36 AM

B2vBInZCcAAG25K.jpg-large Parents discussion strategies, problems and quotes.

The discussions within these groups were incredible!  After rotating every 5 minutes and insuring that every group had time in front of a station, we had them come back and regroup for a final activity.

Final Report Out:

Now that parents had spent time in at a station, we let them choose the one that they were most concerned with and regroup with “like-troubled” parents. The final group’s job was to discuss the problems and report out some final strategies that parents can use to solve the challenges presented.  While we didn’t solve everything we did open up several connections within the community and came away with a wealth of discussion and resources.

Here’s an amazing infographic that Kacy Mitchell captured and created to synthesize the day’s activities:

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I’m looking forward to continuing these parent-led collaborative workshops throughout the year and the data that they will yield.  One word of caution is that it may be necessary to frame the day for parents prior to starting. Mentioning the goals of the workshop are to find solutions rather than ranting about issues would be a good thing. It could be easy for one or two parents to turn this from a positive experience to a negative one if they have an axe to grind so going over norms would be good.

Digital Zombie Series: “Notifistraction” Disease

Original Image here: http://goo.gl/XNgMhR

Original Image here: http://goo.gl/XNgMhR

Since the beginning of time, man has always had an innate sense of alertness.  In our primitive self, that alertness was used to make us aware of dangers around us.  Imagine it – you are hunting and gathering food when all the sudden, you happen upon a pond with fresh water.  You bend over to quench your thirst or possibly fill a jug with water for your family, when all of the sudden you hear a twig…

SNAP!!

You turn and look for what blood-crazed beast might be approaching you.  It turns out to be a smaller creature…like a squirrel (Look! Squirrel!).  Following  your expience with the varmint, you travel cautiously back to your cave having survived certain death.  When you arrive home to your wife and kids you discover that you left your jug full of water behind.  “What were you thinking?” she might ask (although back then it might be more like a series of grunts).  Your response would be simply “Ah dunno” (which in modern times still sounds like a series of grunts).

The truth is, you were distracted.  Your brain refocused attention and energy toward survival and alertness.  In that moment, you forgot the water jug and simply returned home.  To set this more in modern times, have you ever gone into a room to look for something and then something else caught your eye or someone asked you a question at which point you forget why you are in the room? You might even travel back into the original room to sort of mentally “retrace” your steps and try and figure out why you were going into a certain room.

I know I’ve probably paid hundreds of dollars in wasted electricity staring into the refrigerator pondering why I went there in the first place.  By our very nature, we are victims of distraction.  Distraction causes our brain to alter their original course of action whenever a new stimulus is produced.  Some of us have become quite acute at managing this and claim to be multitaskers (a theory that is seemingly debunked weekly).  Others have figured out ways to block out distraction when working on a task.

Enter the era of smartphones and notification alerts.  All the sudden, something as small and innocent as a beep or tweet causes us to lose focus on our task at hand.  I’m calling this “Notifistraction” (No-tis-fah-strac-shun) Disease, or the mash up of notifications and the distraction they cause.  Despite our best efforts to focus our brains still revert back to the stone age twig-snapping event whenever our devices alert us about something.

And that’s only part of it.  A local cyber-psychologist  here in Austin, Dr. Mike Brooks, says that we are becoming addicted to our alert notifications.  He states that we get small endorphin rushes to our brain whenever we get an alert notifying us that someone has connected with us.  This can be either mentioning us in a tweet, tagging us in a photo, or commenting on our YouTube video for example.  That connection creates endorphins which is subconsciously associated to the sound or sight of a notification alert.

Think of this rat in B.F. Skinner’s famous rat experiment on Operant Conditioning as a simple example of this conditioning.

A more modern example might be the feeling one gets when walking through a casino and listening to the slot machine make all sorts of bells and whistles to claim we have won something.  That same primitive level of satisfaction combined with our inability to control perfect focus when distracted make Notifistraction Disease another sign that the Digital Zombie Apocalypse is upon us.

Like everything else I’ve written in this series, I have had some level of personal challenges to overcome when it comes to notifistractions.  Recently, I was honored to receive a new Pebble watch as a going away present from my TEC-SIG presidency. Just like any new gizmo, I love the watch.  I can see my running times on it, can bring up the weather, and can even be notified when my washing machine is done with my clothes.  It uses the smartphone as sort of a “main frame” and just relays alerts to the watch.  Now I have notifistractions literally tethered to my body!

Now, as with Digital Yawns, the good news is there are some homeopathic cures out there for those of us suffering from Notifistraction Disease.  Here are some tools I’ve deployed personally to help me get through a project or just simply enjoy time with my kids and family without my attention being drawn else where. It’s already come in handy when we went on a recent family trip and I noticed that the airport had mis-tagged our car seats which would have sent them to a totally different city.  If my nose had been buried in my phone, I wouldn’t have caught that slip-up.

1. Turn Off Notification Alerts –

I have turned off all audio alerts except for text messages and phone calls.  While this might not seem like much of a sacrifice, at one point I was getting Foursquare alerts about how good of mileage Greg Garner made on a recent run.  Do I really need to know that? (he’s fast by the way)  My next step is turning off that little alert icon that appears on my apps as I don’t need to see the 999 unread email messages I might have.

2. Don’t Respond to Everything Right Away – 

I try not to respond or read alerts or social media while sitting in the car.  Notice I didn’t say “while driving”.  This is still a bit of a challenge, because, just like the Skinner rat, I sometimes want to know what someone is sending me.  Of course, with the new watch, I can see the alert on my wrist and just choose not to respond, but that’s still a distraction.

3. Employ the “Pomodoro Technique” –

The Pomodoro Kitchen timer

The Pomodoro Kitchen timer

When working on a project, I employ the “Pomodoro Technique“.  I have to give props to Lisa Johnson for sending this my way, but it’s a simple technique used to maintain focus throughout a project.  Here’s how it works.  You write down a goal or project that you need to work on.  Then you basically turn off all notifications, shut down email, turn off your phone, etc for a period of 25 minutes.  When the 25 minutes is up, you can take a break for 5 minutes to check email, social media, your clothes in the washing machine, etc but then you have to get back to work on the task for another 25 minute period.  I even employed this technique while writing this post!

Let’s face it, we’ve been distracted creatures for thousands of years, but it’s time we started managing those distractions and not letting them rule our lives. Do we really need to know when our washing machine is done?  The next time you suffer from Notifistraction Disease, ask yourself, is it really important that I get this alert on my phone?  You might find yourself being distracted by more pleasant things like nature and birds and…..squirrels!

Now….what was I saying?

 Note: This post is the third installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.