Where Were You?

They say every generation has at least one, “where were you” moment. For my parents, it was where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated. For my generation, it was when the Challenger exploded. (I was home as I had my high school free period and my lunch back to back, so I watched it live.) The thing I most remember was the unexpected miscalculation by NASA with regard to marketing. They had allowed hundreds of schools around the country to incorrectly believe that one of their teachers was essentially a “runner up” for the launch, so that hundreds of thousands of school kids would have more investment in the program and watch that day…which of course they did.

For millennials, of course the moment was Columbine. The seeming trigger for a landslide of school shootings, Columbine was covered internationally. The event saw humanitarian outreach across borders, found a celebrity outpouring of support, and shed light on mental illness in younger people than was previously focused on. The event changed high school in America forever.

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But it also had a profound ripple effect in Colorado, as you might imagine. I have lived in Colorado most of my life, attending a high school within the same county as Columbine. My wife graduated Columbine a handful of years prior to the shootings and her best friend from high school days saw her cousin killed that day.

We commemorated the 20th anniversary of that tragic day on Saturday. Ironically, due to a significant threat seemingly associated with Columbine, police closed all Denver / metro schools again last week.

I have never blogged about the shootings before. I know those pieces often turn into a pulpit for political stances and I never really felt it was my place. I blog about teaching and learning after all. I blog about connectedness.

But it hit me this past weekend that connectedness is absolutely part of this story. True, my memory of the day was punctuated by a highly “academic” experience. The initial reports on my car radio were that shots “may have been fired” near Columbine HS. I heard that as I drove the 70 minute commute to work at Metro State University. I was worried about being late that day due to very heavy traffic as we were having a student “hearing” around cheating. A student had been caught cheating, given a 0 for the assignment (which resulted in an ‘F’ for the class) and was appealing. So, as a coordinator and director, I needed to be at the meeting with one of my public speaking professors, the Dean, the VPAA, and the head of Student Services.

I often reflect back on that meeting, which did not go the student’s way. What is her recollection of that day? Is it associated with the teaching and learning experience? Is it associated with the evidence of cheating that seemed very cut and dry to us? Or is it dwarfed by the horrific events which unfolded a few miles southwest of the Denver campus?

But I digress.

I also reflect on occasion about what could have been. As I have blogged about regularly, I architected a new kind of “learning ecosystem” for a university in my last position. We won some awards and it was truly a benefit for retention efforts. I blog regularly about 4-5 decades of research showing the power of connectedness both in terms of academics but far more holistically than that. But here is something I have never blogged about.

It is interesting to me how often I hear university administrators go to a place of fear or suspicion when I recommend similar ecosystems to them. The part that seems to really polarize people? The social aspect. While it is my experience that roughly 50% of admins are excited by the prospect of giving students a voice and ways to better connect to anyone or anything, about 50% of the time I hear, “but what if students write something inappropriate?”

I wish I could respond with, “Great!" But I know that is too much. Even though it likely is great.

Why is it great? Because knowing is better than not knowing. Because being able to address a problem, even if it is in the open for all to see, makes the institution stronger, not weaker. Because other students will very often come to the rescue of staff or administrators, showing a different kind of support.

Instead, my typical answer is to assure people that in a closed, networked public, the lack of anonymity makes those kinds of comments very rare indeed. While our world has little problem criticizing via social media, often those critics are anonymous, giving a lot more license to be extreme, lewd, or crass. I also speak about the power in using keywords or key phrases as a trigger point to help staff identify barriers, issues, and road blocks far, FAR sooner than before.

But in the right company, I will take that a bit further. I will talk about the impact that Columbine had on me, personally. My hope in creating a learning ecosystem that was also social was to build an infrastructure whereby more communication showed how people felt, how they were doing, and what they wanted to see or do. It meant seeing depression earlier and potentially saving lives. Suicide is the second highest cause of collegiate death in the United States. But could a social system do more than even that?

In 2007, I was still at eCollege while working on my doctorate. I was making a presentation on how to best consider an LMS as part of a holistic learning experience at Virginia Tech that April day. As the sales person who had brought me there drove us off the campus grounds, we heard and soon saw the sirens. Yet another campus shooting would see 32 more die.

In 2008, the first time I shared my idea of a neo-millennial, learning ecosystem publicly, the company saw it as too difficult. During that presentation of internal stakeholders at eCollege I spoke about a social component to a system, even stating that it could help victims communicate during an emergency, but it looked like a lot of money to the product stakeholders. But I never let it go. Could students be safer with a social tool, allowing them to communicate silently during a crisis? I saw that as crucial. But over time, it became obvious to me that such a system might actually prevent some of those experiences. Students who were lonely, disgruntled, or frustrated would not only have a place to defuse their thoughts in writing, but hopefully that would lead to better, faster interventions. People could work with other people. And maybe something like Columbine and Virginia Tech could be avoided…

As tools became cheaper, easier to integrate, and far more social, that dream system I started to imagine years before became possible. Since then, I have worked to propagate what we did with that learning ecosystem that not only helped students academically as well as connecting them to the collegiate experience far deeper and better, but also to connect them to people, events, causes, or whatever else they might fancy. It is still my hope that this new kind of social connection might do even more good. We may never know if it worked to prevent something tragic, but who knows? That is the power of connectedness after all.

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As we honor those kids and families, as well as the dozens to hundreds (depending on your definitions) of other mass shooting victims and survivors, let us continue to work to try and prevent anyone else from having to deal with such a tragedy. Let us make the next generation’s, “Where were you when” experience something far more positive.

Good luck and good learning.