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High-Tech vs High-Touch: The Modern Balancing Act Between Digital Assets and Real Interactive Human Experience

High-Tech vs High-Touch: The Modern Balancing Act Between Digital Assets and Real Interactive Human Experience


We need to strategize how we capitalize on technological enhancements without losing our human gifts, experiences, and values.

We’re all conflicted. We love our tech, do we not? But we also love personal and tactile physical experiences. For many of us, we have a little twinge in the back of our minds that tech extremism will take hold, and we’ll end up in a Wall-E-esque dystopian reality where humans are hardly functional, hollow, mindless shells of our former brilliant selves, if we become too reliant on technology, as much as we appreciate the convenience and opportunities it affords us.

Technology is a game-changing development in many ways, but touch is the core essence of human interaction. Both are important aspects of the modern educational and professional worlds. We’re depriving ourselves, and more importantly our children, of vital interactions by withdrawing from certain personal physical experiences. A cold, hard screen is not a substitute for real physical experiences, even though we are able to enhance other experiences and focus on other values by capitalizing on tech.

Have we evolved or regressed as a species with this ‘advancement’? Is it because we’re just so zealous to change everything we’re not doing it strategically enough? Are we lacking foresight?

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To answer these questions, I interviewed Dr. José Ramón Lizárraga, assistant professor of learning sciences and human development and affiliated faculty in the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. Their present work examines the “cyborg collaborative practices” of teachers and students utilizing both “tech” and “touch.” They also focus on “consequential learning,” which is the kind of practical learning that plays into your day-to-day life, the most important kind of learning.

Starting with high-tech, it is certainly a revolution of epic proportions. However, it does need a warning label, as it isn’t suited for everything all the time. Fortunately, Dr. Lizárraga says we are a long way off from being made obsolete by automatons. It’s not just that we aren’t advanced enough. Technology still needs a lot of refinement that starts with the humans who develop it.

Dr. Lizárraga wants us to understand that technology, even artificial intelligence or machine learning, is not smarter or more equitable than us. It’s developed and programmed by humans and subject to human error and biases. Some communities are more subject to biases than others, just like everyday life. Dr. Lizárraga and their team are always aware that tech in everyday life is in a social/cultural context, believing that we cannot move forward with tech until inequity is addressed.

Even widely trusted tools such as Google are not as impartial as many believe. Dr. Lizárraga quotes a friend and UCLA professor, co-founder, and faculty director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry (C2i2), Safiya Noble, “Google is not an unbiased research tool. It’s a biased sales tool.” However, Dr, Lizárraga is clear on the duality of tech being discriminatory but transformable. We can repurpose it for good, using existing technology to instead perpetuate equity and justice.

Fortunately, biases embedded in tech are a problem that many people are aware of, and there are people doing the work like Ruha Benjamin, an author and Princeton professor of African American studies, where she explores the social aspects of science, tech, and medicine, and the Algorithmic Justice League.

Another fundamental aspect of the educational process that tech is causing schools around the world to abandon is writing by hand, perhaps the most fundamental life skill besides reading and hand-to-mouth motor skills. What if typing something is not an option in a given situation but you don’t know how to write?

Imagine the feel of the pen in your hand, lines forming into words as you move it across the page. That’s all you. Your hand worked with your brain to make the pen do just what you wanted to convey your idea, an intimate piece of you now on the page.

Typing is a great thing. It’s a lot faster than writing and often more convenient, even more productive in a lot of ways and sometimes more legible. Just a little poke poke poke, and the ideas come out nice and clear on the screen. However, many people still prefer the ‘old fashioned’ way, keeping notebooks, calendar planners, and sticky notes, just like some people still prefer books, magazines, and newspapers. It’s just not the same. We also still have to fill out paperwork that we can’t type away at.

Handwriting and typing are both technically high-touch, so how are they different?

Handwriting and typing are both technically high-touch, so how are they different? A summary of research on handwriting versus typing presented in Psychological Science indicates that when participants write by hand the parietal and central regions of their brains are activated. The researchers describe how brain regions stimulated when writing by hand are those used for memory and processing new information. It creates the proper stimulation for the retention of information. Their brain waves also transition to the theta range, a more relaxed state. But guess what? The same goes for writing with a digital pen.

Young Leaders then juxtaposes this observation stating that “When using the keyboard, there is no change in brain waves, and no change is observed in the brain regions that were active before starting to type. Using a keyboard does not make a significant change in your brain [and] does not allow it to switch to learning mode.” It hits the instant gratification button but not the learning button.

No strain, no gain, handwriting prepares your brain to retain. This indicates that it’s more about the tactile experience than the visual one and brings us back to the non-binary point that neither tech nor touch is definitively better and that they can overlap if we use them with this in mind.

What I take from this is that each has its time and its place, but neither is indisputably always better than the other. Take handwritten notes and type communications, perhaps.

I also interviewed Jimmy Lee Day II, Colorado’s Teacher of the Year 2023, an instrumental music teacher from Aurora. It just struck me how tactile playing an instrument is and how hard it must have been to try to teach that online during lockdown. He was happy to share the experience, what he’s stowed away in his new tech toolbox, and how his students were impacted.

It just struck me how tactile playing an instrument is and how hard it must have been to try to teach that online during lockdown.

Day recounts that when lockdown started it was a huge learning curve. He had to think outside the box to try to get the same results over Zoom as in person. He had support from school administration to help him figure it out. It was surely a daunting transition as music — especially middle school instrumental music — is such a collaborative experience.

To start, Day recorded himself playing the music his students were learning to demonstrate and help them emulate his example by watching and hearing him, but the subtleties were hard to convey or address without being in person. For example, finger placement on the instrument can make a huge difference in the sound produced and is difficult for the untrained eye to see.

…finger placement on the instrument can make a huge difference in the sound produced and is difficult for the untrained eye to see.

The students also recorded themselves playing solo and sent videos to Day for grading and corrections, but it was not as effective as in person. Even when Day emailed students feedback, he couldn’t be sure they reviewed or understood what he meant. “How do I even know they read them?” he asks. Would you understand written instructions on minute finger movements and be able to transfer that instruction while recalling it to perform another task?

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Day can’t say tech is totally unwelcome, though. The best tech asset he’s found is digital instrument tuner apps, so kids can tune at home without help once they know what to tweak to tune their instruments. Parents around Aurora rejoice that Day has their kids keeping their instruments tuned at home using a free app. It makes his job easier too.

Out of sudden curiosity, I asked if there’s an interactive platform for actually learning real instruments, but sadly there’s none he knows of. Interactive tech for this sort of thing is pretty minimal.

E-books, however, can offer interactivity, and according to EdWeek, they can help improve reading comprehension among children. Interactive e-books can have features intended to simulate adult-guided reading, like pointing out main elements and plot sequences, asking questions, and focusing attention. Those that did use the proper, most beneficial enhancements tended to facilitate better comprehension in the little learners, but researchers found that most of the e-books studied didn’t offer enhancements that actually helped as planned. They also found dictionaries didn’t improve children’s comprehension, just their vocabularies.

What it comes down to is that children’s comprehension improves when adults read to them. However, adults tend to read digital texts differently than print to the child, probably because adults also read digital differently. I’m curious about the long-term implications for how these kids will read as adults.

But today I have another question: What about Zoom from a social perspective? Do we lose our humanity communicating over Zoom? Are our interactions really as valuable? According to Dr. Lizárraga, the jury is still out. Platforms like Zoom, they said, are pushing the limits of that 1D model of tech. Dr. Lizárraga assures us, though, that people are working on more ‘embodied’ forms of virtual meetings.

In an article published by Harvard Business Review, the screen itself can create a sense of security, which can increase the ability to express opinions and take risks people wouldn’t otherwise take in person. This can be productive or destructive, once again showing the non-binary view that tech isn’t always better but can also be a benefit. It is highly circumstantial and not necessarily predictable.

Traditional methods are tried and true and sometimes irreplaceable on an intimate psychological level. Our brains are designed to be receptive to those things we’ve evolved with for generations, and sometimes the advancements just aren’t there, are misguided, or just fall short.

That’s not to say there is no intersection, but we need to be mindful of the facts to tune our methods to integrate new and old in a way that enhances outcomes and nurtures our humanity.

…we need to be mindful of the facts to tune our methods to integrate new and old in a way that enhances outcomes and nurtures our humanity.

Our minds have evolved but still have primal needs and are comforted by certain expectations being fulfilled. Imagine sleeping under a heat lamp. Just because it’s warm doesn’t mean it’s as cozy as your blankets. It serves the same purpose, but something is just missing.

EdWeek’s reading study analyzing 1,800+ children up to 8 years old and comparing their comprehension and vocabulary learning on paper versus on screens found that digital texts were “generally less effective” than print for reading comprehension. From a personal perspective, I agree. I prefer to do my research by reading books. I feel like I retain more and am able to refer back to the text more easily — minus the glorious Control-F function on a laptop to help find specific words in a text. My eyes also tire more easily reading from a screen.

While you probably also read our web articles, reading our magazine is just different, isn’t it? It’s more tangible and engaging, like a special date. Just you and your magazine. It’s almost like you’re cuddled up, sharing the experience, and it sticks with you in a special way. The screen just stares back at you, like watching the world through a window, distant and isolated even though it’s only inches away. We still look out the windows and enjoy the world that way, but we also need to get outside and experience it physically.

What about Jimmy Day trying to teach inherently tactile instrumental music through a screen? Kids still get to hold their instruments, so does that really make a difference in their experience? In a way, he says, the online experience helped the students become more independent, but it also didn’t give them the same advantage and vibe of collaboration. The most difficult thing was that he couldn’t re-position their hands if he saw them holding the instrument incorrectly when they were on the other side of the screen. It’s something hard to explain and easier to show or physically correct. They picked up bad habits more easily when they played by themselves.

His students also had a hard time playing alone without their classmates or teacher for reference. A few kids did drop out of the class because the experience just wasn’t the same and was a little dehumanizing, but Day was able to encourage and support the vast majority of kids to ride it out until they could be back in person. They are all so grateful to now be back for that collaborative experience.

Is Day open to moving more into high-tech in the future? He says it’s 70/30 —70% never again, 30% could do it again now that he has a tech toolbox to turn to. He really enjoys the interpersonal aspects of engaging with and helping students learn in person and the kids enjoy learning in his company. He is, however, open to learning about new technologies to help teach instrumental music remotely if and when they become available.

This alludes to what Dr. Lizárraga calls “collaborative learning” — where people work together to solve a problem or accomplish a goal. They say there is something to be said for the nonverbal communication and feedback that comes with an in-person collaborative experience. There are socioemotional and sociocognitive benefits in group engagement when in person. Dr. Lizárraga’s cyborg projects take these into account while participants interact virtually as they work on the same physical task. The projects provide everyone with the same kit, and the participants coordinate to work on them at the same time while in a virtual meeting. Though they aren’t physically together, they are still working collaboratively.

Emotional complexity and the level of interdependence are determiners for virtual/personal meetings, according to Harvard Business Review. Relationship-based goals, for example, involve strengthening or repairing interpersonal connections, so these are usually more effective in person. The same can be said for the kind of high-tactile teaching such as Day’s. He cites a number of reasons why in-person is the most efficient for his work, including his students’ ability to gauge themselves off of other kids or the teacher and his ability to help them learn proper techniques and hand positions.

Another factor that comes down to the individual is learning style. People learn differently, favoring some mediums over others. Learning styles include visual, auditory, verbal, kinesthetic, tactile, and logical.

“Knowing my own learning styles helps me become a better lifelong learner and a better learning coach for my child,” says Christina Katz at Colorado Parent. This, as she discusses in her article, Understand and Support Your Child’s Learning Style, is transferable to adults like supervisors, teachers, and trainers. I’ve had jobs that ask this, and it’s super helpful to both parties.

Just think about what appeals to you — hobbies, tasks, etc. — and what triggers you to boredom, frustration, or feel overwhelmed. Knowing how to identify the different types of learners will help you find the balance that’s right for you, your employees or coworkers, and your kids. For example, predominantly visual, auditory, and logical learners may do fine learning or working digitally, but predominantly verbal, kinesthetic, and tactile learners may need in-person physical experiences to learn or perform best.

There are a lot of variables, as we can see, and this determination should be made on a case-by-case basis. All in all, we need to think critically as a society to determine what ideally should be done in person, what should be done online, and what can be hybrid, so we can create a new norm. We should be making the best of both opportunities and making the most of everyone’s time and energy.

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