How Digital Immigrants Weathered the Storm Called Gustav
This is the third installment of my series on digital natives and how we can meet their needs in the classroom (although this impromptu post has less to do with the classroom and more to do with how educational leaders can learn a lesson from our digital native students).
When I began this series on digital natives, I had no plans for this post. Gustav, however, changed that. My school is in Baton Rouge and, unless you have been living in an information vacuum, you know that Hurricane Gustav pounded Baton Rouge on September 1. Almost a week later, tens of thousands of households (in East Baton Rouge Parish alone) remain without electricity. Gustav severely crippled Baton Rouge and much of South Louisiana.
As Gustav roared through Baton Rouge, the power for virtually the entire city went down. As if that weren't bad enough, voice communications via phones went down as many telephone lines went down with the power lines. With no power and no phones, communications in Baton Rouge and the surrounding area almost ceased to exist. To further complicate matters, cell phone service was spotty at best. Those cell channels that remained in service were overloaded with both incoming and outgoing calls. Baton Rouge also faced an email crisis because so many Baton Rouge residents use local email providers and the servers in town were without power. Thus begins the case study about how Gustav forced a campus of digital immigrants to live as digital natives, at least for a little while.
As the division head for grades 9 through 12, my responsibility during a crisis such as Gustav is to gather and disseminate information as quickly and accurately as possible. To do that, though, my headmaster and the other two division heads, along with several other key administrators, had to be on the same page regarding information sent to our stakeholders. Additionally, nearly 50 faculty and staff, from my division alone, waited in the silent darkness for information regarding the restart of school. Without email or phone service (cell or land lines), we took a page from the digital native handbook: we used texts (SMS).
Text messages, or Short Message Service, worked when cell phone voice service and land line phone service often did not. While cell phone calls travel over voice channels, texts travel in small data packets over control channels. Because texts are so small, they usually do not overload the control channels and, therefore, texting often works when calls don't.
After the administration coordinated information and strategies via text messages, we transmitted information to our faculty and staff using texts. Some of the texts we sent manually and some we sent via broadcasts created with software. Once the faculty realized that texting worked even when calling did not, the texts began to fly through the airwaves over Baton Rouge like never before. Faculty and staff not only received information from us but also relayed information and questions to us and to each other. In the past week alone, I sent and received hundreds of texts (no exaggeration) all related to school business. For the past week, I communicated with my entire division and essentially managed my faculty from my phone. I should note, though, that communication of this kind would have been impossible had I not programmed my phone with the cell numbers of everyone in my division ahead of time. Based on our success with SMS communication, I recommend that administrators be prepared to use SMS technology to communicate with faculty and other stakeholders in the event of a crisis such as Gustav.
Our digital native students would be proud of some members of our faculty who, quite honestly, may never have used texts despite owning cell phones for years. Remember, while digital immigrants use cell phones primarily for talking, digital natives use cell phones primarily for texting. If you don't believe me, ask a digital native.
BTW (that means "by the way" for all you digital immigrants out there), have you noticed that your texts are limited to 160 characters? That number was decided on over twenty years ago and was based on 7-bit characters in the English language; 160 7-bit characters limits the messages to very small pieces of information. If you were to text in Arabic, Russian, Chinese or several other languages whose characters are 16-bit characters, your texts would be limited to 70 characters. I thought some of you would appreciate that bit of nearly-useless information.