What Do I Owe My Digital Colleagues*?

I love contributing to conversations of other educators online. I’ve been the beneficiary of generosity of many, especially the members of the English Companion Ning in my first year of teaching English and several really helpful teachers and professors who use Twitter.

But recently, I feel like I’m not keeping up my end of the bargain particularly well. I’ve gotten direct messages on Twitter from people concerned I was angry/upset/ignoring them because I hadn’t replied to their @ messages. I’ve left discussion thread questions and emails unanswered.

I’ve also seen things from the other side of the fence. When a promised comment on a post I’ve written never materializes or an email goes unanswered for weeks, I feel a little disappointed.

Each of us has a limited amount of time. As a full-time classroom teacher, I have less time and less flexibility than some might have. A good deal of my time needs to be spent being present to my students. (Time spent interacting with colleagues online certainly enriches my subsequent interactions with students, but they are two different things.)

My time is going to be especially tight in the coming year because I’m adding a blended learning section of 12th grade American History to last year’s teaching load. To that end, I’ve started putting limits on my online time, as opposed to trying to respond to everyone I feel like I need to before getting off. (Off the internet by 10pm on weeknights and midnight on weekends and no answering school-related emails from Friday night-Saturday afternoon.) These limits seem necessary, but I also hate that they will limit the extent to which I can be helpful/keep in touch.

The voluntariness of digital communities and colleagues varies from face to face colleagues in that my school administration likely won’t step in if I fail to respond to queries or keep up my end of communication. But I do feel like being the one who fails to reciprocate has consequences. It’s also interesting to realize that some people perceive our online interactions differently than I do. The other curiosity with online interactions is that it’s often easy for people to see when I am online, but not responding to them and vice versa.

What, if any, responsibility do you feel toward those with whom you interact online? How do you balance that responsibility with other responsibilities? Does this responsibility vary from the responsibility you feel toward face to face colleagues and acquaintances?

*It may be a stretch to call the people with whom I interact online digital colleagues, but to me that term seems more apt than PLN (Personal Learning Network) or PLC (Personal Learning Community). I’m imagining the term applying to anyone with whom I interact with in a professional capacity online. The strength of these ties varies, as they do with face to face colleagues.

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4 thoughts on “What Do I Owe My Digital Colleagues*?

  1. Friendship, even digital friendship, is not bound by a social contract. Sometimes you have more time. Other times you have less time. If you have to make sure you are keeping up, it ceases to be social and becomes governed by artificial market norms.

  2. A couple of years ago, I really struggled with this a lot. I remember reading great comments on my blog and then never engaging with those that took the time to invest in the thinking I made public.

    What I came to the realization is that my levels of give and take will fluctuate just like others. There is no malicious intent but the reality of life. As our worlds become faster (by choice mind you) and more fractured (digital/physical), we make decisions to engage at various levels and to create balance.

    Once immersed, this realization is an important step for everyone in the community. The realization that we can’t be everything to everyone all the time.

    It sounds like you’ve take that important step.

  3. Michelle Baldwin wrote recently about a need for balance, but she wrote from the perspective that many teacher suffer from a lack of balance because they have a very limited (or no) online presence. http://avenue4learning.com/2010/07/18/a-balancing-act/

    I commend you for working toward balance in your own life.

    It’s something I could improve in my life. We’ve tried all kinds of stuff. “No Tech Mondays.” Internet time-limits. Earlier unplug times. It’s a battle for me, but I’m still fighting it.

    What responsibility do I feel? If I start a conversation — online or otherwise — I feel I should see it through. If I ask for help or suggestions in a blog post and get comments, I should respond to them. I try my hardest to respond to every mention I get on Twitter. It’s not as if I get tons, but as you noted, it just feels strange to reply to someone and not hear back. It’s 140 characters for goodness sakes.

    *I like digital colleagues. I think Jon Becker has suggested straight up “colleagues” as a replacement for PLN, but I don’t feel comfortable lumping everyone I’ve ever interacted with online and off into the category of colleagues. My colleagues are the people I work with on a daily basis. They’re the fellow staff members at my school. Adding “digital” gives the perspective that these are people who I “work with” but in a different capacity.

    Now, what about someone like my wife, who is also a teacher and teaches the same grade as I do, but in a different school than I do. Under my definition she’s not a colleague, but she’s more than a digital colleague (not just because she’s my wife; Matt Townsley, Jerrid Kruse, and Shannon Miller would also be examples that fall into this category).

    Fun to think about. I’m not holding my breath nor am I losing sleep waiting for a new term for PLN.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    @John Yeah, I guess I’m trying to figure out if it’s friendship or a professional relationship. (If that makes a difference.) There’s no money-changing hands, so I’m inclined to say it’s not totally professional, but the conversations are often about work.If there’s no social contract, what more than self-interest keeps me interacting? I thought about titling the post “Who Is My Digital Neighbor?” and thinking about ways power, influence, and ability to reciprocate affect who I choose to interact with online. That post may still be brewing.

    @Ryan Glad to hear others have shared the struggle.

    @Russ I thought about just colleagues, but like you, I think there might be a distinction(s) to be made.

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