Not long ago, I got a frantic phone call from one of the schools in our diocese. They were trying to hook up for a video conference between themselves and a Catholic school in Great Britain, but without any luck. They’d completed an error free “test” dialing the week before, but now both communities of school children were assembled in their respective gyms, and the technology seemed to be resisting all their effort to connect.

Great Britain called the school in Pennsylvania and asked the technology coordinator to repeat the number they should be dialing. 2-0-6 “dot” 1-5-4 “dot” 1-1-0 “dot” 7 “pound” “pound” 7-0-0-1-1. The teacher from Great Britain said, “Ahem … we don’t have a pound sign on our remote display!”

So both schools decided, despite the disappointment for the students, to cancel the video conference. After several dozen emails and phone calls to Great Britain, I realized what went wrong. They DID have a pound sign on their remote. But then again, they also have “the British pound sterling,” worth about $1.60 U.S. And thus the communications foul-up.

In the states, the “pound sign” is written as # — in Great Britain, it’s written (no surprise) as a “£”. In Great Britain, a “#” is called a number sign or a hash mark. This experience left me laughing quietly for days and brought home the importance and the meaning of authentic communication. Along with creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking, communication is one of the four “C’s” of 21st century global learning. And we can certainly see why!

Divided by a common language

This all calls to mind the famous (if difficult to attribute) quotation: “Two nations divided by a common language.” The point is well demonstrated in my #story.

The purpose of communication is threefold, according to a blog called Effective Communication Skills. Communication transfers information, conveys emotions and maintains relationships. In the story above, the transfer of information, the IP address of the video conference unit, was not successfully conveyed because of a lack of understanding of a specific word. I learned something in this exchange: even though you might speak a common language, understanding of that language can be obscured through culture, dialect, and experience. How many people in a public forum space have said something that seemed harmless at the moment only to offend others later? It happens over and over again.

The purpose of conveying emotions and connecting with individuals is also an integral part of communication. During a Ted Talk, Kate Hartman, an artist, technologist and educator, explains how she uses wearable electronics to explore how we communicate with each other and with the environment. For her, the way we communicate emotions is a direct expression of how we relate to ourselves, our bodies and the world around us. She goes on to explain that within the act of listening, as others convey their feelings, relationships are formed.

Communication in the new century

So, one can conclude that there is a hierarchy in communication. Relaying facts and conveying emotions to others while you listen actually builds relationships. Our bonds with other humans and our world, then, is the highest reason for communication.  Pope Benedict XVI in his message for 43rd World Communications Day, May 2009, writes:

When we find ourselves drawn towards other people, when we want to know more about them and make ourselves known to them, we are responding to God’s call — a call that is imprinted in our nature as beings created in the image and likeness of God, the God of communication and communion.

From this perspective, communication creates a connection with others and with ourselves in a profound way. This, according to human relationship researcher Brene Brown, is the reason why humans are on the earth. The connections between us give us purpose and meaning to our lives. Our connections allow us to be intrinsically seen by others, which in turn promotes compassion and joy.

With the advent of so much “connected” technology in the 21st century, the ability to connect with others has increased profoundly. Pope Benedict continues: “In reality, when we open ourselves to others, we are fulfilling our deepest need and becoming more fully human.”

A great many of our students today can count on communicating at a global level throughout their adult lives. It’s our responsibility as educators of 21st century learners to help them become very aware of and sensitive to the cultural and behavioral differences that are inevitable when communication can take place instantaneously from any two or more points across the planet Earth.

I call upon all of us to seize the moment, to take advantage of blogging, texting and tweeting — to use wikis, google docs, evernote, edmodo, facebook and the entire plethora of social media tools — to connect and build relationships and explore what being human is all about!

Image: Digitalart (free w/ attribution)

About the author
Sister Geralyn Schmidt, SCC, is the Wide Area Network Coordinator for the Diocese of Harrisburg (PA). In her current position, she is responsible for Professional Development for teachers regarding “all things techy.” She has been a high school tech coordinator and graphics design teacher who's also taught middle grades math and science in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City.