08/28/2014 09:00 am ET

3 Ways to Build Students' Analog Skills in The Era of The Emoticon

Road Trip Nation

Tech use is pervasive, especially among young people who never had to find an (alphabetically correct!) encyclopedia to answer a question. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, teens are essentially online every minute their eyes are open -- over 7.5 hours a day. On the bright side, this unrestricted access to the world's arsenal of information provides exposure to ideas, a voice in global conversation, and endless pictures of baby animals. But codependence on devices also threatens the very processes that technology aims to facilitate: human connection and real-world discovery.

Devices have rendered many personal interactions superfluous. We used to chat with shopkeepers to make purchases. Now we can wordlessly flick a button at 2 a.m. and receive a box bearing items we don't even remember buying -- or wanting for that matter. Convenience is the upside, but it comes at a social cost.

For adults who developed interpersonal skills before the Internet, the toll of tech isn't as visible (except when we say 'hashtag' aloud in conversation). But for youth still sprouting their foundational capacities, being welded to a device can be detrimental. Tech can become a crutch, causing deficient social skills and fear of face-to-face communication.

Millennials are so discomfited by dialogue that the Wall Street Journal reported an emerging demand for phone-use consultants, one of whom "charge[s] $1800/day to write out phone scripts for her clients' millennial employees!" We don't want youth becoming sentient USB drives -- loaded with information, but unable to weave that information into a tapestry of dynamic conversation. So to prevent this bleak J. J. Abrams plot from materializing, below are some tactics to merge analog skill-building with technology use. Because today's laptop-littered classrooms ain't your grandma's classroom, but maybe they should be!

1. Find Analog Ways to Do Digital Things

Face-to-face gatherings and phone calls are giving way to Google Hangouts and inexplicable emojis of turtles with eggs on their backs. But students still need to know how to decode nuanced social cues and react appropriately, whether it's interviewing for a job, responding to an emergency, or just avoiding saying something irrevocably offensive to the in-laws. Developing this savvy requires ungluing student from their devices and gently tossing them into the wilderness of the real world. Offline activities force students to interact with society not through the intermediary of a screen, but face-to-face, with their own processing powers at work.

These activities don't have to be ingenious to be effective -- they can be the mundane tasks we old folks -- aka anyone over 30 -- had to perform before our devices negated the need to use our legs/mouths/brains. Have students deliver hand-written birthday cards instead of posting on Facebook, ask for directions instead of letting GPS do the work, or pose menu questions to restaurant servers instead of deferring to Yelp. Digital tools don't have to be shunned in the process.

Roadtrip Nation's project-based career exploration curriculum uses multimedia to convey concepts and encourages students to document their experiences with devices, but the crux of the program is pushing students outside their bubbles to explore their identities and the physical world. This fusion of analog and digital closes the interaction gap created by technology while submerging students in the interpersonal situations they'll face time and again.

2. Set Students Up to Fail

Too often, the classroom is a greenhouse, sheltering students from the stormy conditions of life. Sure, a video can teach students to construct a flawless Spanish sentence, but what about the courage that's needed to waltz up to a native speaker in a foreign country and spit out that sentence? Students need to apply their learnings outside the protective walls of the classroom and experience falling short. Bombing a test won't cut it, because that strain of failure isn't true to life. The consequence of failure as an adult isn't being grounded from Jenny's pool party -- it's having to bound back and engineer a new solution, which often leads us to something better than what we originally tried to orchestrate.

Failure can be useful, so it's time we promote it and unhitch it from stigma. We do students a disservice by letting them think that to get to point C, they just have to doggedly follow the line of a plan. There's always an obstacle or change of heart that might reroute trajectory. Getting students comfortable with recalibrating a vision helps them build up an armor of persistence to defend the blows of adversity. The key is to place students in low-stakes situations in which success is almost impossible. Have them apply for something they're not qualified for, ask people at a crowded mall for the time or cold-call someone they admire for a conversation. Rejection will be inevitable but, like building muscle, the more reps you do, the stronger you get.

3. Turn One-To-One Into One-To-The-World

One-to-one education -- the idea of furnishing a digital device for every student -- is controversial. Whether you believe it enhances learning, or it's a costly abstraction throwing shiny machines at a problem, we can all agree that technology has the potential to revolutionize education. With digital tools, students don't just skim pictures of historical sites in books or glaze over numbers in equations. They can Tweet questions to a renowned mathematician that might lead to a mentorship, or chat about cultural differences (and commonalities) with students across the globe through Mystery Skype.

If we think about computers not as instruments for solitary learning, but as collaborative tools that enable students to interact with others with whom they otherwise wouldn't have had the opportunity to connect, we stretch education in ways that have never been seen. Tech isn't the nemesis of connection -- the Internet's transparency and communal spirit allows us to reach out to practically anyone on Earth, after all. The solution is to couple devices with strategies that build students' connections and non-cognitive skillsets. With the digital and analog unified, anything is possible -- even a conversation that starts online and ends in (gasp!) a coffee shop.

Roadtrip Nation is a partner of Cisco CSR. Cisco sponsors The Huffington Post's ImpactX section.