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social networking : Are We There Yet?

Lessons from Egypt

February 14, 2011 · Posted in culture, social networking · Comment 

The extraordinary events that have unfolded in Egypt over the past month have affected change throughout the mideast and have profound implications for the future of that region. We’re probably just beginning to become aware of what’s in store for the Egyptian people and for freedom and democracy in general in Egypt and the rest of the world. It has been an inspirational and awe-inspiring experience for me.

I watched Mubarak’s and Suleiman’s addresses, along with much of the Egyptian Revolution, in real time on my iPhone via a live feed from Al Jazeera–coverage currently not available to much of the US. As moved as I was by the events I was observing, I was also constantly aware of the role that social media was playing in the revolution–not just in the reporting of the events, but in the actual creation and facilitation of the protests. Given what I have read and observed, I’m not sure that the revolution could have occurred without Facebook and Twitter.

Even in a society in which the major media outlets are controlled by the government, Facebook and Twitter and other social media tools exposed Egyptian citizens to ideas and viewpoints other than those espoused by the Mubarak regime. Perhaps more importantly, these media tools allowed citizens to communicate with each other about these new perspectives and to coalesce around them informally and passionately, beyond the reach of government. The seeds of the Egyptian Revolution were sewn by free access to information. It became a leaderless revolution–not led by an individual or a group but by passionate adherence to the idea that the people could find their own voice and make that voice heard. It is significant that the Egyptian government shut off access to the Internet as a defense against the gathering uprising–a strategy that is happening in other regimes as well–and even more significant that people found ways around the lack of access by using modems and finding access in foreign countries to keep the information flowing. Ultimately, the Mubarak regime could no longer hide from free access to information and the exchange of ideas. The regime fell because it could no longer control the top-down message that was the government’s chief tool for controlling the people.

Political considerations aside, there are profound lessons that we can learn from the role of social media in the emerging change sweeping the mideast. The first, and most important, is that information can no longer be controlled by a news agency or a government. As long as people can freely communicate, it will not be possible to surpress an idea supported by passion and conviction. Information will find a way to be heard as long as the message is shared between people and not filtered by an entity with an interest in controlling the message. Media outlets in the US–from Fox to CNBC–shape messages for their audiences. Al Jazerra, at least in my recent experience with the English broadcasts, is far less guilty of this than are our major networks.

The second lesson is that access to information is no longer in the hands of a select few. Over 73% of the people in the world–that’s more than 5 billion souls–have access to a mobile information device. (http://bit.ly/eneE4J) Had that not been the case, the Egyptian Revolution would never have happened. Tools like Twitter–critical to the uprising in the mideast–work over the simplest cell phones via text message. Smart phones make the process even more accessible. Controlling Internet access is one thing, but controlling cell phone access is something else entirely.

The third lesson is simple–the genie is out of the bottle. As much as governments and news agencies might try, they will not be able to manage the message in the face of a connected populace who can see through their efforts and who can communicate with each other.

Educators at every level need to be aware of the lessons from Egypt. We should examine our attitudes toward social media and to information dissemination in general. There are so many questions to be researched and answered. How will the breaking down of information barriers affect the use of propaganda to control political messages or advertising? What are the implications for media literacy? How can we use social media to involve our students in engaging pursuits? And what are you personally doing with social media? Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?

Plus ça change…

June 5, 2010 · Posted in social networking · Comment 

I probably shouldn’t have decided to read a few of my older blog posts. In a December 2008 post, I wrote this:

A little background information is in order here. I’m not a phone person. I prefer to communicate by e-mail or messaging. I don’t feel a need to always be in contact. In fact, I like having times during my day when no one can find me. I tried Twitter for a few months and came away thinking “so what?” I have a Facebook page, but I mainly use it to do something called “poking” which I really don’t fully understand.

Well, I’m still not a phone person, but the rest of that paragraph sounds like it’s describing someone else–a curmudgeonly Luddite not open to new ideas. The truth is that I did try Twitter when it first appeared and found it a fairly useless time-suck. I abandoned it before I understood its true potential as a professional development and communication tool. Since that time, I’ve become convinced that it’s the most important professional development tool that we have available to us. Much the same might be said of Facebook as a way to grow and explore professional communities (although poking still eludes me). These tools, along with LinkedIn, Diigo, Google Reader, and a few others have formed the nucleus of my PLN, and it’s difficult to imagine a professional life without them.

I bring this up because I still regularly encounter stiff faculty resistance to exploring social media solutions as professional and instructional tools, and for many of the same reasons I hinted at in 2008. Particular disdain seems to be focused on Twitter. How many times have you heard someone say “I don’t care what my friends had for breakfast” or “I don’t have time for meaningless chatter” in response to a question about Twitter? There is a deeper sense among many academics that Twitter will impact the ability of students to write essays, as if the fact that one engages in phone conversations somehow impacts one’s ability to give a speech.

Then there is the public nature of social media tools that causes so much unease among academics, particularly the notion that students might “friend” them or somehow discover that they have interests outside of the classroom. These are often cited as reasons that “I don’t do Facebook.”

Such resistance can be daunting for those of us involved in professional development or in instructional technology in general. Moving into social networking does involve some major restructuring of one’s thinking, but isn’t that the essence of teaching and learning–the flexible exchange of ideas in order to grow and develop? Why is it that educators are often the most dogmatically resistant to this kind of shift in thinking? More specifically, why is it that some educators offer such resistance, while others adapt and learn and incorporate new models into their practice? Are teacher preparation programs helping or hurting in this regard?

Lots of questions, but change is possible. I did.


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There is no “now” now.

October 29, 2009 · Posted in citizenship, culture, social networking · 8 Comments 

A few days ago I had a conversation with a colleague that went something like this:

C: I just want to do what I do now with technology. I don’t want to know about social networking. It’s too hard to keep track of everything.
Me: I…ummm…it’s…did you get the time for the next faculty meeting?

What I wanted to say, and what I’ve been thinking about for some time, is that there is no such thing as catching up. There’s no “now” with technology. If you’re not constantly moving forward, then by default you’re moving backward. Particularly with technology, moving backward is an express ticket to irrelevancy. I liken it to being the best typewriter repairperson in the world–you may be very good at your craft, but who cares?

Two years ago, we weren’t talking about Twitter, and not much about Facebook. In a bit less than four years, YouTube has gone from a cautious startup to serving over one billion videos a day. Fifteen years ago we were just starting to talk about the World Wide Web. The processing power used for the first moon landing is roughly equivalent to the processing power of a Furby, a toy that was interesting 5 or 6 years ago. As quickly as things seem to change, we’re probably still on the early curve of an exponential explosion of technologies that will vastly change the way we do just about everything.

But we seem to be stuck on viewing technology as an object and not as a process. Much of the daily work I used to have to perform on my laptop (which replaced my desktop when it became much more important to be able to carry my work with me) can now be performed on my iPhone. The vessel is irrelevant to me as long as I can do what I need to do. Technology isn’t my laptop, or my iPhone. It’s a process for communicating, collaborating, creating, producing, and (somewhat recursively) for keeping up with technology. For an educator, it’s simply a tool of the trade. If you don’t understand how to use it professionally and instructionally, you’ll soon be looking for an office next to the typewriter repair shop.


The Power of Embedding

March 27, 2008 · Posted in Blogging, social networking, Tools, Web 2.0 · 2 Comments 

As an educator, I find myself posting content on a variety of online sources. In addition to semi-regular blogging, I manage several wikis, maintain a faculty home page, store and publish presentations on Google Docs, and I (somewhat reluctantly) use Blackboard for my ed tech classes. Many of those sources employ the same content. For example. a “How to Use Flickr Slidr” presentation might appear on my professional development blog for faculty, on Blackboard as a resource for my students, and as a URL on Google Docs. Reposting that document in numerous locations every time the original document needed to be modified would be time consuming and prone to mistakes. Besides, it violates my basic principle of doing work only once.

That’s why I find the idea of embedding media so powerful. Most online content services provide ways to embed media into a web page of just about any variety. All you need is a bit of site-generated code and authoring access to a web page. Blogs and wikis are great places to publish embedded media. Even stodgy old Blackboard will allow embedding and display of most media types. Imagine–you no longer have to upload a PowerPoint slide show to Blackboard and have your students download it for viewing. You can upload it Google Docs and embed it on Blackboard as a content item. Any changes you make to your slide show through Google Docs are immediately available to your students (it may require refreshing the Blackboard page) and it doesn’t take up any of your limited Blackboard storage space.

Embedding media is simply a matter of copy a few lines of code from a content service and pasting it into your blog, wiki, web page, Blackboard course site, or any other web page to which you have authoring privileges. The code is automatically generated by the content service site.

Here are a few of the content services that provide automatically generated code that can be copied and pasted into your sites:

  • Flickr (photos)
  • VoiceThread (voice and video annotated stories)
  • Panraven (online storybooks)
  • Google Docs (MS Office compatible word processing, presentation, and spreadsheet files; requires a Google account)
  • Flickr Slidr (generates code for embedding Flick slide shows
  • YouTube, and virtually every other video sharing site (videos)

There are some potential tradeoffs when using embedded media. For example, PowerPoint slide shows uploaded to Google Docs cannot have sound or animation. Careful authoring with these limitations in mind, however, usually results in useful and effective documents.

Below is an example of an embedded VoiceThread project, which I’ve chosen to present in a small size for faster access. Because I have allowed public comment on this project, video or voice annotations added to my original presentation on VoiceThread will automatically be reflected here, and vice versa.

Digital Citizenship

December 5, 2007 · Posted in citizenship, social networking · 2 Comments 

Well, I seem to have managed to get through November without a single post. My bad. I’ve been on the verge a couple of times but other priorities have taken over.

It’s in that context that I’m glad that this post from Alec Couros came across my virtual desk this morning. I needed to be jolted out of my complacency, and Alec’s post did just that.

This is going to be a short entry, because what you really need to read is Alec’s post. In it, Alec poses some powerful questions about what it really means to be a good citizen in a world saturated with social networks, virtual acquaintances, viral videos, instant fame (or infamy), cyberbullying, large-scale hoaxes, and issues of personal privacy. It is one of the few articles I have ever seen on the responsibilities of digital citizens as opposed to their rights. There are many powerful ideas discussed here.

Enough said–read the article and  make sure your colleagues and post-secondary students read it as well. And keep the discussion going. This is important.

Research on Social Networking

September 12, 2007 · Posted in social networking, Studies, Web 2.0 · 2 Comments 

Wired for FaceBook?

As my university students and I delve more into the phenomenon of social networking, I find myself looking for research that addresses the reasons that so many folks find social networking so compelling. Many of my students have an almost palpable fear of being un-connected to their network of friends, be that realized through cell phone, text messaging, instant messaging, Facebook/MySpace/LiveJournal, and even e-mail. Some of my students maintain contacts in more than one of the aforementioned media simultaneously. The rapid rise of Twitter (“what are you doing right now?”) as a communication platform is further evidence of the need for constant affirmation through social contact. But how does this compare to “real,” face-to-face contact?

Evolutionary psychology may give us some clues. Michael Rogers, a columnist for MSNBC, recently reviewed a book by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar called “Gossip, Grooming, and the Evolution of Language” [Amazon link]. In this book, Dunbar examined the behavior of humans long before civilization or language developed. His basic premise is that understanding one’s place in the social hierarchy of early hominid groups was critical for survival and that this was largely accomplished by the same kind of grooming behavior that we currently see in apes, chimps, and monkeys. As these early hominid groups became larger, mutual grooming of every “tribe” member became impossible. The vehicle that replaced grooming as a social contact was language. Language facilitated quicker communication and the ability to communicate with multiple individuals at the same time. As Rogers puts it, “we haven’t stopped gossiping since.”

Intriguingly, Dunbar points out that there is a practical limit to the number of individuals with whom a single individual can maintain this kind of contact. That number is about 150. Large scale groups have developed a series of ways to compensate for this limitation by forming bureaucracies, social stratification, or other mechanisms to keep the numbers down to a manageable size, but the limitation still exists.

So–is social networking the next evolutionary step in increasing the number of contacts that an individual may have while still being able to understand one’s place in the hierarchy? Are we “wired” to have a Facebook page? It’s clearly too early to tell, but these are interesting times…

Who Are Your Friends?

“Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace do not help you make more genuine close friends, according to a survey by researchers who studied how the websites are changing the nature of friendship networks.”

That quote is from an article by Guardian science correspondent James Randerson titled “Social Networking Sites Don’t Deepen Friendships.” Citing results from a survey about the nature of friendships and how they may be influenced by social networks, Randerson concludes that, while an individual may have thousands of friends collected on MySpace or Facebook, these friends are not the same as friends developed in traditional face to face situations. Researchers found a distinction between friends made through a social network and “close” friends made by traditional means.

This is probably not a surprise to anyone. Trust engendered through traditional friendships is difficult to build and maintain through a medium in which it is so easy to misrepresent yourself. However, it appears to be the case that the generally accepted limit of 150 acquaintances (or 5 close friends) may be expanded through social networks by making it easier to keep in touch over distance and making it less expensive–both financially and in terms of effort expended–to maintain a large number of social contacts.

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96% of Teens Use Social Networking Tools

August 15, 2007 · Posted in social networking, Teaching 2.0, Web 2.0 · Comment 

According to a recent poll by the National Schools Boards Association, ninety-six percent of all US students aged 9 to 17 who have Internet access have used social networking tools (blogs, chats, text messages, online communities, etc.) to communicate and to create content on the web. Some specifics:

  • 49% have uploaded original photos or pictures
  • 25% have personal profiles posted on a web site
  • 22% have uploaded original videos
  • 17% have blogs
  • 16% have visited virtual worlds such as Second Life

Perhaps most interestingly, 50 percent report that they use social networking tools specifically for schoolwork. Anne L. Bryant, NSBA’s executive director, sums up the findings this way:

“There is no doubt that these online teen hangouts are having a huge influence on how kids today are creatively thinking and behaving. The challenge for school boards and educators is that they have to keep pace with how students are using these tools in positive ways and consider how they might incorporate this technology into the school setting.” [NBSA online article | Complete article as PD file]

From my perspective, truer words were never spoken. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be obvious now that many of our K-12 students are developing their learning styles and preferences in environments that look far different than the classrooms in the schools they attend. They are not simply consumers of online content–they also create it.

The questions that schools need to address involve what to do when students come to school and expect to use their technologies to communicate, research, create, and collaborate. Do we ban these technologies, or do we use them as teaching and learning tools?

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