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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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The Problem with Synchronicity

March 4, 2010 · Posted in distance, Teaching 2.0 · 3 Comments 

Distance delivery of instruction has always presented educators with problems–particularly, as in my case, when you are delivering the same content to on-campus students as to off-campus students. Some of the problems are obvious: how do you deliver a hands-on science lesson to someone in another state, for example, or how do you demonstrate a geometry proof to a student when all they can see is the instructor’s  smiling face on a monitor? Most are much more subtle: how do you make the distance students in your class feel as if they are part of a community or cohort, or do you split your class into two sections and address each class separately? If you do the latter, how do you assure that both groups are getting equal access to every part of the instruction? Can you undertake some activities with one group that you can’t with another? Will that “dumb-down” one of the sections or give some students advantages over others?

Technology has solved, at least partially, many of these problems. Videoconferencing systems are much more sophisticated than they were a few years ago, allowing an “almost like being there” level of participation from distance students. Even many desktop video solutions allow multi-point connections and file exchanges in real time. Access to broadband is increasing in many areas of the country, making these services more approachable for more students. We’re getting close to the point that most students will be able to fully participate in synchronous, real time classes just as if they were sitting there.

And therein lies the problem.

The more I deal with issues of distance delivery, the more I find that striving for total synchronicity can be a waste of time (pun intended). It’s easy to assume that the more we make distance classes like face-to-face classes, the better the distance class will be. I’ve come around to the notion that we should make our face-to-face classes more like our distance classes.

I have been giving a lot of thought to distance education lately. While I have taught distance classes in the past, I had never until last year taught two sections of the same class at the same time where one section is on-campus and the other is taught via distance delivery. My initial desire was to teach the distance class via videoconference–that way, I could engage my students in real time, share my computer screen with my students, and make the experience much like being in the same classroom with me.

As it turned out, most of my rural Alaskan students did not have access to videoconferencing services. I’d have to teach the distance class using more conventional methods–Elluminate, Blackboard, and maybe even some audio conferences. I was quite concerned that my distance students would miss out on the experience of being in a “real” classroom.

So, I planned my distance section differently. I provided most of the instruction that I normally would have done in class in asynchronous formats–podcasts, streaming media, wikis, shared Google documents, etc.–and I planned the times that we were actually “together” via Elluminate so that we used the time to interact, share ideas, and react to the instruction that was provided asynchronously. I thought carefully about what it meant to interact with an instructor and planned those interactions to give students maximum time to talk and interact. We eventually decided–as a class–that we really didn’t need as much synchronous time as the schedule provided, because students were able to interact with me and with their peers in a variety of different ways, many of which were new to them.

The results were fascinating to me. My distance students interacted with me and with each other much more frequently and on a much deeper level than did my on-campus students. The distance students consistently took more initiative with their projects and eagerly shared them with their classmates, whereas their on-campus counterparts tended to perform in the usual “school” mode of finding out what they had to do to complete the project and doing just that. (We’ve trained them well, unfortunately.) And, my distance students have maintained that contact over time, whereas my campus-based students have not made efforts of similar magnitude.

My experiences with those two classes changed the way I structure my face-to-face classes and has given me new insight in what it means to bring students into a cohort with common objectives. The elements that I initially perceived as barriers to distance education became strengths, and the traditional nature of synchronous teaching–for me, at least–looked more and more like a barrier to effective interaction and involvement. When all we have is traditional structure, the answer to every problem is to create a class for it. That’s wrong. We need to create inquiry-based cohorts of students and instructors who know how to leverage their time together to get the maximum benefit from that time. We’re in the post-class era of post-secondary education, whether we know it or not.

I’d love to hear about your experiences.


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.


Why Blog with Post-Secondary Students?

September 5, 2008 · Posted in Blogging · 1 Comment 

I have been requiring my post-secondary education students to blog for the past four semesters. At first, I wanted to experiment with the medium–to see if it improved writing and communication between students and between faculty and students, to see if it could be an effective way to turn in and reflect on assignments, and to see if it led to improved awareness of and facility with other social networking tools. It didn’t take more than a semester to see that active blogging by students did all of the above and more, to the extent that now I can’t imagine not using student and faculty blogs as a main focus of my instructional process. Part of the proof? Most of the students from four semesters ago are still blogging and are in active contact with me and each other. They talk about their classroom experiences, their job searches, their personal lives, cultural issues in their area, and much more. My first task every morning is to check Google Reader (my RSS application of choice) to see if there are any new blog entries from my students. It’s something I look forward to.

From a personal and professional standpoint, there have been some unexpected benefits of blogging. I enjoy the cathartic aspects of organizing my thoughts on various topics and logging them for other educators or for my own future reference. I think I’ve become a better writer. I can collect research on topics that concern me or my students and archive those using tags and categories that make finding them later a simple process. This is exceptionally helpful when a student asks me a question like “Is there any evidence that using a computer improves writing skills?” More often than not, I can point that student to my blog for an answer and a link to the original research. My blog has become, in effect, the text for my class. I no longer require textbooks in my classes. I consciously collect and publish topics that are relevant to my instruction, and that collection is subject to review and comment by the academic community at large. It’s a very liberating experience.

Most of the faculty I work with do not use blogs as a part of their instructional design. There are many reasons for this, all legitimate and understandable on some levels. It takes time (particularly when you initially implement it), it requires learning something new, there are potential privacy concerns, etc. For some, the lack of awareness of the social networking context in general is a deterrent. Others simply may not see how blogging fits into their subject area or how it could have any value for their students.

In my efforts to raise awareness of these issues among faculty, I am on constant lookout for pedagogically sound rationales for venturing into blogging. That’s why I was delighted to run across Anne Davis’ “Rationale for Educational Blogging” from EduBlog Insights. Ms. Davis presents a clear, well-conceived set of reasons to consider blogging. I could reiterate them here, but I’d recommend visiting her blog and reading them there. The comments are also worth your time–and, they serve as a shining example of the power of communicating your ideas in a public arena.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. In fact, that’s the point…

Some Recent Articles of Note

August 26, 2008 · Posted in NCLB, Personal, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

The beginning of each school year–whether it be k-12 or post-secondary, since my teaching activities touch both worlds–is always a reflective time for me. I think about what I can do to improve my own instruction and, hopefully, the ability of my post-secondary students to expand and improve their instructional activities in preparation for their careers. But mostly, I think about the nature of the K-12 world for which we are preparing our students. What kinds of problems will they encounter, and how might they respond.

In that light, here are a few recent articles that are worth a look by K-12 educators and those who are responsible for preparing them to teach.

One Teacher’s Cry: Why I Hate No Child Left Behind
How much control do K-12 teachers have over their curriculum? Does a “one size fits all” approach to teaching work for everyone? What will current students remember about their schooling 10 years from now?

Remember ‘Go Outside and Play?’
As an adult who very fondly remembers leaving my front door each morning, finding a couple of friends, ending up at someone’s house for lunch, going back outside and returning for dinner, I appreciate this article’s emphasis on the importance of independent, unsupervised play and exploration. There are many lessons for school experience embedded here.

A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash
How can a teacher who believes in the power of science to explain natural phenomena teach evolution to students who refuse to accept one of its basic tenets? A fascinating, in depth article about a teacher who truly cares about science education, and a cautionary tale for most teachers entering the profession.

12 New Rules of Working You Should Embrace Today
While this article is focused on the business world, there is much food for thought for K-12 and post-secondary educators–particularly in the areas of online collaboration and applications. Schools exist in a social context that is rapidly changing to adapt to new methods of communication and productivity. How should schools educate their students for this evolving context?

Beloit College Mindset List
It’s always a good idea to get a demographic handle on the students you are working with. Beloit’s annual Mindset List is an amusing but thoughtful glimpse at the realities of our students’ lives. Definitely worth a bookmark.

Does Technology Produce Antisocial Kids?

April 29, 2008 · Posted in citizenship, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

There are many times when the reality of a situation seems counterintuitive to an observer. A heavy skier reaches the bottom of a hill more quickly than a lighter skier, even though we think that objects should fall at the same rate or that a heavier object should push down harder on the ground and therefore move more slowly. (Google “terminal velocity” for the answer to that one.)

Similarly, we may intuitively feel that technology inhibits social skills of K-12 students, assuming that students must be interacting less with each other if they are using a computer. However, a pair of recent studies reviewed together in eSchoolNews suggests that, at least in a school setting, the use of technology can increase social skills among young students.

In “Tech Encourages Students’ Social Skills,” researchers X. Christine Wang and Cynthia Carter Ching explain the social upside of technology in a primary classroom setting. The first study, “Social Construction of Computer Experience in a First Grade Classroom: Social Processes and Mediating Artifacts,” examined the social interactions of a group of kindergarten and first grade students around two computers scheduled for their use during the classroom day. The newer, more capable computer was the students’ favorite, being everyone’s first choice for free time. Access to the computer was determined by a sign up sheet, and the rules were fairly simple. “Only two students could use a computer at one time, and a timer was used to limit each student’s time on the computer to only five minutes. Those students not being the first to select computers as their first choice activity had to sign up on a waiting list and do other activities while waiting for their turns.”

Wang and Ching observed that students tended to cluster at the computer and enforce the rules in ways that were fair to everyone. Achieving a common goal–in this case, reaching a higher level on a popular game–was a driving factor in the students’ ability to maintain order and also be successful at the game. The students were learning valuable social skills through having a common goal and a common interest in using the computer.

In the second study, “Digital Photography and Journals in a Kindergarten-First-Grade Classroom: Toward Meaningful Technology Integration in Early Childhood Education,” Wang and Ching observed kindergarten and first graders in the same classroom who were creating photo journals using Apple iPhoto software on an iMac. While students were to work with an adult helper while composing their journals, the researchers noted that other students typically played close to the iMac and interacted frequently with the journalists, often asking questions, supplying tips, or commenting on pictures or journal entries. They also interacted with each other while they were taking pictures of their classroom for their journals.

Wang and Ching feel that these studies provide evidence that students’ social skills can be improved through the thoughtful integration of technology tools.

“…the children are engaged in valuable social construction…of their classroom experience and culture by engaging with well-integrated technologies, such as computers or a digital camera.”

I realize that the scenarios presented by Wang and Ching are a far cry from the image we may hold of a high school student locked in his darkened bedroom late at night playing games and chatting–although these are also social activities of a sort and probably deserve some additional study as well. But studies like these help us realize that there is nothing intrinsically “unsocial” about technology. In some cases, technology can be a strong factor in successful socialization.

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