Where Technology, Society, and Personal Lives Intersect …

…And what I might be doing as the teacher at that point of intersection

Personalizing and globalizing… Upon reflection, I realize that this same pattern of impact – both helping me learn and develop personally and at the same time connecting me globally – is obvious in my own life. The Web is integral to my everyday life and I know this most acutely when I am sitting down somewhere without it – stuck on the high speed rail to Taichung on the weekend without a consistent internet connection, or sitting at Starbucks in Tien Mou when my “Wi-fi” card has run out.

After all, where would I be as an Australian expat in Taiwan without email, Skype, Flickr, and Facebook? Even my 6 year old daughter is emailing her friends, has joined an online community of MoshiMonsters gamers (prompted by her Australia-based cousin), uses an Australian-authored interactive reading site called Readingeggs.com to develop reading skills and enter writing competitions and participate in voting for the winners (of course, initially at my suggestion, but now under her own steam); and these days she is pestering me to please set up her blog (not “a” blog, but “her” blog!) so she can share her photos and commentary with her friends. Doesn’t sound too sinister or socially isolating, does it?! Quite the opposite, in fact!

Interestingly, I have noticed that my own online practices see me frequently in touch not only with friends and family from afar, but even more often, with those people that I see every day in Taipei – colleagues, friends, and even the students who I see face-to-face for 95 minutes a day! I have to ask myself how different even my teacher-student relations would be if not for email and Gmail Chat, how communication and learning have changed with the new forums for exchanging ideas synchronously and a-synchronously online.

According to Danah Boyd, Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society: “We’re addicted to our friends, not our computers.” Put this way, the use of technology certainly doesn’t sound particularly socially apocalyptic. (She also co-authored the MacArthur Foundation’s book Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media with the Digital Youth Team.)

In fact, a really very interesting TEDTalk by Stefana Broadbent recently highlighted how social media and social networking tools are actually reuniting the public and private sphere in a way not seen since prior to the industrial revolution. At that time the world of work moved away from cottage industry, people left their homes and villages to go to work, and to be schooled to be ready to go to work, and thus the fabric of relationships amongst family and friends was seriously frayed.

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Broadbent is described as “one of a new class of ethnographers who study the way our social habits and relationships function and mutate in the digital age” and her research shows that the brand-new tools at our disposal are not spoiling but rather cementing human intimacy – even across old barriers such as distance and workplace rules. For example, she says that many people now spend more time writing to their friends than talking to them.

Trawling through the comments on her TEDTalk was also an interesting process, because certainly not all viewers felt persuaded (unlike the glowingly supportive comments to Sir Ken Robinson’s TEDTalks, for example. Is that because he didn’t focus primarily on technology and society, but education and society – a more well-worn topic familiar to every viewer at least from their own schooling experiencing, and therefore with less room for a lack of understanding which is so often followed by fear of the unknown?)

Some respondents were uncomfortable with her sociological standpoint which sounded to them more like intuition and anecdote than real scientific research. One pointed out that Broadbent does not explain how it was that so many people were perfectly content in pre-digital times with not being able to communicate with friends or family during working hours. Now, conversely, so many of us are anxious because of the pressure of constant contact and the expectation to “have something to input in response to the alarm.” New tech tools have allowed us to do more, so now more is exactly what is expected.

Still others insisted that we might be communicating more, but on a more shallow level. “We are becoming a society of page skimmers” and, again, that issue of attention deficits growing was pointed out. Meanwhile, basic standards of communication are dropping, it was claimed: “I’m embarrassed for my peers, who struggle to form complete sentences, let alone spell them correctly. I pity my teachers, who are great at what they do and present this mind blowing lesson to a bunch of young adults who are too busy texting, ‘wat u think, shud i c him again 2nite?’ Let’s not forget that many of these people are texting while they drive, and that’s as bad if not worse than driving drunk. There’s a time and a place, and we need boundaries.”

The last point rings true for me too – the idea that we need some boundaries. That parents need to make sure their children are getting enough sleep. That our governments should continue to prosecute drivers who break the law by phoning while driving. In many cases, these boundaries already exist.

And, regarding the issue of basic writing skills – I feel compelled to share some interesting research on that. In Getting It Right: Fresh Approaches to Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Correctness (Theory and Practice) by Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm, the authors cited findings that might seem counterintuitive to the common perception that writing standards really are in crisis due to texting, IM-ing, and the lack of deep reading apparently going on around us in the digital world. They discovered that students today are writing longer, more complex work for their college courses (more than twice as long, on average, as essays written in 1986, and more research-based essays than the previously more popular personal narratives) without a significant increase in the rate of grammar errors. (We need to remember, too, that the mass media thrives on bad news and the message that schools/learning is in “crisis” has been an easy newspaper selling point for DECADES – so, if there really is a crisis, it’s been around for a LONG time!)

It will be interesting to look back on the impact of blogging on informative writing in general – journalism and news writing, of course, but also how this bleeds into formal academic writing too. Surely we must already be seeing in student writing, as we do in serious but nevertheless mass media publications such as Time and Newsweek, an increasing trend to be personal and informal instead of scholarly in the strictly third person sense. I imagine that the criticisms about declining standards in writing skills will continue – because more informal and personal, means more conversational, which means less sophistication in word choice, right? Or does it? Because, in fact, I feel I am seeing more frequent recourse to analogy, more reinvention of cliché, and certainly a lot more innovation in word choice these days as necessitated by the fact that we are often writing about things that didn’t exist 20, 10, 5, or 2 years ago. And to write about the un-familiar, people need to find ways to refer to the familiar, so there’s a lot of figurative language – which is sophisticated language in my book – in order to use comparison for the purpose of illumination.

But, I digress…  (Is writing organization going out the window too?)

Nevertheless, one further comment that resonated with me bemoaned that intimacy is lost, not gained, through close contact: “Having a limited amount of something makes it valuable. Having constant access makes each interaction less valuable …  if you never get to MISS the other person because these things keep you in such close contact.. then the value is reduced. …Thoughtfulness is a wonderful thing, but without moderation it isn’t thoughtful and deliberate, it is just convenience.”

Even so, convenience is changing our world, and enriching it, even if some of this comes at a price. Wouldn’t it be naïve to expect things not to change, or that something won’t be lost in the replacement of new ways for old?

When it comes to education, there are still so many innovations in technology, and social media in particular, to talk about and get excited about, even if we are not quite sure what this means for the traditional role of the classroom teacher. For example, Chris Anderson’s TEDTalk on Crowd-Accelerated Innovation takes a phenomenon that we are all watching and tells us some surprising things about what this means. Anderson has been in pole position to watch this going on because he is the curator of TED.

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Basically, he observes that the sharing of performance and achievement online – he cites Web-taught dancers, and even TEDTalk presenters – has resulted in better and higher performance and achievement. It’s almost as if, with each recorded effort, the presenter finishes with the same challenge for the next person: “Step your game up!” So viewers-turned-participators have done just that. People watching Web video have been drawn into a self-generating cycle of improvement. Anderson has termed this “crowd-accelerated innovation.” Three requirements for this phenomenon to occur are:

  1. The crowd: a group that have a common interest. Amongst this crowd will be “commenters, trend-spotters, cheerleaders, and mavericks,” but the larger the crowd, the more innovators will be included.
  2. The light: access to view the efforts of the best of the group, so other group members are able to learn and better themselves.
  3. The desire: because innovation is hard work.

With these three ingredients, crowd-accelerated innovation can happen on a street corner, as it does in the case of street dancers, for instance. However, the internet has expanded all three of these elements exponentially. The crowd viewing the performance is now global through online video. And the crowd shines the light on the best of the best through comments, ratings, Facebook, Twitter, links on Google, etc. PLUS the desire factor is ratcheted right up because any kid with a webcam can be viewed by vast audiences. Woot!

This kind of global recognition and opportunity is driving huge amounts of effort, says Anderson, and because everyone can see it, the benefits of that effort, the learning, is shared with everyone. And the light and desire combine to attract yet more people to the crowd, and so the cycle swells.

Anderson is most excited about the potential of this model to inspire radical openness – amongst companies and institutions of all sorts. Because to attract the light, you need to open up. “By giving away your deepest secret, that millions of people are empowered to improve it.” He points out that his is not revolutionary thinking at this point – even Isaac Newton knew full well that he stood on the shoulders of others, that innovation is usually a collaborative effort.

The thing that is really new in all this is web video. For the first years of the internet, video files were prohibitively large for the infrastructure of the web. But now this has changed. Incredibly, “humanity watches 80 million hours of YouTube every day. Cisco estimates that within 4 years nearly 90% of the web’s data will be video.” This is because video is often superior for communicating information and ideas.

Anderson claims that the “video-driven evolution of skills” from emulation to innovation will lead someday soon to dramatically accelerated scientific advancement as scientists from around the world can push past the limits of words on paper and see for themselves how to replicate experiments. Five hundred years ago the printing press allowed innovators and educators to spread their ideas far and wide, but now we are experiencing another tectonic shift in communication. (Have I caught the wave too close to shore – is blogging already passé? Will reading and writing fade away with a resurgence of the oral tradition transposed to cyberspace? At least, teachers right now have every reason to be promoting public speaking skills!)

The results for education are surely going to be interesting, and far-reaching. The rotten teachers from the When I become a teacher YouTube clip won’t need to be the reason a child is held back anymore. That child can access a far superior teacher online. That teacher can be anyone with access to a webcam. That teacher can be anyone who resonates with the child, anyone with a teaching style that matches the student’s learning style. That teacher can teach any subject matter of interest to the learner. That teacher can be anywhere in the world. That teacher can teach on the student’s own timetable. And with this capability to self-manage education, the student will almost certainly do so. And with the capacity to innovate and communicate virally, the learner can become the teacher. Thus social media will facilitate “the biggest learning cycle in human history.”

“Welcome to the Collaboration Age” says Will Richardson on Edutopia in reference to the Web-enabled “transformative connecting technologies” which have drawn one billion people online with the potential to draw them all together in shared experiences and opportunities to do good in the world. What unprecedented potential, if we can only figure out where we fit into it as educators…

Richardson conveniently summarizes in three questions most of the challenges of Collaboration-Age technology I have recently blogged about:

  • “How do we manage our digital footprints, or our identities, in a world where we are a Google search away from both partners and predators?
  • What are the ethics of co-creation when the nuances of copyright and intellectual property become grayer each day?
  • When connecting and publishing are so easy, and so much of what we see is amateurish and inane, how do we ensure that what we create with others is of high quality?”

With all the question marks swirling in my mind at this point, it was with great relief that I encountered Sugata Mitra on TED. Like Anderson, Mitra communicates the same possibilities for a learning revolution through his Hole in the Wall experiments.

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Mitra shows that where children have interests, learning will happen – even in places where good teachers won’t go (and every country on earth would have to admit to having some of these places). That’s because the learning will happen anyway – “kids will learn to do what they want to learn to do.” Not revolutionary stuff really, except for the experiment he used to test this hypothesis. Mitra stuck computers, literally, into the walls of slums … and then washed his hands of them. He did this in a variety of God-forsaken places, and after several months, he would return to discover the same phenomenon over and over: that the computers had enabled incredible instances of learning … entirely without teachers.

This is a rather spurious statement, of course. It would seem to suggest that the learning was only possible because of technology. But this would be to miss the key components – computers were put into the hands of the students AND the students determined what it was they wanted to learn. AND the learning took place “in the plural.” It was incredibly social. Shared meaning-making. The students worked collaboratively and collectively to deepen their personal learning about an area of genuine interest to them.

In subsequent experiments, Mitra added another element to see if the learning could be enhanced further. And, indeed, it was. He added an individual to the equation, someone who would “use the method of the grandmother” which is to “stand behind them and admire them all the time.” He gave some concrete suggestions (and I wrote them down straight away to use in my next class and all future classes I have the good fortune to teach): “That’s cool. That’s fantastic. What is that? Can you do that again? Can you show me some more?”

…And this is where I let out a deep breath, because finally I had seen a vision of the future of education with a place for me in it! Finally, a picture of what my classroom could look like as a more technology-enriched environment. It reassured me that technology doesn’t have to do away with me and my job altogether. The learning is still better for it happening in my classroom – where students can come together with a similar interest (and at my school, the Holy Grail is still acceptance at a top US university), access technology they may not be able to access at home, and learn both collaboratively and face to face, yet not be inhibited by time or geography.

A classroom-based community as one point of connection for the billions of potential points of connection in a globalized, personalized online education system. And me doing something I feel I can do really well, which is personally connecting with and encouraging kids.

In some ways, it’s a simple, beautiful vision.I wonder if I’m getting too carried away by the romance of it (but, remember, this quality will serve me well in my grandmother/teacher role of the future)! Maybe it leaves the teacher as simply a connector of dots.

Still, I think I’m going to hold onto these images of kids crowding excitedly around computers, in groups, with a cheerleader whipping up enthusiasm over their shoulders, as the ultimate Course 1 take-away.