Beyond Management of the Machine

Management of the 1:1 lap top situation in my classroom is not a big deal for me anymore, I’m relieved to say. Don’t get me wrong – it is certainly on my mind. All the time, in fact! I do have to plan out my lessons, thinking in terms of grouping together the computer work, so students aren’t powering up and down through a 45 minutes lesson, which would lose me valuable time.  I use DyKnow Monitor and students know I may be watching them. It’s a wonderful deterrent, despite the lag I sometimes experience. And probably my most frequent management strategy is directing the students to “put your lap top to sleep” or simply “turn the lap top around to face me” so that it doesn’t pose a distraction as I’m giving instructions or presenting a mini-lesson.

What does endlessly fascinate me, however, is all the amazing things we can do with the lap tops – teachers, students, ordinary people in all walks of life  – to simply our personal organization. Here are a few of the tools I have been exploring recently.

Thanks to our IT Director, I have migrated from a simple “snipping” tool to the more advanced Snagit. This is the king in the world of free tools that our school has included in the teachers’ lap top image. Snagit is an easy screen capture software that comes bundled with Camtasia Studio Pro so teachers can create screencasts, training documents, etc.

Compared to our other clunky Windows-associated Snipping Tool, this simple screen grab tool has an impressive list of image editing and annotating features. We can simply copy, save, convert, or edit images, but what I really like about it is that it keeps a history of all things “snagged” in the past for easy  recall. They fan out at the bottom very nicely! It’s window, pictured above, looks a little daunting, and might turn some people off at this point. But it shouldn’t send anyone back to the Snipping Tool. It’s easy to add callout boxes, to send via email with a simple cut and paste, but then there are extra dashing features like the addition of a page curl using the image bar. Students don’t have Snagit yet. That’s the only snag :) right now.

Then there’s Dropbox. This kind of cloud-based file back-up is certainly the wave of the future. Our IT department is seriously threatening to shut down our mainshare access at the end of this year, because it is too costly, so they have been investigating alternatives to offer us during this weaning stage. And this option seems pretty cool to me. Simply, files that we used to save on the mainshare, or on our lap top D-drives, will be accessible anyplace anytime. We can leave the machine behind. We can walk out of the building. No little flash stick thumb drive thingy to lose. Usually tragically! No bulky external drive to lug about.

It is a tri-platform tool. All the basic file types – OneNote, Word, Excel, simple images, etc – can be accessed at home by using a web-based portal or a synchronized computer at home. As long as there is an internet connection. I can simply log into www.dropbox.com and I can get my files instantly. Of course, I can retrieve photos and documents on my iPhone too.

And it’s so easy to use. After installing a Dropbox folder on my computer, files that I save into the folder are automatically saved in the cloud. (For those of us in Asia, that cloud is actually hovering around Singapore, apparently!) It has a very handy “show deleted files” button so you can check back over what you have done – wittingly or unwittingly. You can set it up to sync one way only, to avoid any headaches. And here’s a biggie: the Dropbox people will recover file errors they have made. Now, it is a tool that has been available for some seven years already, so this very powerful, flexible tool seems like a pretty sure thing. The bad news is, for reasons I can’t fathom, it is currently only available for 14-year-olds and up, so that pretty much nixes it for the middle school. It would be perfectly lovely to share a folder with students and thus do so anywhere, anytime. But, for now at least, I will have to continue to rely on the OLC and GApps for file-sharing with students.

Anyway, the first 2G is free. Then there is bonus memory available for inviting friends to join – up to a maximum of 8G. The IT-Director tells me that the school is working on a handsome deal for teachers (because we are being pushed off the mainshare) so we should wait before purchasing for ourselves. But in the meantime I see Dropbox as the long-awaited back-up option for my personal files and photos. Yay!

The funkiest untapped tool I learned about was Evernote. This kind of combines the features of Snagit and Dropbox, allowing the user to capture anything and access it anywhere. The best way to describe it may be as a clipboard for all my thoughts. I can capture a note of simple text, an audio note, an inknote, stuff that I have copy-pasted (e.g. clipping a website – a full page or part of a page, with an annotation option). And I don’t need to worry about pressing “save.” (With my huge reliance on OneNote presently for shared planning and teaming, I have rolled back into bad habits regarding that “save” button!) Everything goes into the cloud, syncing whenever I am online. The list of snippets just goes on growing, a repository of multi-formatted notes whenever I need them.

Actually, Evernote sounds like an organizational nightmare, but the snippets can be filed away into sections, much like OneNote. You can Twitter, Facebook, email, or link the snippets. So it’s like a pumped up StickyNotes (which I have loved, but also loathed because the notes/reminders are then trapped on my desktop). It’s bigger and better than Diigo and Delicious because the user can gather together a greater range of …stuff. Again, 2G is free. The school is investigating an academic version with far greater gig. And, again, its use as a tool for middle schoolers is limited by the 13-years-old-only caveat. Doh! But, in the meantime, I’ll be investigating it for personal use.

Until now, this post has largely ignored my students, because they are just too darn young to be able to use these tools for another  year or so. Therefore, I thought I’d better drop in another tid-bit that is ALL about the students: Hoot.me

This is a cute little concept, one of a number of tools that seeks to blend socializing and studying. It aims to harness the power of Facebook as an online socializing tool – where millions of students are hanging out anyway – and turn its purpose towards study and support. Basically, Hoot.me is an application that turns the social networking site into “study mode.”

While the user remains “inside” Facebook, he or she is moved away from the wall and newsfeed. With a more atypical Facebook prompt, “What are you working on?” students can join live study sessions on that topic, complete with group video-conferencing and/or smart chat. (Smart chart allows students to type in mathematical formulas). Study sessions are saved and archived so students can search for answers in previous sessions. And these study sessions could, conceivably, be used as” virtual office hours” by teachers who are prepared to give help outside of school campus time. (Making this a more attractive option, teachers don’t have to “friend” students to be able to invite them to participate in a study group, and the sessions can be private and therefore not show up in the news feed.)

So, that’s my wrap-up of recent discoveries to enhance lap top use in and beyond the classroom. I am so glad to have that first freaked-out year of 1:1 lap top use under my belt. Yet, even in that first year, once we had the school-wide routines down – the Technology Use Policy (TUP) firmed up; the file-naming protocols sorted; file saving, storage, and sharing figured out; and my own classroom rituals defined – I have been able, for the most part, to move beyond management to enhancement of teaching and learning. Enhancement and exploration of tools, such as these, to make it that much more fun to be doing this teaching gig!

Digital Citizenship Lesson Buffet for Middle School – Course 2 Project

Our school is looking to develop the character education component of our homeroom time. One slice of the pie I’d like to sink my teeth into is digital citizenship. To be sure the message gets out to all students, I would be very pleased to see explicit teaching about rights & responsibility, security & safety, communication & etiquette become part of our homeroom advisory instruction.

Working with Alli and Becky, we sought to kickstart the process with a Digital Citizenship Lesson Buffet for the middle school – a list of links, lessons, and activities, organized into broad categories, that could be shared with the IT Department and MS Administration for future planning of character education delivery.


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We began by defining specific realms – digital citizenship traits. It didn’t take long for these divisions to prove themselves quite arbitrary as the online materials out there are myriad and, of course, do not necessarily follow our idea of compartmentalization!

Nevertheless, we came across many, many good online resources, initially with some assistance from a small taskforce of Grade 6 and 7 students in an after-school IT-interest club, sponsored by Becky and our MS IT Coordinator (who played an important advisory role in this project also).

The more we gathered, categorized, and annotated, the more we all got the feeling that we were barely scratching the surface of the awesome resources available. Even when we restricted ourselves to those freely available, without charge. Fully developed all-in-one programs do exist, of course, but our school is perhaps looking to use a more personalized, student/teacher-interest driven methodology, so this was another reason for our smorgasbord approach to the project.

We see the future of our project requiring the direction of coordinators and principals. However, we suggest that next steps would involve (hopefully student-directed) defining of the traits of digital citizenship. The materials also need to be transposed to some sort of articulated framework, i.e. which grade levels do what.

Long story short (project steps and further info are available below in the project document itself): Regardless of next steps at the next level of administration at our school, I am personally looking forward to using some of these ready-to-go, highly-interactive online resources at content-related intervals through the rest of this year, and hopefully next year as well, when our advisory program will take more concrete shape.

Here is our final Course 2 Project GoogleDoc template:

My Digital Footprint Catches Up With Me

Ironically, not long after our last f2f class discussion about digital footprints and the importance of managing our online identities, I learned that my own digital footprint had grown by a photo and a couple of comments past my personal comfort level.


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I had brought the conversation about digital footprints into my own classroom with the Fahrenheit 451 theme-related question: “Does the media control you (and how would you know)?” As mentioned in a previous blog, I have found that the following video clip (“Digital Dossier” – a project related to the Digital Native concept, and more specifically, John Palfrey’s book, Born Digital) has elicited quite a sober response from students in the past.

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I have shown this clip a few times now since Palfrey visited our school and shared it with us. And I had always assumed that the students’ wide eyed silence represented a merging of perspectives between teacher and student – that they were finally beginning to “twig” that your digital footprint is a real, permanent, growing, parallel-self database growing out there, largely beyond our control. That this prospect, in turn, gives credence to the idea that the media really does control you to an extent unknown and unknowable. I, personally, feel some helplessness along with this realization. I even see some menace in the idea.

But this year, I discovered I was  mistaken. (Once again! Should I be surprised anymore?!) The students’ response, left to blossom with a little self-reflection, was one of awe, yes, but also one of fascination. Perhaps they were empowered by the sense of having a vastly greater impact on the digital scene than they had previously imagined. Some, I gathered, were a little daunted, but by and large the follow-up exercise produced little ripples of thrill around the room as students completed a digital-use survey.

Although I set this as an optional activity, many of my students were quite enamored with the process of measuring their digital footprint using the  Personal Digital Footprint Calculator.

This tool (as described in an article by the ReadWriteWeb people) “walks you through a questionnaire that calculates your impact based on the responses to questions about your computer usage, email usage, digital camera/camcorder usage, web downloading habits, potential surveillance areas, and geographical information, among other things. …[I]f you take the time to fill out the Digital Footprint Calculator correctly, you’ll be presented with your current ‘daily digital footprint,’ in megabytes. You can then click ‘Start Ticker’ to launch your own personal ticker that increments over time according to your digital information creation. You can even upload this, along with the .swf file, to your own web site and share your results with others.”

This process proved to be a real hit and students were soon busy with survey questions and comparison, and then also surprise at the big numbers that were churning out as a measure of their impact on the digital landscape. Their delight in big digits reminded me again of the generational divide between my feelings about being digitally exposed and their pleasure in this measure of being “out there.”

Here are a few of their digital footsteps:

(My students all came up with higher numbers than the example ticker created with wizard defaults, as presented by IDC, a Marketing and Intelligence Forecasting Firm and creators of the Calculator, sponsored by EMC).

But, back to my own digital footprint. Literally within days of this video/activity/lesson, I received a brief email from one of my quieter students. The subject line read:

“this picture of you taken by [student name] during the field trip”

…and in the body of the email:

“I print-screened the picture and comments.”

(So much for email etiquette, greetings and salutations, etc. But that’s another blog!)

Anyway, when I saw the screen shot attached to the email, I was shocked. It had been captured from a Facebook page. I was the subject of a photo, taken by a student without my knowledge, and now posted on a different student’s account. The commentary beneath lead me to believe that somehow the photographer had been able to upload it directly into his friend’s account (passwords freely shared amongst friends?), with only grudging assent from the owner of the account. I teach these two students, and each had commented. At least two other students, who I know but do not teach, had added comments.

Facebook Photo Surprise - edited

I was stunned by my own lesson hitting so close to home. By my digital footprint finally catching up with me this way. Suddenly my teaching points took on a sharp poignancy regarding becoming aware and beginning to manage your online identity.

Now, the image was not at all demeaning. (I had half a mind to ask for a copy, but that would have diluted the point of the conversation I was going to have to have with the students!) And the comments were more positive than negative. But it was a bit embarrassing, and I would also call it inappropriate.

I called out the two boys in the very next class, and said: “I believe my digital footprint has recently grown by one particular photo and several comments.”

They knew immediately what I was getting at. The Facebook account owner gave the photographer a bit of a shove and an embarrassed exclamation to signal blame-appointment. And the photographer, red-faced and grinning that furious teenage-boy grin of shame, tried a lame: “But it was a nice photo.”

I didn’t need to say much more. They didn’t seem to wonder about how I knew about it. I wasn’t going to give up my source, but it was interesting to note that they didn’t even question the notion that the public eye had somehow seen into a private account.

I asked them to help me reduce my footprint by a photo and several comments. And they shuffled away. (No apology, incidentally. But I wasn’t going to make a scene.) The next day when I made a vague reference to it, the boy said he had removed it.

So there it was – online reputation house-cleaning, one photo at a time.

It occurred to me that what my quiet student-friend had done for me in blowing the whistle on these guys, was exactly the way I want to think we can approach personal digital footprint management. And, it follows too, cyberbullying. I don’t think these two boys would have even remotely associated their actions with this concept, but I certainly was made to feel uncomfortable by the knowledge of that photo and those comments.

But if other students, friends, peers, acquaintances are willing to share what they know, in the way that my student did with a simple emailed screenshot, then what I think we can grow is a kind of Honor Code equivalent in the cyber-realm.

With social media well beyond the control of any one individual, I think this community-watch group-regulation, is critical.

Who is using who here?

Social media tools give us more scope than ever to do what comes naturally: to rewrite our lives to reflect what we truly wish they did.

Which international school educator hasn’t written home to less adventurous friends and family ensconced in middle class suburbia about their new adopted country and omitted to mention … oh, let’s see … the frightful disregard for pedestrians on the roads. Or the neglected, burping sewer system that has to be dodged on the way to work. Or the choking levels of dust pollution courtesy of Gobi desert land degradation. Or the dodgy electrical work behind the sink in the bathroom that the local landlord swears will be dry and safe. Or the fact that even a school on the other side of the world can have the same cast of unsavory characters and political strife and report-writing stresses that any school back home offers up.

Of course, we put our best face forward when we are conscious that our words and pictures will be enshrined for posterity. So, does the invention of Facebook and Twitter change any of that?

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Some people think it does. In the drive to post interesting status updates and profile photos, there are those who stretch the truth beyond an adverb or three in order to dress up the public story of their lives. People, it seems, are doing certain things specifically for the purpose of sharing them on social networking sites. Or, more precisely, so as to manipulate the way they will be perceived online.

Some examples from student reader comments to a New York Times article: “I Tweet, Therefore I Am”

“Sometimes people make their updates angry or depressed so people can be afraid or pity them. ”

” …my friends and I took pictures because we needed a new default profile photo. Without Facebook or Twitter, we wouldn’t have to go through all the trouble of getting a new default; we would just take pictures for memories. Now we take pictures for others to see us the way we want them to see us.”

“Instead of spending time with people to get to know them better, we check their Facebook or Twitter and judge them by what they post.”

“The blend of technology and two other characteristics of our era – communication and the need for individualism – is what makes these sites so popular. “

Teachers know that it is a basic rite of passage for young people to explore their identity. Like parents, we are often left to clean up the resulting mess! But society has changed so this ritual has changed also. These days it doesn’t matter so much where you come from or what your parents do or where you are right now. Anyone can recreate themselves and express themselves using social networking tools. Everyone can find out who they are, interact with others, and make an impact on the world with this technology. But now we also do it because others are watching.

(That’s a deliberate pronoun choice there: “we.” I am deliberately not singling out students now because Facebook has proven to have great appeal across the generations. This is not necessarily a trait distinguishing them from us.)

Any social networking site user can go to great lengths to cultivate and manage their online identity. They can choose how they want to be judged. But now the advent of this technology has significantly changed behavior. As one student commented: “We find ourselves ‘performing’ for others.” It’s not just words any more, but actions that serve our basic desire to re-write personal histories. So, does this extra step mean social media is shaping the consumer as much as the consumer seeks to shape their self-expression? When your life is an act to replay on the stage of Facebook, how significant is this? Is it just the business of life as usual transferred to a new venue – or has the new venue changed the quality of the performance? And do we head backstage much anymore?

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Sickened by Cyberbullying

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I just read another long, sickening news story (New York Times, December 4) on cyberbullying. There’s plenty of them out there – both cyberbullies and headlines about them. And it’s plain to see that one anecdote after another follows a horrifyingly common pattern:

  1. …Parents notice their child has become withdrawn, miserable; grades drop; skips school.
  2. …Parents prod and student doesn’t communicate.
  3. …Eventually parents dig up the cause: cyberbullying.
  4. …The medium is a social networking site like Facebook or instant/text messages
  5. …The method maximizes the anonymity of the internet and the ease with which identities can be forged; the tyranny of the majority mobilized in a psychological savaging of the victim, unbridled by individual inhibitions
  6. …The cyber-content is sneering, hurtful, obscene; mob mentality quickly escalates the situation.
  7. …The cyber-evidence is unimaginably gruesome, and particularly chilling because it is perpetrated by peers, other young people, often known to the victim, some supposedly friends of the victim; whole groups of peers are attracted by this opportunity to “get in on the action.”

In their own words (article excerpts):

“It’s not the swear words. They all swear. It’s how they gang up on one individual at a time. ‘Go cut yourself.’ Or ‘you are sooo ugly’ — but with 10 u’s, 10 g’s, 10 l’s, like they’re all screaming it at someone.” – Inspector Brunault

Fat bitch.” – someone comments about a 9-year-old girl on her teenage brother’s Facebook wall.

About the proud Facebook photos posted by a 13-year-old New York girl, another girl comments: “hideous” and “this pic makes me throwup a lil.” If she had to choose between the life of an animal and that of the girl in the photos, she continues, she would choose the animal’s, because “yeah, at least they’re worth something.”

At least I don’t take pics of myself in the mirror like a homosexual midget.” Also, “you smell weird.” And “ur such a petaphile.”- Facebook tauntings issued from an impersonated profile.

  1. …When the victim’s parent sees this, the parent is shocked and beside themselves.
  2. …Seeking outside help presents a daunting prospect: Schools seem either impotent or unwilling to handle off-campus matters. The police make very slow, hard work of investigation, if they deem it worthy of the effort at all; prosecutions are rare for “first-time offenders.” Direct contact with website admin or ISPs can  yield disappointing results.
  3. …Parent-intervention or efforts to stop the cyber-bullying may be met with an escalation of the bullying.
  4. …Addressing the perpetrators, if they are discovered, results in anything from dismissal & shoulder shrugging from bullies and the parents of bullies, to pointed fingers at the victim.
  5. …Further investigation reveals the victim has tampered with or deleted crucial evidence, and/or retaliated themselves under the veil of internet anonymity so that the line between victim and bully is blurred and parents are left bewildered and helpless about how to move forward.
  6. …Parents strive but struggle to keep a closer watch over their children’s internet use. All the young people, victim and bully, resent parental monitoring.
  7. …Kids find a way around any barrier erected by their parents. And the vicious cycle continues.

It’s like Lord of the Flies – a fight for survival amongst children who lost their innocence way back in the jungle somewhere. And when the adult arrives to rescue the little savages and bring them back to a world of law and order and civility, his arrival is greeted with bewilderment and tears of grief. Nothing can ever be the way it was before they all came to the island; and the trouble now is that the surprised officer has, himself, lost sight of the ship that would get them off the island.

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It all just makes me sick – physically sick. I don’t plan to offer any pretty platitudes to wrap up this post. I’m guessing there are plenty of unhappy endings.

Online predators don’t pack much of a punch, but the backyard bullies do

It is a lovely turn of events to find your reading on a particular edtech topic actually REDUCES fear and loathing. More often than not, the media careens from IT-related crisis to disaster, and the media consumer obligingly laps it up, while that black cloud that always seems to be hanging over the head of the new generation of internet users takes on an even deeper hue of gloom. The ominous prospect of an over-exposed, over-stimulated, over-predated new generation of technology users looms ever larger – or so it would seem.

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What deep delight it was, therefore, to read an article by The Times’s technology columnist, David Pogue (“How dangerous is the internet for children?”) which actually suggests that the tales of doom facing children online are over-hyped.

I particularly liked this point: “The tales of pedophiles luring children out of their homes are like plane crashes: they happen extremely rarely, but when they do, they make headlines everywhere.”

Now, that puts it into perspective. Pogue’s article serves as yet another reminder to me that, despite all the articles and blogging, frown lines and hand-wringing, the internet is “just another facet of socialization for the new generation.”

He follows this up with more sensible advice for us onlookers: “…as always, common sense and a level head are the best safeguards.”

Deep sigh! That’s what we want to hear, right?! (There’s that instinctive confidence that comes from assuming that our own good sense is part of that collective common sense the author has just invoked, and with that pronouncement, that we can relinquish our sense of spinning out of control.)

Pogue, in turn, references a  PBS “Frontline” documentary which confirms what we already know about the teenagers-online scene, i.e. that they are completely immersed in chat, Facebook, and other options that have simply become absorbed into their ordinary, every day lives. And it also reiterated that the sexual-predator scenario that keeps many parents and teachers awake at night, is just plain skewed.

Incidentally, the PBS report Pogue referred to in his article, also added one surprising tidbit to this aspect of online safety. It turns out, according to the data analysis, that giving out personal information over the Internet makes no difference whatsoever to a child’s likelihood of falling prey to a pedophile. Now, this seems to fly in the face of pretty much every spiel I’ve recited to my students as we’ve opened a VoiceThread account here or a Bubbl.Us account there.

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Another sobering point that was raised, and one that I can easily believe in, is that many sexual propositions that kids receive have come from their peers fooling around or people just “acting weird online.” Thus, according to Danah Boyd of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, an interview subject in the documentary: “Most of the sexual solicitations, they’re not that big a deal. Most of it is the 19-year-old saying to the 17-year old, ‘Hey, baby.’ Is that really the image that we come to when we think about sexual solicitations? No. We have found kids who engage in risky behavior online. The fact is, they’ve engaged in a lot more risky behavior offline.”

Of course, the reader is not allowed to walk away scot-free after all. Pogue can’t resist poking at our persistent dis-belief that our kids will grow up just fine if we let nature take its course, (i.e. without our intervention) by concluding his article with a focus on the fear that we really DO need to face: the more murky realm of cyber-bullying.

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Pogue describes cyber-bullying as the far more realistic and pernicious threat to our younger internet users because kids tend to use the virtual world as their own little social laboratory, trying on different personas and pushing boundaries, in ways that tend to be a lot nastier and extreme in this anonymous environment than they would ever dare to be in face-to-face interactions. Added to this, the nastiness is significantly more damaging and painful because it is public and permanent. Plus, kids just don’t see it for what it is.

This is the real problem that we need to face as guardians of our children’s innocence and self-concept. So, I guess it had better be the subject of my next post.

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“Keep Out!” Problematic Perspectives on Privacy

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I guess I had it all wrong.  I was under the assumption that my students really did not care to concern themselves with the hassle of privacy settings in their fast-paced, highly social online worlds. My image of students as quadruple-clickers, seething and raging through any instance of slow computer processing/downloading, suffering serious cases of “Hourglass Syndrome” at the first sign of slow-poke technology, just didn’t align with habits of mind like cautiousness and reflection, which I have associated with the nuanced machinations of privacy settings. Uninhibited social net-casting seemed to be the typical disposition of the digital native, while trepidation, fear, even outright rejection of online communities and sharing tools seemed befitting of the doddery digital immigrant.

But it’s not a case of such opposite extremes, as it turns out. Actually, young people’s expectations have evolved as privacy protection options have expanded, and  Heather West, Policy Analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology, posits that  young people  value their privacy online a whole lot more than I had first thought. New online technologies are providing internet users (digital native and immigrant alike) with more control than ever before over their information. And young digital consumers have come to expect it.

Research backs up her claim. A new study on behavioral advertising, suggests that the 18-24 year olds care the most about how their personal information is used to make decisions about them to deliver news, advertisements, or discounts. One of the authors of the survey told the  New York Times, “We sometimes think that the younger adults in the United States don’t care about this stuff, and I would suggest that’s an exaggeration.”

Actually, it’s been marketers who have often promoted the idea that kids don’t care about giving up their personal details, citing behavior on  Facebook as anecdotal evidence, and pointing particularly to the sheer volume of content kids share through such online social media. But this interpretation of the younger generation’s internet use relies on a narrow view of privacy values. And it is quite flawed.

Back to Heather West: while kids care about their privacy too, and in that way the natives and the immigrants aren’t so different after all, West still frames her argument as a generational one. The gap is in how the two groups approach the concept of privacy, not their care factor. “Digital immigrants,” she says, “tend to think about privacy as the ability to conceal information from others. Digital natives instead share information within certain contexts, and with granular privacy controls on that information.”

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Teachers like me will be heartened to learn that teenagers themselves are actually taking steps to manage their online profiles and keep sensitive information away from unwanted eyes (including both strangers, and parents). According to studies by  Pew Research Center Internet and American Life Project, “while many teens post their first name and photos on their profiles, they rarely post information on public profiles they believe would help strangers actually locate them such as their full name, home phone number or cell phone number. …Some 55% of online teens have profiles and most of them restrict access to their profile in some way. Of those with profiles, 66% say their profile is not visible to all internet users. Of those whose profile can be accessed by anyone online, nearly half (46%) say they give at least some false information.” (Of course, young people post fake information not only to ensure the security of their online world, but also simply to be silly, or even to be malicious … but more on that in another blog.)  In fact, according to the Pew study only 6% of teens make their first and last name publicly accessible on social networks.

As one of the Pew articles put it,  they want their cake and they want to eat it too. It’s not “an all-or-nothing public or private paradigm.” Internet users, young and old, expect to be able to choose levels of privacy and levels of exposure to the public. West says they want what we all want: “the opportunity to choose not only what content is public, but who has access to that content. This includes privacy control for photo albums, status updates, and personal information.”

Privacy advocates might have an uphill battle against big business, but this new understanding of how kids value online privacy should  help them make their case to legislators. Meanwhile, I can rest assured that I am on the same side of the fence as my young charges, at least in this case, with the shared perspective that control over personal information is a consumer right, not a privilege.

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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.