Social media and its implications for education Part 2

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There are three areas that are relevant to both our society in general and to us as educators in particular. They are: (1) the overall landscape in which we are operating; (2) the social implications of the changes being driven by technology and how we are using it; and (3) the changing models that are beginning to impact on educational practice.

Landscape

Before we leap into a look at the landscape it is important to clarify some things about web 2.0 and some key trends that are impacting on the landscape. Key points about web 2.0 are that:

  1. It is not new technology – the technology stack is decades old in many cases
  2. It is new ways of using older technology – we are putting the technology together differently enabled by reasonable broadband access
  3. It is not using the old mindset where technology was the province of gurus – now any script kiddie can make things happen with technology
  4. It is democratizing technology – this is breaking down the old cabals of experts
  5. It is applying new business models – we are seeing this with companies like Google and Facebook

In terms of the broader landscape I have identified five macro trends that are shaping both computing and our world at present:

  • Next Generation Internet – semantics, contextual, geo-aware
  • New interfaces – gesture, haptic, auditory, human-computer, voice user interfaces
  • Hardware – Virtualization , cloud computing enabled by solid state drives, blade technology
  • Social computing – It’s here and it will continue to grow
  • Ubiquitous computing – Wearable, networks, convergence

Of these I will concentrate on social computing and the next generation internet as they are driving a lot of change that is impacting on the education sector.

But probably the biggest change over the past thirty years is the rate of change. Once it was completely acceptable to wait a week for a letter to arrive, to ponder one’s response for a few days and then write and dispatch a letter by post. Then the fax machine changed all of that. Now we receive emails immediately followed by a phone call asking why we have not yet responded.

The pace of change is increasing and has increased substantially over the past 30 years. Look at the mobile phone as an example of this. From the time the telephone was invented until the mid-1980s it remained recognisably the same device. Now, to a person who last saw a telephone in 1980, the iPhone or SmartPhone would not even seem to be in the same family of devices. And, indeed they are not. The modern mobile phone is really converged computing, telecommunications and entertainment device. They even have more memory than my first server.

The next thing to consider is the revolution of the internet. Originally conceived as a bulwark against nuclear war and as a way for academic researchers to communicate it has reshaped the world. Now many people use the internet every day as an integral part of their lives – for sending email, chatting online, shopping, entertainment and business.

Along with this growth in the pragmatic use of the internet, social networks are also becoming mainstream; with Pew Research from 2009 showing 46% of US adults have used a social network at least once, and 27% used one yesterday.

This area of social computing has been the real area of growth and the data clearly shows how social computing is changing how ordinary people share, communicate and interact.

Some examples of these changes include:

  • In the past email and search engine internet traffic exceeded that of social networks. However, in December 2009 search traffic and social network traffic approached parity in Australia for the first time.
  • Also previously in late 2007, social network traffic surpassed that from email in the UK for the first time.
  • And adult website traffic was also overtaken by social networking traffic for the first time in late 2008.

The important thing to note here is that the behaviours of searching, sending emails or checking out p~rn did not change. What changed is the location in which it happens. Thus if you are in Facebook and so are all of your friends it simply does not make sense to leave the application to use another email client.

There has also been development of niche networks for different interest groups. For business there are LinkedIn and Plaxo (amongst many others) and Facebook is winning the war as the de facto social network for everyone else.

Another interesting characteristic of this landscape is that ordinary people are creating and participating online in ways that were once unthinkable. Without specialised technical assistance people are creating videos to share on YouTube or Viddler; they are creating blogs on WordPress, Blogger or Typepad; they are sharing photos on Facebook or Flickr. Remixing music or visual materials is rife –questions of provenance and copyright remain unanswered. Video downloads, online shopping, banking and travel arrangements are becoming the norm.

Against this backdrop various researchers have mapped the generations:

  • GI Generation aged 73+
  • Silent Generation aged 64-72
  • Older Boomers aged 55-63
  • Younger Boomer aged 45-54
  • Gen X aged 33-44
  • Gen Y aged 18-32

And, while the notion of dividing up the population on the basis of age cohorts is useful for analytical purposes, it ignores some simple facts about people. In each age cohort is a bell curve for change adoption – with some members as early adopters, the mass as early & late majority, followed by the laggards. I fundamentally disagree with the idea that mere membership of an age cohort determines a person’s relationship to technology or propensity to adopt change. Rather the determining factor will become one’s willingness to be connected.

This willingness and desire to be hyperconnected via technology will become the new generation gap. A great example of this is the loose confederation of people who meetup on Thursday mornings on the northside of Sydney for coffee. Most of them met originally on Twitter, decided that they liked each other and thought it would be good to catch up informally for coffee.

What has happened is that this has created a vibrant group of people who know each other in real life now. Business ideas are exchanged, family and social tips are shared and other connections are made and broadened. More can be seen at their Posterous site at www.nscm.posterous.com .There are now many similar groups all around Australia – I have attended them in Perth and Brisbane.

What is interesting here is that online and offline activities are blurring and the boundaries between public and private are no longer clear. The conflicts between the connected and the unconnected are already being seen in schools, colleges and workplaces around the world. Just try asking members of your class to turn off their mobile phones to test this hypothesis.

Social implications

The social implications for all of this are astounding. They reverberate across all areas of life from business to education to socialising.

This technology and the way it is being used now is creating massive interconnections between people and enabling the creation of groups and communities. This kind of community building and collaboration is similar to that we experienced when living in smaller villages rather than in large cities.

But think on this – the children of today will stay in loose contact with every group of people the meet throughout their lives from kindergarten onwards. It is going to be a challenge to manage over a lifetime. The only way to manage these masses of loose connections is by chunking them up into niches. This is where richer technologies that enable this to happen seamlessly based on use rather than manually based on effort.

Another feature of this interconnected world we live in is that we no longer need to wait. Delayed gratification is becoming a thing of the past in many respects. For example in the area of entertainment we used to wait for a movie to come out or wait until our favourite television show was broadcast. But now with the advent of decent broadband and streaming video there is no more waiting. Anyone can watch what they want when they want. And they do exactly that, as anyone with teenagers in the house with a broadband connection knows all too well.

However, against the backdrop of this explosion in connections, information and entertainment at our fingertips we remain unreconstructed human beings. This remains similar to our cave dwelling days.

We still retain our tribal brains that work best in small groups the size of a basketball team. Our brains are wired to deal with small chunks of information – like the magic number seven, which is the number of items we can retain in our short-term memory.

Also we are constrained in our ability to handle a great many close relationships. Many cite Dunbar’s number which is the supposed cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable social relationships: the kind of relationships that go with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person.

Imagine how many contacts you would have if everyone you had ever met since kindergarten was a friend on Facebook. This is precisely what is happening to our young people today.

This means that we need to chunk up all of those massive networks we collect so as to manage them over time. It also means that we are maintaining increasingly loose ties with larger numbers of people.

Ultimately we are social creatures and want to create social networks either on or offline. I often use the example of Facebook, where ordinary people of all ages are routinely creating affiliation groups. These online groups are even creating real life relationships – for example the Twitter community in Sydney often meets up physically with most of us having met online originally.

Another element to the mix is the amount of information we are required to process everyday – email, news, social networks, entertainment, etc. We can no longer store all of this information in our heads.

spartan-brad-pittThis is not merely a gratuitous picture of Brad Pitt. It harks back to a time in the past when our societies used epic poetry to store and transmit important information, but now it is all in nearline or online storage. For example, many of us no longer recall the phone numbers of our nearest and dearest since they are stored so handily in our mobile phones.

Also the question of how we are going to retrieve a lot of that information in the future is open to question. I’ve got a floppy disk at home with some interesting photos of a data centre I built a few years ago, but no longer have any technology to access that information.

Changing models

So where does all of this put us as educators? There are some who talk of a nirvana where all students are self directed learners and we are coaches and facilitators. But I suspect that those people have not met some of my students.

Let’s look back to the web 2.0 meme map from O’Reilly’s Foo Camp a few years ago. It clearly talks about all of the things that have become part of social computing (and this includes social media and social networking).

The social web has developed a set of values based on that original web 2.0 meme map and this Wordle map shows some of those enacted in social computing at present.

social web values

But teaching has its own longstanding set of values. And today we are seeing a conflict between those two sets of values in classrooms and lecture halls around the world.
traditional teaching valules
But first a few comments on the nature of these new tools. These tools are a great enabler for minority groups. It levels the playing field for them in many ways. However, it is well to note, as Grady Booch once said: “a fool with a tool is still a fool”.

Our learning institutions are sometimes slow to change and adapt to new ways. On the other hand teachers are often the ones in vanguard embracing change and pushing the boundaries. The institutions of learning in this country are pretty conservative and slow to adopt new fangled technology, usually quite sensibly on the basis of cost.  But now with web 2.0 social computing and open source the main arguments against new technology adoption are being destroyed.

Individual teachers are embracing change, but sometimes when I meet these visionary folks they seem more like revolutionary cells of the vanguard than part of the institutional mainstream.  But the learners will eventually force our hands by disengaging if we do not respond to the shifts in their cultural practices.

This leads into another area of contention, that of boundaries. These new tools are creating disputes about the appropriate times and places where it is appropriate to use the technology (for example, have you ever tried to get a Gen Y class to turn off their mobile phones?). Also questions about the content and authority of information created or shared. Think about the endless discussions about plagiarism and the appropriateness of Wikipedia as a research authority.

We are dealing with a radically different set of expectations – from our staff, administrators and students (or consumers). Many of these people were socialised in the old non-digital world; while others are digital natives.

As part of my preparation for this session I’ve been trying to distil my thoughts on the implications of new technology on culture and learning.  And for me it has all come down to sensemaking as the purpose of education.  Dan Russell provides a nice definition of sensemaking: “Sensemaking is in many ways a search for the right organization or the right way to represent what you know about a topic. It’s data collection, analysis, organization and performing the task.”

To a certain extent I think that these changes mean we need to become co-participants in the learning experience.  Become facilitators of the process rather than the experts.  This does not mean that our experience or empirical knowledge is not valuable.  We need to establish mutual respect and open dialogue. And luckily now we have the technological tools to facilitate that dialogue.

It is going to be an interesting balancing act between those different sets of expectations. Defining boundaries in a hyperconnected world is a challenge, but it is worth remembering that interesting discoveries are made at the boundaries of the currently known world. Some of the tools to help with this sense-making process are to embrace the values of web 2.0 as part of classroom practice.

But the challenges to the authority of the teacher and of the institution are not only coming from students and society in general. They are also coming from competitors.

By this I mean the institutions that are subverting traditional ideas of the university or college and putting their intellectual property out online for free.  The institutions doing this include the august (e.g. Stanford, MIT) as well as the ambitious (e.g. USQ) as Lifehacker so kindly lists.

Other challenges are coming because of the radical transparency that the web enables. Here I’m thinking of things like Rate My Teacher and Rate My Professor. No more hiding from bad appraisals by students it’s all out in the open now. But looking on the bright side it’s happening to kittens as well.

All of this brings us tremendous opportunities as both a society and as educators. It seems like we’re not in control any more. But I do question if the control we once had was merely an illusion. And I wonder if this new world might not be a healthier one for all of us?

The biggest shift is that we are dealing with connected individuals who are at the centre of a web of networks enabled and mediated by technology. This will give rise to power shifts that we will need to live through and embrace in order to survive.

Note: all data mentioned above is detailed in my slides here

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Holiday IT to-do lists | Patch Monday via @stilgherrian

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The fast-approaching holiday season is a great time to update your IT systems while everything’s quiet.

I got to have a chat with Stilgherrian in this week’s Patch Monday.

This podcast has some nifty suggestions from Harold Melnick, who’s Microsoft’s senior product marketing manager for Unified communications; Del from open source consultancy Babel Com Australia; and me.

Stilgherrian also summarises the week’s IT news — everything you would have read yourself if you weren’t so busy.

Listen now:

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Future of the Web | The Scoop

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Recently I had the honour of joining Mark Pesce & Ross Dawson on Mark Jones’ podcast The Scoop where we discussed the The future of the Web.

It was a fascinating discussion – so many interesting ideas to consider:

What happens when our real and virtual worlds collide? And how will we live in this hyper-connected world? In part three of our “Future of” series, The Scoop is joined by Mark Pesce, futurist and ABC New Inventors judge; Kate Carruthers, a business and technology strategist; and Ross Dawson, futurist, author, speaker and chairman of Advanced Human Technologies.

You can check out the podcast here

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Online policy madness – Don't link to us!

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Here’s an excellent example of a legal or marketing department (or both) who don’t seem to get how the internet & search engines work.

Further, it shows a real disconnect between the kind of content on the site and the policies supporting the site.

Wonder why they bothered putting all that funky interactive content on their site if they don’t want anyone to link to it? Hey *Vegemite – perhaps it’s time to revisit your policy?

 

Vegemite’s Ass-Backward Web Philosophy: Don’t Link to Us

What Was It Thinking With This Privacy Policy?

Posted by Abbey Klaassen on September 11, 2009 @ 03:17 PM

Here’s one for the annals of marketer stupidity.

As BoingBoing points out today (after noticing it on Tetherd Cow Ahead), Kraft’s Vegemite site has perhaps one of the most backward privacy policies known to man and marketer. It forbids anyone from linking to it.

Yes, you read that right — you might actually like Vegemite, you might appreciate the recipes on its site, you might find useful the “Kids Corner” section where it offers up Vegemite-themed classroom activities for grade-school teachers — but don’t even think about giving any link love. With links being an integral piece of a search strategy, perhaps that’s why Vegemite’s own site wallows in the bottom half of a Google search, below videos and shopping links. (Sneaking on the first page of search results for the brand? The BoingBoing post that highlights the ridiculous linking policy, which shows just how beneficial a smart linking policy can be for SEO.)

via adage.com

* I am ready for the Vegemite jokes that suggest this is all part of a plan to save the world from this product 😉

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Gilmore of the eponymous law

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~ A few times now I’ve referred to Gilmore’s Law and wanted to share a bit more about its author. John Gilmore is one of the true mavericks of the internet, and he is a self described entrepreneur and civil libertarian. His ideas are further out on the edge than most, but I think our society needs people who question and push the boundaries.

On his website under the heading “Things I’ve Said (That People Sometimes Remember)” he discusses what has come to be termed Gilmore’s Law:

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
— John Gilmore, 1993

It has been popularised as a law by Mark Pesce who has discussed it in a number of places, for example in Understanding Gilmore’s Law.

And as Gilmore says:

This was quoted in Time Magazine’s December 6, 1993 article “First Nation in Cyberspace”, by Philip Elmer-DeWitt. It’s been reprinted hundreds or thousands of times since then, including the NY Times on January 15, 1996, Scientific American of October 2000, and CACM 39(7):13.

In its original form, it meant that the Usenet software (which moves messages around in discussion newsgroups) was resistant to censorship because, if a node drops certain messages because it doesn’t like their subject, the messages find their way past that node anyway by some other route. This is also a reference to the packet-routing protocols that the Internet uses to direct packets around any broken wires or fiber connections or routers. (They don’t redirect around selective censorship, but they do recover if an entire node is shut down to censor it.)

The meaning of the phrase has grown through the years. Internet users have proven it time after time, by personally and publicly replicating information that is threatened with destruction or censorship. If you now consider the Net to be not only the wires and machines, but the people and their social structures who use the machines, it is more true than ever. “

Some of the other things Gilmore has started include:

No matter what one might think of Gilmore’s politics and activism it is worth remembering his leadership in some fundamentals that we take for granted with the internet. His ongoing battles over personal freedom are fascinating to read about on his website.

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Hypertext to hyperconnectivity

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The invention of hypertext and its implementation in the form of the World Wide Web was a revolution akin to the creation of the modern printing press. We are still seeing the reverberations of this revolution in many spheres of life.

With the implementation of the Gutenberg printing press back in the mid-1400s it was possible to *democratize information. Society was able too move away from oral traditions and formalize knowledge into books. It also enabled knowledge to be easily transported from place to place without losing the sense of the argument.

Books and reading fuelled both the Reformation and growth of democracy in the western world. The ability to read gave ordinary people access to ideas and information that did not exist in their everyday lives.

However, a constraint with books is that it is hard to combine ideas from many books unless you write another book. It can be difficult to reference from a particular idea in one book to another idea within another book. In fact, doing this on a large scale requires big investments in time, effort, space and money.

But with the revolution of hypertext it became easy to link different texts and thus to link particular ideas together in ways that had previously been challenging. It also became possible to link other media together using the same techniques.

Then with web 2.0 the notion of hypertext was transformed and used to create links between people by means of online social networks. People are now being connected with each other (hyperconnected as argued by some) and this is revolutionising social relations in ways similar to the changes wrought by hypertext.

Also with web 2.0 the ability to create and transform online media was democratized. Previously (in the web 1.0 world) specialist technical knowledge was required to manipulate text and other online media. With the development of user generated content capabilities in web 2.0 the need for technical skills greatly reduced and thus creation and co-creation were democratized.

* By “democratization” in this context I mean that the ability to create texts or hypertexts moves from the specialist technical community (book publishers or software programmers) to ordinary people who do not have any particular specialist skills

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New Digital Divide?

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Seth Godin makes an interesting point about a new digital divide:

“I think a new divide has opened up, one that is based far more on choice than on circumstance. Several million people (and the number is growing, daily) have chosen to become the haves of the Internet, and at the same time that their number is growing, so are their skills.”

This is a fairly Darwinian point about people who choose to accept the new medium and develop new skills. Although, the ‘old’ digital divide is still with us and many people do not have access to the internet there is a growing gap between those who embrace technology and those who do not.

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Blogtalk Downunder

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Just back from the Blogtalk Downunder conference that was held here in Sydney over the past few days. The conference was organised by the education department from the University of Technology Sydney, and the attendees were largely academics and teachers. There were a few industry people there, notably Trevor Cook from Corporate Engagement. Senator Andrew Bartlett from the Democrats was also there – he did admit his ignorance about blogging but continued on to make some comments.

The conference was interesting for me on several levels – firstly as a blogger, secondly as a practicing technologist, and thirdly as a student of communication. There was a lot of information presented and I’m still digesting it all.

One issue that came out very clearly is that a lot of people – especially academics who write or theorise about blogging – are not necessarily bloggers. Instead they read about blogging in the media rather than reading & writing blogs. Also the level of comfort with technology varied, from uber geek to technophobe.

There was very little to be heard from practitioners of blogging.  Perhaps that is because there are not many in Australia?  In any case it was a little disappointing.

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