25 January 2008

Social Networking and Education-as-we-know-it

"A social network is a social structure made of nodes (which are generally individuals or organizations) that are tied by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as values, visions, idea, financial exchange, friends, kinship, dislike, conflict, trade, web links, sexual relations, disease transmission (epidemiology), or airline routes. The resulting structures are often very complex."

The Economist debate on Social Networking Systems has concluded, though final thoughts can still be posted. And I wanted to suggest a few things I have learned so far.

First, here is the complete proposition:
"Social networking technologies will bring large [positive] changes to educational methods, in and out of the classroom: Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have now become a ubiquitous part of many students’ lives. The value of social networking has been defined, in one sense, as the collective power of community to help inform perspectives that would not be unilaterally formed – e.g. the best thinking comes from many not one. Others argue that significant time spent on social networking platforms actually distracts students from their studies. So a question emerges, could the introduction of social networking tools be useful in a formal classroom setting? Additionally, is the concept of social networking a progressive, but legitimate, form of student-to-student and student-to-teacher collaboration?"

In the debate many themes appeared. It began with Ewan McIntosh providing significant evidence of the transformative power of these tools in and out of classrooms in Scotland.

"I've been fortunate to work with thousands of school children and hundreds of teachers, creating mini social networks based around a rather traditional 'social object': the classroom. Students have been empowered to publish not just their best work, but the many drafts it takes to get there. They've received feedback from 'real' people outside school and, surprisingly often, the occasional expert has paid a visit (my personal favourite: the professional diver that corrected one student ended up being invited to visit the school to demonstrate the various bits of kit that go into a marine biology dive).

"And even if it's not happening in schools, learning is about far more than what happens behind the school gate. Lifelong learning is the policy du jour, and rightly so. We are all learners, all the time. Ubiquitous social technologies help us connect to those who can help us learn when we're outside the domain of formal education. One of the biggest iTunes success stories this past year has been Coffee Break Spanish, run by a teacher from his home in a seaside town on the West of Scotland. "You've got Spanish native speakers learning French with Coffee Break French, helping out those from around the world learning Spanish on the Coffee Break Spanish blog," says Mark Pentleton, the 'teacher' whose 21st century remit is closer to that of a living breathing social network for a band of young and old learners of foreign languages."

Dr. Michael Bugeja, expressing the "Con" side, was deeply concerned about power, authority, motives, and "time-honored standards."

"Interfaces that access social networks present a host of problems, depending on the device. Motives also vary by brand. The interface of an Apple iPhone differs from that of a Dell laptop. If we use handhelds to access social networks, odds are we will purchase digital music, videos or ringtones; or else, those devices query us daily on whether we might sample such merchandise. If we use laptops, we cope with software downloads or peripherals that also solicit online orders. We deal with these factors so often that we accept them without complaint.

"Technology has made us compliant.

"We must analyze use of social networks in education with a high degree of skepticism to ensure time-honored standards. Otherwise we may realize belatedly that those standards had value—social rather than financial—and that we inadvertently shortchanged our students who above all need to think critically and interact interpersonally to succeed in a diverse, multicultural world.

"Social networks advertise access to this diverse world while simultaneously confining users to affinity groups so as to sell, sell, sell.

"I, for one, am not buying."

Though the arguments wandered over many areas as this "Oxford-Style" debate went on, these essential themes never changed. On one side there are those (including myself) who see expanding communication technologies as new opportunities to connect, relate, study, and learn, and who are willing to take risks to explore how best to guide our students through this gathering world. On the other side are those more concerned about the risks than the benefits. As commenter Neil Shrubak said at the end of the conversation, "The Proposition argues that social networking signals a dawn of a new age of learning that will allow us to discard the baggage of old, stifling educational systems. Out with the old, in with the new. Hmm… This is the oldest rhetoric in the world. In the last 5,000 years it has not created much, but bloodshed. The more utopian the vision, the more blood spilled because of it. Don’t call this a conservative or a retrograde approach. My position is, indeed, as liberal as they get. Evolution over revolution. Cheers to Bacon, Newton, Darwin. Down with Mao, Stalin and both Kims."

The rebuttal to those fears goes like this - as I noted in my ("PostColonialTech") last comment, "SNS alters students' expectations of learning and truth, making it more collaborative, less hierarchical, perhaps less bound to certain "centres of learning." Yet that does not mean that it makes knowledge acquisition easier - it may, indeed, make it much more complex, much more difficult. But - here's the thing - I am not sure that in learning "easier" (as in "simpler") is the better thing. It is simpler to hear either Dr. Bugeja or Mr. McIntosh lecture and accept (whomever) point of view. It is more complex, yet to me richer and more rewarding, to participate in this SNS conversation - even if you cannot see whatever credentials I might have hanging on my wall. And even if you - or I - lack the credentials which might, under older systems of technology ("the lecture hall") allow us major roles in the debate. " and Jon Pincus adds (from his blog), "...social networks can also make a huge positive impact on some underlying issues in the education field. Start with the exclusion and marginalization of a lot of voices and from debates held in the halls of power. Again use this debate as an example: no current or recent students in The Economist’s roster; the speakers, Moderator, and guest participants all currently occupy positions of (relative) privilege; and the tone is often condescending towards practitioners (as opposed to “experts”). Social networking technologies make it easier to broaden the conversation, with people bringing their friends and acquaintances in environments that are more inclusive – and creating opportunities to network together, creating connections among existing networks that didn’t exist before."

So, while there are many issues, including questions regarding the understanding of history (Dr. Bugeja at one point takes time to blast Gutenberg, who, "printed a few Bibles but was better known in his time for disseminating the junk mail of the 15th century—indulgences."), and questions regarding an understanding of technology (Dr. Bugeja makes an explicit distinction between "tools" - such as a chalkboard - and "technology," - "why technology is not a tool like a ruler or chalk board but an autonomous system that changes radically anything it touches without itself being changed much at all" - while I think of chalkboards, books, even lecture halls and classrooms as obvious forms of technology), and a brief, if esoteric, argument about what is and what isn't a "Social Networking System," I still find myself believing that where you stand on this issue relates principally to questions of power, and thus fear.

If you believe that education, as we have known it over the past two centuries - that is, formalized, structured, hierarchical, and occurring in a specific setting, has generally worked well - for yourself, your family, and/or the world, then you will likely find the idea of social networking as an educational strategy disturbing, because, by its definition, it slices through hierarchy and alters authority. But if you see the world as needing a dramatically more flexible, more collaborative, more open form of education as we attempt to reach across the huge chasms of difference in human experience, you will likely find the idea of social networking as an educational strategy so powerful as to be worth the investments in time, money, training, as well as in terms of the risks which come with any change.

One of the critical things about Social Networking Systems is that authority is a flexible idea. Braha and Bar-Yam (2006) found that "authority" (the "highly connected nodes") in a social network changed day-by-day, even when participants were much the same. [1] Contrast that with a lecture hall (one highly connected node that is constant through the semester) or the traditional classroom (with one primary highly connected mode - the teacher - and a few lesser-connected nodes - the "top" students, again as constants). The structure of the technology of the lecture hall or classroom literally works against the acceptance of distributed expertise. It is hard, very hard, to stand up from the back row and declare that the central authority might be mistaken. It is very hard for a fourteen-year-old to demonstrate knowledge on a topic superior to that of the teacher. And it is almost impossible for either of those "interrupters" to pull in the expertise (via human interaction or data) that would prove their point. Also impossible to instantly reach outside that room to ask questions from a larger library of data.

SNS reverses these issues. On a social networking site it is difficult to maintain authority. I can challenge Dr. Bugeja in ways I would never think of doing in a classroom. Everything he says can be loudly doubted, assaulted, even insulted. He can no longer control the discussion. But, I can easily bring my expertise in. I can (often) easily track the experiences of those making agreeing or disagreeing statements. I can look up data and put it where everyone can see it. I do not need credentials to enter, but, in ways unique to the structure, I must quickly establish my credentials. It is indeed messier, more complex, in many ways more difficult. But I would argue that it can also be richer, more inquisitive, and in many ways, far more human.

At the end, debate moderator Robert Cottrell brings up one commenter:
"As we move towards the close, I am going to pull out a line from JOHNNAUGHTON that I think merits reflection.

"Social networking, he says, is "intrinsically non-hierarchical and largely uncontrollable. It's therefore a poor fit with our hierarchical and tightly-controlled educational institutions—at every level from kindergarten to university. Social networking could conceivably have beneficial effects in education—but only if the social structures implicit in our educational system adapt to accept it."

"It seems to me that if Mr Naughton's first sentence is correct, then it is revolution, more than an adaptation, which is required, for social networking to make its way in education. And I am not sure that the proponents of the motion have made that clear."

I hope I have made this clear. I believe that I and others, like Ewan McIntosh, come to be proponents of SNS systems in education because we believe that a revolution is necessary. I know that I look at schools every day and wonder at the cruelty and meanness of the environment, of the way learning and creativity are limited and stifled, of the high percentage of students for whom our "time-honored" systems do not work. That is not to say that SNS systems should be our only form of learning environment, but it does suggest that there is a reason that you often have to drag children to school, while having to drag them away from their computers and mobiles.

To the question: "could the introduction of social networking tools be useful in a formal classroom setting? Additionally, is the concept of social networking a progressive, but legitimate, form of student-to-student and student-to-teacher collaboration?"Part A: Yes, useful and transformational. Even the temporary alteration of the power structure in the classroom engages different students in different ways - opens possibilities - alters both self-perceptions and world understandings. Part B: Yes, progressive AND legitimate, and again, transformational. Used properly, "teaching will never be quite the same," Nor, I might add, should it be.

- Ira Socol

[1] D. Braha and Y. Bar-Yam. From Centrality to Temporary Fame: Dynamic Centrality in Complex Networks. Complexity 12: 59-36, 2006.

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