Social Media Narratives

social-media-marketingI had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion on the impact of social media in education at a recent Social Media Club – EDU event, along with Jon Becker and Lon Safko. The focus of the conversation was on how social media is generating fundamental shifts in teaching, learning and collaboration. It was a fun and interesting event to be a part of, and I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the event and share a few additional thoughts.

The Social Media Conversation – Who’s In?
The SMCEDU event was a unique opportunity to have both a business and educational perspective of social media offered up on the same plate, and it was fun to see how these mingled. One of the things that I found immediately interesting was the make-up of the audience…there were a few students and some faculty members, but the majority of folks in attendance were business professionals. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the broad interest in social media in the business sector. What I continue to find interesting are the ways folks in business and education speak with different levels of confidence and understanding about the role of social media in different contexts. It seems, at least from my take of the business perspective, that there is a greater sense of purpose driving the adoption of social media – namely to grow brands by connecting with and being responsive to customers. I think this kind of approach to social media works pretty well for businesses, but I’m not sure it transfers neatly to educational contexts. In conversations I’ve had with faculty members about social media, the suggestion that they are their own personal brand is a fairly foreign if not bizarre concept. Many are a bit skeptical (and rightly so) of the business metaphor that suggests students are customers, and that a primary role of education is to prepare students for the workforce. Clearly education also plays a fundamental role in helping people develop intellectual and ethical judgment, comprehend and negotiate relationships with the larger world, and prepare them for lives of civic responsibility and leadership. I’m not sure that these are always part of the workforce narrative about the need for certain kinds of skills and habit of mind. I think that when the driver for participating in the conversation about the role of social media in education emerges from a business narrative and marketing rationale, it makes it too easy for some educators to readily dismiss it and disengage. That is unfortunate, because the conversation about social media is too important to education – on a number of levels – to have it set up to be so easily disregarded. Introducing a healthy dose of critique of social media in general, and recognizing when one narrative is being privileged over another might better serve us all.

Trend v. Transformation
The idea that trends in social media change quickly is a huge understatement. The common refrain seems to be…how do you keep up? How do you stay current? What should you be paying attention to? What is most important? Again, from my perspective as an educator its not about trends…it is about a fundamental transformation in the ways we connect, exchange, collaborate, and learn. Fundamental change is afoot…that is the message – not trying to find the best way to drink from the fire hose. When the message is about emerging trends more significant questions and ideas get passed over. I find that many educators are still at the stage of making sense of how the affordances of new forms of digital media – access to information, networking, shared knowledge creation – are impacting what it means to teach and learn. There is little attention paid to the most recent social media trend. Again, perhaps this illustrates some differences in the narrative we offer about the importance and role of social media.

Impact on Teaching and Learning
One of the things that I have been hearing in conversation with colleagues interested in social media is that students are steeped in social networking practices from experiences on Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc., and that we can build on these experiences to support formal learning in courses that we teach. The idea seems to be that we can leverage experiences students are having in these spaces, and transfer them into web-based collaborative learning experiences on sites like Ning and Wetpaint. I’m not so sure. I think it is a worthy environment to experiment with and explore, but there is something very different about elective participation in web-based communities and required participation in a social network for a course. Plenty of questions emerge: Is required participation in a community, really a community? Can initial required participation in social media for learning lead to sustainable participation that is self-selected? What drives learners to elect to engage in social media to support their own non-formal learning? So I’m looking for good answers to these and other questions, and would look forward to hearing thoughts about whether these questions matter or if I’m missing the mark here.

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Thinking about RSS, Aggregation and Credibility

I think it is fair, and perhaps rather obvious, to say that RSS fundamentally changed our experience of the web. Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the idea of aggregation, both in terms of personal aggregation I can achieve by subscribing to feeds in my RSS reader, and aggregation as a service that is provided by an ever increasing number of news and information portals. As aggregation of media sources becomes an increasingly common and accepted practice, I’ve become more interested in how sources for feeds get vetted and served up at some of the more popular information portals. I know this is not a new idea and that others have certainly entertained the question before, but I’m not sure we ask the question enough of ourselves, or in the work we do with students.

A couple of class sessions ago I explored the idea of RSS and aggregation with the students in my Learning with Digital Media class. I wanted my students to do three things:

  • Set up and use web-based RSS readers to customize information and resources they wanted to have regular access to; essentially setting up a personal newspaper.
  • Explore a process for determining the credibility of content that appears in sites that aggregate news and information.
  • Critique the process of aggregation and raise questions about its impact on how we access news and information.

Students worked in small groups to evaluate four different sites that aggregate news and information. We looked at Google News, NewsCred, Alltop and digg. I selected these sites because I felt they represented different approaches to selecting content for their aggregated feeds. I encouraged students to consider some questions as they examined these sites: Is the process for content selection transparent? In other words, does the site describe how it aggregates the information it presents? To what extent do you feel the content is credible (subjective 1-10 rating scale with 10 being most credible)? What can you offer as a rationale that supports your credibility rating?

The ensuing discussion was interesting. There actually seemed to be a general consensus among the students about the credibility of content on each of these sites. I’ll talk about them briefly here from least to most credible as viewed by the students and try to tease out some overall themes.

Alltop seemed to be viewed as the least credible among the sites. Students tended to see it as middle of the road in terms of credibility. There is a preponderance of blog content on Alltop and the students maintained a general skepticism of information on blogs, even though they acknowledged that blogs can be interesting to read and be quite credible. In addition, there was uncertainty about the selection process on the blogs that were aggregated on Alltop. On one hand it seemed like blogs were aggregated by a combination of self-nomination and then peer review through readership which determined the shelf-life of a blog. This created a view of Alltop that was clubbish, and this diminished the perceived credibility of the content.

digg held slightly greater appeal for students, perhaps due to familiarity with the site. Students seemed to find value in the user rating process that digg employs – the more “diggs” the better or more credible the story or site. However, students also acknowledged that digg tends to cater to a particular demographic, and that content there may not always be of interest to the general population. So while they favored the “voting” process for determining credibility, they also acknowledged that the most popular content on digg was not always the most credible.

NewsCred was a site that not many students had heard of prior to the activity, and represented a hybrid model where custom feeds can be created from established reputable sources, and individual stories / sources receive a credibility rating from users. Students seemed to value what NewsCred was trying to accomplish by making the vetting process for its feeds more transparent, but lacking a complete understanding of the process some students remained uncertain about the ultimate credibility of the feeds. Overall however, NewsCred was viewed quite favorably by students in terms of perceived credibility of aggregated content.

Google News was generally viewed as the most popular and credible source for aggregated information feeds. One student commented that Google is a “household brand” and is simply trusted. A few students however commented that Google News functions on the same kind of algorithms that drive search returns, and that these can be “gamed” or manipulated. So the top stories in Google News are not necessarily the most credible or even the most relevant. Students also commented on the recent mistake, where a 2002 story about a United Airlines plane crash showed up as a top story in Google News and sent the company’s stock tumbling. Accidents like this were viewed as occasionally occurring in an automated system where there is no human intervention or oversight.

As I reflected on this experience with my students a few points emerged that I continue to think about:

1) Students are aware of the range of reliability and credibility of specific sources (e.g., NY Times, BBC, CNN, etc.), and they occasionally seek these out for top stories and breaking news.

2) Credibility of aggregated feeds seems to be significantly shaped by perceived credibility (Google is a “household brand”) and not necessarily an understanding of any vetting process.

3) Students place value on a vetting process where users can vote on the popularity or credibility of a story or source. Human intervention is seen as valuable, and students rely on their social networks for identifying interesting and relevant content on the web. Credibility is shaped by views of the social network.

As the demand for quick and mobile access to news and information continues to grow, aggregation is positioned to play a defining role in the ways we obtain information. And while providers of aggregation services need to strive to be more transparent about their vetting processes, it seems like we need to be thinking about ways to engage students to think critically about the process of aggregation as well. I’d be very interested in your views on this and whether you even see it as an issue. If so, what questions and suggestions do you have for helping us all better understand how aggregation is changing the game?

{Image credit: Picture Perfect Pose}

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Student Blogging and Digital Footprints

When students blog in an academic context, they often do so because it is an expectation in a course they are enrolled in. Some may blog for personal purposes outside of class as well, but I suspect that they are the exception and not the rule. In the work I am doing with students this semester I have asked them to create blogs that we call Learning Journals. Nothing really new or groundbreaking here, but I have been interested in students’ views about being asked to reflect on their learning and to write in these public spaces on the open web.

My hope is that these students will see their writing (and commenting) in the blog space as part of being involved in a larger conversation that is taking place within the class, and more importantly can spill outside the walls of the class and impact a much wider audience. For me, one measure of success would be that they experience both community and culture in the blogosphere; a bridging of the academic and the personal.

There has been a range of responses to the idea of the Learning Journal. Some students have indicated that blogging is not something they would choose to do if it was simply a personal choice, and I certainly respect that. To my surprise, a few students already had a blog space and chose to integrate their learning reflections with their personal musings, which I think is great. Still other students express concerns and reservations about writing in a publicly accessible space, and seem uncertain about potential implications of such practices down the road. Still others see blogging as silly navel gazing.

Within all of these views there is an inherent tension between digital spaces that are seen as personal and those that are seen as academic. Questions of identity, and how our on-line behaviors impact and shape it, are ever-present.

I try to remain sensitive to the variety of perspectives that my students bring to the practice of thinking, musing and writing on the open web. There is risk and tension there for me as well. I’m making a value judgment. I fully realize that I’m requiring them to engage in blogging for an academic purpose, with the hope that it becomes a rich enough learning experience that it transcends the academic and becomes personally valuable. Ultimately, I hope they come to learn and value that free and public space on the Web is an important right that they have. I also realize that in asking my students to blog, they are generating content that leaves a digital footprint and becomes part of their online persona. This can be tricky business, perhaps more so in some contexts than others. But these are not new ideas. I am certain that other faculty engaged in blogging have been thinking about these issues for some time, and writing far more eloquently and incisively than I have here. Yet for me, reflecting on this has made me more sensitive to the idea that when we ask our students to generate content on the open web, we are in effect asking them to create and modify their digital footprint.

The notion of the digital footprint raises several questions for me. Am I being unnecessarily concerned and putting too much emphasis on the implications of “requiring” students to contribute to an on-line persona guided by academic expectations? How do we move to the point where blogging is something students do on their own, as opposed to something that is done to them? Is the academic “push” to blog one of the only ways where students ambivalent to blogging will gain experience and perspective on the importance of public publishing on the web? What other questions should we be asking here? Let me know what you think.

{Image Credit: Paddy Wight}

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Student Views on Defining Digital Media

Last week I met my students for the first time in a new course I’m teaching called, Learning with Digital Media, a special topics course being offered out of the School of Mass Communications. The course title is somewhat ambiguous, which was partially intentional, and could be interpreted in a range of ways. One important aspect of the course is for us to collectively come to an understanding of what digital media means to us. We began our first class with some discussion about how we should define digital media, and this blog post is an attempt to capture a part of our discussion.

Perhaps predictably, students began with a description of hardware and devices, like cell phones, laptops and PDAs and how these devices are connected and networked to the internet. In addition to devices there was talk of data and storage. Much of what they focused on early in the discussion could be described as concern for things electronic.

The conversation changed course when one student remarked that the existing society / culture will tend to define technology in ways that reflects the dominant technology of the day, this was described as a “working form where you are at” perspective. This remark brought a very different flavor to the discussion. Students shifted their focus to thoughts about how digital technologies have impacted how information is distributed, and they saw information as being easily transferable and something they could also interact with. The emphasis was not on how devices / hardware were connected, but rather how people and information were connected.

I was intrigued by the insights students had into how this connectedness and ease of exchange of information – supported by digital media – had impacted their views of communication. They saw information as something that was highly customizable, and this allowed for the development of highly segmented audiences that could be easily catered to. Students seemed to see this as both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand it seems to expand the realm of communication opportunities, and at the same time control our access enabling a focus on very specific interests. In essence they seemed to be suggesting that the power of digitally mediated communication was simultaneously open and closed. Our freedom of access in fact tightens our focus. That is something I need to spend more time reflecting on.
At the end of the discussion we spent some time thinking about key questions we hoped to explore in the course. Several students signaled concerns about where digital media was taking us, and expressed some genuine uncertainty about how the Internet could continue to advance. The general question of “where do we go from here?” captured the difficulty of we face in understanding what digital media innovations could possibly lie ahead. These students, far from simply embracing the value of technology, expressed some strong reservations about how digital media was [re]shaping their lives. They wondered about where we would be if the digital media we have come to rely on somehow went away. They were concerned about how expectations – for everything – have become instantaneous, and how technology has become an “intruder” in their lives. They seemed to also express the concern that technology use begets more technology use, and questioned the extent to which their “free time” has become increasingly eliminated. These students, far from simply embracing the value of technology, expressed some strong reservations about how digital media was [re]shaping their lives. I’m looking forward to exploring these and other questions with them this semester, and hope they’ll chime in here and on their own blogs as their thinking about digital media continues to develop.

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Learning to Teach with Technology: Is it an Individual Activity?

A couple of days ago I met with a new cohort of VCU faculty members in the CTE’s Exploring Tablet PCs in the Classroom program. This is the third year the CTE is running the program, so there are a growing number of faculty members who are engaged with using tablets in their teaching. It is a small – grassroots program, and this year we have sixteen folks from a range of disciplines.  We will be meeting once a month during the academic year to explore software tools, share instructional uses, and discuss what seems to be working and not working. This represents a significant commitment on the part of faculty members in the program.

One of the things we attempt to do in the design of some professional development opportunities at the CTE is to build programs that sustain engagement over a longer period of time, in many cases a full academic year. Past experience has shown, as you might suspect, that interest ebbs and flows as faculty participate in these programs. There is the initial excitement of getting a new toy – in this case a tablet PC – and learning more about its functionality. Then comes the challenge of using it as a tool to support teaching and learning, and this needs to be balanced with other demands of working in the academy.  What often happens, is that we tend to use technologies in ways that reinforce our existing teaching practices. Technology integration gets translated essentially as “old wine in new bottles.” Innovative instructional uses of technology often mean that we must change our practice to do something new or different, something we would not be able to do without the technology. Changes in teaching practice tend to happen slowly over long periods of time…if at all.

At the beginning of the program I ask faculty members in a survey whether they think that learning to teach with a new technology is more of an individual or social activity. Responses vary a bit, but for the most part faculty members in this program have tended to hold the view that learning to teach with technology is an individual activity. The current cohort of faculty members is mostly split in their views, a change from previous groups. I’m not sure this really suggests anything, other than perhaps subtle preferences for learning in general.

At the same time, I think there is a dominant model of learning to teach with technology that is often implicit in the ways we talk about / promote technology, and in the default expectations for using technology in higher education that are rarely discussed. The message is: learning to teach with technology is a rather uncomplicated activity you do on your own, an isolated endeavor.

Maybe there is nothing wrong with this approach; it seems to work for innovators and early adopters who are often more inclined to play with technology on their own, and seem more comfortable with the inherent risks . However, I have questions about whether largely individual efforts can work for the majority. There seems to be too much time and risk taking involved for solo efforts to result in broad-based adoption.

I continue to think about ways to engage higher education faculty more generally in the use of technology to support teaching and learning. How do we get beyond the low-hanging fruit of working with early adopters? To what extent is the individual learning model a dominant one in higher education? Is a more socially engaged and collaborative approach to learning to teach with technology desirable? If so, why, and how might such an approach be promoted and supported? I’d be curious to hear other experiences and perspectives, as well as thoughts about whether the individual v. social learning view I’ve presented is a false dichotomy.

In any event, during the orientation meeting of the tablet PC program, faculty began to explore the use of their tablets as I provided an initial tour of the hardware and software tools that support digital inking. It was encouraging to see them working together, helping one another and sharing their views about what was interesting and how they hoped to use the tablet in their teaching. I find this kind of work and learning – energizing. I think it builds networks of support and collegiality that do not seem to be a part of the silo systems that define much of higher education. My hope is that the faculty in the program will find collaborative learning valuable, and contribute to some shared understandings about what it means to learn to teach with technology.

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Reflections on the Teaching and Learning with Technology Institute

This past week I had the great pleasure of working with a dedicated group of VCU faculty members, along with my colleagues Britt Watwood and Bud Deihl, during our annual Teaching and Learning with Technology summer institute. The institute is a fairly intense event, 7-8 hours a day of full-on exploration of technology tools and instructional practices. It was concentrated and some might say borderline too much, but we made some very intentional decisions about the design and content. Faculty participants acknowledged this, but also said they appreciated being pushed and challenged. From the other side of the room, I was blown away by their dedication, stamina and desire to learn.

As far as institutes go, I think it was a transformative week.

At the same time, I’m well aware of the criticism that has been leveled at these kinds professional development opportunities…that they are hit and run, don’t provide long term support, and can’t often get at the kind of sustained change we hope for in teaching practice. However, we had an amazing week with this group of faculty members, and I just want to share a few thoughts here as I continue to digest and reflect on the experience.

Emphasis on Personal Use of Technology
One of the things we emphasized and modeled throughout the week was the importance of using technology in ways that supported personal learning. We introduced folks to the social side of the web as a way to help them begin to get at how they could use social software and practices to support their own learning.

To my delight, many of them embraced the notion of social bookmarking by establishing and using del.icio.us accounts throughout the week, and really seemed to get the concept of tagging. They created customized feeds through Google Reader, and began to realize the power of RSS and how it has transformed our experience of the web. The creation and use of podcasts and screencasts also seemed to resonate on the personal learning level.

The thinking here is that we wanted faculty to have multiple experiences of using technology – first and foremost – in personally meaningful ways. The hypothesis is that if faculty members viewed tools and practices as supporting their own learning these things would more naturally spill over into the ways they use technology to support teaching and learning. Discussions of classroom application were woven throughout the sessions, but we rarely led with, “this is how these technologies can be used in the classroom.” I think that anchoring this stuff in ways that support personal learning really impacted the uptake and valuing of these technologies and practices among our faculty participants.

Shifting Notions of Collaboration
We attempted to engage folks in the exploration of web-based collaborative tools. We pulled off at the obvious stops…Google Docs and Wikis…and a more exotic rest area – Gliffy. Prior to that however, we brainstormed about our ideas related to collaboration. We discovered that our idealized image of collaboration was layered, complex and nuanced; involving relationships, multiple perspectives and social interaction. The tools we were exploring, with their focus on shared document and resource development, seemed to fall short of our shared view of collaborative process.

We also recognized the challenges of introducing the collaborative value of tools like Google Docs and wikis in a context where sustained collaboration lasts all of a few hours, or at best a few days. I’m not sure it is possible to create a strong experience of web-based collaboration using these tools in a brief workshop-like context. We were however able to gain some experience of what it was like for 20 people to simultaneously edit a wiki or Google Doc (limited to 10 users / time). The context of the Institute – with its time constraints – seemed to force contrived collaboration that in retrospect seemed artificial to me.

One of the things I realized from this experience is that these kinds of tools seem to ask us to rethink our notions of collaboration. What we outlined in our brainstorm map did not readily translate into the use of these web-based apps. In fact, I’m not sure they would even given the extended time of several weeks or months. I have come to see web-based collaboration as something quite different from my traditional notion of collaboration. This might seem like a big “DUH” to some of my more learned colleagues, but it was a breakthrough for me. Norms, values and expectations for web-based collaboration are not transparent; they emerge and are established over time as people work together in a mix of web and F2F environments. It seems that most of us are still figuring out how to do this.

Sustaining Community
One of the exciting things that can happen when people have shared experiences – like participation in an Institute – is the creation of a sense of community. To be honest, I can think of little else that is more powerful in supporting learning than participation in a community. The Institute this past week was a reaffirmation of that belief for me. I again witnessed the contagious energy that comes from learning that is cooperative, challenging and in good measure self-directed.

Despite dominant views, learning to teach with technology is not best mediated by a one-on-one experience with a computer and software; it is a social act where interdisciplinary dialogue, critique and practice are necessary…if not absolutely essential.

The dilemma arises when the Institute or event comes to a close. How can the community be sustained? How can these collegial relationships – so important yet so elusive in higher education contexts – continue to be supported? How can the shared experience and the dialogue continue? How can we continue to ride the wave of enthusiasm and interest?

These are questions we have wrestled with – as I’m sure others have – at the end of every single Institute we conduct. We’ve set up discussion boards to continue the conversation, sent the occasional email follow-up, set up collaborative grant opportunities and even threatened to set up a post-institute wiki. Rarely have I witnessed anything gain traction to sustain the energy of the community. Perhaps that is as it should be, an intense moment in time valued for its temporary excitement and energy.

I’m a holdout though…as a teacher, I have to be. The community formed is unlikely to be sustained in its original form – and I’m cool with that – but it can grow from smaller nodes and spread creating new communities where none previously existed…at least that is what I hope for. Watching these folks interact during the past week I got the sense that something had changed for them. They gained insight to the social web and explored some tools and practices to begin the journey to build their own connections and learning communities both locally and virtually. Suddenly, the world is a very different place…I’m looking forward to hearing their stories.

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Bridging the Digital Generation Gap

Having just finished our annual week-long summer Institute on Teaching and Learning there is plenty on my mind that is deserving of some reflection. However, I’m tempted by some of the low hanging fruit, and will try to sketch out a few ideas here that are at the surface for me.

The Institute was filled with the ebb and flow of interesting conversation, challenging questions, healthy skepticism and an awesome potluck lunch on the closing day. It is not always easy to predict what generates the spark, but as always, the Institute week contained moments of intensity and passion where discussion about teaching and learning got “hot.” One of these moments came on the morning of the final day when my colleague Britt Watwood was facilitating a session on NetGen learners. Let me begin by saying that Britt did an excellent job with the session, and my comments here are not a critique of his presentation, but rather an examination of the context and what unfolded. The intended purpose of the session was to address some characteristics of NetGen students, explore factors shaping their learning and to consider some implications for teaching and course design…arguably an important conversation to have with faculty members. Britt kicked off the session with Michael Wesch’s A Vision of Students Today as a conversation starter. We’ve used this video in a number of contexts – as many folks have – to generate conversation and highlight some key points about how we see the web impacting teaching and learning. When the clip ended there was a brief moment of silence punctuated by “Wow!” and “That was amazing” and “Interesting.” And then the comments shifted a bit…

One faculty member said something to the effect: “This is an example of why I don’t want to use technology in the classroom. I don’t allow students to use laptops in class while I’m teaching…they are simply a distraction.” This generated some head nodding, and another comment, “And the same with Wikipedia too.” This was the first time I had encountered faculty members responding to Wesch’s video in this way. Instead of examining questions about context, opportunities and challenges, the conversation turned toward a bit of technology bashing. I was baffled. Why were these faculty members seeing the video as a confirmation of why to NOT use technology in the classroom? Were they threatened? Was the message in the video an affront?

With the images of Wesch’s video still dancing in their heads, Britt shifted gears and asked folks to transition from the video to some discussion about the NetGen. This also brought immediate replies and questions: “You mean Millenials, right?” “What about the Gen X students?” It was at this point that something came into clearer focus to me…

Introducing labels like “NetGen” and “digital natives” in discussion establish “us / them” boundaries that divide. They offer very little in the way of understanding diverse sets of students or in guiding our teaching practice.

With all due respect to people who have written eloquently on this topic, I have come to the personal realization that terms like NetGen, digital natives, Gen X…and others that are sure to follow…offer me very little in the way of predictive power about how students will learn in my classroom, and how I might better support their learning. The terms are often used too generally and broadly for my liking, and they also have the undesired effect of masking diverse experiences. In some ways they are examples of grand narratives that attempt to simultaneously be descriptive and prescriptive.

We tend to use terms like “NetGen” and “digital native” to raise awareness and focus discussion about how the Internet and digital technology have impacted students. My recent experience with faculty members in our Institute suggests that the terms confound the discussion, or frame it in such way that detracts from attention to important questions. While many of today’s students have certainly been steeped in digital technology from their earliest days, I don’t think that makes them “digital natives” anymore than “non-native” tech-savvy educators who also use digital media in very meaningful ways…and who also happen to know how to put a stamp on a hand-written letter. Perhaps we are unnecessarily focusing our attention on sorting out artificial distinctions.

Digital technologies and web-based media are impacting all of us in ways that require us to rethink some fundamental assumptions we hold about teaching and learning. So instead of attempting to illustrate how one generation is digitally different than another, perhaps we should shift the conversation to address key issues and questions that impact all of the generations in the digital melting pot.

The next time I have the opportunity to talk with faculty members about how the web is impacting students, I’m thinking I’ll forgo the NetGen rap and see if we can come to any agreement on some of these questions:

1) What does critical thinking – on and about the web – look like?

2) How is the unprecedented access to information on the web [re]shaping our notions of teaching and learning?

3) What is the read / write web anyway? How is it changing our perspectives of publishing, scholarship, authority and authenticity?

4) How is hyper-connectivity (always on) changing our expectations and thoughts about communication?

5) How are web-based social networks redefining the exchange of ideas, collaboration, and community building?

For me, seeking answers to these and similar questions – across generations – is where we are going come to some better understanding of how to build connections among varied expectations and experiences.

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Continuous Partial Attention – Redux

I recently had the opportunity to take some long overdue vacation, telling myself I had to disconnect in order to [re]connect. I went camping in the mountains of Virginia with my dog, and chased trout with an expensive graphite fly rod and flies. I didn’t see or talk with any people for three days. It was amazing!

One of the things that struck me about this experience however was the amount of time it took me to actually stop thinking about reading blogs, reading / answering email, what was happening on Twitter…what cool ideas was I missing on the Network?! It was a little unsettling at first, and I was almost embarrassed that I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about all this stuff. It took me the better part of three days to really disconnect. As my digital life blurred, I became consumed by hiking mountain trails, scouting the creeks, being quiet streamside and watching bugs hatch off the water…observing feeding trout, gathering firewood and staying warm and dry. In these moments I really appreciated the simple slowness of a day of hiking, fishing and camping out under the stars.

All of this helped me realize how much time is actually required to manage a modern life along with the desire to be a live node on the network. The latter is in itself a full-time job! I remain a little unsettled with the realization.

In any event, I have since been thinking about a concept I heard a few years back – Continuous Partial Attention. To the best of my knowledge this was initially coined by Linda Stone, a social computing researcher at Microsoft. She writes:

“To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter. We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.”

Whoa! That set me back a bit. Forgive the rhetorical question, but…what are the implications of maintaining a sense of high alert and constant crisis for extended periods of time?

I began to think about these ideas in the context of some of the work I am engaged in at the Center for Teaching Excellence at VCU. Over the past year, my colleagues Britt Watwood, Bud Deihl and I have been engaged in a collective journey to explore social networking and the development of our own web-based personal learning networks (PLNs). For each of us this journey has involved significant amounts of time and energy to connect and stay connected; to really be part of the networked conversation about teaching, learning and technology…writing blog posts, reading countless blog postings in our RSS readers, tagging resources in del.icio.us, making / listening to podcasts and Twittering. Along with engagement in this conversation there seems to be the added expectation for even more engagement. Based on observations of colleagues and friends, and what I imagine about my network “heroes,” I think it seems safe to say that continuous partial attention, as described by Stone, is a necessary precondition for reaping the benefits of developing and maintaining a PLN. If we accept that, I think a whole host of questions arise…Who can really afford to develop and maintain a PLN? Who can afford not to develop a PLN? How does the maintenance of a vibrant PLN impact the attention we have to devote to other aspects of life and work? Are PLNs primarily for the early adopter set?

To me a PLN seems to be a bit of luxury, and at times an extravagant one.

That said, I turn to considering the faculty members with whom I work at VCU, and teachers in general, and wonder how many of them would even remotely consider taking the time required to overcome learning curves, fear, doubting, and network building to begin reaping benefits of a robust PLN. I suspect very few.

Perhaps it is simply my emerging notion of a PLN, ill-formed as it is and full of my own personal trappings, that makes it difficult for me to see how many teachers could really devote the amount of time and energy that appears to be required here. I’m not discounting the possibility, but I do however think we need to be realistic in terms of our expectations about how many teachers (K-12 & higher education) can devote the time required to engage and participate in the development of a robust PLN.

If we value the role PLNs can play in education, we need to find ways of introducing them that don’t confuse or overwhelm by being fully formed, offer meaningful starting point experiences that can lead to further development, and at the same time be part of a balanced practice and life. That is a tall order…and I’m not sure how to do that just yet, but I’m inspired by another comment from Linda Stone:

“We have focused on managing our time. Our opportunity is to focus on how we manage our attention. We are evolving beyond an always-on lifestyle. As we make choices to turn the technology OFF, to give full attention to others in interactions, to block out interruption-free time, and to use the full range of communication tools more appropriately, we will re-orient our trek toward a path of more engaged attention, more fulfulling relationships, and opportunities for the type of reflection that fuels innovation.”

Right on! I’m going fishing…

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Twitterpated…well, maybe.

I guess I’ll throw my hat into the already overfull ring of people who scratched their heads for months wondering about the value and function of Twitter, and then somehow took the leap to engage in the Twitterverse. Seems like a rite of passage, or perhaps a rite of absolution.

What is Twitter? Do you get it? Why would anyone want to use it? How do you use it? What are the applications in the classroom? These questions ran through my head for nearly a full year, until recently, I – like many others have recounted – took the Twitterplunge. I’ll try to provide a little insight into what finally kicked to put me over the edge.

The first time I encountered Twitter was nearly a year ago at the University of Mary Washington’s 2007 Faculty Academy – a wonderful event put on by the UMW folks at DoIT. At this conference I had the pleasure of seeing Alan Levine talk about Twitter and share some uses as well as his own head scratching journey to take the Twitterplunge…it seems everyone has that story. There was also a TwitterCamp set up for folks attending the UMW event where participants could tweet at each other and engage in some exchange…I watched in confusion. I continued to lurk – inconsistently – at the fringe of Twitter for several months…uncertain and already overwhelmed with more information streams than I could manage. Why did I need this…? I couldn’t answer the question…it continued to stew on the wayback burner.

The second significant encounter I had with Twitter was at the recent 2008 ELI Annual Conference, where Twitter was again featured prominently. The ELI folk had set up a TwitterCamp that could be “followed” by any participants, as well as others not attending the conference. Twitter became a medium of exchange – in the moment – that allowed people to comment and share thoughts on what they were experiencing and thinking about in sessions during the conference. This got my attention. There was an entire stream of ideas flowing among participants that was visible, informative and most importantly…generative. It was a valuable back channel of information and it was here I think I turned the corner on Twitter. I began to “follow” people on Twitter who I saw at the conference, and slowly over time began and continue to build a network.

So what makes it worthwhile for me? Right now there are a few things:

1) I have come to see Twitter as a piece of a much larger conversation. Blogs, YouTube, podcasts…these are all part of a conversation I am attempting to participate in, and Twitter is an interesting complement.

2) Twitter somehow seems to let me learn and get to know a little bit more about the folks I follow. It builds a sense of connection, and for me represents a bit of community building.

3) The network you build on Twitter becomes a resource to support learning and exchange.

4) It allows me to stay loosely connected to folks that I have a relationship with that I might not get to talk or communicate with as much as I’d like.

Yet Twitter still represents a very real challenge for me.

I am valuing the participation as a learning support and a process for connection. However, I’m still thinking that the adoption curve on this one is pretty wacky. Every faculty member I have introduced to Twitter, albeit casually and with hesitation, has rolled their eyes. “Twitter, cute! What do I need that time sucker for?” Perhaps they sense my own uncertainty. No matter how you slice it though, arrival at valuing participation in a networked community is something that takes time and belief that it will be a resource that can pay learning dividends in the future. Part of the challenge – seems to me – lies in creating a context or need where participation in the network becomes a necessity. Are we there yet?

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Connecting and Community Building to Support Risk Taking

I had the great pleasure of talking with Jeff Utecht and David Carpenter as a guest on their S.O.S podcast the other day. The connections we share, all quite by chance, made this even more fun for me. I had met David Carpenter as a result of exploring graduate programs while I was teaching overseas in Shanghai back in 2001. I was planning on attending the University of Virginia’s IT program, where David happened to be finishing up in the same program, and he was headed with his family to HKIS to do some cool things there. We swapped stories, and places. The connection to Jeff Utecht is through the Shanghai American School, where he is currently working. I was at SAS from 1997 – 2002, and witnessed some amazing growth and change at that school, not the least of which was the creation of SAS Pudong. It was fun to share a memory of the building of the Pudong campus, which back in the late 90’s was a sea wall and a several thousand acre mud pit. My how things have changed! It seems like a world away for so many reasons…I want to thank both Jeff and David for the opportunity to relive a little of that and for hosting me on their podcast.

I really love what David and Jeff are doing with their podcast, which is to ask the big questions that drive the conversation about what it means to shift our schools. I enjoyed the conversation which unfolded around the episode’s essential question of, how do adults learn? I don’t know that we answered the question very well, but I do think we were able to push it in a direction to consider some important possibilities as it relates to teaching and learning with technology. For me, there were three themes that emerged, and I’ll try to summarize them here.

Supporting the self-directed nature of adult learners has become more complex in the wired world
It is important for adult learners in educational settings to be self-directed in their efforts to use technology to support teaching and learning. This is crucial for obvious reasons, but I think it is also made more challenging by the context in which we find ourselves today. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but we live in a time that has witnessed unprecedented growth in access to information, web-based tools, and opportunities for exchange and collaboration. The pace is blistering, and while the “new tool everyday” is exciting, it contributes to a bit of option paralysis in my opinion. This can be overwhelming even for those who are steeped in it and live it everyday. Self-direction in a sea of opportunity can add a layer of challenge that prevents some adult learners from ever moving forward with an exploratory learning project. To say that we should be sensitive to this is an understatement. And while I think it is important to always ask the question about pedagogy – what do you want to achieve instructionally with the technology? – I’m not entirely convinced anymore that this should always be the first question. George Siemens, over at the Connectivism Blog, has a very interesting post addressing this idea.

Risk taking is paid for by overcoming fear
When we ask teachers to use technology in meaningful ways to support teaching and learning, we are asking them to take a risk. We are asking them to step outside their comfort zones, to experience some uncertainty, to be vulnerable, to wrestle with the idea that maybe the students do know more (or maybe not) about the technology, to question notions of expertise and to come to terms with fundamental shifts about power relations in the classroom. How can this kind of risk taking – the kind that results in transformative learning – be supported? How can we help teachers navigate the bumpy terrain bought about by the exploration of instructional technology? Perhaps one thing to do is simply start by acknowledging the fear. To admit that all of us – even the uber geeks – and I mean that as a term of endearment, experience fear when it comes to teaching and learning with technology. There was a presentation at the recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference that did a wonderful job of starting this conversation.

Risk taking can be supported through connecting and community building
When you feel a part of a supportive and engaged community, you begin to share experiences, build relationships, and discuss the success and failures. There is support. You are not playing without a net…and so maybe…you can ride a little closer to the edge than you might otherwise have done. In the podcast, Jeff Utecht talked about learning events at his school where he regularly brings teachers together to explore technology, and build connections. He also mentioned the role professional conferences (at least those that are edtech related) seem to be playing, in that they are more like kick-off events for the creation of community that can be sustained after the conference. In the work we do with faculty at VCU the theme that permeates nearly everything we do is to create community and connections among the faculty. We have found that cohort-based programs related to IT, and specific faculty learning communities where we bring people together an entire academic year can go a long way towards building those connections. It is a slow process, but one we think is worth investing in. The glue among these examples, I think, is the idea of an environmental event in the lives of people that can bring them together and serve as place holder… an organizing circumstance…for subsequent community building and perhaps some strengthened self-directed learning. I think there is something to be gained by paying more attention to the environmental contexts in which we engage with adult learners – teachers – and reflect on how, as a result, some meaningful self-directed learning can be supported and sustained. That is a challenge worth spending some time on.

Bottom line…building connections and community are central to supporting adult learners in taking risks to use technology to support teaching and learning…and I want to again extend thanks to folks like David and Jeff for advancing the conversation about this.

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