On the way to work this morning, a dishevelled, confused, coughing and sick-looking man in his fifties stepped into our train carriage. The train was reasonably full with morning city commuters, just about all of them (usually ‘us’ but not this morning for some reason) plugged in to some device or immersed in a book or conversation on the phone or in person.
The man started mumbling what seemed like a question. Once, twice, not too loudly but enough to be heard by say 25 people. A woman to my right was updating her Facebook, a man left to me was texting someone. A few people raised their eyebrows, but nobody cared to listen to this man. Almost in synch, a woman sitting across from and myself addressed the man and tried to make sense of what he was trying to do.
After a couple of minutes, we worked out that he simply wanted to know if this train stops at a particular station. We assured him it does, but he was still somewhat apprehensive. We suggested listening to the announcement (not so easy with a crappy sound of auto-announcer in a noisy train) and the map on the wall. “I can’t read well” the man managed to state with a hushed tone, seemingly embarrassed. The woman, fellow passenger, asked loudly if someone is getting off at the particular station in question. One hand came up and a young man agreed to remind our confused, scared traveller when they arrive there.
The woman next to me lifted her eyes once and kept fiddling around with Facebook, reminding me of this classic.
Evolution of samaritanism
This is not about bagging electronic devices and Facebook and the likes. It’s about helping others. Since we are social animals, it is not surprising that the biggest, most satisfying, inner and lasting happiness comes from helping, sharing and serving others. This is one of the major reasons why all this social media is spreading like wildfire through the very fabric of our community and shapes who we are becoming, always and never-endingly. The beauty of Twitter, for example, is not in publishing but in @ replies and serendiptious connections you make, “thank you’s” you sometimes generate quite inadvertently.
By all means help the newbies, expand, connect, collaborate with friends and strangers around the planet – just don’t forget those friends and strangers in need you can see, hear, smell around you.
There is a frivolous and a serious side to this title.
A few days ago, I came across the story titled “Teachers banned from contacting students on social networking sites“. It was an unnerving read about a knee-jerk reaction by Education Queensland over several incidents involving contacts between teachers and students by way of online social networking (SN). Unnerving because I have been successfully using social networking tools to connect with a number of current and former students over the past year.
My first reaction was – this stinks! The reaction of several of my (ex)students on Twitter and in class was – this stinks! The fury of fellow ed-tech folk was palpable on Twitter and in the blogosphere, the phrase “21st century” got mentioned a lot. The comments on the story’s website were an expectedly polarised mixture of “about bloody time” (mostly from people who don’t REALLY understand the methods, let alone the principles of social networking online) and “outrage” by people who have actually used social networking with students and benefited from it.
I didn’t leave a comment on the story but chose to sit on it for a few days, thinking.
Firstly, while the ban and particularly the lunacy of keeping teachers websites “private and appropriate” is unenlightened at best, I am sure that Education Queensland had the best interest of kids in mind, no matter how misguided the edu-crats may be. There clearly had been some breaches of trust and some inappropriate behaviour (I don’t condone it but then the number is relatively low considering probably tens of thousands of such ‘communications’).
As I reflect on this debate, I think this matter goes beyond the domain of education and a “few bad apples” causing others who use SN responsibly to suffer. It is a matter of divorcing education from the culture and society in which it is embedded into a kind of narrow technical pursuit by ‘experts who know’ (more on that in our ‘Why is everyone an expert on education?’ series, next installment close to publishing).
For better or worse, we are swimming in social media (see the stats above), it is a growing part of our cultural, social, political, economic and with it (why not?) educational life. Unless we make some enlightened and wise choices, decisions on such awesome tools of (ab)use will continue to be made by educators who have increasingly little power in the broader culture but fear losing their modest power in the educational establishment. To put it simply with a question: Ban it? Until when exactly?
How about leave it to the teachers and students? By all means, provide guidelines and warnings on content with sexualised nature, innuendo and stupidities like that. Social networking tools do make abuse easier to commit and distribute in time and space by people bent on abusing children or plain idiots. They can also be a wonderful way to connect, extend, humanise our teaching and learning in ways consistent with the century we live in. On the abuse prevention flipside, because these networks ARE social, they can quickly spot, even track and police (potential) offences. After all, friends are still one of the best weapons against bullying and abuse, aren’t they? Let’s talk with the kids (not AT them) and become wise TOGETHER about online behaviour, what is appropriate and why so. The idea that you control the mouse but don’t control the signal still needs to be bedded down in minds of kids, parents and educators (and politicians, obviously).
So is student-teacher social networking all good then? Not so fast, not just yet …
Online predators and abusers are a real problem. But let’s not make a leap that every teacher online is a predator or at least has stupid, if at least unsavoury intentions. If anything, it is the students that are probably more likely to be predatory and abusive. Don’t believe it? Just wait till a disgruntled teenager unleashes an MSN fury about you being a ‘crap teacher’ because she failed that test by 2%, and which you marked with utmost professional integrity.
Another issue is one of time. For all its benefits, social networking can become quite taxing on teachers’ time. Teaching is a caring profession, one where relationships do and should matter. Caring for too many students online, usually as a supplement to face-to-face contact, could spread one’s teaching resources thinly. It could even breed misguided resentment “he doesn’t ever reply to our posts, he doesn’t care” or “he doesn’t want to be friends on Facebook, he is not friendly” etc. There is also a danger that because of the ‘always on call’ attitude, students will come and ask questions and seek help for problems they could be better off solving and struggling with themselves. And they will do that at often inappropriate, inconvenient times. Being a node, to use connectivist lingo, is OK but being a hub with the approval switch for all traffic would probably often work against the independent learning of students, something social networking tools have such a wonderful potential to support and sustain when used wisely.
And let’s not forget that old nut… While privacy is a button to click and filter to turn on in this hyper-connected world, it should not be dismissed lightly either. Invoking the platinum rule (“Treat others the way they want to be treated”) could be increasingly important or the SN tools may deliver disappointment and, at worst, abuse.
This reflection began with the question “should teachers be allowed to connect with students over SN?” This is an edu-technical issue – ban or not ban. At a much deeper level, SN is about the potential to rock the boat of the restrictive, binary teacher – student divide we are so comfortable with and used to. For now, we (can) run projects and tinker on the edges with SN occasionally bridging that divide. However, it can be very taxing and quite possibly (un)helpful in many ways to be a (traditional) teacher, connector, assessor, judge, evaluator, crying shoulder, confidante, ‘buddy’ and many other things to cohorts of students 24/7 online and face-to-face. Context rules – let’s have a mature conversation about it.
But if we genuinely open up spaces where these roles are re-defined, re-imagined, in some cases even completely reversed, social networking could be an incredibly useful, perhaps essential tool in fundamentally re-shaping education towards a (post-industrial) model of cross-generational mentorship. I am passionate about working towards it but I’d continue to wisen up on social networks and by all means use them with students and colleagues … judiciously.
‘Judiciously’ not because I don’t use, like or trust my social networks (I love them!) but because the ‘bleeding edge’ we are at sometimes requires its pint of blood I’d rather donate than have it drawn without my approval.
And the punsy title?
What else is education other than a social network, seemingly supressed, blocked and banned in its 21st century incarnation. Not work? You be the judge…
There are some pretty staggering stats in this presentation about social media. It is aimed at marketing people but since education and marketing share so many cultural spaces, its impact on education is not be discounted.
It is simply how, more and more, people live their lives.
I like social media and ‘push (for) it’ with my students and colleagues for one reason (well, at least by far the biggest!) – it is a chance for more kids to be heard & considered ‘educated’, not asked ‘which school do you go to’, only to be ranked at 20 paces.
The potential is there, the beginnings are there. “Full duplex” as the slideshow states. Nobody knows or cares online what school you go to or how rich your daddy is if you produce useful content, solve problems, create a network by being helpful to and with others. Still think this is all a passing fad?
The power of schools to assign credentials of ‘educated’ and ‘not educated’ may not be eternal…
Thanks to Twitter, YouTube and other social media around these days, we read the messages and watch the images from what seems to be increasingly dangerous streets of Iran. These are raw, unedited fragments of human reality, taken just a few seconds before we can see them. We often pass these on to others. There are no gatekeepers – just real people caught in the rip of history.
Do you know the story of Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager caught in the horrible rip of history called World War 2? Have you ever wondered what would happen if Twitter was around then and you could receive her updates? Would you pass on (or ‘retweet’ in Twitter lingo – RT) her most thoughtful, most dramatic tweets on. What if she (not some boring pop star) had 1 million followers? All passing on her messages?
“Jazzalujah” (don’t know his real name) is 21, lives in the US and he wonders just that. And thanks to him and the post on the Lost Liberty Cafe, you may (again) think about the human potential of social media to – change the course of history.
Need more examples of ‘what if?’
How about soldiers or civilians sending updates during the Vietnam War? What would that do to the public opinion? Would the madman Kim Jong Il of North Korea be so daringly and dangerously powerful if millions could photograph the starving children in his country and send the pictures around the world? Would the Berlin Wall have fallen any earlier if STASI couldn’t block a thing called Twitter? Of course, you can add a few of your own…
Think about these every time someone tells you social media is a “complete waste of time”. It can be. It can also be a beacon of humanity like we have never had in history.
PS Please note that Anne Frank I refer to above was a real person who died in Auschwitz in 1944. She is not the ‘Anne Frank’ on Twitter, who bears the photo of the real Anne Frank and updates her status regulalry.