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Digital Literacy and the ‘Digital Society’

watching_tv

Sometimes you come across a passage in a book or article that puts into words what you’ve been thinking for a while. Today, whilst studying for my Ed.D. that’s exactly what happened. I’m working my way through Lankshear & Knobel (eds.) Digital Literacies: concepts, policies and practices at the moment and am up to Allan Martin’s excellent article entitled Digital Literacy and the “Digital Society” (hence the title of this post).

In it, Martin hits a nail firmly on the head when he talks about the crumbling of existing structures that give meaning such as family units, church and, to some extent, the state. In the place of these, he quite rightly asserts, individuals tend to define themselves by what they consume – usually in the way of media. It’s a lengthy quotation that I’m going to share, but definitely worth it!

Society is being transformed by the passage from the “solid” to the “liquid” phases of modernity, in which all social forms melt faster than new ones can be cast. They are not given enough time to solidify and cannot serve as the frame of reference for human actions and long-term life-strategies because their allegedly short life expectation undermines efforts to develop a strategy that would require the consistent fulfillment of a “life-project.” (Bauman, 205, p.303)

For those who do not belong to the global elite, life has become an individual struggle for meaning and livelihood in a world that has lost its predictability… Consumption has become the only reality, the main topic of TV and of conversation, and the focus of leisure activity. The modes of consumption become badges of order, so that to wear a football strip of a certain team (themselves now multinational concerns) or a logo of a multinational company become temporary guarantors of safety and normality.

In this society, the construction of individual identity has become the fundamental social act. The taken-for-granted structures of modern (i.e., industrial) society – the nation state, institutionalized religion, social class – have become weaker and fuzzier as providers of meaning and, to that extent, of predictability. Even the family has become more atomized and short term. Under such conditions individual identity becomes the major life-project. You have to choose the pieces (from those available to you) rather than having them (largely) chosen for you. In this context, awareness of the self assumes new importance, reflexivity is a condition of life; a life that needs to be constantly active and constantly re-created. And care is needed, because each individual is responsible for their own biography. Risk and uncertainty have become endemic features of the personal biography, and individual risk-management action is thus an essential element of social action (Beck, 1992, 2001). The community can be no longer regarded as a given that confers aspects of identity, and the building of involvement in communities has become a conscious action-forming part of the construction of individual identity. Individualization has positive as well as negative aspects: the freedom to make one’s own biography has never been greater, a theme frequently repeated in the media. But the structures of society continue to distribute the choices available very unequally, and the price of failure is greater since social support is now offered only equivocally.

This certainly resonates with my experience, especially of teenagers. I believe, as Martin later argues, that it’s our job as teachers to instil in youngsters the digital literacy/competence/fluency (whatever you want to call it!) to be able to critically and reflectively deal with media and the digital world.

Does this resonate with YOU too? πŸ˜€

(image credit: mesmerised by Joe Thorne & Flickr)

My presentation @ TeachMeet Midlands 2009

TeachMeet Midlands 2009

This evening I’ll be attending TeachMeet Midlands 2009 at the National College for School Leadership in Nottingham. If you’ve never heard of a TeachMeet before, they’re based around the idea of an unconference, ‘facilitated, participant-driven conference centered around a theme or purpose.’ (Wikipedia) I’ve been to a couple before – both of which were additions to the BETT Show – and they’re great events. There’s a fantastic buzz around the place, people passionate about what they do, and it’s a wonderful way to not only meet up with people you’ve only talked to online, but to come across new faces as well! πŸ™‚

My (micro)presentation

I’ve signed up on the TeachMeet wiki to do a 7-minute micropresentation. Initially, I was going to talk about my role this year as E-Learning Staff Tutor and a bit about my Ed.D. on digital literacy. However, TeachMeets should be a lot more focused on classroom practice, so I’ve decided to instead talk about what I’ve been doing with my Year 10 History class.

This year I saw my having a new, fairly able GCSE History class as a good opportunity to try out some new methods and approaches to the course. As students at my school now have four lessons of their option subject per week instead of three, I decided to have one of them timetabled in an ICT suite. The room I was allocated has tiered seating and laptops, which was even better! :-p

After looking at various options, I decided to use Posterous for their homework blogs. Reasons for this include:

  • Blog posts can be written by email.
  • It deals with media in an ‘intelligent’ way (e.g. using Scribd to embed documents, making slideshows out of images)
  • Avatars allow for personalization.

I set almost no homework apart from on their blogs. This means that on a Friday they start an activity using (usually) a Web 2.0 service and then add it to their blog via embedding or linking. The only problem with this has been Posterous not supporting iFrames, meaning that Google Docs, for example have to be exported to PDF and then uploaded. Students are used to this now and it doesn’t really affect their workflow.

Examples of student work

Links to all blogs can be found at http://mrbelshaw.posterous.com

Student feedback

I should, perhaps, have asked for parental permission to video students’ opinions about this approach. From what they tell me, they greatly enjoy working on their blogs. In fact, a Geography teacher at school has hijacked one of my students’ blogs so she does work for both History and Geography on it! I think they appreciate the following things:

  • Presentation (a lot easier, especially for boys, to produce good-looking work)
  • Multimedia (they’re not looking at paper-based stuff all the time)
  • Collaboration (they get to work with others whilst still having ‘ownership’ of the final product on their blogs)

It’s a system that I’d definitely recommend and I shall be using in future! πŸ˜€

Short URL for this post (for Twitter, etc.) = http://bit.ly/4jD6V

Why (educational) technology?

'The Thinker' and laptopBen Grey got in touch via a Direct Message (DM) on Twitter earlier this week asking my opinion and for some help. Although I haven’t (virtually) known Ben for that long, I like him. He comes across as a intelligent, knowledgeable, considered – yet humble and understated kind of guy. Given that, and the fact that what he was asking of me is close to my heart, of course I’ve responded! πŸ˜€

Ben asked:

I thought it would be helpful, and perhaps a powerful learning opportunity as well as resource, if I could gather a series of responses from a variety of minds in the field of education on the question I posed in my recent Tech & Learning post, “Why Technology?”Β  http://www.techlearning.com/blogs/20444

If you’re up for it, would you mind giving me your input on the question?Β  That can be done in the form of an email, a blog post, a comment on the T&L blog, or some other form of your choosing.

The problem is this: it’s easy to cut funding on technology-related projects citing technology as some kind of ‘luxury’ or ‘optional add-on’. I’ve got three points in reply to Ben’s post:

  1. What price education?
  2. Learning cultures and communities
  3. Invisible technology

I shall take each point, as they say, in turn:

What price education?

i_has_a_moneyIn his post Why Technology? Ben cites economic problems as reasons for school districts in the U.S. cutting back:

I’ve heard from several colleagues in various states that there is pressure mounting to cut both future and existing plans for increasing technology utilization in their districts.Β  Many districts are eliminating technology personnel as well.Β  The primary catalyst for this is being blamed on the economy.Β  Budgets are being trimmed and belts are being tightened, and it would appear to those wielding the shears that technology is the low hanging fruit.

At times of stress, we tend to revert back to what we know and be conservative. That’s why under-pressure teachers teach as they were themselves taught and parents tend to discipline their kids in the same way they were disciplined. But to do something just because ‘it’s the way it’s always been done’ or because someone you respect did it that way is fundamentally misguided. It takes into account neither context nor the purpose for which you or the organization for which you were are there.

Every generation needs to ask questions and tell its own story. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been done with education for at least a couple of generations. So as many commentators put it, we’re in the situation where students ‘power down’ when they come to school. They’re using the tools of previous generations. It’s at best anachronistic, and at worst dangerous to the intellectual health of the western world. πŸ™

Learning cultures and communities

lolcat_tweetsMy grandmother is fairly representative of her generation. Not only does she have no idea when it comes to the internet, but she cannot comprehend how it can allow ‘communities’ to spring up. The latter point is something that is shared by others, some of whom are much younger than her. I have argued this point before, but most teachers, themselves being successful at school under the ‘old system,’ have if not an opposition to wholesale changes in education then certainly an inertia to change. Hence the status quo reigns supreme.

We’re used to both seeing school buildings and having not only children’s lives but those of adults being centred around the school day and the school year. Never mind that, for example, the long summer holiday was a result of a no-longer-needed nod to children helping with harvests! We carry on with what we’ve got because it’s familiar. But familiarity is no basis on which to resist change.

Newspapers and the media in general bemoan the breakdown of communities. By that, of course, they mean physical communities: people talking over hedges, leaving their doors unlocked, that sort of thing. What is ignored in their reactionary rants is abundance of technology-mediated networks. (I hesitate to use the word ‘virtual’ as it makes them sound less ‘real’) Just because older generations do not realise the importance of technology for communication should not mean they deny access to it to those who are already using it for such purposes.

Invisible technology

lolcat_invisible_everythingBut what is ‘technology’ after all? Pen and paper are ‘technologies’ yet we don’t tend to think of them as such. I would argue that it exactly our conception of something being ‘a technology’ that places an unnecessary barrier in the way of its widespread use. I don’t believe its simply playing with semantics to talk of ‘tools’ instead of ‘technologies’ – especially when the discussions about ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ becomes if not blurred then increasingly irrelevant with the advent of cloud computing. Laptops, after all, are almost commodity items these days.

To discuss technology is to talk about the wrong thing. You will always lose a debate if the only position from which you argue is that we should use more technology in education. The technology needs to be used as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. That’s for specialized clubs, hobbyists and those for whom technology is a passion. Education has the dual role of preparing young people for society and opening their eyes and minds. If technology, in whatever guise it takes, helps with that then so much the better.

At the end of the day, technology has the potential to change relationships and therefore disrupt power structures. I can’t help but think that it’s the desire of teachers to remain at the front of classrooms, senior leaders to remain behind desks, and parents to stick to what they know that results in no real fundamental, technology-driven changes happening in education.

What do YOU think? Do you agree with the above? What IS the role of technology in education? Join the discussion! πŸ˜€

Short URL for this blog post (for Twitter, etc.) = http://bit.ly/whytech

Everything that’s wrong with educational management, summed up in 3 Dilbert cartoons.

Before I start, I must point out that this is not a dig at all the members of the Senior Leadership Team at my current school. Not at all. Rather, it’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the practices that traps people in management positions – at all levels – sometimes fall into. They’re therefore traps I’m going to do my best to avoid when I become part of the Senior Leadership Team at my next school!

Shiny Shiny

Dilbert - pie charts

I’ve seen two awful presentations in the past couple of weeks. One was just monumentally bad – the presenter couldn’t find files, sat us through ages of short video clips and sprang questions at us to fill in time – and the other was just rambling and poorly thought-out. What was common to both approaches, however, was the assumption “I’m using technology therefore this must be a good presentation.” Gah.

I take the above Dilbert cartoon in the way that I think it’s meant to be read – i.e. as an extremely sarcastic and ironic look at how easily people are impressed by things that look good. That, to some extent is true. But it’s only true when accompanied by at least some level of competence in presenting information in an interesting and engaging way. Technology does not do the presentation for you!

On a slightly tangential note, I’m also concerned about the uncritical and all-too-credulous nature of otherwise intelligent people when presented with graphics that represent statistics. It’s critical literacy and a basic understanding of statistics. A grasp of these should be a pre-requisite for a career in any professional occupation…

Surfing the status quo

Dilbert - 'good'

Hiding behind desks is something that people in management in the world over are particularly good at. In schools its especially straightforward to seem good at your job if you get the data right. Schools only have to be seen to be doing things correctly – they aren’t inspected very often, parents are often (sometimes voluntarily) left out of the everyday loop concerning their child’s interactions at school, and the status quo suits most people very well.

So if you can engineer a situation where you or your institution seem to be doing everything right, the weight of conservative opinion and social inertia are on your side. As a manager you just need to jump through the oft-renamed hoops.

What am I planning to do? Aim to be an expert. Of course, I’ll never actually achieve my goal for, in a Socratic manner, the more you know the more you realize you don’t know. Still, it’s the process that’s important – as Kathy Sierra pointed out back in the day on her much-missed blog:

How to be an expert - graph (Kathy Sierra)

Most managers are ‘amateurs’ on this graph. They find a way that works for them and then keep on doing it. Over time, this means inconveniencing others and distorting things to make things fit into their system.

Those who choose the ‘expert’ path and challenge themselves to keep learning become – perhaps inadvertently – leaders, as the enthusiasm for continuous learning and their own professional development attracts others like a magnet!

‘Drive-by’ management

Dilbert - drive-by management

One of the results of being an ‘average’ manager (see above) is that, by not challenging yourself to learn new things, you will have spare time. Feeling guilty about this, managers then want to make sure they look like they’re doing their job and have authority. They therefore make things up for people to do, are awkward just for the sake of it, or ‘drop-in’ on people and point out irrelevancies.

I’m going to take as a fundamental maxim that people should be trusted to be professionals and get on with their job. Yes, there should be as much appropriate communication as possible, but attempts to micro-manage and meddle usually backfire. I suppose you could say that’s a fairly laid-back approach. Fair enough, but I’ll be demanding results! I think people will respect that. πŸ™‚

What do YOU find wrong with management in education? Share your opinions in the comments section below!

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Schools and the Procrustean Bed: are we really ‘personalising’ learning?

β€˜There is something about the Procrustean bed about schools; some children are left disabled by being hacked about to fit the curriculum; some are stretched to take up the available space, others less malleable are labeled as having special educational needs.’ (C. Bowring-Carr and J. Burnham West)

Procrustean BedI mentioned the above quotation in a blog post way back in 2006. I was concerned then about the various ‘agendas’ in education, and that’s even more the case today. The ‘personalising learning’ agenda is supposed to be about tailoring educational experiences to each and every child yet, in 2009, we still have classes of 30 or more children with one teacher standing in front of them. The focus seems to have moved onto technology as some type of ‘saviour’. In that respect, it’s sad to see Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), compulsory in English schools since the beginning of this academic year, being used simply as file repositories.

Whilst some schools may talk about ‘appropriate’ or ‘accelerated’ entry, it’s difficult to see how this is in the best interests of students. In most cases it’s a strategy for schools to squeeze as many exam passes from their students as possible: whilst those studying the highest level of exams have extra lessons in those subjects, those at the other end of the spectrum are re-taking basic examinations until they pass them. It’s hard to see how this completely examination-focused approach is ‘personalisation’ in any important, meaningful sense.

What is needed is a complete rethink – of the curriculum (based on competencies?), of learning spaces (like any of these Futurelab suggestions?), of the structure of the school day, of staff/students ratios and relationships, of the nature of ‘schooling’ and education in the 21st century.

What do YOU think? Is ‘personalisation’ working in YOUR school?

(image taken from this university course page – assumed fair use)

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What are the ‘functional specifications’ of a VLE that drive real learning?

You may want to read my post What is a VLE? as an introduction to this post!

lp-dvd-capture-05It’s the nature of blogs that they reflect the ideas and interests of those who write them. As a consequence, this particular one has, of late, featured much on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of E-Learning – i.e. the systems and processes that enable Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), for example, to work effectively.

In my new role as Director of E-Learning (and I quote from my job description) it is my responsibility to:

Ensure the creation of the virtual learning environment (VLE), identifying clear targets, time-scales and success criteria for its development and maintenance in line with the Academy Development plan.

As such, in conjunction with the ICT Advisor from the Academy’s consultants, I need to come up with some ‘functional specifications’ for the VLE. We shall be using the existing VLE that is in place in the current High school, either developing that or replacing it for the new build in 2011.

Becta’s list of functional requirements can be found here, but I wanted to ask those in my network if they had any other suggestions. Here’s what they came up with in a short space of time (click to enlarge):

In terms of what I want to see in a VLE, I think it needs to:

  • Be a collaborative space where students and staff can collaborate on documents and web pages (like Google Apps)
  • Enable users to have appropriate contact with others within the Academy and the wider community by a range of methods (e.g. Twitter-like microblogging, instant messaging, shared whitetboards, video conferencing,email, social networking)
  • Promote learning by have clearly structured course elements, rather than be a file repository.
  • Process appropriate data quickly in a visually-appealing and easy-to-understand way for Academy staff, students, and parents.
  • Allow students to publish their work to various parties: peers, teachers, the Academy, the world.
  • Enable outside agencies to access appropriate data on students, staff and Academy issues.
  • OpenID login so users have a single sign-on and have more control over their digital identity.
  • Integration with immersive worlds such as Second Life (as, for example Sloodle does)

I’m sure by 2011 there will be many other things I want the VLE to do function-wise, but that’s enough for now… Would appreciate your input in the comments section! πŸ˜€

(image by Mr Ush @ Flickr)

Looking to the future of education: learning spaces and mobile devices

Tomorrow, I’m off to a school – the one I attended as a teenager – that will form part of Northumberland Church of England Academy. I’m going there as Director of E-Learning after my successful Twitter-powered interview. I start officially in September! It’s the first of a series of meetings looking at the ICT/E-Learning systems for the Academy and we’ll be looking at ‘Devices and Learning Spaces’. This post, therefore, is a result of my reading around this subject and interaction with colleagues on Twitter. πŸ˜€

'Mobile Application Prototypes that Relate to Location - Sheridan Interactive Multimedia One Year Post Grad College in Oakville' by Dan Zen @ Flickr

Futurelab

Any time I want to get up-to-speed quickly with an area of educational technology or the future of schools, I head straight for Futurelab. I’ve worked with them many times as part of their Teachers as Innovators programme, was interviewed for their website, and have presented with them at the BETT Show. Futurelab’s Publications, reports & articles section has freely-available PDFs and, if you’re in the UK, you can request hard copies to be delivered for no charge!

In terms of learning spaces and mobile devices, I believe the following Futurelab reports to be most useful:

Futurelab have also been responsible for some great projects that use mobile technologies – read about them in the project reports section. They’ve also got a project called Beyond Current Horizons that looks into the future of education in 2025 and beyond. Interesting stuff!

Suggestions from my Twitter network

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people that form my network on Twitter were most helpful when it came to mobile devices: most of them are educators rather than school designers (with the exception of Christian Long who is – or has been – both!)

Here’s what they recommended:

Mobile Devices

Learning Spaces

Finally, there’s Becta’s Next Generation Learning site. There are, no doubt, many resources and sites that should be added here. If you know of one, please let me know in the comments section and I’ll add it! πŸ™‚

(Image by Dan Zen @ Flickr)

HOWTO: Make yourself more visible online by building a Google Profile

I iz hea!I don’t know about you, but I’m never sure where to link to when I want people to know a bit more about me. For example, when emailing someone who might like to know who I am and where I’m coming from, do I link here, to my blog? To my Twitter stream? To my FriendFeed? Sometimes I just pick the one I think most appropriate, sometimes I hedge my bets and link to all of them!

Thankfully, I no longer have that problem. Why? I just link to my Google Profile! It’s very easy to do – simply visit http://www.google.com/profiles/ Here’s what mine looks like:

Doug Belshaw's Google Profile

You should probably claim your preferred username (e.g. ‘dajbelshaw’) ASAP  in case someone else claims it. Once you’ve got it, you can use your favourite URL-shortening site to make it even easier to remember and add wherever you wish – e.g.

http://bit.ly/dajbelshaw

I’ve already been contacted a couple of times via my Google Profile and really like the way it brings my accounts together into one, easily accessible place. I don’t think it will be long before typing ‘Doug Belshaw’ into Google will result in landing at my Google Profile. And, I reckon, that’s no bad thing… πŸ˜€

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Telling a new story.

98-365

98/365 by tim caynes @ Flickr

Oh, how the media do spin things! Teachers want ‘four-day week’ screams the headline from first of all the Daily Mail and then, more unexpectedly, the Daily Telegraph. Those within the profession know that this is, of course, nothing like the reality – and this is indeed revealed in the second paragraph of the Telegraph article (in the actual newspaper):

[Teachers] want the equivalent of a four-day teaching week to free up more time to mark and prepare children’s work.

How on earth can that be a bad thing? And notice that little word that was omitted from the headline? ‘Teaching’. We want to not teach so much in order that we can spend more time preparing high-quality lessons and have time to assess work properly. We don’t want a ‘four-day week’; we just want the proportion of time we spend in school to be allocated differently.

This, of course, highlights the problem facing anybody or group of people who want to change education in any real sense:Β  the nature of the conservative media. Whilst happy to bemoan declining standards in schools and the ‘factory’ nature of the state system, anything which might lead to progress is attacked as ‘unworkable’, ‘expensive’, or ‘dangerous’.

Take another piece of ‘research’ that also appears in today’s Daily Telegraph under the headline Facebook students ‘underachieve’ (I quote this in full):

Students who spend their time on Facebook are underachieving in exams, research suggests.

A study by Ohio State University has found that students who spend their time on the social networking website may devote as little as one hour per week to their academic work. It found that 65 per cent of Facebook users accessed their account daily, usually checking it several times to see if they had received new messages.

However, students who used Facebook had a “significantly” lower grade point average – the US marking system – than those who did not use the site.

On the face of it, a factual report and one that could be used to bolster stances taken by parents and those generally of a more reactionary nature during dinner party-table discussions. Looking at the Ohio State University’s overview of the study, the tentative nature of the conclusions become apparent:

The researchers surveyed 219 students at Ohio State, including 102 undergraduate students and 117 graduate students.Β  Of the participants, 148 said they had a Facebook account.

The study found that 85 percent of undergraduates were Facebook users, while only 52 percent of graduate students had accounts.

Karpinski emphasized that the results don’t necessarily mean that Facebook use leads to lower grades.

β€œThere may be other factors involved, such as personality traits, that link Facebook use and lower grades,” she said.

β€œIt may be that if it wasn’t for Facebook, some students would still find other ways to avoid studying, and would still get lower grades.Β  But perhaps the lower GPAs could actually be because students are spending too much time socializing online.”

Now that paints a fuller picture, doesn’t it? And what about the potential benefits? What about the fact that many more undergraduates are using it than graduates? What about harnessing the potential of a space students are already spending much of their time?

And then comes the darling of the middle classes, the neuroscientist who’s never scared to tell us that new equals bad. Professor Susan Greenfield is against computer games, social networking, and now the teaching of things like Twitter to Primary school children. It’s hard to feel that she’s not somewhat out of touch and setting up ‘straw man’ arguments:

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying games. But don’t you think it’s strange that people are engaging in activities that have no purpose? Spending their precious time and money sitting in front of a screen in a make-believe world when they could be out there having love affairs and doing things in the real world?

“And that’s what worries me. That we are rearing a generation of kids that are in danger of becoming emotionally stunted, inarticulate, hedonists with the attention span of a gnat. Because they spend the majority of their time in front of a computer screen. A whole generation that can’t interact because their skills are limited to inhabiting a fantasy world on a screen.”

Never mind that ways of communicating change and evolve, that she’s as inarticulate in that world as she’s claiming the gamers to be in hers.

I think we need to tell a new story. A story about how technology can be used to bring people together. A story about realistic 21st century education. A story based on experts deciding upon and then implementing what’s best for children. A story, I suppose, not told by journalists in the traditional media.

Ignore everybody.

There are blog posts I plan in advance and there are those that happen as a result of serendipity and need blogging straight away. This is very much one of the latter. :-p

Earlier this week I was following with interest the tweets of Jenny Luca, an Australian educator, as she sat in the audience during one of Stephen Downes‘ presentations. Before the whole thing even started, she overheard Downes:

Jenny Luca - tweet

In her next tweet she simply wondered how that squared with connectivism, a learning theory of which Downes is an advocate. I thought up several responses, but didn’t have time to get into a debate and so kep them to myself. Jenny’s reflections on the event, if you’re interested, are here. That particular event isn’t the focus of this post. πŸ™‚

Today, during an Easter Sunday afternoon in which I’d run out of things to fill my leisure time, I turned to my feed reader and came across this from Hugh McLeod:

Ignore Everybody

It’s actually a remixed (and, to be honest, improved) version of an original by Patrick Brennan.

These two coming so closely together made me reflect upon my online interactions. Now, before I go any further I need to point out very explicitly and clearly that I greatly value the interactions and conversations I have with individuals. I’m certainly not aiming to devalue that in what I’m about to say.

The power in a network comes from the amplification of individual contributions and connections to make it more than the sum of its parts.

I think this is may be where Downes was coming from in terms of ‘following topics not people’ on Twitter and where McLeod (via Brennan) means r.e. ignore everybody.

  • Yes, you need to learn the heuristics of the network.
  • Yes, you need to capture the zeitgeist.
  • Yes, you have be able to argue for your point of view.

…but when it comes down to it, you need to be your own person, using the network for your own ends. Not in some manipulative, Machiavellian sense, but in a ‘give-and-take’ way that means that the network truly does become more than the sum of its parts. πŸ˜€

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