One of the things I find invidious about social media is the ‘norming’ that happens at scale. People are simultaneously performing for others and conforming to their status as member of a particular group.
Identity is important. It’s the way we understand the world around us and our place in it. It’s also a fluid construct that changes over time. That’s why groups have a vested interest in ensuring that either their members change to conform to a shared group identity (usually) or the shared group identity changes to reflect the times (rarely).
One way of thinking about group formation is in terms of customs and habits of that group, but also, as Michel de Montaigne’s best friend pointed out, voluntary servitude:
Nevertheless it is clear enough that the powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than in this, namely, habituation to subjection.
We are all born into groups which define our reality, becoming habituated to the subjection imposed by them. Sometimes by accident, often due to some form of crisis, we find our way out of them and discover a world we didn’t previously know existed.
Let us therefore admit that all those things to which he is trained and accustomed seem natural to man and that only that is truly native to him which he receives with his primitive, untrained individuality. Thus custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude. Men are like handsome race horses who first bite the bit and later like it, and rearing under the saddle a while soon learn to enjoy displaying their harness and prance proudly beneath their trappings. Similarly men will grow accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection, that their fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil, and will persuade themselves by example and imitation of others, finally investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the idea that it has always been that way.
Something Tom Murdock said recently resonated enough with me that I felt the need to write it down in a place that I can reference. Here is as good a place as any!
I’m leading Project MoodleNet, which is currently described as “a new open social media platform for educators, focused on professional development and open content”. Tom mentioned that he saw an important difference between ‘people-centric’ and ‘resource-centric’ social networks.
(Note: it’s been a couple of weeks since that conversation, so anything witty or clever I say in the next few paragraphs should be attributed to him, and anything confusing or stupid should be attributed to me)
I should also point out that I blog about things I’m thinking about here, whereas the official project blog can be found at blog.moodle.net.
What is a resource-centric social network?
A people-centric social network is something like Facebook or LinkedIn. Users have a single identity and want to follow or connect with you as a person. A resource-centric social network is something like Pinterest or Thingiverse where people interact and engage with you through the resources you’re sharing.
I think most people reading this will understand how Facebook and LinkedIn work. Imagine them towards one end of the spectrum, and Pinterest and Thingiverse towards the other. Twitter is an interesting case here, as users can have multiple accounts and follow non-human accounts. I suppose it would probably be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
A quick tour of Thingiverse
I think Project MoodleNet is more of a resource-centric social network. To illustrate that, I want to explore Thingiverse, a wonderful site I came across recently after acquiring a 3D printer. Here’s what the About page says:
MakerBot’s Thingiverse is a thriving design community for discovering, making, and sharing 3D printable things. As the world’s largest 3D printing community, we believe that everyone should be encouraged to create and remix 3D things, no matter their technical expertise or previous experience. In the spirit of maintaining an open platform, all designs are encouraged to be licensed under a Creative Commons license, meaning that anyone can use or alter any design.
A registered trademark
Owned by a company
Focused on makers
Allows the sharing of open content
In that sense, it’s a very interesting model for Project MoodleNet.
Let’s look a little more closely. Below you can see the home page. The site is obviously curated by real human beings, as they’ve featured particular designs, and created collections which include designs from different users. There’s a feed of latest activity, the calls to action in the top menu bar make it obvious that this is a living community full of creative people.
The next thing you notice when you click through onto a particular design is that there’s a lot of information here to help orient you. There’s a clear call-to-action below ‘DOWNLOAD ALL FILES’ but also we can see how many times it’s been liked, watched, commented upon, and remixed.
Click on the remix button and you get to see those who have remixed the original design in some way. If the design you’re looking at is itself a remix, it also allows you to look at the original, too.
Naturally, you want to know a little bit about the person who created it. Perhaps they’ve created some other things you’d like? Clicking on the user name reveals their Thingiverse profile.
There’s lots of information about the person here: their username, location, Twitter profile, website, short biography. However, the focus is still on their resources. What have they designed? What have they shared?
The last thing to highlight is how Thingiverse deals with openly-licensed resources. When you click to download the files, the first thing that pops up is a windows that tells you in no uncertain terms about the license under which this resource has been made available.
In addition, it encourages you to ‘show some love’ to the designer. You can tip them using money via PayPal, and you can take a photo to ‘document’ your 3D print of their design, and you.
I’m very impressed with the thought that’s been put into Thingiverse. I don’t know the history of the community, but it feels like something that has responded to users. In turn, I should imagine that when those who are regular users of Thingiverse come to purchase their next 3D printer, Makerbot will be top of their list. It’s a virtuous circle.
So there’s a lot to learn from here that we can apply to Project MoodleNet. I like the way that they make it easy for people new to the community. I love the ease by which you can use the fork-remix-share approach that developers are used to on GitHub, but many educators are still yet to discover. And I adore the way that they encourage users to ‘show some love’ to original resource creators, educating them on how to use openly-licensed content appropriately.
With the exception of perhaps Snapchat, the extended moral panic around social media seems to be coming to an end. It’s therefore a good time to take stock of what the last ten years have brought us in terms of connecting with one another through technology – and how we might be best able to use social media for learning.
Interestingly, although new services pop up on a regular basis, it’s increasingly the case that social media incumbents quickly purchase their emerging competitors. For example, the messaging platforms WhatsApp and Instagram were purchased by Facebook, while Twitter has bought a whole host of smaller companies including TweetDeck and the video livestreaming platform Periscope. With the billions being spent in these deals, it’s worth remembering that there are a whole host of smaller, independent, open source alternatives out there that better respect your privacy (e.g. Telegram and Cryptocat).
Despite well-founded concerns around corporate and government surveillance when using social media platforms, there are nevertheless a number of unique opportunities that they provide. We should use these platforms with our eyes open, and encourage learners to do likewise. The following three advantages of social media presuppose teaching in a way that includes social media as part of the everyday learner journey.
1. Access to expertise
With the best will in the world, we as educators cannot be experts in everything we teach. One thing that social networks have brought us is the ability to follow the everyday work and contact people who, in previous generations, would have been inaccessible. Students can follow debates that public intellectuals and experts in a particular field are having today. This can lend a vibrancy and freshness to learning that textbooks and other ‘static’ media cannot provide.
This expertise can also be tailored. There are countless examples of experts leading and participating in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). What’s more, many of these experts, particularly in the field of education, are incredibly generous with their time, interacting with both teachers and students around the world. Social media has truly democratised access to expertise.
2. Developing professional networks
The equivalent of the ‘little black book’ from days past can now been seen as the professional networks built by an individual. Professional social networking is often seen as the preserve of sites such as LinkedIn but, increasingly, we’re seeing this as more than merely a graphical front end on an email database. There are other, more nimble ways of communicating. For example, ‘tweetchats’ around a hashtag are a way to bring together people interested in the same topic for a short and intense period of time. The best known of these are #edchat (global) and #ukedchat (UK-specific) but there a whole host of these listed in this blog post. Some are subject/stage-specific.
Professional networks are important for teachers, but they’re extremely important for learners looking for their first job, or those attempting to move into their next job. In a time of funding pressures and a focus on employability, introducing learners to professional networks is an increasingly-important role for teachers. Learning is about both what you know and who you know, providing the opportunity to translate knowledge and skills into action.
3. Teacher automation
While a phrase such as ‘teacher automation’ sounds somewhat dystopian, one thing that technology is particularly good at is freeing humans from repetitive, routine tasks. For example, Sian Bayne and teachers on Edinburgh University’s E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC created a ‘bot’ that was programmed to respond to very particular queries posed by students. Using the hashtag #edcmooc the bot responded in an ‘if this then that’ way to queries such as ‘When is the first assignment due?’
One of the biggest reasons teachers give for leaving the profession is administrative workload. If we can help mitigate that through the appropriate use of technology, then we should. Semi-autonomous agents (i.e. ‘bots’) provide one way in which we can shift our focus from routine and repetitive tasks towards thinking about learning in new ways.
From a ‘slightly odd’ thing to do ten years ago, social media has become one of the primary ways in which we interact with friends, family, peers, colleagues, and learners. The networks we use to communicate all have benefits and drawbacks, inbuilt biases and tendencies. However, the question is not whether we should use these platforms, but how.
The most forward-thinking organisations and institutions are thinking about the ways social media can simultaneously improve the learner journey, reduce teacher workload, and drive down costs. Doing so takes a change in mindset and having to learn new things, but as educators that’s exactly what we should be modelling to learners.
I’ve exhorted readers of this blog more than once to subscribe to Dan Meyer’s blog. It’s ostensibly about the teaching of mathematics, but the tangents are just fantastic.
Read the following, taken from a panel session Dan took part in (he’s now a PhD student):
I’m a grad student in my second year and I’ve never shared this with anybody here, least of all my adviser, who’s in attendance, but I don’t understand the incentive structure for what you do and what I may do someday. You write amazing things and you study amazing things and you write them compellingly in journals that are not read by practitioners very often. They affect a lot of policy, which I think is a really good, top-down approach. But then I’m over here and I can post something that’s seen by 10,000 people overnight. That’s the number of subscribers I have to my blog right now. Or any number of these things. So the incentive seems strange to me. Like I don’t understand this brass ring I’m chasing. It seems like a strange prize at the end of a finish line of grad school. So there’s the question and then there’s also the encouragement. You have so many soapboxes available to you. Find a kid like me and ask him how to do a webcast or something. You have so many — and to restrict yourself to peer review, I don’t know. There’s very little upside to me, it seems.
I feel this, and so do many others my age and with similar higher level qualifications.
So what are you (the academy) going to do about it?
As I explained a month ago, reminded everyone a couple of weeks ago, and have had in my email signature for the past week, my ‘Black Ops’ period has started. I’ll be back full of energy and bursting at the seams to write on January 1st, 2012.
What does this mean?
No personal email.
No social networking.
I’ll still be at work (although next year I’m really going to push to be off for the entirety of December)
You’ll be be able to catch me via Skype (doug_belshaw)
However, I’m uninstalling Twitter, Facebook and Google+ from my iPhone and TweetDeck from my various machines. I’m putting on my email autoresponder and deleting everything that comes in during December.
Need something to read?
These have been my most popular posts of 2011 (in descending order):
Social media platforms, with their inherent hyper-connectivity require the user to hold highly complex multi-dimensional maps of them as social spaces, with many thresholds of differing permeability. It’s a long way from closing-the-front-door type methods of creating privacy boundaries. Some people are very skilled at managing the ‘edges’ of these social maps and manage their digital identities with great skill and to great effect. The rest of us have come to expect occasional moments of disjuncture.
I would argue that our notions of the public and the private don’t yet account for the width of these social thresholds or for the speed at which they can shift. We constantly negotiate the boundaries between the public and the private but we have an expectation that these boundaries, while moving, will remain sharp. The web and especially social media platforms defocus our understanding of these boundaries. Our ability to map and remap our relationship with these social thresholds is a key form of digital literacy, and possibly a new life-skill (if I can call it that).
Dave brings up an important element of digital literacy here: the ability to negotiate multiple spaces, some purely digital and some blended. This will inevitably involve shifts, even subtle ones, in the way that an individual projects themselves into that space. The boundary between this as a ‘literacy’ (reading/writing oneself) and a life-skill is itself blurred, I would suggest.
There is no such thing as reality. There are stories that we tell one another, narratives that gain more or less traction and memetic phrases which help organise our experiences. As soon as such stories become less useful in the way of belief we can (and should) jettison them for ones that work better and that help us make sense of such experiences. That’s the Pragmatic philosophy to which I subscribe.
During times of fiscal instability and uncertainty societies naturally gravitate towards conservatism. This is evident both in the financial conservatism of public sector cuts but also in social conservatism – right down to retro designs in advertising. The 24-hour news industry feeds and catalyses this.
One thing I’ve noticed recently is, as Martin Weller puts it, the beginnings of a ‘backlash’ against newer (and particularly social) technologies:
The signs are that this year will be one marked by something of a backlash against social media/ web 2.0/ any internet stuff. I don’t mean from the traditional media, who’ve always been suspicious, but from people who know what they’re talking about and have been advocates. In other words, increasingly ‘us lot’ will be declaring that this stuff is peripheral, uncool, over- rated, etc.
I’d go further than this. There are always those (who call themselves) ‘thought-leaders’ who aim to be disruptive or, at least, contrarian who are always looking for something that will get them attention. All it takes is for someone to say that they were wrong about technology xyz for a feeding-frenzy of “I told you so” to take place. One competing story amongst many starts to appear ‘legitimate’.
It would seem incomprehensible to my 16 year-old self that I have absolutely no idea who is currently Number 1 in the singles chart. Last Saturday was the first time this season that I’ve watched the football programme ‘Match of the Day’. When it comes down to it all, reality is the coherence-through-storytelling that we paint as a veneer upon shared experience. To my mind, social media is one of the best ways I know to engage in such narratives.
I spent Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday and Thursday at the Thinking Digital Conference, recording my thoughts about it here (I haven’t quite finished yet!) It was an awesome event, seemingly expensive but for the quality of ideas and knowledge I went away with, fully worth it!
Rationalising the work/private divide
It’s a tricky one, but I’m trying to get my head around my work interests and personal interests occupying the same space. It’s always been the case, but just a whole lot more obvious (with attendant consequences) in my current role.
Finishing off my first journal article
I’m going to be submitting my very first journal article on the ambiguity of ‘digital literacy’ soon. I’m sending it to my thesis supervisor this weekend to see if he can put his name to it at joint author…
Not selling our house
We’ve decided to take our house off the market. The thought of downsizing, even if transport links are better in Whitley Bay (where we planned to move), didn’t exactly inspire us. Looking around some houses there last weekend sealed the decision.
Selling my MacBook Pro
I decided to sell my 15-inch MacBook Pro this week, along with some other technology stuff I don’t really use or need. Interestingly I’m finding that – as Stammy noted recently – social media such as Twitter can be as good as eBay for selling tech stuff.