November 26, 2006

RM, Glow and Social Media

What do you explain about Social Media when talking to the Executive Board of one of the world’s longest-running educational technology companies? Well, you start at the beginning and try to get across the fact that between the release of the graphical interface of the Macintosh SE and Plus in the mid- to late-1980s, Microsoft copying it with Windows 95 and then making it run slower in Windows 2000, nothing had really changed for the user experience. The internet was around but so painfully slow and the websites so, well, grey and boring that Prestel seemed faster and more interesting at the time.

The big changes happened at the turn of the millennium while everyone was footering about worrying about Y2K and all the planes falling out the sky. Blogs entered the scene and meant that I could, in about two clicks, publish to the world with no knowledge of code or FTP or HTML or… and I could have it all in fuschia pink if I wanted to. Well, it’s better than grey, isn’t it?

While some educationalists have just grabbed and gone with this new notion of self-publishing for all (the kind of people who almost certainly don’t take two bottles into the shower instead of one, I have no doubt) in 2006 we still meet educationalists, excellent teachers, young and old practitioners who don’t quite see it in the same light.

In my talk outline, delivered to the board in advance, I had mentioned how in education, as in business, there is a growing divide between the traditional organisation-centred, organisation-hosted ways of sharing (email, message boards, forums) and these newer, more complex, personalised and user-centred ways of sharing. User-centred. Learner-centred. It just so happens when being asked to talk about Live Web tools and their impact in education that we are talking, at great length, about how it affects learners, giving them more autonomy and the ability to determine, themselves, where learning is to go next. This learner-centredness can make some educationalists wary: what is the role of the teacher here, where is the line drawn between entertainment and education (and no, I don’t believe in edutainment – yuck…!), where is the structure and linear progression in learning with these tools and these ways of working?

The same fears are seen in business. Some mainstream television networks are beginning to ‘get’ that it is wise to move from purely linear content to connected content, with CBS YouTubing successfully and Comedy Central getting lambasted for removing Jon Stewart’s Daily Show content through their lawyers. Connected products make people use them more, make the product more memorable. Neil Winton picks up on how, when media are moving, we need to move in education, too, as he quotes from an interview with Eric Schmidt, Google CEO. In this Neil illustrates that we can’t fight new problems with old solutions:

But what’s surprising is that so many companies [schools] are still betting against the net, trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. The past few years have taught us that business models [education initiatives] based on controlling consumers or content don’t work. Betting against the net is foolish because you’re betting against human ingenuity and creativity.

What’s the problem? Perhaps that kids are unmotivated with what was ‘good enough’ for me and so we are replacing ‘serious’ curriculum work with whizzes, flashes and bangs. “Where’s the evidence that this improves attainment” is a frequent knee-jerker. “Where’s the evidence that doing what many teachers do with cramming facts, textbook skimming and lecturing (because it’s the most efficient way to ‘deliver’), is not getting in the way of learning, that attainment is being maintained in spite of current practice instead of because of it? What’s the evidence to show that our kids are not destroying the planet, drinking more, vandalising more, looking after number one more than they ever have done before?

The problem sometimes with explaining the social web is the knee-jerk reaction to what social media ‘must lead to’. Its helping hand in creating a more connected social learning environment leading to more student-led learning, where tangents spurred by social relations (blog comments, for example) help form the next steps of learning, must, be definition, lead to a messy, unstructured, unassessable, uncontrollable mass of work, whose learning capital cannot be measured. After all, we want quiet kids who must be learning, right?

This is far from the truth – social media included as part of the learning package, and not being the whole learning package in itself, will help make our kids responsible citizens through their regular contact and learning from people other than their teachers and those students in the same expectation bracket as themselves. It will help them make connections between facts, add their own ideas and test them with a critical public, helping them become successful lifelong learners who know where to turn when Sir or Miss is not there to indicate the page number of today’s exercise. Social media will help them become more effective at contributing to a world which does not revolve around their street, their shopping precinct or their Bebo/MySpace profile. They are not the centre of attention, well, not always ;-)

The whizzes, bangs and flashes (not in any particular order) will obviously help maintain their interest long enough before they grasp the excitement of playing a part in the global learning conversation and finding their part in it.

After all, learning’s meant to be fun, isn’t it? (Update: the researchers have just said so.)

In the next post in this series I’ll look at the role of play in making learning fun and deeper, asking if there is a line to be drawn and where that line might be drawn between entertainment and education.


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Your example -,,1952704,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=8 - highlights that the greatest potential obstacle to the extensive use of social media in the classroom is - ironically - the media (the press) themselves. Any ideas how we engage with them?

The media are not all that bad - there are some excellent educational journalists in Scotland who make great efforts to show how social media and ICT in general can improve educational attainment. Just take a look at Douglas Blane's work, esp around SETT Learning Festival this September.

Phillip Beadle is/was a teacher, a good one, who sang and danced his way into his students' hearts, or, at least, that is what we can pick up from the mediatised version of him. He was teacher of the year and almost certainly deservedly so. Part of the media? He is by default since he's the one writing the column in the Guardian, but just because he can doesn't mean that he does so particularly well. How much of that article reveals a certain lack of ICT vision on his part and the part of his colleagues? You and I know that ICT reaches beyond the PowerPoint and IWB, but hoards do not.

My experience has told me that mainstream media making stories about social media or new ideas tends to lead to "it's alright for them, but not for me - after all, they're the ones making the papers". Speaking with teachers one on one or in their conference spaces tends to lead to more "I could do that, too".

Teachers learn best from teachers, not from newspaper articles. Bu the newspaper articles we are able to generate will help it get into the parents' and students' learning expectations and that is something the media does pretty well.

Great post!

Great post Ewan. I am looking forward to reading more.

Interesting post Ewan. I look forward to your next one.

Hi Ewan,
Nice post (me to;-)), especially: social media included as part of the learning package, and not being the whole learning package in itself.
One thing I find it worrying is that you need to explain about Social Media to the rm folk. Shouldn't one of longest-running educational technology companies know about this stuff already?

In fairness, they did know a lot about the stuff involved hence my apprehension about teaching my granny etc etc. However, what was perhaps evident was the impact that these technologies could have on education and, ultimately, on the business of education software and infrastructure (and, I guess, hardware). What was maybe interesting, too, was my focus on the time spent out of school learning rather then time spent in school learning.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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