January 21, 2008

Economist debate rumbles on... Part 2: The Rebuttal

Arguing Over the weekend The Economist.com published the rebuttals of myself and my opponent. Just as it goes live, I've had to write and submit my closing statement, so never has having one's own blog been more important to engage with the debate beyond the compliance to the mainstream's deadlines.

This debate has been swirling around the 70/30 in favour of the motion, that social networks will change educational methods for the better. The votes mean very little, though, when you see the debate that has spread across the blogosphere, both educational and otherwise. I've not seen one like this in a long time, covering quite so many continents and unearthing the voices of those who normally don't get heard.

It's also raised the question of what 'expertise' actually is in this ever-changing domain of technology, yet barely evolving notion of pedagogy. Another of the main points of argument has been in the very definition of what social networking is, with three of those who I respect for their expertise in this domain being largely contradicted by what the vast majority of teacher professionals believe. Far from being the simplistic friends list social networks of Facebook that spring to mind, these educators see their own blog, Twitter accounts or even Flickr pages as the basis of their social networking. Furthermore, I'm not convinced we can simply write this off as the dumbness of crowds, given that nearly all those doing the contradicting are professionals who work with this stuff day in day out, many with their own students.

If you're interested in the Twitter conversations that started all this debate off, then just click the Extended Post link below and see what yet more teaching professionals around the world made, back on that Sunday afternoon a week ago when life seemed simpler :-)

I want to expand my thoughts (or really the thoughts of others) in a post-script to the continuing debate of what constitutes "social networking", an argument which has helped many reflect but which I think is still unnecessarily shadowing over the main beef of the Economist debate (i.e. pedagogy).

The only views that I can seem to pay attention to, in fact, are those who believe that, from the start, I have a skewed understanding of what "social networks" are. What I love about real social networks and social networking, is that they tend to reveal the real and actual truth under all the academic semantics and hubbub that we create to explain why things work.

What follows are just some of the 'tweets' from around the globe, that helped shape my initial arguments in The Economist. I pay them due attention, as primary research of sorts, current and relevant views for sure. What they reveal is that the majority of educators who are, themselves, seeing large impacts on their teaching and learning, and the learning of their students, do not see social networking as the cosseted, pigeon-holed, clearly defined vision that the academics and 'experts' do. They see social networks as messy exciting long-term relationships form which they and their students learn. They do not talk about tools, they talk about the social relationships offered by them. They do not talk about the ease of having everything in one place (social network) or running through various social tools. They don't care. They're thinking about the learning taking place and how it operates through the nuances of the different tools on offer.

From Judy in Australia:  But to make this change, leaders need an understanding of social networking's values and philosophy. Old-style social networking relied on books of contacts, on individuals who were connected. Now, anyone can connect to a global community of practitioners and experts in a click. It doesn't get discussed enough in the press, not beyond the odd YouTube story, and stories about how it's improving education in some corners of the planet are not discussed at all. It reminds of how biros had a pad press at first; you weren't allowed to use them until a certain grade at school.
From John in Glasgow, Scotland: Small scale, yes, large scale we need to see.
From Mark, the creator of Coffee Break Spanish podcast: hundreds of thousands of people across the world learning Spanish, where social networking is an integral part. You've got Spanish native speakers learning French with Coffee Break French, helping out those from around the world learning Spanish on the Coffee Break Spanish blog.
From Lucy in Chicago: the biggest potential impact of social networking is on our own personal customised professional development. I say potential because most teachers I talk to haven't even heard of some of the tools. It's getting hard to talk to them about social networking: there are misconceptions from personal anecdotes and a bias towards the dark side of social networking. There are also plenty who don't share the passion of lifelong learning.
From Adam in Huntly, Scotland: I think social media can encourage learning outside the classroom but I think students need shown where to go. Teachers also need to be given access to get to know the tools. Where they're blocked, the effect on morale can be negative.
From Nick in Fife, Scotland: Social networking makes education more inclusive. I can reach kids that I can't otherwise through my own site and latterly Bebo.
From Lisa in England: The opportunity to share and bounce ideas of others, to find solutions to problems, is immense and very exciting.
From Neil in Perth: The problem is measuring the benefits of social networking. Are they just too intangible at the moment? When they are so important and 'embeddable' it makes them hard to separate. As teachers, we're meant to model behaviour. Is blogging how we demonstrate this? Perhaps: I wouldn't have got my PT job without my blog!
From Amanda in New Zealand: My teaching has changed due to the social networking I participate in. I used to find it hard after educational conferences, for example, into a system that didn't really support the things I wanted to do. Having Twitter, for example, helps me keep in touch with those people with similar ideas, and who have pushed me to continue learning how to teach better. Also, having experts on tap consistently means I have people in my classroom, virtually, to help me and my students when needed.
Lesley in France: my neice was telling my how great her new lycee is and how brilliant her teachers are because she can contact them all on MSN.


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Nice thoughtful post Ewan. I've been trying to follow the debate around the blogosphere and I find myself getting really quite annoyed at the semantic debate, which seems to have prevailed over the real debate. Does it really matter how a social network is defined. What matters in this context is how the network is used to improve the education of the kids we teach. I'm pretty sure I am not going to use a social networking site such as Facebook with my students mainly because I find it clunky and overbearing. However I would use my social network of my blog(s), twitter, seesmic (perhaps) and various other tools (skype et al). That is my social network.
To be frank I have found some of the posts/comments by "experts" really rather condescending to those of us who are trying to use this stuff in real life situations whilst at the same time juggling the usual stuff we have to deal with in school. What is wrong with us trying things out, not researching the possible effectiveness beforehand? To my mind, nothing...this last 18 months since I started dabbling in emerging web techs in my class has energised my teaching like nothing else since I worked in Cameroon. This can only be good for students as long as I continue to focus on the students. Keep it up Ewan.

Hey Ewan,

Thanks for continuing the conversation on this. It's been really interesting, and I've been doing some gut checking about why the semantics still bother me. (I went through this way back when when we were trying to figure out how to define blogging as well....I must be a glutton.)

Just to clarify, I'm one of those "educators [who] see their own blog, Twitter accounts or even Flickr pages as the basis of their social networking." Nor do I "see social networking as the cosseted, pigeon-holed, clearly defined vision that the academics and 'experts' do" in my own practice.

I doubt, however, that is the how the kids in this Frontline documentary would define "social networking technologies". (Or at least not the way the media would: "MySpace. YouTube. Facebook. Nearly every teen in America is on the Internet every day, socializing with friends and strangers alike, "trying on" identities, and building a virtual profile of themselves--one that many kids insist is a more honest depiction of who they really are than the person they portray at home or in school." Yikes!) And I doubt it's how their parents would define this either.

We're really not on opposite sides here, obviously. But to say that the "the vast majority of teacher professionals believe" a definition of social networking that is built on social tools and not social sites assumes that you can read the minds of the absolute vast majority of educators from around the world whose knowledge, experience and contexts you haven't heard from before, during or after the debate. Yes, in the seven years since I started blogging about this, there has been a very large wave of educators who understand the shifts. But that group, imho, is still vastly, vastly smaller than the group that still has little or no idea that something is afoot, and what little they do know is defined by reports such as the above and is not framed in any way around the learning that these tools afford us.

"I doubt, however, that is the how the kids in this Frontline documentary would define "social networking technologies".

Exactly. They wouldn't define, since the way they use the technology defines it, and is often not in the way the software designers had envisaged. If you speak to anyone who's created the technology, in my experience, they're always working to innovate based on the way their customers have exploited the unexpected. For them to define what the users SHOULD use their technology for would just be laughable and, importantly, unprofitable.

Likewise, I defy anyone to define what social networking is, with a semantically correct version, because next week they'll be horribly out of touch again.

Another good post, Ewan, and thanks for sharing the Twitter logs.

I certainly agree that it would be too bad if the debate got sidetracked into only the discussion of semantics; but I think it's a useful discussion to have, both because it improves communication (especially for those who may be new to the conversation) and because it often reveals assumptions that people may be unaware of. By taking advantage of the characteristics of web-based discussions (relatively easy linking, no restrictions on the number of threads) and forking off another thread so that these two topics can proceed in parallel, danah gave a great illustration of a way in which social networking technologies let you do things that are much harder with physical conversation -- in much the same way as Ewan's constructing his opening argument with social networking technologies.

And it seems to me that Ewan's "it's all subject to change" argument is unfair to danah and Nicole's definition for for social network sites as in terms of profiles, connection lists, and access to others' connections lists. I'm not saying it's necessarily the right definition, but it certainly is stable enough in response to technology changes to be useful.

Oh darn. I got sidetracked into a discussion of semantics, exactly what everybody was complaining about! My bad ...

No semantics in this post :-)

Adam made a great point about many of the "experts" being condescending to practitioners. [As I pointed out in the thread, the whole structure is even more marginalizing to students, who aren't even allowed a 'guest particpant' post.] I've been thinking about Marc Andreessen's blog post Education-centric Ning social networks proliferating like bunny rabbits from a few weeks ago, and find myself wondering what their perspectives would be on the issue. Has anybody asked them?

It's also interesting watch this spread through different sectors of the blogosphere -- or not, as the case may be. If the pro camp wanted to make their case more effectively, they could actively reach out to networks like the WoC and tech blogospheres ... and since it's election season in the US, perhaps also the political blogospheres and discussion groups, where education policy and spending is a hot topic. The discussion so far reflects the concerns several people have expressed that while the technology potentially can be enormously empowering, in practice it may be more likely to reinforce existing hierarchies.

Obviously, I don't think this is the only possibility -- and I totally agree with Ewan's point about the power of social networking technologies to reveal the otherwise-hidden reality. One thing that really jumps out at me is the antipathy so many people have for Facebook without having taken the time to understand it -- not just in the Economist debate but for example on this guest column on GigaOM. There are plenty of good reasons to be concerned about and even dislike Facebook (starting with their horrible record on privacy and trust), but to see it solely as a time-waster or "only" a tool for socializing misses the point badly. The public and participative nature of these conversations makes the extent of this ostriching much clearer -- and the discourse associated with it helps point out some of the causes and possible remedies, as well as giving a chance to engage on terms that might lead at least some of the nay-sayers to explore.

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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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