January 17, 2008

Social media for Everyman? Not so sure...

The Economist debates have stirred a great amount of intelligent debate, both on the Economist site and on others' blogs. While the groundswell continues to show over two thirds of the general public (or Economist readers, at least) believe that social networking can have a positive effect on educational methods, it's the comments from within the blogosphere that pour both healthy and unhealthy water on the embers.

Social media emancipates everyone - nearly
Stephen thinks it's all ridiculous and pointless (quelle surprise - it really should have been him writing it, shouldn't it?). It makes me wonder if, really, the learner's voice whether in Twitter's 140 characters or in lengthy blog posts of reflection, has any place on a planet where academia is still perceived by the real elites as the place we should all aspire. My mind's harking back to Ken Robinson's reference to Professors' bodies merely serving as a walking pedestal for their brains - is that what we are still aspiring to, Stephen? I am a learner, and would hope that any adult in teaching these days would consider themselves the same.

And, although I'm deemed an 'expert', this is in the eyes of others, not me, so I can hardly respond to the criticism Downes is leveling at me. I'm the biggest amateur I know, getting to understand things as they happen, understanding a wider and wider range of new practices and habits as they emerge. That certainly sounds like the opposite of an expert, one who has 'expertise' in a narrower and narrower range. However, it seems that the ability to publish one's thoughts and be taken by others at your own merits is not as realistic as I had previously thought, especially where haughty academics are involved. Mea culpa.

At least Everyman is getting a chance to have a think about these issues in a pretty intelligent forum, and pushing the thinking of 'established' education social media folk into something we've not really tackled properly with the larger public. Far from elitist Oxford-style debate, I've never seen these issues being discussed by as many from outside the elitist club of edubloggers (where you clearly speak at your peril).

And, as my opponent and Jack in the Guardian pick up, the argument in favour of the proposition is likely to win, given the net nature of the debate. What does this say about governance in the 21st century? Merely that huge numbers remain too illiterate to take part in democratic debate. Tragic.

Semantics limit our opportunities
danah boyd
is half-right in her disappointment with my opening argument in the Economist's current education debate. Given that it's just a third of the whole position I'm putting forward, this is normal, and some of what she's putting forward is, in fact, in the rebuttal, due any time soon. There are a few areas, though, where I think either I'm missing the mark or, more likely, I'm choosing to ignore some fine grains for the sake of the argument. Here's one...

 I have to disagree with Will that the distinction between social tools and social networks is 'much needed': social tools without any networks to use them with is like turning up to a party where no-one else was invited: you need to have one without the other. The tools need a network which needs the user to know how to network in the first place.

The terminology around social networks and social media, the tools both employ and how people use them is beginning to atrophy: your average Joe is just concerned about having his friends on tap and being able to share his stuff. Whether he chooses to do this on Facebook (social network, very specific) or through a combination of blog and numerous watchlists (social media at large), doesn't matter - the same end result is achieved. I love danah's distinction between teens, who collect real friends rather than 'network' for new ones, and adults, who surf friends lists to gain new contacts (think LinkedIn).

The semantics are certainly useful for research into the subtle differences between how one uses the integrated connectedness of the social network versus the less integrated but nonetheless valuable and connected nature of blogs, rss feeds, watchlists, Twitter. But the same jargon merely serves to distract us from what she says later on in her post: that we need to stop thinking about technology and concentrate on pedagogy

Technology [is]... a tool. Just like a pencil. Figure out what it's good for and leverage that to your advantage. Realize that there are interface problems and figure out how to work around them to meet your goals. Tools do not define pedagogy, but pedagogy can leverage tools. The first step is understanding what the technology is about, when and where it is useful, and how it can and will be manipulated by users for their own desires.

This is something your average Joe, your average teacher and your average student, even, can get. And, as David says, to limit ourselves to what the semantics and the experts who bandy them about say, we limit our opportunities in the future as to how we exploit the components that make them up. If social networking is MySpace and Facebook, then you and I are destined to a future of following what we're given, rather than challenging for some innovation.

Also, anyone who knows me well knows that danah's desire to concentrate on teaching and learning rather than technology is also my mantra in everything I do. If it's not about teaching and learning, I'm not interested. If it's not having an impact, I'm not interested. If we don't know if it's having an impact on learning, then let's investigate pronto.

Please do take a look at the second part, the rebuttal, in the Economist this week. It tackles some of the points leveraged in danah's impressive post, and those of others.

Disclosure: I'm not getting paid to write in the Economist. I was offered the opportunity because their Editors enjoy reading my blog, and thought, I imagine, that I would connect to their readership. Theirs, for sure. Some of my colleagues, less so ;-)

Related posts: Rebuttal now published


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"Tools do not define pedagogy, but pedagogy can leverage tools. The first step is understanding what the technology is about, when and where it is useful, and how it can and will be manipulated by users for their own desires."

Absolutely. It's about building up a toolbox and deploying it accurately and where needed.

Well done for participating in The Economist's debate, Ewan, and acquitting yourself (and us) so well! :-)

I don't see what Stephen has to complain about here. So what if you had been paid for this?
Of course the terms of the debate are pretty shallow, and I tend to agree that the centralised structure is rather anachronistic (as evidenced by the fact that much of the debate has spun out into blogs, twitter etc) but the debate is still worthwhile. I have enjoyed reading the arguments on both sides, and the ensuing debate on the Economist site and elsewhere.

Didn't enjoy the ad hominem attack on Stephen though :(

I don't know if it's really an ad hominem - I'm against the idea that the views of many teachers are somewhat lesser than those of academia and think that's clear, even if I peskily let a little sarcasm slip in there.

Yeah - I guess academia doesn't like the fact that we can "learn" outside of their "formal" academic setting. It might give "everyman" a voice in their exclusive club, if this keeps up, we will just be able to learn with paying for it, oh yeah we still need that piece of sheepskin--such a pity...sarcarsm...or is that satire?

You said a lot when you said

"Everyman is getting a chance to have a think about these issues in a pretty intelligent forum, and pushing the thinking of 'established' education social media folk into something we've not really tackled properly with the larger public. Far from elitist Oxford-style debate, I've never seen these issues being discussed by as many from outside the elitist club of edubloggers (where you clearly speak at your peril).

How else would a second career - teacher from a small town in the middle of Maine, certified as a teacher through an alternative teaching certificate process, actually be able to comment on something this intellectually stimulating?

WOW! I can't believe that I was actually able to say that. "humor"

Many of us may not have the academic credentials of some writers, PD presenters or the so-called educational elites, but we do provide a level of common sense of what actually works, in the trenches that sometimes is simply overlooked or ignored.

So while some out there may look down their noses at my feeble attempts to join into their conversations, I am actually having fun putting my opinions out there. I am not always right and know that when I am being dumb, that I will be called on it - and rightly so.

Getting submissions/posts shot down or validated is part of the process in this social learning environment that has been created for us and perhaps that is what the academic elite's are having difficulty with. When they post out here readers people don't put them on a pedestal and kowtow to their every thought. Perhaps they are too often challenged in this semi-anonymous environment where they do not have the perogative of flunking, poorly grading or telling someone to leave, to those that dare to question their lectures.
But there is still "delete" the response key.

I do not ever claim to know as much as someone who has worked hard to earn their credentials, (I am not an expert at anything and gladly admit it, but I do enjoy learning even as a member of the 50's generation) but at the same time...once in a while I get lucky and pull a decent thought out of my @$$. The old sailor coming out in me. "humor"

Perhaps I misread/misunderstood some or all of this debate and went way off on a tangent, I probably focused too much on one paragraph of your post, but as you can see it really struck a cord to me. If I did and get shot down, because I totally bombed what was trying to be communicated to me, I won't take it too personally and will use it as a social learning opportunity to read posts more closely next time. Good night and good luck. -- Harold

Hey Ewan,

Unfortunately, I think the semantics do matter here. When we say "social networks" most people immediately think Facebook and MySpace. I agree when you say

"social tools without any networks to use them with is like turning up to a party where no-one else was invited: you need to have one without the other. The tools need a network which needs the user to know how to network in the first place" (though I think you meant "one WITH the other.")

But networking in prototypical SNSs isn't the same as networking outside of those sites, and that is the point danah tries to make I think. We use social tools to fashion our own networks, not sign on to ready made ones with people we already know. Of course, that may be, as I said in my post, ignorance talking...I haven't been very captivated by Facebook et al in my own practice. But I guess in the end, I don't agree (or don't want to believe) that an average Joe ends up in the same place regardless of which route he chooses.

No one who knows you would impugn your motives, Ewan. I certainly don't. In fact, I'm impressed that you took this on. Not sure I would have. I hope my comments weren't read as disrespect, just honest disagreement. If not, my sincerest apologies.


Now I'm very confused Ewan! I thought Stephen was arguing against the idea of experts, and you are saying that he thinks his ideas are more valid than yours or mine because he is that particular brand of expert called an academic. I just don't see where he implies that in his comment.

@Will - in using Facebook (a lot) I've come to the conclusion that it's more or less a very clever aggregator, with set selections of aggregated content from games to people, so that I don't have to know how to gather all that together.

You are, right, though that having it done for you gives you a very different type of social network from the one the blog brings you, but I think this is my point - it's the kind of social network that benefits education the most. We don't need to know who people are in classroom settings (we see them every day) but we do need social objects online around which we can gather, something which social tools, when networked, provide.

@Robert: When I read Stephen's comments I got the impression, from his use of inverted comments, that he didn't think I was an 'expert', in the same way as he might consider himself an 'expert', and as such maybe I should not have been given an opportunity to speak. And I am also included in being 'so far out of the conversation', that it leads me to wonder what it requires to be in the conversation.

Not so much an argument for or against experts, I think, but against certain types of people having a voice on a platform with wide readership.

I agree with the point about not getting bogged down in semantics (this is a very academic thing to do - and usually alienates everyone else).
I'm going to disagree with you (and danah) on the technology is just a tool, it's pedagogy that's important line. I hear this so often and everyone nods sagely in agreement. It makes me want to scream. For a start, what does it really _mean_? But more importantly, it's just rubbish. We have a dialogue with technology - it helps influence what and how we teach. I didn't sit around thinking 'I wish I had a micro-blogging tool'. I didn't know I wanted Twitter until it came along, and _then_ I could see the educational possibilities of it (you could substitute any good technology for Twitter here). The technology suggests the pedagogy.
I'm a bit puzzled by the ding-dong between you and Stephen, on both sides. Maybe he has a point about the Economist having a political agenda, but it is hardly elitist to have an open debate is it? But I didn't take his use of quotes to imply that he was more expert than you, but rather to suggest that the very notion of an expert is one we should challenge.
Anyway, looking forward to the rest of the debate, and keep up the good work!

To some degree technology does of course influence pedagogy, but I still think that the pedagogy it's influencing us to take up is one that was proven well before social media came along.

I think you may have a point about me rattling off on a Stephen-rant without reflecting perhaps on the various interpretations of his post. Expertise is a strange one in this 'new world', where expertise can only be based on the years of education research we have plus the blip of these new technologies we've been able to experience in the past couple of years.


Keep on rollin' ! :-)

I felt the need to write a lengthy addition to this conversation on my own blog.


Hi Ewan - while I'm not in complete agreement with all your statements in the debate, I applaud you for engaging in the conversation. The edublog community is a tiny fraction of society. If the ideas many of us find to be valuable are to have an impact, we need to get outside of our communities and networks. As I indicated in my initial reaction to the debate - the fact that you're there having a conversation in a traditional medium is worth more than the exact nature of the debate.

Hi Ewan,

I've never been a fan of the Oxford debate, privileging as it does rhetoric and division over discussion and engagement imho. And as I've followed this discussion across various blogs it has also felt like several people have been speaking at cross purposes and in rather insensitive tones. (Disclosure: I had a brief stint as an educational technologist at Oxford and did in my time organise and also attend debates on the internet and learning in that draughty debating chamber.)

I do agree with your response to Will's privileging of social tools over social networking sites / tools. On the ground, out of the box, when we are dealing with classes and communities of people beginning a learning journey at the same time, social networking tools give them a swift and purposeful entry into a connected space and the real benefits of the network as compared with the informal, individual learner (like many edubloggers at the centre of a myriad of existing networks??)

And my evidence is simple: I've got a new cohort of 24/25 year old primary teachers beginning a leadership development programme this week and to establish the network / the online community for the cohort I've set them up a network in Ning and within minutes of signing up they all have a presence, a profile a set of communication and alerting tools, a blog and an aggregated view of activity across the community. We couldn't get to that point by relying on the entire cohort to individually and informally tie it all together with a range of tools and RSS.

And so I'm thinking that perhaps one of the cross purposes we're talking about here is really to do with informal versus formal learning. Informal learning by motivated individuals? Then I'd be with Will: read, write, search, build, forage, connect. Formal programmes with a start and end point? Then let's introduce young teachers to the power of the network with .... a ready made network.

So yes .... the semantics are sending us towards some apparent and unecessary divisions, no?

Good on you for sticking your knexk out and taking this on.

All the best,

Mr. McIntosh and the participants of this forum please accept my sincerest apologies. I realize now that my post went off on a tangent that was not appropriate here and my writing style, which included "tongue-in-cheek humor" is more appropriate in less formal forums. Furthermore, I did not mean to sound arrogant, because I am not, but I can see now how my post may have come across in that manner.

That being said, I stand by the actual meaning behind my feeble attempts at humor, but my comments would have been more appropriate as an independent blog entry written by me elsewhere, citing your work.

Lessons Learned:

1. Social Networks can teach very quickly, especially when the silence is deafening.
2. My ignorance of proper etiquette in the more formal "blogosphere" was very evident.
3. In the future my responses will be much shorter and better thought out. If I do have a long response that is appropriate, I will link it to my personal blog and not attach my full comments to the original post.
4. That according to Wikipedia: "Gadfly (social), a term for people who upset the status quo" which in my view would be considered a compliment, but in the context which it was written, was not meant that way.

I thank the members of this forum for the opportunity that you have given me today - to learn more about education, social networks and blogging etiquette. Again, please accept my humble apologies to anyone in this forum who was upset or offended by my post. Mr. McIntosh please remove my previous post at your earliest convenience and if you wish this post as well, so that they will not offend others who might wish to respond more appropriately to your original post.

Harold Shaw

Don't worry Harold. I think your comments are great, and absolutely relevant to the debate. It shows how such debate can draw people in who maybe wouldn't have contributed otherwise. Thanks for conversing!

Ewan - Thank you for your gracious comments. Harold

Hi Ewan
Just a quick note to say that a number of us 'over here' - even the occasional academic ;-) - have been following both the Economist debate and the discussion on here with considerable interest. Experts come in all shapes and forms. Don't let this kind of thing get to ya....

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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.

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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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