Internet Privacy and Social Organizing

Having read the ZIS COETAIL offerings for this week and then Dr. Cornel West’s Twitter feed, the contrast between fears of sharing information online and the power of social movements organized through social media stands starkly apparent. Dr. West was arrested at the Occupy Wall Street protest with 19 others and is publicly sharing the information (@CornelWest) because this information has power. When compared to the advertising scare piece about the dangers of posting underwear pictures online, Dr. West’s use of technology speaks loudly about the potential of sharing. Others like @Newyorkist are reporting events and curating content from others in real time. Yes, people are noticing. No, they aren’t stalking the protestors or asking about their underwear. The Guardian has a section devoted to the Occupy Wall Street movement. John Stewart is taking on media coverage of the protests in a manner informed no doubt by information garnered from social media because he seems to actually know what is going on, which would be next to impossible for someone following only the mainstream news narrative. The fears explicit in the ad linked above are planted in reality – there is a loss of privacy in the digital age. However, we shouldn’t fear how powerless we are as a result; we should marvel at how powerful we may become as a result.

The second narrative has promise and power for students, as well. Howard Gardner perhaps overstates his case about the end of didactic roles for teachers, but his emphasis on teachers coaching ethics in digital contexts is spot on. Once students begin to understand the power of public discourse through social media, I think they’ll be turned on by the ethical power of action. I also follow Jeff Jarvis, author, new media columnist at The Guardian, and professor at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism (@jeffjarvis) on Twitter, and am looking forward to reading his new book, Public Parts. Jarvis, as he wrote on his blog, argues

that in our current privacy mania we are not talking enough about the value of publicness. If we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections the internet brings: meeting people, collaborating with them, gathering the wisdom of our crowd, and holding the powerful to public account. Yes, I believe we have a right and need to protect our privacy — to control our information and identities — but I also want the conversation and our decisions to include consideration of the value of sharing and linking. I also want to protect what’s public as a public good; that includes our internet.

Plenty of other thinkers, like Clay Shirky (and in video), were making this point before the Arab Spring made it for them. It’s not all bad.

Of course, students need to have the positive models that Gardner speaks about showing them that online spaces like Facebook and Tumblr are not private rooms, but public squares. We should model the best possible uses of these squares. This is a time of change – a photo taken of you might have me in the background, and that photo might wind up online, public, and out of my control. But I am reminded of a photo taken of me in profile and of a good friend who is smiling radiant and gorgeous on a sunny Sunday afternoon right into the camera of a stranger. Years later, she was stopped on the sidewalk in New York by another woman who was shocked, said “Oh my God! It’s you!” She took my friend’s address and mailed her the photo that she had taken (on film. Remember film?), a photo she had always enjoyed having tacked to a corkboard in her house. My friend mailed the photo to me in Kyrgyzstan.

Privacy is an illusion in analog, too, and the public nature of society is often as nice, or as powerful, as it is menacing.

Project Based Learning – How Structured?

When it comes to reflecting on my own examples of Project Based Learning activities that I have designed in the past, little of it seems to be doing “new things in new ways.” I have viewed PBL as a means to achieve old ends in new-ish ways, meeting standard and benchmarks in a more student centered way that is sometimes constructivist, but often prescribed. PBL is so often just an extended, active version of the mindreading demanded by teachers; guess what I want you to know becomes guess what I want you to know how to do. Of course, I have some good PBL units that allow for discovery, but these are messy units, with loose time frames and challenging appearances for anyone beyond the classroom, like administrators.

If we take for granted that “Social and recreational online activities are jumping-off points for experimenting with digital media creation and self-expression,” then a way to do something new in a new way is to allow for students to control and design outcomes based on their interests and fashioned in ways that can be social while meeting learning targets (35). Fears about transgression online seem unfounded and often remind me of Puritanical fantasies about how sweet we were as kids. I haven’t thought that most kids are behaving any worse online than they are in analog, and this seems supported by the “Living and Learning with New Media: Report of the Digital Youth Project”:

In our work, contrary to fears that social norms are eroding online, we did not find many youth who were engaging in behaviors that were riskier than what they did in offline contexts…We do not believe that educators and parents need to bear down on kids with complicated rules and restrictions and heavy-handed norms about how they should engage online, particularly if they are not attuned to the norms that do exist among youth. Simple prohibitions, technical barriers, or time limits on use are blunt instruments; youth perceive them as raw and ill-informed exercises of power. (37)

A way to change PBL to become more real, more authentic, more student-centered, more constructivist, more “new,” is to let go entirely. This would be very hard, very messy, and entail authentic risks – kids might not learn at a quantifiable rate, and they may learn only that which they want to learn or need to learn from their own perspective. I think this is probably what they do anyway in the teacher-centered model until their spirit is broken and they become compliant. Will Richardson wrote yesterday about designing schools for kids, not adults. He wrote “We’ve been taught to hate ambiguity, that only one answer exists, that if we have enough money, we can game the test. We’ve been taught that learning ends once the test is mastered, that our passions don’t matter, and that numbers rather than goods tell our educational story.  Yet, this is what we perpetuate because for the adults, it’s the easiest path.” Instead, adults could get out of the way and allow for peer-based learning contexts:

Peer-based learning is characterized by a context of reciprocity, where participants feel they can both produce and evaluate knowledge and culture…More expert participants provide models and leadership but do not have authority over fellow participants. When these peer negotiations occur in a context of public scrutiny, youth are motivated to develop their identities and reputations through these peer-based networks, exchanging comments and links and jockeying for visibility. These efforts at gaining recognition are directed at a network of respected peers rather than formal evaluations of teachers or tests. In contrast to what they experience under the guidance of parents and teachers, with peer-based learning we see youth taking on more “grown-up” roles and ownership of their own self-presentation, learning, and evaluation of others (39).

This would lead to a stepping back for teachers, allowing others, including the students themselves, to become the experts. For most teachers, this would be a nightmare. But, even when I think about the writings of Ruby Payne on poverty that I read in my first Master’s program, I imagine that a structure like this would work in high poverty schools often labeled “failing” under our current system, schools that can be admittedly grim places for kids and adults alike. If students were engaged in real peer networks that included adults fluent in the skills and discourse of the area of interest, they would learn languages and modes of operation within different cultural contexts that would expand their abilities to work successfully beyond their immediate cultural context. These networks operate in the following manner for teachers:

Unlike instructors in formal educational settings, however, these adults are passionate hobbyists and creators, and youth see them as experienced peers, not as people who have authority over them. These adults exert tremendous influence in setting communal norms and what educators might call “learning goals,” though they do not have direct authority over newcomers. The most successful examples we have seen of youth media programs are those based on kids’ own passionate interests and allowing plenty of unstructured time for kids to tinker and explore without being dominated by direct instruction. Unlike classroom teachers, these lab teachers and youth-program leaders are not authority figures responsible for assessing kids’ competence, but are rather what Dilan Mahendran has called “co-conspirators,” much like the adult participants in online interest-driven groups (39).

Co-geeking out is what this “co-conspirator” might mean, and if the teacher isn’t the appropriate geek, then the role of the teacher is to allow the student to find the right geek or help guide him or her to a knowledgeable geek. As the report asks in conclusion, “what would it mean to think of public education as a responsibility of a more distributed network of people and institutions” (39)? All educational contexts could function in a more decentralized manner and, while this would mean a giant leap of faith for a conservative body of people – the conservators of culture mentioned in “Shaping Tech for the Classroom” – but would be a move into a new culture that is happening anyway, one shaped by the youth who live in this culture already to differing degrees.

In designing PBL, I wonder about ways to build an ecosystem in which kids can interact online, socially, within the school context, to learn skills of online interaction if they aren’t beyond “hanging out.” Then, good projects would lay out learning goals, provide models along a variety of possible outcomes, and then allow students to plan a timeframe and reach out to networks of interest, exploring or operating fluently, depending on their level of skill and comfort. Outcomes may be assessed on rubrics created by the student and “co-conspirators.” The teacher becomes a facilitator or coach in this model, giving up control for the possibility of greater student engagement and authentic learning.

Learning is Play

Here’s something awesome: Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show. Her motto? “Have fun, play around and get out there and make something,” I came across Sylvia via Dr. Gary Stager’s blog post about her blog which features some withering critiques of educator attitudes about technology and learning. But you can read that on your own if you’d like. What I’m interested in is Sylvia’s amazing perspective on learning.

Again, her motto is “Have fun, play around and get out there and make something.” Mess around, geek out, and keep in mind that there are no real consequences of failure except more learning. Learning is not a competition or a zero-sum game. When I learn something, that’s not one less thing you can learn. In fact, when I learn something, you are more likely to learn as a result because we are social learners. So, relax. Have fun. Play, and give yourself a break when you feel like you’re not getting it.

Anxiety over performance, programmed into everybody through a focus on grades from a tender age through post-graduate education, is as normal and predictable as tail chasing in kennels. It’s a totally normal reaction to the institutional structure of schools. But, there is hope for all learners! For one, school ends eventually. For two, even if school continues, abandoning identification with grades and performance is tantamount to liberation and can be ours, easily. Approaching a problem as play, as tinkering, is the key to escape from anxiety. Sylvia is cool – she’s crazy talented and knowledgeable, curious and driven, funny and creative. She has the keys to the kingdom. She plays, and learns, and teaches while she does so. What a role model for students and teachers alike!

Connectivism & Unlearning

Via @mscofino, who is leading one of the distant Coetail cohorts (of which I am a part in Zurich), here are some thoughts synthesized by Alex Guenther, perhaps another Coetrail participant in Japan, from a George Siemens piece on Connectivism. I must say that I take issue with the third point, that rules of communication are unimportant in a connected world; I’d argue they are more important. When more words are being used, some bounds have to exist for shared understanding and for personal efficacy. But, of course, rules change. For my student who included three emoticons in a narrative essay, I say use descriptive and figurative language instead. Then, when you have mastered language-craft, use emoticons and everyone will think you’ve invented a new form, that your abstraction is transgressive, exciting, and creative. Of course, in order to unlearn, one must have learned first. In fact, that’s a perfect model for mastery – learn and then unlearn. Mastery!

And for any teachers on the fence about blogging, here’s why I do it and why you should, too! That’s another via @mscofino. The PLN delivers.

How My Thoughts are Changing 2: Digital Natives?

Beyond information literacy (Dr. Gary Stager, linked blow, might blow me up for “fetishizing information”), I am not convinced at all by the arguments for or my experiences with “digital natives” insofar as they are more savvy with technology or somehow fundamentally different from earlier learners. As Siemens notes, “How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized.” (¶32) He goes on in the same paragraph to state that “learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity,” but I wonder when learning was? Babies and toddlers don’t learn language through monastic study because that’s silly and people are hardwired to learn in cooperation with one another (David Brooks is all over this in his book The Social Animal and related TED talks). So, as NYU’s Clay Shirky points out repeatedly in text and Ted, computing and networking allows us to connect and learn from people well beyond our physical space, but does this really fundamentally change us?

After all, as explored in “Living and Learning With New Media: Summary of Findings From the Digital Youth Project,” kids follow personal interests into the interwebs, emulating models and avoiding behaviors that might get them shunned. Kids create media, like digital photography, that lives up to “the expectation of an audience of friends that makes the effort worthwhile. Youth look to each other’s profiles, photos, videos, and online writing for examples to emulate and avoid in a peer-driven learning context that supports everyday media creation” emphasis mine (Ito, Horst, & Bettanti et. al 26). So what’s new? The learning is social, it self-organizes and creates genre – note the now classic high angle Facebook profile shot. But, I’m not sure that these kids have been radically altered beyond simply having new tools to use.

Will Richardson covers the flawed idea of “digital natives” when he writes:

One conclusion that I totally agree with concerns the knowledge that kids have around these technologies from a learning perspective:

Overall, as Bennett et al. (2008) suggest, there is little strong evidence for the main claims of the net generation literature, which they summarise as follows:

  • Young people of the digital native generation possess sophisticated knowledge of and skills with information technologies.

  • As a result of their upbringing and experiences with technology, digital natives have particular learning preferences or styles that differ from earlier generations of students.

Weller makes the point that

There seems little real evidence beyond the rhetoric that the net generation is in some way different from its predecessors as a result of having been exposed to digital technologies. There is some moderate evidence that they may have different attitudes.

Different attitudes, different practices, but not different hardwiring that gives students an innate leg up on my generation. Dr. Gary Stager responds to Richardson’s post in a comment by exploring the implications of the digital native perception this way:

First problem, the notion that being “exposed” to technology changes anything. Papert fought this simple-minded criticism of his work for decades.

I agree with the author that most young people have an alarmingly superficial understanding of or agency over the technology so central to their lives. We do not help this by fetishizing the information aspect of computers and pretending that “computing” (verb) is a thing of the past. For far too many kids, computer use in schools is a lot more like “Computer Appreciation,” just as science is often just “Science Appreciation.”

We conclude that the chatting we do over the Internet is revolutionary while leaving the curriculum untouched and unchallenged.

As we start to consider the movement from “hanging out” to “messing around” and “geeking out,” Stager often speaks about teaching computing, teaching robotics in constructivist learning spaces that support and allow for tinkering and exploring technology as “new spaces of possibilities” and authentic learning (Ito, Horst, & Bettanti et. al 26). Rather than teach PowerPoint 101, or “Computer Appreciation,” the curriculum should change and students should be getting their hands dirty, geeking out like the kids who, on their own, were:

Raised in a context where economic constraints remain part and parcel of childhood and the experience of growing up,xlvi they were able to translate their interest in tinkering and messing around into financial ventures that gave them a taste of what it might be like to pursue their own self-directed careers. While these kinds of youths are a small minority among those we encountered, they demonstrate the ways in which messing around can function as a transitional genre that leads to more sustained engagements with media and technology. (Ito, Horst, & Bettanti et. al 28)

What I see in my 1 to 1 classes is a lot of frustration with the basics and almost no programming, coding, hacking, or otherwise digging into the technology and geeking out. There may even be an argument to make for Computer Appreciation, but that should not be the end point. Students who have an opportunity to geek out and build stuff, break stuff, hack stuff, combine stuff, and otherwise play may have life altering experiences leading to self-efficacy with technology that becomes a career path, a lifelong ability to solve problems, or satisfaction at school that makes essay writing or calculus less painful. I’d say that’s a powerful potential. After all, we are all connected and problem solvers might help me, freeing me to do something else, teaching me to solve my own problem, or making something I use problem free. That’s the power of geeking out, as I see it.

 

How My Thoughts are Changing 1: Connectivism & Information Literacy

My reading as part of the ZIS Coetail cohort has me thinking a great deal about what we should be doing in schools to facilitate learning and information literacy with today’s technological tools. I’m going to explore this in two parts. First, I’m interested in information flows and school policies. George Siemens points out in his “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age” that

Learning, as a self-organizing process requires that the system (personal or organizational learning systems) “be informationally open, that is, for it to be able to classify its own interaction with an environment, it must be able to change its structure…” (p.4). Wiley and Edwards acknowledge the importance of self-organization as a learning process: “Jacobs argues that communities self-organize is a manner similar to social insects: instead of thousands of ants crossing each other’s pheromone trails and changing their behavior accordingly, thousands of humans pass each other on the sidewalk and change their behavior accordingly.” (¶15)

Immediately I wonder: can China learn? The authoritarian impulse to ban or control information is outmoded in governance and in education. At The European Laptop Institute at The Hague last fall,  numerous sessions revolved around the blocking of social media in general and Facebook in particular, often referring to this as the teaching of digital citizenship! Clearly, in systems with tight information control, students as a community are going to self-organize in ways that ultimately defeat and undermine the system that controls information, ants burrowing under the wall to borrow the earlier metaphor. This happens in places like China in really interesting ways (that link is eye opening!), and more famously in all of the countries of the Arab Spring. Why wouldn’t it happen in schools? Besides, it misses the point entirely. Autocratic moves try to impose order on chaos, but as Siemens points out, “Chaos, as a science, recognizes the connection of everything to everything.” (¶14) Rather than waste time and resources on controlling information, schools would be well served to transfer ownership of information to the community and work to add structure to channels or prioritize channels of connectivity. Additionally, schools should teach information literacy (digital and analog), because

When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses. (Siemens ¶31)

Firewalls and draconian policies transfer responsibility for navigating digital realms to the institution and away from students as users. We should seek to cultivate students as connoisseurs of information and as captains of their information channels. If we are “offloading” information into our computers and networks, then students have to have retrieval skills and higher order thinking abilities like analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Schools should not seek to control information and should make kids information literate and not fall for the myth of the digital native, which I’ll look at in a subsequent post.

Bloom’s Taxonomy & Learning in a Digital Age (Long!)

The re-conceptualizing of Bloom’s Taxonomy a decade ago led to the dismissal of synthesis, the devaluation of evaluation, and the promotion of creation. Underlying these trends is a classic Anglo-Saxon belief in the primacy of individual autonomy and ownership of production (within a limited set – not too much Marxist influence in American culture today, for example). If that seems like overstatement, then suffice it to state that synthesis is the process that undergirds all creative processes, and so demands its rightful place on the taxonomy of higher order thinking. Nothing that is created by humans today exists in a vacuum, but is instead the result of an ecosystem of influences and relies upon those influences for its very existence. Evaluation is correctly placed on the original, as well, because it covers the reflective faculties so essential to creativity and innovation. If we’re not evaluating our products by a critical, detached thinking process simultaneously linked to a concrete, perhaps internalized set of values, then a richness and a higher potential quality is lost, which is why I believe the original taxonomy is superior to the revised version.

I’m not the only one who believes in the power of synthesis. Ultimately, we come to new understandings and we create new things or ideas through connection with other ideas or people. George Siemens refers to this as the power of “weak ties:”

Weak ties are links or bridges that allow short connections between information. This principle has great merit in the notion of serendipity, innovation, and creativity. Connections between disparate ideas and fields can create new innovations. (¶20)

This process, as Steven Johnson points out, takes time. In fact, when I teach a creative unit, I borrow heavily from Geoff Petty’s “Creative Process” because it provides a concrete framework that mirrors what successful people do, like SQ3R provides for readers, in which students can explore an essentially abstract process. This is the job of the teacher – provide a framework that makes reading, viewing, exploring, writing, speaking, discussing, analyzing, synthesizing or creating, and evaluating explicit for students. Once they work through an explicit framework a number of times with increasing autonomy, those sorts of frameworks become internalized, habitual, part of the toolbox. While I believe in constructing knowledge, I also believe that most students can access the higher order thinking skills in the taxonomy if they add skills like these that make regular, daily processes easy, which leads me to my questions about how much we lean on technology to provide access to higher order thinking skills in articles like the one linked for this week’s reading, recent blog posts I’ve found via my PLN, and ideas uncovered via my Twitter feed.

First, beyond the problem with order and the replacement of synthesis with creativity that ignores the nature of creativity and the ultimate importance of reflective evaluation above all, a closer look at evaluation in the digital realm exposes shortcuts to what that thinking skill could be. Evaluation is related to the following verbs:

Key Terms – Evaluating:

Checking, hypothesising, critiquing, experimenting, judging, testing, detecting, monitoring, (Blog/vlog) commenting, reviewing, posting, moderating, collaborating, networking, reflecting, (Alpha & beta) testing. (Churches ¶10)

Hypothesizing is not evaluation until after a cycle of experimentation has finished and a new, altered cycle is to begin; in this first case, it is analysis. Commenting, via blog or vlog, may be evaluation, or it may bypass the higher order thinking skills altogether in a reactive, emotional outburst. I was going to link Chris Crocker’s famous “Leave Britney Alone” vlog to underline this point, but thought better of it out of compassion for his youthful exuberance. The point can be made easily with Jim Cramer or Glenn Beck.

Technological tools do not force higher order thinking skills. While I agree that “constructive criticism and reflective practice” can be “facilitated” by online interacting or blogging, I disagree that “Students commenting and replying to postings have to evaluate the material in context and reply” (Churches ¶10). I have seen an awful lot of “ticking the box” when students in graduate-level courses respond to each other, completing the assignment and moving on by parroting a little or cheerleading. I think Andrew Churches would likely agree with these statements and point out that it is how an exercise or online space is structured that determines the depth and quality of higher order thinking that takes place and that student-centered environments encourage greater engagement with ideas and discussion, leading to greater analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

However, it seems like a thread of belief exists within the educational technology community that certain devices, software, or apps lend themselves clearly to accessing certain levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and this is where the whole thought experiment breaks down for me. For example, classifying iPad apps by corresponding or related level Bloom’s Taxonomy has become popular, here done by the excellent Langwitches blog. Note the verbs by level – I like Churches’ verbs more as I find them more apropos, but not perfect. I can’t get on board with verbs like “rate” or “recommend” for evaluation because of the social nature of the technology; when we “like” something on Facebook, is that a rating or a recommendation? I’d say it’s somewhere in there and I’d go further to say that the act has less to do with evaluation than with liking the implications by association and clicking the thumb’s up button. But I digress. While I find the iPad app by Bloom’s Taxonomy chart idea interesting, I think it places undue faith in these apps. I like Flipboard and can’t live without Skype, but I don’t see either tool as more inherently geared towards evaluation than Diigo or Posterous (with their fun new social structure, which may or may not stay fun), or even the Globe app for that matter. Heck, evaluation of source material is an essential skill, and what is the globe if not a source document?

At the end of the day, if we, as teachers and students, create environments in which risk taking is valued and design opportunities for exploring the world, drawing connections, creating something new as a result, and reflecting on the entire process, integrating learned skills and information, and considering revised approaches for greater efficacy or success next time, then technological tools will be applied in ways that regularly span the breadth of the taxonomy. Pencils and paper would be applied the same way, given the same environment. It’s not what tools we use, but how we use tools that lead us up the taxonomy to higher order thinking skills.