Digital Footprints, Networking, & Conformity

My school recently did a digital footprint exercise with our students, asking them to Google themselves and check out Intel’s Museum of Me. I found our the exercise interesting not so much for the ah-ha moments, which some students had, but for what I didn’t see. Truly, most students are on board with the basic concepts of what might be called digital citizenship or understand how to cloak their poor decision making with anonymity, protecting their footprint while being a poor digital citizen. Basically, I didn’t see surprise; I saw students who pretty quickly grasped the concept of building a positive digital footprint so that a namesake on MySpace can’t cast too long of a shadow over their relatively good names.

However, they’re not too worried about college admissions or job prospects, and I think that what I want to call the Dan Allen Effect is to blame for this. Like a kid in a giant metropolis, they see the odds are in their favor and don’t see that the graffiti is likely to lead to big problems down the line. They’re happy to have all the other Dan Allens create so much white noise that they can operate happily unnoticed. I calculated my digital footprint using the tool linked to Moodle and I’m well over a terabyte and climbing. That’s a lot of white noise. I can’t decide if I agree or if I see this as a self-defeating, tragedy of the commons sort of problem.

The other piece that I have sympathy for is that they hear a message to conform and blow it off. Articles like the USA Today bit just sound ridiculous – post a list of people who share the same name as me? Looking past the redundancy that seems so obvious to me, does it look worse that I cyberstalk my namesakes or that some dude in West Virginia with my name also goes by Tweek on his forgotten MySpace profile? The subtext of these pieces is submit and be predictable.

What I like much more is a focus on the power of networking and networking literacy. Like Clay Shirky points out, transparency is a sharing of ourselves in order to get back more in return, what he sometimes calls reputational capital, amongst other benefits. Surfing through my different groups of Facebook friends, I quickly see the social norms of their closest social group and cultural context; the Kyrgyz kids are sharing Pan-Turkish media and political messages, the folks from my small town deride the hippies at Occupy Wall Street and shout for them to get a job, and the members of my Peace Corps group post messages of OWC solidarity. I would argue that these people are creating identities and reflecting their identities beyond virtual networks in ways that they also do in the bazaar, at the tackle shop, or while waiting for the barista. Kids do the same thing in social networks, reflecting the identities that they think will win them the most reputational capital, or cool points, and are at their best when they employ these tools ethically, to contribute and build.

Of course, kids are slow to see social pressure as a force of conformity and quick to view messages from the elderly (like me) as demands for conformity. My bet is that the kids who will try risky, thoughtless, or silly behaviors online to look cool at one moment for a particular group are the same who will try these behaviors offline. When I was in Berlin, I saw a great quote from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “True education is concerned not only with practical goals but also with values.” I wonder if, amidst all the furor about digital footprints and citizenship, we should focus more explicitly on the nature of the behaviors we value, on footprints and citizenship. I know that we do this already, but the relationship is so clear to our discussion that it bears mentioning. By teaching kids to use their power to be positive contributors for their own sake, if not for the sake of others, empowerment might overcome the urges to be destructive to self or others. If not, at least we’d be exposing the values we teach rather than keeping them implicit, which sometimes feels coercive to me.

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 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.