Tales from the Net

a work in progress

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Economist’s debate: why I’m voting ‘pro’

The proposition in The Economist’s debate: “social networking technologies will bring large positive changes to educational methods, in and out of the classroom”. I’m going to using the definition-in-progress of “social networking technologies” I’ve proposed in the apophenia thread, currently

online or offline technologies that relate to (1) public or semi-public profiles (2) articulating the connections between actors (users, people, organizations) and (3) viewing and traversing the lists of connections for self and others

“Out of the classroom” is straightforward. Vicki Edwards and others have given powerful examples of how these technologies are already changing methods outside the classroom. On my scorecard, Michael’s very valuable participation on danah boyd’s and my blogs essentially concedes this point to the “pro” side. And these out-of-classroom applications of social networking technology like the education blogosphere, networks on Ning, and MySpace groups have a direct impact on educators’ methods in the classroom: sharing resources, exchanging best practices, discussing assessment techniques.

What about the contentious issue of social network sites (SNSses) in the classroom?

I certainly share concerns have articulated here: Facebook’s repeated breaches of trust and closed environment, MySpace’s chronic problems with security, the panoptic and advertising-focused aspects of both, the cost of tweets via SMS on Twitter, the risk of predators.

There are, however, other options. Ning and Groove, for example, have “private networks” that reduce the risk of exposure. In the open source world, Joomla/CB and Drupal/CivicSpace are both very viable, and allow you to set up a completely-private SNS that people can’t get at from the broader internet; it’s easy to see how this could be added as a module to something like the Sakai project. So I would encourage people to think more broadly here.

Similarly, people are generally reducing “SNS’s in the classroom” to “friend relationshps between profiles representing the students”. There are many other possibilities.

This debate illustrates one: SNS’s ability to provide extensible, largely-self-documenting objects of study – participatively created, and so with a shared experience base and vocabulary. Properly annotated, this debate is great fodder for classes on journalism, sociology, business (“can ‘old media’ ever get the online world?”), race and gender studies, pedagogy, and so on. It’s also a useful case study for radicals operating within the system, detourning media events that appear to be stacked against them. None of this requires people subjecting themselves to panoptic environments.

Or consider AIC, a “web-mediated character-playing simulation for high school and college students” that focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Here, profiles represent the real-world actors. Representing and providing access to the different connections between them (friend, enemy, relative, business partner, supporter, same political party, served in same army unit, …) brings in the social network. [I’m not sure how much of this is in the current version of AIC; please treat it as a thought experiment.]

As well as deepening people’s understanding, this adds a lot to the simulation. More easily being able to see “friends in common” (or “enemies in common”, as the case may be) makes a big difference when you’re trying to discover paths to open communications. Or imagine updating your status (visible only to your friends) to say “I’m off to the meeting, wish me luck” — and then realizing that one of your friends is a reporter, and the meeting’s supposed to be secret.

A variant based on my personal experience: I was involved in the constitutional convention for free-association (a very small non-commercial, open-source-based SNS). It was a pretty amazing experience, combining threaded discussions and the ability to get a better understanding of the people involved and the relations between them. Consider extending this to a simulated historical constitutional processes in which the “members” are the personas of the different participants — perhaps by reusing and extending AIC’s engine.

While Dr. Bugeja and others raise some very valid concerns, I don’t see these as fatal. The study and simulations I describe above could be accessed via shared logins (even using Tor if anonymity is particularly important), or run as a private and advertising-free network using Ning or an open source base. And as long as computing resources exist, it would cost virtually nothing to run this game – free-association has run for two years with no costs other than web hosting.

Access and digital divide issues remain big challenges here. I don’t see social networking technologies as inherently making these worse. In the scenarios I discuss above, each persona could be “played” by a teams or even entire class of students for each participant – and phone and Sidekick access would be possible. To deal with limited network connectivity, locally-hosted versions would be possible — and you don’t need a server-class machine to host this kind of software. And so on …

So I find the “pro” case equally compelling inside the classroom.

And returning back into the rest of the world, social networks can also make a huge positive impact on some underlying issues in the education field. Start with the exclusion and marginalization of a lot of voices and from debates held in the halls of power. Again use this debate as an example: no current or recent students in The Economist’s roster; the speakers, Moderator, and guest participants all currently occupy positions of (relative) privilege; and the tone is often condescending towards practitioners (as opposed to “experts”). Social networking technologies make it easier to broaden the conversation, with people bringing their friends and acquaintances in environments that are more inclusive – and creating opportunities to network together, creating connections among existing networks that didn’t exist before.

Add to this social networking technologies’ transformative possibilities for community and political activism. Having worked on a social-network based grassroots activism campaign, there’s no question in my mind that an effectively-networked coalition could make a huge impact in reversing the anti-science, anti-intellectual, “exploit the children as eyeballs to be programmed in consumption”, and technology-worshipping trends in our society today. Social networking sites are the places to build and grow that kind of coalition with teachers, students, parents, experts, politicians and even corporations.

So even though I wish the “pro” side had done a better job of articulating their position, they’ve got my vote.

posted by Jon at 10:11 pm  


  1. I want to thank you for inspiring good dialogue during the debate, and for our personal correspondence on email. At least you know that my intent is to hold SNS to standards, from interface to application, so as to weed out those poorly designed or otherwise flawed for purposes of learning.

    What you may not know are the emails that I have received from tech editors at newspapers around the country, alarmed at the stereotypes, illogical leaps, assumptions and prejudgments (and, toward the end, personal remarks) by Pro participants–including guest ones, all of whom were predisposed to go pro from the get-go.

    I’m especially disappointed in Nancy Willard and this comment in her closing statement:

    She writes: “Dr. Bugeja appears to think that the ‘sage on the stage’ educational environment of the 20th century will adequately serve this younger generation. It will not.”

    When did I ever promote the pedagogy that “sage on the stage” is the preferred classroom format? Dr. Willard, as so many others commenting on the Pro side, unaware of my record in establishing new formats for seminars and workshops–using a combination of technology and teamwork (to the extent of student peer grading)– stereotype my assigned role so as to give credence to their own.

    I spent a good part of my day yesterday helping my research assistants design the concept for a feminist blog on the state of media that we will unveil at a major ethics conference in March. We use a workshop format for the design, technology for content generation, and public conference for scholarship.

    It’s a small step for Pro advocates to stereotype Con professionally and personally and then to that to others outside of their pre-programmed affinity groups. Technology should be used to make interpersonal connects with people of different races, cultures or lifestyles whose viewpoints challenge rather than affirm. And while you may point me to SNS that do just that, I will ask you to code methodologically the group-think of Pro advocates on The Economist to measure any significance in attitude deviation.

    My role was to discuss assessment, standards, consumerism and cost to students, schools and taxpayers.

    That said, I am grateful to have participated in this forum because Pro advocates in a stacked forum may have come to the realization that these technologies (as others before them) will have to undergo a testing period to ensure their effectivenesss in the classroom. There is in reality no alternative unless we aim to raise tuition at state institutions to frightening levels, creating by default a new digital divide of those who can afford higher education and those who cannot.

    The hard, cold truth is that we can afford the professor or the processor but not both unless Legislatures increase funding to schools at the expense of the taxpayer and public works or unless we keep raising tuition or tech fees and other add-ons to hide the fact that we simply cannot afford this.

    One world famous culture and technology expert sent me this email:

    “I think you’ll see institutions hemorrhaging money at accelerating rates as we go forward. Perhaps you ought to consider decoupling as much as possible from their tech support web and doing what you do with sheer hard thinking and writing. The current situation on Wall Street will soon cripple public funding of universities, you can be sure.”

    Incredible, the assumptions on the Pro side that these technologies (a) cannot be stopped–a compliant attitude that again overlooks financial impact; (b) do not have to be assessed for learning effectiveness–an attitude tantamount to neglience for any academic administrator; and (c) that students want to learn on applications programmed for other pursuits.

    I do not want to learn a blessed thing when I am a GDI general fighting NOD for the hour I allow myself on weekends for gaming; I want to hear iTunes rather than the Dean’s convocation speech on my iPod; and my advisees don’t want me to text them on weekends about plans of study on their cell phones.

    The difference between me and students is simple: I am aware that there is a 1-100 chance of being seriously injured or dying every time I answer or use my cell phone while driving. I can go on with my awareness of other devices and applications, but you get the point.

    My response as an administrator, author, media critic and teacher has been to make students aware of:

    1. How to use the device properly. Students using iPods have walked into traffic here to the extent that the student newspaper had to run a front-page story reminding peers to look both ways before crossing.

    2. How to explicate the motive of the interface or application so as to determine whether they are appropriate for the message or assignment. Example: I advise students not to use Facebook for the purpose of impressing employers who surveil it; those students would have to tend to the application for hours to review what others upload or post. Instead, those students now maintain a blog or a Web site for that.

    3. Monitor how much students spend on each digital gadget that they own and tally the monthly costs because (a) they have to purchase the device, (b) accessorize the device, (c) pay for access, (d) use credit cards on it for purchases, and (e) pay credit card debt.

    The difference between this time in academe and others during innovation–including television, by the way–is the panic and stereotypes that ensue when one asks routine questions about use, cost and learning outcome.

    People like you and Deborah can make a difference (and you are) by touting SNS less and testing them more. Finally, as for courage, I wonder how the Pro advocates would have responded if you voted Con and challenged them that there was much work to be done in their arguments if technology is to be widespread in the classroom. Had you done so, you would put the spotlight on yourself as I do routinely on me to raise the level of discourse so that the screening and development of appropriate and cost effective technologies can be introduced (while sacrificing curricular, pedagogical or facility-related expenses–all of which, by the way, could use an assessment, too).

    Comment by Michael Bugeja — January 25, 2008 @ 3:31 am

  2. In a Cognition and Technology course last fall, Dr. Rand Spiro noted one primary advantage of on-line learning over “face-to-face” environments. “No matter how we try,” he said, “we will not hold an accurate or detailed record of what went on today in this room, but on-line, we can always go back and look at how these threads developed.”

    If the “pro” side didn’t do a good enough job, then, let us look back and analyse. As I said to Dr. Bujega “off-list”, and as I suggested in one of my last comments, the chance to do discourse analysis within SNS environments is a powerful tool for learning how to navigate these environments. Actually, what I said to him was, “it isn’t enough to know I said stupid things, I want to know how I found myself saying them.”

    One thing both sides MUST take from this is that we need to explicitly work with these environments in education, to train better, more informed, more competent, user/learners. If you think “Con” than you better show students how to understand notions of expertise in social networks, because you think those notions are dangerous. If you think “Pro” you must do the same because you understand those notions as critically important.

    Anyway – thanks for sharing the debate. It was more than fun – it has been a true learning experience.

    Comment by Ira Socol — January 25, 2008 @ 6:11 am

  3. Dr. Bugeja’s comment was not visible when I commented, so I just wanted to add a few thoughts. If Dr. Bugeja is disappointed in the “Pro” side, I am equally disappointed in the “Con,” which often established a herd-like anti-technology direction – as I pointed out elsewhere – rarely indicating that they had even read the initial “Con” argument and most often suggesting random personal observations as data. “P.S. Harvard” is an example: “My personal experiences – as a university student at the dawn of social networking, and as a middle school teacher during the maturation of social networking technologies – have forced me to vote “con” in this debate. Whereas e-mail and internet search engines have drastically improved our ability to learn and to communicate our thoughts in an educational setting, Facebook and MySpace have served mainly as diversions. There is nothing inherently “good” about e-mail or “bad” about social networks in principle, but in practice, social networking is all about entertainment. (In college, Facebook was often nothing more than a procrastination tool.)”

    The questions Dr. Bugeja raises are absolutely legitimate concerns about every technology used in education – he and I differ significantly on how we define technology, of course. Who profits from book publication? From textbook distribution? What is the cost, in terms of individual rights and human power structures, of the architecture of a classroom or lecture hall? What inherent problems exist for student learning when information is delivered by a teacher? Why do we waste precious educational funds on buildings? or books? or salaries?

    Dr. Bugeja, I strongly suspect, is willing to ask these questions globally. That is the right position – we ought to e questioning all, challenging all, doubting all. But I worry that in his public rhetoric he encourages the questioning of only one set of affordances – and thus, much as he worries that people like me suggest that technology should be accepted without questions – I think he is in danger of encouraging a blind anti-technology movement.

    Perhaps we differ in that I think that would be even more dangerous.

    Comment by Ira Socol — January 25, 2008 @ 8:26 am

  4. In the debate as a whole, I think Ewan on the whole got a lot more help from “pro” supporters than Michael did from “con”. Compare the PS Harvard comment (or the one I mentioned in the Economist’s thread calling SNS’s “faceless” — it’s called “Facebook”, for heaven’s sake!) with Vicki Edwards’ that I linked to above. Or look at jixavius’ post, worth quoting in its entirety:

    SIR – Let me accentuate Mr McIntosh previously outlaid argument in a much more personal way.

    My name is Jihad K_.

    In the West, the only thing that children (and grownups) know about the word “jihad” comes from _one_ source: the NEWS. On the news, “jihad” is bad. Of course, that is not true.

    But to know otherwise, you have to communicate with other people on the planet, educate yourself on the root of the word, and those who hold it as a first name. Going beyond the “one-source feed” is thus a must.

    Otherwise, you’d think I am a Muslim terrorist the next time I get introduced to you–and I have seen so many daft and innocently freaked out looks in my lifetime to be totally aware of what I am saying.

    Those friends of mine from all over on social networking websites know more than that however: they know that I am not even Muslim to begin with (Catholic Christian born). They know that I an anything but a terrorist. They also know that I barely look like an Arab (although I am not saying there is anything wrong with any of the above–except the terrorist part of course).
    So please remember: the more we communicate, the smarter we are. Fundamentalism, in all its forms, be it that of a Taliban, or that of an extremist left wing socialist, or any other forms, religious or other, is nothing but the sign of fear and blindness.

    Fight ignorance please. It is our only real enemy.

    Good night and good luck.

    On top of that, all four guest participants made excellent generally-“pro” posts.

    Given that, moving the needle from the 70/30 pro position to 63/37 (where it’s been hovering and will probably end up) is a pretty significant accomplishment. Well done, Dr. Bugeja!

    And it’s a great point about the self-documenting nature of online discussions being incredibly useful for “post-action analysis” of rhetorical techniques, discourse, and everything else. This is especially important when attempting to put issues on the table that the people controlling the discourse would rather not deal with. From the “con” sides position, now to bring forward these absolutely vital concerns (in the broader context, not just with social networking technologies) in ways that aren’t as likely to be misinterpreted or mischaracterized as fearful or backward-looking?

    More to follow …

    Comment by Jon — January 25, 2008 @ 8:49 am

  5. […] on 1/25: Instead of “hi Mom!”, I opted for a closing statement – munged, alas, on The Economist’s site by incompatible character sets.   And the […]

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  6. […] and links post and a passionate argument for the educational possibilities of social networking in Why I’m voting “pro”. Despite the bias to straight white guys, it was a great experience and vibrant debate: the […]

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