Social Software | Viewpoint
Egypt: The Terror of Free Information, The Promise for Higher Education
Information technology has two faces: control and freedom. Egypt showed us the power of free exchange of communication (the IT face of freedom). During the whole of human history, a small minority has inevitably controlled "truth" and thus power. Information and communication technologies (ICT) wash away these suddenly vulnerable autocratic sand castles guarding truth, in countries and in human institutions. Who can now scoff at the social Web and call it fluff? How can educational institutions continue to marginalize the social Web, labeling it as unimportant or undesirable? How can higher education, dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, not fully embrace this most extraordinary medium?
As in Egypt, just so in academia: Can the academic tradition of defining truth stand? Should it?
As a person who has been around for a long time, I feel the anguish of times changing too fast, even though I'm among those pushing for change. I see ads or articles about young "hot" stars who I’ve never heard of and still feel the teenage fear of being "out of it." How many generations of singers and performers and athletes have I had to locate in my internal landscape of important people? Now, it's Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, who are just names to me but who I must learn about quickly or I'll be "old." Yes, I understand the impulse to slow things down, keep the world as I know it, freeze knowledge that I have mastered, maintain order.
To accept truly free exchange of ideas and information requires trust. It is very hard and frightening to have one's world-view constantly challenged. How can we trust new consensus statements in academia when we no longer know the gatekeepers? Or there are no gatekeepers at all? Is the crowd truly wise? Will Egypt sink into a new autocracy or rise to a society with greater social justice?
In an academic class, can we let students go out into the field to learn in groups or individually without supervision? Will ignorance be merely compounded or will our students engage in learning activities that advance their learning more quickly?
Is it best to remain the autocrat of the classroom or design for social learning using Web 2.0 tools, both those designed for learning and those designed as social applications? Do you want to be the energy or steer the energy?
The Social Aspect of Learning
Groups of learners guided by a teacher form a social group during a period of several months. Planning how to work together needs to include this social factor. The more engaged with the learning community that each member is, the more at-stake they feel about the success of the community.
One distinct value of the social Web and other communication technologies is to be able to add social density to the learning community: Each medium alters the nature of the persona of the communicator. Different aspects of character emerge in e-mail, chat, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and wikis, Web sites, conferencing, portfolios, virtual reality, video, YouTube, and other media so that teacher and students can perceive each other more fully. A student who might never raise her hand in a lecture class may emerge more fully through other mediums of interaction.
Using social media as an integral part of the course allows for more forms of discourse. A greater variety of shared experiences are possible.
And, yes, the more distributed classroom activities are, the less minute-by-minute teacher control is possible. It is rare for me to meet faculty who are not disturbed by the seeming threat of anarchy using social media. I know of faculty members who meet their classes in computer labs or smart classrooms regularly but just talk, ignoring the other communication channels available in the room.
But, if learning is social and the social Web leverages the social aspect of learning, it would seem illogical and self-defeating in the course context to not use whatever social tools there are.
What Have We Learned?
After such knowledge (Egypt), what forgiveness? (paraphrasing T. S. Eliot, "Gerontion," 1920). Can we continue to forgive those who do not dare to understand the shifting ground of our culture and our knowledge structures? Can we forgive those who design inward-looking institutional learning goals mapped onto existing curricula that may in fact no longer have any reasonable connection to the world as it has become?
The hype about information technology has actually been pallid and meek, despite what most people think. We see before us how human energies, building over years of control, can be released through social media. In academia, we need to better understand the social media phenomenon. We inevitably have chosen on campus after campus the control face of ICT--management tools for existing practice or process to reinforce the status quo. Choosing the autocratic/control face of ICT and not the freedom/democratizing face may not serve us very well at all.