Moving Forward with Open Eyes and an Open Mind

There is no question in my mind that many of the ways that technology has developed — especially in facilitating the forging of connections between learners and content, learners and teachers, and learners and learners — are great boons to the field of education and to the cause of improving the learning process in general. Social software in particular has incredible potential to challenge the traditional notions of teaching and learning and to provide access to a wide variety of resources — both in terms of people and in terms of information — for learners who previously may not have had these opportunities. Every step forward in terms of innovation should also serve as an opportunity to reflect.

Here are just a few items for consideration when thinking about the use of social software (such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, photo-sharing services, social bookmarking and annotation services) that I’ve come across or thought about:

What new challenges and barriers does the use of social software create, or what challenges and barriers does the use of social software reinforce?

I’ve written about this topic in terms of Zeno’s Paradox; social interaction, collaborative work, and the community-based emergent categorization practice of tagging are all important and useful literacies to develop, and may allow for greater access and participation. With tagging there are even quite a few interesting articles about the more cognitive aspects of the practice (e.g., Tagwebs, Flickr, and the Human Brain and A cognitive analysis of tagging). But there is the potential in collaborative environments for individuals’ weaknesses to be reinforced; as Drs. Eide write in Commenting on Commentary: Interdisciplinary People vs. Teams?,

Many of the most successful innovative personalities are quite lopsided in their cognitive and social abilities. In fact, sometimes very smart people can make big mistakes by diluting their native talents by brooding and working too hard on their weaknesses rather than devoting themselves to their strengths.

In a collaborative environment, there is the danger that the failure of an individual to effectively participate will go unnoticed as those around him or her essentially pick up the slack. This can reinforce this individual’s feelings of low self-worth, breeding more failure. Members of the social network and an educator/moderator should be on the lookout for such scenarios and encourage every individual to contribute so that their strengths are accentuated and to value each and every contribution. It’s not an easy thing to do.

On a slightly more technical note, many of the social software and services utilize a technology called Ajax; while it is very useful for most people, it should be noted that when implemented incorrectly, Ajax poses an access problem for those learners who are blind or have reduced vision and use screen readers.

Again, I am certainly not advocating that we should disregard social software and the affordances such technology brings to the learning table; I am just posing questions to think about when planning and utilizing social software for learning.

Does the use of social software connect back to the learners’ experiences and “real-world” environment (and yours)?

Largely through this blog, I am hoping to encourage educators to think about the implications of the educational process — a concept that is often left out of the discussion of schooling, learning, and pedagogy. More often than not, the discussion ends at “Learners need to know things” or “Learners need to know how to do things” without taking the next step of asking why. What social, political, and cultural implications are triggered by schooling and learning for both the learner and for society as a whole?

Ulises Mejias asks many of these questions and responds with his idea of a pedagogy of nearness. Drawing on the work of Paulo Freire, he posits that social software is a way to foster praxis. He describes praxis as an emerging and evolving “prescription for action,” formed by the confluence of reflection, interaction, and action. Interaction by itself, or even interaction and reflection, falls short in this framework. Furthermore, praxis keeps with the idea of nearness, that is, the relevant and imminent; activities within this framework include the idea that there can be communications about and communications with (ideas, causes, concepts) on a variety of levels: the personal, local, and global.

As Ulises writes in A Nomad’s Guide to Learning and Social Software,

…The challenge for social software users is to contribute to a social cause in a way that enhances and aligns with—not disrupts or fragmentizes—other forms of activism.

Ensuring that the benefits of social software reach all circles of society will require that we focus not on the virtuality of social interactions, but on their reality. For a long time we have lived with the misconception that what we do online is virtual, and that since virtuality is a lesser form of reality (or a higher form, depending on who you ask), the consequences of our actions there have little to do with the ‘real’ world…. Nearness, in the sense I am using it, does not refer to spatial and temporal distance, but to immanence: the desire for connection and understanding, the nomad’s learning as becoming.

Does the use of social software the encourage the development of depth of thinking, knowing, and becoming in addition to breadth?

Avant-garde theater director Richard Foreman laments in The Pancake People, Or, The Gods Are Pounding My Head,

But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance—as we all become “pancake people”—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.

As young, impressionable, and forgetful as I am, a member of Generation X who remembers a world without the Internet and instant access and communications as well as a participant in and product of the “Information Age,” straddling nostalgia and prospection, these sentences strike a chord.

Connectivism is a theory which has spread far and wide across the educational blogosphere. The basis of connectivism, in short, is that learning can occur across people and networks and is the process of drawing connections between nodes. Far be it from me to deny that such skills and literacies are important, and the emerging nature of technology is making such practices ever more vital.

But is the idea that “the pipe is more important than the content within the pipe,” or that there are joys in shallow thinking the only way to conceptualize learning in the information age? Could there exist both breadth and depth? I am of the opinion that the two are not mutually exclusive, nor is it a “friend or foe” situation. As educators, we need to develop the skills to be able to recognize the affordances and drawbacks of both and to develop activities which encourage the development of both ways of thinking. We need both the cathedral and the bazaar.

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And that — after three days of on-again, off-again writing, punctuated by the necessities of real life with family — are my two cents. I hope that I’ve presented some questions to think about and to foster discussion, dialogue, and practice.

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