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May 2007

Facebook …

Jeff Jarvis just posted something, Amazing Facebook, that really chimes with me:

As impressed as I am with the platform, I still wish it were more open. I want to combine my presence on Facebook with my presences on my blog, del.icio.us, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, iTunes, Daylife, Amazon, eBay, and lots of other places — that is beginning on the platform — but I also want them to interact with each other and with my friends’ presences in those places to see what surprises result. Maybe I start to see that my friends are buying the same books. Or I put together a Twitter group for an event. Or I find that my blog readers who are in my same group are going to the same event.

It’s said that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has a vision for his service to become the social operating system of the web, the Google of people. Mark talks about bringing communities elegant organization. I say the internet already is a community of communities and there’s a winning strategy in bringing it elegant organization. But that’s different from making everyone come to you and join your service behind your closed walls. Granted, those closed walls have an advantage when it comes to people: I’m not friends with the world, only those I say are my friends (and only if they agree). But I need to be in charge of my identity and my relationships. Facebook started down that road. But it hasn’t yet arrived. At Davos, I heard Zuckerberg tell a big-time newspaper publisher that he couldn’t build a community; he had to serve a community that is already there and bring it, again, elegant organization. One more time: The internet is that community.

I've also been pondering another blog post Jeff Jarvis put up today, After the page. The final two paragraphs of the 'Amazing Facebook' posting hint at what Jeff expounds much more fully in 'After the page':

This also has big implications for publishers, portals, governments, and companies that interact directly with customers. This is about more than “widgetizing” your content in hopes people will publish it on their pages — though that’s a smart strategy as far as it goes. I’m writing about this in my Guardian column this week, which I’ll put up soon. It’s also about going to people instead of expecting them to come to you. And it’s about thinking beyond content to functionality: How can you turn yourself into an API? Shouldn’t news be something we use in new ways?

I’ve only begun to get my head around the possibilities of the Facebook platform — and I think that Facebook has only begun to open it up. This points to a new architecture to the web, an architecture built around people instead of content, the public instead of the companies. It’ll be exciting to watch and I’m glad I’m finally on the inside to watch it.

I like that: 'How can you turn yourself into an API?'. The link Jeff makes in 'After the page' to Seth Godin's 18 May post is inspired.

Something's brewing …


Making the point: timelines

When taking about the web and web-based developments, timelines can be powerful tools to help people understand something of what's afoot. Two approaches that I've found work well in schools (because they speak to the experience of both teacher and pupil):

1) A riff on the Rates of Change theme for schools, or what Ian uses in lectures (and these are his words, not mine):

Moore's Law suggests that computers improve by a factor of 10 every 5 years. In educational terms that is pretty significant because it tends to be the length of time that a student stays in each stage of their education ...  So it should take approximately 20 years to get an improvement of 10,000 times baseline.

Elsewhere, Ian put it thus: 'as a student moves from 13 years old to 28 years old the computers around him will become 1000 times better'.

2) Or try a good, clear, uncluttered timeline of the relevant innovations. John Naughton recently came up with this timeline of technological change during the life of someone now aged 22:

1985: Born  —  Internet 2 years old; Nintendo release 'Super Mario Brothers'

1990: Start primary school — WWW being conceived

1992: 7 years old — first SMS message sent

1995: Amazon, eBay founded

1996: Heading towards secondary school — Hotmail launched; pay-as-you-go mobile tariffs; instant messaging

1998: Teenage years — Google founded

1999: Studying for GCSEs — Napster; Blogger

2001: Wikipedia; iPod

2002: Studying for A Levels — social-networking services appear

2003: University — Skype

2005: Graduation approaches — YouTube

Of course, this can be finessed as much as you like and will, in any case, need constant updating. Right now, it will need to major on Facebook — and that's an opportunity to look back at the original page:

And if we're really going to sleuth down the appearance of social-networking sites, Six Degrees (1997) must be added in — the Wayback Machine also has its original page (well, the 1998 version) and this from its 'about' page:

I also looked up the wiki danah boyd started, yasns, last November:

Please help me document the history of social network sites by adding key dates to this timeline. … i'm trying to focus primarily on major social network sites.

[yasns-blogs] is a separate timeline for social network sites that are primarily blogging services like [LiveJournal], [Xanga], and [Vox].  Likewise [yasns-dating] is for dating sites that are not primarily social network sites.  And [social-software] is for related projects that are not primarily social network sites (like [Flickr], [MeetUp], [43Things], and [YouTube]) or are software meant to support social network sites (like identity tools and aggregators).

You can weave quite a lot from all that, making sense of a today that, whilst it's often talked about as if it has arrived very fast, has been signalling its coming so clearly and for so long (22 years!) that (in another context) Tom Coates could talk of it as a snail:

'The snail! The snail!', they cry. 'How can we possibly escape!?. The problem being that the snail's been moving closer for the last twenty years one way or another and they just weren't paying attention.

Timelines can help us pay attention.


David Miliband: 'a new age of social activism'

In two recent speeches, UK politicians are beginning to show they understand the web. First, George Osborne. And now, David Miliband:

When we think of education, we tend to think of formal teaching in classrooms by teachers.  This remains important.  But the range of resources to support learning is far wider than that - from workplaces and museums to individuals with skills to contribute, and passions to share. They lie beyond the school gates and they are 24/7. And the key to genuine educational transformation is inspiring children and adults to learn more for themselves – what Yeats called ‘lighting a fire’ as opposed to ‘filling a pail’.  So the challenge is to connect people with skills and time to give, from university students, part-time employees and people in retirement, to others with similar passions and interests.  ‘Every citizen a teacher’ may be a bit of a stretch, but it is not impossible to imagine an educational world where a large minority of citizens play an active role, either on a voluntary or paid basis in supporting learners as personal tutors, running after-school clubs, or integrated into the curriculum and the classroom. The web can create the potential to aggregate the dispersed supply of citizen-teachers and connect them to learners with particular interests. It can also help learners filter the good from the bad through peer to peer recommendations and make sense of a world where educational resources are much more diverse.

And much more besides: 'I believe the businesses and government that succeed in the future will be those that give people greater power to shape the future of their individual lives and greater capacity to collaborate. A sense of I can and we can.'

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ICT — quo vadis?

This discussion needs to be set in the context of what is happening on and to the web. In other words, our policies need to address the realities of online, mobile and ubiquitous computing. Integrated, online services, social software and collaborative networks and communities have established themselves so rapidly that, even if teenagers were not dedicated users of them, our role as educators would require us to be teaching our students how to use these tools and what constitutes good practice. We have a body of pupils who use webmail and the integrated applications these now come with (as under development by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! …), who have never known a world without mobile and online communication and for whom online social networking is simply part and parcel of their lives.

— how I began a brief paper I wrote last week for internal discussion at work. In the paper, I drew upon some excellent, recent material that is freely available online. Of this, I'd single out material by, or including contributions from, danah boyd.

  • Earlier this month, the Advisory Committee to the US Congressional Internet Caucus heard evidence from ‘The nation's foremost academic researchers on child online safety’ (see here). Amongst those who spoke was danah (who needs no introduction here). The video of this session repays watching.

Today’s teenagers are being socialised into a society complicated by shifts in the public and private. New social technologies have altered the underlying architectures of social interaction and information distribution. They are embracing this change, albeit often with the clumsy candour of an elephant in a china shop. Meanwhile, most adults are panicking. They do not understand the shifts that are taking place and, regardless, they don’t like what they’re seeing. 

This leaves educators in a peculiar bind. More conservative educators view social technologies as a product of the devil, bound to do nothing but corrupt and destroy today’s youth. Utterly confused, the vast majority of educators are playing ostrich, burying their heads in the sand and hoping that the moral panics and chaos that surround the social technologies will just disappear. Slowly, a third group of educators is emerging - those who believe that it is essential to understand and embrace the new social technologies so as to guide youth through the murky waters that they present. This path is tricky because it requires educators to let go of pre-existing assumptions about how the world works. Furthermore, as youth are far more adept at navigating the technologies through which these changes are taking place, educators must learn from their students in order to help them work through the challenges that they face.

In this article, I want to address how the architecture that frames social life is changing and what it means for a generation growing up knowing that this shift is here to stay. Educators have a very powerful role to play in helping smooth the cultural transition that is taking place; I just hope that they live up to this challenge.

… educators are well positioned to directly engage youth about their networked practices. ... Internet safety is on the tip of most educators’ tongues, but much of what needs to be discussed goes beyond safety. It is about setting norms & considering how different actions will be interpreted. 

  • In a posting about cyber-bullying on her own blog, danah noted

    Focusing on the technology will not make the bullying actually go away, although the more we push it underground the less visible it is to adults. 

Adapting some material from my paper …

The traditional media’s view of online life still informs the views of many of those adults whose role it is to manage schools. Risk is writ large. Expert researchers contradict the views of traditional media, tell a very different story about risk and put the emphasis upon the need to educate our children about the tools they are accustomed to use.

The mere existence or use of online, digital tools does not in itself expose a user to wild danger. “Digital space” is not something set apart from the rest of life: the technology may amplify or highlight certain behavioural patterns of which we disapprove, but such behaviour (for example, bullying) will be spread across non-digital and digital life. Schools need to treat digital life as part and parcel of what life now is and, just as schools don’t ban pupils from talking to each other in physical spaces where they cannot be monitored, schools must not ban them from virtual spaces to which they have access outside of school. Anti-bullying programmes needs to include cyber-space just as much as they already include physical space, and all adults need to be sensitive to where children are spending their time, to whom they are talking and to their well-being. 

… we need to work with our pupils, seeking to inform, certainly, but also learning from their understanding of these tools. Perpetuating a culture that seeks to ban and control, rather than to inform and influence, is both self-defeating and anti-educational. Very recently, the Province of Ontario in Canada announced that it was banning access to Facebook for thousands of bureaucrats and elected officials. Michael Geist, Professor of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, commented:

The attempts to block Facebook or punish users for stating their opinions fails to appreciate that social network sites are simply the internet generation's equivalent of the town hall, the school cafeteria, or the workplace water cooler - the place where people come together to exchange both ideas and idle gossip. Attempts to block such activity are not only bound to fail, but they ultimately cut off decision makers, school officials, and community leaders from their communities. The answer does not lie in banning Facebook or the other emerging social media sites, but rather in facing up to Facebook fears and learning to use these new tools to engage and educate.

We are at a cross-roads. Either we carry on with what John Naughton has called the Old Person’s ICT Curriculum or we address the world as it is:

[We are] preparing kids to use the ageing tools of an old paradigm - rather than educating them for life in a networked society where they will need different kinds of knowledge and skills as yet undreamt-of by the QCA. By failing to recognise this, we are not only boring our children but also doing them a great disservice. Our schools are providing ICT training, whereas what is needed is ICT education.

 
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Messiness and Education

Preparing for Microlearning 2007

Back in 1999, the CEO of CISCO said, ‘The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail look like a rounding error’ (John Chambers at the COMDEX '99 conference; cited here). Eight years on, the killer app has not yet appeared and this despite massive investment in ICT within schools (see my earlier post). 

For some time now, the best voices in the world of e-learning have been saying something else. In 1998, Marc Eisenstadt was arguing (see his summary post, Show-time on Death Of E-Learning), 

… the Web even at its most ideal is a pretty awful medium for studying and undertaking course work. … Even when the interfaces are stunning, and connections are smooth and ultra-fast, we need to remind ourselves that we are still, after all, only looking at a computer screen. … there are creative things we can do with those stunning interfaces that put books to shame: we can motivate and empower learners, reach disabled students, simulate existing and as-yet-unimagined worlds, forge new relationships, create communities, and launch whole new endeavours of study. All of this is wonderful, but we mustn’t let it go to our heads. ‘Studying courses on the Web’, in our experience, is a sad misconception.

And in 2004 (KMi: Chief Scientist: ‘E-Learning is Dead’): 

In a presentation of “what works”, “what fails”, and “what’s next” … Prof Eisenstadt listed E-Learning itself as a prominent item in the “fails” column. [He was] equally dismissive of “Learning Management Systems”, “Learning Objects”, “Virtual Learning Environments” … Items in the “what works” column included star teachers, social networking, simulations, peer-to-peer networks, certain “banned” games, and tasks that engendered creativity and content ownership directly in learners … The greatest challenges, argued Eisenstadt, were to “attain results at large scale, maintain a degree of warmth and humanity that is often lost in digital media, and ensure the buy-in of the highly over-stretched teaching workforce.”

A WSJ piece of 2001, No Substitute: the internet does NOT change everything, explored the criticisms of e-learning (distance- and online-learning) voiced by Marc Eisenstadt, John Seely Brown, Donald Norman, Alvin Toffler and Seymour Papert, and then commented on what online learning can do for education: 

  • ‘make learning more interactive and more interesting than standard lectures and textbooks’
  • ‘In fact, by making it possible to “customize” curriculums to suit the needs of individual children, online education could invert some of the main assumptions of traditional education. “The key thing is that you don’t have to have the same curriculum for everyone,” says Seymour Papert, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the interaction of kids and computers for decades. “It is being able to take charge of learning and feel that you’re in control, that makes the difference.” ’
  • help enable ‘lifelong learning’
  • provide access to ‘distributed knowledge’

Today, we need to pay renewed attention to what Marc Eisenstadt, John Seely Brown, Donald Norman, Alvin Toffler, Seymour Papert and others have been saying. 

And, of course, it is not only educators and educational theorists who are saying things which can teach teachers how to make better use of ICT. As we move into the age of everyware, designers are no longer promoting seamlessness as the desirable goal of ubiquitous computing. Seamfulness is the new meme: it’s not always good to seek to tidy away mess. 

There is a lesson here for teachers. Seamless, monolithic virtual learning environments are what systematisers should be dreaming of, not educators. 

Recently, Dave Winer, commenting on the significance and value of Twitter, wrote (Twitter as coral reef), 

Calling a technology a coral reef is the highest compliment I can pay.

Evolving e-learning within educational institutions is to seed and cultivate a coral reef. It’s what Dave Snowden meant when he said (quoted by Euan): ‘You can’t manage knowledge but you can create a knowledge ecology’. It’s what John Seely Brown means when he speaks of ‘learning ecologies’. 

To achieve this, to put digital technology to good use in education, requires, of course, that schools learn. To adapt John Seely Brown’s question (ibid.), substituting ‘schools’ for ‘universities’: schools are institutions of learning but are they, themselves, learning institutions? 

In truth, as John Naughton, writing in the Observer earlier this year, has said, 

Our schools are providing ICT training, whereas what is needed is ICT education.

This year at Microlearning, I would like to explore further some of these issues.