At Purdue we’re excited about a couple of tools developed by our central IT (ITaP) to use social media for learning: Hotseat and Mixable. You can learn more about them by going to our studio page. I’ll probably post about them again. I wanted to talk about them in terms of some grief (grief, grief, grief) about Malcolm Gladwell’s post about social media activism – in sum, Gladwell says because social media is based on weak ties and is overly convenient, it will not produce real, dependable social strucure where it did not exist before. He contrasts this with a pretty readable description of civil rights-era sit-ins. He closes with the story from Clay Shirky’s book about a couple that found a stolen phone largely through help from their social network. He has a wonderful closing:
“A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolucion.”
I don’t think he’s that far off base, though some would argue that in politics, for example, social media has been a highly mobilizing force. Even so, I think the stregth of social networks tends to be around growing or existing social structures. Gladwell says, speaking of weak-tie relationships:
This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency.
That works for me. Source of new ideas and information? Sure! (Learning). Need an existing social structure? Sure! (Classes). This is exactly the kind of structure that can exploit social media use. Don’t want to get to know each other? That’s fine! You don’t have to! We have a tool you just have to get into and use for the class, you don’t need to add anyone to your already clogged Facebook feed. I’ll now stop with the asking myself questions and exclamation points.
The collective class group exists formally for the purpose of learning. Just talk about the content, ask good questions, give honest answers to questions. Social media often has an analog in the non-digital world. They are not new ideas – they are just more convenient, easier to use, and do more things that ways we connected online in the past. Facebook did not revolutionize social networks because it did new things – it just formalized a lot of things people were doing and made it really easy. REALLY easy.
In the same way, social media, particularly social media that allows anonymous participation (anonymous to classmates, since we’re basically dealing with teenagers), particularly in situations like large classes were students have difficulty connecting, can be a way to get people with little motivation to participate with a bunch of strangers in a group where speaking up is akin to laminating “pariah” to your back. Anything that can lower the bar to participation improves the chances that students will participate. Participating improves the chances that they’ll stay engaged, and connect the content with their existing understanding of the world. The more the content spends time with their existing understanding of the world, the better chances that they’ll think about it, challenge it, and learn. Exploiting these temporary, existing weak-tie social structures and adding to them a layer of social media that helps them connect more conveniently is one way to improve the learning experience.