Open Network Learning at Royal Roads University

Next week I begin teaching a course in the Royal Roads MA in Learning & Technology (MALAT) program. The opportunity to teach in the program came up via George Veletsianos and the MALAT program head Elizabeth Childs.

This is a course that George usually teaches in the MALAT program, but George (and Elizabeth) are currently busy developing a new MALAT program at RRU.

Last week, I had the chance to see the new program when I attended a 2 day session at RRU with other associate faculty from both the MALAT program and the wider School of Education.

The new MALAT program at RRU is intriguing. Really intriguing. Theoretical foundations for the program emphasize open pedagogy and network learning.

Over the past 5 years, there has been extensive consultations with various stakeholder groups. The results are a graduate level education program that feels innovative, contemporary, and grounded in the reality of what it takes to learn in a digital, networked enabled world.

It’s a bold vision. Students in the program will take an active and participatory role with the wider education community. They will openly blog (on a newly set up WordPress network at Royal Roads) and develop a social media presence, using both of these tools as pedagogical springboards to take a deep dive into the world of open, networked learning.

Not to dismiss my own experiences as a MALAT grad and the program at the time I was a student (yes, I have all kinds of tendrils intertwined with RRU and this particular program), but there is a small part of me that is slightly remorseful that the timing for a program like this wasn’t quite right 8 years ago when I enrolled as a student. Blogging, using social media, developing a professional network, and using social media tools as personal learning tools is how I operate.

Needless to say, I am smitten with the vision for the program.

What has jazzed me the most in the days since the retreat is that my thinking has been re-energized. I have been jolted back to some of the past work I did on network learning and informal learning, much of which went into my Masters thesis. Things I haven’t thought or written about in years. I realize that I miss having the time and space that a graduate program provides to really think about this stuff; about how the Internet has changed the nature of informal learning, and how important it is to prepare learners with the skills and knowledge to truly become life-long learners.

I see it everyday in my kids as they digitally manouver between formal and informal learning situations. They follow their own interests and passions via YouTube videos and online courses. Beside the regular social stuff that teens and pre-teens do with friends, they do video hangouts with their friends to complete homework assignments. They get daily mobile prompts on their phones to complete micro-French lessons, and stay playfully motivated to keep ahead of their uncle on the leaderboard. They collaborate on school projects with their peers using web-based tools, conducting research online.

These are the types of learning activities I see pedagogically reflected in the new MALAT program that excites me. And I feel lucky to be part of the ride.

Photo: Open Teaching – Thinning the Walls – Revision #2 by Alec Couros CC-BY-NC-SA


I am not quitting social media

But I have been scaling back my use of it.

It began, quite inadvertently and unconsciously, over the holiday break when I realized that there were days where I didn’t post – or even check – a FaceTwitLinkFlickagram feed. Which was unusual.

As I reflected on my use of social media in the past year, I realized that my use of social media had amped up in 2016, especially Facebook. I was spending a lot of mindless time on FB and it was making me feel anxious and stressed. The intense heated rhetoric leading up to the US election on both FB and Twitter didn’t help and I was feeling compelled to be on SM a lot. It wasn’t until the holiday break when I went days without checking and posting that I realized just how much SM was stressing me out.

So, as a new year begins, I am trying to be more mindful of my use of social media. FB and Twitter don’t sit open on my computer. I only check once or twice a day, usually when someone tags me as I have disabled most notifications on my devices to help curb the Pavlovian response. I am only on for a few moments at a time, check notifications, and then pop off. I am not automatically sharing photos or stories I read, despite actually doing more reading, albeit in physical and not digital form. Getting a daily physical newspaper has been the way I have been keeping and mitigating the FOMO for larger issues, although I know I am missing details of friends lives.  However, overall, I feel less tense and stressed, more focused on my immediate surroundings and find I am actually not missing SM all that much.

The one bit that does cause me a bit of angst is that I have spent the past 10 years building a professional digital identity using social media. Although my network and SM use has never been written into a formal job description (in fact, in the early days just the opposite where my use of SM was viewed by some colleagues with F.U.D.), I know that my use of social media is a big component of my professional work and a significant part of the value I bring to the different groups I am involved with. It does cause me some tension when I know that there are things I should be sending to my network and, even though there is no formal expectation from the people I work with that I amplify stuff, I do feel an unspoken (and largely self-induced) expectation that I be engaged. I am not sure if/how I should communicate this scaling back to people in my network, which is why I am writing this blog post that (ironically) most of you will read after I post it to my various social media networks.

I suspect I am not alone in this uncomfortable feeling. I have consciously chosen to blur the lines between my personal and professional life by being engaged on SM as me. It still feels like the most genuine way to use social media. But I do wonder if, by choosing to scale back my use of social media, it may somehow impact me professionally.

I am especially aware of this as I head into teaching a course at Royal Roads University that begins in a few weeks. If there was ever a time I would want to actually ramp up my social media use to model network learning principles to learners, now would be the time.

Also adding to my apprehension about scaling back my use of social media is the fact that my daughter is turning 13 and wants to begin engaging with social media. One of the rules we have always had about her SM use is that when she starts to engage, she needs to have me in her network at least until she gets the lay of land. So, my feeling that I need to scale back on my SM use comes at an awkward time, both personally and professionally.

All this is to say, you are likely not seeing quite as much of me out there on FaceTwitLinkFlickagram and that is intentional. At any given moment, I’ll likely scale it back up. But for now, I’m ok with sitting on the side for a bit as I rebalance and try to find a new equilibrium.

I am also curious as to whether you feel this tension as well. When you have completely blurred the lines between professional and personal on SM, do you feel pressure to continue being fully engaged on SM even when you don’t want to? When your personal wants a break? How do you handle it, and do you communicate with your network that you are scaling back?


Facebook has an identity crisis – and it's messing with democracy

I’ve followed the long standing Facebook identity battles that both Alec Couros and Alan Levine have had to endure, and the abject failure on the part of Facebook to deal with fake account after fake account expropriating their identities to do all manner of nasty things. Today comes news that the mayor of Victoria, Lisa Helps, was locked out of her own Facebook account because….well, because Facebook doesn’t believe that a person in politics could actually have the last name of Helps.

While what has happened to Alec and Alan is serious and has caused a great deal of pain to people who have been duped and manipulated by one form of catfish con after another (to say nothing of the huge amount of effort both Alec and Alan have expended fighting Facebook), it is another level of icky when Facebook starts messing with the identity of publicly elected officials.

Regardless of your political opinions of the mayor (and just for the record, I live in Saanich, a different municipality with a different mayor) it is clear that Helps considers Facebook an important tool to engage with her constituents on all manners of public policy. Which is how it should be. The internet should enable more direct interaction with our public officials.

But by locking her out of her own account, Facebook has essentially gagged a public official. In short, Facebook – a corporation that is no stranger to accusations that it manipulates political opinion and conducts ethically questionable research by manipulating what we see in Facebook – is messing with democracy.

Now, I don’t think that there is anything overtly political behind having the mayor’s account shut down by Facebook. I think this is a case of Facebook’s own algorithmic bumbling. But, intentional or not, there are socio-political implications to having a publicly elected official lose access to their own Facebook account. Imagine if this happened with just a few days left in a tight election campaign? Or during a crisis in the city where the mayor was trying to use Facebook as a way to communicate important information to the citizens of her community?

It would be dismissive to think that social media is trivial. That this is just Facebook and there are plenty of other avenues available to the mayor to communicate with constituents. Which is true. But the fact is that social media is driving much of the political discourse happening in North America. The recent Pew Research shows that most people get their news from social media, with 63% of respondents saying that they get their news directly from what they see in Facebook. Over 60% of us use Facebook and social media to engage in political discourse on social media. And Facebook, the company, has no qualms about adjusting our newsfeed to promote certain behaviours during an election.

Social media has become a vitally important mechanism in our political process and, by extension, our society.

I am becoming convinced that it is dangerous for us to leave something as crucial as our identity up to an unaccountable, corporate social media company. Facebook is messing up too bad and the stakes are just too high in a democratic society.

I think our civic institutions need to be playing a bigger role in digital identity. Our governments need to be doing more to help its citizens verify that who we are online is legit. It’s a role our government has always had a hand in, through the issuing of government identification documents like passports, health cards, and drivers licenses. It’s time for them to step up and provide some kind of mechanism that can help their citizens verify that they are who they are online.

I also think that we need some regulations on social media with regards to digital identity issues. When the mayor of a city – and that cities police force – are unable to convince Facebook that the mayor is who she says she is….that is a serious problem. Our digital identities are too important to be left to customer support who refuse to return messages and fix problems quickly. It begins to look like censorship – tacit or otherwise – when the mayor is cut off for 9 days, and gets NO response from the company that cut her off. With identity, Facebook is failing and it is time for our public officials to step in and ensure that there are effective and efficient identity dispute mechanisms in place that keep people from being locked out of their own accounts for days and weeks on end. And with Facebook single sign on accounting for over 60% of login credentials at third-party sites, getting the boot on Facebook likely means getting the boot of a whole host of other sites and services across the web that you use.

I am also becoming convinced that our governments need to be more proactive in providing citizens alternative public virtual spaces for citizens to engage. While it is great that civic engagement happens on Twitter and Facebook and other virtual spaces, it is still at the whim and control of that social media company.  Just like our communities have real public spaces like libraries, schools, recreation centres and other physical municipal institutions, we should also be pushing for more of these virtual public spaces provided by our civic institutions. Places where a mayor can virtually interact with a wide network of constituents that isn’t controlled by a corporation driven by their own best interests who seem to have little regard for the damage they are doing to our lives and communities.


Social Annotation with

Following David’s lead (and thanks to some great WordPress plugin work by Tim Owens),  I’ve installed a social annotation tool called on this site. Actually, it looks like much more than a social annotation tool, but I’ll get to that in a minute. is a non-profit funded by (among others) the Shuttleworth Foundation (who are funding some very innovative work right now in the education/web space, including the OERPub project and Siyavula). It is a social web annotation platform being developed around web standards proposed by the W3C Open Annotation community group.

A WordPress plugin is just one of the tools. There is also a Chrome browser plugin and (soon) a plugin for Firefox. These plugins allow you to annotate and highlight across the web. So, annotation works in 2 ways, either on the user side via the browser plugins, or on the site builder side via a WordPress plugin.

If you highlight and right-click any text on the page, you should see a little balloon/pen icon pop up. Click on the icon and a panel will slide out from the right of the page. You need a account to highlight and annotate. If you don’t have one, you can create one quickly from the fly out.

If you want to see the comments that are on the page, there are 2 prompts on the page that show you there are comments. First, you can click on the icon in the top right hand corner of the page that looks like this:


Hover over the icon and you’ll see some other icons appear that allow you see the annotations & highlights on the page, or to highlight and annotate yourself.

The second prompt that shows you there are comments are the icons on the right of the page that look like directional arrows:


This one appears in the bottom right corner of the page on posts that have comments on them (like the one you will see on this post if you are viewing the post itself. For some reason, doesn’t seem to be working on the home page of the blog). Click on the icon and you are taken to the exact spot in the post that has been highlighted or annotated.

This is still very much an alpha project, but looks promising as a collaborative annotation tool. One of the concepts that I really like about it is that you have the ability to aggregate all of your annotations and comments under one account, something I tried to do many years ago, but gave up on in frustration as the tools that were around at the time were frustrating to use. I want to be able to have a central place that shows me all of my conversations on the web, and this might be a good option.

There are a few things I like about the project as well. Reading their principles, it looks like they are committed to creating a tool that remains non-profit, free and that works anywhere – important qualities if they hope to garner enough critical mass to make the project a success. The rest of the principles are equally important and you should take a read through.

As more and more websites turn off comments, I can see services like (and existing tools like the Diigo, which is often forgotten as an annotation tool and used by many only as a social bookmarking tools) are going to be important tools to keep the conversation flowing.

As for the more than a social annotation tool bit I hinted at in the lead, appears to be framing itself as a tool for discussion and collaboration rather than simple highlighting and annotating. will be an open platform for the collaborative evaluation of knowledge. It will combine sentence-level critique with community peer-review to provide commentary, references, and insight on top of news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation and regulations, software code and more.

I am not exactly sure how this bit works yet. But as I play with I am eager to find out.

Something I learned about the history of the web from the promotional video. Annotations were an original feature of Mosaic, but disabled at the last minute when the browser first shipped. Which makes you wonder what the web would be like today if comments were enabled from the start through the browser right from the get go.


Those auto-magic algorithms are getting pretty slick

Today I got to work, powered up my Nexus tablet and saw a notification in the notification area I have never seen before that said “4 auto-awesome videos”

What the heck is that?

So I check it out and see that it is, actually, something that is pretty awesome.

I’m not a huge Google photo user. I don’t store much in the Google photo cloud. But when I got my first Nexus phone a few years ago, I did experiment with auto-uploading photos and videos I took to Google Photos. So, I’ve got some stuff from 3 or 4 years ago just sitting in the Google Photo cloud.

When I clicked on the “Auto-Awesome” notification, a video menu screen appeared with stills from 4 albums I had created in 2009 & 2010 during my auto-upload days. I clicked on one and saw that the Auto Awesome feature had automatically taken the photos and videos from each of those albums and made a movie out of it.

Here’s what the auto awesome feature did to a photo album I had on Google Photos from 2009 when my kids were a tad younger. It’s pretty impressive.

Well, played, Google marketing machine. Well played. You got me with your auto-notification and auto awesomeness. I have to admit that when I saw this video, I got a bit nostalgic. I had forgot that these photos and videos existed (I am sure that I have them tucked safely away in my own storage somewhere), but for a moment, the Google machine caught me and made me go “wow, that is pretty slick”

And then I come back to real life.

I am in the middle of reading Dave Eggers The Goog…er, The Circle, which is a dystopian novel set in a world where the fictional “Circle” corporation has taken transparency, openeness, sharing, privacy, ecommerce and social networking enabled by technology and wrapped in technological utopian ideals to an extreme, creating a dysfunctional 1984-ish nightmare scenario. In the past 2 days, with this auto awesomeness feature and yesterday’s personalized endorsement opt-out decision that means my face should not appear as “endorsing” a product that is returned in a Google search, Eggers vision (which, when I started the book last week seemed farcical with its extreme point of view) has suddenly become highly plausible (although, it should be noted that in the world of The Circle, I probably wouldn’t be able to opt-out of the service). Timing, as they say, is everything.

Like many, I think I am torn between two extremes. One, I find surprises like auto-awesome pretty, uh, awesome. And I can see a great utility in it. It has me reconsidering whether or not I should start using G+ and the photo service more as the final result did something that I want my photos and videos to do – evoke feelings of love and nostalgia of a time when my kids were younger.

But in the back I know that this is exactly what Google wants me to do. It’s a brilliant marketing ploy – using my own memories to play on my sentimentality to market their products and services to me, to get me to contribute more to their machine so that the data on me can be fine tuned. You can sense the algorithms at work, analyzing the video. Oh look, Clint has kids (serve ads about kid safety products). They are 9 and 7 (83% of 7 year old boys like Pokemon. Suggest Pokemon as possible Christmas present for son). He takes them skating (send 2 for 1 skating coupon to Gmail). They have a yard (target Home Depot garden ads), and the yard has trees. The trees look like apple trees. He probably harvests apples from those trees (ad’s for Better Homes and gardens website apple pie section).

When you start to go down the data mining hole, it is easy to scream, “stop the ride, I want to get off!” And in the final analysis, you begin to see even more clearly than before that the product Google sells is you.


Can the GitHub community be a sustainability model for Open textbooks?

tl:dr Like open source software, it takes a community to maintain an open textbook.

Anyone watching my Twitter feed this week knows I’ve got GitHub on my mind.


Part of the interest lies in the fact that there are some technical projects in development that I want to follow. But another part of me is interested in exploring the ideas of community & collaborative authorship and how individuals come together & contribute to create and maintain a shared resource.

On GitHub, the resource is usually software, but as I pointed out a few days ago, there are a number of academic projects popping up on GiTHub that are taking me down this path this week.

One of the non-technical questions we spend time thinking about on the open textbook project (and there are many) is around sustainability, and I think there is a model in the GitHub community that could be applied to open textbooks as a sustainability model.

GitHub is not only a code repository, but also a community for developers. At the centre of the community is the software; it is the tangible artifact that the community develops around. Members of the community take on the collective responsibility to maintain and develop the software, contributing code, fixing bugs, developing documentation, etc.

Outside of the big open textbook projects (which are currently being supported primarily by grant & foundation money), some of the more successful, small scale open textbook projects I see are starting to use this community-as-resource-steward model to maintain and improve their resource.

One small example of this is the Stitz-Zeager Open Source Mathematics Textbook site where the textbook authors set up some community forums over the summer. I see setting up a discussion forum for those who have adopted the book as a good way to begin to develop a community around the resource & begin to engender a feeling of community stewardship around that textbook.

Scaling up from that example, I was also struck this week by the story of Joe Moxley, an English professor who wrote a commercial textbook published by Pearson. In 2008, he received the copyright work to his textbook back from Pearson (I’d love to hear the story about how that happened). At that point, Joe had a few options for what to do with his book. In the end, he licensed it with a CC license & released it online as Writing Commons. In Joe’s words (emphasis mine):

In 2008, when I received copyright back from Pearson for College Writing Online, a textbook I’d published online in 2003, I decided to self-publish the work. Rather than pursuing a for-profit model, I opted to give the book away for free, first at and later at With hopes of developing a community around my project, I established a distinguished editorial board and review board, and I invited my colleagues to submit “web texts”— that is, texts designed for web-based publication—for the project. Since then, rather than helping merely a handful of students, the work has been viewed by over half a million people, and we’ve been able to publish original, peer-reviewed web texts.

Since then, dozens of authors have contributed resources to the Writing Commons, and the project continues to encourage contributions from the community to further develop and improve the resource. This benefits not only the project,  but, as Joe points out, also the contributors.

From my experiencing directing the Writing Program at USF, I’ve found that graduate students, adjuncts, and university faculty take pleasure in developing collaboratively-authored pedagogical materials. Additionally, developing online teaching and learning spaces via collaborative tools energizes colleagues as well as students, giving them an opportunity to extend their learning, to talk with one another, and to produce relevant texts—texts that other Internet-users may read. Engaging colleagues and students in a collaborative effort to build a viable textbook creates energy and focus for courses. Rather than importing the values of a book editor from Boston or New York, faculty can customize their contributions to meet the special needs of their students and colleagues.

and (again emphasis mine)

Ultimately, from my perspective as an academic author, by crowdsourcing what had been a single-authored work, I’ve gained communal agency while losing some individual agency. I may no longer be able to do exactly what I want, yet from a team effort I can do more than I’d ever imagined.

Now, I am not sure if the team of contributors who are contributing to the success of Writing Commons are the people who actually use the open resource in class & suggest improvements based upon their direct experience with the resource, but I suspect it is.

Which is the point I am trying to make – those who use a resource are more often than not the ones in the best position to maintain that resource. And the best way to maintain that resource is not a single author being responsible for the maintainance and upkeep of the textbook, but an entire community of engaged users iteratively adding improvements and developments to the textbook over time.

Kinda like the communities of developers who cluster around code projects on GitHub. Those that cluster and contribute are generally those who stand to gain the most from the success of the project. They might use the software on a daily basis for their projects, or it mind underpin an important piece of their work. So they have some motivation to contribute and maintain the project. Just like faculty who adopt an open textbook .

Now, this community development model is not something that is exclusive to GitHub, which is just the latest flavour in a long line of success stories in open source collaborative software development (in edu you don’t have to look much farther than Moodle to see a perfect example of a successful open source community development model in action). But there are some feature of GitHub that I think parallel a community open textbook development model.

First, GitHub allows for various levels of engagement with a project. For newbies in the community (those lurkers on the edge watching for little pieces of low hanging fruit that can bring them in deeper in the community), they can contribute in small ways to improving a project. Find a spelling error? You have the power to fix it in a fairly low risk operation that would bring some recognition from those deeper inside the community.

Moving up the scale, you could contribute a new chapter, or revise a section of text , add images and graphics, charts and tables. Build supplemental resources and easily contribute all of this back to the original project to iteratively improve it.

Finally, the OER holy grail, a full on derivative remixed version of the project is one click away with GitHub. Fork, and you have a complete clone of a project ready for you to begin your own fully developed derivative version of the work. And, if it was a particularly active project, branch another community who might be interested in your derivative version of the project.

This isn’t new stuff. The roots of Open Educational Resources lie in the Open Source Software (pdf) movement. Which is maybe why I find myself this week so enamoured with the GitHub community. It grounds me and connects me to the roots of where we come from. I don’t know if any practical application of my playing and exploring of GitHub this week will lead to something concrete with the open textbook project, but at a theoretical level it has connected me back to the roots of OER. And even if GitHub plays no part in open textbooks, I suspect this won’t be the last time I think openly about community supported open textbooks.


Twitter, PLEs and PLNs

Thought I would share some bits of my thesis on Twitter, PLN’s and PLE’s  as others might find it useful.

What is a PLN?

For all of the conversation occurring among educators about PLNs, there has been surprisingly little academic research on PLNs (Couros, 2010, p. 123). With many educators using this term to describe their own informal learning habits, it is important for educational researchers to investigate exactly what this concept means to those who are using it as a term to describe a learning activity

A Personal Learning Network (PLN) is a network of people you connect with for the specific purpose of learning (Tobin, 1998). These people may assist you in your learning by acting as a guide, direct you to learning opportunities, and assist you with finding answers to questions (Tobin, 1998).

Digenti (1999) defines a PLN as:

relationships between individuals where the goal is enhancement of mutual learning which is based on reciprocity and a level of trust that each party is actively seeking value-added information for the other (1999, p. 53).

Couros (2010) echoes Digentis notion that a PLN is defined by the relationships among the individuals when he states that:

“a PLN is the sum of all social capital and connections that result in the development and facilitation of a personal learning environment” (2010, p. 125).

In order to fully understand this definition, a distinction needs to be made between the Personal Learning Network (PLN) and the closely related term, the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) as the two terms are often used interchangeably when, in fact, they refer to two separate conceptual models.

A Personal Learning Environment (PLE) can be thought of as the ecosystem that enables a PLN. A PLE represents

“the tools, artefacts, processes, and physical connections that allow learners to control and manage their learning” (Couros, 2010, p. 125).

Using this distinction, Twitter, along with other ICT’s, are tools of the PLE that enables interactions with a PLN. These other ICTs are significant as the PLN is not limited to interactions on Twitter alone and encompass not only other ICTs, but also face-to-face and non-ICT mediated interactions.

The other ICT’s  that are often used alongside Twitter can be divided into three broad categories; technologies used to enhance, extend, view, or manage Twitter data, technologies that are used in conjunction with Twitter, and technologies that are used independent of Twitter.


  1. Technologies used to enhance, extend, view, or manage Twitter data: Twitter extensions are tools that specifically enhance, extend, view, or manage Twitter data. This category can further be divided into three subcategories;
    1. technologies which participants use to view and manage the Twitter data stream (Tweetdeck and HootSuite),
    2. technologies that participants use to repurpose or modify Twitter data (such as, Packrati,The Tweeted Times), and
    3. technologies that are used to search Twitter data.
  2. Technologies used in conjunction with Twitter: Technologies in this category are tools that can be used independent of Twitter, but are often use in conjunction with Twitter, such as  blogs, social bookmarking applications (Delicious and Diigo), and collaborative tools (Google Docs). For example, Twitter itself is not a collaborative platform in that participants do not use it to collaboratively create a tweet. However, Twitter is often used in conjunction with Google Docs, a collaborative document authoring application, to help facilitate the creation of a shared resource among the PLN.
  3. Technologies used independent of Twitter, but may also be used for PLN activities. Other technologies that are used independently of Twitter. Examples are Facebook, LinkedIn, forums and Ning.

This is not an exhaustive list of ICT’s used within a PLE, but a sample based on interviews with thesis participants. PLE = Personal Learning Environment; PLN = Personal Learning Network; Data = Technologies used to enhance, extend, view, or manage Twitter data; Conjunctive = Technologies used in conjunction with Twitter; Independent = Technologies used independent of Twitter, but may also be used for PLN activities


Lalonde, C. (2011). The Twitter experience?: the role of Twitter in the formation and maintenance of personal learning networks. Retrieved September 13, 2011, from

Couros, A. (2010). Developing Personal Learning Networks for Open and Social Learning. Emerging Technologies in Distance Education (pp. 109-127). Edmonton, Canada: AU Press.

Digenti, D. (1999). Collaborative learning: A core capability for organizations in the new economy. Reflections, 1(2), 45-57. doi:10.1162/152417399570160

Tobin, D. R. (1998). Personal Learning Network. Retrieved October 4, 2009, from


The impersonal technology assumption

Given that so much of the college experience involves building relationships with professors and collaborating with other students, how a more technology-centered higher education system will still accomplish that remains to be seen.

Liz Dyer, How Much Will Technology Really Change Higher Education, GOOD

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms.

Mark Edmundson, The Trouble with Online Education, NY Times

Why is there this continuing belief that technology cannot improve relationships? And why is this issue always presented as such a false dichotomy? More technology = less personal relationships?

It is simply not true (and thank you Nathan for pushing back against Mr. Edmundson with far greater clarity and eloquence than I can muster).

The real argument that Edmundson is making, and it is actually a good one, is that there are pedagocial benefits to interactive and responsive learning environments. Where he fails is wrongly assuming that human interactivity is solely the business of the offline and impossible online. This is plainly false.

Ask any person who has even remotely experienced the social media revolution of the past 5-7 years (and going much farther back if you include the world of forums and other types of online communities) the question, “has online technology brought you closer to people, or has it made you feel more isolated from people?” and I think the answer from most people would be quite clear.

Personally (and despite the protestations from those who argue otherwise), the dichotomy that online is less fulfilling or somehow lacking vs face to face just doesn’t ring true with my own experience, and with the experience of many of the people I know.

Online has not replaced face to face for me – I still go for beers with my buddies with the same regularity that I did before I lived online. But it has augmented it to such an extent that I can hardly keep a straight face when presented with arguments otherwise.

Can’t build relationships? No collaborating with others? No dialogue? Lack of immediacy? Bah. All views of people who still have their feet firmly planted in a world I left behind long ago.


Online is real life, too (RLT): A TedX Victoria talk by Alexandra Samuel

Great presentation from Alexandra Samuel at TedX Victoria on smashing the distinction between the interactions we have “in real life” and online. Both are real life.  Her final point drives home why it is important that we do away with the myth that virtual interactions are not “real life”.

“If we are not prepared to acknowledge our online conversations as real, they can be shut down. And when we shut them down, we close the door to the transformative  potential of online engagement. We have an incredible tool at our fingertips here, but every time we say it is not real, we limit it’s ability to change us, to change the world we live in, and to change our relationships to one another. It doesn’t have to be that way.”


The Information Diet

We all feel it. How do we keep up with this mountain of information gushing towards us each and everyday?

Hundreds of posts sitting unread in Google Reader, our PLN sharing dozens of shiny new links on Twitter & FB, forum posts, a new edition of your favorite journal published – the firehose goes on and on.

It’s that feeling that Alexandra Samuel refers to as FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. Shirky says it’s caused not by information overload, but filter failure, and the ability to manage this flow of information (or cognitive load management) is one of the essential skills future knowledge workers will need to succeed. So, just like the food we put into our body, we need to be critical and discerning with the kind of food we put into our brains.

This food metaphor forms the interesting premise of a new book by Clay Johnson called The Information Diet, which I have just begun reading (the physical book is due out early in the new year, Kindle version is available now).

What I like about the tact of Johnson is that it is not simply a rant against technology and social media, but instead is a much more holistic and, in my opinion, realistic view of information consumption. This balanced view is reflected in a recent blog post by Johnson on Facebook & Twitter.

It turns out that networks like Facebook and Twitter are perfect for consuming your socially proximate information. They’re not bad for an information diet, they’re critical to having a balanced one. But only if you use these tools smartly and proactively — by eliminating cruft, and consuming deliberately from these sources. Granted, spending the day on Facebook is not great for your information diet. But eating bowl after bowl of fiber-one cereal is probably not great for your food diet either.

Sure Twitter and Facebook are no substitute for being physically present with your loved ones, and having meaningful social interactions with them. But as long as you are deliberate about both (there are some great tips in the book about this) then you can use these tools to your advantage. So let’s not dismiss the tools because they’re technical, or out of some kind of strange generational preference. The problem is rarely in the medium itself and usually in either the habits of the user, or the system that supports it.

Reading this reminded me of the excellent Stillness in Motion session at this fall’s ETUG workshop, which I found immensely refreshing  and inspiring. Facilitated by Ross Laird of Kwantlen University, Brian Williams of  DIYDharma and  Scott Leslie  of  BCcampus, the session focused on how to be mindful about the ways in which we interact with technology.

Since that session, I have found myself asking a very simple question whenever I fire up my computer: what is it that I want to do right now? And I’ve found that asking this one simple question has made me much more productive when I get on. It brings my purpose front and centre, and I find I am less likely to get distracted down a rabbit hole when I take that brief moment to really clarify what it is I want to do before I mindlessly plug in.

Sure, I still find myself with a few dozen tabs open in my various browsers, email client up and running with constant notifications coming in, Tweetdeck firing away in the corner on my second monitor, but it is a start. And at least I find I am getting that one thing done that I wanted to get done.

I hope that The Information Diet will help me find a few more nuggets like that to make me a more concious information consumer.


Embedable tweets

One of the new features Twitter rolled out as part of the recent redesign is the ability to embed tweets in other sites, much like a YouTube video.

In the past, if you wanted to embed a specific tweet in a site you had to use a third party plugin. For this WordPress blog, for example, I’ve been using the Twitter Blackbird Pie plugin to embed tweets like this:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/clintlalonde/status/147501892551983105″]

It has worked well, but reducing the number of plugins you need on a site is a good thing in terms of possible platform conflicts.

For Moodle, on the other hand, the ability to add Twitter content into Moodle has been a bit of a pain, even with the official Twitter widgets, which don’t give you the option of embedding a single tweet. Last weeks announcement should fix that and make embedding tweets into Moodle fairly straightforward (and as soon as I get the new Twitter interface on my own Twitter account I’ll give this a try & update this post).

If you have the new Twitter interface, you can try this tutorial and learn how to embed a tweet using the new embed feature.


What good is a network if I can't find what I need?

Useless at the moment

As I have written before, the social bookmarking tool Delicious was one of the most useful social web applications for me. Sure it was convenient to store my bookmarks on the web, but the real power of the application was that I could build a network of people – trusted sources – and see what they were bookmarking as well.

Many of the people I connected with on Delicious were trying to solve the same problems I was, or working on the same platforms as me, so when they shared a bookmark, it was almost always relevant.

But the true power of Delicious wasn’t the real time stream of relevant information I got from my trusted network of 50 or so contacts. No, the real value in building that network came when I needed to find information to solve a problem. When I needed a recommendation, I would go to Delicious ahead of Google and search my network for their recommendations, and would almost always find a few network recommended resources.

A few months ago I started volunteering with my local community association, helping them with their WordPress site, setting up a Twitter account & Facebook page and other assorted web tasks. Tonight I went to find a WordPress plugin to auto-post blog posts to the Twitter feed. I have used Twitter Tools in the past and have liked it, but when I went to install it got a notice that it wasn’t supported in this version of WordPress. Rather than install an unsupported plugin, I wondered what else was out there.

Off to Delicious to see what my network recommends. Only what’s this? I can’t search my networks bookmarks anymore? Seriously???? I mean, I get we’re all into the real-time web these days, but there is something to be said for having a ready made archive of content waiting for me, vetted by people I trust, that I can search when I need.

I am bummed. One of the most powerful features of a social web application – a feature that I used quite a bit in the past – gone. Or at least buried so deep in the new interface that I can’t seem to find it. The entire collective intelligence and wisdom of MY crowd now inaccessible to me.

Please, if someone knows a way to search a Delicious network, let me know cause right now Delicious is leaving a mighty sour taste in my mouth.

Photo: Useless at the Moment by quinn.anya used under Creative Commons license


PLNs and OERs

While I have always been interested in OER’s, this issue has taken on greater professional significance for me since arriving at an institution that has active OER projects on the go, and I have begun paying closer attention to reports like the one released this summer by JISC in the UK examining the the impact of Open Educational Resources (OER) (pdf) on teaching and learning.

While I started reading the report from the perspective of someone who works at an institution sensitive and supportive of OER’s, I quickly realized that there is a lot in this report that connects the creation of OER’s with Personal Learning Networks and with what I discovered during my thesis research.

The JISC research looked at the benefits OER’s offer to educators and learners, and examined the pedagogical, attitudinal, logistical and strategic factors that enable or inhibit the uptake and sustained practice in the use of OER’s.

While some of the benefits to educators for adopting OER’s are not surprising (saving teachers effort in that they do not have to create resources themselves, and enables educators to teach topics that may lie outside of their expertise), there were some conclusions that are maybe not so obvious, and sound very much like the kinds of activities people who cultivate PLNs might take part in.

OER’s are collaboratively created in networks

For example, the research found that using OER’s can “stimulate networking and collaboration among educators” and can “improve possibilities for new collaborations in researching fields of common interest.” Additionally, the report notes that one of the enabling factors for uptake of OER’s among educators is a decidedly social one in that:

Impact on individual practice is most likely to be achieved within the dimension of social practice: networks of like-minded individuals who are receptive to ideas and suggestions from each other and ready to share their own resources.

This reinforces something I discovered in my own thesis research on the role that Twitter plays in Personal Learning Networks. Every participant I interviewed for the research indicated that Twitter played an important role in coordinating the creation of collaborative resources related to their professional educational practice, and, quite often, those collaboratively created resources were shared not only with their PLN, but beyond as well (pg 79-83).

One of the participants in my research spoke to the importance of creating collaborative resources that get shared back to the community.

 I like the word professional for learning network, but I use the word collaborative learning network because there’s a sense of symbiotic nature, like we benefit one another by being involved. It’s not just me that’s getting the benefit. It’s not so much personal. But for me it’s very much collaborative benefit; there’s a whole bunch of people that are benefiting from it.

In this passage, the participant suggests that there is a “symbiotic nature” to collaborative projects, and that “we benefit one another by being involved” which implies a reciprocal relationship at play here; that if you help with my project, not only will you get to reap the rewards of this project, but I will participate in future shared projects as well because we will both benefit.

OERs are created by people being open and willing to share

The JISC report goes on to make a number of recommendations for educators wishing to enhance their teaching and learning practice with OER’s, including one that is very connected to what I discovered in my PLN research.

Adopt an open approach to your academic practice, seeking to share resources and ideas both within your disciplinary community and beyond it.

This echoes another story I heard from another participant during my research who initiated a collaborative project with her PLN by tweeting out a call for collaborators on Twitter. Shortly after, she received a message from a member of her PLN saying that they wished to contribute to the project not because they wanted to use the project, but rather because they witnessed how this participant had, in the past, created these collaborative resources and freely shared them back with the larger community.

I think it was probably <name removed> in <location removed> who wrote in and said “You know, I don’t even know what’s on your document but I want to be part of it because of your openness and your willingness to share, and your willingness to let everyone collaborate and use it again.” That’s the kind of attitude that we need. And I’m not saying that I’m special for having that attitude, I’m just saying that idea of openness I think is really critical.

By conducting this work in the open on Twitter, the work of this participant became transparent and visible to the members of her PLN, which builds up goodwill in her PLN. This goodwill then translates itself into motivation among members of her PLN to participate in collaborative projects she initiates. In the end, the shared resource was not only shared back with the PLN, but to the wider educational community.


Taking away voices – a rant on authenticity, transparency and freedom of expression

The NHL has unveiled a strict social media policy for their players which includes extensive blackout periods when players and team personnel cannot update or tweet statuses on social media.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/grabs40/status/114170216937828352″]

Interesting, and telling, hashtag on this tweet from Michael Grabner of the NY Islanders.

Now, the NHL is not the first major sport to enact a SM policy for players. And true, these people fall into the realm of public figures, but for me that doesn’t diminish the fact that this represents a chilling intimidation practice that I think is being carried out in other workplaces as well.

But don’t we have rights?

I read stuff like this and I worry. I worry about how much power organizations have over their people – of employers over employees – and how that power manifests itself and extends into the personal lives of the people and forces them to be silent. I worry about things like freedom of expression and the guarantee that, in Canada at least, we have (emphasis mine):

… freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.

I think there is a danger here as social networks become more entwined into the fabric of our lives – that if you choose to engage in a social network, be ready to have what you say scrutinized by the company you work for. The corporation owns you by virtue of the fact that they give you a paycheque, and you may be one keystroke away from getting Dooced. It’s sad that the example of Heather Armstrong happened almost 10 years ago, and in that time we have evolved our thinking in a manner which doesn’t view what the company that fired Heather as wrong, but instead have shifted the focus onto the importance of “managing” our digital identities through the lens of what our employers, present and future, may find acceptable.

Save anonymous for those who need it

I find this style of control by an employer over an employee not only wrong, but also dangerous for social media because it not only silences people from speaking and having a voice, but it also reinforces/forces anonymity on the net, something I am generally opposed to. People who can’t speak publicly as themselves will just take on anonymous pseudonyms or adopt elaborate codes to conceal what they are really saying. Not to say when there are not legitimate needs for people to be anonymous on the net (fear of political persecution, for example), but bending to the social media will of an employer is not one of those reasons. Let’s save anonymous for those who need it and make authentic the default.

Let’s be real

I acknowledge that sometimes I have a naive view of social networks, and that how I wish they worked is often in conflict with how they actually work. I think they are at their most powerful when people using them are real people, free and unencumbered to be real people, full of foibles and contradictions that real people exhibit. They are not afraid to post a half baked thought or something that might be viewed by some as controversial or provocative. That they have the opportunity to use their social network accounts to provide an accurate reflection of who they really are as people and not as corporate or political autobots.

Real and virtual – it’s all the same

In a perfect world, I would have the same level of freedom to express myself in a social network as I would have in the real world. That is to say, I should have the freedom to be bound by the same social conventions that bound my expressions in real life. In my heart, I would hope that this is where we are heading as a society. That actions on social networks are judged in the same manner as actions in real life. If you are an ass in real life, then chances are good you will expose yourself as an ass online. It is only in this way do I believe social networks can truly be “authentic”.

But when we begin to closely tie our online identities with those of our employers, and they begin to call the shots (both explicitly and implicitly), we lose this authenticity, and we lose who we truly are. When authenticity begins to get questioned, trust erodes, and when trust erodes and motives get questioned all the time, we grow tired and cynical and, most likely, withdraw. Disengage from the network because it loses value for us. And if that happens, I believe we have lost something that is hard to replace, and squandered a truly unique opportunity in our human evolution to connect at a very deep level with other human beings; human beings full of contradictions, who make mistakes, who post half baked ideas, who continually evolve and change throughout their lifetime. Who are real and truly authentic.


The role of Twitter in Personal Learning Networks

My Masters thesis (the full title is The Twitter experience: the role of Twitter in the formation and maintenance of personal learning networks) is now publicly available in the DSpace archives at Royal Roads University.

Here is the abstract:

This qualitative phenomenological study involving in-depth interviews with seven educators in K-12 and higher education examines the role that the microblogging service Twitter plays in the formation and development of Personal Learning Networks (PLN) among educators. A double hermeneutic data analysis shows that Twitter plays a role in the formation and development of PLNs by allowing educators to; engage in consistent and sustained dialogue with their PLN, access the collective knowledge of their PLN, amplify and promote more complex thoughts and ideas to a large audience, and expand their PLN using features unique to Twitter. This research also examines the nature of a PLN and shows that participants believe their PLN extends beyond their Twitter network to encompass both face-to-face and other ICT mediated relationships. Secondary research questions examine how Twitter differs from other social networking tools in mediating relationships within a PLN, what motivates an educator to develop a PLN, how trust is established in a PLN, what the expectations of reciprocity are within a PLN, and what is the nature of informal learning within a PLN.

It has been on the site for just over week now and I was holding off to post this until the RRU thesis office could correct the typo in the title (all fixed) I noticed that people have started making reference to it (thank you, Dan), so thought I should get something up here.

Other than the spelling mistake, one glaring oversight on my part is the lack acknowledgments, so if you will indulge me I want to publicly acknowledge some people.

First, to the 7 participants in the study, thank you for your time, your voices and your stories. This was not a “spend 10 minutes filling out a survey” type project, and I appreciate your graciousness and generosity as participants.

To my thesis supervisor, Bill Muirhead – a calming presence who was always there when I needed him, his steady hand guided me through the process. I feel extremely fortunate to have him as a mentor.

To my PLN (and you know who you are but if you don’t here’s a big hint – you are reading this right now). You feed my head with the best stuff. Thanks.

To my co-workers at both Camosun College and Royal Roads University, specifically Susan Chandler (Camosun) and Mary Burgess (RRU) who’s support and understanding cleared many non-thesis related hurdles away from my path during this project.

Finally, to my family; Maggie and Graeme, who missed their Dad a lot during the whole Masters journey (yes, Graeme, Dad is finished his see-ssus). I know a trip to Disneyland won’t make up for all this missed weekends, but I suspect it might help :).   And to my wife, Dana. No one has had to wear the extra burden of this project more than her, and I feel truly blessed to have someone as supportive as her in my life.


Distributing Presence (or OMG WTF G+ YASN???)

Like many, I’ve been playing (albeit lightly) with G+. So far, I’ve been impressed with Google’s latest foray into social networking. It is familiar enough to Facebook to feel comfortable, yet has enough interesting new features to make it more than just another Facebook. Like most Google products, I think this is but a starting point and, taken in that light, it’s a pretty good one.

Yes, it is YASN (Yet Another Social Network) to nurture and maintain a presence in, and while it may seem like overkill to blog, tweet, use Facebook, LinkedIn, yada, yada, I am increasingly thinking it important to maintain a presence on each of these spaces, and, more importantly, keep an open and willing attitude to connect with people in my learning network on their terms and in ways that they want. As more and more SN services come on stream, I am starting to develop an attitude of “distributed presence” as a networked learning way of thinking and being.

While many have spoken of G+ being an <insert social network> killer, I disagree (and really when people start talking about something be a something “killer”my hype meter always begins to rise). I am not giving up Facebook because I know a lot of people who are using Facebook will never move to G+. Same with those who use Twitter, or LinkedIn. The people in my network have their favourite SN applications, and rather than force people to come to me, my approach is to try to distribute myself in as many spaces as I can and connect with people on their turf and on their terms. Why would I want to limit myself to a single platform when I know that there are so many people out there that I can learn from that may not use that platform, for whatever reason?

The same can be said for our students. Very rarely are we going to find a homogenous group of students in our class using a single tool. Some may want to connect with you on Twitter, some of Facebook, some on G+, some via IM, some on Skype, some on the institutional LMS or email. If we are going to be student-centric, then we need to be able to be flexible and connect with students where they want.

It’s a lot to keep up with, I admit. And we can’t keep up with every network that pops up (and I think we know which ones are important). But this underscores one of the reasons why I think it is important for educators to have a high level of digital literacy so that when a new tool comes along, it is not an onerous task to pick up and understand what this thing does. Going from nothing to G+ is much tougher than going from Facebook to G+.

I also think it’s important to understand how the web works, and how to be able to cross-post information to multiple networks at the same time. Devote some time to work on a digital workflow that uses tools to streamline the process. For example, a tool like Tweetdeck allows you to post status updates to multiple services at the same time. does the same, allowing me to share content to Twitter, FB, LinkedIn and (I imagine soon) G+. The ability to set up a blog and have it autopost to numerous SN’s is also an example of how to streamline a digital workflow. If past is any indication, this blog post will garner more conversation on my Facebook profile than it will on my blog (and I am mindful of the fact that every time a valuable conversation happens behind a walled garden like Facebook, opportunities are lost, as Audry Waters recently wrote about in her post on circles in G+. Still, I would rather have the conversation with people who are more comfortable talking in a space they feel safe in than try to dictate that the only place we can converse is a place of my choosing).

The other side of this is being able to monitor what is happening on all these networks in a way that gives you an overview quickly of what is happening on each network without having to log into each. Which is where technologies like RSS and aggregators come into play. I use Netvibes, and pull all the streams of my networks into a single portal page that let’s me at a glance, see all the activity happening in my various networks.

I take part in a lot of social networks. Some are personally more useful than others to me. But I think it is important that I at least have a presence in as many as I can as there is no way that I can know what people network will form around the technical network, and when that people network will become relevent to me. A distributed presence approach gives me, as a learner, maximum flexibility to follow my learning network wherever it may spring up, be it a discussion this week on LinkedIn, or an interaction next in the comments section of a YouTube video. It’s a loose ties approach to social networks. By maintaining some kind of ambient presence in many social networks, I am ready and able to follow the really important piece of learning networks – the people – wherever they decide to go.


Serendipity in action

Serendipity. In the simplest of words, it means a “happy accident” (Wikipedia).

Earlier this week, I was thinking about serendipity, spurred by a thoughtful blog post by Matthew Ingram on filters, and how some feel that the digital filters being developed by the likes of Google and Facebook are limiting our ability to serendipitously discover new sources of information, leading to an echo chamber.

Now, I don’t argue that the development of an echo chamber is a danger when we are left to autonomously construct our own networks, but I do think that by having a well developed network we actually create more opportunities for serendipitous moments that are much more relevant to us.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/clintlalonde/status/75776840031154176″]

Here’s a story.

About a week ago,  Rodd Lucier passed my name on to a M.Ed getting ready to hike up the thesis mountain. Rodd is familiar with my thesis research on the role that Twitter plays in PLN among educators, and knew that this student might be interested in doing similar research, so he made the connection. This morning I had a Skype call with this student & we discussed our mutual research interests.

Part of the conversation revolved around tweets, and the level of depth contained in 140 characters. It sounds so small. 140 characters. Yet within those 140 characters a lot can happen.

When I first started considering doing research on Twitter, I wanted to do a content analysis of tweets. But, as I played with the Twitter api and began trying to figure out ways of mining Twitter data against a backdrop where Twitter changed the rules each week on how and who can access their data, I dropped the idea. I didn’t want to have my thesis depend on data that I couldn’t be sure I could access. As a result, I decided to move into a more qualitative realm with my research. While I was somewhat disappointed at the time, in the end I am happy with the way I did my research and have ended up with something that, I think, is much more interesting than my original idea. However, there is still something I find so appealing about deconstructing a tweet because I think that so much depth can be packed away within that small package. The simple act of including a link to something else that is much more in depth truly belies the defined nature of a tweet.

So, back to the conversation, which included a bit of this type of discussion on the nature of depth represented in a single tweet. The conversation ends with me sharing my thesis research library and agreeing to keep in touch. I get off Skype, fire up Twitter and what is the first tweet I see?

[blackbirdpie url=”!/brlamb/statuses/76681863216889856″]

Seriously serendipitous. And an excellent read about how much context and depth you can pack into 140 characters.


Leveraging the power of the network

School of Fish

I’ve been thinking about the network effect a lot recently, and how this ability to create and leverage a large network of peers is really one of the most powerful affordances of the web that we, as educators, have at our disposal.

I marvel at how someone like Alec Couros can, with a couple of tweets, leverage his network of 12,000 educators to engage with his students, and have them leave comments on his students blogs.  A student taking an education course from Alec gets connected to his global network of educators. Alec’s students don’t have one teacher – they potentially have 12,000.

But it has taken time for Alec to develop this network. You don’t get connected to 12,000 educators overnight by using some kind of automated process. You get connected by engaging with the network, by participating and contributing. That takes time and effort. It’s an investment that is sometimes a hard sell to people who cannot see the benefits of developing a network.

But I’ll bet it is an investment that a group of scientists in Guyana are happy they made.

You see, by making the investment to develop their social networks and connect with other ichthyologist (scientists who study fish) on Facebook, this particular group of scientists was able to tap into that Facebook network and use that network to help them identify 5000 species of fish in less than 24 hours. I’ve added the emphasis.

Last month, a team of ichthyologists sponsored by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History performed the first survey of the fish diversity in the Cuyuni River of Guyana. Upon their return, they needed to identify the more than 5,000 specimens they had collected in less than a week’s time in order to obtain an export permit. Faced with insufficient time and inadequate library resources to tackle the problem on their own, they instead posted a catalog of specimen images to Facebook and turned to their network of colleagues for help.

In less than 24 hours, this approach identified approximately 90 percent of the posted specimens to at least the level of genus, revealed the presence of at least two likely undescribed species, indicated two new records for Guyana and generated several loan requests. The majority of people commenting held a Ph.D. in ichthyology or a related field, and hailed from a great diversity of countries including the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil.

This is such an incredible example of what social networks and networked learning are capable of doing; connecting large groups of people in diverse locations together to do amazing things. I mean, they used Facebook to identified 2 new species of fish! That’s a pretty dang impressive feat.

But this project would not have been possible if this group of scientists had not invested the time beforehand to develop a robust network of scientists within their social networks.

The network is a powerful, powerful thing.

Note: I am not clear as to who the project lead was for this project, it was a bit unclear in the Smithsonian article, but I believe it was Brian Sidlauskas at Oregon State University. And a tip of the hat to All Points West on CBC for this story.

Photo: School of Fish by wizetux. Used under Creative Commons license.


How Today's Higher Education Faculty Use Social Media for Work and for Play

Pearson has just released some new research on the social media habits of higher education faculty called Teaching, Learning, and Sharing: How Today’s Higher Education Faculty Use Social Media for Work and for Play.

The impressive stat that pops out in the executive summary is the statement that “over 90% of all faculty are using social media in courses they’re teaching or for their professional careers outside the classroom”. Wow. 90%. That’s an awful lot of tweeting, status updates, blog posts and user videos being created and consumed in academia.

As part of the research, Pearson decided to do a social media contest among respondents, where they asked respondents who said they were using social media in teaching to submit a video via YouTube. The winning video is from Krista Jackman from the University of New Hampshire who explains how she uses Twitter in her class.

While there is a lot of interesting stuff about using social media in the classroom (no surprise that the ability to consume video on YouTube is seen by most faculty as the killer pedagogical app of the educational social media world) , the piece I am interested in in the context of my thesis is the professional development piece. According to the study, 78% of faculty have reported using at least one social media site for professional development (which was something I was beginning to witness at my previous institution just before I left). YouTube  (57%) was the most common,  followed by Facebook (45%), Blogs (38%), LinkedIn (33%), wikis (28%), Twitter (13%), Flickr (11%), SlideShare (7%) and MySpace (6%).

If we dig deeper into that YouTube number, I suspect that the high percentage reflects a consumption, and not a participatory, model of YouTube use among faculty. The study did not ask the faculty to discriminate between posting or visiting only with the professional development use section of the study. However, they do ask faculty to make that distinction with regard to their personal (not classroom or professional development) use of social media sites. When asked to differentiate between visiting a site and posting to a site, only 8% of faculty reported having posted something on YouTube. The study didn’t say whether the term “posted” referred to posting a video, or posting a comment to a video.

I want to write more about this (like where are the more grassroots social media sites that are not mentioned in with the 800 pound gorillas? Where are the Ning’s, the SCoPE’s and the Skype for the Classroom’s?), but I am tired and am using this blog post as a way to procrastinate writing what I really should be writing right now. So I’ll leave it to you to dig in a see if you agree that there seems to be a lot of social media consumption and much less participating happening by faculty on social media sites, which is probably in line with the participation rate of the general population.


Exactly what is it that students are addicted to?

Reading the results of the Going 24 Hours Without Media research has left me wondering exactly what it is students are craving for with their use of technology and media. Is it the technology they crave,  or is it what the technology enables?

The study asked close to 1,000 students from around the world to abstain from using all media for 24 hours, after which time they were asked to “report their successes and admit to any failures”. What the study discovered was that students found it difficult – sometimes even impossible – to unplug for 24 hours, and they often used the metaphor of addiction to describe how they felt when they were not plugged in.

Needless to say, mainstream media has been picking up this study and presenting it with headlines like students are addicted to their gadgets or that tech addiction symptoms are rife among students.

Now, I’m not going to dispute the fact that many of us love our gadgets and tech, but I do wonder if some of this media coverage misses a deeper point. The point that maybe it isn’t the tech or the gadgets or the media we are “addicted” to. Maybe what we are “addicted” to is something that is deeply human; the sense of connectedness to other human beings that these devices enable. Maybe what we are “addicted” to is nothing technical at all, but rather what the technology enables – the ability to fulfill one of our basic human desires and needs; that as social animals we need to be connected to each other.

Isolate any human being from other human beings and we will go mad. We can’t do it. So is it any wonder that when we feel disconnected, we feel isolated, lonely and depressed? Being connected to one another is essential for our survival, so should we be surprised that when we disconnect – not from the devices in our life, but from the people in our lives – that we feel disoriented and confused, upset and agitated? Being disconnected goes against our very nature as social animals.

I don’t want to be dismissive of this study – far from it. This is an important study that illustrates just how deeply this stuff is permeating into our lives. And I do not want to paint over the important point it makes about just how mediated our lives have become. We do need to think – and think deeply – about how the ability to be connected to each other 24/7 is changing us. Instead what I want to challenge is the notion that this is an issue of being addicted to technology, gadgets, or media, but instead cuts to something much deeper, something that hints at the very essence of what it means to be human.

It is not a matter of simply being “addicted” to my smartphone, or Facebook or Twitter. It’s much more complicated than that. I find the “addiction to technology” argument a distraction from what is really going on, which is that the ways and levels with which we communicate with each other have become much more complex, nuanced, interconnected, and vitally important to our well being. And we are responding in a most human way to this kind of ubiquitous connectedness – by feeling panicked, frightened and depressed when something that is so vital to us is threatened and taken away.

To me, the results of this study tell me far more about how critically important the human need to feel connected to each other is, rather than how important it is for us to feel connected to our devices.