The Social Media Dilemma

For me, social media is learning media. My main use of tools like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest is to find and share resources on the topics about which I am most passionate. These resources have allowed me to interact and learn with people from all over the globe. The most significant example of this for me was my involvement with the start of the Connected Principals Blog thanks to connecting with George Couros, an administrator from Alberta, Canada. George came up with the idea of creating a space for administrators to share their learning, and after connecting the conversations with a Twitter hashtag (#cpchat), I instantly became part of a constantly expanding group of thoughtful school leaders. Frankly, I think that those who are adamant that these resources should not be utilized by learners do not understand them. Clay Shirky describes this phenomenon in his book Cognitive Surplus:

“When you see people acting in ways that you don’t understand, you may ask rhetorically, Why are they behaving that way? A better question is this: Is their behavior rewarding a desire for autonomy or competence? Is it rewarding their desire to feel connected or generous? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, you may have your explanation. If the answer to more than one of those questions is yes, then you probably do.”

With this in mind, it is imperative that any guidelines for social media use start with the positive presupposition that these resources add tremendous value for learners. We need to help policy makers see the positive outcomes that these tools can support and not just the worst case scenario. The only way to do this is to provide support for adults to learn how social media can add value to their lives while at the same time reinforcing the countless positive examples of their use that have enabled both individuals, and entire countries, to create a more promising future. So while there are huge ramifications that many colleges and employers are now asking applicants to sign a social media release in order to investigate the applicants social media accounts, schools need to step forward and support students in this area and not create policies that prohibit access for fear of the worst-case scenario.

Historically, it has been the role of schools to help students to start to build their resume and portfolio in order to market themselves to the college or employer of their choice. We need to embrace the fact that social media accounts are now part of that application package that we are responsible for guiding our students to create. My EdTechTeacher colleagues, Beth and Shawn, wrote a great post on this back in the fall titled From Smoke Signals To Tweets: How The Evolution Of Communication Is Changing Your Classroom. It is clear that there are a lot of variables here that need to be hashed out in regards to creating a comfort level for school communities to embrace the use of social media. I’ll address some of these specifics in my next post – Moving Beyond Banning.

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More Thinking About Balance And When To Unplug

Having played a big part in the fact that there are over 1,000 students in Burlington walking around with web-enabled devices, I do spend a great deal of time thinking about how to continue the important conversation of maintaining balance with regards to the use these devices. I wrote a post on this a little while back in reference to my own device use, which I admit is sometimes imbalanced.

Adding to my anxiety on the topic is the fact that there are articles with misleading headlines like this one – Many Teens Tell Survey They Are Addicted To Social Media, Texting – which recently appeared in the Washington Post.  While the headline is a bit disconcerting, the content of the article makes it clear that this there is a lot more here that we need to discuss. Check out a few of the excerpts I think we need to focus more on and decide or yourself whether the negatives really outweighing the positive.

“Two-thirds of respondents said they text every day and half said they visit social networking sites daily. One-quarter of teens use at least two different types of social media a day.”

“Three out of 10 teens said social networks made them feel more outgoing, compared to 5 percent who said they felt more introverted.”

“Still, half of all respondents said real-life communication is the most fun and fruitful for their relationships. Only 4 percent prefer to talk on the phone.”

As I see my own tweens spending more and more time using their devices to interact with their friends, I can’t help but think of the quote below by Danah Boyd. Is it really the devices and the social media platforms that they are addicted to or is it the communication with their friends? 

It brings me back to Clay Shirky’s thoughts on this topic from his book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity And Generosity In A Connected Age.  I agree with Shirky on the following:

 “when we talk about the effects of the web or text messages, it’s easy to make a milkshake mistake and focus on the tools themselves…But the use of of social technology is much less determined by the tool itself: when we use a network, the most important asset we get is access to one another.” 

I think the thing that our children need help with is learning when disconnecting is necessary to refocus and refresh. In addition, we need to be sure that they are getting plenty of technology-free opportunities for the rich face-to-face interactions and experiences that are so beneficial. This point is clearly articulated in a recent post by John Spencer titled What We’re Missing In Acceptable Use.


What we need to understand is that our children are connecting and collaborating in ways that we were never capable of.  Or as Shirky puts it:

“Although so much of what kids are doing online may look trivial and frivolous, what they are doing is building the capacity to connect, to communicate, and ultimately, to mobilize…The old idea that media is a domain relatively separate from the ‘real world’ no longer applies…”

The bottom line here is that we are never going to be in a comfortable spot with our children if we do not continue to have discussions on this topic. We need to encourage our children to use these  resources wisely and have balance, but we also have to understand that the way they communicate with one another not going to look like the same as how we communicated with our friends back in the day…and that’s OK!

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