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They Don’t Want Privacy: Why Students Should Study Social Media

by Terry Heick

No matter what you personally believe about its value, technology has entered society like a massive electrical storm, leaving few things unaffected.

It was only a generation ago that technology took the form of cordless phones, cable television, and the soul-altering wizardry of the pager. Today there are mobile supercomputers shrunk down to the size of an index card in the pocket of students, a staggering reality that’s easy to take for granted. Computers in your pocket.

What this means for education is, well, that education needs to be rethought.

Continuing to teach in the stretching shadow of technology while only dealing with it through glimpses and gimmick is an awkward arrogance we may be dealing with for some time to come. But while education bickers on about how to best educate children, those children are making powerful moves–sometimes intentionally, sometimes as thoughtless, drifting trends–to fully reinvent the way human beings connect.

Of course it’s true that this is happening for adults as well. A billion facebook users are symbolic of the basic human need to be heard, and to connect. But for children–K-12 students, in this case–technology is offering up busy social playgrounds at a time when their minds are still unfired clay, malleable and open. By adopting technology on a massive scale, they are establishing a standard for ‘normal’ while filling out their childhoods as a facebook timeline.

And this is all happening through technology’s overarching talent–the ability to connect.

The internet’s word parts hint at its origin: inter, meaning connected, and net, as in network, visualizing multiple connectors and connectees. The internet is itself an overwhelming crowd of computers and servers tied together to exchange data. And, in perfect parallel, this is exactly what is happening with students.

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Access Enables Access

The simplest way technology connects students is through access. Almost any person—or image, video, or twitter feed of that person—is available wherever there’s a smartphone and internet connection. This, of course, is the simplest path to connecting.

Dialogue is the most immediate effect of access. It is estimated that 90% of all that data that exists was created in the last two years at a pace of 2.5 quintillion bytes per day and growing. 22 trillion text messages are sent every year, and that staggering number doesn’t include app-to-app messaging like Facebook Messenger or private messages on social media channels like instagram and twitter.

Data for teens under 18 is tricky, but as of 2013, American adults between 18-24 sent and received an average of over 128 text messages a day. [1]

And though it’d be easy to characterize this banter as a superficial daisy-chain of LOLs and OMGs, whatever form it takes it’s still two (or more) people exchanging ideas. If these ideas being exchanged lack substance or depth, that’s hardly the fault of the technology, akin to blaming television for Kim Kardashian’s status as social media heroine. Whatever is done with it, the access is there.

Social media and tangent smartphone technology gives action and thought a forced transparency. Every insight or whim is not only given incredible visibility through technology, but is often birthed with that visibility in mind. Put another way, action and thought are often conjured for purpose of public display. The sharing is not an effect, but a cause. Students today don’t want privacy–or define it differently. Anonymous is the new private.

It has been suggested that this kind of access creates a dual persona—a “digital dualism”—that halves students into online and offline identities, one at a cost to the other. But Nathan Jurgenson, a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Maryland, doesn’t see it that way, explaining:

“…our reality is both technological and organic, both digital and physical, all at once. We are not crossing in and out of separate digital and physical realities, ala The Matrix, but instead live in one reality, one that is augmented by atoms and bits. And our selves are not separated across these two spheres as some dualistic “first” and “second” self, but is instead an augmented self.”

In the end, technology is connecting learners by giving them wide-open access to one another—something they want in spades if you believe social media adoption statistics. The end result of such access is likely different for every student, and impossible to universally qualify. The access is both concrete (dialogue) and abstract (identity), empowering (relationships) and deflating (managing increasingly unmanageable reputations).

How learning experiences are planned in light of this reality is likely worthy of some dialogue of our own.

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Peer Performance

In addition to access, technology connects learners by curating their performance–formal and informal, in private and writ large.

One of the greatest talents of the digital world is to record, replay, and redisplay. While paper requires labor to save, digital “stuff” requires labor to get rid of. Digital product is simple to save and maintain, and in professional and formal academic environments this is called a digital portfolio.

In less formal environments, this is called scrapbooking and facebook.

In almost any lesson or unit, students are tasked with reading and writing. Oftentimes, they complete projects as well. Each and every example here is a kind of performance, where students ‘perform’ by demonstrating understanding. There are, of course, more formal performances, what Grant Wiggins refers to as ‘Performance Tasks.’

Wiggins explains that a Performance Assessment “is about performing with knowledge in a context faithful to more realistic adult performance situations, as opposed to out of context, in a school exercise.” This is difficult to do in a school binder or composition notebook, but is hard not to do with technology.

De-authenticating technology-based assignments is a triumph of intention, usually the result of thinking standards–>assessment–>product–>technology instead of the reverse. In schools and districts, being “standards-driven” is the highest compliment many educators believe that you can pay, a debatable perspective.

In the end, technology—whether recording the dissection of a cyber frog and posting to edmodo for critique on technique, or just sharing learning reflections through blogging­—curates performance. Students can collaboratively plan, execute, and reflect on these performances, allowing them to connect not just through dialogue, but learning tasks themselves.

A Common Experience

As technology evolves, how it connects learners evolves. Yesterday’s flip phone or dial-up internet connection allowed for message exchange. Today’s smartphone can alert others when you leave a location, complete a task, upload a video, or let everyone on earth know when you pass a test or share a video or view someone’s profile automatically.

Privacy has been gone.

Tech is becoming passive because we want to. Location-based alerts, for example, increase not just transparency and access, but the possibility for what a smartphone—and its minion apps—is capable of. By updating, reminding, alerting, and recording, they are becoming increasingly active and–somehow–increasingly passive, too.

The end result is a shared common experience—transparent, always on, and potentially collaborative.

Collaborative in what ways is key–and that’s where understanding social networks is more than mere participation in the same way that understanding physics is more than moving about the planet affected by gravity.

Connected Learning: Why Students Should Study Social Media

The word ‘connection’ implies both an effort to connect, and a possible disconnection. That is, at one point there is no connection, then learners connect—through a text, a ‘like,’ or an academic performance. As technology evolves, we are moving closer to an always connected state, one that at least hints at a truly common experience.

Whether that actually occurs is unclear, and may ultimately depend on your natural state of optimism or skepticism. But it’s certainly true that technology connects learners in visible and invisible ways that must be accounted for as we design new learning experiences.

If this is done with patience and careful thinking—rather than in a rush and in an effort to “keep up”—the possibilities are powerful enough to make you giggle.

Here, it’s not about tools, toys, scale, or even transparency, but rather a common experience. This commonness allows learners to work from their strong points, finding their own legs beneath them, absorbing often dangerous and misleading social experiences that lead to powerful and often illusory social identities.

Here, connected networks are the content, providing moment-by-moment opportunities for students to venture out beyond what twenty years ago were insurmountable boundaries, using a mix of content knowledge, citizenship skills, and human instinct to navigate an unbounded and constantly changing experience.


[i] http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Teens-and-smartphones.aspx; image attribution flickr users flickeringbrad and laney69