Sunday, May 22, 2011

Face to Facebook: 5 Thoughts on Education Reform

by John T. Spencer

For the last ten days, I've been participating in a Living Facebook Experiment, where I do everything in-person that I do on Facebook.  While I initially saw it as a chance to rethink the role of technology in my life, I'm now recognizing how it's changing my perceptions on education reform.

#1: The Dangers of Customization
Observations: Facebook, Google and other media have encouraged me to grow myopic in personalizing my settings. I realized this awhile ago with Pandora, when I began to listen to a narrower version of indie folk rock. I saw this recently in a TED Talk. It was as if the author had been articulating the dystopia I was trying to describe - a world in which the "relevant" and the "personal" replace the important, the uncomfortable and occasionally the boring.  For years I have advocated customized learning based upon students' interests and personality.

Teacher Take-Home: What I'm wondering now is how to balance what students want versus what they need and how to expose them to the painful, the boring and the disruptive side of learning while still  meeting their individual interests.  I used to think Pandora would be the ultimate model for a school.  Now I'm seeing that I would rather have a school that looks like a rock festival where students can roam the live music with constant exposure to new ideas.

#2: It Isn't Neutral
Observations: Social media initially appears to be transcultural and trans-geographic.  Yet, there is a significance in what a medium omits and promotes as well as how it organizes information.  The end result is a distinct brand-based culture that permeates the entire experience.  I feel as if I "go to" Twitter and "go to" Facebook even if it is simply the tap of a plus-icon on my Chrome browser.

Teacher Take-Home: I'll be working with ten 21st Century Classrooms next year in a hybrid, one-to-one learning environment.  I've been thinking about collaboration and communication using social media.  I've been dreaming up project-based learning opportunities.  And yet, this is forcing me to rethink some of my initial ideas.  I'm recognizing the danger in social media to colonize and socialize.  I'm recognizing the need to not only criticize the media but also the transcultural experience created by a media platform.

#3: The Power of Friendship
Observations: This project is forcing me to rethink the meaning of friendship. I have hundreds of "friends" on Facebook, but I'm starting to question what all of that actually means. As I interact with my "friends" offline, I'm struck by the notion that I am sometimes more transparent online than I am in person.  I am far more guarded, private and awkward in my interactions with neighbors than I am with my PLN.

Teacher Take-Home: I'm wondering what it means to "friend" former students and wondering about the relational distance we should expect.  In particular, to what extent should I still have a voice in my former students' lives? Moreover, what does it mean for students to "friend" students in other parts of the world?  How authentic can we be without the physical geography?

#4: People Are Profound
Observations: I'm fascinated by the depth of strangers. Sometimes I get into this place where I think that my friends are the only deep thinkers. I've been surprised by the deep conversations I've had with people I didn't know.  I never thought this would be the case, but living Facebook has caused me to see the depth of humanity in a way I hadn't seen before.  In other words, for all the trash people talk about social media, I am struck by the thought that I am living better when I am living Facebook.  Scary, perhaps, but true on some level. On the other hand, I'm often disappointed by the shallow nature of social media.  Often it feels as though the deeper conversations aren't occurring on Facebook and that much of Twitter is used to share resources rather than ideas or questions.

Teacher Take-Home: What does it mean to use Twitter or Facebook for in-depth, critical thinking projects when adults often model a shallow, take-this-quiz-on-which-Phil-Collins-song-you-are-the-most-like?  What does it mean to encourage students to ask hard questions about their universe when they have so often used these social media platforms for entertainment?

#5: Obsession With Numbers
Observations: I care too much about numbers.  I am bummed to see that I have only ten subscribers.  However, I am surprised to see that I'm getting over two hundred page views a day.  I care too much about retweets or @mentions.  And that's the subtle seduction of social media - the way it encourages me to seek my self-worth through popularity-based data. It's been a humbling experience (for example when I wear a t-shirt advertising my friend count) to see just how arrogant I can be about my online influence.

Teacher Take-Home: How do we pursue a humble reform when proposing bold steps toward changing education?  How do we communicate in blogs, conferences, podcasts and books in a way that recognizes the human element rather than the data-bound pie charts?  Have we, in the educational technology community, simply bought into a new data-bound narrative that is not much better than the current metrics used to rate students on standardized tests?


  1. I really enjoyed your experiment. Great observations and powerful questions. Well done.

  2. Great questions and lots to think about as always. I have no immediate answers or insights,but I love the directions you move my mind. Catch you around for further insights.

  3. Great ideas .Our education system really need some good educational reforms.


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