Is the Social Web Making Us More Social?

My first year out of college, I bought a copy of Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind, the text where he laid out the foundations of his theory of multiple intelligences. The book was already over a decade old, but it was new to me.  The same week that I bought the book, I also purchased my first post-college computer (a Macintosh Performa 5200) and I subscribed to America Online, still recognized by many with the phrase, “You’ve got mail!” I used email in college, but not that much.  It wasn’t until I was living alone in an apartment, looking for an occasional escape from the challenges of first year middle and high school teaching, that I turned to email.

About halfway through Frames of Mind, I remember having some sort of question.  I think it had something to do with the animal studies and the research on people with brain injuries that Gardner used to support his theory about multiple discrete intelligences.  In the past, I might have written the question on the margin of the page and continued reading.  Perhaps I would bring it up to a colleague at work and discuss the possibilities with her.  I would not, however, continue with any certain answer to the question.  In this instance, I turned to the web, located Gardner’s email address on the Harvard web site, and emailed him my question.  I received and email response by the end of the next day from his research assistant. It was a careful and considered response that directly answered my question, and I continued reading the text with that answer in mind.

Email and the web gave me access to a well-known Harvard professor in a way that was not possible for a new teacher in the Midwest, a recent graduate of a small Midwestern liberal arts college. Certainly, some students at Harvard and others in his circle of friends had the chance to contact him about such things, but this was a completely new experience for me.  I was on local bulletin boards since middle school, but this experience of reading a book and having direct digital contact with the author was a new and transformational experience.  My introduction to the web was one where I quickly learned that I could use a personal computer and Internet connection to communicate (and later cooperate and collaborate) with people from around the world and with authors of my favorite texts.  In this one interaction, the experience of reading books changed, realizing that the author of that text is often willing to discuss the text with a reader like me.

I tried contacting other authors in those early days and many were just as gracious as Howard Gardner, some even more, inviting me into multiple email interactions…even an occasional phone call.  Others never replied.  A couple replied with what seemed like anger, explaining that they could not possibly respond to their myriad of readers.  And yet, even that was a response and an introduction to the life and thoughts of the author.

Reflecting on these early interactions, I realize how significant and formative these experiences were for me.  Today I interact with authors, scholars, leaders, students, entrepreneurs, and practitioners from multiple fields almost every day (especially through Twitter, LinkedIn, emails from readers of my blog, people who attended one of my keynotes over the years, or others who simply heard about my work and wanted to reach out). It is hard for me to remember the days when I did not have these rich connections with such a wealth of fascinating and diverse people, some of whom turn into colleagues, co-learners, friends, or an integrated part of my personal learning network.  I continue to enjoy meeting up with such people when we are attending the same conference, when travels bring us close to one another, or when we intentionally make plans to touch base over coffee or lunch.

I wonder if the social web changes people like me.  I’ve always enjoyed connecting with diverse and interesting people, but the social web amplifies that part of me.  It enables and empowers me to connect with people in ways that I find personally and professionally meaningful, in ways that shape my thought and work. It encourages me to collaborate and contribute to the social web.  These connections urge me to pursue new ideas and initiatives, and they challenge me to reconsider and let go of other efforts.  Using a different metaphor, the social web feeds the part of me that yearns to network and connect with others who share my passions and interests as well as others who challenge or disagree with some of my perspectives.

I continue to believe that this aspect of the social has yet to have its full impact on many learning organizations.  While there are a growing number of exceptions, many schools and classrooms continue to act as if they are cloistered from the larger world of life and learning.  There are times when it is important, even essential, to disconnect so that we can full connect with the people in front of us, or so that we can focus upon the task at hand.  There are also times when failing to connect more broadly limits our ability to build new and powerful networks that can transform the way that we think about a topic, the way that we explore a problem or question, the way that we go about creating novel solutions, the way that we go about blending content in the classroom with real world contexts.  That is where the social web has the power to change us in positive ways and to change the way that we think about formal education. Here are a couple of simple scenarios from the elementary or high school classroom.  There are plenty of similar example for higher education and other learning organizations.

Scenario 1

Mrs. Schroeder’s fourth grade science class is learning about plant cells. This study will last over an entire week. While learning about plants, Mrs. Schroeder wanted students to see how people use this knowledge of plants in many vocations. In partnership with two other schools, She connected with a scientist at a nearby seed company who is working on creating plants that are less susceptible to certain diseases. Another school connected with an organic farmer in a distant community. The third school made contact with a botanist at their area botanical gardens. While very busy, each of these three experts agreed to set aside 10 minutes a day for one week to field and answer email questions from the students at all three schools. The questions and answers were then posted to a common site so that students could learn from the questions and answers. At the end of the week, the three guests joined in a Google Hangout panel discussion with the three classes.

Scenario 2

Mr. Miller was a passionate eighth grade reading and English teacher. However, he found it challenging to get students excited about writing. As a way to further engage students, he located a program on the Internet where students interact with famous authors of children’s books. Each month, a new author would be introduced online. Students read his/her books and posted questions to the author on a message board. Every so often, the publishing house even hosted “live chat” discussions with authors.

For the first time in history, we  can have continued contact and collaboration with people by shared vision and interest and not simply on the basis of shared geographic proximity.  For years, many saw computers and the web as computational and information technologies, but more people are coming to understand the true nature of the personal computer (and the many mobile offspring) as communication, collaboration, and social tools.

If you want to explore this subject more on your own, consider going to your favorite search engine and typing, “Is the social web making us more…”  Don’t fill in the blank at the end, just browse the results of that unfinished question.  It will give you ample and divergent perspectives on how the social web is changing us. 

College is Not Enough & The University Doesn’t Own the Liberal Arts #collegeand

Dale Stephens, author of Hacking Your Education and founder of Uncollege, takes the vision of unschooling and applies it to higher education.  He points out that learning and getting an education is much more than attending classes at a University.  For many high school students, they are given a few options.  You can go college, join the military, or get a job.  Stephens helps young people discover a fourth option, one that embraces a commitment to learning that is just as rigorous as many college experiences, but that also allows them to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities at the same time.  He challenges the idea that college is the only choice that leads to success, but he also challenges the idea that college is the only path that leads to deep, substantive, transformational learning.  Like many who embrace the spirit of unschooling, Stephens shares a compelling case for a life of learning beyond school.  We learn through play, building new and meaningful relationships, experimentation, exploration, work, reading, travel, community engagement, finding others to mentor us, leveraging the vast pool of resources in the digital world, and participating in a variety of communities and groups with shared interests.

One does not need to abandon the pursuit of a college education to learn from this message.  I’m a University administrator, professor, and a lifelong student (with a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and coursework at 20+ Universities), and I have no problem endorsing Stephens’s message.  Many University faculty and administrators promote the value of a solid liberal arts college education, noting that it equips people with the capacity the think well, live well, write well, and communicate well.  And yet, it is in some of those liberal arts classes that students learn about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Faulkner, Ansel Adams, Jack London, William Blake, Robert Frost, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.  They never earned a college degree.  We can extend that list by hundreds with highly successful people in multiple industries and parts of the world today. We can add thousands more by touring the history books.  One may respond by arguing that these are exceptional people, that they are exceptions and not the rule. My point is not that avoiding college will make a person successful.  It is that the proposed outcomes of a solid liberal arts education are possible beyond the walls of the University.  I know many who attended liberal arts colleges and left with little respect for the great books, little interest in reading something that isn’t required for a class or job, and a fear of public speaking.  I know others who never attended college and they have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a love of the classics, and they live as a contemporary renaissance man or woman.  Steve jobs never finished college, but in a 1995 interview, he specifically noted that the vision and innovation behind Apple comes partly from their commitment to the liberal arts.  The University does not own the liberal arts.

Despite all of this, a solid college education is a good and valuable investment.  It is a learning community that is rich with opportunities, but not if you are simply talking about taking a series of classes and earning a bachelor’s degree. That will not adequately prepare someone for life beyond college. I do not recommend that students allow their college years to be dominated by some sort of cloistered college experience. “College and…” is my suggestion.  There is value in college and…travel, road trips, work, community engagement, entrepreneurial efforts, personal exploration and experimentation beyond the classroom walls and the campus boundaries, using the digital world to build a broad and substantive personal learning network, and participating in diverse groups and communities beyond the college. Many colleges recognize the importance of this as they offer more travel study options, are deeply engaged with community activities and social causes, give students opportunities to work on cutting edge research and innovation, provide resources to help students with internships, provide entrepreneurial centers to help students start their own businesses, emphasize things like service learning, and help pair students with mentors beyond the University. Going to college and not exploring these learning experiences leaves one with an incomplete education.  The true spirit of the liberal arts cannot be contained within a classroom or school.  It is about cultivating refinement, but is even more about liberation, exploration and transformation that extends for a lifetime and well beyond the school walls.

While I appreciate many things from the unschooling movement, the reality is that certain vocational paths will continue to require a college education.  For those aspiring to be doctors, lawyers, and P-20 teachers; for example, skipping college isn’t typically an option.   However, if one wants to be ready for life beyond college, then it requires getting deeply involved with life beyond college…it requires “college and…”

12 Things You Can’t Do With an eBook

I like eBooks.  I really do.  I have hundreds of them…but I have a couple thousand books, and they’ll always play an important part of my life.  I’m an adult convert to the book. I hardly touched one until my senior year of high school. One summer, house sitting for a teacher who clearly loved books, I set the goal of reading one a day for the next two months.  I might have missed a day here and there, but there is no question that something shifted inside of me.  Even before that time, I respected books. Maybe that was due to good marketing from Scholastic or those posters in the elementary school libraries that cast a vision of reading as a way to explore exotic lands.  I always thought of books as something that could change you, but I just didn’t have the patience or discipline to work through a long one without pictures…not until that summer.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a book is, “a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.”  Given this definition, an ebook is not a book, although the OED does define an eBook as “a version of a book.”  If that topic interests you, then there is no shortage of blog posts and articles on the subject.  Here is small selection that I’ve enjoyed:

For me, the comparison of the book and the ebook is a fascinating and valuable topic, but I realize that others see little use in the discussion, noting that the future is one where most reading takes place on some sort of screen.  Whatever the case, I’m devoting the rest of this post to reflecting on the obvious…not to make a point as much as to enjoy what is distinct about the book when compared to its digital counterpart. Ultimately, this is little more than a nostalgic reflection on the role that books play in our past and present.

Things That You Can’t Do with an eBook.

  1. You can’t turn the pages with you fingers.
  2. You can’t rip out a page, which might change the dramatic effect of that beloved scene in Dead Poet’s Society.
  3. You can’t lose it (well, you can, but you can usually download it again).
  4. You can’t watch a friend or loved one unwrap it and read that note on the inside cover.
  5. You can’t line them up on your shelves like a hunter’s trophy chest or relics that remind you of travels to distant lands.
  6. You can’t smell it (although people came up with a variety of solutions for this one already).
  7. You can can’t guess its age by the look and feel.
  8. You can’t use it as a subtle discussion starter with a stranger in the airport by lifting the cover up just a bit higher than usual.
  9. You can’t burn it in protest or blot out the “bad words” with a black marker, just enough mystery to entice the young and clever reader to fill in the blanks for himself.
  10. You can’t write in the margins, leaving the chicken scratch as mental (or emotional) footprints for your great-grandchildren to cipher after you’re gone.
  11. You can’t leave coffee, tea, wine, or tear stains on the pages.
  12. And you can’t steady the leg of that uneven chair with a bad one, leaving you feeling a bit better about wasting ten dollars on it.





Should Tablets Replace Textbooks?

I’ve read dozens of opinions and research reports on the topic of textbooks and tablets in schools.  As you might expect, there are different perspectives on the subject.  A popular way for articles to frame the conversation is to compare tablets with textbooks, as if having one excluded use of the other.  Of course, this is not the case.  Nonetheless, the following visual (click on it for a larger version) represents some of the different perspectives as well as references to summaries of a couple of research reports related to the topic.  I’d appreciate your additions and contributions in the comment section.