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.