Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ugh. Classic Politics Now Extends to Social Networking in Education.

The United States Department of Education is sponsoring a program called Connected Online Communities of Practice, a three-year initiative.

1.  I run what is arguably the largest social network for educators, Classroom 2.0 with 54,000 members.  Can anyone tell me why nobody from the Department of Education called to ask my advice on this project?

2.  If someone had called, I would have said that this is project has at it's core a mistaken idea:  that social media and personal learning networks can be directed from the top down.  There is a reason that so many acronyms in this arena start with P for "personal:"  PLN (Personal Learning Network), (PLC) Personal Learning Communities, and PLE (Personal Learning Environments).  It's because these are individual connections created by the individual, and that is their value:  they are personal.  Traditional institutions (and most professional development initiatives) operate from the top down, where someone believes that they have the best idea and pushes it down to others.  Social media works the opposite direction, as individuals build their own Web experiences, aggregate together based on their own ideas and preferences, and then ultimately build civic projects that come out of their authentic and personal passions.  Government or institutional attempts to harness (or co-opt) the social networking in education movement are still operating on the false assumption that this is about the brains at the top.

I give a talk at conferences on the lessons I've learned over four years of running social networks for educators, and someone always comes up to me afterwards and says, "now I understand why our initiatives in this area haven't ever really worked."

3.  Not unique to government or institutions is an understandable, but also mistaken, idea:  that someone from the top needs to choose the best resources.  This is closely related to, and maybe an inherent part, of seeing education as a set of outcomes rather than a process.  We see the process idea in Democracy--we believe that participation is often more important than the particular outcome, and that being involved and able to voice our personal opinions is at the core of what self-governance is, even as we disagree about particular laws or policies that are enacted.  But in education we forget, or don't believe, this.  I see this same thread when I hear discussions about recording the "best" lectures out there on subjects and having these available for teachers to show students.  Yes, there are great and compelling teachers or lecturers out there, and it's valuable to identify those resources.  But when we do so we often forget that the act of creation is often as or more important in education than the consumption of material.  So when upper level language students prepare learning material for lower-level students, even though the material isn't "the best available," both the upper level and the lower level students benefit--the upper level by teaching, the lower level by seeing their close peers actually speaking a foreign language and communicating with it.

When we believe that somebody at the top needs to make sure the "best" is available, that tells me they aren't thinking about the process of education, but that they are focused on and believe they can control the outcomes.  I hesitate to use this word, but can you hear the hubris in this quote from the Department of Education announcement?
"There are already many online communities through which educators can connect with people and resources, but these communities tend to be isolated from each other, leading to redundancy of effort, missed opportunities for collaboration, and difficulty in finding appropriate support and resources. Through more efficient and coordinated online participation, education professionals will be better able to share practices, access experts, and solve problems that require systemic solutions in order to improve the opportunity to learn."
 This seems to indicate that the hundreds to thousands of teacher-initiated social networks that are out there will be made better by "more efficient and coordinated" efforts.  Honestly, I don't think so.  I think a great part of their value is because they are not "efficient and coordinated," that they are autonomous places for conversation, where educators can pick and choose on their own who they want to talk to and what they want to talk about.  The problems identified in this statement aren't really the problems of social networks for educators, they are the problems that fit the narrative of centralized solutions.  The great efficiency trap is the same one that locks students and teachers into a education system that touts its efficiency but forgets the cost of those efficiencies:  personal control and agency.

This feels very human to me--an institution that feels the sea-change taking place in power all over the world naturally trying to tell a story that protects its role.  "We're the Department of Education, so we should be the ones to make this better."  This is being played out in so many ways, from the commercial to the political to education:  institutions are still believing that they should be the ones to control the ideas and narratives.

If the Department of Education had called me, I would have recommended building an infrastructure that made it easy for educators to build their own networks--take the ideas of Ning, but add the pieces that would allow for resource sharing and better searching for colleagues with similar curricular interests.  However, keep the brilliant Ning concept of letting people build their own networks.

This isn't about efficiency, it's about agency, experimentation, and conversation.