First published in Dutch on the 30th of January 2012
Information and communications technology (ICT) has nowadays become known as social media and has become an important subject. Its influence is undeniable. A huge number of people are being updated by it on all sorts of developments, nearly “real time”. High speed exchange helps them form an opinion and in the blink of an eye large groups of people can be mobilised. Ideas, emotions, and actions are connected on an impressive scale. The result might easily be called world-changing.
An obvious question is what social media can mean for education. I dare to admit that I witness the way social media is capable in evoking such enthusiasm with slight jealousy. Of course, the field of education also wants to connect ideas, emotions and actions in order to mobilise our students.
I am definitely not computer-illiterate. I make use of smartboards, internet and intranet to present information, to distribute exercises and assignments, and to communicate with my students. And I am not the only one in that regard. Much has changed in education. The possibilities to use social media to teach dynamically and variedly seem inexhaustible. Development is so rapid and allows for so much dynamism that I am almost constantly wondering whether I am using it enough. Am I up to date? Am I not lacking behind?
There are many other possibilities
Computer experts, in fact, have the tendency to raise doubt rather than to resolve it. According to them there are always many other possibilities. Digital reservoirs such as YouTube, Wikipedia, and Khan Academy are inexhaustible sources of information. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are superfast forms of media for sharing and requesting information. Every day, fine new Apps are released to weigh, measure, categorise, organise, etc. Together, they almost form a “perfect storm” of possibilities.
I welcome all entrepreneurship in this field. As I have said, I also use some of it to make my teaching more interactive. It absolutely stimulates my creativity of which I see the positive results. But I also notice that the developments are almost uninhibited and unguided. We seem to be getting a bit hyper. We are all familiar with the speed and eagerness with which twitter is used. Critical articles are being written on this subject too. How much information can be conveyed in two hundred characters? Is there any meaning to a tweet about a tweet about a tweet, etc.?
The use of social media seems to be something insatiable that has, I think, certain risks for education. Sometimes I associate it with a pre-schooler feeding ducks. It starts out nice and sweet, but the ducks come closer and closer, making the child throw the bread quicker and quicker. This only makes the ducks come closer again and the child, slightly tense, throws even quicker. At one point, the “sweet image” of a child feeding ducks has changed into something frantic that has nothing to do with feeding anymore. The ducks’ hunger is insatiable and eventually the child just throws the whole bag of breadcrumbs at them. Is it possible that in education this “sweet image” can also change into something undesirable and that perhaps no longer has anything to do with education?
An example from my own practice
In different educational trajectories, I introduce my students to the concept of the utility box. This is a mental gathering place for all sorts of beneficial thoughts (instruments) that students can apply in situations where they have trouble to act adequately (due to stress, fear, frustration, doubt, etc.). These thoughts must be taken broadly. These can be idioms, mottos or slogans, but also songs, poems, imagery, films, clips. Even more symbolic thoughts such as a cross or the yin and yang symbol can form excellent beneficial thoughts (one of my students has added dominoes to his utility box, after my class).
I illustrate this idea, among others, by means of a few YouTube videos that could function as examples in stressful situations. I play, for instance, “Always look on the bright side of life”, the amazing song that is sung in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. And also the song “Ik heb een heel zwaar leven [translation: I have a very tough life]” by Brigitte Kaandorp.
Wonderful and fun
The students think it is wonderful and soon some of them open a huge can of clips, sketches, songs and videos that they think are great. They also share them with each other (through Facebook for instance). Their enthusiasm and drive are very beautiful and many social media gurus would see this as evidence that they are right.
It is indeed wonderful, but their eagerness threatens to overshadow the purpose of the assignment. It is not about finding as many “fun” clips as possible. I have seen how this can lead to an escape from the unpleasant situations, a sort of escapism. The desired beneficial thoughts are useful objects that one ought to apply in unpleasant situations in order to get rid of frustration, irritation, fear, and stress without avoiding them. They must give you the power to continue after a setback.
Not always fun
These thoughts do not have to be fun all the time. Qualitatively, they must be much stronger than “fun”. They only become this when they represent something personal, private, and valuable. They only become powerful once they hook up to the meaningful experiences that are hidden in your own personal history. You cannot therefore simply take them from the internet. You cannot just google it. Only when the students realise this and are willing to commit themselves to the necessary (self-reflective) effort to formulate powerful beneficial thoughts, will a true moment of learning be created that I have in mind.
Moments of learning
The moments of learning is the experience that I care about and that all of us in education should care about. A video, sketch or song is not a learning moment. At most, it can be at the service of such a moment. This is not only the case for the new media. It is also the case for hardcore educational objects and formulas, theories and procedures. These are not the goals of education. What we want and are able to do with them are is the goal.
Socrates once said that knowledge is devoid of meaning when it does not add to moral behaviour. As educational psychologist I support this idea, but I would rather see that “moral” is replaced by “conscious” or “engaged”. In earlier essays (Nothing is more practical than a good theory and What is comprehension?), I have aligned learning to changing. It is not brief and superficial. A moment of learning is a profound moment.
Social media can definitely add to profound learning moments. In a debate I participated in about social media and education, the speaker played a video that a mathematics teacher had made of himself in which he threw a basketball into a hoop. He had chosen such a perspective and edited the video in such a way that his students could use the shapes and formulas of a parabola to predict whether the ball would go in or not. Wonderful! Thanks to this man, I all of a sudden realised/understood that all projectiles have a parabolic trajectory and that mathematics is able to describe this in a beautiful way. Mathematics and sports go hand in hand!
If I had known this sooner, I would have taken my daughter to a basketball field immediately when she asked me in frustration why, in heaven’s name, she was learning about parabolic functions in her mathematics classes. Learning and fun ought to go hand in hand as long as possible. But in the case of fun there does not necessarily have to be a learning moment involved, while in learning, this is essential. For me to achieve this I would even have gone through the internet to have found that video.