Friday, July 1, 2011

Is it the death of texting?

A former media instructor of mine, who has since become my online friend in all things media, sent me an article from the U.K. called, "The Death of Texting", asking what my students would think about it (thanks Neil!). The Online Mail article claims that the slowing growth of the number of texts signals an end to texting. I'm not an analytics specialist by any means, but I'm pretty sure it's common for trends to stagnate at some point without it meaning the death knell is about to ring.

While it's true that more and more people may opt for the texting services that are on their data plans rather than messaging by SMS, I don't forsee an "end" to the craft of texting. I also don't see video chat "replacing" texting, as the author claims. While the technology or platform may change, the communication itself doesn't necessarily change. Instead, we end up with an expanded repertoire of tools.

Texting is popular because of its anytime, anyplace nature. As long as teenagers continue to stay in touch with friends in their every waking moment, whatever technology that helps them with this is surely going to survive. In an interview with Microsoft researcher, danah boyd, she explained to me that teens use technology to help them find their place and identity as their social circles continuously shift through their development.

The teenaged students I interviewed about Facebook and texting gave me some pretty good insight into the popularity of texting as a medium of choice, saying it's great because its intimate while requiring short spurts of commitment, and participants don't have to worry about how they look. Students talked about carrying on multiple conversations and the enjoyment of no one else knowing who or how many other people they were conversing with at the same time. Not only do they benefit from feeling connected, but they also reinforce or move higher in social status.

Although I didn't talk to students about video chat, there's a whole different dynamic going on in a visual conversation. You can't talk to multiple people at the same time without the other person knowing about it, and body language and voice expression come back into play. The time commitment and attention required for such a task continues to keep this form of communication limited.

The question of "user friction" also comes to mind. Friction is generated by the number of steps it takes to follow through in using the technology, as well as the commitment required on the part of the user. In online commerce it's been found that customers feel most comfortable with about 3 steps in making online purchases. This friction is generated through the desire of ease of use against the peace of mind required when it comes to making secure transactions. Not enough steps will cause a customer to question the security of the transaction, while too many steps make the customer feel like online shopping is an arduous task. In communication with close friends, we want to be one-step away. Texting is a one-step process. Straight from your contacts, you can compose and send a message. It's an easy way of maintaining close friendships.

In Facebook, the "Like" button is what I would call a half-step process. It only requires hitting the button of something you're already on anyway. The time commitment and attention required is minimal, maybe even too minimal. It's a perfectly easy way of signalling that you're aware and somewhat interested in your friend's or acquaintance's life. These tiny bouts of commitment are part of relationship maintenance.

Video chat is a multi-step process. You need to make sure you look okay, you need to make sure you are in a suitable location, and then, you have to make sure the other person is available at the same time, under the same conditions. These steps come before the ones you have to take in operating the communications device. Going through all the steps of a video chat signals a serious investment in the relationship and will likely be reserved for such.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Ontario College of Teachers’ release this week of a Social Media advisory takes education into the 21st century by acknowledging that teachers and students are using the medium. Unfortunately, headlines like “Teachers banned from friending students on Facebook” and online rants about teachers with pedophilia-like tendencies show several members of the media and public have misinterpreted the advisory. Advisory is “advice”, not a rule handed down through a policy. Why is this distinction important? Because it helps us define purpose. The advice outlined in the document is meant to protect teachers from potential legal ramifications that can take place through misinterpretations of text communications. It also serves as a reminder for teachers to continue to follow, as we have always followed, The Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession and Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession. Although, this reminder should really go without saying. Teachers have always understood that their lives are predominantly public and they must act accordingly. Online social media is much like being in public coffee shops and malls and should be an easy transition for teachers.

The advisory is directed towards teachers as its audience. Unfortunately, some members of the public and media looking in, took it upon themselves to “read between the lines”, believing the advice to teachers was laced with a hidden message warning the public to protect themselves from the misguided and predatory intentions of teachers who troll the online world. However, to be fair, the OCT writers didn't do much to steer public opinion away from the negativity, especially by including phrases like “cellphones are the gateway to child pornography”. Such a bad call on the part of the writers. Inciting fear is a great way to get people to sit up and take notice but it does little to foster public trust in teachers. It also does little to encourage teachers who currently sit on the fence with technology to use social media in the classroom.

Parents already trust teachers with their children every day in the classroom. So, why is it that when the classroom goes online, some members of the public think teachers’ ethics change and the relationships are negatively affected? Do they really think that the technology dictates our behaviour? The public needs to give teachers more credit.

There are 60-thousand teachers in Ontario and only a few, very rare cases of teachers communicating inappropriately with students on-line. In fact, social media actually works completely against this. It encourages people to behave the same way online as they do in person by predominantly taking place in a public space. In these spaces, everyone knows that your words can and will be passed on through the community circle. That’s actually its purpose and so it serves as one of the most transparent communication platforms between teachers and students. Even private messaging doesn’t necessarily present a problem. It is just like the private conferences we’ve always had with students needing guidance on school-work and not wanting to be subjected to the scrutiny of their peers. There are many times when students are too embarrassed to ask for clarification or admit they need extra help in front of their peers.

Outlining your expectations in advance with students and discussing digital citizenship and privacy in class brings everyone in line with the appropriate use for social media in the classroom. Following this practice and modeling appropriate behaviour can only help students. And if anything inappropriate should surface, there is a textual record or paper trail.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Misinterpreted OCT Advisory on Social Media

Reading the media and public response to the Ontario College of Teachers' advisory on social media is an exercise in frustration. It's so easy for facts to get twisted and misinterpretations to be made.

One teacher in Idaho pleads guilty to engaging in sexual conduct online with a 14-year old girl after impersonating a teenage boy and now Macleans wants us to blame it all on social media? Obviously, the Idaho teacher is a sick man who needs help. It’s bizarre to insinuate that teachers would start behaving this way just because of the technology. A person’s social ethics and morality are what dictate the use of technology.

Social networks set up in a professional manner between students and teachers actually help both parties to behave in the same way they would in any public place such as a coffee shop or a mall. Teach proper use through education.

The author needs to be corrected in stating “the College is making sure the rule is hereby carved in stone”. This is an incorrect assumption. An advisory is advice; a policy is a hard and fast rule. The main purpose of this advisory is meant to protect teachers from potential misinterpretations, leading to costly and embarrassing lawsuits. It wasn’t meant to cause alarm to the public by warning parents to lock up their children and cause general mistrust of teachers. Too bad Macleans interpreted it that way. Thanks for doing your part to set the teaching profession back a little further, as well as the integration of technology in education.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Music Albums: Down in a "Blaze of Glory"

Jon Bon Jovi told the London Sunday Times magazine that iPods and other digital mediums have destroyed the business, saying, "Kids today have missed the whole experience of putting the headphones on, turning it up to 10, holding the jacket, closing their eyes and getting lost in an album; and the beauty of taking your allowance money and making a decision based on the jacket, not knowing what the record sounded like…God, it was a magical, magical time. A generation from now people are going to say: 'What happened?' “ He added, “Steve Jobs is personally responsible for killing the music business."

Jobs actually saved what was left of the music industry by helping artists find a way to monetize what was left after illegal downloading nearly finished it off. Though digital technology finished killing off the music album of our beloved past, it certainly didn’t start here. Remember making mixed tapes for your friends and lovers? “Theme” tapes were popularized in the 80’s when recordable audiocassettes became widely available. Couples would pull their albums off the shelf and select songs that helped them express how they really felt for that special someone. Others would make party tapes of the greatest hits, recording off the radio, off other tapes, and of course off vinyl albums. My brother would argue that the gleaning of thematic or top-rated songs from albums happened even earlier in time, as his friend’s father was a D.J. in the 70’s and used his reel to reel machine to create mixes, but notice I’ve used the word “popularized” to describe the recording of mixes in the 80’s, as production of this blank recording media took off.

In Canada, recording artists demanded that the government add a special surcharge to each blank tape sold, called a Private Copying Levy that is set by the Copyright Board of Canada and currently collected by the Canadian Private Copying Collective. Still, music lovers everywhere abused, and continue to abuse the privilege to make a personal private copy of their albums. CD ripping and digital file sharing has just amplified the “pick and choose” landscape that had already begun with the proliferation of making mixed collections on blank cassette tapes.

Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to the old music album of our youth. Can you genuinely name a recent album that has come close to the ones we worshipped way back when? I’m not knocking today’s music. I just think we’ve entered a new era of “singles”, “doubles”, and maybe if the music is hot enough, “triples”. So, what did those long albums have back then, that others today don’t? Two of my favourites, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love both tell stories throughout their albums. This single narrative weaving its way through the entire album had a cohesiveness that would have been sacrilege to separate. But, do today’s youth listen to albums the same way we did? Research shows more than ever, that youth are prone to flipping through music, often not even finishing a song before going on to the next. The music trough is so full and the market so saturated with choice, that when you combine the wide availability with the way hyper-mediated youth switch their attentions so much quicker than we did, the dying of the music album seems like an obvious end.

So, what’s left then? The simple answer is the consumptive experience. Bon Jovi is just going to have to get used to hitting the road for more tours, ‘cause that’s where the money’s at.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Teachers as "in-service Researchers"

I presented my research on teens and cell phones at an Education and Technology conference back in the Fall, outlining issues around compulsion, stress, multi-tasking versus task-switching, education, and social relationships. In the trade show exhibition room, following my presentation, I bumped into a fellow teacher colleague and asked about his experiences so far at the conference. He gave me a run down of his morning and his friend joined in and offered his opinions on the seminars he had attended. The friend mentioned that he had sit in on a presentation by a Masters student who had presented her thesis. He complained that it wasn’t anything he could use in his teaching. I noticed a slight twitch in his face as he realized that I was the Masters student (and teacher) he was talking about, and so he quickly added in, “she did a good job presenting, though”. And herein lies the problem. Teachers are still in the “tell me what tools to use and show me how stage” when they need to be at “how should these tools be used effectively, what are my expectations, and what outcomes can I project from using this technology”? Along with “does this tool help me stimulate critical inquiry and collaboration in my classroom”?

Maybe teachers expect academic sociologists to be on top of all the research so that those in the classroom don’t have to think about their selections. It’s an extremely strange and troubling stance to take, as teachers are the ones who are immersed in the classroom on a daily basis and know the way each of their students learns better than anyone in some academic lab. That’s not to discount the value of sociologists. They are an extremely valuable and necessary part of our team, rather I am working to establish teachers as valuable members of this team, as well. So does it not make sense that all teachers should become “in-service researchers” and ensure there is reflection and critical thinking in their own practice? Does it not make sense that they would share their findings with their colleagues to help support and form an effective educational learning framework, a.k.a professional development? And worse still, do teachers who want to be handed the tools actually think all of this emerging technology has been researched in advance to ensure optimal learning environments? Often what we are doing is re-purposing web applications that have been born with business productivity or entertainment in mind. There is little monetary value in developing educational applications so we are left picking through the pile of emerging apps. Again, even more reason to use an “educational filter” that calls on our knowledge of the science of learning when selecting appropriate tools.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Quit Blaming the Technology!!!

I work in education, an area that is slow to roll with the times of change. Technology has become ubiquitous in the lives of our students, as youth continue to embrace mobile technologies. Yet, there are many educators who just want to shut the door on technology, claiming that it is too much of a distraction. Common are the complaints about texting at inappropriate times, teen compulsion to stay connected 24/7, and the disruptive nature of incoming calls and texts… and the complainants are absolutely right. It is disruptive. There is no disputing that. But we need to ask, “why is technology disruptive?”

The shorter answer has its beginnings in big businesses’ quest for ultimate productivity carried over from the turn of this century when it was thought that multi-tasking meant more work would always get done. The longer and more pertinent answer to the question at hand is that technology is not being used for its greatest benefits because adults haven’t been around to guide youth in setting boundaries and defining good purpose for use. We’ve left youth out on a limb to discover possibly the most life-altering evolution of their lives all on their own. This, at a time when McLuhan's description of technology being extensions of the self has never had more resonance.

Technological determinism does not happen in isolation. Human beings have the opportunity to mold technology just as much as technology has to mold us. Teachers need to help set the parameters for use by embracing technology, teaching good purpose, and modeling appropriate use both academically and socially.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Groundhog Day

My head is spinning this morning as I think about how to keep course work organized, relevant, accessible, organized and engaging for my students. I’ve tried numerous platforms out there from free online web 2.0 apps to sponsored education sites and apps. As I migrate my material to different platforms and sites, I feel my frustration mounting. Betas are dropped, apps are modified or commercialized and I’m left scrambling looking for the next best “fit”. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Groundhog Day.
I started using Ning last year because students love social networking. They enjoyed being able to comment on each other’s work and posts. They spent a good deal of time making their own page individualized and personalized by choosing their own page formats, colour schemes; adding videos, photos, and audio of their work. The live chat feature came in handy when I was absent in Boston. I was able to converse in real time with students as they worked on the tasks and video tutorials I had left on the site. I even linked to my Google Docs and calendar. Then Ning commercialized their site and I was lucky enough this year to get a sponsorship from Pearson for a “mini-plan”. Now I can’t create groups, post videos or music, students can no longer use their Facebook account to access the site, and I have to approve every single blog they write. I don’t have 500 dollars from my budget to open this back up to the capabilities that come with a full membership. So I started checking out other sites but then ran into the same sort of problems as these sites worked to monetize their services. It seems like there are roadblocks wherever I go.
I use Google Groups for some of my personal learning networks and for collaboration. Unfortunately, Google is taking out the page and file capabilities this January. I stumbled upon the Google Notebook, which allows for the placement of notes in a linear fashion but also uses labels as cloud tags for those who prefer being hyperlinked. It also linked in with Google Docs and Presentations, but Google took away the sharing capability of Google Notebook and has stopped support for the project.
There’s got to be a working formula some where for education.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Google Earth-Not Just For Geographers

Oh, the possibilities.

Moving beyond Web 2.0 into augmented reality. That's what Google Earth does. But it's not simply useful for creating tours and viewing the world. It can be used for digital story telling, portfolio building, and social awareness projects.

I had the opportunity to present at ECOO some of the story-telling projects I've been working on with my students. Afterwards, we collaborated on ideas for even more projects. I added those ideas, along with some tutorials and links to helpful sites to my PowerPoint presentation to share with other teachers. Here's the link if you would like to download it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cellphones in the Classroom: A Response

Recently, I responded to concerns about cellphone use in the classroom that a member of one of my Personal Learning Networks at Classroom 2.0 had posted. I've re-published my response here on my blog.

This is the post I responded to:
"I think cell phones don't belong in the classroom. They are a major distraction and are not worth the trouble they can cause. How can you regulate a student's personal cell phone? How can you keep them from texting each other and help them to remain on task? What do you do about students who don't have cell phones? How will they participate? What happens to their self esteem when they don't have a cell phone to pull out with the rest of the class? What about the students with really nice phones? How do you keep them from getting stolen? I could go on and on... cell phones in the classroom are not a good idea."

Here's my response:
We can't forget that cellphones are powerful mobile mini-computers. There is a period of normalization that occurs with any new technology. We need to guide students through digital citizenship and appropriate use. We also need to get to the point in which students are self-regulating, which means some initial guiding and regulation on our part as teachers working with students. I guess what we have to ask ourselves is "do we want to pretend we don't know students are texting behind our backs anyway" or do we want to be open and find an opportunity to teach them appropriate use and guide them towards self-regulation by helping them manage their attention?

Try putting students in groups when not all your students have cell phones. You'll find the "haves" are willing to share with the "have-nots" during this time as many have data plans (though you should never insist on sharing and I can bet it would be a very rare case that someone objects anyway). This way everyone gets an opportunity for deeper learning, instead of no one. Working in groups of 3 or 4 is great. If you're worried about the self-esteem of the ones who don't have phones, it's not like they don't already know who the "have" and "have-nots" are. I remember back in high school when many of the girls around me were wearing designer clothes and I was wearing regular clothes. It's a life lesson they've already learned.

I've actually never had a cell phone stolen in class before. When they're out in the open, it's pretty obvious which phone belongs to whom and kids rarely let them out of their sights. Though yes, it is a potential problem and you would need to share those risks with your students.

Right now students are texting with their phones because it's a great tool in their social world, as they look for ways to keep adults out of a space while they work to find their identities. They engage in shifting social circles as they try to establish long-lasting friendships like the ones we now have in adulthood. I have spoken with students who feel pressured by their friends to text back immediately upon receipt. They get into a dangerous cycle of compulsion that is full of internal interruptions and social pressure. This is very different from how adults use texting. We can take our time getting back to people without feeling quite the same stress. As teachers we can try to get rid of the external interruptions in their environment but they will find ways around it. Controlling their external environment by banning cell phones does nothing to quell the internal interruptions that take place in the head, repeatedly popping up and reminding them to "take a look at that screen" and check where they stand in each other's friends' lists.
In order to address this issue and help kids control their compulsion, we need to teach them how to become autonomous.

In order to address this issue and help kids control their compulsion, we need to teach them how to become self-regulators and how to engage in appropriate social etiquette. This can happen through allowing use at appropriate times during class, guided by helping them manage the type of attention required of the task at hand. We do this through adult guidance, attention cuing, mentorship, and teaching digital citizenship. You can't teach these when you ignore what they're doing anyway and your risk putting yourself outside of their world.
I produced a 37-minute documentary on this topic for my Masters. I interviewed David Buckingham, author and Director of the London Knowledge Learning Lab; Danah Boyd, author, Berkeley fellow and researcher for Microsoft and Harvard; Linda Stone, retired Executive from Apple and Microsoft; Dr. David Meyer, Psychology professor at the University of Michigan; and Neil Andersen, author, media consultant, and speaker with the Association for Media Literacy. I also interviewed teachers and school administrators, parents, and most of all..teens. You can view some of the clips from my documentary at

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Importance of Teaching Digital Citizenship

The story out of Vancouver this week about visuals of the gang rape of a teen-aged girl being passed around Facebook and cell phones was so horrifyingly sad. The speed of transfer of information can seriously amplify situations when teens are not taught digital rights and responsibilities. We have to remember that it's not the technology that's the problem, it's the use of the technology. The user's values dictate the way a medium is used. This is why we need adults to be present in teen social space as guides. We can do this partly through the implementation of a mandatory digital citizenship and literacy course in all our schools. Teens need adults who are available to them and can be trusted to act on their behalf.

I do not advocate for complete invasion of teen social space, but we need to have a presence. This is a very delicate balance since teens need some of their own private space to practice socializing within youth circles and for finding their identities. If they feel adults are encroaching too far into this territory, they will look for alternate spaces to keep adults out. That's what made texting among youth popular in the first place.

The lack of empathy and humanity these youth showed is heart-breaking. The keen interest and voyeurism displayed over such a violent act -alarming. We have to ask ourselves what society will look like in the future if we fail to find the delicate balance of adult presence in teens' online and linked worlds.