Everyone Can See the Future

We have prognostication all wrong. Our impossibly high standards for predicting the future have led us to conclude that looking toward the future is a waste of time.

The meterologist said there was a 70% chance of rain, but we didn’t get a drop. IDIOT!

The NFL analyst predicted my team would win by a touchdown, but they only won by 3. FAIL!

Science fiction magazines and movies said there would be jet packs and flying cars by now. WHERE’S MY JET PACK!

We expect predictions to get the details exactly right, and we mock them mercilessly when they don’t meet that impossible standard (TIME’s 10 Failed Futuristic Predictions starts with universal jumpsuits).

In her book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Danielle Allen writes about our shared ability for prognostication. She contends that we all have the ability to detect the “course of human events,” and to see where that course is leading.

When the colonists referred to the course of human events, they were taking responsibility for observing the currents within human action that pull us toward destinations, as identifiable— once we arrive, that is— as the Gulf of Mexico. It is our job as citizens to understand those currents— and to debate them and their direction— in the public square, so that we can see, as early as we can, as best we can, and despite the fogs of doubt and misdirection, the destinations that politicians and leaders are steering toward.

The very course of human events depends on it.

Current of Human Actions

Current of Human Actions, Morguefile free photo, http://mrg.bz/Sq7yD0

I think the ability and responsibility Allen describes applies not only to our political future, but also to our social, cultural and economic futures.

The same “current of human action” can be observed in how we interact with each other, how we represent and share our experiences, and how we create and exchange things of value.

Unfortunately we often miss the “current of human action” because we are focused on the individual actions. Almost 6 years ago, I started encouraging my organization to take social media seriously as a communication and learning tool. Some of the reaction I received (and sometimes still receive today) included “It’s just a fad,” “Who cares what someone had for lunch?” and “My audience doesn’t use social media.”

If we just focus on individual actions, it’s easy to come to these conclusions. At the time, social media tools were new, fast-growing and largely used by young people. They definitely looked like a fad. Even today, many social media channels are mostly used for sharing content that may seem frivolous to many. In 2008, Facebook has about 200 million users. Today, they have 1.32 billion. Twitter did not even come close to the top 20 social media sites in 2008 with 4 – 5 million users. Today they report 271 monthly active users. In 2008, Instagram and Pinterest were still years away from launching. Most people were not social media users 6 years ago.

If we had focused on the “current of human action” however, we might have been able to see the destination of wide social media adoption that lay ahead. We know humans are social creatures. Our building and expanding of social networks is largely responsible for our survival. We share resources and communicate ideas. When technologies were developed, we leveraged them to grow our social network and communicate ideas. From written language to the printing press to the telephone, we have used new technology to do the things that set us apart from other primates; expanding our networks to include other humans, including those we have never met face-to-face. Why wouldn’t we take the same advantage of social media?

We might not have been able to predict that Twitter would outlast Friendster or that there would be such a thing as Tinder, but those are the details. What really matters is to see the “current,” to see where we are headed and to prepare for (or adjust course to avoid) the destination.

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Breaking Down to Rebuild

I was reading a very good blog post about a teacher’s experience integrating iPads into her classroom, when the mental fireworks went off. I sometimes let my ideas ferment a little too long. Instead of being released at their prime, they become something yeasty, unpalatable and highly combustible. One little spark and…KABOOM! Welcome to the aftermath.

explosion

Photo courtesy Michael Welsing. Used under CC BY-ND 2.0 license. http://www.flickr.com/photos/gnislew/1453056073/

I’ve had a nagging feeling for some time that, although Extension educators have been making progress in using social media for communication and utilizing new media for education, the use of social tools and online networks across cooperative extension has been mostly superficial. In other words, we are doing the same things, just promoting them differently. We are just adding a layer of new technology on top of what we do, but we are not really working differently.

I am sure there are many who disagree and even more who would say, “So what. We really shouldn’t be changing how we work” (that’s what the comments section is for folks, so have at it). Maybe that’s why I kept this feeling to myself a little too long.

The Spark

In her post “Redefining Instruction With Technology: Five Essential Steps,” 4th and 5th grade math teacher Jennie Magiera talks about the lessons she learned from her effort to integrate iPads into her teaching.

Jennie Magiera is a 4th and 5th grade math teacher and a technology and mathematics curriculum coach in Chicago Public Schools.

Jennie Magiera is a 4th and 5th grade math teacher and a technology and mathematics curriculum coach in Chicago Public Schools.

Her first efforts were not successful.

“Despite my high hopes, the next two months were less than successful. A casual observer would have witnessed a sea of students glued to glistening tablets, but the effects were superficial. The iPads were not helping my students make substantial progress toward self-efficacy, academic achievement, or social-emotional growth.”

Here’s what Jeannie writes about why she feels the effects of the iPads were only superficial.

“The problem, I began to realize, was my own understanding of how the iPads should be utilized in the classroom. I had seen them as a supplement to my pre-existing curriculum, trying to fit them into the structure of what I’d always done. This was the wrong approach: To truly change how my classroom worked, I needed a technology-based redefinition of my practice.”

That’s where I feel we are in cooperative extension, trying to fit social media and online networks into the structure of what we’ve always done. Instead, we need to embrace Jeannie’s first essential step to redefining instruction with technology, “Break down to rebuild.”

“As terrifying as it may sound, the first step is to take a proverbial sledgehammer to your existing classroom framework. This realization was a turning point for me. I would have to be willing to depart from what I had “always done” or “always taught.””

Until we are willing to take that proverbial sledgehammer to the way we educate and communicate, our use of social media and online tools will remain superficial.

Twitter Is Not The Internet

Do people understand difference between a platform and the tools or services built on that platform? A recent article on the Atlantic Cities website suggests some don’t.
The article is about a study that suggests Twitter actually reinforces the power of place rather than making distance irrelevant in building community.The study is actually pretty interesting, but the Atlantic Cities article about the study implies the findings about Twitter networks apply to the entirety of the Internet. Here’s a quote from the article, ” Many predicted the rise of the Internet and of social media would annihilate distance and overcome the constraints of place by allowing people to communicate and build virtual communities. But the fact of the matter is Twitter actually works with and reinforces the power of place.”
The author assigns the findings of a study of Twitter networks to the Internet and social media as a whole. Twitter is simply a service built on the platform of the Internet. It is not the Internet. While Twitter may fall under the difficult to define term “social media,” it is not representative of all social media.
If we assume what is true about Facebook is true about the Internet as a whole, we fail to recognize the difference between a platform and the tools built on that platform. If we assign the traits of Pinterest to all social tools, we fail to distinguish between a category and the items that fall within that category.

"Let me draw you a diagram" - courtesy Devon Persing, used under CC BY-NC-SA: 2.0 license. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pneumatic_transport/856206743/)

If you are anything like me, you just thought, “Yeah, duh.” That’s the same reaction I had about 8 years ago, when I started teaching Basic English Skills at a small, 4-year college. I was talking with a much more experienced faculty member about what she thought I needed to cover in the course. She recommended spending quite a bit of time on helping the students distinguish the general from the specific. At the time I thought, “How could college freshman not know this?” When I got into the classroom, I found out they didn’t know it, and their writing was suffering as a result.
Because people have trouble distinguishing between the general and the specific, we get implications like the one in the aforementioned article, and I get requests from people to “teach me social media.” As the number of social tools and services continues to grow, sentences that start with “Social media is…” or “Social media does…” are becoming less true. The differences between social tools go beyond character limits and privacy policies.
Different tools create different kinds of social connections and different kinds of social networks. You can understand a specific tool like Twitter by studying social media only to the extent that you can understand American culture by studying Western civilization. To flourish in a specific social network, you need to understand that specific network.