Is social media controlling our lives?

This was the title of the excellent public talk I attended yesterday delivered by Bryan Alexander and Alex Grech  in Malta. My take home with me from this talk can be followed from my tweets from the 19th November but there are a couple of principles which I would like to discuss further.

  1. Social Media as bringing out the best and the worst in humanity. Both speakers made reference to the recent Paris terror attacks, and how social media was primary in not only keeping contact with the survivors, but in also offering support (“#PorteOuverte (open door) to offer shelter in their homes to those stranded in the French capital as well as emotional support). Facebook’s safety check app (and its controversial use (or lack of) for the parallel attacks in Beirut) was also part of the discussion. But we also need to view how social media is in fact helping display the lack of empathy, the hatred and the vilification of humanity, because people take to the screen as though there isn’t another human being at the end.
  2. Alex Grech joked about the matter of our presence as social media. He asked… do people actually use social media to be more visible? For instance, in an event such as yesterday’s talk, so many people registered their “interest” in that event by clicking a button on the Facebook event page. How many of those were truly interested – asked Alex. This is quite true and also quite sad really. Maybe this is also a brief glimpse into what drives humans… people want to be seen and heard, and the consequences of what they say (or type) become quite irrelevant. This is social media’s double edged sword… let’s give a voice to everyone – but really and truly what that voice carries is irrelevant to the drivers or the founders of the social media platforms. And this causes sadness, and pain in many instances.
  3. Bryan Alexander told us – let us stop romanticising the media of the past. People everywhere can frequently be heard saying – we were so much better when we were young… back in the good old days, we had no smart phones to distract us, no games to become addicted to, no Internet that is the cause of family dysfunction… I don’t know about you but I hear this all the time. People resist media change because change is not favoured by all humans and because the majority like to grip to what he or she is used to. Socrates himself resisted the advent of writing. We had people resisting the introduction of books, radio, tv… resistance is what we seem to do best when something ‘innovative’ appears. Social media is just another case in history. We will soon stop criticising it when something new comes along… robotics? Advanced AI systems?
  4. And then Alex mentioned this ongoing tension between society and technology – as this medium, the social media is disrupting the power structures that are at work within our society. We have been used to having this power in its hierarchical form… in the style of a Gramscian hegemony. We have been brought up in a pre-social media system which doesn’t question the powers that be… what we are seeing now, is the continuous criticism that comes from the empowerment that such a medium gives people. And yet again we have a double edged sword, as social media becomes the people’s microphone, a voice amplifier and a multiplier that can contribute to news going viral.

Is all this good? Is this bad? Is this controlling our lives? Probably… but then again as humans we really never have total control of our lives or our actions. We live in a society, we are a product of the society we live in. We are controlled all the time by the society we inhabit, by the cultures that form – whether these are physical, digital and virtual. Social media is just a tool – which we can choose to either exploit for the betterment of humanity, or like everything else exploit it to propagate hate, envy, criminal activity and any other action that goes against humanity.

Thanks for a great talk Bryan and Alex! Was quite thought provoking…

Help! My parents are millennials (A title borrowed from the Time magazine cover story!)

So I just came across this cover story as I was morning browsing through my Facebook newsfeed… and it sort of got me thinking. How different are the new millennials to people of my generation or that of my parents? How differently will they raise their kids?

The cover story describes the lives of two parents, one of whom is the stay at home one (he happens to be the dad) whilst the other works (that’s the mum), and their two children. The parents had earlier on (since the pregnancy) decided to document day by day, their children’s lives as vegans using social media (Instagram and blogs). Now some might object – saying ‘oh come on – they’re only kids, they don’t seem to have a say about being in the public eye’, but then I dare anyone who’s holier than thou, to prove that they have never ever shared anything about themselves on social media.

This is not about the sharing per se. It’s about the how and the why of sharing. Sharing is about passing on a message but what some people fail to understand, is that it is ok to share snippets of lives if this can be of benefit to someone else. In this case these parents seem to be passing the message about sustainable living through continuously documenting the growth of their children.

In these past couple of years, we have seen a huge increase in Facebook use amongst the Maltese population. According to the site We are Social “Malta puts in an impressive showing at 58% (social media) penetration, with Scandinavian countries rounding out the rest of the top 5”. Social media places Facebook as the most popular platform chosen in Western European states. What we have also seen is the massive growth of people putting on all sorts of useless banter (for want of a better word), that can incite or provoke all sorts of reactions. We have also seen people committing gaffes responsible for either losing jobs, or getting to be in the eye of the proverbial storm. The reason has nothing to do with digital natives, millennials, boomers or whatever definition we might give. This all has to do with the good old-fashioned common sense and with a level of education that goes beyond the mere acquisition of grades and degrees and more into the ability to think about the consequences of one’s actions and words in a critical manner. I can also see that what our young people are getting from the messages of some of the elders who are also present on Facebook (not generalising here – but trying to give an overall image of the feelings I get when browsing the web) is that 1. every little thing that you do (whether or not it might make sense to have it) has to be documented on FB, and 2. Gather your pack of wolves (try having as many likes as you can to your posts) so that you can collectively attack anyone who either takes your fancy or else does not agree with what you say.

My 2cents thoughts about this is that social media can be made to work differently – it can be used (as it can sometimes be seen) to pass on messages to help improve people’s quality of life. We have to understand that it is not the social media that are causing the problems. It is the people who are using the social media, that are causing all kinds of mess and confusion. How we use social media is pretty much determined by our good sense, but also by our level of humanity and education. If schools had worked more with millennials to help them understand this, then maybe we might have a more civilised democratic and useful presence on social media. However there is still hope. Will schools rise up to the challenge and help young people understand digital citizenship or will we still persist in teaching ECDL skills and thinking that we are doing our part?

Education is Broken … let’s fix it (not) with the technology glue …

This really good article written by Kentaro Toyama and published via The Chronicle of Higher Education. In his article Toyama, traces his own journey into his experience with the integration of technology for learning.This has been a conundrum which many policy makers have been faced with ever since technology started making its ways in education. The author clearly points out that the success of the use of technology, especially in education, doesn’t really depend on the technology or on the device, or any other tool. It really depends on the user – the teacher, the student, the parent. Education then starts to be perceived as a mesh of responsibility that needs to be carried by everyone who is involved. What we have instead is this… the policy maker decides on the use of a particular technology, the technology is implemented (fully or maybe not) in the classrooms, the teacher has to make use of it (even if he or she has to create makeshift activities to fit it in an existing structure. The end result seems to indicate that teachers become unhappy as they speak of technology that is foisted on them, the students are still pretty much disengaged, and lifelong learning becomes just rhetoric.

Last week I overheard a conversation between two teachers, as it inevitably turned to technology and how it’s affecting them. One teacher told the other that she doesn’t really use the Interactive Whiteboard because after all she sees no point in using it. The other told her that she’s lucky to have an Interactive Whiteboard “at least” because she had to move the portable projector around to be able to project something in her class. They were muttering that they couldn’t keep up with all the changes they were supposed to be doing in their classroom. They mentioned that the next upcoming change is a learning management system and after that – who knows? They just gave up because in the end, they said, the people who decide on all of these changes, leave them to cope with them. And without the right supporting structures, who would monitor them to see what they are doing?

Maybe I shouldn’t generalise from just one conversation, and maybe there are teachers who really are struggling to fix education as best as they can. However I think the educational structures in general are not helping at all. In education there is more lacking than just tools and devices. How long will we keep teaching that ICT is all about devices, or all about how to use office applications? How long will we take to realise that that the digital era we live in is so much more than the technology?

The Power of Networks

I always enjoy listening to talks embedded in RSA animations. I find they are thoroughly stimulating, but revisiting this video I couldn’t not comment or link to it from my blog.

Connections and networks, are two words that have been around since the existence of mankind but that have enjoyed the benefit of being right in the middle of the ‘buzz’ only recently through the application of the online social media phenomena like Facebook and Twitter. Many people, including educators, discourage the use of online social networking because of what they call as ‘the implications’ of online social networks. I gather, that by ‘implications’ they are actually thinking about the negative or the adverse effects. To these people I would really suggest this book – by Christakis and Fowler – for it presents some interesting insights about what networks really are and what they can really do, whether for education, life, love, economy and politics.

In reality, we have a lot to learn through our connections. Wherever in the 1980’s I could only interact, and possibly learn, by the close knit community I had built around me of parents, and a few school friends, 30 years on, my learning interactions have possibly become … limitless! In the 1980’s and 1990’s I guess it was understandable and excusable that we would only learn from books. Possibly employers might have been right in saying that people coming out of higher education were not so practical – unless they went through a student-worker kind of scheme. And even so, most of our learning could come only from books, and from the teacher or lecturer. That was the era. But now, that the power of networks has been unleashed – that we have become so much aware of what connected really means and what it can really imply, I find it beyond comprehension that we are still listening to people saying that there is a gap between theory and practice, just as I find it incomprehensible that at higher education, students are still expecting to be told what to learn, when to learn it and how to learn it. Students, academics, teachers, everyone – can wield and harness such great power. The question is – do they know how? do they even know where to start from? I think the answer has to start with education – education is the key to this. No more regurgitation of content please! No more passivity – no more of the recipient metaphor. And if we start with education about the power of networks… who knows where we might end. The journey in itself is a most interesting pursue!

Can there be too much of screen time? Too many computer games? I think not…

This afternoon I happened to be reading an article on the Sunday Times of Malta, in the Education page, where one particular author was describing how children’s healthy growth and development is attributed to their interactions with the “three dimensional first hand engagement”. In short the author was pushing for a more “healthy” physical environment expressing doubts and a certain perplexity about the time that our children spend in the virtual and online environment. Although everyone is entitled to their opinions and of course to publicize their school’s agendas, I always believe that an argument is healthy when it is viewed critically from both perspectives. I do suggest that the author and others who might find the subject of children, digital literacies and the virtual environment interesting, spruce up their reading habits to include works from authors such as Howard Rheingold, Henry Jenkins and Jaron Lanier amongst others.

I do admit and agree that many parents express a certain amount of worry when children seem to spend a lot of time in front of screens and interacting with seemingly ‘inhumane’ content – content that has nothing of the “human touch” we are so used to. The author in the article, looks back on the time when she was a kid  and she could play on the streets with other kids. This, I believe, reflects the thoughts of many, who like me and presumably the author as well, were kids two or three decades ago. However the world has come a long way in these two to three decades. The evolution that has happened in the way we, as humans communicate in these two decades, compares with more than at least two centuries since the birth of the first forms of telephone-based communication.

Quoting Howard Rheingold in NetSmart, “Digital Literacies can leverage the Web’s architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today’s digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic”. I find that this quote really summarizes my answers, when someone tries to push forward reasons why we shouldn’t include technologies and devices at school or when someone tries to stop the spread of social media in schools and in education. I was once shown a Facebook post, where a teacher, (more than one actually) were commenting on the use of games in the classroom. One particularly worrying update was this – “Games in schools!!! … what is education coming to? This is not the way we were taught and this is certainly not the way we should teach“. I find THIS post, more than anyone telling me that his son or daughter is spending time online, for two particular reasons. I would say that as a starting point, we cannot teach the way we were taught. The world has changed, the economy has changed, the society has changed, the community in which we are living has changed, and the expectations have changed. When I was a teenager, I remember that the job that was most popular amongst girls, was a job as a factory worker, a bank clerk or at most a teacher. I believe that the expectations, these days, in Malta and abroad are different; society’s needs are different, and in order to turn the wheel of our country’s economy it is important that the expectations change. So how can we, as teachers, affirm that we need to do things in the classroom the way things were done two or three decades ago?????

The second worrying issue is that these teachers, seem not to embrace the fact that change is not just important, but that preparing for change, is vital for the success of the individual and society in the 21st century. As Rheingold mentions, it is important that people acquire skills not just in terms of the content (from an academic perspective), but also in terms of how to best make use of those skills to work “in concert with others, in an effective way”. It is useless for teachers to say that the IWB is just a glitzy gimmick and keep refusing to integrate it in the classroom, just as it is useless for them to say that Facebook is “an unwanted distraction” in the classroom or that digital games are a “waste of time” and thus act as if these things do not exist. We, as educators, more than teachers, need to make sure that when our young people encounter these, beyond the classroom walls, they know how to deal with them, in a way that that they are empowered and not manipulated by the people behind the masses and overload of information that is thrown at us on a daily basis. My advice is this… let us not bury our heads in the sand. The reality is that we need to add a whole lot of skills which we need to help our young people acquire – and these are digital literacies, or rather the way in which our young people can start filtering and detecting the whole lot of crap that exists, and instead make critical use of it, in a way that is effective, efficient and that can lead us, as a whole community, forward. Let us embrace change in a way that can help us make the world a better place.

The war against mobile devices…can we really say we’re moving towards digital literacies?

I have just read this really interesting blog article from a public school teacher, as she describes how despite the age gap, and despite all the myths which surround young people and their digital know-how, she managed to introduce her son to a Google tool (Google Forms) to be able to collect data for one of his school projects. The article shows how in this one instance, the teacher (and the mother) had much to contribute to the digital education of one youth. One can only imagine what one can do for many other youths.

In another article which I also happened upon today, I was reading about the war that many school administrators and educators seem to wage upon mobile devices and their usage in class and on the school premises. It reminded me of an observation session I recently experienced in one of the local secondary schools here in Malta. As I waited in the school’s headmistress’ office, I noticed a box lying on one of the tables. Students seemed to be pouring in at 7.45am in the morning to leave their mobile phones in this shoebox, before they started their school day. Another school, a private independent school, which I also happened to walk into a few months ago, had clear instructions above the entrance that stated that no mobile devices should be allowed on the school premises.

Yet, recently during our last election campaign, many of our politicians, were promising the use of tablets in the classroom. Couple this to the fact that most of the Internet access in the schools is controlled solely by a single agency dedicated to the Information and Communications Technology. I find it very strange that many teachers at schools, do not have access to a number of social media sites, as well as a number of sites, that may not be considered as ‘strictly educational’ – whatever that means. I also very much wonder, who holds the power to allow for sites to be accessed in schools, or otherwise. To my mind, the person or persons responsible for schools should be working hand in hand with teachers and higher education researchers to be able to define what should be kept out of schools.

So back to the article discussing the war waging against mobile devices, I found it very interesting that the author focused on school administrators and leaders calling upon solutions to be found to the behavioral issues that many seem to have with allowing mobile device usage in schools. I think that we have this tendency of rather than addressing problems, we try to ignore them, hoping that eventually we wouldn’t have to deal with them. In the case of mobile device usage, technology use and applications in schools, the consequence we’re facing is that of having a society that is not considered as a digitally literate society. Despite the records showing how more than half the population of Malta seems to have an active Facebook profile, I believe that we’re still a long way from being called digitally literate. It takes more than the ability of updating personal status, to be effectively digitally literate. And the problem is that inside schools, and even universities, rather than embracing change, and finding solutions to problems, we keep ignoring 21st century practices in the hope that eventually everything will sort itself out. I have a bad feeling that unless we really get our acts together in Education, we will have to sort out very bad consequences ourselves.

 

What most schools don’t teach

See on Scoop.ittech to learn

Subscribe Please http://www.youtube.com/user/TheHollywoodClip What most schools don’t teach Watch Zuck, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, & Others In Short Film To In…

Vanessa Camilleri‘s insight:

What most people should be aware of …. this video really shows why pushing tools into the classroom may not work. We need people who know the how and why of these tools. We need people with computational thinking skills! We need people who think! because the glitz of gadgets may be short lived. But creating your own gadgets is EPIC!

See on www.youtube.com

Of taking offence to and much more…

So yesterday I was looking at the Times of Malta and I was – let’s say to put it mildly – surprised to read this article – which describes the acquittal of a man, who ran over someone (the fact that the latter is foreigner doesn’t really make a difference for the argument herewith) with his car because this person called him or made some sort of reference that the former was ‘gay’ – referring to homosexual tendencies. Now in this case, as the newspaper reports, the victim had allegedly made comments or gestures referring to the person’s sexual tendencies and that person got offended. Offended!!!!

Now at this point, let’s not talk into the merits of sexual tendencies and discourse in our local Maltese context. I really have a lot to say on the subject of the Maltese and the way they profess and live their “catholic faith”. That is something I will not argue in this blog post. However what literally made me gape like a fish, was that the “court considered he had been provoked, and that the perceived insult might not have been acceptable in a locality like Mellieha” (as cited in the Times of Malta).

And here I literally stop.

I find it not only totally incomprehensible but also, as a person, living in the Maltese community, unacceptable. It could very well be the court’s decision and I have to accept its finality however I do have a right to question what is happening around me.

So I candidly ask:

What, pray, is wrong with the community of Mellieha, that these people are allowed to attempt to harm another human being, on taking offence to a comment or gesture?

Are all the people of Mellieha of the same mentality (or rather culture [which I believe is given the wrong slant in the article] that if someone as much as mentions sexual tendencies, they freak out?

And what would happen if one resident of Mellieha took offence to another human being’s comments in another locality? Would the same law of leniency apply?

But then I also ask what makes the people of Mellieha so different?

You know, I do take offence to a number of comments myself. And this has nothing to do with sexual tendencies. I assume that like me, there are quite a number of people, who may take offence to, for example, a specific behavior. So, since to the best of my knowledge, I have been a model citizen so far, should I, the next time I take offence to someone’s behavior (because I feel he/she is trying to humiliate me) attempt to harm someone because I know that will get by, with a slap on the wrist? Or maybe not? Absolutely incomprehensible!

This summer there was another incident here in Malta, when a group of one of the best role models in society aggressively attacked an activist who was protesting against illegal camping on one of Malta’s public beaches. In that case, irrespective of the fact that in my opinion they gave a huge show of disrespect to Malta’s Court of Laws by their behavior and the way they were attired (or lack of), they got off with a €60 fine! In that case, there was photographic evidence but the court couldn’t proceed.

And yet again, we harp on the same subject. I understand that I really know very very little about the law, but I ask: is the law so complex that it fails to see something so, in my humble opinion, glaringly obvious? Why are we protecting those same people who love to show that they are bullies, simply to see the smirk on their faces as they say… See – as if anyone can stand in my way! … yes literally!

Lecturer in Malta bans laptops in classrooms…the story…my thoughts.

So this morning we had this story being reported in the local newspaper: ‘Lecturer bans personal computers from classes: Student blames distraction on ‘excruciatingly boring’ lecture‘ – after a short while the University issued an update: University encourages use of technology!

Well from an academic perspective I feel it’s rather embarrassing for us as academics at Higher Education, that we’re still propagating this kind of teaching – that we’re the fountain of knowledge – and hence students “can not” learn unless they sit back in a seat and listen for a couple of hours at a stretch. It seems that many share this kind of “vision” (??!!) for teaching – and we’re talking about Higher Education, whatever that means.

I feel one of my greater battles is to break through this kind of mentality.

From a researcher’s perspective, on the other hand, I find this attitude from other academics quite interesting to observe. On the one hand, many people – I mean colleagues – talk about the levels which our students need to achieve or the levels of ‘critical thinking’ that our society demands. At this point, if we listen to some of the greatest speakers of today like Ken Robinson, John Seely Brown, Jane McGonigal…we often hear about how our society has changed and is still changing and about how we need to have people out there in the workforce who are able to solve problems before they even come up.

And yet, on the other hand, we keep on hearing about stories such as this one, where at Higher Education, we still have academics who teach as though they think that without them people will not learn, or that they will provide learners with all solutions. My opinion at this point is this… whether we accept it or not, people’s access to information today is widespread – what people want to learn they will, what people don’t find any necessity of learning, they will not learn. It is useless making our learners sit in front of us, even if they are literally ‘cadavers’ sitting through a lecture, listening passively.

We can never stop people from getting lost in ‘neverland’. Does this mean that we can all pack up and leave? Certainly not. My proposed solution? Let’s get our learners’ brains to work, let us get them to actively participate in whatever we would like them to achieve – let’s get them to solve problems. Let us stop talking. Let us start acting. My two cents? Students are right to get bored if academics do not stop talking. Maybe we, as academics, should revisit the way we teach, and start, instead, addressing the needs of the world.

#Epic Fail: The will of the majority in Education

I have found this blog post published via Education Week quite insightful – so insightful in fact that it helped me connect a few dots which I had self-imposed on the state of Education in Malta. First of all I will take the point of departure of the much discussed NCF (refer to this previous post). What was the need for re-proposing an entire curricular framework? I think the answer is that at a higher level, governing bodies feel the need of a more Educated workforce – a higher academic performance equates as an economic indicator according to the OECD (Organisation for the Economic Co-operation and Development).

Therefore the first point is that economy seems to be driving our Education.

The second issue which I have heard over and over again is the concept of inclusion. This is not just meant as an integration within a structure, but it is meant as an embrace of diversity in its various forms. Embracing diversity should not underestimated. I believe that we, as humans, are ready to give a speedy answer to diversity and say “I am in favor of inclusion of diversity”. What I see around me, most often does not tally with this statement.

The reality which I see around me has a Gramscian flavor – Maltese revel it seems in the Status Quo. I do not want to – I have no right to generalize but I see an incongruence between that what people ‘say’ they want – in relation to Education – and that what people are ‘ready’ to do. I ask – the majority want good Education – Education which has value, not the certificates – to me they are just pieces of useless paper – however is the majority ready to make the step towards valued Education? Do the majority have enough will power to drive the changes that are necessary – because valued Education needs so much more than just a new building, or a new interactive whiteboard or new teachers… valued Education needs a change in mindsets, and this in itself is a huge commitment which starts from government and cascades towards the rest of the society; teachers, parents, administrators, students, employers, and the list goes on. The will of the majority rules: but I wonder – what exactly is the will of the majority in Education?