My great grandmother was a member of an online community. Well, maybe not of the type we have today, but one built around those party lines that ran through the telephone exchange in the “old days”. A party line, which enabled a group telephone call, connected people who didn’t have physical access to each other. Sure, the reception wasn’t all that great and the community was a relatively small one, but the benefits were similar to those gained today through membership of web-based communities. Party line participants could share ideas, ask advice and catch up on what was happening beyond their four walls. No doubt for my great grandmother stuck out there in fairly remote outback Queensland in the early 1900s, her online community was a valued part of her life… and so is mine.
My professional world revolves strongly around online communities. Whilst I’m blessed to work in a team environment where I have colleagues for support and advice, it’s not always easy to find a mutual time where we can sit down uninterrupted and talk things through. Also, I think the more we work together, the more we tend to think the same, and the more we tend to only half-listen to what each other is saying–sounds like we’re married!! Consequently, we lose the “diversity of opinions” that George Siemens (2005) advocates is so necessary for knowledge creation and learning. Instead of the sparks of creativity being fanned by collective discourse, they often flicker feebly and die through lack of fuel.
To add fuel to my fire I’m having an extra-marital affair with Twitter**(apologies to my colleagues, I hope they’ll forgive me). I rely heavily on my virtual tribe to challenge my thinking and, on a practical level, provide me with great tips, tricks and tools to enhance my professional knowledge and skills.
At a basic level, Twitter functions as my virtual help-desk. I can throw out a “How To” question at virtually any time and someone, somewhere is sure to help me out. It’s also my virtual library where professional readings are shared–no subscription needed! And what is more, these articles often come within the context of a blog post that allows for a discussion of the piece.
And then there’s the functionality of Twitter as a virtual news desk. If I want to pick up breaking news, then Twitter delivers via words, images and videos from many sources (which of course raises the issue of the validity of the info). Interestingly, in the wake of Boston bombings yesterday, there was a segment on Today Tonight, The pros and cons of social media, that reported the way in which social media have changed the face of news reporting. Of particular interest were the comments surrounding the ability of social media to bypass censorship by the Fourth Estate.
Whilst my access to the above functions of Twitter is self-determined–I interact when it suits–I also use Twitter more formally as a virtual classroom by participating in organised, subject-specific Twitter chats. These chats are held at scheduled times and are usually scaffolded around a number of predetermined questions or topics. One person usually moderates the discussion to keep it focused. Two of my favourite chats are #ozengchat and #PhDchat. If I can’t make the chat, it’s easy enough to track the discussion by a search on the chat hashtag. Check out this list of weekly chat times compiled by @thomascmurray and @cevans5095 (we need the Australian version of this).
I like to leave my professional and personal footprints on different paths… it makes life easier if I’m using my social media with students and colleagues. So while Twitter is my preferred weapon of instruction, I use Facebook primarily to keep in touch with family and friends (although I have created a second FB account to use professionally for the PLN course). I find Facebook’s layout makes it more suited as a journal or photo album in which to record memories. That’s not to say I wouldn’t use Facebook in the classroom… if only I could! Despite,however, the wonderful suggestions from David Herstein in How schools can use Facebook to build an online community, many schools, including my own, continue to block student access to social media.
And that prompts me to climb onto my soapbox! The minute we “ban” students from something/anything, we’re sending a message that we don’t value it as a teaching and learning tool. We’re also being condescending by signalling that we don’t think our students are mature enough to decide (or learn) what qualifies as appropriate use and what doesn’t. Well that’s easily fixed! Let’s give them the keys and some driving lessons so that they don’t crash their social media! Let students be social media “learners” in the safety of the classroom, where a driving instructor can help them learn the rules, navigate the twists and turns, and interact appropriately with other drivers. There’ll probably be some minor dings, but chances are driver training will help students avoid the high speed social media crashes which can cause permanent injury.
** My Twitter name is @dilaycock