Tuesday, 7 April 2009

This blog is damaging your brain!

Well, I hope that it's not, but I was very interested to hear Lady Greenfield's concerns about social networking as expressed to the House of Lords recently. There's a summary and just over four minutes of audio here:

I share some of these reservations: the amount of time that our students spend on Facebook is quite terrifying. Concentration spans can be affected, and sometimes students seem unable to deal with reading that isn't delivered in small chunks, in the style of brief updates and short reports. Furthermore, much of their Facebook activity seems to revolve around presenting the appearance of a life full of friends, events and screenloads of personality - even when they may be struggling to keep up with work or puzzle out exactly who they are and what they really want. It is also the case that the facile nature of online 'friendship' can be both more attractive and ultimately less rewarding than the real thing, worked out through all the awkward and immediate interactions of people without a keyboard in front of them.

Yet the assumptions that Greenfield makes seem quite odd to me; some of her concerns spring from a view of society which imagines ideal people and then castigates those who don't live up to it. Most of us respond to the 'immediate pleasure' of activities; we do not always choose to live life on the basis that something might be tedious or unpleasant now but will pay off later. We drink with friends because we're having a good time now; we don't consider tomorrow's hangover until it arrives. We eat the fantastically unhealthy meal at a restaurant now, because we enjoy it; we worry about not fitting into our jeans later. Even reading gives the immediate pleasure of disappearing into the world of the novel, and of finding out what happens: we read on, even if we should really be washing the dishes/doing the laundry/mopping the floor so we can feel good later on about having finished the housework. (And no, I don't want to find out about the princess herself! Really! This is not the point of all reading.) Enjoyment now often takes priority over imagined enjoyment at some point in the future. Greenfield's assumption that normal (or current) human behaviour systematically pays attention to the long-term consequences of our actions is simply unrealistic. Social networking addiction is just another instant pleasure to add to the list. Delayed gratification is a hard-won thing, not something that's built into our automatic responses. I can't see how our brains would need to operate differently to accommodate screen-based immediate reward rather than any other kind.

As for the supposed loss of empathy and loss of identity, this also seems misdirected to me. Much social networking is directed primarily towards telling others how the individual feels, and expressions of support, sympathy and encouragement often seem more easily expressed online. The people I've observed online seem far from losing a sense of 'where they themselves finish and the outside world begins'; rather they are both creating positive identity markers for themselves and shaping spaces for themselves within the online world that interact in various (sometimes very sophisticated) ways with the outside world. A person who has developed an identity online is more aware of who they are, not less. The danger, as I touched on above, is that there is a forced separation between a happy, successful online personality and a 'real-life' person who is isolated and miserable. But this is not what Greenfield seems to be worried about.

Having read this back through, I conclude that I appear to be more positive about social networking than I had previously thought! So there you are: blogging is also a learning experience, helping us to work through what our opinions really are as we put them into writing. And I don't think my brain has changed or rotted just yet.

What to study or how to learn?

Now this is really interesting:

There are things about this that really make me cheer: the suggestion that children would actually learn 'the chronology of history' sounds great - at least if it were to improve upon the current state of affairs. If I have to explain what happened in 1066 one more time... The removal of repetition in the curriculum is also heartily to be welcomed.

On the other hand, I'm somewhat perturbed at the idea that pupils will actually study things like health and wellbeing. Surely this belongs in areas of their lives other than the classroom? It's a little like the suggestion that universities are trying to turn out 'good citizens' - i.e. people who are what the state wants them to be. Universities should be trying to turn out strong, independently-minded individuals who can question and challenge the state on an intellectual basis and help it to continue to develop, change and respond. What else is education for?

As for studying Twitter and Wikipedia, that's actually quite funny; these days the average toddler can probably tweet before s/he can write! I suppose they may be able to help the teachers keep their skills up-to-date, though... For academics, it would mark as utterly futile all our attempts to emphasise the contingency of Wikipedia - and this is a more serious consideration. Web collaboration and shared knowledge is one thing; endlessly open access at a speed and extent beyond what can be constantly monitored and and moderated is another. Perhaps once again the solution is to think differently about learning; what pupils should actually be taught at this early age is how to check and verify information; one source is never enough, and a single claim is never reliable.

Just because you're paranoid...

Having had a lot of discussions about privacy and public spaces online and work/life boundaries, I have to say that the following news did little to allay my suspicious nature when it comes to putting myself on the web:


The theory, of course, is that such government access to social networking sites will only be used to track people who have already done something deserving of suspicion. The problem is that any legislation is only as waterproof and reliable as the government who enforce it.

Perhaps I should just face up to the fact that most of what I do is already recorded in some way or another, and concentrate on taking control of that record; at least we can shape the way we appear online, even if we can't stop others recording it for security/posterity/sheer downright intrusiveness! Hence blogging, I suppose. Hello world, here are my opinions on a few very selective areas: off you go and have a good read. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

MindMeister and Me

So, MindMeister. Part of me (the 'make things look pretty' part) just loves this! Several of my students are mind map users already, and habitually plan their work this way. One even gave a presentation handout as a mind map this term (with key connections in different colour felt tips!), and it could have been very useful if she had been able to provide the seminar group with this electronically and invite us to make our own contributions to it. And she might have spend less time with the felt tips, although a bit of creativity in the good old-fashioned ink-all-over-your-hands way seems just as desirable as online work to me. MindMeister is a bit clunky to use, but presumably the people behind it will be working to make it better if they want the rest of us to find it indispensible. I don't really see it as an end in itself, but I can imagine making a place for it in my life - even if it is only that small space in the corner under the plant stand.

Am I a fussy eater?

Del.icio.us is the area of Web 2.0 that has exercised me most so far. On the one hand, I can see how sharing bookmarks is sensible, efficient, potentially interesting, and creates a network of users effectively finding material for one another. This could be a quick way of directing students to key material, or helping them to model good Web use, thereby improving their own skills. On the other, this fundamentally challenges all my assumptions about the different stages of information gathering in general, and possibly research in particular; the messy, 'looking for stuff' phase has always been to me the stage which everyone else does not see; even when we present 'work-in-progress', the methods and sources which we use are packaged and offered up with a certain amount of 'glamour' (in the old-fashioned sense of the word). What we present as the fruits of our labours inevitably conceals the nuts-and-bolts methods by which we have attained it.

The idea of someone else tracking my progress through the Web by means of my bookmarks makes me feel profoundly uncomfortable - a feeling which was only intensified by the 'example' at the end of our introductory video of the student who acknowledge she was effectively stalking her professors' Web use by following their Del.icio.us accounts. My enjoyment of what the Web offers is grounded in its potential to act as a kind of information playground, where I could end up reading and marking and going back to anything from Old English recipes to online versions of primary texts to sites that make replicas of Anglo-Saxon jewellry! That aspect of 'play' occupies a strange space between professional work and private interest, and that's not a space I particularly wish to share with my students. I don't have any particular answers to how to deal with this; somehow, the reassurance that 'you can make some or all of it private' does not make me feel any better about this! Clearly I have a long way to go before I am fully comfortable in the age of shared information...

Monday, 23 February 2009

On blogging

It's a strange thing, to find myself actually the proud owner/author of a blog as opposed to a comfortably anonymous lurker. I've played the latter role for a long time on various blogs, and now I'm childishly excited to finally have my own. However, now that I have it I think I may have developed the blogger's version of stage fright; it's surprisingly difficult to press the 'publish post' button after tapping away into this composition box. Thankfully the course tasks require me to get on with it, but it still feels rather exposed: it's a little like writing the reflective practice journal I produced for my PGCE, but then presenting it not just to my tutor but to the entire world!

It seems to me that anyone taking this on needs to be absolutely sure what the function of their blog is and why they are producing it. Without a definite purpose, a blog turns into either an inadvisably public virtual bits-and-bobs box, or a cavernous expanse of nothing at all. I can think of a couple of reasons why I might create and continue to contribute to a blog - as a space for creative and reflective activity, as a teaching and learning tool, or even as a kind of meeting place for people with the same interests - but I'd need to create these individually and keep them separate. Unless I timetabled in each update, I think they would all come into the 'infrequently updated' category though!

RSS Feeds and readers

Having spent a week exploring RSS (after spending about a year wondering exactly what that little orange icon actually did), I have mixed feelings about this. One the one hand, I have found some great feeds that allow me to find and explore all sorts of new material; it's the kind of effortless 'keeping in touch' and 'keeping up to date' that I used to dream of. Yet, on the other, it's also like drowning; I now have a constant stream of information coming into my reader, and its ever expanding contents are beginning to make me feel as guilty as unanswered email in my inbox does. I simply don't have time to get through it all, and I find the huge quantities of 'stuff' overwhelming. I would prefer it if what comes in could be more easily organised, and perhaps processed a bit by personal settings on the way in. Anything that would keep Google Reader from looking like a disorganised information dump would be good, really!

I can see how this can really help with subject specific updates in relation to learning and teaching; it would be possible to recommend particularly good sites to students too, and encourage them on the way to the latest on their area. In some situations this could be research-related, and I'm sure that choosing which feeds to pursue and following them on through linked searches and so on could easily be integrated into some kind of explicit EBL environment.
I guess also that if it were set up properly it could be a great way of streaming information through to students; if you had a module or course webpage, this could be a way of ensuring it got to everyone. The downside, of course, would be the necessity for all students to have a regularly checked online identity outside the University system, and I can see all kinds of problems with that, as things are currently set up at least. The University itself, however, could (and probably does!) use RSS for all sorts of things, particularly in disseminating information to potential students, to staff and to the press.

In personal terms, this is another way to get alerts to things which are happening in special interest or hobby areas. The theory (that this means not having to look up sites but having the information brought to you) is fantastic, but again in practice I find the problem is the amount of stuff that comes through. Perhaps I'm supposed to function as my own personal filter, but this seems to me a time-consuming exercise. There is a danger that my Google Reader will cease to be terribly functional for me just because it's so busy to look at, and so full of items all clamouring for my attention. And that's in addition to all these new blogs... Perhaps it helps if you stop sleeping?