How does social media educate? – iDC wrap up

Here is my summary of this month’s discussion at the iDC forum. The archive of the discussion can be found here.


It’s time to wrap up this discussion on the question of ‘How does social media educate?’ I would like to thank everyone who contributed to it, even by lurking! As the moderator, the one responsible for reading everything and trying to engage all opinions, I am thankful because I probably benefited the most from these exchanges. At the same time, I want to apologize if I somehow failed to fulfill my duties responsibly.

Below I offer a summary of some of the main themes I took away from the discussion.

What is social about social media?

The conversation started by questioning the term ‘social media’ itself, and wondering what the word ‘social’ is supposed to be telling us if all media is, by definition, already a social construct. Perhaps the redundancy is a good reminder that the assumptions behind the word ‘social’ are precisely what we should be dissecting. As Latour says in his book Reassembling the social, those who treat the social as a black box “have simply confused what they should explain with the explanation. They begin with society or other social aggregates, whereas one should end with them” (p. 8). In other words, one should not take the word ‘social’ as something no longer in need of explanation. When looking at various instances of the application of sociable web media in education, we need to take these social aggregates as points of departure, as what needs to be explained in the first place.

The goal, then, is to trace the interactions of humans and technologies as they go about redefining the social, inventing new forms of sociality. Just as the concept of ‘virtual reality’ (with its own set of assumptions, contradictions and delusions) helped us to question what was real, ‘social media’ should help us question what is social, how the social is being put together in the world of education.

The politics of networked participation

Interpreting the meaning of new social assemblages is not a neutral exercise that can be accomplished by means of scientific inquiry exclusively. We rely on ideologies and metanarratives to explain the impact of new media on society. Throughout this discussion, there was much debate about which framework is best suited to explain new social assemblages. There was even some arguing over which assemblages (corporate, independent, etc.) are more worthy of analysis!

One side seems to espouse a Lyotard-influenced framework that sees the increasing role that digital media play in our societies as solidifying the spread of a capitalist culture that commodifies *knowledge* by transforming it into *information* that can be easily exchanged and consumed. To us, the educational applications of sociable web media should not be analyzed without considering the ethical implications of capitalism and a market economy. This is not to say that the architectures of participation that social media engenders cannot present an authentic challenge to the dynamics of the market, even right in the middle of corporate-controlled platforms. But to fail to acknowledge the context from which these technologies emerge can only result in incomplete analyses.

Learning 2.0 – Opportunities and challenges

Depending on how it is applied, social media can be a site for a liberatory or an oppressive education. As educators and learners, we need to be aware of our own practices, simultaneously teaching and learning ‘with’ and ‘against’ social media. Simply embracing new technologies or taking for granted the pedagogical assumptions behind the new ‘Youniversity’ is not enough. The fact is that we live in a world where education is not a ‘good’ distributed equitably or always for the benefit of the learner, and some applications of social media will continue this trend. Increasingly, the ‘public’ education system is being used to separate the unproductive members of society (the ones that need to be ‘managed’ by the growing private incarceration business) from the productive ones (the ones who demonstrate compliance and aptitude for jobs in the service industry). The kinds of social media applications the latter are more likely to see will probably be in alignment with the needs of a control society:

“In disciplinary societies you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while in control societies you never finish anything… school is replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It’s the surest way of turning education into a business.” (Deleuze (1995), Negotiations, p. 179)

This definitely puts a sinister spin on ‘life-long’ learning. The ‘constant student’ is not one who engages in an ongoing perfection of the self, but one who is constantly assessed according to the performance standards of a service economy. Social media can be used to ensure that education for the constant student becomes something that can be delivered anytime and anywhere, and which –more importantly– can be used to monitor performance throughout the ‘learning’ life of the individual.

Daily Kos: They Hate us for Our Freedom (the Assessment Movement in Higher Ed)

Social media literacy

For a long time, educational technologists have put their faith in technology as a way to change education, and even the world. Access to the technology is seen as the magical solution that will end disparity:

Web 2.0 can benefit the world’s poor – SciDev.Net

Unfortunately, for the reasons discussed above and during this whole month, access is not enough, and narratives of bridging the ‘digital divide’ do not help us better understand how digital technologies such as sociable web media contribute to the commodification of education.

The work of a new generation of educators and learners shows us that social media can be used to promote positive change in the world. This work demonstrates that the issue is not universal access, but rather the strategies through which those who benefit from access to social media are able to transform those benefits into benefits for the greater society, extending the value of social media beyond the privileged minorities that have access to it.

And so I end by recapitulating some of the skills I mentioned earlier in the discussion that I think we need to develop as part of a critical literacy of social media:

  • The ability to articulate the difference between open (FLOSS) and proprietary social media platforms (including how to tell when the former mutates into the latter, and what to do about it).
  • The ability to determine when it’s appropriate to use open (FLOSS) or proprietary social media platforms to promote social change with maximum effect.
  • The ability to understand the social agency of code of a particular technology, i.e., how the program promotes, constricts or redefines social functions through its affordances.
  • The ability to identify the benefits of contributing to a social media environment that operates as a gift economy versus a market economy (including the ability to identify social media environments that operate as both simultaneously).
  • The ability to articulate in personal terms how networked participation is changing the relationship with one’s local environment, and be able to calculate tradeoffs and assume responsibility for one’s choices.

I hope you can help us continue to refine these, within or outside of the iDC forum.


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