Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Always in MyFace: Social networking becomes a necessity

(the following is part of TESOL 2008 presentation called Teaching Writing in Online and Paper Worlds; it was originally at http://cesl.siuc.edu/teachers/pd/tw5.html. Some of the links may have been compromised by the restoration and are still being worked on)

As I write this, universities are beginning to grasp and live with the consequences of the fact that their students are virtually living on Facebook, or on similar sites that are largely inaccessible to the faculty and administration. Facebook sites are considered virtually a necessity on college campuses (1); many students would find it difficult to go even a few hours without checking in on it. But at the same time it has become omnipresent in the lives of the student community, those who deal with students most directly are only vaguely aware of its importance, of the consequences of its monopolization of their attention, or of the consequences of possible changes in what it does or how it does it.

For example, several students have used the sites to collaborate on homework, and are facing the consequences (see Press 2008 for an example), but in some of these cases it's unclear whether assigments were given in full knowledge that, as each student sat down to his/her computer, in each dorm room or worksite on campus, each was, given internet capabilities, instantly connected, by IM, Facebook and/or Twitter, to any and all of his/her friends, a wide net that would naturally include classmates. Though the teacher would instinctively label this cheating, and assume the intention, there is a possibility that the students came at it from another angle: having collaboration and exchange as a normal state, always having the IM on while studying, checking Facebook every couple of minutes- why would students not mention what was on their mind, or what they were doing, unless given specific instructions not to?

We often forget that this generation has not only grown up being encouraged to collaborate, cooperate and share knowledge, opinions and resources, but it has also been given the tools to make such instant collaboration natural and easy, from any place that has wireless or a port. For me, in college, getting friends to help on homework required a phone call, a trip across campus, or both, and my socialization had taught me what was crossing a line of intention; if this was ok or encouraged, the teacher clearly said so. I'm not sure today's teachers are so explicit. It could be unintentional; I find myself laying out the ground rules of my class as I would expect my own to have been taught; at the same time I hear myself praising the benefits of collaboration, and putting students in groups as if that were the path to learning and enlightenment. Already, I know they are getting mixed messages, and I know I must ask myself: what am I doing to clarify this?

There is more to this than meets the eye, because Facebook, as a medium, is still evolving, and promises to change fast enough to make these words obsolete within weeks, if not months. First, its move into Twitter makes it so essentially people do not have to have Facebook and IM on at the same time; the worlds of chat and blog merge and the lines between them blur. In my environment I am perhaps one of the few who at least knows what Twitter is (2); yet I stand here today saying that this is a major development, or part of one, that will certainly influency your life and that of your students. My prediction is that privacy settings will become a little more complex and nuanced; right now either you're a friend or not, with friends basically having access to virtually everything one does. At the same time universities are rushing to mine the enormous potential of a networking universe with unlimited potential (for example, connecting alumni, friends, present students, and other supporters), parents are asking to "friend" their own minor children; students, on the other hand, are grappling with the consequences of greater public awareness of the medium, greater pressure to "friend" one's friends; greater consequences for burning into the permanent archive of cyberspace, the impulsive slang of one's passing fancies. With the move into Twitter (toward chat), two things become apparent: first, Facebook will become the center of more disputes, disputes over what was said and done, in private sites, but in public and recorded domains. Second, the responsibility to not only have a site, but also manage it, will grow as a complex and difficult one, one that teachers are not only unprepared for, in their own right, but also unprepared to share, teach or even talk about.

By talking steadily to my students about such matters, I have learned some interesting things about their diversity and their values. Some, from countries such as South Korea, which are ahead of the USA technologically, as well as in the interest in gaming and the general participation in online culture, have shared stories of internet harassment that demonstrate that the costs of missteps in such an environment are high (3). Technology has put each and every one of us in a fishbowl; our students have come to understand and adjust to this much faster than the rest of us. Second, use of eBay and similar sites is quite common, but sophistication with reputation systems such as the one eBay has set up is not (4); doing business on the internet, which is virtually inevitable in the modern world, one is just as likely to be stung by a phisher or similar predator, as stung by a reputation system one is unfamiliar with. People are already learning, often the hard way, how high the price is for being even slightly unaware of cultural signs that mark e-mails, for example, as suspicious (5); these are often doubly hard for someone entering a culture from online, where almost all cues are through words and writing, but the normal visual-oral cues we have come to take for granted are entirely missing.

Students by and large accept these changes as environmental. This happens; presumably teachers know nothing about it; one has to find friends and allies to help interpret this reality, and determine, for example, which lotteries are genuine, which websites should be avoided when doing one's homework. One has to scrape the bad movies off of one's Super Wall, in much the same way one would wash graffiti off of one's car, or scrape the last owner's bumper sticker off of its bumper. In terms of language, one has to distinguish informal from formal language; one has to pick up one's reaction times and participate in twitter, IM and similar devices in a new language; but, most urgently, one has to participate in a culture, a society in which much business is done by internet, yet if it's done poorly, sloppily, carelessly or unknowingly, one could pay for life, or, at the very least, pay with real money. Students have lost entire semesters by being tired and forgetting to use quotes; in the same way, it is easy for them to forget that something they take for granted, namely, being in constant contact with friends and family, is entirely incomprehensible to the people who hold such power over their lives.

Thus, a proper orientation to their new culture would include communicating about both the dangers of living so much of their lives online, and the dangers of assuming that everyone else is doing the same, starting with their teachers, director, and authorities who are still making the laws and passing judgement. Make students aware that teachers assume homework is being done alone, or may not make their assumptions clear; make teachers aware that students are potentially in touch with each other every minute, unless explicitly told not to be.

In some ways it is similar to teaching about plagiarism, except that, as a writing teacher, I know what it's like to write, and what it's like to use quotes, or forget to use them; as a teacher, I can easily find and deal with plagiarism, and I realize that part of my job here is simply explanation of different cultural values and expectations. With Facebook and what my students are doing on it, I am at much more of a loss, because I don't experience checking it regularly, routinely sending messages out to many friends at once, or using it as a portal to play games, pass around pictures and songs, or talk about one's day.

Though I have a site, I don't know everything that has been put on my site at any given moment; I haven't watched every movie; I'm not even used to watching movies at the same time I am browsing comments and messages that have been left for me. I have no idea how rude I appear to be, to those who are my "friends" but who wait, often days, for me to reply to anything. In other words, I feel that even I, as one who is perhaps more familiar with Facebook than most of my peers, need a very stern and careful orientation to it, much similar to the one I give my writing students on the first day about doing their own work. And this orientation should be complete and ongoing, and should offer me a lot of slack, as a relative newcomer, who may not have any idea when or how I'm being rude. What I am saying is that the new gulf, that between those who are used to online environments and those who are not, is in many ways far deeper culturally than the one we are used to navigating with students from remote and less developed countries. And we, the uninitiated, or in this case, the less developed, are definitely getting a late start in closing the gap.

So, do we adjust our pedagogy to adapt to students' new environmental possibilities? How do we find out what is going on, and what its consequences are, when we have so little time to explore? It seems to me there are several approaches one could take, aside from ignoring the entire movement, which would be akin to learning or teaching Inuit but avoiding snow, or avoiding anyone who actually used the language in a natural environment.

My approach to Facebook and similar environments that have recently become heavily populated, including nings, Twitter, and even Second Life, is simple. First, if I am convinced that these are more than games, and that understanding them will be important for all of us, then I get as much help as I can understanding them, and allow and encourage students to participate, if they feel that this will be important to them also (invariably they do). They will be quick to identify the issues that await those who enter (7); they will encourage a tour or at least report what happened when they tried; given encouragement, they will find and explore articles about these environments and the rapid developments within them.

The straight print nature of this document will show that, in spite of sounding adventurous with these new platforms, my own mode of writing has not opened up to the extent that others' has; I don't freely put movies and Second Life images on my blog; I'm not thoroughly comfortable with Facebook applications. Yet students have repeatedly, generously and consistently shared their experiences with these new media; there is a general recognition that the world is full of newbies and the uninitiated; we weren't all born with a silver mouse in our hands. How can a busy teacher break down the bonds of internal resistance to new modes of communicating? Same way you learned a language, and expect others to do so. Just get started.

From my limited exposure to Facebook, Twitter, IM and similar media, I can say the following: first, if one is not used to getting information from writing and from movies in the same sitting, or at the same time, one may find that this takes years (8). I do click on movies. But I have yet to make the jump of expecting my audience to click on one that I would, for example, put in my blog. Why would they do that? How much of one's audience comes to one's blog, expecting to find a movie? I find the combining of movie and text to be a maddening aspect of participation in the new media; it makes me wonder if information could be hidden in these movies, with full knowledge that most of us old-timers don't have time to watch a whole You-tube carefully? It also makes me wonder about those who are participating fully in the multimedia sharing culture, well before they have the language or the cultural background to really understand what they are participating in. What happens when you are a participant in such a culture, so early? In many ways I feel like a child, seeing too much of life before I am ready to understand it, yet of course that's why many people are so attracted to these sites virtually every minute. In a world where almost every other movement is becoming more and more controlled (consider the worlds of traffic, smoking, and classroom behavior, all realms which are actually much more controlled today than they were even ten or twenty years ago)- consider the internet a place where the young can be young, be together, find new things, and not be seen by authorities.

And would this not, by itself, be a reason for those of us with authority to learn more about these sites, and what is going on in them?

1. This idea was first suggested to me on a webheads chat, but, upon hearing it, I agreed. As a teacher, I consider my Facebook site entirely optional, but if I were a student, today, knowing what I know now, I would consider it mandatory.

2. Again, though Twitter is riding a wave of popularity, such that people are wondering what "Tweets" are and how this could be applied to classroom pedagogy, tomorrow it will have evolved further; competitors, among them Facebook itself (Jaiku is also similar to Twitter) will move in; tomorrow, this explanation will seem hopelessly dated. For now, Twitter represents a merger of blogging and chat; this is referred to as microblogging; some find it very easy to become absorbed in; others have an aversion to its quickness, its immediate and personal nature, and, finally, the fact that in the internet such "tweets" are recorded in electronic stone, infinitely recoverable, thus capapble of coming back to haunt the "tweeter."

3. My Korean students shared a story of the "dog poop girl," an unfortunate woman who allowed her dog to poop on a subway; was caught on cell-phone camera; was ultimately hounded by an extensive internet community; shamed and humiliated, she was forced to quit university and withdraw from society (Dog poop girl, n.d.).

4. Lankshear and Knobel (2003) were the first to my knowledge to point this out: "People interested in "being (thoroughly) digital" will need to know how to participate efficaciously in reputation systems as these systems become more and more integral to online and ad hoc i-mode communities. This will include tacit agreements to participate actively in the system, taking responsibility for leaving a rating score and feedback comment following each successful transaction or engagement, knowing when to cut one's losses in order to protect one's positive reputation scores, and so on" (par. 58). I had a student complain about being taken by an internet scammer, who had somehow managed to get a bundle of money from the student without actually delivering the goods; I realized that if I heard this from one student, it had probably happened to more than one, and I wondered: is there anything we could do to protect our students (not to mention our children) from this? Could this be covered, say, in an orientation (in a "welcome to the West" speech, presumably).

5. An IT professional at our university was incensed that a phishing e-mail, first, got through the spam filter, and, second, successfully got a handful of people to provide logon and password to the university's server. How could people be so blatantly blind, he stormed in an e-mail, to all of the obvious clues that this was phishing? He went on to list the cues, the first being dubious grammar (one which would never be caught by my students), another being a suspicious sender's URL; I realized, through reading the list, that though I had caught a number of these cues myself, they were thoroughly cultural, i.e. I couldn't expect my students to catch a single one of them. Thus I wondered what percent of that handful, of those the phisher had hauled in, were actually my students, the very ones we had just given a university e-mail address to, with very little instruction on how to handle the kinds of e-mail they could receive on the account.

6. The YouTube Survey student reports and the results can be found in the May 2007 Newstalk weblog archive (http://siucceslnewstalk.blogspot.com/2007_05_01_archive.html); unlike many group projects, in this particular term two entire classes decided to pursue YouTube-related issues; the movies, which were made as a release of steam at the end, demonstrated, to me at least, how easy it was to get students to participate in new media.

7. Those who enter Facebook face the following: What do you do about applications you don't understand? When are you rude to ignore or deny an application or friend? What constitutes vulgarity and is it ever appropriate? Entering Second Life is a little harder for the average student, as it takes up so much computer space, but understanding it and dealing with its issues can also be considered crucial to one's future, or at the very least important to consider, given the general movement of today's emerging technologies. Some obvious issues here: the merit of switching genders with one's avatar; the effects of having an avatar on language learning; the evolution of online worlds like Second Life- with pornography and rudeness as roadblocks, will they fulfill their limitless potential? My thoughts and some articles can be found at my weblog.

8. Dieu and Stevens (2007) offer an example of a genre of writing that offers movies, text, audio recordings and hyperlinks simultaneously, basically demonstrating to the "reader" that really taking in everything the "article" has to offer is going to require opening up to different modes of receiving information in a given sitting. I find myself coming back to the article, wondering if, given time, I could sit down to such an article, participate in all of the ways information is being offered, in the right proportions (if there is such a concept)... are there people who find this easier than I do?


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