Sunday, December 30, 2012

Google+ for Education Preview

I've advocated explicit teaching of social media skills for around 2 years now, and I've had a couple of opportunities to speak on the subject. One thing I have realized is that when it comes to social media instruction, lecture is a severely inadequate method of directing students towards more positive behaviors.

This year I had cause to investigate some problematic uses of social media by students at my school. Without going into any detail, let's just say the behaviors were typical of teens acting without adult supervision. That of course means, that the students viewed Twitter and Facebook as their little adult-free conversation space which they were freely using while they were in class.

Amazingly, after I made it clear to our students that someone was paying attention to their Twitter conversations, most of the worst behavior ceased immediately. Of course students continue to use Twitter when they should be working, and some of their language is not for polite, public conversation, but just letting the students know they are being watched by someone other than their friends, did make a difference.

There are many lessons to be learned from this experience. Here are the top 4 I would like to address:
  1. Students primarily use social media as a means of trying to impress their friends, often with an attitude that does not match their in-person, school persona.
  2. Students clearly need adult correction and role-models if they are to use social media in a professional and productive way
  3. Merely telling students how to behave in cyberspace is completely worthless, as all students in the school received 1 or 2 lectures on the subject in the first months of the school year.
  4. Blocking social Web sites is completely ineffective and most likely interferes with educators actually doing something to help students behave in a positive way online
Shortly after forming these conclusions, Google made available its Google+ for Education to its school customers on a trial, preview basis. I am fortunate that work for a New Tech Network school that uses Google Applications and  immediately jumped at the opportunity to launch the preview.

I briefly considered the downside before doing this. Some schools ban teachers contacting students via social media because it may lead to improper relationships. Would Google+ lead to boundary issues? Secondly, perhaps Google+ would be just another distraction that will negatively effect students attention to academic tasks. Lastly, there isn't much time for staff development to fully train the teachers. How would this work out without training.

With regards to the first potential objection....our school already has a Gmail domain that allows for frequent student-teacher contact. If there are no problems with email, there isn't likely to be any with a social network. 

As far as an academic distraction, that's a very valid concern. However, by following students I can clearly see which ones are spending too much time on Google+, whereas on Twitter and Facebook, I have no easy way of doing so. Indeed, I noticed a couple students that were getting a little carried away with posting to Google+, but the good news is that their postings were completely acceptable and often very humorous and interesting. Also, I was able to talk to these students, both commending them for their interesting posts that I actually enjoyed and telling them gently that school comes first and to post a few times a day instead of 30-40 times a time. This was a net positive in my view, since the students responded well to my compliment and correction.

Now the real problem with implementing Google+ education is of course its adoption by teachers, staff and students. Teachers generally have enough to do without learning yet another technology tool. It's difficult to squeeze in something that is not directly related to curriculum. Also, the students are busy as well and have plenty of online tools at their disposal. What is their incentive to join Google+?

I believe Google+ is a worthwhile initiative and here are my 5 reasons:
  1. Google+ is a terrific technology with much to recommend it. It combines the best of Twitter, Skype and Facebook in one. Hangouts in particular of many instructional uses. These great features are the attraction to get teachers and students on board.
  2. With an education domain, it creates a safe place to practice and learn social networking skills without everything visible to the outside world as the settings are controlled by a local administrator (me).
  3. I believe very strongly that students need adult role-models in social media and a Google+ domain for school allows teachers and staff to be those role models for students.
  4. Google+ is a  fun way of learning more about students and building school community
  5.  By providing Google+ service separate from the students personal accounts on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, it creates a place for students to practice professional and academic uses of social media in a 'school space.' Nothing will help students more than giving them the opportunity to practice professional, 'adult' social networking behaviors.
In conclusion, just by turning on Google+ Preview, I've already seen enough positives to justify the service, and virtually no negatives. Adoption is slower than I would like to see, but I'm working to add more teachers to the mix by highlighting uses for Google+ that they would likely find beneficial. I've started to see students complaining about teachers inviting them to circles. That's a good thing! It reminds me of when parents started to join social networks and then kids had to find better ways of acting online. Even if they sneak around on other social networks beyond the view of adults, I do believe that mature adult presence on social networks is a net positive. If we as educators make a conscious and concerted effort to reach and teach students using Google+ we'll all be better for the effort.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

New Year's Resolution-Information Diet

I've read a lot of books and articles about the effects of information technology on the brain and society.  The ones that stand out for me are: Is Google Making Us Stupid by Nicholas Carr, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold and the most recent one I've read Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay Johnson. 

I found Carr's argument compelling because I have long believed that deep knowledge of content is important and that deep learning is discouraged in the information age. I've watched Students apply their Google skills to nearly every academic task without learning anything and this unfortunate habit has taken over higher education and the professional workplace as well, a point made in the Golden Globe nominated movie, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

With Rheingold, I found his book incredibly challenging and comprehensive. I took pages of notes with the intention of developing some instructional units on various chapters. Um, well, I haven't gotten very far on that project, which may have something to do with the points made by Clay Johnson in his book. 

Johnson's point is encapsulated in the metaphor about diet. Over-consumption of food makes us fat. Over-consumption of information makes us stupid and unproductive. A variety of nutritious foods is necessary to keep the body healthy, the way a variety of information sources of high quality will keep the brain healthy. Junk food and junk information are both equally addictive and must be avoided. It's a message I certainly took more personally than Carr and Rheingold. I'm definitely guilty of information over-consumption and I certainly need to curtail my over-indulgence in consumption and focus more on production, that is writing and activities that help build communities and relationships. Of course if I succeed in doing that, I'm contributing to this problem in others! 

Currently, I have 4 email accounts, a Facebook account, two Google+ accounts (one for work and one for persona) and I'm responsible for 2 Twitter accounts. Additionally, I spend anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour reading news articles about world events which I have absolutely no control over. With the Smartphone, iPad laptop and desktop computer time combined I probably spend between 1 hour and 3 just reading over feeds and I'm not including the time I spend communicating the other direction.  That time, being spread out through the day does not equal the total cost of information over-consumption. It takes time to switch tasks and focus on productive activities. Therefore, I should wonder how it is I get anything done! 

The other main challenge of Johnson's information is to avoid the echo chambers of opinion's that are in sync with our own. Confirmation bias has left most people blind to different perspectives and hindered the quest for accurate information, aka the Truth. Since reading the book over month ago, I've definitely avoiding the time-sucking pitfalls of reading opinions and analyses that I'm inclined to agree with and actively sought out fresh perspectives that actually challenge my thinking. That's the reason I still subscribe to National Geographic in print. It's one of the last mainstream publications with an editorial policy not entirely decimated and dominated by political or commercial interests. When I read this good old magazine I know my horizons will be broadened each month. The reason I don't read it on the iPad is because of the many other distracting information sources available with a single-touch that don't conform to the high standards of National Geographic.

In our era of vicious partisan disagreements, where otherwise good people can't seem to find common ground and solve problems, I think Clay Johnson's little book would do a lot of people and our beloved Democratic Republic a lot of good! The author himself is a former political operative that had an epiphany and learned the importance of living outside of the bubble that the Internet creates for so many users.

In the school library world, we no longer have great influence via the non-fiction materials we select as students mostly take to the Internet for their answers. Our primary concern has to be teaching habits of mind that help young people cultivate the ability to manage time, consider other perspectives and see past the petty, partisan propaganda that seems to dominate our media universe. As educators, its highly important we start with ourselves, and I appreciate Clay Johnson for coming forward to present the Information Diet, which is a great framework for starting conversations with colleagues, students and fellow citizens of all persuasions.

In the new year, I resolve to refine my information diet, and urge you to do the same. Make 2013 a great year!