Category Archives: social media
Back in October, 1995, a small computer company called Be, Inc. (founded by former Apple executives), released a new computer into the marketplace. This machine was called the BeBox, and from 1995 to 1997, less than 2000 of these computers were produced for developers. The BeBox had a lot of unique features going for it such as dual CPUs, built-in MIDI ports, and something called a GeekPort that allowed hardware experimenters both digital and analog access directly to the system bus. One of my personal favorite features of the BeBox was the pair of “Blinkenlight” stacks on both sides of the front bezel. Functioning like a graphic equalizer, they depicted the real-time load of each of the CPUs in the machine.
But as exciting as the hardware was to computer geeks like me, the real revolution was in the Be Operating System, or the BeOS, as it was called. Written specifically to run on the BeBox hardware, BeOS was optimized for digital media applications, and it actually took full advantage of modern computer hardware with its capabilities of symmetric multiprocessing, true preemptive multitasking, and a 64-bit journaling file system (which for practical purposes meant you could shut off power at any time without going through a shut-down process, and when you turned the machine back on, you would find that your open files were still intact).
BeOS was able to accomplish all sorts of things that Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux could not by shedding nearly all of the legacy “baggage” that the other operating systems continued to carry. The Be team was free to rethink the underlying software systems paradigm at the very deepest levels, and the results were truly astounding to those that saw the BeBox in operation.
The moral of the story is that the greatest transformation is possible when we rethink processes and technologies that have been in place for years, decades, and even generations. This is significant when we think of education, because the majority of our education systems are indeed legacy systems, designed and implemented to facilitate processes that were put into practice over a century ago. Even our “modern” Student Information Systems and Learning Management Systems are limited by the “legacy anchor,” and as a result, we see little true transformation in the teaching and learning space. Education timelines are based on year “blocks” of content, and each block is targeted to a particular age group of student (why is every student of approximately the same age grouped in the same grade?). The foundation of the classroom experience is still the lecture, and with online courses we work to “fit the lecture” into an asynchronous mode. Assessment and evaluation processes are, well, pretty much the same as they have been, only with more variation in execution. Schools and institutions of learning are hardly any different than they were in the 1700s–a group of students go to a building where they meet in a room and work with a single instructor. Even in the online environment, we build virtual analogs to the physical world: a group of students go to a URL where they meet in discussion forums and still work with a single instructor.
What would true transformation look like, given the technologies that are available now? How would we write a new, legacy-free education operating system for the 21st century? Those are two very big questions that could spawn a series of lengthy discussions (and, frankly, I need to write a book about it), but I have a few principles that I would offer up:
- Education should be non-linear from the perspective of time spent on task. That is to say, a concept such as “4th Grade Mathematics” where all 9 year old children are expected to learn the same content over the same amount of time should go away. Little Julie may master fractions and long division in three months while little Stanley may take half a year. At the same time, little Stanley might be happily absorbing 18th century American literature, while little Julie is still working on more basic reading comprehension skills.
- Places of education should be built to meet specific learner needs rather than be built around the same specifications of classroom space, administration space, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and so on. Why does every elementary school look like every other elementary school, and not just across stretches of geography, but across time as well? The elementary school I attended in the 1960s would function with little modification for my daughter who is in elementary school now. Surely learners (at any age group) are not a monolithic group with singular needs, yet we build places of education as though they are.
- Education should offer multiple pathways forward rather than a single path that results in matriculation to the “next grade” or failure and repetition of the previous grade. In the world of computer game design, multiple pathways forward is commonplace, allowing players with various skills to progress according to his or her particular strengths–and in making progress, the player is often able to “circle back” and solve particular challenges that he or she was unable to complete earlier in the game. In the same way, a learner may bypass a particularly challenging content area, yet come back with greater skills acquired in a different “track” better able to solve the original challenge.
- In fact, the idea of “grade levels” is in many respects antithetical to the concept of the lifelong learner. Why measure start points and end points as set dates on a calendar? Rather, education milestones should be set and achieved on a skills-mastery framework, and this process is ongoing for the true lifelong learner. The ramifications of this would be profound on a social level (the singular graduation moment may no longer exist), but from the perspective of personal growth and fulfillment, the benefits could be tremendous, and there will certainly be just as many–if not more–opportunities for celebrations of achievement.
Ultimately, bringing significant transformative change to the education-industrial complex will require rethinking of almost every segment of the teaching and learning process, including the manner in which we engage technologies to support that process. Being willing to discard our legacy baggage will be extremely difficult for many. Yet doing so will be the only way in which we might remix our 21st century technologies of smart devices, mobile connectivity, social media, the Internet, and more into an educational system that meets the diverse needs of our 21st century learners.
After many years as an educator and administrator in elementary education, Martin LaGrow left to pursue several certifications and a career in Information Technology. After a brief stint as a network analyst, he returned to the world of education to focus his newfound enthusiasm for technology on improving residential and online academic delivery as an instructor and now an online faculty manager for Rasmussen College. Martin holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from St. Xavier University.
In the 1990’s, the earliest forms of online education started to take shape as organizations like CALCampus used the World Wide Web to allow students to access training modules. Interaction was minimal—courses consisted of mainly text and often students still needed to submit assignments through the mail. The first online course I took in the late 1990’s was an Algebra course. The college mailed me VHS videotapes to view, and I took a multiple question online test when I was done—nothing in the way of online instruction actually took place in the online course!
As the Internet grew and bandwidth increased, online delivery became more robust and engaging. Text-based lessons are supplemented by video content. Instructors can engage students through chat rooms, live or archived presentations, and even video conferencing. Online education has certainly come a long way, yet remnants of an earlier day remain. Assignments are still largely text-based. Student interaction is often limited to discussion forum posting. Colleges are struggling to find ways to make content more synchronous while still meeting the demands of a largely asynchronous student base. Online instruction, however, is still more influenced by its previous incarnations than it is by how people use the computer today. Even the most advanced learning environments lag far behind social interaction and gaming environments, developmentally speaking. A whole new virtual world has been created around Second Life, for example, which presently boasts over a million users, and there are more focused virtual environments built around various game franchises. In this environment, people can interact, make new friends, shop, play games, and even attend live music performances. But what can’t they do there? Earn credits toward a degree.
According to In-Stat, over $7 billion was spent on virtual goods in online gaming and social networking sites in 2010 (http://www.instat.com/press.asp?ID=2917&sku=IN1004659CM), and the trend continued into 2011. Could there not also be a niche in that market for consumers to spend money on virtual interaction that ultimately yields a tangible reward in the form of a college degree? It’s clear that it’s the increasing desire of today’s computer user to participate in virtual interaction. More and more businesses are finding ways to innovate in this space and cash in on money already flowing freely for virtual products. Why haven’t learning institutions jumped on the bandwagon? With increased competition from for-profit colleges and career training institutions, it may only be a matter of time before the virtual world becomes the next training field for college students. The technology already exists—it’s just a matter of applying it in an academic context. A simulated classroom could be the next evolution of academic delivery and interaction, with the following features already in use in the social media gaming world….
A virtual classroom that LOOKS like a classroom. Online courses are still a venue trademarked by tab and menu browsing within a frame. Today’s student is accustomed to more interactively designed environments. Want to submit an assignment? Click on the teacher’s desk. Want to see a list of videos related to this week’s content? Click on the TV. Want to see this week’s list of assignments? Click on the chalkboard. Want to ask the teacher a question? Leave a note on the door. If designed properly, the classroom can be a much more intuitive environment for even novice computer users who have already figured out how to click to plant crops, feed fish, build a house, visit neighbors, and deliver messages in similar environments.
Avatar based interaction. Virtually every social media environment (and even home gaming systems such as the Wii) offers the ability to create a virtual representation of yourself. In a virtual online classroom, students and instructors can do the same to give a visual manifestation of their presence. Interaction occurs naturally when students encounter their peers in person. Use of avatars extends the opportunity for this kind of interaction online if students can see the presence of other student or the instructor in the room at the same time. Courses that require student posts and interaction can document student interaction for instructors to consider when grading.
An avatar course ‘guide.’ Unlike other avatars in the course, the course guide is a software-based avatar that can remind students of deadlines, point them to new content, and even answer simple questions, taking the place of a searchable FAQ. This gives students the feeling of responsiveness and interaction no matter when they chose to log in to the course. The avatar can even be programmed by the instructor to give certain comments or reminders triggered by student activity.
A common course area for multiple sections. If a college is offering twenty sections of the same course online, the rooms can be linked by a commons area, where avatars from all course students and instructors could have the opportunity to interact. On a larger scale, colleges could even offer a recreation hall, student union, and lecture hall for special presentations available to all students. Offering these areas creates a larger sense of community and a greater likelihood that students will have the opportunity to ask questions and exchange ideas.
The time is ripe for a truly new learning environment. The technology is available; even commonplace. Today’s student uses the Internet differently than any previous generation. The first academic institution to develop a new learning environment that mimics the way people use the Internet today is going to have a substantial competitive advantage in the 21st century education marketplace.
As a regular contributor to Fox 35 News in Orlando on topics related to technology, I often have the opportunity to comment on current events that not only have a direct impact on the “individual consumer,” but also effect those involved (students, faculty, and whole institutions) in the teaching and learning environment. This evening I was interviewed by Sonni Abatta, and I provided some brief commentary on the recent occurrences of cyberjacking that have been spreading on Facebook along with some ways to minimize the risk of becoming one of the victims. (I’ve posted the interview clip on my YouTube channel, and you can see it by clicking on the image below.)
What I wasn’t able to discuss during the interview were the fairly serious implications that this latest hacking activity could have in the long run for colleges and universities. For context, we should be aware of a few statistics:
- Approximately 50% of the U.S. population is on Facebook.
- Over 85% of students in the U.S. have Facebook accounts.
- If we consider all social media, 91% of college faculty use social media as a part of their work.
These three statistics are indicators of the current level of importance of social media plays in the teaching and learning environment, as well as a comparative measure of the penetration gap between higher education and the general population. Clearly, higher education is adopting social media at a faster rate than the general public (perhaps not surprising considering the origins of Facebook). So what are we to understand from Facebook’s latest in a distressingly active string of privacy/security/hacking “challenges”?
To answer this question, it’s necessary to understand the movement by institutions toward making much greater use of social media tools for a variety of purposes: admissions and student recruitment, student communications and outreach, event planning and marketing, and even some movement into the more traditional areas of Learning Management and Student Information Systems. Many institutions see social media as a powerful tool for student and staff engagement–and rightly so, given the widespread use outside of the classroom.
All too often, however, we see stories of social media systems being compromised for a variety of issues ranging from non-secure software to end-user naivete, leading to problems occasionally as mild as user inconvenience, but too often, unfortunately, as severe as loss of personal identity information. Sometimes the issues arise due to software defects, but often there are systemic issues based on end-user behavior that allow exploitation of legitimate software features. It’s difficult to make the case that users should not click on that interesting photo link or video clip, when one of the main reasons for the existence of social media is to share interesting photo links and video clips!
As institutions request and receive software systems that incorporate social media features, they will need assurances that the solutions implemented to serve their populations are secure and free of the types of attacks that Facebook suffers. If not, the integration of social media into education will result in a set of challenges that will largely invalidate any benefits gained.