Facebook turned 14 on February 4, 2018. And the controversies continue unabated. But there’s one aspect of Facebook that should not be lost in all the noise: the extraordinary change it has brought about in how we connect, communicate, consume and share content – in the classroom, as well as in other spaces.
Putting the words “Facebook” and “learning” together may seem like an oxymoron. But my research has delved into the role Facebook has played in shaping how the new generation consumes and shares content. Understanding this is pivotal to understanding how we should be using technology to teach in the digital age. Quite simply, Facebook has changed the way that children learn.
How students learn
That’s what I’ve discovered through my research, which used a cyber-ethnography approach to try and determine how students are learning in our modern digital age. This involved essentially “living” with students while they connected, communicated, and learned in a Facebook space.
I spent an entire semester watching and interacting with students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa as they used a Facebook page as their primary learning portal. The students were given admin access to the space. This meant they could determine how the space was used: who had access to it, how it was designed, what was posted on the page, and even the level of anonymity of their posts.
This provided me with an opportunity to watch the students learn, unfettered from traditional learning constraints. However, it would take a while for the students to fully explore their learning within this new space. Initially the students would often attempt to defer to me and my guidance. Only after I repeatedly refused to control their learning experience did they begin to behave in a self-oraganising way and allow me to observe their “natural” learning patterns.
The research revealed that Facebook provided students with a series of learning affordances. Affordances are “can do” oppportunies, some intentional and others unintentional, that technology spaces provide. In this instance the research revealed that the affordances at play were accessibility, connection, communication, control and construction. These affordances provide valuable insights into how students learn in digital spaces.
Once I understood this, I could turn my attention to the key need: developing ways of teaching, called pedagogies, that are appropriate for the digital age. Currently the focus on technology – the what, has distracted us from pedagogy: the how. Without understanding how best to apply these new technologies’ affordances, educators will not be able to effectively impact teaching in the modern classroom.
However, providing educators with a list of “how tos” isn’t much use without a system that makes the list easy to implement. As Dan Schwartz, dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, says:
Activating the classroom
That’s where the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) model comes in. I developed this model in a bid to create a taxonomy of teaching and learning for 21st century classrooms. A taxonomy is an ordered arrangement of items. One of the most famous of these is Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking. The ACT model attempts to provide a taxonomy of digital-age teaching approaches.
The ACT model consists of five digital-age pedagogies that seek to maximise the affordances of technology, modern students’ approaches to learning and the development of key 21st century skills such as creativity, problem solving, curiosity, critical thinking, etc.
The focus is a shift from passive ways of teaching (consumption) to active approaches (curation, conversation, correction, creation and chaos). This aligns with research that shows children are spending more than half their online time actively engaging: creating content, getting involved in “interactive consumption” and communicating.
Ignoring the tectonic shifts taking place in our classrooms is not the solution. Simply dropping technology into our classrooms is not the solution. Simply training teachers to use computers is not the solution. As British author and education expert Sir Ken Robinson has said, we need a paradigm shift, but it’s more than that - we need a pedagogy shift.
The young teen, Facebook, has changed how we connect and learn. But, as the OECD pointed out in its global study about educational technology: “If we want students to become smarter than a smartphone, we need to think harder about the pedagogies we are using to teach them. Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.”
“Speak your mind” and “post your mind” are not the same thing. A study that investigated how messages containing different emotions spread across social networks found that “anger is more influential than other emotions like joy, which indicates that angry tweets can spread quickly and broadly in the network”.
So why do such posts persist? My research suggests that the answer lies with three issues: the accessibility of technology, the spaces it provides for communication that isn’t face to face, and how this is skewing our ideas of connection.
But all is not lost: there are some basic rules you can apply that make sure you stay out of trouble and that you get the most out of social media.
The Facebook factor
With 1.8 billion users, Facebook has had a huge impact on how people connect, communicate and consume content. It was recently blamed for influencing the outcome of the US elections by facilitating the spread of fake news.
Facebook wasn’t designed to spread fake news – but this is an unintentional consequence of the environment. Understanding such consequences – what are known as “affordances” – is key to helping us better leverage technology for learning and to mitigate its risks.
In my research I explored the affordances of Facebook on student interaction and learning. An affordance is a “can do” opportunity of something, whether intentionally designed or unintentionally possible.
From this I developed the Actant-Activity Affordance model. It identifies five key affordances that interact in a competing set of tensions in online spaces: accessibility, communication, connection, control and construction.
Accessibility, communication and connection are especially relevant when it comes to understanding why so many people vent their spleen on social media.
Accessibility, in my model, is the ability to access online spaces through multiple devices, in multiple places, at any time. This often results in “spur-of-the-moment” posts.
In the pre-technology era a person wanting to vent their anger would have to find the local newspaper’s address, write the letter, and then post it. This cooling down gap does not exist with technology.
New technologies with their ubiquitous access have changed us, largely without us realising it, from passive content consumers to active content producers. Many people have readily assimilated the benefits of permanent access to a publishing platform but haven’t been as quick to realise the responsibilities that come with our new role as content publishers.
Communication: no warm bodies
Technology now offers innumerable opportunities to both express ourselves and get exposure for our opinions. However, there are important differences between fireside chats and online posts.
Social presence theory teaches that “text based messages deprive computer mediated communication users of the sense that other warm bodies are jointly involved in the interaction”. Physical presence often tempers what people say, while the existence of a spatial gap between the poster and their online audience emboldens people to express themselves.
It’s natural to want to talk about how we feel. While some people may talk to friends, others resort to writing a private journal. However, the danger comes when online channels are falsely believed to be the “modern equivalent of writing a journal”.
Online channels are a convenient space for expression. But they come with another aspect of the communication affordance: exposure. A journal is private and can be discarded. Online posts are both permanent and public. Posting online is not the modern equivalent of writing a journal. It’s the modern equivalent of writing a letter to the editor.
Conflating the real world and online
The connection affordance, described in my model, relates to the opportunities that technology affords to develop connections between members of online spaces. In my experiment, students were given administrator status on a Facebook page. An unintentional affordance of this was that they could mask their identity when posting, which emboldened some to become more positively engaged in online class discussions.
However, a more subtle danger of connecting online, is the avatar syndrome; the conflation of real and online personas. People assume their online identities to a greater or lesser extent. This can be consciously, as in the case of role playing games, or subconsciously through our choice of profile pictures, photos and the content we choose to share about ourselves in social media spaces.
This avatar syndrome inevitably results in people making comments and sharing content that can have serious real world consequences.
How to stay out of the news and jail
Technology provides exciting opportunities to enhance how we teach and learn. In the coming years it’ll be important to keep educating school kids about the dangers of these new technologies. Here are some simple guidelines to remember when using social media, whatever your age.
Before you post it online, use the SPACE to THINK approach.
SPACE – Take these steps:
THINK – Ask yourself these questions:
Being a little more thoughtful and circumspect about your social media presence will improve the experience for everyone. Think like a publisher – because in this brave new world, that’s exactly what we’ve all become.
As the summer holidays draw near in many parts of the world, parents shouldn’t be surprised if kids choose to fill their days with technology. After all, teens and tweens are now spending more hours on their devices – iPads, phones and computers – than they are asleep.
In the same way that some food is healthy and some has no nutritional benefits, some apps are low in mental fibre. Based on my own research into how students learn with technology, here’s a guide to getting rid of “junk” apps and ensuring your tweens and teens develop healthy tech habits both in term time and during the school holidays.
From passive to active
The key lies in shifting kids from using apps that make them passive content consumers to those where they are active content producers. Encouraging the use of activating apps can help children to develop a wide range of 21st century skills like collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.
Before I look at apps that will actively engage kids during school holidays, here are the “apps” you should immediately delete from their lives.
Once these “apps” are deleted, here’s a selection of apps that will not only engage your kids, but help them develop important skills. I’ve selected a few iOS, Android, and Web-based apps (accessible through a browser on any device). The full list is available here. I’ve grouped these according to the skills they will develop.
Curation: Curation apps help kids to develop key skills such as reading, categorising and organising.
Conversation: There’s a shift from learning through content consumption to learning through conversation around content in online spaces. Conversation-based apps provide opportunities to debate, discuss and enrich relationships.
Correction: Research shows that one of the most effective ways to learn is through mistakes. Technology allows us to easily experiment, make mistakes and learn through correction.
Creation: Creating content develops key skills such as logic, creative thinking and problem solving.
Chaos: Learning to make sense of too much information, missing information, and conflicting information is a skill children increasingly need to develop in our content-excessive world.
No matter which apps your kids choose, it’s important to keep track of their use. Research suggests that screen time should be limited, whether young users are consuming “junk” apps or learning while they swipe. OurPact is a great tool to automate this process. It allows parents to set usage schedules or turn off a device at any time.
Computers began reaching the business world during the 1980s. Companies used them to automate many routine manual tasks. This led to what economist Robert Solow dubbed the Productivity Paradox. In 1987, he famously quipped: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”
The problem Solow had identified was that while computers could automate manual processes, real productivity gains would only be experienced when technology was actively used to reinvent business processes.
The best businesses soon realised that computers were not just a tool to improve efficiencies but to redesign business processes. This sort of thinking has given rise to many modern innovative businesses like Twitter, Uber and Airbnb.
Now schools are falling into the same trap as businesses did 30 years ago. They are focusing on the wrong objective when it comes to using technology in their classrooms.
The wrong objective
I recently came across a newsletter written to headmasters of schools around South Africa. It began by posing a question:
On face value this seems like a good question to ask. But it contains two dangerous flaws. The first is that visible “improved…outcomes” is presented as the main reason for using technology. The second is assuming that the relationship is just between “technology” and “improved learning”.
The writer, from an organisation representing school leadership, went on to list the advantages of using educational technology, using phrases and words like, “Time is freed up”, “convenience”, “ease of handling”, “efficient way of collecting and storing information” and “immediate access”. These phrases point to the underlying perspective that many teachers have about the goal of technology in the classroom. It is seen as a means to improve classroom efficiency.
This perspective also pervades students' perceptions. A research project just completed by one of my Masters students, which we hope to publish soon, found that 92% of students listed technology providing “improved access to information” as a key reason for using it for learning.
Stuck in the industrial age
While businesses might be excused for initially adopting an efficiency objective when it comes to technology, schools cannot. This objective has already been shown to be ineffective for businesses. More importantly though, efficiencies – unlike for business – should not be the objective of successful teaching.
British educationist and author Sir Ken Robinson has famously called on schools to abandon the efficiency-driven, industrial paradigm.
Schools have lauded the rise of a new era in education that celebrates diversity, opportunities and innovation. However, most are actually using technology to reinforce these same industrial approaches rather than revolutionising the classroom.
Pursuing efficiencies to get students through more content, faster and with less effort, is the wrong objective. The focus should be on effective rather than efficient teaching. Technology is not just about computerising existing processes – it is about rethinking ways to teach and learn.
The missing pedagogy
The second flaw in the letter-writer’s question is the mistaken assumption that technology is the only factor that has an impact on learning. This makes the serious mistake of ignoring pedagogy, or ways of teaching.
There is a framework that sets out how this can be avoided. The TPACK model argues that there are three key elements for effective teaching with technology - Technology, Pedagogy And Content Knowledge. Teachers know their subject content and increasingly know how to use technology. However, without the “glue” of an appropriate pedagogy or method, technology can’t be effective in teaching content.
But many schools seem to assume that the technology vendors whose solutions they’ve implemented will be their teaching guides. It’s rather ironic to have teachers led by technologists! Other schools simply ignore teaching approaches, assuming by handing out iPads effective learning will spontaneously take place - leading to some spectacular failures.
The key to effective technology-based teaching is effective technology teaching approaches. Simply copy-pasting traditional approaches is ineffective. This is confirmed by research that I completed recently, which found that digital teaching methods must revolve around active learning approaches to bear fruit.
A digital pedagogy
Technology affords opportunities to move from traditional passive consumption learning to active approaches. These include curating content, engaging in conversation and developing content through iterative cycles of correction.
Such approaches form the basis of what I call the @CTIVATED Classroom model, which is designed to support those who are teaching with technology.
The letter I quoted from earlier concluded that, “Staff must be taught to use the technology.” Only part of this is correct: they must be taught how to teach with the technology. If this is ignored, educational technology will entrench the very approaches we were trying to change.
Craig Blewett, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Universities are a “thousand-year-old industry on the cusp of profound change”. That’s according to a study that explored Australia’s higher education landscape four years ago. One warning from the report rings true far beyond Australia and all the way around the world:
Warning shots are ringing out across the world. But how many academics are actually paying attention? In my experience as a lecturer at a South African university, we continue to placate the two denizens of academia – teaching and research – in the same way we always have. Teaching remains focused on instruction and content reproduction, while most research never makes it beyond journals.
If we continue to teach in outdated ways, we will increasingly lose touch with our students. Equally, if we continue to closet our findings in traditional journals, we may find our hard work increasingly eclipsed by research organisations that use new media to effectively share their findings.
Lots of attention is being given to new ways of teaching. The great news is that there are also exciting new publishing opportunities springing up.
The right to write
On May 12 2015 I published my first article with The Conversation Africa. One year and ten articles later, I’ve started to view my “right to write” in a totally different way. For more than 20 years as an academic, writing has been more of a duty than a need – let alone a right. Productivity units must be met. Papers must be written and published in approved journals. Even the joy of writing for conferences, which can generate spirited discussion, has been removed. Conference presentations don’t contribute much to one’s chance of promotion.
Of course there is great merit in writing for journals. These have been one of the primary stores of human knowledge, and their peer review process foregrounds credible research – most of the time. They teach academics how to write carefully argued pieces, and the best ones hold us to high standards of quality.
Pragmatically, they also pay. Individual academics and their institutions earn money for each article that’s published in certain accredited journals.
However, the money associated with such journals has created an entire industry that flies counter to a world where sharing knowledge is seen as the right thing to do. Journals are being accused of using the free services of academics to write and the free services of reviewers to edit. They then charge exorbitant prices so that the very same academics can’t even access their own content.
But traditional journals are no longer the be-all and end-all. At least, they shouldn’t be. Open-access journals, blogs, wikis, professional Facebook pages and YouTube channels offer academics a range of exciting, different ways to share their research. These spaces come with a range of benefits.
New media means new benefits
The first of these is the far quicker turnaround time. One of academics’ abiding frustrations with the current publishing process is how long it takes for articles to see the light of day. Research shows that it takes, on average, between nine and 18 months (and sometimes longer) from submission to publication. Writing for new media spaces means that research can be shared within hours or days, opening up the opportunity for discussion, debate and dissent far more quickly.
Your reach is far greater in new media spaces. Some studies estimate that the average journal article is read entirely by only ten people. Tools like Google Analytics can help academics to track their readership in new media spaces. Some sites, like The Conversation, have their own metrics systems – from this, I know that each of my articles is read on average 4,000 times.
Greater reach leads to far greater exposure. This can take the form of comments from academics around the world, invitations to collaborate, and TV and radio interviews. This takes academic research far beyond conferences and journals. I’ve discussed my work on different platforms, including international newspapers, and have been drawn into several local and international research collaborations. Isn’t that sort of work the point of publishing?
New media spaces can also be less intimidating for young, inexperienced academics than established journals are. Getting used to writing, finding your own voice and presenting your work on a public platform is all good practice for journal writing. Universities often offer programmes designed to help young academics develop and strengthen their writing, and these are useful tools as well.
Finally, new media spaces offer a valuable opportunity for feedback, conversation and even correction. They’re not about getting it perfect upfront – they’re about learning, arguing and altering. This encourages the kind of dialogue and idea sharing that any academic should value.
Stepping out of our academic closet
Change isn’t coming to academia – it’s here. And the one thing you don’t do in the path of an avalanche is stand still. The privilege of just talking about new teaching approaches and new publishing opportunities has passed. If academics don’t make bold moves to change how we use new platforms and technologies, we ourselves are at risk of becoming irrelevant.
Schools must get the basics right before splashing out on technologyCraig Blewett, University of KwaZulu-Natal
For years, schools and education experts have debated whether technology belongs in the classroom. Now the discussion has shifted and even schools that had thus far resisted the educational tech revolution are being swept into what’s become a multi-billion-dollar market.
The question now isn’t whether technology has a place in schools, but which devices would work best: laptops, tablets, smartphones or something else entirely? However, maybe it’s not the device that schools should be preoccupied with – but rather how students use them to learn.
Leaning back or leaning forward
The “lean back” vs “lean forward” model was originally developed by Danish academic Jakob Nielsen in 2008. It considers the position people use when engaging with technology and the impact this has on its use.
For example, when I grab a laptop I naturally want to sit at a desk. This is lean-forward device usage. When I use my iPhone or iPad I am more likely to do so while sitting on a chair – lean-back device usage.
Using a lean-forward device typically leads to greater brain activity. This is associated with skim reading, searching and content creation. But it also shortens users' attention spans.
Lean-back devices, on the other hand, encourage deeper reading and consumption of content, particularly during “dead time” when the user is commuting or waiting.
One of the problems that’s arisen from this shift is the phenomenon of “second screen” syndrome. This sees people simultaneously using their smartphones or tablets while watching TV. From a learning perspective, this practice is resulting in shorter attention spans and increased cognitive load.
While Nielsen’s model is useful, it predates the rise in the past five years of smartphones and tablets. As such it doesn’t consider other potentially important aspects, especially when it comes to education. A newer model may hold the answers for schools.
A new way of thinking about learning
Craig Will, a cognitive psychologist working for Cognitive Research & Design Corporation in California, has proposed what he calls the Mind:Engagement model.
Will maps activity and absorption. The middle area of this graphic is dominated by consumption. The upper right quadrant, which would be considered the goal of educators – high activity and high absorption – is where students are using their devices for search, curation and communication. In other words, activity.
Educators should be focusing on that upper right quadrant. It’s also where educational technology marketers ought to concentrate, too.
This is because it’s not the device – the mode of consumption – that matters. Instead, it’s how that device is put to use in a classroom. As my research has found, schools tend to simply replicate old consumption based approaches with new technology devices.
And so blackboards have become smartboards, books have become ebooks, and teachers have become YouTube videos. Approaches grounded in consumption are simply receiving a new silicon coating. What is needed are methods that encourage active engagement in the classroom, not passive content consumption. So which device is doing this best?
What’s the next big thing?
The rapid rise in tablets has prompted predictions that tablets will take over the classroom. But those analysts who favoured lean-back devices such as tablets over lean-forward devices have been surprised.
A recent report revealed that Google’s Chromebook makes up half of US classroom devices. Chromebooks – also called Netbooks – are lightweight laptops that have little onboard storage. Most of their applications and data reside on the web.
Has this shift arisen from the highly publicised failure of a massive school iPad program in the US? Or is it an organic move by schools from consumption-based approaches to more activated classrooms?
Whatever the reasons, technology giant Apple has already taken note, as indicated by the recent entry of the iPad Pro into the market. This new device, which combines a larger screen size plus an optional keyboard and pen, is clearly targeted at both content consumption and content production. That’s everything from the middle to the top right quadrant of the Mind:Engagement model.
Early reports suggest that the iPad Pro is already eroding Chromebooks' dominance in US classrooms.
Don’t get distracted
These developments suggest that blogger Jason Saltmarsh was right when he warned Huffington Post readers to:
I would add that when it comes to education technology, it’s important to focus on the education – not on the technology. Train teachers rather than choosing devices. It’s when we consider how technology is used that schools will have the best chance at transforming their classrooms.
My son Joshua (10) wants to know what it would cost to build a bridge between South Africa and Australia. That’s the third question in the last ten minutes. “I dunno,” I confess, and he replies: “But how much do you think?” I direct him to Google.
There’s just no getting away from young children’s questions. They are naturally inquisitive.
In my university lectures, it’s a different story. Wrapping up, I ask: “Right class, any questions?” Thirty silent seconds pass. “There must be a question. Anything?” More silence, and then a hand goes up. The student asks: “Umm, will this stuff be in the exam?”
That’s not the type of probing question I was hoping for. Children’s insatiable curiosity and search for new knowledge is getting lost somewhere along the way. Where have we mislaid the art of the question?
Seek and ye shall … get impatient?
More and more, children are being told to shut up, take notes and do well in tests. Participation is discouraged. This attitude follows them to university: former Yale professor William Deresiewicz complains in his book Excellent Sheep that “curiosity is dead”.
Deresiewicz believes that even elite schools are simply manufacturing students: they’re smart, they’re driven – but they have no intellectual curiosity. They don’t ask questions.
Former maths teacher and tech guru Dan Meyer agrees. Modern students are “impatient with things that don’t resolve quickly”, says Meyer. He explains:
There’s a strange paradox at work here. We live in an era where information is more freely available and easily accessible than ever before. Learning has, broadly speaking, evolved in three stages. First, knowledge resided in books or was held by experts. Students had to “knock” – to go looking – to find the answers. Then came Google, and with it students learned to “seek” because it was right there at their fingertips.
With the advent of Facebook and other social networks, we’ve entered the era of “ask”. Knowledge resides in the minds of the network, so students can just throw out a question on their Facebook page: “Hey guys, how would you answer this question that our professor set?”
My PhD research traced the impact of this shift by exploring student learning on Facebook. Students don’t read lengthy documents – like academic papers – any longer. They don’t go hunting for answers. They just put a question out to their network, sit back and wait for the answers to come their way.
There’s the paradox: in the online world, asking is ubiquitous. But offline, in spaces like the lecture theatre, asking questions is a dying art.
The quest for the question
There are several ways in which teachers and parents can instil a love of questions that will last a lifetime. Take my son’s bridge question. “Josh,” I say, “that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer but it would be fascinating to find out. I wonder if anyone has ever thought about it? Why don’t you Google it and see what you can find?”
Now the kicker: “And while you’re searching, see if you can figure out what material would have to be used”. He looks at me for a moment, replies "OK”, grabs his phone and starts tapping away. We’re starting with one question and one answer – then going in search of more.
This building curiosity floods the brain with dopamine, which gives kids a positive push to learn and know more.
One recent study suggests that teaching children philosophy and guiding them through questions that lead to more questions has a positive impact on their progress with maths and reading.
For university students – like my silent class – one process of using questions to stimulate critical thinking and idea generation that works well is the Socratic method. This provides a space in class for questions, debates and for students to challenge their teachers and each other – respectfully.
In a research paper about the method, Sharon Jumper says that Socratic discussions are:
This technique is being applied well by a number of websites that flatten traditional classroom power structures. The sites try to encourage learning through questioning. Socrative, for instance, turns learning into a game: students compete through questions and answers.
Other sites like Socratic use gamification and also encourage students to put questions to the online community which has gathered there to learn. This sows the seeds of discussion – and paves the way for more questions.
Technology is a powerful way to get children and students asking questions. Researchers have found that widely available tools like WhatsApp can be used to encourage questions. Even the shyest person can be emboldened to use the messaging service rather than sticking their hand up in front of classmates.
In a world full of questions desperately needing answers, isn’t it high time that we reignited the dying art of asking questions?
Dr. Craig Blewett is the author and founder of the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) approach. He helps schools and universities around the world towards the effective use of educational technology.
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