Your New Best Friend, Social Networking in the First Year Experience (Part 3)
While I'm numbering these parts 1,2,3, etc., the sections themselves won't be in this order in the actual curriculum, this is just the order in which I'm finishing them. This section is towards the front. Please forgive my process : )
Your comments and critique, as always, are appreciated.
Keeping Up With The Students
Preparing Them for the World of Today
As society gets more connected, and technology gets cheaper, we collectively switch our tools faster. Social networking is just one example of many. Getting to 150 million users took the telephone 89 years. Television reached 150 million users in 38 years. Facebook did it in 5. The problem for Facebook is that the competition will do it in 3.
Back in the good ol' days, schools had to provide phones in the residence halls. Because the school provided it, the school could limit access and control the use. Values could be imposed on to the new tool. When the phone entered the residence halls, Resident Assistants metered usage to prevent overuse or abuse. The schools' values also came bundled with other school provided technologies - computers, email, and software.
Technology was expensive and complicated and this meant limited supply and easy control. Institutions in general and schools in particular became used to the control. Without frenetic competition, purchasing decisions had a more thoughtful pace.
Now, no student needs their college to provide an email - there are hundreds of ways a student can set up a free email account. Many students can afford their own computer, many more can afford cell phones that are increasingly as useful as a laptop computer. With website functions quickly supplanting installed software, students have both access and control of their technology.
A values debate that might lead to learning, about what is useful or appropriate, gets confused with simple fight about control of technology. High schools ban cell phones. Higher education fumes about behaviors it sees as unwarranted risk, unjustified by student benefits that are often dismissed as "not real". Overvaluing control prevents the institution from recognizing other possible institutional values, like connection and mentoring, in the new technology.
Students did not need, or ask for, permission to use Facebook. They simply found it useful. Where it was briefly banned by by a few campuses, students used proxy servers to get to it. This is the same technique monks in Myanmar and protesters in Iran used to get information in and out of the country. Institutions try to control. Mobs grow restless. The internet changes the balance of power.
Like many institutions, Higher Education, on average, has struggled to match the pace of technological change. The challenge then, for schools, is to catch up with the students. To accept the tools so that the school can be back in the business of modeling, teaching, and exploring values.
As technology costs drop, especially with web tools, the primary difficulty is no longer capital or hardware, the difficulty is in updating the ideas of the institution.
The big advantage students have is that they don't have old habits to unlearn. The don't need committees to approve anything. They just use what works for them. They don't have to be convinced to give up the way they used to do it to accept the new way.
It's totally normal to resist change, for individuals, institutions or societies. Especially when the change comes at a cost of lost power and control. Any progress comes with backlash. This pattern is as old as history. At least as old as written history.
Writing, as the technological innovation of its day, had a powerful educator against it: Socrates. Plato quotes him, in Phaedrus, on the terrible effects of writing:
“[It] destroys memory [and] weakens the mind, relieving it of…work that makes it strong. [It] is an inhuman thing.”
The backlash serves a purpose. It can help clarify values. Holding firm to values while changing with the times is not a new dynamic for colleges. Individual colleges will continue to find their rate of change according to their leadership, community and culture. The problem is that the world outside of academia continues to accelerate. Schools now have less time to react and still be relevant.
Socrates had almost 2000 years until Gutenberg's press gave the masses the incredible power of literacy. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, one could still agree with Socrates in practice, be illiterate, and still be successful. Being literate was not a requirement for success, though the educated and literate had a massive advantage. We are in that same position today with technology- schools who can move quickly to blend their values with the possibilities of technology will provide that huge advantage to themselves and their students. Students, as always, need to learn to value learning.
In effort to accelerate the blending of old values and new practices, let me address some of the common objections I hear when talking with administrators, staff and faculty. In general, my explanations will only convince those that want to be convinced. Perhaps that is useful. For those more hesitant, models of instructors successfully encouraging educational values with current technology will be more compelling. We will review those later in this text.
Frequently Posed Objections:
"What about predators and identity theft?" (Students put way too much information online.)
CNN has never run the headline "Today, 200 Million People Logged Into Facebook and Everything Was Fine." Nothing bad happening is not news, so society as a whole does not get a balanced picture of the risk. When a fear compliments a preferred stance (not wanting to change) people are all the more likely to hold on to the disproportionally negative image.
The more banal factual reality is that while online identity theft is a growing cause of identity theft, it is still, according to the FBI's own statistics, the 8th most likely cause. The number one cause of identity theft? A lost wallet. (Stolen mail and roommate theft are number two and three respectively.) Have you ever heard someone say don't carry a wallet because it is too dangerous?
Even though driving is dangerous, we do it because the benefit out weighs the risk. The risk of putting personal information on Facebook, such as class schedules and phone numbers, is outweighed, in the student's mind, by the benefit of finding other people in their class, forming study groups and being reachable.
"Don't students understand that anything that goes online will be there forever? (We need to tell them not to post this stuff.)
Try this: Next time you are in front of a class, ask them to raise their hands if they have a cell phone camera. You will get about 90% of the students with their hands in the air. Soon, they will all have cell phone video cameras that upload right to Youtube. Remember when the idea of "1984" with cameras everywhere and Big Brother watching was scary? That's the world your students live in - except it's not just big brother, it's everyone. Students have little brothers everywhere and they all have cameras that take digital pictures and videos. These images and videos are bound to end up online.
Every human being who has ever grown up has some moment in their life that they would like to leave behind them. Something they wore, something they did, some boyfriend or girlfriend that was an oops. This generation is the most photographed generation ever. Have some sympathy. They will likely end up with multiple photos of multiple moments they would like to forget. These photos will be online and the internet does not forget. As adults, their kids will be able to search those pictures on the future equivalent of Google. Students who care about the future or the their professional image have heard the message that they should worry about the pictures of them online. They know that these photos should be "appropriate." I have heard stories of students spending a whole day going through their 5,000 photos on Facebook, removing their name from any photo that a future employer might not like.
Here's the reality. We are a year or two or so away from searching the internet by photo matching using facial recognition technologies. This technology will allow an employer to upload one photo of a candidate and a search engine would go find all the other publicly available pictures of that person. This is a tangled mess. Most social networks have privacy settings, but what if a friend releases all of their photos publicly and the student is in them? Even the "good" students that did the work of taking their name off of pictures will have problems when those photos are searchable by their face. Society will have to change its expectations.
When this generation of students goes to elect their politicians they will be more willing to forgive unfortunate pictures of college shenanigans. It will be similar to the current, and new, willingness of voters to over look past recreational drug use of our politicians. For the next ten years or so, however, the students will be judged by people who have forgotten their own cringe-inducing moment and didn't have digital cameras to save it for them.
Students have heard "be careful what you put online" but it sounds, to them, a lot like "be careful when you go outside." It's not specific enough.
Those that care, make an effort, but they have to live. They have to be young and explore and try out new identities and make mistakes. When they do, just because of the number of cameras and video cameras around them, that information is likely to end up on Facebook and perhaps the wider internet.
Telling them to be careful is not enough. We can't just tell them to avoid the bad. Hiding in the basement for fear of saying something wrong is not a success strategy. The world has moved to greater levels of transparency and publicness. We must teach students to be public - this is how they will find success. We have to teach students to find, and project, the good in their record; To build, in the words of Joe Uguretz of Macaulay College "a museum of themselves." We'll come back to this.
"What about the "real world"?" (All this technology has robbed students of the ability to interact in person. They are shy and awkward and it's because of video games/Facebook/Text messaging.)
This is a normal generational fear. Past generations thought rock and roll was destroying the youth, making them rebellious and lazy. (Though I was never sure how one could be successful at both.)
Students will interact through the medium and in the language that has the highest social utility. Text messaging and online social networking have huge social utility for the students. That this utility was initially not appreciated, and is still not well understood, by the older generation is hardly a negative. Keeping parents out, and having a separate space, has long been an important function of teen culture and slang. Don't be surprised when your own children refuse to be your friend on Facebook.
Students use Facebook to organize their real world. The hard distinction between a real world and an online world is leftover from the days of video games, bulletin boards, AOL screen names, chat rooms, and early avatars. While certainly these elements still exist in places like Second Life, an immersive virtual world, none of them have anywhere near the pervasive level of adoption Facebook has.
Facebook has been amazingly successful precisely because it an extension the real world. It organizes and filters actual, if often tenuous, relationships.To students today, there is huge overlap between the real world and the online world.
Online relationships feel. Research shows that students get a sense of community from their online relationships, [Elison,et. al 2007] and it doesn't stop there. In orientation groups, students will often organize their own face to face meetings around shared interests, or shared hometowns. Students are comfortable with a wider spectrum of social relationships than previous generations had - they easily encompass online and real world, close friends and distant acquaintances. The previous generation had clean lines between close friends and christmas card friends. That technology has facilitated a wider spectrum, with blurrier lines, does not make the students wrong.
The students networking ability and skills will improve along lines of practice and intentionality. There is much we, as an older generation, can do to help students expand their thinking and increase their intentionality. We jeopardize much of our credibility, however, when we start by dismissing half of their world as something less than real.
"How can someone have 500 friends on Facebook?" (They're obviously not real friends, it's just some sort of popularity contest.)
In social capital theory there are two main categories for relationships: bonding capital and bridging capital. Bonding capital is limited to close friends, usually around three. Bridging capital in the past has been capped at around 150, known as Dunbar's limit. This number comes from Robin Dunbar whose research lead him to believe that 150 people is the carrying capacity of our social memory, after 150 it gets too hard to remember who is dating who. Bonding capital is made up of the people we share secrets with and the shoulders we cry on. Whereas bridging capital is made up of relationships based on things like high school, geography, church affiliations, and random happenstance. Friendships exist on a continuum between very tight bonding capital and very loose bridging capital.
According to Facebook's numbers, the average person on Facebook has 200 "friends," while the number is slightly higher among college students (Source: TechCrunch NDSU 2007 Survey). Because everything that happens online is trackable Facebook has an incredible amount of data and insight into the social capital structures of its users. Based on the research that they've released, it seems that bonding capital has not changed with Facebook use. People still have, on average, three close friends that they interact with substantially more than anyone else in their network. Bridging capital, however, has dramatically changed. With the use of Facebook the carrying capacity for bridging capital has increased allowing the people to easily maintain double, or more, Dunbar's limit.
The concern implicit in the objection that people have "too many friends on Facebook" is that the idea of friendship is being watered down. Facebook is not devaluing friendship. For the sake of simplicity all connections on Facebook are referred to as "friends" but every user maintains their own distinctions between bonding and bridging relationships. Facebook is a power tool for bridging capital. Bridging capital will contain new ideas, new opportunities, and seeds of new relationships to spark growth. 500 "friends" is a lot of positive bridging capital. Facebook makes this possible. The opportunity for the university is to teach students to make the bridging capital development process intentional.
"Are you going to tell me I have to be on Facebook?" (Because I'm too busy / old / bad with technology / professional to do that.)
It is beneficial to be on Facebook to give you some personal experience with the way students communicate in their social world. It's your job as an educator to prepare students to be successful in the world in which they live. Social belonging will be a foundation for their success and Facebook is a common part of that world. If you are between the ages of 30 and 85 there are currently 75 million of your peers on Facebook (and at current growth rates, that number will be 3 times larger by the time you read this). The most important thing to keep in mind as you explore is that you are in control. You determine what you share, who you share it with, and how much time you spend on Facebook.
Think of showing up on Facebook like you're going to a school barbeque. It's not a classroom, let your guard down a little bit. Be authentic. As to friending students on Facebook, the general guideline is to let students request to be your friend rather than the other way around. This is out of respect for the inherently imbalanced power dynamic between the instructor and student.
For the sake of this curriculum supplement, the information to follow will be more approachable if you have the experience of a Facebook account. So if you don't yet have one, set down this book and go to http://www.facebook.com and set one up, it will take you about twelve minutes.