Weighing it up

I often tweet about the perils of educational technology and there are a lot of people out there that do it better than me. Ben Williamson, Audrey Watters, dana boyd and Neil Selwyn to name a few. I also understand that it looks contradictory for me to use social media in my research on one hand and madly critique it on the other. It makes me look like a massive walking contradiction. That I don’t care about. In fact, I believe in contradictory points of view and shall explore that further in a future post.

Cassandra1.jpegFor now I want to show how I weigh up my usage of social media and my Cassandra complex about information technology. When teaching Geography I guide my students to use a decision making matrix that helps them weigh up the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of a decision they need to make. This process means it is very easy to sit in two camps because something that is great socially may suck environmentally. It’s the knowing and declaring that is important. Not cutting out the variables to make a case for my particular point of view.

So I read the above mentioned people and have drawn my own conclusions. My ideas may not be representative of the authors but they are 100% representative of me and my experience of social media. It is weighing these things up that allows me to be contradictory.

The following is not definitive and I welcome comments, critique and additions. The one thing I notice is that the stuff I like seems to be all about me. The stuff that makes me uncomfortable is not about me.

Social stuff I like

  • I’m a terrible letter writer and Facebook has alleviated that guilt about keeping in touch with my family. In fact, my family is now on tap to help out in anything. All I have to do is post a problem and someone either has a solution or offers a phone call.
  • I have met some excellent people on social media.
  • I can honestly say that I could not have been the teacher or researcher I am without social media. PhD and academic mums got me through my PhD with some form of sanity. Bloggers and tweeters challenge and extend my ideas. Teachers support and empower me. None of this would have happened without Twitter because I wrote my PhD in a lonely windowless room. I seriously thought I was the only person in the world that worked, raised children and was writing a thesis part-time. That is not the usual identity of the PhD students on campus. It was so nice to know I was not alone.
  • I have been involved in grassroots community actions that have been underscored by social media. They have brought a community together that has been struggling with unity in a way letter box dropping in a society that wants both connection and the six foot fences with drive in garages.
  • Apps are far better for engaging my kids than television. Apps require active engagement.
  • My handwriting is atrocious once I go beyond 500 words because I was never taught to hold my pen correctly. I also never learned to touch type. Computers are awesome and don’t hurt my hand. Now I have an SSD hard drive, they don’t hurt my lap.
  • There is always some meme that makes me feel better.

Social stuff that scares me

  • There is an assumption that the Internet is the solution to society’s inequalities. If every child could have an iPad then the world would be a more equitable place. You do not have to go far to realise that technology is also a major source of society’s ills. Are we to simply ignore the way YouTube is being used by terrorist organisations? With connectivity comes responsibility. With ubiquity should come discussions about the ethical ramifications of that reality.
  • And the reality is that owning the device does not mean there is a connection, if owning the device is possible at all. The device needs the information super highway or it’s just a glorified Commodore 64 (if the games were loaded before leaving a hot spot). I have written of this at more length here.
  • There is nothing value free about coding. It is not a form of thinking that ensures everything is fair and square. Nothing is a-theoretical. The code is an extension of the programmer and the programmer has a value system. As dana boyd so aptly put:

“In a world of public accountability, where police are punished for not knowing someone was a risk before they shoot up a church, many feel obliged to follow the recommendations for fear of reprisal. This is how racism gets built into the structures of our systems. And civic tech is implicated in this. I don’t care what your politics are. If you’re building a data-driven system and you’re not actively seeking to combat prejudice, you’re building a discriminatory system.”

Economic stuff I like

  • $9 per month for Netflix is awesome in a society where going out to the movies requires a second mortgage before paying the babysitter.
  • I can go to international conferences via a hashtag.
  • I know social media well enough for it to be appealing on a CV [until everyone catches on…].

Economic stuff that makes me uncomfortable

  • Nothing in the online world is free. If it is, you are the commodity.
  • A Bring Your Own Device program in a school allows funding to be funneled into other things. Schools in higher socioeconomic regions can expect students to bring their own devices; schools in lower SE regions cannot – they need to buy the devices. The gap between rich and poor widens.
  • Every time I go on the Twitter timeline I feel like I’ve walked into an education convention. Everyone is selling. Ideas, strategies, “what works”, their [hashtag] brand. Education, the great social right, is being commodified, without people even realising they are doing it. The uptake of social media in education is in an interesting place. Social media is new enough in education to still allow for “experts” but old enough for it to no longer be creepy. People want in and they need someone to show them how. Hence careers get built on social media.
  • People have a real heart for education and happen upon a strategy that they think will lead to a change in the profession. “Teachers have low morale. Lets create a hashtag where teachers can celebrate their wins!” That’s awesome, but what begins to happen is the hashtag slowly becomes the focus rather than the intention that birthed it in the first place. This is probably because someone’s career is hanging on the success of the brand that carries their expertise. The thing is, this position of expertise will be short-lived because eventually everyone will know how social media works and be “savvy”. When I was teaching Geography “back in the day” I used to teach students to use Acrview GIS. The software package pretty much removed the need for colouring in and drawing maps freehand in the classroom. We sold Geography to students because they would learn this software program. It was so complicated, there was a strong need for experts in the software. Taking Geography, we said, would give them a niche skill that everyone in need of a map was clamouring for. Then GPS and Google Map happened and the skill became largely redundant because the skill became less clunky and more streamlined. More public friendly. This time will come in social media. Building a career on it is not sustainable.

Environmental stuff I like

  • I have less paperwork lying around.
  • I can work from home and not use petrol to get to and from work which means I also don’t use disposable coffee cups (because I never remember the reusable). I’ve actually stopped using the pod machine at work because I lay awake at night thinking about the packaging. I hate packaging.

Environmental stuff I would prefer not to know but can’t unknow

  • The “cloud” is a myth. It is a massive server that requires massive amounts of electricity to run. HUGE! And we now have a law that demands we keep all the data hanging around for years. What a massive waste of resources. This is nowhere near sustainable. People who are writing code are considering how well the program will suit their consumer, not whether the code is environmentally sound.
  • Furthermore, the infrastructure that is needed to run the Internet is/should be a part of environmental town planning, subject to the same laws that requires a sky rise developer to jump through hoops. What, pray tell, is the environmental impact of rolling out the National Broadband Scheme versus Wireless upgrades? Have we had that conversation in Australian politics?

Political stuff I like

  • Social media has enabled the public to directly interact with their political representatives. Whether useful or not, the madness of social media is being given serious attention by politicians. It holds them accountable and enables the sharing of hilarious cat memes.
  • Social media has the potential to show the impact of an idea and speed up political and cultural change. Politicians want to see impact to fund research. Now we are being asked to show how research has impact in the more immediate future. All the conversations and signs are pointing to social media being a part of showing that impact through metric that take into account how many times a paper is shared on social media and how often blog posts and online media pieces are engaged with. In fact, when I won my current fellowship  a post in The Conversation (as well as lots of hard work) was taken into consideration. As the policy agenda is populist, academics are being forced to engage with the population outside of their ivory tower. This can only be a good thing. Locking knowledge away from the general population is undemocratic. The population should have the ability to access all information on an issue, not just the information that is fed to them piecemeal by politicians and public intellectuals.

Political stuff that concerns me

  • Social media is a bubble. I remember my friends being devastated when Tony Abbott was elected because they were positive the tide was against him – the people they followed on social media were so anti-Abbott, it was inconceivable there could be another point of view. My social media told me Scotland would leave the United Kingdom and that David Cameron had no hope. I thought Bernie Sanders might have a chance at nomination for US presidency. I am now terrified at the prospect of a Trump presidency because my social media bubble is a terrible predictor. Likewise, Britain leaving the EU looks possible. I repeat. Social media is a bubble.
  • Social media is a key player in a political “innovation” agenda that is just smoke and mirrors. Politicians want to see impact to fund research. Research can take years to show real impact and that’s how it is supposed to be. Political and cultural change takes generations, but it gets there. Now we are being asked to show how research has impact in the more immediate future. All the conversations and signs are pointing to social media being a part of showing that impact through metric that take into account how many times a paper is shared on social media and blog posts and online media pieces are engaged with. This has accelerated the process of academia which to truly have impact needs a lot of thought and processing. No one gets it right straight away. Policy change is a life work.

One thought on “Weighing it up

  1. Your post reminded me of the discussions I have with students about the impacts and consequences of technologies, which used to be explicitly listed in the curriculum in Queensland. Teaching students the various ways that technologies of all kinds can advance or limit different groups of people, places, etc, is critical. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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