Thursday, September 9, 2010

Beyond Knowledge

As an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, Michael Wesch says he has a “front row seat" from which to explore and watch the effects of new media on society and culture, and for the past three-and-a-half years, Wesch has been inviting his students to help him analyze the vast social media community.

After trawling through mega-gigs of YouTube content, watching hours of videos and posting videos of their own, Wesch says, he and his students “are finding that the same conditions of ease and anonymity that enable people to get snarky online" can also encourage them to participate in meaningful and collaborative new projects. In fact, says Wesch, YouTube and other social media can mitigate the cultural tension between teens’ conflicting needs for independence and community by offering them “connection without constraints.” What looks like narcissism and individuality is actually a search for identity and recognition, Wesch told PopTech goers last fall. “In a society that doesn’t automatically grant identity and recognition, you have to create your own.”

Wesch says he’s hopeful that social media will ease the “narcissistic disengagement” of many young people and encourage them to be more politically and civically engaged. Already, he says, some heroes have emerged—including the anonymous YouTube character who filmed himself giving hugs to strangers in the streets, and One World, the person who wore a Guy Fox mask and used his anonymity as a platform for collaboration, asking people to write messages on the palms of their hands and to hold them up to their Webcams for sharing. Millions of people shared this way, mostly about the need to love one another and to look beyond themselves.

“When I’m using a Webcam,” Wesch explains, “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to it. When you’re Twittering, you’re not talking to me, you’re talking to it. Or when I’m on Facebook, I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to it.” The point, says Wesch: When communicating face-to-face, people bring many different versions of themselves into a conversation based on the context of that conversation. “But when you’re sitting in front of a camera, or twittering to hundreds if not thousands of people in a community who you cannot see and who cannot see you, you don’t know who you are talking to or when or in what context, and so [communication via social media is] forcing a kind of context collapse—a deeper level of self-awareness not present in simple, everyday conversation. People can get deeply self-reflective on YouTube and confessional…and reveal things they would otherwise refuse to reveal, even to their family and close friends.”

In talks to PopTech and around the country, Wesch has been urging journalists, business developers and social media specialists to start thinking of YouTube and other forms of social media as “a new kind of public sphere” where new types of conversations and forms of communication can occur. “We have an opportunity, on YouTube and with other social media, to create a whole new groundwork for the way conversations work – and for the way education works, as well,” Wesch says.

I caught up with Wesch last week to find out what he’s been up to since his talk last fall in Camden for PopTech. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation, re-posted from PopTech's blog with permission:

At PopTech last fall, you shared some very moving and humorous examples of the many ways social media are changing the ways we consider each other, altering both what we're willing to communicate and to recognize in ourselves. "If our media are changing, then our conversations are changing," you said. "And if our conversations are changing, then so, too, are our communities -- and ourselves." What new insights have you been getting from your research?

WESCH: Since PopTech last fall, I have shifted into activist mode. One of the things I am doing is launching a crusade for new media literacy at all levels of education, which largely stems from what you might call the ‘dark side’ idea that I didn’t really get into during my PopTech presentation — yet it strikes me that we’re sort of on this razor’s edge right now, where we have these great possibilities before us but also are facing some downsides. Social media provide great opportunities for new forms of transparency, openness and connection. But they also provide new ways to isolate ourselves, and new ways to deceive each other – as well enable new forms of surveillance and control. Our schools right now are failing in this regard by framing most of what they’re teaching in an old media model. Even while they may embrace technology in the classroom – they bring in computers and so forth – their pedagogy hasn’t really caught up. Since last fall, I’ve been traveling all around, talking to teachers and hearing from people involved in education at all levels. I’m trying to get a more sophisticated media literacy into the curriculum.

In your travels, when you speak to these teachers and educators about the need for more new media literacy, what kind of feedback are you getting?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. It could be that I’m talking to people who have been converted to this view already. [laughter].

But the thing I keep hearing at faculty meetings and at brainstorming sessions, all the time, is that as educators we need to increase students’ critical thinking skills. Critical thinking has been the rallying cry now for three or more decades, but I’m concerned about that being our top goal. I think critical thinking is really important. In an “information society” we need a critical filter for all the information coming at us. But increasingly we are not just an “information society” and in this new media world, where we can create our own media and connect with people in increasingly new ways, we should be preparing our students to understand how they can leverage these new technologies – not just to be critical but also to be creative. And furthermore, they need to understand how new media – any new medium – mediates relationships and shapes our conversations by shaping what can be said, how it can be said, who can say it, who can hear it, and so on. Every medium opens up new possibilities and creates new challenges and problems. Students need this sort of media literacy — and not just to be more effective in the world in terms of a career, but also, ultimately, to really use social media as engaged global citizens trying to shape a better world.

So how does one make that happen?

Anya Kamenetz, the author of DIY-U, who you interviewed recently for PopTech, is finding solutions outside the institution. I admire those solutions, but as someone who works on the inside of an institution, I’m also interested in solutions that leverage the institutions we already have. For example, there is certainly no other place in rural Kansas — where I’m at — where you can get 23,000 people together who are dedicated to improving themselves. It seems to me that you can really leverage that. Even if you disagree with the way the institution is set up, you can at least leverage the fact that there are 23,000 people who have taken time off from their lives to learn something there. So I’m advocating that we start bending those existing structures of education a little bit. The one thing I’m trying to do is to get faculty to take the institutional structures that are around them a little bit less seriously. I’m saying, ‘Don’t take the walls as barriers. Instead, just open up.’ The basic model to me for doing that is to simply start any class with a real problem to solve – a problem you don’t know the answer to but that is highly relevant to the world. It can be a real research problem or it can be a real practical problem in the real world. Then just go at it with your students, and you naturally become a learner right alongside your students. All the institutional structures around you either become tools or become irrelevant. Certain structures will be supportive and you can use them; everything else you can ignore because you are just engaged in this real and relevant problem. I set up almost all of my classes like this. It increases motivation and engagement, and we find ourselves practicing all the things we need to have practice in order to create students who will, ultimately, be able to harness and leverage these new media tools, because you can’t help but recognize the usefulness of some of these new media tools when you start engaging real and relevant problems with large groups of people.

There’s a new nonprofit venture called Startl that’s backed by some of the world’s best-known foundations, including Gates, and which is entirely focused on finding and funding education entrepreneurs who will challenge the system as we’ve known it. Startl’s founder, Phoenix Wang, refers to what she calls “the powerful pressure that tech brings to many of nation’s outmoded schools” but she also says there’s a Web-spurred cultural shift going on that additionally must be addressed. “There’s a whole new generation of kids,” she told Anya Kaminetz in a February Fast Company interview, “who expect that they should be able to have control over how they learn, what they learn, and where they learn. They’re not just consumers, but co-creators and collaborators. They can share/mashup/remix knowledge.” Isn’t this what you’re grappling with, as well?

I have to admit I hesitate to agree with any statement that begins “a whole new generation …” especially when they are identifying this generation as “co-creators and collaborators.” As I see it, this generation has been given a great technological gift through new media to * potentially * be co-creators and collaborators, and that they “might” share/mashup/remix knowledge but the vast majority of them are not. New media may make it appear fairly easy to co-create and collaborate, but the reality is that while these things may be technologically easy it remains very difficult to create something of true value and to collaborate with others effectively. So we need to create learning environments where collaborative problem-solving is the core practice.

It is not just this generation that wants to learn what, how, and when they want to. We are all like that, and we always have been. One of the problems with institutionalized education is that teachers are more or less forced to move through a particular bunch of content that is supposed to be covered in any given course. Educators become a slave to the content, racing through it to make sure they cover everything. But if, instead, we start with a real problem that is relevant to the educational content we want to explore, we end up covering all the content we are supposed to, but this time we cover it in a more meaningful way. And we don’t just cover it. It’s not about ‘covering’ it. The content becomes a pool of insights. All of our “subjects” – psychology, anthropology, sociology, and so on – they’re all disciplines that offer pools of insights from which to draw when you’re approaching a real problem.

If students don’t follow a real problem – and you just run your class like a typical survey course – the class then just becomes an exercise in memorization, and the students forget the content two months after the course is over. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner refer to this as the “vaccination theory” of education. You hear students talking all the time, for example, saying that they took a biology class and therefore, don’t need to take biology ever again. This is part of a larger culture in higher education and in all of education, where the learning has been disconnected from real life and therefore becomes a game — something students just try to get past. A lot of the ills of education can be traced to this, everything from cheating to disengagement.

I have to admit I really value the face-to-face classroom experience, augmented with the right online tools & collaboration. When my students and I start working problems together, we start to develop – like any team – our own vocabulary and our own ways of interacting. And because of that, it becomes harder and harder to collaborate effectively with other people spread out around the world. Sure, we still collaborate with people around the world on our projects, but they’re not in on it in the same way as those students who are sitting around the table with me. So I’m still on the edges of figuring out if we’re doing this right – getting the right mix of in-person and online.

There are people out there like Stephen Downes and George Siemens who have ran open online courses with 2,000 people who may never see each other. Their idea has been that that if we can just get a lot of really smart people together online, then they can educate themselves and grade themselves. There are some really interesting possibilities there. But (as I’m sure they would agree) I still think these face-to-face classrooms can be a really important part of the mix. I think there’s a time for closing the door and doing the old school thing, with physical walls, so that students can have a chance to open themselves up and feel a little more vulnerable. Students learn more easily when they’re not afraid to be vulnerable. It’s harder to let yourself be vulnerable when you’re doing everything out in the open.

In your recent talks at conferences around the country recently, you’ve cited the tension between two contradictory but still-prevalent views of the impact of media on society. On one side, there’s the late Marshall McLuhan, who said we live in this world of instant replay, where our actions can be captured on film or video and replayed repeatedly, affording us a deeper level of understanding. On the other side, there’s Kenneth Gergen and the late Neil Postman, who talked about “the saturated self” – a self so saturated and overwhelmed by media that there’s actually no space left for reflection. How does this intellectual tension inform your thinking today about the classroom experience?

I can’t say with any confidence which trend is winning out in our culture. I think, instead, that it’s more the case that both trends are there, existing sort of simultaneously, and we’re just living in a space that contains both – a space in which it’s possible to become more self-aware through new media but also just as likely to become overwhelmed and saturated, and easy to lose track of any form of reflection. It’s really easy to live on surfaces these days.

Again, for me it comes back to the realization that new media have great potential, but that this potential can work negatively or positively. That’s why new media literacy is so important right now, and why we need to reshape education.

My courses and my teaching are organized around this idea that large parts of our educational system have been based mostly on creating students who are very knowledgeable and know a lot of material. Many of our classrooms are set up as “information dumps” and clearly send the message that transferring information from the head of the sage on the stage to the student is the primary goal.

Being knowledgeable is important, but I’m trying to add two more important pieces to that. First is the ability to communicate well with others – to listen as well as to speak to others in multiple media forms. And then the other piece of it is empathy, which I think we’ve really lost for a long time. It hasn’t really been part of the classroom experience, and that’s where face-to-face interaction can be so powerful. With face-to-face learning, you can be in a place where the door is closed, you’re sharing a place with others, working as a team and having to understand others and respect them. All of which sort of forces you into a more empathetic environment. So when you look at these three things together – communication, empathy and knowledge – it’s actually the case that no single one of these can grow very far without the other ones also growing. The better you communicate, the more your knowledge base grows and the more you’re able to imagine your way into another person’s perspective. That’s the empathy piece. And so it also goes that the more empathetic you are, the better you communicate and the more you’re listening and sharing your ideas with others – and gaining knowledge.

These things all have to be part of the classroom, but for too long we’ve just really focused on the knowledge piece. It’s time to create a more holistic learning environment, to provide opportunities for students to get all three things – knowledge, empathy and communication – so we can all work to become smarter, wiser, more empathetic people who can harness and leverage the potentials of new media to co-create a better world.

(Photo of Mike Wesch, above, By Kris Krug for PopTech on Flickr)

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