Technology and Communities in an Ever Shifting Landscape–Or Learning to Think Like a Teenager

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Although I’m not exactly sold on WebEx technology in combination with a face-to-face meeting, I very much enjoyed my time at The Orton Family Foundation on Friday. They asked me great questions and pushed me to think outside my educational arena, which in turn has given me much to consider. It’s heartening to see so many organizations, educational or not, coming to social software–not because they’ve heard it’s the latest greatest thing and they’ve gotta have it, but because the goals of their work lead them to technologies that enhance community building and knowledge sharing. The old goals-before-tools rule. There’s a new openness to the potential of the Web and its emerging technologies to help with essential, critical work inside and between communities of all sorts. I’m delighted for I see all kinds of benefits to education in having the nonprofit world move into the blogosphere in a bigger way than they have–they’ll help push the slow beast, the liberal arts college, towards a new active educational model, one that does not involve students sitting in chairs, ingesting knowledge passively.

What really struck me at Orton was how we are all trying to use the connectivity as well as the visual and audio capabilities of Web technologies, to assist whatever community we serve, and it’s valuable to hang out with people not working directly in education, hearing their thoughts about the Web, about communities, and about collaboration. Bill Shutkin writes in his second blog entry about ” how from community visits to learning networks to creative convenings, we have the learning tools. We need to start using them more.” Indeed–all of these have a place in our schools as well as in his land-use planning world. And John Fox could well be referring to our educational system in his comment:

Planning so often occurs behind closed or barely open doors, through the cumulative tyranny of small, anonymous bureaucratic decisions. We need to put a public face on planning, dump buckets of ice water on the best of them when they succeed and send them for mid-season training when they’re struggling. That might help to create a culture of support, recognition and appreciation around planners – one that’s sorely missing right now.

Stepping outside the college doors has me wanting to see more inter-field collaborative blogging going on a la Crooked Timber and more Blogtalk or Northern Voice kinds of small, fluid discussion-based conferences that pull in people from a variety of fields, or something along the lines of Full Circle. As Bill Shutkin contends,

“It should be standard practice for local officials and citizens’ groups to travel from place to place to meet with others whose planning experiences offer fresh insight and information that can be brought back home.”

Yes, we need to get people together and give them time, and we also need to give them social software tools and training to continue and deepen the discussion, to grow the networks and collaborative knowledge building once they’ve gone home.

But how do people and organizations new to this connected Web work possibly get their heads around not just the tools, but around the daily changes, the new offerings bursting out from every corner? If talented techies like Steve Dembo and Ewan McIntosh are finding it tough to stay abreast of the changes, how does a new blogger know where to turn? Tagging is helpful. Sure. Portals and blogging collectives are good. But in the end we’re all just making it up as we go, learning from each other and our mistakes and experiments. This is what it must feel like to be skiing in a group through a white-out in a place no one else has ever been. This takes a particular willingness not to get it right all the time. Which brings me to teenagers.

Two moments during this weekend really drove it home to me how absolutely second-nature using the Web increasingly is for kids. My nephew, sitting in a traffic jam on a Colorado highway, pulled out his cellphone and called his mother in Massachusetts, asked her to go online to see what was going on further up the road–she did, found out that snow had closed the pass, and relayed the info to her son, who turned around and headed back to Boulder. And then my daughter, lost in the impossible knot of Boston streets, called a friend in Vermont to do a Mapquest search to help her find her way to her destination. Now being kids, neither one thought of doing the research ahead of time, but being kids of today, they knew they could find an answer through their cellphones and friends with computers.

It would never have occurred to me to call someone in either of those situations. But if I could start thinking a little more the way my daughter does, imagine how much more fluid and natural my work with social software tools might be.

And look, too, at how insightful and observant my student bloggers are becoming–Takethe conversation unfolding on Zoey’s latest post with two other Blogging the World Bloggers, for example. She is tackling the issues surrounding her by using her blog while thinking about what use a blog can serve:

“I have decided to make use of this blog as a research tool, a log of observations, a panel for discussion, and feedback. The past months of entries have been scattered and irregular, however the form of expression, which this blog has supported is now helping me gather my thoughts and gear them toward a more specific goal.”

Amaury, too feels the tensions between blogging and living the experience. But he’s back to blogging–there’s something that keeps drawing him in even in spite of himself. Or there’s Megan’s recent post and the outpouring of comments following it, from other students trying to sort out this year. I think these students are closer than I am to living what Roy Ascott outlines In his essay Turning on Technology:

Nowadays, we are more likely to describe this as the telemadic navigation of hypermedia and the net, but the point remains: we are engaged in a new social process. This in turn flows from the new thinking that circulates in, around, and as a consequence of the convergence of computers, communications, and biotechnologies, which is leading to the reinvention of the self, the transformation of the body, and the noetic extension of the mind.

And so as I continue to teach with and think through and converse about emerging technologies with fellow educators and other travelers through the blogosphere, I’ll be sure to keep one eye on my students and my children to remember how much fun and instructive it can be not to know exactly where it is we are going all the time. Being playful, accepting and mindful all at once. Viewing community as those we’re with and those we’re talking to via mobile phones or computers. And questioning, always questioning.


3 Responses

  1. hi Barbara, I’m new to your blog, but digging your approach to teaching writing and literature through blogging, and building learning communities through new Web technologies.
    I’m editing an onlnie ASCD publication on teachers using technology–I’m wondering if you’d be interested in writing a short (600 words) essay on your experiences as a teacher. If so, please email me, and I’ll send more details. My deadlines are Nov 28th and December 9th.
    Laura Varlas
    Asst. Editor

  2. Barbara:

    I am enjoying reading about some of your experiences and perspectives. I’m wondering if you’d consider answering a short survey I am conducting as part of a grad school project, about teenagers, blogging and how it affects their writing. I am including the link in my post.

    Thank you for your time.

  3. Hey Barbara, I’m nodding in agreement about exploring and creating richer events, connections and intersections. I blogged a bit about events today at

    Thanks for your post!

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