It’s never a good idea to approach the unknown with an attitude of fear. It distorts the subject from the outset and almost always results in judgments that emphasize worst-case scenarios rather than what is possible. Such is the case when schools try to figure out how to introduce and/or regulate student behavior on the internet – especially in the case of those websites that fall under the heading of web 2.0. I am talking about websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, etc. The problem is generational or at least the perception that there is a difference between the level of comfort and ability when it comes to maneuvering through the web and understanding specific sites. I say this because most of my students are not aware of the many sites that enhance networking beyond Facebook and MySpace. The other day I conducted a poll among my students and out of 75 only 2 had ever heard of Twitter. I inquired into a few other sites, but the results were pretty much the same. My point is that our assumption that the younger generation is necessarily more web savvy than us is a lot of nonsense.
My school has been dealing with the problem of how to teach students to better utilize web 2.0 technology for the past few years. Much of the discussion stems from utter ignorance of what these sites offer or they are preoccupied with nightmarish stories of suicide associated with Facebook. A few of my colleagues have Facebook pages, but it doesn’t extend much further that that. Part of the problem is that unless you have someone on staff who works with this technology in the classroom and who can explain it to those interested it is a waste of time to talk about it. We recently paid an “expert” to discuss these sites with the entire faculty during one of our workshop days. It turned into a complete waste of time owing to the fact that there was no hands-on time for the faculty and how this technology connects to different subjects. It turned into three hours of, “Look at me and what I can do and what you can’t do.” To me, web 2.0 represents a new way of thinking about your relationship to others as well as how we collect and disseminate information. That necessarily impacts how we think about our roles as teachers. But because it is a process or way of thinking these tools must be introduced and slowly integrated with careful consideration.
Beyond blogging I’ve only become interested in these sites over the past two years and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to utilize this technology in the classroom. It seems to me that networking sites are part of the reality of Thomas Friedman’s “flat world.” It’s here to stay and we better educate our students on how best utilize it so as to allow them to collect valuable information, compete in a global market, and break down barriers that up until recently have seemed to be impenetrable. As a blogger it is easy for me to see the possibilities given that my site has put me in touch with people from around the world. Through continued contact with my readers, and links to other bloggers, I now have access to information that has added significantly to my knowledge of a whole host of topics.
How we utilize these tools in the classroom must be decided by each instructor. The challenge for me has been to figure out how these tools can enhance what I already do and what works. Nothing that I’ve experimented with has yet to supplant my basic approach of utilizing primary sources and encouraging classroom discussion. It is convenient, however, to be able to Skype with an expert in a given field right in the classroom or collect information via RSS Feeds or search for photographs in Flickr via tags.
Until we start to see these sites as tools that can enhance our lives as well as our students we are not going to be able to talk intelligently about it. More importantly, we would have missed the boat on introducing these valuable tools to our students. It’s not about what students will do, but about what they can do.