In the book Teaching Crowds, Dron and Anderson unpack the different ways that people gather within online spaces. To do so, they focus on three key modes of learning:
- Groups: Distinct entities independent of membership, groups are structured around formal lines of authority. An example are the various learning management systems. Organised hierarchically, they do not allow for cross-system dissemination.
- Networks: Based on individual connections, networks evolve through interactions. Examples of such spaces are social network platforms, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. These spaces create the means easily sharing and connecting with others.
- Sets: Bound together by a commonality, with sets there are no expectations of personal engagement. Some examples of sets are social interest sites, such as Pinterest. Both of which provide means of easily finding similar ideas.
Our civic infrastructure and social contract are crumbling. We all know that education has a crucial role to play in a healthy democracy. Yet, what I want you to take away from my talk today is that building and knitting the social fabric connecting your students is as important as the material you teach. You have the power to construct social networks in a healthy way. And those of you who build tools have the ability to enable such connections through your design decisions. Ignoring this won’t make it go away, but it may help our country fall apart. My ask of you today is to take this need seriously and strategize ways to knit the social fabric collaboratively.
Beyond interests, we look for people who are like us because this is easier, more comfortable. Sociologists call this “homophily” — birds of a feather stick together. But there are choices that we make in an education context that increase or decrease the diversity of people’s social networks. And those choices have lifelong and societal consequences. Those choices happen whether we intend for them to or not.
boyd argues that there are three ways in which people bond: an intrinsic alignment, extrinsic enemy and shared vulnerability. I guess this is why things like school camps and outdoor education activities are so powerful. However, with all this, building bonds and social ties seems to have been something overlooked during the pandemic and offsite learning.
For the last year, as students have negotiated K-12 and college during a pandemic, the lack of awareness about the importance of social tie development became even more profound. We’ve seen countless tools built to help students obtain the school material. Teachers invested in finding ways to transfer classroom pedagogy to the internet, to produce more interactive and compelling video content, often using tools like polls to interact with students. But the primary relationship that was considered was one rooted in a notable power differential — the dynamic between the teacher and the student. Yes, students have still been required to negotiate group projects on Zoom, but how many tools have been rolled out this year that are really about strengthening ties between students? Helping students connect with others in a healthy way? Most of what I’ve seen has focused on increasing competition and guilt. Tools that are designed so that everyone can see each other’s assignments, complete with timestamps that reveal the complex lives students face navigating virtual school. Tools that privilege those who can perform. And tools that are rooted in accounting and accountability. Why are we not seeing tools to help students bond across difference?
The problem is that in a world of polarisation and social fracture, connections are the strongest weapons we have. As boyd explains,
To radically alter how people see the world, you have to alter their connections to those who might challenge these new frames.
boyd puts forward some ideas for a more thoughtful social fabric. These include pushing back on drumbeat around stranger danger so that we can actually speak to others, creating digital outreach programs to support those in pain online, and being more deliberate about social networks within schools.
If you put the social network at the center of your work, how might that change some of your practices? As an administrator, you could assign classrooms strategically. As a teacher, this could shape how you constructed group projects, how you seated students. You do much of this by feel already, but a tool lets you shift your goals. Rather than making your goal be about the success of the group project, imagine a goal that’s about strengthening the graph of the students.
Although boyd’s focus is on the American education system, it is still an interesting concept to consider. Personally, I have not seen a lot of opportunity to build social ties. Sadly, when there is a will there is a way and some students find their own way to connect in less structured spaces. Although I am an advocate for more deliberate social spaces in education, someone has to support such spaces.
It’s fun to look at these kinds of connections and to think about how easy it is now to self-publish and to share thoughts and ideas with the world… and while I’m mostly sharing my thoughts and ideas with North Americans, it seems that even a small daily blog can get around a bit.
Colin Levy recently finished a sci-fi short that he’s been working on for several years called Skywatch. And spoiler alert: Jude L
Everything is connected, but the connections only matter if you make them!
I also really like your point about little beginnings leading to greater things. I have found that the more deliberate approach of using my blog for more, rather than social media, has led to more connections. Reminds me of Amy Burvall’s point about ‘gathering dust for stars.’
Today, value isn’t created by filling a slot, it’s created by connection. By the combinations created by people. By the magic that comes from diversity of opinion, background and motivation. Connection leads to ideas, to solutions, to breakthroughs.