Nodes: The hyperconnected nervous system and digital literacy

The transformation in our culture since the mass availability of the public Internet has occurred more rapidly than any previous change in society. Like all changes that bring about a transformation, this one has, and continues to take place in leaps and bounds rather than at a linear, more manageable pace. These leaps are uncomfortable. They bring about feelings in us all that are akin to that which we feel riding a roller-coaster — some nausea, an odd sensation in the pit of the stomach, and not a little disorientation. Get used to it. It’s still going on and we’re on the biggest trip ever. At least for now.

We live today in a world of rapidly increasing connectedness. We are connected to each other as individuals and in groups in a way that changes everything. And I do mean everything — education, families, business, government, causes, empowerment, culture, globalisation. Everything. This school, indeed any school, or any government, business, organisation or person that remains disconnected for much longer risks an ever-increasing marginalisation in the face of a hyperconnected world.

Set aside for a moment that large parts of the world remain not connected to the Internet. Those parts that are are visibly, measurably different to how they were 15 years ago. They are even markedly different to five years ago.

Of real significance amongst these changes, is the change in the way humans now learn. It is important to understand that the formal education I went through, and the vast majority of those teaching today went through, bears little or no resemblance to either the way we or our kids themselves learn when left to our own devices nor to the way the real world operates. The real education revolution that needs to occur is a transformation based on that understanding.

This connectedness, which began back in the mid-90’s with the introduction of the public to the World Wide Web has introduced us all to a network of people, places and possibilities we simply did not have access to before that time. And we now depend on that network. Deeply so. It’s about trust. About relationships. And about being something more than we are, intellectually and personally, that we can be without the network.

I remember my first hesitant steps into the online world, around 20 years ago. As an early adopter, they were at 14.4K per second and on the pre-public Web world of CompuServe. After 1998, CompuServe was swallowed up in the rapid expansion of AOL, becoming just a part of that behemoth. In the years I was online with CompuServe before that, I was a part of a much smaller, yet no less fascinating network of people, places and possibilities — interacting with people far and wide, as far away as remote northern Canada, Brasil and Scotland on things that we were collectively fascinated by; science fiction, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and fitness.

I’m still fascinated by those and other things 15 years later. Though my community — the network I share those fascinations, and others, with — is now vastly larger and richer than I could ever have imagined in my early dabblings on CompuServe.

Size and richness are just two of the important measures of the hyperconnected world we now live in. When we go online and choose to participate in that global hyperconnected community, a third aspect takes form. We each become a cell in a great hybrid nervous system, electronic and human, that often is difficult to understand. But the core aspect of that nervous system. The very heart of it is collaboration. Sharing.

As nodes in this system, we are both sender and receiver, seeker and finder. And there is an expectation that we collaborate and share that which we both seek and find. And the very act of sharing, of collaboration, adds immense value to the network each time we participate. That value goes far beyond the simple, single act that takes place. The whole is very much greater than the sum of the parts. This sharing has been a part of what the Internet has been about since the first servers were switched on back in the late 1960’s. But now we’re in a position to do something rather more substantial.

When we first went online, none of us were quite sure what to do. I remember seeing the personal homepage of the person that introduced me to the web. It was a prototypical “About me” page. An early form of what we see today on any business web site and on the multitude of blogs and other profiles we create online. Who am I? What do I do? I like Vegemite, do you?

Well, now we know. We know who you are. We know what you do. We share your love of Vegemite and a cornucopia of other things through shared experience online. Through tweets, blog posts, Facebook status messages, pokes, likes, ratings, links.

This sharing, divorced from the tool by which it’s shared, but all borne on the same carrier wave, is where things begin to get profoundly interesting. It’s not the technology that’s the cool thing (though at times that’s cool enough), it’s what we do with it, together, that’s got legs.

Perhaps the crowning glory of the shared online experience is, rather than the color of your tractor on Farmville, the in excess of 100 million hours of effort taken to produce the English language version of Wikipedia. In the words of my colleague, friend and educator, Mark Pesce:

“…what is new about Wikipedia?  Simply this: the idea of sharing.  Wikipedia invites us all to share from our expertise, for the benefit of one another.  It is an agreement to share what we know to collectively improve our capability.  If you strip away all of the technology, and all of the hype – both positive and negative –from Wikipedia, what you’re left with is this agreement to share.”

This capability to share, and through sharing, transform culture, is the thing that has become the most powerful, most enticing, most terrifying part of what the online world offers us.

Interestingly, many schools and other educational institutions place so little value on the sharing, knowledge and effort that has gone into Wikipedia over its existence, that they ban its use as a research tool. How quaint.

Of course, as humans, we don’t always make the most of the power accorded to us. Some of the sharing done online is less than edifying — the excesses of public voyeurism through videos of bullying and the defacing of Facebook tribute pages set up by people mourning a loss and without the knowledge of how to curate that space to protect and preserve its cultural value show that sharing need not be an act that adds to the world.

Those that share negatively have learnt the skill of sharing, but not the human attributes that go alongside it of empathy, compassion, love, respect. They sometimes lack a certain maturity. Perhaps it is the case that the offline networks into which these people share — their families, friends and physical social networks also lack that maturity. Perhaps too, they are unskilled in the ways of the online world and are pushing its boundaries as a child does with parents and teachers. Or perhaps they are just getting their jollies.

On the other side of the coin, those of us that share positively do so with an astounding variety. Some of us share inanities — our lunch, a new piece of clothing. Other share deep feelings — love, anger, amazement, joy. Still more act as creators, gatherers and gardeners of knowledge, whether that’s as profound as climate science, or as superficial as better ways to play World of Warcraft. It all adds value. It all makes us senders and receivers.

If we are to send and receive, to act as a node, we must shoulder a level of responsibility in the management and distribution of the signal we carry. We must learn to become good digital citizens.

As educators, the teaching of good digital citizenship is arguably one of the most important skills you can pass to those in your charge. You have a hand, as big or bigger often, in the development of those you teach than do their parents. Not only that, their parents are often lacking in the skills needed to teach digital citizenship. Few of us were brought up with the Web as kids are today. Even five or six years ago, few online social networks existed. You are in a position both enviable and unenviable; you get to be the first adults to teach the digital natives how to be a tribe of nobles rather than savages.

Good digital citizenship is a complex notion. It involves aspects of technical competence, familiarity with changed culture and emotional intelligence all at once. Wrapping these together, and dealing with them well in the context of a rapidly changing online environment is immensely complex. Yet, we’re all exposed to this environment, and from an increasingly young age.

There’s no way to examine these three aspects in isolation from each other. They are inexorably wrapped up in each other. In examining one, so many aspects of the others are apparent that the taks is futile.

Technology moves apace. The mobile phone I use today is barely that. Rather it’s a complex converged device providing telephony, messaging (in various forms), access to the Internet in familiar ways such as email, chat and the Web as well as less familiarly, with point solution tools such as Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia and the emergent augmented reality applications I can use. There’s significantly more computing power in my hand than sent the Apollo missions to the Moon. And significantly more even than the first desktop PC I owned in 1991. Let alone raw functionality.

I’ve another point to make about mobile devices, but I’ll get to that a little later.

We’ve already discussed the cultural and technological revolution wrought by the Internet, but let’s remind ourselves. This thing that was originally created to ensure the persistence of United States’ defence information in the face of the outbreak of nuclear war and pass esoteric data between academics has utterly reshaped Western society and is having no less impact in Asia and Africa, though the tools being used there to conduct that impact are somewhat different.

The Pew Internet and American Life project reported last year that 46 per cent of US adults have used a social network on at least one occasion, with 27 per cent using one within a day of being surveyed. Here in Australia, the latest ComScore research indicates a massive 96 per cent social network membership of some sort amongst Internet using adults. With more than a quarter of Australians with an active Facebook profile, there is a massive community out there connecting and sharing. Granted, it’s not all deep, but it’s certainly meaningful.

But how meaningful? The answer is very.

Being connected to each other online, rather than being a large pool of unconnected points, has had a number of profound behavioral impacts. We now use social networks more than we use email and search. This has singular implications for society; the very way we interact, share, relate, trust and learn has been transformed and continues to undergo transformation, much of which we can’t yet begin to imagine. The very behaviors and changes we’re seeing are themselves emergent and unpredictable. And their implications are significant.

Let’s start early.

Today, children begin forming relationships of real substance in preschool. It’s at about the same time many of them are beginning to use the Internet. It’s not inconceivable that many children will establish loose ties with each other at this early stage that will persist through hyperconnectedness across the span of their lives. I can see this in my own daughter, Hannah, who has maintained a relationship with her best friend from child care, Shannon. They connect regularly from half a world away, and in just a few weeks, will see each other physically for the first time in seven years when we visit them on a trip to Washington DC.

As she matures, Hannah is adding more and more relationships to the network she exists within. They possess both physical and virtual elements, and will continue to do so over the coming years. She has the opportunity to foster and maintain a network on a scale that I simply could not at her age, and cannot now, no matter how many people I meet and enjoy the company of.

The value of that network, as it grows and is curated; as she cherry picks who to be close to and who to be loosely associated with, grows in value with each node added. Each new cell in the system provides value not only to its neighbors, but also to the distant, loose connections. It may be a connection several years and many steps away from the hub that is Hannah, that proves of special value at some point in the future.

But this also illustrates a problem. The sheer scale of the network that Hannah will exist in is orders of magnitude greater than that of her grandparents’ and still significantly larger than that of her adept, but still, digital immigrant, Dad. The only way this network will be able to be easily maintained will be through careful, ongoing curation and breaking of the network down into more granular chunks — these are Debating Club people, and overseas friends, and swimming friends, and people I know through Mum and Dad. That kind of curation is simple at small scales, but incredibly difficult on the scale that Hannah will need to manage.

On top of the vast number of relationships having to be managed, is an ever increasing volume of data that needs to be made sense of — email, links, web sites, news, video, audio, podcasts, and more. It’s simply not possible to store this in your head. The notion of our tools as “outboard brain” has real credence; whether we’re collecting information for a public speaking engagement as I did using Evernote, or storing easily forgotten phone numbers in our mobile phones, conveniently synced with our contacts online, or making lists of friends and where they fit into our lives on Facebook.

So, how does this fit into education?

My belief, as someone who is not an educator, but is passionately interested in both my own ongoing education and that of my daughter, is that hyperconnectedness has so fundamentally changed education that the model we’ve operated under to now is no longer relevant. We have little time left to change and it’s not going to come with the Education Revolution.

As hard as it is to keep up with technological changes, the emergence of new platforms and tools, and an understanding of the benefits and risks they may offer the networked teacher, student or parent, is a core skill for modern educators.

Equally, an understanding of the culture of the network is critical. Who connects to who. Why? How? To what end? Where is the value? What is my role in this new world where the value accorded expertise is decaying as access to factual material, and even rich interpretation and context is becoming a trivial task.

It’s simply not good enough to say “I don’t have the time” or “It’s too hard, I can’t keep up.” Others do, and are. And your students certainly are. If you can’t be their guide through the technological changes, you can no longer be the mentor they need in the networked age of education.

The model for the class room, from a child’s first day at child care right through to the very end of tertiary education is fundamentally broken. We still operate according to rules established in the 19th Century to train compliant workers for the factories of England’s Industrial Revolution. I’ve also seen it described more than once, so I don’t lay claim to the idea, as the “airplane model”; get in, sit down, face forward and be quiet.

In schools now, too often, technology is a part-utilised add-on. More often, it’s crippled. And the network of connections? Ill-used and piecemeal, even in the best schools.

When I talk with educators, many know what they should do, but have lacked the resources to do so. We now have those resources at hand, if we use them and share.

Education must become the place where the network is best utilised. Where use of tools is taught well and goes deep. We now have the resources to create an age where the boundaries of the classroom break down, where the exploratory learning we so value in giving small children is extended to the class for older children.

The hyperconnected world has created a new way of doing things that run strongly counter to the power relationship inherent in education before now. The conflict that this sets up will be the deciding factor. Can education change to cope with the open, shared, collaborative future of the hyperconnected world, or will it try to insist on maintaining its position of power and thus disengage from learners who will go about seeking their own learning?

Let’s then look at some real-world, practical examples, beginning with one of my personal bugbears, blocking and filtering the school network and providing students and teachers with crippled hardware.

It was back in February 2009 that I wrote a fairly short piece entitled Blocking never works. I absolutely stand by the core premise of that piece, which is that providing people with whom you work — in the context of schools that’s teachers, other staff and students — with a less than full access experience to their hardware, software and online access infantilises them. Imagining that this crippled experience is somehow better and provides you shiny, happy people who will compliantly obey your edicts is foolish at best and deeply damaging in many cases. Better to, as I said in that article:

“…make sure your [people] are empowered to use social tools at work but also understand with crystal clarity what is and isn’t acceptable.”

Now, of course, I have no problem with schools trying to block porn from their network. It’s a rare workplace that such access is ever necessary. But the sheer availability of such stuff and the ease with which it can be sought, and make no mistake, it must be sought, it cannot be “stumbled across” as the Communications Minister would have us believe, makes the task fairly pointless. Rather, I say teach proper behaviors. Make students and staff aware that their Internet use can and will be logged. Being watched is as good or better filter than a filter itself.

Further, and research bears this out in a multitude of cases, schools and workplaces that have filtered Internet access are more likely to have cases of attempts at inappropriate access than those that have unfiltered access accompanied by appropriate guides to behavioral expectations. They also tend to have students and staff with less rich understanding of what it takes to be a responsible and safe digital citizen with a well-managed and appropriately curated online identity.

Here in Australia, the NSW DET is notorious as a particularly stringent restricter of access to hardware, software and the Internet. The people at the Department have obviously not read the report from their British colleagues at the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, whose report, The safe use of new technologies, released in February this year noted in particular that in respect to locked down systems such as those being released under the laptops for schools program here:

“this approach had disadvantages in the schools visited. As well as taking up time and detracting from learning, it did not encourage the pupils to take responsibility for their actions.”

Far better to teach some responsible behaviors and technical skills in order to manage the tools properly.

Additionally, the same report noted that with respect to managed, but not locked down systems, including hardware, software and Internet access, that an environment of collaboration and sharing, where responsibility was given and expected to be taken that it:

“…[provided] them with richer learning experiences; and [enabled them] to bridge the gap between systems at school and the more open systems outside school.”

In other words, blocking access to the Internet, and particularly to social tools — the parts that form the third places in the network — may ultimately prove more distracting — and potentially more dangerous — to students.

We hear, more often perhaps than we like, about how difficult it is to engage kids with technology. I don’t think we should be surprised at all. After all, the moment they enter class, we make it abundantly clear that the core piece of technology that connects them into the network, their mobile phones, is anathema to the learning experience. This too has been given the lie in several pieces of research. One particular case in the US, mobile phones, ubiquitous amongst students, are used as a teaching tool, providing access to teaching resources of various sorts and being used as a way to notify students of work due. This school finds they have less misuse of the technology than if they banned it.

And of course, this becomes progressively more difficult as students get older. You won’t find an adult educator who can successfully get a class to switch off their devices. Far better to have students use them productively in class than sneaking furtive use when your back is turned.

Next, let’s look at the way kids learn and the benefits available to teachers through the network of sharing.

For teachers, as much as students, the network or organisations and individuals available to them extends now well beyond the classroom, the school and even the city you live in. Failing to take advantage of this network, placing yourself both as the hub of your own network and as simply a point in the multitude of other connected networks, does you a great disservice.

Imagine this network; you are connected to your peers through shared experience, knowledge and understanding, your students are connected to each other by the same network, you and the students are connected. And that network then extends out through a multitude of nodes, each providing a slightly difference perspective, or pool of knowledge or set of experiences. This network, which, given its scale, might as well be infinite, extends to parents, the community. The classroom stops being four walls, some desks and chairs. The physical construct becomes as irrelevant as the intellectual one. Neither hold any longer.

The class, no longer bound by a room, can observe itself from the outside, or observe and participate in any other event or happening. The potential richness of this experience is limitless. Equally, the outside can observe the class, in context, in real time or after. Parents can see the magic happen.

Today, Hannah’s learning environment is the entire world. Arguably it’s larger than that. More specifically, it’s this — Hannah’s learning environment is the hyperconnected world she finds herself a part of on a constant basis. She’s connected continually to experiences and groups from which she learns and contextualizes. Most of those are not mediated in a classroom environment, and many of them are amongst her peers. This will become more so as her ability to socialise and collaborate with her peers increases in complexity and becomes more refined.

As a group they, and others like them, are entirely collaborative, conversational and community focused. She’s connected into these learning experiences on a constant basis through mobile phones, her iPod, the tools she uses like wikis, blogs, online bookmarking and social networks, and any one of the several ‘Net-connected devices she encounters during the course of her day. Often, those experiences are massively parallel — IM and text, while reading or editing something online and listening to something else or conversing with the group in the room. Hannah and her peers are a part of an environment beyond the classroom that empowers them and puts them in control. That allows them to follow the white rabbit down the hole of connectedness until their curiosity is sated. This form of learning is also multi-directional. Hannah teaches as much as she learns. The network responds to her as much as she to it. They are, as Don Tapscott puts it, “the ‘Net Generation”.

Arguably, her learning experiences in the classroom are becoming progressively more irrelevant as the learning experiences she undertakes beyond the class — deliberately or coincidentally — more directly prepare her and equip her with the skills she will need to successfully tackle the 21st Century. She is more connected to, and more contextually so, to what digital ethnographer Kevin Kelly termed “The One” than any generation before her.

In generations to come, this will be seen as natural. Right now, it presents an enormous challenge to many educators and education bureaucrats and policymakers in the political arena as they struggle to keep up. Certainly the Prime Minister and Education Minister, as keenly interested as they are in education, by no means envisioned this as their Education Revolution.

This approach is as accessible to teachers as it is to students. You can and ought to participate in the richness the network affords. Your own literacy in the tools, the culture and the network itself is a critical component of your ability to mentor students through the emotional, social and technical maze that they are navigating. If you are left behind, you will, in short order, decrease in relevance to modern learning. That places you in an unenviable position; unable to adequately mentor your students and teach them not only the content of their class but what it means in the greater context of their existence as humans in the 21st Century, you may find yourself and your outdated skills consigned to the same scrapheap the Industrial Age classroom model finds itself.

To move to where I propose teaching and learning needs to go is no trivial task. It will require a singular will and no small amount of reimagining what the school experience looks like. But we’ve done this before, in so many parts of society, including schools when we transformed from the unstructured learning and one-to-one transfer of skills largely based around the family farm to industrialised society where we went off to work leaving our children in the charge of others to be taught. This will be no less a leap.

But now, we have the network not only to learn from, but to help us. Its value is manifold. We can use the network and the sharing we do on it to transform education as much as we use it as a tool of education.

Imagine the possibilities.

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