Today we are dealing with a world that emphasizes being social and criticizes us for not being social enough. (Yes, this is the world extroverts dream about. Introverts not so much.) When we spend too much time being social using digital tools, we are told that we are not actually being social because there is a tool in the way. Whether or not we agree with it, our concept of what it means to be social has changed.
To me, being social includes texting or messaging friends to catch up, posting on Facebook, Tweeting, joining a discussion I intend to follow, playing video games with my husband, talking with my parents on the phone, and seeing people face-to-face. I’m an introvert so let me tell you, some days I just don’t have energy even for the digital options after a day at work which almost always includes some social interaction face-to-face on top of the emails and occasional phone call or video meeting. But being social is something that we are told is integral to all of us. And it’s true, if I go too long completely isolated I feel it and I need to get out and see someone, talk to someone.
That isn’t the only meaning of social, especially when it is tied in with learning.
Albert Bandura developed a theory of social learning back in the 1960s to explain that people learn through watching and interacting with others. Children model themselves on parents and others they “see” (and that includes television, film, internet, etc.). The same holds true as we get older. Brittany Bandur brought this up with some less-than-lovely internet chat behaviour that has become normal because when it is treated as acceptable, it gets copied by others who think that is how people should behave.
When it comes to being influenced by others, Ivan Illich wrote about “learning webs” which to him were much more like fluid mentor/mentee relationships. If someone has something they want to learn, they should be able to connect to someone who wants to teach. Those who are willing to teach should be findable by those who wish to learn. To be honest, I don’t think MOOCs have necessarily become this. In so many MOOCs (especially xMOOCs which are different than cMOOCs), there is no community and no connection to the instructor. Actually, that is kind of the point of so many of those MOOCs. The instructor cans their content, creates robo-graded assignments, then sits and waits for questions. Maybe. Depending on the course. Obviously not all MOOCs are like that. Not all of them are actually massive. Also, there have been questions about how well MOOCs function. Sebastian Thrun actually changed his tune about Udacity. A cMOOC is different, based on community creation, which is much more the sort of thing David Cormier talks about when he talks of MOOCs.
There is a whole lot of crap happening on the internet, especially on social media. It sucks. There are bad things. Some days it is tempting to throw our hands up and just say that in today’s world, people suck. The internet has ruined everything.
Twitter is more likely to have that instant connection that Illich talked about, assuming that you can find someone who has the skills you are seeking or can connect through. I’ve been pretty lucky over the years, having a presenter at a conference answer my question about his presentation even though I was not even closely following the conference, and been put in touch with people doing a conference in Canada on flipped learning when I mentioned I couldn’t attend an American conference.
The thing that Illich’s idea (and even Cormier’s suggestions about surviving MOOCs) relies on is altruism. Probably not the first thing you think of when you think of the internet, right? Definitely not after the Digital Harassment of Adult Australians report. But at the same time, it’s there. There are people who give of themselves to others for a variety of reasons but most of them are good. (I’m not talking about the “do what you love” philosophy that has been critiqued for setting people up to take low or no pay for skilled work.) Wikipedia exists. People donated to save “success kid’s” dad. A girl who was bullied got responses from all over the internet AND was given her own Stormtrooper armor. And then she passed it on, giving the armor to another girl who got bullied.
All these things really tie into altruism. Being kind, giving of yourself for no obvious reward, other than maybe hoping someone will return the favour. Or maybe because someone was kind to you. That is the kind of world I want to live in and one of the best things about the internet. People do amazing things all the time. But can that drown out the other things on the internet? Can it overcome all the parts that are not so great?
I’d like to hope so. I’d like to hope we can keep finding and making spaces to share, to talk, to exchange. I found one going on with #facdevchat. There are others looking to build not-for-profit academic networks. There are things happening out there that the internet has facilitated. But we have to keep trudging through the bad stuff, through all the “normal” and socialized behaviours that we really do not want to keep. We have to keep being the internet we want to see. We must be the people who set the example in Bandura’s social learning rather than just condemning the behaviours we don’t want, wishing for Illich’s learning webs. (Exhausting, sometimes, for us introverts but things like writing this help me renew for the fight.)
It may be a little trite but…