iPhoning in your education: social (media) learning

Wired reports on Abilene Christian University's experiment with giving every student either an iPhone or iPod Touch. The program is one-year old now, so there are some results at this point. I don't see anything too revolutionary there, except perhaps in the scale of the project (assuming that all these students really are using these devices across the curriculum). There is time-shifting recorded lectures, using iPhones as clicker technology for in-class polling, and in-class web research. We get familiar claims like "The traditional classroom, where an instructor assigns a textbook, is heading toward obsolescence."

If so, it is heading at a stately pace.

Obviously we are still not getting it. And when I say we, I mean all of us: faculty, administrators, students, etc. Typically we will hear about the average mobile teen texting 2000+ times a month (70-100 times a day). In some respects it's a no-brainer to suggest that educators would want to tap into these communicational practices. Of course, we are thinking about a very different kind of cognitive act than the one involved in the off-hand text to a friend. There are similar differences between watching YouTube and watching a video lecture. If you read the Wired article, it reports that students see the most significant impact of their iphones being social–in connecting with other students and the campus community.

The task is to take this ubiquitous social interaction and turn it toward learning in a some kind of formal way. In short, the task is to make learning social. Now that should sound strange. After all, formal education is one of the foundations of neolithic civilization. There have been schools for about as long as there have been formal writing systems. Furthermore, even among animals we can say that learning is a social activity. It's an exchange of information between beings: how could it not be social?

Well, obviously, the last century in the West at least has been a systematic attempt to educate a public in as unsocial a way as possible, though in this sentence I suppose I am using "social" in a different sense. We are all familiar with sitting in rows, being quiet, and doing work on your own for which you receive an individual grade. We are all familiar with high-stakes testing. So I assume you know what I mean when I say that we have tried to make learning un- or non-social.

Social does not have to me non-hierarchical or informal, though I think we have beaten this duality into students heads. School is not social. There you do exactly as you are told. And you probably do little else. Even going the extra mile, for extra credit or whatever, is well-scripted. Then you have social time where you get to "be free." It's the whole Foucauldian repressive hypothesis thing. The desires associated with learning are all delayed. Of course you don't want to be doing this learning activity, but getting the degree will get you what you want in the future. Social desires are generally more immediate.

It's odd, but I almost think it has nothing to do with the technology. If we were able to rethink learning as social, then the typical student would make use of social media to learn…. because using the technology is an integral part of being social today. On the other hand, as long as learning does not become social, it makes little sense to jam it into the technology.

Timeshifting lectures is fine, but that seems of little import to me unless sharing and discussing the media becomes a social activity. Plus we need to build on it. It can't just be all chit-chat.

What kind of course could you imagine that would require students to be in daily contact with one another? It would probably be something that in the past would have seemed excessive and unfair, but all we are talking about today is following each other on Twitter or the like. What projects could only be successful through near-ubiquitous, often real-time, collaboration? We ask students to engage in such tasks regularly inside class when they do group work. 

The bottom line here is to ask students to be in a learning-receptive mind state (nearly) all the time. We are asking them to be open to learning/inspiration, to act upon those opportunities when they arise, and then share them in real-time via mobile social media. It's what "we" are doing now when we tweet or blog, though I admit that as humanities scholars we have as much to learn about socializing research as our students.