Sunday, October 27, 2019

Social Media: Tool for Manufacturing Ourselves and 'Truth'

What is the real issue with social media? Set aside the fact that entities like Facebook are selling our personal data to the highest bidder. Ignore the practice of the perpetual eavesdropping of these companies in our personal lives. What the real issue is with social media is simple: You can't believe anything you see. You can't trust that others are who they say they are. It is a place of fiction and fantasy, distortion and misinformation. It is a place where truth is whatever users determine or think it to be.

The problem at the rotten heart of social media is best described by Margaret Wheatley in Who Do We Choose to Be? She writes:
"In humans, how we define ourselves determines our perceptions, beliefs, behaviors, values. Social media enables a culture of manufactured identities, where people create any self that ensures their popularity. In the Digital Age, identity has changed from a culturally transmitted sense of self within a group to an individual one, where you can be anything you want." (p. 19)
Any technology that allows one to "manufacture" his or her identity is problematic. While it might be acceptable to "market" oneself, in social media, truth is often the fatality. The worst quality of social media is that it allows individuals to manufacture a version of themselves that is far from who they really are. They can be someone they want to be rather than be authentic.

If there's one lesson educators need to get about social media, and share with students is this: Social media is not simply a communication media. It is a media of distortion and propaganda. It creates manufactured persons. Educators of all people should be wise enough to see this rather than buying into the hype of what this industry would have us believe.

Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In aren't simply tools of networking and connection: they are tools for manufacturing identities.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Educational Technology Cult Is Alive and Well in the 21st Century

Does anyone else notice how "cult-like" ed tech leaders and supporters can be? They constantly proclaim salvation by technology for every educational ailment that we face. Yet, we've been on this "ed-tech binge" since perhaps the mid-1990s with very little to show for it. Why? Perhaps it boils down to a simple fact: whether students learn or not simply depends on the quality of the instructional interactions that teacher has with students during the given instructional time.

Too often, educators have made of "cult of technology" and as social media researcher Siva Vaidhyanathan writes:

"When we make a cult of technology and welcome its immediate rewards and conveniences into our lives without consideration of the long-term costs, we make fools of ourselves."

Too often, educators uncritically accept the latest tech evangelist's word regarding the promise of technology. When some other educator comes proclaiming how much this web app changed their lives, their word is uncritically accepted as gospel. I myself have been guilty of that too. The truth is, educational leaders placing their trust in salvation by technology will ultimately be sorely disappointed. We've been traveling that road for over 20 years and there really hasn't been very much substantial change in education.

Educational technology has become a bit cult-like in some ways. Those pushing technology talk a great deal about relevance in teaching and push tech solutions like that is the only way we can make instruction relevant to students. The truth is, no one really knows what will be relevant in the future, and anyone who claims that they do suffers from a level of arrogance and delusion that is dangerous.

It is imperative that we demand those making claims about technology, and any other educational panacea, provide support for their claims. We need not accept what they say as truth just because they are skillful TED talkers or excellent at providing keynotes.  We need to subject any and all claims to a level of critical scrutiny that unmasks blather for what it is. 

Vaidhyanathan, S. (2018). Anti-social media: How Facebook disconnects us and undermines democracy. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.

E-Readers, Ebook Apps and the Technologies of Distraction: Why I Read Paper and Not Digital Books

There was time I downloaded e-books with a madness. There was something exciting perhaps about instantaneously getting access to that new title or some older book I was intending to read. I've even blogged about the wonders of ebooks on this blog at some point in the past. Now, I  seldom read ebooks and increasingly I sit down with hardback or paperback copies.

I'm not really entirely sure why I've made this transformation. Part of it is perhaps the difficulty with using a device to read. It just seems easier to me to sit down with a book, turn pages, and even underline favorite passages with a pencil. Also, had all the books I recently purchased been ebooks, when I want to refer back to a book,  I just go to my office, locate the book, and flip to those quotes or ideas I've underlined. While I know you can do word searches to efficiently track exactly to the passages you want in an ebook, but I read to understand, to engage new ideas and information. I really don't give a damn about efficiency when I read. 

Perhaps therein lies the major issue with ebooks: those who manufacture e-readers and devices think I'm interested in efficiently reading a book. But that is simply not true. I am the most inefficient reader there ever was. I hardly read sequentially. I read back and forth and up-and-down. I also read 8 or 10 books at once, which means I am physically surrounded by them throughout the day sometimes. Sitting with an e-reader just don't provide the same experience. Inefficient reading just works for me because my mind isn't the most inefficient machine either.

Perhaps there's another reason as well. Franklin Foer writes in his book World Without Mind,

"When we read words on paper, we’re removed from the notifications, pings, and other urgencies summoning us away from our thoughts. The page permits us, for a time in our day, to decouple from the machine, to tend to our human core." (p. 230).

That seems to be the case for me too. Those infernal devices we try to read with also are devices of distraction by architecture. While reading, those notifications and pop-ups pull us away from being lost within the pages. Sure, one can remedy this by turning off notifications, but there's reason why you see so many of us sitting with screens of distraction in the first place...these devices of addiction are designed to disperse our attention and not focus it. It's less possible for me to get distracted from paper pages within in a book. And, if the book is really engaging, the world around me dissolves into irrelevance.

I occasionally will pull out my Kindle app on my iPad and read a bit, but to be honest, it is just when I need some time-filled, not when I want to seriously engage a book. This is because a hardback or paperback wasn't designed for multitasking, and when seriously reading and wanting to get lost in a text, the last thing I want to do is multitask. Perhaps this fundamentally captures the nature of these devices we all have now: they aren't designed to focus our lives and attention; they are designed to distract us, and that is contrary what it means to read a book.

Educational Leaders, Marketing Language, Deception and Integrity: Critical Thinking Instead of Deception

Since I began blogging a few years back, I've always eschewed all these offers from companies and individuals for "branded content" to post here. I could have perhaps made much more money from blogging. The pennies one receives from allowing ads alone hardly amount to any kind of income. I'm even embarrassed to admit how little I've made in this area, but not really.

Accepting offers from companies to post their self-promoting branded content seems to me a violation of sorts. If one expresses one's thoughts honestly and with integrity, by allowing some company to provide a guest post is simply an exchange of that honesty and integrity for money, and that is not something I have done here. As Franklin Foer accurately captures:

"Advertisers will pay a premium for branded content, because its stands such a good chance of confusing the readers into clicking." (p. 151).

Foer's words capture an insidious side of the web, educators for some reason fail to acknowledge sometimes. It is often of place where deceiving others is an accepted practice. It's like the old athlete ads on TV where a popular athlete holds up a box of Wheaties and at least gives the impression that he faithfully eats the cereal each morning and it has something to do with his athletic prowess and ability. The web's advertising and these requests for "guest blog posts" are of the same deceptive practices. It's all a "little lie" but it is told for a greater good is the thought rationale behind these tactics.

I argue that educators and educational leaders who have integrity and principles refuse to engage in these kinds of techno-deceptions. They don't ask prominent other educators to endorse their products nor their persons. They certainly do not engage in deception. Educators are very fond of using the marketing language in every new program that comes along.

Everyone time some new initiative is undertaken, there's always talk about creating "vision statements" and "empowering stakeholders" and getting "buy-in." But what if that which your selling is just a bad idea, a horrible product, or even a waste of time? Just because you believe what your selling, doesn't automatically assume everyone should. As I've written many times, there's just not enough critical-minded educators who criticize these ideas. That is at the heart of why I could care less whether I make money on this blog, and I am certainly not motivated to post someone's "branded content."

Accepting branded content or promoting your colleagues latest consulting business may make you money and perhaps keep a friend, but to promote someone else's product or ideas without really having a personal experience with them is just plain wrong. Educators must learn to engage in critique and also be willing to accept critique instead of always being so obsessed with "buy-in" and "vision statements."

 Foer, F. (2017).  World without mind: The existential threat of big tech. Penguin; New York, NY.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Beware of All the Education 'Snake-Oil' Salesmen

Today, I received another one of those sales-pitch emails from some company using deceptive tactics to promote their products. They made it appear in their email that my failure to complete their survey would have some kind of consequences. I marked their email "Spam" and simply replied:
"I am not sure it is good practices to give potential customers "deadlines." Your email deceptively makes it appear I have to answer. I am not interested in your deadlines nor your products."
Their reply was to simply say that they would take me off their mailing list. I can't help but wonder how I ended up on their list in the first place. But, nonetheless, that is a prudent action on their part, because I honestly would never purchase a product from a company that has to resort to deceptive tactics to sell its wares.

I can't help but wonder how many millions of precious educational dollars are wasted to companies like this who make big promises and deliver nothing. Educational leaders need to realize they do not owe these companies nor their salespeople anything. Maybe the best educational practice in these times is simply to discard and ignore any unsolicited sales pitches.