“It’s time for the digital educators to be educated” by Christina McDermott

Following on from RebeccaWho’s “What Digital Education?” ; David Edmundson-Bird’s “Digital Education: What’s it for?” and Ian Wareings “Call of Duty: Modernising Education“, we have the 4th instalment in our Digital Education guest blog series in preparation for our live digital education debate on the 10th October: Digital Education: The Dream.

This blog is from Christina McDermott, the Web Editor at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts:

“A few weeks ago, my boss asked me to write a handy ‘Guide to Social Media’ for our new students. I jokingly tweeted to my followers that I was tempted to write “Don’t be a dick on the internet” and leave it at that. Over the course of the day, that tweet went nuts – when I checked my stats that evening, it has been retweeted over 70 times, in many cases by various social media “experts” (I use the term loosely), as though it was some kind of gnostic wisdom. It surprised me. Hell, it’s not even an original thought – a quick Google of the term reveals that Wil Wheaton (the guy who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, fact fans!) has been preaching this idea for years. Why was something that – to me at least – just seemed like plain common sense such a radical concept to so many others?

In my opinion, a lot of this lies in how we educate young people about the internet. The concept of ‘digital education’ is nothing new – indeed, I have many happy memories of playing word games on my primary school’s sole BBC Micro back in 1989. However, this was before the web was even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. With the advent of mass internet use and the recent emergence of social media in particular, it’s not so much that the goalposts have shifted so much as we’re now playing an entirely different sport. I worry sometimes that education establishments are too focused on teaching students how to use these things without sitting back and thinking about why they should use them. After all, teaching someone how to gut a fish isn’t the same thing as teaching them how to cook.

There appears to be a real fear of social media in a lot of Higher Education establishments – it’s a strange alien thing, booby-trapped with photos of students’ bums, that leaves them defenceless against negative comments. While many universities are represented on Facebook and Twitter, I can only think of a few that appear to know how to use it properly. Most appear to do little more than use their page as a glorified RSS feed, and would rather show off their fancy new facilities than answer a query from an international student with a poor command of English, who’s confused by UK Visa requirements. Many others don’t appear to exercise any administrative control over their pages at all, leaving them wide open to spammers. Why should universities expect students to take them seriously on the subject of social media when they visibly don’t have a clue?

So, here’s a radical idea. It’s time for us, as digital educators, to step out of our ivory towers. To stop talking and start listening. And who are the people we should be listening to? Our students.

Our students are digital natives – people who were born into an internet-capable world, and are often using social media in ways that we can only dream of. These are people who have lived their lives online, who have grown up with the likes of WordPress, MySpace, and Bebo and are used to writing about, filming and photographing their lives to document online. To them, Facebook changing their privacy settings is no more revolutionary an event than someone changing their knickers. So those of us who may have only started exploring the online world when we were in our late teens or early twenties have a lot of catching up to do. In the meantime, we should stop applying old media practices to a new media environment.

As digital educators, we should stop taking such a didatic approach when we talk to young people about the internet and social media. Instead, we should be encouraging them to teach us new tricks, and to share their skills and talents with us. In my experience, they are often more than willing to let you use their personal audio or video project on your institution’s website (anything to gets them more hits) and to tell you about new innovations they’ve made and schemes they’re hatching outside of their studies. If you’re promoting their ideas, they’ll help you promote your establishment to the world.

Social media is about its users as much as it is about its technology. Instead of teaching students about software applications that they’ve been using since they were in nappies, we should be teaching them soft skills, like how to use their common sense when presenting themselves online. When I talk to our first year undergraduates about social media, I tell them to imagine that their Mum is reading everything they put on their Facebook and Twitter profiles (and to imagine her face if she saw some of the photos they upload). Even people who’re old hands with social media are guilty of not considering the damage that they can do to their online reputations until it’s too late. What we should be doing is advising students on how to come across well online, and show them real life examples of the consequences of using social media in a negative way. In return, we should be taking the time to listen to them when they suggest ways in which we, as universities, can adapt our voices in the digital landscape, and talk to them in a language that they understand. Through conversation and collaboration, we can all learn from each other and maybe – just maybe – finally stop being dicks on the internet.”


Get your tickets for the live digital education debate and be involved in the discussion.

  • MrRoyC

    In the main, I’m afraid I have to say much of this is soppy nonsense. Genuflecting in front of kids as being some sort of technology wizards just because they were ‘born into an internet-capable world’ is just a bit too Harry Potter-reader for me.

    And I have to say the phrase “And who are the people we should be listening to? Our students” had me spluttering into my pint of Old Codger (just for the record, I’ve never stopped having a meaningful dialogue with my students, so the concept of ‘starting’ is a bit alien to me. Ask any of ‘em. Bit of a nuclear bomb in the Secondary sector though I suppose). I am in the enviable position of teaching design to propellor-head techies, and some degree of technology literacy to the OCD-crazies who inhabit the world of student design. That’s my own fault for having too much time on my hands in the 1970′s I suppose, and spending it building computers from Chinese parts, then designing stuff to run on them. However, I digress. If you think I see my profession as being someone who bends the knee in front of young ‘uns just because they can manage to organise a riot on their Blackberry, or express a FB opinion on some blockhead on X-Factor then you’re way off. These same kids have also grown up in an air-travel age, but if you think I’d trust some Manc hoodie to fly me on my annuals to Majorca, you are in some strange universe. Exposure alone does not translate to capability. My job is to educate and develop people, primarily in an intellectual sense, and to take that development into a context of self-understanding of skills, attributes and the deployment of same. In short, to become well-rounded individuals who can make objective judegments on what they could and should be doing. I’d be more pleased that one of them should read a book I mention than get a bronze-star for Photoshop-bashing or Tweet-wanking.

    I’m afraid this fixation on ‘digital’ skills and ‘digital education’ is a complete red herring. Developing an awareness and an ability in this area is not the the number one priority some people make it out to be. I guarantee you that in ten years time, I’ll be back teaching painting to people who are sick to fucking death of anything to do with meeja or digital. It’s just one part of the package, it’s not THE package.

    See now, when people on Twatter are saying in ten years time “When did this new Arts & Crafts movement actually begin man?”, let’s hope someone has kept a printout of this blog.

  • http://twitter.com/markcadwaladr Mark

    What are we on about here? The ability to use a website or app (good are intuitive, the bad die fast and hard) or the ability to interact with peers and choose the appropriate venue and audience for specific thought, rants and ideas?

    I don’t suppose Henry Ford asked his grandson for a manual on how to navigate roads via new fangled motorised contraptions either.

    I know there is a whole industry out there dedicated to the art of social media bullshit so I’d really hate to think of them losing revenue as we run to genuflect in front of those too young to remember Tiswas by virtue of them knowing nothing else but the PC/post PC age.

    “and talk to them in a language that they understand” doe make me laugh doe innit. Dat is bare nonsense blad. Or something. Better that the young are equipped to face employment and a world wherein in Google can be your worst friend when jobhunting. Or the best.

    Better that we teach students the ways, means and methods to explore why they use certain sites, why pieces of tech are successful, why they are popular, what inherent need is being answered and so on.

    Mark, aged 36 and 11 12ths

  • http://www.twitter.com/francesbell Frances Bell

    I don’t know about the term digital educator – the people that I work with are trying to be good educators in a digital world – digital may be the ‘subject’ or just part of the context. I don’t think of educators or students somehow having the upper hand but rather they can have complementary and overlapping skills and knowledge which they can bring to a productive dialogue between students and educators. I see my role as exploring technologies in use by researching them and experimenting with them. I hope to foster a positive but critical approach with students.
    For example last week, I shared the lecture slide show with my Twitter network a few days before the lecture to get feedback see
    http://www.slideshare.net/francesbell/digital-and-social-media-landscape What was interesting was that though I only got a few comments I got lots of hits, almost as many as for a previous version of the lecture 2 years ago http://www.slideshare.net/francesbell/emerging-technologies-lecture-2

    That meant we could think about what a hit might mean compared with a comment, and was a very practical example of the chance to be critical about web analytics in a context relevant to the students.