Peter Levesque, Director of Knowledge Mobilization Works has a new article in the Summer 2010, Volume 13, Issue 4 of Principal Connections. This is the journal of the Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario (CPCO). They are a voluntary, professional organization that serve s the principals and vice-principals in Ontario’s 29 publicly-funded Catholic school boards.  The core argument of this article is that social media is part of the ecology that students must learn to live with.  The role of the school is not to ban this emergent phenomenon but to teach the literacy needed to use it well.

The article can be downloaded from this link. The entire journal is available online at the “Principal Connections” link.

As always your comments are most appreciated.



Teaching to connect well: Social Media as a necessary skill


In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, a Jesuit philosopher who was also trained as a paleontologist and geologist, proposed the idea of an Omega Point – a maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which the universe appears to be evolving.  In The Phenomenon of Man[i], Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, developed the idea of a noosphere, the sphere of human thought, similar to the concepts of geosphere (for inanimate matter) and biosphere (for biological life).

The concept of the noosphere is recognized by many as the growing set of human interactions on the internet – not just the WebPages, books, songs, videos and other resources accessible through a URL but also the wide set of human interactions that occur through electronic exchanges: email, chat, commentary, and the many forms of interaction using social media.

Never in human history have humans been so connected to so many other humans.  A friend and colleague, Dr. Raywat Deonandan, teaches health science at the University of Ottawa.  He tells his eager students that on their way into class – on most days – that they likely encountered more people during that trip than most humans, over the course of human history, would have encountered in their lifetime.  There are more of us, meeting more often, and in more ways than ever before.

The growth of our planet’s population (estimated at 6.82 billion)[ii] combined with growing access to the Internet (estimated at 1.80 billion)[iii] and access to social media applications using mobile devices (estimated at 3.50 billion)[iv] means that we will continue to connect in ways that will continue to reflect the diversity of the human condition – at both its best and its worst.

The web browser Mosaic is credited with popularizing the Internet.  Its launch in 1993 meant that most people with access to a computer and a phone line could connect to the Internet without having to know how to write computer code.  We have to remember that this is less than twenty years ago. In less than a generation, we have seen the radical transformation of generations of human interaction.  What this means for our youth, our schools, those responsible for education, is being decided – by the billions of clicks of a mouse and the trillions of keystrokes – daily.

What is Social Media?

Social Media is a term used to describe the type of media that is based on conversation and interaction between people online.  From the Wikipedia[v] (itself a form of social media interaction using a wiki) entry for social media, there are three components to a social media interface:

  1. Concept (art, information, or meme);
  2. Media (physical, electronic, or verbal); and a,
  3. Social interface (intimate direct, community engagement, social viral, electronic broadcast or syndication, or other physical media such as print).

In short, social media is that which allows users to not only read or view content on the Internet but to co-create the content available.

As educators, you may be thinking that the source of the above definition (Wikipedia) is less reliable than a more stable traditional source, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica.  However, in a study conducted by the scientific journal Nature, Wikipedia was found to have 162 errors across 50 articles, compared with 123 for the print version of Britannica. Wikipedia tends to get corrected quickly, as does the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, so these online versions actually fare better over time than their print counterparts.[vi]

The emphasis in social media is on the “social” part of the term.  In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man[vii], Marshall McLuhan argued that the medium is the message – that a medium itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study. He said that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself.  Social media adds another layer to this theory – the medium, the content, and the actor are all part of the equation.  The user is no longer a passive consumer but has become an active part of a complex process – social media websites become what they become in the process of becoming.

Social media sites – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Wikis – range in the millions.

Facebook[viii] alone has over 400 million registered users. Fifty percent of users login on a given day and people spend over 500 billion minutes per month on the social networking site.

YouTube[ix] is the world’s most popular online video community, allowing millions of people to discover, watch and share originally created videos. People are watching hundreds of millions of videos a day on YouTube and uploading hundreds of thousands of videos daily. In fact, every minute, 24 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.  Aside from its entertainment value, YouTube is now the world’s leading source of professional development content.

The ‘blogosphere’ (the global collection of blogs) is comprised of over 133 million blogs as indexed by Technorati since 2002. There are over 346 million people who read them.  In an average 24-hour period, the average number of blog posts is 900,000.[x]

Something is happening – something that is affecting our children and youth.  In Grown Up Digital[xi], Don Tapscott describes in detail what is happening to the generation of young people who have grown up with a reliable web browser and access to the Internet.  They are becoming interdependent.

If the word to describe the baby-boom generation was independence, the other side of the coin is what describes their children.  He outlines a set of norms that are rooted in the different experience of youth, especially with regard to their media diet.  They have grown up being actors, initiators, creators, players, and collaborators.  The eight norms are: 1) freedom; 2) customization; 3) scrutiny; 4) integrity; 5) collaboration; 6) entertainment; 7) speed; and 8) innovation.

The difference between connecting and connecting well.

When I was growing up, my parents made sure that we lived in a safe neighborhood. I went to a good school with caring teachers. I played sports, went to church on Sunday, and was generally surrounded by positive influences.  When bullies reared their head (and fists) we knew who they were and the adults in my life could intervene.  The world I had access to was limited by how far I could get on my bicycle, the public bus, view through books, magazines, television, or hear on the radio and what my parents would show us on outings and vacations.  Things worked out quite well overall.

All of these factors remain important but there are many other factors to consider now – more people, more diversity, more access, more choices, more information, more of more.

When I was young there were no Internet chat sites.  Nadia Kajouji of Brampton drowned in 2008 while attending Carleton University in Ottawa.  Her drowning was a suicide that was encouraged by 47-year-old William Melchert-Dinkel using an Internet chat room.  She is not alone, this same Minnesota man is also charged in the suicide of a 32-year-old British man who hanged himself in Coventry, England in 2005.[xii]

I was bullied as a youth but I knew whom they were and there were ways to intervene. As reported by CBC News, David Knight’s life at school has been hell.  He was teased, taunted and punched for years.  But the final blow was the humiliation he suffered every time he logged onto the Internet.  Someone had set up an abusive website about him that made life unbearable.

Whoever created the website asked others to join in, posting lewd, sexual comments and smearing David’s reputation.  “I was accused of being a pedophile. I was accused of using the date rape drug on little boys,” says David.  Along with the website, there were nasty e-mails too.[xiii]

Looking for employment used to mean a good resume, good references, and the right skills fitting with the right opportunity.  No one ever saw a picture of me rolling out of the tent after 4 days without a shower.  No one could read my personal diary.  No one could view the video of me at a party with my friends.

As social media becomes increasingly widespread, more employers are using these sites to screen potential employees.  More than half (53%) of employers reported in a recent survey that they use social networking sites to research job candidates.  Another 12 percent plan to start using social networking sites for screening.  Among employers who conduct online background checks of job candidates, 43 percent use search engines, 12 percent use Facebook and 12 percent use LinkedIn. Three percent search blogs and 4 percent follow candidates on Twitter.

The top reasons why employers disregarded candidates after screening online: lied about qualifications; showed poor communication skills; made discriminatory comments; posted content about them drinking or using drugs; posted provocative or inappropriate photographs or information; bad-mouthed their previous employer, co-workers or clients; and shared confidential information from previous employer.[xiv]

These are some of the dangers and risks of social media but the benefits are even greater.

The co-founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg started the website as a method to connect students and faculty at Harvard University.  The growth of the site has made him one of the world’s youngest billionaires and created opportunities for tens of thousands of entrepreneurs who use the site to connect to people who want their products and services.[xv]

In a 2007 report, Dr. Nora Barnes found that nearly three out of four U.S. charities used social media, especially online video, as a key component of their outreach and fundraising. Nearly half of the major charities surveyed made use of social media; in contrast, earlier Dartmouth studies suggested that only 8% of Fortune 500 companies had any social media involvement.  She cites that there is more of a financial incentive for charities to use social media.  Traditionally, they have had less money for advertising and PR; now they can level the playing field through the use of social media.  For the first time, they can compete with big companies with little or no funds.[xvi]

The United Nations’s Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technology and Development (GAID), recently founded the University of the People as a not-for-profit institution that aims to offer higher education opportunities to people who generally couldn’t afford it by leveraging social media technologies and ideas.  The school is a one hundred percent online institution, and utilizes open source courseware and peer-to-peer learning to deliver information to students without charging tuition.  All fees are set on a sliding scale based on the student’s country of origin, and never exceed $100.[xvii]

The difference between these two sets of examples is the difference between simply connecting and connecting well. In one set we have death, abuse, and loss of potential.  In the second set we have fortune, opportunity, and education.  The role of our schools and the leadership provided by educators is to harness the latter and reduce the harm of the former.

The astounding growth of the Internet has happened because people were looking for conversations and the Internet enables conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.[xviii] But – as my mother told me – don’t talk to strangers.  So how does someone go from being a stranger to an acquaintance to a friend?  It takes time, scrutiny, and knowledge.  It takes an education.

Educators know that data and information are not enough.  Something has to happen for raw data to become knowledge.  It has to have a social life.  Social media can help data and information become knowledge but educators can teach the importance of good assessment skills that moderates the speed of connection.

The role of social media in our children and youth’s lives is unlikely to diminish in the short term (if ever).  The role of educators is to teach the skills necessary to learn to connect well – with purpose, awareness, and consideration of the effects of individual actions over the life course.

Before Guttenberg invented the printing press around 1440, learning to read was not a major consideration in the lives of most people on the planet.  Things changed quickly after that.  We are now in the Zuckerberg era of Facebook and social media – and the changes happen literally at the speed of light.  There is a literacy associated with social media that must be studied, curriculum created, and pedagogy adapted.

[i] Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper Perennial, 1959.

[ii] U.S. Census Bureau. World Population Clock. 16 May 2010

[iii] Internet World Stats. World Internet usage and population statistics. 31 December 2009

[iv] Personal communication from Tom Jenkins, Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer of Open Text Corporation based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

[v] Wikipedia. Social Media. 15 May 2010.

[vi] Evans, Dave. Social Media Marketing. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, 2008. 32.

[vii] McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Mentor, 1964.

[viii] Facebook. Press Room – Statistics. 15 May 2010.

[ix] YouTube. YouTube Fact Sheet. 15 May 2010.

[x] The Future Buzz. Social Media, Web 2.0 And Internet Stats. 15 May 2010.

[xi] Tapscott, Don. Grown Up Digital. Toronto: McGraw Hill, 2009. 74.

[xii] 580 CFRA. Minnesota Man Charged in Suicide of Carleton Student.  23 April 2010.

[xiii] CBC News. Cyber-bullying. 01 March 2005.

[xiv] WebProNews. Employers Using Social Networks To Screen Employees. 18 January 2010.

[xv] Forbes. Mark Zuckerberg. 15 May 2010.

[xvi] PBS Mediashift. How Charities Harness Social Media to Raise Awareness, Money. 28 April 2009.

[xvii] Mashable. In the Future, the Cost of Education Will Be Zero. 15 May 2010.

[xviii] Levine, Rick et. al. The Cluetrain Manifesto. New York: Perseus Publishing, 2000.