Hierarchy, Education, and Social Media

As many instructors have shifted towards a student-centered learning focus, I see and participate in regular discussions about decentrailizing the power within the class; creating a shared space of learning that is as least hierarchical as possible.  This discussion comes up a lot within online learning where the instructor is often encouraged to view himself/herself as a facilitator, not necessarily as an instructor.  This makes sense given the online environment can do significant injury to the traditional model of the "sage on stage."  Any instructor's wisdom is apt to be already found on the internet in spades along with additional wisdom, countered-wisdom, and other related wisdom.  The instructor is no longer the keeper of the knowledge but more a curator or conversationalist with the students; a guide. But many instructors realize the importance in shifting any class (online, face to face, hybrid, etc) in this direction as it does change the ways in which  power dynamic in beneficial and interesting ways.

Without significant work (and even then, there's no guarantee), we still fall short and resort to top-down hierarchy.  Quite frankly, it's hard not to slip into this mode of relating with students.  If we're teachers, we've sat in thousands of classrooms being exposed to how the dynamics of the classroom play out time and again.  It is drilled into us that we are in charge well before we step into our first classroom.  Without a doubt,  power and authority still remain inherent in the instructor and it's often our go-to method of instructors when all else fails.  It's certainly useful and it certainly has its place since at the end of the day, hierarchy is the name of the education game.  Institutes declare the demands of success, instructors act as gatekeepers, and students jump through the necessary hoops.  But if we are shifting towards a system of education that is less hierarchical in nature; more fluid across platforms (F2F, hybrid, online, MOOC, self-paced, and universities), then the hierarchy of the classroom too will need addressing.

This is apparent when it comes to social media.  In this, I'm not taking about instructors who don't use social media at all but those who choose it selectively.  These regular users (myself included) of social media create an internal algorithm of whom they will and won't be connected with through social media and come up with various decisions for who they are willing to connect with via social media.  I hear many instructors swear against any contact with students (present or former) entirely and others who fear it significantly.  It seems evident in this context that we're still thinking of learning in hierarchical ways when we talk about students who need to be separated and distinguished from colleagues, acquaintances or other people we connect with through social media. The decision process for accepting connections via social media often look like this:

I blame some of this reluctance with the term "Friend" that Facebook uses and the implications of that term.  "Friend" is a loaded (and in this case, over-inflated) term.  Most social media users recognize that one is not necessarily "Friends" with the people they are connected with.  We connect with people for many different reasons on social media--much of it is because we are directly connected in the real world.  But the term stays within our psyche and keeps us holding back from connecting with students online.  Instead of understanding social media and the people you connect with as "Friends", it's better to think of social media connections as community.  By community, I mean people that you have regularly come into contact with and want to acknowledge that you have some connection.  You don't necessarily have to engage with them substantively but a courtesy acknowledgement seems reasonable (baring situations in which the person has proved not mature enough or too challenging and/or disrespectful).  In some ways, given the increasing relevance of social media in our lives, I have to wonder if refusal to accept someone as part of a network is the same as refusing to acknowledge someone's presence when they are standing right in front of you.  

I'm curious to challenge this self-imposed barrier for myself and others for many reasons.  The first is trying to figure out just how much of the restrictions we put with on connecting with our students via social media is a result of the increasing mythology about the threats of social media.  I'm not crazy and think there is nothing to concern ourselves about social media, but I tend to think that anything that makes us connect with and engage with others more is generally a beneficial contribution to our society.  Much of the development of human rights is focused on people connecting with others and learning about them.  This often triggers the momentum for standing up and protecting one another (most human rights movements need first to connect with people who are not the focus of the rights being sought but are convinced of the importance of those rights).

There's also the concern that that students use social media in inappropriate ways and instructors shouldn't have to see "that"."  There may be truthiness to this but I don't know if that's a good enough generalization in that it implies that's all they do.  My experiences with students on social media have largely shown me otherwise.  Additionally, I have to wonder if such behavior is less likely if we encourage the social media world to resemble the real world.  If they know we're out there--that is, their social network becomes less anonymous--does that help them to be mature?  It's something I wonder about a lot:  does the adults' purposeful absence lead to them to believe that any action is acceptable and if that is the case--who has failed?  The students or the adults?  My experience working at a community college also plays a role in this as I feel its important to provide role models in the online environment as much as we do in the face to face environment.  I tend to see that the students fresh out of high school are still often in need of role models about how they present themselves and engage with the world; being a social media role model is increasingly just as important in this regard.

I'm also shaped by approaching social media from watching Michael Shermer's TED Talk: The pattern behind self-deception.  In this talk, he discusses the idea of patternicity.  The tendency for humans to make sense of the world through patterns.  Therein, he discusses the two types of pattern errors.  A false positive error is believing a pattern exists even when it doesn't.  The false negative is not believing there is a pattern when in fact there is.  I think we have been shaped by dialogue about social media and youth that is largely caustic.  The established (false positive) pattern is that students waste social media with  irrelevance of distasteful videos, inappropriate images, and mindless thoughts.  Believing in this supposed pattern leads many instructors to avoid engaging in social media with their students.   The other side of this is the disbelief that something of value could be attained from social media connections with students.  This would be the false negaitve; not believing there is a pattern of value in socially mediated connections with students and faculty when in fact, there is.  At this time, I have but my own experience to reinforce this, but my next post available on Wednesday, January 16, 2013 will address just expanding that beyond my own experience.  Despite the numerous flaws and problems around it, the excitement by youth in social media surrounding Kony 2012 I think proves a good example that they do not necessarily waste their time (or at least all of their time) online; they want to be engaged; they want to have purposeful interactions.  

Another concern about social media connections between instructors and students is that it challenges pre-established boundaries.  The idea surrounding this boundary between instructor and student reinforces the idea that there needs to be a clear direct relation--determined by the instructor--between instructor and student.  Why can't this be a negotiated space between student and instructor?  Why does the instructor need control over this too?  I've heard faculty get excited about the fact that they could reach their student anywhere by social media but then are aghast at the idea that the student could reach them; that somehow, instructors are privileged to digitally poke them, but that shouldn't be reciprocated.  This seems contradictory in that it stops being "social" media and simply one more method for an instructor to push his or her agenda without having to listen to the students.  The argument against there being two way communication is that the instructor doesn't want to be bothered by the student's inappropriate postings, thoughts, or even questions at any hour of the day.  Never mind that it opens up the question of whether the student wants to be bothered at any time of the day by class-related elements.

To that end, I don't think it's necessary to go out and friend all students.  However, I'm starting to think that if a student makes the conscious effort to friend me; why do I say no?   Is it a general policy or something specific about this student?  If it is a general policy, why?  Additionally, I'm not saying that the class must be or can be entirely ahierarchal.  But I do think that in areas where it the hierarchy want be put aside, it should be.  Assuming the worst of students means that's what you're going to see.  I would think as educators, our goal is to think the best of and foster the best of what our students have to offer.

My next blog post (Wednesday) is going to start looking at the conversations between faculty and students that happen through social media.  Please come back as I'll be soliciting all your help.

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