Technology has always rooted itself in culture, and likewise, culture has grounded itself in the technology that moves it forward.  While this is apparent in social media and other communicative technologies that have changed the world as we know it, it’s also incredibly present in education.  There is, however, a stark difference between the ways in which technology plays a role in the broader context of the world and the small environment that is the classroom.

In the context of the world at-large, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many other social media outlets that have, in fact, helped us to feel more connected as a society, and have done so in a remarkable way.  They are conduits for empathy, personalized ways to network and communicate with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, giving us insights into our peers’ worlds that we would not have without access to this technology.

Similarly, technology in education has tried to achieve similar things.  Using big data, systematizing instruction through instructional videos, and increasing teacher efficiency through tech tools has, in a way, made the classroom a smaller place, as well.  It’s more manageable, allows us to personalize more than we ever have before, and has given us insights into our students that we probably would not have, if not for this new technology.

But we’ve come up short. Educational technology simply has not yet revolutionized education in the way social media has the world, and these differences can be traced back all the way to the cultural assumptions that underlie both social media and educational technology.  These assumptions, rooted in radically different times and resulting from different needs, have in turn, resulted in major differences in the technological outputs, highlighting the differences between what we’ve been able achieve with social media versus educational technology.

But what are these differences?  What is social media doing that ed tech currently is not?

First of all, social media provides instant feedback. In no other world is one able to post an image, an anecdote, or a quote and receive feedback from peers almost immediately, whether it is through an emoji, a “like”, or a detailed comment.  However, in most educational technology, feedback is a cumbersome process, one that increases complexity for the teacher, resulting in increased wait time for children to receive that feedback, thus slowing the momentum of the learning process.

We’ve created a world–and a culture–in the education space where grading happens after school, where the transfer of information and the flow of feedback is very unidirectional.  It’s not a conversation; instead, feedback is something that our students consume.  It’s a grade or a mark, not something on which we collaborate as a team.  Social media, however, is quite different.  Through social media, users on a level playing field collaborate together to build understanding, to push back on ideas, and to revel in the camaraderie that comes from connecting through the pictorial and anecdotal narratives that define our lives.  Even something simple as a “like” shows that I see you, I hear you, and I’m here with you.

As a result, social media is shaped, not through the consumer, but through the collaborator.  Social media implies not a unidirectional flow of information (such as the flow of information in education), but an oscillatory synergy that exists between two or more entities.  It’s not created through consumption, but through collaboration.  Currently, the educational space is dominated by consumption, both through the relationships that define managerial and administrative structures, and through the relationships that define the patterns of interaction that exist between educators and students.

These hierarchical structures engender a culture centered around consumption, dependent on the assumption that an authority figure is needed for learning to occur, when in reality, all that is needed for learning to occur is a conversation, the aforementioned synergistic flow between two or more individuals that pushes, pulls, and otherwise shapes this third entity–the learning relationship.  Similarly, while this third entity is created separate of the two individuals, in a healthy learning relationship, the two individuals do not develop a dependence on one another; instead, they still exist as two autonomous units, similar to how social media functions.  These autonomous individuals are able to post what they choose, follow their interests, and still benefit from a relationship through the instant feedback they receive within the social network, leading me to my final point, often overlooked, but incredibly critical to the success of any classroom, and a major contributor to the world’s captivation with social media.

Social media fosters autonomy.  The personalized classroom has a palpable, autonomous component, one where the responsibility of personalization does not lie solely in the hands of the teacher.  Instead, just as in any relationship, both stakeholders hold a third entity–the relationship, and in this case, the learning relationship–in their hands, each autonomous unit contributing what he or she will to said relationship.

This autonomy creates the aforementioned synergy. It allows individuals to not only enter into learning relationships with the teacher, but into learning relationships with each other.  In essence, autonomy is the lifeblood of the relationship.  It helps to bring new experiences to it to the relationship; it allows the external to penetrate the relationship that the two individuals have created.

Just the other day, I had a student talking about her interest in bugs.  As a result, I helped her assemble a small bug home that she could take home with her.  When she returned the next day, she noticed the bugs were dead.  She spoke about it at morning meeting, telling the other members of morning meeting about her predicament.

“Hey,” one of my students said, “you should do a passion project on that.  That’s what passion projects are for: to study stuff you’re interested in.”

And just like that, in that small moment, the relationships I had built with my students, as well as the relationships and conversations they were having with each other, created a culture of learning, one very similar to the serendipity of social media.

The major theme that emerges from all of these lessons is one of relationships.  While we live in a consumerist society, social media is everything but that, and likewise, if we want to create independent thinkers and innovators, we need to capitalize on the relationships we can build through technology, modeling these structures after the social media innovations of the early 21st century.  Through this, we can change the landscape of education, we can change the assumptions under which a great deal of ed tech is built, and we can find a way to build understanding that runs so much deeper than simply an understanding of math, reading, and writing.

We can build an understanding of each other.

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