Edublog Awards: Teachers Embracing Digital Technology

As the year wraps up, take a look at the winners of this year’s International Edublog Awards. In true digital fashion, the awards ceremony was held on the Island of Jokaydia – in Second Life. Since a large part of the Digital Native project’s goal is to engage educators in a discussion about the digital world, it’s very encouraging to see these teachers taking the initiative.

All dressed up for the Edublog Awards.
All dressed up for the Edublog Awards. From the Flikr photo pool.

The winners of the awards range from Second Life classrooms to class wikis to teacher blogs. I’ll let the winners themselves do the talking, so here’s the list. What I find particularly noteworthy is the fact that teachers are not only collaborating with students online but, like their students, are collaborating with each other. As teachers adopt the same methods as their students, the dialogue should be able to more easily find a common denominator.

Digital education is one of the areas that has plenty of untapped potential. I would say that most of my classmates, who are otherwise immersed in digital technologies such as IM or Facebook, are still uncomfortable with wikis or blogs. Many courses already utilize blogs and forums as an extension of classroom discussion, but they are never very successful. Is this a reflection of our old- fashioned “analog habits” that will no longer exist in future generations or a fundamental need for face to face interaction when comes to learning? To what extent will digital technology replace real life classrooms in the future? If initiatives like MIT’s open course ware can be expanded, will all lectures and discussions happen online? Questions to ponder for the New Year.

Zipit Messenger: Is there a need for specialization in the age of convergence?

Zipit Wireless of South Carolina has introduced a new product, the Zipit Wireless Messenger 2, targeted at teenage text message senders. The company markets the device as a way to avoid the fee-based text messaging plans most wireless carriers provide by relying on WiFi hotspots (ala iPhone) and IM clients like AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger. For a $4.99 monthly fee, users can also send and receive text messages with cell phone users.

Personally, I find the product redundant for most users. Once equipped with a cell phone, few may carry around an additional device just to send messages. And for people that do adopt the product, its usefulness will depend on how often the user is inside a hotspot. I feel like a lot of the appeal of text messaging is the fact that it is entire mobile; one doesn’t need to relocate to send a message. The $149.99 Zipit Messenger 2 may not be conducive to truly ad hoc communication.

But the gadget is selling, at least in limited quantities. The Boston Globe reports sales in the tens of thousands. Whether it will reach critical mass may dependent on purchases for the upcoming holiday.

Do you think this product makes sense? Will teenagers use it as much as a phone? It appears to be in the exact opposite direction of the consumer electronics convergence craze we’ve witnessed in recent years. As other manufacturers are pushing smart phones that perform a host of different tasks, Zipit introduces a completely specialized and closed platform product. In my opinion, many DNs may find it inconvenient as it opposes to norms of constant connectedness and access to social online services. On the upside, it may reduce so-called information overload and distraction by only allowing access when within a hot spot. In that regard, it is more like an on/off utility instead of a continuous use personal tool.

Tony P

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“Digital natives” under attack! (as a metaphor)

MIT professor Henry Jenkins is one of several bloggers who have criticized the Digital Native/Digital Immigrant metaphor in recent weeks. Jenkins argues the metaphor oversimplifies and exaggerates generational distinctions, in the process letting adults “off the hook” for getting involved with technology and how kids use it.

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Jenkins discuss these concerns, along with many other issues, on stage with two other brilliant luminaries: Katie Salen, a game designer and professor at the Parsons School of Design, and Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard School of Education.

When Jenkins’s “native/immigrant” critique came up, Gardner responded that though the metaphor may be used simplistically, it still has value. “There’s clearly a difference between people who use these things easily and naturally and reflexively, and people for whom everything has to be translated into kind of another language.”

Jenkins acknowledged this, with what struck me as the ideal point of view.

“Metaphors are powerful things. They allow us to see some things clearly and they blind us to other things. And so I’m not saying we should throw out the metaphor and what it allows us to talk about. I’m saying we should constantly interrogate the metaphor for what it blinds us to seeing.”

Indeed. All along with this project, we’ve made a point to continually search for nuance and question our assumptions. In that spirit, over the next few days I’ll be writing more here about some of the questions that have been raised, both at last night’s forum, and in the blogosphere.

That said, I should make clear that the debate over metaphors constituted only a small part of an extremely fascinating 90 minutes, spanning a multitude of topics such as online ethics, cyber-bullying, media literacy, games, commercialism, curricula, and more. Video and audio of the forum is available from the Global Kids’ Digital Media Initiative blog, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Although there was way too much great material at the forum to cover it all on this blog, I do plan to write more about Katie Salen’s ideas about gaming’s social and educational aspects. I found them perhaps the most fascinating part of the whole evening, largely because the subject is one I was hardly aware of coming in.

In the meantime, what do you think of our much-maligned metaphor? Does it oversimplify, or simplify just enough? In Jenkins’s words, what does it show us, and what does it blind us to? Sound off in comments!

Jesse Baer

Digital Niche Communities

Prof. Oke’s comment a couple posts back and the coming end of the year reminded me of something I’d much rather forget — college applications. Early college decisions are coming back this Friday, and as a college freshman, the anxiety and the nerves of last year are still fresh on my mind. The stress of college applications naturally spilled over into my online life, so fall of my senior year, I began frequenting the forums at College Confidential.

College Confidential
bills its forums as the “Most popular on the Web!” The community is largely devoted to undergraduate college admissions, and its boards are populated with threads about college essays, interview tips, and choosing the right college college. There are a sizable number of parents and administrators on the site, but the large majority of posters are anxious teens.

As I have blogged about before, it makes sense that DNs will go to an online community for support and advice in times as stressful as college application season. Although I learned a great deal from those forums, I always came away vaguely uneasy. Whatever I gained was undoubtedly balanced out by the added stress from being in such a distorted environment. The site, unsurprisingly, caters mostly to students aiming for elite colleges. College Confidential is the kind of place that scoffs at 2400s and 4.0s. This isn’t be very healthy, is it?

The Internet can connect you with virtually anyone anywhere in the world, but we invariably choose to connect with individuals with whom we have common interests and goals. This creates self-perpetuating niche communities that may be skewed away from the mainstream. There, one can find acceptance for many different sets of values. High-pressure college admissions is a relatively innocuous example, but what if that niche community was, oh say, a pro-anorexia site?

The possible danger here is that DNs are at ages when their values are still being shaped, and the Internet can foster behavior that is healthy neither physically nor mentally. The Internet certainly did once have a reputation for being the hangout of loners and freaks. While I no longer hold this to be true, what is true is that there are communities that encourage maladjusted behavior. The proliferation of pro-anorexia sites is a particularly disturbing example, where members get tips for suppressing hunger and purging. A typical post might go something like this:

“Today was good. Only 200 calories + 5 hours at work where i’m on my feet all day. I feel a little dizzy, but the happy and proud feeling is 100x better. Although, i’m dreading tomorrow. I have to go to a restaurant with my friends for lunch.”

[Disclaimer] I hope this doesn’t come off as paranoid, as I do believe the vast majority of online discussion (not including spam of course) is productive and healthy.

Microcelebrity and Managing Online Identity

Clive Thompson of WIRED recently wrote a piece called The Age of the Microcelebrity. In it, he describes the phenomenon of being well known, followed, and even discussed by a group of followers, however small. Sure, well know bloggers like Scoble are followed by thousands of enthusiasts, but they are explicitly aware of this and, in my opinion, fall outside the realm of “microcelebrity.” As Thompson discusses interesting anecdotes of people being live blogged as they chat at a conference or his own experience finding a discussion about “whether it’s healthy for [him] to have a nanny look after [his] son during work hours ,” I started to consider how DNs negotiate this reality every day. How has the broadcasting of DNs affected their assumptions and how they operate?

Thompson suggests that “we are learning to live in front of a crowd,” and to some extent, I agree. It is normal on a Monday morning to receive e-mails that you have been “tagged” in photo albums that sprouted over the weekend. I imagine that bloggers with small followings experience the thrill of their posts being debated or discussed. For much of the information we post online about ourselves, privacy is not of paramount concern because we control it ourselves and—often, but not always—tailor the content for our target audience. But in some cases we may want to, as Thompson puts it and as I mentioned in an earlier post, use pseudonyms or private accounts to “wall off” personal details. And here is where many users of online services may go wrong. Although our profile may be hidden, the Terms of Use often allow the service provider to do anything it chooses with that data in the future. A false sense of security can be more harmful than none at all.

What are the effects of this (over)exposure to the rest of our social group and even beyond? Is it good to take care in what we say and do, for fear that we may be misrepresented? Or does that make normal conversation and expression rife with politics? Certainly the strains of managing one’s “personal brand” are felt more by working professionals than DNs still in school, but the skill to manage an online identity is a good one to have.

Thompson finishes with the keen observation that this may not be such a new thing: “Small-town living is a hotbed of bloglike gossip. “ It is true that networked communities dissolve geographic boundaries to give the feeling of that small down, but there are critical differences. Expression in the online world is replicable, searchable, oftentimes irremovable (from the web, once it circulates) and can be viewed by so-called invisible audiences. These differences are part of the digital literacy that is so important for DNs and other users of services to have and apply when negotiating their foray into the online world from the offline one.

   – Tony P.

The digital (native) Arab

Last week, Digital Natives’ principle investigator John Palfrey presented at the Fikr6 in Bahrain.  The conference was not explicitly about digital youth, but so much of the conversation ended up dominated by related themes.

Much of the conversation centered around digital youth and education – incredibly similar to conversations taking place here in the US, and throughout much of the world.  A key question, one that is being pronounced globally:  How can we reform our education system (and get our educators up to speed!) to take into account what youth are doing online, and with digital technologies – and how can the informal learning and creative skills arising from young people’s digital fluency be incorporated into the formal education system?

Mahmood, one of the leading bloggers in the Arab world, and certainly in Bahrain, reflects on the conference, and on how the fluency of youth in the digital world calls for a re-formulation of the educator’s role.  He writes:

 Young people are at the forefront of the technology curve, most of the time way ahead of their own teachers; hence, a serious investment should be applied to the teachers to get them retrained in new technologies not as “rote learning providers” or ones who teach how to use simple computer operations, but be mentors and enthusiastic educators who can explain the new trends and technologies which in turn will allow their charges to easily absorb and apply that information.

Digital Natives in the Arab world certainly have a unique set of issues to tackle within the digital world – from cultural differences in what should be available online, as Berkman Center’s Open Net Initiative investigates, to what to do about the “brain drain” (or what not to do – when considering how global connectivity enables “drained brain(s)” to be present, in many ways, at home), to thinking about the expansions of new industries within the region.  Certainly, youth in the Arab world experience high levels of inequality in terms of access to digital technologies – although Global Voices Bahrain blogger Esra’a blogs that this divide is closing.

Nevertheless, the common, global strains of issues arising from the emergence of the new digital generation – the digital natives that exist worldwide – are definitely present.   Now, how can we best collaborate to come up with globally-informed solutions to local challenges facing countries the world-over?  Education seems like a great place to start.

– Miriam S.

Much Ado About RUCKUS

Buried in the 747pages that make up the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 (COAA) is a small clause that holds colleges responsible for curbing digital piracy on their networks. Its passage in the House (it has not yet passed the Senate) prompted discussion, both contentious and cautious over how this act will be enforced. Yet what interests me, is this phrase, which asks universities to

develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property.

Think about it. There are already a cornucopia of digital alternatives to illegal downloading: iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, amazonmp3, Real.com, and many many more. Despite these options, illegal downloading continues to be the way almost all college students obtain their music, and most of them don’t think twice about it.

I was speaking with a friend at Cornell last night, and it seems her university has already implemented a program like that described in COAA. Cornell, along with nearly 200 other universities such as Princeton and UCLA, currently subscribes to a site called RUCKUS. RUCKUS provides legal downloads of music, movies, and TV shows to their subscribers. According to my friend though, most of her classmates still downloaded illegally because it was so much more convenient. In her words, “no ads, no bullshit, just pure, sweet, free downloads.” Indeed it seems like RUCKUS is not as great as it markets itself: the site is annoying as a MySpace page on steroids, and the selection is very limited. You also have to download a special RUCKUS player to listen to the music and pay an extra $20 dollars a month to move files from your computer to an mp3 player. Suddenly piracy sounds a whole lot easier.

My anecdotal evidence is, of course, highly unscientific, but it did get me thinking about whether COAA’s clause is even viable. Any working alternative to illegal downloading must be at least as easy and convenient, if not even more so, than current piracy technology. And for the RIAA and MPAA, who are paranoid about file-sharing, that’s pretty difficult. Attempts to control downloads, such as DRM technology, will only drive college students to the convenience of illegal file-sharing. If the legal option were just as good as the illegal one, though, I don’t see why most college students wouldn’t use it.

Of course, to take a step back, trying to change this problem at the college level may just be too late. Any strategy that strives to be effective in the long-term will get ’em early and get ’em young, before the habits of illegal downloading are even formed. Is there hope for my generation? Alas, we shall see.

-Sarah Z.

Music, public spaces, civic engagement, and how to not let copyright stand in the way

Just came across Undersound, a very cool project at http://www.undersound.org/

It’s a prototype being developed that fuses Mp3 players, file sharing, and riding the Tube in London and brings it to the next level – kind of a futuristic, interactive labyrinth of music sharing. People riding the Tube upload and download songs from various stations, and from others that are in the same carriage as they ride the tube. The designers‘ goal is to infuse “riding the Tube and listening to the Mp3 player” with social interaction, a sense of place, and a lesson in one’s role in the globally connected world (and that you do have an impact):

“Through the stories that each of the [music] tracks tells us, I can now see that my personal choices have a global effect and, if I so desire, I can alter my course of action with this new knowledge in hand.”

Such a project seems such a logical extension of mobile technology practices and culture of sharing that are the norm in the Digital Native life. It is also so filled with promise – not only in looking towards a solution in issues that are creeping up in regards to the loss of a social public (as Robert Putnam and Sherry Turkle point to) due to mobile technologies (and their propensity to take us “elsewhere” than where we physically are), but also to encourage civic engagement. Our research is showing that youth that are engaged in social or political issues do use digital tools to learn more about, promote and discuss their cause, but it doesn’t *seem* as though the web itself (and the capabilities if offers) actually encourages such engagement. It seems as though a project like Undersound – where you actually see your ripple/global effect upon the system and others, would very much encourage civic engagement among a new generation…and on their own (filesharing) terms.

But how can such a project co-exist with copyright regulations? Well, how about Creative Commons? By allowing a system to only accept files with appropriate CC licenses – projects like Undersound can become legal, and thereby, become reality. In the digital world, when there’s a problem, think about the technological solution! As my colleagues at Berkman point out, systems can be put in place to read the metadata off any file, filtering out any files that are shared with out artist permission. Beyond social and civic potentials in Undersound, one can see how such a project just become a huge opportunity for unsigned artists.

Currently, file sharing happens on grand anonymous scales, and people travel throughout cities often disconnected from the space they’re in, and the people around them – Undersound brings together file sharing and mobile technology, and brings with it the benefits of social connection, of enabling people to see their impact on a larger system, and of course, of sharing music.

Hey, I’d enjoy my morning T-ride a whole lot more 😉

– Miriam S.

Discussing ‘Born Digital’ with European Students

(Cross posted from Dr. Gasser’s blog)

John Palfrey and I are getting tremendously helpful feedback on the draft v.0.9 of our forthcoming book Born Digital (Basic Books, German translation with Hanser) from a number of great students at Harvard and St. Gallen Law School, respectively. Last week, John and I had an inspiring conversation about the current draft with our first readers on this side of the Atlantic: a small, but great and diverse group of law students here at www.unisg.ch. The students, coming from Switzerland, Germany, France, Singapore, and the U.S., were kind enough to share their feedback with us based on reaction papers they’ve drafted in response to assigned book chapters.

Today, the second session took place. John and I are currently revisiting the final chapter of the book. The “final” chapter, of course, is by no means “final” – even not if it once becomes a chapter of the printed book. What we’re trying to do is simply to synthesize some of the things we’ve said so far, and to look ahead once again and ask ourselves how the digital world will look like for our kids given the things we know – and we don’t know – about their digital lives. In this spirit, the last chapter of the book in particular is an open invitation to join the discussion about the promises and challenges of the Internet for a population that is born digital. Against this backdrop, we prepared three discussion questions for today’s session here in St. Gallen.

First, what do you think is the greatest opportunity for Digital Natives when it comes to digital technologies? Second, what are you most concerned about when thinking about the future of the Internet? Third, what approach – generically speaking – seems best suited to address the challenges you’ve identified?

Here are the students’ thoughts in brief:

Greatest opportunities:

  • Democratizing effect of the net: DNs can build their own businesses without huge upfront investments (Rene, Switzerland)
  • ICT enables networking among people across boundaries (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Encourages communication among DNs (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • Increased availability of all kind of information, allows fast development and sharing ideas among DNs (Jonas, Germany)
  • Availability of information, DN can go online and find everything they’re looking for; this shapes, e.g., the way DNs do research; as a result, world becomes a smaller place, more common denominators in terms of shared knowledge and culture (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Efficiency gains in all areas, including speed of access, spread of ideas, … (Eugene, Singapore)

Greatest challenges, long-term:

  • Problem of losing one’s identity – losing cultural identity in the sea of diversity (Eugene, Singapore)
  • Dependency on technology and helplessness when not having the technology available; DNs are becoming dependent on technology and lose ability to differentiate b/w reality and virtuality; other key challenge: bullying (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Who will get access to the digital world – only the wealthy kids in the West or others, too? Digital divide as a key problem (Jonas, Germany)
  • Addiction: DNs are always online and depend so much on Internet that it may lead to addictive behavior (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • DNs can’t distinguish between offline and online world, they can’t keep, e.g. online and offline identities separate (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Notion of friendship changes; DNs might forget about their friends in the immediate neighborhood and focus solely on the virtual (Rene, Switzerland)

Most promising approaches:

  • Teach digital natives how to use social networks and communicate with each other; law, in general, is not a good mode of regulation in cyberspace (Rene, Switzerland)
  • Technology may often provide a solution in response to a technologically-created problem like, e.g., privacy intrusion (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Don’t regulate too much, otherwise people won’t feel responsible anymore; education is key, help people to understand that it’s their own responsibility (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • The laws that are currently in place suffice (except in special circumstances); learning is key, but who shall be the teacher (since today’s teachers are not DNs)? (Jonas, Germany)
  • Generic legal rules are often not the right tool, problems change too fast; instead, kids need general understanding of how to handle technology; goal could be to strengthen their personality in the offline world so that they can transfer their confidence, but also skills to the online world (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Technology will most likely help DNs to solve many of the problems we face today; education is the basis, but focus needs to be on the question how to put education from theory into practice (Eugene, Singapore)

As always, we were running short in time, but hopefully we can continue our discussion online. Please join us, and check out our project wiki (new design, many thanks to Sarah!), our new DN blog, or for instance our Facebook group. John, our terrific team, and I are much looking forward to continuing the debate!

-Urs G.

Hollywood Writers: putting their pencils down to strike, bloging to communicate

The other day I was browsing videos on youtube.com when I stumbled upon a video called “The Office is Closed”. In this video a number of writers from the ABC show “The Office” were venting their frustration and supporting the writers’ strike. Almost a month ago, on November 5th, 2007, members of The Writer’s Guild of America began the first strike Hollywood has seen in 20 years. As you have probably seen on the news or read online, the writers of the WGA have stopped all work and have forced TV series and talk shows to revert to reruns. I had heard about the strike but didn’t know much about the specifics, so I decided to do some research. I went to the WGA official website and found a list of demands. The first demand listed on their official website is the following: “address coverage and minimums for writing for the Internet and other non-traditional media…” This particular demand captivated my attention because, while I don’t watch TV, I definitely sneak in episodes of The Office in between checking my email and doing research online. After reading the list of demands, I found my way to unitedhollywood.com. There, I watched a three minute youtube video titled “Why We Fight” where I learned everything I needed to know about the strike. It seems that writers are not receiving any compensation for the episodes that are aired online in websites such as abc.com, or nbc.com. As a growing number of fans begin to watch their favorite shows online, writers worry, and I think rightly, that their compensations will continue to shrink.

The strike is not only massive in its presence on the streets, its presence on the Internet is growing every day and it is reaching more and more people. An article in the Associated Press titled “Striking Hollywood Writers Vent Online” mentions different blogs and videos on youtube.com that have been created by the writers and supporters expressing their frustrations. Individuals are responding to the writers’ blogs either expressing their support, or disagreeing with the riots. Many have decided to stop watching shows online until the writers get their fair share, while others have made their own youtube videos to voice their opinions.

If you have been browsing the Internet recently you might have seen how the writers have taken on the Internet – the same tool the studios and networks have been using to increase their earnings through online ads, while avoiding compensations to the writers – as a tool to bring in supporters and to communicate their demands. Digital Natives are more susceptible to content online and are more likely to pay attention and respond if this content is creative and innovative. Given their strong presence online, writers and their supporters are certainly reaching a larger audience with their creative use of digital media.