If one word captures Howard Rheingold's writing about the political, cultural, and social impact of new technologies, that word is prescient.
In 1987, Howard was one of the first to write about the peer-to-peer power of virtual communities building collective intelligence. In 2002, he coined the term "smart mobs" to describe self-structuring social groups and the intelligent behaviors that emerge when new technologies converge.
Not only does he detect change before everyone else does, but Howard also writes about the complex interplay of technology, society, and culture with clarity, depth, candor, and profound insight.
We caught up with Howard in late December and shared some of Project Information Literacy's (PIL) latest findings with him. In particular, we discussed what he has called "the myth of the digital native," the use of social media in learning environments, and what digital literacy has come to mean for preparing students in the 21st century.
PIL: Since 2003, you have been teaching college students at Berkeley and Stanford. You have written elsewhere that one of the biggest surprises to you was that not all of your students were "digital natives." What is the myth of the digital native and why might it need some debunking?
Howard: My daughter was a senior at Stanford the year I started teaching there, and I had assumed that my students would be like my daughter and her friends, and like the tech-savvy "digital natives" I had heard so much about. I had assumed that all of them would know exactly what I was talking about when I announced at the first class meeting that the syllabus is on a wiki which I expect them to edit, that we would continue in-class discussions online in the Web forum, that each of them was expected to collect and tag social bookmarks, and that each of them would be writing a reflective blog. I had not expected blank looks. I had not expected that so many laptop-carrying, one-handed-texting millennials would not know how to self-organize via wikis or to express critical and reflective opinions on blogs.
They could IM and play games and Facebook, but the rhetorical skills I had assumed they would exhibit turned out to be unevenly distributed. I learned quickly that there is always a student, sometimes more than one, who know more than I do about digital media. I make a point of identifying those students early and learning from them. Learning from each other is one of the things we ought to do with social media. Take a look at YouTube – although many young people are surprisingly untutored in digital media creation, there are also an astonishing number of different communities out there who are showing each other how it's done, from fan vidders and anime music video makers to self-taught programmers, makers of musical instruments, horror-movie make-up artists. But skilled digital creators and peer learners are not yet the majority I had thought them to be.
It takes a few years to teach young people to read and write in the first place, but of course that is not the end of their rhetorical schooling. They require further guided practice to compose a coherent sentence, organize a research paper, and present a written argument. Some of them even continue to perfect these literacies as university students, graduate students, and professors. Web tools might be easy to use, but using them well does not come automatically with either the technology or the age cohort. As quickly as young people are adopting new media, and as quickly as technology vendors are introducing new media, their social norms have trouble keeping up, as well. I started teaching the first year that college students were introduced to Facebook as soon as they arrived. I was there four years later when they were the first to discover that they were denied entrance to graduate school or failed to get the job they were seeking because of their drunken Facebook pictures. Now they need to think about their Googlejuice, being tracked by cookies, their online reputations and digital footprints. Inscribing relationships through "Friending," signaling and announcing changes in romantic availability by changing a status update or by Tweeting – every year, new cognitive, social, pedagogical changes arise.
Dealing with the rate of change is also an issue. My students complained of being overwhelmed by the constant availability and challenges of dealing with social media while being a student. I asked them about this feeling of constant overwhelm and was surprised to discover some of them were suffering under the delusion that high school was overwhelming because they were trying to get into a good college and college was overwhelming because everyone takes a heavy course load, but life after college would somehow not be overwhelming. It's not just about the skills needed to use social media effectively – part of the challenge to students today is finding ways to deal with the milieu of pervasive social media. All information and all people are available to everybody else at all times. The technology made always-on everywhere media possible very quickly, but individuals and society are taking longer to adjust our thinking and our social practices.
PIL: In our 2010 Project Information Survey (PIL) student survey, we asked over 8,000 students on 25 different U.S. campuses whether they had used a range of Web 2.0 technologies for supporting course research tasks. We were surprised to learn few students surveyed had not used microblogs, like Twitter (8%), or wikis, other than Wikipedia (18%) during the past six months. The most used application were document-sharing applications, such as Google Documents (48%). What two or three reasons would you say are keeping social media being more actively used in learning environments? And, as a proponent of social media for pedagogy, what unique skills does social media teach students?
Howard: As I noted in my first answer, I think we need to dispense with the assumption that a majority of young people are skillful users of social media. At the same time, I would not be surprised if your 2011 PIL results show a jump. The action might not be at wikis or Twitter, but how about Tumblr? The proliferation of new media, each with its own rhetoric and subculture, is making for a proliferation of literacies. You might see this as fragmentation, or you could see it as a flowering of diversity of means of expression. Students use phones and cameras, games and Facebook as part of their social life – trying out new identities on peers and finding out what's cool are always part of youth culture and these media afford an extension of those age-old youth activities in new realms. But if their teachers aren't using microblogs or wikis, forums or social bookmarking, why should we expect young people to pick up these skills naturally?
Your last question is a big one. Henry Jenkins taught me to think in a bigger frame than simply new media skills. Living in a highly mediated environment, dealing with the social, political, economic implications of networked digital publics is a meta-skill of the highest importance. If basic literacy and some kind of semi-rational, quasi-civil discourse about political issues is necessary for citizens to be able to govern themselves in democracies, then aren't wiki collaboration skills and blog advocacy skills also important? Like Jenkins, Yochai Benkler, Clay Shirky and others, I recognize that people who create as well as consume digital cultural products see themselves differently than those who have less of an opportunity for agency. An active creator is not just engaging in self-expression, but is helping to build, grow, and improve a participatory culture.
Why aren't social media being more actively used in learning environments? Of course, educational institutions themselves are notoriously slow to change. And it isn't as if resources were being lavished on public education in America. There's a lot of fear of cutting young people loose online – the result of the moral panics that concentrated attention on porn while young people should have been taught he all-important skills of sorting accurate information from bogus information. So many parents and school administrators believe that the greatest danger of letting young people spend time online is sexual shenanigans (a myth that Sonia Livingstone dismisses with ample empirical data in her book Children and the Internet). No, by far the greatest danger is proving to be letting young people loose on the Web without teaching them elementary crap detection.
Unique skills to be gained from facility with social media? The ability to find your own answers as individuals and teams, and to critically examine those answers, to build and use personal learning networks, grow social capital, organize collective action – so many powerful and essential skills that is almost embarrassing that the question has to be asked in this day and age.
PIL: In a recent keynote, you said that digital literacy is "not so much about the technology, itself, but about the 'know how' of using technology." What's this mean? How do you define "digital literacies"? What should educators be thinking about when preparing students and making them more digitally literate?
Howard: Anybody can put a search term into a search engine. It take critical inquiry to pursue the search further, to gather context as well as answers, and, most importantly, to test the validity of truth claims. Critical thinking is an old story, and there is a wealth of material available for teaching it. The irrevocable destruction of the authority of the text and the assumed unreliability of information found online require the consumers of knowledge to learn how to act like intellectual detectives. Crap Detection 101 is the absolutely necessary foundation. And then they should be shown how to stop listening for questions that are likely to be on the test and start engaging each other in collaborative inquiry. Again, this is not know – it's Freire's description of the poverty of the banking model of education. What is new is the collision of this sudden cornucopia of unreliable information, ubiquitous powerful cultural technologies and a generation for whom the Web is not an innovation, but a feature of the environment, like running water.
PIL: Let's shift gears and talk about librarians and their role in all of digital literacy. In our ongoing research at PIL, we have found that most college students "cherry pick" their campus library by frequently using library resources—databases, such as JSTOR, ProQuest, and EBSCO—but that far fewer of them consult librarians for help with research assignments. What is the role of librarians in helping prepare their students for the 21st century? Do you have any examples of how librarians are using social media to work with students?
Howard: Meet Buffy J. Hamilton: http://dmlcentral.net/blog/howard-rheingold/librarian-20-buffy-j-hamilton
PIL: Tell us a bit more about the free and open source "Social Media Classroom," a project you began several years ago when you envisioned an open platform "University of Tomorrow." Are educators flocking to the Social Media Classroom site? What do you count as your successes?
Howard: Funded by an award from the MacArthur Foundation & HASTAC's Digital Media and Learning competition I developed the Social Media Classroom http://socialmediaclassroom.com, together with Drupal developer Sam Rose, in order to provide teachers and students with a free and open source, browser-based platform for using forums, blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, and mindmapping for teaching and learning. In response to what my students told me after my first years of experimenting with social media, I wanted a single sign-on platform in which each of the different media were available under a different tab in a uniform user interface. I think of it as a kind of onramp to the mix-and-match world of Web 2.0 social media. Graduate students at University of California at Berkeley School of Information are using it and introducing it to faculty there; they wrote a report about it.
About fifty educators around the world are using instances on our hosted server. I don't know how many have downloaded and installed their own instances. I've learned that we have work to do in order to provide scaffolding for educators – step-by-step how-to guides that show them how to install, configure, and use the SMC.
His book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Basic Books, 2002) defined social networking and the convergence of mobile, wireless, and Internet connected devices before spreading in epidemic proportions in the U.S. The New York Times called Howard's best-selling book one of the most important "idea books" of 2002.
Today, Howard is working on a new book, to be published by MIT Press in spring 2012 is about social media literacies, and a topic he is decidedly conversant on. At last count, he had 20,950 followers on Twitter. Howard's Social Media Classroom is an open source Web service (Drupal-based) for "co-teaching" students in learning environments, using a variety of Web 2.0 open source tools.
Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of finding and using information, conducting research, and managing technology in the digital age.
Smart Talks is an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL). PIL is an ongoing research study, based in the University of Washington's Information School and supported with contributing funds from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Smart Talks are open-access. No permission for its use is required from PIL, though we ask that this source be cited as:
Project Information Literacy Smart Talk, no. 5, Howard Rheingold, "Crap Detection 101: Required Coursework," January 3, 2011. Email interview with Howard Rheingold conducted by Alison Head, Co-Director and Co-Principal Investigator at PIL.