Most of us teachers spend far too much class time suspiciously watching for kids sneaking glances at their Facebook on their phones. So, it might seem odd that I am writing a blog about the virtues of social media as a teaching tool. Yet for the past three semesters, I have been using Facebook Groups as a tool in my Pop Century: A History of Popular Music course. For their Final Project, the class divides into groups and teaches an entire class on an assigned genre of music. It is a huge project that involves a lot of research, music sourcing, and--most of all--communication--between the group members.
In past classes when group work has been assigned, I have sometimes felt more like a referee than a teacher. Members blame each other for a less than brilliant project. “She never answered my emails,” “He didn’t send his work through,” “She couldn’t come to the group meetings because of her internship” were just some of the cri du coeurs I’d hear on the day that the projects were due. So, I decided to do things differently in Pop Century because so much of a student’s Final Grade in that class is a result of how well they did on the final project.
Above: Lauren and Marlyana of The Country & Western Group help each other pick the various aspects of the genre to cover.
I wanted to create a ‘venue’ where students could easily communicate with each other, where it would be easy for them to post articles and links, and where I could supervise their progress, give them suggestions, and keep them on the right track (and see which students were doing the most work and which were slacking off). As every single student in Pop Century has a Facebook account, I instructed every group to create a Facebook Group for their genre.
Paola leaves a clip for Luciana (both were in this semester’s Easy Listening and Lounge Group), while Samantha asks me for some guidance.
The results were a great success. Students may ignore email messages from LIM College, but they positively live on Facebook. Updates, questions or suggestions about their presentations are seen and responded to almost immediately. Moreover, if I’m fooling around on the Internet and find a clip or article that might be useful to a group, it is far easier for me to simply leave it on the Facebook Group page, especially if I’m out and about and operating from my phone or tablet.
Knowing they are being watched, Big Brother style, by their instructor, encourages every group member to actively participate, as well as allowing the students in each group to get to know each other in a familiar setting. I have noticed that many of the students go on to add each other as friends on Facebook after working together on their group page.
From a teacher’s point of view, the Facebook Groups are a wonderful way to stay on top of students’ work, give guidance and encouragement, and avoid the “He Said, She Said” Syndrome oft associated with major group projects!
For any of my fellow profs out there tasked with substantial group projects, consider Social Media. To join a Facebook Group, you don’t have to add its members as friends (our lives are our own, after all). But it really has proven to be a wonderful teaching took; it turns Facebook into Workbook, and in such a way that students don’t even realize they’ve just spent two hours online chatting about their group presentation.
And of course, as it’s Facebook, there is always room for a little fun, too!
Amanda Hallay is a full-time professor at LIM College where she teaches courses that concentrate on the relationship between fashion, history and culture. She is a firm believer that the Internet is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Movie trailers promise that both Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz will soon amuse us with their antics as drunken teachers. Maybe only working teachers closely watch how teachers are portrayed on film. But the devolution of Hollywood fantasies about the classroom coincides with real-world contempt for teaching and learning that will cost the U.S. dearly.
Not just individual burned-out teachers, but teachers as a group are the object of attack in Waiting for Superman, a reality-show style “documentary,” that casts CEO Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone as a caped crusader. That is because his semi-private school, a favorite of corporate funders, is purportedly the opposite of public schools with unionized teachers. Doctors, lawyers, accountants and electricians have an ethical obligation to certify the expertise of their peers and bargain collectively. Teachers who want to retain the same principle, in this much-praised film that has inspired Washington to reproduce its strategy, are presented as free-loading obstructionist bureaucrats. Have teachers become less admired than lawyers?
Yet if groups of teachers are craven, how is the lone, devoted, rebel-teacher, the one who stands up to outdated educational bureaucracy, faring these days? We’ve come a long way from Blackboard Jungle, To Sir with Love, or even Lean on Me or Stand and Deliver. Today the violent teachers of those movies would be jailed for assault, not vindicated by turning the lives of gang-youth toward gainful employment.
Perhaps tough love has morphed into self-esteem training, if the Hillary Swank film Freedom Writers is representative. But despite good intentions and a distant inspiration by a true story, Freedom Writers was a flop compared to Half Nelson. In that film, Ryan Gosling teaches Marxist dialectical materialism to his students to empower them. As one might today expect of such a subversive, Gosling’s character also happens to be a crack addict. The two-fisted tough-love mentor now only harms himself as a tame substance abuser.
Self-medication might be an understandable reaction to the actual material dialectic of U.S. education in the last half-century. During the Cold War school-building boom of the 60s and 70s, other accelerations took place. The arms, engineering and space race neatly coincided with the demographic explosion of the Baby Boom. Every Boomer, then, wanted to be credentialed, which created a thriving market in degree-dilution. Jobs that once required a high-school degree ratcheted up to require a college degree. (In the Julia Roberts film, Tom Hanks, despite excellence in his job, is fired and goes to college to credential-up.) During the same period, the actual achievement of U.S. students slid down a slope when compared to that of other nations, particularly in reading, writing, math and social sciences.
Diving into the bottle may look good if one is cast as a cog in a machine turning out increasingly numerous degrees that signify less and less. The movie-cousin of the rebel-teacher is the rebel-detective, a hard-drinking outsider who battles a corrupt system.
Portraying teachers as embittered outsiders has been very popular, perhaps because teachers have an inconvenient habit of teaching the history of state politics in the classroom. Consider that recently New York, New Jersey and Wisconsin state legislatures decided, after the bad investments they made went south, to make up the difference by reneging on promised teacher (and other public worker) benefits. Voters love that idea. It turns out that despite how expensive and powerful teachers are supposed to be, they don’t have the public support or the resources to defend their own contracts.
George W. Bush’s and Barak Obama’s administrations have met the challenges of an oversupply of degrees and the decrease in educational quality with a smoke-stack economy answer. If we restyle “No Child Left Behind” as a “Race to the Top,” the strategy still assumes that education is like any other manufacturing enterprise. Centrally standardized benchmarks and frequent tests will boost quality. Such a view of education is fascinating from graduates of Columbia, Yale, and Harvard, which are all branded as places that nurture the one-of-a-kind excellence and entrepreneurial inventiveness of their students.
In any case, an ever tighter focus on testing as the gold-standard of product (student), and increasingly, teacher quality, is the new normal. Life is full of tests, but many of them are not in blue books or susceptible to theoretical solutions. Back to teachers: how much affection, respect and inspiration can the teacher as test-preparer and administrator generate?
The nations that are winning the global competition in education do test frequently. More importantly, they combine testing with an emphasis on academic subjects and a passion for enquiry, give little attention to sports and school-social events, and insist on small-class size, instruction until 5pm and short vacation breaks.
Shockingly, those nations also instituted large government investments in education, raised teacher salaries, and constructed teacher-development programs that attracted elite members of their societies. Winners in the education race also tend to make work-experience related to school intense, demanding and academically challenging, something proprietary colleges are positioned well to do.
But let’s return to movies. Slick films by John Hughes have not helped. The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off all promise that buying the coolest products and undergoing a style makeover are way better than any academic accomplishment. That fit the times. When production and consumption was perceived as a viable real world educational model, fantasies that the champion consumer was also the unappreciated champion student took hold.
Once the customer-student was a hero, the star of Legally Blonde could crash Harvard. Yet before Reese Witherspoon played a charming and intelligent fetishist of pink, Thorsten Veblen’s conspicuous consumer in heels, she portrayed a devious and driven conniver in a great film about venality in students and teachers, Election. Her earlier first role was simply the dark side of the second.
Facebook was devised as a money-making machine from the beginning, marketing fellow students to one another based on their sex appeal. But The Social Network invented a fantasy in which the obnoxious hero only slowly realizes the consumer potential of exploiting an invention initiated by others. Twin streams of intellectual theft and classmates-as-commodities became a river-flood of cash.
The late arrival of concern for education of the data-marketing barons Bill Gates, entertainment baron George Lukas, and even charitable efforts by Facebook, miraculously timed to offset bad publicity from The Social Network, have the potential to do a great good. Sometimes the data-marketing barons have simply tossed dollars at school systems. Sometimes they have funded political lobbying to privatize education. But their initiatives are likely to mature. The precedent is the educational efforts of the smoke-stack robber barons Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller, which eventually benefited education when the organizations they founded hired seasoned teachers as well as leaders recruited to overturn the status quo.
Yet now that the fantasy of education as high-end shopping has been inculcated for two generations, it would take a great deal to revitalize the tradition of education as a forum for hard-won discovery, a realm apart from instant gratification.
Let’s wish the characters that Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz portray well as they rediscover the joys of sobriety, doing their jobs, and, one can expect, finding romance. There are a few pockets of education that are not predicated on an assembly line, thank goodness, even if now movies cast the teachers, not the students, as the ones who must be redeemed. One can tune in South Park or The Simpsons to see the raunchy redoubt of education as liberation.
Rankings are dubious (particularly for business schools). Here is a selection of a few, but they must be weighed for the agenda of the group doing the ranking, methodology (often flawed by gathering information from the universities themselves), and scrutinized for several years to see if schools rise or fall with improbable rapidity.
In addition, as a rule of thumb, rankings are only meaningful within a particular discipline, such as school-psychology. Rankings of whole colleges and universities are highly suspect, even for “general education.”
Probably the most reliable “ranking” within the U.S., is published by the National Research Council (NRC). Their Report provides data-driven assessments of doctoral programs across the U.S.
http://www.nap.edu/rdp/. Other NRC publications evaluate U.S. education in the context of other nations.
International University Rankings
The Huffington Post
The Times (UK)
ARWU (Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University)
The Central Intelligence Agency report on expenditures on education as percent of GDP
(The U.S. is ranked #43)
International School Data
National Center for Education Statistics (data from various countries)
UNESCO data on pre- and post-secondary educational attainment
from The World Bank
A California lawmaker and former professor of education with an international focus, Mike Honda, discusses his ideas:
How Finland, a tiny country, but at the top of international comparisons of education, improved their schools
The McKinsey consulting firm’s report on how nations can turn around their schools, and how one size does not fit all:
A report by the Annenberg Foundation on how collaboration and idea-sharing can improve secondary schools
If you build a machine of 500 million potential customers by age 26, maybe it’s only natural that big name directors, producers and writers will want to tell your story on the silver screen and cash in on that too.
But apparently the founders of Facebook do not like the movie about them very much. They would like the film to praise their corporation even more uncritically, according to Yahoonews.com.
Yet perhaps it would be better if we were honest that the real purpose of Facebook, from its founding, has been to sell things. The stroke of its brilliance was to sell people to other people, an activity that earlier in history has received some notably bad press.
Not knowing who your friends are
Both times that I have seen the trailer for The Social Network, the upcoming movie about Facebook, someone sitting in the theatre next to me has shown that they know little about the corporation. “Did they get in trouble for creating it?” one said. Another almost whistled, “500 million users!”
Seeing a movie in a theatre is of course in itself a pre-web thing to do. Maybe it is not surprising that some fellow audience members were behind the technology curve.
However, bad things happen when people do not know basic facts about a corporation that sells information about them to marketers, influences their family life and activities, and has helped to redefine friendship and community.
Yet understanding is not likely to come soon, let alone critical thinking, about Facebook. The Facebook Effect, a book by David Kirkpatrick, is essentially a long advertisement for the corporation and praise for one of the cofounders, Marc Zuckerberg. Weaker books like The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich tried to jazz up the story of the lawsuits and bad blood between those who started Facebook into an exciting drama. They fall flat because the most of the real issues are technical, complex, and none of the main actors are obvious villains indicted or jailed. None of them are heroes either.
Could it also be that companies of a certain size are also more or less invulnerable? Is a popular technology seen as inevitable? Resistance is futile. Maybe too, Facebook founders are of a kind that no one likes to criticize: they were Harvard students who speak fairly well about how they have spread connectedness and awareness around the globe to the benefit of all humanity.
Facebook at LIM College
When we discussed Facebook in News and Reporting class at LIM College last year, students were surprised to learn that a game called Facebook was played in Boston in 1900, and that today’s “social network” has much in common with it. The game one hundred and ten years ago involved pictures of the guests who visited one’s home, a scrapbook to which guests contributed, and journal entries by hosts and visitors. Today people still post news of their parties, trips, family and pets in the modern Facebook, along with quotations and their everyday doings along with music they steal free of charge. Many use Facebook as an online, more or less public scrapbook, and it doubles as a worldwide diary too.
Some students in News Reporting mentioned that Facebook broke up relationships, invaded their privacy, and put them in an awkward relationship with people that they disliked. Others said that Facebook helped them get in touch with family and long-lost friends. But they grew a bit downhearted when just how shallow such relationships are came to light. Two students mentioned discomfort about trusting a corporation with making up rules about friendship and community. Facebook helped to popularize the idea of friends one does not know.
Most observers seem mesmerized by how quickly the company grew and its triumph in squashing rivals like MySpace, Orkut (India) and the nearly forgotten Friendster. To them the story is all about business and the Benjamins.
The Legendary Formula
People who like memoirs and literature recognize that the story of Facebook is currently being told according to a worn-out pattern: the rags-to-riches story. To freshen that tale, one can blend in a little Revenge of the Nerds, a bit about saving the world, and some shots of ivy-covered buildings.
The story of Facebook for a pop culture audience might stay at that level of fantasy for some time. The Pew and Annenberg media institutes and other serious analysts of media might be wise to post a more accurate story on a Facebook page. Just how powerful the corporation may become is not yet truly understood.
What’s easy to miss is the real genius of Facebook in claiming to fulfill basic human desires: to connect, to lessen loneliness, with just a hint of the possibility of finding romance. Is the corporation doing well on those scores? There have been studies showing lower grades, more social isolation, and a rising number of divores in which Facebook is a factor.
The role of one of the most successful brands in the world, Harvard, in giving Facebook a halo also cannot be forgotten. Anyone skeptical about the genuine value of the Harvard brand will enjoy the book Branded Nation, by James B. Twitchell, which explains how brand marketing has replaced an earlier kind of marketing that was based on the quality, mission and purpose of a business or institution. Branding can be done nobly or deceptively and we have to wait awhile to see which road Facebook chooses. Early signs are not promising.
That Facebook exists primarily to sell goods and services and mine data about consumers might be easy to overlook with Harvard and the desire to connect in the mix. The wealth of the founders is “awesome.” Let’s hope some viewers see through that.
Before release, the Facebook movie has Oscar buzz because David Fincher (director), Alan Sorkin (writer) and Scott Rudin (producer) are involved, according to L.A. Times.com:
Will Facebook and Twitter level the playing field, or will money still talk loudest in politics?
Facebook wants to know where you are, whenever and wherever you are