George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Tech Prophet Predicts

Teaching social media will revolutionize the world of learning.
By Richard Rapaport
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Author and Bay Area professor Howard Rheingold

Courtesy of Howard Rheingold

This article is part three in the series "The New Literacy: Scenes from the Digital Divide 2.0."

"Instead of delivering a set of facts to students, we are engaging them in learning how to get those facts themselves."

The notion of an epochal new-media digital divide shows up in the work of digital theorists such as Howard Rheingold, whose 2002 book, Smart Mobs, posits future generations with the tools of digital literacy and social networking increasingly wired into the brain. The result, Rheingold suggests, will be digitally enabled "smart mobs" that are able to form and dissolve with ease, offering a new way to deal with today's intractable political, social, and economic problems and bringing into being a new educational paradigm.

Wearing a paisley shirt and Panama hat during our interview, Howard Rheingold looks more like a California throwback than the legendary visionary he is. At the fabled Silicon Valley technology incubator, Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), where the computer pull-down menu and mouse were first conceived, Rheingold was a central figure. He was also closely associated with the 1970's Marin County techno-media cabal responsible for a digital gathering of thinkers known as The WELL, and he helped create the first commercial Web magazine, Hotwired.

Teaching new media at the University of California at Berkeley and digital journalism at Stanford University over the last decade has shown Rheingold that today's students -- digital natives -- are entirely comfortable in a realm they know not "as a transformative new technology but simply as a feature of the environment." Still, he says, "There is nothing innate about knowing how to apply their technical ease to the complex processes of civil society or scientific or scholarly innovation." That, he believes, needs to be taught and mastered.

In 2008, Rheingold was one of 17 winners of the MacArthur Foundation's Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (that mouthful compresses to HASTAC, pronounced "haystack") Digital Media and Learning Competition. The shared $2 million prize is, according to its prospectus, intended to "ensure that humanistic and humane considerations are never far from technological innovation." Rheingold's own project is the creation of an online social-media classroom. It is designed for teaching smart-mob participatory-media theory and practice, and it focuses "on the criticality of using social media to help students learn about social media," says Rheingold.

The educational upside to digital literacy, Rheingold insists, is transcendental. The use of Web 2.0, with its new digital production tools, information-gathering capabilities, and distribution networks "will enable people to mobilize new, powerful forms of collective action," he states. An important part of Rheingold's curriculum, both online and off, involves learning to manipulate the tools and networks that enable a wide range of collective work.

Rheingold ticks off examples: "Wikipedia for the community production of knowledge; YouTube, Flickr, and the blogosphere for cultural exploration; free and open-source software for tools; eBay and Craigslist for markets; Open Educational Resources for education; citizen journalism sites such as NewsTrust and Assignment Zero for journalism; and Meetup, netroots, and smart mobs for political activism." Rheingold adds, "Each of these can help coordinate action in the physical world on scales and at speeds never before possible."

Rheingold thinks that teaching social media will have the effect of revolutionizing the world of learning. "Instead of delivering a set of facts to students," he says, "we are engaging them in learning how to get those facts themselves." Rheingold is no Pollyanna, however. He sees inherent problems in the new world of media literacy, in particular "the shift in the responsibility for the authority of information from publishers to consumers." He notes, "In this new media world, the authority of the texts are uncertain and must always be questioned." He also suggests the possibility of resistance to the teaching of new social media because the notion of universal, 24/7 access to knowledge "is a direct challenge to teachers as the authorities who deliver information in lectures, with students replaying that information in tests."

Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes regularly to Edutopia.

This article is the third of five parts. Go to part four to continue, or part one to begin.

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