(You can find us in the Facebook Group ‘Community of Praxis: TeachDifferent’. Just ask to join the group – if you think you might resemble a spambot it might be worth a quick message to ‘Lou Northern’ first 🙂)
It’s been interesting, pioneering the use of Facebook as a channel of communication for the Community of Praxis. I’ve spent twenty years working in politically correct environments in the NHS and at The Northern College, where challenge is carefully couched in respectful language, if it’s directly made at all. The ‘fetish of assertion’ (Bernard Williams, 2002) is present, but subtly so.
I’ve always quite regretted that, being from a more forthright culture. But when I started to run workshops and give presentations around our use of Facebook, I was unprepared for what came back at me. Didactic comments were rife and ranged from assumptions that I was naive to accusations that I was exposing my students to bullying. Almost as soon as the comments began to interrupt my first presentation, there was a competing chime of people jumping in to justify their own use of the platform. Anecdotal ‘evidence’ was everywhere. It was a free-for-all, not something I’ve experienced very often in my teaching. And these were teacher educators.
This false dilemma threatened to prevent us having any useful discussion around the Community of Praxis. Rather like the House of Commons, oppositional views confronted one another with not a little verbal aggression, whilst the silent majority sat with their arms folded. I had to raise my voice.
Order regained, I confessed that I was shocked. What was it about Facebook that caused this polarised thinking? Why did people have to be for or against? (If you find yourself taking up sides right now, then please stop.) I couldn’t think of any other item on a teacher education agenda that might split people’s thinking in this way. After all, everyone was pretty much agreed about that other contemporary bone of contention, the IfL!
I muddled through the rest of the workshop, but it troubled me and I went back home to lick my wounds and think some more. I realised I’d missed signs in my own workplace that these might be the prevailing views, that there wasn’t much discourse going on in the middle ground. Not much dialogic thinking (Sennett, 2008). I figured that, instead of keeping on fighting to be heard, I’d spend some time listening.
What I heard initially was, I think, a smokescreen. It seemed that the most acceptable/irrefutable damning of Facebook was on the grounds that its algorithms store your personal information and use it for capitalistic ends. This is true. It’s also true of Google and of many other huge players in the internet world. I admire those people who seek out ethical online pathways, and stick to them. If you don’t – ever – use Google as your search engine, you have the right to take the moral high ground with me and I will listen to you. I would like to be like you, but, for now, I more than anything want to see whether I can use Facebook to enrich my students’ learning.
The next layer of resistance was around bullying. It’s true that Facebook can be used to bully people, especially young people. I have a sixteen year old son, so I’m not unaware of its dangers. It has also been used to bully me and this taught me to protect myself better. James Clay (@jamesclay), in one of those early workshops, made the point that the weapon most used to bully is the voice, and were we going to stop our students speaking to one another, in or out of class? I took heart from this. If we are going to explore new avenues for discourse, we need new rules – and as those avenues develop, we need mindfulness around our boundaries too. Isn’t that always part of accommodating change in life, as we move into new social settings?
I heard then about exclusion. Not everyone chooses to have a Facebook account. I get that. I just find it hard to balance against the tumbleweed which rolled across the University’s Blackboard discussion board whenever I tried to get a discussion going. Everything that everyone needs to hear goes out via email and, if necessary (snow!) text. But Facebook, I found, is where people choose to gather. And one of the best things about having a Facebook group is that those students who are the least likely to engage in ‘official’ channels, will find themselves there anyway and maybe join in…
Finally, a persuasive argument about having to read people’s ‘what I had for breakfast’ status updates. Use the ‘Hide’ function. Simple.
I’m aware that this is defensive. I’m also aware that there are some really good, education focused, platforms out there, such as Edmodo and Yammer. I’ll be trying them out. But until then, as long as I have the opportunity to access, feed from, grow from, a string of healthy discussion threads, I’ll be joining the Community of Praxis on our Facebook page. Hope you might think about joining us too.