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Social media skills are essential in a participatory online world

By Trudy Dunham

Social media have profoundly changed how we experience our connections with each other. But the connections are more than just social -- they help us to create and contribute to our world. They enable us to participate as citizens in today's participatory culture.

In a webinar this week put on by our center and PEAR , Karen Brennan drew on her research with Scratch, a computer programming language developed at MIT for use in education, to talk about the socialization-creation continuum. At the midpoint of this continuum is that space where we are most engaged and productive, doing more together than we could have achieved alone.

Several years ago Henry Jenkins and his team at the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT described that midpoint as a participatory culture, as one with "relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to the novices. ... one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another."

Social media contribute to the vibrancy of such a culture today. They have become an essential tool: increasingly how we participate as citizens, how we interact with each other, and how we experience our world. As programs and professionals dedicated to positive youth development, we must ensure that youth are skilled in their effective use.

Jenkins listed 11 skills that youth need to flourish in this world, including among them environmental scanning, collective intelligence and playing (experimenting with one's surroundings as a problem-solving strategy). Jenkins' skill set draws us further into the application and integration of social media, providing a deeper understanding of how our ability to work with social media, technology and information can impact our shared social experience of living in today's world. Are we building these skills into our youth development programs?

An area I've been thinking about is the need for a new paradigm to present information and discuss issues leading to new answers. The interactions of our leaders, from neighborhoods to multinational organizations, showcase the difficulty of agreeing on facts and solutions. Our classical debate format and scientific argumentation methods are not particularly effective in educating or persuading in today's world.

Instead of pointing out the flaws or misstatements in another's argument, perhaps today's citizen needs to actively contribute to the knowledge base. Posting their experiences and ideas on an issue, reframing it from their perspective, using the iterative process of multiple posts from multiple people, connecting with each other and contributing to crowdsource our way to new insights, truths, and solutions.

As today's youth engage in civic activities that improve their communities and our world, we want youth to feel the sense of empowerment that comes from using social media to work collaboratively to solve problems and create in today's participatory culture. What are we doing, or could we be doing, to make this happen?

Trudy Dunham, former research fellow

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  1. We do want youth engaged in ways that improved their communities. Part of the problem might be that we've not really captured the issues of youth in language that they can see options that reflect how they frame their worlds. If they do engage, do we allow them to move the conversation in ways that things make sense to them or do adults/experts keep reframing thoughts/ideas to fit a disconnected world? Above all, youth will need to initiate and drive the conversation.

  2. I find your blog most intriguing and a bit troubling. Your description of the failure of classic dialogue in our culture today is disturbing. The suggestion to shift from this to a new paradigm based on knowledge contribution is intriguing. The investment of ego of those engaged in the social media could be a motivator and create a more dialogic environment.
    A question I have is how to get the youth to engage in media with a broad set of "friends" that expose them to varying points of view and cultural perspectives instead of the current practice of building walled in worlds insulated from opposing thought.

  3. Barbara - good points! We too often try to control the direction of the conversation, or the activity, so it goes where we think it should go. Providing opportunities for youth to state the problem from the beginning, in their language and from their perspective is a good option. Or perhaps for each youth to state it, as we should not assume that all youth think alike. And allow them to move the conversation further with perhaps some guiding questions from adults where warranted.

  4. Jay - I find the failure of classical dialogue and civil discourse in our culture, from Congress to Talk Radio, disturbing. So I'm wondering about new models that allow us to at least accept another's perspective as valid for the purpose of discussion. Today's social media is more accepting of the concept of mash up, borrowing from what someone else contributes and combining it with your own ideas to create a new and hopefully stronger ideas. The crowdsourcing will, in some situations anyway, allow us to create a more dialogic environment, and the ownership of an idea less important. Pulling in a diverse group of youth to contribute to such a conversation is key, and I'm not sure how to make it happen. How do we identify them? SoMe that sends a text messages to all youth living in a community, or belonging to an organization, asking them to respond to a statement might be one way.

  5. Jay and Trudy, I think you raise important issues. Are young people encouraged to share what they know? And, are we addressing issues that are important to their lives? The language issue, as Barbara raised, exists, but I don't think that it is the major barrier.
    If these online (or real world) environments are not developed by the youth themselves, what can we do to invite them into the conversation and make sure the topics addressed are relevant to them? And how can we, who create these learning environments, transfer power to young people allowing them to decide on the direction of the conversation?
    Another challenge we face is how to foster constructive argumentation or debate. So much of current educational is one-sided, and where there are opportunities for conversation, the user is likely untrained in the skills of constructive argumentation.
    I think we need to consider the following:
    1. What interests today's youth?
    2. How can we produce resources that invite their participation?
    3. Are there ways that argumentation and user contributions can be scaffolded?
    Scratch is a great resource and fosters a rich community of learners. I'm also interested in how we can move youth towards debate of issues that will influence the future of the world in which they live.

  6. Molly - good comments.One way to see determine what interests youth is to ask them, but as Jay points out if they aren't already exposed to an idea, how would they know it was interesting? So perhaps putting up the equivalent of "kiosks" of intriguing quotes, comments, images, videos in the learning environments and seeing where youth go is one way. And building in the interaction. Creating the equivalent of adequate 'wait time', where we provide opportunities for youth to think and fill the silence is important. Feedback, reaction, a response when one does say something is important. Youth can provide this, but adult response can also be of value. Facilitating the development of relationships among the youth, allowing them to hang out can also make it more attractive. Building an emotionally safe environment, where youth can express an opinion or idea without it being trashed is key. Youth are very good at setting rules and consequences in their spaces, and if encouraged I think would address this. And I still remember a mock trial from an 11th grade class on government where I first learned the principles social psychology and the power of groups to sway opinions: simulations that allow youth to experience and then discuss the power of another's actions, words, opinion is another component. More powerful than out mothers saying "if your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?" And then practice, experience in disagreeing and going beyond those first opinions, in ways that allow youth to see advantage of deeper exploration, that better solutions and ideas come when different viewpoints are considered.

  7. Hello Trudy and Molly –
    Interesting comments. I am particularly drawn to the point about scaffolded debate or argumentation and using social media to leverage it in a youth context. It is such a powerful idea.
    Have either of you seen examples of this – even if it is a glimmer of real debate on a significant issue? Many of the social networking examples I see in youth programs/context don’t go beyond superficial or light sharing of information and commenting on what been posted - with the exception of some examples that showcase reflective learning. However, I see potential.

  8. One of the ways we have seen students become involved with their communities and with real data and real issues is through participating in social media through geotechnologies--including GPS and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). These allow them to see patterns and relationships among different variables that they collect, such as tree height vs direction that the slope faces, or age of buildings vs distance from the city center, or pH versus underlying bedrock geology, or median age vs distance to the university. Being able to visualize their data on a map adds to what you are saying, Trudy, about empowering students to connect with and care about their own communities, because mapped data has always been a powerful way of communicating.
    --Joseph Kerski

  9. Joe - good points! And for the future, the potential for augmented reality apps, letting us see what adding a building to a street or increasing the lake level an inch does to our community, will create very powerful learning tools, meshing our maps with the impact of decisions before we decide on the issue.