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Social Media and Civic Engagement

June 29, 2011 8 comments

Tonight while I was waiting for the bathtub to finish filling so I could give my 5-year-old his bath, I pulled out my phone to check Twitter. There was a huge rush of Tweets from @apsupdate, Twitter account for the Atlanta Public School system, which my kids attend.  I saw someone answering questions about APS, and scrolled down to see this tweet:

apsupdate: Have a question for our superintendent candidates? Tweet them now. #aps

OK, sure–why not?  I replied:

@apsupdate What can APS do to address cyber bullying, and should schools get involved in online behavior that happens off school grounds?

I got a tweet thanking me for the question. After bath, I checked back. I got these replies:

Q is from asbruckman: @apsupdate What can APS do to address cyber bullying, #aps

We have trained high school students who work with m.s. students and m.s. students who work with elem students re bullying. -Atkinson #aps

Our teachers, children and staff need to be trained on how to deal with traditional bullying. -Atkinson #aps

Cyber bullying is particularly hard to address outside of school. -Atkinson #aps

Our caution with technology has been how do we control things such as cyber-bullying. -Atkinson #aps

If we find out about it, we address it the same way based on our code of conduct the way we do traditional bullying. -Atkinson #aps

Very hard to address, but we have evolving policies. -Atkinson #aps

Not a bad answer, I think. The experience for me was fun. They asked my question! I got an actual answer! This leaves me with a big question: Was this a gimmick, or something more profound?

It’s not an easy question. Is participating via Twitter really participating? It certainly isn’t the same thing as being there. But it’s something, isn’t it? What if lots and lots of people could participate just a little in this fashion? Would something more emerge from it? This leads me to wonder what civic participation really is and what does it contribute anyway. If I tweet a question, did I contribute to my community? If I stand at a corner during rush hour holding a sign for Today’s Cause, did I contribute? If I turn my avatar green in support of Today’s Cause, did I contribute? Is all civic participation meaningful? How can we understand what any isolated contribution means? And then I wonder if I should go get a degree in government or public policy–I’m in over my head!

I have a confession to make–it never crossed my mind to even consider attending the interview with APS superintendent candidates in person. When the APS automatic caller told me about the meeting for the second or third time, I hung up a bit more energetically than was strictly necessary.  I’m way too busy to go to random community meetings. I have two kids, a more than full-time job…. You can forget it!  But would I listen in on Twitter again? Sure! It was fun.  I’m certainly more interested in the APS superintendent search now than I was this morning. If there’s an article about it in the morning paper, I’m more likely to read it. Maybe those tiny steps do mean something in the end.  Malcolm Gladwell argues that meaningful civic participation has nothing to do with the kind of trivial interactions among weak ties that social media fosters.  I think the jury’s still out. And what social media does for civic participation now doesn’t explain what it could do in the future. The challenge for researchers in interactive computing is to find ways to deliberately engineer the future of the social media socio-technical system to make those little steps matter.

To @apsupdate, thanks for asking my question!

Grading and Mediocrity

June 7, 2011 6 comments

(Nota bene: This post is about education, not social computing.)

I’ve been pondering lately whether letter grading teaches the wrong lesson to our students. Are the social norms of the classroom incompatible with the norms of the workplace? Let me share two contrasting pictures:

The happy picture: Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to supervise a number of students who stunned me with their professionalism.  Students with top communications skills and work habits who showed up on time every time, asked clarifying questions about what was expected, and delivered work that  exceeded expectations and was beautifully presented.  I’m thinking in particular of Lori Adams Murphy (now at CNN) and Addy Lee Beavers (Yahoo).  It won’t surprise you to learn that they are both huge professional successes.

The sad picture: a sad friend (SF) who slouched through college with C’s and D’s, and then got an uninspiring job, and at that job often called in sick or showed up late.  In this tight economy, SF was laid off and now is long-term unemployed (3+ years). SF had a really promising job interview a few months ago, but then the potential employer checked references and that was the end of that.

So here’s my question: does our grading system encourage slouching into C’s? In a college class, you can do a distinctly mediocre job and get a C and who really cares about your college grades anyway, right? Does a habit of half-completed low-quality school work encourage a mediocre work ethic when the students move to the workplace? I see this in particular with new undergraduate researchers in my lab. I often sit down and explain to them that in their classes they can slouch into a C, but in my lab I expect excellence and professionalism in everything they do. Yes, you can be late for class–you might miss something, but you can be late. You can’t be late for your appointment to meet your research supervisor (unless something unusual happens and you call or email me in a timely fashion).  No you can’t show up every week for our meeting with a long story about work in your other classes and nothing to show me. (You can get away with it once in a while, and ideally you tell me in advance: “Next week I have three midterms and two projects due. Can we meet the week after?”)  Some students understand that a job has a different work ethic than a class, but many don’t.

I’m not sure a different grading system would’ve helped SF–a lot more is needed than that. But I do wonder if we should encourage students to take lighter course loads and demand higher quality work from them. I’m not sure if you can teach the kind of professionalism and polish that Lori and Addy embody.  I didn’t teach it to them. But sometimes I think our grading system is teaching the opposite.

Categories: education
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