…in the last six months, a lot of people in Australia have discovered Twitter – particularly those folks who, like myself, are interested in what’s up-and-coming on the Web. Nearly all of those folks use Twitter these days, and most of them follow one another. I quickly got swept up into this madness, and am now very well “hyperconnected” with a few hundred core Twitter users in Sydney and throughout the nation. Mark Pesce, 2008
Everything that was said on Twitter I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen. Mark Pesce, 2019
Mark Pesce’s article, Narcissus triumphant – Breaking up with Twitter, in the latest Griffith Review, has led me to reflect on the personal impact of his talk for Education.au in Sydney on 26th May 2008 and more generally, about where we are…where I am anyway, in 2019.
Pesce, an American with impressive tech credentials, opened his keynote by saying he had lived in Australia for less than 5 years. When he arrived in the country there was no YouTube or podcasting, no BitTorrent or Wikipedia or MySpace, FaceBook, Bebo, or Twitter. ‘These are things that I, in my daily life, take for granted. But they’re absolutely brand new. I’m not quite sure how we manage to fool ourselves into believing this is all perfectly normal,’ he said.
Pesce articulated what I was feeling, that school would be increasingly irrelevant for students if we didn’t change:
It’s not just that school is a pain in the ass. It’s that it looks – to them – like a completely unrealistic pain in the ass, one which is out of step with the world beyond the classroom walls. It’s as if, every morning, these kids are marched into a time machine which transports them back to 1955.
He spoke convincingly to the roomful of educators about being ‘change agents’. We did not have to leave ‘with grand plans’ but share what we learned along the way using the plethora of tools to ‘connect with one another’. He said:
If each of us can add one good idea – and I reckon each of us has at least one good idea – that means there are a lot of good ideas in this room. Just one of those can change the educational environment of a school.
Pesce’s wonderful, motivational talk was music to me ears. I had been one of those trying hard to make classroom, faculty and school more technology-rich since my first appointment as a teacher in 1992, when my classes were using engaging software programs and games like, Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?. My own classes, by 2003, had wifi and laptops on trolleys to access each lesson. I had felt proud of agitating in 2005, while representing my professional association on the committee that chose the books for senior students in NSW, to have Wikipedia included on the Higher School Certificate text list for English (where it stayed for almost a decade). Not all agreed it was worthy but the site represented the best of new cooperative human endeavours and symbolised what was possible with emerging technologies. It was a model worthy of textual study.
I had first learnt about the internet in 1994 from Bill, my friend who programmed computers for merchant banks in London. The next year, I witnessed live demonstrations in Charing Cross, home of book-lovers, of what would come to be known as ‘the web’. On return to Australia, my school had access to the World Wide Web around 1996, maybe it was 1997. Shortly afterwards I had a 14k dial-up connection at home and a Yahoo email address.
During the next few years I lived online each evening. It was an exciting time as I connected with those who shared similar interests, learning how online communities worked. Often, I did not ‘get it’ but learnt a great deal about technology and the nature of online relationships. I posted at bulletin boards and then administered a few; crawled through MUDs; and accessed online gamer communities; learnt about tools like ICQ; experimented with Blogger.com; and, joined The Well, one of the oldest online communities (although I soon discovered it had little relevance to me). I had ‘friends’ from all around the world but mostly in Israel, Germany, the USA, Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand.
Most enjoyably, I became a resident at several communities that were forerunners to what would be come known as Web 2.0 (now, more usually known as social media). The most memorable included the online communities – “ancient vines” – founded by CyberSites Inc. (1994-2001). I had identities in Rome, Athens, Babylon and Egypt. The quality of the discussion in Rome was phenomenally high and I met people with deep understanding and knowledge about both history and technology. The company also developed a History, Readers and Scifi Vine of which I was very fond.
One of the most interesting features of these sites was the ‘gram’ facility which meant you could send a message to a user which popped up, postcard size, on your screen. One of my ‘best friends’ at The History Vine, where I was ‘Baron Von Richthofen’, first made contact with a gram that popped-up saying something like “rat-a-tat-brat-at-tat” with a shot down in flames quip. We ended-up emailing after the sites closed. He was a Canadian academic who worked as a professor of history, had written about the Gallipoli campaign and ended-up serving in Afghanistan.
Often I was horrified by the opinions of the Americans who I encountered online. They seemed so extreme and supremely arrogant. Contextually, in the year before that attacks in New York on 9/11, I had written posts at bulletin boards which wondered what would happen to the world if the USA was ‘actually attacked’. Some hostility resulted, not helped by my moniker, the Red Baron. I was still learning that representation is everything online.
I notice the same thing nowadays, except it is with Australians in my local area who are not fazed at all to share unpleasant, desultory opinions at a community site, in rude, unsophisticated ways. This has become the great challenge for Twitter too and recently the company updated their policy saying ‘our highest priority is to protect the health of the public conversation on Twitter’.
That evening after Pesce’s presentation, I joined Twitter and Mark followed me back. Not many English teachers were like my colleague and friend Kelli McGraw, who was equally enthralled when I showed her this microblogging tool. Twitter, was a revelation and excited intellectually as the next development in the history of the communication of ideas and culture. It was a printing press-like moment and I “got it” immediately. It was more than just watching something amazing unfold, I was participating, as a teacher and citizen, hoping to bring change into what increasingly appeared to be the staid world of education for students and teachers.
I have always been an enthusiastic, motivated person. Always. During the month after @mpesce’s talk, I wrote 26 blog posts. I could now tweet the links and build an audience. I had blogged for many years but each new blog seemed to die a disinterested death as it felt pretty much like just my mum who read my posts on the old computer I set up for her (and not all the time).
I emailed colleagues to tell them about Twitter but the community of NSW educators online grew very slowly. This was the time just prior to smartphones being available in Australia (July 2008) and there was a relatively slow uptake from teachers for the first couple of years. Many educators could not see the relevance and when I showed Twitter and other Web 2.0 tools at conference presentations, for principals, deputies and English teachers, there was some disbelief that his had any relevance for educators.
Often the conferences were not setup for presenters to access the internet, even when it was requested. How could that be when schools had had access for more than a decade? I wrote posts critical of this lack of technology support at conferences and people phoned and berated me for being an arse (a year after posting which seemed to fairly summarise the glacial pace of change).
However, the online networks I was deeply enmeshed in knew that feeling well and were committed to moving education out of what we considered a cryogenital state. Barrack Obama, who followed me back, ran a successful campaign for President of the United States using social media but found, when in office, a “clay layer” who effectively slowed change. It seemed like education had the same challenge but the innovators were able, to a certain extent, go round them. Having a Personal Learning Network (PLN) was empowering.
I literally loved Twitter.
Contextually, Pesce’s talk was situated during a time of great excitement about the possibility of genuine change in education. Kevin Rudd, the soon-to-be-PM, memorably proclaimed during the 2007 federal election campaign that the laptop was ‘the toolbox of the 21st century’. Late in 2008, he launched the Digital Education Revolution (DER). Pesce knew his audience:
Now, truth be told, I’m preaching to the converted. The reason you’re here in this room this morning listening to me…is because you want to be part of the solution. You’re voting with your feet. You understand that it’s important we do something – and do it quickly.
The new school I now served prepared for the DER (in 2007 there were chalkboards, no wifi and four laptops sitting unused in a cupboard) with a focus on ‘digital citizenship’ and professional learning at least as much as infrastructure. By 2013, when DER-funding ended, we were a BYOD school with all students and staff having a device. By this time, I had written many times, in traditional and online spaces, such as professional journals, educational magazines, my blog, school websites and for the ABC, to share enthusiasm for Web 2.0 tools in education. It was clear that all spaces were becoming the one place – online. We were online 24/7.
One of the most intellectually stimulating and relevant resources shared often in 2008 was by @mwesch. The video, titled “The Machine is Us/ing Us”, was created by Michael Wesch, an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. Screen captures, still images and live action, explored the impact of online technology. As an English teacher, it helped discussions with students and teachers about the nature of writing, creativity, technology and change. It is now 12 years old. The title seems more profoundly important than ever it did back then.
As someone very much in the world, and connected to the world, I have found, post-midwinter 2018, that I thrive by managing my connections in inverse proportion to their distance from me. My friends and family remain as close or closer than ever. Those who come to me via broadcast and social media filter through an intentionally narrow keyhole of my consciousness.
‘We shape our tools’, wrote Father John Culkin, ‘Then our tools shape us’. Pesce’s article in the Griffith Review is interesting and his conclusions I also reached two or three years ago writing reflective articles like, The #hashtag and the #citizen: living with #paradox. It would have been rude to say it, so I didn’t but Pesce’s honest admission, “everything that was said on Twitter I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen” was how I have felt for some time while watching educators, often not based in schools, squabble, defining themselves as ’trads’ or ‘progs’ while little worthwhile progress or change takes place within our moribund, conflicted, illogical systems.
The political twists and turns of the often faux #Gonski debate (which became a brand) or smiling photos of politicians spruiking poorly informed positions, surrounded by schoolchildren, left me retreating to my earliest passions (for literature, writing and history) rather than trying to stay in the vanguard of what passed for educational debate online. I found myself more likely to connect with authors than teachers. I unfollowed some of the most strident voices so my feed would be less clamorous. It never occurred to me that a hiatus was needed. I just used Twitter differently – and less often.
Since the very beginning my role, as an educator, has been one of finding balance for young people in a noisy, confusing world. Back in 2008, Pesce posited:
After all, we’ve been around the block. These wacky kids, they’re just getting started. They have the tools, but lack the wisdom to use them effectively. It’s up to us to teach them how. But first, we’ve got learn how to use them. That done, we can transform education, and transform their enormous capacity to learn. But, right now, the teachers must become students.
Pesce speaks of his ‘experiment in over-connectivity’ and knows now ‘a middle path: to know a little, but not too much; to be connected, but resist over-connection; to share, but thoughtfully; to be open, but sceptical’ makes as much sense as it did back in 2008, when educators started to teach students about good digital citizenship. Pesce’s experience is the one that a generation of young people have had too. Of course, he also knows it is the latest chapter in human evolution:
The tremendous capacity for social organisation at scale met the amplifier-of-everything: the internet. Three-hundred-plus generations of urban socialisation – from Jericho to the present – reached their culmination in just the billion seconds between ARPANET (1969) and Friendster (2002), first of the modern ‘social networks’.
Schools, Mobile Phones and Technology
We’re the ones who are out-of-step with the educational establishments in the states and the Commonwealth. We watch, with mixed degrees of amusement and horror, as the educational machinery shudders along, even as it groans under the increasing weight of the world outside. And we start to wonder – seriously – when it will all just collapse. (Mark Pesce, 2008)
“The Australian Government supports the use of new technologies in Australian schools to prepare students to learn, train and live in a digital world.” (sic)
Contextually, it is hard to escape what a few broad brushstroke vignettes tell us about education in Australia. In every educational jurisdiction, Australian students still sit pen and paper examinations in the same manner as their ancestors did in the century before last. The self-proclaimed – ‘most progressive state in the nation’ – is banning mobile phones in Victorian state schools from ‘first to last bell’. The gap between the wealthiest and poorest schools continues to grow, even after a decade of examining data and making grand plans – the situation worsens. Review after review tends to create more jobs for those who do not work in schools as an entire supercargo of administrative bodies replace what was once done by departments of education.
My most read and commented on blog post points out the crisis of critical thinking and ethical leadership we have in education where power and position trumps truth. Politicians seem to have no interest in research or genuinely intelligent policy. Politicians are completely prepared for the casualties of their internecine warfare to be women and children. Often, the mainstream media does not report what is happening in the shadows as public education is transferred to private and vested interests.
In short: reform has not not equaled change. Outcomes-based, managerial practices are leaving our community and profession less free and not better educated. This pattern is increasingly evident in democracies all around the world.
The news is not all grim by any means. Individual schools continue to help young people holistically, in the real world that they live, where technology is omnipresent and omniscient. Digital citizenship is explicitly taught and the experience of living with paradox is an everyday one about which there is ongoing dialogue. Schools strive for democratic participation in spaces to make them contemporary. For example, our students wrote the school’s submission to the NSW government review into smartphone use.
We work cooperatively and collaboratively on many issues that are at the heart of what is is to be an active, informed citizen. Our school is nurturing democracy in many ways. We are also supporting students to actively participate, using technology, in learning about sustainability and environmental issues. Next week, students will consult on the local council‘s sustainability plan. Our school is solar powered. We use data collected in classrooms. We spruik this via social media – as everyone does, nowadays.
The clever young person can see the classroom and school as a microcosm of the larger world. Often our own local challenges mirror the Big Picture. A general rule of thumb, for parents and teachers is to employ a policy of discussion and democratic decision-making at home or school as the best way to ensure that teenagers are more likely to behave in an appropriate way in real life, which is also online. Talking is good. Now that talking has been amplified, in ways never dreamt of through the power of social media, it is more complex than ever.
Before social media, control of the newspapers and television stations and radio broadcasters granted authoritarian states exclusive access to the mass mind. Today, we live in a world where authoritarian governments either heavily censor or ban social media. (Mark Pesce, 2019)
No matter what the challenges of Twitter for society, like Pesce, I cannot escape the profound implications of being able to type a ‘280-character message into a text box, hit send, and pretty much everyone everywhere can immediately read your words’. It still is an amazing tool, one I use every day.
In 2008, after @mpesce showed me the microblogging site, I enthusiastically encouraged teachers to engage with Twitter. Now, quite a lot more than few do and it is a very good way to stay abreast of what is happening professionally and politically. Teachers have the opportunity to model respectful discourse, learn from others, as well as share their expertise and concerns.
OF ALL OF humanity’s gifts, it’s our peculiar nature as a social species at scale that has proven both so unexpected and so successful. None of the other hominids have shown any propensity for social organisation beyond their troupes, nor did humans until perhaps 10,000 years ago. (Pesce, 2019)
Twitter is a forum unlike any that has ever existed in world history and tends, as Pesce suggests in his article’s headline, to reflect back at us as individuals, and as a society. Not all of that is easy to look at all the time. I would never have guessed that the current President of the United States would model such poor digital citizenship via his Twitter account when Barrack Obama so generously ‘followed me’ in 2008. It is quite disgraceful and has amplified other rude, ignorant voices.
Twitter is not just a forum for the technological, artistic, personal and political life of a community, it is also an agora, a marketplace. The original 140-character limit has doubled but more profoundly, Twitter is now so thoroughly mainstream that many/most have a practical focus on monetisation or career-progression. Pesce can not afford to withdraw from Twitter entirely as:
My 45,000 followers are far too important a marketing and messaging resource to be set aside. It remains my primary connection to the thousands of listeners of my various podcasts, but the emotional has been replaced by the transactional, a fluorescence of late capitalism that could speak poorly of my character if it had not been in response to a greater flaw. I’ve even opened an Instagram account.
Educational spaces have been viewed as potential marketplaces by many corporations in the last two decades. I usually avoid military metaphors but back in 2008 there were some who continued the bombardment, to soften up the troops, knowing their long term goal around the world was both ideological and financial. Technology is the main weapon.
The paradox is that school systems need need to change but the values of democracy, largely, do not. Attacking Public Education, around the world, is an assault on democracy. That should be clear. Each citizen should be entitled to a quality education and leadership from politicians that is transparent. Education – not censorship and banning – is the answer. Always has been.
I will leave the final words to Mark Pesce, who I can continue to learn from and admire. He always draws a long bow, often employing historical analysis skilfully, and this recent piece has motivated me again to reflect on recent decades.
Perhaps a middle path: to know a little, but not too much; to be connected, but resist over-connection; to share, but thoughtfully; to be open, but sceptical.
Social changes begin with individual acts. Contradicting myself, muddling my way into deeper connection, at the end of my experimenting I hope to arrive where I started and know the place for the first time.