This weekend, I was invited to attend a focus group initiated by a publishing company to gain insight into the role of social media in education.
Initially, I was excited to connect with tweeps I had built relationships with solely through the vehicle of social media; and to be perfectly honest, this was the biggest motivator in my participtation. It felt a little like attending a reunion for a group of friends who had never met. When I arrived, I didn’t have the usual feeling of anxiety or anticipation I might have when walking into a room full of virtual ‘strangers’, I felt that I was a part of an existing community of somewhat faceless friends. Social media is the great equalizer – because most of our usual initial judements are suspended – making one’s words their primary interaction with the world rather than their appearance.
Once the conversation in the room started, it took on a synergy of its own. It was overwhelmingly powerful to be in one space with such innovators and thinkers. At times, it was perhaps a little intimidating. The discussion started to heat up, as we addressed the roles of social media in classrooms, student’s right to privacy and content ownership. The unique dynamics to a room like this however, was a little unlike any one I had previously attended. The conversations took on multiple layers, spanning different forums as it moved seamlessly from the spoken conversations into the Twitter stream online and back again. The hashtag #ontsm quickly attracted the attention of Tweeps outside room and throughout the day it was trending #1 in Canada. The conversation was rich, engaging and challenging. As I left, I was greatful to be a part of such a conversation. And on my drive home I started to reflect on the entire process.
However, it wasn’t long after I arrived home that the Twitter stream started to take on a different dynamic. The voices of educators who were not a part of the focus group started to join in the conversation. They raised valuable questions about how participants were selected, the purpose of the group and addressed the feeling of excusivity and exclusion – real issues we all face in our schools. The use of social media – the tool that is intended to broaden the conversation – clearly illustrated that there were voices that were not a part of the dialogue. My Twitterverse, my PLN, my harmonious collaborative work-space was filled with confict. I wasn’t sure where I stood.
Was the idea of a focus group a bad idea? Was it a mistake to take the discussion to multiple levels through social media? Was it wrong for a publishing company to hire educators to learn about how some of us use social media in our classes? Was the flare-up that followed on Twitter a negative thing?
In my mind, the reality is that the ‘after’ conversations were just as insightful, if not more so, than the conversations that occured during the day. Many of the ‘voices who were absent’ were heard in a different way and ironically, they were the ones who carried the conversation well into the following day. I actually think that the learning that happened during the focus group, as well as after, was much bigger than the publishing company may have ever anticipated. They learned exactly what they had hoped to learn, although they may not realize it yet. They have a first hand account of how social media can impact a group of learners in a room, extend into the world, and back again to impact the original participants and shape the way we all move forward. That is the movement in education. This is what dynamic learning looks like. If their goal truly was to gain insight into the role of social media in education… well then, I hope they learned their lesson well. Now, I wonder what they will do with it.