Why educators must become hackers

Posted by reyjunco on May 27, 2010 in Commentary |

We have to approach technology more like hackers than like traditional educators.

In our fast-paced and media-saturated milieu, we are constantly prodded to consume information without much critical reflection. This reality of the new information society has had a transformational impact on various higher education institution’s ways of doing things. A clear and significant exception has been how we do things in the classroom. Those familiar with Kuh’s work on student engagement (see Kuh, 2009) know how important it is to engage students in academics and the co-curriculum. Indeed, three decades of research on student engagement have shown that engagement predicts a great deal of the variance in many of the desired outcomes of a college education (for a comprehensive review, see Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Privately, I’ve been known to refer to engagement as the “magic bullet” for student retention, cognitive, and psychosocial development.

Even though researchers have espoused the benefits of engagement for 30+ years, that has not translated to much change in the way we do things in the classroom. However, the widespread adoption of social technologies has provided a renewed call for educators to make changes in the way they communicate and encourage student adoption and participation in knowledge acquisition. Certainly, there is a movement afoot to modernize and transform the learning process.

Just ten years ago, if you were spending time creating web pages, you were considered an ubergeek. Then came the blitz of blogging adoption and seemingly overnight, a new generation was born. Bloggers knew their time had arrived when the more popular political bloggers were invited to the same gigs as traditional media reporters during the 2004 election. Skip a few years into the future and today, the web is a much more dynamic social space with social media usage increasing dramatically.

Tech geeks were early adopters of the concept of engagement – Facebook for instance, instead of looking at just raw access data started measuring user engagement in both application and overall site usage in 2008. Even though the formula for Google’s awesome-sauce search algorithm is top secret, there is plenty of speculation to suggest that engagement is an important construct in their page rankings. Others have pointed out the significance of using social media to promote brands by engaging consumers. Tara Hunt reworks Corey Doctorow’s concept of Whuffie (earned social capital) to include helpful engagement in online spaces. Her main point—if you engage and are helpful, people will like you more and you will sell more of your product.

Now, expand the Whuffie concept out to education. Educators have been slowly warming to the idea of using social media to engage students by promoting a positive and interactive learning environment. In the early years of the social web, there was an almost-unanimous view that social media had no place in the learning process (Junco & Mastrodicasa, 2007). This has changed dramatically in the last 2-3 years. A growing number of educators are interested in how social media can be used effectively in the classroom.

While I don’t have any quantitative data on this, it does seem like those who are interested in integrating new technologies to transform the academic space are earlier-adopters of social media. Some educators may be early adopters in the general sense of the term, but they are certainly early adopters in academia. They have seen the power that social technologies can have and are interested in experimenting with these technologies in the classroom. The rising interest in using Twitter as part of college courses has been validated by the fact that Twitter has a simple user interface—there’s no sharing of vast amounts of information about your personal life—making it an ideal choice for faculty who want to ask students to join them in an online social space. Gone are the concerns that a faculty member may see pictures from last weekend’s big party and have been replaced by a willingness to open up dialogue.

A key quality these early academic social media adopters share is the hacker mentality. I know the hacker mindset well because I used to be one. In the early days of personal computing, I was very much involved in hacking, phreaking (sorry, Ma Bell), and the budding bulletin board system (BBS) community. I won’t get into the finer details about hacking culture here, but can summarize it by saying that hackers are interested in manipulating technology for greater personal and social/community benefit. There is a strong antiestablishment ethos that is woven through hacker culture that traditional educators can learn a lot from.

I have two main reasons why I think that faculty need to be more like hackers:

1. The old school conceptualization of the classroom as a place to receive knowledge has outlived its usefulness. Society in general, and today’s college students specifically, are more interested in participatory methodologies. Take the Pew Internet and American Life Project Report on teens and content creation as an example—with important exceptions, youth are very interested in creating online videos, mashups, etc. This is true of the online population as a whole—they are interested in a more engaging and engaged experience with online content. Consider this view of the traditional lecture classroom:

Would you rather be sitting here?


Or here?

Where do you think your students would rather be?

Students are able to participate in their consumption of information from other sources, why not allow (better yet, encourage) them to participate in the consumption of academic information? Indeed, we can help our students think critically and reflectively about the information we provide. We can teach them the critical thinking and media evaluation skills that are not only important for a liberal college education but for the functioning of a participatory democracy. We can do this by meeting students where they are, hacking technologies that they are already using or are inclined to use for educational benefit.

2. Most of today’s college students have never known a time without the communications technologies that are blended into their lifestyles. The Fall 2010 entering class of traditional-aged college students was born in 1992, only a few years after Tim Berners-Lee developed the protocols for the World Wide Web. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that today’s students cerebral morphologies are different than older generations, there is evidence that high media users and multitaskers have different information processing styles than low users.  Ask any pilot and they will tell you, that it is surprising how well humans can adapt to situations where we need to divide our attention between various tasks. There’s an old pilot saying that “driving a car is like sleeping compared to flying.” It’s no surprise that pilots have lower car insurance rates (because of a lower probability of getting into an accident) than the population at large. I would venture to guess that the reason that pilots have less car accidents is because they have developed skills and habits to help them manage their attention and concentration in a demanding environment and that driving a car does not require anywhere near the same demands. Now, imagine your students processing information like pilots—in a typical day they are connecting, consuming, and creating in the digital space paying attention to many things at once. Then, they walk into the college classroom where things move a lot slower and engagement demands are low (possibly near 0). While I don’t expect faculty to be “entertainers,” I do presume that we’d capture more student attention, interest, and insight if we engaged our students at a higher level than we do in the traditional classroom.

A group of interested faculty members has already begun to experiment with hacking social media to use them in engaging ways. From what I’ve gathered following the academic tweet stream, faculty have used Twitter in the classroom in one of two general ways:

One way is to use Twitter to encourage students to engage in backchannel communication and to bring those interactions into the frontchannel by displaying a screen with the Twitter feed during class time.

Another way to use Twitter is to have students use Twitter to complete class assignments and to continue class conversations throughout the week.

There are plenty of lists of the n number of ways to use social media in the classroom. Some uses are interesting such as using Twitter to engage in staged debates between Newton and Leibniz or to follow a conference hashtag. What’s important about these examples is that educators are coming up with ways to use technologies in educationally-relevant ways, co-opting their social uses and hacking them for academic good. We should remember that communication technologies are just tools used to achieve a greater goal. It’s the process of how we use them on which we must be focused. I remember when the transition from transparencies to PowerPoint began. A number of my colleagues, knowing that I’m a techie, would say something along the lines of “Hey Rey! Look! I’m using PowerPoint in class, my students are going to love this.” I challenged them to think about how they will be more engaging with the PowerPoint than with transparencies and most could not come up with an answer. They were focused on the technology and not the process by which they would use that technology in different ways.

We’ve always done things this way, because we’ve always done things this way.

The academy isn’t used to innovation in the classroom because we are very conservative in some respects. It takes a group of eduhackers on the cutting edge to get the party started—doing new things, in new ways, with new tools. Then, others join in. What was once a niche movement increases in size and popularity. Soon, there is a paradigm shift and those on the cutting edge are now the leaders of the mainstream way of doing things. The process repeats itself in this circular pattern, ad infinitum (Kuhn, 1996).

So—hack on, my friends. Keep developing new and exciting ways to engage students. They need us to help guide them through this period of rapid information growth and social media transformation. With our help, they will be prepared to handle the future techno-social paradigm shifts that will arrive at increasingly shorter intervals.

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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  • kevinprentiss

    bravo, sir, bravo.

  • Fantastic work Rey. Really good stuff here! Keep up the great work!

  • What he said. Great post Rey.

  • In regards to the differences in brain function between high media and low media usage people, have you heard about the book, The Shallows > http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_nicholas_carr/2/

    The article in Wired seems to state that there is research to back up the claim that reading/activity online is “rewiring” our brains.

  • Rey, this is great! I love your suggestions as always. 🙂

  • In my graduate program, it's written into the curriculum guide that we shouldn't expect our professors to stand in front of the classroom and lecture, but rather we're expected to take an active role in our education. Why is this such a hard concept for some educators to adopt?

    It warms my heart when I see students answering questions from other students on our department's facebook page before I have a chance to get to it. They want to be involved in each other's learning, if we just give them the chance.

  • ddeubel

    An excellent read and post. thanks for writing this and I'll be referencing often.

    I'm quite involved with social networking and education and can verify your cursory view that many of us have a “hacker mentality”. I'd even go further – I am a hacker! Not just because as you mentioned, “to find new ways to engage students” but also because we want to benefit the community and believe draconian copyright laws and a “closeted and business mentality” is ruining free access to knowledge. At bottom, society benefits from expanding the access to knowledge across the social realm – but the reality is that this isn't happening, despite the growth of social networking.

    We really need more hackers to open up knowledge to the world and create a free pass for those getting educated. Everywhere I go, more and more, it is pay for this, pay for that in education. Creative commons, open ed. resources etc… are only a very small part of countering that. We need more concerted hacking in this area. Join the revolution!


  • Jenn123

    Excellent post, I think that all of the topics you discussed are applicable to current college student expectations. Modern students expect that educators are technology savvy, like them. I know in my teaching, I incorporate a lot of technology, but social media has been taboo at our institution until recently. Although many faculty have become more open to having a face book that students are allowed to be friends with them, we have yet to find a good way to incorporate that media into classroom settings. What is the best way to get started with social media in the classroom? Is there a best practice for implementation?

  • I loved this description of what educators face in the battle for attention of students:

    Now, imagine your students processing information like pilots—in a typical day they are connecting, consuming, and creating in the digital space paying attention to many things at once. Then, they walk into the college classroom where things move a lot slower and engagement demands are low (possibly near 0).

    I am thoroughly jealous of the students that are able to use Twitter as a tool in today’s classroom. I think it has the potential to take engagement to a new level, and the fact that it is a platform that is simple and easy to learn allows adoption to be virtually seamless. That being said, I think you nailed it with this insight:

    We should remember that communication technologies are just tools used to achieve a greater goal. It’s the process of how we use them on which we must be focused.

    Twitter is not inherently useful. It is the use-cases discovered by users along the way that have given it its true value, most of which I can only assume were not considered during its original design. I am excited to see the creations of future “eduhackers” (great word!).

  • DevonAnderson

    I also love this article. I have learned so much about the classroom of not only today, but of the future as well. As an up and coming professor (hopefully with my own class in June), I have to remember that my students expect me to be as on top of things electronically as they are.

    Twitter would be an excellent addition to my current coursework I am taking through an online university. I think the instant feedback and insight would be so much more useful than the discussion boards we have to post on every week. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad I am enrolled in an online university that is on the cutting edge of a lot of programs and processes, but I wish I could suggest Twitter for various options throughout my coursework. I miss the instant “raise hand, get answer” methodology of the brick and mortar school I completed my undergrad through.

  • DevonAnderson

    @Jenn123 I think the best practice would be through trial and error. The professor needs to make sure he/she is educated on the social media that is being used, and needs to really understand it before he/she implements it. Then, I feel just jumping right into it may be the easiest. I don’t think that a lot of students need their hands held when it comes to social media and how it works, and that could be a lot of time wasted. I think just creating the class twitter or facebook account and running with it may be easiest. Glitches in communication and sharing of information may come up, but can be alleviated quickly.

    Good question. Interested in what others say as well.

  • Tim Grant

    “Why is this such a hard concept for some educators to adopt?”
    I think it’s because the vast majority of educators do not know (1) how to teach this way, and (2) how to grade/assess student performance when teaching in this style. If you are used to years of teaching via lecture, the change from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” is neither obvious nor intuitive.

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