Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Social Discovery

My greatest insight regarding digital literacy is that our most efficient and interesting use of electronic tools for teaching, learning, and research happens through what I call "social discovery." What I mean by this is that instead of pursuing a given subject, it is better to search for the people who are invested in or discussing those subjects, connect with them, and take it from there. I think this is the big game-changer.

But social discovery requires changing how we think about searching and researching. It requires integrating social efforts into intellectual work. I really think what it means is that technical-social skills are integral to emerging literacy. If you don't know how to find, contact, engage, respond to, and collaborate with people in real time or near-synchronous time -- well, you just aren't digitally literate. Not in a world that is networked both technologically and socially. I'd like to compare conventional intellectual work in a college class with intellectual work that is enhanced by social discovery, using the example of one of my recent students who had great success in using "social discovery."

Now, in a typical college course where a research paper is required, a student goes on a very lonely journey, ferreting out print or electronic sources that consist mostly of texts or other artifacts that he or she can analyze, synthesize, generate data or arguments about, then write about. That process has generated a lot of knowledge over the years, and is certainly solid in many respects. But I think we will find this model to be increasingly inadequate and ultimately irresponsible. You see, it just doesn't make a lot of sense not to tap into the intellectual riches at hand through social connectedness. Here's how my recent student, Neal, used social discovery in a research project he was doing earlier this year.

Neal Call used social discovery
First of all, Neal did not conduct his research in isolation. He created a research blog in which he narrated the process of his searching, thinking, and the general development of his ideas. A blog does not automatically make one's learning social, of course. Many people blog "into the void" in a kind of solipsistic narrative. And frankly, there are a set of social skills that really need to accompany blogging in order to turn it from a monologue to a valuable dialogue with readers. But my point here is broader than blogging. I simply want you to see what Neal did in reaching out to others.

Neal's research topic was landscape in film, particularly within the work of an early silent film director, Victor Sjostrom. This is a fairly obscure topic, and Neal went about researching it in the conventional ways. He turned up a book that included an essay by a pretty famous silent film scholar, Tom Gunning from the University of Chicago. Here's how Neal describes what happened next.
My "Writing About Literature" professor, Dr. Burton, asked that we extend our research process beyond our own isolated bubble, so that we could better take part in a larger conversation about our research topics, and learn to make connections that will allow us to grow through collaboration. So, I decided to send an e-mail to the superstar of silent film scholarship, Tom Gunning.
In his detailed post about this experience, Neal then includes the email that he sent to this professor. Neal did this very well. He showed respect to Dr. Gunning by referring to his work in specific ways. As a professor myself who gets lots of inquiries from people, the ones that I choose to respond to are those in which people show that they have really tried to think seriously about the topic and to read what I've published.

To Neal's delight, Dr. Gunning responded to him (within the hour, no less). It turns out Neal was mistaken about some things, and Dr. Gunning set him straight (in a kindly way). Rather than being discouraged, Neal was delighted:
You'll note that Dr. Gunning directly refutes much of what I wrote in my second post on landscape in film, but I am overjoyed that he did, because I knew that I was making a leap without enough proof. Now I can revise it to make it accurate. Even better, though, was that he corroborated my sense that Sjostrom did something special that other film-makers were not doing - he in essence justified my paper, even if he offered a concrete counter to a sub-argument.
Kristen's ideas are being taken seriously.
I have seen this experience that Neal had repeated with other students who have been brave enough to contact experts in the field in which they were doing research. Within this class, Kristen Cardon has demonstrated social discovery by interacting with an educational technology specialist on his blog. She left a long, thoughtful comment (about the use of facebook in the classroom). What happens when you give thoughtful, focused comments that respond to someone else's ideas? They tend to reciprocate.

As Kristen explains in her post about it, Kelly Walsh is Director of Institutional Information and Technology at The College of Westchester in White Plains, New York and keeps a blog called "EmergingEdTech." He liked Kristen's comments so much that he made her response the topic of a subsequent blog post. How do you think this made Kristen feel? I'll tell you how it made her feel: legit.

I find most students don't take their own interests or their own research very seriously. Maybe it's the natural inferiority of youth. I don't know. But that changes radically once you engage a serious audience somewhere out there (and especially a serious researcher on a given topic). Suddenly, students like Neal and Kristen realize that they are talking about something that matters, and this creates a virtuous cycle of more engagement with others. For example, Kristen told me about her success on that blog, and this drew me into commenting on and exchanging information with this same professor. Now we all take each other more seriously, and are more likely to be willing to offer help and resources as we can on one another's projects.

Phyllis Rackin responded
A similar experience to Neal's or Kristen's came from my student, Becca. Weeks after she'd completed our course, she received a response from an expert that she'd written (on her topic of Shakespeare and women). Read  Becca's post to see how well she modeled a good query letter that led to a very kind and helpful response from this author. Now, even though the term is over, Becca finds new reasons to continue her research on this topic. Why? Because someone else took her work seriously. She made the effort to reach out in a meaningful way, and this was reciprocated by the expert.

I find that social discovery leads to students having more authentic projects. It's natural for us to present our own work more seriously when others get engaged in thinking about it. This works en route, while we are in the middle of formulating our ideas, and not just once we have polished some wonderful nugget of finished thought.

Now, how do you find people to reach out to? Of course you can use Google. A library catalog search can turn up names of current authors or researchers in a given field. Use any of the many different research tools I've suggested previously to find people to communicate with on your topic. One of my students found a great connection by doing a twitter search on his topic, and of course there are blog search tools like IceRocket or Google's blog search.

Perhaps one of the easiest kinds of social discovery is to find events that are coming up or that have recently taken place. People who have just spoken about a topic or will soon speak about a topic have that on their mind and they are usually very eager to respond to others showing interest. And so, for example, those within our class who are focusing on Mormon media for their final projects would do well to attend the upcoming Mormon media conference, or simply to browse through the schedule of speakers and find individuals who look like they are involved with topics that fall in line with the projects they are working on. Then what? Look these people up and shoot them a note. It's not that hard, just follow the model of my former students. And it's fun.

What people are talking about what you are researching? What's keeping you from contacting them?