Embracing the collective while bringing a sense of community

“Social media is arguably the single most disruptive innovation in the history of industrialized civilization. It’s redefining how we engage with each other, how we do business, how we get our news, how we spend our free time and how we revolt against repressive regimes. It’s no wonder that people are terrified of it. And to that end, it’s not surprising that many educators find themselves in schools where social media is blocked — and/or with draconian social media policies in place” (Ray, 2012).

When I read Devon Haynie’s blog entry about an online discussion board being anything but a real discussion, I had to laugh.  I can see myself having those same expectations in an online course, my need for “community” with other learners, driving my participation.  For a long time, I’ve believed that having a sense of community in a learning environment would lead to meaningful learning – students would feel connected, cared for, safe, motivated, etc. While I still believe it is important, I’ve realized that not everyone enrolled in the course might have that same expectation.

The concept of community is something that resonates with me, particularly growing up in a small town and being a part of a close-knit group of families living in my neighborhood.  There were roles and responsibilities for members of this community and an understanding that everything we did was to support or sustain a healthy, thriving, happy, and successful community.  Even in college, there was an emphasis on community within residence halls, major departments, as a campus, as minority students, etc.  So while collectives existed around me in the form of discussion or study groups, debates or talks on a societal issue, or the fun airbands and other social events, the absence of social media made collectives few and short lived.

Despite this, the organic nature of learning in the collective is not such a foreign concept for me to understand.  Now I can easily recall or identify many collectives that have been useful for me whether or not I was aware of being in a collective.  As I think about these groups, I realize that most of them have been through social media or some other type of digital or online environment – Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, newsfeeds, etc.  “Thanks to digital media, the range of available collectives – along with their shape, design, and composition – is almost limitless” (Thomas & Brown, 2011, Ch 4, para 13).  This idea of a collective could easily describe the rise and fall of any social media platform today; their success is entirely dependent on how users will utilize, interact, and engage in content through the medium.  If users can be that powerful, then the concept of a collective as a learning environment certainly deserves our attention as educators.

Our students are rapidly adopting and leaving various collectives in their lives outside of the classroom time.  Educators should not continue to push the idea that meaningful learning can only occur when a teacher is present and facilitating that learning experience, not when the entire world around the students says otherwise.  Thomas and Brown (2011) make a distinction between the personal identity that students share in a public forum and the personal that is shared with and changed by the collective.  What seems like oversharing to me (because that was not my own experience) is just a common practice for youth today as they engage with others around them and struggle to find and form their identities with an exponentially wider audience than was previously possible.  Again, scary for me, not for them.  I have only been a Twitter user for a little over a year now, thanks to my enrollment in the Ed Tech program.  Up until now, I was comfortable with other forms of collectives, but Twitter had always felt a little too public.  I had this irrational mentality that if I tweeted my thoughts, instantly the entire world would “hear” me and that would be too much of an invasion of my “personal” space.  The reality is, a year later, I find Twitter a valuable resource in expanding my knowledge and understanding of issues that are important to me and a place where I can share information to benefit others (I’m not so worried anymore about who those others are).  Ultimately, I am in control of how I participate, who can follow me, what I favorite and retweet, and due to the sheer number of users, I have access to a massive, lively, and engaging collective that I would never experience otherwise.  Ray (2012) recommends that educators tackle social media because it is here to stay, and by taking one step at a time, we can integrate this new medium for the collectives in learning environments:

  1. Jump in – It’s tough to teach empowerment without being empowered.
  2. Find the others – Are there people in your school community who are already on social media? Brainstorm how you might be able to bring parents, administrators and students online in non-threatening ways.
  3. Start small – If your administrators are really adverse to social media, start by proposing a short one-class pilot project to help everyone put a toe in the water.
  4. Get parent buy-in early – Some teachers talked of the benefit of reaching parents at the beginning of the year by letting them know their kids will be participating in online projects.
  5. Be smart about your identity – It’s always a good idea to keep your personal and professional accounts separate.
  6. Stay with it – I know we’ve been banging this drum at Edutopia for a while now but social media isn’t going away and the sooner education leadership embraces it, the sooner we can benefit from its ubiquity, power, and attractive price point (free with cost of a computer and internet).

One of the most important aspects of social media or digital collectives is the fact that they take place “in real time”.  No longer do you need to wait until next week or next month to engage in a collective of interest; out of curiosity, you might stumble upon one that is highly active and engaging and before you know it, you just spent four hours of your evening learning about decluttering your home!  Now imagine a student has spent that much time engaged in learning about something of interest; somehow we need to channel that same enthusiasm, attention, and effort towards learning in “educational environments.”

It shouldn’t surprise us that “(s)tudents learn best when they are able to follow their passion and operate within the constraints of a bounded environment.  Both of these elements matter.  Without the boundary set by the assignment of [a specific task], there would be no medium for growth.  But without the passion, there would be nothing to grow in the medium” (Thomas & Brown, 2011, Ch 6, para 17).

Dr. Mimi Ito is the Research Director of the Digital Media Learning Hub and Chair at the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning at the University of California – Irvine.  Watch this video to hear her share her research and insights on student learning in online settings.


Brown, S. (Producer), & Cooper, D.  (Director of Photography).  (October 22, 2013).  Mimi Ito on Learning in Social Media Spaces (Big Thinkers Series)

.  United States:  Mobile Digital Arts & The Pearson Foundation.  Retrieved from:  http://www.edutopia.org/mimi-ito-social-media-learning-video

Haynie, D.  (Nov. 8, 2013).  Benefits, Drawbacks of Online Class Discussion Boards [weblog].  www.usnews.com.  Retrieved from:  http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/making-the-online-grade/2013/11/08/benefits-drawbacks-of-online-class-discussion-boards

Ray, B.  (June 24, 2012). “ SocialEdCon:  What the Heck Do We Do with Social Media?” [weblog].  www.edutopia.org.  Retrieved from:  http://www.edutopia.org/blog/getting-started-social-media-betty-ray

Thomas, D. & Brown, J.S.  (2011).  A new culture of learning:  Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change [Kindle book].  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

2 thoughts on “Embracing the collective while bringing a sense of community

  1. I also grew up in a neighborhood that was very tight knit. I find myself wishing I still had that sense of community where I live now. I never knew how special it was until I didn’t have it anymore. I also liked your honesty towards your feelings about Twitter. I joined Twitter many years ago, but I never posted or spent any time on it. I tried it out when I first got it, but I felt like I was too “exposed” too. I like my privacy and I was really uncomfortable with the idea of meeting on Twitter and tweeting our discussions. However, now that I am used to doing it, I really enjoy it. I look forward to our classes each week and I have been disappointed that I couldn’t make some of them because of work obligations (why does my school have to schedule every thing for a Thursday night?).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It was interesting to read Devon’s Blog. I too like to be in the classroom, but I also have been enjoying the online version. I wouldn’t be able to attend the classes if it wasn’t for online. To be able to work and go to school is overwhelming but doable. Great video you ended with. I’d like to bring together in my classroom more opportunities for Interest drive activities. I can see the students find it more comfortable than the traditional lecture and work.

    Liked by 1 person

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