My friend and colleague Josh Mason-Barkin sent a few of us an e-mail his question and my reply follow. I hope you will add your thoughts.
"Malcolm Gladwell (in the New Yorker) says online social networks are not capable of empowering real and meaningful change. If he's right, what does that mean for attempts to make real and meaningful change in Jewish education?"
I think you reduce Gladwell's point to the level at which it might be paralyzing, or at least unhelpful. On one level, I think he is absolutely correct. The internet is changing the world. Not the way the men at Woolworth’s in Greensboro did.
The social network is not a movement, at least not in terms that lead people to sing “We Shall Overcome” in a way that suggests the way things are done must change and change now. It is more a change in the way we perceive and make meaning. Not as dramatic as making a stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March of 1965, nor did I think we are praying with our fingers on the keyboard as Heschel praying with his feet in Selma.
What we can do is profound, but not as dramaticly or even as profound as what Gladwell describes.
I think Gladwell has used the civil rights movement as a straw man of sorts, but one that knocks you down instead of being bowled over itself. That doesn’t mean social networking is trivial. It just isn’t going to change the world the same way as actual civil disobedience and real time advocacy will.
At the same time, let’s look at “Yes We Can” and the Obama online juggernaut of 2008. The campaign relied heavily on social networking to mobilize money, awareness, bodies at campaign rallies and votes. They didn’t give up traditional RT campaign methodology in favor of the digital campaign. Plouffe and company’s genius was integrating the two.
One of the things I find myself saying often is that the technology is awesome. But it is not the only thing! It is a tool, not a revolution. Our success will come from integrating. Nothing will replace the value of students and a teacher sitting around a table or under a tree with texts and ideas. As Grishaver suggests, we need technology PLUS analog/Face to Face/RT experiences, not INSTEAD of them. If the revolution means all digital all the time, it will fail as soon as the kids master the next level of the video game. He says:
“The real point is that real life still offers some unique opportunities: classroom community, love-interests, caring faculty and a speed and spontaneity that you don’t get pounding away a keyboard with your thumbs. Virtual community makes it possible to participate with less exposure. It often feels safer. Yet Solomon and Flexner bring a whole bunch of research sources that suggest participation is higher in blended circumstances. A friend is part of a heavily funded online dialogue. The story I got from this friend was that at first, before they ever met, their online dialogue was full of posturing and pontificating. Once the online group shared a retreat together, the dialogue shifted. It became real people talking to real people.”
What social media and other Web 2.0 technologies offer is access to learners and teachers in new and exciting ways. It offers that access because they are using the technology. When we were kids (and you guys sort of still are ;-}) we went home and played with our friends, did our homework, read books and watched TV. There was not much access to us for our Hebrew school teachers when we were not in the temple.
My sons, aged 12 and 17, now multi-task. While doing homework, they access their text messages on the phones, chat and post items on Facebook, surf the web, watch YouTube videos, etc.
If my teachers are social media savvy,
AND the kids let them, they can initiate or invite contacts that were unimaginable.
AND we can entice them into other Jewish learning modes through third web sites and applications like the Embassy of Israel, the work David and others are doing in Second Life, and even blogs like Jew School and David Wilensky’s stuff.
I am actually putting together a class called “Judaism, there’s an App for that” for our community high school.
I am hoping to explore how we can get students to focus both their digital and analog eyes on Judaism.
So Gladwell is right. But his point doesn’t change the need for us to engage in digital forms of building learners, learning and learning communities.