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Social Media: The New King of Content

From time to time, the Internet gods take a moment out of their busy schedules to offer a gift to us mere plebeians, a reminder of the awesome power of the web to unite millions of independently operating organisms within the spectrum of a single idea or movement. The advent of Youtube sure classifies as one of these moments, along with its myriad offspring such as Psy, The Lonely Island, and a bevy of curious felines.

Some would point to a number of memes (perhaps Tebowing floats your boat, or whether or not McKayla is impressed by something), and others have a stronger pallet for the snoopery of Julian Assange's gang of merry followers or the folks at Anonymous (assuming they are indeed "folks" and not, say, well trained rabbits). Many in the education world would point to the rise of Sal Khan, or perhaps the musings of Sir Ken Robinson, as their gift from said gods.

But the latest fad sweeping the blogosphere/twitterverse/interweb that brings me great joy; the newest, shiniest pebble bestowed upon us surfers of the net, is that of the Reddit "Ask Me Anything," or simply AMA to the cool kids.

While "Ask Me Anything" sessions have their roots in AOL chat rooms from way back in the 1990s, these bits of gold did not truly make their ascent to the acme of popular culture until Reddit got ahold of them and the subreddit "I Am A" was created in 2009. Since their inception on Reddit, AMAs have catapulted in reputability and attracted some of the most important, influential, intelligent, and altogether informative voices in the world to answer questions posed by the masses... about ANYTHING!

From Barack Obama (a session that produced 5.5 million views and nearly crashed the site), to Bill Nye (the science guy), to Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, to Snoop Lion (the former Snoop Doggie Dog), Reddit users have elegantly tapped into the power of the internet as a democratizing tool. They have singled out a handful of particular brains operating on planet earth that house a vast amount of unique information and essentially pried them open with a crow bar for the world to see. Is this not the beauty and the promise of the internet: knowledge at scale? It's like when Thomas Jefferson would leave one day a month for civilians to line up in the White House and ask questions directly to the commander in chief, only with less of an assassination threat and with a louder microphone.

But these AMAs are not simply reserved for the rich and famous: current AMA subjects include the likes of "I crossed eastern Tibet on a bicycle," "I had valve replacement surgery when I was 26," and "I dropped out of college to pursue my career as a handyman." Reddit users have even started creating threads specifically to find potential hosts for future AMAs.

While the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn may get more attention (at least in the mainstream), Reddit is uniquely positioned as having both a large and savvy user base within the tech community. Anyone with a pulse is on Facebook, anyone with an idea to share is on Twitter, and anyone with a job (or in search there of) is on LinkedIn. Reddit, however, is still in its relative infancy, yet to penetrate the average American's life - perhaps in part due to its, umm, less than elegant interface. In a world where beauty and simplicity seem to be the name of the game in web-development, Reddit is undoubedtly the ugly duckling. Yet with 400 million uniques and an astonishing 37 BILLION page views in 2012, it's safe to say Reddit is making an impact, and may in fact yield a beautiful swan when it matures into adulthood. When coupled with the fact that the average user is a young, wealthy, well-educated male with a particular interest in all things technology, I would argue that Reddit has the most influential engagement of any social network in the business today - and perhaps its AMA sessions will serve as a bridge to the common man.

When we think of the value of social networks, we generally praise their capacity to spread information in an efficient, speedy manner (the death of Osama Bin Laden and the reaction on Twitter, even before its official announcement from the President, comes to mind). We marvel at the dissemination of content. We less often discuss the power of social networks in terms of the generation of content - yet this is likely of greater significance within the education spectrum. It's well and good to be armed with the latest news - with the answers to questions that somebody else is asking - but in terms of facilitating the personal learning experience, this pales in comparison to the ability to directly target a source of authority or wisdom and generate a brand new answer to a brand new question. As Peter DeWitt wrote in a recent blog post for EdWeek, "Twitter is so much more than just sharing information. It's about engaging in conversation." Obviously, the same can be said for social networks of all shapes and sizes.

Imagine being a junior in high school doing research for your U.S. History thesis on the Vietnam War. Your first move is likely to peruse your textbook and any original materials that may have been handed out by your teacher. Perhaps you watch a PBS documentary, or comb through some old Newspaper clippings. You are soaking in loads of valuable information and shaping your perspective from these static pieces of content - but at the end of the day, you are simply observing the aftermath of specific questions that other people came up with. You may find what you are looking for, or you may not. Ultimately, your final product will reflect the perspectives of others, rehashed and rejigged into a seemingly new entity.

What if, instead, YOU got to be the reporter? What if YOU were able to ask a veteran: "did you believe in the cause?" Or even: "what WAS the cause?" A medic, or a wife, or a politician directly engaged in the events being reviewed. Surely that process would yield a more engaging, more personal reflection on a historical event that you, the student, had no direct connection with whatsoever. And this is a process that can be undertaken anytime, anywhere, with anyone. You are limited solely by the limits you place on yourself.

That, I would argue, is a remarkable achievement made possible by social media. And in today's world, it's not that much of a stretch to pull off. Led by the likes of Quora, these social sites creating unique content from valuable sources have already penetrated the adult learning world: when will we see a K-12 Quora?

But back to Reddit and those AMAs for a second...

Just a couple weeks ago, Nate Silver, Mr. FiveThirtyEight, was the subject of an interrogation from the worldwide web. This, of course, caught my attention. Much of the discussion focused on the obvious: politics, global events, sports--the Nate Silver wheelhouse, if you will. But luckily one Redditor was able to sneak in a question about education, and Nate responded:

Q.What are your thoughts on data-driven metrics for teacher evaluation? Do you think a system that accurately reflects teacher value could ever be created, or will it always be plagued by perverse incentives (teaching to the test, neglecting certain types of students, etc)?
-- GrEvTh

A. There are certainly cases where applying objective measures badly is worse than not applying them at all, and education may well be one of those.

In my job out of college as a consultant, one of my projects involved visiting public school classrooms in Ohio and talking to teachers, and their view was very much that teaching-to-the-test was constraining them in some unhelpful ways.

But this is another topic that requires a book- or thesis-length treatment to really evaluate properly. Maybe I'll write a book on it someday.

-- 538

First of all: a Nate Silver book dedicated to assessment and evaluation in education? Let me find my credit card...

Secondly, with all due respect to Nathaniel, while his answer was not particularly surprising to me, I did find it a bit lacking in creativity. Whenever the topic of teacher evaluation arises and data-driven decisions are discussed, the conversation always seems to skew toward standardized tests. I feel that this is shortsighted.

It is pretty clear that "teaching-to-the-test" is a horribly inefficient process that may ultimately do more harm to the learning process than good. David Simon's portrayal of inner city K-12 "teaching-to-the-test" in Season Four of HBO's The Wire does a terrific job of demonstrating the dangers of blending the incentives of teachers with the day-to-day educating of students when standardized tests are the end product. Anyone that downplays the flaws inherent in this system is likely kidding themselves.

But this does not mean we can let the teacher off the hook - what it means is that we need a new mechanism for measurement. As it happens, this was the focus (to a degree) of Bill Gates's latest annual letter - if you have not yet given it a look/read, it is more than just worth your time: it is thoroughly engaging and entertaining. This year, Bill looks at the power of new sources of measurement and data accumulation to combat the dangers of poverty. While Bill focuses on his efforts to eradicate polio, a task that is amazingly nearing completion, and will mark just the second time a disease has been defeated by man, he also ties the same theories of measurement to teacher effectiveness.

Bill explains his focus on data this year in his introduction:

"In previous annual letters, I've focused a lot on the power of innovation to reduce hunger, poverty, and disease. But any innovation-whether it's a new vaccine or an improved seed-can't have an impact unless it reaches the people who will benefit from it. That's why in this year's letter I discuss how innovations in measurement are critical to finding new, effective ways to deliver these tools and services to the clinics, family farms, and classrooms that need them."

The Gates Foundation clearly has a passion for combating the growing education divide and creating opportunities for talent in the United States. The tone of the annual letter, the value of targeted measurement in solving problems, carries over to K-12 education both domestically and internationally. To me, the key to inserting measurement into learning lies within adaptive content delivery engines: platforms that record a student's every move and can trace a direct path to achievement. These are the tools that will replace the nature of testing forever, a stressful practice that is really just a snapshot when a whole documentary is needed.

When adaptive learning and data-driven content assignment are discussed, there often seems to be an air of mystery surrounding them. We know companies like Knewton are working to build "smart" software that learns alongside its users and tracks progress on truly granular levels - but just how effective are there tools? How "smart" are these adaptive engines today? Can these tools penetrate the soul of the learner and mirror their content delivery accordingly? Can they truly tell us at any given time just where a student stands in his development across a plethora of academic achievements?

Well, can a standardized test do that? (No.)

As Gates explains in his letter, "once these tools are invented they are never un-invented--they just improve." Whatever your stance on using software to measure student (and similarly teacher) achievement and concept mastery may be, you would be hard-pressed to argue that these tools are not improving by the day. They may not be perfect yet, but they are surely on their way to approaching perfection.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think Stephen Colbert said it best when interviewing Gates about this very letter and the nature of measurement to track progress: "Here's the problem I have with this: if you track the data, you see where you are doing well and see where you don't do well, you know if you are getting better or worse; whereas if I keep no record of what I do, I can always assume I succeeded."

Right on.

At some point, and one not too far in the near future, we will need to host a national dialogue on this very transition - from cumbersome, angst-inducing, goal-distracting standardized tests to real-time, adaptive engines that track academic progress on a daily cycle, and not a one shot deal every year.

To get the ball rolling, I have an idea: we should start a petition to make Mr. Gates the next contestant on Ask Me Anything! That, and convince him to fund computers (and broadband access, like the folks at EducationSuperHighway are promoting) for every classroom.

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