The Great Debate: The Bigger Picture

last November, I participated in a debate hosted by Selkirk College Teaching and Learning InstituteBe it resolved that social media is making us lonely.

Not so unique. This has been written about in countless publications by countless ‘folks in the know’. But what was unique and important to recognize about the debate was not the resolution, the make-up of the debate partners, the format (pretty open really!), or the venue.

It was the rationale. And perhaps the bigger picture of education in the Kootenays. 

And while carefully constructed my I prepared a speech (included below) I think that what\ became apparent to me were not the contentions (nor who won), but rather the fact that to process built community (or at least began the process) between our local post-secondary institution and area secondary schools and school districts in general. 

While we were assured that the debate was couched as take off of CBCs ‘The Debators’ (more flash than substance), but with nationally ranked debaters, Jesse Bartsoff, a Grade 11 student from J.L. Crowe Secondary, and Grade 10 student Tia Huttemann of L.V. Rogers Secondary, both myself and the other adult debater (my other worthy opponent), Selkirk College GIS instructor Tracey Harvey, (@BigHarv10) were of the mindset that it would be best to ‘over-prepare’ in order to avoid embarrassment and hold our own in the ‘firing line’.

Oh, how wrong we were…

When it came down it, all four debaters, jumped from our scripted speeches and spoke from the heart. About what matters as individuals and as society as a whole. We respected each other’s opinions. It no longer had the feel or rhythmic posturing of a formal debate, but rather it took form of a community of learners (including the audience) coming together to share ideas, thoughts, and even learning a thing or two about social media, connection, and the various forms of both.

Opposition (Bartsoff & Yasinchuk): Social media is NOT making us lonely (we already are!)

Proposition (Huttemann & Harvey): Social media is making us lonely (shame on Facebook!)

Many thanks to Theresa Southam (@frankensmarter) and Selkirk College (@selkirk) for organizing this event! My recommendation is that we continue these ‘informal’ debates continue three times a year at various venues with different participants from schools and Selkirk.

Oh, and the winners? 

The proposition! (Hey, you can’t win ’em all.) But maybe on that day we all did win…

For the record…

Below is my originally prepared debate speech…far from what I actually delivered (and for the better, I might add!).

It is our contention that social media does not only NOT make us lonely but rather it actually empowers us to seek out connections and reduce an individual’s sense of both personal and professional isolation.

As my colleague has so eloquently put it: essentially, lonely people are already lonely people. Social media itself is not the cause of ‘loneliness’. We intuitively recognize that at some point in all our lives prior to social media, we experienced episodes of loneliness; and we still do. There is not a person among us who could successfully debate otherwise. The medium is not the culprit. As media technologist and writer, Marshall McLuhan once accurately noted, “The medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that we need to look at the HOW a message is communicated rather than the content of the message itself.

Unfulfilled in their lives, jobs, families, and relationships, more people are becoming ‘lonely’, withdrawn, and disconnected from society. As a result, many of these people are looking to Facebook and other social media platforms to fulfill that missing ‘something’ in their lives. To find a connection. To find likeness. To find excitement and stimulation. In some cases, these people find an avenue to perhaps romance (eHarmony, etc.), while others join online communities (like MMOGs for gamers) to fill that missing ‘something’. To expand their connections. An attempt to alleviate the loneliness. Perhaps it is the need to fulfill. The desire to connect. It is for these same reasons that many of us join local community services groups and clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions. It is to feel connected and attached. To be a part of something big. Perhaps to contribute. To make a difference.

But, back to McLuhan and his HOW. Let’s look at an example of how social media has become the message. A positive one. Let’s look at it from a professional and utilitarian viewpoint…
The personal learning network (PLN) was a concept that was unheard of only five years ago. But now, the argument could be made, that its use has become a required tool by many professionals including researchers, writers, healthcare professionals, technologists and even innovative educators here in British Columbia. I argue that social media is, in fact, expanding our ability to connect, collaborate, create and share new ideas in the realm of learning and teaching. My personal story serves as an example of the capability of social media to connect.

But before continuing I must address my opponents attempts to argue that the connections we make via Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms are neither deep nor long-lasting. Perhaps these ‘connections or relationships’ need not be either in order to be deemed ‘meaningful’. Perhaps they hold a utilitarian intent. The ‘connections’ we create and forge serve a purpose (remember, the medium is the message): to develop a relationship in order to share, collaborate, debate, create, and celebrate on individual, local, and global levels. In fact, as a teacher-librarian in a school district where positions are scarce (most elementary schools in SD8 and SD20 are not staffed with a qualified teacher-librarian) and we rarely have opportunity meet to support, discuss and collaborate. Social media has removed my ‘professional loneliness’, its perceived barriers, and allowed me to connect and expand my professional development. As I continue to grow as a teacher am I not better equipped to help my students in their journey of learning? I greatly value my professional development and the opportunity that social media has afforded me.

I actively and routinely leverage the collective ‘know-how’ that social media  affords in order to grow professionally by connecting with like-minded people via LinkedIn, Twitter, Ning, webinars, blogs, list-serves, Pinterest (to name just a few) that I would otherwise NOT meet at provincial conferences, regional workshops, and local meetings. I have solidified my support group, if you will. And some of the best learning experiences that I have had are because of my social media network. A network beyond my immediate colleagues at L.V. Rogers, the school district, the province, and even Canada. Thanks to social media, some of the most important resources that I continually and effectively utilize in my job, the inspirations that I have gleaned, and the discussions that I have had have with like-minded professionals most of whom I will never meet face to face.

Should we not embrace the capacity of such technology? I think that we’d be foolish not too… Social media has helped to flip education to a learner-centre model. As a self-identified ‘lifelong learner’ (which all teachers need model), access to expert assistance has never been easier with social media. Course management systems like Moodle, Joomla, and Edmodo have allowed for real time and asynchronous learning through connection. And I have yet to even mention Facebook: the most popular and well known of the social media milieu. At L.V. Rogers our debate team, Ab-Ed program, ATLAS program, International Students program and our upcoming Northern Student Exchange program recognized the value of social media and have Facebook pages that allow members of these specific school groups the opportunity to meet asynchronously to share and connect and continue the conversation.

I’d like to end with a cautionary tale…

Balance is key. Social media is not intended to replace face to face interactions. It never will. Try as it might. But when people choose to make the complete substitution of online connection for face to face interaction, ‘loneliness’ is bound to follow. How can it not? If we expect too much of our ‘online connections’ we may end up being perpetually disappointed. Our online and offline lives must be balanced; they must be in harmony. If used for the right reasons, such as professional development and ‘like-minded sharing’, rather than to continue to perpetuate one’s sense of loneliness and isolation, social media has the enormous capability to empower, connect, change, create, support, and transform individual thoughts and ideas!
It is for these reasons that we believe that “social media is not making us lonely.”

For the past couple of weeks leading up to this debate, I have been crowd-sourcing thoughts from several ‘social media’ users via (you guessed it) my personal learning network (Twitter, hello?). The results? An overwhelming number (17 at last count) have weighed in convincingly: social media is not making anyone lonelier. It only serves as holding the potential to empower. But it will make you lonely if you let it. 

Remember McLuhan.

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