How to Be a Portal 101

In Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, Christakis and Fowler note that our online social networks are extensions of our offline social networks; the way we behave in these new spaces reflect fundamental human tendencies. However, the technology undergirding these online networks has vastly increased the type and frequency of interactions available to us, as well as the potential scale of our networks. As Howard Rheingold notes, in Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, we can communicate and share information with many more people, enhance connections with those closest to us, and build exponentially more “weak ties” – the random, distant links that can help us find jobs and learn new things. And Rheingold argues that as networks grow, the value derived from them shifts from the efficient delivery of services to eventually the facilitation of group affiliations.

Yet Rheingold also argues that the universe of benefits made possible by the explosion of our online networks are not guaranteed. He writes, “What you know, as always, can make the critical difference between being exploited or alienated by your use of social media, and enriching your life and community by your use of the same media.” To thrive in the new world of Facebook and Twitter, Rheingold says people will need to understand what it means to be a “portal”: which ties are most valuable, how to cultivate them, and how to navigate in spaces where the boundaries are fuzzy and what you put online is increasingly permanent. If we aren’t thoughtful about artfully crafting our social networks, we could end up in what Eli Pariser describes as a “filter bubble,” insulated by algorithms from perspectives that are uncomfortable, yet important. If we can’t successfully shift to a new paradigm of privacy (or lack thereof), we may need to do what the Europeans have done, and beg the court system (and then Google) to allow us to hit a restart button on our online profiles.

I agree wholeheartedly with Rheingold about the staggering opportunities made available by online social networks. Applied to education, we have only just begun to scratch the surface of what online social learning means. MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses, are a hot topic in education right now (if tech journalists are to be believed, this month has seen both the demise and the resurgence of MOOCs). But the MOOCs getting the most attention – Udacity, Coursera, edX – are xMOOCs, a specific type of MOOC that enables efficient content delivery to many learners at once through an online platform. xMOOCs sit squarely in Rheingold’s conception of a network in its earliest stage, where value is derived from the linear delivery of services. cMOOCs, on the other hand, are less well-known, but leverage what Rheingold views as the advantages of more advanced social networks – they allow for decentralized learning experiences where learners co-construct their knowledge through peers they are affiliated with online. (Here’s more on the distinction between xMOOCs and cMOOCs).

One reason that cMOOCs may not have taken off as quickly as xMOOCs is that participation in them is difficult. I am taking a class this semester (Massive: The Future of Learning at Scale, taught by Justin Reich) that aspires to give us insight into MOOCs, partially by an “immersion in the technologies of large scale learning.” We have spent multiple weeks learning, reflecting on, and practicing what it means to be a self-directed learner co-constructing knowledge with peers online. My takeaway: it’s hard to know how to contribute productively to a community and to parse out useful and relevant learning from a firehose of information!

Rheingold is right: we must be smart and thoughtful participants in our online social networks if we are to reap the potential benefits they offer. But to be the type of portal that Rheingold envisions requires a whole new set of skills and competencies. And that’s where my critique of Rheingold comes in. We talk about becoming a portal, but how do we get there? Some of us may figure this out on our own, as Rheingold seems to think. But many of us won’t. It takes practice and reflection to understand how to be a portal, and there are lasting consequences for people who get it wrong. We need to be systematically teaching kids how to be good portals. If we don’t, the kids who can figure it out on their own will zoom ahead, leaving the others behind.

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