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Welcome to the Social Age

For students, the days of pen pals and old fashioned lectures are coming to an end. Communications are now simultaneous and instantaneous, aided by the advancement of technology. And now that everyone has settled down with their Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts, we're starting to see the social age creep into the classroom by way of "social learning."

As FIRE's public awareness associate, I attended the American University Social Media Club's 2011 Social Learning Summit last weekend. The first of its kind, the summit aimed to bring students, educators, and professionals together to discuss the intersection of social media, technology, innovation, and education. I happened across the summit while scouring the Twitterverse for free speech and media related streams. Students, speech, and social mediait was almost too easy. Naturally, my smart phone and I hitched a train to D.C. for the weekend.

Little did I know that I wasn't hanging out at AU to discuss the social age for the day; I was living the social age. I felt as if I had stepped into a Twitterverse that I could smell and touch. Before the first keynote panel even kicked off the Saturday morning sessions, a swath of social media consultants, webmasters, reporters, students, and communicators of all kinds were busily tapping away at their laptops and iPads, gearing up for the day with pre-conference tweets and hashtags. Though I immediately regretted not traveling with my laptop, I started joining in, and by the time #SLS11 had started, I'd made a multitude of new Twitter friends (and already run down my Blackberry battery).

The first session of the day was a keynote panel titled "Radical Education," and featured such notable speakers as Mashable reporter Sarah Kessler and USA TODAY College Digital Ventures Manager Patrick Foster (with whom I had the pleasure of lunching, courtesy of the D.C. food trucks). Aided by two American University professors, the AU web master, and two SMCEDU advisory board members, the speakers discussed "the current state of higher education, the rapid evolution of modern education with social media and technology, and the radically new and innovative ideas being promoted by some of those in the social media world."

While the topic certainly was interesting, it wasn't the panel that kept the audience engaged, but rather the "visible tweet board" being updated every five seconds on a giant screen behind the speakers. The concept was simple; Tweet something using the hashtag #SLS11 and it would show up on the screen. Of course, this created a frenzy. Simply put, it was easy to ascertain that folks wanted to see their Twitter handles (and thumbnail profile pictures) appear on the screen in large print, next to their #SLS11 remarkswhich, in a way, brought the discussion to life. Kessler, who moderated the panel, used the Twitter back channel to lead the discussion (rather than a prepared list of questions), giving lifelike meaning to the discussion. I must admit that I was tickled when she selected my tweet-question as a foray into the next point of discussion.

The "social learning" theory argues that learning takes place in a social context, through observational modeling and imitation of superiors, according to the AU Social Media Club. The theory also emphasizes conversational and collaborative learning, and the uses of digital tools for the purpose of learning. So as a FIRE associate and free speech enthusiast, I was interested in hearing what the experts had to say about students using this array of tools for activism.

Good thing my second session of the day was a panel called "Slacktivism or Activism? Liking Our Way to a Better World." While online advocates such as Alan Rosenblatt of the CAP Action Fund and Asher Huey of New Partners spoke of the various ways in which they had used social media for activism purposes, there was only one thing on my mindsocial media censorship. Again, I used the Twitter back channel to pose my question, and was elated that both Rosenblatt and Huey were First Amendment advocates. They knocked down the idea of punishment for student social media advocacy and promoted actively using social media platforms to support a cause. I immediately reported this on Twitter, armed with #SLS11 and #activism as my hashtags. What great fodder for FIRE, I thought, and potential new supporters.

By the time lunch rolled around, I had to catch my breath. Before meeting Patrick, I sat down in the lobby to gather my thoughts. By this time my Blackberry was almost kaput, so I decided to exit the Twitterverse momentarily. It was then I realized that while FIRE has been working to change the campus culture across the nation for 12 years, a new culture is on the brink, which will open the floodgates to a whole new kind of fire for FIRE. I was happy to be among the very students who would be at the forefront of this new culture.

Throughout the rest of the conference I made countless new Twitter friends, promoted FIRE's mission, and spoke with passionate students ready to express themselves in the cloud. As a social media advocate, I'm looking forward to seeing where this new culture will bring us, and what America's students will make of it.

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