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Girl Scouts, Born Digital

Looks like it’s not only the music industry that needs a new business model, even Girl Scouts selling cookies are running into issues with online sales.

Well the issue is quite simple really: online sales aren’t allowed. When 8-year-old Wild Freeborn set out to sell 12,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies, she enlisted the help of her tech-savvy father. The two made a YouTube video and set up a site to allow local customers to order boxes of cookies. Freeborn would then hand-deliver the cookies. What was the problem? After two weeks and 700 orders, parents involved with the local troupe approached the local Girl Scout council saying that Freeborn’s strategy was unfair, lionizing the local cookie market.

The issue, Girl Scouts said, was that not the YouTube video – advertising sales online is okay – but the online order form. Online sales for the troupe as a whole, however, are okay. In a New York Times article, a few more details were given for the reasons behind the national Girl Scouts no-online-sales policy:

Michelle Tompkins, a spokeswoman for the Scouts, says there are good reasons for the online ban, beginning with the familiar dangers that young girls can encounter on the Web. Beyond that, Ms Tompkins says, is the issue of fairness: local councils typically award prizes to girls for reaching certain levels of sales, and since all girls are limited to selling within their local areas, a campaign like Wild’s can overwhelm opportunities for other girls in town.

It seems a little instigative to mention safety concerns first – I can’t imagine any scenarios where online sales would actually be less safe than going door-to-door. Ms. Tompkins does cite valid points about online sales disrupting the traditional process of selling cookies though. But maybe the problem isn’t the Internet, maybe it’s the process itself?

In an age when I can even buy Justin Timberlake’s French toast, it’s strange that I can’t buy something prosaic as a box of Girl Scout cookies from the Internet. In fact, I can – just not legitimately. A quick search just on eBay turns up a couple hundred listings for Girl Scout cookies, with sellers varying from parents of Scouts to resellers. Newsweek points out that Girl Scouts missed out on what could have been a teachable moment here. Selling the cookies is after all, an exercise in entrepreneurship as well as a fundraiser for troupes. If a young digital native is savvy enough to take advantage of the digital sphere, maybe there shouldn’t be anything stopping her.

Education is a big theme of Born Digital, and while Girl Scouts shouldn’t be held solely responsible for teaching young girls about using the Internet, the badges that require technology skills seem designed for an earlier decade:

[T]he “Computer Smarts” requirement for young girls (or “Brownies”) only requires that they visit three Web sites. For older girls, the CyberGirl Scout badge is earned in part by sending an e-mail. “These skills are at a level I’m sure many girls can already surpass,” says Andrea Matwyshyn, a colleague of Fader’s at Wharton.

The competitive world of Girl Scout cookies sales is fraught with tensions of its own – the role of parents playing no small part. But with Girl Scout cookie sales declining this year, it can’t hurt to think outside of the proverbial cookie box.

Right for the Job: Teachers and Audiences at SXSW

After leaving the green room—abandoning water bottles and pastry crumbs in the commotion—the five panelists walked down winding grey hallways to Ballroom B. Setting notebooks in front of microphones, we situated ourselves on stage. An audience of slouching, intelligent-looking adults sat peering down at laptops in the spare half-hour between sessions. We were almost ready to start.

I wrote last week about the stun that followed speaking at SXSW Interactive. In Texas, fellow DN intern Alex and I compared notes (and suitcases) only to discover that we had each brought along our copies of Born Digital. Reference volume, or talisman against stuttering words? Hard to tell, but we kept the copies close.

Speaking as students, in front of a hundred teachers and technologists, was strange and fascinating. Our panel, Blackboards or Backchannels: The Techno-Induced Classroom of Tomorrow, was loosely grouped with a few other education-related panels, and I wondered how teachers in the audience would react to having a panel on education devoid of any educators. Then again, though, as an audience member pointed out to me later, panels at education conferences are almost always devoid of students; conferences create environments where incongruities and synchronicities alike can occur.

“Reality” ended up being a theme of our panel, in surprising ways. Four out of the five panelists attend private colleges, where small classes at least exist; a few commenters advanced the proposition (for the most part, gently) that we might be living a bit outside of reality, ourselves. But reality worked both ways: when, in a panel supposedly on the “techno-induced classroom of tomorrow,” we all agreed that analog interactions between teachers and students were usually the best and most productive, we met some resistance, to our surprise. Audience members were eager to talk about tools and solutions; our expression of preference for teachers focusing on what they do best, and only introducing tools as they felt comfortable, seemed radically conservative.

And then I realized: we weren’t telling anyone what they expected or wanted to hear. The technologists seemed perfectly happy to poke away at their computers and engage politely, but the teachers were invested. By the time you’re a teacher—whether at college or in a K-12 environment—and you’ve made it to SXSW, you’ve either paid your own way, found a way to speak on a panel, or gotten your school to fund the trip. In all three cases, one condition holds: the teachers who make it to SXSW have already positioned themselves as ambassadors; have persuaded or, more likely, fought with their departments to convince them of the great potential of technology to improve learning inside and outside of school, often against tremendous odds and reluctance and a bevy of aggressively technophobic colleagues. So SXSW (or any conference) offers an opportunity to find inspiration and motivation, and to stash away enough optimism and energy to persevere in the face of another year of tremendous resistance, back at home base. If I were a teacher in that situation, having put myself on the line to convince myself or any higher-up that SXSW would be worth it, I would be looking for silver (or at least silver-plated) bullets, and the confidence to believe that technology in the classroom could be as wonderful as I thought it might be.

So my main conclusion during the panel was, probably, disheartening and familiar: technology won’t fix anything on its own. But what I meant, and meant to say, was a little more heartening: technology will only solve problems in the hands of teachers who see the potential in their students, and sense the potential of technology to help draw that out. When deciding which technologies to use in the classroom (Twitter? or Ning? or something on Facebook?), the first question for me, from a student’s perspective, is: Does my teacher understand and enjoy the tool? “Is the tool the right one for the job?” is almost secondary. Teachers are the right people for the job. Everything else is incidental.

These ideas are not new. But what I hoped during the panel, and still hope, is that hearing them coming from a student is novel enough to be thought-provoking. I often see teachers worrying that their students will “pass them by” with technology, and that in order to “keep up” they need to do something flashy. From a student’s perspective, that’s just not true. A cool piece of technology has never convinced me to care more about learning. Excellent teachers always have.

The more I’ve thought about classrooms, the more I’ve thought about audiences; the more I’ve thought about audiences, the more I keep coming back to the audience that sat in Ballroom B. The assumptions, hopes, and backgrounds they brought to the discussion are fascinating to me. I only wish I understood them better. If you have any thoughts about this panel at SXSW, SXSW overall, or, actually, education & technology conferences in general, I would love to continue the discussion in the comments—or, you can email me, at dkimball a t fas d o t harvard d o t edu. I look forward to thinking even more.

Blackboards or Backchannels: SXSW Liveblog & Video

blackboards or backchannels panel

On Sunday, Alex and I spoke on a panel at SXSW Interactive called Blackboards or Backchannels: The Techno-Induced Classroom of Tomorrow. Austin, TX was rainy and cold for most of the weekend, but the sun came out on Sunday, and I walked away from the panel overwhelmed by energy and ideas. It was hours later before we realized the whole thing had been liveblogged at! The post includes a 10-minute video from the panel, and selected quotes from each of the panelists. I highly recommend checking it out. Thanks definitely go to austinchic for the coverage and tvol for the photograph—the internet is sometimes a wonderful place.

Quitting or Letting Go: Sweeping Away Digital Tracks

Last month’s outcry over the change and then quick reversal in Facebook’s Terms of Service proved that users will demand an active role in control over their own information. It brought to the forefront the issue of our digital dossiers. My digital dossier compromises of much more than a Facebook profile of course – in fact it’s a little alarming how much information is thrown in there – and it is often difficult to know exactly what is in my digital dossier and how much (or how little) control I wield in creating it.

PC Magazine recently published an excellent and comprehensive article on how to delete accounts on 23 popular web services, ranging from Google to eBay to Friendster. It reminded me of how much information comprising my digital dossier is strewn all over the web, especially in abandoned accounts of forums and services I had long forgotten. In various public and private spheres hold, reams of data and my old idle Internet musings are stored. There is a “Registrations” label in my email dedicated to verification emails from signing up for online accounts. I haven’t been too diligent about keeping up with this label recently, but even browsing emails accumulated in the previous years, I found some surprises: I have an account on a gymnastics forum? What is xixax?

I’ve never found the need to go back and close these accounts, mostly because they were named after old Internet handles that have since phased out of use. In fact, I almost enjoyed the way they defined a certain period of my life, providing a snapshot of my interests three or four years ago.

What struck me while reading PC Magazine’s roundup was how difficult it is to close some of these accounts. Not for technical reasons or obstacles put in place by the companies (though this too was the case sometimes), but emotionally. Facebook especially appeals to your emotions. Before letting you deactivate an account, Facebook shows you tagged photos of you and a friend along with a caption of, “[Name of friend] will miss you.” It’s not just the severing of these ties that make Facebook difficult to quit but also the massive trove of data that will be deleted. In the three or four years I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve accumulated thousands of messages and shared hundreds of photos. When I delete my account, poof, it’s all gone. Granted, most of these messages are silly and I can’t think of too many reasons to reread them, but the same principle applies to what may be more valuable photos on Flickr and blog posts on Blogger.

What I realized is how much I relied on the Internet as a personal archive. Google, especially, stores vast parts of my life. The PC Magazine article goes into some of the difficulties of deleting partial accounts (for example: deleting a YouTube account linked to a Google one or Yahoo Mail without opting out of Yahoo services). None of the information is of more than personal interest here, but I would certainly feel a sense of loss. Information online is both especially transient and permanent. Sometimes it can be deleted with the click of a mouse and sometimes it becomes saved forever on servers halfway across the world. It’s an odd tension, but we as digital natives should be conscious of our digital dossiers and how we use them.
– Sarah Zhang

Answering for Ourselves: An Antidote to Alarmism

Last Thursday, Alex and I were lucky enough to be interviewed by Steve Hargadon for the Future of Education interview series. The experience was quite remarkable, in a number of ways; our conversation felt a like a tele-unconference, with everyone bringing ideas and energy and questions to the table, thoughtfully pursuing answers. The full audio of the interview and the parallel chat transcript are now up at The Future of Education. We had a compact but enthusiastic set of teachers in the audience, listening live, and I was transfixed watching their comments fly by on the backchannel. The audience members responded to and augmented our interview in real-time. As a result, so did we.

My mind has been racing recently, trying to see the bigger picture here. Working on the Digital Natives Project means that I have quite a distorted view of reality: everyone I encounter through it is at least trying to understand “what’s going on with kids today and technology.” If they weren’t trying, they never would have stumbled upon this project in the first place. One aspect of our interview with Steve, actually, was something that Sarah and I encountered in the Born Digital book talk at Google DC, too: as Digital Natives, we’re often asked to answer for our generation/population. “Can you really focus on instant messenger and class at the same time?” “Is there anything worthwhile on the Internet at all?” and “Do students even read books anymore?” are all very serious questions, often asked with a hint of alarm. More often than not, in interviews as on this blog, we end up answering these questions from personal experience.

But if the picture I get of educators today is skewed by selection, the picture that Sarah and Alex and I can draw of students today is severely distorted, as well. All of us, as Digital Natives interns, think the Internet is great, an incredible tool; we’ve all had more positive than negative experiences on it. We wouldn’t be interns on the project otherwise! We’re invested in convincing other people that technology can be great, too. In the pursuit this persuasion, though, I know I often obscure the hard work and serendipity that goes into making the Internet a safe and educational place. During the interview with Steve, I mentioned that I spent 4 or more hours per day on instant messenger in middle school and high school. Sometimes, much more than 4 hours. It was truly consuming, and really did affect other aspects of my life negatively. But one day in high school, I just decided that I was giving it up. I didn’t log on for a month; when I returned, it seemed somehow less compelling than it once had. The next year, I gave it up for another month. After that, I never really felt like going back. Through a spontaneous act of willpower, a serious timesink was suddenly just no longer a part of my life.

I sometimes look back on all the hours I spent instant messaging, and wonder what I learned from them. So many hours wasted! Well, maybe. I was in middle school, after all. I was trying desperately to figure out my identity, my writing style, my social circles. Not only did instant messenger allow me to experiment with those things, it also gave me a way out of the insular social circles and popularity contests of my schooldays. Through the internet, I (cautiously) made friends with far-away bloggers who wrote about music and their interesting lives. To this day, we remain close friends. I’d be hard-pressed to say the same about my middle school lockermates and classmates.

At an even more basic level, I know that my early days of instant messenger meant that my typing improved dramatically and fast. No typing class could have sped up my words per minutes more effectively than the desperate desire to communicate with a crush or a new friend over instant messenger. So that’s the thing: even habits that appear to be horrifying timesinks often have peripheral, invisible benefits. Preteens eventually become twentysomethings; they won’t be on Club Penguin forever. Though they are, admittedly, likely to transfer their allegiances to a service like Facebook or MySpace, the point is that growing up itself demands a series of habit inventories. Some things, you just outgrow. There comes a moment of decision, when you decide to transition to something new. As habits evolve, though, whatever unpredictable skills were gained from previous fads don’t just fade away. If a kid obsessed with MySpace comes away from her teenage years with a little more knowledge of HTML, that is all to the good. It doesn’t necessarily work that way. But sometimes, it does.

If you read this blog regularly, these ideas should come as no surprise. But since the questions keep coming up, I thought I’d address them outright. Sarah’s, Alex’s, and my experiences are all, we hope and believe, examples of the Internet gone right. Since we so seldom hear about the Internet going right, I wanted to pause for a moment to point out that even when it looks like it’s temporarily going awry—when all of a sudden, technology or a social network or anything else online becomes an all-consuming obsession—there may be important things happening in the background. Those are worth our attention. In the end, they might well be worth the students’ obsession. As parents and educators, though, this isn’t just “wait and see.” It’s “wait and see and give young people the benefit of the doubt, and talk about things along the way.” At many points in my life, a conversation with a respected adult has been the tipping point in deciding to change a habit. If those conversations aren’t actively pursued, they might not ever happen. If they do, they may become their own antidote to alarmism.

Thanks again to Steve Hargadon for such a thought-provoking interview. The Future of Education talk is available here.

On the topic of peripheral knowledge gains, I found this article on social networks as learning tools extremely illuminating.

And finally: Alex and I will be speaking at SXSW Interactive this Sunday, on Blackboards or Backchannels: The Techno-Induced Classroom of Tomorrow. If you happen to be in Austin at SXSW, we hope to see you there!

Music, Downloading, and the Fan Community

I’m going to wax lyrical about the humble hyperlink – it’s quite remarkable where just clicking links can take you sometimes! One of my favorite blogs is Nerdcore, partly because its mishmash of German and English keeps me up on my German while throwing me a few lines of English when I get stuck. Plus, like its name implies, it’s got all sorts of cool stuff that appeals to nerds and Digital Natives like me. Last week, a post on Nerdcore quoted linked and quoted liberally from a five-part Hypebot series on Digital Natives and the music industry. Some of the words and themes definitely sounded familiar, so lo and behold, it was good to see Born Digital quoted in part 5 of the series.

The entire series is fantastic, by the way. Hypebot’s associate editor Kyle Bylin draws on many of his personal experiences to offer up thoughts on the relationship between Digital Natives and the music industry. The most pressing issue is, of course, digital piracy. When John Palfrey, Diana, and I were invited to speak at Google DC last fall, one of the most salient questions posed was why Digital Natives seemed to have so few moral qualms about illegally downloading music from the Internet. Diana wrote a follow-up post exploring some of these reasons in terms of simple interface. Bylin, in Hypebot’s five-part series, delves into some of the deeper cultural issues that lead Digital Natives to illegally download music.

Bylin especially talks about the fan community that surrounded his interaction with music:

A digital community had been formed that transcended our own niche interest in Linkin Park or posting lyrics. It was as if the more individualized we became, the closer we were drawn to each other. Bound no longer by our musical taste, but our desires to participate, challenge, and push whatever envelope that appealed to us. Through MSN and the message board, from various parts of the world, we created, connected, and directed a fan experience that shaped our collective identities on and offline. >>

While I didn’t share an experience as intense as Bylin’s, I have to agree that my own music tastes were largely shaped not by my friends immediately around me but an online community. These days though, it’s a little unsettling how many of the new artists I discover are through Pandora! What implications does this fan community model have on the future of music though? Nancy Baym is quoted to further elaborate:

As the experiences of music fans shifts from the offline world to those encountered online, Nancy Baym states in her keynote, ‘Online Community and Fandom,’ that, “The Internet has transformed what it means to be a music fan. Fans can and do build communities more rapidly and successfully now than ever before, with consequences not just for their own experience of music, but for everyone involved in the creation, distribution and promotion of music in any capacity.” Elaborating further that, “fandom is social interaction.” because it lets fans share feeling, build social identity, pool collective intelligence, and interpret collectively. Interaction in this domain not only creates the possibility for digital communities, but it enables fan empowerment. Highlighting these five qualities of the Internet, Nancy says that it has made fans powerful because it, “Transcends distance and extends reach, provides group infrastructures, supports archiving, enables new forms of engagement, and lessons social distance.” >>

It also makes sense that the feeling of community comes hand in hand with peer-to-peer filesharing. What is obvious to all is that the music industry’s business model must evolve to incorporate the increased strength of digital fan communities. Since Radiohead first offered its album for free download, artists and record labels seems to have gone the road of deemphasizing mp3s as a major revenue source. U2’s latest album is available on Amazon for only $3.99.

More thoughts on digital piracy.

– Sarah Zhang

Born Digital in the News

Just yesterday, we got word that Born Digital — written by DN’s own John Palfrey and Urs Gasser — was named one of Library Journal’s “Best Science and Technology Books of 2008.” This is quite an honor, particularly since it’s the only book to appear in the Computer Science category!

We were especially excited to see Born Digital make the Book Reviews blog for the River Forest Public Library as Joanna’s March Recommendation. According to Joanna, “It’s a must read for anyone who works with teens on a daily basis.” When the Digital Natives project began, that’s exactly what we were hoping for: to be able to get the right information to the right people at the right time, to make the prospect of interacting with and mentoring Digital Natives a little more legible. Thanks to Joanna for the kind words and strong recommendation.

Also, starting today and through the month of March, Born Digital is being featured in Borders’ stores in their 2009 “Original Voices” series which “highlights exceptional original writers.” Even though I gave John and Urs a hard time when I was line-editing the book last fall, I have to agree that they are definitely exceptional writers. But if you’d like to judge for yourself, you can read an excerpt from Born Digital here.

In other news, new DN intern Alex Leavitt and I will be featured in this Thursday’s Future of Education Forum. We’ll be talking about our experiences as students and as interns on the Digital Natives Project, and previewing some of our thoughts for our upcoming panel at SXSW Interactive, Blackboards or Backchannels: The Techno-Induced Classroom of Tomorrow. The Future of Education Forum starts this Thursday, March 5, at 8pm EST. We can’t wait!