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“Youth, Privacy and Reputation” – Literature Review

   The Berkman Center for Internet & Society is pleased to share our Youth and Media Policy Working Group Initiative’s newest resource, an extensive literature review mapping out “what is currently understood about the intersections of youth, reputation, and privacy online, focusing on youth attitudes and practices”:


Youth Privacy Reputation Literary Review


From the introduction: “We summarize both key empirical studies from quantitative and qualitative perspectives and the legal issues involved in regulating privacy and reputation. This project includes studies of children, teenagers, and younger college students.” The review was authored by Alice E. Marwick, Diego Murgia Diaz, and John Palfrey. It provides a substantial foundation for researchers and others engaged with questions and issues around youth and privacy online, as well as a foundation for the ongoing activities of the Working Group Initiative’s Privacy, Publicity and Reputation research area.


The Youth and Media Policy Working Group Initiative aims to bring the best research on youth and media into policy-making debates and to propose practical, relevant, situated solutions based upon that research. Literature reviews are also being produced for the Initiative’s other two research areas: Risky Behaviors and Online Safety; and Youth Created Content and Information Quality. We look forward to sharing these and other resources and reports from the Initiative as they become available.

My Parents Joined Facebook: Personalized Clubhouses and Divergent Social Norms Online

Black text on a white background reads “Oh Crap. My Parents Joined Facebook.” Below, in all caps: “Congratulations! Your parents just joined Facebook. Your life is officially over.” The site is, a collaborative portfolio of social doom. In the grand instatradition of thematic tumblelogs (see: ThisIsWhyYou’reFat, Scanwiches), MyParentsJoinedFacebook isn’t so much website as permutations on a sentiment. Every new screengrab conveys chagrin, disdain, and bewilderment at the impressive range of collisions between the incongruous ways digital natives and adults use Facebook.

But really, it’s not about Facebook. It’s about an exclusive clubhouse becoming something else. The interactions documented on MyParentsJoinedFacebook are comical because the parents so clearly don’t get the implicit social ruleset that Facebook’s original target audience of young people takes for granted. But the comedy also serves to delineate young people as insiders and adults as outsiders to the world of Facebook. MyParentsJoinedFacebook reserves special scorn, in fact, for outsiders who try and fail to gain inside knowledge. A screengrab from a site called Facebook for Parents is captioned “This site doesn’t get it ;)”. “Getting it,” of course, is the last thing that the voice of the site wants parents to do—for one thing, their material would dry up instantly!

The appeal of Facebook is that “everyone’s” on it; for many, the site becomes a utility instead of a destination. (Many of my friends, for instance, use it as a glorified cell phone directory rather than a site of major activity.) But “everyone” being on it creates pitfalls, as well. Adults, whose newsfeeds are populated by the status updates and freshly-posted photographs of close friends, distant acquaintances, and long-lost high school classmates, learn “how to use Facebook” by seeing how others in their peer group use it. If a young person or adult takes a chance on “friending” someone from a different peer group, culture clash is almost inevitable. The way that person uses Facebook seems like the exception rather than the norm, because norms are calibrated to peer groups that exist on the real-world social graph.

That Facebook could sustain multiple cultures at once seems, at first, curious. But Facebook has always been grounded in the real-world social graph. From the example of our peers, we learn how to navigate the world. The issue with Facebook is that it’s an enormous world masquerading as a clubhouse. For each individual user, the space feels like a clubhouse: full of your friends, absent your enemies. In reality, though, all of these personalized clubhouses are just different configurations of data. They’re not walled off from each other at all. So adults can be on Facebook and it feels like their place—after all, it’s populated by all the people they know!—and young people can be on it and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it’s theirs.

Today, while writing this post, danah boyd posted an article that asks, “is Facebook for old people?” Using her field research among teenagers in Atlanta as a starting point, danah explores the possibility that the success or failure of interactions between adults and young people on Facebook might depend on socioeconomic status. “One argument made about the differences between teens from wealthy and poor environments,” she writes, “is that wealthy teens are much more likely to integrate with adults than teens from poorer backgrounds.”

The problem with adults being on Facebook is that, in the real world, they’re the rule enforcers. They determine the rulesets that matter. Not for coolness; for survival, approval, advancement. When adults “get on Facebook” and proceed to treat it like their own personal clubhouse, interactions between adults and young people often falter. In a previous post, danah answers a number of questions about how to navigate that faltering space. But the reason it’s a difficult space at all is because on Facebook, everybody’s an insider in their own personal configuration of the social world; anyone who deviates too drastically from the norms of that personalized world emerges as an outsider. In comparing divergent rulesets for social interaction online, we can learn a great deal about what the real world might look like if everyone did have a personalized clubhouse. It might not be a world we’d like to live in, but online, it’s increasingly one we spend a great deal of time in.

The Future of Digital Natives Dialogue

A couple weeks ago, I participated (read: lurked) in a project called FOCUS: Cross-Generational Voices on Digital Media and Society, sponsored by Global Kids, Common Sense Media, and The GoodPlay Project. Having evolved from previous years’ FOCUS projects aimed to create dialogue between teenagers about their online experiences (a white paper report of last year’s activities can be read here), the project aimed this year to foster discussion between teens, parents, and educators on a multitude of topics related to social interactions on the Web. The discussion took place on FOCUS’s message boards and lasted a few weeks.

As you can see from the screen grab to the left, topics ranged from debates about the generation gap to personal relationships to law, and the discussions were started by teens and adults alike. The questions and answers appeared to encompass a similar level of understanding and experience: a bit cautious in approaching online safety, a bit daring in critiquing infrastructure, a bit conscious in debating issues of privacy, sexuality, and identity. The conversations suggested that nobody really has the answers — just as “the meaning of life” remains nebulous in the real world, so is our comprehension of living online — but we want to understand as much as we can. Digital Natives the book set out to inform parents about “those things” with which their children are experimenting everyday on the Internet; however, both the older and younger generations writing on the discussion boards appeared equally educated, skeptical, and curious about similar matters.

The initial set of discussion threads in the first group were sown by only teenagers, and perhaps this was meant to mirror the former year’s discussion. Eventually, users with the labels “parent” and “educator” showed up on the boards. From the conversations that I examined, though, it seemed that more members of the younger generation were speaking up and debating.

I am glad this is the case. When Diana and I spoke at South by Southwest in March (Diana’s previous posts on the issue: 1, 2, and 3), we presented knowing that we were only a few of the Digital Native generation that had attempted to study ourselves, to make an impact in the domain of Internet studies from a different, younger perspective. Most kids, teenagers, and young adults today use the Internet for quotidian tasks, making purchases and fulfilling social habits. Only a handful of students, though, have stepped up to create a dialogue about where they stand in terms of the future of the Internet. When I chose to moderate a panel about a student perspective on technology and education, I wanted to bring that new perspective to the table. I feel that these FOCUS dialogues too are the building blocks for more of the younger generation to make advancements towards becoming researchers and heralds for a new side to Internet and social research. At the same time, the cross-generational conversations of this year’s FOCUS project confirm that parents are beginning to understand life on the Web and that children who grew up in the digital space are losing the ability to exploit their knowledge as an advantage over parents and other adults.

But what’s the next step? To where will the Digital Natives project proceed?

For one, Urs Gasser has already begun to focus on Digital Natives in the workplace, as Diana wrote about before. I am interested to see how Digital Natives will affect the academic realm as well. Since I attended Berkman@10 last year (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), I have also traveled to a number of other conventions at which the company of fellow Digital Natives remained minute. As Digital Natives enter the workforce to become teachers and professors, we will probably see an increase in the use of technology (as teachers who were early adopters have already done) on a wider scale, but I hope that greater focus across all disciplines will provide significant depth into related Internet studies.

For the moment, the FOCUS project of 2009 is already proving that our book, Born Digital, archived a moment in time when parents and other adults needed a resource to understand the online habits of my generation. In a way, it’s reassuring that everyone is understanding online habits without proclaiming them an exotic phenomenon.

Living and Dying on Geocities

Recently, Geocities announced that they would be shutting down their services later in 2009. In my history on the Web (I’m graduating college this May, if that provides perspective), this is a significant event for Digital Natives.

At least, for the older Digital Natives. Growing up on the Internet in middle school, many of my peers had little if any digital skills. I was lucky enough to grow up with a Macintosh in my house, so I was introduced to programs like kid-targeted graphic tools (in my case, it was Kid Pix, the Photoshop for primary school students) from an early stage. Eventually, I was helping my father navigate financial programs, until we bought a 56k modem while I was in middle school, putting me on the Web through AOL. Most of my time was spent on instant messengers (specifically, AIM) speaking to friends or in AOL chat rooms speaking to strangers (but in fervent discussions about daily minutiae). However, at school, my friends and my homeroom teacher together would browse websites during our morning free period, sharing things that we probably had found in the mailing lists piled up in our inboxes (such as the epic and wonderfully celebrated Hamster Dance).

That sharing introduced me to website creation tools. A couple of my friends had already made their own webpages, and the idea intrigued me to such an extent that I had to copy them. A few of my friends had free webpages hosted by Geocities; because I owned a Mac, and the Geocities software didn’t work on my operating system, I had to settle for‘s services. The key for us middle-schoolers, though, was that we could click a button and suddenly own a webpage, for free. For kids without credits cards, free web services provided the first step toward something other than only consuming information on the Web. My first page attempted to chronicle every possible emoticon I could imagine; ultimately, I failed, but it was a starting point that would propel me to own a number of domains (eg.,, my personal website, or Department of Alchemy, my blog) today.

The importance of websites like Geocities, though, was that it provided Digital Natives — like me — with an outlet for creative expression. I had no Internet skills at that age beyond the ability to use a chat client and browse the Web, so domains, hosting, and even basic coding were initially foreign to me. Still, it’s not that these services provided the outlet; it’s more that Geocities, Homestead, Tripod and many others provided a system for creation. That system had two sides: on one hand, it provided knowledgeable kids with enough space to code a few webpages with basic HTML; on the other hand, if the user wasn’t acquainted with code, a simple and easy-to-use navigator let him or her move around a few objects and text to throw together a page. I had not learned to code until joining Neopets in 2001, through which I taught myself HTML to update my user profile and other personal pages on the site. Once I developed a knowledge of basic Web code, I brought that over to the free webpage services. Copying and pasting existing website’s code into new HTML documents, I tweaked and edited them into my own styles, out of which I continued to build a collection of websites. I’ve tried to find the first webpage I ever created, but it seems that Homestead also threw out its collection of free pages; however, I was able to stumble upon a Geocities website I created at the beginning of high school.

I’ve heard a lot of people online — both adults and fellow Digital Natives — say that they don’t mind the demise of Geocities, because it will eradicate a number of long-forgotten webpages (aka. potential embarrassment). But particularly for Digital Natives around my age, Geocities is one of a number of web services with which we grew up and into which we poured our time. But many new services have come to replace Geocities and similar services. For instance, it’s common for a kid online today to own a blog, probably provided by a free service like WordPress or Tumblr. In the same vein, most younger users of the web maintain presences on Facebook, MySpace, and other websites that specifically foster communities.

My thought, then, is what kind of digital literacy younger Digital Natives possess nowadays. I had to teach myself HTML; perhaps more kids in the past year have been using Dreamweaver. It might even be more possible that kids see HTML as a prerequisite to living on the Web. A number of teens probably don’t even care about webpages, instead focusing on Facebook and similar services, where page customization depends on no previous knowledge of code. There are clear positives and negatives to how the Internet has evolved: less creation in some places, more opportunities for creativity in others (such as YouTube, where a kid can easily record a video on software and the webcam provided on his or her computer and then simply upload the video by making a few clicks). The benefits, of course, have been that services and software have developed quickly, and the diversity of free programs available for modern Digital Natives provides them with much more occasion to think and create.

Availability and Obligation: Using Technology the Right Way

Busted! The sneaky moves of anti-social smartphone user,” seemed sensational even for the usually grandiose titles of TEDTalks, but I found myself nodding to Renny Gleeson’s every word. If you haven’t watched this video yet, I highly recommend it. At only three minutes, it’s shorter than the usually TED video but just as packed with wit and insight.

Gleeson’s talk is a humorous look at the intruding presence of cell phones in our everyday lives. Although he doesn’t explicitly separate these out, he addresses two different phenomena, both mediated by that cellphone on your pocket: the documentation impulse and culture of availability.

The documentation impulse is our urge to document, via photograph, tweet, etc., the large and small events of our lives. The camera or the cellphone (or cellphone camera) becomes an intrusion into the actual course of events; as Gleeson puts it, it indicates that “Our reality is less interesting than the story I will tell.” The culture of availability reflects our tendency to attend to our buzzing cellphones, even at the expense of our real life conversations. It’s rude, yet , I think many of us are guilty of it. So the culture of availability has a flip side too, and that is the culture of unavailability.

My most salient experience of this is sitting in a classroom the few awkward minutes before class starts. Small talk could break the silence, almost everyone in the class will be hiding behind a laptop gchatting a digital friend or hunched over a cellphone punching in letters. Even the simple act of asking a classmate about an assignment feels like an intrusion into someone else’s space. As someone guilty of the laptop/cellphone stunt as well, I don’t think we mean to remove ourselves from our surroundings – at least that is not my intention – but it is rather a way to avoid the awkward silence.

Gleeson ends his talk with a plea to the audience, “Let’s make technologies that make people more human, not less.” This alls sounded great in the context of his snazzy presentation but as I mulled over Gleeson’s words afterwards, I’m still not exactly what he means or expects out of technology. How does anything we create that is mediated by wires and microchips make us more human? According to Gleeson, tied up with the idea of being human seems to be the creation of a shared narrative, not just sharing narratives but actually creating them with one another.

To characterize phone users as “anti-social,” as the attention-grabbing title of this talk does, is a little misleading. The vast majority of the time we’re on our phones, we are being social, just with the voice on the other end of the receiver rather than with our surroundings. While it is different kind of socialization, it is not solipsistic. And we when take our photos, say at an Improv Everywhere stunt, and pool them in a Flickr group, that is a creation of shared narrative. The cellphone is not all bad, and it is probably not fair to say that technology has failed at allowing us to be human.

As I mused about Gleeson’s pleas for more humanizing technology, I didn’t come to an answer, but rather another question: Is it really technology itself that is the problem? The problem of our divided attention does not lie in the fact that we all have cellphones, but rather in how we use them. While having a cellphone has undeniably gotten me out of trouble more times than I can count, I have never needed it by my side 24/7. Each one of our cellphones, not matter how ancient or new, has a very simple but powerful button: OFF.

Digital Natives SXSW Podcast

Just got word from Alex Leavitt that the podcast from our panel at SXSW is now up!

SXSW Podcast: Blackboards or Backchannels: The Techno-Induced Classroom of Tomorrow

While tending to my inbox tonight, I put this on in the background and was excited to hear a few cogent themes emerge through the panel discussion. These themes included: the primacy of good teaching, the inability of technology to solve problems on its own, and the subtle factors that distinguish online learning environments from analog environments.

If you do end up listening to the podcast, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Alexander Heffner gives us the Scoop from DC

First, let me me introduce myself to Berkman followers.

I’m Alexander Heffner, a new writer for the Center. I’m a freshman at Harvard and editor-in-chief of Scoop44, a national network of student journalists reporting on the Obama Administration from a unique generational lens. In this capacity, as an online journalist, a recent high school graduate, and as a millennial, I am the definition of digital native, by every estimation.

I’ve been stationed in Washington DC covering the Obama White House from Washington DC and the Brady Briefing Room since mid-Winter. In addition to my work reporting on the President and his administration, specifically related to the concerns and future of America’s coming-of-age, I’m exploring the intersection of politics and journalism, and how it manifests itself on the Internet … with whatever favorable (or not) broader societal implications.

Surfing Facebook on any weekday at the White House, you’ll quickly find some of the younger “deans” of the Washington press corps online, posting status updates and their recent articles or broadcast reports and, for some, exchanging comments with their readers or viewers. That can lead to enlightened debate…or not. Status updates can be used for purely self-promotional function, or for a reporter to perfect her lede for the most crisp delivery.

As a newcomer to the Oval Office beat, I’ve used these nativist tools to identity fellow reporters, arrange coffee with new colleagues, and identify Obama staffers (although most senior officials, as you might expect, are not on Facebook). While Facebook might lead you to post sensitive information, Twitter, the hot cyber gadget which facilities only short sentence-long updates, seems to give users greater control and less risk…especially to those politicians and journalists who fear compromising their credibility.

Either way, all statistics denote that both Facebook and Twitter, alongside other social networking sites, are growing up quickly, as Web aliens from older generations are learning to navigate these technologies.

Please stay tuned every Tuesday, either by video or in conventional print type, and I’ll give you a Berkman Internet-angled scoop from down in DC.

Hub of the University: Searching for HarvardLife Online

On Wednesday April 1, 2009, the cool, blue color scheme of was tinted a more familiar shade of crimson. “That’s right, TuftsLife is now HarvardLife,” announced a banner the homepage, “With the main developers involved in TuftsLife transferring to Harvard, today we completed phase one of the transition to our new home. We are excited about the potential that our new Ivy League home brings to HarvardLife.”

A Tufts friend alerted me to the change, and we had a good laugh over the April Fool’s joke at both Tufts’ and Harvard’s expense. The developers did quite a thorough job with the “changeover,” replacing links to Tufts webmail with Harvard’s and adding Veritas crests everywhere. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get to snag a screenshot before April Fool’s ended. If anyone has one squirreled away, please do send it over to!) But it also got me puzzling, why isn’t there a HarvardLife? Why don’t we have such a useful site for students? Can the developers transfer over to Harvard for real?

TuftsLife is so useful because it pulls together all the information you need for, well, life at Tufts: announcements, events calendar, news, dining hall menu, academic resources, bus tracker, textbook swap, carpool board, etc. The same information for Harvard, on the other hand, is spread through ten different websites and is terribly unnavigable. In my frustration, I’ve consolidated all these websites as icons on a toolbar but there are still times when I’m frantically clicking around finding the exact room request form I need to. TuftsLife, in contrast to the diffuse network of Harvard resources, exists as a kind of hub of student activity; for many students, it’s their homepage and the announcements page is always worth a perusal. TuftsLife is also an entirely student run enterprise.

So where is the heart of Harvard’s online community? To be fair, I should point out there is, a portal that, in spirit, shoots for the same goals, but its clunky interface and university-wide rather than undergraduate life focus makes it an underused resource among students. When I waxed poetic to a friend about the student initiative that led to TuftsLife, a friend promptly replied, “Facebook?” Oh right, Facebook. Well Facebook’s kind of a tricky to fit in here. For one, it’s become increasingly less Harvard-centric, college-centric, or even network-centric over the past few years, as network pages have been completely phased out. It is also a primarily social network that connects you with people you already know, or at least sort of know. TuftsLife, on the other hand, is a school-wide bulletin board for student group events, marketplace exchanges, and announcements.

At Harvard – in my own experience anyway – the first place you go if you want eyeballs reading is quite haphazard and crude: email. Whether it’s about the German table you’re organizing or the physics textbook you want to sell or the survey you need 50 people to take for your thesis, open email lists, mostly by undergraduate house but also various student groups, are the way to go. For what it’s worth, it is effective enough yet seems somewhat outdated. While there have been attempts to pull together event information, it has never reached a critical mass of users to become comprehensive, and the current events calendar is dominated by department seminars and varsity sports games, lacking a lively addition of student group events.

Computer Science 50, the introductory CS class at Harvard, has been breeding ground to many useful and amusing student projects over the years. A select few recent ones are available in an “apps store,” but I am waiting a little hopefully for an ambitious student to pull everything together into sometime like TuftsLife.

Aside from convenience, such a hub will go a ways toward fostering a sense of cohesiveness in the student community. In the same way that the Harvard campus lacks a physical student center, it also lacks a digital one. It’s not everyone should be forced to participate, but that anyone who chooses to can. At a school of 6500 undergraduates, student life can incredibly fragmentary, and there is no central hub to find out what’s going on even if you want to. So, to improving HarvardLife!

Disagree? Sound off in the comments. I definitely don’t speak for every Harvard undergraduate and there is undoubtedly a range of experiences here. And if there’s some nifty service I’m missing out on, I’d be more than grateful to learn about it.

-Sarah Zhang

Ubiquity: Laptop Culture and the Demise of the Campus Computer Lab

Last week, Ars Technica asked: When every student has a laptop, why run computer labs? The article reported on the University of Virginia’s recent decision to “dismantle the community computer labs” at the school, after discovering that in 2007, 3,113 out of 3,117 freshmen arrived on campus with computers in tow (the vast majority of which were laptops.) School administrators took a look around, and realized that the computer lab’s moment may have passed. An artifact of a time when colleges were working to integrate computers, word processing, and eventually the Internet into the curriculum, computer labs operated as a kind of talisman against protest: teachers could demand papers be word-processed, because even if you don’t own a computer, the lab meant you had no excuse. The project succeeded: computers, today, are an integral part not only of students’ education, but of their entertainment and social life as well.

As a cost-cutting measure, closing community computer labs on college campuses seems to make sense: unlike grassy quads, computer labs seldom encouraged student happiness or wellbeing; unlike campus health centers, they can now hardly be kept around out of dire necessity. In my experience as a computer user assistant at Harvard, it’s overwhelmingly true that most students arrive at school Harvard with a laptop. [In the comments, Kevin correctly points out that to extend this to all schools would be a massive overgeneralization, considering different degrees of personal computer ubiquity/scarcity at different institutions in the U.S. and indeed across the world. (In my eagerness to confirm the University of Virginia’s observations with my own, I slipped and effectively extended the observation to cover all institutions everywhere—certainly not my intention!) See Kevin’s comment below for a thoughtful discussion & links. I’m especially interested in his entreaty to somehow move beyond running in analytical “Participation Gap”/”Digital Divide” circles, to a deeper understanding of the variety of situations at hand.] And yet, in the many hours I’ve spent at the helpdesk in one of Harvard’s main computer labs over the past few years, I’ve observed that the lab is busy and bustling almost 24 hours a day. Students definitely make use of community computer labs when they’re there; if they don’t have to, and the labs are kind of dismal places to begin with, then what’s the deal?

Over the Digital Natives list this week, we discussed a few possibilities. Computer lab computers, for one thing, tend to have large screens and real keyboards; for certain kinds of graphics work, or prolonged typing, a desktop computer in place of a laptop can make a difficult project slightly less miserable. They also provide a source of overflow computing without the requirement of maintaining a separate distribution network—imagine a college’s IT department trying to loan out, and keep track of, a fleet of laptops for students whose computers have died during finals? Also, though modern Macs are capable of dual-booting Windows and OS X, few students actually do so. Computer labs make it possible for schools to offer students access to operating systems (and the attendant OS-specific programs) that they would otherwise be unable to run.

Computer labs offer a combination of connectivity and escape at the same time: they provide a location, a destination, where all of the necessary technological tools are assembled and maintained. They also establish in student’s minds the existence of a “computer place” on campus—the natural place to gravitate toward when your laptop has gotten a virus, or its hard drive has died, or you’re wondering how to set up your email client. Here, the IT helpdesk is right in the computer lab, reinforcing that relationship.

With laptops all but ubiquitous, community computer labs may seem frivolous. But that very ubiquity, and its inescapability, means that colleges have a responsibility to respect and support the relationship between students and computers. A computer lab sends a strong signal, offers an obvious location to honor and troubleshoot that relationship, and gives students an alternative to squinting at tiny screens. They may not be necessary, but campus computer labs are nevertheless good to have around.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on computer ubiquity, how campus computer culture has changed over time, and anything else that’s on your mind—comment away!

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.