Classroom2.0: Avoiding the “creepy treehouse”

As today’s wired learners become increasingly alienated from an education system that is 50 years out of date, innovative teachers are exploring ways to make learning more relevant to learner’s social and cultural identities.

In addition to making learning more meaningful, these explorations have the potential to revolutionize education and transform it into something that equips learners for the social, cultural, political and professional realities of a globalised world.

But there may be a downside. Ironically, the promise of social and participatory technologies may also lead to even greater alienation when approached without pedagogical reflexivity, responsibility and transparency.

The problem of coercion and inequity must be addressed if educators plan to engage in the use of social and participatory tools in a context of institutional power and assessment. Some have called this problem the “creepy treehouse.”

Definining the creepy treehouse

Jared M. Stein’s defining the creepy treehouse describes the practice of creating inauthentic or coercive spaces:

n. Any institutionally-created, operated, or controlled environment in which participants are lured in either by mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments, or by force, through a system of punishments or rewards.Such institutional environments are often seen as more artificial in their construction and usage, and typically compete with pre-existing systems, environments, or applications. creepy treehouses also have an aspect of closed-ness, where activity within is hidden from the outside world, and may not be easily transferred from the environment by the participants.

Creepy treehouse or bad pedagogy?

For me, all of this, in some way or another comes back to opt-in v. opt-out models of power in relation to users. Whether it’s the creepy corporately created treehouses (MySpace, Facebook, Friendster) or the well-intentioned creepy treehouses used in education (Blackboard, First Class, etc).

But there is very BIG difference between being ‘lured’ (false pretenses) and being requested specifically for the purpose of learning – defined and clarified on educational/professional terms. For example, using Twitter with students in a professional industry related course like mine carries with it the (not unreasonable) expectation of professionalism and maturity as emerging professionals for their words and actions online. Many of my colleagues follow students back for the specific purpose of accountability. As emerging professionals, my students have to get used to the idea of creating viable identities and content online if they wish to engage in professional life online. But if they wish to maintain their anonymity they can do so by creating separate accounts – though it is increasingly important for them to negotiate the increasing fluidity of personal and professional online.

Bad pedagogy is like bad TOS. It’s top down – not collectively defined. We have to give students the right NOT to take part. That means making it abundantly clear that this is a legitimate option they will be supported in making.

A possible response to the problem of the creepy tree house is the provision of appropriate opportunities for students to take part defining their own social media policies as a group – what they will and will not share and how they will support those who choose to opt out.

Asking students to participate in social and participatory media should require clearly defined intentions (for example, “is this [latest 2.0 thingy] even relevant or useful to the teaching of [your subject here]?”). And there are significantly different ethical and legal issues involved in the use of social media in secondary and elementary education versus adult education. All of these considerations are critical

Another way we can address this problem is to talk about it openly and directly with students. For example, a discussion about Opt-in and Opt-out, privacy and Terms of Service in Facebook. Or providing a context for anonymous feedback about a particular tool or trend.

These kinds of discussions can be redirected in relation to education and the classroom – in relation to the very possibility of genuine honesty, trust and transparency of social relationships in a context of assessment and evaluation.

There is no reason why these tools cannot be used ethically, responsibly and productively if we are mindful and self reflexive in our pedagogies.

Addressing disengagement

“At the same time, other LMS tools that are more exclusively related to the traditional activity of teaching (e.g. gradebooks, online quizzing, material posting, etc) are not viewed as inherently creepy treehouse.”

Academic disengagement and classroom management relating to “traditional” teaching is also a form of the creepy treehouse. Sitting in a row in an uncomfortable desk being talked at for an hour by somebody who may or may not tie your identity to the curriculum may well be experienced as the ultimate coercion. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the entire educational system as it is today (still largely unchanged from 50 years ago in relation to the architecture of learning environments and philosophies of teaching) is incredibly oppressive.

There is also the matter of social disengagement, what American educator Herbert Kohl describes in his book “I won’t learn from you.” This is the conscious or unconscious disengagement that arises in a context where the learner feels excluded or alienated from the learning context. For example, if my students do not see their social identities reflected (social, cultural, socioeconomic, etc) they are unlikely to want to participate.

The late majority user

Another reason for disengagement is the relationship of the student to the technology adoption lifecycle. Surprisingly, many of my students positioned themselves as late majority – according an activity we did around adoption. A few even said they were laggards (didn’t like tech, felt overwhelmed and uwanted to avoid) and a few felt they were early adopters (actually only TWO).

Characteristic of late majority users is a need to have things proven before adopting. This entirely different from the behaviour of the early or instant adopter who will try anything just to try it. A students’ relationship to the technology adoption lifecycle is another factor that must be taken into consideration in relation to the creepy treehouse.

Learning, not hanging out

Finally, it’s only a creepy treehouse is if what you’re doing with these tools is inviting students to “hang out.” The most sophisticated uses so far – from Rheingold and David Parry, in particular – have been reflexive and critically focused. Those using the tools with a very well defined, relevant and transparent pedagogical purpose aren’t inviting students to “hang out” but engage in serious learning.

If anything, the problem is not with the tools but with our approaches. Right now, the use of these tools in education is in its infancy. As with any new technology, there’s productive and non productive use. We’re all still learning. It’s important that we all have time to experiment and make mistakes before rejecting these tools whole cloth. I myself am still learning what works and doesn’t. Best practices are still entirely emergent.

The greatest goal for educators using social media is to teach students to think critically about the uses and abuses of these tools. Namely, about user controls, privacy, democracy, ethics, compassion, and all the other things the corporate developers of social media would rather they DIDN’T learn.

If we wonder why our students are using these tools to bully each other it’s because they’re designed – the very architecture of these systems – to turn them into competitive, consumerised, cruel Digital Social Darwinists. Facebook does a good job of this with all the “compare” and “rate” and “rank” app, which inspires competition – not community.

If we do not all venture into these spaces together – as a guided and pedagogically relevant tour – we will become even further disconnected from a student population who are being corporatized at every turn.

Whether we fear or embrace technology we have to take an intelligent approach to what we’re doing. As danah boyd said:

“Finally, please adult world, I beg you… stop fearing and/or fetishizing technology. Neither approach does us any good. Technology is not the devil, nor is it the panacea you’ve been waiting for. It’s a tool. Just like a pencil. Figure out what it’s good for and leverage that to your advantage. Realize that there are interface problems and figure out how to work around them to meet your goals. Tools do not define pedagogy, but pedagogy can leverage tools. The first step is understanding what the technology is about, when and where it is useful, and how it can and will be manipulated by users for their own desires. “

Further reading/viewing: