Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nichification and School Responsibility

The term nichification, meaning to develop and connect people to a niche which suits their preferences, has its roots in marketing. With the advent of the internet, the lines of marketing and social interaction have blurred. There are now online niches for about any particular interest, viewpoint, age bracket, you name it.

Are you an environmentalist? A fundamentalist? A hard-core interior designer? A curling fanatic? A World of Warcraft enthusiast? There is an online community for you.

Couple that with the advent of web 2.0 technology, and not only can you read about your selected interest, but you can also interact with that community.

The vastness of the web and the availability of tailor-made niches (I literally stumbled across a fan club of the children's show Backyardigans for adults only yesterday) has many consequences. It can bring excitement and connection to someone cut off from a community by her geography. It has the potential for sustained interaction with people from different cultures. But what is becoming very apparent to me... it actually further incubates you from different cultures.

My two favorite pastimes, sports & politics, have online communities that are echo chambers more so than discussion boards. This lack of diversity not only doesn't stretch a person's mind, but also leads to out-grouping and marginalization of those who don't share their viewpoint. Visit one and see for yourself... it will make you sick.

As we re-shape our schools to meet the demands of this new world, the question of nichification is one we cannot avoid. We have the potential, through online tools, to connect students with other students around the world who share their passion and interest.

But, just because we can, does that mean we should? What are schools' responsibilities for this nichified world?

We can't accept the view the nichified world is too dangerous and so we should avoid it in schools. That's too easily dismissed of course, since this is the prevalent attitude in our schools and homes. But easily dismiss it, I do. We also can't assume that this is a fad and that it will go away. If anything, this will become more pronounced than it is right now, and rapidly.

There are two different, although not mutually exclusive viewpoints on this question. The first is the embracing of nichification. Plugging in students to groups with similar interests... consider the possibilities. In the state of Iowa, we recently received the free license to Google Sketchup, a program that doesn't necessarily find its way into the mainstream curriculum, but that appeals to certain students who literally like to build. Imagine if we create a statewide community of Sketchup afficiandos, who can interact and build in their virtual world. Tying into student passion would lead to intense learning. Powerful stuff!

I'd say this is the prevalent viewpoint of online learning advocates. And yet, I fully acknowledge the other side, that there is some danger in all-out embracing of nichification.

The other viewpoint is to say that we at schools have a social responsibility to push students to collaborate with others online who are not like themselves. Others with different viewpoints and perspectives. And as an extension, dealing with those other viewpoints and perspectives in a respectful, positive manner. Look at the aforementioned sports or political communities, where the act of outgrouping by internal members of the community and trolling by external members simply wrecks the positives that community can bring.

We obviously need a balance between the two; the embracing of nichification as well as the forcing of us to collaborate with those outside of our niche. The problem is, we aren't having a discussion with educators on how to find this balance. And until we do, we won't be serving the needs of our students in this age.

Despite being very apparent in an online setting, we really have already had this issue for years. Schools and their cliques are already nichified, even before the advent of the internet. Cliques rarely interact with each other outside of the classroom--take a walk through the halls of a high school and see for yourself.

In the classroom, teachers have thought about this issue, at least subconsciously. When teachers allow students to choose their own groups, students will pick groups that make them comfortable and that have similar interests. This can be a very productive strategy. But on the other hand, many teachers see they have a responsibility to pair students with those they don't normally visit with in order to extend their thinking.

But, have you ever had this discussion with other educators? How to get students out of their clique-boxes and learning from other students in the class? I haven't in all my experience in teaching, which makes the issue of online nichification more dire and more pressing. We have to have that discussion now.

But first... I'm going to check out what other Backyardigans enthusiasts have to say. Don't knock it until you have to watch it with your three-year-old!

Image from Syracuse.com

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