On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became America’s first African-American president. The country celebrated the event as an achievement of the founding fathers' assertion that all men are created equal and as a promise of new breakthroughs to come. 

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became America’s first African-American president. The country celebrated the event as an achievement of the founding fathers' assertion that all men are created equal and as a promise of new breakthroughs to come. Commentators on that day spoke of other “firsts” as well – the first U.S. Senator to assume the presidency since Lyndon Johnson, the first time young children would be living in the White House since the Carter years, and the first time a mother-in-law would live with a presidential family since Harry Truman’s days.

But I think President Obama could be remembered for another first that is perhaps even more profound than having broken the racial ceiling on the highest office in the land.

Barack Obama is the first president ever to carry a Blackberry.

There are many things a new president must adjust to, many freedoms that must be relinquished. Obama will have to forgo the spontaneous pickup basketball games he loves so much when he travels and, of course, he has publicly promised to abandon his cigarette habit, at least while on the White House grounds. But give up his wireless connection to friends and the World Wide Web? No way! Our Gen X president simply refuses to walk through life unconnected, diminished and incapacitated! “I’m the president… figure it out!” he told his people. And they did.

Enter “Blackberry One.” Everybody knows its name. Nobody has its number.

Beware the Wired Student

Students in our schools, it seems, are much more dangerous. In its 2007 report, Creating & Connecting, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) revealed that 96 percent of students with online access spend nearly as much time using social networking technologies as watching television – nine hours and 10 hours respectively each week. Moreover, more than half of the respondents indicated that they use social networking tools to talk about education and collaborate on school projects; yet, associated interviews with district leaders revealed that most K-12 school systems have strict rules against nearly all forms of online social networking at school.

When students come to school they “power down” – literally, when they are told to turn off their wireless devices, and metaphorically when they disengage as they disconnect. In Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (2001), digital gamer Marc Prensky introduced the notion of the “digital native” into our lexicon. Today’s student, Prensky asserts, is “wired” and functions best when networked, prefers graphics before text, and multi-tasks. When we deprive these students of their networked devices, it is like depriving them of oxygen. They can’t breathe, they can’t function, and so they power down, conserving energy until they can find a more hospitable environment in which these neurons can fire, connect, and make meaning of the world around them. In most cases, this environment is anywhere but school.

The Ubiquity of Social Networking

Today’s students do not use their technological devices to passively access information – they use them to connect with others. Social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook are the fundamental building blocks of a teenager’s life today. Think princess telephones in the ‘60’s -on steroids.

Ask students about social networks, and they’ll tell you that wherever their geographic locale, they are a mere breath away from each other on Facebook. They regularly negotiate sales of everything from video games to car parts on eBay, prefer to share vacation memories and weekend photos on Flickr, and create their alter-egos on MySpace.

Of course students don’t have the Secret Service to protect them from potential abusers when they participate in virtual social networking and this is a concern to many school administrators as well as parents as reported in the NSBA study. However, social networkers have developed processes to keep themselves safe and to regulate their own communities. On Facebook, for example, you may only view another’s “profile” if you have been “friended” by that person. This promotes a level of privacy with which all users are comfortable.

Most sites also have mechanisms that allow community members to “flag” posted items that they believe are inappropriate or outside the terms of use. For example, on the free online classified advertising site, Craig’s List, users looking for a new home can select a list of houses for sale by owner or a separate list for sale by agent. If an unscrupulous agent lists a house in the “for-sale-byowner” section, an observant user can “flag” the item warning fellow users about the infraction. When an item receives a certain number of flags, it is pulled from the site.

Most “terms of use” statements do not specify each and every possible infraction warranting a “flag.” Rather, it is up to users themselves to set the standards and, over time, each virtual community develops its own set of tacit agreements and operating principles to guide its online behavior.

Writers such as Howard Rheingold and James Surowiecki have discussed the power inherent in online communities. Rheingold coined the term, “smart mobs,” and Surowiecki identified this phenomenon as the “wisdom of crowds.” One only has to look at the impact of the Internet on the fundraising abilities of recent presidential candidates to understand the strength inherent in a community of like-minded people joining together in a virtual world to support a shared goal.

Purposeful Communities

Researchers at my organization, the Denver-based Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), have identified “purposeful community” as a critical component of successful education systems. In K-12 education, this community includes students, parents, teachers, school staff members, central office administrators and support personnel, the school board, other social agencies, and businesses.

A purposeful community has the collective ability to develop and use all available assets to accomplish purposes and produce outcomes that matter to all community members. Members come together to accomplish outcomes that individuals could not accomplish on their own, such as increasing graduation rates or reducing absenteeism.

Purposeful communities use both tangible assets (such as media centers and textbooks) and intangible assets (such as parent involvement and community support) to achieve their purposes. They also have agreed-upon processes for working together, which include both articulated and tacit operating principles governing their interactions.

These processes ensure the viability of the community and increase the likelihood of meeting shared goals. Finally, purposeful communities exhibit a sense of collective efficacy; they really do believe that together they can make a difference. At McREL, we believe these communities can have a powerful effect on student achievement in our 21st century schools.

What if?

Perhaps we should take a lesson from our students. They are in fact organically forming purposeful communities in cyberspace every day. Rather than restricting the most highly engaging form of communication and community-making available to students, what if schools embraced this technology and made use of its natural educational advantages? True purposeful communities are composed of students, parents, teachers, and many others. Together, stakeholders’ contributions to school improvement strategies could grow exponentially and virally in the same way one adds friends on Facebook.

I have a dream. One day I get the president’s number. I find his Facebook page and write on his wall: Dear Mr. President. Thanks for being first.

This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in American School Board Journal (Lefkowits, L. 2008, July. A new face for schools. American School Board Journal, 18-19.)

Laura Lefkowits was the vice president for policy and planning services at McREL. Lefkowits led McREL’s internal annual program planning process including the collection and use of data for purposes of corporate strategy development. She holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Colorado and is a certified scenario planner by the Global Business Network.