1200 fotos got lost when my camera was stolen (back in London) – this is an homage to Northern California and all the beautiful people and stunning places I encountered. This is also dedicated to the invisible people, the many – way too many – homeless people I met on my ways. It is also a piece of emotional labour contributing to a better understanding of reflexivity in [auto-]ethnographic research projects, with a focus on awareness of the role of the self.
The image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License by wordle.net.
In mid-April Howard Rheingold wrote about 21st Century Literacies, I remembered his post when I came across a tweet linking to a comment on The Chronicle of Higher Education made by Elayne Clift (a college and university lecturer since 1987). Her first experiences with the virtual classroom made me wonder whether those who have been engaging with online practices and communities over the past decades tend to take for granted that new users find intuitively their way and resort to best practices. By instinct, so to speak.
While online collaboration tools such as FirstClass, Moodle, Wikis and Social Networking Sites have been celebrated increasingly as the way forward for public and private enterprises, those who are left behind are not only those who are trapped in the digital divide. Clift gave five reasons why online teaching resulted in an ‘I’ll never do it again’ – and I doubt the reasons are actually ‘technophobia’ or being ‘plain old-fashioned’ as she had suspected. The reasons she gave were:
- Anonymity and the lack of physical elements involved in f2f interaction as major obstacle,
- ‘lack of immediacy’ resulted from her viewpoint in a poor quality of education,
- ‘distance learning’ involves credit being granted for independent work rather than based on a structured curriculum that had ‘theories and key thinkers’ at its heart – a minus, she finds.
- Online courses would be too big.
- There would be no way to help students to ‘develop better writing and critical thinking skills or to foster original ideas’.
- Finally, Clift concluded that ‘online teaching can be very punishing’ and she felt she had devoted a lot more time – as she attempted to be available online 24/7 – but no compensation was offered.
I felt sorry for her and the students – online learning (involving the teacher as learning agent) can be a lot better than this. It strikes me that someone so experienced in teaching obviously made little attempt to take a more structured approach towards a new cognitive experience. So what went wrong?
Studying – and teaching – in an online environment such as The Open University is not an intuitively available experience. Marking (including commenting) schemes, moderating discussion groups (and resolving online conflicts), stimulating and regulating debate (discuss! – is not sufficient) are practices that need training and improve with experience. Neither students nor teachers need to be constantly available -I think many people learned this when we started using email, years ago. Or even further back, in the days when the telephone was the one device that brought distant people together, with nothing but the voice to interpret, intruding with a blaring ring people’s domestic sphere, at any time. How dare you – moral panics, also then.
Clearly, there is a considerable amount of emotional labour required and involved in online communication and teaching, but then, text-based communication is only one way to interact. There is VoIP with Skype and other providers for IM or video calls. Yet, also here, the big silence can strike. Someone you talk to may misinterpret nearly everything, or say nothing at all. I had lecturers who kept there messages so brief it was rude beyond abrupt – and useless in terms of constructive feedback. And they would never make an effort and go beyond this minimalist talk nor would they use any social networking sites.
Yet I have also had fantastic lecturers who made an enormous effort in helping me to improve my writing and analytical skills. Some had impressive skills in terms of providing me with constructive feedback, they also managed to structure the study load defined by the faculty in so far as they offered additional readings for those who were hungry for more food for thought. Independent work and in-depth knowledge of theoretical frameworks have been pretty much in balance, ever since my second undergraduate year, hence, Clift’s experience may have been fairly different under different conditions.
Being able to communicate clearly, express emotions, doubts and impressions clearly – we all have seen *grins*, *blushing*, LOL as placeholders for invisible body language – is key to successful and satisfying computer-mediated communication (CMC). Choose your own, if this kind of lingo is not age-appropriate for you. There are no hard and fast rules but then this applies to real life too, right.
Dealing with one’s own uncertainties and the ghost called ‘imagined audience’ may have been at stake in Clift’s case, in addition to poor institutional planning. As Rheingold pointed out ‘digital culture depends to a very large degree on what we know, learn, and teach each other’, indicating it is a 2-way process. Acquisition of such skills and knowledge takes a cognitive journey that would entail to discuss learning in online settings with students themselves; yet, this in turn is based on the notion of the teacher as a learner and poses a potential risk to their hierarchical position.
New objectifications, alienations and dynamics are at play; with an infrastructure that can be very empowering but is not intuitively available to us just because we are experts in some field called education and have reached a certain age and status, I hope Clift will get another chance to try online teaching – leaving her with much more positive experiences.
Censorship in the blogosphere may trigger instant associations to China, Syria etc and policing the internet. But censorship may not only occur on the national or the macro level but also on the micro level. The extent of control exercised when readers comment on postings may say more about the individual/s running the blog than any statements made by them in their profile or postings.
Under the umbrella of an individual’s anxieties, i.e. the need to feel in control in the virtual world where many perceive themselves not in command but rather controlled by the invisible audiences – and other unknown forces – , the only way to restore order and a sense of power is to censor comments to a degree that may disencourage readers to comment at all. This resulting lack of feedback and interaction in a rapidly growing universe of blogs, online social networks, and microblogging tools such as twitter may contribute to a sense that ‘those out there’ are indeed powerful invisible audiences who consume but remain emotionally unavailable. A desired outcome of the regulatory mechanisms at the micro level in the blogosphere?
The urban dictionary (UD) came up with this term the other day and it made me wonder how much emotional labour is actually involved in the housekeeping bits of being a more or less active user of an online social network such as facebook? When users become the target of a friend’s ‘remove contact’ action – defaced to use the lingo – there is a narrative behind. Too much or too little activity, stalking, swamping with application invites, virtual or real life broken hearts, betrayal, dramas etc. Does it hurt? Or is it simply a lower figure popping up next to the number of friends? Is it accompanied by moves of revenge or is re-facebefriending the next step? Is it a matter of geographical or temporal distance? Hidden agendas, politics of collective ogling or sheer ignorance [the currency of the modern world as someone in UD argues]? Obviously, it can mean anything or nothing at all – but the complexity of unspoken rules and the subleties of online representation and status issues is amazing…in the end it may determine – or contradict – what happens in the 1:1 encounter offline too.