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.
Carsten Sorensen of LSE gave an entertaining keynote, we got distracted by video snippets that illustrated the stories of interaction asymmetry: mobile technology imagined in the future. James Bond shots and the General Post Office’s view dating back to 1964 helped us remember how much things have changed and how intrusive technology has become. Nodding audience. Some of the points he made echoed research conducted in the late 1990s when researchers such as Paul du Gay, Hugh Mackay et al. had started looking into the use of media in the domestic sphere with practices of appropriation ranging from muting the TV screen to behaviours such as collective commenting . I felt that even though technology has been insinuated in complex environments and helps us to micro-coordinate our multiple commitments and roles within all the massive amplification of networked connections, again, the actual practices and meaning making processes on the underlying individual level are hardly understood. This may be due to the fact that they are embedded in wider discourses, ‘unconsciousnesses’, taboos and collective cultural and sub-cultural systems – all of them extremely hard to grasp in surveys aiming at representative samples.
From the very general level to a much more specific field, the research done by David Wilson, Mark Bailey, and Philip Gray, University of Glasgow, was placed in the ‘organisational context of molecular genetics research laboratories’ and investigated individuation, privacy and social media from various angles. Collaborating and sharing data and equipment, i.e. notebooks in labs (lab books) enables post-graduate and doctoral students to capture progress but at the same time, the issue of community versus personal [intellectual] property poses dilemmas which cannot be resolved in a culture that demands individuation and places the highest incentives and rewards on those who rather don’t share. Apart from the powerlessness and the limited sense of control also issues such as monitoring others’ work progress are at stake.
The dilemmas made visible by Wilson et al. were fascinating as they may be paralleled in other fields where online collaboration and content sharing are equally subjected to the notion that competing against each other is rewarded – for status and power reasons – rather than the produced result itself. It would be a major step forward to review and redefine acknowledging practices such as the display of share of work done by individuals, for instance in papers published by more than one author. Currently, one of the most common practices is to list authors in alphabetical order. Here, also publishing entities, editors and reviewers would have a chance to bring about change. For instance by using social media and making reviewing processes more transparent, including the commenting on each other’s reviews.
Why aren’t reviews of papers submitted for conferences made accessible to delegates so they can learn from each other and/or collaborate on future projects? Facilitating such possibilities would mean to rethink plagiarism and power and take a more innovative approach. Current practices are not transparent, they often seem to protect the reviewer rather than the reviewed. In some instances, reviewers gave less than constructive feedback, resulting in a notion that more transparency would be beneficial in multiple ways. This issue was also subject to discussion at the 3rd ICWSM, the AAAI conference I attended in San Jose, California.
At The 2nd Digital Cultures workshop, though, Nic Crowe’s paper was my personal favourite. A lecturer at Brunel University with a background in youth work and teaching, his ‘Work, rest and play in the Digital Playground’ was not just striking in terms of presentation, he made all the difference due to his empathy and sound understanding of youth culture, practices and dilemmas. As Digital Natives (Prensky: 2001), youth in online worlds such as Runescape use these virtual spaces as social contexts, not any different from material spaces in their imagined potentials, they offer safe arenas which allow for trial and error experiences that prepare for real life actions. As an interlocutor was quoted “I can try my best lines online and avoid making myself a fool in real life” – she was referring to a virtual boyfriend. Becoming streetwise in virtual worlds while engaging in ‘deviant’ activities in virtual spaces as well as mundane experiences such as getting a haircut or treating oneself to a holiday too expensive in real life, the experience results in real life pleasant feelings that are all providing supplements and replacements for lost real spaces.
As conventional spaces have been made unworthy accessing or have become altogether inaccessible – Nic mentioned the curfew in Richmond/London area and spaces that had been equipped with policing devices such as mosquitos – this piece of research echoes danah boyd’s findings in the US. He also presented a few statistics that underlined why these conditions are not due to change any time soon: the US$60 billion p.a. industry is booming with 9 video games sold every second on every day in 2007.
This week two blogposts made me wonder whether we try to fix quickly by help of technology, more precisely social media, what is actually rooted in rather complex behavioural issues.
Harvard Digital Natives‘ site discussed the celebration of shared knowledge, while ethical issues in the context of plagiarism did not remain untouched. Is it OK to make use of the teacher’s resources if found accidentally on the web? Where are the boundaries of intellectual property being copied unacknowledged into an essay and what defines a novel intellectual product? What constitutes new anyway – and who defines it? ‘Sharing is caring’ in a mark-based competition-driven world? Does the generation Digital Natives really buy into this? And if not to the extent we would hope to see, then what can we do to improve the attitude?
Neville Hobson on the other hand looked at the findings analysed by Forrester Research which state that “corporate blogs rank at the bottom of the trust scale with only 16% of online US consumers who read them saying that they trust them”. Trust building and efficiency are corporate key aims in today’s shaky markets – but is anyone still wondering why they have gone lost in the first place? And when exactly did it happen?
It is not just financial institutions and governments which need to rebuild trust and seem to have little idea as to how to manage this. Students and pupils around the world might soon be among those who need to prove that they are trustworthy – if they don’t refrain from the temptation to copy&paste their works like a patchwork blanket in ‘the old days’, then who can trust them once they are tomorrow’s employees and managers of those institutions which we have just bailed out?
The risk/reward balance needs to be restored, rethinking the tendency towards blamegaming and secrecy are key to the development of policies, educational and economic systems that are sustainable. New social media can play a major role in exactly all this. But placing all trust into these technologies without distinguishing carefully between coherent knowledge production and pouring information bits onto the public 24/7 will cause an increase in ignorance, if not even more harmful practices.
Transparency contributes to the wider social benefit. Efficiency and trust-building measures post-crises must be informed by a sense of responsibility. Ethics need to be given a much more central role in curricula, they seem to linger in a corner where they gain dust rather than attractiveness. Ethics and social responsibility must become more than nice yet halfhearted labels in corporate PR-strategies.
Isn’t it time to ask what means we have to get back on track and find knowledge production in a holistic manner more rewarding than piecemeal bits of information, no matter how efficient the latter may appear in our hectic and profit-driven days? Isn’t it time to think about trust in a more cohesive way and produce comprehensive strategies that prove sustainable in more than one field? That would include pupils as tomorrow’s voting citizens as well as corporations as collective citizens within the wider public.
Applying for a job in Barack Obama’s new team forced every applicant to dig deep in their own past: those who aim at high-ranking roles faced a questionnaire including 63 questions. Among many personal questions the links to blogs and Facebook pages were required. You may think this is taking things way too far. Such an intrusive approach may be detrimental to a fruitful collaboration. A German friend working in Human Resources argued similarly: they would not google applicants for “we trust people”. And of course, you will need the resources to conduct such research: personnel who are skilled and know what to look for.
It does seem many organisations are not taking social media very seriously. My friend pointed towards the age of corporate decision-makers. This might be one aspect, others may be related to power, hierarchical structures and a lack of understanding communication as a 2-way process rather than the still widespread top-down trickle. Not to forget cultural practices – some of them unconsciously practices and reproduced.
Using social media in times of financial markets in turmoil, drastic policy changes, lay offs and plenty of rumours does not seem to loom large on companies’ to-do lists. Micro-/blogging is frowned upon in circles which have not even arrived at websites that offer more than carefully choreographed content and a simple contact form: banking is certainly among the least transparent and progressive industries in this regard. Information is money, has to be money – and profit has to be quantifiable. Or?
Whistleblower Cityboy managed to shake up things a little by breaking the Code of Silence strictly enforced in London’s financial district. His blogging activites in Fear and Loathing in the City provide great entertainment, raised eyebrows and a few voices – but he did not manage to bring about change to the long established culture of scarce flows of information.
Now in the era of bailing out banks – as if they were hostages – one may think things could change and transparency would be imposed by help of governmental bodies – and the public who paid a high price for a slice of all those toxic assets. But no, this is illusionary, as some of the stakeholders may well have changed now but the corporate culture remained the same. In this context, “YES, I CAN!” is not the banker’s mantra.
Net presence and staff activism, corporate blogging in a proactive attempt to manage and control change, shape opinion-making and bring about change in a way remotely echoing Obama’s extensive use of platforms and channels in the sphere of social media is something the banking sector is not even ready to think about. Dismissing social media as lacking a sound business model seems to be right if taking the short-term perspective.
On the long run though, social media offers opportunities to manage relationships with customers as well as staff which may well pay off: the worst in times of financial crises is to leave image and status management to traditional PR campaigns and the local papers. Generation Digital Native is mobile and targeted by those who don’t sleep, they might also be much less loyal to parties, corporations and brands than widely assumed. I can hear their “yes, we can”…