Ontological and epistemological positions provide fundamental aspects of research as they concern the philosophical questions what counts as reality and how beings come into being as well as what constitutes knowledge and how knowledge comes to be established. Two core positions can be distinguished in either area: positivist and constructionist.
- positivist ontology: the world is ‘out there’, it operates in a systematic and lawful manner, discrete and observable events, reality is separate from human meaning-making;
- constructionist ontology: assumes the world we can study is a semiotic world of meanings, represented in signs and symbols, language is central to this position;
- positivist epistemology: knowledge can only be gained by gathering facts in a systematic and objective manner, predominantly by the experimental method and by testing of hypotheses in order to gradually build laws. The aim is to refine them and achieve applicability on a universal level;
- constructionist epistemology: knowledge is constructed rather than discovered, it is a representation of the ‘real world’ and interpreted by the researcher. Knowledge is subject to time-space configurations and a means of power (e.g. doctors as ‘architects of medical knowledge’). Scientists and their institutions shape the production of knowledge by their choices and values.
These positions significantly shape research designs and methodologies.
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.
On 18 December Vietnam approved new blogging restrictions that aim at regulating bloggers’ content which the government deems sensitive or inappropriate. National providers are requested to report and remove posts which
- undermine national security,
- incite violence or crime,
- disclose state secrets,
- or include inaccurate information that could damage the reputation of individuals and organizations.
The booming blogosphere which is growing fast into an alternative newsroom has provided a wakeup call to the government which is resorting to drastic measures of censorship. State-controlled media in a communist state is no longer the only source of information with bloggers seizing power and spreading what is perceived as harmful. The language itself is subject to regulations which encourage bloggers to write in ‘clean and healthy Vietnamese’.
Outside Vietnam, traditional media is getting increasingly under pressure. The Financial Times titled on 22 December: ‘Plane crash geek Twitters from burning Denver aircraft, Philippe Naughton’. Real-time citizen journalism also played a significant role in the recent Mumbai attacks when users posted the events in 140 character messages into the online sphere. Twitter had come under attack for providing terrorists at the scene with information about the situation.
Giving away some of the power traditional or state-owned media used to hold is still widely perceived as inviting anarchism and social chaos. Societies and governments are going through the very challenging processes of getting used to listening to their people’s views – who’ve got a lot to say, it turns out. How to control this? When and what exactly is to be controlled? By whom? Currently, there are still far too many in control who are non-users of the new social media, those who neither blog, wiki, facebook or twitter. In short: those who actually do not have any expertise in the very field they want to regulate so desparately.
Successful ‘control’, i.e. such that is neither patronising nor does it trigger instant resistance but is adapted by users as enabling and empowering, may rather come from peers than in the traditional top-down manner. After all, bloggers and microbloggers are technically already able to remove messages and exercise self-moderation if required. Instilling a sense of responsible information-sharing while learning to produce quality content is the actual challenge at stake. Yet, with all the shifts in external control and regulation a review of internal mechanisms is to me the more realistic and sustainable approach: self-reflection and self-evaluation of one’s own contribution strengthen the sense of ownership and third party assessment. It is not just citizens who need to learn how to engage and publish with responsibility – it is also governments who need to learn to take their citizens seriously and work in collaboration with them on information-sharing in a globalised world.