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.
In Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff argues that virtuality is actually an ‘ancient human practice and that many media have given us leave of the here and now: cave paintings, Jane Austen novels, Howard Nemerov poems’ (2008). His words in mind I went to see Inkheart in Berlin and could not have found a better illustration of the notion that virtuality is indeed ‘older than sin’ as Boellstorff quotes Plato. Assuming, we imagine our deeds first, then act – although, there is an element of awareness implied that might make all the difference.
Boellstorff’s extensive ethnographic research in Second Life provides us with a richness that won’t allow to dismiss virtual communities as less real as it would mean to miss the key point: what makes them real is our imagination. Equality of imagined and non-imagined places, communities and actions is probably what we can argue for now, having access to so much information and proof of what people imagine and how they imagine.
New social media are the places where a considerable amount of our daily interaction and non-verbal communication take place. Where happiness and depression have a lot in common and reproduce themselves. Without imagination there is little beyond routine: the future is a child of your creative imagination, imagination can destroy, combat crime or start wars. Imagine fear and the cold hand taking hold of you is not far. In this sense new social media is actually not new at all. Interacting with others, forming sustainable and healthy social relationships as well as learning from conflicts are subjects to our imaginative powers and just as Inkheart illustrates so colourfully: escaping from inside the written words into the world declared as real or being pulled inside a book – remember The Neverending Story, Peter Pan’s Neverland, Pippi Longstocking? – it all does seem to be very real. We used to be skilled in imagining whole worlds and futures before we internalised what we were told then: to be realistic, to not get lost in imagined and fantasized worlds. Imagination has become highly status-related: certain literature, music, opera and theatre are encouraged and socially rewarding whereas some popular culture, certain video-gaming and virtual interaction do not enhance our social and cultural capital, so far at least a still dominant argument brought up by many who don’t think much of virtual communities.
Whose reality is it anyway? Imagined readers and writers are closely tied together in Inkheart, escaping from outside into the other world becomes possible by reading the words to an audience, a listener. Do we imagine the other and their world when addressing someone in a letter, an electronic message, on the phone or in Second Life? Perhaps we need to ask when we do not imagine an audience and when we are not imagined as part of the visible or invisible audience…in online and offline worlds full of CCTV, cookies and user statistics leaving traces just as bold as tinkerbell’s fairy dust.
We would benefit from a more holistic approach, I believe, when it comes to understanding the real impact of our imaginations upon our manufactured ‘real worlds’. Imagine, all the people, sharing one virtual world – with many virtual sub-worlds, of course – in awareness of their imaginative powers….imagine all the people understanding the responsibility that comes with such powers…
This year’s AoIR conference, the IR9.0 in Copenhagen is still inspiring me – it’s been a great event with numerous encounters, plenty of food for thought thanks to the fantastic conference chair Lis Klastrup and the programme chair Brian Loader with the organising team and 430 international delegates. Here is the visual overview flickr
The keynote lecture presented by Mimi Ito focused on a large-scale project which had made use of a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods applied by 29 researchers. The descriptions of these aspects alone were fascinating and highlighted that managerial and soft skills may have played a quite significant role in the success of the venture. Mimi had resorted to currently dominant discourses around dichotomies such as the connoisseur/amateur, producer/consumer, autonomy/peer pressure in order to frame the findings of research undertaken in the area of anime/fansubbing where reciprocity of peer review is embedded in friendship-driven participation and closely intertwined with practices of status. Exploring this specific area must have been fascinating , some of her results suggest that the genres of participation – covering ID, culture, practice etc acc to her definition – might be rooted too much in traditional sociological terms, though. I thought that these categories did not seem to enable us to truly capture the complex phenomenon of capacity-building activities including the flows of social and transferrable skills which -presumably – start off in the online sphere and gain momentum and their own dynamics in the offline sphere. Mimi ‘s notions on moral panics and the scepticism as to the contrary celebrations of the no-barriers sphere remained marginal in this rather optimistic interpretation within her lecture.
The pessimistic comments were much more at the core of Stephen Graham’s keynote lecture which critically evaluated the tagging practices in the contemporary hype of securing, excluding and trajectory-tracking of mobile bodies, goods and ideas which all aim at listing of profilings including discourses of status, power, control and policing in order to make spaces governable which are perceived as prone to threats. Stephen presented a picture in stark contrast to Mimi’s: the dream of transparency in an ever more complex world chiselled into the gloomy rhetoric and practices of biometrics, militarisation and the fixing of ‘authentic’ IDs into static subjects. He raised the question how much time societies may have left at their hand before their citizens become all too accustomed to the notion of being the sum of tags. Tags defined and attached by others – also here an underlying polarity. Re-animating and re-mediating urban spaces in an attempt to un-blackbox these technocrat politics by moving away from interiorised gaming were among the ideas Stephen presented as to how to resist and appropriate at grass-root level. I felt, though that questioning the lack of questioning in these days might be the underlying issue at stake in a hybrid on/offline world where anxiety has gained true celebrity status as it actually dictates the culture of tagging in a very subtle manner – and in this sense is an even more powerful agent in a nation’s subconscious.