Some strange things seem to be happening in the learning technology and T&L debates at the moment. There appears to be a growing presence of an anti-tech resistance, challenging the efficacy of technology (and those who use it). Some of these ‘think pieces’ question the motivations of those using technology in their class (both students and teachers), demean the status of social media as an active and fertile ground for intellectual debate, try and institute blanket bans for the good of the learner and actively argue that we need to ‘get back to chalk’. These have become battle lines in a fake war between protectors and challengers, defenders of the faith versus the barbarians at the gate. The innocent victims in all this posturing and puffery are the engaged teachers and learners (thanks @antonycoombsHE for the input). We can see the small bubbles of evidence for this assertion increasingly breaking through to the surface Let’s take Facebook as the canary in the coal mine;
There are universities who ban Facebook from fixed PCs in labs and student spaces (on the suggestion of other students, apparently)
The continued resistance (and active calls to ban) the use of student devices in lectures and tutorials, because of the assertion that ‘they will just be checking their Facebook’
On the other hand, a lot of Facebook led pilots at a delivery or curricula level have failed because students don’t like ‘their’ Facebook being hijacked for learning (although there is a lot of evidence that they are stopping using Facebook entirely, or use it to talk to each other, not the teacher!)
Universities wanting to hold some sway of what their staff say on social media to present a unanimity of opinion (including Facebook).
In the end, these are pointless battles in an entirely distracting conflict. We are arguing about the toss and not about the game. It doesn’t matter what devices are in their hands. What matters most is good teaching. Does it matter that you have a pair of red shoes on? No. What matters is that they make you feel good. It matters that they help people identify or find you. It matters that they stop that puddle you stepped in from making your socks a squidgy mess. What matters is the experiences that people participate in. Good teaching at its heart is the creation and facilitation of experience. There is an old marketing truism that I have always found insightful. People don’t buy ¼ inch drill bits, they but ¼ inch holes. Good teaching is not the fact that someone has a MacBook open or that you have created a PowerPoint slide or even that you have knowledge that you believe someone else needs to become an expert. Good teaching creates environments and conditions for learning experiences to happen. And the creation and nourishment of any experience is a product of a complex interplay of environmental factors. Good teachers hold and move the faders on those factors in order to achieve some form of synergy. Technology is without doubt one of those factors but by itself is like breathing only the nitrogen part of the air.
Good teaching is device/platform/OS agnostic
The kind of devices that people use or the sometimes desperate need to find a use for a piece of technology in teaching (Pokémon GO, it is the new Snapchat) become the easier conversations to have, especially amongst learning technologists and educational developers. Yes, the type of technology being used can and does influence the experiences people learn from. And yes, if the technology doesn’t work it can impact on that experience as well. And yes again, maybe a new platform or social media will seed good ideas and promote innovation. None of these assertions are wrong. But (and there is always a but), by themselves they are the less confronting conversation to have, because they are ignoring the elephant in the room. Good teaching is a hard thing to do. Good teaching is a challenging and emotionally draining thing to do. Good teaching lifts you high and can smack you down, sometimes in the space of a single class. Good teaching sees devices and uses them when they can contribute or challenge or transform what you are trying to do in your class.
Denial is not an instrument of good teaching
Making someone turn a device off in order to help them learn is not a critical approach to teaching. I used to work with a teacher who brought a bucket of water into his classroom and said ‘if I hear a phone go off, it goes into the water’. Why have we become so afraid of a phone? Sure, you may want a debate or discussion that asks people to engage, visually and actively. But what kind of learning can devices help with? Learning about how people learn. So, what actually goes on behind that sea of glowing white apples you see in your lecture? Have they all got Facebook open? Probably. Are they chatting with their mates? Yeah. Are they looking up words and definitions on Wikipedia? Almost certainly. How about providing them with a backchannel for conversation using a twitter hashtag, so that you can answer questions. How about providing them with a list of sites where they can check up definitions of words that match the kind of materials you use. Denial just leads to resistance and rebellion. Nothing good will come of it.
Good teaching is enabled by good communications. Technology changes the way we communicate
I am not describing all technology as simply instrumental tools, without power to influence good teaching. The way technology is used to collaborate, share, critique, engage (this list is endless) shapes the way we communicate. Creativity is democratised. Identity is fluid. Spaces are safe and dangerous. Risk is minimised and multiplied. People learn differently. To ignore social media and its transformative community of practices would be a dangerous ignorance. That doesn’t mean we have to all communicate through twitter in 140 characters, nor does it mean that crowdsourcing and Yelp recommendations will replace academic knowledge as the purest form of thought. But it is in those very defences against using technology that one of the most fundamental tensions in higher education lies; you are either with us or against us. It is a polarised debate, with no middle ground and a series of entrenched positions backed with rigid institutional structures and policies and with all the risk dumped heavily on the shoulders of students. If they choose to deny themselves the use of technology to live their lives, will that help them pass? How strong is the gravitational pull of a 2:1? Does the view of Professor Dr Jones requiring them to only use printed book sources for their essay outweigh their need for employable skills? So, how do they respond? They tell us to use our technology better; we want better PowerPoints, we want the VLE to do stuff to help us learn. And when we can be left on our own to study and prepare and learn (like we are for 90% of our HE experience), we will do things our way. We will use social media, we will chat with each other using whatever apps we like, we will share cool stuff and be visual and we will communicate and engage with people all over the world sharing knowledge, experiences and expertise. Because that is what we do. That is how we communicate and live our lives.
It doesn’t matter what is in their hands, it will be there and it will be used. It is none of our concern whether it is in their hands or not. Knowing it is in their hands empowers both them and us to make better learning experiences.
Title image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/karolfranks/7266270182
It is not a simple thing really; making education in a post-digital world. How do we design for learning in this environment? Do we assume that nothing has changed, and the computers, devices and Pokémon Go are a distraction from the august and Socratic process of education? Do we seek to embed in concrete the processes and practices of higher education and see them as immutable laws that will never change? Or do we think critically about how all of this is not the same as it was before, mixed up, shaken out, broken down and reinvented. The purpose of my presentation at this year’s ALT-C was to look at how learning has changed and how we need to change the way we design learning in the modern university.
At the heart of this design process was the challenge for learning technologists, educational developers and teachers to stop arguing about the efficacy or relevance of old and new technology. It is an argument with no winners. It sets up the easy farce of techno-solutionism vs defending the norm. It creates entrenched positions of defence and attack, where one ‘side’ is seen as wanting to tear the other down. But perhaps worse, talking about the technology is stopping us talking about what is more important, which is the difference between old and new learning, because it is this that is already transforming disciplines five and six times whilst we argue about our VLE.
So how do we change this? How do we move it on? If you have read this blog before you might have seen the posts around learning experiences from earlier this year. Learning experiences are what Knowles describes as the connective tissue and sinew of education (with knowledge, skills, teaching and learning as the rest of the body). We learn through experience; the abstract can only take us so far. Whether it is environmental, tactile, mental, affective, emotional or physical, learning experiences are the context in which learning and knowledge come together. Learning experiences are the art and design component of curriculum development. They are intrinsic and personal. But here is the best bit, we all know how to have them. We all know the experience of making something. We know what we have learnt from making, and we know where to find the knowledge and skills required in order to make. We have made something with our dad or mum, we have made stuff with our own kids. All we need to know first is WHAT to make. Technology has changed the process, the practices and the accessibility of making. I can make music with an app (not an accordion), I can make my own media with a device (not a studio) and I can share that making with the world, for critique, for love, for fame or simply to release myself in order to make the next. This is how we contextualize learning experiences in a post-digital world.
An aside: What do I mean by a ‘post-digital world’? This is a contrary term, perhaps used a bit too often to mean something it isn’t, or as a convenient mark to signal the end of an arbitrary era. For me, post-digital means the point where we stop talking about potential and starting dealing with the fact that it has happened. Technology has normalized, how it is used has normalized and the things that happen in our lives happen not because of the technology, they happen because of people.
So, the short version of the presentation is that as learning technologists, teachers, learners and practitioners we have won. We run the largest learning space in the university, we own systems that have transformed the learning experience and there is no going back, the genie is out the bottle. We have made a difference. But what next? We have these monolithic infrastructure beasts that in the main are not being used to their full potential (the VLE distributing slides, handouts and making announcements?). What do we offer to the institution to help shape the experiences of our learners? The workshop asked participants to take existing learning technology tools (the VLE, Lecture Capture, PRS, plagiarism detection, a classroom etc) and break them. Bend them out of shape, hack them, crack them, remix and rebuild them to be the building blocks of creating and making learning experiences. How do we use the VLE to create a learning experience of play? Or community? How do you remodel a classroom to be a site of discovery or a space of discontinuity? This is a three-part process.
What knowledge and skills are being constructed
What learning and teaching technologies and methods are you using
And finally, what experience will the learners have in order to bring these two things together
So have a go yourself. Take advantage of your greatest success; what we do now and then smash it up!
‘…it’s through participation in communities that deep learning occurs. People don’t learn to become physicists by memorizing formulas; rather it’s the implicit practices that matter most. Indeed, knowing only the explicit, mouthing the formulas, is exactly what gives an outsider away. Insiders know more. By coming to inhabit the relevant community, they get to know not just the “standard” answers, but the real questions, sensibilities, and aesthetics, and why they matter.’
BROWN, J. S. Learning in the digital age. In: DEVLIN, M., LARSON, R. & MEYERSON, J., eds. The Internet and the university: 2001 Forum, 2001 Boulder, CO. EDUCAUSE, 71-86.
With the news that the collaborative crowdsourcing project Constitution UK (led by the Institute of Public Affairs and Learning Technology and Innovation at the LSE) has been awarded the 2016 Campus Technology Teaching and Learning Innovator award, it seemed an appropriate time to reflect on what was truly an amazing project that reshaped how people engage and learn in an online environment. It challenged the traditional pedagogical approaches of many open programmes like MOOCs by engaging in learning that came through being a citizen of the crowd. It was an active role for the community, where they created and owned the learning space, supported how it grew and welcomes new participants each week and collectively debated some of the most critical issues faced by a democratic society in a fiercely engaged, participatory and open way.
This is a challenging task, one in which the internet is often criticizing for making harder, with writers like Habermas (2006) noting that whilst the internet has revitalized grassroots activism, it has equally allowed it to be fragmented into tiny publics. Along with a whole swathe of writers (like Castells and Bruns) he challenged the capability of the internet to generate ‘ideal speech’, a prerequisite for a participatory democracy. In 1990 Habermas identified three criteria for what he believed constituted ideal speech, summarized here by Neuman, Bimber and Hindman (2011);
1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse;
2. Everyone is allowed to express their attitudes, desires and needs and to introduce or question any assertion whatever; and,
3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising the rights as laid down in (1) and (2) above
NEUMAN, W. R., BIMBER, B. & HINDMAN, M. 2011. The Internet and four dimensions of citizenship. In: SHAPIRO, R. & JACOBS, L. (eds.) The Oxford handbook of American public opinion and the media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Constitution UK project was underpinned by the idea that truly democratic approach to participation and learning comes from an engaged community participating in open debate, ideating and solving problems collectively and democratically and owning the safe space for these interactions to occur. Further, that learning can come from this process through problem solving, peer engagement and making and sharing, melding both a constructivist and connectivist pedagogy through social media. It was a truly open community that encouraged all citizens to participate, it encouraged debate on controversial (and less controversial!) issues and it grew in size week after week, which was the exact opposite of the pattern of engagement of most other online programmes. And yes, of course it was fragmented, that is one of the most powerful reasons it worked. Fragmentation is not a curse, it allows people to form and develop expertise. However most critically, there needs to be a way to bring these micro-expertises together, share them, aggregate them, challenge their relevance and re-make them into a bigger whole. For us, this process was crowdsourcing using social media.
One of the most exciting aspects of the project for me was the capacity of an online learning experience to make and shape an effective learning community. Most online experiences are plagued by the inability of the programme to leverage the community of learners in order to deliver a transformative, disruptive or inspirational experience. Week 1 engagements are often dominated by a lot of people shouting and almost no-one listening;
Hi, I am Steve. I can’t wait to study on this course. I am so excited about the idea of talking to other people about shoe repair.
Hola, I’m Valerie. Shoe repair has been my passion since I was a four-year-old playing cobbler. This course is perfect, can’t wait to chat.
Is anyone out there? My name is Nicholas and I have collected shoes for nearly 30 years; would you believe it? Really want to engage and talk with other shoe repair fans.
What are the chances that Valerie, Steve and Nicholas responded to each other on the platform, or to the twenty thousand others who entered in week 1? Community is something that people crave from a university learning experience. Being part of a learning community (as opposed to a community of learners) can be in equal parts empowering, frightening, challenging and inspiring. But what happens when the community ascends from simply a collective of asynchronous, one-way communications to being able to crowd-source knowledge and solve problems? When that community can leverage the power of the massive and through technology can span location, engage in social behaviours and create and share knowledge? It is at that point it becomes truly transformative. Community learning experiences build on the social aspects of learning; collaboration, collective assessment and engagement, group work etc. and transform them through collegiality, shared experiences and co-operative expertise.
In this age of internet shaming, twitter fights, racial hatred and abuse being played out through the relative anonymity of social media and discourse being reduced to mindless insult and blatant lies, that the need for an inclusive community has never been greater. Constitution UK built such a community. It embraced the views of over 1500 people on controversial topics such as the monarchy, human rights, citizenship, democracy and yes, the role of Europe. The community argued, debated, disagreed, came together, refined and voted. The community learnt from each other with over 80% of the ‘learners’ agreeing that they learnt something through the project, many learning from their interactions with other community members. What was fascinating was that whilst inside this community, inclusivity and civility predominantly drove engagement, outside when the debate spilt into Facebook the exact opposite occurred. When a call for participation in the project was put on Facebook and which expressly identified the need for greater female participation in the democratic discourse and in parliament (in part to address our own gender bias within the project), a misogynistic argument ensued in the comments, tainted with sexist vitriol, misinformed hate speech and implied threats of violence against women and their ‘sympathizers’.
Why did Facebook breed such behaviors? Behaviours that are counter to everything that the project and its community stood for? This for me is the complexity of learning through social media. It is a messy space, shaped by both the ability to throw stones anonymously and in equal parts represent yourself more accurately than you ever could face to face. It is a chaotic space where rules are designed to eliminate only the most heinous or puritanical of behaviours. It is also one of the most emancipatory of spaces, where identity can be constructed in a way that allows the parts of you that are frequently hidden, repressed or unable to be expressed, freedom and given a voice. Constitution UK used a social media platform designed to support and encourage ideation, democracy and collective decision-making (called Crowdicity). We had a light touch in terms of registration (name and email address). But through a well- designed process of moderator engagement, guerilla interventions from our academics, well-planned topics and a set of mutually agreed ‘rules’ and behaviours, we avoided all of the negative and dark sides of social media engagement. We produced over one million words of debate, thousands of ideas and an agreed written constitution of 8000 words.
‘Social media has facilitated a complex, co-created and immediate form of learning response, where content and openness challenge the closed, structured nature of modern higher education. Social media has had significant impacts on the way learners connect with people and with the knowledge they require in order to learn across a variety of contexts. Social media support more than user interactivity, they support the development and application of user-generated content, collaborative learning, network formation, critical inquiry, relationship building, information literacy, dynamic searching and reflection.’
BRYANT, PETER (2015) Disrupting how we ‘do’ on-line learning through social media: a case study of the crowdsourcing the UK constitution project. In: 14th European Conference on e-Learning, 29-30 October 2015, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield
So, why did our community gel together and become such an inclusive, positive, engaged and productive one? In part it drew from the capability of social media to deliver space for sociable conversation and engagement similar to face-to-face (Prybus 2015), whilst allowing for the blurring of social and professional practices. Whilst civic debate and participation have moved to on-line platforms, the capacity of traditional tools of civic engagement to keep up is constantly challenged. For example, most opinion polling is conducted via telephone, which does not actively engage a significant proportion of the voting population who communicate exclusively online with Clark (2015) reporting;
Phone polling used to be regarded as less biased, but Sturgis cautions: “Many households are increasingly reluctant to pick up their landline, and a growing proportion of young people in particular rely exclusively on mobile phones”. There is no exhaustive database of mobile numbers to draw on, and there is no consensus among the pollsters on a comprehensive and cost-effective way to factor mobiles into the mix. Social media are contested spaces in terms of digital citizenship, with debates around inclusiveness, access and the digital divide made alongside those that support social media transforming democracy through engaging disenfranchised socio-demographic communities (Ellison & Orchard-Webb 2014 and Merien et al 2010 for example).
Whereas voter turnout, party membership and other more institutionalised forms of political engagement are caught in a downward spiral, innovative ways of civic engagement seem to be on the rise in most liberal democracies (Merien, Hooghe and Quintelier 2010, p.187).
There is no doubt social media spaces for democracy can be troubling, anti-social and even violent. The opportunity for anonymity and sometimes consequence-less abuse and bullying mean that much of the academic and tabloid debate is centered on ‘stranger danger’ and how to avoid the conflicts that sometimes take over social media sites. And equally how easy it is for the rest of the community to fall silent when this behaviour is happening. For many this why social media is not seen seen a legitimate site for civic engagement (McCosker and Johns (2014). They go onto to argue that;
This approach ignores the productive potential of even aggressive and conflict-ridden exchanges to provide new opportunities for young people in particular to make claims and take responsibility as citizens, in ways that embrace what Hartley (2012) describes as the right to act up and the ‘right to dance’
McCosker, Anthony, and Amelia Johns. “Contested publics: Racist rants, bystander action and social media acts of citizenship.” Media International Australia 151.1 (2014): 66-72.
So, back to the question I posed earlier, why did Constitution UK avoid these pitfalls (yet be exposed to them on Facebook). There are a couple of answers to that question. The first was that we placed the solution of a problem as a central part of the pedagogical approach. This was not a cyclical debate, that allowed people to have their say and bugger off. There was an end to the means. It was a problem that the community agreed needed to be solved, which started with the need for a constitution in the first instance, right through to how much of the European ideal should be included. Collective problem solution is at the very heart of our approach to online learning. Many MOOCs use problem solution as an intrinsic individual motivator for participation (I have a problem that needs to be solved so I will do a course; career, interest, gap etc.). Constitution UK built the problem into the fabric of the activity. Ideation, intervention, debate and agreement were all just tools that sought to collectively solve the problem. Sure, have your say, but know that what you say should help solve the problem not just be laid out there like billboard on a highway.
Stephen Brookfield (1994) talks about the dark side of critical reflection and identifies impostership as one of the key barriers to accepting that your engagement and interactions are real and valued and that you are not an imposter of a fake in the discourse. One of the common behavior on social media is the sense of impostership not as negative feeling but as a behaviour driving anonymous abuse, trolling and the use of identity as shield for anti-social behaviour (see Amy Binns somewhat troubling piece from 2013 Facebook’s Ugly Sisters: Anonymity and Abuse on Formspring and Ask.fm. Media Education Research Journal)
No-one felt like an imposter on Constitution UK. This was a discipline field that at best is considered dense and sometimes arcane. It relies on a deep interest in history, civics, law and human rights. Constitutions are written for the people, but rarely by them. It would be easy to feel like an imposter writing a document like it will never matter and is a bit like playing a game of Risk, without real consequences. Constitution UK mattered. It allowed people not normally allowed into the debate to generate ideas, opinions and clauses. It transformed our little corner of civic engagement from the superficial to the participatory. Rarely would you be able as an engaged citizen to see a bill as it is drafted, debate it, refine it and then vote on it. In the main, democracy often comes down to a single mark on a piece of paper, the Brexit referendum was a complex set of questions, reduced to a dichotomous question and divisive rhetoric. Whist the issues in Constitution UK were complex, the debates and ideas were not reductionist. The platform allowed for people to use, develop and challenge theirs and the community’s expertise, draw on the bodies of knowledge from within practice and the academy and make decisions about solving the problem at hand.
A social media community is far more than Facebook and Twitter. Social media explore innovative pedagogical practices like making, ideation, creation, critique, sociality, connected practice, crowd-sourcing, entrepreneurship, digital citizenship, media making, identity, politics and policy. And that is just the start. The communities that form on social media are equally fleeting as they are lasting, large as they are intimate, collaborative as they individual. They support lurkers, talkers, loudmouths, itinerants and learners. But they equally support learning, explicit and tacit and expected and unexpected. Crowdsourcing and community formation through social media is not a ‘trend’, nor is it ‘new’. The days where digital citizenship and on-line learning are predicated on broadcast pedagogies, telling us how to think and vote are numbered. Equally, we will come to rue the day where we as a society declared that the era of the expert is over. A community that is made up of experts, emerging experts, novices and those members seeking to gain expertise through engagement is a force far more powerful than a populist, nationalist uninformed movement. Constitution UK was such a community. There were experts, but they didn’t dictate in any way what we were thinking. There were novices, people who had never engaged in higher education or with an august institution like the LSE. There were people who were advocates for civic engagement but had never thought about a constitution. And they all came together. It was civil, it was polite but most of all, it was where learning happened, collectively and within an engaged community. It was free, it was open, it grew and grew over 14 weeks and it was massive. Steve, Nicholas and Valerie never felt that their voice was screaming into the void. They felt they wrote a constitution for their country. And it doesn’t get more powerful than that.