I have been working on a variety of radio, podcasting and sound art projects for years under my DJ non-de-plume – DJ Ringfinger. These have varied between shows about Australian indie music (which I shamelessly plugged last year) through to some more experimental multimedia projects. I usually like to keep my worlds only slightly bleeding into each other. However, my latest piece, a sound collage-musique concrete composition called ‘How do I know any of this was real?’ is based on two common themes that I have written about this blog.
Firstly, I wanted to explore the idea of the digital stranger, and how much we and others we interact with, reveal about the real ‘us’ and from that what identity/s we construct through and because of that interaction. And secondly, I am fascinated by the idea of realness and authenticity in on-line engagement, what constitutes it? Who decides what is real and authentic anyway?
Some of the spoken word comes directly from the text of this blog, which is why I spruiking it here.
For those of you into the specs of the piece; the words are spoken by Calisto (a voice actor) from fiverr.com (which is a site that links products and services to consumers for a nominal $5 fee) and the sounds are manipulated and contorted short samples from 1950s and 1960s classical-xploitation records.
(artwork by Melbourne street artist RONE http://r-o-n-e.com)
I have been debating the idea of the digital stranger for a quite a while, both on this blog and in other online learning contexts. Previously I had defined the digital stranger as;
‘Digital strangers are people we interact with, people we are inspired by, people we understand (even a little) about their views and their position in a specific network, but know very little about. We can still learn from and with them. We can create and share. We can innovate and solve problems. We can increase awareness and affect change. We can engage, entertain and provide comfort or inspiration.’
At the heart of the concept of the digital stranger is the belief that online interaction affords both the opportunity to represent ourselves in different and (sometimes) untraceable and hidden ways as well as the ability to express ideas, opinions and emotions that because of the apparent anonymity of the virtual environment, we might be unwilling to do face to face. There is a unique manifestation of the digital stranger in the area of online learning that has significant and far-reaching impacts on the effectiveness of student learning and teaching. This post (which will be published in two parts) will look at how the darker side of the digital stranger poses challenges for designers and facilitators of online learning (in all its guises – I use the phrase online learning to mean everything from component based blended learning through to complete online programmes).
A learner engages with a programme virtually in a variety of different ways, through VLEs or through email, blogs, wikis, discussion forums, chat spaces etc. They may choose to be passive observers of the passing world or active engagers in debates and collaborations. They may interact with others on the programme using a pseudonym or constructed online identity or use their real names and faces. They may feel more comfortable sharing their experiences, perhaps traumatic or personally difficult when no-one knows who they are or they choose to reveal only small shards of their life relevant to the programme. They may offer fictionalised accounts or tell the absolute truth. They may or may not share an image or photo, or maybe pick an abstract picture to represent them. They might even adopt an entirely fictional persona. They may be active one day and disappear into silence or initiate a virtual death the next, forever vanishing from the community. Despite the amazing ability of the internet to make, maintain and develop connections, this constructed identify is difficult to google search, leaves very few breadcrumbs or trails on the internet and most importantly, is in the complete control of the person constructing it. They can stay silent or fill pages with communications. They can effectively interact with people around them, forming relationships on the basis of the personality, information, opinions and conversations they choose to exhibit (real or otherwise). The proportions of the ‘real’ person (if such a construct exists) that is revealed is variable, adding the opportunity to generate authenticity, believability and emotional and intellectual connections.
Whilst perhaps not as fluid as the identities created through social media usage (where all manner of traits can be imagined, swapped and transposed) there is potential in online learning for what psychologist John Suler termed the ‘Online Disinhibition Effect’, which can be defined ‘as a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet.’ (Source: Wikipedia). Suler (2004) argues that this effect can have both benign and toxic impacts noting;
‘Some types of benign disinhibition indicate an attempt to better understand and develop oneself, to resolve interpersonal and intrapsychic problems or explore new emotional and experiential dimensions to one’s identity. We could even consider it a process of “working through”… By contrast, toxic disinhibition may simply be a blind catharsis, a fruitless repetition compulsion, and an acting out of unsavoury needs without any personal growth at all.’
Suler identified a number of conditions and behaviours that foster this disinhibition (including dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection and dissociative imagination). Where disinhibition occurs in an online learning environment there are significant challenges for managing and encouraging interaction between learners, between teachers and learners and between the teachers themselves and the wider community. It may manifest itself in a variety of ways from interpersonal disagreements, the flash formation and perhaps crumbling of personal relationships, deceptive or manipulative interactions, the support for or failure of social engagement or social creation of knowledge or understanding or the misunderstanding or misdirection of instructional, assessment or learner support processes.
In an earlier post (The Digital Stranger: Participation, social networking and creativity) I made the case that digital strangers in an online learning environment were a positive for the programme, supporting collaboration and sharing in a safe space. I want to have a look at the darker side of the digital strangers and online learning in this post. I argue that online disinhibition can have significant impacts on the effectiveness of online learning, the motivation of participants and ultimately on the wider processes of social interaction and connectivity.
1. Dissociative anonymity
Sometimes referred to simply as ‘I’m not me’, dissociative anonymity occurs when ‘people have the opportunity to separate their actions online from their in-person lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out. Whatever they say or do can’t be directly linked to the rest of their lives’ (Suler 2004). Certainly, this kind of anonymous behaviour offers learners a safe space to express, develop and construct ideas and opinions. It can encourage developmental thinking and a more transparent exploration of the evaluative and critical-thinking processes that are occurring. It can also enhance trust where participants can demonstrate ‘authentic’ behaviours (or at least the believable appearance of them). The alternate side of this anonymity is the lapsing of responsibility for actions, where interactivity and engagement subverts from politeness to anti-social or hostile behaviour and the learner or teacher cannot see their own culpability for the results. In terms of online learning this can increase attrition, push tentative learners to the fringes and isolate them or misdirect the pattern or flow of learning into spurious arguments, inter-personal conflicts or pointless engagement with fictional or fantasy debates.
2. Solipsistic Introjection
Solipsistic introjection suggests that often the reading and interpretation of online interaction can be ‘all in our heads’. In the absence of visual cues, body language or perhaps even a clear idea of what the communicator sounds or looks like we interpret their words (or actions) through a filter of our own ‘internal voice’ or as a character built on an imagined picture of what the other person looks like;
‘…people may feel that their mind has merged with the mind of the online companion. Reading another person’s message might be experienced as a voice within one’s head, as if that person’s psychological presence and influence have been assimilated or introjected into one’s psyche…(and) consciously or unconsciously, a person may even assign a visual image to what he or she thinks the person looks and behaves like’ (Suler 2004).
In terms of online learning solipsistic introjection interferes with the reading of text, whether this is learning materials, comments or instructions. For example, a comment made in a discussion forum might be read through the filter of the imagined voice of the person making it, changing it from helpful to angry, innocent to sarcastic, setting off a cascading set of interactions. Sometimes we read what we want to read into or from a text exchange, altering our own relationships within the community Alternately, instructions for assessment or feedback to learners may be incorrectly interpreted, applied to inappropriate circumstances or simply taken the wrong way. All of us have misread emails, seen lines in chat and reacted too quickly. It is one of the reasons I use emoticons extensively to add some sense of visual cue into a text based medium. Where there are large numbers of learners on a programme, engaging asynchronously, then the potential for misinterpretation, deliberate or otherwise increases exponentially, especially where the learners or teachers have little or no experiences with online interaction (although experience is not always a panacea for this problem).
Certainly one of the challenges in managing an online learning environment for both learners and teachers is asynchronous communications. This may be where we post a considered (or not) response, ask a question or seek information on a topic and have to wait for a response and are denied the immediate gratification of engagement. Once again fantasy and imagination can interfere, with rational and irrational reasons for the delay constructed in our heads (have I pissed them off? Are they ignoring me? Is there something going that will result in them not responding at all? Have I trumped them with my brilliance? Please note the wink here!) Alternately, the ability to make a contribution to a conversation, log off and avoid the obvious and present consequences can equally disinhibit the participant. Suler notes that ‘…in real life, the analogy might be speaking to someone, magically suspending time before that person can reply, and then returning to the conversation when one is willing and able to hear the response.’
In a face to face environment, the reactions and inter-reactions are measurable and confined to a specific time and space. In online learning they may be spread over days or weeks, with comments or criticisms lying dormant for the entire time, festering directly on the mind of the writer. They may even log in more often to check for responses, getting increasingly frustrated at the flashing annoyance of the VLE proclaiming ‘no new messages’. And perhaps days later when they have moved onto something else, a different concept or interaction, someone picks up the thread and starts it all over again, either responded to or sometimes equally ignored.
So, as a practitioner (learner or teacher, or simply interested spectator) what does this mean for the practice of how we manage online learning. Well, I argue there are three critical implications for the design and management of online learning in a disinhibitive environment.
a) Whilst I and many others make a strong case for the necessity for a new pedagogy for the digital age, there is an equally strong case for a new understanding of educational interaction. The old models of didactic broadcast, bounded interactivity, acceptable mores and reliable reactions are an ill-fit for the new environment. And maybe, they shouldn’t be. But as more learners live their life in these digital neighbourhoods the need to understand why interactions occur in a certain way and with outcomes that we couldn’t or didn’t want to predict is critical to ensuring the effectiveness of the online learning experience.
b) The exponential growth of MOOCs and other magnetically attractive and emancipatory, free and open educational programmes is exposing millions more learners to an online environment of learning. This critical mass of learners, often from non-traditional backgrounds, is placing new strains on our understanding of online learning. In some ways, institutions are abrogating some responsibility for managing or responding to disinhibitive behaviours by removing direct tutor engagement, replacing it with videos and materials, leaving the learners to self-organise and self-manage the behaviours within the learning community. Self-management can lead to artificial hierarchies, cliques and castes. Outside of education, this has been seen often on bulletin boards, gaming platforms and even amongst Wikipedia editors and contributors to disempowering and sometimes tragic ends.
c) There has been a large amount written recently about cyber-bullying, psychological games and trolls on twitter, facebook and other social media platforms. Disinhibition can lead directly to these anti-social behaviours, where the distance between the participants and the power of anonymity can encourage to people to act in ways they wouldn’t normally. Whilst, registrations and enrolment in an online programme reduce the risk of anonymous behaviour there is still significant potential for people to engage with others ‘for effect’ rather than for learning; to deliberately seek a rise or gain satisfaction from having an emotional impact on other learners. The role of the facilitator in this environment is critical as they need the ability to identify when this happening and find an appropriate solution for it. They also need to ensure they don’t get caught up in the maelstrom themselves, participating actively in a flame war.
In the second part of this post which I hope will go up next week I will look at the other three of Suler’s disinhibitive processes. I am really interested in people’s experiences of disinhibitive behaviours in online learning. If you have stories that you want to share you can do so via an anonymous comment on this post (for this post only I have turned on anonymous commenting).
There has been considerable theoretical and practice based research on the role of the teacher in a digital higher education environment. Lewis, Marginson, & Snyder, (2005) argue that the underpinning narratives of what teaching in a digital university should be are conflated with competing discourses around the wider status of the university in society in the light of agendas such commercialisation, market responsiveness and informationalism. This blurring of the debate makes it hard to clearly identify the characteristics of teaching practice in a digital university. Within the nexus of pedagogical, administrative and technological practice that can be used to define teaching, there emerges considerations of privilege, power, status, and authenticity. These considerations can change the ground rules of how we teach. They shape the modes of delivery, the pattern of assessment and even the way students are recruited.
The teacher that engages actively with technology that replaces, imitates or adds to the learning, teaching and assessment strategies within their practice is forced to rethink the assumptions and practices they use in teaching. There are patterns of decision making in the academy that run contrary to this kind of critical and sometimes fundamental evaluation. Reviews of programmes can often occur infrequently and with little critical evaluation. The use of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Moodle or Blackboard can be inconsistent and ‘…imitate, not to disrupt, particular representations of teaching and learning’ (Hanley 2011). Whether current teaching practice is drawn from that of the past (‘it’s the way we have always done it’) or caught up in expectations (‘it’s the only way we are allowed to do it’) or through the personal choices of the academic (‘it’s the way I want to do it’), it is clear that the decision making processes around the use of technology can become beholden to cliché and rhetoric, where tradition can become practice, which itself becomes concrete and immovable.
The result has been extensive debates around the role and position of technology, social media, and the internet in the modern university environment. The concept of the Digital University, a euphemism coined to describe a wide and varied array of practices, suggests that there is a difference between the analogue university and the new digital one. There are significant elements of zealotry, parsimony, arrogance and superiority, where the views of the protagonists (both individual and institutional) are frequently opposite and opposing. Within the more polar positions expressed in the literature and in opinion pieces, there is a tension sometimes bordering on hostile conflict between technological advocates and those who have been derisively labelled ‘traditionalists’ or ‘luddites’. However, this artificial dichotomy, bounded as it is by literature, research, exemplars of effective and ineffective practice, along with strongly held belief, may lead to higher education swallowing its own tail; an ouroboros institution, where considerations of platform consume the considerations of content, which then consumes the platform, with the cycle continuing ad infinitum.
All the while the learner, who has been interacting with peers socially in a creative and collaborative environment may arrive for their university experience and find their device won’t connect to the network, that their programme is predicated entirely on lectures and tutorials, that they have little opportunity to share or create content, or that their access to sites such as Facebook and YouTube is restricted or even banned (as they were in Australia’s largest post-secondary institution, TAFE NSW, until 2010, see Winterford (2009)). The skills learners have acquired, been able to share and pass along, re-purposed and re-used through their engagement with social media, in areas such as research, collaboration, authentication and interaction, may be redundant in their higher education and under or unrecognised in the design and development of ‘cutting edge’ curriculum.
I have heard the following phrases (or variations of them) at review boards, validation panels, training session, appraisals, learning and teaching committees, curriculum design meetings and in lunchrooms. Whilst anecdotal and entirely unreliable as evidence, I offer them not as arguments but familiar friends. They are a snapshot of some of the conditions under which these cutting edge curriculums are constructed. It would be inaccurate to suggest that these kinds of phrases represent the entire academy, for they do not. I would argue however that almost everyone engaged in enhancing teaching and learning would have heard them uttered at some point.
‘We have to use lectures and tutorials because that’s the way all our other programmes are delivered’
‘Learning can only occur in the institution’
‘Students learn from teachers’
‘We use exams because it’s the only way to know that the students have learnt something and haven’t just copied their previous work’
‘Group work is problematic because there are always tensions and we can’t be sure all members have contributed equally’
‘The role of e-learning is to replicate the classroom experience’
‘Students are blank slates when they come to university; our job is to shape them’
The most critical question for me here is; what is the role of the learner in this dialogue? In many ways, these kinds of comment suggest that the learner is mainly the receiver of knowledge, and that the teacher has a potentially privileged position to decide the best way to transmit that knowledge through learning, teaching and assessment. Most VLE based systems still require an editor, a selector, a moderator and a leader. Lectures are frequently monologues. Social media platforms often require a social authority to support engagement and to provide some form of authentication (Brauer & Bourhis 2006). Granted, the learner can assert influence over choosing the context in which they apply their newly acquired knowledge, but this may not happen until they graduate. Arguably, in the modern university, the learner can choose the institution that teaches in a manner best suited to their needs. They can feedback on their experience through the NSS. How much of this directly influences the way learning, teaching and assessment is conducted? How much of this influence contributes to the debate on curriculum design and e-learning?
‘None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free’.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made this comment in 1853 about society and its propensity to be lulled into a false sense of inaction. Despite massive changes in the way universities are organised and funded, there is a sense that we may potentially be or have already been consumed by an equal sense of inaction. Learners have changed substantially, and not just in terms of a price-service delivery expectation. Amongst the rich traditions of debate around academic freedom, research informed teaching and professional judgement, lies perhaps a more fundamental consideration around the learner. When I went to university over 25 years ago there was no internet or email. I had been to a library to research and was faced with row after row of card catalogues and musty, beautiful books. I had used a PC since I was a teenager and knew how to programme it, but I was not in the majority. Arts making was the concern of the rich or the bohemian and the ability to create, distribute and promote my own art was the stuff of dreams (and record label contracts). The modern learner has evolved. Yet much of the way teaching, learning and assessment are conducted is the same as it was 25 years ago.
Now, I am not a throw the baby out with the bathwater kind of guy. I am not arguing that technology should replace everything, burning it to the ground. A lot of the practice of higher education is the established practice because it works. But what I do ask is; have we evaluated these methodologies and approaches in the light of the new learner? Even if we argue that learners are simply receivers, like radios, then there is now a variety of ways radio is made and consumed, as opposed to the one simple transistor radio of my youth. We now have digital radios, internet radio, on-demand, podcasts, streaming, and yes, we still have analogue broadcasting (for the moment). Taking the metaphor one step further, our learners represent similar diversity in construction and consumption, but in some cases, at University they are only receiving ‘The Archers’ (or Blue Hills for us Aussies) and not accessing the wide variety of choice that exists. Instead of relying on what network programmers and music directors are telling them they should listen to, modern radio users aggregate content through social radio applications like Last-FM, Spotify and Pandora, share likes with friends over Facebook and make playlists and channels with multimedia content on YouTube. These are new skills. Skills that they want to apply to developing their knowledge and furthering their career.
Has the freedom we as academics have enjoyed to be creative in the past, now stifled us from making creative decisions for the future? Those creative decisions are not always about which technology to use. It can be about the relevance of technology, the role of the teacher, how we measure success, how we enhance practice, how we choose to engage or the type of learning spaces we provide or support.
What does this mean for the teacher?
Larry Hanley is his article about the changing face of higher education teaching ‘Mashing up the Institution’ published in Radical Teacher argues that the teacher in the new digital age faces a difficult choice;
‘We’ll have to abandon our institutional identities as users and clients to embrace more inventive, experimental, self-conscious identities. Well have to become bricoleurs.’ (Hanley 2011)
He goes to further to suggest what this means at the interface of learners and teachers by saying;
‘The bricoleur-faculty draws on and engages students in the expanding new literacies fostered by Web 2.0s new openness. Whether via blogs or more explicit multimedia tools…the bricoleur-faculty asks students to make meaning through new conjunctions of sound, image, and text. In the process, the bricoleur-faculty explicitly develops both students and his or her multi-literacies – navigating new semiotic landscapes that require new skills and new creativities.’ (Hanley 2011)
Note that one of the critical aspects of Hanley’s argument is that social media usage develops specific literacies that encourage the learner to remix and reuse (mash-up) skills in order to apply them to new landscapes (contexts). The university has always provided a learning space, and to varying degrees these spaces have supported experimentation and creativity (Etzkowitz 2003; Power & Malmberg 2008). However, this often occurs within strict boundaries (firewalls, enrolment etc) and with clearly identified roles for the learner and academic, supported by administrative structures that reinforce these roles.
Programmes that use social media and user generated content located outside the firewall, and positioned not as a replication of the classroom but to facilitate a different, connected form of education, challenge these learner and academic roles (Downes 2009). The learning space becomes virtual, personal and interactive. The position of the academic at the lectern is replaced by clouds of knowledge that can be accessed, critically analysed and situated in the workplace by the application of trans-disciplinary skills, developed and practiced through the use of a variety web 2.0 technologies, including information literacy, evaluation, collaborative learning, dynamic searching and critical reflection (Fischer 2009; Hong et al. 2008). This kind of environment allows the learner to utilise the skills they have acquired before and during their higher education. It also provides for the development of connections and links that may ensure past their graduation, which in the current system will stop as soon as they stop paying their fees and lose access to the VLE.
I do not propose to find a clear and navigable path through these choppy and muddled waters. I say this simply because I don’t believe there is one. However, what is within our grasp is an understanding that learners are fundamentally different from those that went before them, as we were fundamentally different to those who went before us. They bring with them to higher education an array of skills that are acquired through their interactions with social media platforms and other social media users. These skills don’t sit easily in the existing infrastructure or teaching, learning and assessment practices of the modern University. Do we have a way to assess those skills, accredit them as being at a certain level, apply them to new contexts and repurpose them for engagement in and between disciplines? Do we see the need to even undertake this kind of evaluation?
In a world where Facebook is often seen by employers as a way of finding out things they didn’t know about their staff, or as a waste of company time, how useful or relevant are the skills obtained on Facebook to working in a digital workplace? Why do over a half of UK employers ban the use of Facebook at work? (Peacock 2011). Facebook users have acquired or re-purposed skills within their usage of the platform. Facebook users are aggregators of content, they are networkers, they engage in constructive and critical debate and comment, they share creative efforts; they report regularly about their activities, they interact asynchronously. These when broken down are valuable skills in a workplace, or relevant to a higher education. Yet, they seem easy to dismiss as trivial or as distracting from real life. Not all Facebook users are higher education learners, nor are all higher education learners on Facebook. But as teachers, we cannot and should not assume our learners are blank slates. Technology is not the inevitable instrument that will bring down lecture theatres and smash classrooms. Our learners will be. If higher education does not meet the needs of the next generation, then the next generation will go elsewhere for their knowledge. They will learn, authenticate and use it themselves, within their social networks and communities created through and on social media. They will find an authority outside the academy, or they will find or start an academy that will serve their needs. Their own practice will vindicate and realise the learning.
Anna Kamenetz, author of DIY U (2010), notes that higher education is by its very nature ‘an inherently conservative enterprise’. Conservative does not mean resistant to change. The conditions we discussed earlier around academic freedom, learner centred learning and research informed teaching support adapting to a new learner and engaging in creative skills acquisition and learning. However, as Goethe says, are we hopelessly enslaved simply because we believe we are free to make these choices? Do we feel that by resisting the pull of technology, defending against its insidious influence and arguing for the way we have always done it (plus or minus one) we are defending higher education?
What do you think? I would love to hear from learners and teachers on this subject. Send me a comment or an email.
Brauer, M. & Bourhis, R.Y. 2006, ‘Social power’, European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 36, no. 4,pp. 601-616.
Downes, S. 2009, ‘Learning networks and connective knowledge’, in H.H. Yang & S.C.-Y. Yuen (eds), Collective Intelligence and E-Learning 2.0: Implications of Web-Based Communities and Networking, p. 1.
Etzkowitz, H. 2003, ‘Innovation in innovation: The triple helix of university-industry-government relations’, Social Science Information, vol. 42, no. 3,pp. 293-337.
Fischer, G. 2009, ‘Cultures of participation and social computing: Rethinking and reinventing learning and education’, paper presented to the International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (Icalt),, Riga, Latvia.
Hanley, L. 2011, ‘Mashing Up the Institution: Teacher as Bricoleur’, The Radical Teacher, no. 90,pp. 9-14.
Hong, C., Caldwell, L., Ashley, T. & Alpert, V. 2008, ‘Transcultural perspective on digital practices and the arts in higher education’, paper presented to the Dance Dialogues: Conversations Across Cultures, Artforms and Practices : World Dance Alliance Global Summit., Brisbane, Australia, 13 -18 July.
Kamenetz, A. 2010, DIY U: Edupunks, edupreneurs, and the coming transformation of higher education, Chelsea Green Publishing.
Lewis, T., Marginson, S. & Snyder, I. 2005, ‘The network university? Technology, culture and organisational complexity in contemporary higher education’, Higher Education Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, pp. 56-75.
Power, D. & Malmberg, A. 2008, ‘The contribution of universities to innovation and economic development: in what sense a regional problem?’, Cambridge journal of regions, economy and society, vol. 1, no. 2,pp. 233-245.