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)
‘Education is an illusion if it simply disseminates information’ (Garrison & Anderson 2003)
There is a common mantra in education which argues ‘pedagogy before technology’. This is where the reason for using the technology is underpinned by pedagogical approaches to learning, teaching and assessment. This has often been interpreted as a way of developing new approaches to the existing pedagogy, where the technology has been used to simply replicate the didactic, broadcast modes of learning common in most institutions, as opposed to challenging the need for a new pedagogy. A pedagogy that embeds the new skills of learners in collaboration, content making, remixing and repurposing, social interaction, identity and sharing into a curriculum that encourages social interaction, supports the development of networks through social media, broadens the community of practice to include a set of connections and promotes and generates inter and trans-disciplinary thought and ideas. As far back as 2001, John Seeley Brown noted;
‘Learning is a remarkably social process. In truth, it occurs not as a response to teaching, but rather as a result of a social framework that fosters learning. To succeed in our struggle to build technology and new media to support learning, we must move far beyond the traditional view of teaching as delivery of information.’ (Brown 2001)’
Brown, J.S. 2001, ‘Learning in the digital age’, The Internet and the university: 2001 Forum, eds M. Devlin, R. Larson & J. Meyerson, EDUCAUSE, Boulder, CO, pp. 71-86.
Over the next few weeks on this blog I am going to offer you my perspectives on this new pedagogy. For many of the reasons already well explored in the press and the blogsphere and for a significant number of other reasons not touched upon, higher education is at a critical juncture. This juncture, whilst not one spelling the immediate doom-laden end of the world as know it, is almost certainly constructed from elements of a perfect storm. A financial crisis placing severe and not-unpopular pressure on funding, rampant conservatism even from left-wing governments, technology reaching a point of saturation and ubiquity that makes its use in education expected and almost seamless and two-tier university system that has empowered the market leaders with enough clout and know-how to eliminate the competition in an entirely un-collegial way.
And it was like talking to a stranger… In defense of social interaction
One of the consequences of the overhyping of MOOCs has been an increased public interest in peer-led learning and peer assessment. The obsessive interest in the numbers engaged in MOOCs (thousands enroll! 650 messages in a day!! 4650 blog posts this week!!!) places the emphasis on the quantity of interaction against the quality of learning that is occurring through that interaction. Many MOOCs use the methodology that asks learners to post something to a forum and through the magic of comment aggregate other people interested enough to read and contribute together. The result is a long trail of posts on a discussion forum that are neither social nor interactive but more like a presentation to a room where almost everyone is asleep. This seems like all we have done is move the broadcast model from ‘lecturer to learner’ over to ‘learner-learner’ because we can’t find a pedagogical model economic enough to deal with the MASSIVE part of the acronym.
‘We need to fuel that evolution by developing the assessment tools that will support higher-order learning on a massive scale—we need to put technologies to work to support self, peer, and expert evaluations, to provide expert feedback in a fraction of the time currently required’
MoocDonalds: Are MOOCs Fast Food? By Kyle Peck | Professor of Education, Penn State University http://www.evolllution.com/opinions/moocdonalds-are-moocs-fast-food/
Social interaction is a complex beast. Emotions, attitudes, personality, identity, meaning, authenticity and emerging senses of realness all play into constructing our approaches to social interaction. Each different social media platform that emerges changes some or all of these bases. Facebook widened our networks and reached out to people who in the past time may have forgotten (or at least temporarily until the next high school reunion). Twitter made connection management more manageable by limiting the scope and duration of the social interaction to 140 characters. Google analytics has made the study of numbers accessible to any blog owner as they check the length of engagement with their content daily. But as with the MOOC, numbers seem outrank the quality of the engagement.
One of the issues that arise for me with the MOOC model of peer interaction is the initial assumption that all interactions are equal and that all those who interact are the same. Sure, contexts vary and the time given to the programme is also variable. However, social interaction is not always conducted amongst equals – people play different roles in the group. Cross and Prusak (2002) looked at the formation of informal communities within organisations and argued that one of the critical aspects of a successful community was the ability to share knowledge between people as opposed to knowledge simply originating from sources. They defined four roles within these communities; central connector, peripheral specialist, boundary spanner and information broker. Whilst these roles primarily represent modes of organisational interaction, they have been utilised in a number of studies to categorise and explain the behaviours and practices of social interaction, social networking and personal interaction in informal settings, and support the basis of effective social networking and engagement engaging with experiences.
A focus on metrics, whether this is completion rates, measures of time spent on the website or hits to a youtube lecture, ignores the critical notion of learning. Simply digesting information from someone else, whether it is open, remixed, funky or interesting is still that – digested information. Tapscott and Williams (2010) argue that collaborative learning and collaborative knowledge production represent the necessary future of modern higher education. A fully integrated web 2.0 approach linked with a pedagogy that is designed to fully utilise the benefits of social construction and collaboration requires significant change to both the practice of teaching and the practice of learning.
Simply asking learners to digest material and then post about it, often in isolation and asynchronously disconnected from their peers doesn’t support the sharing of context. So much of the interaction in online programmes seems to be predicated on forcing communication without listening or interaction. It also does ask the learner to reveal much of themselves, challenge their perceptions or learn from someone other than the disassociated academic, represented here often as a talking head and not much else. The temptation then becomes to focus on the medium and not the message. It is common to see discussions about the platform, the course or the concept of a MOOC (what I call the #metamooc – hashtag it!) to be one of the few topics that engage people in actual social interaction.
Social interaction within a programme needs to be authentic and resonant. This matters whether the programme is virtual or face-to-face. The role of the academic is critical. They help create the conditions under which engagement can occur. They also help create the environment in which interaction leads to learning. In a MOOC world, this role is disconnected from the Massive because there is no recognised pedagogy that can economically connect it. Aside from the obvious assertions of developing a better understanding of interaction in order to facilitate it, there are four things that I believe can enhance the impact and practice of social interaction in education. This isn’t a how-to list nor are they exclusive, because I know there are other things that make social interaction work.
That the interaction represents something believable.
That the interaction means something
That the interaction is not forced
That the interaction is comparative to other relationships
That the interaction is rooted in practice
That the interaction replicates, challenges or re-purposes how we interact with others
That the interaction is recognised and responded to
That trust occurs within the interaction
That learning occurs through interaction
That the interaction goes deeper than superficial
That the interaction has lasting impact
That the interaction affects the way we learn and what we learn
Like I said above, I won’t argue that this list is the panacea to solving the age old problems of on-line interaction in education. I will argue that simple measures of performance such as clicks and analytics and metrics only help to measure the MASSIVE aspects of a MOOC, and that this element is not pedagogical in nature. It is a measure of economic feasibility and success. The OPEN aspect has already been corrupted to mean free from cost not from copyright. All that really leaves as pedagogical is the mode (ONLINE) and the concept (COURSE). And these elements are at the mercy of the financial reality created by the MO bit.
(Cross, R., & Prusak, L. (2002). The people who make organizations go-or stop. Harvard Business Review, 80(6), 104-112).
There is a long, controversial and interesting debate in articles, book and literature about what it means to interact on line. This is supported by a number of contested and contradictory ideas about the skills we need in order to conduct different forms of digital communication. In my last blog post, I talked about the ability of web 2.0 users to simply absorb or be exposed to knowledge in whatever context they choose to use the web, as opposed to creating and consuming that knowledge.
However, if we treat the web as a passive form of information access then the benefits of user generated content, of collaboration and of interaction may be lost. In order to participate in something, some authors such as Guy (2007) argue that we need to take part in it, which might imply some aspect of action and commitment (as opposed to passively letting the information pass you by, as you may do skimming a newspaper). Taking that logic one step further, the nature of social networking tools seem to provide ready instruments to allow people, in whatever form they comfortable, to take part in a variety of collaborative and creative processes.
Clay Shirky argues that there is a place online not just for individual promotion or mindless consumption, but for initiating and sustaining creative action. Collective action is the ability of groups of people working collaboratively and together to make changes in society or in their community and is a well explored concept in a number of theoretical fields like politics and activism.
In his book ‘Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Penguin 2010), he makes the case that instead of viewing usage of the net (or consuming media) as a time waster, where we randomly surf our way through web pages, endless youtube videos or as some of us are well aware, waste time on facebook, we can see it in a different light. He states that our consumption or absorption of this content doesn’t often result in tangible, creative outcomes. He states some of the data that suggests that the current generation is consuming less television per week than their predecessors and becoming more involved in activity on the net (a practical example of this might be that whilst we are consuming youtube videos, there are easily accessible and simple to use technologies that encourage us to also make our own, respond to other peoples and engage with a community of fans and makers of each video. We can also aggregate the videos we watch so that we can share them with our friends).
He goes onto say that perhaps we can harness this time we spend creating and sharing, in small or more substantial ways to impact on our world and our community. He talks about the use of a blog to initiate and co-ordinate crisis responses (the site is called http://www.ushahidi.com/ and you can hear the full story in the video linked below) and at the other end of the spectrum he points to the development and distribution of LOLcats (those cute cat pictures with funny slogans). His argument is starts with the idea that ‘even the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act!” And perhaps the way we define action in a digital world is different to that of the non-digital one.
Now, what does this have to the idea of the digital stranger? Much of the interaction that occurs on the web can happen without us even knowing who the person is or people we are interacting with actually are. We might see comments they have made, or we might be replying to something they said. We might be sharing our opinion on a person’s youtube video, or contributing to a discussion on a board. It may be that we are collaborating on a document, or creative piece through a wiki
The interaction that occurs between these people is sometimes asynchronous (ie: happens not in ‘real time’) and is often text based with little visual stimuli like a camera or sound. We are communicating without knowing very much about our colleagues in the digital environment. How many of your fellow learners you have met on the BAPP course? We may have their photos, or perhaps a little insight into the bio, or at best we have seen their youtube video (or perhaps met at a campus session. Does this level of knowledge about them impact on our interaction? In many ways, of course it does? It might make our communications less targeted or perhaps less personal. It might increase misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
But in understanding, managing and adjusting to these limitations (if they even that) we are able to continue to collaborate and create in this environment. Recognising the nature of these relationships is an important step. Perhaps these people are what we might call digital strangers.
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 may not even know their true identity (just their avatar or nickname). Yet, 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. All without knowing the things we might want to know if those interactions occurred off-line.
Is being a digital stranger with someone a bad thing? Malcolm Gladwell in his New Yorker article entitled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” stated that whilst web 2.0 has increased peoples participation in collaboration and relationship building, it has not developed the strength, quality or capacity of that relationship to increase motivation or action.
‘Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece…Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.’http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all#ixzz14KNGFTX2
I argue that being a digital stranger is not a negative, as Gladwell might argue. Building on Shirky’s idea that any act of creativity is positive simply because it is creative and that the actions of a digital strangers banding together represent an action that might otherwise have happened, could we argue that in the case of Darfur as given by Gladwell, that there are now 1.2 million people aware of the horrible events of Darfur? Is it good that there is now over $115,000 more money being used to support the political campaigns to bring awareness? And that through the facebook page, there are over 25 different aggregated calls to action including youtube videos, notices of rallies, news stories, petitions and photographs. The formation of this community of digital strangers has arguably resulted in some form of collective action. Gladwell typifies these actions as a failure, actions of people who couldn’t be bothered to do something in ‘the real world’. I would argue the opposite. These are actions of people who are making a commitment to increase awareness and share that with people they don’t even know.
Now, let’s look at this in terms of our interests as professional arts practitioners. We as a collective network of BAPP people are a group of people, some digital strangers, others acquaintances, maybe some friends and colleagues. What our social networking participation has done for us is to provide the environment and the commonality to begin to interact, to aggregate content (like videos and photos on flickr) and then to produce and create content. Is that process harmed by us being digital strangers? I would argue that it has been supported and perhaps even enhanced in that the social network (and the use of it as part of the course) has provided all of us, both staff and students with the medium in which to engage, interact and construct meaning. It could be easily imagined that these outcomes, had they relied on more traditional forms of interaction may simply never have happened.