Are those hearts strings connected? – the power of fleeting connections in a digital pedagogy

I am a huge fan of connectivity, both the learning theory and the practice of it embedded in and through higher education programmes. The ideas behind the seminal works of Stephen Downes and George Siemens (amongst others) resonate with me. I like the idea that social interaction and engagement doesn’t just enhance learning, but can change the way some people learn and more significantly, can bring others into the education tent who perhaps have struggled with the often incessant didacticism that pervades parts of the higher education experience. At the heart of it for me is that the connections forged are representations of trans-disciplinary skills that in themselves evolve over time as the level of knowledge and the contexts of learning shift.

 

Within my experiences of working with and later developing approaches to learning that embrace significant aspects of connectivism (see the work we are doing at the University of Greenwich http://blogs.ac.uk/greenwichconnect), what continues to dominate much of our research is the importance of the strength of the connections within and between networks. Words like ‘lasting’ or ‘resilient’ come up often in debates around around course design, and when we talk to the students words like ‘friends’ and ‘mates’ are used to describe their networks (actual or desired). Social media has changed our notions of what these words mean in the context of modern networks. Our networks are often larger and more tenuous than ‘traditional’ person to person networks. Social media allows connections to be dragged back into the social or professional whirl of now, where in the past they may have simply faded into misremembered memories (it is 25 years since I graduated high school and I am still adding former school mates to my Facebook). Equally, many social media networks allow you to nurture tenuous connections from random meetings like a seedling in fertile soil.

 

As academics we seek and are sometimes compelled to find data that proves (or validates) our activity. When it comes to connections and networks we get caught up in statistics around employability. The ability of the Ivy League or Russell Group universities to develop lasting networks that enhance the chances of finding a good job is well explored in both research and popular culture. I have seen a number of pedagogical approaches in institutions (that either directly or indirectly reference connectivism) seeking to replicate these connections in order to have a realisable and measureable outcome from which effort can be rationalised. But they are predicted on ways of keeping the network and connections ‘live’ for ever extending periods of time. Today, I want to make the case for the complimentary benefit of the fleeting connection within a social interaction and engagement led pedagogy.

‘Bauman (2003) has decreed this the era of ‘liquid love’, in which intimacy is commodified and meaningful relationships have been replaced by fleeting connections.’  Bauman, Z. (2003) Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds. Cambridge: Polity Press cited in Barraket, J., & Henry-Waring, M. (2006). Online dating and intimacy in a mobile world. In Sociology for a mobile world: proceedings of The Australian Sociological Association 2006 Conference (pp. 1-10). The Australian Sociological Association (TASA).

‘Siemens (2005) also suggests that weak ties, such as those exhibited by the participants in the online course community, are a valuable source of information within personal learning networks. Furthermore, he suggests that these tenuous or fleeting connections play an important role in prompting and supporting innovative practices as individuals are exposed to new ideas from beyond their familiar network of practice.’ Siemens (2005) cited in Mackey, J., & Evans, T. (2011). Interconnecting networks of practice for professional learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 1-18.

 

What are fleeting connections?

• The person you meet at a party and have an intense 30 minute conversation with.
• The cool guy at the bar in the conference you just attended who watched your presentation and really liked it.
• The student you worked with for 20 minutes on a group exercise in class.
• The wallet full of business cards you collected.
• The person on the train who started talking to you on the way to Antwerp.
• The person who you were moved enough to praise for their video/photo/sounds on-line.
• The person sitting next to you on the plane that talks with you for six hours before you realise you have landed.
• The person who commented on your blog.
• The person who mentioned you on Follow Friday on Twitter.

 

They are often intense, meaningful, powerful, engaging and rich with opportunities for lasting and immediate learning (just not lasting in or of themselves). They are the long tail of connection-making, where 20% of our interactions are made up by 80% of our interactors. However, they are often the best stories, the most engaging memories or the perfect case studies. And for this, they rarely exist alone or in isolation. They are part of web of engagement constructed, maintained and reflected upon over time. Each fleeting connection adds to the web. And as is the way of the world today, each fleeting engagement seems to find formal and informal ways of connecting again to themselves (often facilitated by social media liked LinkedIn). These are perfect conditions for what Lewis, Pea and Rosen (2010) called ‘generative learning’;

 ‘Generative learning communities are expansive in three senses: they grow in range of participants, in degree of engagement by those contributing to the dynamic learning interactions of that community, and in expanding the knowledge created and harvested for use by that growing community. Such communities are generally informal with the goal of expanding upon public knowledge; are not rigidly confined by formal participation structures of interaction, but rather create their own informal communication patterns; they are interpretive, with an emphasis on dialog and multiple viewpoints; and they are expansive in terms of inclusion of people, ideas and topics.’ Lewis, S., Pea, R., & Rosen, J. (2010). Beyond participation to co-creation of meaning: mobile social media in generative learning communities. Social Science Information, 49(3), 351-369.

 

Way too much personal information #1

One my favourite movies of all time is ‘Before Sunset’, directed by Richard Linklater (1995). For those of you who have never heard of the story, it is a simple play told from the perspective of Jesse and Celine, two people who meet on a train, share a night of intense ‘connectivity’ in Vienna and then part promising to reunite. The whole film is a love letter to the notion of a fleeting connection (and its subsequent sequels explore the impact of that fleeting connection on these two people’s lives 20 years on). Now, this ain’t a movie review column, so let me get to the point. Aside from the ‘Sliding Doors’ notion of chance and decisions taken and not made etc, there is something intensely interesting to me about learning that occurs in unexpected or fleeting ways. I recently re-watched this movie and noticed how many specific aspects of my life were shaped by both the single moment of seeing this film for the first time (Hoyts George Street, Sydney) and the ongoing impact it had. I can point to the way I travel around Europe, the places I went to, the way I spend my day when I am on the road and the events that I remember to this day that are related to things I saw in that film (I spent a day in Vienna following in Jesse and Celine’s footsteps – we called it our ‘Stalking Richard Linklater’ day). The two characters in the film (but especially Jesse) work through issues in their own lives in the prism of this fleeting connection. Random moments of learning, insight or reflection that occur because of a connection that could never have been planned, organised or identified.

 

But as I noted in an earlier blog post ‘…lying at the heart of an educational experience is the ability to understand why something is authentic or real. Without that, we are left with a bunch of words sans context. Repeated, spoken but not contextualised or understood. Remembered, resourced but without meaning or resonance.’ These connections hang on to something, perhaps a mood or an emotion, authenticity, experience, attraction, chemistry, interest, motivation or engagement.

 

How do we harness fleeting connections in a higher education context? In that very question we have a number of critical assumptions that are key to any approach to developing a pedagogy that actions the skills of the digital age. However, I am going to approach only one of those questions in this blog post. Are we preparing learners for now or forever? Is there a more generative approach we can take to learning?

 

A new model of pedagogy – Remix, reuse, repurpose, participate

 ‘Many of these groups have training sessions to help young people figure out how to tell their stories more effectively, how to mobilize their personal experiences or stories that matter to them in ways that connect to real world issues, which hopefully move other people towards action. These are things that can be translated more broadly into the classroom. The more we teach the skills through the classroom, the more effectively young people are going to be in engaging in participatory politics.’ Henry Jenkins

 

Too much of our existing teaching and learning approaches are about locking things down, preventing people from making mistakes, avoiding ‘stranger danger’ and making the nanny state the default position and cotton wool the prêt a porter de rigueur. How about teaching people how to effectively use something, make that media/instrument better, invent the next creative iteration themselves and move society forward? There is a litany of media examples about new platforms/modes being invented and commercialised by people with no formal education and this is held up as a triumph, that by not studying they are somehow spared the brainwashing and automaton making practices of education. How did it come to this? We could speculate about the lack of impact of technology, the lack of experience of many academics with using the technology of their students or simply that there is a need perhaps for a new need pedagogy. All good debates. All contentious. All too big for this blog post (although there are a few older posts in my blog that have a good stab at them).

 

I have a simpler answer perhaps. We spend a lot of time teaching people how to do something now. We use technologies that help us to achieve these aims and provide the learner with an opportunity to demonstrate that they have learnt how to do something now. We give them cases that are in ‘the now’ or in some cases very much in the past in order to position knowledge in the wider historical discourse. And this is perfectly and amazingly effective. But it is not the whole of the pedagogical tool-shed. And it is becoming less and less of the case as technology makes product life cycles shorter and technological advances become more critical to on-going competitive success. Identifying the ‘things’ that underpin practice are critical to providing the skills to repurpose, remix and reuse them for a newer, brighter context. It is in the fleeting connections that you are exposed to the ‘something different’ that are these newer, brighter contexts.  They represent a sense of randomness, uniqueness and sometimes disquiet and discomfort that challenge the constructed reality of knowledge handed down through the generations that comes from sitting on the same hard seats in the lecture theatre as your forefathers. You get to see how people look at and do things in new ways. Our pedagogy should be built on the ability to adapt, change and innovate when the context shifts around us. Do we want learners who panic when something doesn’t fit the model we have laid out for them or do we want them to be agile enough to turn that model on its head, move G to F and find a way to do something no-one has thought of before?

 

Way too much personal information #2

My undergraduate degree is in marketing. I completed it in 1991, long before social media and internet marketing. The single most useless subject I did was called Marketing Decision Models. It was based on the work of Philip Kotler from the early 70s (and with a text out of print for 15 years when I did the course). Why was the subject useless? Because it tried to model behaviours (using economic modelling theory) that were not current when I did the subject. They were not adaptable because they were designed to be as accurate as possible in predicting measurable outcomes like sales or market share. Because they assumed that generally things like retail would be there forever, or that markets were constructed on local product distribution only or that products always had a physical form, they were not re-purposable for what has become entirely different contexts.  They are a history lesson at best (which has it’s purpose) and at worst represent a fictional account of the way marketing is done.  I have never been able to re-purpose or re-mix that information in 20 years of teaching marketing or in the decade or so I practised it.  What benefit then did I gain from the hours on that subject?  If I was to be critical, I would say very little.  To me, if teaching the principle of modelling, a new pedagogy would start with how you make a model, what are the key things you need to ensure a model does what it sets out to do.  You might then show some examples of models.  And then you make a model yourself.  Get groups to find contexts and make models.  Share then with each other, critique them and remix the whole thing up and you might just have invented a completely new solution to a problem.  However, the way it was taught was predicated on lasting connections, that sales was always a function of promotion spend times competitor spend over C (which was constant).

 

Co-incidentally, it was a fleeting connection I made during this subject that taught me that marketing is not a science but an understanding of people, and that making people being happy is at the core of good marketing (OK, he was a stoner and a hippy, and he photo-bombed one my graduation photos long before photo-bombing became an internet thing, but what the hey!). That short interaction across a few classes in a semester with a person whose name I have never been able to remember shaped much about how I approached my marketing career. It was not a ‘light bulb’ moment. It was a moment of pause that I needed to link all of what I had been thinking and analysing about marketing over three years, all the issues I had with abusive marketing practices and the like and come up with a model that worked for me.  And in that moment of pause, I saw models in a new way.  Sales wasn’t a number, it was a function of people doing something, thereby very difficult to model.  I didn’t get a high distinction is that subject (although I did get a credit which I suspect was a function of the fact that I was one of only 5 people who could get the textbook thanks to a marketing teacher father’s huge out of print library!)

 

Clearly life is not built on fleeting connections alone. We need resonance and depth and critical analysis that require sometimes forensic building and rebuilding. These deep connections are important.  A new pedagogy needs methods by which deep and lasting networks and connections can be formed.  Interaction and engagement across years with expertise and experience is critical to developing the participatory culture Jenkins sees. Fleeting and deep are not dichotomous but complementary.  Fleeting, momentary or brief connections happen all the time.  What is missing is two-fold.  Recognition of their importance, however major or marginal and secondly, a framework with which to understand and build on them.  Unless there is pedagogical imperative to embrace and understand the increasing complexities of fleeting connections, then we are robbing our learners of the very things that will extend the benefits of their learning for decades, even into jobs that didn’t exist before they started their studies.  Social media is an important tool in this process.  It is not the panacea or the magic button, but it makes the whole thing some much easier to facilitate.  A pedagogy that embeds social media at the core of its teaching and learning process is one that will engage the learners ability to make connections, lasting and fleeting.  But more importantly, will help them learn better by exposing them to ideas, contexts and opinions that are no theirs (our ours) alone.  We use that model every time we attend a conference or read a paper.  It might just work for the modern learner.