Month: May 2015

On Networked Communities

Community is a puzzling term: we can talk about communities of practice, communities of inquiry, learning communities, rural communities, research communities… We can talk about so many different communities that it’s, I think, impossible to explain it in one way. But I can try describing one community that I’m familiar with.

I’m doing research on open participants’ experiences in a connected open online course. At first, I thought I could examine their activities through the communities of practice framework. I would look at how open participants went about research writing, the inquiry process. I would examine interactions among participants, find out about common norms, language, the type of knowledge that they produce as a community through shared artifacts. It soon became apparent though, what I was observing didn’t resemble a typical community of practice where “members share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” I wasn’t observing shared practice-other than blogging about issues related to education, which I think is too general to be defined as shared practice. Open participation was so diverse and rich that I had to take a step back and re-think how I might capture open participants’ involvement in the course.

Then I read something Mimi Ito wrote almost a year ago, and everything clicked: Unlike becoming a contributor to Wikipedia or YouTube, Connected Courses is a veritable cornucopia of ways of participating with no central platform. And unlike a community of practice, there is an abundance of different forms of expertise and practices, and social norms that are colliding through a loosely orchestrated cross-network remix, immersive theater where participants are all experiencing a different narrative. Its not a funnel or even a community with coherent practices, but a hybrid network, more like a constellation that looks different based on where one stands and who one is.

This was (almost) exactly what I was observing: participants’ involvement with the course, their presence, was multifaceted and unique. Their involvement was authentic; they talked about things that mattered to them, they brought with them their existing and expanding networks, they organized the course in ways that made sense to them and that suited their busy adult lives.

This, I believe, is also exactly what Catherine Cronin, building on Kris Gutierrez’s earlier work, describes as third spaces–spaces where formal learning skills and the informal skills, networks, and identities intersect and create opportunities for authentic interaction and knowledge building. (This last part is taken from a talk that I’ll give at the Digital Pedagogies Conference 2015.)

So am I observing a community here in the first place? I think, yes, but I believe my context is unique because the course is built upon a strong foundation which encourages community building from within (for example, via faculty and staff blogs). There are multiple communities of practice operating on different levels (faculty, students, the VCU community in general). When open participants join the course and begin participating in the course activities and interact with the VCU community they become part of that community. But at the same time, they have one foot outside the community, creating unique ways of participation and diversity.

I’m struggling with the vocabulary here a little bit. I feel like there’s a lot more that I want to capture than I outlined here, but I just don’t have all frameworks in place yet. So I’ll be reading and writing about third spaces, learning communities and networks a lot this summer to be able to tell a story that is robust and rigorous– something that will make sense from where I stand. Below is an image that I find relevant to think about community in networked places: It is always changing, evolving, regenerating, but there is nonetheless a shared narrative (a series of connected events) that brings people together. Draw imaginary lines between individual leaves and add more shapes and colors to the scene: now the picture is more complete in our mind’s eye. giphy Animated gif taken from here.

Aesthetics in Technology Integration

My University has recently upgraded to a new online system for its academic services. This morning, I wanted to enroll for a new class for the Fall semester and found myself struggling with almost everything this new service offers to its “customers”. After about 30 minutes of frustration (and boredom) I expressed my feelings to the world on Twitter :

This experience made me think about technology resistance in education, particularly the “teacher resistance to technology.” Assuming that all other support systems, such as professional development, access to technology and resources, a caring teaching and learning environment, etc., are in place, I think:

Teachers are not resisting to technology; they are resisting to the feeling they get when using technology.

And they have every right to feel that way, especially when using tools and services that are designed with “no tie-ins to human feelings, psychology.”

Aesthetics matters. How we feel about a tool or service matters, even more so than their efficiency and ease of use.

Going beyond aesthetics, Ted Nelson offers the term “fantics” to describe the “art and science of getting ideas across, both emotionally and cognitively.”  He says,

The character of what gets across is always dual; both the explicit structures, and feelings that go with them. These two aspects, exactness and connotation, are an inseparable whole; what is conveyed generally has both. The reader or viewer always gets feelings along with information, even when the creators of the information think that its “content” is much more restricted.” (p. 319)

Nelson then talks about how technical manuals might carry with them an air of authority, non-imagination, competence, etc., depending on the readers’ perceptions of how the information is presented. Because, he says, “people receive not only cognitive structures, but impressions, feelings and senses of things.”

Perhaps we need to pay more attention to teachers’ “impressions, feelings, and senses of things” when thinking about technology integration. Need to pay more attention to the “lived experience” and understand and respect the fact that what works for one teacher may not work for another teacher at all…

Thinking about thinking

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You’re giving a 20 minute lecture and you don’t want your students to drift away while you’re passionately talking about your slides. What would you do? (Let’s say “I wouldn’t lecture my students for 20 min. in the first place” is not an option.) According to the University of Sussex, there is a lot you can do to win your listeners’ attention. You could ask your students to stretch their legs, for example. Or ask them to take notes and give them some time to check their notes with their classmates at some point during the presentation. You could ask them to write down a few questions about the lecture. Learners can discuss a question, take a short test, brainstorm keywords, watch a video clip-the list goes on. One final strategy is to ask learners to reflect on the lecture. For example, you can ask students to “take three minutes to think about what we have dealt with so far” while “stay[ing] quiet so as not to interfere with others’ reflection.”

Reflection is often thought of as a planned activity, a learning strategy, and the list by the University of Sussex clearly illustrates that. It is often an afterthought. The thing is.. all the strategies I mentioned above to engage students are a type of “reflection” as long as we consider students as thinking human beings, consciously or unconsciously. Our reflections could be formal (as in we may be asked to think about thinking) or they could be informal (like asking “are we there yet?” when stretching our poor legs).

I’m not really against the lecturing method, although it may sound like it because of the way I protest against how the University of Sussex frames student engagement during lectures (it all started with a simple search on student reflection in lectures). So after thinking about (reflecting on) the structure of assignments in #thoughtvectors, I am almost convinced that in formal schooling, what matters most is to encourage students to ask questions, get them excited about their learning, and help them see the world from a different perspective. Regardless of the pedagogical model–inquiry based, project-based, lecture, etc.–we need to design the learning activities in such a way that reflection should be understood as part of teaching and learning, at all times. So you might use an inquiry-based approach and but if you don’t really have time to attend to the learner experience and work with surprises, what is the point?

EDIT: I’m now thinking one thing that is missing in my post is metacognition or metacognitive reflection. I also slightly  edited the original post where I talk about reflection in class. I wanted to say something about reflection as a dialogic process, but that’ll probably be another post:)