community

Going Beyond Humanizing Online Learning

If “democracy is a system of self-governance where governance is justified by consent of the governed,,” then are our educational institutions democratic? How about our classes? How about the online learning areas we set up for our students like the VLE?

Join this talk to discuss ways to create a democratic platform in online and blended learning. We will talk about shifts and tensions in teacher identity when we move to online spaces,  our imagined audience and community building. Students are welcome to join the discussion!

This is my session abstract for a talk I will be giving at Goldsmiths tomorrow titled Going beyond humanizing online learning: Creating a democratic platform for and with our students.

The session is discussion based, so I am hoping to tackle this complex topic with the participants on the day and also here on this blog prior and after the event. The motivation for this talk comes from my recent reflections on Parker J. Palmer and  bell hooks. I’ve started to think increasingly about democracy in education and how we might achieve that in online settings. We talk a lot about humanizing online courses, making it a social experience for both teachers and students, but we don’t talk much about how that social space is organised; we don’t talk much about the politics of it. I see a strong need to focus on that, especially to critique and improve our institutional learning spaces.

Palmer (2011) says:

“If students are to be well served and are to serve democracy well, we need to invite them into a lived engagement with democracy’s core concepts and values. There are at least two ways to do this: by engaging students in democratic processes within the classroom and the school and by involving them in the political dynamics of the larger community.”

So what are democracy’s core concepts and values? Well, there is civic responsibility. There is this expectation that you will be “a productive, responsible, caring and contributing member of society.” Palmer mentions many ways to achieve this but what struck me was his argument on creating democratic habits of the heart – the qualities we need to be able to “listen with an open mind” and “respond respectfully”:

  1. We must understand that we are all in this together.
  2. We must develop an appreciation of the value of otherness.
  3. We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. (This is about turning a seemingly negative event into something positive.)
  4. We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
  5. We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

But there is a problem I observe in online spaces: even the most democratic educator, the most caring instructor, can easily shift to quite authoritative teaching methods and ways of being online, if he/she has limited understanding of possibilities. It is not uncommon for instructors to use online spaces to ask students to do things (“submit your assignment,” “book a slot for your one-on-one,” “read this book,” etc.). Students are expected to do things in a space that is designed for them but not with them. The learning space becomes a space that reflects institutional choices and preferences and personal tastes of course designers (I once knew an instructor who had purple background on her site because she liked the color) more than a communal one.

One of the reasons why this shift happens is the heavy emphasis on content. It is so much easier to deliver content online than to build an active and supportive learning community.  A learning community open and responsive to diverse voices… a learning community that welcomes students as a whole person to the environment – real people. The former requires resources and tools, the latter requires commitment and care beyond all content.

In the talk, I will propose that the first step to democracy, to creating democratic habits of the heart, is by enabling open structures in learning (I draw from bell hooks and Parker Palmer on this). An open educator:

  • makes the initial structures of working and/or studying explicit to students and open to discussion (imagine a teacher encouraging her students to comment on the syllabus, on the class activities and assignments);
  • co-constructs the structures of working and/or studying with students (imagine modifying the assignments with the help of students; imagine students co-constructing a code of conduct for their online interactions);
  • doesn’t confine education to a certain space and time (imagine learning “on the web and with the web,” with the public and for the public; imagine a teacher tweeting a resource to the class hashtag long after the course ends);
  • centers education around dialogue (imagine a teacher using conversations with students as content to work with).
  • recognizes the whole person in education (this is complex, but imagine a teacher making the emotional well-being of her students a priority, a lot more important than assessing in-class/for-class “performances.”)

Can our educational institutions be democratic when there is so much reliance on standardized tests, when we want to get accreditation for our programmes, when teachers have so much more power over their students on deciding how things should look like in the learning space, and how the learning should be organized? How can we help students “practice in real responsibility, real dialogue and real authority” (Palmer,  2011) despite institutional and curricular constraints? And how about the limitations of democracy as a system of governance? (Think about how the rule of majority can be a problem in educational settings.)

What do you think? Please join the discussion and let me know about your thoughts.

 

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.