inequality & networks: the sociocultural implications for higher ed

Next week is #dLRN15 at Stanford. Months of planning and debating and collaborating (and panicking!) all come together to launch an inaugural conference/conversation on Making Sense of Higher Education: Networks & Change.

It’s all Panic At The Disco around here these days, people.

There are some serious high hopes embedded and embodied in #dLRN15. Not just for a successful event – though a successful event is a joy forever, as the poets say. Or, erm, something like that. But success is a complex thing, and hopes go beyond the event.

#dLRN15 is grounded in the kind of quiet hopes most of us in higher ed these days don’t talk about all that much: the hopes that things can actually get better. The hopes that research can be conducted and communicated in such a way as to shape the direction of change. The hopes for a future for the spirit of public education, in a time when much in higher ed seems to have been unbundled or disrupted or had its goalposts moved.

Those kinds of hopes are waaaaay too big to lay on the shoulders of any single event or single collection of people…but still, we got hopes, and they underpin the conversations we’re hoping to start through this small, first-time conference next week. We have the privilege of bringing together powerful thinkers like Adeline Koh and Marcia Devlin and Mike Caulfield as keynotes, plus systems-level folks and established researchers and students and grad students and people from all sorts of status positions within higher ed, all thinking about the intersection of networked practices and learning with the institutional structures of higher ed.

However, there’s one strand of conversation, one hope, in the mix at #dLRN15 that I’m particularly attached to. It’s the Sociocultural Implications of Networks and Change in Higher Ed conference theme, and particularly the opening plenary panel of the conference, on Inequities & Networks: The Sociocultural Implications for Higher Ed. I’m chairing, and the ever-thoughtful George Station, Djenana Jalovcic, and Marcia Devlin have agreed to lead the conversation from the stage.

But we need you.

No plenary panel is an island…and while all of us contributing have our own deep ties to this topic, our role is only to start the conversation. Help us make it wider and take it further. Whether you’ll be there or not, your thoughts and input are welcome on the #dLRN15 hashtag or on our Slack channel, or here in the comments. Throw in.

To me, this is the strand that gets at the heart of what education is for, and who it includes, and how, in a time of massive stress: is the digital helping widen participation and equality? Is it hindering?

If the answer to both is “yes,” WHAT NOW?

The aim of the panel is to explore how intersectional issues – race, gender, class, ability, even academic status – in higher education are amplified and complexified by digital technologies and networked participation. While digital higher education initiatives are often framed for the media in emancipatory terms, what effects does the changing landscape of higher education actually have on learners whose identities are marked by race/gender/class and other factors within their societies?

We’ll be sharing and unpacking some of the places we get stuck when we think about this in the context of our work as educators and researchers.

What effects do you see digital networks having on inequalities in higher ed? What sociocultural implications do networked practices hold for institutional practices? What are universities’ responsibilities to students who live and learn in hybrid online/offline contexts?

Please. Add your voices, so that this panel becomes more a node in a networked conversation than a one-off to itself. That in itself would pretty much make #dLRN15 a success, in my mind. :)

the morning after we all became social media gurus

One morning, all my friends woke up as experts.

Or rather, thanks to years of what academia had mostly framed as the gauche and wasteful habit of talking excessively to people who lived inside our computers and iPads, many of us whose social and work lives had merged somewhere in the ether of that Third Place/Space woke up with workshops to give, because…academic service. When what was gauche and time-wasting yesterday is The New Black today, it’s handy to have a vanguard of self-taught experts to teach everybody else how to play along.

But what are all these workshops doing, in the context of the academy? Mark Carrigan posed the question of social media as fashion or fad on Twitter this morning. I retweeted his post. We ended up in a conversation that eventually included another three or four colleagues, from a few different countries. THIS is how social media actually works for me, when it works.

These excerpts carry the gist of the conversation better than I can encapsulate. They also raise questions that I think all of us passing as social media gurus – however unwillingly – in the academy need to grapple with, and soon.

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  •  Are the workshops helping…or just making people feel pressured to Do Another Thing in a profession currently swamped by exhortations to do, show, and justify?

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  • Does the pressure over-emphasize the actual power of social media and encourage people to dig in against it as some kind of new regime, without necessarily having the experiential knowledge to judge whether it could have any value for them?
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  • How SHOULD we count digital and networked scholarship within the academy? Should we count it at all?
FWIW, I think we should, but I’m very wary of how. And so I wonder what happens the morning after we all wake up as experts, so to speak.

I feel like I’ve been here before. Yesterday afternoon, somebody tweeted an old post I wrote four years ago, back when I’d had a personal blog for years and was trying to understand the shift I was seeing in the economy of social media, from relational to market.

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It was the words “a path into the machine” that gave me a sense of deja vu.
Because one morning back in about 2008 all my friends woke up as social media gurus. We’d been hobbyists and bloggers and it was kind of wonderful but faintly embarrassing to talk about in polite company and then BOOM people started appearing on Good Morning America and it gentrified and stratified fast.

Switch out “brands” for “institutions” up in the pull quote above and we are living a parallel moment in academia, just a few years late. And the the many-to-many communications that the networks were based on risk, once again, being instrumentalized into something broadcast-based and metrics-driven that misses the whole point.

There has been plenty of excellent – and necessary – advocacy for the inclusion of digital, public engagement in academic hiring and tenure and promotions and our general sense of what counts as scholarship.

But the practices that get encapsulated as digital scholarship or networked participatory scholarship straddle two worlds, and two separate logics. One is the prestige economy of academia and its hierarchy and publishing oligopoly and all the things that count as scholarship. The other is social media, which has its own prestige economy.

The overlap goes like this, IMO:
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I never liked Klout’s reductionism to metrics – scale of account, reach of posts. Yet the thing that these two spheres share – their common language, so to speak – is metrics. And while those of us engaged in the complex logic of influence and prestige in academic Twitter *get* that the ephemerality of a tweet that goes viral isn’t the same as a reputation of smaller scale over time, nor does a broadcast account operate on the same terms as a reciprocal account, metrics divorced from context – either on Klout or in citation counts and h-indexes – do NOT get that.

So if those of us giving workshops to the academy about social media don’t make it really clear that it’s more than metrics – and don’t give people the experiential opportunity to taste what a personal/professional learning network (PLN) feels like and can offer – we have only ourselves to blame when the academy eventually tries to subsume social media into its OWN prestige economy.

The morning is now, kids. It’s been now for a little while but it won’t be forever. Seize the day.

How do YOU think we can best engage scholars and institutions in networked scholarship without selling the farm?

Digital Pedagogy: Hospitality & The Hot Mess

Sometimes, the people you are expecting are not the ones who show up.

Last month, I spent a week facilitating the “Networks” track at the inaugural Digital Pedagogies Lab Summer Institute in Madison, Wisconsin…an immersive, five-day deep dive into the intersections of higher ed and digitally-networked platforms, practices, and pedagogical implications. Heady stuff…and risky stuff, every time, because questions of open & closed educational practices and open & closed academic systems strike at the heart of people’s most deeply-held beliefs about their professions and their professional identities.

But at #digped, it was MY understanding of my profession that got unsettled and re-aligned. Or rather, re-focused.

Because in the (pretty amazing) collection of 25+ professionals who joined my track, at least half were not the faculty, grad students, and maybe teachers I’d expected would come to explore digital pedagogies. They were instructional designers. Librarians. People tasked with the roles of making “the digital” happen in institutions, but people whose pedagogical audiences are as much faculty as conventionally-designated ‘students.’

I should have expected them. I started off in this field as a proto-instructional technologist myself, back before I’d ever heard the word. I began thinking about digital pedagogies pretty much at the point when I began teaching faculty how to teach online.

But the hierarchy of the academy to which we are actively acculturated in higher ed works to make the labour of digital professionals – particularly instructional technologists – invisible. They are not faculty. They are not admin, at least unless they are Directors. They are not much like the other support staff, in the sense that they interface (in most contexts) far less directly with students than with faculty. They are not students.

And yet in the contemporary university, in North America, they are the people most likely to be actively shaping an institution’s pedagogical response to the Internet.

Where pedagogy intersects with all things digital in higher ed, it’s being outsourced. To a class of workers who do not hold an official position in the academic hierarchy.

I’m not clutching pearls or defending the academic hierarchy, just noting that some pretty vast gaps exist in its version of higher ed and what it’s for.

Because as higher ed has complexified, whole classes of labour have emerged that have never been fully brought into the academy’s vision of itself, and central parts of that vision, such as pedagogy, have become increasingly isolated from the work of faculty.

I’d argue that these gaps – not the people in them but the gaps themselves – operate to further deprofessionalize the professoriate, ironically. Not to mention that digital adoption and online learning demand pedagogical direction if they are even to begin to do more than just move print-era content and its embedded pedagogical assumptions online. At the same time, tech still tends to be gendered male, so there are other – sometimes conflicting – forms of stratification at work at this strange intersection. And then there’s casualization. And the ever-present question of race in the academy and whose knowledge gets to count. And the fact that digital higher ed spaces in particular face enclosure and corporatization by those who see education as a ripe candidate for disruption or whatever they’ve decided to call it this year.

I suspect the technical term for the whole combo is “hot mess.”

I’d almost given up on trying to unpack it all when Tony Bates wrote a piece last week suggesting there’s little future and no career path in online learning. While a large part of me wants very much to agree with Tony’s reasoning – which runs “in the future, we will need instructors who have the skills to decide when and how to use online learning as part of their jobs, and not see online learning as a specialty of someone else” – I recognize that my desire to agree comes from a place of privilege, since I straddle the roles of instructor and online learning specialist. And much as most of my public work is about encouraging educators and faculty to explore digital literacies and digital pedagogy and digital scholarship, I’m not sure that our need for that future will magically create that future.

Sometimes the people you need – or are expecting – are not the people who show up.

Which is where we circle back to #digped and Wisconsin.

My friend Kate Bowles has been talking for awhile now about hospitality in education, about being present to who shows up. It may shock her to learn I’ve actually been listening.

But on the Tuesday morning last month in Wisconsin on day 2 of #digped when it dawned on that my vision for the week wasn’t exactly addressing a large chunk of the people who were paying good money to join me for the experience, it was Kate’s voice I heard in the back of my head.

One does not simply *ignore* Kate Bowles. ;)

And so we changed gears midstream, albeit with some grinding of those gears along the way. And the whole week was better for it. Powerful, rich, and full of lessons that I, at least, will take forward into future iterations and future work. And this was thanks in huge part to the generous, exploratory spirit of the many instructional technologists and designers and librarians – as well as the faculty – who made up the Networks track and the range of skills and knowledge and conversations between us all.

We benefit from being hospitable to each other, and opening our narrow hierarchies of specialization. And even those of us who should know better sometimes need reminding.



In Abundance: Networked Participatory Practices as Scholarship

The second paper from my thesis came out last week, in IRRODL.

I tip my hat to IRRODL…there is something truly lovely about publishing a paper on networked scholarship and being able to share it immediately and without barriers. In actual networks. Here’s the link, Twitter – BOOM. Here you go, Facebook – right there for all the people I went to high school with to enjoy. Whatever. Right there. Just like…like the internet actually works in scholarship!

Oh right.

I didn’t even have to pay any highwaymen hybrid open access rates, which is a blessing, as my institution does not offer funds for that and I enjoy being able to feed my children and other frivolities. I obviously do not understand the oligopoly that is academic publishing. I do, however, understand not paying thousands for things that can – broadly speaking – be accomplished for free. I’ve been trying not to do that for a way longer time than I’ve been playing this academia game.

Sometimes when I read the stuff that comes through my Twitter feed, I actually get the impression that we – “we” being the sub-species homo academicus, seldom the sharpest knives in the drawer of life, oddly – might slowly be getting it. Academic successs is not a lottery, I read today, but a rigged game rife with implicit bias and discrimination. Why, my stars! And then I saw, in black and white, words that said citation metrics “should never be used as the sole criterion to evaluate academics” and I swear little cherubs started singing in my ears.

But while these messages may be making their way through our Twitter skullz they are still not the dominant narratives of a profession in which digitizing journals – thus getting rid of the cost of paper and distribution – has actually resulted in a HIGHER concentration of scientific literature in the hands of a few major for-profit players, even though all the reviewing is done for free by academics who often don’t even have contracts that cover service labour anymore. Uh, brilliant system, guys. I’ll take Boardwalk, please!

And it’s worst in the social sciences…which *mutter mutter shoemakers’ wives something something.*

But we cling to the academic publishing system because it’s a prestige economy. It’s our prestige economy, dammit. And apparently they will have to pry it from our cold, dead, mostly-precariously-employed hands because there seems to be far more attachment to the impact factor of prestigious journals than to the possibility of changing things.

This logic would tell me that open publishing and networked sharing are not in my interest, because they do not fall under the purview of the narrow circle of “what counts” drawn by impact-factor-focused publishing. Yet that impact factor primarily counts because it’s supposed to increase citations and that‘s supposed to count because it’s supposed to help me snag one of the last remaining tenured professorships from the Mad Max landscape of contemporary higher ed…and do please send your tenure lines my way, friends. But. BUT.

This paper is about networks as sites of scholarship. Already. Not some kind of proto-scholarship but actual sites of scholarship of discovery and scholarship of integration and application and teaching – all Boyer’s (1990) categories for the profession. Plus, many participants indicated that their networked scholarship actually fulfills Boyer’s additional vision of a scholarship “beyond the hierarchy of functions” – a more inclusive, comprehensive and dynamic approach to professional practice. Networks are admittedly still supplemental sites, for the most part, because few paying scholarly careers are to be eked out here, and the odds remain slightly better in the institutional game. But in a world where the capacity to distribute ideas no longer requires paper, or printing, or the oligopoly of an Elsevier, it might be cool to at the very least try to reward the IRRODLs of the world and their other handy, hey look you can click this and there’s a paper right there at the end of that link! ilk. It might save our institutional libraries from bankruptcy, even. Maybe.

I probably shouldn’t be saying this out loud. I should be sleeping. I got in a car at 7:10 this morning, fluffed and buffed and ready to give a talk, but my jetlagged body was still under the impression it was shortly after midnight and even though I had practiced deep yogic breathing in my hotel bed for two solid hours I was awake. All. Night. Like Thelma in Thelma and Louise, awake with the kind of raw adrenalin that comes to some when they’re on the lam or me, apparently, when I cross the Atlantic. So now it’s 2am again here. And I am punch-drunk from lack of sleep and from the deep cognitive dissonance the academic publishing monopoly triggers in me, so I will just shut up now and say hey, pssst, click this link if you’re interested in how networks do some of the work of scholarship because the paper is RIGHT THERE, you guys. Because internet.


for shame

Dave and our friend Beth have a semi-regular gig on the local CBC morning show‘s social media panel…but this week, Dave’s away. Since it’s handy to have a literal in-house replacement to offer up, I got to play pinch hitter. And thanks to last week’s #FHRITP spectacle last week in Toronto, they were talking online shaming, which I’ve been thinking and writing about since the conclusion of my thesis.

So…I spent last evening to trying to unpack what’s actually happening with shame and scale in contemporary culture.

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Here are Beth & I at the brisk and perky hour of 7:30 in the morning, talking it all through. But being me, I made notes that could have filled a three-hour show, and it got me thinking about shame and scale and social media at a level that I couldn’t manage to pack into our ten minutes on air.

Here are the highlights of what a combination of years of background research into social media + frantic Googling + the threat of making a totally unprepared arse of myself on-air got me thinking about shame and all the sensationalism-driven conversations we’re having, societally, about social media and shame.

First, public shaming is in no way a new or online phenomenon. We may be experiencing a glorious new glut of it in our Twitter and Facebook feeds, but our fascination with it shouldn’t fool us…we’re not gawking because it’s new. We’re gawking because it’s uncomfortable.

We’re gawking because Call-Out Culture calls us out – no matter what sanitized shade of bland we may be as individuals – and reveals our participation in the engines of power that allow some people to chew others up. We’re not supposed to talk about power. It works hard to make itself invisible. But I think social media platforms hail us, in Althusserian terms, into complex and collapsed social and political ideologies of power in ways we can’t quite naturalize because the platforms are still so new and constantly changing. Online, we have to grapple with our own interpellation as subjects.

Second, there are two ways public shaming has always worked.

  • To control people, & force them to comply with the status quo. The Scarlet Letter is a great way to keep wives faithful.
  • To push back against that status quo or speak truth to power. If you can actually show that the Emperor has no clothes, you delegitimize his power and call into question the whole system he rules.

So I think online shaming and Call-Out Culture is a clash of these two archaic forms of public shaming. And which is which depends on where the speaker aligns – at that moment, in his or her complex and intersectional identity.

Here’s how you tell: does the speech act he or she engages in reinforce the status quo or challenge it?

The first is trolling. Trolling silences through shame. It reinforces status quo power positions: male over female, rich over poor, white over black, abled over disabled…any of those societal norms that govern who gets heard.

The second is hashtag activism. Hashtag activism allows people who experience marginalization to band together to speak back – to call out and critique others for the degrading or insulting or even just casually ignorant thing they’ve said in public.

Sometimes people have a hard time figuring out which side that status quo is actually on. Both trolling and calling out can be nasty, from a personal perspective, and people like to feel righteous, so you’ll see cases like the dude with the TV reporter who’s acting all offended that she’s calling him out for having leapt into her WORK to sexually degrade her for his own entertainment and…what? Fame?

Well, he got his 15 minutes. And he needs a new job.

And call out culture can be like that – when the hashtag activists succeed sometimes the consequence can seem out of proportion to the offence. But it raises real questions of what SHOULD the consequences of public speech be?

Because if people DO get away with disrupting and degrading others just to reinforce power positions – oh hey, it’s funny, can’t you take a joke? – then REAL PEOPLE end up living with that, feeling degraded…and that has consequences too.

Both individually and for that status quo of who gets to speak and be heard.

We don’t want a society entirely driven by shame. Those always turn out dangerous. But I am wary of the ways that pundits and media are lining up to denounce shame at this juncture, particularly when their words tend to sympathize with the risks that white, middle class Justine Saccos face in this “mob morality,” rather than with the risks and shame that those #FHRITP guys were trying to inflame as they aggressively asserted their own right to complete and utter shamelessness. Shame should not be a zero-sum. Shame as a tactical response to marginalization should not be needed…but if it works, let’s not focus on shutting down the very few effective means we have for speaking truth to power at scale.