bringing back the participatory: a story of the #ProSocialWeb

So. We need to talk about the web.

Disclaimer: I spent the early part of April living the Very Best of the Web. I’d doubted, frankly, that “best of the web” was a phrase I’d be likely to use again, but…life is funny.

A whirlwind journey landed me in Virginia, Nova Scotia, and Ireland over the first half of the month. In each space and with every collection of people, I framed the web in dire terms.

“We need to talk about the web,” I’d say, and I’d launch into a rat-a-tat battery of images depicting digital spaces in our present: the weaponization of attention. Monetization. Quantification. Algorithmic-decision-making. Surveillance. The enclosure of commons by totalizing technical systems. Basically, THIS:

https://me.me/i/fun-fact-the-internet-nas-once-a-fun-place-for-21441614

I’m fun at parties.

But the conversations in the hallways and the restaurants and pubs and hotel spaces – and, yep, online – after each of those talks actually reminded me what the web can DO. Because I would not have been in any of those rooms if it weren’t for the web.

The participatory web, originally – the old-skool Web 2.0 where readers were also writers and contributors and people were tied together by blog comments – but even Twitter. Even Facebook. Together, these have networked me into some of the most important conversations and relationships of my life.

And at each stop on my trip, ties made online brought forth hopeful, meaningful human exchanges, and real intellectual and emotional connection to other human beings in spite of geographic distance between our day-to-day lives. Moments of shared purpose and learning and capacity-building. Even in 2019.

This is the the Very Best of what the web makes possible. It was a mini-version what Jim Luke called, in his #OER19 reflection, “technology in the service of people.”

I was basically living the paradox that I was flying around trying to talk about: THE SYSTEMS WE ARE EMBEDDED IN ARE TOXIC. BUT THEY ARE ALSO AN IMPORTANT INFRASTRUCTURE ENABLING US TO WORK TOGETHER.

We *do* need to talk about the web. But not just so we can all opt out and go home. Those of us who are already there, and for whom the web is more than just Google and a garbage fire, need to talk about it differently.

We need to make the participatory web visible again, in our small human corners of it…even amidst the sea of bots and surveillance and polarization.

NOT because we can drown all that out. So that we are not drowned by it. So we can help others struggling against the current. So we can build rafts, together…until we figure out how many rafts it takes to make a dam, perhaps.

***
Obviously, the toxicity doesn’t stop with digital systems.

It was Earth Day yesterday. I need to stop flying around. I need to work towards the fundamental, drastic changes that will mean my kids have the possibility of a long-term future on this planet. I gotta go deeper than the “one-car family with a hybrid car” schtick and actually change.

I’m reading pieces like Monbiot’s Only Rebellion Will Prevent an Economic Collapse. I signed up for notifications re Extinction Rebellion protests in my area. I note my area does not have an Extinction Rebellion Coordinator.

That kind of work is hard: change work, drastic non-status-quo work. I didn’t even know what a Community Organizer *was* until Obama came to prominence and people started throwing the term around in a loaded way.

When the next US President got elected, though, and terms like “fake news” started to be tossed around like grenades, there was a hot second where I thought maybe *I* could coordinate something. My professional background is part media literacy and part adult ed, and late one night I rambled my way to the idea that maybe we could model off the 20th century Antigonish Movement – an extraordinary Eastern Canadian legacy that brought people together to learn, and to fight The Company Store.

I thought an Antigonish 2.0 for community, citizenship, and information literacy might be a way to address some of the yawning literacy gaps of our own time.

A LOT of people signed up.

I found an amazing ally based in Antigonish, and we started writing grants and spreading the word in places like Educause and via DavidsonNow’s #engageMOOC.

And then we hit a wall. And realized that – whoopsie! – a lot of models of coordination and community organization require a structural position of power within whatever community you’re trying to organize. The #Antigonish2 model needed universities as its centre layer, in addition to networks and communities.

As precarious staff at our respective universities, my ally & I could hustle up a network and publish and write grants on our own time and plan community events and even generate *some* institutional support, but ultimately we did not fit funders’ models for Principal Investigators and we did not fit our institutions’ ideas of the package Strategic Change should come in.

You cannot leverage an institution when you have no real foothold IN the institution.

***
So. Ultimately I uprooted my family from the Maritimes, and #Antigonish2 lay low for the better part of a year. Until I got an invitation – thanks to the networked and institutional roots my ally had laid down – to go TO Antigonish and deliver a keynote for THATCampX in April.

That keynote is here. Its ending is probably more radical than its opening…but it posits that datafication and AI are the new Company Store. And it suggests that resisting the technocratic systems encroaching on our institutions and our lives means – in part, for those of us already online – bringing back the participatory web.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. It is, however, a call to action…and a way of returning the #Antigonish2 name to its rightful home while building next steps for the network who were keen and generous enough to sign on. It’s rooted in what Dave & I have been calling “the #prosocialweb:” an invitation to think and write and build together.

The idea of the #prosocialweb assumes that our small social worlds matter.

Few decision-makers have lived the Best of The Web. What if those of us who have were able to make it visible? To counter the Company Store mythology of capital data solutions that’s gone viral among our leadership strata?

If our contemporary information ecosystem has taught us anything, it should be that that humans are VERY vulnerable to social contagion. All the systems we’ve accepted are neither natural nor inevitable.

And the system I am positioned to make a difference in – at the coordinating level – is networks…so the web and this idea of the #prosocialweb is where I’ll take the subversive hope that underpinned #Antigonish2, for now. To try to counter misinformation, yes. But also to try to push for change, and for a more pro-social and humane digital space through three key ideas: complexity, cooperation, and contribution. To try to foreground the “ethic of care” that Kate Bowles called for at #OER19, quoting Giroux:

Hope is not a pipe dream, it is the most important resource we have. It is the heartbeat of our politics.”

If no one believes there are alternatives to this inexorable march towards The Company Store of datafication and automation and extinction that we seem to be on…there won’t be.

But the people I’ve met through the participatory web keep me believing in alternatives. And believing I am not alone.

Experience Required: Walking the Talk in Digital Teaching & Learning

“I don’t know what to do, and if I did know what to do I wouldn’t tell you, because if I had to tell you today I’d have to tell you tomorrow, and when I’m gone you’d have to get somebody else to tell you.”
– Myles Horton, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change

So. Turns out picking up four humans and a cat and a hedgehog to drop them all somewhere new is…intense and amygdala-sparking and more Sisyphean than I realized. WHO KNEW?!? LOLweep. But it is December and Term One is done and it was good. And I have known myself long enough to know that only if I write will I ever start writing again so. So.

***
I gave a talk and then a workshop at Northwestern last week: Experiential Approaches to Digital Teaching & Learning.

The sessions was an opportunity to tie together the threads of the experiential work I did at UPEI in my final year there with the digital work I’ve been doing over the last couple of decades, in institutional roles and in the open.

Spoiler alert: turns out, from a participatory perspective on education – ie. pretty much where I’m coming from – experiential & digital approaches have a LOT in common. Not only that, experiential approaches have helped me do things in digital spaces that emphasize the participatory capacity of the web and hands-on engagement. They help me walk my own talk, and they help me help learners find ways into digital practice that aren’t about telling them what to do, but getting them doing – and hopefully understanding things from a different perspective after the doing. With structure and reflection as bookends to the process, in classic experiential style.

A caveat: as I noted in my workshop last week, experiential learning can feel a bit like a buzzword these days…one of those business-speak catch-all terms deployed primarily to align programming with funding priorities. There is definitely a market within current senior leadership sectors for incantations combining the words “AI,” “millennials,” “disrupt,” and “experiential learning” – repeat them while wearing a well-cut blazer and watch a shiny budget line emerge from the hot mess of cultural anxiety that is the contemporary social contract! Well, sometimes.

But fashion is not the fault of experiential learning…think of it as an eighty-year old concept having a moment. And a handy one for many of us trying to find ways to do digital teaching and learning that focus on practices and critical reflection, rather than tools.

***
Still. What *are* experiential approaches? Messy question. Important question. My bet is if you ask three different people what experiential learning or experiential education mean to them, you’ll get three different answers, because the term connotes a pretty wide swath of different things for different disciplines and in different institutional and geographic cultures.

Yes, most involve some form of doing, and some form of structured reflection upon doing. Experiential approaches can include labs, service learning placements, Co-op programs, formalized experiential teaching methods like case studies, and a slew of more informal experiential teaching methods that in some way incorporate Kolb or Dewey‘s reflexive (sometimes called interactive) cycles.

But like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, wherein each of the individuals extrapolates from his own context – tail, ear, trunk – to a larger absolute that fails to capture the complex reality in front of him, experiential learning is a pastiche of methods and practices that may not all look or feel like each other. Unlike the parable, I’m not even sure experiential learning *is* one single elephant. Or maybe that’s just not where my interest lies.

My interest lies in participatory learning. In ways to connect people to other people as part of their learning experience, and to have them contribute to each other’s learning through conversations and artifacts and reflective processes that continually work and re-work the ideas on the table.

In the slide deck, toward the end I share a few clips and screencaps from some of the experiential – read: mostly hands-on, immersive, application-focused, reflexive and participatory – approaches I’ve tried in different kinds of teaching over the last few years. I saved some of the most hands-on for the workshop rather than the talk, but everything from Twitter chats to sketchnoting & sharing reading responses to badging professional development all counts, IMO, under the broad experiential umbrella. So does working for public audiences of various sizes and privacy settings: work that’s just for me is unlikely to make much difference in a learner’s own professional practice or understanding of the world, IMO.

But the real core of what experiential offers the digital, I think, is not in any specific method or concept but in the fact that experiential learning is, ultimately, about navigating change. From where I sit, it’s a view of learning that recognizes change and complexity at its heart**.

Our digital culture forces change on us regularly, not just in technical learning curves but in the overwhelming, sensationalized narratives we have to sift through and make sense of daily just to be functional citizens of the worlds/nations/micro-cultures we inhabit. I teach teachers. I don’t need them to learn any one specific digital skill or platform,  but a cocktail of of confidence and criticality in their exploration to digital space and digital culture…a cocktail I know no better way to build but through experience and reflection. Experiential approaches help us integrate new and complexity-oriented practices into existing understandings. Worth a shot.

**YMMV (your mileage may vary) – just today, with this post half-written, I got into a Twitter exchange with a colleague that was based on my slides but framed experiential learning on the spectrum of mastery learning rather than experimental learning, which is TOTALLY not how I’ve traditionally seen it…but makes some sense given our very different disciplinary backgrounds. Because I see experiential as a big tent term, I’m not sure either of us is wrong…but I have some more thinking to do.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

I have this Word doc on my laptop. I use it mostly on planes.

It’s a to-do list I can’t actually access daily as it’s not on my work computer. It’s less a bullet journal than an every-few-weeks-or-months enforced offline focusing tool. In it, I organize the overall long-term arc of the things I’m doing – the seasonal tire change appointments that need making, the talks and travels and invoices, the childcare communications and dentist appointments, the house insurance and taxes and blog post ideas all jumbled in together, the research and review deadlines I need to keep track of. Each bit has a section, mostly disconnected notes, copy-pastes of links. Thought outtakes. Things I might need someday.

The Writing and Reviews sections – the academic stuff, the creative stuff – trailed off a year ago to a full stop.

There are no accompanying quit lit notes, even in the privacy of the Word doc. I didn’t quit. But I went dark because I didn’t know where I belonged or where I was going, and I had nowhere to direct the words.
***

A year ago, the staff job I’d had at UPEI since before the end of my Ph.D ended. I lost my job. It was no surprise – one of the two programs I was managing needed to be closed, and I recommended as much – but it was quick. And weirdly final.

I was lucky enough to turn one of my side hustles into a short term contract with the government, and I taught sessionally, as ever. I applied for two tenure-track jobs at my institution…and one or two elsewhere. I got one of the elsewhere interviews, but one of their long-term sessionals got the job – which is good and right. I did not get a local interview. I taught a #DigPed lab and I did talks through the summer and I pitched workshops and managed to lead a volunteer committee that put on a province-wide #LearnDay for PEI and I tried very hard to act chill, like a professional in a perfectly normal transition. Or hiatus. Or something.

But I could not write. Not a word of it. I was 45 years old and unemployed, without a pension, seven years after having put myself in debt to start a Ph.D in order to be more employable here in the narrow professional horizons of this small town. (Don’t laugh. I didn’t know better.) I felt like I’d spent seven years gaslighting myself.

I understood I was a fool. I figured I better not out myself as a fraud, too: the one thing still going for me was the privilege of a network-based reputation that got me invitations (and plane trips on which I could break out my Word doc).

If I said out loud that I was basically, finally, fully uncoupled from the academy, would I be tanking that too?

Reputation is hard to eat, but people sometimes do pay well when they fly you far away to talk. So I shut up. My precarity is generational. We had to buy my mother an apartment last summer, due to a combo of crap circumstances – lifelong renter, landlord moving in, housing crisis in the city – and bad timing. I had enough money squirrelled away from speaking gigs for a down payment on a clean little place for her. I was proud of that. I shut up.

In the fall, I went back to the university to a staff job I like. I thought I’d write but I didn’t.

And then the other academic job I’d applied to? They called.
***

Starting July 1, I will be Assistant Professor of Online Pedagogy and Workplace Learning at the University of Windsor. In Ontario. Right across from Detroit. Totally NOT PEI. Totally cool, though.

Dave signed a contract for work there this past week, as interim Manager of an, erm, Medical Education program. We sold our house. We got our financing on a new house last night. It’s an unfortunate minty-Kermit green but…everything we need. It all still feels vaguely surreal to me, but…everything keeps working out.

People in Windsor seem wonderfully friendly. I am excited to do the job. I get a research fund: I haven’t even had access to a travel fund for years. I GET A PENSION. I GET A PENSION. That deserves to be said twice.

But two weeks ago I was on a plane and I opened that old Word doc and I looked at the blank section where all the ideas used to be. Where I hustled for years trying to turn myself into an academic. Or at least a scholar. And I thought, okay, so now I know where I’m going…I need to start this again. And instead of ideas and itemized plans, all that came out was this big anxious ambivalent jumble that looked like (tl;dr):

I got a tenure-track job (yay!) in a system in which labour is increasingly precarious and even predatory (boo)

I am acutely aware of the privilege and good fortune this turn of events represents

I better do something with that INSIDE the academy to make things different

I’m not sure I know HOW

Actually I will probably do it all completely wrong because nearly thirty years around higher ed has taught me – harshly – that what my mother believed an education meant and would do for me is NOT how academia really operates and this system still replicates and reinforces the precarity of many of us – scholars of colour, LGBTQ scholars, first-generation scholars and scholars without wealth to fall back on, scholars with disabilities (especially invisible disabilities?) – and I have an unfailing gift for going about challenging that shit ALL WRONG because tacit rules

I can learn tho

I am getting kinda good at fake it til you make it

I am increasingly uncertain this is how academic stories even *should* end but I am still grateful

Starting over is scary and the last time we made a major move we got our very first house on the same day I went into labour early and Finn died in my arms eleven hours after birth and omg omg omg I can’t breathe and here I am crying on a frigging plane and do not ANYBODY tell me everything always works out okay thank you full stop

You survive and you go forward, if you’re lucky

I got unbelievably lucky this time

So there we are. Here I am, a raw open wound of outrageous fortune and overwhelm and gratitude. Uncertain of what it means to speak from this place of privilege. But tired of being tongue-tied by my own year-long identity crisis.
***

Today I added something to the “Writing” section of that Word doc for the first time in a year.

Write a damn blog post, it says. Spit it out. Start again. Hit ‘post.’

Here it is. Forward.

#engageMOOC – The Twitter Chats

(this post is cross-posted from #Antigonish2.com)
***

So. #engageMOOC is officially underway, officially lively, and very much still officially open to people joining in, even if just to listen for a part of the conversation or dip a toe in the waters.

Or write a whole opus or three. Whatever works.

There’s a lot going on so far.  We had a first live hangout (that lead Designer Sundi Richard saved from confusion and delay) and that a whole crew of participants waited through 20 minutes of dead air to start. Huge thanks, patient people.

We migrated #engageMOOC over to Future Trends Forum with Bryan Alexander today, for a rollicking conversation that included an admission that I do not like to count, in research. ;0


But the best parts of the course are emerging where the conversations are beginning to take hold.

In our discussion forums, there are conversations about whether John Perry Barlow was wrong, and questions about online engagement and community and anonymity, and musings about social consequences of bad online behaviour and what we should do when the shouting starts.

These conversations are what the course is FOR. People have been responding to each other, connecting, being generous.

But. The container of EdX in which #engageMOOC mostly lives is a constrained space for a lively open conversation. All platforms have limitations. A platform designed primarily to deliver content rather to foster discussion has significant limitations for a course that aims to convene a conversation.

Enter Twitter.

TWITTER for conversation, you say?

I READ THE NEWS, you say. TWITTER IS WHERE PEOPLE LOSE THEIR JOBS & GET DRAGGED IN SHAME FOR FLOSSING INCORRECTLY.

Okay well not entirely. But Twitter, for all its *very* real issues – the pile-ons, the tactical decontextualization of people’s statements, the sea lions and the “well actually” folks – is designed for open, public conversation AND is still viewable even for participants who don’t have accounts.

The #engageMOOC hashtag is chock full of comments, requests, connections, distributed blog posts expanding on ideas…it’s happening.

We’re going for more.

One of the things we want to do in this course – even within its tiny pop up time frame and the limitations of our course space and our Google hangout provocations – is open up the questions and ideas people have brought to the table.

So tomorrow and the Friday after – the 16th and 23rd of February, starting at noon EST – we’ll have a Twitter chat, using the #engageMOOC hashtag. It’ll start at noon, and we’ll ask a question – based on participants’ intro questions for the course – every ten minutes or so for an hour. Participants can reply…or start whole new conversations and questions of their own, all on the hashtag.

If you want to just read the chat, click the hashtag. If you want to contribute, simply post or reply…and use the hashtag. If you can’t show up in the hour but have ideas to share to the conversation, the hashtag is *always* open.

Twitter chats are usually fast and furious. Do NOT feel you have to take it all in. You can’t. I can’t. Nobody will. It’s okay.

This in itself – this letting go and just focusing on the parts of the stream that you’re engaged with for the moment and letting the rest float on past – is a key web literacy, and (I think) key to getting any actual enjoyment from the web in an era of constant information abundance. THERE IS NO TEST AT THE END. Be wherever you are.

Join us, if you can. #engageMOOC. Try to remember the hashtag, if you’re tweeting. Answer the hell outta whatever question or branch or rabbit hole in the conversation interests you. Try to talk to some new people on the hashtag. Twitter, for all its faults, still has broad networks of engaged thinkers and learners and professionals of all stripes interested in sharing ideas…and a lot of them are in our course! The chats may be an easy way to build recognition and fledgling relationships – via follows – that you can take with you when our two weeks are over.

Thread your ideas (ie reply to yourself) if it takes more than one tweet to say what you want. That way people can read the whole train of thought.

And maybe try – if you think someone’s wrong – to offer an alternate perspective in a non-polarizing way. We’re aiming to practice what we preach, here: stumbling together towards a less polarized information ecosystem.

See you Friday at noon EST. Bring questions. :)

#engageMOOC – The Schedule

(this post is cross-posted from #Antigonish2.com)

Hear ye, hear ye…

Our pop up MOOC – Engagement in a Time of Polarization (#engageMOOC) – starts…MONDAY.

It’s only two weeks long, so sign up right here STAT and feel free to dip in & out however much works for you. There will be four topics over the two week run, some video interviews with people waaay cooler than us, one core provocation or reading for each topic, and one live hangout per topic. Plus some background readings for the keen amongst us…and some Twitter chats.

Here’s the schedule. Mark your calendars. Sign up: it all goes live Monday.

We’ve been thrilled with the uptake so far and encourage anybody half-thinking about it to just…join in! You can participate via the discussion boards, OR in the open – every topic will have a challenge we post publicly. You can engage through blog or video responses and post using the hashtag #engageMOOC. Contributions to the hashtag will be gathered and shared back to participants: we’re hoping for some distributed discussion, and welcome participants to open up new channels, too, as you wish.

The Monday Feb 12th intro hangout is a provocation in and of itself…we’ll be debating “Does engagement even matter today…and why?” Sign up or watch the hashtag to view live & throw in questions. See you there. :)