Learning in the Open: Networked Student Identities

This weekend, I gave a short presentation at a great little student conference hosted here at UPEI: Difficult Dialogues: Exploring Relationships Between Identities and Power.

(When I say “short” I mean I was still talking when the poor timekeeper started waving the STOP sign in front of my face: it’s been awhile since I tried to encapsulate ideas into fifteen minutes.)

I made a few quick alterations to the slides after the presentation thanks to the really good questions and conversation that emerged, and in hopes of making the ideas reasonably clear on Slideshare even without an audio track. This is the first time I’ve really taken up this particular thread on the intersections between “student” and “networked learner”, so thanks to everyone at Difficult Dialogues for engaging with and supporting these ideas as I begin to work them through.

Learning in the Open:

It’s what I didn’t say that’s more interesting, though
The fact that I ran over time is apt, given how it mirrors my own current overwhelm as a learner.

The presentation troubles some of the categories of student that academia comes with, and how differing forces and logics govern the two spheres and the way learning is practiced within them. But I didn’t go far enough. While I’m a living, breathing advocate for the benefits of networked learning, it may be the problems with it that are the most instructional.

The keynote for the conference this weekend was S Bear Bergman, who gives one hell of a talk on sex, gender and trans identities.  And while what I do may not intersect on the surface with Bear’s work as a thinker or a presenter, ze reminded me of something I know but have failed to transfer over to my analysis of learning and learners.

We are always signalling and reading 
Engaging with each other as humans is a process of reading codes and signals.

(Okay, not entirely perhaps: I won’t wade into the “we are all texts” ontological discussion here.) But if our material and discursive signals  to others aren’t readable or legible within the frameworks by which they comprehend the world, we tend to be rendered Other: either seen as transgressive or simply not seen at all.

In identity terms, visibility and speakability are necessary for legitimacy, for non-erasure. Only in the past few years have the identity signals and codes performed by queer and trans people begun to become readable and speakable on a scale that extends beyond those communities and makes those identities visible within the broader society. And slowly, slowly, mutually constituted with the very possibility of this legibility of trans people, society’s concepts of sex and gender are shifting.

Signalling networked learning
So perhaps it is with networks, though with far less advocacy, pain, marginalization and struggle, let me be very precise. But I believe learning – whether in online social networks or straight from the canon, bound in leather – involves being able to read and make sense of the codes and signals being given off by those you interact with, particularly those you expect to learn from. These are what I refer to when I talk about “legitimacy structures” within academia and networks in the final slide of the presentation above.

Screen shot 2013-02-10 at 4.15.47 PM
They are, in a sense, literacies. They’re what I’m stumbling towards when I talk about the networked or digital literacies that MOOCs – if they connect people – help develop.

I’ve been struggling to say what I research lately. Is it social media? Identities? MOOCs? Networks? My research is a process of trying to grasp and make visible a few ideas and realities from the midst of a flood. It’s about filtering and reflection and constant observation of moving targets. My sense of focus doesn’t shift so much as the ways in which it’s likely to be understood change all the time.

Part of the problem is filtering: I’ve realized recently that in my dissertation work I’ve failed, so far, to build a robust framework through which I can filter the seven hundred vaguely-related-to-the-Internet-and-learning-and-identities ideas that I encounter out here every day in my brilliant network. I meander in circles, fumbling to re-word and re-work things, trying to translate or adapt concepts I encounter and figure out whether they fit into the big picture of what we’re doing out here in this world of networked practice. Sometimes they do. Often they are rabbit holes. Seldom can I tell the difference in advance.

But what I learned at the conference on the weekend is that the filters and structure aren’t the whole challenge: how to translate and signal what I’m learning to two different audiences is also a process I’m going to have to address overtly. Because there are power structures that support and prop up societal views of knowledge that make networked knowledge and practices appear invisible or illegitimate.

For the many networked learners who are also formal students, this can be a very real problem: it can negate or frame as transgressive what is simply different. And within fields of knowledge and the academy in particular, it makes pressing contemporary conversations about online learning into polarizing and misleading soapboxes about what counts as real.

The fact that networked learners DO have signals and codes by which we connect and speak, though? Is a very important – and useful – fact. Because signals and codes – like all things that are read – can be learned.

The lack of face-to-face is not a void, only a lack of literacy
Whether networked learners are formal students within the academy as well, or no, many of us regularly come across sincere – and often deeply-thought-out objections – to the idea of online learning in general, and to its lack of the ineffable quality of authenticity in particular.

I think there are multiple axes of thought behind these objections, some of which lie in determinism or digital dualism or nostalgia or overt privileging of the physical over the virtual. But even among many participants of the MOOCs I’ve engaged in so far this winter – #MOOCMOOC, #etmooc,and #edcmooc – I see a strain of genuine hesitation to fully embrace networked learning as legitimate, or at least as AS legitimate as face-to-face learning.

And I think it’s a literacy issue. These people are, for the most part, highly traditionally literate – many are teachers and academics – and they are, to their great credit, game to give networked learning a try even if they’re not entirely sure it’s valid. But they are new to the game, and they haven’t yet put in the longterm immersion and reflection usually required to build literacies in a new environment: they can’t yet read the signals and codes by which we interact.

Because networked learning is not about technologies, or a lack of the human touch: these are simply common and understandable misconceptions given the narratives that circulate in our culture on the subject. Rather, if it’s truly about networks and not just mass broadcast, it’s about engaging with humans; about performing networked identity via the codes and signals that we digital selves share openly.

Just because that may not be visible doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But those of us to whom it is visible…we have a job ahead to continue to assert and translate and help make our identities readable and legitimate in the field of knowledge.

28 Comments Learning in the Open: Networked Student Identities

  1. E Purser

    really great points, I so enjoyed reading this post, thanks! totally agree “it’s a literacy issue”… not being quite yet able to recognise what else we can do with it, educational institutions tend to ‘allow’ use of networked communications media rather than take advantage – a bit like so many early adopters of the movie camera just filming the traditional stage play from a fixed position, rather than getting quickly into seeing differently thanks to what the technology might make possible…

    Doing this mooc is proving an excellent way to really ‘immerse and reflect’ and build our literacies in the online ed environment…

    It’s always seemed to me that it’s not about technologies, but about learning their potential to help us make the, different, sorts of meaning we want and imagine… and that there are some dominate metaphors preventing our seeing the differences between broadcasting and networking – for educational practice and for identity

    The great invisible in education, which I find the online environment makes more visible, is language …. the material reality of social semiotic, discursive practice, that tends to be glossed over in classrooms where the spoken word is not recorded or reflected on… but as more of our oral culture becomes literacy practice (ie using some kind of technology to record language and enable it to be shared across more time and space), the more visible, and learnable, language becomes (I hope)

    1. bon

      i love the film analogy – agreed. so much of educational use of tech tends to a) focus on the tech and b) use it to recreate the known, even where the known may be part of the problem we’d actually like to overcome.

      now thinking i might like to take that analogy further and apply it to MOOCs and particularly the big xMOOCs…stay tuned. :)

      also, i need to take some time and mull over your point about language. i am a far more careful writer than speaker, and your sentence “the material reality of social semiotic discursive practice” made me swoon, but i need some time to think about oral culture as literacy practice…thank you for sparking all this thought.

      1. E Purser

        oh gosh now I’ll have to look up where I plagiarised it from! I’m sure I’ve got it here somewhere…. it really struck a chord with me when I read it too,that film analogy. But the insights about language are entirely mine and I claim all IP rights!
        and actually would love to discuss further any time… all the learning ‘theory’ I’ve been reading lately drives me nuts for its lack of basis in any decent theory of language… so I find myself screaming such horrors into my thesis!

  2. Neil

    You ever read Kuhn’s famous Structure of Scientic Revolutions? It usually takes an entire generation to see things differently because they just can’t “see” it fully in a natural way. If a few scientist say the earth is round, but everyone grew up thinking the earth is flat, you might get some interesting nods, but it is rarely going to be embraced by those who have their entire existence tied into the former. The first image I get by MOOC is not the leveling of education, but colleges going out of business all over the country like Barnes and Noble will soon. So it is both exciting and threatening.

    1. bon

      definitely both, Neil. i’m wary of claims about what MOOCs will do to higher ed…and also wary of what MOOCs will do to higher ed, not necessarily in the B&N model but in terms of the rest of what the system supports/means/holds up. wary of it all being unbundled and reduced to market values. which is why i think the networked side of MOOCs – the stuff i talk about – matters.

      god. it’s complicated.

  3. Ron Amundson

    I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on what you mean as concerns mastery and participation being my experiences over the last 20+ years have been the reverse. Ie, you wont get mastery in the academia as the depth and time necessary is unrealistic. Granted, for something like EDCMOOC I’d agree with your premise, but I think being new, its a bit of an outlier.

    1. bon

      on one hand, Ron, i’d agree i’ve set up some overblown binaries here, in the sense that it’s more a spectrum than monolithic camps: the academy doesn’t have a monopoly on mastery or networks on participation.

      but i mean the words in relation to knowledge and the way it’s perceived and framed by the practices dominant to each space: sure, maybe you don’t get full mastery in the academy. of what, though? there are certainly processes in place – like those in Ph.Ds – aimed at specifically cultivating particular agreed-upon concepts of mastery in very focused areas.

      i guess you could say at least the appearance of mastery? i say that not to be cynical so much as to signal that mastery to me is (ultimately, at least) a kinda meaningless goal because i don’t see knowledge as finite. but i’m not sure if that’s your point or if you just don’t think the academy is doing an effective job of getting there. where i’d say as knowledge abundance and accessibility become part of our regular world, the academy’s hold on mastery naturally begins to look more specious, because mastery in this context is (if it wasn’t always) an impossible task.

      interested to know if you’re thinking universities actually privilege participation more than mastery? and if you mean in the “pay money to be here and get a credential rather than learn” sense, not “participate in actually contributing to knowledge rather than just passively consuming it”? cause i can see how the same words *could* mean both, now that i think about it. but i mean the latter.

  4. Shira Leibowitz

    You raise so many questions that I share both as a lower school principal and as the facilitator of a community of practice for educators interested in educational technology integration.

    For me, the greatest paradigm shift in education today – both in schools and in online communities/networks – is the shift from a focus on teaching, to a focus on learning. I find the distinctions you share between academic learning and networked learning very valuable and wonder if another distinction is that academics focus on what is taught, while networks enable participants to learn – deliberately, in a serendipitous exploratory manner or more likely some eclectic combination of the two.

    Thanks so much for stretching my thinking!I look forward to sharing in your ongoing exploration and discovery!

    1. bon

      Shira, thanks. to your question on distinctions…yes, i think academics (in some disciplines more than others, education not necessarily so) are trained to focus on what is taught in a class setting, to emphasize validated knowledge and perceive assessment of mastery of that knowledge as learning. i do think that’s a form of learning, but in its “schooling” manifestation. whereas in my experience of loosely networked learning within a robust network, within MOOCs and without, the learner really does drive the process and curate ideas – preferably in choral interactions and conversations like these, between two people who don’t even know each other, but may connect now on a more ongoing basis and learn together – and nobody is really the judge of whether that learner has learned except him or her and his or her audience, if there is one.

      if the audience, of course, is more inclined to see the former model as learning – or feels obliged to uphold the former model, as is the defacto expectation of the academy – then there are challenges and dissonance.

  5. Catherine Cronin

    Thank you, Bonnie, this post made me nod and smile and it made my head hurt :) First, thanks for including me in your pres (that made me smile) — you are such a valuable part of my learning network, as you know. Your post hits me at many levels. The legitimacy practices you identify, in academic and networked learning, are a great way to unpick and discuss digital literacies — sometimes a difficult thing to do.

    You name a really important issue here: how we translate and signal ‘networked learning’ ideas and practices to and within different audiences. Reading your post, I felt some big ideas sliding into place (or at least move closer to coherence!). I hope this is what it feels like for you… perhaps moving closer to that elusive framework…? Power is usually in the mix in these big questions and you named it well: “there are power structures that support and prop up societal views of knowledge that make networked knowledge and practices appear invisible or illegitimate.” This feels like the subtext to many of the discussions I have each week. You have me thinking… thanks.

    1. bon

      Catherine, i had a moment tonight where i thought i actually had a dissertation project here. we shall see in the fresh light of morning. it’s not really a departure from what i’ve been broadly circling around but it would focus overtly on literacies, not practices. need to figure out what that means. further thoughts if you have any very welcome. the conversations here keep me thinking.

  6. Jlmag

    I love the way you’ve tied your presentation to Bergman’s; and I think it’s a really useful and provocative connection. We know that the academy is a rather traditional institution, and that it (and folk within) often seem to feel threatened by new media/literacies/etc. I think a lot of this resistance comes down to a fear of a loss of control and a shift in the hierarchies of judgment.

    1. bon

      Jane, you may be right. i think there’s usually a fear of loss of privilege at work too – often unrecognized – whenever a human reacts against an unfamiliar but rising phenomenon as invalid.

      but this is complicated by the fact that language and ideology about networks and tech and ed itself is so Byzantine, so multiple that just getting in the same conversation is HARD. i do think there are literacy challenges, honestly – places where we just can’t decode what others are getting at or what they’re trying to signal. kinda fascinated by this at the moment, as a possible lens to clarify my dog’s breakfast of a thesis proposal and work towards that framework.

  7. Deb Kitchener

    Bon, I have followed your blogging for sometime and this post is right on! For the converted networked, online learning is completely valid and a rich means of connecting our personal knowledge and interests with the rest of the world. Fitting that square peg in the round hole is the challenge.
    Academia doesn’t get it. Full stop. I found that love of learning and accreditation do not go hand in hand (and I am old) my children knew this long ago yet are forced into a system of accreditation in order to achieve specific societal goals.
    The concept of literacy of the social mores that are acceptable and understood to those experienced in networked learning is right on. To me, this made immediate sense. My challenge as an educator is to communicate and demonstrate this to other educators to push their thinking forward and to engage them in learning.
    I never considered the signalling and reading of signals to this extent in online learning and now have to take some time to think about this and to consider how best to model this in an online learning environment.

    On another note, I’m glad to hear someone else meandering in their thoughts about their research :) Unfortunately for me, I bailed before I become completely obsessed!

    1. bon

      meandering indeed. in a sense i know my focus – since before i began i’ve been wanting to explore what we do and who we are when we engage out here in online networks – but how to talk about that and frame that and focus it into a study has been a process of ongoing and regularly shifting attempts at engagement and communications. i haven’t figured out how to fit it to more formal academic criteria. but i may be making headway in overtly addressing the differences between the two ways of knowing/being?

      anyhoo, thanks. on all the fronts. appreciate hearing i’m not talking into the wind.

  8. EowynSWord

    It took me a while to digest some of the ideas you share here, perhaps because I am coming to it as an eclectic autodidact and as a parent endeavouring to understand the worlds in which my children navigate so that I can effectively prepare them to be active and contributing citizens. In many ways, it is like trying to teach them a foreign language which I am learning as I teach it.

    What I gather from your thoughts and from the other comments, is that trying to quantify and analyze the networked world while using methods that are recognized and accepted by traditional academia is somewhat akin to describing a culture to someone who has only read about it. They may have learned the language in a theoretical sense (i.e. they know the words), but to them, the nuance of idiom, slang, and body language, as well as the underlying assumptions that shape the thinking behind the idioms, is completely foreign.

    What makes it even more challenging, I think, is that we are dealing with a culture that uses the same language — or at least the same vocabulary — in unfamiliar ways.

    1. bon

      Eowyn, yes. the culture parallel you use feels apt to me…and like you note at the end, many of the words signal or signify differently in the two cultural contexts and thus seem to be sometimes lost in translation, on both sides.

      it’s important to me to figure out the places where what i’m trying to say – in multiple contexts, both as a student but also as a presenter both in and outside academia – get lost or misunderstood, so i can better address/reframe the communications. and figure out what others mean by what they say, too.

  9. Jennifer

    Hi Bon — About a year ago I got a sideways promotion from web developer to business analyst. I hadn’t been trained as an analyst, but my manager had & she had confidence in my ability to learn – so she had me shadow her, and also gave me books and directed me to webinars and told me what groups to join (those groups having both online and offline presences). I mean to say that I learned through all means available to me, whether virtual or “IRL.” Also, here’s an interesting thing. How do I demonstrate to future employers that I have mastery of business analysis? There’s my work experience & my offline reputation & my online reputation (through LinkedIn & others) — but they also want to see a certificate. They want a piece of paper issued by a reputable institution. And the certificate can be gained online…

    I think what I’m trying to say is that the online stuff is always additive. Companies have brochures *and* websites. They go to trade shows *and* have twitter accounts. They have Facebook pages *and* sales people who knock on doors… I think it must be the same for education. I can’t imagine MOOCs will replace anything. They’ll just be another tool in the toolbox. (Not to trivialize that tool! I only mean to say that it will be one part of the whole package that is an education.)

    I’m outside academia, so I’m not entirely sure who you’re trying to convince – who these people are who fear online networks. I hope my comment here doesn’t derail that conversation. I’m coming to this blog via your parenting blog — from an utterly different context!

  10. Jennifer

    Oh and — somewhat more on point! I telecommute. My office is 120 miles away. Also the company itself is global, so I regularly interact with people in China and Europe. And I can tell you, communicating effectively with people you can’t see is a skill. I have to have that skill myself; but also, I have to teach other people how to interact with me. It takes a couple phone calls and emails to get in the groove… to convince the other person they really need to deal with me, when I am only a voice in a machine, and also to — what? Entrain? We have to learn to read each other’s signals and codes, exactly as you say.

    1. bon

      interesting, Jennifer. definitely, communicating effectively with people you can’t see is a skill. especially if you’re conditioned to see those people not as people but through a technical lens, as if the point of it all were to use the technology, not use it to DO something. i sometimes wonder what the early years of the telephone were like: i picture a lot of “hello? this is Hortense. Hortense speaking. i am using the telephone! this is Hortense!” ;)

      that’s kind of where education feels like it is, sometimes. so in that sense, when tech is perceived as an add-on, it remains that rather than being integrated into real learning purposes. i think business on the whole has not entrenched against the idea of tech as dehumanizing in the same way that ed has. and from some narrative perspectives, ed was right to do so – certainly, i want education and learning to be about human connection, not about depersonalized automation, which is sometimes how technological interactions are perceived. but those perceptions make it very hard to see and read the kinds of signals i’m talking about, the ones that aren’t tech for tech’s sake but tech for the sake of connecting with people all over and generating new knowledge.

      it’s not that simple, of course. but anyone who can’t see that possibility – and they are legion – is who i’m trying to convince. :)

  11. Frances Bell

    Thanks for a fascinating article. It has made me think.
    I also wondered if you had seen the guidelines document from CSALT 2001 http://csalt.lancs.ac.uk/jisc/ This is a very interesting take on networked learning from 12 years ago. I revisited it because your Challenges slide made me frown and also jogged my memory. I found Fig 3.2 on p46 and then I realised what was going on in my mind.
    I reacted instinctively to your apparent presentation of a delineation between ‘academic’ learning and networked learning. (It also reminded me of the Downes Network/groups that I resist;).
    As someone working in higher education until very recently, I have worked for process-focused learning and peer-to-peer learning. So what was the link in my mind? Goodyear et al present a not dissimilar table of related phenomena but characterise it as a ‘constructivist shift’. I feel very comfortable with a shift because it suggests something in progress – a journey.
    I also feel uncomfortable (and I am not saying this is your claim) with a suggestion that somehow ‘authority in reputation’ was necessarily ‘better’ than ‘authority in role’. Power relations and skills in legitimation will ensure that the voices that dominate online interaction in any given arena are not always the most generally valuable. Communication and learning are relational, not agreed in common, provisional …..

    Thanks again.

    1. bon

      thanks, Frances. i’d never seen the CSALT work so am now digging through with interest: appreciated.

      thus far the academic/network framework is a product of my own observations: it’s the second iteration of a worldview/approach gap i’ve been trying to talk about for a couple of years now.

      i’d be happy to frame what i’m talking about here as a shift except that i’m not entirely sure that’d be an accurate claim at this point…i think there are cultural trends and forces that do favour the movement towards more networked and less institutional approaches, but i’m not sure i can tie that shift to any particular domain or point to a place where it is happening specifically. it’s happening in some places within the academy, and in others, the powers-that-be seem largely untroubled by the networked concepts i describe. hence my proposition that it’s both a literacies/visibility issue and a power issue.

      but inherently, i’d be glad to see it as a shift both for my own vested interests AND because i’m not really trying to set up a binary here. rather i’m trying to make visible some logics and assumptions that do dominate and differentiate two spheres in which i live/work.

      totally agree on the last point. i think there are real problems with authority in role, but also with authority in reputation, possibly to a greater extent. certainly the voice=scale factor in social networks reinforces the neoliberal aspects of that environment and often minimizes critical perspectives, particularly where corporate values have been naturalized.

      in terms of knowledge and the networked education sphere, i’m not sure we’ve yet fully encountered the implications of this, but i watched it firsthand as monetization fractured my momblogging community at a pretty grand scale about five years ago. like i said in my MOOC facilitation reflection last May about digital identities http://theory.cribchronicles.com/2012/05/12/fleshing-out-the-digital-selves-in-practice/, all of us in education need to be grappling with complex positions on capital. NOW. and entertainingly, it may be MOOCs that are really pushing that conversation.

      anyhoo. appreciate all the food for thought.

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