epiphanies: massiveness + openness = new literacies of participation?

I’ve always loved the idea of Epiphany as a holiday.

It’s partly the fact that it’s effectively a dead holiday, killed by its inconvenient placement after the commercial juggernaut that Christmas has become: even if Epiphany’s on your cultural radar, it’s most likely as a “best before” date for the Christmas tree. But Epiphany has the extra cool of being also a word, with a meaning that extends far beyond its origins in Christian tradition.

It’s the juxtaposition of this idea of “epiphany” and a day called Epiphany that delights me, as if one could just sit around every January 6th waiting for really good ideas to descend from the heavens.

Do NOT try this at home, kids. It’s disappointing. Very little truth in advertising from the epiphany camp, in my experience. And yet, pretty much any January 6th, I bet you could straw-poll half the English-speaking word nerds across the globe and find them secretly gazing expectantly at the skies, just in case. Some of us them would also be pointedly ignoring the abandoned-looking Christmas tree wilting in the corner of my their living room, but hey. Let us not speak of our others’ secret shames.
***
Anyway, yesterday I did not have one of the proper fancy epiphanies, with manifestations of God or anything – sorry, Mom. But I *did* have a moment where a series of disconnected thoughts finally clicked together and I realized, oh hey. I need to do something. I CAN do something.

Epiphanies – such as mine are, at least, which to say rather humble and not at all like visitations from The Lord, pity – remind of my kids’ toy trains. Except I seldom trip over them. But even scattered all over the floor…if you can get them into close enough proximity and the stars and magnets all align, snap! The pile is suddenly a single train, with some kind of directionality possible. Giddy up. These moments of transcendent synthesis are apparently the reason the word epiphany leaked over into secular usage in the first place, thanks to James Joyce (or at least so says Wikipedia, as my moments of transcendent understanding re Joyce are even rarer than manifestations of God).

Here’s how it went. Last week, at the end of 2013, I found myself loathe to write any kind of year in review post. I was no fangirl for 2013 or the general angst and disillusionment it left festering in me regarding academia and my own prospects after fifteen years teaching in higher ed. I figured this hesitancy on my part was no great loss to the world, but it left me thinking about what uncertainty does to voice, especially public voice. That was train car #1.

I’d also been thinking – as part of my ongoing dissertation research – about the conflicting concepts of success that circulate in academic networks and academic institutions, for lack of a less blunt distinction. I don’t believe the two are entirely separate – each has its broad constellations of semi-shared understandings, and there’s overlap – but my own experience of them is profoundly different, and I’ve been living in the middle of that and trying to unpack it. Cue train car #2.

Uncertain voice + muddled concepts of success = paralysis for a writer. For me, over the past year, it’s meant that my sense of myself as a writer has faltered to the point where I’d almost forgotten how central – and how hard-won – writing had been to me before I started half-taking this “scholarly” identity stuff seriously.

Train car #3 was, of course, a piece of writing. I published my first full-length peer-reviewed journal article last year, in JOLT. It’s ostensibly about MOOCs, but it’s far more a position paper exploring the possible decentering of top-down, teacher-centered concepts of education via massiveness, *if* – and it’s a big if – openness is fostered within MOOC structures (side note: HASTAC’s #Future Ed MOOC/movement launches this month and seems to be trying hard to actually do this).

 

Here’s the abstract, all official-like:

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I wrote the paper almost a year ago now, but because I published it rather than blogging it, I’ve had little public conversation around the piece. It got tweeted a bit, and it’s been/being used in some cool open courses, which is wonderful and grand…but the kind of back and forth reflection that sometimes occurs here on the blog just never happened. And so when I was considering whether or not to use the article in the syllabus of my upcoming communications course and wondering, Bonnie seriously, isn’t that massiveness + openness stuff a bit idealized? I realized…I dunno. For years, my sense of my work has been that of a contribution to a conversation, a network. I didn’t notice how much I missed that. Until yesterday.

And then ye olde train cars of epiphany started to line up. CLICK.

I have spent the past year or so training myself painfully to try to write in all the forms my particular corners of the academy validate. I’ve done this rather blindly, as one aiming for desperate not-failure when one doesn’t have a clear enough picture of what success might be. And I have had success, in a sense – my proposal passed, my book contract was extended (sorry, JHU! MOOCs are…um…complicated), my paper’s been published. Other things are in the (slow) pipe. But in learning to write within the political economy of formal academic measures of success, I have lost something I valued.

I didn’t share most of what I wrote last year. It felt vulgar to shout “Looky here! Real live journal article!” so I didn’t blog about it. I stopped blogging about the book because the whole conversation about MOOCs got so fraught and so reductionist I didn’t really want to be in it, anymore. I didn’t share 90% of thesis proposal #2 until it was done, because the shame of struggling with academic writing seems a more terrible spectre than the shame of past-date Christmas trees. I don’t know how to talk about any of that stuff, or invite people into it. And so I’ve gotten lonely working away on my own because people are not in that stuff with me.

I’ve been researching hybrid scholars – people like me who are both cultivating some semblance of a traditional institutional academic identity and building connections and credibility for their ideas in online networks – but…and you may cue the laugh track here…I’ve been stumbling all over my own hybridity. I’ve been trying to be both networked scholar and proper academic, whatever that is. I’ve been trying to wear two entirely separate hats and engage in two entirely separate identity economies and…well, it’s a mug’s game.

And I don’t want to do it anymore. But. I’m not sure, frankly, which parts to drop.

That’s the hardest part about epiphanies, or at least the discount-version epiphanies I’m privy to…they’re never complete. A few trains line up and you pull ahead a bit and then some fall off or disintegrate or you crash into another and discover you need to change lines.

I want to make a career of scholarship in a time when the whole field of higher ed is practically in hiring freefall. I suspect, whether that ends up being my destination or no, I’l be – in the fine Myles Horton tradition – making the road by walking.

So I’m going to try to walk my way. I’m going to be hybrid.

If there’s anything to the premise that the potential of massiveness and openness = new literacies of participation, it’s those of us out here straddling the edges of old and new that will end up making and modelling those literacies, whatever they turn out to be worth.

And if you think that’s a ridiculous idea, I’d be ridiculously happy to engage in discussing it. Right here. Because neither an institution nor a journal can ever offer me the kind of space this blog does, for discussion of my work. They have their own spaces and values to offer, as do conferences and other conventions of legacy scholarship. I don’t think it’s either/or.

But if that’s true, we – I mean I – oughtta start acting like it, and stop re-enacting and internalizing artificial separations between spaces for knowledge production and learning.

After that, I’ll get that Christmas tree down.

Do you get stuck on the ‘shoulds’ of academic identity? How do you navigate fact that different and conflicting concepts of success and ‘good work’ are all currently in play? Do you think that’s always been the case, blogs or no?

the post-MOOC-hype landscape: what’s REALLY next?

My #mri13 keynote panel talk last week was on “the post-MOOC-hype landscape.” It was supposed to be about what I think we can do in the current “we have a lousy product” hype gulch before it all gears up again to bend the ear of NYT readers all over academia. And Silicon Valley.

The short version (see slide 4) is this: there are currently two solitudes in the MOOC conversation, and it’s not a cMOOC/xMOOC divide. One solitude – the mainstream media discourse – is essentially a unicorn, in the sense that its promises are fantasies of salvation and solutionism that have very little to do with the actual practice of higher education. The other – the practitioners’ discourse(s), broadly represented by the various interests around the table at #mri13 – is a Tower of Babel. Still, this solitude, loosely and cacophonously affiliated as it is, nonetheless leans towards discussing MOOCs in terms of learning. And in the wake of twenty-odd months of hype in which the dominant public narratives about higher ed have been all glorious revolution or ghastly spectre, I think it’s time to seize this (likely momentary) lull in unicorn sales and try to talk about MOOCs as learning. We need to make ourselves familiar with what the post-hype landscape of higher ed looks like, and address the issues and opportunities it’s left us with. In learning terms. On as many public platforms as we can. In stereo.

In other words, challenge the empty narratives that your administrators or your faculty have been sold. Find ways to talk about why what you’re doing matters. Change the narrative from unicorns back to what education is about: learning. End story.
***

Maybe I got it wrong, though.

In the revisionist history of my own mind, the “post-MOOC-hype landscape” is now forever linked to the unplowed freeways of the post-apocalyptic ice-storm-in-Texas landscape that stormstayed plenty of conference attendees in Arlington for the weekend. I got out, though dramatically. I pretty much hopped off the panel stage and into a taxi van with Dave, Mike Caulfield, Emily Schneider, two gregarious business dudes from Montreal, and a most intrepid driver, who happened to have grown up in India and had never seen snow in his life. The seven of us, strapped into our seatbelts over a set of summer tires that God never intended for ice, bumped steadily over a barren landscape of exit bridges and frozen plains speaking – at one point in the drive – in English, French, and Urdu all at once.

One of the Montreal business dudes managed to educate us all about bee death while also inquiring which language Dave & I make love in. (Apparently, folks, French comes highly recommended.) The other Montrealer, born on the subcontinent, sat in front and instructed the driver in their mother tongue on how to keep us the hell out of the ditch. A giant flashing billboard along the way proclaimed TRAVEL NOT RECOMMENDED. It reminded me of nothing so much as a scene from Mad Max.

But there we were, squished together.

It seems to me as good a metaphor as any for where we are with MOOCs and higher ed.

That second solitude – those of us whose research and practice focus on MOOCs right now – are like the seven of us in that little van. We’re a random collection. We don’t all know each other. We speak different languages and have different ideas about which ones are good for what. And we’re all of us inching forward in a space rendered unfamiliar by a freak storm – in one case ice, in the other, hype – that nobody’d expected in that particular context.

I got it wrong in the sense that the real ‘what’s next?’ may not be grappling with the unicorn narratives.

I think ‘what’s next?’ is working out the conversation IN the metaphorical van. Some who see MOOCs as learning focus on the pursuit of its ever-more-finely-honed measurement. Others are more inclined to dismiss measurement as irrelevant to the networked synthesis of ideas that forms the backbone of their approach to education. A hundred more do something in between. We don’t necessarily know how to talk to each other. It became evident around the Arlington bar tables last week that the chasms between practitioners’ varying versions of learning and knowledge are so deep some aren’t even really aware that the rest of us are IN the van.

That blindness – which we all, me included, probably suffer from to some extent – is dangerous. It’s dangerous because people keep trying to shove the future of education as a public enterprise into the van, without asking questions of what counts as education and of who benefits – and loses – if it becomes seen as a consumer commodity.

I don’t believe data has the sole answers to these questions. Conversations about theory and Big Data being post-theory kept emerging in Arlington, and have flowered further in the blog-to-blog flurry of discussion that’s circulated since we all escaped the Texas ice (Martin Weller & Mike Caulfield have written posts that make great bookends on the issues the End of Theory raises; Tanya Joosten & Jim Groom, among others, held court on the issue at the bar). But the elite university data scientists are notably absent from this networked conversation.

There are more solitudes here than my slide deck lets on. And like the unicorn narratives, Big Data tends towards being a totalizing vision.

Ontologically, the networked approach to MOOC learning and the AI-rooted machine learning approach are very different animals. They always have been, and the fact that we’re even all in this little van together bumbling through the post-hype landscape is as much a linguistic accident as anything: one NYT article and two very different conceptions of the Internet happening to education got hitched together on one wild ride.

I think there’s potential in that: there’s a lot about what analytics can tell us that interests me. But algorithms are not neutral, in my worldview. The Big Data researchers bring institutional clout and status to the conversation along with what struck me, in many cases, as an almost entirely un-self-conscious absolutism in their approach to knowledge and learning and the capacities of correlative data. And that raises issues about the future and direction of higher education and learning, far more than unicorn narratives ever did. When I say the MOOC narrative needs changing, I don’t mean it needs to become a monolith – it won’t. Part of its power is that many new stories of learning and education can nest themselves within it. Nor do I particularly expect to change the data scientists’ narrative on MOOCs and learning – except when they try to argue knowledge as truth over my prime rib dinner. But in the post-apocalyptic, supposedly post-hype landscape that was Texas, the biggest ‘what’s next?’ I actually came away with was the question of whether those of us most deeply invested in MOOCs at the moment can learn to live and work together in any real way.

As George Siemens said in the opening to the very first #mri13 session, these are issues of power. Educationally, ideologically…hopefully not apocalyptically.

Hang on tight, kids. The next van ride’s aimed for Charlottetown, for #mri14. It almost NEVER snows here in July, I promise. ;)

in the wake of MOOC hype, what shall we talk about?

So, the Typhoid Mary of education disruption, Sebastian Thrun, has admitted that venture capital interests are not well-suited to the complex structural realities of public education, and moved on to professional and corporate training.

Ding dong, the MOOC hype is dead.

(Yes, Audrey Watters and Mike Caulfield are both quite right: this doesn’t mean venture capital is moving out of education’s purview, nor can educators just “shrug off lousy educational practices because they occur outside the walls of formal education.” Agreed. But the professional training end of education has always been a business: it’s never had the same public and societal responsibilities, nor scope of systemic challenges.)

Yes, we need to talk about venture capital’s incursion into education, even at the corporate training level. And we also need to talk about what it means to pitch the promise of education as social mobility in a society where the promise of jobs is actually pretty scant. We need to talk about academic labour in higher ed’s increasingly adjunctified system. We need to talk about the ways in which institutional higher ed both supports and penalizes students, by nature of its systemic structure. We need to talk about pedagogies for utilizing the internet to teach cheaply and widely. We need to talk about the fact that Udacity was allowed to conduct its Silicon Valley-style “fail fast” experiment on public (and largely minority) students at San Jose State. All of these are connected conversations, broadly.

But if the “solution” of venture capital MOOCs is off the table, maybe we can stop getting mired in the plate of shiny red herring it pretends to offer to all these real issues, and actually work on them. Maybe across some of the fault lines the hype has created.

To me, Thrun’s change of course changes the whole discussion, because it forces the flaming hype of MOOCs as replacements for systemic education to separate into the multiple conversations that have been conflated under that rhetoric for more than a year. Udacity’s about-face may not prove the VC model for education won’t work, but it sure lays out the fundamental disconnects between shareholder accountability and messy public education real nice.

Let’s talk about that.

Yesterday’s news might even mean we stop talking about MOOCs at all, since Thrun’s putting distance between his new initiatives and the word (Rolin Moe looks at this and the whole Udacity announcement in far more complexity here). Makes sense. By definition, corporate training is structured to be neither massive – even in possibility, as it’s bounded by the corporation’s limits of who belongs and who qualifies – nor open.

Then, those of us interested in what massive and open can mean, learning-wise, can go back to whatever we decide to call networked open online learning, aka the MOOCs outside the venture capital model. As George Siemens said this morning, “Make no mistake – this is a failure of Udacity and Sebastian Thrun. This is not a failure of open education, learning at scale, online learning, or MOOCs.” Or, in Martin Weller’s words: “Does this mean MOOCs are dead? Not really. It just means they aren’t the massive world revolution none of us thought they were anyway.”

I come to bury hype, not to praise it.
***

…And in terms of what I think MOOCs are, here’s a taste of a small, semi-open one I’ve really enjoyed being a part of this past week.

I’m one of the facilitators and participants in the #wweopen13 MOOC on Online Instruction for Open Educators. I’m teaching a short conceptual-ish introduction to the idea of networked identities, for people interested in teaching online.

What do identities have to do with teaching online? I think of identities as being at the centre of networked participation, and the ethos of participation that Lankshear and Knobel emphasize as one of the key “new literacies” for moving beyond just tossing paper-based educational materials onto a computer. Networks are at the centre of online interaction.
(This isn’t to say we don’t have networks in our f2f worlds and lives – families are, broadly speaking and in the extended sense, networked systems that we’re webbed into).
But to the extent to which online engagement differs from f2f, it’s the networked aspects of identity and the ways in which digital technologies shape networked identity that can make an online learning experience very different from just transporting a paper syllabus to screen. In online networks, we rely on identity profiles and practices to understand who is present alongside us and whether we want to engage with them. Others read our identity signals to make the same decisions about us.

Yet the institutional structures and norms that dominate our society and particularly our education system do not foster networked identities. In the midst of all the pressure for educators to somehow prepare students for this mythical “21st century” we seem to be both living in yet still casting as the eternal and exotic future, the whole fact that schooling practices are broadly structured to create herd identities of compliance and uniform mastery rather than networked identities of differentiation is…well…not surprising. But definitely a disconnect.

Here’s the slideshow from my live sessions this week, exploring my ever-expanding “key selves” of digital identities as well as some of the benefits and challenges of identity work as a connected educator, and a cameo from Freire.

learning to unlearn: building networked identities in education

In a little less than two weeks time, I’m facilitating a week-long discussion/overview/ exploration on “Building a Networked Identity: Becoming a Connected Educator” as part of the #wweopen13 MOOC-ish course on Online Instruction for Open Educators.

I say MOOC-ish because the term has become so fraught lately I’m not even sure what people conjure up when they hear it. Insidious corporate encroachment and consolidation of Big Ed interests? Yep, that’s definitely under the big MOOC tent. Something interesting to do? That’s there too. A learning structure not entirely given over to the logics and informatics of domination? Depends entirely on the model.

(Note: there is a difference between what MOOCs in their many incarnations actually bring to the education conversation and what they’re sold as bringing. A revolutionary solution for educating society? Please, no. That’s just PR and the fantasy of free market education, not something any MOOC has any business claiming. Even if they insist on claiming it. There are things MOOCs are good for, and then there’s the hype cycle. Caveat emptor.)

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Image by Aaron Bady

Anyhoo. Like George Veletsianos says in his slides from last week’s COHERE 2013 conference, MOOCs represent something broader than any of the courses – or even the platforms – themselves: they’re a phenomenon, a symptom of the many chronic issues and narratives intersecting in education at this juncture. Enter #wweopen13, which ironically isn’t quite as open as it might like to be, bound as it is to a D2L LMS platform for this iteration. I’m trying to mitigate some of that platform constraint by doing my thinking aloud for the course here, before my week gets started. Because in a sense, I think the conversation about becoming a networked educator needs to be – at least in part – a truly public conversation, one where random connections can be made and the scope and scale of the discussion isn’t limited by membership on a class list, even if that class list is free to sign up for.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t want you to sign up: we’d LOVE to have you, even if only for the one week. Or all four remaining…it’s never too late. This week, Jenni Hayman & Sean Gallagher take you on a Tour of Technology. Next week, that Dave Cormier guy is going to go on about Community and Curriculum. It’ll be jolly. And any ideas and experiences you share here will effectively become part of the course conversation for the week I’m teaching, whether you make the leap into the course itself or no.
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Connected Educator = An Identity
You’ll notice I’m talking about conversations. If you landed here hoping for a tidy list of failsafe takeaways for how to become a connected educator, mine’s disappointingly short. It goes something like this:

Step #1: um, talk to people. Online, offline…network with people who are interesting and interested in stuff you find interesting. Learn. Grow.

That’s it.

The whole week is designed around two things: the first is a meta-exploration of networked identities, or the implications of being a connected educator, especially in the online context. We’ll talk about different aspects of digital identities, and about how digitally-networked identities differ in structure and possibility from institutional identities. The second thing we’ll do is try to put some of those explorations into practice, with activities focused on your own profiles and networks.

*If* you want to. It’s a MOOC. There’s no grade, participation is voluntary, and you have the agency to decide what you want to do, and what you don’t. You may already be doing most of it, or connecting just fine offline and that’s enough for you, thankyouverymuch, and that’s all good by me. A vein of almost-evangelism about online connectedness has popped up, especially in the K-12 ed circuit, where people are sometimes made to feel as if they *have* to network online in order to be an effective, active, growing educator, and I don’t entirely believe that. I do think online connectedness can offer real value, and part of my focus during the #wweopen13 week will be on what that value is and how it differs from being connected offline. But you can take big or small or zero steps in that direction during our week: up to you. Just being part of the conversation – even about why you don’t want to network online in a professional capacity – is welcome.

How Networks Change Online Education
Because in a course on open online teaching, it’s important for me to emphasize that the open, networked side of online practice is different from just teaching via computer: networked activities can affect the pedagogy and power structures of your classes.

As Stephen Downes has been saying for years, there are key differences between groups and networks, and one is that groups are collections based on some property or commonality (welcome to kindergarten, all children born in 20o8!) whereas a network is an association. In associations, connections are more voluntary, but they also require visible signalling in order to occur. In a classroom, you can sit quietly all year and to some extent, you are nonetheless part of the group: visible, even if by your non-participation. In online networks in particular, non-participation does not signal. You need to make yourself visible in order to form connections; to become part of the association.

I research networked practices, or the ways people signal their participation. My work in online ed wasn’t always networked, though: I started in this field back in the early days, from 1998-2000, and have taught online and blended courses in a variety of higher ed settings since 2002. I’ve worked with and on platforms like Jones that don’t exist anymore, and on WebCT, Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, and now D2L. I think a lot of valuable education can occur within the bounds of an LMS, just as it can occur within the bounds of a classroom…and both classroom and LMS spaces can provide what some learners experience as a safer, more supportive jumping-off point for learning than the cacophony and exposure of public conversation.

But. Habits and roles around education are learned early and deeply, and the line between safety and learned passivity can be hard to challenge, particularly in an online environment. The design and affordances of most LMS spaces parse conversation into discrete, digestible chunks that are teacher-controlled and linear, encouraging behaviours and practices that replicate traditional transmission-style education, or what Freire called the banking model. Even – and this is important – if that’s no one’s intent.

So if your vision of education is one of higher order thinking and open-ended inquiry and participatory networked connections, working entirely within a closed LMS isn’t necessarily optimal.

Which is where networks can certainly help. Networked learning means not just opening up the walls of the classroom to enable connection with those outside – Twitter discussions with authors being read, for example, or public posting of questions for input from students and whoever else is interested – but also reconfiguring the idea and power relations of the classroom itself. As George Siemens points out in this slideshow, the architecture of networked information is distributed, scalable, self-organizing and adaptive: it has no centre. So networked courses create temporary centres around it, but also leave the possibility of multiple rabbit holes and open-ended inquiries and meaningful connections open, ideally. More importantly, when the networking takes place using platforms participants already use in their daily lives, you create the opportunity for ongoing connection and learning long after the temporary centre of the course is finished.

Still, networked learning is messy. It requires a great deal of leadership and support from teachers/facilitators. It requires UNlearning, for teachers and students. And that unlearning has to take place at the identity level.

Networked Identities Begin with Unlearning
Participating in a networked learning environment involves confronting and smacking down ten or twenty years of implicit and internalized messages that tend to run a bit like this: Raise your hand, Bonnie. Stay on task, Bonnie. That book in your lap is NOT your math assignment, Bonnie. Please stop talking to your neighbour, Bonnie. Speak when you’re spoken to, Bonnie.

Image from https://dx5y3z85enc4t.cloudfront.net/540×540/fit/hostedimages/1380336007/694597.jpg

Ahem.

Now, those are not the only identity messages education teaches, at least if we’re lucky. I’ve had a great many wonderful teachers who’ve connected with me, been patient with me, altered my trajectories and fostered my gifts. But education is a system and tacitly, it systematizes us, even if it manages to exhort us to more. And when we hit networked learning environments, especially if they’re massive and open, those systematized identities can be an albatross.

Because in a networked environment, the contained one-to-many teacher-student relationship and responsibility which is the driving logic behind most of those systematizing practices (that, and the traditional role of teacher as knower) no longer operates. There’s no sense of where belonging to a given conversation begins and ends. For those of us who’ve internalized the “speak only when you’re called upon” message, the slow, painful, eventual realization is this: there is no one standing at the proverbial front of the class to validate our inner Lisa Simpson when she politely waves her hand. Waiting quietly to join in does not signal.

Likewise, from a teaching perspective, assuming everyone can and will just leap in and join the conversation doesn’t help foster any kind of real opportunities for participation for those who might struggle. We are all different, and some of us are used to being heard more than others. The old adage says “on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog,” but that’s perhaps only because there’s no way to see who sits on cue. Our gendered, raced, classed embodied selves – who all fall along varying spectra of sexual orientation and gender performance and neurotypicality and ability AND whose ways of signalling identity and reading signals in conversation come from the experiences we’ve been accustomed to having in those respective bodies – shape the kinds of signalling and participating we’re comfortable doing. So…online is not the great leveller. Power relations manifest differently, but they’re still there. And thus teaching as a connected educator not only involves trying to create opportunities for people to participate or signal that they want to participate, but also being aware of power imbalances, modelling attentiveness, and trying to find backchannel ways of helping people feel as included as possible. Especially if conversation is your goal.
***

As a sort of trailer for my upcoming week with #wweopen13, I’d like to end this intro to networked identities in educational spaces by asking you – whether you’re in the course or wouldn’t be caught dead there, whether you have an online network of 3 or 30,000 – what YOUR experiences have been with networks, in or out of education, good or bad.

What are your stories? What are the risks? The joys? The things you think people should consider before embarking on this path of opening up the walls surrounding teacher & student identities?

And if you’re in the course or *thinking* of being a part of it…don’t worry. There won’t be any other invitations to do homework in advance. ;)

 

the story of education: a Grimm fairy tale

The other morning I woke up to a flurry of Twitter conversation that had unfolded while I slept.

A woman in Australia talking to a woman on the west coast of North America. Another person in Ireland chiming in, flagging other names, leaving little mentions dotted across the globe. Somewhere my name got included and by the time I was up and ready for coffee, they’d left a trail of @s: some with external links, some about the #wweopen13 MOOC that’s just gotten underway – a course I’ll be teaching a week of come November – some broader, more meatily philosophical. That’s what Twitter offers me, people. Random enrichment opportunities while I sleep.

A trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

One of the links in that trail the other morning was this post, titled Being Tongue-Tied and Speechless in Higher Education: Implications for Notions of (Il)literacy #metaliteracy. The blogger, Paul Prinsloo, was new to me, though I’m now following him on Twitter (dude, I look forward to occasional further trails of @s emanating from South Africa. No pressure).

I read it and a shock of recognition flooded me. I waved weakly at my screen, a silent “me too” across half the globe to someone I’ve never met. Because in it, he talks about aphasia, or the inability to speak. Not clinically, but not metaphorically, either. Educationally, professionally, participatorily.

“It seems as if I lost my ability to speak spontaneously, to form words or name
objects. Even when I could find the words, the words got lost or lost their meaning
before they reached my fingers…As the frequency of my blogs during 2013 declined,
I increasingly became aware of being tongue-tied.
Many times I would start with a title for a blog or a first paragraph
only to lose interest or lose my way halfway through the second sentence.
Words, concepts, images would race through my mind but somehow the coherence,
the rationale for blogging was lost in the inner noise and confusion.”

Yeh. That.

I haven’t *really* blogged here in what feels like a very long time: I’ve been using the site sporadically to share ideas or post updates on my thesis proposal, but I haven’t really been digging deeply and publicly into ideas in the ways I found so powerful for years. Oh, I was always irregular in posting…but it wasn’t for lack of voice.

Until recently. Part of the radio silence came simply from work – I was focused elsewhere, on the long-form spelunking of a second thesis proposal. Behind that was a complicated story of voice and my own failure – in the first thesis proposal – to apprehend or master the forms of language and presentation implicitly expected of me. I did not fully understand the extent to which my own voice and formal Academic Writing did not/would not mix. Another few months and forty-odd pages later and a go-ahead to go ahead and I think I’ve learned a lot on the journey, thank you very much. But the process itself was a quiet, internalized one.

My silence hasn’t been mainly personal, though: rather, it stems from same uncertainty of speech writ large and broad; a pervasive, sinking sense of not knowing the contexts into which I speak and write and share my ideas.

Last night I went to a small community gathering of educators, and a colleague said: “the conversation around education has become a skills conversation. We’ve lost the story we’re in. We’ve lost the sense we’re in the same story.”

Over the last year – particularly the more I followed and unpacked the hype cycle of MOOCs – the more I felt like I no longer recognize the story of education as it gets told. Or enacted in policy and curriculum design. Or reported in the news.

I have been silent because I no longer felt like I knew how to talk about any of it. And Prinsloo reflected me back to myself, adrift.

“As higher education institutions respond to changing funding
regimes, increasing accountability, demands from the marketplace and employers
as well as students as customers and consumers; many staff members may
experience something alike to aphasia, being tongue-tied and at loss of words.
Their experiences resemble the experiences of many migrants or
refugees trying to respond to and negotiate sense and meaning in foreign
and uninviting dominant cultures and narratives. At the end
these staff members stumble from one performance agreement to another,
failing to speak out, possibly giving up believing that
speaking out may make a difference.”

Yeh. That.
***

It’s hard, when your voice feels wrong-footed and shaky, to use that voice to ask others if their experience is similar. I mean, what if it’s just you who feels like education’s become a place you no longer know? (Okay, and the dude who wrote the article and the colleague who sent it, but hey, let us not extrapolate from a sample of three). What if precarity is treating everybody else just fine and they can see the forest for the trees and are clear who the witch is?

What if it’s you?

Worse, what if it’s them and they lure you into their gingerbread house and eat you?

Ahem.

(If you mostly know me from Twitter, this probably sounds ridiculous: I’m hardly tongue-tied. I talk enough that people talk back to me while I’m sleeping. But Twitter is still relatively ephemeral and requires little time investment in any given speech act. Emotional investment, yes…but not the time. And I think that’s key. Monetization and consolidation of bloggers under major banners has redistributed focus/limited time to paid opportunities. Mobile tech means less deep engagement with the links and threaded ties that makes blogging rich and serves as its citational, networking engine. So people fewer people blog in a personal voice, in a personal space, and fewer comment, and that cycle is in itself a vicious circle.)

Blogging leaves far more of an imprint for misinterpretation than, say, the breadcrumbs of Twitter. Blogging requires you to dare to paint a map, in your own voice. Is that becoming too costly, in the fray of contested meaning-making that education has morphed into?

Is having that kind of voice becoming the equivalent of sticking your head up and shouting “Here I am, witches! Come and hunt me down?”
***

Still, I want to know. Do you write, still? Are your practices shifting? If you think out loud, in public, do you still do it long-form, for free? Do you know what story we’re in, or where the woods end?

I don’t have a nice tidy conclusion for this post. I just wanted to say I am still here, thinking, collecting breadcrumbs, trying to share a few, for others to maybe wake up to tomorrow. In the midst of the changes and pressures sweeping all of us in higher ed at this juncture, I count myself hugely lucky to have this kind of network to help me make sense of my world. Perhaps the breadcrumb trail won’t lead out of the woods. Perhaps some crumbs lead to the dangerous candy house. Still. Your voices remind me that I don’t wander alone.