Digital Pedagogy: Hospitality & The Hot Mess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



the dissertation is done; long live the dissertation?

There is a little nook in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport with four black leather armchairs along the back wall of a 10×10 room. I finished my Ph.D in one of those chairs, last weekend.

I mean finished finished, as in the summative completion of the document that somehow is meant to stand in for nearly five years of my life’s work. I actually defended the dissertation the week before, with a livecast public presentation, two+ hours of good, challenging questions…and a lovely Bowie reference from my Supervisor…then twelve long minutes waiting in a hallway and a handshake and hug from my Defence Chair and the words, “Congratulations, Dr. Stewart!”

I exhaled. Celebrations all round.

But there were still a couple of tiny revisions, due upon my return to PEI if I wanted to make my mother happy and walk across the stage for May convocation. And in the interim, a plenary and sessions to deliver at #et4online in Dallas and a talk at UT Arlington’s LINK Lab and a NINTH (how did THAT happen?) birthday for a boy who is one of the joys of my life and so I found myself in that DFW armchair, tidying up formatting and re-thinking methodologies and preparing to freeze it all in the amber of .pdf to live forever in library stacks.

I pressed “save.” I looked around. No choirs of angels materialized to sing “hallelujah.” And I thought…yep. Not with a bang, but a whimper. Or something like that.

The truth is, though, the quiet was fitting. This final form of my dissertation has felt more like a tactical necessity than a living thing.

It’s because I don’t actually expect anyone to read it.

This is no false humility, kids. I believe in making my learning open and accessible, so I’ll put a pre-print of the full .pdf up online later this week for any brave souls who want to show me up as wrong. And hey, this research process has been rich and meaningful and funded in part by the taxpayers of Canada, so if reading 150-page documents is your bag, be my guest.

But the thing is, I wrote my dissertation as a three four paper thesis. And much of the work is already out there, living and doing its thing in the world, whatever that is. The first paper is out and getting traction thanks to #tjc15 and an Inside Higher Ed knowledge translation piece, the second is in press, and I condensed the conclusion fairly drastically for Hybrid Pedagogy. I’ve been talking about pieces of this research and its findings in presentations for a year now. A part of me likes it better in presentation form than I do in writing, even if some of the nuances are lost.

That part of me – the part that wants you to see the slide deck more than I want you to read the final bound tome, or its online equivalent – recognizes its own blasphemy. I own the blasphemy. As Haraway says, “blasphemy has always seemed to require taking things very seriously.”

I take research seriously. Last week, I had a fascinating and somewhat heated conversation about research with my #dLRN15 (October! Stanford! Can you come?) co-planners and colleagues George Siemens and Kristen Eshleman as we sheltered from a Dallas tornado warning in the corner of a coffee shop. My contribution to the discussion consisted mostly of running around in full Chicken Little mode shouting WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!…but the upshot, from less panicked minds, was that there’s tension between:
a) the need for research as leverage at the decision-making table of higher ed, where capital, technosolutionism, and hyper-rationalization currently reign supreme, and
b) the need for any changing conversation – the (*cough*) humble goal of #dLRN15 – to engage and include more voices than only those who can speak in research terms.

I think of research as important both as knowledge AND as leverage…my work is all about the idea that “what counts” in higher ed is complex and ever-shifting; a contested crossroads of narratives and practices and allegiances. I am old-school in one sense: it is the vestigial logic and spirit of public education and learning as a good in itself that drives my work. Yet I am not sure that the language of research in its traditional forms is always fit to grapple with the logics of business and media that hold increasing sway in the academy.

I am not trying to get rid of traditional forms. But their capacity to (sometimes) leverage a seat at the table shouldn’t excuse us from looking at their communications capacities and limitations, as well, and from pushing to legitimate other forms of expression that could contribute to the conversation – and the crossroads of what counts. I loved this piece on Beyond the Dissertation as Proto-Monograph, not because there’s anything inherently wrong with monographs but because they hold such a place of dominance in the training of Ph.Ds as researchers, and I’m not sure we serve our own survival as researchers by sticking primarily to long-form texts deeply bound to their print origins.

I’m proud of my dissertation, such as it is. I’m willing to have the full document sit out in the open, a testament to what I thought and found and was able to spit out at a particular time, in a particular form.

But in the end I’m more excited about continuing to work through those ideas here, in blog form, and in slides and talks, and as contributing premises to new research. Onward. Out loud.

I’m curious: how do YOU prefer to take in research and/or new ideas? 

what counts as academic influence online?

Sometimes things shift when you’re not looking.

I woke up last Monday morning to discover that practically every Chronicle link on my Twitter feed related to my research area. Not in any elbowing-in-on-territory kind of way, but rather in a “whoa…serious synergy here” fashion.

Sometimes, when I get up in front of fellow educators and academics and say I study scholarship and…Twitter, I end up feeling like I’m doing stand-up comedy. Really? Twitter? say people’s eyebrows. I am becoming a great student of arched eyebrows.

Yet on Monday, casual academic readers of The Chronicle – and their eyebrows – would’ve been hard-pressed not to come away with the impression that academic identities in social media are actually Something To Care About, as a profession.

(Naturally, this will have backlash. People’s eyebrows generally do not LIKE to be beaten about the head with the idea they should care about something just because suddenly it’s the Flavour of the Month. Nor should they. I feel you, eyebrows of the world).

Still, the sense of critical mass is energizing to me. The work of research that is not legible to others always feels, rhetorically, like lifting stones uphill: constantly establishing premises rather than moving on to the deep exploration of that one particular thing.

The more the conversation about networks and identities and academia grows and pervades people’s consciousness, the less of that Sisyphean phase of the lifting I need to do.

Because this is not a Flavour of the Month, folks. This is a cultural shift, one part of the sea change in contemporary higher ed.

Dear arched eyebrows: this doesn’t mean you have to use Twitter. Or any other social networking platforms. Nor do you need to get personal online if you don’t wanna. But your concepts of academic identity and academic reputation do need to expand. Twitter and social media are now a part of scholarship, as modes of communication and of scholarly practice. So if I tell you I’m exploring the part they now play in academic influence…try not to arch so hard you hurt yourself.

I had the privilege of giving a keynote at the University of Edinburgh’s E-Learning conference two weeks ago now, hot on the heels of the very good time my mother and I had at #nlc14 there this year. If you missed us, we were the really excited Canadians swooning at all the Scots accents. ;)

The theme of Edinburgh’s E-learning conference this year was authenticity…a word that makes me a little wary. Authenticity matters. But authenticity can also be a weapon wielded to defend the “real” (read: the non-digital, or the traditional, or the tidily, smarmily Hallmark-branded) against whatever binary or straw man it chooses.

So I talked about networked scholarship, exploring the question of what counts as authentic academic influence now.

Basically, it coulda been subtitled “How Do Scholars Use Networks And What Does That MEAN?” or…”WTF Is A Graduate Student From Another Country Doing Giving A Keynote, And How Did This Happen?”

In the talk, I outlined some of the preliminary findings from my research these past few months, including what scholars seem to use networks for and what kinds of patterns emerged from the tweets and RTs that flew through my timeline this past winter. The slideshow above gives a taste of some of the tweets I flagged during the last few months of research (note: not all are from my participants). But what I really talked about was influence.

The Math of Influence
Influence is a complex, messy, slightly socially-discomfiting catch-all equation for how people determine the reputation and credibility and essentially the status of a scholar. There are two ways influence tends to get assessed, in scholarship: there’s the teensy little group of people who actually understand what your work really means…and then there’s everybody else, from different fields, who piece together the picture from external signals: what journals you publish in, what school you went to, your citation count, your h-index, your last grant. It’s credibility math, gatekeeping math. It’s founded in names and organizations people recognize and trust, with a running caveat of Your Mileage May Vary.

And now, in the mix, there’s Twitter. And blogs.

How can something that the general population is convinced is about what people had for lunch be a factor in changing what counts as academic influence?

Here’s how.

Beyond Gatekeeping: Networked Influence Signals
Going online and talking to people you don’t know about areas of shared scholarly interest opens up your reach and reputation for what you do. It opens up your capacity to build communities of practice around shared interests. It opens up the possibility that when people in your field – the people reviewing your panel or on your next granting committee – hear your name, it will be one of those they already recognize and trust. Maybe. There’s a LOT of Your Mileage May Vary here.

Think of a Venn diagram – here’s how scholars traditionally share their work, here’s what people had for lunch – and in the middle there are scholarly ideas ON social media. What I’m trying to do in my research is to identify the implicit literacies involved in making sense of identities and reputations and credibility in this intersection. Because so long as senior scholars and administrators and tenure committees think Twitter is what people had for lunch, there’s a gap in our understanding of influence signals, especially in fields that are changing rapidly.

I’m finding patterns and commonalities in how scholars use Twitter, and the things they express there. In the slideshow above, you’ll see that the touted “it increases your dissemination!” factor is important in shaping scholars’ practices, but for many that’s reported more as a side effect than a reason in itself. Community and connection and space to address marginalities on many fronts factor more powerfully in participants’ accounts of their networked practices, particularly for those who use Twitter for more than broadcast purposes.

At the same time, networked participation and networked connections and their non-institutional logics also bring more fraught elements overtly into play in the influence equation.

Enter Capitalism
Now, let’s not pretend that academic institutions are not capitalist institutions. They are, and increasingly so: capital equations of scarcity and commodity are very much a part of the institutionalized and gatekept versions of academic influence signals that have gained traction over recent generations. But the individual scholar in these equations is, except in superstar instances, an institutional role rather than an identity unto him or herself. In networks, individual identity operates as a brand, particularly as the scale of attention on an individual grows.

This allows junior scholars and adjuncts and grad students and otherwise institutionally-marginalized identities to build voices and audiences even without institutional status or sanction. It allows people to join the conversation about what’s happening in their field or in higher ed in general; to make contributions for which channels do not exist at the local level. Networked platforms act as hosts for public resistance to the irreconcilable contradictions of contemporary academia, as well as society more broadly. But networked platforms are still corporate platforms, and should not be seen as neutral identity playgrounds. As Tressie MacMillan Cottom and Robert Reece ask in this sharp piece on hashtags and media visibility, “how radical can your resistance be when it both funds a corporation and is subject to the decisions of that same corporation?”

Power in Networks
Being visible in networks *can* create access to visibility and voice in broadcast media, which sometimes lends perceived credibility to the way a scholar’s work is taken up…or at least amplifies his or her name recognition. The power relations of scale are complex, though: the racism and sexism and heterosexism and able-ism and Anglo-centrism of our contemporary world are in many ways replicated in the ways voices get heard, online, and the backlash for women and people of colour who dare to speak can be vicious. The constant identity positioning and lack of transparency and understanding about how visibility works can also make the world of academic Twitter into mean streets, sometimes.

The biggest factor in building influence in networks – one that should assuage some of the arched eyebrows – is that it tends to take, like all scholarship, a great deal of time and work. Twitter is not a magical path to fame, or to celebrity academic status. In fact, on its own, it’s created few superstars: the traditional, institutional halls of power and high status still do far more to thrust scholars into influential circles of attention and public regard. Noam Chomsky’s speaking fees are not especially under threat from Twitter upstarts, and Twitter and blogging alone do not often result in New York Times gigs. But they are, now, indubitably a part of that picture, in ever-expanding circles.

I see the networked version of academic influence as what Audrey Watters calls “a cyborg tactic:” the illegitimate offspring of complex totalizing equations, and yet potentially subversive to them. This potential lies, as Haraway would put it, in the fact that illegitimate offspring are often “exceedingly unfaithful to their origins.” As a development in how scholars understand each others’ signals of credibility and reputation, networked influence is neither good nor bad, and certainly not neutral. But it is, and it is important to try to understand.

And to those who would raise their eyebrows at this assertion, I say: sometimes, folks, things shift when you’re not looking.

We Don’t Need No Thought Control: the deep grammar of schooling

Late last month I went to London, not to look at The Queen but to lead three days of Media & Information Literacies workshops with Swedish teachers. It was a pleasure and a privilege and also just a really good time…and I came away having learned the following:

1. When I was 13 and I thought I wanted to run away to London to hang out with David Bowie and Boy George I HAD TOTALLY GOOD INSTINCTS. At least about cities.
2. Swedish teachers do not dress like Canadian teachers. Which may be just a Euro v. North American style distinction…but since, in my world, you can’t turn around without stumbling on people fretting about the dang PISA test and Finland, the theme of teacher professionalization and status has been on my mind. And while Sweden is NOT Finland, hey, it’s next door. So when I wandered into the first all-Swedish event of my stay, I found it curious to observe the fact that pretty much every. single. person brought the funk and androgyny (and great boots!) generally reserved here for NYC artistes or filmmakers and I wondered about cultural capital and masculinities and how a profession builds its own reputation for cool. Then I wondered where I could get myself some new and improved boots, thank you very much.
3. Again, Sweden is NOT Finland. Ahem. I learned Swedes are not officially fond of Finland. Or the PISA test. They will, if pressed, politely talk about their boots. The folks I met mostly wanted to talk with great thoughtfulness and enthusiasm about learning. They were lovely. Thanks, Per!
4. Swedish schools increasingly – though not necessarily entirely equitably – have 1 to 1 computing, meaning a device in the hands of every student.

The last one blew my mind.

The possibility of an education system where connectivity and bandwidth and crappy outdated computers and blocked sites are NOT a hurdle is, frankly, totally outside my experience. When I realized I was talking about networked education with a group of people who actually have the infrastructure to DO networked education, I felt like I’d landed at Disneyland.

For all of about 23 minutes.

Then I listened some more to what they were telling me. And I discovered what I should have known – the challenges education faces coming to terms with information abundance and 21st century communications media and all that those shifts imply are NOT actually infrastructure challenges. Yes, those are real, and they are political, and distribution of technologies is uneven and unequal and that is important to talk about and address. But they are not the key barrier.

Technology is not a solution to problems of competing knowledge claims and changing communications structures. Digital technologies can be a tool for making meaning within information abundance, but in order to function as a tool, they require skills and literacies for using them effectively FOR THAT PURPOSE.

If you could wave a magic wand and put a working iPad in the hands of every teacher and student in the world tomorrow, we’d still have an institutional schooling structure that is neither designed nor equipped nor interested in truly taking on the challenges of networked education, no matter how much lip service it pays to the ideas of “innovation” and “21st century learning.” This structure is not something we can carve out and separate from the heart of our concepts of school – it IS our concept of school. We – teachers and students most of the world ’round – are complicit in it; in upholding and replicating what Lankshear and Knobel call the “deep grammar” of schooling (2006). When we consider the idea of classrooms full of young people with devices in their hands, the words that leap to minds and mouths aren’t “connection!” or “participation!” but “distraction” and “disruption”…in all senses of the term. This is our institutionalization showing.

Our institutionalization means that, without new ways to conceptualize the work of learning, we end up replicating top-down power and knowledge structures no matter how many shiny screens we add to classrooms. Yet knowledge and information no longer work that way, not really.

I left London wondering about power and control.

When I talk about networked education, I try hard to confront and undermine the fetish for “shiny!…the idea of tech as a goal in itself. I focus on literacies for filtering and prioritizing within a world of immersive communications: on networks as a way of un-schooling and adapting our systems of education.

Networks need not be digital – we all grow up within networks of friends and family and acquaintances to whom we are tied one-to-one with various degrees of closeness and communications. At the same time, many of us have, with Facebook, ported our f2f networks online and live in a state of hybridity, blurring online and offline identities and connections. We are skilled in many of the practices we might need to make meaning in the great firehose of information abundance, but our culture is not giving us the meta-literacies to recognize and value and utilize those skills.

Increasingly, I encounter a strain of “I’ve never tried it but I know it’s bad” resistance to networks as educational possibilities; to social media as represented by mainstream media and cultural narratives. People have heard of Twitter, or blogging…they may even have accounts. They often use Facebook socially. But they come to the idea of educational use, increasingly, steeped in the pervasive cultural messages that social media is making us lonely or stupid or toxic or whatever the deterministic accusation of the month may be. Educators get the message that these communications media are not part of the legitimate curriculum, of the *true* pursuit of knowledge.

I get it. And I get that networks are hard, and messy, and require a constant filtering that exhausts us: I live it. But I want to consider why these cultural messages are growing stronger; who is served in the fantasy of imposing control over the proliferation of networked, peer-to-peer communications.

Some of these questions came together for me in London, in the midst of presenting. I was a few slides into the second deck below, on the second day of the workshop, talking about traditional broadcast media and information literacies and the idea of trusted channels. It occurred to me that in the midst of information abundance, our desire for trusted channels so we don’t HAVE to do the constant work of filtering is…huge. It occurred to me that the cultural narratives circulating about overload and lack of connection serve to blind us to whatever network literacies we actually practice, and that public models for complex filtering are rare. It occurred to me that those narratives implicitly encourage the default institutionalized passivity of waiting for “good,” sanctioned information from established, gatekept, powerful channels. And it occurred to me that those channels tend to be corporate or institutional hierarchies with a great deal of power and a great deal to lose if peer-to-peer networked learning and communications actually manifest to capacity, in our society. It occurred to me, much as Sarah Kendzior succinctly stated in Al Jazeera yesterday, that “demonizing social media can be a play for power.” She’s talking state power. But I’m not sure it’s any different in education. Just ask every system struggling with the externalized standards of the PISA test.

This doesn’t mean networks are in any way idealized forms of communications. That need to leap to the binary assumption that critique of one thing equals uncritical lionization of its perceived Other is itself residue of the deep grammar of schooling, the Enlightenment categorization embedded in our cultural practices. Institutions and networks are neither entirely separate nor either of them ideal. We need to be able to discuss where each offers value, and to whom. But in order to do that, we need to unpack our pre-conditioning, our sense of deep vulnerability without someone in authority telling us what to think.

Or maybe Pink Floyd were wrong. Maybe we *do* need thought control, after all.

What do YOU think? How do we address the ways in which the deep grammar of schooling and its inherent top-down structure still constitute the language our thoughts are written in? And for those taking part in Dave’s #rhizo14 conversation this week, what role do you think writing itself plays in this?

And what would (or do) YOU do in a classroom full of people with devices?