What an interesting and slightly discombobulating ride this whole #change11 facilitation experience has been.
As I noted at the outset this week, this idea of digital identities and selves is for me simply a way of teasing out and naming some the threads of possibility and difference that digital sociality makes available to us. I offered up the six digital selves as ways to begin a conversation about how technological affordances and practices and norms shape us – not as separate or summative representations of who we are when we’re online.
You all have taken the conversation and run with it, and I have enjoyed trying to trace and map it as it’s unfolded.
This was my first attempt to think about networked publics within the reflective, participatory, social circuits of a networked public, and I’ve learned a lot.
Mostly, I learned a lot about myself, or my selves, rather, and how the particular affordances of this learning structure affected my own sense of identity.
The Performative Self
I got to share and perform my academic self at a scale that isn’t always available to me as a grad student on a small, primarily undergraduate campus. And in pushing my own comfort zones of digital performativity by stepping beyond writing or face-to-face presenting to video and liveslide facilitation – both of which are new to me – I got to feel, for the first time in a long time, both how heady and how intimidating performativity can be.
Butler claims we bring ourselves into being, performatively, by constant repetitive, gestural citation of practices that are intelligible according to the norms of our culture. It hadn’t occurred to me how performing a role while still getting up to speed in appearing, say, intelligible – or intelligent – in that role can be extraordinarily intimidating: at least, it hadn’t occurred to me in years, since the last time I stepped so far out of my comfort zone to do something in public. The intimidation factor of performative acts may be something to consider when encountering people who are resistant to social networks and digital endeavours: online interactions tend to be more visibly or overtly performative than other aspects of our lives, and self-consciousness may contribute to some people’s hesitancy to engage.
The Quantified, Articulated self
My quantified self notices that I got a bunch of new Twitter followers this week, and my articulated self was excited to find out who they were and start to connect in return. I’m not a particularly good quantified self, however, in the sense that my practices don’t maximize my retention of Twitter followers, because I don’t auto-follow back. If you followed me, and you’d like to be part of a mutual network, just say hi.
My quantified self was mildly disappointed to notice that my Klout score didn’t measurably improve during the flurry of conversation this week, though again, if I were a better quantified self, I’d actually be tracking how many conversations and blog posts and FB chats I engaged in. Instead I just threw myself – splat – into the deep end and tried to connect. I had fun, even if my quantified self was mildly disappointed in me.
The Participatory Self
This, for me, was the self that this week was really all about.
Networked participation is such a different pedagogical model – if it could even be called that – than any other teaching or facilitation experience I’ve had. It’s the piece that makes this connectivist MOOC model so appealing to me: it’s distributed, and while the facilitator is accorded a disproportionate place of prominence within the network, the flow of ideas is many-to-many, not many-to-one. Other people’s comments on participants’ posts were as much as part of the conversation as my own: I chased the conversation, rather than driving it. In a distributed model, it’s easy to lose track of stuff unless you have a more organized quantified self than I do, tracking everything with apps and analytics, but I still managed to stumble on a lot of ideas and conversations about digital identities this week: to such an extent that my own ideas are shifting to adapt to and accommodate what they’ve encountered.
Finding your thoughts reflected forty different ways takes you beyond reflexivity – or the self looking at itself being watched – to diffraction, the optical creation of difference in the gaze process. It’ll take awhile, I think, for my participatory self to come to terms with how this experience has altered its own sense of self: my thesis thanks all you who had a part in the process.
The Asynchronous Self
Interestingly, the week’s facilitation centered around a synchronous live event, for which I was delighted to have nearly 50 people present (pipe down, Quantified Self) and engaged on the slides and in the chat. This drove home for me a point I don’t think I made particularly well in my first post of the week: appreciation of asynchronicity as an affordance does NOT mean lack of appreciation for real-time connection and live interaction, whether mediated or no. I may not especially want to chat on the phone, person-to-person, at any given time of your choosing, but being together with others in an interactive manner in real time for an event? Co-presence helps strengthen ties in social networks both online and off.
In fact, in an attention economy like social media, the capacity to create what Dave Cormier and Dave White coined “eventedness” a couple of year back is a big part of creating coherence and belonging within networked publics. Thanks to all of you who came out and who tweeted and shared comments from and responses to the livechat, thus helping ensure I didn’t feel like I’d thrown a MOOC and nobody came.
Where I particularly appreciated the affordance of asynchronous communication this week was in the one-to-one contacts I got to make with many of you through your comments here and your posts on your own blogs. It’s true that in many cases there are real limitations placed on the depth of our contact and discussion because of the asynchronicity of blog comments, but that asynchronous factor is what allows most of to participate in something like a MOOC in the first place. We’re all professionals, with other commitments. Taking a week out of our lives to attend a face-to-face class – or teach it – is a privilege the majority of us couldn’t swing. So the asynchronous self – with all its good and bad – is necessary just in making this kind of experience possible.
The Augmented Reality Self
Augmented reality is, in its simplest form, simply a way of saying that our digital lives enhance and augment – but are not separate or divided from – our physical selves. This view of our digital practices suggests that identity is multiple across spheres, and actions in each sphere influence all the selves we perform.
This was vividly driven home to me yesterday, when my dear old friend Jeff Lebow synchronized and posted last Wednesday’s video, audio, live slides and discussion session and posted it on YouTube. It was awesome of Jeff to do it, as I’d only gotten around to getting the slides up on Slideshare, but not to syncing the audio, let alone the chat.
So yep, awesome. Except then I watched it. And I lisped. Badly. All my sibilant sounds were like loud hissing feedback, and the little clicks that sometimes punctuate my speech were more like chicken clucks, and overall I sounded like I had marbles in my mouth.
And my first thought was not, Wow, wtf happened to the audio? It was Oh. My. God. I’ve been lisping my whole life and NOBODY TOLD ME! Because I forgot about the affordances – or lack thereof – of the digital self. I forgot that the self I see reflected back at me in my augmented reality is not always actually real.
I said aloud, “The sixth sheik’s sixth sheep is sick” and listened anxiously. Not much lisp, really. I clicked over to my introductory video for this week, and thought I sounded distinctly less hissy.
I wondered, aghast, how I’d managed to develop a lisp in only three short days! At forty!
Then it occurred to me that possibly it was just the audio. But my Performative Self was concerned that nobody else was going to know that, and my branded self worried I’d never get a speaking engagement again.
The video gave me an identity crisis. Because I live enmeshed between atoms and bits, and sometimes I forget that the two don’t operate quite the same. ;)
The Branded Self I find it interesting to think about how different communities and networks emphasize some of the selves more than others do: in the communities that tend to converge around MOOCs, for example, there is minimal incursion – to date – of monetization and its attendant practices. Facilitating this course this week brought me not a single sponsorship proposal (happily), whereas within momblogging and narrative blogging circles, daily pitches to sample and pimp products and events and releases have long been the norm for bloggers and community members with any prominence. I’ve chosen not to monetize my blogging, outside of speaking gigs, so for me the regular pitches to Try Product X for Mother’s Day! and Tell Your Readers All About Our Marvellous New Whatchamacallit! are more irritations than opportunities, but they simply come with the territory. And they shape the territory: in momblogging circles, the Me Inc. perspective on one’s practices and identity is just how things operate, even for those of us who stay outside the territory of overt monetization. I have business cards for my blog, because that is how that sphere operates.
So this one? Was a bit refreshing, because of the ways in which this community and its discourses exist in part as a pushback to the encroaching neoliberalism in higher ed today. But don’t think it’s not coming, people.
As my final word to #change11, let me play prognosticator and prophet from a land in which branded, commodified selves have a long heritage and say this.
All of us in higher ed need to grapple openly and creatively with our relationships to the monetization that’s on the horizon. Because it’s there, and it’s looming, and now is the time to come to terms with both what it threatens and what it offers.
The play and experimentation – and volunteerism – represented by our connectivist MOOCs and their attendant practices are increasingly less visible in the cultural discourse around education and technologies. That’s no fault of anyone here, in my opinion. Nor does it mean we’re headed for a dystopia. But the game is changing, and a field that’s been remarkably free of the particular affordances -and structuring limitations – of economic capital is entering a new era.
Yesterday, The Atlantic posted the first mainstream media article on MOOCs that simply took the term at face value, as if the word popped up history-less last fall with the creation of the Stanford AI course and MITx. But their MOOC model is not this MOOC model, make no mistake. And if the tweets that came out of the Education Innovation Summit last month were any indication, a bevy of Ed Reform-minded politicians and movers and shakers are lined up to put dollars behind start-ups in ed and higher ed. Again, not necessarily a dystopic picture, but one to be wary of. And to be strategic about.
My own experience as a blogger in a field long since monetized is this. The branding and commodification hasn’t, contrary to my initial pearl-clutching horror, ruined everything. I know monetized bloggers who push the narrative and conversation envelope, though often from within specific niches, and who participate and perform within their networked publics in ways that add real value to their communities. And I don’t begrudge them the money they make doing so. Everybody needs to eat. Those who dismiss all monetization as “selling out” are often safely ensconced in the kind of pensioned jobs that others of us may never see.
But those niches change things, as does the sense of oneself as an identity within a market.
Facilitating #change11 this week made one thing very clear for me: networks are what matters about what we do here. This is a networked public, and the affordances of that networked public are what makes this experience so different from traditional hierarchical models of learner and knower.
And here’s the thing, looking down the road. Brand can exist in networks. Neoliberalism can exist in networks. Monetization can exist in networks, to an extent. But where these operate as trojan horses for bringing hierarchical institutional power back into the game to dominate, box out and silence the creative and connective power of networks, then be nervous. The affordances of the Internet open up all kinds of possibilities and selves and worlds. I do not want to go back into the box, people.
I opened my presentation the other day with Haraway’s cyborg, and I leave you with her. She is subversive, irreverent, blasphemous to her origins. Haraway envisioned her as the illegitimate child of the military-industrial complex, who contained within her oppositional, intimate, always relational self the capacity to escape the teleology of the 20th century story.
A year or so ago, I began playing with the idea of the branded cyborg; Haraway’s cyborg with the explicit digital identity of brand and commodity grafted on to her. A cyborg for this 21st century conversation. A cyborg for Ed Reform times.
I secretly hope, of course, that she is the Master’s Tool who can dismantle the Master’s house. I secretly hope that we, in our digital identities, are her.
Welcome to the home stretch of #change11, everybody.
This week we’ll be looking at digital identities and subjectivities, or – basically – who we are in social media spaces.
I’m hoping this week will be, above all, a conversation: digital identity is always a lived experience as well as conceptual territory, so everyone has a contribution to offer based on their own practices and experiences..
Part of making those contributions a conversation is connecting: I’m not sure where conversations will emerge, but as they do, I’d love to be in them. If you’re new or coming out of hibernation, the #change11 FB group has been a rich space for discussion lately, so I recommend checking it out, and lively debate is very very welcome in the comments here. ;)
If you’d like to respond to any of the conversation on a platform of your own, please link back here so I can find you and join in. :)
The live chat session for this week will be here Wednesday, May 9th, at 11am EDT. I’ll have a few live slides that I’m hoping you can help me by adding your two cents to. I want to know what your practices are, and how you navigate identity in social media spaces.
Digital Identities as Affordances of Social Media: Who are We in a Networked Public?
This week’s discussion bridges from and builds on last week’s topic, facilitated by George Veletsianos. Like George’s work, mine focuses on practices and participation and how these function. George, however, looks specifically at scholars: my interest is in the broader concept of identity and how we are shaped by our digital practices.
George’s work is premised in looking at what Selwyn & Grant call the “state of the actual;” my work straddles both actuality and potentiality. I am interested in what we do that makes us who we are in social media spaces, thus my concept of digital identity is practice-based. At the same time, I see identity as a lens through which we can examine the potentialities specific to social networks. I use the concept of identity to explore what it is that social software makes possible in practice.
The Wikipedia definition of “digital identity” frames it, more or less, as the set of data constituted by a person’s interactions online, and that specific user’s psychological relationship to his or her data trail.
For the purposes of our discussion this week, I’d like to expand the definition beyond the traces and trails we leave behind for Google to find, and frame digital identities as the selves brought into being by the affordances – the specific structures and norms – of social media and what danah boyd calls “networked publics.”
Six Key Selves of Networked Publics If you’d like to delve a little deeper than just the video, below are six key digital “selves” that I’d like to discuss and explore this coming week. They’re by no means an exhaustive list, so input and additions are very welcome, but they introduce some of the ways in social media norms and affordances impact identity practices. Links offer a bit of further reading – formal papers, blog posts, videos, all sorts of resources – in each of these directions. Following those trails is, of course, optional.
In the livechat on Wednesday, these six aspects of digital identity – and the implications they hold for higher education – will be the focus of our discussion.
1. The Performative, Public Self
The networked self is neither a discrete, unique snowflake that can be examined entirely unto itself, outside relationality, nor a generic group member. The networked self is linked in multiple, complex, individual node-to-node relationships with others as part of an ever-shifting public. It is also performative, constituting itself within that public through its practices and gestures.
Within network publics the performative self experiences both the flattening of hierarchies across space and status (I talked to theorist Henry Giroux on Twitter the other day! And he followed me back! Yay! Access!) and the network theory principle that big nodes are more likely to attract attention and links (Giroux didn’t actually talk back to me. Boo. Sniff. But his semi-celebrity status in the world of academia means he’s always going to have a wider pool of people aware of him and clamouring for his attention).
The performative self in networked publics tends to be conscious of his or her multiplicity and performative nature: Rob Horning’s post on the data self does a very entertaining job of encapsulating much of how this self differs from previous cultural conceptions of identity and subjectivity.
2. The Quantified – or Articulated – Self
In social networks, our network contacts are visible and articulated, and our actions and contributions are quantified. This makes the act of choosing to follow or “friend” another person always already a public, performative statement (see above) and likewise a notch in the belt of one’s personal metrics. Status and scale in social networks are frequently treated as overtly measurable attributes, tracked in clicks and follows and @s and likes by tools like Klout: I have hesitancies about the applications and limitations of algorithms as stand-ins for identity, especially when we begin to think about the self in learning contexts.
3. The Participatory Self
The participatory, networked self is not only mobile and connected, never fully disengaged from the communications of the network, but is able to engage and contribute at a click to the self-presentation of others. This is based in part on the produsage or prosumer nature of networked publics, merging production and consumption: within my networks I am both a creator of my own content but also a consumer of that which my peers produce and share. My relationships are groomed by the constant iterative work of participation, and my comfort with working in isolation towards a final product – as was the paper model of creative work – recedes in the rear-view mirror.
4. The Asynchronous Self
Simply put: I hate when my phone rings. And I’m not alone. Digital sociality practices and networked publics moved increasingly towards asynchronous mediated communications, rather than the interruptive, immediate demands of telephones. Last night, as I tried to record the video for this post, my stepmother called. Twice. I rest my case? ;)
5. The PolySocial – or Augmented Reality – Self
Contrary to much of the digital identity scholarship of the 1990s, which tended to emphasize the fluidity of identity uncoupled from the gendered and signified body – the “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” theme – the concept of networked publics has given rise to a far more enmeshed notion of reality. Drawing from this, my work frames digital identities not as virtual selves, but as particular subjects brought into being by our relational, mobile interactions in the world of bits and extending into the world of atoms. My networks and relationships – and therefore my identities – exist within the enmeshed and multi-faceted realities of contemporary human interaction.
On the cyborgology blog, Nathan Jurgenson, PJ Rey et al have done an exceptional job of examining and detailing the complexities of what they call Augmented Reality, or the enmeshed and mutually influential confluence of atoms and bits. Sally Applin and Michael Fischer offer the somewhat differently framed concept of PolySocial Reality to explore the interoperability of contemporary contexts.
And from the perspective of someone who once pretended to be a dog, Alan Levine (@cogdog) has a great video keynote narrating his experiences as a self in the enmeshed world of atoms and bits.
So. Six starting places for conversation. Recognize any of these? Do any resonate with your own practices?
And have any of them been part of your #change11 experience? I’m hoping that the discussions this week will serve as a bit of a retrospective for the course, from a polysocial identity point of view: how has participation (even peripheral participation) in a distributed, networked learning experience like this shaped your sense of self?
The other afternoon, I’d hoped to hang out in George Siemens‘ #change11 live session on sensemaking and wayfinding in digital environments, but taxes and dinner and all the other demands of living got in the way. As ever. So I caught up this morning.
Which is fitting, since sensemaking and wayfinding as a construct deals in part with the challenges of engaging with live, participatory media when one can’t always be present in the firehose of information onslaught that it generates.
Sometimes this digital identity stuff gets overwhelming.
Not the thinking and the research. The living it.
The Learning Curve: Digital Identity & Sociality Mean Constant Sensemaking & Wayfinding Connect, filter, engage, share, participate, curate, perform, strategize, relate, produce, add value: these are some of the verbs and phrases affiliated with identity in the age of social media.
I think “locate and tether” need to be added to the list.
I don’t think of my digital life or self as particularly separate from my so-called “real” one. I’m interested in the phenomenon of enmeshed, augmented identity: how our digital practices shape and are shaped by the multiple other aspects of our lives. Most of us today live in atoms & bytes, both. Your mileage may vary, but for me, the online world is both the stage and repository of central aspects of my self and life.
But the particulars that distinguish my digital identity and existence from how I operate when the laptop is shut?
In two weeks’ time, I’m leading the second-last of the change11 MOOC topics, on digital identities and subjectivities. In short, exploring who we are when we’re online. I’m also in the middle of writing the methodologies chapter for my thesis proposal, explaining the ethnographic study I’ll be doing next year on digital identity.
I think of these kinds of adventures as exploratory learning curves: I’ve never facilitated a MOOC, nor outlined a methods and methodologies plan. I’m learning, cobbling together ideas as I go.
Dealing with constantly making sense of semi-contextualized information is a part of navigating anything new. It can be stressful, but also exhilarating and rewarding.
But when digital identity isn’t just your field but a huge part of your so-called “real life” – the way you interact with vast swaths of your personal and professional world – then the constant sensemaking and wayfinding and learning?
I wonder if it isn’t the hardest part of social media practice.
Digital Identity Means Farewell, Linearity?
See, I’m not much of a morning person. Every day, far too shortly after dawn, I half-open one eye. I croak with forced cheer at the children as I exhort them to dress and make their beds and eat. The coffee gets made, and then the world gradually shifts into focus and lunches get packed and off we all go.
What makes mornings doable for me is that my fridge stays in the same place every day. There are few variables for me to navigate in my blurry, unresilient state. Sure, the kids have moods and some days I need to actually shower or remember to write a cheque. But overall, there’s a routine I can stumble through in linear fashion.
Minimal sense-making and wayfinding are required.
HEY! Who Moved the Damn Fridge? Online, my digital identity enters a new and multiple and constantly-shifting world everyday.
The architecture does tend to remain the same – though it is occasionally altered at random, leaving me wondering where the bloody fridge got to or why my Direct Messages have disappeared – but instead of four people trundling through the relative routine of getting dressed, fed, and out the door, there are thousands of people going every which way.
It’s like waking up in a brand new train station every single day. Some good friends and interesting acquaintances are usually there with you, passing through, but you can’t be sure any of them will actually be present. And, rather like my offspring, there’s no predicting or accounting for what kind of knot people’s knickers will be in on any given morning.
Digital Sociality: The Stress of Waking Up in a New Train Station Everyday
This is all part of what makes social media interesting. It also adds the stress and pressure of constant, public navigation of non-linearity to what are basically daily, mundane interactions.
Digital sociality means constantly trying to ascertain if you’ve understood the context of a conversation enough to enter it.
Digital sociality means having to re-orient yourself in space and time and relationality each time the context changes, which can be minute-to-minute.
Digital sociality means patching together disjointed fragments in order to frame a present in which to be.
Digital sociality means the effort to communicate intent and tone and personality with economy and concision, without necessarily being sure who’s listening or how they will hear what you say.
Digital sociality means pressure to maintain enough of a traceable public identity, via blog and social media platforms, that people can build the trust necessary to engage with you as an actual entity and not an anonymous troll (I waxed didactic on this one in Dave’s comments section this morning).
Now, these are – boiled down – simply a part of human interaction. Other than the final point, which is specific to dis-embodied and distributed engagements in environments where people may not necessarily have pre-existing social ties, they’re part of social life in all arenas. Humans are semi-predictable creatures, at best.
But the architecture of our daily lives – our homes, our streets and offices, our built environments in general – are pretty static.
Online, this tends to be less true. Law & LaTour’s work in – and beyond – Actor Network Theory goes so far as to posit that technologies can be actors and agents in relational interactions. My own dissertation focus will be on practices, thus foregrounding the human, but from the assumption that human practices are shaped by technological affordances: I am wordier on Facebook than on Twitter, simply because I can be.
And where we interact via platforms that we have no ownership of or control over, like Facebook and Twitter, we can truly wake up in the morning and find the fridge gone. Or in the basement. Change can happen very quickly, in a way not paralleled in embodied spaces.
The challenge of digital sociality is it’s all a constant, repeating learning curve.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Digital
In social media, the sensemaking and wayfinding processes that George foregrounds – how we make meaning, how we know what we know, how we understand others – have to be on overdrive all the time, trying to orient me to relationships, contexts, and goals all at once. It’s a tall order.
And when they fail to operate optimally – these untaught, gradually-acquired habits of navigation and constant re-orientation – I find myself accidentally floating away.
I follow a random link to cupcakes or world peace or the latest news in post-structural feminism, it matters not, and half an hour and sixteen links later, I surface, bewildered, wondering what in Jesus’ name just happened.
My digital self may not be especially different from my embodied person, but it sure has a hell of a harder time finding the fridge in the mornings. It has to work harder to stay focused on why it went to the fridge for in the first place. As a digital being, I have to work constantly to orient and re-orient myself to where I am and what I’m doing; to why and with whom I’m engaging.
This will be part of what we take up in my #change11 week starting May 7th. If you want to join in, even if you’ve fallen away from the MOOC or haven’t been part of it til now, you’re very welcome.
And in anticipation, I’ve started a Mendeley group on digital identities. After a week or two of initial neglect because I floated away from it and forgot to go back, my plan is now to start populating it with papers – and hopefully discussion – on the topic. Feel free to join in, and if you’ve happened on anything related to the idea of digital identity – please contribute. Crowdsourcing is one of the great benefits of digital sociality, after all.
This week, Sebastian Thrun, one of the adjunct professors who taught Stanford’s open online Artificial Intelligence course this past fall, announced that he will be offering a new open course starting in February. It’ll be free, and it’ll be online. It also won’t have any university affiliation.
The announcement led to a flurry of discussion about the future of higher education and of brand and its role in the brave new world of learning, 2012-style.
Audrey Watters wrote a piece for Inside Higher Education about college credentials, wondering whether students will choose to follow a star professor’s individual brand “outside the walls of the university.” In the same publication, on the same day, Steve Kolowich said Thrun’s new startup, KnowLabs, would “put the importance of the institutional brand to the test.”
Both stories suggest that KnowLabs is a test case for the power of the personal brand to lead learning initiatives.
(Truth is, that’s already been shown. In terms of scale, sure, the Stanford/KnowLabs case is a far more massive proof of concept than the Massive Open Online courses like #change11 or the many MOOCs that have preceded it. But the truth is, George Siemens and Stephen Downes and others de-coupled their MOOCs from formal accredited offerings a few years back, and have already shown that thousands of people are, in fact, quite willing to follow the brand of an individual facilitator beyond the walls of academia.)
But this is NOT a personal brand versus institutional brand game. It’s something new: it’s about brand as a way to be part of an entirely different game of learning.
Academic institutions have been the primary keepers of knowledge in Western society for centuries: as such, they’ve also played a central role in according individuals the status of “knower” within our culture.
As I commented on Watters’ article, Thrun’s personal brand is still built on and in the institutional brand system, the one by which big universities like Stanford hold claim to particular standards of knowledge and status. Thrun’s association with them credentializes him as a professor. His personal brand is built in part on his institutional affiliations. Of course people will follow him, Pied-Piper-like, outside the walls of the university: he’s been vetted and found good enough for Stanford. Why wouldn’t he be good enough to teach little old me for free?
(Well, so long as I don’t want or need formal credit for the experience of learning with him. More on that in a minute).
Thrun’s street cred is also based in his history with Google. In this, he follows the long-trodden path of business and industry “experts” who are in effect accredited as knowers by their own success: their reputation grants them recognition in the eyes of those who value their knowledge, whether or not it has been stamped by a formal institution.
It is this issue of accreditation that seems to fester and bubble at the heart of most of the conversation around open online learning initiatives, large or small. The stamp – or brand – of formalized learning still represents to many minds the be-all and end-all of education: it’s raison d’etre. But this vision of brand is an outdated game.
The institutional model of knowledge and knowers that dominated pre-digital society rested on the philosophical assumption that courses exist to credential students and move them through an organized and predetermined structure. This is the business model of the modern university, sure, and predates it to the extent that credentialism of knowledge has held industry status in our culture.
This model, however, is not about learning. It encourages us to view learning through the lens of retention and completion rates; from a perspective of credits bestowed. These lenses are hugely important for contemporary academic institutions, but what they tell us is more about the success of the institution than the success of the learner on his or her own terms. And that’s an increasingly critical distinction.
Open online courses come at the idea of learning not from a “what is taught” perspective of value, but a “what is accessed” perspective of value. They don’t necessarily claim to assure anything is learned: they don’t tend to offer credentials, beyond (in some cases) a minimal badge acknowledging that participation occurred. But their goal is NOT to be externalizable measures of what information a person has mastered. Their goal is to offer people the chance to access, in an organized fashion, information and ideas, and to participate in the learning experience around that information or those ideas. They follow the participatory model of learning, which is social and rhizomatic and based more in notions of intrinsic value than of extrinsic credentializing.
If I participate in a MOOC or in Thrun’s new course, it’s not an opportunity for me to be sanctioned by an existing institutional brand, no. But it’s an opportunity for me to develop my own interests and ideas and brand as I learn and connect and perform my knowledge in a networked environment of inquiry.
Digital networks connect people and allow for the sharing and working through of ideas. Knowledge is no longer the sole or even primary purview of institutions: it’s out there, part of what Haraway called “the integrated circuit.” And if I am out there too, I can participate in the creation and sharing of knowledge, whether or not I have any institutional affiliation. I do so by engaging, by putting ideas out there and contributing to the ideas of others: by building my reputation or brand as someone who has something of value to contribute. Brand is not necessarily the end-goal of this game: it’s simply what you build as you play.
This is the networked reputation model for participatory learning. It’s social. It’s informal. It’s learner-centered and it’s not going away.
MOOC participation, then, isn’t about following a star facilitator’s brand outside the walls of academia. It’s about developing one’s own brand and reputation as a learner and knower, irrespective of those walls.
Now, Some of us straddle the two worlds. Some aren’t interested in formal, traditional models of higher education at all. And some need formalized credentials but also want access to contemporary up-to-the-minute expertise and participation that traditional academia simply cannot and does not provide. Sometimes, many of us require levels of vetting for particular pieces of knowledge that the informal peer processes of networked branding and open learning can’t offer.
Sometimes, Sebastian Thrun attested, going social in learning makes it hard to go back to the formal model.
Both types of learning have their place. But the open online courses simply don’t exist to do the things traditional courses do. Considering them on those terms is like judging a basketball team for playing bad soccer. Different game. Shared audience in terms of the sports market pie? Sure. But there’s more than one game in town in terms of higher education now.
And while MOOCs may be an example of personal brand driving people beyond the walls of institutional academic brands, this isn’t just about the individual brands of facilitators. It’s about the participants, and what they have to gain.
(I was tickled to see Steve Kolowich call the Stanford AI course a MOOC. Dave was part of the coining of the term, and while it was obvious to most in the networks of educational technologies this fall that the much-talked-about Stanford initiative was, in fact, a MOOC, the word wasn’t a familiar one to the New York Times et al. It’s an awkward term, sure. But most neologisms are: I still haven’t heard a simple alternative arise to conceptualize these large-scale, networked offerings, and so I’m kinda rooting for it. MOOC MOOC. MOOC.)
Confession: I’m not entirely sure what week it is in #change11.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are tricky creatures, their possibilities and to-do lists inclined to slip away from you and multiply like rabbits the minute you look in another direction. Especially this “mother of all MOOCs,” with its 36 consecutive facilitators and topics.
For a lot of us in education, staying afloat in such a sea of participatory learning opportunities is difficult, overwhelming, contrary to a life’s practice of taking what Liz Renshaw so aptly called “the helicopter view” of any learning experience and trying to overview it. MOOCs are big and distributed and decentralized: conversations are happening all over, there are ostensibly over 2000 participants (even if a lot mostly lurk), and basically, there’s almost no way to keep a finger on the pulse of it all.
It’s rhizomatic, meaning that just like weeding your damn garden, what you see and pull up is only a fraction of what’s there.
This is apt, since while I may not know whether it’s week 7 or 8 of 36 in #change11, I do know it’s Dave’s week, and that the theme is rhizomatic learning.
I may as well dive in.
(Caveat here: I am Dave’s partner and while I have thoughts and opinions on rhizomatic learning I do not actually pay nearly such close attention to his work as I, uh, could? Ought to? So this post does not reflect a particularly privileged or informed perspective on Dave’s ideas, but more where they – and the conversation taking place this week in #Change11 – send me.)
”…a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.”
Sometimes Dave’s work gets taken up either as educational theory or as educational technique. For my part, I don’t think it’s either.
I see rhizomatics as a potent metaphor for conceptualizing the process of learning, and for approaching how we go about learning and working with learning. The value in the idea of the rhizome, for me, is the way in which it foregrounds the unpredictability, the messiness, the connectedness, and the multi-directionality of learning, knowledge, and educational research. I see rhizomatic learning almost as a lens, a pair of glasses one learns to put on in order to view the educational landscape.
These rhizomatic learning lenses are not intended to make you see more clearly, per se, though you may or may not come to that conclusion about their effects. Rather they are intended to make you see differently.
We live in a culture and time where our minds are colonized by education. Most particularly, by education as a system. We go to school, almost all of us, and are taught from an extraordinarily young age that school equates with learning. Our cultural concepts of education and learning are intrinsically interwoven with notions of schooling.
And when we try to grapple with the ways in which the discourses of learning and schooling have changed – drastically – in the past generation or so, as we are trying to do with the #change11 MOOC, that colonization often takes over.
Colonization is a harsh word. Education, after all, is a good. Most of us who tend to succeed in it have been taught that from our mothers’ knees. Even those of us who haven’t succeeded – or had the opportunity to succeed – within systematized education have traditionally been made acutely aware of our lack.
I do genuinely believe there can be great value in an education. To paraphrase Churchill on democracy, I see education as the worst system…except for all the other ones that have been tried. I place particular import on systems of public education, to the extent to which they help mitigate inequities and create opportunities. Alas, that extent is often profoundly underwhelming.
It is also where technologies and networks and the possibilities of open education really begin to excite me. Because we get the opportunity to rethink or think outside the systemic constraints of traditional education and learning, and to consider what learning and “an education” could mean.
Except then we don’t, all too often. Because we’re colonized.
We conflate learning and schooling. We are subjects of the idea of education as a system, an institution, and so we rely on and replicate this idea in our conceptions of learning: we assume factors like goals and grading and – increasingly – market viability as real parts of what learning involves. They can be, of course. But they do not need to be unless that learning is taking place within the contingencies of mass-delivery and crowd control and normativizing of classed behaviours and literacies that we absorbed with our school milk programs. These practical components of systemic schooling processes are the base map or lens on learning which we, culturally, have inherited.
This idea of systemic education as we in the West know it is not a particularly ancient one. As Dave pointed out in the first post of the week, one of the purposes of mass public education was to train workers. It was also to inculcate what were deemed to be productive civic values in citizens, including a healthy respect for institutional, hierarchical power.
For the last fifty years or so, the idea of that institutional, hierarchical power as natural and good has been broadly challenged- see 1968, deconstruction, Free to Be You & Me, constructivism, and, uh, MOOCs, among other things – but also buoyed up by the rise of neoliberalism and the increasing public acceptance of discourses of corporatism and managerialism in public enterprises such as government and education. It’s a site of fascinating societal struggle. It’s also profoundly self-replicating: we become subjects of the system in school, and then subject others to the operations of the system we’ve come to see as natural and right.
So long as our lenses on learning are actually focused on schooling, we replicate the same colonizing systems. Even where we try not to. Even online, where we don’t have to.
Which is where rhizomatic learning and the new pair of glasses come in.
The rhizome is non-binary, non-hierarchical, and non-linear: it’s also aggressive and chaotic and resists the tree-like arboreal model of knowledge. For Deleuze & Guattari, it is a cultural process that emphasizes “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” Yeh. That.
I don’t think rhizomatic learning can be used particularly effectively to address grading, or curriculum, or most of the structures of systemic education. The rhizome is not a way of tweaking the systems we have.
The idea of rhizomatic learning emphasizes how ideas spread, popping out roots and shoots. Some of these take on whole lives of their own. Others abort at the bud stage. As a visual image for how learning operates, it enables us to – maybe – break down or see beyond some of the colonized perceptions we’ve been trained to, like the one that makes me feel slightly anxious when I realize I’ve missed an entire week of what’s gone on in the MOOC, say. That’s a perspective trained to assume that a) what’s on offer is what I should learn, b) that a view of the “whole” is possible and desirable and that partiality is less, and c) that missing things in a learning experience is abnormal.
Yet when I think back to my high school or undergraduate “learning experiences,” I begin to wonder if the process of popping out little roots and shoots in relatively unpredictable response to whatever I happened to tune into isn’t what I’ve been doing all along, however much the curriculum and my nice, tidy grades from those days might like to tell another story.
I try to wear my rhizomatic learning glasses when I think about this MOOC. I focus on the connections that occur, the relations between ideas and people and platforms, and the ones that seem to abort. I always think of whatever I might happen to think about the MOOC as if it were a picture of a tiny part of our very-rhizome-infested garden, partial and limited and chaotic and heading off in a tangle of directions.
Slowly, very slowly, this perspective on my own learning and participation and subject position begins to help me alter the way I conceive of education.
And that, my friends, is what rhizomes are good for.
One of the most interesting things I’m doing this year – learning-wise, research-wise, and community-wise – is the Change MOOC.
(For those of you not already signed on for this adventure, dimestore recap: a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. It’s free. Anyone can register and participate. There are set topics, assignments, and timelines, but you do what you want, via blog or FB or the central discussion threads: in terms of both your contributions and the platforms you use to share them, its entirely your choice. There are no gold stars – as yet – or credentials for completion, and no invalid forms of participation so long as you’re respectful of others. It’s a chance, basically, to be part of some coordinated conversations about learning, or whatever the topic, and to make some connections amidst the morass of people IN that conversation. A MOOC usually has participants from around the globe, at least within the English-speaking world. There are close to 2000 people registered for this one, I think.)
MOOCs are catching on these days: Stanford is even offering one. What makes the Change MOOC particularly intriguing is that while Stephen Downes, George Siemens, & Dave Cormier (yep, that Dave) – the godfathers of MOOC – will manage this course, they’re not doing the lion’s share of the facilitation this time.
The course is 36 weeks long. Each week has its own focus, under the overarching umbrella theme of “Change: Education, Learning, and Technology,” or how being connected changes learning. Which, as I see it, is a key site of contemporary cultural shift whether you come at it from the perspective of an educator, a geek, or simply a connected person interested in understanding social media practices more explicitly. Each week is facilitated – readings suggested, an online discussion session hosted – by a researcher or innovator or leader in the particular area being explored: this week, it so happens, is the theme of Digital Scholarship, led by Open University academic and author Martin Weller. Participants are encouraged to “write themselves into the course” by responding to topics, themes and assignments in whatever way they wish. In MOOCs, participants’ input often drives as much or more of the trajectory of discussion and interaction than does the facilitator. It’s networked, distributed learning.
I’ll be facilitating a week on social media identity come spring. I get to take my fledgling research into a classroom-ish setting and explore it with and through the participation of others, many of whom likely will have social media identities to bring to the table. (I’m the second-last week, mind you, so the 2000+ may either have dwindled to 12 by then or blown up to even more gargantuan proportions. We’ll see.)
But even better than getting to teach, I get to participate in the whole shebang. Student, faculty, and researcher all in one. Most of the 36 facilitators are also participants and researchers. Identity-wise, this levelling of hierarchical role separations obviously interests me. But so does the rest of the content.
This week’s Digital Scholarship discussion is particularly interesting. What does the capacity to share ideas outside traditional academic channels mean for scholarship in the 21st century? What will the impact of it be? It’s the impact piece – and the implications for traditional practices – that intrigues me. How do connectivity and the capacity for digital sociality suggest transformations in academia?
One of the readings Martin suggested for the week was the JISC (UK) report (2009) on the Lives and Technologies of Early Career Researchers: as an early career researcher, just starting on my second year of Ph.D studies, I’ve been conducting my own informal experiment over the past year into the subject.
Am I getting more input and feedback into my research and learning via traditional academic channels, or online?
It’s an unfair question, in a sense, because of scale. I’m in a tiny program, the first Ph.D in Education in this province. We are a cohort of three, with three additional students starting up this month. While there are a few broad overlaps in subject area, my peers and I share very little in the way of common focus, experience, practice, or expectation. So the level of face-to-face peer input into my research thus far – lovely and supportive though my colleagues are – has been seriously minimal. Tiny. Whereas from the time I started this blog back in January, the combination of my large-ish online community and my research interest in online identities and practices has made a wealth of sharing and input and feedback available to me, in spite of the fact that the majority of that online community are not in any way academics. They are, however, engaged in the culture of blogging and social media, which encourages reciprocality. Academia is generally still disposed and structured to be wary of reciprocality: it comes too close to plagiarism and treads on cherished Enlightenment notions of individual intellectual enterprise.
However, if I only had an online community of three, I might not have had the same experience. But it is very very hard to have an online community of three. The scale of connectivity in digital spaces and the potential for productive sharing, collaboration, and congruence therein is one of the biggest arguments, in my mind, for digital scholarship. Or at least, the digital engagement of scholars. Which usually ends up being digital scholarship, because people engage on topics that interest them.
As Martin Weller points out, though, there’s a conflict here. Research, in most traditional academic conceptions, relies on concepts of control, even where replicability is not required. New technologies are, from an institutional practice point of view, about letting go of control: giving it up to the crowd. And if academia lets go of its controls, of course, how does it validate knowledge? How does it verify and justify its own structures and practices? Yes, connectivity distributes research ideas far more quickly and broadly than traditional journals. At the same time, yes, crowdsourcing is (perhaps) a more vulnerable system of verification than peer review, Nature magazine’s 2006 experiment notwithstanding.
(Sidenote: have been reading Deleuze on Foucault lately. Foucault spoke about the institutional structures of the 19th century as the structures of a disciplinary society, juxtaposed against what he, Burroughs, & Deleuze called societies of control, in which continuous modulation of behaviours shaped by business principles along digital (or spectrum-based, non-analogical) models occurs. Control devolves from confinement by institution to a self-colonizing practice taken up by the crowd, by the individuals within. I think this has – ahem – some resonance for those of us interested in higher education and MOOCs, I’ll explore it soon, in another post).
The biggest best thing about the MOOC is that it’s a semi-structured opportunity to teach yourself to BE a digital scholar, whether in or out of the academy. To select what’s relevant from the stream. To curate. To share. To work iteratively, publishing ideas that – like this post – aren’t all you could say on the subject, but are at least a start. And letting some stuff go so as not to be entirely colonized, perhaps.
All are welcome, and there are still 34 mind-boggling-packed weeks ahead. Not too late. Think on it. Change MOOC.
I’ll let Dave explain how simple it is, courtesy of our SSHRC research project last year.