Networks of Care and Vulnerability

This Thursday – November 6th at 1:30pm – I’m a guest in George Veletsianos’ #scholar14 open course, talking about networks as places of care and vulnerability. It’s a Google hangout, so the talk will be an informal back and forth, open (I hope?) to multiple voices if folks want to join in.

It may even be a little bit fraught, as George may have had a different concept of vulnerability in mind when he first suggested the topic. He frames vulnerability in terms of sharing struggles, which I’ll definitely talk about on Thursday; my online origins lie deep in the heart of that territory. But, the juxtaposition of care and vulnerability, as a topic, was rich enough it that it helped me grapple with some of the complexities I was trying to frame from my research study, and I took up vulnerability more through a lens of risks and costs. As I am wont to do, I ran with that lens, and ended up not only with the presentation below (liveslides from Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt’s EC&I831 class last month) but with half a research paper under that working title for my ongoing dissertation project. So. Yay for networks.

Join us Thursday for the fisticuffs over sharing v. risk. Or something like that. ;)

More seriously, I may have ended up in a somewhat different place than George envisioned, but it’s a place I think needs to be visited and explored.

The Risks and Costs of Networked Participation
I just spent a week almost entirely offline, for the first time in…oh…about a decade. Not an intended internet sabbatical, but a side effect of extended theme park adventuring with small children and a phone that turns into a brick when I cross the US border. Y’all were spared an excess of gratuitous commentary on the great American simulacra that is Disney, basically. You’re welcome.

Being disconnected from my network was kind of refreshing. No work, no ambient curation, no framing and self-presentation for a medium with infinite, searchable memory.

It didn’t mean I was magically present the whole time with my darling offspring: I remain a distractible human who sometimes needs to retreat to her own thoughts, online or off. Nor did it mean I missed out entirely on the surge of painful yet necessary public discussion of sexual violence, consent, and cultures of abuse and silence that bloomed in the wake of Canada’s Craziest News Week EVER. Still. Sometimes a dead phone is a handy way to cope with the overload and overwhelm of networked life, especially for those who both consume and contribute to the swirl of media in which we swim.

Because contributing and participating, out in the open – having opinions and ideas in public – has costs.

Participation makes us visible to others who may not know us, and makes our opinions and perspectives visible to those who may know *us,* but have never had to grapple with taking our opinions or positions seriously (oh hai, FB feeds and comments sections hijacked by various versions of #notallmen, #notallwhitewomen, and #notalltenuredscholars).

Participation enrols us in a media machine that is always and already out of our control; an attention economy that increasingly takes complex identities and reduces them to sound bites and black & white alignments.

The costs are cumulative. And they need to be talked about, by those of us who talk about networks in education and in scholarship and in research. Because in open networks, a networked identity is the price of admission. The costs are what one pays to play. But they are paid at the identity level, and they are not evenly distributed by race, gender, class, orientation, or any other identity marker. And so with participation comes differential risks. This matters.

Bud Hunt pointed out in a (paywalled but worthwhile) Educating Modern Learners article this morning that October was Connected Educators Month…and also Gamergate. Two sides of the participatory coin. Audrey Watters doubled down on that disconnect this afternoon in Hybrid Pedagogy, riffing on Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm and asking edtech to take a good, hard look at what we ask of students when we ask them to work online:

“And I think you need to think about your own work. Where you work. For whom.

And then you must consider where you demand your students work. For whom they work. Who profits. Where that content, where that data, where those dimes flow.”
– Audrey Watters, 2014

So. This post comes, like Bud and Audrey’s pieces, from a growing dismay and uneasiness with what’s happening at the intersection of technologies and capital and education; a growing belief that the risks and costs of networked identity are an ethical issue educators and researchers need to own and explore. It comes from looking through my research data for what Audrey calls “old hierachies hard-coded onto new ones.”
Attending to Each Other in the Attention Economy
But it also comes from the sense that there is more; that the ties created even in the most abject, hierarchical, surveilled online spaces tend, like good cyborg entities, to exceed their origins.

It comes not just from the formal research data collected over months of ethnographic observation and conversation, but also from some deep and powerful conversations that the research process created.

I didn’t know Kate Bowles especially well when I put out the call for participants in my dissertation project a year ago today. She didn’t know she had breast cancer when she agreed to participate. Somewhere along the road of the past year, our discussions of identity and networks and academia and self and life sometimes got beautifully tangled, as ideas actually do, freed from eureka-moment idealizations of authorship. And somewhere in the middle of one of those tangles, she reminded me that my sometimes grim vision of the attention economy is not the only way to conceive of attention at all; that its origins come from stretching towards and caring for each other.

“the attention economy…isn’t just about clicks and eyeballs, but also about the ways in which we selectively tend towards each other, and tend each other’s thoughts–it’s an economy of care, not just a map to markets.”
– Kate Bowles, 2014

I don’t know what to make of all that…but there’s hope in it that I’m not willing to abandon just yet. When I think about networked scholarship right now, it’s in terms of these contradictions of care and vulnerability, all writ large in the attention economies of our worst and better angels.

Maybe on Thursday, in the #scholar14 hangout, we’ll figure it out together and I’ll know how my paper should end. ;)

Notes to Self: A Networked Ethnography of…Networks. Stage One.

This is the first post in a series outlining my ethnographic study of identity positions in online scholarly networked publics.

It is a way of beginning to write out my research in a context with fewer formal constraints than publishable academic writing will demand. It is also a way of communicating with participants and with my own networks about how I’m beginning to make sense of the work I’m doing. It’s a space wherein people can comment/add/speak back to the ideas I’m exploring, before I trap them in the amber of print format.

Lastly, it’s a trail of breadcrumbs: I’d like to be able to look back from wherever this research eventually leads me and trace some of the process of getting there. It’s here for the nibbling:no guarantees about where it will lead, but anyone else thinking about ethnography in the open is free and welcome to make use of it too.

Step One: Find Volunteers
In November of 2013, I put out a call for research participants via my blog and Twitter. Scholars, I said, are you on Twitter? Can I come live like a fly on the wall of your networked publics for awhile and look at how influence, credibility, and identity positions work in your online worlds?

They said yes. Bless them, they said yes.

I’d wanted twelve participants, maximum – ethnography is about depth, not about quantity – but I was floored by the volume and generosity of responses I got. Nearly thirty volunteers responded to the open call, and I tapped a few more by following up on previous expressions of interest in the project.

Step Two: Select Participants
Then, the great cull. Of all the things I’ve done with this project in the last three months, this was by far the most challenging. It wasn’t technically hard – I had a pretty tight set of requirements that I’d laid out in advance and made public in the call – but the act of choosing and owning my choices involved internalizing methodology and enacting its particular rigour upon myself.

The long, circuitous research and writing phases of my thesis proposal, intense and personal though they’d been, had involved some separation of self from work. The intensely reflexive process of challenging, adapting, and coming to own the analytic framework I’d developed in the proposal dissolved that comfortable distance. The process of selecting participants from a rich pool of volunteers – many of whom I knew, respected, and wanted very much to build or maintain positive network ties with – was the point at which I came face to face with the power and risk inherent in the identity position of “researcher.” It is one thing to understand that research “worlds” particular constructions of human value and knowledge into being, and another to actively prepare to stand openly and nakedly alongside those constructions and the selection process they represent, ever in conversation with their premises and conclusions.

My methodological approach is rooted in Patti Lather’s (1986) critical ethnography work on reconceptualizing validity and Donna Haraway’s (1988) assertion that all knowledges are situated in a view from somewhere. My goal was to try to explore as broad a range of somewheres as I could, within the limits of my own monolingualism and the norms of small sample size within ethnography. My project aimed for geographic and ethnic diversity, for range among volunteers’ institutional roles and network scales, and for representation from  a variety of sociocultural identity positions. My research call read:

The research will be conducted in English and will focus on identity and reputation-production within the English-speaking global academic sphere. Participants from a range of geographic locations, academic career stages, and disciplines are preferred, with mixed gender representation. The ways in which cultural identity markers and marginalities affect reputation and networked practices will constitute a part of the study: representation is sought from outside culturally-dominant groups in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, class origins, and other markers.

I made an Excel spreadsheet and lined my volunteers up within it. I followed each volunteer on Twitter, and checked out any blog links they sent, all the while hoping for some kind of magical Exacto knife that would enable me to select from the bounty of offers without, y’know, damaging relationships or the potential for relationships. I looked through each person’s profile carefully…with the exception of one lovely and non-recriminatory soul I met a month later who responded to my “You should have been in my research!” exclamation with a slightly confused, “Um…I volunteered. You never wrote me back.” Whoopsie. Two white female Ph.D students from Texas wrote me within hours of each other. I totally conflated the two in my head. My error, and my loss.

I eliminated people I would have loved to work with, because they did not have blogs, or current institutional affiliations within academia.

I eliminated people I was shocked to find myself crossing out, only because I had so many others who lived where they lived or who shared similar identity categories.

I made a map, so I could see the patterns and gaps left on a globe. I make no claims to speak for any parts of the world in this research, even the part I inhabit: at the same time, I think this visual of the locales of actual volunteers makes the situatedness of this project and whatever knowledges emerge from it very vivid. Note the huge swaths of human society from which I heard not a peep.

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location of study volunteers

Within the areas I did hear from, homophily was an issue: nearly half of the volunteers turned out to be white Ph.D students, as I am. A third were also concentrated in eastern North America, where I reside. Only seven of the thirty were male. None self-identified outside traditional cisgender categories. Seeing all this laid out onscreen reinforced for me the importance of trying to design for diversity of voices: even though my call for participants was shared at least 150 times (as visible from within my Twitter account alone) and circulated far beyond the borders of my known networks, the majority of those who stepped forward bore some categorical commonality with my own identities. This reality made me ruefully aware of the ways in which my research will, like all research, reflect my own situated knowledge(s) as well as those of participants, whatever the efforts I make towards multiplicity.

Step Three:  Who’s on Board?
In the end, I could not pare down to twelve participants. I chose fourteen, intending to interview at least eight…and assuming a couple might not necessarily complete the reflective tasks requested.

(I also chose another eight who agreed to act as exemplar identities for the others to reflect on: these folks were not formally participants but allowed me to explore with participants the ways in which they perceive and read the identity and reputation signals others share online. I am deeply grateful to the exemplars, as I am to every one who stepped forward to offer their names, their interest, their support, and their amplification of the call for participants.)

So. I’ve had the privilege, these past three months, of engaging in Twitter-based participant observation with these twenty-two people. Of the fourteen active participants, a couple have lived their networked lives doubly-situated: in Mexico and Vancouver; in one case, in Singapore and Western Australia, in another. Seven more are based across North America, one is in Ireland, one in South Africa, two in Australia, one in Italy. Ten are female; four male. Nine self-identified in the initial expression of interest either as “white” or effectively unmarked (ie. no disclosure of racial or ethnic heritage); the others identified respectively as black and US Southern, Malay, Latino, half-Indian, and Jewish. Four identified as gay or queer. One identified as autistic. One disclosed HIV-positive status during the course of the research. Another found out she had breast cancer the same week we began the research process. These various identifications formed some of the texture of our communications, to varying degrees: the intersection of embodied identities and identity positions with what networked publics enable and constrain was a part of what the research project was intended to dig into.

Three participants were entirely unknown to me before they expressed interest in the research, four were loose ties whose names I knew without much awareness of their work, four were moderately well-known to me, and three were individuals with whom I’d had fairly extensive networked interaction over the previous couple of years. (I’d met two of the three close ties in person, in academic conference settings). Seven are Ph.D students or candidates at various stages of completion, two of whom also hold longstanding secure administrative or teaching positions within their institution. Three are early career scholars, one on tenure-track. Three are senior professors or researchers within their institutions – one has recently transitioned from a longstanding educational consultancy role within an institution to a research professor appointment there – and one is a director on a five-year alt/ac contract with a research institution. The majority are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. In terms of scale of networks, their Twitter accounts range from a few hundred followers to thirteen thousand followers. Among the exemplars, there is even greater range in scale. Academic disciplines represented by the twenty-two participants and exemplars include but are not limited to Communications and Culture, Educational Psychology, History, Chemistry, Rhetoric and Writing, Online Learning and Educational Technologies, Public Administration and Political Science, Literature, Social Work, Information Technology, Anthropology and Sociology, and Education.

It’s been an extraordinary couple of months. Participants’ generosity in terms of time, intimacy, and tolerance for my almost-constant presence has been remarkable, as has their ongoing contribution to my research not *just* as participants but as resources and curators of a pretty steady stream of meta-information related to my study. The real challenge of networked research, I suspect, is information abundance – at the end of three months’ intensive observation, I not only have thousands of favourited tweets and dozens of blog posts to wade through as data, but literally hundreds of journal and news articles shared by participants that *may* reflect on the research questions of identity and scholarship, and may shape the course of my own meaning-making. If I can manage to read them without drowning.

So that’s where my research began, and with whom. Next time, I’ll take up the how of doing ethnography via Twitter, and how I grappled with the identity challenges of looking at…identities. :)


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.
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.

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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. ;)


Learning in the Open: Networked Student Identities

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

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

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

Learning in the Open:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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They are, in a sense, literacies. They’re what I’m stumbling towards when I talk about the networked or digital literacies that MOOCs – if they connect people – help develop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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