Networks

HybridPod 008

Narrator:        You’re tuned to HybridPod: a podcast exploring conversations of Critical Digital Pedagogy, listening for ways to empower students and champion learning. It’s the aural side of Hybrid Pedagogy: a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology. I’m Chris Friend, from Saint Leo University.

        In this episode, I’ll share a conversation I had with Bonnie Stewart [Bonnie’s self-introduction] in November 2015. This conversation grew out of her involvement with Digital Pedagogy Lab, a one-week on-ground institute hosted by Hybrid Pedagogy and the University of Wisconsin—Madison. At Digital Pedagogy Lab, Bonnie led a weeklong track on Networks. I’ll go ahead and quote from the promotional material for that track here. It focused “on the nature of digital networks and network-building, from blogs and social media to open courses and collaboration.” It included “discussions of MOOCs, rhizomatic learning, how influence and reputation circulate in professional learning networks, the social contracts of closed and networked spaces, and the intersections between networks and face-to-face learning environments.” And finally, they aimed to “consider how networks are both responding to and creating the Internet as a learning environment.”

        That’s a lot to fit into five days, and certainly too much for one HybridPod episode. But I do want to start the conversation here about how networks and learning exist symbiotically in society and in today’s education systems. Before we dive into all that, let me introduce Bonnie to you and have her introduce the concept of “network” as it applies to people and learners.

Chris Friend:        On your personal webpage, I think it’s the front page, you say you consult on digital strategy and digital pedagogy with school systems and in higher ed.

Bonnie Stewart:        Yes and that’s been an interesting emergent that’s happened rather than something I set out to do. I finished my PhD in April. I live in a very small place in the Atlantic Ocean, essentially off the east coast of Canada, and we have one higher education institution in the sense of a university and one college system. I, for the last year-and-a-half or so, have had a half-time coordinator’s position at the university managing a professional learning adult ed program that partners with the college.

Narrator:        One of the difficulties I have in understanding Bonnie’s work is that she looks at two things that I don’t normally think can coexist: Dynamic networks and the institutional structures of higher ed, which I see as often fiercely rigid and hierarchical. Here’s how she explains the situation.

Bonnie Stewart:        When I talk about networks to anybody, I always start by asking, “Are you in a family,” because the network is actually very old, ancient, and probably one of the original systems of human organization.

I grew up with just my Mum; I have half-siblings but never lived with them but for people who grew up with a sibling it’s always fun to ask them, “So tell me about your relationship with your mother, father, grandmother, Uncle Bob.” “Oh well, my brother was the favorite.” In a network, each entity is a node and the relationships between those nodes are always individual. They are always formed by specific experiences and communications. You can be in the same family but have two totally different experiences of a third party or third person. That’s pretty normal and something we’re all familiar with. I think that learning networks are no more a new idea than family networks. Building relationships with people was the first way we had to learn from people. As humans developed the capacity for alphabetic literacy and other forms of writing, people like Socrates railed against the capacity to write that down because the word wasn’t relational, it couldn’t talk back, it couldn’t speak for itself.

As irony has it, the fact that Plato wrote down what Socrates said, has allowed us to continue to work with and think about his knowledge or ideas, thousands of years later. We started learning from other people. I would argue that still, we are always learning from other people. They might just be a world away or dead if we’re reading their books. The university system or the educations system is really, particularly the K-12 public education system, a much newer overlay than that idea of learning in individual relationships from people. There are wonderful things about a public system of education because not everyone has the same access to marvelous people to learn from. Not everybody could travel like Julius Caesar did, from Rome to Rhodes in like 62 B.C., to go and meet the one dude who had the knowledge that he needed to gain to become what he became.

Now, of course, education systems don’t equal the playing field to the extent we sometimes like to believe that they do, but they are certainly at least way better than not having any form of addressing access issues. When you have a system, you do need to think about what the baseline is of what you’re doing for everybody. That changes the game and makes it much more of a top-down, hierarchical, structure. Yet, within that structure, there are and have always been the individual relationships of networks within. Academia, societies, and disciplinary conferences are network forming. So these individual relationships, communications, and passages of information have always been part of this larger system. What we’ve been able to do in the past 20 years is to open up the walls around that so that we’re doing more across geographic barriers. Still not sure that we’re really achieving the kind of quality that would at least be my ideal but I’m not entirely sure how to get there either.

Chris Friend:        Is there a particular approach to digital pedagogy that you specifically advocate for? Or is there something you see as more beneficial than what most people typically consider, when they start thinking about it?

Bonnie Stewart:        I don’t even know if I know what people typically consider when they start thinking about it. My experience of working at the intersection of technology and education broadly, is that a lot of people, when they think about digital or technology in any way related to ed, they start by thinking about shiny things and tools. My work has always been, essentially, to counter that by saying, “The tools are probably less important than the concepts,” and I always start with conceptual tools. I think that’s why my work has aligned well with the work of hybrid pedagogy and digital pedagogy lab, because this is actually about an approach to education, rather than simply, “Lets slot in the right tool into slot “b” and everything turns out in a given way.” That’s not how I see education and frankly that’s not how I see even digital tools themselves. I think all of this is a human enterprise that we’re involved in.

Chris Friend:        You say that it’s an approach to education and I think we’re still at the edge of what I’m trying to find out from you. What is that approach and what defines how we should be handling this human enterprise that you’re talking about?

Bonnie Stewart:        For me, I tend to shy away from open attempts to define what I think pedagogy is or should be, because for me, it changes from day-to-day. I did my teaching certificate 21 years ago, started teaching 20 years ago and I remember the one assignment that was, “Define your educational philosophy.” I’m not even sure if I came across the term “pedagogy” until I did my Masters and that may have just been the particular program I was involved in. The assignment, as I recall, most people came out with something very nice, tidy, and pat and I wrote a small thesis and still felt like I hadn’t begun to grapple with the question. So, for me, that’s such a big thing that I never find a nice way to bring it up. The process of engaging in learning is this vast, personal, life long, piece and when you talk about education, you’re talking about systems rather than individuals.

Somewhere in that mix of a system where you set out and plan an education, wherein hopefully individuals learn, I’m not sure that students mostly get out of their education the things that we think we’re teaching. So when I talk about an approach to education, I’m really always talking about ways of trying to engage individual people in ideas that make them excited about learning the stuff that might be in the system, the curriculum, the organized one-to-many broadcasts, or prearranged piece that we sometimes think we’re supposed to deliver. Some of us are more bound to that than others, even by contract. For me, I’ve the privilege of teaching in a faculty event, so that the idea that there are foundational knowledge pieces is not necessarily as pervasive in my faculty and my teaching context, as it would be. Even when I used to teach academic writing, there were some basic certain pieces that I couldn’t necessarily put someone forward, saying they have achieved success in this particular area without having met certain checkmarks along the way.

In education it’s a little bit more open. I have more autonomy, more flexibility but I’m also aware that whatever I set out and aim for in a class, is always something that can change along the way. It will inevitably shift gears and will inevitably be something that the 28 or 30 different people in that experience, or if it’s a MOOC class the couple of hundred different people in that experience, will get different things out of and will choose to take different things out of. That, for me, has to be okay. I really enjoy working with, particularly, the idea of learning as opposed to education. When I’m asked to think about education as a, “How do we plan for success within a system,” because I recognize that systems need that level of reorganization, I do find that networks, network communications particularly, can be a really interesting way of trying to keep the idea of the individual and difference, and the fact that everyone’s experience is unique, a part of an approach to what is still a systematized view of learning.

Chris Friend:        What I heard from you is an awful lot of flexibility and being able to go into, what you called, “that learning experience,” ready to adapt to the needs of the individuals who are in that experience and to give them basically, a variety of things to choose from.

What I’m struggling with in my own head, is how to do that within a system like my institution that expects so many milestones and so much standardization to allow for consistent delivery. Then, if we add to that another layer of complexity, we are right now, evaluating electronic portfolio solutions for programmatic assessment, university assessment, and accreditation assessment. We’re looking to be able to take outcomes from individual test items and track those up through a course through the outcomes of a program through the needs of our accrediting body, so we can say, “Everything the entire way down to this item on this test is aligned perfectly to a specified outcome.”

Bonnie Stewart:        Wow! It’s turtles all the way down. Good luck with that. To an extent, here at my institution, we’re also exploring what portfolios can do in terms of supporting students in terms of both formative and summative assessment. The alignment pieces are important because you do want the intended systemic outcomes or systematized outcomes to be represented in what people are showing. At the same time, when we try to get too controlling over what those are, I think we end up almost halving off a great deal of the potential learning. One of the big shifts I see, as we move to portfolios for assessment or the broader conversation even in our K-12 system here, “assessment for learning” which is the big new term. It’s really important that we recognize that we need to change our literacies as educators in terms of what we recognize as “counting.” I don’t mean “counting” as one, two, three, I mean “counting” as correct or as meeting the objectives.

For a lot of us, me included, it’s easier when you have a simple right or wrong paradigm or domain. Those of us who work in more qualitative or essay-question-type areas, have over the years of our own education and our years of teaching, developed literacies and being able to read and assess what is always, I believe, very much still a subjective, no matter how rubricked you get it. To be literate in reading how well Chris has answered that essay question versus how Bonnie has answered that essay question, because frankly, Chris and Bonnie may have used entirely different words but both have gotten at the main point. So how much do we evaluate the words, the content, or the presentation? That’s a literacy piece. That is never just an on-and-off piece. I think portfolios and other forms of assessment for learning add a whole other level of complexity in there because you’re adding visual literacies to the picture, you’re breaking outside of a fairly established idea of what counts as a good essay.

We don’t necessarily have the same cultural traditions or knowledge around what counts as a good digital portfolio. We often have faculty and teachers who may not be comfortable and literate in digital engagement being put into a position where they need to assess these pieces. There’s a big shift happening. I think overall it has the potential to be positive but when we get into those looking for that exact, exact piece we often really miss the purpose of why we set out to do it in the first place. I think about the advice we give people when they are applying for jobs. I’ve been looking at some academic jobs and thinking some of the jobs are presented in a way that it’s very clear you need to write a cover letter that essentially takes all the sentences from the ad, rearrange them, and leave out the reason why you might actually be really great at that job. There’s no way to necessarily frame it in exactly what they’ve asked for. When you limit yourself to just hitting a bunch of checkboxes in any kind of context, then you leave out the capacity to go above and beyond and the capacity to be surprised. I’m wary when we talk about assessment for learning and portfolios, of getting to a place where we are just assessing checkboxes as a sign of success in this. I’d love to see us look at it from a more global perspective recognizing that that’s going to be really, really hard for people.

Chris Friend:        This goes back to an argument that Jesse Stommel and I have been having for quite some time over the nature of objectives and outcomes. He hates the word “outcomes” and thinks it’s one of the most hideous things to ever happen to education and I, generally, am a fan of them within reason. I think a lot of the difference in the way that he and I talk about them is, when he says “outcomes” he thinks about those little checkboxes you were just discussing. When I think about “outcomes,” I think we can make them very broad and make them with flexibility built in to allow for the kinds of subjective essay writing response sort of thing you were talking about.

There are plenty of ways to get at a broadly phrased outcome. What we as educators can do is help our students see that there are plenty of ways. Then we can look for those opportunities for our students and see, “Oh they took that opportunity and got where I needed them whereas this other student took a different route and got the same place.” I think with a properly phrased and broad enough outcome, we’re able to allow for that kind of discovered learning that I think, you’ve been talking about.

Bonnie Stewart:        I think it’s totally possible to use outcomes in that way. I think that often, in the classroom, I see teachers doing that. I see people at least moving towards that, making that effort and trying to relate individually to their students, so that the outcome actually reflects where the student is. Meeting the student where they are and that student’s learning. I think outcomes as a conversation or narrative in education, are incredibly dangerous. What they’ve done is they’ve contributed to an overall political discussion that has allowed a lot of command and control language to dominate the education conversation.

That makes it sound as if it’s perfectly logical that, of course, we would have students coming out with the same thing and to suggest anything otherwise is to be some kind of airy-fairy, naïve person who doesn’t understand the reality that we’re in. That whole broader thrust of accountability of teachers within the system does concern me. It’s not because I think teachers shouldn’t be accountable but I think the capacity to organize good accountability to students and taxpayers who fund the system, is not contained in a bureaucratic business-language-driven concept of education.

Narrator:        So if we shift the terms of this conversation from the broad angle of accountability and institutional outcomes down to the specifics of individual learners, how does that affect the discussion?

Bonnie Stewart:        I’ve been asked to give an hour long presentation on becoming a networked learner or a networked scholar. The identity pieces of that; what are the features of a networked identity and what does it take to build a network identity? Often, I’m building on the research I did in my PhD because I looked at how people particularly connected to higher ed from grad students through to alt-ac folks, to staff, to both early career researchers and senior faculty; people who engage actively with networks.

How have they built those identities? How do they perceive each other’s identities? How do they perceive credibility and influence in that space? So it’s sharing some of that research and those findings with faculty here, just to encourage people to maybe give it a try. Usually, anytime you are talking to particularly in 2015, when you’re talking to a group of people about Twitter, it’s very different than talking to a group of people about Twitter in 2010 because in 2010 for a lot of people, the idea might have been unfamiliar or just something they’d heard about but they hadn’t necessarily formed an identity or opinion about it.

By now, people are using Twitter, they have decided there’s a reason why and often it’s based on a broad circulating come down from the “New York Times,” maybe from a Sherry Turkle article. They might have picked up a piece of that and decided this is not for them because x or y, maybe without having an understanding of the platform, which is a pretty immersive platform, or an understanding of what it does in education. I’m guilty of that in terms of Instagram. I made a decision about 2010 that I’m not really a photographer, I have enough stuff, and I wasn’t going to use Instagram.

That makes it difficult for me to hear any reconception of what Instagram might do for my practice or for me, because I’m already someone who doesn’t use Instagram. So, I’m always aware when I’m talking to people about something like Academic Twitter. Twitter has many problems and I am not a Twitter evangelist. But at this point, I don’t think something else has emerged that quite does the same things. So that’s still where a lot of strong communities are and where the center for the capacity to build a personal learning network as an educator, I think, still remains. I end up having to talk about Twitter even with many caveats and I really enjoy analyzing the shifts in Twitter and how much it’s changed. But, I’m always aware when I’m talking to educators, academics, that if they aren’t already using it, they have their reasons.

I will build something like a hashtag chat or try to engage them with a larger community talking about something that is focused and of interest. I never make people or even encourage people to sign up under their own name, but rather to make a shell account they can try it with. Then they get the proof of concept and the piece that is very, very different from the media narrative. They’re able to make an informed choice and that’s all I’m looking for. I want people to have conceptual tools to think about what it means to use things like social media in the modern contemporary space of education and higher ed, which is increasingly complex and messy.

It also increasingly requires a high level of media literacy just to be able to really function and serve students. We all work in this time of knowledge abundance and we all need the literacies so we can model for our students those literacies of navigating. For me at least, being involved in social media networks of various forms has been a huge, immersive, hands-on learning experience. The world is very, very different and people’s perspectives are very, very different than what I encounter here at UPEI. I want my children and my children’s teachers and those teachers’ students to have some exposure to the capacity to be that kind of engaged citizen.

Narrator:        This brings up another interesting intersection in her work: the way identity is wrapped up with (and within) networks. I asked how she worked with one and not the other.

Bonnie Stewart:        I think those ended up being two very different conversations. You can certainly have them differently but you can’t be in a network without having an identity. I think the first person I ever heard say this was Steven Downes many, many years ago. He talked a bit about networks and groups and I don’t know if the distinction originates with him, but basically, in a group, you can see who belongs. There is a way to get a sense of who belongs to that group and who does not.

I always think of it in terms of a room. If we’re in a room together, a class together, or even if it has 500 people in that auditorium you can go home that night and someone can say to you, “Was Chris there,” and you might say, “I didn’t see him,” or “Yeah, he was there, I saw him.” But you might not always know everyone who is in the room but there is finite limit to who is there and who is the audience for whatever that conversation is. In a network, you can’t see the limits of the room. The audience is potentially infinite. Although no one ever has as big an audience as they often think they do in networks, except when they’re surprised by it when the context collapse and they realize they’re speaking to people who may not take what they’re saying as they had expected.

The identity is the piece that circulates for you in a digital network. Your identity, your avatar, your name, whatever remains consistent. It doesn’t have to be your real identity. It can be a pseudonym and a picture of your cat but if you talk to people as Happy Cat with a picture of your cat for five years, they know Happy Cat is a person who is interested in shoes, high school social studies, and soccer. They’ll have a concept of you as an identity. It may not match or be identical to the embodied you that walks around, but if you spend five years speaking to people as that, presuming you’re not out to scam people, those pieces I see as almost a separate conversation.

I think there’s a lot less “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” out there — particularly in Academic Twitter — than the 90s version of thinking on digital identity would have led us to believe. I think, for the most part, there has been a really interesting surge of people speaking more about aspects of embodied identity that have not been part of the broad conversation. So we go back to your question about Tactical Twitter or what I saw happening New Year’s 2013. Starting about mid-2013, I started to see on the boundaries of my Twittersphere, people actively using hashtags on Twitter and Facebook to raise awareness of issues often of identity and of non-dominant identities.

You saw Sue E. Park and Mickey Kendall, both of whom are women of color, who were raising issues around identity in visibility and voice through hashtags. It was interesting to me, even as a white woman from Canada watching, I thought, “This is really important. This is an important capacity to galvanize parties around this hashtag and use volume and the capacity to connect with people who otherwise might be in a physical or geographical space where they don’t have other people saying these things. Or maybe they’re not being heard when they’re saying these things and this is a way that people can really get that message out.”

It had probably started long before mid-2013, but again in my own bubble, that’s when I first came across it. At that time, a couple of things kind of blew up. Some members of the Academic Twitter community had some back-and-forth, based maybe actually on a higher ed blog post. I haven’t looked back on this in a long time Chris, so. But based on a blog post that went around there was some back-and-forth and then comments and then of course the Tweeting of the blog post and the sharing of the blog post.

It was the first time, I think it was New Year’s Day of 2014, where I really saw, what I’d already seen kind of emerge through hashtag activism earlier in the year. It was almost impossible for actively engaged users in Academic Twitter, to show up on Twitter on New Year’s Day 2014 and talk to a bunch of people. You could come in and just say what you were doing, but if you were really going to engage with the conversation that was happening there, you almost had to acknowledge this issue. To do otherwise was to ignore this massive elephant that was circulating and spinning in the room.

I saw it in hindsight when I finished my thesis. My conclusion actually looked back over the year-and-a-half that I’d been researching and writing up this research at what I had seen shift over the period of 2014. That level of engagement and having to address a particular conversation related to an issue within Academic Twitter, didn’t become the dominant norm, I would say, at least within my experience with Academic Twitter. Everybody’s use is always, “Your mileage may vary.” Those kinds of personal tête-à-têtes that floated out to the larger community, I don’t think totally became the norm.

But over 2014, I definitely saw the rise of hashtag activism and it was difficult and by my ethics, wrong to engage in active Twitter use over 2014 without engaging with issues like Ferguson or GamerGate, though it was very dangerous to engage with GamerGate, but to be unaware of something like GamerGate, to not take a position as a public voice. I think that that expectation that people take positions on public issues is something that has grown over the last couple of years. There are ways in which that is managed and fostered that can be very challenging for people.

No one likes being called out and at the same time, often, I don’t think those of us who benefit from the status quo are always going to make change in our sense of how we relate to the conversation or what the conversation is. What is of import to speak about when we have a voice, unless we do have that sense that, “Hm. Maybe I do need to lend my voice to something for good.” The inverse of that, just for me to say, was also that I learned over that period of 2013-2014 that when an issue doesn’t  intersect with my identity, but I recognize that I’m in the power position related to that issue, I’ve also learned to try to amplify voices for whom that is actually a personal issue. I otherwise shut up, because people who are marginalized in ways that I’m not, do not need me telling them what they need to say. I’d like to think I knew that but I definitely learned it by watching and it’s been good. It’s good to know when it’s not your turn to talk and when it’s time to sit down.

Chris Friend:        I wanted to touch on that too, the idea of the importance of silence in these events. My example is far less sophisticated and nuanced as yours, but I noticed this very blatantly last week when the terrorist attacks in Paris were happening. I was learning about it through Twitter and I was with a friend who is not on Twitter and I was checking Twitter during a brief period of downtime in the conversation.

I basically started crying as I saw the very personal reactions from people that I know directly or whom I heard before. I saw all that unfolding on my timeline and I found myself very personally wrapped up in it because the experience directly affected the people I knew. Then, every now and again, there was this strange Tweet from a corporate entity that was prescheduled to something that had absolute nothing to do with this moment that Twitter seemed to be observing. I’d seen it happen occasionally before.

When something isn’t affecting their world, they’re not worrying about it and as you mentioned before people have these identities that have these multiple overlapping or not overlapping elements of their interest. So when there’s a rocket launch going on somewhere in this country I get really excited by it and my Twitter feed explodes with rocket launch stuff and then all of a sudden it’s right back to education.

Bonnie Stewart:        And I probably don’t even know there’s a rocket launch going on because I live in Canada and that’s something I haven’t cultivated a network that talks about that stuff.

Chris Friend:        Right and so it’s very easy for, “Oh shoot, something happened with a rocket launch that’s really important to me,” and no one else notices and that’s fine, whatever. But there is some quality of certain events; the attacks in Paris were certainly in that group, where everyone stops for a moment. Everyone pays attention to what’s going on and no matter what group you’re in, it feels like there’s this expectation to address, what you’d previously called, the elephant.

Where in this moment though, it’s happening live and all people that I observed on Twitter were observing it, noting it, commenting on it, and then shutting up when they realized they needed to make way for people who were trying to find safety. Then during all that, I would see a random Tweet from a company and I’d say, “Oh, you prescheduled that. That was not wise. Someone’s not paying attention to what’s going on.” It seemed like the uses of Twitter had fragmented and split, that the corporate use was one place and human use was another place. It was so easy to pick up on.

Bonnie Stewart:        I would say the corporate expectations of Twitter, versus the small percentage of Twitter users who are active users, the network of Twitter are quite different. That is what it is. The Paris piece was interesting of course, because of all of us, whoever “us” is, are cultivated and expected as North Americans to feel interpolated in the theoretical sense. Literally interpolated by Paris but not by Beirut, has also been circulated and examined and I think is really important and I think is perhaps a little bit different than the piece that I’m thinking about.

Something like Paris still reflects on the dominant side of power relations, where something like Ferguson does not. And yet, particularly those of us who are educators teach students who are not in the dominant group, whether they are African-Americans, we teach students who are outside of the either ethnic, class, heterosexual identity, or whatever forms of identity we have as humans. Twitter has actually brought to life intersectionality for me.

I think there are forms of identity it does better speaking for than others, but as educators, I don’t think we serve our students if we only hear the Parises or feel related by the Parises. I guess being engaged in that space has helped me think more about my responsibility to bring voice forward and to make room for people’s voices. It also made me consider what narrative my classroom reinforces and what it forces people to grapple with that might challenge their perception of power relations or the status quo.

Now I’m comfortable with that being what I do even when I’m not actually always comfortable with being in the middle of it, because it’s new and it’s difficult, but not everyone is comfortable with that being what they do as an educator. One of the things I love about Twitter for educators is that it’s very difficult to be fully engaged in that space and ignore that question. So ultimately, I guess that’s kind of why, with caveats and with very important cautions for people’s personal safety,  and how they engage, I do still think it’s a really valuable conversation to get involved in, because your world gets bigger.  

Narrator:        There’s the hopeful challenge I’ll leave you with: Recognizing, developing, and working with our networks to help expand our world and our opportunities to learn.

You've been tuned to HybridPod, a production of Hybrid Pedagogy, Inc.

Just because the show is over doesn't mean the conversation ends. Bonnie and I are each accessible through Twitter, and so is the show itself. Along those lines, @HybridPod and @chris_friend would like to thank @bonstewart for talking with me for this episode.

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