HybridPod Episode 007
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.
For several years now, folks from Hybrid Pedagogy have hosted Digital Writing Month (or DigiWriMo for short) as a digitally focused event to parallel the National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) that’s been happening since 2009. The idea was to gather a bunch of folks who were interested in playing around with the nature, possibilities, and reach of digital writing, however that gets defined.
This year’s iteration is hosted by Maha Bali, Kevin Hodgson, and Sarah Honeychurch. I’ve watched a few of their conversations as they’ve worked to bring things together for the month, and I was impressed (okay, maybe a little overwhelmed) by how they worked together. In this episode of HybridPod, I sat down with Maha, Sarah, and Kevin to explore the idea of collaboration — how it works, what it is, and how we can facilitate it in our classes. I have to first discuss how they first started working together.
Maha Bali: Do you remember? [laughter]
Kevin Hodgson: Do I remember?
Sarah Honeychurch: It was Rhizo 14 I guess, but actually really for me and Kevin, I think it was – Rhizo 15 Kevin, wasn’t it? When I said I was never, ever, ever going to play my ukulele in public ever, ever, ever, and then you and Ron got me playing my ukulele in public by that afternoon.
Narrator: That event, #rhizo14, was a January 2014 MOOC about rhizomatic learning, hosted by Dave Cormier. Participants in that MOOC collaborated to make several products that reflected their thinking about the time they spent together. One of the projects they worked on was a collaborative autoethnography, which eventually led to a complex article published on Hybrid Pedagogy. Here’s Maha on how it developed.
Maha Bali: There was a very, very large group of people contributing to the collaborative autoethnography and so we had several different small projects with different groups of people from there deciding what we wanted to do with it. One of them, which is the un-text, which we published in Hybrid Pedagogy, was maybe one of the craziest things I think I’d ever done.
We were trying to figure out why we weren't publishing our collaborative autoethnography and going ahead with it and doing something with it. We started a Google doc trying to explore what that was, just trying to discuss it. It ended up into this thing.
Sarah Honeychurch: There were 33 of us actually contributed to the original Google doc, 33 individual accounts of Rhizo 14. I think by the time it got to doing the un-text, there were about 12 of us.
Narrator: Actually, there were ten for the un-text and eight for the final article.
Sarah Honeychurch: You're right, Maha, that was the biggest bunch of any of us, ever I think, wasn’t it?
Maha Bali: Yeah.
Sarah Honeychurch: Kevin, you were part of that as well, weren't you?
Kevin Hodgson: I was. I think that’s a pretty good example though of the idea of open networks and open documents and open writing and the way that digital writing kind of gives us agency in ways that non-digital doesn’t always do so easily. I won't say it doesn’t do it at all. There was — it came in the aftermath of rhizomatic learning — trying to make sense of what happened in a course where the leader of course, so-called leader of the course, Dave Cormier didn’t really lead us at all — purposefully — and let us make our own learning as we went along.
When that document around trying to make sense of that came out, I saw it as a kind of playground of jumping in and thinking about trying to get my thoughts together for sure, but also in a playful way that opened up what writing is in a different tangent. We were writing in the margins. In a lot of ways, the comments were as interesting as the text itself. Then we started adding different media into it. Yeah, it got really crazy and chaotic and convoluted at points, but the multiple voices that emerged from there and all the different in the text, beyond the text, inside the text, was really I thought, fascinating in a lot of ways.
I think trying to tangle that into the article that you guys pulled together for the journal was a brave act indeed. In some ways, you had to wrangle that open nature of the document into something that would fit the form of the expectation of the Hybrid Pedagogy site, which itself has a lot of openness to it. Even so, there were ways you had to pull it into shape and you probably ran up against the walls of what’s expected and what’s not expected with digital writing.
Maha Bali: It’s called Chris Friend.
Chris Friend: I was just… I was about to point to myself and say I was that wall. That was actually going to be a question I wanted to ask. Kevin, you used the words “crazy” and “overwhelming,” and you talked about trying to make sense of what happened. This is a personal shortcoming. There’s a part of me that is afraid of that much messiness, and Maha saw a lot of that whenever she brought the document to me. I was just like, “Oh my gosh. [laughter] I don't know what’s going on here. I need a map to help me navigate this document. I can’t make sense of it and I don't know how I could be expected to present this to the readership of Hybrid Pedagogy and have them make sense of it without some kind of direction.”
That’s why we decided to do the document around the document to basically say, “Here’s a path that you can follow.”
Narrator: Let me step in here for a second to confess that this is something I do all the time. I try to impose a sort of sensible order on things that may be inherently spontaneous and decentralized. A while back, when we needed to train new editors for Hybrid Pedagogy, we tried to think of how to describe our process — which we’d long thought of as organic, iterative, and individualized — to a dozen people so we all knew how we worked. One of the first things I did was to draw a diagram of our process that made it look like a subway route, with various stops and stations and transfer points along the way.
While the diagram did help me explain our process, it also involved a very real risk through the process of abstraction. Here’s Maha again to explain.
Maha Bali: There's a concept that we talk about a lot that Terry Elliot phrased, the legibility. When you try to make anything legible, which we do in any kind of social science or any kind of science, you're trying to make something legible, but in reality, it is chaotic and messy. You try to represent it in a more organized way and you lose what it really is.
Narrator: This idea of “legibility” originates with James C. Scott’s text Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, published by Yale University in 1999.
Maha Bali: Everything in life that we study is really much messier than we represent it when you write about it or when you talk about it and research it. I think what’s interesting about what we were doing in that particular collaboration is that we let it be itself rather than try to put on a layer of organization. That layer of organization was that article we wrote around it, but because we embedded the document in it, it was not that bad. It was telling the story of how that happened and trying to come up with something out of it but keeping the original artifact there.
Narrator: The original un-text was a bit unnerving to me. It had a central document with lots of contributions from various authors. Then there were the other conversations that went on in the margins, in which contributors would chat with one another about the ideas they were sharing in the body of the document. As an outsider trying to make sense of that document, I struggled with the multiple simultaneous narratives.
Chris Friend: I don't know where I’m going with this, something like that is an element of collaboration that I still struggle with is trying to find out how to make the marginalia around a document a collaborative workspace as a canvas for a different kind of collaborative workspace than the document itself, which is also somewhat collaborate but more owned by the writer and less by the editor.
Kevin Hodgson: It’s almost like it requires explicit teaching, “This is how we write in our document, but this is how we write in the margins of our document.”
I even see that with my young students, where they’re just learning that, and what that looks like. Believe it or not, I had the same kind of thing with mine hitting that resolve button. It’s like, “Well, we didn’t even talk about that yet.” It’s interesting how they label it “resolved,” right. I think that’s interesting semantics and what that means and all the weight behind it. It’s not really resolved.
Chris Friend: I think that’s a really good opportunity to explain to students: words mean things and that word is “resolve,” not “close.” There’s a huge difference between the implications behind those two words. It’s worth talking about.
We’ve shifted the conversation into talking about students and classrooms and such. I’d like to keep pressing along those lines if I could. I’ve had lots of experience in both ninth and 13th grades, giving students group assignments where I want them to collaborate on whatever they come up with.
I have very often seen them… I take two steps away from where their group is gathered, and they’ve already started dividing out and saying, “Well, you're going to do number one and I’m going to do number two, and this other person’s going to do number three and then we’ll combine our answers at the end,” rather than, “Hey, here’s number one. Let’s talk about it.”
I’d love to hear from any of you who have some insights on how we can encourage true collaboration and not just delegation. Collaboration instead of delegation in our students.
Kevin Hodgson: I think that that’s… Delegation is something we fall into. Even we fell into it a little bit in just thinking of some of our planning for Digital Writing Month. At least I fell into it, I think. I think Maha was trying to make it more wider. I said, “Why doesn’t this week [inaudible] [32:56]?” I think it gets trickier when we’re not in the same room too, and not in the same time zone, that discussion about bigger things takes time to do, so I think the collaborative nature of online stuff can go both ways, I guess. I guess I don't have an answer to your question, Chris.
Chris Friend: I didn’t expect you would. I just wanted to hear you talk about it.
Sarah Honeychurch: It’s a bit weird for me and you because we’re used to swarming and doing everything at the same time. We actually got this idea that say, you might be up early, so you might do it first, and then pass it over to me, and pass it on to somebody else. That’s actually a way of collaborating, but it’s asynchronous. You do something and then I look at the same thing you've done and I revise and I pass it over to somebody else who revises it. That maybe a…
Maha Bali: That’s true.
Sarah Honeychurch: We did that when we had deadlines early on with our collaborative stuff. That’s what we were doing. Who can work on this, when?
Maha Bali: That’s true.
Sarah Honeychurch: It was a divide and conquer of time zones, not a divide and conquer of…
Maha Bali: Responsibilities. You're right.
Kevin Hodgson: I think that for students, that’s an important skill. I look at my 11-year-olds. I have no idea what the world’s going to be like when they graduate from college. There’s no way to predict. Collaboration, working with people in different time zones and different things clearly will be part of most of their futures, so that idea of communication and laying out how that’s going to play out and not just who’s going to do what but how are we going to go about doing this? Maybe that’s what I’m trying to get Chris, with your question. What’s the process we’re going to use?
Maha Bali: What I do with my own students… I teach educational and game design to undergrads in a creativity course. I teach only part of the course, not the entire course. What I do with the students is that I don't tell them what number two is. They know that the big end thing of the class is that they’re going to design an educational game in groups, but we do number and they sit and talk about number one and then they me what they’re going to do about number one and they share with the class.
In the next class, they discover exactly what number two is going to be. They don't have that chance to break things up too early. They get a chance to discuss every single thing on its own. It just allows them to sit and think about every single aspect of what they’re doing separately rather than just give them a big thing and let them break it up early on.
Chris Friend: That’s really curious. I’ve got two reactions to that one. The first one is it sounds like we are helping our students by presenting them with larger project piecemeal, which…
Maha Bali: It’s not really. It’s just questions about the project.
Chris Friend: I was going to say, which initially I cringed at. I was thinking, “Aren't we then doing work for them that they need to learn to do themselves, where they need to manage a large project and make it feel smaller to themselves?” Then I realized that maybe not, that maybe this is just helping them limit themselves, and back to what Sarah was talking about at the beginning, helping them develop some focus, where it’s we’ve got this big thing that we’re working toward at the end, but for now, let’s just look at this one part of it.
Maha Bali: In my particular case, I like them to design an educational game about a cause that they care about, so after they’ve learned a little bit about playing games and reflecting on what makes a game good, and so on, they sit for one class and decide on what kind of causes they care about because they decide on what kind of game they’re going to do. Then they start to develop the ideas of the game. Then they start to evaluate it for how educational it is. Then designing the actual game, I don't care how they divide that. As long as they’ve thought about everything together, the execution is less important.
Sarah Honeychurch: You're right. We do that in our writing as well, don't we? Sometimes we just say, “I’m going to do this bit because the only person that’s got the time to do it.” [laughter] Mind you, it always ends up that everybody else looks at it anyway and tinkers.
Chris Friend: I think Maha, you've hit on something in this case pretty profound here where… what I just wrote down was, “Thinking about it together is important, but the execution doesn’t matter.” I think that’s an excellent distinction to make. I think that’s really important. You're making me now kind of reevaluate how I’m having my students do things in class because I completely agree with that distinction and I’m trying to check myself and see whether what I actually do in class demonstrates that philosophy that I agree with.
Kevin Hodgson: I think the focus on process is important, so I’m glad that Maha brought that up and resonated. I think too that at least in the education system that I’m in is very product-oriented, so that idea of what does the final product look like, that’s what we’re going to assess. I’m trying to push back on that and say, “No, what are the conversations? What’s the work that went in to lead to that? It’s actually the real learning, not always the final product.
Chris Friend: I wanted to throw out two metaphors and see if either of these work for you guys. The first one is related back to the idea of to contribute something and there would be someone there to listen or to help, or that sort of thing. I was wondering if we should focus more on the “net” part of network and think of the network as being a safety net that can catch us if we jump into this mess and we don't know what’s going on. Instead of worrying about it overwhelming us and trapping us, it could actually be below us and trying to support us. The other metaphor that I wanted to throw is if we go swimming… I live in Florida. We swim. Sorry. [laughter]
If you go swimming, you don't… the first time you go swimming someplace, you don't usually jump into the deep end. You usually start out in the shallow end and get used to it first. If you go into the pool and you go into the shallow end and you wade around a little bit and you keep your head above water the entire time, and then you get back out again, you still went swimming.
You can still participate in these networks by just, well, putting your toe in the water and testing it out. You still participated. That’s still enough. I think maybe some of the problem could be that people believe you have to take a running dive off the 250-meter diving board and go splashing down and bury yourself 20 feet under water until it counts as participating. I think there’s a difference.
Kevin Hodgson: I like the swimming metaphor. I think that the net one is idealistic. I’d love to believe that. I’m not really sure that’s the case. I think it’s part of because our mindset is built around our traditional learning of if I see this as a course, which we’re not calling it, obviously. If I see it that was, then I’m expecting that there’s an expectation I have where things will go my way, I’m expected to do things, and I already have a busy life, therefore I’m not going to begin at the beginning.
I do think that idea that you could pop in anywhere and do anything and still be a participant, that there’s no judgement on you didn’t do enough or you did too much. Those kinds of things are important part of the idea of what kind of a learning system in this day and age, or should be.
Maha Bali: I like Michael Weller’s term of emergent goals, so there’s one thing of letting students or learners set their own goals, and then there’s another thing of allowing them to take the agency of emergent goals, so that even though maybe I start out Digital Writing Month planning to do something, that I allow myself to change those goals as I get exposed to something else and as I change and all that.
That’s I think very important with these open-learning experiences because you never what you're going to get. We don't want to talk about collaboration as if it’s all roses. There’s… whenever you're in this very open kind of experience, you never really know what you're going to get. You never who’s in there.
You never know what their background is, what their culture is, and inadvertently sometimes, and maybe because I’m from a very different culture than most of the people I collaborate with, I’ll find that someone took offense at something. I’ll be like, “What? What are you talking about?” It’s on Twitter and you don't have enough space and I don't have that person’s e-mail address and we might not be following each other and I couldn’t talk to them privately sometimes. I have no idea what went wrong. Sometimes if there’s a friend who notices the conversation, they explain to me over an hour what misunderstanding happened. That doesn’t always happen.
Chris Friend: In two seconds.
Maha Bali: I think there's a part where sometimes you need to be a little bit forgiving and have goodwill that probably that person didn’t mean to or maybe I said something that I didn’t notice. It’s quite hard to do that sometimes. If you're like, “I didn’t do anything. Why are you doing this to me?” Also, when you collaborate, it’s quite easy to overstep on someone, to step on someone’s foot or edit something that they had done and they didn’t want to
Narrator: For listeners who are new to HybridPod, we talked a lot more about issues like these in the classroom environment back in episode 2, “Compassion in the Classroom.” In that episode, I talked with Maha Bali and Asao Inoue about how an intention toward compassion can help shape and build our classrooms.
But in my recent conversation with the DigiWriMo folks, Maha brought up another kind of discomfort that shows up when we introduce new processes or ways of working or writing.
Maha Bali: I guess part of it is embracing messiness and uncertainty, which is not easy, especially for young people and not necessarily easy for older people either, who might be set in their ways.
Narration: Actually, I think it’s far easier for young people to do, and I think they do it all the time. Let me risk stretching that playground metaphor a bit too far. Think about what a huge, bustling playground looks like. There are little energetic bodies moving every which way, at dizzying speed. There’s cacophonous, joyous, indiscriminate noise everywhere. How is that not overwhelming or intimidating for a child? How can they manage, understand, and participate?
I suggest three basic principles here: First, kids don’t worry about the entire playground. They can’t “do playground”, but they can play one game. So they limit their scope of attention.
Second, they look for the kind of play they’re interested in. Running? Tag? Hide-and-seek? Swings? Slides? Climbing? They’re in the mood for something, so they look for that one thing out of the many options available.
And third, the part that I think children do so much better than adults, they choose one person to say hi to. They walk up, they say hi, they ask either what that person is playing or whether they can play, too. And that’s about it, right?
Now, when adults do the same sort of thing, we have memberships and rosters and HR departments. Not quite so simple as children on a playground.
To put it in non-playground terms, a new potential node on the network identifies an existing node on the network and asks that node to extend the network to include the newcomer. No managerial decisions need to be made; the network just figures out the new configuration. Kids know there’s a newcomer playing tag when that newcomer runs away from whoever is “it”. No announcement is necessary.
In the next episode of HybridPod, I’ll chat more about nodes and networks with Bonnie Stewart, exploring how networks and learning and scholarship interact. For now, though, let’s get back to Kevin’s thinking about making our learning spaces more accessible to newcomers.
Kevin Hodgson: I was going to say too that… the tension between how to make an experience, a space, a document, whatever it is, as open as possible, while also providing people who are a little nervous inroads in. You have to make the technology hurdles low for easy entry and yet push at the bounds of what writing is too.
Those two things often crash into each other at points. I suspect that there were a lot of people who may have first been interested in that, in that document, and then looked at it and said, “There is no way, there is no entry point for me in here,” even though there were multiple entry points from our point of view, but maybe not from theirs.
We talk a lot in our writing project about this idea of we’re still in the moment of technology where there’s a lot of uncertainty about where it’s all going and what changes are happening to the way we write. That makes some people definitely nervous and particularly if they’re thinking, “Oh, my students are going to do this,” and, “How is that going to look in my classroom?” Chris was just talking about how does what we do on Rhizomatic Learning or for myself when I’m facilitating the C.O. MOOC [phonetic] [10:23] or digital writing. I’m like, how does that translate into meaningful learning experiences in our classrooms, whatever age we teach? That’s the thing to keep in the back of our minds.
Sarah Honeychurch: Kevin, I guess one thing that you are really, really good at and you might not even know this, but you're really, really good at when you do something, giving hints about how to do it. Terry’s fantastic about this as well. I guess that’s what I’d say to people. If they want to get involved but they’re not quite sure, find something who’s doing what they like and ask them to explain what they’re doing. It’s something Terry Elliot said to me earlier this year, “If you ever need to know, just ask me, and I’ll tell you.” I do, a lot. I guess that’s what all of us have got to try and do during November is give people lots of hints.
Maha Bali: There’s the element of the community building that happened before all this started to happen. It’s not like we were complete strangers. I know people would probably consider us strangers, but we weren't. By the time we were doing all this, we weren't complete strangers and we were comfortable with each other. At least some of us were comfortable enough with each other.
Kevin Hodgson: I was just going to say too that… that’s a good point Maha… that everyone was welcome to join in and a lot of people did, which was great. I think it shows in a lot of ways too how the ability to connect through social networking and online and technology allows the world to come together. I know it sounds sappy like a Hallmark card, but it’s true. I can't even remember how many countries were represented in that one radio show that we did where people were recording their voices around the world and putting into a shared file, and I was just pulling it down and dragging it in and trying to edit it a little bit.
Chris knows a little bit about that. Then you listen to the voices. That’s what always gets me. When I listen to that just a multitude of voices represented actually the multitude of the play itself, the theme of the play, but just hearing people’s voices all come together in this one space is really a magical thing.
Narrator: While I agree that those sorts of collaborations are magical, I have to confess to getting easily overwhelmed by it. Maha, Sarah, and Kevin have been working together for some time to prepare Digital Writing Month 2015. Along the way, they asked me to participate in a small part of the project. I agreed, and so I got looped into some of their emails. No, a bunch of their emails. Tons of emails, generated in the span of an hour or two. I got overwhelmed for a bit, but I could tell that this process worked really well for the three of them. I wanted to look further into the differences in our procedural needs.
Chris Friend: I’m going to try and play a little bit of the role of devil's advocate here. It’s a genuine role that I’m playing so I think that you'll understand where my question is coming from here. When I see the kinds of work that Maha does, which is very connected… I swear she doesn’t have a thought that exists by itself. Everything is always a thought about a reference to another thing that someone did when they were talking about this other thing that someone else did.
That’s the way her brain works. It’s amazing and I don't know how your brain keeps track of all of that. Then when I hear the three of you talking together, you're all getting excited about these things that have lots of voices put together and lots of connections being made. That’s the kind of stuff that can very easily overwhelm me. Whenever I started getting CC’d on your planning e-mails, [laughter] it was one of those moments of, “Holy hell, what have I done?” [laughter]
Sarah Honeychurch: Sorry.
Chris Friend: Don't apologize. It’s fantastic. It’s the way you guys work. Everything’s fine. I just knew that I was going to have to change the way I filter things because the volume is different. My question is something like how can we create… because Kevin, you talked about inroads before. How can we create inroads for people like me who see the network, not the nodes? If there’s this big project going on, it looks so complex and I think this might be behind the problem of getting people involved.
Sarah Honeychurch: I guess what I would say is I think it’s really, really important to focus. And I spoke to Dave Cormier about this quite a bit before Rhizo 15 that you can't focus on everything. What I do is although I’m all over the place doing everything, it looks like, actually what I’m doing is I’m focusing very narrowly on a set of people, a conversation. Sure, once I got the hang of one conversation, then I’ll look at another conversation and another one. I think that might be really good way of explaining it to people. Rather than a great big messy network, it’s a lot of conversations. Some people are having more than one conversation. Some people are just focusing on one conversation.
Maha Bali: The conversations are happening in different places and you don't need to be in a single place.
Sarah Honeychurch: Absolutely.
Maha Bali: In Rhizo, Facebook, Kevin was never on Facebook and he was in the middle of Rhizo 14 and 15. That’s fine. He misses out on a little bit and we feel bad about that. You do feel bad about that. I didn’t participate this much this time around because of that.
Sarah Honeychurch: Me too.
Maha Bali: It’s more comfortable and some people aren't on Twitter too. It’s just different people prefer different things so I think if you're asking specifically about Digital Writing Month, whereas if there was one thing people would do if they wanted to move in a linear fashion, they could either just go to the website itself, which every time something new is there, it’ll be there… so that’s a linear thing with time… or they could subscribe for e-mail updates and they’ll get the e-mail updates.
If they’re not in that kind of frame of mind and just want to drop in and out, they could write something in the roster, give us their… post things to the Digital WriMo hashtag only when they feel like it, find out when the Twitter chats are. We’re going to have a calendar. They could just drop in for the Twitter chats. Whatever they’re interested in.
Chris Friend: What I’m hearing is whenever there’s this large rhizomatic network that we’re confronted with, it seems to overwhelm us, and we just need to remember that we are only a node and that we only need to make one contribution in one place. Other network nodes will be able to connect to that and the network will form around us once we make one connection.
Maha Bali: Right.
Sarah Honeychurch: Talk to one person. That’s all you need to do.
Narrator: It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But I guess that really is the secret to collaboration, if there is one: Don’t try and manage everything, pick one aspect to focus on, then talk to one person focusing on that same thing. Then… well, then you run like hell before someone tags you as “it”.
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Just because the show is over doesn't mean the conversation ends. Everyone who contributed to this episode is accessible through Twitter, and so is the show itself. Along those lines, @HybridPod and @chris_friend would like to thank Maha Bali (who is @bali_maha), Sarah Honeychurch (who is @nomadwarmachine), and Kevin Hodgson (who is @dogtrax).
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