Connection and anxiety

As I hinted at in my (Re)humanising eLearning post I directed a group performance entitled “A performance of connection and anxiety” as part of my Spotlight Stage session at Online Educa. The audience played the part of first year undergraduates while I represented ‘the institution’ in all its various forms. This involved everyone standing up, putting their hand on the next person’s shoulder and closing their eyes (100+ people seemed surprisingly willing to enter into this piece of shared theater).

Photograph by David Ausserhofer, Mark Bollhorst and Maren Strehlau. All copyrights by ICWE GmbH. CC 2.0 Germany

As I’d hoped this created a certain frisson in the room and when we remained silent for about 15 seconds that strange feeling of togetherness started to grow despite most of the audience being strangers to one other. I then circulated round the room ‘selecting’ individuals by tapping them on the shoulder while they had their eyes closed, representing the moments they might be ‘chosen’ or engaged with by your institution in some way.

Discussing this with people afterwards some commented that they had hoped to be chosen but they didn’t know why as I hadn’t explained what the implications would be. Others hoped not to be chosen but overall there was a healthy tension in the room – I like to think of this as the ‘good’ form of anxiety.

When I asked everyone to open their eyes and sit down if they hadn’t  been selected many people were looking around to see who the chosen few were. At this point I admitted that I hadn’t chosen anyone which fortunately got a laugh (possibly of relief :).

Overall it did feel like we’d all shared in a specific moment of connection and one, as I outline in the original post, which worked between strangers because we were physically co-present. Gaining that sense of connection online requires more up-front identity work but I believe it’s crucial if we see the value of the digital as a place we can learn together.

The three key areas I proposed for consideration to create connection online and rehumanise elearning were:

1. Spaces
Think of and use the digital as a series of spaces or places where individuals can be co-present and connected. (rather than just a mechanism to broadcast content)

2. Eventedness
Design in synchronous moments or ‘events’ online. This helps to create a feeling of belonging and that ‘I was there’ factor. The technology to support this is now pretty reliable.

3. Conversation at scale
Design mechanisms for discourse to take place at scale. Hashtags, commenting, shared postings, crowd-sourcing, editathons etc. This is the area which we are least adept at but I believe the technology is now in place to support conversation at scale if we can design our teaching to take advantage of it.

All of the above are underpinned by individual’s developing an online presence and identity. Something which is central to almost all Digital Literacy frameworks but which we often don’t prioritise when supporting our students and/or staff.

(Re)humanising eLearning

For my ‘Spotlight stage’ session at Online Educa (15:35 on Thursday 4th) I’m  exploring ‘Re-humanising eLearning’. This is a theme very much inspired by Catherine Cronin’s keynote at ALT-C this year in which she spoke, among other things, about the value of online identity and open practice.

When I’ve mentioned the theme of Re-humanising eLearning to colleagues many of them suggested that eLearning was never particularly ‘human’ in the first place. This is a reasonable, if disappointing, comment. Nevertheless, take a look at almost any Digital Literacy framework and it will have the distinctly human (in that it is about the ‘self’) concept of a Digital Identity highlighted in it somewhere. In my favourite framework/hierarchy from Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe Digital Identity is the apex of digital capability.

Yet the primary experience and conception of eLearning for most learners is based around receiving a bunch of content that has been placed into a curricular structure somewhere online. No need for an identity in this scenario, just anonymously grab what you need to get your work done.

In my session at Educa I’m going to highlight how the efficiency and flexibility of this impersonal form of eLearning risks holding students at arms length. This is especially the case those who have many calls on their time (work, childcare etc.) and can’t make it to face-to-face sessions or have chosen predominantly online forms of learning to fit around other activities.  In this scenario it’s crucial that the digital becomes a humane learning space in which a sense of ‘togetherness’ can grow.

What interest me is how meeting in physical locations has an automatic feeling of togetherness built in, we feel we are sharing an experience without having to ‘know’ the other people in the room (a trip to the cinema is a good example of this). The very fact everyone has chosen to turn up to the event/session/lecture shows a common purpose. (I’m planning a little shared performance which involves the whole room in my Educa session to prove this point… See

Online it’s a different story, when we move to predominantly text based environments we have to project our identity before we can interact or feel a sense of connection. What good would Twitter or Facebook be if we didn’t know who was talking/posting, if the screen way just a series of sentences with no attribution?

Identity and self expression are writ large in my mapping of ‘digital capabilities’ on to my 3 category model of digital engagement (see Breaking down digital).

I’m not sure I’ve captured everything I need to here but I’m confident that as soon as we move towards the Resident/Spaces end of the continuum we are engaging, however minimally, in forms of self-expression which leads to the projection of identity.  It could be argued that it works along these lines:

Technology (and the people in it) fosters agency > forms of self-expression > formation of identity > increased agency > and so on…
(note: should make this into a looping diagram)

So in a digital context identity and self-expression are crucial to becoming and belonging, whereas in face-to-face scenarios some ‘togetherness’ can be felt without identity. Those who are fortunate enough to be able to regularity attend face-to-face sessions are likely to feel connected to their learning and their institution; to engender this online requires more explicit fostering of identity and expression.

At this point we could switch ‘digital’ for ‘higher education’ and the principle still fits. The digital in this case is simply a mirror for what I believe to be the overall point of higher education – to encourage and challenge students to nurture their identities as legitimate participants within their field of study. They arrive with a delicate sense of who they are in the world and leave with purpose and a solid sense of self…