Politics and Social Media

Recently I was invited to speak at a hack event on Politics and Social Media for our Culture and Enterprise Programme at Central Saint Martins (the description of the event is below). The event was designed and facilitated by Richard Reynolds the course leader of the MA Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries (one of my favourite course titles of all time). Richard opened the day with a talk entitled “Politics, Social Media and the Practice of Ritual Magic” in which he made the distressingly convincing argument that Trump operates much like a magician or tribal mystic and his Tweets are in the form of ritual incantations.

I followed Richard with a talk on Trust and Digital Politics, in which I started by stating:

Not Trump – How Trump?

It’s easy to critique or satirise an individual but, following on from Richard’s talk, much more interesting to explore the factors that allowed Trump to gain and maintain power – especially as unless these conditions change we will see a succession of Trump-like leaders emerging in the West.

In terms of Trust I argued that the Digital has allowed us to Disintermediate institutions. The Web allows Trump to pronounce directly to ‘the people’ via Twitter, circumventing the media, the government and his own party.

A disintermediating Tweet.

Our trust tended to be placed in institutions which resonated with our values and we’d have faith, to a certain extent, that those institutions had integrity. Until recently political leaders in the West would represent or embody those institutions. Increasingly we see the emergence of the celebrity, or media, politician who uses political institutions as a vehicle for their persona.This is an inevitable effect of the cult-of-the-individual that the Web amplifies so efficiently.  So we have lost the trust-mechanism of institutions which, for better or worse, represented identifiable ideologies and are now left with individuals whose primary aim is to seek power. (The struggles of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK are demonstrative of this shift away from ideologically focused politics towards new forms of political persona)

The video of my talk starts from this point so I won’t essay it all out here.

Ultimately, I agree with Paul Mason in his assertion that much of what we are experiencing can be understood as a “fight between network and hierarchy” which has been brought about by digital technology:

Paul Mason

I see this fight taking place in education as much as in politics as we respond to the all pervasiveness of the Web. This was writ large for me as I prepared a session on Networked Learning for our Postgraduate Certificate Academic Practice in Art, Design and Communication. In a description of Connectivism George Siemens’ highlights the same tension between networks and hierarchies.

Hierarchy imposed structure, while networks reflect structure.

The challenge for us is in negotiating the relationship between network and hierarchy. Institutions embed and petrify power in structures which privilege particular groups. Networks tend to generate ‘mystics’ and ‘high priests’  who could, if they wished, operate without the balance hierarchical democracy can, but often doesn’t, bring.  (A phenomenon I’ve seen occur within Connectivist courses). It’s complex, fascinating, and requires our immediate attention.

 

 


A WORLD OF OUR OWN: POLITICS and SOCIAL MEDIA

“The Future of Trust in Digital Politics”

(event description by Richard Reynolds)

Many of us are living in a post-truth world, a world defined by ‘alternative facts’. The Brexit referendum and its aftermath have been shaped by irrational trolling and online ranting. President Trump tweets his policy decisions. Terrorists and other outlawed groups use – or attempt to use – the same online platforms as government agencies. States wage hybrid warfare, and use online disinformation as a tool in their blended online/offline military strategies. Access to news is shaped and distorted by each individual’s known tastes and preferences. Citizens have uploaded their political life and identity, and sometimes struggle to make any connection back to the politics of the offline world.

It’s scarcely necessary to describe the impact that social media is having on politics. We only have to look at the outcomes of elections, referendums and other political conflicts around the world. More than simply a tool, Social Media has changed the way that politicians structure their careers, and the ways in which voters (and non-voters) engage with politics and respond to political debates. Social Media has become central to the ways in which governments articulate and impose the power of the state over its citizens.

On Friday 24 March and Saturday 25 March, the Culture and Enterprise Programme at Central Saint Martins will be hosting a two-day immersive conference and hackathon on the future of politics and social media. Expert guests will be sharing their views on the present and future role of Social Media in our political life. All delegates will have the opportunity to participate in a two-day interactive group project, which will attempt to answer the question: ‘What is the future of trust in digital politics?’

Student-as-product

Working at a large arts focused university and collaborating with colleagues in institutions of various types including Russell-group is giving me a broad insight into the changing character of Higher Education in the UK. A major shift we’ve all witnessed with the introduction of fees is the student-as-consumer effect. We are groping our way towards the American model, discussing the Student Experience but with institutions that are almost entirely structured to deliver curriculum. As Eric Stoller pointed out at the recent Jisc Creativity workshop we don’t have the equivalent of ‘Student Affairs’ in our institutions and anything that isn’t directly aligned with delivering the curriculum is scattered across libraries, academic support, the student union, careers/employability etc.

Job fair CC - https://www.flickr.com/photos/frisno/3324516149
Job fair.   CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/frisno/3324516149

Treating education as a product is problematic and in the Digital Student Project we are always quick to point out the importance of managing and challenging student’s expectations as well as meeting them. The student-as-consumer effect is usually concerned with the education we provide being, or becoming, ‘product’ – but that’s a mistaken reading of the situation. The real product is employability and by inference the student themselves.

The sadness for me is that while there has always been an element of increasing-your-chances-of-getting-a-decent-job about Higher Education the underlying philosophy remained one of citizenship not economic viability (as discussed in this episode of the Philosophy bites podcast on the Aims of Education). This was even the case when taking so-called vocational courses – the focus was employment but the ideology was predominately educational not economic.

I worry that as a sector we have lost confidence in the value of learning as part of what it means to contribute to society and to become more engaged in the world. I’m not against employability. I can completely understand student’s motivations here and the need for institutions to take some responsibility in supporting them in finding work. My concern is that we are not cutting enough space for students to come to an understanding of themselves as learners and citizens *before* constructing themselves as ‘professionals’. Our preoccupation with the problem of curriculum-as-product has masked the larger problem of student-as-product or ‘entrepreneur’.

Unfortunately I see this being powerfully played out in digital contexts. The potential agency that the Web affords individuals is being co-opted as part of the process of student-as-product.  This became clear to me when I contributed to the design of a masters-level module called The Mediated Self at a prestigious UK university. This was an interesting co-design process with a both staff and students contributing ideas. The module was largely going to explore what it meant for the ‘self’ to be mediated on the Web and the students proposed a really strong structure complete with relevant readings and clear themes. I myself had had a fascinating time getting lost in notions of the self by reading a large chunk of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. My point was that you can always argue about the nature of the self but what’s interesting in a digital context is our ability to manage our ‘self’ in concurrent spaces, the digital and the physical. To me this is an inherently new situation brought about as an effect of the digital being a social space not simply ‘content’.

What struck me in our discussions was that the student’s motivation to learn this type of material was mainly to help them construct a ‘successful’ identity online. Implicit in this motivation was the notion of a hypothetical ‘super-employable professional persona’ which one could somehow work towards or enact online as a self-standing entity. There was a sense that there must be a correct way to ‘be’ online and that this module would help them to uncover this truth as if being-in-the-world was similar to successfully passing an exam. In effect, there was more motivation to mediate a professional persona than there was to develop a ‘self’. Instead of the Web being viewed as a place for ‘becoming’, for self-expression and human connection (ideas my institution really understands the value of) it was being seen as the location to present a perfect model of student-as-employable-product.

The academic staff at the design session were well aware of this and I could tell they would be gently pushing against these narrow motivations in an attempt to help the students come to a deeper understanding of the modules themes. My feeling is that most teaching staff attempt to challenge employability as the be all and end all of education but I fear that as a sector we are amplifying the student-as-product message rather than championing learning as an end in itself. The effect of this will the ‘production’ of students who are adept at modelling ’employability’ but may well lack the depth and agility to make their way in the world beyond economic success. My view is that University should be a place where we enlarge our ‘selves’ through learning. I suggest that as a sector we regain our confidence in the principle that a rich sense-of-self is the single most ‘employable’ attribute individuals can develop.

Break out of the loop and see the helix

I was reminded by the writings of King Solomon of an idea I had a few years ago but neglected to write down. In Ecclesiastes he draws a picture of the never-ending cycles of life which could be seen as having a beautiful balance and harmony but perhaps more commonly as acting like a monotonous cage.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Spring
CC – tidefan http://goo.gl/LE4Jl

Certainly my recent experience online  has felt like being trapped in a loop. I have been on/in Twitter for about five years now and most of what I see sailing past about education and/or technology appears to me to be a rehash of ideas I heard in previous years. Similarly in the land of shiny-tech there seems to have been very little of interest. It’s all higher rez, faster and thinner but in essence it’s not moving on. Witness the bored response to the latest iPhone. It’s as if we greedily consumed technology, are now feeling queasy and couldn’t possibly consume another Smartphone. We talk of elegant consumption but it feels bloated to me. Where has the dynamic, frontier-like web gone? Am I suddenly too old to ‘see’ the leading edge or is a large part of what happens online just the passive reception of main-stream media?

I worked on digital projects for the BBC at the turn of the century. Back then us young-guns felt as if we were on the verge of something genuinely new – outside of the loop (we were enthusiastic and a little naive). Looking back now it appears that the moment the iPlayer started to work smoothly the BBC stepped away from Social Media engagement and many there heaved a huge sigh of relief when they realised that ‘online’ could be used to distribute TV and Radio. Despite the promise of the web are we trapped in our classic producer-consumer cycle? Perhaps advertising a hash-tag at the start of a programme is all that is needed, maybe that’s what taking-part was always going to mean? The truth is that there are very few people out there with something to say and the skills to express it, those that do are quickly assimilated into a broadcast mindset. Beyond 150 people it’s all celebrity and performance?

The never ending loop
A surface view only sees the loop

This is all surface though and the reality, as ever, is far more complex than my rant. There are fascinating and disruptive things happing out there in the unpredictable currents of the tide fight where society and tech wrestle. Our immediate perspective is often of a Solomon’s recursive loop but if we know how to ‘see’ rather than to just look we gain a much more interesting view.

A new perspective
A different perspective shows the slow forward movement of the helix

I think of socio-technical phenomenon as a helix. Viewed with an end-on limited perspective everything appears to be travelling repetitively around the same loop, it appears to be a closed circle but if we put more effort into seeing beyond the surface, into new methods of data collection and analysis, we can gain a side view, revealing a helix.  This perspective shows us a  slow but powerful movement forward. Often though, we are so trapped in the loop of the ever-new present that this progression is only seen in hindsight. Getting past the upgrade-now, 10 tips for teaching with iPads, HD, 3D, faster, better, stronger noise of the loop – sidestepping it if you like and seeing the real morphing/evolution of science and society is, for me, what higher education should be all about.

The single biggest factor that can give us the side-on perspective is the ability to critique and to ask pertinent questions. It’s the role of education to equip students with this ability to ask questions rather than to only seek the answers to questions posed by others. Historically the effort required to seek-out answers encouraged students to ask additional questions of their own but now we can find answers online so efficiently we don’t have to engage in critical thinking. Generally these answers are correct and appropriate – this is an issue which is more fundamental than ‘quality’ or ‘validity’, it’s part of a paradigm shift in what in means to ‘know’.

I joked that Google’s strap-line should be “Think Less – Find More”. I’m finding that idea less and less amusing, especially after seeing Google Now which is the current apex of not-thinking tech. I’m not against instant access to answers or technology that makes our lives ‘easier’, what I do want though is pedagogy that equips students from an early age with the ability to question the answers thrown back by this kind of tech. The huge cognitive offsetting the web offers us creates a space in which we should be able to ask more and better questions and yet our pedagogy and our assessment is still focused largely on answers until around second year of university (if you are lucky).

‘Bring Your Own Device’ or ‘Smuggle-in Your Own Device’ ensures that students are taking advantage of the cognitive offsetting of the web, it’s time to accept this and take-up the slack. Our Visitors and Residents project is finding that the digital literacies students develop at Secondary/High school are taken through well into university. We haven’t interviewed students younger than 17 years-old but I suspect that the digital literacies (and in some cases the critical literacies) of a 9 year-old are similar to those of a first-year undergraduate. As educators we have to teach critical thinking at a much earlier age otherwise students will be trapped in the highly pervasive info-factory of the web. Yes they will be able to find correct answers but will they be capable of questioning the loop conveniently designed around them (whether well meaning or not) from about the age of 8 by Google, Facebook and the like?

This brings me to the knotty problem of serendipity which as been bothering me for some time. It’s not possible to capture it’s essence without it slipping through your fingers. It is in this regard nicely Truth and Beauty in a romantic, dreaming-spires kind of a way and generally a bit of a headache for those outside of the social sciences and humanities. Proponents of the importance of serendipity such as Aleks Krotoski make the crucial point that the individual has to have the ability to be able to recognise the moment it happens (or the moment of potential). In other words they need to be able to bridge two apparently unrelated pieces of information and “…have the creativity to do something new with them” (Here I am talking about the individuals role in taking advantage of putative serendipity rather than technologies possible role in increasing the potential for serendipity to take place) . I now think of the moment of serendipity as jumping sections of the helix. It’s a transverse movement across the traditional corrals of understanding.

Serendipity and the helix
The transverse leap of serendipity

If the helix is imagined as a spiral staircase then those that can ‘see’ serendipitous moments have the ability to jump beyond their floor and leap multiple storeys in a single bound. Not only can they make this leap but they have the perspective to see the distance they have travelled. I would argue that this is unlikely to happen if the individual has been educated to only find answers to questions set by others.

In this era of instant answers where technology (or the business model of those providing the technology) is winding the loop around us ever tighter I’m pro equipping our students with the ability to make serendipitous leaps. I’m for stretching the helix so that each turn pushes us further. We need to promote critical pedagogies which put pressure on students to ask questions. Questions that gain perspectives beyond recursive consumption. Instead of falling into “Think Less – Find More” we should be encouraging our students to be suspicious of the loop, to be anxious to make leaps, and hopefully to “Question More – See Further”.

The cost of Residency?

We like to think of online platforms usurping each other as we move to the latest and greatest of a particular format, leaving the previous version eroding in a Kipple like fashion – the MySpace to Facebook to Google+ narrative. I’m not convinced that this is a useful story and wonder if the web is better thought of as an ever expanding space rather than a migrating community. I suspect that Google+ for example will be inhabited by more than the diaspora from Facebook and Twitter. In fact what interests me about Google+ beyond ‘circles’ is the way in which the platform has expanded the geography of social web so massively in such a short space of time.

Estate agent window smashed

Given this Google’s new platform highlights the impossibility of residing everywhere online, of having a live profile in all of the key places – it’s time-consuming to maintain a meaningful presence in one social media space let alone two or three.  To keep things practical you have to decide where you are going to reside online and have a reasonable idea of what role that residency will play in your life: personal, professional, academic, escapist or a delicate cocktail of the above (and we all know how dangerous cocktails can be). To counter the potential alienation of residing online it is useful to reflect on what your motivation to engage is: maintaining f2f relationships, living-out ‘strong-tie’ relationships, building a professional network, building a personal learning network or just good old fashioned self promotion in the hope of invites to warm places… Time is the non-negotiable cost to Residency and to maintaining fulfilling relationships of any form. The way this precious resource is spent, especially in the context of learning, needs to be better understood by those of us promoting the idea of digital literacy.

We are just coming to the end of the pilot phase of the JISC funded Visitors and Residents project framed round my original idea for understanding individual’s engagement with the web. The project is in partnership with the OCLC and for the pilot phase we interviewed students from the US and the UK in late-stage high school and first-year University. There are many interesting trends emerging from the project and it is the case that some students are more Resident than others. Most of our participants talked about the cost of being Resident online in some form which has led us to include ‘time-wasting’, ‘distraction’ and ‘addiction’ into the code-book we are using to analyse the interviews.

I thought like coming into A levels, I’d need to be able to focus without having Facebook at the back of mind, because at GCSE, you know when you have coursework, I’d always go, okay I’ll go on Facebook, I’m going on MSN, I’d just stay logged in and then I’d do my coursework on the side, but I just ended up staying on Facebook.

UKS6

I live on my email and Facebook also, which I’m not as proud of.  Just because it’s a time vortex.

USS3

I am not that bad with Facebook but I get annoyed sometimes … I find myself being on there for more than 15 minutes or 20 minutes. It is pointless, it is a waste of time and then I think sometimes I get annoyed with how long I can spend on the computer when I could be probably doing something else.

USU1

Essentially if your normal mode of operation is mainly Resident then it’s difficult to go online and get on with activities that require a Visitor approach without checking-in to all your Resident spaces and risking distraction. The participants in our study are well aware of this and one even put her Facebook account on ice so that she could pursue her learning more effectively. It’s a tough decision though as much homework is discussed and possibly collaborated on (participants are always wary of this idea as it is unclear where collaboration merges into plagiarism) in Facebook IM. If your friends aren’t logged into Facebook at that moment then a text message goes round asking them to get online so that work can be tackled.

People do post a Facebook thing so and saying something like, “Everybody in my Biology class, what was it we were supposed to be doing?”

UKS8

Like usually with homework I usually can do it myself.  But like, like sometimes I will just like IM my friend on Facebook and will be like, “Hey do you know how to do this?”

USS6

Facebook messaging has really replaced email in the lives of students.  So that’s – if it’s more something that we’re trying to structure and actually build upon over some time, it would be a Facebook message…

UKU5

When the Visitors and Residents idea is discussed it is often with the implication that becoming more Resident or facilitating that process is going to be of value. In my video discussing V&R I make the point that a Visitor approach to formal education is more likely to be successful than a Resident one given that all students are likely to end-up isolated at a desk in an exam room at the end of their courses – i.e. the education system assesses our ability to be Visitors not Residents.

We also have to consider which mode of engagement is most appropriate for the world of work and perhaps more importantly which mode best supports individuals as citizens or as members of a range of communities? Thinking in terms of mode-of-engagement is one way of framing our approaches to digital literary– the definition of this as taken by the JISC strand of digital literacy projects being appropriately broad:

“..digital literacy defines those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society..”

Characterising digital literacy as a  simple drive towards Residency would be dangerous; digital literacies are required and acquired as much at the Visitor end of the continuum as they are at the Resident. If we are attempting to support students and equip them with relevant digital literacies we need to be more precise about the value of ‘just-visiting’ or ‘moving into’ particular online spaces. Our project is mapping motivations-to-engage and evaluating a wide range of approaches.  I’m hopeful that we will be able to develop methods by which individuals and groups can plan their travels through the ever expanding online landscape.

 

Image credit:  CC – Some rights reserved http://www.flickr.com/photos/pigsonthewing/3241588102/

Education should make us anxious

This is my #500words for the Purpos/ed project:

Firstly I’d like to make it clear that I think the education system in the UK is excellent.

We hold education to be so important that we’ve made it a legal requirement to engage with it and to a large extent any failings in the system are a reflection of larger societal challenges. Education as a system is woven into these challenges but cannot solve them directly. After all we don’t appear to become less greedy and self-serving the more educated we get…

Much of the recent concerns around the sanctity of education are centred on Higher Education, a level so luxurious by global standards that our complaints look like the whining of the over-privileged.  It is a pity that it’s only when the cash stops flowing that we are suddenly keen to discuss what values we stand for. Ironically our debate in this sense has been economically driven.

My view is that education should make us anxious: anxious to discover new ways of understanding and influencing the world.  It should challenge our ways of seeing and force us to question our identities and our positions. Education should disrupt as much as it builds, ultimately teaching how to learn not what to learn. Individuals leaving formal education should be agile in their thinking and equipped with intellectual tools which broaden their choices. They should retain that anxiety and have an understanding of their incompleteness in a less than perfect world.

Ok, it’s easy for me to spout ideological niceties in a blog post so I will step down from my white-collar-Guardian-reading-degree-educated soap box for a moment and ground my thoughts.

Unfinished
http://is.gd/hlbZQQ CC - Piano Piano!

Clearly if anyone is to survive the form of education I have described they will need a helping hand and a nurturing environment. What students want from the education system is generally structured, organised and goal orientated, in essence, ‘formal’.  And yet we understand that today’s students need to be agile, not relying solely on traditional institutional structures.  That sets an interesting challenge for institutional education. How do we provide rigorous structures, those protected ‘spaces’,  whilst equipping our students with the ability live-out the on-going process of being and becoming in a world of constant change ?

 

This is not a problem to solve but a tension that can be successfully negotiated given a shared understanding of purpose.  The shift towards a market place model of Higher Education has woken us from our stupor and forced us to reassess what we value. Both those who bring structure and those who seek to disrupt can have a common purpose in a system which rightly contains many opposing elements and, much like ourselves as learners, will never be complete.

 

The Social Threshold

Society is constantly negotiating the boundaries between the public and the private. Surveillance, comments made in private but at work and exposing private lives in the papers are just some of the areas under permanent discussion. Back in days-of-yore the threshold between the public and the private was commonly the door-step. We talk of ‘Crossing the threshold’ as in stepping in from the public space of the street to the privacy of a dwelling. All cultures have always had back channels which circumnavigate the formality of this type of threshold, of being ushered into the front parlour, but it generally used to be possible to assess the level of privacy of a given situation by the walls it was taking place within and who was in the room.

Front Door
Social Threshold (some rights reserved: http://is.gd/rofJl0)

The integration of technology into society and the new forms of interpersonal connections it can facilitate erodes the ‘who is in the room?’ or ‘what room am I in?’ systems of assessing privacy. This stretches from snail-mail all the way through to security cameras. We can easily be caught out by technology which makes socially demarked spaces leaky. For example:

  • Discovering the mobile phone in your bag has dialled someone and left a 5 minute voice message of the private conversation you were having with a colleague.
  • Realising that the baby monitor has projected the lullaby you were singing to your child into the living room and probably the living rooms of a number of neighbours who also have young children.
  • Finding out after the fact that the conference session in which you made an offhand comment at about your institution was being live streamed onto the web.
  • Stumbling across tagged photos of you at a party posted in Facebook by others.

These are examples of where the public/private character of a physical space is disrupted by technology. When the primary ‘space’ is online the situation becomes more complex. Here are a few examples from my own experience:

  • Discovering that my ‘Can someone please make it lunchtime?’ tagged tweet in a small parallel conference session was being projected in a Twtterfall on a huge screen behind an eminent panel in the main hall.
  • Being told in an online meeting room that all private text chat messages were visible to moderators, after having made slightly disparaging remarks about the session in ‘private’ to a colleague.
  • Essentially being told-off on the phone by my very Scottish mother for using the American spelling of ‘whiskey’ in a tweet about 30 minutes after I posted it.

In all these cases assumed levels of privacy had to be reassessed in an uncomfortable moment of disjuncture. My imagined social map of the spaces had to be quickly redrawn as the original boundaries were shown to be permeable.

Researchers investigating Massively Multiplayer Online games or Virtual Worlds understand this type of disjuncture which in these cases is forgrounded by the presence of an avatar. The potential embodiment of the individual’s identity and form within the virtual space highlights the fact that he or she is existing simultaneously across two worlds. It’s the shifting nature of the extent to which the individual is in the physical or the virtual world which can cause suspicion and unease to the uninitiated. The boundary between the online and offline worlds has been described as a ‘semi-permeable membrane’ with influences passing in both directions.

I suggest that these membranes or social thresholds not only exist between online and offline spaces, but also between online platforms and constantly need to be redrawn as we attempt to map our own sense of the public and the private. In my case I was technically aware that my tweets were open to Google but it was only at the point at which I discovered my mother Googled for them that the threshold shifted. A wall had been knocked down in my public/private landscape.

My ‘Digital Visitors and Digital Residents’ continuum focuses on the importance of the social perceptions and motivations of individuals as they approach the web. A shift from Visitor to Resident activity involves crossing a social threshold. The position and width of the threshold along the Visitors and Residents continuum will be different for each individual, dependant on their perception of when a platform or online activity becomes social or public (with a small or large P). This is the point at which a platform changes from being a ‘tool’ to a ‘space’ in the mind of the individual, when the mode of engagement takes on a social edge. Google Docs is a good example; for me it is simply a word-processing tool until I notice that others are editing, at which point the public/private boundaries shift slightly and the tool has became a social space; it has moved one step closer to being public. My behaviour changes as I begin to cross the social threshold.

Google Docs
Word processing becomes social

Social media platforms, with their inherent hyper-connectivity require the user to hold highly complex multi-dimensional maps of them as social spaces, with many thresholds of differing permeability. It’s a long way from closing-the-front-door type methods of creating privacy boundaries. Some people are very skilled at managing the ‘edges’ of these social maps and manage their digital identities with great skill and to great effect. The rest of us have come to expect occasional moments of disjuncture.

I would argue that our notions of the public and the private don’t yet account for the width of these social thresholds or for the speed at which they can shift. We constantly negotiate the boundaries between the public and the private but we have an expectation that these boundaries, while moving, will remain sharp. The web and especially social media platforms defocus our understanding of these boundaries. Our ability to map and remap our relationship with these social thresholds is a key form of digital literacy, and possibly a new life-skill (if I can call it that).

What intrigues me is the possibility that those growing-up with these technologies may have a different perception of what privacy means and different approaches to managing their social landscapes. We now generally agree that the Digital Native does not exist as defined by age, but other generational nuances may exist, not in access and skill but in terms of managing and accepting shifting social thresholds.

Does the Technology Matter?

Recently I have given keynotes at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference (video here .wmv format) and the  Technology Enhanced Learning Symposium at DeMontfort University (slides here), both of which explored the flow of technology from shiny innovation through to  embedded use within an institutional environment. I did this from the perspective of the individuals/groups involved rather than by describing the evolving affordances of digital platforms. This approach being an attempt to avoid the ‘what’ of technological determinism, concentrating instead on the ‘why’ of institutional/individual motivations.

A few of the things I covered included:

  • Drawing out the similarities and differences between the geeks gate keeping the BBC Micro in 1982 with the beautiful people (in expensive jeans) ‘life-styling’ the iPad in 2010.
  • Highlighting the daunting breath of activity and motivations that now come under the increasingly useless banner of ‘digital’ by contrasting the excellent Hierarchy of Digital Distractions with the contents of the 2009 GCSE in Information Communications Technology.
  • Asking the audience to reflect on their own personal motivations and positions relative to my ‘Six Very Simple Diagrams’: Role, Desire, Pedagogy, Technology, Motivation and Bickering.

Of these ‘Role’ seems to cause the most discussion:

Role

Do you see your role as one of successfully embedding technology  until it becomes ‘transparent’ or is it more about challenging current practices using the tech as a driver for change? It could of course be a combination but my experience within the Higher Education sector is that groups coalesce around either ‘disappear’ or ‘disrupt’. This, in my opinion, is why individuals who can facilitate communication between these groups are crucial to the ongoing innovation-embedding flow within any institution.

The apparent opposition within the disappear-disrupt paradigm was brought back to mind when I was invited to take part in a ‘Does the Technology Matter?’ debate for the ALT-C conference later this year. Inspired by some slightly belligerent Tweeting around the concept by myself, @josiefraser and @mweller Dave Cormier hung the tensions embodied in the statement very elegantly on Smartboards (although he could have chosen any number of technologies) in his ‘It’s about the technology and it isn’t’ post. In the post he neatly balances the push-pull nature of the introduction of new tech into a classroom situation, highlighting what the effects of a new technology can be and what is simply foregrounded by the presence of that technology.

For me this aligns well with the disappear-disrupt concept in that your position on this continuum will underpin your reaction to the ‘Does it Matter?’ statement. This brings me to extend the question into a more useful form: ‘Does the Technology Matter for What?’ which does not have an objective answer as it is inextricably linked with ‘What do you Think you are Trying to Achieve?’ Oddly the latter question is often passed over when ‘new’ technologies are being introduced with vague allusions to ‘efficiency’ or ‘it’s what the students want’.

Again it’s the ‘what’ not the ‘why’ which tends to get focused on. As an example I would cite the ‘digital literacy’ debate in which motivations to engage frequently go unexplored leading to a focus on how to develop and maintain a successful digital identity as if this is the only way to live and learn. This in turn inevitably moves onto interminable discussions around facebook privacy options that ultimately spiral into the nature of society as a whole until lunch brings the whole thing to an inconclusive finish. Too much ‘what’ morphs into a woolly ‘why’ just as people start to get really hungry.

What I’m lobbying for here is a properly balanced conversation around ‘Does the Technology Matter’ in which we avoid simplistic posturing by making it clear what our assumptions and motivations are. In this way the discussion will help us to reflect on our own positions and how we can successfully collaborate with those around us who hold differing views but might well be trying to achive similar things. I’m not saying that I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing I just think that our underlying approach to technology is still a little 1982 and it’s time to accept that the picture is a bit more complex.

Postdigital: Escaping the Kingdom of the New?

New things are exciting. For example social networking. It’s a whole new way to interact with others, a reason why society is moving online isn’t it? But how to make it useful? What can we do with this new digital tool that goes beyond chit-chat? It should be possible to use facebook and Twitter for something of value for education but which one is better? Which one is more popular? Maybe there is something new just around the corner? …What could we do with Google Wave?…

I admit that I have a habit of thinking in this manner. It’s exhausting and somehow hollow. On a bad day I get a form of techno paranoia which involves creating a profile on any number of new services most of which I never revisit. To be totally honest some of my most successful conference presentations are attended by an audience 50% of whom are driven there out of a mild form of this paranoia. I like ‘new things’ and I enjoy talking about what new developments could mean for education but at times I have been overwhelmed and lost focus.

Digital Danger

 The Dangers of Being Digital
http://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/49634405/

I have been numbed by a tidal wave of the new:

“The speed of the change, however, has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on a the canvas of the digital; that the digital itself is the main driver of change.”

This quote comes from a working document outlining the postdigital. A principle which highlights the dangers of assuming the digital is the sole driver of change and makes the point that the digital as ‘new’ will quickly pass away.

As the ‘Planning for the Postdigital’ document describes all technologies go through a transition whereby they become culturally normalised. For example, the pen and the book have become ‘transparent’ tools, extensions of ourselves to be used appropriately to achieve goals but rarely discussed in of themselves. In the same way email and word processing are well on there way to becoming transparent. We now send a message or write a document. The digital is not discussed. It has ceased to be new.

“Things digital will be accepted alongside our other technologies and the slate swept clear of many of the distracting dualisms (and technological factions) that pervade the educational discourse. The postdigital frees us to think more clearly and precisely about the issues we face, rather than become tied to an obsession with, and the language of, the new.”

Electronic Calculator
An ‘Electronic’ Calculator?
http://www.flickr.com/photos/thecheals/2780671422/

Too much time is spent arguing about the relative merits of digital spaces such as Twitter and facebook. The key term here being ‘relative’. We are pitting digital against digital, new against new, a form of one-upmanship which distracts from the larger picture.

“The transition to a postdigital way of thinking allows for that previously coded as ‘digital’ to be woven into the wider discussion of social dialects that people bring to their acts of collaboration. One of the things we’ve learned from social research is that people tend to go online to find people they know and tend to replicate, at least in part, their social performances online. These performances, the communities that they occur in and the dialects that they represent and produce should be the critical loci for research in the postdigital age, not the technologies themselves.”

During the recent Open Habitat project, activity in a digital space (in this case Second Life) forced us to reflect upon and change our educational approach in day-to-day non-digital spaces. As this mirror effect emerged I became increasingly uncomfortable. We had set ourselves the goal of discovering new ways of teaching with new technologies not re-considering the nature traditional teaching. Worse than that, because Second Life supported a high level of social interaction the skills needed to teach within the digital space had a large overlap with those needed in a physical classroom. “When are you going to tell us something new” was the comment I received halfway through one presentation on the project.

I of course should not have felt uncomfortable but at the time my thinking was locked onto the digital and what it could provide that was new rather than what it brought that was of value. The Open Habitat project discovered approaches that were of relevant both online and offline. I needed to adjust my thinking to accept that this was valid, that it was ok to revisit age-old principles of socialisation and collaboration. The new technology could be a catalyst for this thinking even if it wasn’t the ultimate home for all of the what we had learnt.

The discourse that surrounds elearning (an ‘e’ which is increasingly redundant) is in danger of stagnating. As the digital becomes increasingly transparent we are likely to find ourselves squabbling over ever smaller chunks of newness. We will become like tadpoles in an evaporating pond, fighting for the last of what will inevitably disappear. Maybe it’s time for a metamorphosis in approach, away from the digital, towards the postdigital.