Networking is Not Just a Digital Practice (And Other Reflections of a Connected Learning Coach)

With Collaborative Curiosity beginning its final week, it’s time for all of us to reflect on the emergent nature of the course, community, and learning that took place.  As the connected learning coach, I spent much of my time trying to figure out what it meant to be a connected learning coach. I formalized those reflections in a guest blog post for WCET, which should be coming out in the next few weeks.  The gist of the post was that I chose to use my instructor-supported entree into the Collaborative Curiosity learning community to promote the pedagogical value of making connections, help students navigate digitally networked participatory culture, and provide technical and moral support when participants wanted to (or were asked to) do something outside their digital comfort zone.

Yesterday, I drove up to my hometown of Fredericksburg to spend some time with University of Mary Washington’s Lee Skallerup (aka @readywriting).  Not only did I get to catch up with my friend, but I scored a tour of the beautiful UMW Hurley Convergence Center and some information on how UMW provides students with digital composition support through their Digital Knowledge Center. According to Lee, Mary Washington faculty no longer have to worry about the technical issues that arise when they assign digital stories, video assignments, or blog posts to their students; the trained peer coaches at the center are available to provide students with personalized assistance on these matters.

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University of Mary Washington Convergence Center, taken by me on my way in to see Lee.

In contrast, Virginia Commonwealth University does not yet provide this level of digital support for its students, so the faculty have to get creative.  They either take care of the students’ technical issues themselves or think outside the box. Collaborative Curiosity instructors Valerie Holton and Tessa McKenzie thought outside the box – hence my presence as a connected learning coach in their course.  In part, I did exactly what a UMW Digital Knowledge Center peer coach would do: I provided moral support for students while pointing out plug-ins, widgets, or other processes that would help them get their digital assignments to look, represent, or perform in ways they wanted.  In this respect, there was nothing controversial, challenging, or particularly unique in what I was doing.

However, I didn’t stop at just providing digital composition technical support to the participants of the course.  Rather, if digital participatory culture is about sharing your experience with a vocal, opinionated, heterogeneous audience – one that expects to participate in your creation of a public experience – then I was the member of the learning community who represented digital participatory culture.

As a connected learning coach, I tried to provide a vocal, engaged, and invested audience for student work. Photo by Stijn Bokhove, CC-BY 2.0

When course participants did something in their blog posts or tweets that I thought was awesome, I said so and publicly explained why I liked it so much.  However, when participants did things I thought they could have done better, I told them so publicly and without mincing too many words.  I also offered them personal assistance or resources on how to change their work, if they chose to do so.

Participants had to decide how to respond to me.  In some cases, they immediately pull out their “A” game (clearly they had more background knowledge than they were originally revealing). Others got defensive and offered excuses. Others gave the appearance of calmly contemplating my comments/suggests. Then they either changed their work/behavior or they did not – it went both ways.

I’m not sure how participants felt about my presence in the community. As a frequent blogger/tweeter, I have some (and expanding) experience with public pushback to my work. I’ve engaged with trolls, people with personal problems or somewhat irrelevant axes to grind, condescending people, truly constructive and helpful people, and those who were definitely right (and I was definitely wrong – for real).  I don’t necessarily like any of this public pushback when I first see it.  However, I’ve trained myself to appreciate and learn from (most of) it. Being able to deal with a vocal, engaged, opinionated audience is an incredibly useful skill to have – in both digital and analog spaces.

 I have room to improve – I definitely get that. Regardless of how they perceived me, it appeared that most course participants continually upped their game.  Their tweeting was quality even though it did not grow much in complexity. Their blogs and blog posts got better. Participants were more expressive and reflective. They showed more creative range, more experimentation, more trying than I’ve seen in the blogging of other connected courses I’ve observed. I don’t know whether I played a role in that, and I can only hope that I didn’t hinder anything.

If I could say anything to the participants of Collaborative Curiosity, it would be that the digital skills that they’ve been practicing in this digital environment go far beyond the digital world or “social media.” I hope they understand that. I hope it so much, that I need to walk through some of the important skills/challenges they encountered through this course.

Audience and accessibility of writing. This is so important for community research.  It’s not limited to blogging.  As I discussed in a previous blog post, any audience other than that of an arcane academic journal wants shorter paragraphs, less jargon, accessible sources, pull-out quotes, graphic representations, shorter paragraphs, easy-to-read font, bullets, shorter paragraphs….  Furthermore, visuals matter. Pretty presentation is not everything, but it’s definitely something.

If academics want to communicate well, they need to adjust their academic style. And we need to challenge why we write in such challenging ways in the first place…might it be to exclude??? Do we write like this to sound smarter? I learned to question academic longform from the best and I learned it on paper – long before I started blogging.

Multimodal expression. Digital stories are here to stay. In the world of community engagement you see them in information dissemination, calls to action & recruitment, fund development, and research methodologies.  We all need to get comfortable with visuals and video. These are not a “technical” or “digital” skills.  These are community researcher skills.

Public scholarship.  Learning and sharing in public isn’t always comfortable.  It’s rarely comfortable for me.  I suspect I made it very uncomfortable for some of the Collaborative Curiosity participants.  That being said, community engagement requires a certain level of honesty, transparency, and vulnerability – and I don’t mean those to be buzzwords (because “transparency” is very close to being overused in the world of educational policy, research, and evaluation, isn’t it?).  Academics are taught to be right all the time. Unless you are that especially balanced academic, having a public audience should be at least mildly uncomfortable for you. You have to learn how to respond, how to critique the source of your critique, how to decide what to listen to and what to discard…and you have to learn how to do it gracefully. We did it in asynchronous digital forums…you’re going to have to learn how to do it on stage and in committee meetings.

Networking. Networking is not an exclusively digital art.  We network at parties.  We network for jobs.  We network to find gatekeepers and community leaders for our community engaged research.  If you think “networking” is exclusively digital, you need to read the most influential social network analysis of all times: Granovetter’s research on weak ties, written in 1973 and based on interviews, surveys, and observation.  There was no Internet involved.

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I took this photo while not networking. Instead, I was studying other people as they networked. Who were the most popular? Where were the matriarchs? How big were the clusters? Were the clusters dynamic? Did the families mingle? Who and how many went straight for the food? What did the kids do?

Collaborative Curiosity used Twitter as a platform for class discussion. Students were asked to view social network analyses of their activity and reflect on how engaged in dialogue.  As a proponent of Twitter in this course, I can tell you…my support for Twitter in this context does not come from a place of “everyone should be on Twitter.” On the contrary, Twitter and ensuing network analyses were merely pedagogical tools, meant to reflect back to the students how they were networking.  Twitter was an exercise in making participants more conscious of themselves as networkers. Networking, which is not an inherently digital act, but which is carried out very similarly in the analog world as it is in the digital world.  Networking, which is essential to the community engaged researcher.

And at 1400 words, my training says I should stop here :).  So I will.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. tutormentor1 says:

    Don’t know if I connected with you during the course, but hope to connect in the future. I build work every day to build my on line network, and point it to a huge library of ideas that I hope they, and the people they know, use to help reduce poverty and inequality in places where they live. However, I also attend events throughout the week and keep collecting names and business cards. I add these to my email news and make an attempt to draw people I’ve met into places on-line.

    You comment about Twitter is very relevant. I find that I connect with one world of people via Twitter, and this is not t he same world of friends, family, peers who I am connected to in Facebook, Linked in, or off-line. Finding a way to connect with these different groups, and help them connect with each other, is a huge challenge I seek answers for on a daily basis.

    As a participant, I thank you and the organizers for having made this opportunity available to me.


    1. tutormentor1 says:

      Hi Laura, I just saw the heading of your blog, and realized that we’ve connected several times. Thanks again.


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