Yesterday I had the great honor of dropping by the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute (#digped) to spend the day with Kate Bowles and Maha Bali and participants of the networks track. Informally, I was there to be with my friends who challenge, inspire, and remind me of who and how I want to be in the world. They did not disappoint. Formally, I was there to give a 15 minute talk on practical ways to start conversations with students around the ideas of networking and connectivity.
The talk really never happened, as we opted instead to wind in and out of some of my slides, leading to a 90 minute conversation on voice, audience, and performativity. It was a deep talk. Clearly, the people in the room were hungry to hear and express meaty thoughts. We only crossed into the ‘doing’ realm once, a rabbit hole conversation on care bots, their implications and potential impact. I failed at keeping our attention in the translational space altogether. No one wanted to stay there with me.
Thinking is unfulfilling without the doing, and vice versa. Freire and Dewey taught us that. DaVinci taught us that. In Time and Free Will, Henri Bergson, wrote:
Let us consider…the feeling of grace. At first it is only the perception of a certain ease, a certain facility in the outward movements. And as those movements are easy which prepare the way for others, we are led to find a superior ease in the movements which can be foreseen, in the present attitudes in which future attitudes are pointed out and, as it were, prefigured. If jerky movements are wanting in grace, the reason is that each of them is self-sufficient and does not announce those which are to follow. If curves are more graceful than broken lines, the reason is that, while a curved line changes its direction at every moment, every new direction is indicated in the preceding one. Thus the perception of ease in motion passes over into the pleasure of mastering the flow of time and of holding the future in the present.
In the consideration of the arc from thinking to doing, we must think about the in-between as well. The translation from thinking to action is an interpretive art, not a given. Thoreau on the difference between a genius, an artist, and an artisan speaks to this.
Translation is a form of connection and it deserves time and respect. Possibly it is elusive and therefore uncomfortable for people to consider at length. I need to get better at inspiring people to stay in that space because I truly believe it is the key to unlocking the power of academia to do the most good in this world.
But anyhow, here is the talk.
John Dewey famously wrote that “education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” He demonstrated this in his laboratory school, where children worked together on everyday tasks, driving their own collaborative inquiry about the world around them. DaVinci, too, had great reverence for learning through living and tinkering in the world. He put it a bit more directly than Dewey: “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
How “everything connects” speaks to context. In a recent talk, Jon Udell said, “Context is a service we provide each other. It is a fluid thing, a negotiation across parties.” If this is true, if we accept that we drive each other’s learning through iterative, multi-faceted, and multi-sourced forms of feedback, what does ‘providing context’ look like in teaching and learning environments, particularly digital ones?
What are some of the things students gain by learning on the open web? Why do we have them blog instead of turning in assignments on paper? Why do we have them annotate readings in Hypothes.is rather than reading photocopied packets? Why do we hold Twitter chats?
Beyond the superficial reasons (“it’s an online course”) and more basic that the stated values of accessibility and transparency (which only hold up in some contexts and for some people), digital spaces have qualities that paper-based spaces do not have:
Digital architecture facilitates intentional and serendipitous connection. Hyperlinks link documents across disciplinary silos, geography, and time. Hashtags cross communities and personal networks. The embedding of images, video, .gifs, and audio takes the phrase “here, let me show you” to an entirely different level of opportunity. Tags enable the curation (collection, connection) of documents through more than one conceptual plane (I like to think of them like strings through a stack of swiss cheese slices). RSS feeds will juxtapose content in the most interesting patterns – this is the primordial stuff of discovery.
At a fundamental level, digital spaces function through acts of connecting. So how can we capitalize on digital architecture to help students grow their connective fluency, their capacity for thinking in, building, and seeing connections?
Students faced with performing or creating a product for an audience will learn more deeply because they must externalize their thoughts for the purpose of sharing them. Once thoughts are made explicit, they can be studied, refined, and made sharper through the process.
Students need concrete things to hold onto, particularly at the beginning of their learning journey. They need to see a thing, fiddle with it, correct their own thinking, show it to other people for feedback. These concrete things, or “meeting posts” (I probably co opted meeting posts from Wenger’s communities of practice) are extremely useful tools for instructors as they provide a shared, concrete space for mentoring.
So what if we use aspects of digital architecture to talk with students about cultivating their understanding of connections and contexts?
The idea of starting with basic building blocks is so basic. Why do we not do it in digital composition or expression? Why do we force students to work at the transcendent level of the gestalt?
Recently I took a three night adult-only art workshop. It was an interesting experience for a number of reasons. I was surprised by the fear expressed by the women around me: fear of making mistakes, fear of painting something childlike, fear of using too much paint, the list went on and on. (I did not share their specific fears, much to their collective dismay. One literally sniffed at me: “You’re not afraid of anything, are you?”). The teacher guided them effectively through their fear by breaking things down into the basics.
Shapes. Positioning. Shadow. Color combinations. Balancing positive and negative space. These are basics – basics that she could remind us to see (“Remember to look at your negative space!”), basics about which she could provide feedback (“Your shadow should be darkest right under the subject!”). Her method worked.
I spent several years studying how students in higher education incorporated digital architecture into their compositions. The full dissertation is here, along with additional student-facing and faculty-facing information, assessment ideas, and so forth. Briefly, I discovered that students were instinctively using hyperlinks, images, and hashtags to make really interesting sorts of connections across concepts, disciplines, people, and their own learning across time. However, no one was helping them refine these ideas so that they could improve their connective expression. No one, at least in my environment, was helping to guide them to making it an intentional, artful practice.
What I found by working as a connected learning coach in these digital environments was that digital architecture was a wonderful place to start conversation around audience, voice, connectivity, and providing context. You can provide examples, social network visualizations, advice. These are concrete things that students can look at, play with, and discuss like shapes, positions, color, and shadow.
Talk with students about digital architecture. Talk to them about it to calm their fears about blogging. But also talk to them about it as a jumping off point for deeper, more abstract conversations about voice, audience, identity, performativity. Talk to them about it as a means to enrich their self-expression, build and leverage their social networks, enhance their capacity to provide context, create collective knowledge, privilege connection as an (the) act of learning.