Writing, Learning and Social Media (1)

Passion is an overused word these days, but its use reflects a cultural shift in the meaning of writing and learning in the context of work and everyday life. To varying degrees, writing is THE mode of communications in the digital world. Writing overlays everything and is built into the structure of the Web as much as it is at the heart of every form of messaging. Twitter represents the most condensed form of this intense use of language, but even the most trivial of marketing campaigns tries to use words and sentences with impact and functionality. 

In fact, thinking through the use of words as descriptors and as image makers has become one of the most important parts of strategic planning. All those sticky notes that appear in workshops on vision, reflect a desire to match ambition with expression and representation. And, it is rare these days to see an image without a caption or some other linguistic means of identifying its purpose or place.

This is in part why passion is used as a motivator. Make your words as meaningful as possible. Link your intentions to what you say with enough passion so that readers will quickly and efficiently understand what you are trying to say. Dense language is out. Intellectuals who fiddle with words that are not direct are also fiddling with their readers. All texts have to reflect this move towards a populist form of expression.

Except that, sometimes and perhaps more often than not, writing and the use of language is not as easy as that. In fact, there is an inherent ambiguity in our use of words. For the most part, we rarely are able to say or write exactly what we mean. The gap between intention and communication is a broad one. The minute you go beyond a few words, you are essentially in a murky world where what you say and what you write is not only open to misinterpretation but almost always is misinterpreted. The reason we often spend so much time trying to understand each other is that it takes more than just a few minutes to clarify what we are saying. That is even more difficult in writing which does not lend itself directly to interlocutors and where readers can only 'comment' on what is said, but cannot as in a verbal conversation directly challenge the writer.

This suggests that what we describe as social media relies on the relationships among a variety of voices and forms of expression. No one message communicates in the absence of many others. This array of words, sentences, expressions and outlets creates and sustains a mosaic of potential messages and meanings. The transformative change here is in how we navigate through all of these elements, that is how we engage with the many layers of communications or better put how well we understand the layers and how we navigate through them. Part Two will appear next week.

MOOCS (Part Two)

Professor Josie Taylor, Director of the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University in England, says: “If you think the target audience for the MOOC you are about to launch could include a lot of inexperienced learners, then as a teacher, you have the obligation to provide for them ways in which they can be supported. If you don’t, you are abdicating your responsibility to the people you are encouraging — and ethically, that is not a good thing to do.” (Times Higher Education, 14 Feb. 2013, p. 13) Taylor was speaking at the Online and Open Access Learning in Higher Education conference in London in early February. 

Taylor also suggested in her presentation that the pedagogical methods used in MOOCS are talking heads based on old styles of presentation that many lecturers no longer believe in and more advanced forms of online learning are reworking.

There is a great deal of truth in what Taylor is saying. The problem with MOOCS is that the technology and its potential have excited universities and the public, with little examination of the learning framework that needs to be developed for MOOCS to work well. For example, how do contextual factors affect the interaction between learners and screen based environments? See Constructivism in Practical and Historical Context.  There is no easy answer to this question. Learning is both a very private and a very public activity. Learning is driven by exchanges and conversations. Most learning is unpredictable, as it should be because why would you be interested if you already know the outcomes of the activities you engage in? Yes, chat rooms and social media expand the base of conversation. And, of course, the Web is an amazing tool for learning all sorts of new things. But, how deep does that learning go? How can we judge?

When over 100,000 people take a course, can context be understood at all? Perhaps, through the stories learners tell others as they learn? It is possible to make all the feeds from Twitter to Facebook unveil more about the individuals in the course. Clearly, the instructor(s) can only engage with a small percentage of his/her learners irrespective of efforts to engage. However, it is likely that a large number of interactions will provide at least some sort of data based measure to think about use and context. It might be possible to aggregate all sorts of information about learners, based on their answers to questions, and the kinds of conversations they decide to participate in.  

Let me step back for a moment from the argument I have been pursuing. The University of British Columbia is offering courses via Coursera (https://www.coursera.org) that enrolled 134,000 students. Even if 5 percent of those students gained something from the course, (7 thousand students) would it not be fair to say that learning has happened? Seven thousand students is the size of a small university or college. What are we talking about here? Let’s hypothesize that most of the learners find something in the course, an idea or an image or even a broad concept that excites them. That detail about their reaction may come available to the teachers through comments and interactions, essays or any other pedagogical techniques the teacher feels will aid the process. Even if students are just interested in information gathering, they may still learn a great deal.

If we agree that dialogue and conversation are crucial to the success of learning, then do chat rooms, Facebook pages and live discussions via Skype add to the quality of conversation? The answer is obviously yes, but to some degree the lack of an embodied interaction must also be examined and, with great care. In the US over half of middle school students use their smartphones to record lectures or take pictures of notes. Over a third of the students use Facebook to collaborate with their peers on projects and papers. These statistics are constantly changing, but they point toward a merging of off-line and on-line experiences and to a smooth continuum of relationships among virtual and real pedagogical experiences.

MOOCS fit into this flow with all of the constraints and challenges these courses have in going beyond information into criticism, analysis and intellectual engagement.

The next entry in this series will look more closely at a specific course.

The following comment was sent via email by Lya Visser, who is a specialist in distance education.

I liked your reflection on MOOCs, especially as it coincides with a course I am currently teaching for George Washington University and where we have discussed RLO (reusable learning objects) and MOOCs extensively.

I just want to mention that I think it is important that we should not only discuss the business model of MOOCs (so often the topic of reflections), but as you argue, discuss whether they improve education, or better still learning. I also want to emphasize that these MOOCs may offer important opportunities to students from developing countries – it considerably increases accessibility to get an affordable quality education not often available to learners in these countries. It seems to me, but has to be researched, that offering instructor-assisted MOOCs  to students in developing countries may be an effective and efficient way of using the current (free) learning opportunities.

Armando Fox, who leads the UC Berkeley electrical engineering and computer sciences department,  told the San Francisco Business Times (1 February, 2013) that fewer than 10 percent of enrolled students have finished the class, but let’s not forget that only 25 percent of students enrolled in the class are from North America. Although the percentage seems to be low, it is only a good decade ago that I did research with one of the external MA programs of the University of London, and discovered that only 32% of the enrolled students finished the very expensive and sponsor supported program. 

Lastly, I saw your reference to Brent Wilson, who is a great scholar and one of the contributors to the Second Edition of Trends and Issues in Distance Education: International Perspectives, edited by Lya Visser, Yusra Laila Visser, Ray Amirault, and Michael Simonson (published by IAP in 2012).