This post explores, summarises and reflects on some of the conversations that took place in #futurehappens Connect:Disconnect. The Future Happens hack model creates a forum for debate about the potential of technology, and the tensions and anxieties relating to its use in higher education. Future Happens was conceived by Dave White, Donna Lanclos and Peter Bryant, and this second ‘change hack’ explored social media as a context for learning. Nearly 50 people took part in the hack which was hosted by LSE on 5th May 2017. Information about the hack can be found here: http://www.futurehappens.org/future-happens-2/ and the responses to the activities are here: http://www.futurehappens.org/fh2/
I would like to thank Peter Bryant, Dave White and Donna Lanclos for sharing their own reflections on the event, captured through social media of course.
Social media and hacks defined
Peter Bryant says, “One of the most critical aspects of Future Happens is the capacity to generate spaces where conversations are enacted and problems can be solved. Most organisations don’t afford staff and students the capability to do this without pre-determined baggage or consequence arising from position or responsibility. Future Happens is a nexus space.”
This idea of nexus space captures not only the hack but where we are as a loosely associated network convening around a set of shared possibilities and challenges. It allows us to form an interest in embracing, and at the same time challenging, the “exposures we have to social media and collectively agree to common principles for the positive use of social media for making teaching, learning and assessment better.”
The organisers defined social media as being “computer-mediated technologies that allow the creating and sharing of information, ideas, identity, learning and other forms of expression, dialogue and discourse via virtual communities and networks.” They suggest that social media can extend the educational space to promote learning as a communal, collaborative and personal opportunity in which knowledge is, at least in part, socially constructed. The use of social media as a learning space has the potential to equip learners to be active and engaged citizens, though this requires new literacies.
These propositions, together with an abundance of pizza and the promise of beer, empowered those who had accepted the invitation to work through a series of hacks for the afternoon.
There is something in the language of the ‘hack’ that sets it apart from ‘a workshop with activities’ – perhaps it’s an expectation for peer-led generative thinking to attempt to solve unsolvable shared problems. It recognises complexities and the need to collectively chip away at them by working across institutions and, as Donna Lanclos says, “breaking down silos in institutions.” The collective problem, in this case, is how do we take what we know or sense to be valuable about social media and apply it, not only to our own institutions but more fundamentally to how we articulate university learning and teaching? So, my understanding of a hack is not so much a method as an attitude.
We began by generating examples of ‘imagined worst case scenarios’, ‘super positive personal experiences’, and ‘true life horror stories’. In each case, there were no great surprises, but it helped to make real the activities that preoccupied us for the rest of the afternoon.
Four hacks followed in which we were asked to develop principles as the basis for a better understanding of how social media can be used in higher education. Reviewing the responses generated and captured by the participants in a set of Google Docs, the themes of identity, literacy, and authenticity emerged from the structure we had been given.
Donna says she was struck by the anxieties and aspirations evident in the emerging themes. There is, she observed, an awareness of perils and potential amongst the academics, decision makers and students who took part. For me, this reflects a maturity in the discourse and the usefulness of hacking this area of innovation. Dave White points to the usefulness of the “workable nuggets of teaching and learning” that the event generated but, reflecting on what participants produced, he finds a connection between the risks associated with the use of social media and the most powerful learning and teaching opportunities.
Exploring multiple and evolving identities
Identity is messy because our use of social media crosses personal and professional, spatial and temporal boundaries. Nevertheless, social media can give us a strong sense of academic freedom. While managing our identities in multiple contexts is not new, our use of social media complicates this exponentially and requires us, as learners and teachers, to develop a range of profound literacies – many of them emerging.
The freedom that social media afford includes the access they give anyone to connect and think with others. Social media create a freedom for anyone to challenge extant systems. From these ideas of social media freedom, education finds new ways to foster innovative learning contexts and communities, including learning networks that reach beyond formal higher education. With this ill-defined, flexible and personal freedom, the learner and the teacher must develop a hypersensitivity towards the personal, interpersonal, and social responsibilities they have assumed by taking part.
Social media, in their various forms, create a space in which to become, to aspire and to reinvent yourself. They do not make us different, but like other spaces, they allow each of us to inhabit and develop ourselves in new contexts. We need to accept therefore that social media spaces need to be challenging, empowering, enabling, and supportive. And to some extent, risky. This demonstrates how we need to understand social media learning spaces as being social and technological.
The possibility and probability of boundary crossing through social media mean that these spaces are authentic, being ill-defined and situated in contexts that are not abstract and that cannot be controlled for the sake of education. This makes them both unpredictable and rich for learners and teachers. Teachers, therefore, need to develop high levels of spatial literacy as the teaching role develops into a more supportive one.
Becoming network literate
Social media learning spaces require us to be network literate so that we can contribute to the building of effective communities. However, the idea of community is used loosely, being as much about having a collective interest in a common purpose as it is about an idea of a stable alliance. This means being alert and proactive to support others engage and learn, recognising the value of their diverse ecologies, the value of their like-mindedness and unlike-mindedness, and how these common interests relate to one’s own motivations. This is not necessarily altruistic, but about valuing the network as a provocative and rewarding learning context and understanding how each node within a network adds to the strength and resilience of the context we share.
It also requires each of us to be critically appreciative. An effective network challenges itself. There is a danger, a perception, and sometimes a reality, that social networks are preoccupied with being trustful and ebullient; however, each of us needs to learn the skills and dispositions of critical friendship.
Fundamental to network literacy and the building of supportive communities is an understanding of, and commitment to, mutual benefits, joint enterprise and shared repertoires (Wenger, 1998). From this comes an appreciation of crowdsourcing and the co-production of knowledge. Such an appreciation itself promulgates and generates a sense of belonging.
Fundamental to network literacy is the concept of multilogues (Megele, 2014; Shank, 1993) in which a multiplicity of concurrent and legitimate voices characterise the learning space. In a social media space, each contribution has persistence and accommodates utterances and statements that can be profound or superficial. It is for each participant to use their developed critical literacy to consider and develop what they encounter.
Networked critical literacy is not only about what is said, heard and considered, but about how the networked is engaged. There is no need to replicate the protocols and conventions of other learning spaces. Similarly, there is no need to limit who we involve in our discourse; the very idea of a disciplinary boundary is challenged by the social media environment because networks know no bounds, and we need to pay attention to the implications this has for identity and coherence.
Coherence and citizenship
The world is troubled by disrupted identities. Popularism and elitism have been set out as political and social binaries. The truth, as always, lies somewhere between or to one side. This is very relevant to a consideration of social media and its role as a networked learning space. If we are excited by and see the value of boundary crossing for the exponential growth of knowledge (Siemens, 2005), we must make sure we are developing and curating a strong sense of scholarship and academic reputation. It will be dangerous if we allow academic boundary crossing to lead to a dispersal and deflation of our strengths and role in society.
The concept of citizenship in relation to social media highlights an augmented notion of city: a new space that therefore requires us to review or develop new ethics. This pertains to the learning place, placemaking and the relationship of education with the spaces beyond.
Authenticity is a key word in thinking about the social media learning space because social media fundamentally disrupts boundaries. It is no longer possible to argue that academia stands apart from its vibrant society as a protected, abstracted learning space. The question is instead about the extent to which we exploit our connections with society to create a rich learning context. Doing so affects identity and credibility and introduces many risks to the learning environment.
The authentic social media learning space changes the teaching role therefore, with much greater emphasis being put on the teacher as scaffolding co-navigator supporting the learner to negotiate, apply and evaluate what they know in unpredictable situations. At undergraduate level this is a significant shift away from the idea of a three year course being a safe transitional space.
Greater authenticity, however, recognises how a graduate’s greatest contribution to modern society is in the quality of their conceptual thinking and their disposition, and not so much now in what they know per se.
There are great opportunities for our students as engaged researchers and participants within a socially mediated learning space in which formal and informal learning is scaffolded, being both theoretical and applied through strong connections with the world as it is lived beyond higher education. Donna, echoing the idea of situated learning, expresses this as “connecting the work of students and academics with unexpected people and places.”
Participants noted how authentic learning promotes inclusivity and engagement, but also has the potential to exploit others by making them objects of study. A networked literacy, ethically, must embody reciprocity and beneficence. For example, the social media learning context suggests the need for a reconsideration a university’s role in knowledge transfer and co-creation.
Donna advises that, “notions of what is authentic are constantly negotiated.” It needs to be constantly defined.
In some conversations in the room authenticity was understood as ‘truth’. While I think the intention was more to do with authenticity as a connection to recognisable reality, it is easy when examining complex ideas to gravitate towards binaries, in this case: truth and untruth. Like all binaries, this is unhelpful. Potentially it can be read as arrogant and dangerous and clarifies why a networked literacy must accommodate and promote useful uncertainty. This is where I think real authenticity is found and it is where scholarship lives.
Challenges to understanding and positively developing the social media learning space
This consideration of social media as a learning space for higher education faces a series of fundamental challenges. They may need to be addressed directly or they may need to be borne in mind as we come to understand the social media learning space more fully.
Perhaps Dave White’s observation that there are great opportunities if we are prepared to take great risks sums up the challenge. However, to respond to this challenge we must develop greater clarity, not necessarily consensus, about the opportunity and how higher education can find its role and move confidently into this learning space. The Future Happens principle is that this can only be done collectively and with positivity.
As educational innovators, we need to appreciate the distance we have from practice at large. The people in the room understand why this is important but I am not sure any one of us could convince any academic that this is a critical space with which to engage. There is certainly a fantastic opportunity to connect teaching and learning to situations beyond our silos, but why should practitioners jeopardise relatively sound and secure practices to make these risky, rich connections? There is an urgency to clarify the opportunity.
Dave, Peter and Donna have made a significant step towards answering this and demonstrated their own network literacy in running the hack. It is the right way to approach this important assessment of a rapidly emerging space.
There will be various next steps. Making the hack documents widely available allows each of us to reflect on and build upon what has been achieved. With my colleague Sue Beckingham who has done much to develop our interest, I will be proposing we run a post-hack event in my own institution. Dave says, at UAL, he will collate examples of practice based on the principles generated on the day. Evidence of emerging good practice from within our communities provides a basis for explaining the value of the social media learning space and is much needed. However, there is a need for further discussions, hacks, and challenging literature on this subject. At Sheffield Hallam University we will run the third #SocMedHE Conference in December. Here again we can share and challenge ourselves further.
Megele, C. (2014). Theorising Twitter chat. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 2(2), 46-51.
Shank, G. (1993). Abductive multiloguing: the semiotic dynamics of navigating the Net. The Arachnet Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture, March 22, 1(1).
Siemens, G. (2005) Connectivism: a learning theory for a digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), 3-10. Online at: http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm