Who are your kith?
The idea of agency is implicit in the idea of kith: “a group of people living in the same area and forming a culture with a common language, customs, economy, etc., usually endogamous’ (dictionary.com). ‘Living’ and ‘forming’ clarify the roles we have as friends when being part of an association, whether a defined circle or community, or a set of connected and far-reaching nodes in a network. Endogamy indicates the closeness of the relationship, as in tribal affiliation, marriage and loyalty. And the digital seems to contradict this type of closeness due to the tenuous or momentary nature of the spaces it tends to create.
The idea of kith warrants some attention while thinking about students, communities, networks and place, especially in the context of the digital. This is, in part, the topic for the #digciz discussion happening this week. It also coincides with my thinking on digital placemaking and my involvement in presenting at the Civic Curriculum colloquium at the University of Leeds last Friday. I will touch on all of these in this post.
The value of discomfort in learning places
In educational development we tread a fine line between scholarship and sales, always searching for the benefits of an idea on academic practice and student learning while keeping our over-enthusiasm in check with reference to evaluations and research in the domain of pedagogic research. I notice in last week’s #LTHEchat a comment from @chrissinerantzi that ‘feeling uncomfortable is part of learning’ and this chimes with something I often say, ‘learning happens in the discomfort zone’. Other key ideas about learning of this less positive ilk are that ‘learning comes from failure’, and true learning is often hidden from sight. All such ideas remind us that learning is real and complex, being part of the learner’s placemaking story. They show learning to be a gritty endeavour requiring tenacity and enacted in the rich tapestry of life! Learning comes from dealing with challenging situations and this points to the need for us to consider friendship, networks, place and kith; phenomena that create a hardly visible environment supporting the richest learning experiences.
Community and network differentiation
I have commented somewhere this week that it is helpful to differentiate between communities and networks. I suggested one way of doing this is to understand community as a more bounded shared identity with common purpose, while networks are ecological and dynamic, and more closely related to student-centred thinking involving the individual as central node within a multi-dimensional context with short and long reach, and no bounds. The former is associated in particular with common purpose and collaboration, while the latter is more attuned to co-operation and the resilience and richness of weak ties. So while I believe my personal inclination, for example, is to be collaborative and at home in anything that calls itself a community, I think a co-operative and networked philosophy represents the way I see the world operating effectively.
The civic role of universities as places of learning
This brings me to citizenship and explains why, now that we can, we should explore the reach we have beyond the university to connect with others. In this ‘real’ (as opposed to artificial, abstracted, pure and academic) space we can, as learners, teachers and researchers, engage those who matter and who can bring our curriculum to life.
I presented with my colleague Charmaine Myers on the work of our connected curriculum initiative the Venture Matrix in Leeds this week. Charmaine has led this initiative for nearly ten years and it was fascinating to see how well it exemplified the Dilly Fung’s Connected Learning framework from UCL (now written up here in this free to download book). Pretty much an exact fit. However, Charmaine and I presented on the challenge that our own success had created and found a reference point in the CL framework that will help us to articulate how we can grow the VM. The VM is about forming strong connections with organisations outside of the university (schools, business and third sector) and forming client-student relationships in the curriculum. Being a central unit, our challenge is how to take the essential methods, values and limited resources to extend the reach of the VM to the benefit all of our students at all levels. We are beginning to move from the power of will to devise more sustainable strategic measures, but this is an exciting challenge.
Civic nomadicism and multiple lives
A quick reference to Sheila McNeil’s post on #digciz titled Kith and nomads: a small thought on digital citizenship #digciz. She mentions having multiple presences online and even though she is referring to how she manages multiple identities, there is something about concurrency in the digital space that means not only can we inhabit multiple places, but we usually do these days. I use the words ‘place’ and ‘inhabit’ intentionally as they help to articulate the challenge we face/accept of having multiple belongings and becomings i.e. these identities reflect our multi-dimensional digital dynamism. No longer are we multi-tasking, we are multi-living with each existence having its integrity diverging and converging in ways that, by and large, don’t seem to discombobulate us.
Personally, I don’t see this as nomadicism unless we are expressly moving on to find new pastures for our lifewide grazing. It seems more as though we want to graze in, or inhabit, multi places and spaces concurrently while being free to find and lose places at will. Sheila also highlights the data her nomadic self leaves behind and mulls over the significance of these traces to herself and others.
This all makes me think about digital kith, presence and closeness. Perhaps digital kithness is more about valuing and immersing oneself in the moment, valuing it for what it is?
In the last few weeks my interests in connectivity, co-production and co-operation have directed my thinking about digital placemaking to the idea of learner agency. That is not to say learners must be autonomous and take responsibility for their own learning, but rather that students, by developing their sense of agency, can come to see their place as influential members of learning communities and legitimate agents within their networks. The community membership points to the need to set students authentic challenges from which they can exercise their social competence, developing social capital through defined collaborative activities. The latter idea of network agent suggests that the student must be given, find or create opportunities to be a co-operative member of society towards becoming agile at working alongside others through a networked mindset.
Neither of these philosophies is explicitly or generally featured in the design of curricula, by and large. However, I argue learner agency and community membership fit well with our interests in retention and student engagement. Exploring the idea of kith and ‘soft’ interdependencies as a dimension of learning place is an agenda that needs more attention in higher education.