Exploring Engagement - and My Inner Student

The ironies of pondering how tech platforms polarize while floundering with technology and missed deadlines.

February 22, 2018

I tried MOOCing again. I didn’t stick long with the first of these free online courses I tried, but this one, Engagement in a Time of Polarization, was too tempting to pass up. I knew some of the organizers by reputation and through Twitter encounters so I knew it would be good. Also it was only two weeks long. I thought I could swing two weeks.

That was a little ambitious, as it turns out. It ends in a few days and there’s a lot I either missed or rushed through thanks to poor planning. But the course materials will be online for a year, so it’s not too late for me to catch up.

In brief, the course started with some historical models for participatory education – the Antigonish movement, the work of the Highlander Center, and black community education in the Jim Crow south. We moved on to what engagement online looks like today and how the design and economics of our technology platforms contribute to polarization (the “industrialization of communication” as  Mike Caulfield put it). We had an "ask me anything" chat with Zeynep Tufekci (I got there late, ahem.) We also have looked at what to do about technology-driven polarization: what can we do as individuals? What should we do to change the systems that influence concepts of speech, identity, and the contemporary public sphere? Fascinating stuff, and I have a huge list of things I want to track down and read.

What I’m also taking away is a touch of what it’s like to be a student again, using a variety of technologies that don’t always work as I might expect, having conversations with people who I’ve never met before who come to the course with different backgrounds and experiences, having due dates that are suddenly past before I got around to putting them on my calendar. To be sure, I didn’t pay for this course and nobody’s taking attendance. The stakes are nothing like what my students face. Yet it has been valuable for me to be in a student role, thinking about what works for me and what is challenging.

Though I'm pretty comfortable with communicating through technology, it has proven surprisingly complicated, in part because of that polarization thing. I’m used to chatting online with affinity groups that have been together for a long time. We don’t all know one another in person, but we have a sense of who’s who, what people will have already read, even what will be considered funny as opposed to snarky or just plain puzzling. Meeting people for the first time from a variety of countries who come from different professions and disciplines makes conversation a bit more challenging.

Then there’s the technology itself. The course was run on edX through Davidson College. Davidson is a cool place. edX – well, I find it challenging, though it’s certainly no more aggravating than any campus LMS. I found myself clicking a lot to get around, and that makes conversations feel disjointed. I’ve also discovered I don’t like watching videos. At all. Luckily the videos were all captioned and you could even download transcripts. Still, I’d rather read than watch, and this platform seems to assume the reverse. (They weren’t boring videos, by the way. I just never actually made the live video chats on time.) As for reading … well, there’s this attractive gadget for building a colorful magazine of readings and it looks super-cool. The pages flip and everything! But I never really got the purpose of making something on a screen look like paper pages, and the print is hard to read. Also the gadget you use to make these online magazines bills itself as being good at “performance tracking and monetization” which … well, gee, weren't we just talking about that?

Our other major technology for class discussion was Twitter just as Twitter’s mass deletion of bot accounts was blowing up, with right-wing pundits who suddenly lost thousands of followers outraged about their rights being violated. That’s what happens when you industrialize conversation. We were building our classroom about polarization with the master's tools.

The point of this is not to complain about edX or the course or technology, per se. It’s that I found it illuminating to be a student – a not-very-on-top-of-things student – using technology that sometimes was useful but often felt frustrating.I hope it will make me more empathetic when students get confused by the platforms that seem obvious to me or even, gasp, fail to meet deadlines. Been there, done that, this week.

Since I have so little wisdom to share about the content of this course, I’ll share some things others wrote that you should be reading instead because they're really good.

Kate Bowles at Music for Deckchairs - “Chop Wood. Carry Water.” This woman writes so well.

Chris G. at Hypervisible Exchanges – “Power, Polarization, and Tech.” It's a feature, not a bug, and it’s really about class, poverty, race, gender, sexuality, technology, and power. Mostly power.

Mike Caulfield at Hapgood  - “Recognition Is Futile: Why Checklist Approaches to Information Literacy Fail and What To Do About It.” Practical and profound. You might also like his open access book, Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers . . . and Other People Who Care About Facts and his Four Moves teaching examples.

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