"maybe it's 'cuz 'cuz
we're all gonna die die"

Saturday, August 11, 2007

My name is Bleetzork Ziddlebutt: conversations, the web, and teaching

Not long ago, I discovered Alan Levine's blog. Levine works in instructional technology, is connected with the New Media Consortium, and I believe he's the creator of -- or at least was somehow involved in the creation of -- the venerable and versatile Feed2JS service at Maricopa Community College. I'm not sure what got me curious about reading his blog -- maybe Bryan Alexander linked to it or something.

Anyhow. Brace yourself. This post is basically an extended, personal gripe about Web 2.0 and the social web. I have two complaints, and let me say right out that for the most part I have my tongue planted firmly in my cheek here, like the man says. However, I think this has some ramifications for the way technology is used in education, and I get to that at the very end of the post. Basically, I'm trying here to reflect a little bit on my own encounters with the technology of the social web (okay, "Web 2.0"), on the way it seems to have affected me, and what I think this might mean in the context of my own teaching praxis.

Okay. So, the first complaint. If Web 2.0 is all about this big social thing, it's, like, all one big conversation, then why doesn't anyone want to talk to me? I mean, I realize hardly ever say much of anything, but ... doesn't the magic of the web just automatically make conversations simply flower forth? Maybe not. Or maybe I'm just not that interesting! This point crystallized for me after I read Levine's post on "Facebook fatigue" and by extension social networking fatigue. In it, Levine complained that he was being overwhelmed by friend requests on Facebook, Twitter, and who knows where else. "No, Bleetzork Ziddlebutt," he wrote, "I do not want to be your friend." Well, ahem, Bleetzork Ziddlebutt -- that would be me, I guess. I was the source of one tiny piece of that deluge, having recently begun following Levine on Twitter and -- after posting a comment on one of his Flickr images -- added him as a Flickr contact. Well, to make a short story short, Levine didn't reciprocate. (He did, however, respond to my comment and then post a Twitter update with the link I tipped him off about, so I know he at least read what I'd said...) Now, I'm a big kid. Uh, my feelings aren't, like, hurt or anything. I swear. (Maybe just a little.) But hey, look, I'm a college professor. I'm a smart guy. I have a Ph.D. from Harvard. Why wouldn't people flock to be my friend, even if I never post a single interesting piece of content?

I then went on, similarly, to add a bunch of the other Web 2.0-in-the-classroom people as contacts in various web incarnations -- Barbara Ganley (Twitter and Flickr), Gardner Campbell (Twitter), and Jim Groom (Twitter), to name a couple. Groom, for reasons I cannot fathom, not only permitted me to follow his private Twitter updates but apparently is now following me as well, which, of course, greatly flatters my vanity, since Groom is something of a celebrity in this small field. The other two didn't respond -- not that I particularly expected them to, and, certainly, not that they were under any obligation to do so. (Bryan Alexander, on the other hand, who's a prince among men, has dealt with me several times in person, so he couldn't easily avoid friending me, like it or not.) In the meantime I continue to use Twitter, posting several updates a day (sometimes many more), usually extraordinarily inane. (In the most recent one, I bitched about having a stomachache and how Windows Movie Maker crashed.) I also continue to post photos to Flickr, though less in the last couple of weeks, and those are also very idiosyncratic: they're all either screenshots of stuff I think is interesting, photos of my kids, or peculiarly distorted cameraphone pictures of the area near where I live. I don't blog, not to speak of, basically because it's too damn much work, except for occasionally posting about my two lovely children, and even that's pretty much only for the benefit of the grandparents and other relatives.

Anyhow, what's struck me as I've observed this process is that most of the conversations on Twitter seem to be between people who know each other, or who are connected in one way or another, via real life already. This is pretty much true for me too. I've got fifty people following my updates on Twitter (the vast majority of whom are either robots or bulk-friend-adding types), but the only ones I regularly exchange substantive messages with are my brother, my next-door neighbor, two of my students (this one and this one, both of whom are smarter and harder-working than me), and, occasionally (she tends to ignore me most of the time) a rather breathtakingly brilliant poet, a former student of mine, who I turned on to Twitter some time back (at the time she thought it sounded ridiculous, I think, but now she's discovered some astonishingly creative ways to use it and has built up a significant fanbase; unlike almost all the other Twitter users I follow, her posts pretty much always have substance). For the record, there are thus far precisely two people on Twitter that I've actually exchanged messages with whom I've never met in meatspace.

I suspect that what's true of Twitter is also true, though maybe to a lesser extent, on most of the other "2.0"-style social Web environments -- blogs, Flickr, etc. Take Flickr. Some time back I added a woman who calls herself "~Kell~" (cute, huh) as a contact, I think because I saw her photos on another site I was using a lot at the time, Blipfoto (I've since abandoned Blipfoto out of a lack of time). Almost every day she posts attractive, cheery pictures of herself and her children, or occasionally something like a flower. (Recently -- I haven't been following too closely -- her grandmother got sick, so ~Kell~ posted some arty sepia-toned portraits of her, and even a hospital interior or two.) Every day her cheery photo posts get a dozen or so cheery replies, along the lines of, "You're great, Kell, love the pics!," or, on bad days, "Hang in there, Kell, we're rooting for you!" I'm not criticizing or being snarky here, I'm just pointing out that that's about as deep as it usually gets. My point is: much of the time, these aren't really "conversations" happening out there in cyberspace, they're more like nice people just touching base with each other. And indeed, that can be a very nice, civilized, friendly thing.

When I read the Twitter updates from Levine, Groom, Campbell, and Ganley, as well as a few others, I'm also struck by the same in-group quality. These are people who know each other, talking to one another as if they were at a private party. And why not? One of the things I find fascinating about Twitter is that when you post an update, it's like you're standing in a very large room full of all sorts of people, all talking about different things. Someone may hear you and answer you, and of course if your friends are there in the room, they're more likely to be listening. Potentially, someone who's not your friend might hear you, think what you're saying is interesting, and start listening along to your conversations. That's pretty much my situation -- I've been doing a lot of eavesdropping. It's interesting, but as I say, I'm struck by the semi-private, elliptical nature of many of the conversations. They're full of inside jokes and incomprehensible references (the "fake Reverend Jim"?).

So, why is this important? I guess it has to do with a growing sense on my part that this is really what the technology of the social web is for -- or, at least, that's what it does best: it supports and reinforces preexisting real-life relationships. And, more to the point for me, I wonder what this implies for those who are seeking to establish new, technologically-mediated forms of connectedness and community in an educational context. One of Alan Levine's longer recent posts was about the annual Faculty Academy at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. I believe he wrote it as he was waiting for his plane out of town. In it, Levine said, basically, how wonderful the event was and how happy he was to have been there, and he gave a quick rundown of the participants and events. Many of the other participants responded in kind in the comments, thanking Levine for his post and for his contributions to the event. The whole thing seemed quite heartfelt and sincere. However, as an outsider reading the post and the comments, it was completely impossible to get any sense of what good the work of the Faculty Academy actually is. Teaching was mentioned, but only in very oblique, allusive ways, and there was never a mention of a specific course or an actual learning activity. The post was all about collaboration, innovation, team spirit, "new ways" of thinking, and the attraction of cool technology.

Now, I'm not trying to criticize Levine, or his work, by any means. It might sound as though I'm accusing him of superficiality, and I admit that that was probably my first reaction on reading the post. But it wasn't superficial. That wouldn't be a fair criticism. It was a blog entry, and I want to use it as an example of something I think is fairly common in this context. The post wasn't intended to be a meticulous critical evaluation, or even a thorough description, of Faculty Academy, and he was explicit about that. It was more in the vein of a personal journal entry. He was simply jotting down his highly enthusiastic reactions to the event while it was still fresh in his mind. But isn't that what blogging's mostly about? It's supposed to focus on informal, relaxed, off-the-cuff reactions to things. I guess it made me wonder what the real value of Web 2.0 technologies for education actually is. Levine is a great exemplar of the use of those technologies, but in his actual practice -- at least, inasmuch as it is exposed to the view of outsiders like myself -- the kind of critical reflectiveness that we want to model for our students doesn't really show up, the way it presumably would in an offline setting.

I don't mean to pick on him here. Indeed, I have more or less the same reaction to all the other people I've named, too. I'm excited by the educational possibilities of all this technology, and the "ethos" behind Web 2.0-style development is closely in accord with my ideas about what teaching ought to be: open, distributed, transparent, and social. I guess this post is mostly born out of my own disappointment at how things have gone so far. I've built blogs and wikis for my classes, but I don't really know how to use them. Students seem to think it's cool, too, but it's not clear precisely how anyone in my classes is benefiting from their use. In fact, they end up seeming more like a fun distraction. What is fundamentally clear to me, in particular, is that the seemingly transformative promise of Web technologies for teaching has not been borne out in practice, at least not in my practice, nor have I been able to see it clearly documented anywhere else. And God damn it, I really wanted it all to work. But so far, I don't see that it has. I see lots of potential, but not a lot of results, at least not yet, and not in a form I can recognize. Am I wrong about this? I hope so -- I really want to be corrected!

This post has meandered quite a ways from my initial half-serious complaining about how all the smart people on Twitter don't want to follow my updates. I do think there's a connection, though. The problem is that Web 2.0 technologies threaten to substitute a kind of superficial, marketplace-style sociability for real exchange. Actually, that's not true. The technology doesn't really have that much to do with it. Substantive, thoughtful exchange is always difficult. It's hard work. The web doesn't "threaten" that. What it does do, though, and I think this is the real problem, is this. It seems to promise to make those things easy, even though we know that's not the case. By holding out that silent promise, it threatens to make us forget how real human connections are forged --- over time and through lots of hard work -- and that they're usually a matter of embodiment as well. The "new" internet offers an endlessly fascinating world of connections and discoveries, but it's now easier than ever before to get lost ooh-ing and aah-ing at the shiny, fun toys and to think that they, themselves, are substitutes for the processes that they are actually intended to facilitate. I know that's happened to me, over and over again. I'd much rather fool with the design of a course website than actually think about what that website's supposed to do for the students. It's easier.

In fact, in a way, I'm probably doing that right now. I better go. Bye.


Bryan's workshop blog said...

That's a fine discussion, and you should return to it, if possible.
Lots of levels to it:
...the unevenness of following and being followed
...the psychological drop felt in publishing yet not getting writing in return - being read, but not written back to
...our tendency to focus on preexisting or parallel social networks
...making the leap from local to global in writing (who's reading this?)
...what happens when we accrete multiple social network functions

I think you're onto something about Web 2.0 as archiving function, too.

Jim said...


Reverend Jim here (the real one mind you) and I have to say that this post was an important read for me in that it frames realities that I myself am coming to terms with through yet another lens.

What took me a while to realize (and Gardner Campbell framed it well the other day) is that you find people at the other end of blog, not necessarily scholarship –though the two are no exclusive. I definitely believe there is a place for scholarship in the Web 2.0 environments (and I'll list I few I have worked on at the end of the post), but often times someone’s blog (rather than a blog acting as a course site, conference portal, or website) is a personal thing that traces a totally different logic than a journal article or a book chapter. That, for me, has been the greatest pleasure of blogging- escaping the product-centered notion of academia by framing one's ideas in the immediate as both an archive and a preliminary sounding board.

You can get away with this in the blogosphere because your often writing for ten or fifteen people at the most, and that has always been ten or fifteen people more than I had ever written for previously. The blog, for me, has really been the single most pleasurable and important tools in the process of making connections with people like Alan Levine, Brian Lamb, D'Arcy Norman, Laura Blankenship, etc. All of these people are now real to me because of the work we have shared, and it may seem fragmented to many folks, but it always already implies an ongoing conversation that you have to stick around for a while to fully comprehend. Now, I guess the only reason you would stay around is if you thought you had something to gain by it, and for me I knew that the folks you listed (and a number of others) were trying to re-think the boundaries of social networking tools and small pieces loosely joined in the classroom. Given that is my job, I needed to read them closely and regularly to see who they were referencing, what was of interest, and how they approached all the shiny tools being released almost daily.

What I found is that the tools were irrelevant, the conceptual ideas push all of the people you mention here towards EDUGLU- and ideal that is focused around an RSS rich environment that allows students, professors, and others to publish, immediately follow, trackback, comment, or link to the ideas of others as they were being published in a more cohesive and dynamic manner. How do we hook a class, or even a university up to such a system, in order to see how sharing ideas both in person and through a distributed network impacts teaching and learning for that particular campus. What might that tell us about a campus if we can share internally and externally? What does this suggest about education more generally in an age were the tools are becoming increasingly simple to flex and bend to do your bidding?

Speaking for myself, I have made a conscious effort to make my blog anything but scholarly. In fact, I am probably the biggest tool chaser and fanboy of all the folks you mentioned, for I am pretty much sold on WordPress as a tool that can (at least right now) approximate a flexible, distributed learning environment that will provide students with a rich archive of their work over the course of four years (along with the conversations, comments, trackbacks, etc.) if not a lifetime. This is somewhat ideal for it depends on a more general faculty participation, yet in all fairness we are living in technological moment currently that fuels a bit of the dreaming -especially if you’re not in the home mortgage industry.

Yet, all of this depends upon the very issues you raise so well in your post: is Web 2.0 for some edtech bloggers/twitterites/etc. just a social club of insiders having fun and being anything but scholarly? I think that might be a first impression if you enter twitter when the fake reverends are on the prowl, but so much of that fun is really turning the soil to examine questions of richness. Like any class or seminar, you have a social dynamic that can in many ways dictate the tenor and ultimate quality of course. Folks like Alan have been undeniable mavericks in pushing the social limits of these tools in order to see how we relate to them -how we can share through them and discuss issues ranging anywhere from Milton's Paradise Lost to John Carpenter's The Thing.

If you think about these tools in a more course specific space, then the scholarly and academic value of blogs, wikis, CMSs, etc is more than evident for me.

Here are some examples (all of which are open and freely available): :

1) Marjorie Och, an Art History professor at UMW, worked with a small seminar on the history of Venice in relationship to the fine arts. Each of her students had to produce a research paper, and she decide to have them build their research into a class exhibit/journal using a blog and wiki combination. It is an interesting project because it does the very thing you seem to be struggling with about these tools more generally-it traces the messiness of teaching, learning, and scholarship-while at the same time ultimately framing a "finished" experience for anyone interested in gaining more detailed understanding of a very focused selection of artists and artworks (sounds like undergraduate scholarship to me!) http://venice.maoch.org

2) Claudia Emerson is a creative writing professor who has really done unbelievably creative scholarly projects with her class. Here is one: she had students spend the first six weeks of the semester reading the most recent volumes of the established core of literary journals in the US. After six weeks of close readings and analysis, we worked together to have her students create their own literary journal and publish them by week 14 -and they did with some amazing results. in fact, the students had their own ideas about scholarship, peer review, and collaboration. Check out the The Nonce Journal - more than just a blog!

3) I don’t want to steal his thunder, and he is ever so humble about the unbelievable work he does in the classroom, but if you get a chance peek around ELS Blogs for some of Gardner Campbell's Film Text and Culture classes or his most recent New Media Studies class you won’t be disappointed (look for the feed pages!). ELS Blogs

I have a host of additional examples for teaching and learning which I often conflate with scholarship -the only difference that one may harp upon is that the term scholarship is so often framed as a solitary effort of laboring in libraries and pouring over manuscripts. And while I don't think this reality has vanished entirely- the very tools we are currently using to communicate right now have changed that equation to some large degree. And I think this may often suggest a dearth of seriousness and rigor when in fact the play has unearthed a whole lot of both.

As for friending you on twitter, I'm notoriously easy. And as to the claim of my celebrity in the edtech circles -it has been grossly exaggerated.

jurij m. lotman said...

i like this reflections very much.

(can't say much about now, though, because of time. will link to this in my blog and try to really think about all this later.)

Gardner said...

An interesting post in many ways, though there's an edge to it that I find a little disturbing. That said, I hope these comments, particularly that one from Jim (heartfelt, detailed, and full)demonstrate how easy it is to draw folks into a conversation in this medium.

I can't add much to what Jim has said. I will say that the highly personal and elliptical quality you point to is certainly there, but it is not so uniformly the case as you suggest, or else there would be no way for anyone ever to join the conversation. I did not have a pre-existing social relationship with Alan Levine, for example; I met him after reading, linking to, and commenting on his blog for over a year.

Also, for me it's important that what I'll call the "business as usual" of the academy is usefully complicated and enriched in this medium. Right, Alan's post on Faculty Academy was not an article on learning outcomes or a list of teaching tips or whatever. You can find plenty of those elsewhere in the blogosphere, often from Alan himself. And if you really want to dig down into Faculty Academy 2007 and draw your own conclusions, those materials are open to you at www.facultyacademy.org. What Alan *did* write was an outpouring of gratitude and a journal of inspiration. What the academy in many cases fails to recognize is that such outpourings are the glue that holds our communities of learning together. Such testimonials are deeply encouraging to those of us who were mentioned, sure, but in my view they also point to the way to a heartier and more comprehensive engagement in our lives and common work. They're not a substitute for other forms of discourse, but an essential contribution to the whole. It's what I call collegiality.

I think I've figured out why I found your post to have an unpleasant edge. You conclude with the claim, or at least the strong implication, that those of us in this little community would rather gush about tech than buckle down to the hard work of crafting useful educational resources, because gushing about tech is easier. It's hard not to view that as an attack, and an uninformed one as well. I invite you to look at any of the course materials I've had a hand in creating and comment specifically on what you find there. Then we can have a better conversation.

And why have I not followed you on Twitter? Because I get a fair amount of "Twitter spam," and I haven't gone in lately to figure out who's legit and who's just collecting "followers." No offense meant.

Gardner said...

Oh, and one more thought. You write, "I'd much rather fool with the design of a course website than actually think about what that website's supposed to do for the students." As I argued in a recent post on my blog, however, design is not necessarily a superficial consideration, nor (and this is the important point) are design considerations necessarily something different from considerations of teaching and learning effectiveness. As Donald Norman argues, inviting designs can in fact help one think better, and are themselves the record of thoughtful, creative engagement with the physical and conceptual universe.