Content, it’s us

I’m starting to believe, more and more, that given THE INTERNETS, content should be something that gets created BY a course not BEFORE it.

Dave Cormier,  ‘Content is a print concept‘, June 2016

So the narrative course ended, and while students are writing about it, I’m writing to thank two people who have shaped the way that I approach things.

First of all, my edtech mentor Jonathan Rees. No, really.

Last year, Jonathan wrote a short staypiece about his digital lightbulb moment at the Digital Pedagogy Lab summer institute, that led to this:

I’ve been using Slack in my hybrid Introduction to Digital History class for three weeks now. The class is centered on group projects and the Slacking has already begun.  … There is just something so darned friendly about this set-up that I think it promotes communication. Learning is occurring (including learning how to use Slack) and I’m not at the center of it at all.

I’d been exposed to Slack only in conference organising. It did seem a friendly environment for banter and backchannel, but I couldn’t think what else to do with it. Jonathan urged me to reconsider, emailed me to explain his reasoning, and invited me into his course Slack. He’s outspoken about the hot mess that edtech has become, he’s scrupulous about good history teaching, and you can see how he’s pulling it all together here. So I filed it away under #thinking.

Then this semester, the remarkable students who signed on to think about critical narrative professionalism with me said: oh hey, what about Slack? I said: mumble, mumble, banter, GIFs, backchannel, can’t we just tweet and blog like old times, or words like that. So they set it up anyway, invited me in, and turned me into the person whose skates suddenly point in the right direction..

Here are the reasons Slack has worked for me, with these students, in this context.

First, they’ve owned it, and Slack makes this easy. Anyone can set it up, anyone can create channels or private conversations. This means the group can easily decide how to handle chit-chat, where to keep critical information, how to bundle things so they don’t get lost. There are spaces to vent, and spaces to think, and spaces to deal with admin.

Second, Slack handles sharing and finding content particularly well. URLs unfurl like tiny flags to show you what you’ll see if you follow the link; files behave as they should; everything does what you want it to. I finally started using IFTTT properly and now when I save something relevant from Twitter into Bottomless Bucket Pocket it skips on to Slack where it sits in the right spot, sending a notification to let everyone know it’s there.

Which leads to the third thing. The app works. Notifications work. Everything works across devices. So provided everyone takes the time to get themselves sorted out at the start (this bit is important, as not all students will know to do this), Slack resolves the increasingly messy issues involved in using Twitter as a course communication channel. It saves us from the great leap backwards of using the LMS, the internal student messaging system or email—all of which are awful—to communicate. And it does all this without being Facebook.

But the real gain has been in pedagogy, particularly in relation to content. I’ve argued against the curriculum-as-bookclub model of weekly readings before:

The capacity to assign the right sort of readings turns out to be a habitual signal of academic expertise, one that we don’t even notice ourselves reinforcing. I know there’s a risk of disingenuous countersignalling in choosing to avoid this when I teach. But for me the alternative is riskier: that we focus our entire teaching strategy on replicating our own expertise in the minds of others, and we close off the possibility that learners may engage more effectively by finding their own resources to share and then seeing how others respond.

I invited students to work together to thicken up the ideas around which this course has coalesced: whether Michael White’s work in narrative therapy can extend to professional self development. Thanks to training from Maggie Carey at Narrative Practices Adelaide, I’m using White’s models for narrative conversations to explore ways of thinking about decision-making and personal agency in the junk labour market. This means that the relevant literature is all over the shop: social work, family therapy, psychology, nursing, theatre, organisational communication.

After some workshop exercises to introduce Michael White’s work, I asked students to find three credible sources on narrative to use in a short piece of writing. Fairly organically, and easily supported by Slack, they pooled what they found, creating a small and diverse collection they could all use. They found things I wouldn’t have chosen, and things I didn’t know about. They repurposed things that were familiar to me, and brought people who matter to me —like Elan Morgan—right into the room.

Road sign saying Synergy
Synergy, San Francisco, 2015. photo credit: Kate Bowles

And then they shared their writing, creating a new collaborative practice that directly addressed the way we treat student writing as the waste product of assessment. 

I think Jonathan’s right: there’s something about this environment that encourages agency, and that’s the basis for its promotion of communication. Not only did Slack encourage participants to lend each other found content from the start, but as writers and thinkers they became resources to each other, and to me. I cannot look back from this moment and say that anything I’ve been involved in previously has been more effective than this.

Which brings me to the second overdue thank you, to Dave Cormier. In 2008, Dave put forward ideas about community as curriculum that remain at the heart of how I work:

Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum. Knowledge can again be judged by the old standards of “I can” and “I recognize.” If a given bit of information is recognized as useful to the community or proves itself able to do something, it can be counted as knowledge. The community, then, has the power to create knowledge within a given context and leave that knowledge as a new node connected to the rest of the network.

I’m neither persuaded nor antagonised by the rhizome metaphor that became the more well-known consequence of this, but I believe in community. Like Dave, I think that a course is something continuously remade by the people who come along. This year’s narrative professionalism course wasn’t the same as last year’s, and next year’s will be different again. Each time, I have been profoundly changed in my own thinking by what students have done, and I’ve been really honoured to share this journey with a teaching colleague who feels as I do.

At the institution level, the course isn’t successful. It’s still new and small. Nothing much meets the test of our internal audit processes, and nothing we did is visible to our analytics systems. No content has been accessed, no online lecture watched, no quiz attempted, no forum participated in. But stories have been exchanged, interviews have been shared, guests have come in and talked to us about their values and their lives, and they’ve asked to come back because they were so surprised by what came up for them too. (If you’re following the work of Michael White, you’ll recognise the idea of the pivotal moment here.) I believe it’s helped the group develop a more confident sense of how to move forward to the kinds of work that will work for them, but I’m not here to make them more employable, or claim credit for what they go on to do. That’s on them.

So this is a thank you story. But it’s also a story about the everyday nature of artisanal change in universities—slow, handmade, sometimes bumpy looking, always worth trying again—that I want to advocate for whenever the options put to us belong in car commercials. Innovation isn’t always about technology, efficiency, speed, scale; remediation isn’t always about targeted interventions. Far more often, change emerges in small experiments that we try with our own hands, encouraged by colleagues near and far. And at its most radically disruptive—of every business and audit model—change becomes visible in the content we make together uniquely, transiently and compassionately, in that passing moment in our lives.

Thank you to Courtney, Paul, Angus, Olivia, Oliver, Liz (and Will), Trent, KK, Primrose, Paris, Amy, Charlotte and Michaela, Jonathan, Dave, Elan, Sue, and above all to Maggie Carey.