reading the lives of others

just quickly browsing through some of the many, various blogs that colleagues in edcmooc are putting out there, I stopped for a moment to ponder on this one of Chris Swift’s, and of Nigel‘s that it responds to – to wonder about ‘worrying’ about new technologies of literacy…

Apart from all the usual worries about ‘what is who going to do with my identity details and data’ (and what if I lose the address book that has all my fifty thousand passwords in it), like Nigel, I’d also felt a serious twinge of embarrassment in creating a ‘twitter’ account… from the outside, you can easily get the impression (from mainstream media I suppose) that the twittershere is a young person’s thing, so older people getting into it might look sadly ridiculous… like they were wearing baggy pants half way down the bum and riding a long board around their workplace thinking they could be cool… and the names of these online social media are pretty poxxy – twitter doesn’t make me think ‘sweet little birdies chatting’, it makes me think twit – as in moron, air head, plastic person… and why does technology need ‘disney’ logos? I hate having to grin and bear all the irritating mass marketing silly speak in order to explore the software…

BUT, of course, once you’re actually into it, you realise you can just  ignore the idiotic names and logos, it’s about the easy and interesting conversations these tools give you access to, and which help you do what you want to be doing… with twitter you can quite easily and quickly find people who want to talk about the things that matter to you too – theoretical, political, social, serious, silly – you name it – pick a conversation and join in. amazing – and unlike a conference, you don’t have to get on a plane for 30 hours to get there, and it costs you NOTHING! bloody brilliant (and as a language educator, I’m thinking it looks like a good way to develop fluency in the tweeted language, by simply engaging in lots of authentic, meaningful exchange – so I’ll be incorporating it into my teaching this year I think).

As I learn how to use it, I’m thinking twitter’s a great technology for open and inclusive conversation – so thanks to all those nameless people who have been working on its conceptual and material development for countless years and not getting the credit (which is always taken by the person at the end of the process)…

Nigel’s sister may or may not really think that twitter is the work of the devil (!), but media are often reacted to that way when they’re new – TV… the printed book… one person’s salvation and freedom is another’s subversion of semiotic capital and trusted text production and distribution processes…. and another’s business opportunity..

reminds me of when secular workshops took over manuscript production in the 14th century (replacing monastic scriptoria) and the church lost its control of what was written and who was reading it (and how)… and when printing enabled ‘mass’ production and cheaper distribution to the general public… and then, egads, public education brought literacy to the great unwashed – and all hell could have broken loose… (except that schools were more about factory fodder training than enlightenment).

Well you don’t wait to be given power, you have to take it, and this story in the guardian’s poverty matters blog caught my eye the other day, because it’s a good example of how twitter can be used for socially significant purposes. I tend to think it’s fabulously good, for the most part – if new communication tools accelerate the potential for people living in economically oppressive and politically repressive environments to reshape their own circumstances into something livable. But like a sharp knife – I don’t imagine it’s the technology that will be doing good or harm, but the people using it. I guess the point I’d want to make is that ‘twitter’ is a tool, not an activity. We don’t need the tool in order to do the activity, but if we have a good tool, we can do it differently, or better or just much faster and more inclusively.

This pre-course phase of edcmooc is a real exercise in exploration of tools, to work out how they work, and how they compare, and which might suit our individual and variable purposes best. The name of the game isn’t Twitter, it’s conversation – exchange of language.. and it seems to me there are days I learn more via twitter than I do in conversation with work colleagues in a year!

So getting back to the theme of the course that Chris reminds us of… we’re here in edcmooc to learn the tools of trade in digitised education, and to explore common perceptions in our culture of promise and peril with the advent of new technologies – the stories we tell about the use of technology, as either normal and integral part of our development, or as challenge to our understanding of what it means to be human… and to think about how popular ‘cyber cultures’ relate to formal educational practices, and what difference digital makes to the presentation of academic knowledge…

That common perception of conversational tools like twitter (created by marketing and mainstream media) – that it’s ‘light’, silly, intellectually vacuous, frivolous fluff stuff – reminds me how easy it is to focus on a tool rather than what users are doing with it, and how or whether the tool helps… it also has me thinking about how often language is invisible to those who are fluent in it, and how educational talk about ‘learning’ often fails to focus on the nitty gritty of how learners can actually expand their awareness of lexico-grammatical choices to better make sense of information and extend their capacity to make meaningful exchanges in diverse and shifting contexts….

So in line with the course theme, my thought of the day, or plan for the month, is to think very seriously about how I can use Twitter, for example, this year to help my students, in at least one of the subjects I teach, to notice, reflect on and develop English. I work with several groups in different disciplines who have one thing in common – they’re post-graduate students using English as an additional language. I have been using blogs for a few years for introductory and reflective tasks, and to make a suite of online language development tools part of their daily learning environment, but the limitation of 140 characters could be a very appealing thing to those who feel daunted by an expectation to write blog entries, and it could facilitate much more frequent commentary, questioning and language learning, so I want to explore it, along with daily photos of their experience as students – the trail left providing material for reflection later… I just started exploring 140 character fiction as a stimulus – maybe they’ll want to compose their own too, for a lark (there are many sites for this kind of thing), but I’m also thinking they could choose a site a day from the range of resources I put on my teaching blog and tweet about why they find it useful or not…  maybe they could tweet each week about the main thing that was a linguistic challenge to them – that could help me identify patterns and focus my attention where it’s most needed. just thinking – very open to suggestions 🙂

But wait – there was something else in Chris’ post that made me stop and ponder today… the notion that changing the media of communication could somehow do away with ‘mis’-understandings…. that in some future version of communication technology, we might be able to do away with language altogether, so that ‘thoughts’ could be conveyed without ‘error’, and ideas could be exchanged without the muddied waters middlespace of inarticulate you and me imperfect humans… hmmm. I struggle with that basic notion of ‘thoughts’ existing apart from social semiotic, material communicational practices. It seems to be the dominant thinking in our culture (it has a very long history), and it makes education very difficult sometimes, is the way I see it. I dunno – I just feel the world is horribly dominated by Pinker-type discourse and I don’t find it helpful to think in terms of us ‘having thoughts’ and then translating them ‘into’ language, as though there were two separable realms. Unlike the Chomskys and Pinkers of this world, I don’t accept the argument (however venerably old) that ‘thoughts’ and ‘mind’ exist apart from any particular medium of communication. I think language most certainly IS how we ‘have thoughts’ in the first place and that language is all we have to bind us through exchange (‘have thoughts’ being in inverted commas, because we don’t ‘have’ anything – we continually make meaning, and its just the effect of academic writing that abstractions and relational verbs construe experience in static and possessive terms). I don’t see how any two people could ever have the ‘same’ understanding of anything – seems to me we cannot BUT make different interpretations of the same material, because meaning is not ‘in’ what we observe, it’s an effect of our interpretative activity…. interpret that as you will !

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One comment on “reading the lives of others

  1. Pingback: mission central | another space oddity

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