In the #clmooc conversations on Twitter the other night, the idea of inclusivity was tossed around. How do educators ensure that everyone has the ability to participate in online activities? Do we exclude some from participation? Can connected learning be fully realized without complete engagement?
Connected learning by its very definition requires some ability to access the internet. There was a time when this constraint was difficult to overcome, but today, most people, especially those in developed countries, have access via smart phone, tablet, or computer. There are exceptions, of course, particularly in rural areas and in places where a number of circumstances slow the process, but the hardware issue is increasingly resolved, and will continue to improve as costs go down. In that sense, more and more people are able to be included.
The social part of connected learning is possibly the easiest to access. A Pew research study found that in the US, 74% of online adults actively use social media. I suspect those numbers will continue to rise as the next generations reach adulthood, as 95% of US teens are on social networking sites. Educators must learn ways to harness that connectivity for more than social interactions, but the social is a good place to begin. Twitter and Instagram (and SnapChat) seem to be the biggest players in the current teen market (based solely on my observation as a parent and teacher of teens), while Facebook is increasingly relegated to the “old people” (anyone over about 25). SnapChat’s limitations seems to preclude education applications, but there may be a creative way to utilize its popularity. Twitter and Instagram hold more promise.
So, connection is not the primary issue. Engagement is the greater challenge. Of course, that’s true in the face-to-face classroom as well, but distance seems to create a boundary or buffer that is more difficult to break through. While a smile or nod may encourage a reluctant student in a brick-and-mortar classroom, the same cannot be said of the virtual realm. In order to be truly connected, everyone has to fully engage and participate.
So, how do we educators avoid excluding people who are already connected? Some form of exclusion is inevitable: language barriers, time zones, type of media (Twitter? Google+? Instagram?), expectations (real or imagined), and miscommunication. Some exclusive elements can be thwarted with creative thinking and commitment to communication, but some cannot. What does one do with a student who CHOOSES exclusion? How can we provide a new community atmosphere in a relative void? How do we structure or scaffold this idea of connected learning to students (along with parents, other teachers, and administrators) who are new to the concept?
This is where I believe the “social” part of social media affords an opportunity. Since so many people, both teens and adults, are already using social media to connect their non-academic lives, we who promote connected learning need to begin with a social structure. Gee’s “affinity spaces” certain offer a place to begin. I think this is why I’m drawn to unique ideas like the “untroductions“. They may reveal personal and social commonalities that can then be built on to create a learning environment that inspires creative production in a collaborative community. I can’t count the number of Doctor Who fans I have met around the world through various Twitter communities and learning events. That bond, as superficial as it may be, can become the foundation for something greater: new stories for the TARDIS, what it means to be “bigger on the inside” or even an exploration of the science involved in space-time travel. (I just read The Martian by Andy Weir – talk about geeky science meeting literary nerd! I loved it.) Finding the element of common interest is a beginning.
A safe place may be the most important. Even in the most free-flowing community there must be boundaries for appropriate behavior, speech, and respect. A good facilitator must be able to quietly minimize both awkwardness and poor judgement. The community must welcome all who choose to participate as long as those participants are willing to maintain mutual respect, edification, and support. These communities must not become places where bullying is permitted on any level. Everyone should be welcomed for whatever they bring to the table. There is no distinction between ages, genders, religion, politics, or whatever else may create a divide. The mission of the community must be clear–and clearly communicated. Within that, however, there must be freedom of expression, creativity, unusual ideas, and multimodal forms. The idea of becoming community means that everyone has something of value to contribute, and everyone can learn. When the educator abandons the role of expert and becomes a member of the community who has much to learn, even the most insecure participant may be encouraged.
Having said that, there will be those who choose to isolate themselves, not for reasons of shyness or inability, but because they truly do not want to participate. They will do the very minimum required, make their hashtags particularly snarky (#required), and avoid dialogue with other members of the community. While is it important to reach out privately to these, we must accept that not everyone is going to see the brilliance in our plan and that inclusion is sometimes a decision. In those cases, it may be beneficial to remember the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
I opened this rambling post with a picture of a bridge. The internet is like that bridge, connecting people and ideas that are otherwise separated by insurmountable challenges of time and place. Most people can get to the bridge one way or another, but unless they begin the journey across, they will never connect to the adventures on the other side. And who wants to miss out on that?