(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me


Digital amphibians, technological determinism, and the nuances of social phenomena

I am writing this post to reflect on technological determinism (something in #edcmooc week one we discussed as utopian and dystopian views of technology), and which i was reminded of my Shyam’s post on “digital amphibians” (love the term, did he just invent it?

Let me just first say something we all know, that is so obvious on an abstract level I doubt anyone would disagree: absolutes, black/white thinking, generalizations, one-sided views… None of these work too well to accurately describe complex social phenomena like education. We use models and metaphors to approximate what we see, but these models or frameworks or whatever rarely capture the whole, they only serve to help clarify or shed light from a certain angle. (we do so for the sake of legibility, to communicate, to clarify, but in the end we distort reality and it become unrecognizable to those living it). However good our models are, there are always multiple other angles worth considering.

Now back to Shyam’s “digital amphibians” post. I could not respond to it right away because it was full of so many ideas. I don’t think I can even summarize it here, and I have read it more than once. However, the main points in it that got me thinking (and it is quite possible I did not interpret them the way they were meant, but when does that happen anyway haha) were:

1. The digital amphibian metaphor, which I take to mean people like me who can comfortably navigate both the f2f and the online world; and by having both perspectives, be able to discover new and exciting things not very obvious or even visible to folks on only one side; but also sometimes able to be critical of both sides because they can see the other perspective;

2. Sometimes a digital amphibian can react strongly to something on either side: either with excitement and strong support; or with anger or indignation; he suggests that as “digital amphibians” mature, those reactions may become more tempered, thoughtful, etc.

3. He makes an interesting point about empathy and sensitivity, which I now realize may need to be central when a digital amphibian wants to communicate with, interact with, people on either side who are not “amphibious” themselves.

4. A very important point I think he makes and that we “amphibians” need to keep in mind is that, while we can see the pedagogical benefits (and more) of online learning/communication, its potential, we should not forget how others who care about the bottom line rather than learning, approach it. That in some ways, our passionate defense of (pedagogically sound) online learning may feed into the greedy aspirations of those who do, in fact, want to make education more efficient by reducing costs of labor. When we digital amphibians know that most quality online learning is people intensive. What makes online learning good, usually, is the people aspect of it, the interaction that occurs. Very labor-intensive, indeed, though much of it might be unpaid labor!

5. I like to think of myself as someone who avoid technological determinism. To use Sean Michael Morris’ term, a “digital agnostic” – I don’t wholeheartedly embrace technology as the solution for everything for everyone; nor do I see it as the destruction of everything for everyone. Even when technological tools help/enable me personally learn or grow or do something different, I cannot assume the same approach would work for others, or even work for me all the time…

I am still thinking about Shyam’s post, but it also made me think about a few other things…

6. In a response to a comment, I think he’s saying that he believes it is natural and acceptable for digital amphibians to not always be diplomatic. I take this to mean that it is sometimes OK to respond to extreme determinism by “partial” responses. By “partial” I mean both “incomplete” and “biased” (i love how Ellsworth 1989 uses the dual meanings of this word). Sometimes, a particular perspective gets so much hyperbole that you feel compelled to critique it, even when it has some merit. The hyperbole alone is problemtic.

some examples of my “partiality” within my dual roles

I recently co-authored an article “An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning” and you can tell by the title that it is a biased article (duh). It is not meant to discount the value of synchronicity, especially not f2f synchronicity, but it is meant to tamper the louder discourse that praises synchronicity without critiquing its limitations. I do have lots of issues with synchronous learning, but I managed to participate in 4 twitter chats last week (well, yes, there were power cuts, the kid not sleeping, the husband wanting attention, etc., but i still managed to make some of the time of each of these chats; i got lucky; it’s not always possible).

I recently also published “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? The challenges of web-based intercultural dialogue” – a critique of one of the absolute best synchronous learning experience I have ever facilitated, and while I wholeheartedly believe all I wrote in the critique, I also believe in its power and potential and am trying to convince others to adopt it (yes, to adopt the experience I critique, because knowing what’s wrong with it can help us handle it better to reduce these problems rather than approach the experience with rose-colored glasses)

I mention these two first because they are peer-reviewed pieces that others have commented on and not found “too biased” to be published 🙂 But of course they are partial. They are meant to be.

But maybe one of my most partial pieces is the piece just before this one, posted on my blog a few days ago about meaningful online relationships. It was exactly as Shyam called it: an extreme reaction to something written by others who saw a threat looming large, and although I am normally aware of that threat, I did not realize that my reaction might have also been extreme. Because both articles that irritated me were quite balanced ones, to an extent, while remaining cautious about online learning, and highlighting its limitations. I don’t disagree that it has limitations, but I was responding to a particular point in both articles that irritated me, the point that online learning cannot produce affective, meaningful relationships.

I was there trying to highlight my very personal experience of forming such deep relationships, which I recognize might not work for everyone, but does work for some people.

However, I did not make clear (in my very partial post) a v important point: f2f will always (yes, a generalization worth making) have value; tactile communication (hugs, kisses) cannot be done online (yet!). However, I have had meaningless physical hugs, and deeply meaningful virtual hugs. I have been deeply touched by words I have read (even in books, where I cannot interact with the author) more than physical words/gestures by loved ones in my life.

So two final points to make, quotes that I believe in very much:

The first, by Irvin Yalom (quote not on me at the moment): when we categorize another, we lose the elements of them that are”unknowable”. Most attempts at social research will impose categories for the sake of legibility. For the sake of meaning-making. But we still need to remember there are other dimension to people and social situations beyond those we choose to use at a particular moment in time. (side not: ppl u know online recognize they do not know all of you; but people who know you f2f may not realize they do not know all of you that encompasses the online you; reminds me gain of Bonnie Stewart’s post on cyborgs which I have referred to so many times already).

The second is the notion of thinking of social research as a “crystal” (Richardson 1997 considers this a transgressive, post-modern view of social research validity), whereby the same object looks different from different angles, you look at it from one angle and you shed light on one view of it, but there are multiple other views, and social research attempts to show several of these views. And the crystal as a metaphor is slightly problematic in itself because crystallization implies a rigiidty which social phenomena, inherently dynamic, do not have. However, in thinking about it further, when we write about our research, we sort of attempt to take a snapshot and fix it in time, for that moment. And so, every time I write, when anyone writes, even if it is writing that takes many years like a doctoral dissertation, we are only capturing moment in time of our perspective/interpretation of a social phenomenon. It is not the end-all of our thoughts, nor the full picture of the social phenomenon even at that moment in time, but it is something that we can share.

I would rather share my incomplete thoughts and have them challenged and broken apart, than to keep them to myself and never take them further.