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Breaching the Garden Walls? Social media, institutions, infrastructures and design for learning
Symposium convenor: Chris Jones
In this symposium we bring together four papers from a variety of viewpoints that focus on the interrelationship between the introduction of new social media forms and social networking, in what has been dubbed Web 2.0, and the institutions and underlying infrastructures that influence the ways in which we design for learning. Each of the four papers takes a different aspect of the way in which Web 2.0 technologies and social practices interact with the institutions and infrastructures in education. Dohn argues that introducing Web 2.0-practices into learning activities in an educational setting leads to tensions in practice. She argues that these tensions in practice are the result of conceptual tensions in the teleology and epistemology implicit in Web 2.0-practices on the one hand and the educational system on the other. As a consequence of the integration of Web 2.0 in teaching and learning there arise a number of questions for educational programmes. From this it is argued that social software, social media and web 2.0 tools and services can be seen as a materialisation and radicalisation of the sociological trends of networked individualism, the individualization of trajectories of identity and the horizontalisation of knowledge.
Ryberg argues from the perspective of technological infrastructures that an incorporation of web 2.0 and social software is not only a matter of adopting new technologies, but equally concerns the interaction between, technological, pedagogical and organisational understandings of practice and knowledge. Due to the tensions and contradictions between institutions and web 2.0 practices, Ryberg argues that the 'interface'between institutions, teachers and students in the form of the networks, the nature of shared content and the management of identity need to be carefully negotiated in adopting web 2.0 technologies and social software as part of institutional technological infrastructures. Ryberg also argues that these tensions and contradictions cannot really be resolved in advance, but are tensions and contradictions that must be dynamically negotiated as part of institutional technological infrastructures.
Jones goes on to develop the conception of infrastructure and learning infrastructure in particular. He takes a particular case to illustrate this analysis of the idea of infrastructure; the Open University VLE project. Through this illustration he shows how infrastructures are not just present in education but they are developed through an active process of engagement between the university and technologies both internal to the university infrastructure and external in the wider infrastructure available to citizens in general. Jones also argues that The Open University VLE illustrates some of the reasons why universities are likely to be reluctant to take down the walls around institutional provision of the learning infrastructure. Issues of security and equality stand alongside concerns about cost and uniformity.
Land and Bayne suggest that print and digital cultures seem to favour distinctive temporalities. Whereas print culture and the cloistered academy required 'slow time'and private space to foster contemplation and deliberation, the digital would seem to thrive on 'fast time', immediacy of response, and universal virtual space. They argue that fast time drives out slow time. Despite unquestioned benefits of speed, there rise potential threats from fast time to reflection, creativity and to the academic estate. The contemplative space becomes dis-placed to the domestic sphere, where it is compromised anew by the digital. Using the notion of anti-structure to account for the counter-cultural quality of much Web 2.0 type activity they like Jones point to the eventual re-absorption and appropriation of Web 2.0 technologies by the formal system, before further anti-structural activities of a different nature would be likely to emerge. The important question arises, from a learning perspective, of whether the space of liminality, the transformative threshold space and process in which troublesome knowledge is negotiated and conceptual difficulty encountered and overcome is truncated by fast time and the linear, consumptive'university it ushers in.
Nina Bonderup Dohn
Communication on the World Wide Web (WWW) is currently evolving from the one-to-many display of information on homepages to the interaction of many participants in the construction of social networks, communities of practice, 'bottom-up' encyclopaedias like Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/), and collaborative content sharing systems like the one being built in the Connexions project (http://cnx.rice.edu/). This shift in the role of the WWW, and of communication on it, is characterized as the shift from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 (Downes, 2005; O'Reilly, 2005), and, correspondingly, the technological tools that enable the shift are designated Web 2.0-technologies. Likewise, the new communication practices can be termed Web 2.0-practices. Closely linked to the development of such Web 2.0 communication practices, requisite to it as well as supported by it, is a change of attitude towards issues such as authorship, copyright, knowledge production, and expertise.
In many educational programmes, Web 2.0 technologies and practices are being introduced into the teaching and learning activities. The reasons for doing so can be manifold: One argument would be that employing in the service of learning some of the communication practices that young people are already using will ease the transition into the learning practices of the university, both in respect of the motivation of the students and of the skills required of them. Another argument is that the centrality of participation, production, and dialogue in Web 2.0-practices make them ideal as elements in programmes focusing on the learner's active engagement as a prerequisite for learning. Still a third reason is that many of the possible future jobs of the students will require competence in the use of Web 2.0, and therefore a new task of educational programmes arguably is to support the acquisition of such competences along with other subject-related competences.
However, introducing Web 2.0-practices into learning activities in an educational setting in many cases leads to tensions in practice. The aim of this paper is to discuss these tensions, arguing that they are the result of conceptual tensions in the teleology and epistemology implicit in Web 2.0-practices on the one hand and the educational system on the other: Implicit in Web 2.0-practices is a conception of 'knowledge' as, on the one side, process and activity, i.e. as use, evaluation, transformation and reuse of material, and, on the other, the product side, as a distributed attribute of a whole system (such as Wikipedia) or community of practice (such as the community of practice of Wikipedia contributors). Similarly, learning is viewed along the lines of Wenger as participation. In contrast, 'knowledge' within the educational system is traditionally viewed as a state possessed by the individual, and learning as the acquisition of this state, be this achieved through behaviouristic 'knowledge transfer' from teacher to student, or through Piagetian construction or Vygotskian internalization of socially mediated knowledge.
The tensions created when these different conceptions are brought into play in practice through the integration of Web 2.0 in teaching and learning result in a number of questions for the educational programmes. Among these are: Is student competence in evaluating the quality of accessible material and putting such material to use in new situations more important than individual production of material? Should student participation be evaluated for quality or is participation a goal in itself for Web 2.0 learning activities? If the former, which type of criteria should quality be evaluated in terms of - educational criteria or criteria internal to the Web 2.0-practices involved? If the latter, are there no minimal requirements on the content of what the participation is about; as regards the subject matter and what more specifically is said/written about this subject matter? If not, how can students trust themselves (and the educational programme) to use subject matter produced in a Web 2.0-supported course in their further studies and in their working lives?
Challenges and Potentials for Institutional and Technological Infrastructures in Adopting Social Media
Since late 2004 where the term web 2.0 was initially coined, the concept has generated huge attention and debate. The term web 2.0 has become gradually more popular (and more obnoxious some would argue) during the period from the last months of 2005 until now. The terms have slowly pervaded academic discourse and the notion of 2.0 has also travelled to other spheres than technology and become quite widespread across a number of different and unrelated sectors.
While the web 2.0 movement has certainly been fuelled by powerful forces
and internet businesses, it has also had its opponents framing web 2.0
as a meaningless buzz or business term. Most noticeably Tim Berners-Lee
who called it a 'piece of jargon nobody knows what means'.
Still, the force and speed with which the 2.0 thinking has spread across
a number of only loosely related domains signals that there is, if not
a qualitative break or paradigm shift, then at least a disturbance of
our regular ways of thinking about (and using) technologies for sharing,
collaborating, learning and participating. These disturbances hold both
challenges to, but also potentials for institutional and technological
infrastructures within the domain of education. The paper will argue that
there are some tensions and contradictions between on the one hand an
institutional perspective, institutional technological infrastructures
and then on the other hand the emerging educational and institutional
interests in social media or web 2.0 'technologies'.
From the perspective of technological infrastructures, an incorporation of web 2.0 and social software is not only a matter of adopting new technologies, but equally concerns the interaction between, technological, pedagogical and organisational understandings of practice and knowledge. Due to the tensions and contradictions between institutions and web 2.0 practices, the paper argues that the 'interface'between institutions, teachers and students in form of the networks, the nature of shared content and the management of identity need to be carefully negotiated in adopting web 2.0 technologies and social software as part of institutional technological infrastructures. This paper would also suggest that these tensions and contradictions cannot really be resolved in advance, but are tensions and contradictions that must be dynamically negotiated as part of the ongoing pedagogical, organisational and technological practices which form the components of institutional technological infrastructures.
Universities can be criticized for setting up walled gardens, areas cut away from the mainstream of technological change. It is also suggested that some technologies, specifically Web 2.0, are unable to be contained in this way and that they threaten to breach the walls that universities put in place. Much of this discussion can have a flavour of radical innovation, the university is portrayed as slow and cumbersome, whilst the new wave of technology is wild and spontaneous. This paper suggests that any such view misses some significant and recurrent features of social and educational practice. A core function of a university is to provide credentials and to stand behind those credentials by having warranted procedures. The university even in times of rapid technological change stands for a certain kind of institutional security and the waves of technological pressure may result in changes but these changes will be adapted, adopted and ameliorated by the active agency of university organizations engaging with the new technologies as co-creators not as simple recipients of technological imperatives.
Web 2.0 technologies are currently identified as technologies that imply
a different relationship between institutional boundaries and wider social
forms. This paper investigates the use of the term infrastructure to understand
these broad questions about the relationship between pervasive technologies
and institutional forms. The concept is clarified in relation to the idea
of infrastructure as something that fades into the background, only an
infrastructure in so far as it is largely invisible. This is contrasted
with a relational view of infrastructure which suggestes that infrastructures
are only infrastructures in relation to social purposes. An infrastructure
for learning for example would only become such when it was incorporated
into learning practices. In this view infrastructures are not to be understood
as simply structures because they are processes occurring over time. Infrastructures
were also located within specific settings as work-oriented infrastructures
and learning infrastructures. In terms of a learning infrastructure a
case was made that we need to be cautious because learning infrastructures
are often constituted from elements that are neither designed for nor
assigned to learning as such, and an infrastructure for learning may incorporate
aspects used for learning whilst not being particular identified with
learning. The idea of learning infrastructure proposed here is a relational
and socio-technical view:
The Open University VLE programme illustrates some of the reasons why universities are likely to be reluctant to take down the walls around institutional provision of the learning infrastructure. Issues of security and equality alongside standard concerns about cost and uniformity inform the way technologies are both developed and deployed. There is no one authoritative voice in this process and whilst the process of infrastructural development and renewal can seem to be the outcome of a plan the process is one that is negotiated between powerful institutional interests that have their roots in different roles within the university. Negotiation is not only between units and the process of decision making is also affected by the sequence of time in terms of taking decisions, for example by who is in post when key decisions are taken. Decisions taken in terms of the technological solutions for infrastructural development have definite consequences in terms of the affordances and constraints that deployed technologies have in relation to local practices. The strengths and weaknesses of an infrastructure seem to reside in a complex interaction of time, artefacts and practices.
The last two decades have witnessed, as part of the wider phenomena of globalisation and supercomplexity, an inexorable shift in higher education from print-based culture to digital. This growing emphasis in the modality of learning has occasioned different ways of generating and engaging with knowledge. Whereas print culture operates from and reinforces authority (and the author), the digital works more from collaborative enquiry, consensus and trust. The volatile modes of online interaction characterised as 'Web 2.0'often sit uncomfortably within existing higher education practice. The communicative landscapes opened up by social media can be spaces of strangeness and troublesomeness to the academy, both epistemologically and ontologically (Barnett 2005). They entail a shift toward new, often ludic forms of textual mediation and subject formation. They alter relations between process and artefact, permit fragmentation over cohesion, exploration over exposition, the visual over the textual and, perhaps, convenience over quality. They are characterised by endless re-crafting, often involving rapid patterns of amendment, truncation, revision and addition. Our empirical observations of students working in such digital environments, and specifically writing within wikis and blogs, provided an interesting re-thinking of the nature of authorship.
Print and digital cultures seem to favour distinctive temporalities. Whereas print culture and the cloistered academy required 'slow time'(Eriksen 2001) and private space to foster contemplation and deliberation, the digital would seem to thrive, in the main, on 'fast time', immediacy of response, and universal virtual space. Fast time, according to Eriksen's principles, drives out slow time. Despite unquestioned benefits of speed, there rise potential threats from fast time to reflection, creativity and to the academic estate. The contemplative space becomes dis-placed to the domestic sphere, where it is compromised anew by the digital.
The notion of anti-structure, taken from the anthropological work of Turner (1969) would account for the counter-cultural quality of much Web 2.0 type activity and clarify its 'contrapuntal'position vis-à-vis the formal systemic practices of higher education. In keeping with anti-structural behaviours in other social and cultural settings, this perspective would also point to the eventual re-absorption and appropriation of Web 2.0 technologies by the formal system, before further anti-structural activities of a different nature would be likely to emerge. On the other hand Giddens'concept of distanciation would imply that Web 2.0 technologies 'stretch'the existing infrastructure across the time-space continuum to permit learners to access the existing higher education infrastructure regardless of their embodied presence along the space-time continuum. The important question arises, from a learning perspective, of whether the space of liminality (Meyer and Land 2006) the transformative threshold space and process in which (necessarily) troublesome knowledge is negotiated and conceptual difficulty encountered and overcome is truncated by fast time and the linear, consumptive'university it ushers in.
Social media continue therefore to ask us to engage with a new research
agenda. To what extent do the new media challenge our conventional understandings
of the way in which knowledge is generated and disseminated within the
academy, and to what extent to they challenge or mesh with the changing
idea of the university in the age of the digital? Do students possess
the forms of 'technoliteracy'(Kahn and Kelner 2005) required to manage
and produce academic knowledge within such spaces? How can organisational
frameworks devised for assessing conventionally-written assignments -
currently operating through assessment regimes which remain largely locked
in transmissive mode - be re-crafted for the open, collaborative, volatile
textual spaces of the read/write web? What kinds of 'digital pedagogies'work
in these spaces, and how are they perceived and experienced by students?