Forum Time CAN Work… I hope

Well, I was apparently psychically linked with Alec last week because I did a bit of background on the type of student/student, student/instructor interactions that will be part of my course – discussion forums. During the weekly class of EC&I 834 there was a lot of criticism of discussion forums. I get it. I’ve seen them go poorly many times. I know many students dislike them. Let’s be honest, a lot of students dislike forced questioning or discussions in the classroom too. It is obvious when an instructor is asking questions just to ask rather than inviting an actual discussion. Nobody enjoys those times particularly so why should an online forum be any different?

Amazon Discussion flickr photo by TadDonaghe shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

So for the course I’m developing, Steve Wihak and I will be using discussion forums in Moodle. There are a few reasons for this.

  1. This course is part of the EADM graduate degree and, as such, we want to keep some similarities to the other online courses in the program and this expectation also comes from the administration of the program as well
  2. The course is a three-week intensive which means there is very little time for learning new technology. Students will have to get right into course work so we don’t have much time for them to get set up in an unfamiliar technology or deal with technical glitches. The forums in Moodle might be fairly boring but they are reliable and fairly straightforward to use.
  3. Because of the condensed time frame, we still want to offer a little flexibility. We did discuss giving students the option of joining synchronous discussion groups (and we are still toying with it) but I also want there to be full course discussions in some way. At least with a discussion forum, students have some choice about when in the day they do their class work (as will I).

Time flickr photo by Cea. shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

This doesn’t preclude us from using Google Docs occasionally or offering times we will be available to chat for students who are also available to join zoom and who want to do so.

I think I have a different relationship to forums than a lot of people in our class. I was pretty socially active on the internet since the late 90s. I participated in chat rooms that scrolled by so fast you could barely read them when it was busy but I also spent a lot of time in forums of various types, mostly online role playing forums that were all about writing stories as a character, interacting with other “characters.” I had a lot of fun doing that and spent hours refreshing and scrolling and typing. Text has been my most common mode of communication at various points in my life. I’ve seen all sorts of very active forums on the internet and there is a place for asynchronous communication. There is still a place for it. The archive of responses but also the potential to join in, to participate, to connect. For those who think connection requires visuals and audio, I give you Facebook. I am part of one community with over 4,000 members, a huge proportion of whom are active. And it is amazing. Regularly, someone posts saying that they feel like it’s full of friends. I recognize people by avatar if not by name. There have been singing challenges, people reading pages of Harry Potter, a whole separate emotional support group spawned… And it came from being commentors on and fans of a particular blog. Text has power. Yes, it has limitations, but it has a lot of power too. Anyone else have that sort of experience? Just me?

And technology is letting us bring more and more things together. It’s just nice to have things all in the same place. So students can share images or videos to a forum and not have to go 6 different places for different types of interaction. As much as I love social media and love interactions of various forms, I have times of being overwhelmed by the number of places and things I need to check on and participate in sometimes for this course. Anyone else feeling that way? This is the only real benefit I see to the LMS. At least there is a central point to the class. (Okay, the assignment submission is nice to keep that grouped too, but still.) And that is possible using WordPress but last time I was involved in BuddyPress and bbpress they were still having some major growing pains and required a developer on staff to help fix things and adjust code. I know people were using those plugins to build their own course hubs but you had to be tech savvy and code savvy to do it well. CUNY put out Commons in a Box, built on BuddyPress and bbpress but geared to higher education, and there were daydreams of getting it at U of R but needless to say, that hasn’t happened for a variety of reasons.

So the main interactions in the course are going to be forums. They allow asynchronous communication, they allow editing of responses and avoid the fast scrolling which can happen in active chat rooms. When used in more informal ways they can encourage community. We were asked to read Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation but I am really feeling like it is somewhat outdated. It presents very structured options, which are good, but leaves very little space for actual community which is made of all sorts of levels of communication. Schwier makes a good point, that communities aren’t created, especially in virtual learning environments, nor are they a given. (I disagree that “community” is a metaphor, necessarily, but I guess it is a metaphor until it becomes a reality. I think many learning spaces do become communities but this is an older paper of Schwier’s and I bet he would write it differently today.) The invitation is sent out in some way to the learners.

Invitations flickr photo by Kelly Sue shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

So yes, some depends on the invitation. We all know that. If we are hosting a party and send a last minute, crappy invitation that isn’t clear about the intent or the details, few people will come. If we send an invitation that is appealing, that connects with the desires of the invitees, that works for them, then they are much more likely to come. The invitation in this metaphor is both the format provided (forum, Zoom, collaborative software, etc) AND the actual prompt (question, purpose, instructions). If the format doesn’t work but the prompt is appealing, some learners will struggle through because they really want to communicate. If the format works but the prompt is unappealing, the interactions can easily form a community but without the desired intent. Schwier references elements, emphases, and catalysts. The role of the instructor, in this case is this:

What we are attempting to do as educators is promote the development of
virtual learning communities by nurturing the conditions under which they can arise.

There are no guarantees with any type of potential community. The instructor can only control the conditions. Am I doomed for choosing forums?

And the invitees make the party. I think we’ve all been to a party that didn’t work well because of the guests. And to others where the guests made something that we expected to be awkward turn out to be awesome. Different groups have different outcomes. The students decide how much of the invitation to take up. They determine the interactions that will take place. And some groups of students will form instant communities, others won’t. Some will be involved, others won’t. I’ve been in a course where the forums got 170+ posts and replies in two weeks which had previously not been the case. I have seen others with the bare minimum. Even with other forms of community building, like EC&I 834’s blog hub, Twitter hashtag, and Google+ community, each course I’ve taken has been different in the type and size of the community. Logan offered some great thoughts on how he can prepare for this but, in the end, preparation only gets you so far.

KM bloggers community flickr photo by Lilia Efimova shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

So in my case, there will be a grade for participating in the activities. It won’t be about checking off boxes and commenting X number of times, although we do have some minimums since we want to stress that it is important to consider the questions and engage in the activities. (For any teacher who has ever called on particular students or used the Wheel of Terror, you do this in face to face, so it is important to recognize your practices for what they are.) We want to emphasize that quality matters as well. So meeting the minimums with high quality participation is worth as much as more frequent posting with perhaps less substance. Does that seem reasonable?

The prompts are also being carefully planned. The intent is for the prompts to be activities that bring engagement with the material but also leave room for creativity and discussion. There will be no right or wrong questions, and if facts are required, they will be applied. The intent, however, is not to have super formal writing. We want discussion, not exam answers. So our prompts will be a little less formal, as will our posts. And we will have a space for group chatter, questions, randomness.

I’m hoping like Sarah W. that I’m being thorough in prepping for success in community building!

All we can do is test it out. We are going to put our theory to the test, after years of encouraging instructors to build in interaction. Can we get the forums to work with graduate students (I’ve seen it, so I know it’s possible)? We know there will be adjustments for the next offering, and we hope we can make adjustments as we go, but it will depend in great part on our students.

Just the text, ma’am… usually

Learn Digital Media flickr photo by MyEyeSees shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

This week in EC&I 834 our directive was to discuss our relationships with media as part of how we learn digitally. As you’ll notice, I’m a word person. I honestly am very word-oriented. Maybe it’s because I’m the daughter of a librarian and have been absorbed in text for pretty much my entire life. Some of it is probably just part of how I am wired, that words make sense and I have a vivid imagination that can translate words to reality easily. Add in that I am not a fan of being recorded (thanks, Dad, for making that clear with the obsessive use of that camcorder as I was growing up!). I’m also an introvert (no, really, I am, just not super far into the introvert side of the spectrum) which means I like to think through what I want to say before I say it. So I appreciate well-crafted thoughts. I like to mull over ideas and go back to them. These are all things that Bates would identify as strong points for text.

word flickr photo by wiccked shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

This came up during class and I automatically said that I wanted the text (and Katia is apparently with me on that). In watching Amy’s vlog, I chuckled to myself because I’m the opposite of her relationship with video and learning. I have used the internet to teach me new recipes and to learn to knit and crochet, to learn different things with making cards, and all sorts of things. Basically, I’m usually connected and I am frequently asking Google how to do something for my personal enjoyment or for work. I want the text. I want to be able to scan through quickly, find my answer, and move on. Videos can take FOREVER! I hate looking for one simple thing and having to wade through 2 minutes of introduction, 4 minutes of other content, then finally find what I was looking for, only to discover that it isn’t what I wanted anyway, then see it again in slow motion.

I often need a quick answer, “just in time” learning. I only want the one answer I need, immediately. Videos are frustrating for recipes because I want to keep looking at the ingredient list but it’s not like I can bookmark that and go back and forth to that (I’ll come back to this in a second). The internet is so packed with information that I know I might have to try a couple times to find my answer so the quicker I can evaluate a source, the better.

video flickr photo by shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

But as I was typing this, I realized that I do really enjoy some videos for learning. Craftsy, I’m looking at you. If I could get my hands on their learning platform and use it at work, I would be thrilled. The videos are all chunked and come with a table of contents that allows you to quickly go to specific points in a longer video and you can view that breakdown before you load the video so you get the right one (there are usually multiple videos in any course). You can bookmark and make notes on the video! You can post questions and comments to others in the class on specific points of the video. You can download them or watch them online. This is the kind of video I like.

Social-Media-Roadmap750x280 flickr photo by ePublicist shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

That reminded me that I needed to go read Sarah’s post where she references social media (Ms. Social Butterfly) as part of learning. Yup, I’m on board with that one too. I have been sewing a lot more recently and I’ve discovered some great communities where I can ask specific questions and get good answers, often fairly quickly. I might start with an internet search if I need an immediate answer or the question is more general (because text!) but if the question is specific to a pattern or fabric, I might be better off to get a personal response.

Bates also discusses audio. Sorry, audio, I’m not as much of a fan. I think part of that is a learned skill to tune out audio distractions that was a side effect of my K-12 education. If I wanted to concentrate, I had to learn to ignore audio stumuli. Lucky me, I was able to filter it out for the most part. I still have to do this at work when I want to be available (aka partially open door, no headphones) but there is noise going on like the pre-school down the hall, a colleague doing some video editing, another colleague on the phone, people talking in the hall. Audio is the first thing I tune out so I have a harder time paying attention. I listen to podcasts and audio books while I work out but I remember far less of them than something I read and I usually want to have my hands and body busy if I have to just listen. I am too visually distracted. But that usually means I am not focusing solely on the audio. Music is slightly different, but I often end up singing along, or creating images in my head. I am still interacting with the audio.

Bates left out the visual aspect though. Not video. He has something specific in mind there and it’s much more about the blend of audio and visual together. But what about purely visual presentations? Sometimes they could be videos, if there’s no voice, no music. Or maybe it’s a comic, an infographic, or a flow chart. Below is a comic by Robot Hugs about how a brain can work when a person is living with depression and/or obsessive mental illness. Sure, there are a few words, but the visuals are what drive it home.

Black Holes by Robot Hugs
Black Holes by Robot Hugs CC BY-NC 4.0

I think sometimes text works for me because I get a visual diagram. I love diagrams (except the ones with IKEA furniture). I love the many ways data can be represented visually. So why did Bates leave that aspect out? He has images in his text. He mentions the use of PowerPoint. So… why did visuals get left behind? I guess they are viewed to be less advanced than video. Why have a still image when you can have a video? (A gif is animated but it isn’t a video. And people have entire conversation with gifs now on the internet. It’s accepted shorthand.)

Castle reaction gif
Reaction gif from squirtlemacturtle2 on imgur

Sure, I’m not really learning from this gif, but something like this can reinforce a point better than text. And better than a full video clip because I don’t need the audio. I don’t need the full clip.

Tea service flickr photo by miyukimouse shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

So I’m a mix. I like my media to be in the right proportions. And my proportions might not be yours. I like thought to go into why something is in a particular medium. Why do a video if a still image will do? But what about if an animation would clarify? Do I need audio? Is this clear with text? When you get down to it, the reality is that if you’re building a course, you can’t provide all information in every format. So you have to make choices. And students also have to be flexible. Students need to be taught ways to make different media work for them. Because we might not always get the perfect cup of tea but we can try to find a workable blend.

The cake is a lie but this remix isn’t

I have been, in some ways, pretty darn active on the internet for about 17 years. I also consider myself to be a geek and a nerd (and yes, those are different things). Geek and fan culture have heartily embraced remixes and I’ve been seeing them for years without thinking too much about it. Mashups, machinema, anime music videos, memes, gifs, they were all just part of my cultural reference, whether or not I was familiar with the original.

I must admit, I have only ever played a little bit of Portal. For those who aren’t familiar with the puzzle game, the concept is that you are Chell, a test subject in Aperture Labs. Something has gone wrong, however, and you must navigate through the puzzle tests you are given (by GLaDOS) to survive and eventually escape the tests to defeat GLaDOS. Throughout there are mentions of cake, both that cake will be your reward as stated by GLaDOS and that the cake is a lie as hints from the last surviving scientist who is missing.

Here is a great example of a machinema/music video about Portal. Note the references to the cake. There are actual monitors in the game that show ingredients that are a bit questionable and the end credits are done to a song about the cake.

“The cake is a lie” is as famous as “all your base are belong to us” in various circles. As a reference, it has made its way into all sorts of other contexts such as a mod for Minecraft and a reference in Grand Theft Auto 5. The meaning of the phrase, however, has also come to stand for ideas that a promised reward is false, that an end goal is not real or is hiding some other actual outcome (often something more sinister).

Okay, well, so what? Why on earth does this matter?

Remixing has always been part of culture although not always in blatant ways. Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear discuss some of the history of remix in their article Remix: The Art and Craft of Endless Hybridization. I see it even more broadly in the ways cultures have taken and remixed aspects of other cultures through interaction (the use of henna in various cultures, Greek gods being remixed into Roman gods and later used by Renaissance creative types, the way religions are remixed in new contexts to blend culture with the religion). Today, however, remixing is becoming a conscious commentary on culture.

In fact, remixing is becoming a literacy, both in terms of using it to “write” and also in terms of knowing how to do it. The NCTE 21st Century Standards, IFTF Future Work Skills 2020, and the ISTE Standards all include elements of this, from the importance of design to the need for ability to create using media. The most important aspect to me is that remix is, as I said, a conscious commentary on culture. To remix, you need to understand the origins and importance of all the pieces you are putting together. You also need to know your audience and ensure that what you create will resonate with them. And you need to know the current culture to create something that comments on that too.

Mashup with Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek
Mashup with Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek. Source

Let’s take this image. What do you need to know to really understand this as a remix? Well, first of all you have to know who the image is of (Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation). Then you have to know that “use the force” is a reference to Star Wars. Then you must know that “Harry” refers to Harry Potter. The attribution of the comment, “Gandalf,” is a reference to the wizard in Lord of the Rings. That is the basic level.

The second level is that all of these origins have all crossed boundaries between media and each has spawned massive fandoms.

Then it becomes apparent that each aspect refers to a wise, older character in each situation: Captain Jean Luc Picard, Obi Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore, and Gandalf. Each character attempts to pass wisdom on to others, to varying success.

Even more, there is often viewed to be a rivalry between fans of Star Wars and Star Trek. Also, one needs to know the habit of fans to be highly frustrated by misquotes that mistake a fandom for another one or mistake the origin of a quote or character.

All these different elements come together to make this image funny. To make the image, one would need to know most of this on a conscious level to construct it. To appreciate it, one needs to know at least some of this but the more you know, the more amusing it is and it really requires the knowledge of the tendency for fans to become annoyed by this to recognize it is an intentional joke on such behaviour.

By sharing this image, I can have an entire conversation about all these things. Just like referencing “the cake is a lie” actually ties to Portal as well as the concept of a goal or reward being false or not as promised, in some way a trick. Remixing has become shorthand, to some extent. Gifs and memes are used this way all the time, thrown in as a visual reaction or commentary rather than writing out what you mean. These things all become a way of talking, according to Larry Lessig.

flickr photo shared by Little Cat Photography under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

In a digital age, the medium really is the message. The fact that I typed this out instead of using gifs, memes, and videos says something about me and my expected audience, but also becomes more limiting and cumbersome than using remixing. I am explaining but in needing to explain, I have lost some of the impact. Being literate in remixing means being literate about culture. In these cases, mostly pop culture, but thinking about Portal, maybe not. Portal is also a commentary on scientific testing, on artificial intelligence, on our culture of reward that may cover truths we don’t want to face (can everyone really achieve the American Dream? is a promotion really a reward in all cases? are our goals of success and fame and money worth the cost or are they really much more empty or even false or not enough?). Do you ever really get your cake? And there is a hint at the proverb of getting to have your cake and eat it too. Could there also be references to the quote commonly misattributed to Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake“? This is the kind of shorthand a remix can present. To be literate in remixes involves being literate in significantly more. It involves making connections, a skill I remember learning and have found that many students struggle with. There is this tendency to categorize knowledge as belonging to specific areas rather than pulling it together. Would remixing help with that?

Also, the concept of creating. This is a huge literacy and one that fits with Bloom’s revised taxonomy. How often do students get to create rather than remixing in more formulaic or basic ways?

So what do you think? Is remixing something ou would have students do? Would you use remixing as a teaching tool?