Social media for learning: a virtual ethnography

Went to a fascinating seminar last week with this title, given by Siân Bayne on a flying visit from Edinburgh to the OU.

She talked about her work on a HE Academy project exploring at the whole Web 2.0/social media world and its effect on three different courses – in Divinity, eLearning and Engineering.

She picked out three areas:

1) New literacies – the stuff you expect, but also interesting takes on Barthes’ Death of the Author a) this is very straightforwardly manifest in a world of blogs and wikis, and b) never mind “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”, in this world, there’s no unity in the destination either – the Death of the Reader as it were, and not in the panicky “OMG nobody reads literary books any more” sense.

2) Appropriation and ‘taming’ – fencing off, assessment, embedding – containing the perceived risk of wild stuff like Web 2.0.   Interestingly, (some) students as well as teachers thought private blogs – although “not proper blogs” were a valuable space in which to think out loud without it going on your permanent Internet record.  In a way, the closedness enabled more openness.  This is a theme I keep seeing all over the place.  Though there were also some who turned up with their own proper blogs and were perfectly happy doing their intellectual laundry in public.

Another point I particularly picked up here – because it relates to another ongoing theme I see – was getting students to blog their  preparation for a seminar as a ‘forcing function’ to make sure they prepared ahead of time.

3) The Uncanny in the Freudian unheimlich sense – “the effect often occurs when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred” – Freud describing Second Life in 1899.  Wikis and blogs were un/familiar but probably aren’t any more; Second Life might be now.  Some of the quotes from the students were spectacular – e.g. “Avatars are nothing but corpses” and another having unshakeable feelings of being lost, drowning (there was a lake nearby) and even dying.  There was some good stuff about art but I’ll post about that separately.

She teachers her eLearning students about identity through a Second Life seminar, appropriately enough.  I thought it was particularly cunning to use the uncanny effect to problematise stuff that the students might not have (many people have a pretty straightforward conception of ‘identity’), which is a technique worth re-using.

Also some amusing stuff about the Edinburgh island and disciplinary stereotypes manifesting themselves virtually – apparently the Business School’s place is shiny, neat and essentially a corporate display stand; they complain about the neighbouring architects’ space which is a spectacular and utter mess; and the educationalists have a fluffy zone with spaces to sit in circles with lots of soft furnishings.

(Her slides – not available (yet?) – were a great example of stylish use of Flickr-found art, with a white flower motif popping up throughout. )

At lunch afterwards, during a discussion on open and closed environments, Peter Twining (of Schome fame) mentioned a time when he was giving a seminar in Second Life and had to studiously ignore a pair of inappropriately amorous cows who wandered through.

There was another surprise moment when one of my more distinguished colleagues – with a long track record of widening educational opportunities and going the extra mile and then some for learners – startled me by vigorously voicing despair about failing students.  “What can you do?”, they complained, “You can’t just shoot them!”

(Peter noted that you can in Second Life.)

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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

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