Getting in our own way

I’ve been off the blog routine for a couple of weeks as we kick of the new academic year at Northwestern. It’s always a busy (and fulfilling) time but this year we added an extra layer of frosting by launching a new social learning platform for our graduate program based on Jive software.

Early on there has actually been a huge bit of success. We allowed students into the new community site just to play around and socialize before classes began. It’s been a joy to watch students from all over the country reconnect with each other. I know we are laying the groundwork for our adult, professional students to work on developing their own digital literacy. Which is clearly the way I see our goal. It’s not just adding a social piece to our learning experience; we’re working on digital literacy.

But along the way I am also seeing just how creative people can be in getting in their own way. My ears perk up when I hear something that sounds like a fear or resistance that, really, is unfounded or has a very low chance of occurring. My interest here is more “hmmmm, that’s interesting” than “stop, wait! why are you being so stupid?” Because no one I work with is unthoughtful. But I do think some come into the digital world with interesting mental models.

And the more I think about it, I think the underlying issue is a fear of openness.

It’s personally scary being truly out in the open and sharing your thinking. It’s scary as an institution to be truly out in the open and sharing in the current legal/copyright environment. We can be very creative in both instances in expressing fears or resistance — sometimes even in small ways (“what if the software is buggy and one of my pieces becomes accessible publicly?”). Sometimes in ways that make the institutional fear a boogie man (“we can’t do that because…”). All of this just clouds the issue and impedes progress.

And the issue is: How do we truly reap the benefits of open, accessible knowledge sharing and learning?

Howard Rheingold flips the fear-based mental model with strategies in Net Smart. In his exploration of digital participation (one of his five digital literacies), Rheingold quotes researcher dana boyd:

There is some crappy stuff concerning me on the Internet – both stuff that I’ve produced and stuff that’s been written about me by other people. It’s not even a matter of blog posts or comments; I’m ashamed of some scholarly articles I’ve written and published! So what embarrasses me online is not just content I wrote foolishly but also content that I wrote with the intention of it being public and persistent. My way to cope with this is to constantly put up new content on the Internet that clouds out the past. To make a presence that is much more present me than past me.

[emphasis mine]

Rheingold himself goes on to write “you can’t easily erase bad talk about you online; a better strategy is to dilute it with good talk.”

I think at the end of the day, I’ll be happy if we start creating an environment where a small but growing set of students begins to see the world more through a lens like Rheingold’s.

2 thoughts on “Getting in our own way

  1. A few things come to mind related to your post, Jeff.

    First, I am grateful that MSLOC pushes me into social learning. It’s not something I’d come into contact with left to my own initiative. That’s a nice way to say I just wouldn’t do it. And, it would be a loss to me. So, thanks for opening the door, even though I sometimes trip over the threshold.

    Second, sharing insights on line often feels like being intellectually naked. There are none of the in person clues to mitigate message- like expressions, reactions and immediate feedback. It’s both liberating and scary. Don’t know how this “half baked” observation advances your thoughts, but it’s just what came to my mind. Isn’t that how we’re supposed to keep the discussion going?


    1. As usual you are spot-on. I think what I’ve learned about “keeping the discussion going” is that it’s ok, sometimes, to engage in little stubs of conversation that may appear to not go very far. But for each individual person, that little stub may be part of a much larger (hopefully) set of conversations that really helps them make sense of whatever-is-on-their-mind.

      Then sometimes things take off and you really go deep.

      But the whole experience is, as you note, liberating, scary and filled with tripping-over-the-threshold moments. That might be why it’s attractive to people (anecdotal evidence here) who seem to be energetic learners. It’s that energy to keep learning that motivates a lot of the best sharing, I think. And forgiving the moments you fall through the doorway.


Comments are closed.