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Michael Olson (Physics) confers with a colleague at T3.

Higher-Ed Tech Bloggers Share the Power of Networks

Writer, educator and researcher Bonnie Stewart doesn’t need a laptop, tablet or smartphone to illustrate the impact of digital spaces in higher education. A simple group exercise will do.

During her co-keynote address at the T3 (Transformative Teaching Through Technology) conference, June 7, at St. Norbert College, Stewart shared her favorite color (red) with the audience; an example of one sharing information with many, similar to a traditional college lecture. She then instructed individuals to turn to someone nearby, shake hands and share their favorite color. They then were told to turn to a third party to extend the thread of the first connection. The exercise demonstrates the power of networks.

“The threads begin to go around the room …,” says Stewart. “That face and that handshake; that little communication is memorable. That’s how network communication works. The pieces you had a part of, have meaning for you. When you think of digital communication in higher education, our connections are at the core.

“How can we get [students] connecting, shaking hands with the information?” she adds. “How am I shaping the communications in my classroom?”

Stewart and her University of Prince Edward Island colleague and co-presenter – educational activist, researcher and online community advocate Dave Cormier – are both influential bloggers in the sphere of higher-ed technology: Stewart at the theoryblog and Cormier at Dave's Educational Blog. At T3, the duo explored the differences between visitors and residents in digital spaces. Visitors go online, find something and come back with it.

“It’s like a giant scavenger hunt,” says Stewart. “If we are going to look at the web as a place of residence, look for the connective, the social.”

The goal is to encourage students to be residents, to go online to a “place where your engagement leaves some social traces behind,” she adds. It is important for educators to establish themselves in the network, which can be difficult. When using Facebook, for example, there are ways for educators to engage in that space without providing information that does not need to be shared, says Stewart.

Three components define online presence: content/information, teacher/facilitator and social/space. When Stewart teaches an online course, she posts a photo of her sofa on the course site.

“When you can’t see me, this is probably where I will be,” she explains.

She invites students to share some brief information and makes sure everyone gets a reply. Commonalities are discovered, which builds a sense of presence in the class.

“One student had the same couch as me,” she says with a laugh. “Anything you put online demands more presence.”

Cormier utilizes learning contracts for some classes he teaches. The student agrees to choose the final (numbered) grade depending on the amount of work.

“My responsibility is to make sure the work is done well,” says Cormier. “If you don’t do the work well, you don’t get the grade … I encourage them to be residents. I want them to be residents who can learn for the rest of their lives. Allow people to create their own paths and follow their paths. Find out who is leading the discussions. Digitally, you can track people. See community as both the vehicle and goal of the curriculum.”

The keynote also explored the definition of content, the massification of education and knowledge abundance. Stewart compared the abundance of information in digital spaces to drinking out of a fire hose.

“You cannot do it without getting wet and you will never get all the water,” she says. “You are going to end up messy navigating in this time. There is always going to be more than you can get.”

Stewart and Cormier, both faculty members at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, view a presence in digital spaces as a form of communio. Educators who have not cultivated an audience in the online space cannot make connections.

Years ago, Stewart discovered that she needed to contribute to her network identity. She was asked for a headshot, so she did an online search. An awkward photo of her at age 13 appeared.

“I looked online and thought, ‘Oh gosh, I need to manage this.’ I started putting some pictures out there,” she says. “Now, if you enter my name, you will find pictures of me as a grownup. There is an element of control. The more you contribute, the more you control … Professionally and personally this can be an incredible space.”

July 5, 2016