Living (and learning) with social media

When I applied to join the faculty at GWU this year, I spent a lot of time working on my statement of teaching philosophy. I hadn’t written anything like this before, and wanted to make sure that my approach to teaching was informed, and appropriate to the types of subjects I’d be teaching. One of the pedagogic approaches I was most interested in was connected learning, which utilises digital media and online networks to enable personalised and integrated teaching.

According to Mimi Ito et al., connected learning is:

socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity. [It] is realized when a young person pursues a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career possibilities, or civic engagement.

Connected learning is founded on three core values: equity, full participation, and social connection. Its learning principles propose that learning should be interest-powered (enabling personalised learning pathways), peer-supported, and academically oriented, while its design principles focus on learning that is production-centered (it should involve making or doing), openly networked, and have a shared purpose (we should be working towards common goals). These ideas largely align with the values of musetech, so it made sense to bring them to the classroom when teaching on subjects related to museum digital tech and social media.

The semester is five weeks in, and already this pedagogic approach is surfacing some interesting issues. As I mentioned in my last post, I assigned weekly blogging and Twitter participation to both classes. One student recently mentioned that she found it unnerving to have interaction with a professor outside the normal bounds of in-class interactions. She was uncertain how to react when I replied to her Tweets. Other students, too, expressed some doubt about what kind of online response would be appropriate (e.g. are gifs ok?). This kind of context collapse is frequent on social media, but this feedback reminded me that there are critical social boundaries–particularly related to authority relationships–to be negotiated in connected learning contexts. Even though I was undoubtably in my student’s imagined audience for class-related Tweets, she still felt uncertain about how to interact in the semi-public online environment.

What are the implications–seen and unseen–of breaking down those boundaries? How is the performance of identity between the student and professor (especially the identities we affect in class) impacted by interaction outside the classroom? Is there a renegotiation of the power or authority relationship between the students and me, and the expectations we each have of the other? If so, how might that impact learning?

Prompting the students to work in public can be unnerving for me. As with any new course, I’m still working out what does and doesn’t work with my teaching material, and I’ve felt vulnerable having it reflected out to the world. That said, it’s fascinating to discover which ideas and examples student are connecting to in almost live-time. There is an immediacy to the feedback that I’d otherwise find hard to get, and while it can be confronting to see discussions in the classroom reflected out in the world, it’s useful, too. (It’s also lovely to have a whole new pool of thinkers to draw upon.)

I’m sure my thinking on this approach to teaching will develop. In the meantime, I’d love to hear more about your experiences with connected learning approaches to education, whether in your museum, university, or other areas. Mike Murawski has written about his experiences with connected learning, and the Peabody Essex Museum recently advertised for a connected learning developer, so I know these ideas are surfacing around the sector. Let me know what you’ve been learning.

How have you seen connected learning practices manifest? What kind of experiences and reflections have they prompted for you? 

Teaching After Tumblr, or “Post Teaching”

This is a post that has been sitting in my drafts for a few weeks, but Seb Chan’s newest post on teaching a class broadly titled “Museums and the Network: Caravaggio in the age of Dan Flavin lights” inspired me to pull it up, when he mentioned that the students in the course had used Tumblr as their collection management system and exhibition catalogue.

During the last semester, I taught into an art theory course at the University of Newcastle. The focus of the last lecture of the semester was on art and digital technology, and was intended to buttress right up against the present, so when writing the lecture, I decided to explore some of the ways that artists have been using social media as a space for art, like Twitter-based performance pieces, and The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium.

The more I played around the ideas that were emerging, like ‘post-art’, or art that takes the form of posts, the more I wanted to get away from the usual Powerpoint presentation, so I decided I should match the concept and content of the lecture to its container, and use Tumblr as a presentation platform. Apart from the (not insignificant) downside that I needed to decide in advance exactly what order I wanted my posts to be in (the format being inflexible to last minute additions and changes), the platform seemed to provide an interesting way to create something visual with more possibility for interactivity. And it turns out that it was great.

Since the topic of this lecture was related to digital technology, every work of art or artist that I wanted to talk about was available in some way or some where online. Because of Tumblr’s format, it was easy to include quotes, images, video, links, and all within a single framework, without feeling a need to constrain the content to that framework or location. Rather than assigning specific readings, I was able to pull in images and quotes from the Web, and then push the students back out to the original context in which those works were found, in order that they could see them within context (particularly useful with pull-quotes from articles, or websites that artists had created).

What this made possible was deeper dives into content for students who chose to follow the links, in a way that might enable the students to get lost in discovery, which still having a central site to come back to afterwards. Using Tumblr in this way also seemed to create a useful contextual learning environment, into which external resources could be easily woven, whilst simultaneously maintaining the story arc of the lecture. It felt like the first time I’d given a presentation that fully interlaced the usefulness of the Internet in parallel with the live dynamics of lecturing.

Because this was a stand-alone lecture, I didn’t really exploit some of the platform’s other features, like the “Ask Me Anything” button, the opportunities for comments and questions, or the capacity to allow other people (the students, other teaching staff) to post to the site. However, I’d be interested in how these features could be exploited or played with over a longer time period. Could the “ask me anything” feature be used to encourage students to seek clarification about things they weren’t sure about? Might it be possible to ask students to seek out their own resources on a topic, and bring them back to the class to encourage conversations about different issues, and also about using online sources critically?

I could also imagine other benefits of taking to Tumblr for teaching an entire course, like the accumulation of a full semester’s worth of resources into a single location, which could help students understand the metanarrative for the course, as well as the individual subjects covered therein. In his post, Seb mentions the flexibility of Tumblr’s ‘archive’ view, which ‘provides a great way of visually browsing the objects and other media assets, whilst the standard view gives a more linear look’, and these two are features that could be useful for students seeking an overview of a subject covered in a lecture or across a whole course. By taking a ‘post’-based approach to teaching that cumulates in a single ‘document’ or site, it could be possible to create a significant single resource that tells the story of the course or lecture over an entire delivery period.

Ultimately, what I loved about this experiment was that it provided a way of integrating and weaving the web into the lecture, and it made possible new ways for creating an active and potentially conversational space for students to engage with the content of the lecture in a fairly direct way. Taking this approach immediately made me wonder about how museums could utilise a similar format of treating objects as posts in an exhibition context, giving every object its own post in a Tumblr-like site, which is exactly what Seb and Aaron’s students have done. Rad.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about this approach? How else could we exploit the affordances of Tumblr (and platforms like it) for collections management, exhibition catalogues, or even teaching? 

Crowdsourcing a lecture on arts practice and the Internet

I’ve been asked (in a fairly last minute way) to give a lecture on Monday to a bunch of Creative Arts students, on professional arts practice and technology. Rather than coming up with a highly prescriptive lecture that pushes a particular position about whether artists should or should not be online, I thought I’d source some different perspectives (curatorial, artist, arts writer) about art and technology. And I was hoping that some of you might be willing to contribute, in either a personal or professional context.

We know of countless musicians who have built their careers through their digital efforts. Is the same true of artists, or is the online art market a myth? Any feedback that I can give to the students, so that they can hear from voices beyond mine, would be appreciated. I’d also love any suggestions for artists from around the world who are using digital technologies well, either in the creation of work itself, or in the promotion of their work. It’s a small secret fantasy of mine to crowdsource every example I use in the lecture, just to show the power of networks.

Are you an artist whose career has been affected by the Internet (for better or for worse)? Or are you a curator, museum educator, or museum tech person? Maybe an arts writer or an academic? If so, how does an artist’s digital presence (or lack thereof) impact your work, or your interpretation of their work?

Thanks for your help.

There is a man behind the curtain

In a couple of weeks, I’m giving one of my first ever lectures. The subject is Museums, Galleries and the Politics of Institutions, which is a thoroughly juicy and exciting topic. Colour me excited!

I’ve just started ‘building’ my lecture, but already I’ve had an unexpected realisation about both teaching and museums. Until now, it’s never really occurred to me the extent to which every class I’ve ever attended, and every museum I’ve ever visited, constructs the information and stories within. The message is not just built around what is important to say, but also on what will fit within the limitations of time and space; on what will make a compelling story; and on the personal whims and preferences of the information architect.

This observation is so obvious, I don’t quite understand how it hasn’t smacked me square in the jaw before. As much as I’ve ‘known’ that museums can never tell ‘truth’ since every story has innumerable sides, the reality of that situation had never occurred to me so starkly until I had to create a lecture on the subject.

You see, I want to give the students insight into the historical development of museums; to educate them about (some of) the myriad of ways that the choices made in museums are political; to equip them to start seeing museums and exhibitions through critical eyes; and, ideally, to inspire them and capture their imaginations. And I’ve only got an hour in which to achieve all this.

It’s a big ask. Due to the time limits, I will obviously have to leave out far more than I can include, and the things that I do decide to include will be those that are both relevant/important and that reinforce the narrative direction I decide to construct.

And that’s the kicker. The information that makes the cut will be the information that best helps me tell a compelling story – one that is logical, and memorable, and in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The examples I use in the lecture will not necessarily be the most critical – they will be the ones that best help make my argument. I’ve looked at the examples used by the lecturer who gave the course last year, and they are entirely different from my choices. He and I used the same subject as a starting point, but each of us constructed a very different lecture – and a different story.

Yet most students will probably hear my lecture and believe that the information I give them is the canonical stuff that they need to know, simply because of the forum in which it is presented. In choosing works of art to focus on, I will be privileging those works and artists simply by drawing attention to them in the context of a lecture. It is a great responsibility. If I choose (intentionally or by neglect) only to talk about works of art by men, or European artists, or painters and sculptors but leave out video artists, then I too am guilty of neglecting to present a whole perspective about the subject… and yet I will have to make said choices because of the limitations of time. Therefore, my lecture is every bit as political as its focus.

Curators too are faced with these difficult choices. It is never possible to include everything when constructing an exhibition. Doing so would probably make the exhibition less clear and less impactful. But visitors don’t necessarily consider this. Most visitors will accept at face value that what is included is there because it was the most deserving – not because it best illustrated a point, or was the only appropriate work in the museum collection. This is precisely why museums are such political institutions.

I have known this at some theoretical level for years. I’ve taken dozens of courses at University and worked in museums for a little while. But it was not until constructing my own lecture on a subject that is so open-ended, with many possible paths that the journey could take, that I gained real insight into the extent that my own knowledge has been constructed around the ‘curatorial’ choices of my teachers. It’s been fascinating.

I think we have a responsibility when teaching people about history – or anything – to provide them with a story that is clear and legible. Without that, they are unlikely to learn at all. But I also think that we as teachers – whether in universities or in museums – have a responsibility to remind people that what we select for such a purpose is not the be all and end all of knowledge, and that the lecture or the exhibition is a great starting point but it should not be the final destination.

And I think this is the ultimate message that I am hope to get across to the students. I am going to use the process of constructing a lecture as a metaphor for the process of constructing an exhibition, and show them that there is a real person behind the choices that get made – and that those choices have real meaning. Thus, I think I will finish my lecture with a statement like this:

This lecture, like a museum exhibition and like every lecture you’ve ever sat in, does not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
It weaves one story of the history of museums. It leaves out more than it includes.
It is not neutral. It is never neutral.

I hope they get the point.