Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 3 seconds
Lonely in a Crowd
At a face to face event, I walk in, I know no one. It is embarrassing, it is obvious. You cannot lurk unnoticed. It’s not like online, where you can lurk unnoticed. It’s not like online where you can “butt in” and no one is surprised, no one minds. Have I gotten to used to virtual conference attendance?
I look out for someone I know, I find none. I decide to wing it and go up to someone and say, “you look familiar”. I later look out for someone who stands alone and risk a, “you don’t know anyone either?” (it ends up sounding like a pickup line, but who cares? I’m desperate here). It’s not like on twitter where you can just talk to anyone in the world, whoever they are. Even if they don’t respond, you’ve lost nothing, but often they do respond, and you’ve gained so much more than you ever imagined,
They call us to go inside for the meeting to start, and I am relieved. But the setup is round tables. Ahh, I have to find the courage to introduce myself and sit with people I do not know. I find a table with two people who look like they don’t know each other and are exchanging business cards. I find an opportunity and I take it. Turns out I actually know one of the people at the table (just had not seen her in around 10 years and she looks different – so sorry that she had to remind me of herself).
Anyway… The rest of the event was less lonely for me for several reasons. One is that a few people I do know showed up, the other is the interactive format of the second half of the event.
[Important note: attending other face-to-face events where either I know lots of people, or no one knows anyone else, is completely different and quite comfortable]
No Educators to Talk About Education
The event begins: I listen to a panel about education in Egypt, that has experts from government, the private sector (HR), two civil society reps and a student. I just realize now as I write this that they never invited someone from higher education on that panel. They were discussing the failings of higher education to prepare students for employment, and it somehow slipped their mind to invite someone who actually works at an actual university to express that view. They actually needed two kinds or more of higher ed experts: from the public universities and the private universities; they needed an academic and a career center expert, or someone who knows about both. Maybe a professor of organization theory or something. But to totally exclude any educators from the panel is…like suggesting educators are irrelevant to this conversation!
Anyway, the panel provided some interesting insights, such as a confirmation of how students and corporate think about each other, and the disconnect there; such as governments’ useless proposed solutions to ideas, and how they do not understand the idea of “participation” (when asked if they involved anyone in their strategic planning process, the response was, “we’re finalizing the draft, we’ll share it when it’s ready”).
The best panelists, in my view, were the reps from civil society who were on the poor students’ side, and able to be critical of government, as well as corporate, while maintaining hope in what they could do for students and fresh grads.
Solving Educational Problems in 25 Minutes
The interesting part of the day was the second half, where we broke out into discussion groups on different topics, of 25 mins each, and were asked to work with a facilitator to come up with solutions to the topic at hand. This was incredibly energizing but also frustrating. Why? You’re at a table with strangers (well, ok, sometimes I knew a couple of them). You’re mixing people from corporate and civil society and academia and young and graduate students and asking them to talk about education. There is something powerful about that heady combination and the spontaneity of it. But there is also something superficial and problematic about it. It’s like a twitter chat with people you don’t know. I say this because when you have a twitter chat with people you do know, you have a history, you know who this is, what they’re background is, some of their other ideas. Even in a twitter chat where you know few people, they often belong to some sub-community and have some shared ideas, discourse, jargon, and you can look up a person’s twitter profile during a conversation.
But to have abstract conversations about education, in these roundtables you ended up hearing a lot about very very specific experiences of people as students or teachers (some Egyptian, some not), and you heard some very superficial views on education, and some deeper views that could not be expressed clearly in 2-3 minutes. Some amazing ideas still came out of it, but I think to truly believe that you can get something deep out of this is an illusion.
It should be the start of something deeper and more long lasting. Possibly a precursor to longer or repeat meetings, where people get to know each other more deeply as they continue to converse over these matters, where they have opportunities to explore further and over time and absorb each other’s views.
As one of few academics in the event, I knew I had the discourse and ideas to make an impact, but I also wanted to listen to others, and to express myself in ways comprehensible to others, to get my ideas across.
It was important for me to highlight how, even though it was important for education to help graduates find employment, that this was not the purpose of education, that education was a goal in and of itself, and a colleague (whom I know from before, a close friend) built on that idea, to say education should be what helps the person develop so that they can then set their own goals and meet them.
It was important for me to not have people discuss technological determinism in overly utopian ways, to steer the tech conversation towards digital literacy and not just technology. I now realize I do this a lot in my own teaching, but I need to maybe make it more explicit to my own student-teachers, that it should be a more explicit thread throughout our ed tech program.
I did learn quite a bit from listening to other people’s views, but I only heard snippets of what they were thinking about, distilled versions of what they felt able to say in a small crowd of people who also had different agendas and things to say.
So yeah, it was an amazing event, to be able to converse with diverse others interested in education ofer 25 mins (we had a chance to attend two such roundtables) – it was a great achievement for 25 mins of chatting in a table of 6-10 people. But education problems are not solved this way, and visions for education are not created this way. And so I hope that this event was not a one-off, that something more, some sustained/sustainable conversation can come out of it.
Conferences: face-to-face or virtual…
It made me think of conferences and when we attend them face to face or online. You go to disjointed events around a particular subject, and you have 15-30 minutes to hear a talk and discuss it with the presenter, but the key thing is that you have the rest of the day to interact and get to know each other better. And you can maintain contact, see these same people again at another event, find other ways to collaborate.
But see, when it’s online, it’s much easier to do all that, if you know how to. Your conversations are not restricted by time or space, they are fluid and over different platforms and can include people who were not even at the event itself!
So I am looking forward to Sloan-C’s #blend14 (just got their recent email announcement, including the video they did with me on virtual attendance), my next virtual conference, where it is one of my fields, where I know some people, but even if I don’t I will be just fine 🙂
4 thoughts on “Alone in a crowd… And disconnected discourses on education”
I wonder if some people at online events could also feel alone in a crowd.
I am sure many do. I was just talking about myself 🙂
But to give a more detailed reply: my main point was you can be inconspicuously alone when you’re online, but it is more difficult to be like that in a physical space. But I also know that to feel “not alone” online is not easy, does not come naturally for all people. You might be surprised by how “alone” I thought I would feel when rhizo14 started, but I made a conscious effort to connect. It doesn’t always work out that way, that you reach out and you get a response, or build a relationship. But the possibilities are there, and that’s key for me.
I seldom feel alone, though I can feel out of place at times. My biggest struggle with most f2f meetings is saying/hearing anything worthwhile. I can be glib on short notice, but to say something thoughtful takes time, at least for me. And it’s one reason that I like the asynchronous, extended times of MOOCs. It gives me time to think though an issue after I’ve listened and before I feel compelled to speak.
But I am particularly interested in your comments about how ones sense of belonging or not belonging to a group changes between online and f2f. I’m writing a post now about dialogue, especially as a pedagogical strategy, and the differences between the two worlds is important, I think. You seem to suggest some advantages for online connections. Are the advantages because of the affordances online, because of reduced risks, both, or something else?
Hi Keith, to answer your last question: both I guess, but also some other things. I think usually when we compare online w f2f, we ask about affordances of online, but we rarely talk about what might be difficult about the f2f, like social norms, etc. In the particular event I was at, there were many businessmen and people of a certain social circle that excluded me as an academic. At academic conferences, I am comfortable going up to anyone and talking to them, even when I was still young and still starting my masters, but in this meeting of business people, I felt I could not do that.
I agree very much with what you mention earlier about thoughtfulness of asynchronicity. I am a very spontaneous person, even in my blogging/reflection, but have realized that sometimes I can’t organize my thoughts as clearly in speech as I can in writing, especially when it involves connecting between different things I have read/heard throughout a day or week and connecting it with literature, etc. The article I co-authored for Hybrid Pedagogy entitled An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning talks precisely about the advantages of asynchronicity particularly in MOOCs, and reflection is definitely one of the most important pedagogical benefits of it. I feel like I know people from rhizo14 whom I have not met synchronously much more deeply than someone I met for 2 hours f2f because the “crowd” f2f drowns some people out… Same happens online, of course, and there are opportunities to find people and ideas in both settings. I guess there are norms and comforts in both, really, but for me the barrier for online is much lower because I am comfortable navigating the online, I have the digital literacy and open personality for it. Thinking about this… I am also pretty outspoken in f2f, so I am not really sure what I am saying here! Will stop blabbing and “reflect” and come back later 🙂