Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Inevitable Exclusion – symbols, hashtags, and networked spaces

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Exclusion is not always intentional. Exclusion is not always a choice. But it is almost always inevitable.

Bear with me on what might be a rambling post. It’s almost 3 am. I need to take sips of water just before dawn so I can fast well (mind you, all the “cramming” of water means I don’t store it for all day -, but it feels like a responsibility to drink while awake during Ramadan non-fasting hours).

So I had about an hour’s sleep then got up to feed my husband and found myself catching the tail end of the #clmooc chat coz some people tagged me (I love you too Michael and gz). I was in the middle of some really important paper work but when I finished I guess something I’d tweeted caught on and I wanted to explain what I meant in more detail.

I was saying that it’s easy to say to participants “you don’t need to be anywhere specific or do anything specific to be part of this community/MOOC/course/etc”. It’s easy to say it. But the reality is, no matter how well-intentioned you are, no matter how hard you try, no matter how far you reach, how diverse the options are, it’s almost inevitable someone somewhere will not feel included, or not be able to include themselves. It’s actually OK. I just think we shouldn’t deny that. I also don’t think it’s always a bad thing.

Let me give a few examples here.

Every MOOC I’ve participated in actively is in English. That’s exclusion right there. That people who don’t speak English can’t participate. The English language is the biggest “inclusive-looking” thing because it’s everyone’s second language, but some people are online and they don’t speak it. Really. And some people speak it but are not as fluent, or are fluent but don’t understand cultural nuances and this can mess up a learning experience big time.

Another? Culture and timezones. Any synchronous event excludes a large chunk of people who are asleep or too busy at the time. And that’s OK. When EVER can you find a time that suits everyone, even on the same timezone it’s hard. My colleagues at work had an outing the other day at iftar time – a time almost everyone is free and going to eat anyway (then again, if you’re not Muslim or not fasting the timing doesn’t matter, so that’s another exclusion) and still two of us (including me) couldn’t make it.

Thinking about something like our Virtually Connecting project, the precursor to it, #et4buddy, was meant to be a deal between friends, a generous offer by Rebecca Hogue to let me into a conference I couldn’t go to (another exclusion, related to my being a mother in this part of the world that’s so far away and without support enough to go for many reasons). It was Rebecca’s way to “include me”. Many people at et4online participated to include me in the conference. Now we opened up the google hangouts on air and livestreamed them – asked if others wanted to join in, and allowed anyone on the web to watch. No, wait. Only people on TWITTER got to see the link. Most of the people who joined in were people who knew me or one of us. Up until now, almost all virtually connecting hangouts involve people who know one of us in some way. We have been working hard to include others and have had an average of about one “new” person join in, either virtually or on-site. It’s still an exclusive way to be inclusive. A hangout can only take so many people (10), onsite you can only have so many people on the other side and make it fun. But look – it’s more inclusive than what normally goes on in a conference where virtual participation is either passive (watching video) or text-based (Twitter). It’s something. But it’s not everything to everybody. And that’s OK. It’ll become more popular (we keep getting offers for onsite buddies) and it’ll expand (some conferences want to make it more official) and improve. But still – people with poor infrastructure won’t join. People who are camera shy won’t join. And it’s OK. Not everyone needs to enjoy the same thing.

So some people will feel they’re not deep enough into #clmooc coz they’re not on google+ and someone might say, “well, so join google+ then” but that discounts the reasons why people prefer to operate in certain spaces. So some people dislike google in general (I’m not one of them, though their policies on data are questionable and causing me a heartache with IRB these days) – other people have more understandable issues with facebook – and Twitter is… although I adore Twitter, I totally understand why other people are intimidated by it, uncomfortable or overwhelmed by it.

And so some people might feel not a part of clmooc because they don’t consider themselves creative or makers. Think about all the other MOOCs that are all text-based – don’t those exclude a whole chunk of other people who are more visual and creative? They’re not apologetic for being text-based because we’re used to education being like that. But it doesn’t need to be and we know it.

So it’s easy to say you don’t have to do everything in a MOOC to be part of it – some MOOCs offer different options to choose from, to help people find something they like. Some people will just think they’re supposed to do it all (poor them). More interestingly, though, is this: sometimes the “cool” people (and it’s really a perception more than anything) choose to all get together and do a particular “thing” and if you’re not into that particular “thing” you might feel excluded. They may have issued an open invitation, but you may have missed it, or didn’t realize you could join, or didn’t think you were talented enough, or didn’t know how to introduce yourself. Not everyone can do those things, you know… But it’s ok… as long as there are multiple opportunities, open invitations, eventually, someone will find something somewhere with some group. If they hang in there long enough.

You don’t always know, a priori, which “space” will be the “privileged” space for a MOOC. Last year #rhizo14 it was facebook, but this didn’t mean someone like Kevin Hodgson wasn’t prominent in it. But for example there were people I knew who weren’t on the facebook  group and I totally forgot they were in #rhizo14 coz I was so focused there. We can’t all focus everywhere, and many of us who were on facebook quickly recognized it as the place “to be”. This excludes everyone who wasn’t there. When we choose to comment on someone’s blog on facebook instead of on their actual blog… that’s something Frances Bell mentioned before and it’s an important point I will never forget… the facebook comment becomes transient and kind of private, whereas the one on the blog is more public and permanent… I think it’s ok to do either, but to recognize how this fragments conversations.

Same can be said of Twitter – if we engage with someone on Twitter regarding a course but don’t use the hashtag, we make it a private convo even though it happens in public. some people will feel comfortable butting in. Often this is fine but sometimes we can be unwelcoming to the new person. Or a new person might be interested but not know how to jump in. When we use a hashtag, we invite more people than the ones in the convo to join – but we also may be excluding ppl outside the hashtag or those who don’t know what it’s about… they may think it’s a semi-private thing. So if I tweet to Jeffrey and I use #clmooc – it invites strangers to both of us who are in #clmooc but might exclude people who know us both but are not in #clmooc and definitely seems to exclude people who neither know us nor know #clmooc

I need to go in a few mins, so let me go back to the idea of symbols. We don’t always use the same symbols to mean the same thing. Anyone who has looked at those international gestures things show that the same hand gesture can mean different things to different people. Acronyms. My medical family are always making me realize how acronyms in my context mean totally different things in their context. At work the past few weeks we had to remove acronyms that ended up with meaningful English words that we did NOT want to keep, like WELT (torture reference) and ALE (alcohol reference).

So… one more thing, then? Someone will come up with an idea in conversation with 1-2 people. They’ll decide to collaborate on something and invite others. They’ll either invite specific people (which would make those ppl feel welcome, btw) or  issue an “open” invitation. What’s “open”?

Open depends on:

  • Which spaces it is announced on – Twitter, facebook, g+, some or all of these? Different people will see it
  • When it is announced – if you announce it while I am asleep I might miss it
  • How it is announced – does it seem very open?
  • How quickly it is taken up – sometimes people will find something already busy and feel intimidated to join in; others might feel more comfortable with that
  • Who announces it – and how others perceive that person and their friendliness, etc.
  • What it is – so if it’s a poem some people will be comfy joining that; if it’s a video, other ppl will be interested in that
  • What it’s about – so if it’s a topic I know nothing or care nothing about, I won’t join. I know for example Terry did a beautiful thing, the collaborative Mother Em poem about the Charleston tragic events. I am following this news and feeling pain but recognizing I am too far from the context to be part of something like this in that way. I’m retweeting people but not expressing my own thoughts because, you know, who am I to do anything but listen? It’s not an exclusion that’s imposed by anyone other than myself because that’s the role I think I need to play in this context… if that makes sense

I really do need to go

But all this to say that… exclusion in real life and social media is inevitable. It’s not because facilitators of a space don’t try to be inclusive; it is not because participants are intentionally excluding others… it just is. Some people will speak out about ways it is glaring and can be overcome and that’s wonderful. Others will lurk. Others will leave. Others will say bad things about you behind your back. It’s inevitable. As Dave Cormier once said, every “us” is “not them”.

And that’s OK. As long as we’re not intentionally ostracizing people for no reason. As long as we’re doing our thing and trying to be open (and we don’t always have to be open; it’s OK to sometimes want to be with our friends!)

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