For several weeks I have been immersed in a digital world. Coming back into a face-to-face reality has given me pause to reflect on the contrast between what is “virtual” and what is “real.”
It’s really Simon Ensor’s fault. In a Google Hangout during a conference, Simon asked someone to define “virtual buddy.” He asked the question again on Twitter. He followed that with a blog post. And then he wrote a poem about belonging. And so I started thinking.
The Hangout that began the process was a “between” space during the annual conference for the Association for Learning Technology, this year in Manchester, England. A number of presenters were from a virtually connected associates discussing a project called #Rhizo14. I had followed along with #Rhizo15 in connection while actively participating in #clmooc (another virtually connected community focused on learning), so I had an interest in the conference, even though I could not attend. I was introduced to the “between” Hangouts during yet another conference about hybrid pedagogy (#digped) when I was invited to participate by colleagues I met on Twitter through #clmooc. *
These “between” spaces were supposed to be a sort of “third space” for collaborative discussion about the keynote speakers at the conference. As they evolved they became a sort of debriefing for participants while the online participants (from all over the world) became sort of eavesdroppers who gleaned whatever information came through the on site players. It made me feel both connected and disconnected at the same time. When the on site players shared a single computer their conversation was often between themselves as they developed tactile relationships while the rest of us watched. When they returned to conference activities, those of us left in the Hangout tried to make sense of the information and even found ways to create our own “mini-sessions” of informal collaboration. While I had connected with many of the participants (both on site and online) before this conference, Simon’s question made me consider the reality of those relationships beyond the words shared on the screen.
In a reflective post about Rhizo15, Dave Cormier discusses the challenges of creating a structured community in an unstructured idea (rhizomatic learning is by nature without formal structure). How can individuals belong to a community without creating a division between “we” and “them”; in this case those who had been around since the first experiment (Rhizo14) and the newbies who were just figuring out the concept? Dave writes far more eloquently than I about the conflict between Instructivism and Constructivism, but it all goes back to Simon’s original query: What exactly is a virtual buddy?
I have playing on the digital playground long enough that I no longer consciously differentiate between local acquaintances and those whom I have only met online. In many ways, I often feel MORE connected to those virtual friends because we have to make an effort to connect across time zones, geography, and cultural barriers. Underneath that, however is a common interest in how to harness the power of the internet to make education both accessible and relevant to as many people as want it. Along the way we discover other common interests: knitting, photography, Doctor Who, and other facets of life that have nothing whatever to do with education.
So are these friends “real”? And if they are, why is there a disconnect when some of them are together in a place while others of us connect from our own individual spaces? This whole new world of digital relationships and collaborations is messy. But then, new things are often messy. And not always “right”, especially at the beginning.
This idea of messy newness is a reflection of something Sherwood Anderson said to William Faulkner in June, 1953:
…America ain’t cemented and plastered yet. They’re still building it. That’s why a man with ink in his veins not only still can but sometimes has still got to keep on moving around in it, keeping moving around and listening and looking and learning. That’s why ignorant unschooled fellows like you and me not only have a chance to write, they must write…it won’t ever be quite right, but there is always next time; there’s always more ink and paper and something else to try to understand and tell. And that probably wont be exactly right either, but then there is a next time to that one , too. Because tomorrow’s America is going to be something different, something more and new to watch and listen to and try to understand; and, even if you can’t understand, believe.
(as cited in Meriwether, 2004, p. 8)
And there is the answer. Online relationships won’t ever feel “quite right”, but we must keep trying new ways to connect and eventually we will see something “different…more and new” that, even if we don’t fully understand, we can believe. In its imperfections, there is still connection. Perhaps the best part of being “virtual buddies” is the journey we are taking together into something unexpected.
*All the acronyms are confusing, but much of the hybrid pedagogy/virtual connections take place on Twitter with extensions to Facebook and/or Google Plus. All of the things in which I participated were forms of MOOCs (massive open online courses) geared toward educators who wanted to explore and promote the idea of open learning. Rhizo is based on the idea of the rhizome plant, one that sends out new growth from its roots so that the visible growth is supported by an underground structure that is interconnected. Dave Cormier is probably the leading expert in the current iteration and his ideas on the purpose of education need more thought that I intend for this particular post. DigPed is attached to the Hybrid Pedagogy journal. The Connected Learning MOOC (#clmooc) was a six-week course for educators organized mostly by professionals connected to Youth Voices. All of the hashtags are still active on Twitter.
Meriwether, J. B. ed. (2004), William Faulkner: Essays, speeches, & public letters. New York, NY: Modern Library. Random House, Inc.