Thoughts about the front channel … plus #S7S

While the backchannel is important to me, right now I’m thinking a lot about the front channel.

I’m teaching a course at Arcadia University this semester called Seeking Equity in Connected Learning (ED677). It’s the fifth week and we are making “how-tos” (inspired by CLMOOC this past summer), spent Wednesday night learning how-to look at student work together with my colleague Christina Puntel, and thinking about all of this in the context of this week’s theme “learning in community.”

The front channel I’m thinking about specifically right now is the graduate classroom. Specifically the graduate education classroom. I have things to say about this not only because I’m teaching this semester but because I also just recently went back to school to get my own Masters of Education (I know, I’ve worked in education for a very long time without one … hence my affinity for the backchannel you see :).

The “front” versus the “back” is language influenced in today’s world via networked technologies. The “front” refers to the way that things are done more traditionally and in our current structures and systems. The “backchannel” then is what might be happening via networks, most popularly via social media. For example there are many stories of presentations, lectures or some other sort of one-way communication – take President Obama’s State of the Union speech just recently – and a parallel conversation happening in a networked way in the “backchannel” via #SOTU on twitter (which the WH itself was actively involved in this year just to say). Conversation about the implications of a range of back channels and their relationships to the front – what Ethan Zuckerman refers to as the cute cat theory – on global events such as the Arab Spring’s have been the topic of much debate and conversation over the last few years. The development of the #fergusonsyllabus hashtag is another more recent example of a social media backchannel that was created out of need of educators to have resources to talk to students about tomorrow, much of which is missing from any textbooks more traditionally available today. And then there are much more silly examples like Left Shark which, well, I leave the implications of that to your own opinion!

So the backchannel can be a powerful place … and although it’s not always subverting, it can be a space of agency and participation bringing multiple voices into the mix (used for both good as well as evil along with everything in-between).

The front channel however is often still the locus of power and, in education, the structures we have created around teaching and learning are still the most accessible ones (despite rocketing tuition and the systematic breakdown of public schooling in this country etc etc). Ultimately, still, the front channel is still where sites of accreditation are located and therefore the power and the authority. So that’s why, for example, I went back to get a Masters in Education. And why also I am now trying to really focus on the front for a bit … as well as relationships between the front and the back as Zuckerman suggests … in order to explore true equity in connected learning.

The class that I am teaching is designed in a non-traditional way. It is entirely online (although that to me wasn’t essential; this same design can be used for face to face work too); we don’t use a LMS or any traditional learning management system that are fairly common now at Universities and colleges – instead we use all social tools that the participants in the class sign themselves up for and control their own accounts within; we have a shared ED677 blog where what we blog about is pulled into a aggregate feed; and we use a semi-public Google + community to share things with each other and the larger growing Connected Learning “Network” at Arcadia (the University gives gmail accounts so i asked everyone to enable their G+ and try out those tools too). We also kinda use twitter (still working on that!) The course is designed explicitly to be a “connected course” which you can read more about on our our syllabus.

Besides its design though, my ultimate goal in the class is really to create a peer-based inquiry driven learning environment within a graduate program. This feels essential to me for a few reasons – I really believe that at the core of the shift we are experiencing now in terms of networked communications technologies is a shift in how we think about and organize knowledge. (Many people have said this before such as John Seely Brown if you want to hear more.) And therefore I want my classroom to represent this shift – no one person holds knowledge, we all do. And therefore how much and what we can really learn is dependent on each other. And this is a key fundamental in a connected learning framework too.

Now a couple things are awkward about this. First, we aren’t all that used to being peers in graduate classes. Maybe working together in groups but not being peers alongside a professor and also being peers with wider communities thinking about something together, in this case, connected learning and equity. I realize I was asked to teach the class because I do bring specific knowledge about specific things yet I also don’t know what those participating in the class know. And in an education class – which often will contain a really exciting mix of those who are actively teaching, those who have taught for many many years, and who are just starting to think about teaching – this can be a valuable thing and I, for one, don’t want to miss out.

More awkward than that though are the grades. I am in control of grades. So that puts me in charge and in a different power relationship no matter what I try to create in terms of flatness of power in the room. Now, just to say that at Arcadia I  had the power to make this class pass/fail, but I also know that most of the folks in this class are not in environments where they can just decided to make their classes pass/fail for their students – so I wanted to make our situations parallel. And within this parallel I am asking myself, how can we practice peer-based learning in a traditional classroom environment and what does this support us in thinking about when it comes to connected learning and the equity? That’s still an active question we, and specifically I, am exploring.

The reason these exercises of mine, these inquiries, feel important to me are because I believe that if we don’t shift the ways that we think about knowledge in a classroom – that is in the front channel idea of teacher as all-knower and/or the school or the scripted curriculum as container of knowledge – then we can’t shift how we teach. Until we approach teaching as an act of learning – whether from those we consider peers or from those we consider our students – we can’t actually shift the way that we design our schools. And until we shift the way we design education we can’t actually manifest the ideals of democracy that education has the power to promise. Instead we create systems by which individuals are told to learn what others believe they should learn, never given a chance to actively practice participation and democracy at all. And when we have no practice we have nothing to build upon. And when we do this to each other as adults too – act as if one of us knows more than the rest of us – and specifically as adults learning how to teach in education graduate classes, we never will actually shift any of what we are doing! 

We have to be what we want to see in the world, ultimately. I’m not sure there is another way.

Geez … I realize this is really a long-winded way of saying why learning in community and taking an inquiry stance are so important to me. I have learned this as a member of an inquiry-based peer driven learning network of educators called the National Writing Project, which sometimes in its own backchannel ways has been referred to as a “third space.” And I have learned this from the backchannel of the Internet. So equity, for me, lies in bringing what we know from these backchannels forward into the front. There are many heros to learn from this in this work – Ai Wei Wei being an particularly inspiring one for me right now. And I greatly appreciate all of my amazing networked colleagues and all you all in ED677 for thinking about this and working on these inquiries with me.

The seven things I notice this Sunday? Connected learning (ie “It doesn’t need to be Earth-shattering to be meaningful”) … Connected learning (ie. “Every student has their own unique strengths and interests”) .. Connected learning (ie. “I have had several experiences in working in various communities just in the past week!”) …. Connected learning (ie. a Modge Podge How-to) … Connected learning (ie. high school math teachers sharing) … Connected learning (ie. coaching, learning, teaching and leading) … Connected learning (creation of new blog that works better for its author).

Yay! :)