Close-up of budding flower
10
Nov
2014

Trust, Agency, and Connected Learning

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Written by
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view of the city” by Fio; CC BY-NC 2.0

This interview with Jesse was published on HASTAC as part of the Digital Media and Learning Competition 5 Trust Challenge. We are republishing a revised version here on Hybrid Pedagogy’s Page Two with additional content.


What about our contemporary moment makes understanding trust important?

Technology has the potential to both oppress and liberate. And social media is, right now, rapidly changing the nature of the academic landscape (for teachers, students, writers, and researchers). But there is nothing magical about new technological platforms. We could make similar arguments about Twitter, the internet, MOOCs, but also the novel, the pencil, or the chalkboard. I’ve long said that the chalkboard is the most revolutionary of educational technologies. And it is also a social media. In his forward to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard Shaull writes, “Our advanced technological society is rapidly making objects of most of us and subtly programming us into conformity to the logic of its system […] The paradox is that the same technology that does this to us also creates a new sensitivity to what is happening.” So, we feel discomfort when the platforms for or nature of our work change, but that discomfort also causes us to pause and take stock — to interrogate what we do and why we do it.

For this taking stock to happen, educators need to actively guard space for learners and learning. In a continually changing educational landscape, developing trust depends on teachers being advocates more than experts.

Often when we hear terms like “student data” or “student privacy” we don’t hear them in conversation with “trust”. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be the case?

I think “student data” and “student privacy” are considered far too often in the abstract. We say the words and immediately think of Terms of Service agreements, FERPA, or the vague and mysterious Cloud. What we need to be thinking about when we say “student data” and “student privacy” are human beings and human relationships, not legal contracts but social ones. Abstract notions of hierarchy shouldn’t dominate discussions that need also to be about the very real relationships between students and teachers — and between teachers and administrators — and between governments and institutions.

When we talk about “student data” and about “student privacy,” I think we’re actually talking about agency, and I believe real education is not possible without agency. Agency depends on trust. If we don’t feel like the welfare of our data and privacy is in our own hands, we are less likely to feel like full agents in our own learning.

For example, students shouldn’t be required by supposedly non-profit educational institutions to publish their theses or dissertations on corporate platforms like ProQuest. They shouldn’t be forced to upload their intellectual property to profit-driven and often predatory sites like Turnitin. They shouldn’t be limited from doing public work, asked instead to cloister it inside a walled-garden LMS that controls access to that work. Simply put, students need to be engaged in discussions about data security but allowed to make critical decisions about what happens to their work and where it will live.

How are you thinking about trust in regard to connected learning?

Learning is always a risk. It means, quite literally, opening ourselves to new ideas, new ways of thinking. It means challenging ourselves to engage the world differently. It means taking a leap, which is always done better from a sturdy foundation. This foundation depends on trust — trust that the ground will not give way beneath us, trust for teachers, and trust for our fellow learners in a learning community.

Freire writes, “A revolutionary leadership must accordingly practice co-intentional education.” And Howard Rheingold writes in Net Smart that participation is “a kind of power that only works if you share it with others.”

Connected learning depends, then, not just on agency but also on generosity. In my classrooms (physical, virtual, or some mixture of both), I work extremely hard to keep my own expectations from being the fuel that makes everything go. My only real expectation as a teacher in a learning environment is that students don’t look to me for approval but take full ownership of their own learning. And I work to develop trust by showing up as a student myself.

Pedagogical generosity is about making gaps in our work, space for the burgeoning expertise of other scholars and students to fill. It’s about advocacy, guarding space for growing expertise, dialogue, discovery, and disobedience.

What are some of the biggest challenges to engendering trust you see in connected learning?

I think bureaucracy is the enemy of learning. In college syllabi, for example, we too often drown students and teachers in policies. Some of these policies are ethical at their core, but every single one becomes an obstacle, if we (teachers, administrators, accreditors, lawmakers) don’t trust students to help shape their learning environments. Very little about what happens in a classroom should be fixed in advance. And I mean fixed chairs, inflexible reading lists, predetermined outcomes, and assignments with rules not designed for breaking. It is good to offer guidance and also protections for difference. But, for me, the best outcome for a learning experience is something I never could have anticipated in advance. Trajectories can be mapped, but never at the expense of epiphanies. Unfortunately, our current educational system and its increasing emphasis on standards and mastery, is exactly at odds with this in far too many ways.

What are some of the literacies you think are required for learners to have a digital “trust literacy”?

I think success working in digital environments has much less to do with fluency in particular tools and much more to do with our ability to think critically about our tools. I keep getting in trouble on social media for proclaiming my opposition to laptop policies. I’m not actually a wild proponent of laptops or smartphones in the classroom. And I think forcing students to use tech in particular ways is just as problematic as restricting certain uses. For me, it’s less about encouraging technology and more about encouraging agency. Even the assignments I give always have loopholes. I don’t believe learning is something that should be policed. Rather, I work to build a learning community through trust — a community in which respect usually comes naturally and is most often arbitrated by the group. There are times I might step in as an “authority,” but the situation has to rise well above the clicking of a keyboard or a distracted glance at a Facebook wall. This discussion is not actually about distraction. It’s about control. Start by abolishing fixed-seat, face-forward lecture halls where feigned attention is valorized. Then, let’s talk learning and distraction.

So, I guess, my answer to this question is that teachers, myself included, have just as much to learn about “trust literacy” as students.

Do you have a favorite method of creating an environment of trust in your own digital practice? in learning practices? What do they look like? Is this scalable to/FOR connected learning? Why or why not?

In a physical classroom, I’m particularly fond of starting the first class by talking with students about the interface of the classroom — thinking at a meta-level about the effects our environment has on the learning we do within it. We leave no stone unturned in this conversation, talking about how the chairs are arranged, where we each choose to sit, if the room has a “front”, whether the windows can open, if the door can be locked, etc. I’ve watched this activity, or variations of it, scale incredibly well in online classes and in MOOCs. I don’t want students, myself, or other teachers working inside learning management systems, for example, without talking about their affordances and limitations. And the first MOOC I taught (MOOC MOOC, a meta-MOOC about MOOCs) was structured around the idea that none of us can teach or learn freely in an environment without first getting our bearings — without first looking around and thinking about where we are and why we’re there. And this is even more important in social learning environments, where we also have to wonder how we’re connected — and who isn’t there and why. Ultimately, it’s this kind of honesty that helps build trust and that helps us build better and more inclusive learning spaces.

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