Part the first: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Internet (Kinda)
I come from a small place.
Seen from Google Earth, Prince Edward Island is a dot off the northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean, a pastoral sandbar best known for lobster, potato farms, and Anne of Green Gables. I left in a hurry at seventeen. I often say if you’d told me then that I’d move back willingly someday, I would have spat on you.
But I did move back. Mid-life is a funny thing: I now live a block away from my mother and call myself lucky, which is not the word seventeen-year-old me would have deployed. And from tiny Prince Edward Island, I’ve spent the past decade learning more than I ever imagined there was to learn about the operations of the global apparatus that is contemporary higher ed. More, I benefit from a richer, more robust circle of colleagues and fellow educators and learners than I’ve had at any other time in my life.
This is, in large part, because the internet became my local hangout.
(Yes, the internet is – as we are regularly informed by headlines, and not inaccurately – a fraught and messy place. Yes, the internet and its cloistered cousins, learning platforms and management systems, can be tools by which learning gets reduced and instrumentalized and commodified beyond recognition, if we’re not careful. Yes.)
But it can also be what Howard Rheingold was clever enough back in 1993 to recognize as a form of Oldenburg’s “third place;” a space for conviviality, playfulness, community, and “appreciation of human personality and individuality.” Like a coffee shop, bar, general store, library or arcade, a third place is a semi-public (often partially commercial) space that extends human community beyond the boundaries of home and work – a local hangout, as it were.
Howard’s assertions about the internet as inherently social were initially just stories I read, about places like The WELL and MUDs and MOOs, virtual frontiers that had mostly receded or disappeared by the time I even learned they existed. But I read them, and they stuck with me, and shaped my understanding of digital culture and my emerging practices as an online educator, even back in 1999. They planted a seed that suggested that the internet could be more than the glorified calculator and search engine and email machine I was gradually becoming familiar with. They opened the door to the idea that the internet might be a place to learn and engage and develop identity and friendships. That seed took years to take hold, but in the end, it is one of the concepts that has made the greatest difference in my life, professionally and personally.
Far more recently, in 2014, Catherine Cronin expanded my understanding of the third place by introducing me to Gutierrez’ somewhat more complex, political conception of “Third Space (2008).” The third space is explicitly an educational construct of sociocultural learning environments marked by what Gutierrez frames as “distinctive participation structures and power relations.” In Gutierrez’ model, the Third Space is the place where “teacher and student scripts – the formal and informal, the official and unofficial spaces of the learning environment – intersect, creating the potential for authentic interaction and a shift in the social organization of learning and what counts as knowledge.”
In other words, the Third Space is a potentially transformative space between the roles of student and teacher, a hybrid space where identities and literacies and practices can actually change on both sides. In a Third Space approach to education, what Gutierrez frames as a cosmopolitan in-between-ness marked by “shared humanity, a profound obligation to others, boundary crossing, and intercultural exchange where difference is celebrated without being romanticized” is core to learning design.
This Third Space is not the small place I grew up. But somewhere in seventeen years of the small-town classrooms I sat in from kindergarten through my undergrad, a few teachers, books, and Rolling Stone articles somehow nurtured some tiny kernel of Third Space in me. And then I spent my early adulthood looking for the third place where it could flower.
Part the second: There and Back Again
I thought for a long time it was probably in Prague.
I barely crossed Canada’s borders until my very late twenties. But for a decade after the Velvet Revolution, all over Canada’s more humbly regional towns, I pined for Prague. Not because I actually had much of a clue about Prague, but because I’d gotten the idea that it was the closest thing to Paris in the 20s that I was ever going to lay my grubby provincial paws on. And so I bought old travel guides at used bookstores and I read about absinthe and Vaclav Havel and I pored over picture after picture of ornate birthday-cake buildings. In one case the guide was so old it was for Czechoslovakia and not the Czech Republic, and so I learned mostly about the Soviet monuments of Prague.
But had I not already had some instinctive, hothouse-flower-cultivated sense that a Third Space/third place Elsewhere was out there having all the good conversations without me, that old sad, dog-eared Fodor’s guide might have served to foster my impression of Prague simply as an exotic, historic collection of pictures I could take someday.
When we humans fetishize something we have not yet experienced, we tend to reduce it to its instrumental, transactional elements. We imagine we understand, but we not only fail, we often do violence to actual lived experience in our insistence on our understanding. This is why immersion and perspective-taking and reflection are such powerful learning tools: they destabilize our known spaces, our first spaces, and force us to live through the experience of altering our perspective.
I eventually got to live that experience, though it – inevitably, I suppose – changed my fetishized vision of what Third Space would be. I made it to Prague one November at almost thirty, and took a pile of pictures, sure, but also stumbled into conversations late at night in underground bars and street festivals that opened my access to perspectives I’d never encountered before. I stayed abroad for five years. I went to Korea and braved slam poetry for the first time. I sat in hostels and coffee shops in Turkey and Malaysia and Scotland, people-watching and talking to strangers. All through the process, I taught people and lived among people and befriended people who had grown up in cultures and education systems very different from my own small place.
And after five years of itinerancy and inbetween-ness, I concluded there was no ideal Elsewhere, no single third place that encapsulated the Third Space I’d longed for. Or rather, perhaps – as an old friend used to say – that wherever you go, there you are. In the end, I came home to PEI.
The talking to strangers was harder here. But then I found my way online.
Part the Third / Space / Place: #DigPed PEI
Gutierrez’ concept of the Third Space has little to do with the internet or with digital education, though she talks about it as being mediated by a range of tools. Catherine Cronin’s work on networked publics has drawn from both third place and Third Space ideas, as has Kathrine Jensen’s.
For me, all three – combined with Howard’s longstanding situation of digital community within Oldenburg’s third place construct – speak to the potentiality of the internet as a human in-between space that enables third place collegiality combined with the hybrid positionality and perspective-taking of Third Space. A perspective always larger than the local, while deeply embedded within whatever particular context it has sprung from; a hybrid perspective never fully subsumed into the thick of things.
This is what I aim for when I teach, and when I work with educators around digital technologies and digital practices. This is the hope I brought to Egypt with me last week for our #DigPed institute at the American University of Cairo.
It was hope more than fulfilled. I sat at tables with people who speak from a multitude of locales and perspectives and embodied histories, truly in a Third Space. Our work served to network some of them into conversations that take place in my online third place, and reciprocally, to give me a window into their contexts and classrooms, where they choose to share. I tweeted with one participant’s class in Beirut just this morning:
Still, when I first came across Howard’s work on the internet as a third place, I hadn’t yet experienced much in the way of online community or conviviality. It was only later that blogs and social networking platforms began to extend my social world and community by thousands of kilometres. When I read Howard’s The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, I was very much the same person who read travel guides to countries she’d never been to and thought of them as collections of pictures to be taken.
My reductive, task-based understanding stemmed, at least for me, simply from not being able to imagine the full depth of what I had not yet experienced.
And I wonder if maybe a similar reductive failure of imagination informs a great deal of the dominant narrative critiquing digital engagement, particularly the cries of “screens are making us less connected!” that Sherry Turkle et al publish regularly in the New York Times. Not that fears and cautions and skepticism about the logics of media and capital that drive the internet aren’t warranted. Many, many are. But the dominant narrative tends more towards essentializing the face-to-face and reducing the digital to instrumental, task-based impersonality, rather than recognizing it as a human space with all the potential – educative and destructive, both – that that implies.
As I see it, we need third places – and Third Spaces – in order to grapple with the complexities of education and learning in an unequally globalized society driven by logics of media and capital.
So as a small start, this coming July, we’re bringing the three-day Digital Pedagogy Lab institute model home to my small place.
What I’m aiming to seed with #DigPed PEI is three-fold:
- To do what Howard did for me in opening up the concept of the internet and the digital as a human, social, third place environment where learning could take place.
- To scaffold the immersive equivalent of hanging out in Prague rather than reading reductive guidebooks, by curating participants’ experiential entry INTO actual human, social, educative third places ON the internet itself, in ways they can then apply to their contexts and their personal and professional practices. If they want. If they don’t, at least they’ll be making a choice informed by an experiential understanding of possibility, rather than by dominant narratives.
- To invite the denizens of my third place to experience this small place, which I think has much to offer, even beyond beaches and Anne of Green Gables. The lived experience of a town where “who’s your father?” remains the staple second question after “what’s your name?” is good preparation for the strange mix of hypervisibility and “is this thing on?” that marks networked engagement. The small scale of the educational system in this province offers an opportunity to get educators together from all three – for there are ONLY three – educational entities in the province to build ties and conversations in ways that can’t happen in the same way in larger centres. And as a hardscrabble, regional place on the margins of North American identity yet still utterly privileged as part of the global North, this site is…a little different. Too often, the third space of English-speaking networked scholarship and educational practice is profoundly US-centric. We don’t have FERPA here. Education is a provincial rather than federal matter. A conversation here is never entirely removed from the dominant North American conversation, but neither is it entirely encapsulated by it. We have the makings of a Third Space, maybe. I can hope.
And our dollar is dismally cheap right now. Just sayin’. 😉
If you’d like to hold a space for yourself in #DigPed PEI, fill out this handy pre-registration form by April 30th. We’ve been delighted by interest so far.
And if you can’t join us in person but want to contribute to the conversation, there will be a #DigPed discussion on digital literacies – and third places and spaces – Friday April 8th at noon EDT (1pm PEI time!).
[image “Prince Edward Island 111” by flickr user Douglas Sprott]