Our love/hate relationship with the 'digital' in scholarly networks

Jamie Henthorn's picture

A perfect communicative technology, especially for holding meetings in digital space, would be transparent. The medium would create the feeling that everyone was in one room together. Current technology is far from such dreams, yet we have come to depend on such technologies for facilitating digital collaboration that transcends physical distances.

The MediaCommons Collective regularly utilizes such communicative technologies, which also means we regularly experience their limitations and ensuing frustrations. The Media Commons collective consists of graduate students within the Humanities and because The English PhD program at ODU is composed of hybrid cohorts, students attend class both on campus and at a distance, we have chosen to have hybrid meetings. Several distance students are involved in this project. To include their valuable participation in the project, we have decided on hybrid meetings. While our home base is the The Media Park, programs like Google Hangout and Adobe Connect are essential for our meetings.

Most of our meetings start with a 15-minute setup of everyone's video, sound and mic settings. Eventually we give up on the program we've chosen for the night in favor of the other. Adobe Connect boots members if the connection is slow. Google Hangout prefers to freeze the member's image in some grotesque composition one would never want another to see. Often discussion must be repeated for those online. Giggles abound.

Meetings in this context demand a high level of flexibility. The biggest problem with the technology we are using is that it isn't really built to do what we want it to, to facilitate hybrid communities. Our ambitions are not necessarily matched by the technology we have. While place and community are essential, digital communities are still dependent on the medium's limitations. Our success is contingent on our ability to work with and around technology to create productive spaces.

Comments

Avi Santo's picture

structures of feelings

OK, I’m totally misrepresenting Raymond Williams’ work through the title I’ve assigned this response. 

Great post, Jamie! I am reminded of how hybrid classrooms, where some students are physically present and others attend virtually, often generate two very different experiences for students, both of which often feel incomplete in some ways and redundant in others. 

As the person leading the class, I have had to be diligent in designating moments where the virtual students get to steal the show. It is so easy to focus on the faces in front of you whose reactions aren’t time delayed. It is tricky to not wind up with two subgroups within your “community.”

It is also too easy to imagine that the virtual experience is the “lesser” one. While I do believe that many things are lost when students cannot be physically present, I think we focus too often on that loss without paying enough attention to the potentialities that virtual members bring to the table that can enhance the overall group experience.

As the MediaCommons Front Page Collective grows, I wonder if we will need to think of ways to “invest” in the hybrid meeting model instead of ways to “overcome” it.

Jamie Henthorn's picture

I want to stress, as I hope I

I want to stress, as I hope I have, that the benefits far outweigh the limitations.  One is that even on campus students are able to log in when they can’t be on campus. I love the chat feature in both programs that lets side work from the meeting continue on even after the larger meeting has moved on. Finally, many of our distance students are working at other colleges and universities. They bring a valuable insights into the way the larger academy works! 

I like the term invest and I think we do this in many ways (though I am always open to new strategies). 

Your comment also reminds me of the benifits technology has brought. There is virtually no time delay with either Adobe Connect or Google Hangout (the way there is in some teletechnet classrooms). The delay comes from the need to turn mics on and off during conversation.

Megan K. Mize's picture

On The Other Hand

 I think that Dr. Santo’s points about the limitations are dead-on. At the same time, we can easily over-correct, forgetting that face-to-face students have selected a particular experience of their own. The opportunities offered by distance tech can be numerous, but we sometimes encounter situations in which in-person students must forego or have limited interaction within a physical classroom, resorting to staring at screens, even when other students are in the room. For instance, in an upcoming course, all students will be using Webex in the English Dept. computer lab, despite the fact only one student is at a distance. Students will have their own computers while the teacher lectures into another. While this model certainly functions, it changes the experience for the on-campus folks in ways that we don’t often comment on; it might appear to be rude. This is not to say that a distance student should be short-changed; there is no perfect solution as of yet. But part of community-building is active and frequent engagement, something typically more easily facilitated by in-person encounters. If the increasing trend is to make all courses entirely facilitated by programs such as Web-ex (which often leads to on-campus students giving up on the drive to campus over the course of the semester), then we should consider how that is affecting the traditional aspects of community building for those individuals as well. 

As a side note, I was emailed a recent screenshot of my own frozen moment on Google Hangout. Horrific. But folks got a kick out of it, so perhaps that limitation has its own silver lining…at my expense.

Matthew Beale's picture

Developing a new skill set

Dovetailing off of Megan’ comment, I am one those students who made the choice to come to Norfolk and attend the ODU program in-person rather than stay in Los Angeles (where I lived when I applied for the program) with a full-time job. Being one of the “locals” in classrooms meant learning a new set of skills(or adapting old ones) while in the classroom. These included following the official classroom chat while also listening to the professor, keeping tabs on the backchannel chat, and focusing on the professor in-person while not ignoring the distance learners. There were also questions of decorum: do I just unmute my microphone and jump into the conversation like the distance students or should I raise my hand as an in-classroom student? Most of these questions worked themselves out over the semester, but each class I attended had different preferences and expectations from both the students and professors.

Jamie Henthorn's picture

The other other side

 Matt, as someone who regularly attends MediaCommons meetings at a distance, how is the experience from the other end? How does it compare with being in the classroom?

Megan K. Mize's picture

 Indeed, your points about

 Indeed, your points about the increased complexity of the in-class experience are right on. The question of etiquette you raise is also one I found to be important. We move from being mere students to also being facilitators; I’ve interrupted class at times to point out tech issues for distance folks and so forth (they can’t hear; they’ve been booted off…etc), but have sensed that instructors are occasionally flustered by such moments. What are the rules for communication? As you point out, they seem to be different, as an in-class student does not have the same license to interrupt because the tech does not limit their opportunities. That is a point I need to think through more. Thank for bringing it up!

Kristopher Purzycki's picture

Simultaneous eComposition

I’m sure that as networking tech becomes more affordable - and connectivity grows more fluid - the space between participants will be less apparent. Discussion through simultaneously typed “chat” presents interesting issues in that the participant is impacted by his or her WPM. This loss of effort, I’m guessing, might be enough of a deterrent that some may not bother. 

I’ve enjoyed composing online simultaneously with others using Google Docs. There’s something invigorating and refreshing about witnessing the raw act of writing and the recursive practice as it happens. Plus you have multiple avenues for commentary: P2P, side bar to all, as well as those that are anchored to passages on the digital page. 

 

At the ODU Writing Center, we

At the ODU Writing Center, we offer online appointments for those at a distance, and we regularly struggle with our interface. Not to mention, just because someone is accustomed to attending classes at a distance does not mean that they are familiar with our interface or proficient with computers. And most of us at the WC are not tech experts: walking our tutees through their tech difficulties is a challenge that does not always end in success. Parallel to Megan’s point above, we’re suddenly not just tutors - but we’re not prepared to fill this additional role.

Our back up when the technology doesn’t work is the telephone. We have a phone dedicated for this use, which I suppose reflects our lack of confidence in the tech (and tech users). In fact, some tutors prefer using the phone from the outset, because then no time that should be spent on the paper is spent on tech issues. As Jamie says in her original post, we need to create productive spaces; in the WC, sometimes the new tech does this but sometimes it hinders it. The question is how to move forward.