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Technologies of Meta-Learning, Trust, and Power: Interview with Jesse Stommel

Technologies of Meta-Learning, Trust, and Power: Interview with Jesse Stommel

This interview is part of the Digital Media and Learning Competition 5 Trust Challenge. The Trust Challenge funds successful collaborations or “laboratories” where challenges to trust in connected learning environments can be identified and addressed. Successful labs will create scalable, innovative, and transformative exemplars of connected learning that bridge technological solutions with complex social considerations of trust.  Find out more about the competition at

Jesse Stommel is Assistant Professor in the Department of Liberal Arts and Applied Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is Founding Director and CEO of Hybrid Pedagogy, a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology. His particular expertise is in digital pedagogy, open education, and new media. He is an advocate for lifelong learning and the public digital humanities. He teaches courses about pedagogy, digital storytelling, horror film, and Shakespeare. He experiments relentlessly with learning interfaces, both digital and analog, and works in his research and teaching to emphasize new forms of collaboration. He’s on Twitter @Jessifer and his website can be found at

1. 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 changes, 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 guard space for learners and learning. In a continually changing educational landscape, developing trust depends on teachers being advocates more than experts.

2. 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.

3. 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 own 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.

4. 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 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 is exactly at odds with this in far too many ways.

5. 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 environments.


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