As someone who has more social media apps on my phone than pairs of pants in my closet, I was excited to be a part of the FemTechNet project and see how new media could be used in this educational experiment. Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter are often discouraged by teachers in the classroom, but could they actually be utilized to build greater collaboration and conversation, especially between the numerous locations of the FemTechNet DOCC? (Learn more about FemTechNet’s Distributed Online Collaborative Course here). Also, FemTechNet’s feminist pedagogy highlights the importance of diversity and complexity so how could cross-platform social media exchanges support this?
FemTechNet moved away from a single platform model of information transmission toward a more open and collaborative framework for learning. It was central to this experiment that all DOCC participants be active participants in the network, and can contribute and share information and not just receive it. With courses happening in over 15 locations various methods were used to help build communication across nodes. Moreover, we wanted it to be open and new media allowed the DOCC participants to communicate with those not in the course but who are still a part of the current conversations around the issue. FemTechNet wanted to develop “strategies to transform Web 2.0 environments into generative spaces for dialogue by drawing on feminist theories in the creation of new digital applications and web places, to focus explicitly on the quality of interaction among web users and the creation of infrastructures of synchronous learning.” The question of if existing tech tools truly incorporate and support feminist principles is still a huge issue. In planning sessions before the course started there were conversations between faculty about if platforms and companies like Google, Facebook, and others comprise the necessary factors to support our pedagogical needs. In an ideal world the DOCC project would have wanted to create it’s own online systems, but because of limitations we decided that our online hub, the Commons, would be built using CUNY’s Commons in a Box as well as use existing social media tools.
Through the commons as well as the social media platforms the goal was to create an educational program that shifted from “sage on the stage” to “guide to the side.” Most of the students participating in the Dialogues on Feminism and Technology courseare members of the born-digital generation and are use to creating and sharing information through diverse platforms. As FemTechNet leader Anne Balsamo notes in Designing Cultures notes “These young people know how to mine their networks, both digital and social, for their information needs…For these youth the process of thinking now routinely- and in some cases, exclusively- relies on social network navigation” (pg 141). Understanding this, one of the aspects of the DOCC pedagogy was to “engage more closely with the diverse processes of student learning” (FTN White Paper).
For this Fall DOCC, we used an assortment of public social media platforms. We had an official FemTechNet Facebook page and some classes had their own, custom Facebook pages. Several faculty members and I moderated the Facebook page; there we shared links to FemTechNet videos, documents, and updates from classes. We also shared relevant news articles as well information on events. Other Facebook users were also able post to the page. We also had an official FemTechNet Twitter account, while the San Antonio group managed their own independent Twitter account. We created the hashtags #femtech and #DOCC13 to help build network conversations. Contributing to this effort, I moderated and regularly posted to the Twitter account regularly. The self-directed learners who weren’t at universities had their Google Plus page where they could share updates about the course, including dates for in person meet ups, readings and more. We also used Vimeo for our video dialogues, and for additional video meetups we used livestreams, and Google hangouts. A few classes even met in Second Life. Wikipedia was a core part of the class with students learning how to edit Wikipedia and be a part of the whole social sphere that is the Wiki world. This was a vital aspect of encouraging students to be active participants in the dialogues and archival history of the courses teachings. The various “Storming Wikipedia” activites had some really interested results – learn about them here. Even though there was not an official FemTechNet instagram account students still shared updates on it. Because there was so much activity across all these different platforms it was important to aggregate them together. I compiled monthly Storifys to provide a social media snapshot of each month. You can see the last one (covering Nov 11th to Dec 11th) here. The way the social media world exists, different people prefer different tools and so by embracing the variety of platforms we encouraged as many voices as possible. Also we didn’t limit social media accounts – if classes wanted their own Twitter or Facebook it was supported.
Outside of social media DOCC participants, self-directed learners, and casual observers had various access points where they could engage in dialogue and be a part of the process. The levels of participatory access were different though for each of those categories. For example, for those enrolled in the courses they had access to groups/forums/blogs/resources on the commons that non-registered participants did not have. Outside observers did not have access to all these conversations on the commons, but they could follow and comment via the blog on the commons website and social media. A key component of the FemTechNet curriculum was the video dialogues that were filmed and edited this past semester with key scholars in the field. These dialogues were placed on Vimeo and anyone could watch them and comment on them. Additionally, the comments that FemTechNet received during the course from participants and observers, even those made on social media are being taken into consideration and assessed.
Overall, new media played a key role in helping me connect with others taking the course at different universities. Twitter responses to the dialogue videos, blog posts about class projects, Facebook pictures of Wiki-editing sessions all helped me see who else was a part of this learning process. Also, because of the transmedia aspect of it FemTechNet became a bigger part of my life. I saw it on my Twitter feed, I saw it on my Facebook, I posted comments on the Commons. It was never just a class session, it was much more expansive than that, and became incorporated into my greater world.
Moreover, as the person who helped monitor the social media it really helped me feel like I was part of a greater movement and not just in a singular class. I could easily see who were some of the main thought leaders and participants in this field and see what they are currently thinking about, creating and sharing in their own online communities. Through people’s posts I learned about interesting conferences I would have otherwise not known about. I also gained insight into how topical issues and news stories were being discussed in other classes during the semester. It made topics much more real. Feminism and technology are active issues constantly being talked about in the public sphere, and social media allowed an exchange between those in the course and those in the greater field. Through social media the class was also able to have impact globally. We were able to share and discuss with people throughout the field and beyond. Our Facebook and Twitter followers consisted of more than just people in the class, but people around the world including Nigeria, India, Japan, Singapore and Brazil.
I believe though that there could be improvements. I saw value in social media, but we could have done more work to make it more widely known and shared with the different participating class nodes, especially discussed good tactics on using social media in the classroom. Having a live social media connect/aggregator page on the Commons would have been helpful too, where people can see in one place in real time the current conversations happening on the different social media accounts. One interesting thing I did notice was that it was the professors who were most active in social media. While there were a number of students who shared on social media, the greatest number of interactions came from teacher’s personal accounts. While it is often assumed that social media is the world of the young, 46% of our Facebook fans were between the ages of 25-44. Indeed we had twice as many followers between the ages of 45-54 than we did between the ages of 18-24. Further inquiry could be done into the reason of this – whether it was that students were not well informed enough about the Facebook page or if students don’t feel that the worlds of social media and academia intertwine and thus don’t feel compelled to use the platforms for educational engagement.
There is huge potential with using social media in the online classroom – especially as a way to connect with a greater community in that field of study and help students to see the spectrum of current conversations. I think that something key too is to have a cross platform perspective. Everyone prefers different methods of communication and each social media platform offers different assets. Finding creative ways to support transmedia communication could lead to a much broader perspectives and much deeper engagement.