Blog Post

The Future of the Forum

Yesterday, I attended The Future of the Forum 1-day Symposium at UC Berkeley as one of the presenters in the panel on Public Forums on Health and Education. In this blog post, I invite you to engage with some of the questions raised at the Symposium, which I have included below.

My friend David Malinowski (a Ph.D candidate in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley, and administrator/contributor of Found in Translation) and I did a joint presentation titled "Making Public, and Being Made Public: Dilemmas of Social Media In/Out of the University Classroom." We investigated the use of social media such as blogs, wikis, social networks in the classroom (abstracts from FOTF can be found here), examined the nature of the public that students in higher education find themselves today, and proposed a critical look at what kind of people students can be in that space. In the 10 minutes allocated, we presented our arguments by way of real-life examples from our use of social media in the classroom as students and teachers, and interrogated the student's subject position in relation to the public university and the public at large, drawing from the works and theories of Mark Poster, The New London Group, Lincoln Dahlberg, Jurgen Habermas, and others. Since both of us come from public universities, we emphasized the fact that the public is in crisis: the astounding $15 billion dollars cut just this year alone has left California the last state in the U.S in terms of funding-per-pupil. Public universities are no longer able to fulfill their basic mandate under the 1960 California Master Plan for Education: to provide opportunities for free and high-quality education for all. It is in this context that we see the expansion of social media use in the classroom as, in part at least, an effort to expand the university's influence, while saving costs. But where does this leave the students? Dave and I started our presentation by posing two main questions: 1) What insights does the use of social media in the university classroom give us about the role of institutional power in defining relationships between people and publics? 2) What are among the most crucical intellectual and personal dispositions necessary for students to realize the participatory potential of social media in the classroom? 

Acts of writing and communicating in the classroom that use a participatory model but are still disengaged from the larger public, then, makes me wonder, how effectively can new media reposition the university as a site for civic engagement and social change, and for reshaping teaching and learning? We argue that multiliteracies remains a way in which institutions can provide students with the tools to participate in the forum, allow them to be aware of their subject positions in relation to knowledge and practice, and to renegotiate their social identities with the public sphere (this is not unlike Howard Rheingold's idea of network literacy: the literacies of participation, attention, collaboration, crap detection, and network awareness as crucial in determining the Internet's usefulness). Dave and I ended the presentation by asking, is it possible that there is a stiff price on using social media in institutional settings to 'make oneself public': that students and we all might have collectively have become unwitting vehicles for the exercise of a much older, even feudal, power of networked hierarchies, one that makes itself public through us?

I'd also like to share some of what I think are important themes that were raised in the other presentations and roundtables at FOTF, some of which we could perhaps discuss here on HASTAC...

The State of the Forum

> Mitch Kapor asked how we can make discourse more constructive, create equal social opportunity, make the most of human capital, and make public discourse in cyberspace matter. Saying that current "discourse is unbelievably boring," Kapor pointed out how most of the people in the room were mostly white, middle-class men. Things have been centrifugally pulled apart, and the digital divide is widening. We need to be skeptical of the unconscious assumption that technology has a leveling effect. 
> Judith Donath's fascinating presentation on "Identity and Forum" raised some great questions. She begins with "who are you?" as the fundamental social question, then goes on to ask how we can make alternative representations in the online world (a lot of what we know about people are social identities based on how the identities are represented online, versus the rich and complex layers of real-life identities). Donath proposes a slightly different model of online identity representation that is people-oriented, pointing to projects like Personas and Lexigraphs
> Howard Rheingold makes some very important statements about literacies and education, and says that collective action "doesn't just happen." The tragedy of the commons is that there is a lack of education in network literacies that address issues of participation and crap detection in the online world. He quotes Hemingway: "a person must have a built-in crap detector."
> Greg Niemeyer:
"Do we know what we're doing when we're part of the crowd?"
Hubert Dreyfus: "The danger of the public is it makes expertise impossible"; anybody can enter any group without skills, knowledge, or experience. Laura Sydell also addresses this by asking where our commons are, and if the forum is an echo chamber. 

Education as an engaging game 

> Jane McGonigal asks, "What if we could harness some of that collaboration bandwidth [in games] for real world knowledge and problem solving?" She also mentions the Quest to Learn School in New York and proposes a vision of education as an engaging game. For instance, you could have students "level up" instead of receiving grades, which I find fascinating. I wonder what the implications are for teaching and learning if we rethink education as a form of  play or game? 

I am grateful to have been a participant at FOTF, and working with Dave Malinowski for a joint presentation was a highlight in itself. We felt it was important to raise the questions that we brought forward in an event about the forum held at a public university. The structure, setting, and high costs of the symposium itself makes apparent the tensions between the public and participation, as well as the business industry and public educational institutions. Social change, learning, collaboration, participation, knowledge, literacies, online-offline interactions -- these were issues that were discussed, and that we will still need to work on together as a community.
Thank you for reading! 

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