(Digital) Identity in a World that No Longer Forgets

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

In recent weeks, the topic of digital identity has been at the forefront of our minds. With election campaigns running in both Canada and the United States, we see candidate after candidate’s social media presence being picked apart, with past transgressions dragged into the spotlight for the purposes of public judgement and shaming. The rise of cybervigilantism has led to a rebirth of mob justice: what began with individual situations like the shaming of Justine Sacco has snowballed into entire sites intended to publicize bad online behaviour with the aim of getting people fired. Meanwhile, as the school year kicks into high gear, we are seeing evidence of the growing focus on digital identity among young people, including requests for our interning pre-service teachers to teach lessons about digital citizenship.

All this focus on digital identity raises big questions around the societal expectations about digital identity (i.e. that it’s sanitized and mistake-free) and the strategies that are typically used to meet those expectations. When talking to young people about digital identity, a typical approach is to discuss the importance of deleting negative artefacts and replacing them with a trail of positive artefacts that will outweigh these seemingly inevitable liabilities. Thus, digital identity has, in effect, become about gaming search results by flooding the Internet with the desired, palatable “self” so that this performance of identity overtakes all of the others.

But our current strategies for dealing with the idea of digital identity are far from ideal. From a purely practical perspective, it is basically impossible to erase all “negatives” from a digital footprint: the Internet has the memory of an elephant, in a sense, with cached pages, offline archives, and non-compliant international service providers. What’s more, anyone with Internet access can contribute (positively or negatively) to the story that is told about someone online (and while Europe has successfully lobbied Google for the “right to be forgotten” and to have certain results hidden in search, that system only scratches the surface of the larger problem and initiates other troubling matters). In most instances, our digital footprints remain in the control of our greater society, and particularly large corporations, to be (re)interpreted, (re)appropriated, and potentially misused by any personal or public interest.

And beyond the practical, there are ethical and philosophical concerns as well. For one thing, if we feel the need to perform a “perfect” identity, we risk silencing non-dominant ideas. A pre-service teacher might be hesitant to discuss “touchy” subjects like racism online, fearing future repercussions from principals or parents. A depressed teenager might fear that discussing her mental health will make her seem weak or “crazy” to potential friends or teachers or employers and thus not get the support she needs. If we become mired in the collapsed context of the Internet and worry that our every digital act might someday be scrutinized by someone, somewhere, the scope of what we can “safely” discuss online is incredibly narrow and limited to the mainstream and inoffensive.

And this view of digital identity also has implications for who is able to say what online. If mistakes are potentially so costly, we must consider who has the power and privilege to take the risk of speaking out against the status quo, and how this might contribute to the further marginalization and silencing of non-dominant groups.

In a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness

 Our current strategy for dealing with digital identity isn’t working. And while we might in the future have new laws addressing some of these digital complexities (for instance, new laws are currently being proposed around issues of digital legacy) such solutions will never be perfect, and legislative changes are slow. Perhaps, instead, we might accept that the Internet has changed our world in fundamental ways and recognize that our societal mindset around digital missteps must be adjusted in light of this new reality: perhaps, in a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness, emphasizing the need for informed judgment rather than snap decisions.

So what might that look like? The transition to a more forgiving (digital) world will no doubt be a slow one, but one important step is making an effort to critically examine digital artefacts before rendering judgment. Below, we list some key points to consider when evaluating problematic posts or other content.

Context/audience matters: We often use the “Grandma rule” as a test for appropriateness, but given the collapsed context of the online world, it may not be possible to participate fully in digital spaces if we adhere to this test. We should ask: What is the (digital) context and intended audience for which the artefact has been shared? For instance, was it originally posted on a work-related platform? Dating site? Forum? News article? Social network? Was the communication appropriate for the platform in which it was originally posted?

Intent matters: We should be cognizant of the replicability of digital artefacts, but we should also be sure to consider intent. We should ask: Was the artefact originally shared privately or anonymously? Was the artefact intended for sharing in the first place? How did the artefact come to be shared widely? Was the artefact made public through illegal or unethical means?

History matters: In face to face settings we typically don’t unfriend somebody based on one off-colour remark; rather we judge character based on a lifetime of interactions. We should apply the same rules when assessing a digital footprint: Does the artefact appear to be a one time thing, or is it part of a longer pattern of problematic content/behaviour? Has there been a sincere apology, and is there evidence that the person has learned from the incident? How would we react to the incident in person? Would we forever shame the person or would we resolve the matter through dialogue?

Authorship matters: Generations of children and teenagers have had the luxury of having their childhoods captured only by the occasional photograph, and legal systems are generally set up to expunge most juvenile records. Even this Teenage Bill of Rights from 1945 includes the “right to make mistakes” and the “right to let childhood be forgotten.” We should ask: When was the artefact posted? Are we digging up posts that were made by a child or teenager, or is this a recent event? What level of maturity and professionalism should we have expected from the author at the time of posting?

Empathy matters: Finally, we should remember to exercise empathy and understanding when dealing with digital missteps. We should ask: Does our reaction to the artefact pass the hypocrite test? Have we made similar or equally serious mistakes ourselves but been lucky enough to have them vanish into the (offline) ether? How would we wish our sons, daughters, relatives, or friends to be treated if they made the same mistake? Are the potential consequences of our (collective) reaction reasonable given the size and scope of the incident?

This type of critical examination of online artefacts, taking into consideration intent, context, and circumstance, should certainly be taught and practiced in schools, but it should also be a foundational element of active, critical citizenship as we choose candidates, hire employees, and enter into relationships. As digital worlds signal an end to forgetting, we must decide as a society how we will grapple with digital identities that are formed throughout the lifelong process of maturation and becoming. If we can no longer simply “forgive and forget,” how might we collectively develop a greater sense of digital empathy and understanding?
So what do you think? What key questions might you add to our list? What challenges might this emerging framework provide for digital citizenship in schools and in our greater society? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Against willful ignorance: Why we should not be shocked by the “dire conditions” in urban schools

On Facebook this morning, I came across an article titled “Maryland Senator demanding answers after dire conditions found inside city school.” I had to check it twice, because I first thought it was an Onion article. Dire conditions? Baltimore Schools? Yeah, no kidding. You don’t say.

Ratholes along the wall of a portable...way back in 2007.

Ratholes along the wall of a portable…way back in 2007.

Conditions in Baltimore City schools are deplorable. The majority of the schools have similar “dire conditions.” I taught in both West and East Baltimore, in an elementary/middle school and in a high school. I could tell you stories for days about the dire conditions I witnessed. I’ve blogged about it, I’ve talked about it with the pre-service educators that I teach, I’ve tweeted about it … But that’s not the point here.

What angers me is not this story itself, which tells some truth. What angers me is that Bill Ferguson, the Maryland state senator who is “demanding answers,” is a Teach for America alum. A quick Google search reveals that he taught at the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy from 2005-2007. Vivien T. Thomas is located in the Francis M. Woods building, which received a rating of “poor” in the 2012 Jacobs facilities report. That school belongs to the Baltimore City Public School System, a school system with conditions that the ACLU declared to be unconstitutional in 2010. The conditions in these schools are not news to Senator Ferguson, and they are not news to anyone who has set foot in a Baltimore City school.

The floor was peeling up, and I didn't want kids to trip. I made my own repairs  rather than waiting the weeks or months for an official solution.

The metal dividing strip had come loose, and I didn’t want kids to trip or cut themselves on the sharp metal edges. I made my own repairs rather than waiting the weeks or months for an official solution.

I have no doubt that Senator Ferguson’s intentions are good. The school conditions are dire, and the community, the state, the country, and those of us who taught there should be demanding answers.

But the real story here isn’t about the conditions in Baltimore City schools. The real story is about the entrenched culture of denial surrounding the school conditions for Black children. It is about the willful ignorance surrounding the issue – until it can be leveraged politically. And it is about the refusal to acknowledge the bigger picture of systemic racism that has led to these dire conditions.

So let’s talk about that bigger picture. Let’s acknowledge that the unconscionable conditions in city schools are not isolated incidents, finally noticed by a state senator and only realized in July of this summer, but are instead part of the much bigger issues of the underfunding of American public schools and the school to prison pipeline. Let’s stop pretending to be shocked by stories of dead Baltimore City youth. Let’s acknowledge the police brutality and other systemic violence that people of colour have come to see as commonplace, the need for hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, and the senseless killing of countless people of colour that occurs every day.

And let’s confront this bigger picture, instead of just replacing some windows and repainting some walls.

 

Developing a framework for teaching open courses

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

Recently, we presented at OER15 in Cardiff, Wales, on the topic of developing a framework for open courses. In our session, we considered our experiences in facilitating MOOC type courses in order to think through and address the challenges that these types of courses present.

So first, a little background: It has been stated that there are two general categories of MOOCs: xMOOCs and cMOOCs. xMOOCs are large-scale MOOCs that often consist of video-delivered content and automated assessments. These MOOCs are often offered by institutions or by large-scale MOOC providers like edX and Coursera. cMOOCs, or Connectivist MOOCs, are network-based: they operate through a distributed pedagogy model, where the connections become as important as the content, knowledge is socially constructed by the group, and participants learn from each other. In many ways, these courses can be similar to learning on the open web: there is minimal guidance in terms of what is learned and when, and participants are instead free to engage with the course in whatever way they choose. Open boundary courses, meanwhile, are for-credit courses (such as those offered by a post-secondary institution) that are opened to the public on a non-credit basis. For instance, the ds106 Digital Storytelling course, originally based out of the University of Mary Washington, is also offered as an open boundary course. If you were to imagine the spectrum of openness in courses, it might look something like this:

Open Boundary Courses

For the purposes of this post, we take the term “open course” to include both open boundary courses and MOOCs (particularly cMOOCs).

Much of our insight into open courses comes from our work with three large, open courses: EC&I 831 (Social Media and Open Education), #ETMOOC, and #DCMOOC. The latter two courses were both cMOOCs; #ETMOOC (a MOOC about educational technology) ran in the winter of 2013, and #DCMOOC (a MOOC about digital citizenship sponsored by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education) ran in the spring of 2014. EC&I 831, meanwhile, is a graduate level class at the University of Regina that was developed and then taught for the first time in 2007 and has run every year since. While the course has a core group of for-credit graduate students, it is also open to anyone – classes are held online and the link to the web-conferencing platform is tweeted out each week, so that anyone is free to join any given session. EC&I 831 is not a MOOC; instead, it is considered an open-boundary course, and it’s generally seen as one of the forerunners for the MOOC movement.

One of the common features of MOOCs is the high drop-out rate, which occurs for a variety of reasons. The drop-out rate is not in itself necessarily a negative: it may mean that students have the freedom to try out different courses (or other educational experiences) until they find one that fits their needs, or it may mean that students are choosing to audit only particular portions of courses rather than completing them in their entirety. However, some students drop out or engage very minimally with open courses not due to lack of interest or fit with their own needs but because the format and ethos of cMOOCs can be difficult to navigate for those who have not spent much time learning on the open web. However, with EC&I831, #ETMOOC, and #DCMOOC, we have seen a significant level of engagement, persistence, and follow-through with the courses. Perhaps more importantly, many of the participants have stayed engaged with the course community and gone on to become leaders in their own networks; for instance, former participants in #ETMOOC organized their own 2nd year anniversary chat. So the question is, how do we take the strategies that led to positive and lasting outcomes in these courses and apply them to other large, open courses in order to help make participants’ experiences more positive, relevant, and beneficial in the long term?

Below, we identify seven elements of course design that we have used in our own open courses. Then, we suggest possible strategies for building a framework for open courses that might lead to more positive student involvement, in the hopes that these favourable experiences will lead students to continue learning and connecting in open, networked spaces.

  1. Semi-structured course environment

The challenge: The incredible choice of online spaces and tools can be overwhelming to those just starting to learn on the open web.

The strategy: In the open courses that we have facilitated, we help students to gradually ease into the greater digital world through the creation of a variety of interconnected course environments with varying levels of privacy. This can help to gradually “thin the walls” of the more traditional closed classroom environment:

Thinning the Walls

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown write: “The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is a massive information network that provides almost unlimited and resources to learn about anything. The second is a bounded and structured environment that allows unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries.” Keeping this in mind, we design the course environment as a bounded space for learning how to learn that exists within the larger space of the open web; we do this through a combination of different tools (small tools, loosely joined). While our use of specific tools has evolved and changed over time, what is important is the way in which the chosen tools work together in combination to ensure a particular set of affordances. In the current iteration, for instance, we allow for private interactions in a “safe” space by creating a Google Plus community for each of our courses, where students can pose questions, engage in discussion, and share resources. As well, we encourage students to develop their own spaces on the web, but we also employ mechanisms to keep these spaces interconnected in order to create a structure of support. For instance, students create their own personal blogs or ePortfolios, but these sites are aggregated using the FeedWordPress plugin so that posts also appear on a central course hub. Additionally, students develop individual Twitter accounts but remain connected through the creation of a Twitter list and the use of a course hashtag (for instance, #eci831). In this way, students are eased into the open web, but at the end of the course they are left with their own individually controlled spaces, which they can continue to use and expand or, alternatively, choose to delete entirely. The ability for students to continue to grow the networks that they have begun to build in class is markedly different from what happens with a traditional Learning/Content Management System (LMS/CMS), where the course is archived at the end of the semester and students start back at zero.

PLN vs. CMS

  1. Interest-based curriculum

The challenge: The overwhelming array of information available online can make it difficult to find a place to begin or a path to take.

The strategy: Martin Weller describes the wealth of knowledge online as a potential “pedagogy of abundance.” For learners who are more used to a structured curriculum, this can make getting started a challenge. However, learning is most meaningful when it is interest-based. So, in our courses, we want to avoid setting a strict scope and sequence type curriculum; instead, we encourage students to let their interests become the catalyst for learning. One particularly successful strategy has been the inclusion of student learning projects in our courses, where students are expected to learn a skill of their choice using online resources and then document the learning process. This allows students to choose a high interest topic, but it also ensures that all students are documenting their learning in a similar manner, which can provide a social glue as students discuss the methods and tools use for documentation (which is a digital literacy skill in itself). As well, weekly synchronous video conferencing sessions and weekly Twitter chats can keep students from feeling lost or disconnected.

  1. Assessment as learning/connection

The challenge: A lack of check-ins/endpoints in online learning can make the learning process seem nebulous.

The strategy: Traditional for-credit courses include assignments that allow students to demonstrate their learning; for instance, in EC&I 831, students create summaries of learning that let them to express their learning using the tools of the open web. These summaries also allow students to practice designing and sharing media in the collapsed context of our networked world, often leading to serendipitous feedback from others outside of the course. Although MOOC-type open courses do not have the same sort of endpoint (as the hope is that learning will continue beyond the course), implementing a similar type of checkpoint – a summary-type assessment that allows students to put tools and theory into practice – can be helpful to allow students to consolidate their learning as well as to connect further through sharing and participating in their newly build networks.

  1. Instructor support

The challenge: The large student-instructor ratio in large open courses can lead to students feeling lost and unsupported as they explore new forms of media.

The strategy: We’ve found that in large courses, it is helpful to have a variety of orientation sessions (for instance, a session on blogging or on using Twitter) in order to help students gain a level of comfort with course tools. This is especially important because students come to courses with an increasingly wide range of digital literacies and technological competencies; while students will work towards attaining a level of digital fluency throughout the course, these introductory sessions give students the basic skills they need in order to access the learning experience of the course.

As well, although we design courses to encourage a high level of peer feedback (or even feedback from others not officially participating in the course), it is important to ensure that all students are getting regular feedback and suggestions for improvement so that they are able to continue to grow; thus, it is helpful to ensure that the facilitation team include members who act as “community developers,” individuals who can comment on student blogs, interact with participants on Twitter and Google Plus, and address any questions that arise; in #ETMOOC, for instance, having a group of co-conspirators meant that the work of community development and course leadership did not fall on a single individual.

  1. Student community

The challenge: Newcomers to online networks can often feel isolated and alone.

The strategy: In a graduate course like EC&I 831, there is a core group of for-credit students with similar aims, and this creates an immediate, built-in Personal Learning Network (PLN). But in larger MOOCs, this core group doesn’t exist, and so facilitators need to work to build a student community through group-building activities. For instance, in #ETMOOC, facilitators organized and created a lipdub video in which course participants could take part. In another recent course, students started a Fitbit group, which allowed course participants to bond over a shared activity. Activities that help to create a sense of presence in the course (such as asking participants to write an introductory blog post or having students create short videos of themselves using a tool like Flipgrid) can help to build a sense of community. Importantly, such community-building activities also help students to build their own PLNs while adding an increased level of personal accountability that can encourage participants to continue with the course.

  1. Digital identity creation

The challenge: Missteps and mistakes can be amplified in digital spaces, where footprints are permanent and easily searchable.

The strategy: In a world where online reputation is becoming increasingly important, it is critical that we take control of our digital presence so that others don’t do so for us. As well, in order to participate more fully in MOOCs in particular and in a PLN in general, it’s important to declare oneself; what we get from our networks depends largely upon what we contribute to them, and it’s difficult to contribute without a digital presence. That might mean creating a blog, developing a Twitter presence, or engaging on other social networking sites. Supporting the development of students’ digital identities as part of open courses will not only help them to network as part of the course, but it will also serve them well in the long term.

  1. Democratizing the web

The challenge: Those new to digital spaces can be hesitant to voice their beliefs publicly due to the nature of digital artefacts, which can easily be shared, remixed, and taken out of context.

The strategy: As digital citizens, we have a responsibility to keep the web democratic and allow for equitable expression, but it can be difficult for non-dominant views to be voiced online due to fear of criticism or other negative repercussions. However, silence can often be taken as complicity, so we need to support students in open courses as they delve into potentially controversial topics, by fostering a community in which students feel more confident expressing viewpoints with the support of a group, and by using our own digital identities to model what it looks like to speak out for social justice issues online.

Although the nature of MOOCs and open courses can present difficulties for those who are new to learning on the open web, these strategies can help to give participants a foothold in the online world, which can, in turn, increase their chances for a meaningful experience that paves the way for a lifetime of learning.

In online spaces, silence speaks as loudly as words

Last week, as I taught my final #ECMP355 class for the semester, the topic of discussion came back to social justice (as it often seems to in my class, a tendency for which I am not at all apologetic). Because I work with pre-service teachers, we often discuss concerns around online identity; many of my students are worried about maintaining a “neutral” online persona because they fear that being controversial will make them unhireable in the future or could come back on them negatively in some other way.

Silence.001

Here’s my take on this, and what I said to my students: Silence speaks just as loudly as words. If we are online, as educators, and we remain silent about issues of social justice, if we tweet only about educational resources and not about the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in Canada, or about the burning of Black churches in the southern United States, we are sending a clear message: These issues are not important.  

Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege.

When I said this to my class, one of my generally quieter students commented in the chat, “This conversation makes me happy. Because I contemplate this EVERY DAY.” Such a simple comment, but one that I have been thinking about ever since. Technology in education is about so much more than gadgets and tools or about the latest backchannel app. Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege. We preach the virtues of universal access to knowledge, but who really gets to be involved in edtech? Those with access to technology and good quality Internet, those who have the educational background to comprehend the material, those with the time to devote to studying. That I am able to sit down and write this post, that I have the time to tweet, that I have access to the tools that make these things possible: these are markers of privilege.

So here’s my argument: I have a responsibility to use my privilege to speak out and use my network for more than just my own benefit or self-promotion; not doing so is a selfish act. Being a good digital citizen is about so much more than being safe and responsible online. It’s about participating in meaningful ways to promote equity in networked spaces. This is especially true for those with significant online audiences: we cannot let silence speak for us, and we can no longer cling to cliches or educational buzzwords as safe topics of conversation.

As I was finishing up this post, I saw this tweet from Alec Couros:

For me, the answer is simple:

We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to social inequities and injustices. We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to those who have no privilege to risk.

Edtech…for social justice?

I spent some time yesterday reading about and then discussing the Rachel Dolezal situation. Amidst the “Can you be transracial?” argument (which I think is nicely addressed here), another question arose – is it possible to black people to “pass” as white in the same way that Ms. Dolezal “passed” as black – which led to a lengthy and rich discussion of race, dominant narratives, and identity.

 And this led me to think about the amazing possibilities offered by the Internet and by social media for rich thinking that is informed by a constellation of viewpoints from across the globe. At a barbeque the other day, we were discussing Chatroulette, which not everyone present had heard of. When one friend commented that he had learned something new about the Internet that day, another recalled the Samuel Johnson quote, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Replace the word London with the word Internet (well, and replace man with human), and you have some sort of metaphor for the ethos of our time. The Internet is constantly offering something new and different, and there is tremendous potential in that.

This obviously isn’t to say that rich thought sprang up as result of the web. But our ability to connect with others and to be exposed to conversations that might once not have reached our social circles has been exponentially amplified. Because of Twitter, the world has been able to follow the complex conversations going on about Rachel Dolezal. Earlier that week, the world got to laugh at the #distractinglysexy hashtag (including my personal favourite below) while also taking a closer look at sexism and stereotyping in the sciences.

And the connectedness that comes with the Internet also offers incredible possibilities for addressing issues of equity and social justice. Social media can make uncomfortable knowledge more accessible to the mainstream; it allows for things like articles about colourblind discourses or cartoons about white privilege to provide more accessible explanations of social justice issues and to circulate among wider audiences. The availability of streaming apps like Periscope and the ubiquity of phone cameras leads to increased accountability and awareness of issues that were once ignored by mainstream media (like the recent police violence recorded in McKinney, Texas). 

So now we need to work on extending this to the classroom as well. Just the other day, my colleague Alec Couros tweeted this call for edtech to promote social causes:

There is lots that we can be doing. To start, you can take a look at this list of resources related to technology, social justice, and storytelling – and if you have something to add, leave a comment. But we can also reimagine the very idea of technology in education: Audrey Watters’ recent post on the idea of “edtech” (ed-tech? EdTech?) is a reminder of the wide range of meaning that has been/can be associated with the term. So let’s take the loose meaning of edtech and work to associate it with justice and equity. Let’s reimagine edtech models to include the new goal of technology integration: Equitable participation with the aim of social justice.

SAMR mod.001

A thousand tiny deaths: My mother, terminal illness, and remembrance in the midst of forgetting

This post originally appeared on my Medium blog in August 2014. 

A few months ago, I went on a cruise with my parents. One day, my mother and I were sitting on deck enjoying the sunshine. My mother began to talk about my grandfather, noting that she thought he might like the cruise, but that she thought he was too old to travel that far from home. I agreed with her, saying that 93 seemed a bit old to be flying across the country. Oh, she said, you know him? I replied in the affirmative: Of course, he’s my grandfather. Well, she said, you and I must be related then. Yes, I answered. I’m your daughter.

This summer, these moments of complete forgetting have gotten worse. Who are you, she asks me, or worse yet, Who am I? There is so much sadness and anxiety in her voice as she asks these questions. It is heartbreaking.

My mother has a progressive brain disease. Sometimes referred to as the visual variant of Alzheimer’s, PCA (Posterior Cortical Atrophy) begins in the visual cortex and then gradually spreads until the patient essentially has the symptoms of dementia. The disease is extremely rare, but it has gathered some attention since author Terry Pratchett publicly discussed his own battle with it.

My mother and father in 2007, in the early stages of her illness.

In my mother’s case, in about 2004 we began noticing that she was having difficulty with tasks like reading and driving (although my sister and I have often wondered if it began long before that and manifested itself in behaviours such as a vehement dislike for driving and general discomfort with any type of travel). A professor, she began to have difficulty recognizing students’ faces. It took years for doctors to finally provide a diagnosis, after ruling out all manner of other causes. Now, ten years later (which, according to some research, is about the average life expectancy from the time of the onset of symptoms, although the doctor who made the diagnosis said that some people live twenty years or more with the illness), my mother is completely blind. The disease has begun to eat away at other parts of her brain as well, affecting her memory, language ability, and spatial sense. There are holes in her brain that can never be repaired.

Because she is both blind and suffering from Alzheimer’s symptoms, there is very little she can “do”; she becomes aggravated by the noise of the TV or radio, conversations are confusing because she does not know who is speaking, and she cannot knit or do crafts like many others who suffer strictly from Alzheimer’s. Even her beloved piano playing now frustrates her after a few minutes. In a sense, of course, these dual ailments are a blessing, as she is unable to turn on the stove or to wander out of the house alone.

With my mother, Summer 2012

The funny thing about this particular disease is that it is so variable and symptoms are so mixed. On some days, my mother can converse with me about my graduate program; on others she has no idea who I am. She often becomes confused or fixated on a particular idea, and then she will repeat it over and over again (‘How are my cats doing?’) until I want to shake her. But I can’t shake her, because she’s my mother and I love her.

At this point, her illness is usually apparent to those around us. In some sense, this is a relief — I no longer feel a need to explain what is going on when she raises her voice inappropriately in public places, when she struggles to get out of a car or taxi, or when she misses her mouth completely as she attempts to eat or drink. In another sense, it is maddening to see the stares that people give her. She’s not a spectacle to be gawked at; she is a human being.

Growing up, my mother was the strongest, proudest woman I had ever met. She was fierce and incredibly intelligent. She landed a tenured position at a university after completing her masters and PhD in only four years, and this at a time when few women were admitted into the world of academia. She served for many years as a department head, and I can only assume that she was a formidable boss. She was not soft around the edges in the way that I sometimes imagined mothers to be, but she was an incredible role model for the strong, smart woman that I hoped one day to become. And this, in a way, makes her illness all the more tragic. Watching this proud woman now unable to feed or dress herself seems unspeakably unjust. It seems unbelievably unfair that a woman who worked so hard her entire life is now unable to truly enjoy retirement. Soon, she will no longer be able to travel at all, which will make things even more difficult for my father, who has an insatiable thirst for exploring.

On vacation in Cartagena, Colombia, Spring 2013

And the grieving process when dealing with a loved-one with dementia is unique unto itself. Instead of a single, tragic event, for which one is often not prepared, I grieve for the thousand tiny deaths of the parts of my mother that will never return, and I am constantly both prepared and unprepared to see them. I remember trying on wedding dresses with my mother. Even five years ago, she couldn’t really see the dresses, so she felt them instead; but although that moment seemed awful at the time, she had only just started losing other abilities. It’s always like that: each time I visit, I think, this is the worst — it can never get any more horrible than this. And I grieve for that new depth of sadness, for the new lists of ways that I am losing her. And then a month, two months later I am back, and it is worse, and again I grieve, and again I think it is the most that I can take. With each thing she can no longer do (dress herself, answer the phone, eat without assistance, climb the stairs alone, remember her address), the grieving process repeats itself, excruciatingly, painfully, like rubbing fresh salt into a partly closed wound. There is something to be said for ripping the bandaid off all at once. The human mind’s ability to perpetually acknowledge and allow greater degrees of sadness is mindblowing at times.

And at the same time, I think: I am lucky, we are all lucky to have those moments of clarity that emerge from time to time, when it is easy to remember my mother as she once was. And in this sense, the gradual progression of the disease is so much better because it allows these tiny moments of respite and relief, times for laughter and happiness amidst the overarching narrative of sadness.

For now, I am left with a collection of bizarre, heartbreakingly beautiful and confusing moments: listening to my mother talk about her beautiful daughter, of whom she is so proud, not knowing that she is in fact talking to me; holding my mother’s hand as we take walks and I describe for her the sights, smells, and sounds around us; lying next to her in bed as, half-conscious, she imparts inexplicable advice and wisdom: ‘Never enter into binding agreements,’ or, more tragically, the declaration that ‘There will be no more cherry trees.’ Wise words, indeed.

My mother, Summer 2014, enjoying the sunshine in a moment of serenity.

Still waiting for Superman: White saviors and systemic racism in Baltimore City Schools

This post was jointly written with Maggie Elwell and also appears on Maggie’s blog.

“No nation can enslave a race of people for hundreds of years, set them free bedraggled and penniless, pit them, without assistance in a hostile environment, against privileged victimizers, and then reasonably expect the gap between the heirs of the two groups to narrow. Lines, begun parallel and left alone, can never touch.”

– Randall Robinson

“If she was a racist, would she be teaching our kids?” As if that were the most obvious thing in the world.

Maggie: A student’s mother called the school office with the accusation that I was racist. My only thought was, This is insane! Everybody who knew me would’ve defended me. Racists hate, and I didn’t hate anyone; racists use the n-word, and I would never; racists are killers, and I was a teacher. The mother, the principal, the student, and I met in my classroom. After the mother spoke about my behavior towards her son, the principal asked, “If she was a racist, would she be teaching our kids?” As if that were the most obvious thing in the world. 

Katia: I applied to Teach for America in my last year of university. I made it to the second round, a phone interview: a TFA alum drilled me on my beliefs about education and the achievement gap. And then she asked what I would do if, even after meeting with parents and creating student contracts and doing home visits, I had a student who still did not show up regularly at school. I said I’d do what I could, but in some cases even my best efforts might not be enough to get the student back on track. Silence. I knew, at that moment, that I wouldn’t get into the program, although at that point I didn’t know why.

Maggie: At least three courses I took to get a Masters degree in teaching required viewing and writing reflections about Freedom Writers, a film in which a pearl-wearing, pony-tailed Hilary Swank succeeds in changing the lives of her underprivileged, tattooed, angry but lovable students through her dedication to their education. None of my professors promoted this film as anything other than inspirational; no deconstruction of the movie took place. On the third or fourth viewing, after some extracurricular reading and conversation, I asked one of my professors about the problems of perpetuating the white savior myth, and she responded that I should reconsider my educational approach in more uplifting terms.

Katia: I spent two years in a Masters program designed specifically for teachers working in Baltimore City Schools. Two years. And I didn’t hear the term “systemic racism” once. I wasn’t given the works of Joe Kincheloe, or Gloria Ladson-Billings, or Paulo Freire to read. Lisa Delpit was mentioned once in passing, and at some point we were told to read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities so that (I can only assume) we could be shocked and outraged by the horrible treatment of black children in American public schools – as if we weren’t witnesses to this story every single day. We didn’t even have drinking water some of the time, because the pipes were lead, and the water coolers were only sometimes filled. But systemic racism? Unheard of.

Maggie: I tried hard to believe the white savior myth, before I knew enough to call it that. Even while I recognized that I wasn’t going to be a teacher who never resented the amount of time and mental energy it took, I did think that I should. But I wasn’t close to being a decent educator until I allowed doubt and questions to mess up that kind of thinking. The idea that everything would be fine as long as you worked hard fell away; a lot of my students were not fine, and neither I nor “hard work” could help them. That I had a racial and gendered identity that impacted my approach to the classroom, and that in fact that identity made me part of the problems I wanted to solve, became known to me. Thoughts of myself as removed from or above the city’s situation left me as a result.

We believed, we were taught to believe, that we could make a difference.

Katia: On the last day of our summer training, we presented inspirational skits. One group performed Taylor Mali’s spoken word piece. That was how we felt – like real teachers, like people who could do the things that Mali did, save and inspire our students like Mali had. But who were we, at the age of 22, to walk into classrooms that September with six weeks of training and some experience in a summer school classroom under our belts? We believed, we were taught to believe, that we could make a difference. The motto of the program at that time was: “The need is real. The time is now. Teach.” I still have the t-shirt with those words on the front; the back is signed by the members of our cohort.

* * * * *

Last week, we received an email from the Baltimore-based alternative certification program through which we’d both earned our teaching certificates. We hadn’t received a single email from the program since we finished our coursework six years ago (not to mention the fact that they rarely contacted us while we were in the program), but when the Freddie Gray protests turned violent and began to garner media attention, the head of the program sent a message to all alumni.

Taken at face value, the email called for teachers to give students the space to voice their concerns about the protests and about the injustice in their communities. In fact, many people would call the email well-intentioned. But there’s a forgiveness in that word that is part of the problem – it is easy to excuse small acts that serve to perpetuate systemic racism, because this allows us to distance ourselves: “They didn’t mean it in a bad way,” “they’re not bad people.”  But the language of the email tells a more complex story.

That conversations about race and inequity and injustice do not occur on a daily basis, and are not encouraged to occur on a daily basis, is at the root of the problem.

We were told, “These are conversations you may never have expected.” Seriously? Yes, seriously: further evidence of the lack of critical engagement with racism and economic injustice that plagued our certification program and our own thinking as young white educators. In a school system like Baltimore’s, systemic racism is writ large on the broken furnaces and cockroach-infested rooms and leaking ceilings of the school buildings, where student data is posted in the hallways and pep rallies are held to build excitement for upcoming standardized tests: the American Civil Liberties Union actually declared the poor condition of school buildings in Baltimore to be unconstitutional. That conversations about race and inequity and injustice do not occur on a daily basis, and are not encouraged to occur on a daily basis, is at the root of the problem.

And we were told to help students to “use nonviolence to demand justice in their community.” It was hard to ignore the underlying message: “It’s fine for your students to be angry, but please make sure they express their anger in the ‘appropriate way.’” To be clear, we are not in support of violence, but there are many articles circulating at the moment that present a more nuanced perspective on the call for peaceful protest (see, for instance, this comic, this video, and this article).

And then the kicker. Attached to the email were resources to help us with these difficult conversations: resources for how to talk about Ferguson. Ferguson? Now? The events of months ago? Should we not have been talking about Ferguson when it was happening? Why were we being sent these resources only now, when the situation had hit too close to home, when our schools had been directly impacted? Why were we only asked to have these uncomfortable conversations when it was no longer possible to avoid them?

Underlying the email and our reflections is the prevailing story of racism, the one that says that we should not normally talk about race, that we should be colourblind, that the idea of meritocracy works for everyone, that the answer to injustice is to protest according to the rules of those in power. And there is the story that pits the good (white) teacher and her students against the world, or the story that teachers should be superheroes like Taylor Mali, teachers whose dedication to the “underprivileged” youth of America knows no bounds. These stories insist that the most important factor in a child’s success is the teacher. But these stories are red herrings: they allow us to pretend that systemic racism does not exist by pinning the responsibility for the “achievement gap” (in itself a problematic term) on the shoulders of the individual teachers and their students. Yes, teachers can play an important role in the lives of their students. But putting all hope on individuals means that we, as a society, do not have to face up to the systemic inequality in our educational system and our society.

We need to accept that racism is pervasive in society and see our own complicity in the structures of privilege and marginalization. We do not need to accept “well-intentioned” oppressive language and actions, or to excuse acts of racism based on a person’s “good character.” We need to discuss these issues long before they explode in the media and become impossible to ignore. We need to speak out alongside, and not for, those whose voices our privilege often seeks to suppress.

And we need to do so now.

Developing Teacher Candidates in a Networked World

This post, co-authored with Alec Couros, originally appeared on the Canadian Education Association Blog.

Recently, pre-service teachers in two of our classes at the Faculty of Education,University Regina, participated in #saskedchat, a weekly Twitter chat hosted by and for Saskatchewan educators. Although the chat typically runs on Thursday nights, organizers scheduled a “special edition” of the chat on the topic of supporting new teachers. Almost instantly, our students were immersed in a global discussion about education – and what’s more, they were instantly connected to a large network of practicing teachers who were able to provide them with advice and tips for success. But while the Twitter chat was an enriching experience for our students, participation in events like these is only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to preparing new teachers to learn and flourish in a digital world.

As the field of education changes rapidly, it’s no longer enough for faculties of education to deliver static, technical courses on the methods of teaching. Instead, we need to help pre-service teachers develop the skills and understandings that will allow them to navigate and succeed in today’s global classrooms. And perhaps even more importantly, we need to help future teachers build the personal learning networks that will provide both the support system and continuous professional development opportunities needed to become and remain successful educators.

As instructors tasked to take on these challenges, we have focused on a number of key areas that support students’ successful entry into these new digital spaces. We’ve shared and described a few of these considerations below.

1. BUILD AN UNDERSTANDING OF OUR DIGITAL WORLD

Today’s young people are growing up in a media-rich and connected culture that is fundamentally different than it was even a decade ago. Thanks to the growing trend of posting ultrasound pictures and pregnancy selfies, astaggering 30% of children have a digital footprint before they are even born, and the average digital birth of children is at six months of age. Technology has altered every stage of life: it shapes the way we meet, how we communicate, our intimate relationships, the way we mourn, even our deaths.

If technology has shaped and altered every aspect of society, then learning is no different. Unfortunately, much of what we do in schools hasn’t changed to respond to these shifts in culture – many educators continue to teach the way they were taught and try to keep the digital world out of the classroom. But for today’s students, online and offline life is inseparable. Teachers need to understand the reality of students’ digital lives in order to make education relevant and engaging for today’s young people by bringing the digital into the classroom.

2. MODEL APPROPRIATE INTERACTIONS IN DIGITAL SPACES

If we want teachers to open their classrooms to the world, we need to model effective and appropriate uses of connected spaces: both new and experienced teachers should have opportunities to see how lead learners interact in networks for professional learning. For instructors working with pre-service teachers, this means demonstrating appropriate interactions in spaces such as Twitter (as in our introductory #saskedchat example) or modeling the curation of a professional digital identity through an About.Me page or an academic blog. In the field, principals can model appropriate digital presence through the creation and maintenance of a professional social media presence, like Chris Lehmann’s Twitter account or Tony Sinanis’ weekly video updates.

Even those in the upper levels of educational leadership should be modeling what it looks like to learn and lead online; for example, Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of West Vancouver School District, uses blogging to model transparency, open leadership, and lifelong learning.

Of course, in order to demonstrate high levels of connected learning, instructors (and other lead learners) must be able to leverage their own existing online networks. For example, in order to support our students and practicing teachers, we were able to tap into Alec’s considerable personal learning network to create a collaborative document of writing prompts for pre- and in-service educators. This means that lead learners must actively work to build their own networks so that they can be effective role models and collaborators.

3. DEMONSTRATE THE PEDAGOGICAL VALUE OF NETWORKS AND TOOLS

Just as instructors and other lead learners must demonstrate appropriate online interactions, they must also help new and experienced teachers understand the pedagogical value of networks and tools. In our classes, pre-service teachers research, create resource sites for, and present on various apps and programs, being sure to tie them into the curriculum (for instance, this site that discusses several apps to support language arts and this one that explores the use of iPads for inclusive education). These future teachers also have the chance to experience what it’s like to learn in a connected environment through our own use of various social media platforms and other tools in our post-secondary courses. For instance, we model the use of open learning and connected teaching throughcourse blog hubs and class Twitter hashtags, through the use of Google Plus communities and course sites for communication, and through the incorporation of Google Docs for professional collaboration.

Pre-service teachers must also be provided with rich exemplars from the field, showing practicing teachers’ innovative uses of technology to create connected classrooms that support 21st century learning. For instance, we introduce our students to the Global Read Aloud, Quadblogging, and Mystery Skype. We also discuss thepedagogical possibilities of Twitter and point to hashtags like #comments4kids (where teachers can post student blogs and ask for feedback from their online networks) or teacher-created resources that support the use of technology in the classroom (like this tweet about how to comment on blogs, shared by one of our graduate students).

4. DEVELOP PRE-SERVICE TEACHERS’ DIGITAL LITERACIES AND NETWORKED LITERACIES AND GUIDE THE DEVELOPMENT OF THEIR ONLINE IDENTITIES

Along with these examples of great digital pedagogy and online interaction, we need to prepare pre-service teachers to be great connected leaders themselves by helping them learn and create using different elements of digital literacies and pedagogies. In our classes, students explore what it means to take part in “anytime, anywhere” digital-age education by undertaking a Learning Project where they choose a skill to learn entirely online. They also create summaries of learning that highlight the skills and networked literacies they have learned throughout the semester. Additionally, since we want these new teachers to model appropriate online presence in their future classrooms, we ask our students to build professional e-portfolios in order to take control of their digital identities (some students even choose to buy their own domains) as they work to become digital residents rather than simply digital visitors.

5. UNPACK ISSUES OF POWER AND PRIVILEGE IN ONLINE SPACES

As we encourage pre-service and practicing teachers to bring the digital world into their classrooms, we must be sure to address oppression and inequity as they play out in online spaces. On a technical level, we need to help educators understand the legal aspects of terms of service agreements and the implications of big data when asking students to enter online worlds in their school work. Additionally, pre-service teachers are often hesitant to speak out about “touchy” subjects online, fearing that it might affect their future careers, but this type of silence on the part of educators creates a dangerous hidden curriculum that announces that these topics are unimportant. We need to have frank and open discussions about how gender or racial inequity can be both reinscribed and deconstructed online (for example, interrogating the GamerGate hashtag, discussing the events in Ferguson and the subsequent Black Twitter movements like #BlackLivesMatter, or examining the rise of #IdleNoMore). We also need to provide opportunities for students to reflect on these topics in digital spaces both through course assignments and by providing support for student initiatives (such as the StarsRegina site set up by pre-service teachers to create a hub for information about anti-oppressive education). And as lead learners, we need to model the importance of having these discussions out in the open.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done if we want to prepare both new and existing educators to teach in ways that take up the incredible affordances of our global community and digital spaces. But there are also so many inspiring examples of teachers, principals, and other lead learners doing great things online – we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s already being done around the world. What amazing things have you seen in your own learning community, and how are you helping the next generation of educators to be connected future leaders in our field?

Connect with Alec and Katia on Twitter to continue the conversation.

The 3 Minute Thesis

This weekend, I participated in the 3 Minute Thesis competition at the University of Regina. Although I didn’t win, the experience of putting together a three-minute version of my dissertation was a surprisingly helpful experience, because it forced me to really consolidate my thinking.

As part of the competition, we were allowed a single slide:

3MTslideHildebrandt

Below, you can find the text of my 3 minute speech, or check out the video (minus the very first line):

In higher education, more and more courses are taught entirely or partly online. But this can be problematic, because while online spaces can promote social justice, they can also perpetuate hate.

So take, for instance, a space like Twitter. Ugly, hateful hashtags are common, from #ThatsWhatSlutsSay to #NoMoreIslam.

On the other hand, when Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, the issue only made it onto the national news once it started trending on Twitter.

So the question is, how do we ensure that online spaces in courses work to disrupt oppressive ideas rather than reinforcing them?

I teach future teachers in the Faculty of Education. One required course deals with anti-oppressive curriculum, or teaching for social justice. As part of the course, students participate in two online spaces: an individual blog, where students reflect publicly on course content, and a course hashtag, where students discuss class topics on Twitter. However, students express a lot of discomfort around discussing the “controversial” course content online, so they construct “neutral,” digital identities, which do nothing to challenge oppressive ideas.

And this is troubling, because if our students are online and not talking about social justice issues, the message conveyed is that the issues aren’t important.

So my research explores how we might help students to recognize how they unintentionally contribute to oppressive narratives in order to shift their online behaviour. Seven students participated in a series of conversations about digital identity and anti-oppressive education, and we worked together to unpack the underlying perceptions of teaching that shaped their understandings of both.

Some key themes emerged:

First, students described what psychologists would call cognitive dissonance: that is, holding two opposing ideas that cannot be reconciled. In this case, students wanted to be social justice advocates, but they also wanted to live up to stories of the good teacher as neutral. In order to reconcile this dissonance, students had to downplay the importance of social justice. Students also believed that speaking out for social justice would make them unhireable, because they would be perceived as biased or politically radical.

But not everything was discouraging:

While students felt that, individually, they did not have the power to speak out about social justice online, several noted that they did feel able to do so as part of the collective class group – one student described it as a “community of discomfort” that added a layer of safety. Also, students noted that the act of performing the role of anti-oppressive educator online as part of course requirements allowed them to try on that self until it eventually became a part of their identity.

Ultimately, my research suggests that there are indeed structures and supports that educators might use to transform online spaces into places of equity and societal betterment.

“Being nice doesn’t cut it anymore:” Conversations with pre-service teachers

Last week, I finally finished my research interviews. Yay…I think?

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 5.55.37 PM

Qualitative research is a funny thing. After spending 4 or 5 hours with each of these students, I feel that I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. Over the past few months, I have been constantly overwhelmed by my research participants’ incredible insights and the amazing generosity they have shown with their time, meeting with me in the midst of their busy semesters. And now that it’s over, I feel a little lost and wish I could keep having these conversations (and I do have them, sometimes, but there’s something about that sacred time designated to nothing but the interviews).

Now that I’ve finished my interviews, I’ve started listening to the recordings, making notes, and going over the writing I did throughout the process. And I have just one word: “Data.” Here’s some of what I’ve thought about based on just a few of the first round of interviews.

This first round of conversations was geared towards developing biographical profiles of my participants, but already I am overwhelmed by the richness of the data that I have gathered. Because my research is about the ways that anti-oppressive education intersects with digital identity and digital spaces, these conversations delved into what Kevin Kumashiro terms “troubling knowledge” in his book Against Common Sense. We explored students’ childhoods, experiences with racism, feelings about the social justice-oriented curriculum in our Faculty of Education, and thoughts about teaching as a profession.

As I got to know each of the students better, their descriptions of their formative years were punctuated by moments of tension, discomfort, and realization. One student, describing her rural-Saskatchewan upbringing, told about how her mother would tell her and her siblings to go into a back bedroom and lock the door because an aboriginal person was at the door. Another thanked me for the difficult questions, noting that she had never thought about her earliest experiences of racism. A third student, attempting to describe what she felt she needed to be a successful teacher, went through a series of answers, each time unpacking and revising her responses as she questioned how her thinking might be oppressive or problematic, and finally settling on the idea that there was no perfect answer and that searching for one was a product of her own conditioning.

To be a good teacher, “being nice doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Several things became clear in just these initial conversations. First, I was struck by the degree to which these students have embraced and committed to the idea of anti-oppressive education. One student noted that she has learned, in the past 2 years, that to be a good teacher, “being nice doesn’t cut it anymore.” Even when students’ initial reactions to a question were clearly influenced by dominant narratives of race, the students were able to identify these patterns in their own thinking when I pressed for clarification. For instance, one student, when asked whether she still saw racism in the program, immediately drew on the discourse of reverse-racism/sexism and noted that Aboriginal students and men were more likely to be accepted into the faculty; however, when I asked her a follow up question on this, she began to unpack her motivations for saying this. Clearly, we are doing something right in this program. Of course, I need to keep in mind the type of student who is actually willing to volunteer for research about anti-oppressive education, and I need to consider the degree to which my participants (many of whom are self-described teacher-pleasers) are taking up the role of good student and giving the “correct” answer.

I also noticed the significant amount of tension around teaching anti-oppressively and fears around job-loss or negative repercussions due to creating too much of a stir. Much of this stems, I believe, from what Deborah Britzman would describe as the common-sense discourse of the “good teacher” as neutral and objective – this ingrained understanding bumps up violently against public displays of advocacy for social justice ideals. This is the very same tension that inspired this research in the first place, and it is one that I struggle with myself each time I post to my Twitter account or write on my blog. Just writing this post is uncomfortable for me – it makes me vulnerable and opens me to attack or criticism. But I am reminded of a conversation about blogging on controversial topics that I had – on Twitter – with Alec Couros, a professor of educational technology and media and one of my committee members. After encountering some resistance from my students about posting online, I put the question out to my PLN: Why should pre-service teachers be blogging? Many answers flowed in, and at some point the discussion turned to what content should be made public and what should be kept private:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 5.45.04 PM

Alec’s last tweet sums it up nicely, I think. What is considered controversial is always relative to the position of the individual – a person’s power and privilege determines the degree to which s/he can speak out against dominant narratives without negative fallout. 

What we do not say speaks just as loudly as what we do

When I struggle to post online, I need to be mindful of my own privilege, which is perhaps limited in academia but is quite significant relative to that of many other people. For students, however, I wonder how the balance of power and vulnerability plays out with respect to anti-oppressive education, and I expect that this tension will increase and shift as we move into discussions of enacting social justice in open, online spaces.

And amidst all these other realizations, I found that after only one round of interviews, I have already had to think a great deal about the tension between what is public vs. publicized when it comes Twitter and other social media. These is certainly a precedent for PhD bloggers and for discussions of research on social media sites, but I still need to be cautious in respecting the rights of my participants by ensuring that I’ve shared my writing with them and that their own online writing cannot be traced back to them (unless they’ve opted not to be anonymous), while at the same time trying to enact my belief in the need to ensure that social justice does not go ignored in online spaces – for what we do not say speaks just as loudly as what we do.