I have enrolled in a very short MOOC which focuses on Engagement in a time of Polarization. The reason I enrolled in this learning opportunity is because my research is exploring a type of participatory learning – personal learning networks. The question posed by Prof. Natalie Delia Deckard, of Davidson College, the institution hosting this MOOC is particularly provocative for me:
“Productive, participatory engagement builds communities and builds networks that support real interaction and change. When meeting face-to-face is no longer necessary, what does engagement look like in a democratic society?”
The definitions of engagement, polarization, social media activity and participation are slippery, and were discussed during the first of the live chats today. There are real issues being tussled with during this chat, as the participants talk about how we can open opportunities for groups and individuals who currently are without a voice, or who do not have a ‘seat at the table’ and are therefore unable to engage. For me, with my background in education and libraries, my interests lie in making sure that those who want to learn are able to get a seat at a ‘learning’ table. But it’s not just taking a seat. It’s feeling confident and competent and comfortable enough to join in with the conversation that is happening at that table. And knowing, when the talking stops, and the faces turn expectedly, how to share one’s opinion in a way that makes it able to be heard.
Social media and digital networks have given a voice to many who would have never otherwise have been heard; and this has revealed both the best and the worst of humanity. So many opinions shared, so many emotions vented, so many comments made. We have exposure for the first time to the thoughts and feelings of individuals whom we would never have encountered in pre-digital times, and this creates new challenges, both postive and negative.
In many ways, my fascination with social media and digital networks stems from the fact that it has given me a voice at a table I never thought I would be able to sit at. Although I am in my final year of my PhD, and have interacted online for a long time, it still blows me away every time I interact with and learn from others who live all over the world. I am still thrilled when someone likes or retweets my comments on Twitter, when someone shares or comments on my blog posts – the fact that I am able to express my thoughts and gain feedback from so many others with a rich diversity of perspectives excites me – what potential for learning!
The cacophony of voices created by social media means that I have chosen to exist within a filtered bubble. Hopefully not a bubble that precludes opinions I disagree with, or that creates an echo-chamber of my own thoughts – but instead a bubble that protects me from those who do not want to use the affordances of social media for the creation of knowledge and the promotion of democratic expression. I do not want to give digital ‘oxygen’ to feed those who would shut down free thought, who revel in negativity and ignorance. I constantly work to create a network where the spirit of collaboration, open learning and sharing and generosity of spirit exists. I am continually learning how to refine my filters, and I try to teach others how to create their own positive networks for learning and connectedness. Strategies for evaluating content for credibility, understanding how algorithms and not importance determine the organisation of information and how to create, develop and maintain connections online – all important digital literacies that I teach about and model in my online interactions.
I realise that not everyone has a seat at the table, and that not every voice is heard. However by using my voice and place at the table in a positive way, I hope to make as much space as I can at the table I am seated at. This is how I see engagement in a democratic society – by each of us doing what we can to make space for others to have their voices heard – respectfully expressed and respectfully accepted. I know others may say this is a naive strategy, but it is the most powerful that every one of us has access to. Would love to hear your thoughts.