Wednesday, August 20, 2014

When 'good enough' is actually 'best'

At Cardiff we've had a long-running 'pilot' of persistent group chat (PGC). Chris Graves has been instrumental in this. PGC is like a chat room but a history is kept in the room of previous conversations so the experience is in between synchronous and asynchronous. There is also an element of presence awareness.

Pidgin Instant Messenger screengrab
We've used the free Pidgin software to access XMPP 'rooms'
Yesterday a colleague was telling me about a time when they had spoken about the use of persistent group chat for tutorials at a conference for Welsh Further Education staff. Another colleague was explaining how they had found that holding tutorials in Second Life helped students to express themselves. If education is fundamentally conversational then conversations are useful to that end. However if education is fundamentally about collaboration (I think Andy Blunden makes this point but need to read more!) then evidently you need to be building something together, a conversation can certainly be supportive of that, wherever/however it happens but talking will only get you so far.
Our PGC advocate explained how their live demo did not start well when they were unable to connect with the student that they'd planned to. However, coincidentally, a colleague was online and doing a tutorial at the time. All agreed to help with the live demo and the audience watched as the live conversation continued. As the remote tutor was signing off, literally just triggered by the text displayed on the screen, members of the audience at the presentation instinctively voiced their goodbyes. Some of them then caught themselves doing that and felt daft realising that they were waving at some text on a screen. This demonstrated very much how vivid the experience of humble text-based communication can be, especially synchronous or near-synchronous.
Where the academic practices of the given discipline or field are primarily text-based, that is really where the focus should be, around developing confidence, style and sophistication (even epistemic fluency!) with that mode of communication. When 'voice-to-voice', it is easy to enter into almost a therapeutic relationship with students and talk with them and to them for hours, whereby they may indeed reveal all manner of interesting details and walk away having had a lovely time. But that is very different to developing writing skills by practising them. Writing is very difficult. Focusing on writing, even deliberately limiting students to writing, may not be very glamorous but it cuts right to the beating heart of an apprenticeship in knowledge work. Second Life, second best IMHO.

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