Thursday, July 12, 2012

Can digital communication be real communication?

One-Sided Communication
This question has been on my mind for awhile.  I have written about it in myriad ways, from my course readings of Dick, McLuhan, Turkle and Baudrillard to my own personal discomfort with online interactions.  Through all of these posts, one thing remains as tough to solve for me as proving the Reimann Hypothesis: is the nature of digital communication defined foremost by its "digital-ness" or do personal tendencies have a defining role in digital communication?  Let me try to say it better: Are digital communications for extroverted and introverted people equally at risk for being shallow simply because the communication is digital?

I cannot (yet?) answer that question.  Instead, I have spent the last month+ developing a digital space with the goal of creating communication amongst my students when they are not face-to-face in our classroom.  It's really kind of funny actually.  Me, the person who struggles feeling connected online and worries deeply about the possible emptiness of online interaction, making a place for my students to feel connected online. I am either a really bad or really good person for this venture ...

Thus I return to my Baudrillard questions: I am trying to create a digital space that is first and foremost a place where my students interact and communicate with each other and me.  Is this an impossibility?  Is the interaction I am seeking to promote empty? Here is what I am doing on my class site to try to encourage ... create ... foster ... require (that's bad ... but true) authentic student communication.  (Some of these I have written about before and will simply to link to those posts to avoid some serious repetition!)
  • Installed a Verite interactive timeline so we can build a great-looking visual history of our readings together
  • Installed ThingLink so we can easily (and in a fun visual way) share interesting sites and media about our readings
  • Made our class compilation of choice book reviews easier to navigate so we can really use others' recommendations and feel like our own recommendations will be used
  • Decided to promote an "old favorite" from my ning - the "I Thought of AP English When ..." forum - to a full page that I will use to model (and therefore I hope encourage) sharing fun and interesting connections outside the classroom
  • Installed BuddyPress as a user-friendly place for group discussions but, more importantly, have thought about ways to use BuddyPress to cut down on the not-so-effective all-class discussion boards where everyone posts and no one can possibly read it all
  • Installed BuddyPress Gifts Rebirth as a way students can interact outside my specific guidelines.  All of the bullets above are interactions tied specifically to course content (with "I Thought of ..." being the broadest opportunity for student input).  Gifts allow them to interact on their own terms - even moreso because I do not really know about gifts or use them when I am online.  This goes back to a key philosophy of mine (and many others) in teaching with technology: it is great not to know everything because it allows you to let your students be the experts.
  • Installed the WordPress Mobile Pack so my students can use the site from their mobile devices. Like many people, my students are living 24/7 with their smart phones. To allow easy access to our class site through their phones will make them more likely to pop on and share/communicate/interact. I chose this particular plugin again because of its user ratings plus multiple bloggers had listed it as one of the top ways to make your WordPress site mobile.
When I look back at all of these elements I have added to my site, I see categories of interaction.
  • Interacting to build content: The timeline, image links, books reviews, and "I Thought of ..." are all ways students can become co-creators of the content for the course. Students will become more engaged in a class when they have such input. These aspects do not create actual communication (although they certainly may comment on what others' post), but what I hope they do is create an affinity to the class through this site that engenders deeper communication in the communication-specific spaces. There is a great deal of theory  - none of which I can recall specifically right now! - bouncing around in my head to support this kind of practice.
  • Interacting to talk with members: BuddyPress and all of its attributes is where the responsibility for communication falls. I have looked around what BuddyPress creates on my site, and it looks awesome. But the proof will be when my class joins in the fall and we all get our hands dirty.
Will all of the work I have done to make the site a place my students own (bullet 1) create true communication online (bullet 2)?  Maybe that is the question for my dissertation ...

(Image source)

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