Aug 242017
 

I spend a lot of time staring at my phone. Like many people I’m checking my messages, looking for news, sharing photographs, reading articles and hoping that I can connect with other people so that I can share the things I am interested in. Maybe exchange ideas. It’s a way of connecting with people who are in the same world, who share the same outlook, and who have the same framework of expectation.

While I’ve been in Nantes I’ve noticed this experience has been more pronounced and intense. I’m out of my comfort-zone, in an alien culture of which I don’t speak the language. On the one hand my smartphone is a lifeline. I can easily follow the on-line maps that I need. I can translate words and phrases on the go, and in real time. I can keep in contact with distant friends by sharing my experiences with regular photo-updates. As a functional set of tools this opens-up the world to me in a way that was never possible before.

The downside is processing all of this information requires an intensity of thought and concentration that can be quite overwhelming, and if I don’t ration myself, quite destructive. So, this got me thinking about what kind of skills and capabilities do we need to manage this experience well, while retaining some sort of control over it? How do we prevent information overload? How do we reduce the sense of isolation that excessive smartphone use can generate? How do we make sense of it all?

We live in a world that increasingly values and places an emphasis on social connection and intercultural communication. But it’s not always possible to just walk into a bar and strike-up a conversation with just anyone. In France people tend to socialise in small groups and with people that they already know. Being an outsider carries the problem of not knowing how or when it is appropriate to intermix with people. In the U.K. it is simple. Go to a pub and stand near the bar, and its inevitable that one can get talking to somebody. Café culture in France doesn’t invite that.

Different strategies for being social are called for. Don’t ask me what these are yet, because that is what I am here to learn. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of my time using my phone to figure out what I should be doing, saying, where I should be going, and so on. It’s got to the point, however, that it’s started to drive me crazy, and has actually been counter-productive.

Rather than sitting with people, listening and observing, my phone has given me an inner-sanctuary that I can use to escape from the direct experience of the situation. After the phones’ initial usefulness and the functionality of what it lets me do, it offers diminishing returns. I’ve realised that I have to put my phone away and step back into the real world.

Our use of smartphones and mobile computers is not going to go away, though, and we perhaps need to figure out how we can get the best out of our use of them, and not succumb to the negative and anxiety-inducing effects of social media. We need to think about how we can use smartphones in a way that is more enriching and fulfilling. Who, though, can we turn to for help in achieving this?

About seventy percent of the population are regarded as being extrovert in their social disposition. That is, they have a preference and ease for being with other people, and they draw their energy from social situations. The remaining people are introvert in their disposition, which means that they draw their energy from a more inward-looking experience, and find social situations more of a drain. We all have to be able to work in both realms, but one is preferred over the other, so getting the right kind of balance is important.

Introverts are people who can live in a world of inner-experience. They can be absorbed in a world of ideas, stories and concepts that are lucid and extensive, sensual and deep-rooted, but which are primarily formed from inner-thoughts and reflections. Whether it is playing by oneself or spending hours engaging in a solitary task, or reading a book, introverts have no problem being by themselves. Indeed, most introverts struggle with gregarious social situations that are noisy and busy.

The sensory overload can be overwhelming and very tiring. Extroverts thrive in these situations, not being able to sit still for long periods without interacting or exchanging tacit acknowledgements of each other’s co-presence.

We live in a world, however, that focuses almost exclusively on extroversion as an essential social attribute, to the point where natural introverts are often made to feel dysfunctional and retarded. Be more outgoing is a phrase that is often given as sound advice, in an attempt to encourage introverts to engage more in the social world. As if maintaining one’s popularity and extended social connectedness is a virtue that can be explained purely on its own terms.

Yes, social connections re important, but most of what passes as social communication between people can be useless chatter that doesn’t really add a great deal to the grand scheme of things.

When I use social dating apps, for example, the conversations usually start by saying ‘hi, how are you?’ So often, however, they never go anywhere else beyond that, because many of the people chatting have nothing to say.

My problem is the other way around. I have far too much to say and finding an outlet for more extended discussions can be difficult. Hence why I journal and blog. I read often, I listen to music most days, walking about with my headphones on. I enjoy solitary walks, and I find I can spend long periods of time working alone with no undue side-effects, other than getting bored with my own company eventually. I don’t mind the rich inner-world of ideas that I am immersed in, and I suspect that most other introverts are the same as well.

So, being an introvert strikes me as being an advantage in the social media culture that we are increasingly immersed in. Introverts will be able to teach extroverts something about coping and strategizing time spent in a largely symbolic and mediated environment. Those hours spent reading, drawing, writing, sewing, planning, coding, designing, are hours well spent. Being immersed in mental work isn’t easy, and it isn’t for everyone, but there are some useful skills that introverts can pass on to our extroverted brethren that can help them to come to terms with this mental activity.

How do we learn to manage the thought processes, the inner dreamscapes and the imagined possibilities that form the valuable core of introspection? Introverts probably take these processes for granted, in the same way that extroverts take their social interaction for granted. What we can learn from each other, then, is to draw from the active engagement techniques as well as the inner-reflection techniques that both the extrovert and the introvert has to offer.

We all need to engage in both modes of operation, and neglecting one at the experience of the other, is itself a problem. But the next time we use our social media apps, consider for a moment what the world is that we are being drawn to, and how it’s ideas and patterns of communication take shape, because these experiences, in the words of George Harrison, come from both within us and without us.

Mar 092017
 

It’s getting close to the end of the lecture series for my social media and my community media modules. It’s been a fascinating process to work through this year, as I’ve made some changes to the approach that I’ve brought to the learning opportunities. I’ve shifted from a ‘teaching’ style approach, to a ‘mentoring’ style. The main difference is that I’ve been using more reflexive and developmental approaches that emphasis self-directed learning and engagement, which give learners the opportunity to discover and explore new ideas and opportunities for social media practice.

We still seem to be dominated by ‘instruction’ as the main form of learning practice, especially when it comes to learning how to use media technologies and applications. This limits the focus of learning, in my experience to a ‘transactional’ approach that only recognises what people are able to undertake given the right instructions, whereas we might be serving the learners better if we can offer them opportunities to discover something about themselves in the process of learning?

This is a more open-ended approach, and it requires a less bounded and fixed view of the subject and the steps that might be involved for learners to gain mastery over that subject content. I’ve long thought of myself as a guide for learning, or a learning partner, who has a modicum of experience, but who in engaged in the same process of discovery and emergence that the less experienced learners are. This approach has its risks, in that learners can often feel that they are working in an unstructured process, however, if the process is well explained and is clearly recognisable, then learners can make the connections for themselves quite easily.

Playing Cards at the Start of Term

Last year I started off the first-year social media module by getting learners to play cards together in small groups. This had the advantage of learners being able to get to know each other, it took them away from the computer screens that they would otherwise be sitting at, and it gave them an opportunity to learn from each other’s experience. The simple process of learning to play cards is an incredibly effective way to impart knowledge and a sense of understanding of the rules of a game. Most learners pick card games up instinctively without giving it a second thought.

What I’ve tried to bring out in the module is a sense of social collaboration, so the coursework projects are designed around the idea that learners will form a social group who will undertake a social project, something that they can’t do virtually, but have to meet-up and interact with other people if it is to be successful. So there is a cake making group, a five-a-side football group, a film podcast group, a pub games group, and so on. The blogs that learners write about these activities are posted to the DIY-DMU site on the DMU Commons.

DIY-DMU Bloggs

Underpinning this activity is a layer of reflection using blogs and social media posts that learners can use to explain and identify what works in their social activities and what they have learnt. This is a process of development in which learners are expected to post content as they go along, so that they can incorporate their experiences and the comments and feedback that they are receiving from other learners on the module. As this is a social activity learners can look at each other’s blogs and are able to make improvements and changes to their style of blogging based on what they have seen that other people are writing. It’s a very social way of learning that doesn’t require a heavy-handed teacher to be pushing learners to do thing in a specific way and in line with a set of regulations.

Reflexive Blogs

As part of the process of reflection I’ve asked learners to include a reflective video blog, lasting about two minutes, in which they tell me what they have learnt. A couple of weeks ago we spent some time in the workshop looking at how these kind of video blogs work, and how they are understood by people watching them. Things like body language, eye movement and relating an extended set of thoughts emerged as fascinating things to watch out for, and to learn from. I got this idea from the videos that I’ve been making myself to introduce and summarise the topics that are being discussed in the lectures each week. This is part of the DMU Universal Design for Learning scheme, which seeks to make learning as accessible as possible for learners.

It was a revelation to me that I gained and learnt from making these videos, as it’s almost impossible to get feedback from colleagues as to the suitability of the lecture content I’m producing. We are all pressed for time, and the informal reflexive conversations that we used to hold over a cup of tea are less likely to happen. So checking-in with myself by recording these videos each week has been a great help. Hopefully learners will find the techniques of video-blogging to be equally as useful and an effective way to enhance their self-directed learning.

It’s also been interesting to experiment with different sensory-based techniques of learning, such as the Talkaoke session that we held, and the play-dough session. The dominant mode of information delivery in most learning sessions tends to be auditory and visual. What has been interesting has been the introduction of kinaesthetic, modelling, schematic and discursive forms of learning that go beyond the simple and well-tired techniques of ‘chalk-and-talk’.

At the end of the day, what I’m trying to achieve is confidence in extended thinking. This is why I’m still a fan of hand-written exams, because it’s an opportunity to engage the hand and the brain in a different kind of thought process, one that brings out a deeper form of thinking that can’t be deflected so easily by interactive media, the cut-and-paste mentality of writing, and the always-on media consumption that is encouraged these days. Sitting and contemplating is a difficult thing to do, but if we learn how to do it well, then we gain maturity and become something more authentic in the process. People who can look at a situation, evaluate it and develop an analysis, rather than just accepting it at face value.

I’ve got some ideas of how I want to develop these forms of learning practice, so I’ll keep posting blogs and videos that explain how these might work and be incorporate into the modules in the future.