Friday, 10 April 2020

What does it mean for a communication to be meaningful?

While ruminating on the monotony and sheer lack of variety of Zoom, I have been reflecting on how many academic friendships I have struck up through email. Just text - when it is done with care and thought - can create profoundly meaningful connections between people.

Academic communities have always operated like this. In the middle ages, monks would correspond with one another, citing references and sometimes sending books. In a time when scholars would only come to know each other through what was written, the potential for intellectual development rested on the written word.

By comparison we have an embarrassment of riches in terms of means of communicating at a distance. And it almost seems be the case that because of this our communication is less meaningful. It's hard to generalise - but it's easy to blame the technology and not look deeper. Yet it does throw the spotlight on what we think happens when we communicate through any medium.

In any communication process, utterances or speech acts must be made. They may be spoken, or they may be written, or they may be constructed in some more sophisticated multimedia form, but they must be made. In order to be made, utterances must be selected. Indeed, not only the utterances must be selected, but also the medium upon which they are communicated. The first question of communication is then, What is the mechanism of selection of utterances, and how is the selection mechanism constructed?

In thinking about the construction of the selection mechanism, one thing is obvious: no utterance is made in a vacuum. Rather, utterances are made to communicate with some other person. If we know nothing of the other person, it is very hard to formulate an utterance. We often see learners who are unsure of what is expected of them to be tongue-tied and unable even to ask questions. Having no insight into the person you are talking to is a conversation killer!

Conversely, being able to make an utterance entails having some understanding - a model - of the person you are talking to. More profoundly, that means that all utterances are made in anticipation of what the other person might say in response to them. Intellectual communication by email or text can be so powerful because the deep ideas which are explored in such communication underpin the understandings of academics of each other. Meaningful communication occurs when mutual expectations and anticipations are aligned.

I've been teaching some students recently using Big Blue Button, and what has been so revealing is that it is not the ability to broadcast my face and voice or Powerpoints has been educationally powerful. The most powerful things in the interactions have occurred through the text chat, but that only occurs when myself and individual students start to understand each other (they are working on projects around educational technology). Its in the text chat where the utterances are selected carefully in order to align expectations with individual understanding.

There was a key moment in these interactions with the students when I asked them "How many of you know your lecturers?" Hardly any of them did. This led to a more profound conversation about their expectations of university and the lack of personal connection with those teaching them. What's striking is that the face-to-face big lectures, etc, are incredibly impersonal. The online environment, if we get it right, can be more meaningful - but not if we try to emulate what the face-to-face environment does!

There's a bigger question here about why education has become so impersonal. It's not that Zoom is crap. It's that what we are trying to do in Zoom or Teams at the moment is mirroring something that was always crap. Here, I think we have to look to the essence of what the education system is geared-up to do: assess. It's assessment which is the thing which ensures that the institutional certificate is scarce (and therefore maintains its value, and the excuse to charge lots of money for it). Assessment underpins the business model. And the way we assess - by breaking things down into categories and forcing people to engage in rather unnatural activities to "jump through the hoops" - has an impact on everything else we do in education. As yet, in education, we don't have a better idea. But we need one.

So we need to look beyond technology in addressing why our Zoomworld feels deficient. We need to look at the constraints which are preventing us from having more authentic discussions. And the principal one is assessment!

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