2017 Introductory Talk Transcript (presented alongside a slide deck of images)
Rebecca B. Reynolds
Associate Professor, Rutgers University

OK so you’re probably wondering why we brought you all here. . . .

My Co-Organizer Dr. Soo Young Rieh and I want to thank everyone for entrusting us to put together this SIG and this event, and for your curiosity and interest in participating and exploring and seeing what we’re up to. . .

I’d like to start out with a quick show of hands – so you have a sense of who is sharing this space with you today.

Raise your hand if you would say that you situate some dimension of your work in what is being described as the “searching as learning” domain.

Raise your hand if you have ever attended and presented work in an expressly “learning sciences” based conference or journal.

Raise your hand if you have conducted around information and learning, in a context of librarianship or school librarianship.

Raise your hand if your work connects to information literacy.

K-12 computer science education?

Ok finally, raise your hand if you are a master’s student, Ph.D. student, or a post-doctoral researcher.

OK so as you see, we see we have a diverse crowd with us this morning, and this should be exciting as we all move into this material, today and moving forward as we advance the goals of the SIG.

So back to the question, Why are we here today? On a practical level, a bunch of us got together and decided that a SIG exploring the intersections of information and learning would be beneficial in the ASIST context, to bring together a range of perspectives among scholars who often work on related themes but in such disparate circles such that we never actually find one another in the same room together, often passing like ships in the night. We established a small working group, learned what was required of starting a new SIG which included obtaining 60+ letters of support from colleagues, if you wrote us a letter thank you! We had fun collating these email letters with our proposal, and presenting them to the board in Copenhagen last year. Sam and I stood before the board and pitched it, the board approved, we launched in March, and had just enough time to submit the workshop proposal and get in the queue for this event. Lots of people to thank, I want to thank our officers, Denise Agosto, Eric Meyers, Chris Leeder and Warren Allen, also want to thank Sam Chu and Hong Huang as well as Soo of course. Kris Unsworth at Drexel was also instrumental in stewarding this through, as was Lynn Connaway so we are thankful that we could be successful in this and host the event today.

Somehow in the mix, I ended up as Chair, and I’ll say, I see myself very much as a facilitator among this highly expert, high level crowd. My own personal goal in presenting this intro is to help establish a container of sorts that encourages our creativity and big picture thinking around e-learning and information. I’m experimenting with some new ideas here. So let me get moving, I don’t have a lot of time, and then we will begin intros and the interactive sessions for the day.

Anyone who is my Facebook friend may have noticed over the years that I engage in a range of eastern spiritual practices including meditation and yoga, and lately I’ve started a new research direction in which I’m exploring online uses of e-learning technologies by informal sub-cultural communities in a range of spiritual genres. One example– I’m currently enrolled and involved in a learning community called Universal Shamanism, The Heart of the Healer with a Peruvian master shaman named Don Oscar Miro Quesada. I’ve taken 3 classes with him, and I’m just about to start the 4th in December, I’ll be conducting either a cyber ethnography or an auto-ethnography, still deciding. I have students working with me on mapping the terrain of this space of online spiritual learning in alternative spiritual and ‘new age’ traditions, including a content analysis of the subject domains being covered on the hundreds and hundreds of online MOOC courses offered on sites like The Shift Network and Hay House Publishing. E-learning during leisure time is becoming a substantial pastime for many, and some of these spiritual learning offerings are quite expensive and involve new forms of tele-presence reflecting people’s ‘practice together’ that haven’t yet been described in the literature. The content of some of these, as you will hear, is also affecting my worldview.

Before I get to that, by way of background I also want to mention that I have re-developed and revised a class called Gender and Technology at Rutgers that offers science and technology studies literatures on gender and computing and in my teaching and my scholarly practice, and, life, I’m trying to engage more readily in intersectional feminism. One of the tenets of inter-sectionality that Patricia Hill Collins describes is a need for personal accountability in living out our feminism as both a theory and a practice – practicing what one preaches in a sense and there are many ways my feminism influences me. One is a commitment to curating and selecting diverse panels like we’re going to have today. I’m so grateful to Prof. Nicole Cooke for agreeing to participate today given what was admittedly a late stage invitation on my part, which I take full responsibility for. In having developed the concept for the initial panel I had omitted a woman of color which one really shouldn’t do when talking about education and learning in the US context. Thank you Nicole! She’s here virtually on Zoom. I know in the future if I make such an oversight I won’t be as lucky to have a colleague so gracious and generous as Nicole in helping me out and lending her integral voice to this event. Everyone let the problem of my delayed action be a reminder—when choosing panels– be inclusive of gender, racial and ethnic diversity, and get your balance right. All of us in the ASIS&T community need to amplify our inclusivity efforts and get better in this.

In line with this idea of personal accountability— the type of feminism I engage in also requires a value for something called physical embodiment, and by this I mean a recognition and appreciation of myself as a physical body as well as a mind and virtual presence. In western thought and epistemology we’ve tended to emphasize the cognitive and masculine ways of knowing, undervaluing situating our knowing in our embodied presence as human biological sentient beings. I assign my students an article by Dupreez which argues for a critical embodiment vis a vis our technologies that recognizes the ways in which our embodied presence grounds and connects us to the earth, requiring us to consider the implications of our technologies and their study, vis a vis nature. Staying embodied in such studies allows us or requires us to factor in the implications of unbridled technology development for exploitation of natural resources and environmental degradation. This is different from how we usually operate in our disembodied studies of socio-technical systems, search systems, and in many cases, even e-learning technology development.

The feminism I practice invites embodied presence, and so I’m going to experiment a little with another lens on embodied ways of knowing – also influenced by this the universal shamanism philosophy that I’ve been investigating online in MOOC contexts – this tradition labels such knowing as sensing, feeling, intuiting, and thinking — where sensing is connected to the body; feeling the heart; intuiting, the spirit; and thinking, the mind. All 4 of these dimensions operate in tandem in Universal shamanistic knowing, integrating body, heart, spirit and mind.

And I don’t know about you all, but for me – the challenges of today have been weighing heavily on all 4 of these dimensions of my embodied presence, so much so that I have been unable to repress and ignore their call any longer.

If you’re like me, you’re becoming aware of, observing and experiencing the levels of escalating turbulence in today’s world, both consciously and subconsciously – perhaps somewhat oscillating between these two in your awareness and attention. We have the accumulating effects in the US of life under 45’s administration. We have seen the growth of racial tension in the US stemming from militarization of our police forces and police overreach, happening in tandem with an emboldening outspokenness and expression of previously more dormant white supremacy and racist beliefs among the populace coming out of the woodwork so to speak. Further, we are meeting today on the heels of the revelations and disclosure around rampant sexual harassment in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, government and journalistic sectors including assaults, harassment, gender based discrimination and power abuses mostly towards women but also towards children and men, by managerial and executive gate keepers and decision-makers. The recent event in Las Vegas brings to the fore the problem of gun availability and shootings that are ever present in the US. The widening of wealth distribution gaps and economic inequality has been escalating here for the last 2-3 decades as corporate power and capitalistic influence has grown, and not unrelatedly, we also have the looming threats of climate change that we’re seeing possibly contributing to our Fall hurricanes and mega-storms here in the US. We see a US Commonwealth, Puerto Rico having its infrastructure nearly wiped out and massive displacement of Puerto Rican residents migrations in process as a result. There is talk of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Mueller has just filed the first charges, and many of us in this room have been involved in discussions about the problems of fake news, and mis- and dis-information campaigns that led into the election and are continuing.

I have found lately that I can’t separate my ‘day job’ as a professor from all that is going on. I see it, I know it to be true – I am conscious to it, and I need to find ways to be productive in solving these dilemmas. As I live into my feminism, I feel personal accountability and responsibility to address the urgency I feel, sense, intuit and know – and to contribute towards solutions. Admitting this and honoring it — allowing myself to consciously engage as an embodied person, present to the historical truth in the now, while difficult, also feels somehow liberating.

As I reflect on this, it is impossible to neglect the integral role of social media in my learning and understanding. In a few minutes we’re all going to share learning theories that drive our research. Mine will be social constructivism, largely because of the ways my worldview has shifted in these last 10+ years using Facebook, as well as Search systems and Google News to find additional articles and content on themes that tap my interest. Leisure time learning has been huge in shaping my understanding and outlook on the world and my sensing, feeling, intuiting and knowing of the sort of impasse we seem to be on the cusp of facing globally. The “not normal” status of the world as journalist Amy Siskind discusses, continues, and I read about this on Facebook, not in print newspapers like previous generations, as well as via search engines, podcasts, on my laptop, iPad, and my iPhone, etc.

The openness to talk about such topics at what could be seen as an unrelated academic professional event right now – has to do with embodiment. I feel it is appropriate bringing the topic of information-seeking and knowledge-sharing about world problems here to the table, because of the urgency I feel in my body, heart, mind and spirit. I am also putting this out here, because I actually think that there are people here in this room and community who can play a role in helping develop and improve upon — solutions.

In explaining what I mean by this, I will refer to a book chapter in a recent title in engineering education, entitled “Empathic Perspective-Taking and Ethical Decision-Making in Engineering Ethics Education.” The authors, Hess, Beever, Strobel and Brightman (2016) discuss the ways in which ethics is becoming a central subject within engineering education due to wide recognition of the responsibility engineers have to the public, alongside societal and environmental risks associated with rapid technological development and change. One angle discussed in the chapter is the need for Empathic Perspective-taking. Cultivating the practice of this perspective-taking of the other as exercised during engineering education, requires the engineer to consider and take seriously community stakeholders at the individual, societal, and organizational levels, embedding them in the given pragmatic decisions to achieve “social consensus”. The extended chapter expands upon such ethical premises for responsible engineering and teaching of enginerring students– and I think this kind of direct integration of values and ethics in design is crucial to where we are going field wide in information science. It is critical also to our discussions around e-learning.

In a nutshell and cutting to the chase – my main argument today, offered here as a kind of straw man or thought experiment — is that to arrive at the tipping points or paradigm shifts we will need in order to solve world problems such as climate change and its effects — we are going to need the masses to continue waking up to the fact that there actually are problems, present and future, that need to be urgently addressed, as we live unsustainably and out of balance.

Part of this waking up will be through sharing in online social communities such as Facebook, and we must hope – the cultivation of greater empathy, less fear, and more productivity and finding of solutions. I argue that designing and improving systems like search, social computing platforms and e-learning environments like MOOCS, can help populations continue to wake up to the truth of our circumstances.

If you agree with this idea that these information environments can serve in this capacity, one question pertinent to their ongoing development needs to be– how can these systems continue to be refined and integrated, in ways to more readily achieve these societal learning goals?

–Of course, we need to hope for preservation of net neutrality, and given corporate ownership and profit imperatives of companies like Google and Facebook, we also need solid critical theory perspectives like those emerging from science and technology studies. There are questions to be raised around internal company agendas, who is setting them and how they translate to the algorithmic manipulations of what can be seen as biased systems. And what role can MOOCs potentially play as alternative leisure time learning platforms to raise human consciousness?

–And then from another standpoint – we have more prescribed and scaffolded e-learning systems, which are developed by learning scientists to meet specific pragmatic curriculum goals. We probably can’t rely entirely on leisure time learning, search and awakening of the masses– to halt and reverse climate change. So, we will we need to develop and advance more directed educational priorities, agendas and curricula towards developing the expertise in our young people, for solving our global crises– in areas like STEM.

An important contribution to eLearning research is Haythornethwaite, Andrews, Fransman & Meyers (2016) book “The Sage Handbook of E-Learning Research” which offers a useful definition and framing of e-Learning. For these authors, this concept includes new technologies such as:

  • Video-based resources for teaching and learning;
  • Games and gamification of learning;
  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs);
  • Enhanced means of helping learners navigate their way through materials, such as lecture recordings that can be annotated;
  • Adaptive learning systems that determine next steps according to learner progress and types of error;
  • Dashboards that show progress or effort in comparison to other learners;
  • Embedded tutors.

Research on these e-learning platforms often reside within university and non-profit educational technology innovation hubs funded by entities like the National Science Foundation, focusing on human computer interaction (HCI) research, design-based research (DBR), and learning sciences instructional theory and learning theory advances. Results of such research and development efforts can be found in the proceedings of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS), the Journal of the Learning Sciences (JLS), and the Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) conference and journal by the same name, as well as the Journal of Learning Analytics, among others.

Here is a small schematic of the inter-relationships I’m seeing in the world of social computing, search and e-learning systems development. I think we can expand on this simplistic framing extensively, in part, by engaging in the conversations we’re having like today.

less design structure 
Leisure time learning
Social computing systems and activity  
Search systems and activity
E-learning systems and activity
Prescribed learning
more design structure  

I realize that by situating this discussion today in the realm of monumental world challenges I have given us a tall order. But I wanted to frame the conversations we are having in a context of some urgency, and also, research significance. I think our work can be influential in drawing out more of the opportunities inherent to these intersections of information technology, e-learning systems, and the societal importance of both leisure time and formalized learning. The conference theme is Diversity of Engagement: Connecting People and Information in the Physical and Virtual Worlds. I agree that the physical and virtual connections mentioned in the conference theme are of integral importance at this time. I hope that we can engage in our work by listening through our multiple ways of knowing – sensing, feeling, intuiting and thinking. Considering the wider purposes and motivations of our practice, and finding productive solutions that have meaning to ourselves and the world we find ourselves in, in this lifetime.