Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Social reporting as a new literacy practice

A residential workshop on 'Learning in the Landscape of Practice' run by Etienne Wenger at the OU last week featured a number of facilitators sitting at computers writing running accounts of the workshop activities and posting them to a wiki and blog set up for the purpose. Their computer screens were projected simultaneously onto the walls of the room, so that what they wrote could be observed by the workshop participants as they wrote it.

As well as writing about what was going on, these facilitators also roamed the room taking pictures, which they then embedded into the posts. In addition, a number of the participants used their own laptops to contribute comments, and some kept up a running series of remarks on twitter, which was also being projected onto the walls.

All this ongoing commenting was referred to by the workshop organisers as social reporting. The blog, wiki and twitter spaces were constantly brought into the discussion, and participants encouraged to access them as readers and/or contributors. Whilst the spaces were private to the workshop participants at the time the workshop was going on, there was a lot of discussion about making them public later - I'm not sure what eventually happened about this, I'll give the links later if they are available.

Etienne Wenger had structured the workshop around group activities that were focused on telling stories of 'boundary crossings' between professional practices. His idea was that the stories that emerged from the workshop would lead to further collaborations via the internet, after the workshop was finished. The ongoing narrating of, and reflection on, the workshop activity, was thus a development of what used to be called 'capturing' the knowledge being constructed. But the extent of the activity and its effect on the workshop itself elevated the practice from mere recording to something that ended up impacting on the whole workshop experience.

For example, the social reporting competed with the group activity itself, to be point of focus. People's attention was distracted away from those they were actually talking to, towards the comments being made by the observers on the walls. People who were tweeting or blogging on their own laptops did not pay attention to the instructions coming from the workshop organiser and had to be re-told what to do by other group members. The social reporters hovered round groups pointing cameras, injecting moments of self-consciousness. The group interactions focused round the reporting, putting something together that could be presented, possibly eventually to an unknown audience. The discussion about whether and when to make the workshop wiki public exasperated the web2.0 'old hands' and made the novices anxious.

For myself, I found the social reporting intrusive and thought that it interfered too much with the business of working out for ourselves what the workshop was actually supposed to be for. I could have done with a bit less self-consciousness and bit more intersubjectivity. But it is clearly a fledgling literacy practice that is tune with the contemporary emphasis on doing things together and in public. I suspect that as more workshop organisers become more au fait with web2.0 tools we're going to see (and be made to participate in) quite a bit more of it.

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