A Pitch and a Tweet

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Muhlenberg College’s Digital Learning Team is participating in the OLC Innovate Solution Design Summit with a proposal to create a digital peer learning program to support and grow digital learning in the liberal arts.  We were drawn to the opportunity in part because of the space created for feedback on proposals from experts, peers, and the OLC community. When our two minute “solution pitch video” appeared on YouTube with eight other innovative project videos we were excited for the feedback to begin.  SDS co-chair Laura Pasquini (@laurapasquini) encouraged teams to share links to the videos and the SDS sandbox in Canvas for public feedback, so I tweeted a link to the video, which was retweeted by Muhlenberg. YouTube stats indicate the video has 114 views, 18 shares, and 2 likes. This makes us happy–the wickedly talented folks who shot and edited it took great care to make a video with a high production quality in a short timeframe.  But there are no comments posted yet.

The SDS team also created a sandbox in Canvas for OLC Innovate participants to share and receive feedback from the community.  So far, it’s threaded with thoughtful suggestions from SDS project reviewers. Anyone can create a Canvas account and login to access the discussion space, but it seems designed primarily for those already participating in SDS or OLC Innovate.  I hope this space takes off during the conference next week as a way to connect and reflect.  We’re anticipating the intense Solution Design Summit on Wednesday, 4/20, and the chance to work with SDS leaders and advisors on our project. But in the meantime, how to access and invite the feedback and perspectives in our network to help push our thinking around the peer mentoring model we seek to design and implement?

The last time my colleagues and I participated in an open digital learning competition was MacArthur’s digital badge competition in 2013.  A brief period for public commenting generated several screens of comments for us to consider in the weeks leading up to our formal on-site pitch.  That broad community feedback and generous engagement empowered our proposal and carried us into the final stage of the selection process feeling positive about the ways in which the voices of youth, their parents, and our program supporters were present in our final “pitch” to the judges.  And when our proposal wasn’t funded, those voices were comforting reminders of the value and meaning of our work and helped peel our deflated selves up off the hotel lounge couch where we wept (just a little) with disappointment.

Still, it’s not a scene that I or any of my colleagues would like to revisit anytime soon.  (If you don’t believe me, just ask Tony Dalton).  So I turned to our community for feedback on our proposal.  First, I texted a student, an experienced learning assistant and champion of peer leadership on campus and in the community.  What makes peer learning effective?  Adam replied:  “Relationships.”  Yes!  How do you build relationships between peers?  His reply completely stopped me in my trackes and reminded me of why we are situating student voices at the center of our practices:

“One of the major ways to create the peer-to-peer relationship is through storytelling. Personal storytelling. It breaks down walls. Eliminating perceived hierarchies is my first strategy to creating these relationships. Stories related to personal experiences, moments of vulnerability…”

Many emojis followed in my reply back to Adam, who in this text beautifully unmasks common assumptions about who is an expert, who is a leader, and who is a learner.  Naming storytelling as a method for diminishing hierarchy in learning, Adam recognizes that in context of peer learning, identities are fluid and learning is a coproduction.  Against the discourses of “personalized” and “individualized” learning prevalent in much online learning, we want to begin from a pedagogical space that invites story, vulnerability, and openness to new ways of being in relationship to learning, to the digital, and to each other.

In our proposal to SDS, we’re envisioning a 5-day pre-orientation as a pedagogical space for incoming freshmen to join with peer leaders, faculty, and staff to immerse themselves in the digital liberal arts.  Building a foundation in critical digital literacies with activities including digital mapping, Domain of One’s Own, scavenger hunts in the digital archives, and digital storytelling, we imagine these students will have opportunities to become peer leaders and help grow a digital learning community on our small liberal arts campus.

Adam’s reflections compelled me to reach out to a wider public for feedback and critique, posting the following inquiry on Twitter:

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I then took what felt at the time like a radical leap and directly invited engagement from some of the people in the #digped community from whom I have learned a great deal on Twitter. Which was, of course, to welcome vulnerability and entrust the work to review by peer experts I have never met in person and admire deeply.

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The conversation that emerged during the next 24 hours was more than I ever expected and has occupied a big part of my thinking since then.  I’m distilling it here to share with my team as well as to make visible my appreciation for those who responded with thoughtful critique and suggestions. The entire conversation, of course, can be traced on Twitter.

ℳąhą Bąℓi (@Bali_Maha) was first to respond, via direct message, with two critical observations on the video: she wondered about the utopian, market-y tone carried throughout the video at odds with a more nuanced and critical language she expects in digital literacy discourse.  I attribute some of this to the genre of the 2-minute pitch. The language of the pitch doesn’t come easily to me–it’s uncomfortably close to “sales pitch” for me and invokes the rapid-fire pitch sessions so linked with venture capitalism.  And I know I am not alone in puzzling over the tensions inherent in navigating the commodification of edtech in digital learning spaces.  More on the meanings of “pitch” below.

Maha also zeroed in on a disconnect between the visual and voiced over representations of our SDS project team.  Here again, a call for more nuance: what did we mean by describing the team as “diverse?” Bonnie Stewart (@bonstewart) and Kristen Eshelman (@kreshelman) noted the same tension and suggested “cross-disciplinary” or “transdisciplinary” more accurately communicated what we were trying to convey: this work deeply connects staff from IT, the library, faculty, administrators, and students.  Building community and connection across these usual silos is itself something of a critical act in that it works against entrenched institutional structures and forces.  The experience of making the video together strengthened those connections.

Speaking of silos, Maha had the excellent suggestion that as we focus on students, we not miss opportunities to include spaces and moments in the 5-day pre-orientation that bring students and faculty together in collaborative digital learning practices.  The GIS mapping across campus and in our neighborhood, digital archives scavenger hunts, introduction to Domain of One’s Own, and digital storytelling all afford moments of meaningful collaboration among all pre-orientation participants.

Further comments helped make visible to me the places where the pitch of our video pitch wasn’t resonating in the ways we intended–striking a tone that had Bonnie feeling “a fancy US college vibe.”  While Bonnie offered that this may be “more me [Bonnie] reacting to a perfectly normal US campus,” Kristen Eshelman wondered “if ‘liberal arts’ invokes eitism.”  Our goal in the video was to get out of the studio and show viewers something of our residential campus context, which risked reducing that context to a “pretty campus backdrop,” as Kristen noted.  Writing from her own liberal arts location, Davidson College, Kristen got to the heart of what we wanted to convey with “the digital liberal arts” when she tweeted this:

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Into this richly textured conversation, Laura Gogia posed this question:

“What do you think of the term digital agency?”

Yes! was the answer from me and Kristen, who then got us thinking about the relationship between agency + fluency.

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That’s the winning pitch right there:  “It’s a Gardner Campbell thing.” Laura’s comment brings us full circle, arriving back to Maha’s reminder of critical pedagogy, a focus on the interwoven acts of reading the world and reading the word.  

As for our pitch at OLC Innovate–I’ve taken to embracing the multiple meanings of pitch. Meanings that don’t invoke shark tanks or elevators.  For example, pitch as the quality of a sound governed by the rate of vibrations producing it; the degree of highness or lowness of a tone.  The feedback from peers on Twitter will hopefully help us hit the right pitch, strike an even tone, so that one can hear in the sound of our words–and the voices of students–the beliefs in student agency and voice that give rise to our proposal.  Perhaps my favorite meaning of “pitch”is this: to raise a tent for shelter.  Yes.  We want to raise a tent, a sheltered and sheltering space for peer learning in the digital liberal arts, where this tweet from Jesse Stommel hangs above the entrance:

“Peer leadership in learning is trust made visible.”