Monday, July 13, 2020

if in doubt, do an online course on it

My response, when I'm struggling with anything pretty much, is to read a book on it or do a course on it. So when lockdown started to bite, I got stuck into a course on FutureLearn on Covid-19.  It was thrown together fast, of course. Everything is right now. But I figured a quickly thrown-up course would still give me space to think, and maybe also some core concepts to help navigate unknown space.

I've been e-learning for a few years now. Delivered some, written some, done plenty. I was expecting this one to be interesting, but hard work. Most people don't participate in e-learning, they just work through the materials. As someone who learns through dialogue, discussion, I'm always being the annoying chatty one in the comments, often answering myself in a void. I'm aware that lots of learners aren't being silent - they're finding ways to discuss things with a person instead of a computer. I remember the slightly humiliating experience of discovering that other people on my distance learning course had been regularly calling the tutors to discuss things by phone; something I had not even considered, even though we'd been given phone numbers.

That was before lockdown, and before the entire world turned attention starved. The comments under this course were so numerous and fascinating I had to confine myself just a limited number of pages, or risk losing days in them. They were full of personal stories, ideas, reflections, insights. They were thoughtful and constructive. They were from all over the world and from many different experiences and backgrounds. Some were confused, some showed signs of grieving. The responses to these were compassionate, kind and careful. Don't read the comments is a nostrum of the internet now, but this was the opposite of that. It was read the comments, the action is in the comments.

For this reason alone, it was a real privilege to do the course. the content was good, it was very work relevant, lots of good ideas, some clear steers, overview of existing research into effects of quarantine, effects on the micro and macro scale, all that. But it was also an opportunity to be online in a group large enough (or attention starved enough) to comment without fear of social anxiety or overexposure, yet closed enough (or shocked into seriousness enough, or inexperienced with the dominant discourse modes online enough) that the comments weren't a mess of bangs and bashes and actually-you'll-find and oh-my-opinion and shut-up-you-shouldn't-be-talking-noob and oh-I-didn't-realise-honest-push-button-rants, and cruelty-because-I-can-and-to-prove-that-I-can and all of that other dull, tiresome, boring stuff that clogs up the signal, endlessly, depressingly.

Sharing without fear. I'd say it reminds me of the old days on the web, but the old days were only sometimes open and kind. People like to say that it's only since we opened the web up to everyone that so many jerks turned up. Not true, that's just rose-tinted screens. They were here all along. Kind and constructive voices were too, of course. But check the old usenet logs before you categorise the early web as a place of polite conduct. You'll find plenty of people racing to see how low they can go.

The course described the group of people who normally socially support an individual, who protect, help and nurture them, as a "supportive container". This container allowed the individual a space to make mistakes, experiment and explore ideas without being attacked, undermined, or socially (or indeed physically) damaged. It wasn't an uncritically accepting area, it was socially negotiated, and that includes discussion and appropriate challenge. But that challenge started from a position of social support and respect for the individual.

The course described the pandemic as a serious disruption to this "supportive container", particularly those parts of it that were not online, and not in the household. My experience has certainly supported this view.

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