October 20, 2014

Connecting Learners Through Hashtags, Focal Points

Category: Digital Learning
Hand in the air holding pencil

Like others who have become important co-learners in my personal learning network, I met Dr. Maha Bali, associate professor of practice of the Center for Learning and Teaching at American University in Cairo, through a hashtag. I can’t remember whether it was #ds106 or #etmooc or #clmooc, but it was one of those Twitter conversations that can serve as doorways into new communities of practice. (Hashtags, like the clock in Grand Central Station or Hachiko’s statue outside Tokyo’s Shibuya Station, are what sociologist Thomas Schelling called “focal points” that can help coordinate and introduce strangers in physical or social space.)  I recognized her right away as a “lead learner” among educators. In my own face-to-face and online classes, I’ve come to recognize the lead learners who emerge at the beginning (if you’re in luck) and inspire other learners who may be reluctant at first to jump into more active, public ways of learning. 

Bali is an educator of educators — she teaches educational technology to in-service school teachers. Far from being confined to a technical support role, Bali’s pedagogy — and her writing about it — is expansive and multifarious.  She wrote a sentence I could have written myself in her article on critical pedagogy that I recommend to all who are interested in classrooms as learning communities: “Critical pedagogy, for me, is not about knowing how to do everything right, or getting it right the first time, or every time. It is about putting faith in our learners to take control of their learning, and teach us, each other, and themselves in the process.” 

I remember how scary it was to “put my faith in our learners to take control of their learning” the first time I did it, and how the fear receded as student enthusiasm, engagement, and ingenuity kicked in, surpassed my expectations, and taught me a few things every time.

Maha Bali’s position at the American University is only one of many nodes in her network of influence and discourse. She’s one of the facilitators of Edcontexts, an “international network of educators” that Bali cofounded in order “to amplify voices of educators from nondominant parts of the world.” Dr. Bali is a prolific blogger at Reflecting Aloud and contributor to Hybrid Pedagogies. The tag cloud in her blog sidebar reveals her role in #rhizo14 and #clmooc. She was one of the first, most enthusiastic, articulate, and prolific lead co-learners in Connected Courses.

Inspection of the social network structure of the first week of Connected Courses showed clearly what social network analysts call the socially catalytic “centrality” of Maha Bali in the conversations around #ccourses.

You could organize a wide-ranging curriculum around Bali’s publications: She made a case for abandoning the syllabus as we know it, encouraged her students to blog reflectively about learning to design educational games, commented on Arab MOOCs, published in the MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching about “MOOC Pedagogy: Gleaning Good Practice from Existing MOOCs.

Some people reflect in public in ways that help other people think, some people connect people and ideas (“bridge structural holes”), some people stimulate and help evolve public conversations, some people set examples in the early days of an online community. Maha Bali does all of the above. We touched on a few of Bali’s current concerns in our brief video interview. As always, seeing and hearing the person behind the words brings her writings to life.

Banner image credit: Tamari 09