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  • Writer's picturekatrice horsley

"Engagement in a Time of Polarisation

I have just taken part in my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on the theme of Engagement in a Time of Polarisation. Firstly, let me tell you that I did not know what MOOC stood for, I had to look it up and the main reason I joined the course was because the incredible Bonnie Stewart organised it, a woman who I have met and worked with on the conference circuit. I was also intrigued and curious about the course title as I believe story is a powerful way of engaging all people.

The course was split into four main components, Public Engagement, Understanding Polarisation, Navigating Participatory Engagement and Engagement Across Perspectives and involved people from across the globe who worked in many different areas though there was a focus on digitalisation and it's role in creating polarisation.

As soon as I started the course there was a battle within myself as I do not have an academic background and I found much of the language difficult to understand. It reminded me of my experience in learning Swedish, where it all starts with the grammar. I was not taught English grammar when I was young so I had nothing to hang my new knowledge onto. There is a problem if you are trying to tell me about the verb form coming in a different position after the sentence starts with a temporal condition, if I have no idea what a temporal condition means in any language! My frustration was the same with #engageMOOC with the word 'agnotology' being used (meaning culturally induced ignorance,) and written pieces like this:

Some ways to promote such engagement are annotation tools. Given the rise of tools like for text and EdPuzzle/VideoAnt etc. for videos, it seems there are ways to invite contextualization/credibility checks of many types of digital artifacts. These tools can be clunky or confusing but suggest one path to remediate the issue of decontextualization Shaffer cogently identifies.

I have no idea what these annotation tools are and never knew 'remediate' was a word! Help!! This was all compounded by the irony of the Course being about engagement, as I was feeling a little un-engaged because it was taking so long to understand the concepts and language. Sometimes when I read articles or information and it is written in accessible language I feel like I am in a kayak, darting through the fast waters of a deep river, excited, exhilarated, enjoying the rapidity and dexterity of the content. Often with #engageMOOC I was in the kayak but the waters did not hold me up and I clunked into rocks and had to get out and occasionally push. However this is not to say I did not thoroughly enjoy it and gain a lot of new information and insight from it, not the least being how language is vital for engagement! My ignorance in some ways was a blessing because it enabled me to feel like I was stupid and 'uneducated' when I know I am not. How many times do we unintentionally put people into that position when we rely on language that is not accessible to all? This is nothing to do with dumbing down, it is to do with opening up the doors to complex ideas by ensuring the key can be used by everybody. For me, language is the first key to opening the doors of engagement.

So, if language is the first key to engagement, what comes next? I believe this is where curiosity steps in, there must be a desire to know something that we do not already know about 'the other.' Often this is generated by finding out something that goes against the story we already have, an 'I didn't know that' moment. In my work this often comes from the sharing of stories, cultural or personal, that challenge the overriding narrative in mainstream media. (more on how they become the main narrative later thanks to the MOOC!) I remember when I first worked with men in a high security prison. I was curious about what 'they' would be like. When I heard their stories, my whole view on these men changed and although I could not condone much of what they had done, I absolutely had a better understanding of what systems had been in place that caused them to do what they had done. So curiosity is the second key in opening the doors of engagement.

And as I am a storyteller and in stories '3' is the magic number, we need the third key to open the doors to engagement. In her book, The Story Factor, Annette Simmons states "Objective data does not go deep enough to engender trust." I agree with this. If you look at my previous blogs we know that if we purely give data it only impacts on the language processing area of our brains, (very simply put.) If we want people to emotionally connect, we need rich language, metaphor, story. To trust someone or something, we need to know them, we need to know their story. This video is a possible example. The CNN reporter is giving the woman the facts but she is not engaging with them at all. Perhaps if he told her the story of how and why she would understand better.Thus, story is the third key in opening the doors to engagement.

The next big question is how do we give everybody a copy of the keys? In our wonderful digital world, surely we can make them accessible to everybody. This is very much what the #engageMOOC was about, how the digital world is manipulating the story and offering us keys to false treasures. In the old days a hypnotist could hold his fat, gold watch up in front of a theatre of people, swing it from side to side and create false realities for them whilst he took the money from their pockets, now the hypnotists sit behind our computer screens and hold up algorithms that swing information from side to side and distort our realities until we believe the truth is a lie and a lie is a truth. They are expert storytellers with powerful, powerful tools. For me the most useful component of #engageMOOC came in the form of Mike Caulfield -who gave simple techniques that allow us to track news items/images to their source and find if they are true or false. In a world where children are exposed to the internet daily, surely we are beholden as a society to train them to become detectives of the truth in the vast forest of the world wide web. They need to be able to recognise whether that is their granny or in fact the big bad wolf wearing the granny's clothes!

I truly believe the internet is an amazing tool and it promotes the sharing of stories. I often smile when I hear 'adults' saying that young people do not talk anymore as they are always on their phones - what do you think they are doing on their phones? They are talking! In his book 'The Story Wars' Jonah Sachs uses the phrase 'digitoral' to describe the next main phase that is coming in terms of communication. There is no longer a single source of news or information that comes from the BBC, CNN, The Times, The New Yorker, Al Jazeera; now there is an amazing array of voices to be heard and images to be seen. Our job is to ensure that we can share with others how to identify those voices (or bots) that would seek to drive us apart with false narratives. Our job is to show how we can build bridges of engagement between those that have been driven apart by their belief in those false narratives. Our job is to introduce a narrative of hope, of peace, of understanding and reconciliation. Our job is to use accessible language, promote curiosity, provide platforms and tools for the sharing of 'true' stories and I believe #engageMOOC was one of the ways to do this.

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