Memes, Contexts, Connected Learning

Shyam Sharma and Maha Bali

Shyam and Maha wrote this post as a reflection on MakeCycle#2 where participants made their own memes as an assignment in #CLMOOC. -Ed

Imagine going to a party where you know everyone, but when the conversation begins, you are lost. You dig out your cell phone to look up the definition of what everyone is talking about, going on to skim through a Wikipedia entry. You also ask one of your friends to explain one of the sample images that you found on the web. But the more you learn about the subject, the more you struggle to understand what everyone is saying.

philosoraptorOne of us felt something like the above when first reading about memes as the focus of the second week of clmooc, a connected learning community/course that we participated in. Having lived in the US longer where he also studied popular culture in graduate school, Shyam knew about memes as an internet phenomenon. But for Maha, the subject was new.

Derived from Greek “mimesis” (imitation), the word “meme” refers to “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture” (according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The Wikipedia entries for “meme” and “internet meme” also highlight that memes act as units “for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices.” Indeed, memes are understood as cultural analogue to “genes” in biology in that they “self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.” Thus, memes can be hard to understand for anyone outside of particular cultures and contexts.

Education Across Contexts
contextIn the meantime, as part of a group of facilitators for a network called EdConteXts, we’ve been trying to connect educators across contexts around the world with a focus on amplifying voices from the global peripheries.

In this context, the concept of memes reminded us how local popular culture practices, educational contexts/systems, and linguistic/cultural frames of reference can complicate the opportunity for making learning connected. Even as the internet and especially the advent of networked learning through open online courses offer tremendous affordances and opportunities for educators across contexts, those opportunities may reinforce (rather than automatically break down) barriers of communication and learning without appropriate caution or intervention from educators.

Memes are powerful for connecting people by allowing them to express and spread ideas in engaging ways. But when people across borders don’t share the culture and context behind these powerful means of communication and connection, they only serve to remind us that the internet is more of a means for connection and communication rather than a community as many assume it is. The communities in the internet are built, often gradually, often one person at a time. Some ideas are easier to convey or spread, and some communities form more quickly, but some ideas and communities around them require us to invest a lot of time and effort.

Meaning Across Contexts
owl-teacherBy definition, memes invite us to take/share something from one context and give meaning in another. With this aspect of memes in mind, Shyam wrote a blog post by mocking his own persona as a presumptuous professor of writing who was eager to teach the whole world how to “write well”–until he encountered a debilitating obstacle when he Googled how his students from different parts of the world might understand the “owl” in the banner of his MOOC. The very image of the owl evokes quite different perceptions in the minds of the students.

Within communities that already have shared experiences, knowledge, perspective, and so on, the internet and its many powerful products such as memes can tremendously help create and strengthen community, as well as achieve many other goals. But when some of the conditions that are often assumed to exist are not there, the internet may not be the same powerful thing that many tend to believe. This means that there is an educationally valuable tension involved when we use memes as a means of making and conveying meaning across contexts.

Communicating Across Context as an Educational Objective
However, some challenges are there to be overcome, and the obstacle against understanding one another across cultures/contexts is one of them. To cite Wikipedia again, “Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts,” meaning that by definition, memes are actively modified, parodied, appropriated, mocked. In this sense, memes offer a unique opportunity for us to connect educators across borders around the world.

We are all, to some extent, context-blind. We are incapable of taking account of different contexts simultaneously and sufficiently, even when we are conscious. Maha realized this after writing a blog post about cultural differences in perception about different animals, using a few images to make her point. She didn’t anticipate that her meme itself may not be comprehensible to everyone in all contexts. First of all, the meme assumed the viewer will look at the image at the top, then the one beneath it to contrast one view of the animal with another, rather than read the top line followed by the bottom line as normal English text is read. The meme is not funny or even meaningful if you read it that way. Also, the meme uses culturally relevant symbols such as the red circle with a diagonal “not allowed” sign, and uses hot dogs and burgers as symbols of food containing beef and pork. None of this is universal.

Blogpost describing the graphic available here:

But context-awareness is an important training that we all need to have, not only if we want to engage in educational activities across contexts but also for teaching context-awareness in our physical classrooms. Maha had once seen a graphic that made fun of sexism in Disney Princess stories. In her class, she used an image of the Disney Princesses without the tag-lines, and asked students to question how gendered and sexist the stories were. She used the image in one of her teacher education classes. It had never occurred to her that, first, some students were not familiar with the Disney rendering/version of the characters like Cinderella and Snow white. And second, that some male students were not even familiar with stories like Beauty and the Beast, they were not of our Egyptian culture. Those were all Western stories, made larger and personified by Disney. They were not universal symbols. Situations like this when teachers realize the importance of not assuming any context as universal are becoming more common as we enter classrooms that are more “globalized.”

The Affordance and Opportunity of Memes
testing_cartoonBy their very definition, memes also allow for mimicry, critique, and playfulness (including self-deprecation) that make critique more engaging. In Shyam’s blog post, images, and follow up conversations on social media, Shyam humorously “became” the owl who tries to offer a universally relevant education to the members of the animal kingdom. In a recombination of an old cartoon making fun of standardized assessment as “fair” posted on Twitter by Maha, Shyam used the Socratic method to suggest that not all animals might respond well to the same method of learning and teaching.

owl-culturesEducation should involve act of overcoming cultural and knowledge barriers. But that should not be done by asking or expecting everyone to learn and understand our own culture as if it represents a “universal” set of ideas and practices. When we tried our hands and minds at memes, we realized that it is only when educators and learners from different backgrounds are willing to  strive to understand and promote the knowledge, experiences, and perspectives of other people and societies across different borders that they can begin to realize the potentials of the internet and connected learning opportunities.

owl-meaningsIn sum, this has been one of the most exciting and fun MOOC activities we have worked on. As we reflect on the experience, we certainly don’t mean to say that educators across contexts should not use memes to communicate their ideas; in fact, we found the idea of using memes to communicate ideas across contexts quite useful and exciting.  But we did realize two important things from the exercise:

1) educators should recognize the importance of cultural context in our conversations as well as teaching, and

2) the internet and the open learning opportunities that it offers can help us share our knowledge, experience, and perspectives across contexts and cultures if we are not just excited by the opportunities but also conscious about creating even more potential barriers against genuinely understanding one another across contexts.

We realized that we need to open our ears and eyes and hearts if we want to truly take advantage of the web of people and ideas as educators. One way to do this is by using memes as a critical, creative, funny, and even self-deprecating means of communication.

10 thoughts on “Memes, Contexts, Connected Learning

  1. I found this post to be immensely interesting. I hadn’t thought about the cultural context, but you are so right. We’ve hosted several high school exchange students and our own daughter lived in Turkey for a year her last year of high school. We saw many instances of the importance of understanding cultural context. You’ve given me one more thing to think about.

  2. I read both the blog posts that inspired this collaboration, and I am so grateful for the kind of thinking you brought to the mix, and how you shared your exploration of memes in this deepened way.
    Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Kevin, and thank you all who are facilitating clmooc for inspiring us. That spirit of collaboration on a MOOC activity also is inspired by people like you and Terry

  3. wow. Fantastic post Maha and Shyam! Really thought provoking and great to read such a deeply reflective piece on a media / communication format (the meme) that is commonly used in a light-hearted, humourous & even flippant way.
    Aside from my involvement in EdConteXts (which has taught me an incredibly large amount in a very short time about the importance of context and culture as a filter colouring our perceptions of things) I have been working on a project with our diversity team on unconscious bias in our organisation (at work) which has a lot of synergy with what you’ve said in this post: > that ultimately we are all biased (it is not humanly possible NOT to be biased, simply due to our own limited capacity to process the vast amounts of information our brains receive…) BUT it IS possible to become more aware of your unconscious biases and how they impact your thinking and decision making and to reframe these to minimise the impact.
    I absolutely agree that there is insufficient recognition of the importance of cultural context in education (and indeed other relevant contexts that limit the comprehensibility of a message – e.g. physical / intellectual disability) – and nowhere is this probably more apparent than in online learning (particularly open online learning) where the move towards standardisation and globalisation of experience directly opposes recognition of context.
    This is why, as I progress through this EdConteXts journey with you I’m increasingly recognising the significance of this initiative — thanks for your foresight : )

  4. This is exactly the sort of reflection which fascinates me. I feel we can take it further – what memes can be imagined which might act as universals – possible?

    When we talk about context – do we take into account multiple dynamic contexts within contexts within contexts? 🙂 this is getting exciting

    Thank u so much for your work

  5. I was a little off the grids lately and just read the conversation here. THANK YOU Julie, Kevin, Tanya, and Simon for your kind notes and thoughtful comments.

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