Engagement = Coercion?

I started writing this in 2018, and I still struggle with the ideas that I’m trying to express with this idea. Ultimately I’m talking about the power structure in classrooms, or online environments and how those who are uncomfortable with those power structures can do very little with the environments themselves to dilute the power differential.

I’m often troubled by the term engagement. If attention to a thing is the most important commodity in modern capitalism, is engagement worth more than mere attention? We have seen with things like video games that attention is one thing, but engagement is a whole other metric. There’s an emotional component to engagement that isn’t there with mere attention.

And is engagement a coercion strategy? Are we asking students to become invested in something based on the value we think it will add to a student’s learning, even using marks as a lever to get students to do what we want them to do?

PAY ATTENTION!

I totally remember having that yelled at me. The lie that’s embedded in that line is that it’s missing the obvious – to what? In most cases, the missive should read “Pay attention to me!” No wonder I did so mediocre in school – I don’t really react well to that, and I think most of us don’t react well to that sort of pandering. That sort of coercive effort of attention grabbing never worked well for me. Maybe it’s the belief I hold that “good work gets noticed” and as I’ve gotten older I still think that’s true somewhat. But it might be 20 years later, after it’s made the rounds and the artist has died. Or the author. Or the creator. You see that on YouTube now, with someone putting out a video in early 2009, and it comes up in a search and it’s great. And has 234 views. You have a whole algorithm in the way of finding things organically now, and with no real way to control how you are served content (and that’s probably the google killer – having an adjustable algorithm that feeds you not only what you want but how you want) content creators that are successful aren’t successful because of their content per se, it’s that they know how to manipulate the algorithm to get you to see the content.

Which brings us back to metrics and measurements. Modern engagement metrics have shifted language such that really it’s attention, and not engagement, that they’re measuring. It literally took close to four years for me to figure out what bothered me about engagement metrics. Now I know it’s not about engaging with someone, it’s about getting them to pay attention to you. It explains a lot about why modern advertising methods are all about “engagement” which is theoretically deeper than “attention” – but the metrics they use (click-throughs, time on page) really don’t speak to engagement, as it does to attention.

Now when I’m talking about engagement in a classroom that’s likely different than engagement in an online environment – but engagement in an online environment is measured using the same methods that are about attention – which is a bit of a passé way to look at engagement in a classroom. Paying attention to a lecture is different than engaging with a lecture – and paying attention to a post in the LMS is different than engaging with a post in the LMS. Engaging is more associated with doing something in an educational context. So in many ways applying the common way of measuring engagement is not going to elicit much useful information in an educational context. Yet I still see people building courses in such a way to try and leverage attention, rather than engagement.

What do you think will engage people better? A well formed discussion question, or a lengthy video with interactive “engagement” in the form of questions? I would think that a well formed discussion question might linger longer in one’s mind.

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