Notes from the Holy Wars: Bitmoji, Zoom, & Other Longings
When is a Twitter battle about Bitmoji Classroom like church unrest about worship via Zoom? This is the unlikely question that came to me recently, as I scrolled through my Twitter list of educators.
The #BitmojiClassroom Wars
I was taking a breather from news of the Portland protests. For 60+ days, the Portland pro-#BLM and anti-federal protests have woven an intense and terrifying narrative, punctuated by roars of late-night flashbang munitions from the protest site just across the river from where I live. When I started scrolling through Twitter, I thought the educator list might be a balm of sorts, bring me fresh ideas and the excitement of people doing something new. I didn’t expect what I found.
This was the first Tweet I saw:
While the sentiment isn’t new, I haven’t seen it expressed this directly before. From the beginning of the incursion of computer and other digital technologies into the American classroom, the mantra among ed-tech educators has been, “Pedagogy first.” In other words, don’t add technologies to a lesson unless you have a sound pedagogical reason for doing so. Another way to think of it: what is the tech making possible in your lesson that would otherwise not be possible? If there’s no good answer, the tech’s probably just a gimmick, often given a more palatable name: “engagement.”
This tweeter called out bitmojis and “cutesy crap” as gimmicks, in favor of chunking lessons and assessment, i.e., pedagogy. But after only a few more minutes of reading, I realized this was no one-off comment. The writer had thrown down a gauntlet. I was in the crossfire of the Bitmoji Classroom Wars.
You know an emoji is a teeny image that conveys meaning. The smiley face is the quintessential emoji (once known as an emoticon). 😷 The Bitmoji Classroom takes that further. It’s a virtual environment a teacher creates– a classroom– centered around an avatar of that teacher. Education Week has an in-depth discussion of the Bitmoji battle.
Here’s a taste of what I saw on Twitter:
I noticed a couple of things. Subjects and grade levels spanned the range of K-12 grades and academic subjects. The races of the teachers seemed to be an even mix of white, Black and other people of color. Repeatedly, teachers remarked that making a Bitmoji classroom helped relieve stress. In a situation where you don’t know where you will be teaching– or teaching from— being able to claim space of any kind is a powerful way to feel in control.
Many teachers reported that becoming immersed in a creative project was pleasurable (see the Maker movement for examples of what some educators have known for some time now). And finally, for some, making a Bitmoji classroom helped ease their disappointment at not being able to set up a physical classroom and their sadness about not sharing a physical space with the young people they like so much.
Which brings me to the (unlikely) parallel.
The Holy Wars of Zoom
I’ve been writing about my work in bringing my church into the digital world and the possibility of seeing parallels that might relate to– and help deal with– the complexities of meaningfully moving digital technologies into education. This work is peppered with small moments that beg to be unpacked. One recent moment came via a short email from a long-time church member to the committee that works with pastors to shape worship.
I don’t fully understand the power dynamics in situations like this. What I observe is that long-term members, usually long-retired, write emails offering examples of how other churches do things. The emails are polite and helpful in tone. This tone is locally characterized as “Portland-nice,” a passive aggressive way to criticize or complain. I imagine it as similar to the Southern, “Bless your/his/her heart!” which generally means something profane. As a former New Yorker, I’m more accustomed to direct communication, which has been known to ruffle feathers.
That the email had been forwarded to me, a worship tech team member and chair of Communications Committee, meant one thing: the email was distressing to one or both of the pastors and I was being invited, asked, to step in.
The gist of the email: Covid-19 might require that worship be moved online, but the online Worship needed to be “worshipful.” The gentle suggestions included 1) having at least one minister actually in the church to participate in the service, especially the minister giving the sermon; 2) having the ministers be in traditional robes; 3) having the organist and choir director, who was taking on the role of the choir, at the organ and in the church.
Instead, the technology team proposed options that technologies made possible. Photographs of the church interiors could be used as virtual backgrounds during a Zoom session. Pastors could wear their robes and stoles. They could also bring familiar objects to the scene: a pair of candlesticks, a chalice, a beautiful bowl and pitcher of water to suggest the baptismal font. After the first session with the tweaks in place, things felt better, congregants reported. That Sunday felt more “worshipful.”
Can Digital Technologies Help Us Cope with Longing?
Yes. Digital technologies can help.
In the face of the stay-at-home orders of Covid-19, people missed their routines and the places those routines happened. Working in a coffee shop. Meeting a colleague for lunch or drinks after work. Sending kids off to school and heading to the office. Getting together with friends and neighbors. The library, the barber, the movies, the concert hall. When people talked of these things, the longing for the familiar came through. Maybe in each familiar place, a ghost of themselves was waiting for them to return.
In the Bitmoji classroom, digital technologies brought the familiar closer. In the Sunday worship experience, the principals took on familiar, traditional appearances and returned to familiar physical spaces. Similarly, most of the Bitmoji classrooms were replicas of the teacher’s traditional space. The teacher’s desk was typically at the front of the room, along with a blackboard the teacher had filled with a welcome message and/or academic instructional points. Some teachers included neat rows of desk and chairs.
The teachers felt better.
The pastors felt better.
The pastors’ uneasy congregants felt better.
So, can digital technologies help cope with longing? Certainly.
And, then it gets complicated: What happens after everyone comes together in the virtual space?
Nothing for a while. But physical, day-to-day rituals, routines, and relationships mapped onto a virtual space are a little like junk food. Initially, they satisfy. Slowly, though, eventually, a craving arises, for more than a look-alike world where all a person needs to do is sign in.
Then is when the real planning must begin. Where are the opportunities for dialog and the emotional risk-taking that builds a deep sense of human connection? Where are experiences that involve co-creating, problem solving with peers, taking initiative? Can a participant know they have mattered to someone in that shared space; can they believe they have nudged the world in a better direction? All these are keys to deep satisfaction in the physical world. The best teachers, pastors, leaders know these are not only possible in virtual worlds, they are necessary.
The important question is, how? How do they design virtual spaces that lead to not only the expected outcomes, i.e., academics or prayer, but to the deeper opportunities?
And how do we, the ones experienced with these spaces, inspire them to begin?