Shaping the university in a networked era

The University of the Arts London is a dynamic environment containing a heady range of teaching and learning practices. What all of these approaches have in common is that they have to (if they aren’t extra curricular) negotiate the structures required to validate and quality control higher education degrees in the UK. As soon as any course considers the digital (beyond posting content in the VLE or teaching a specific software) they discover that they are caught between network and hierarchy.

CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulgodard

To put it another way, they are caught between the Web and the Institution which operate on radically different principles. For example, within the institution the course tends to be the root organising principle with students grouped within it, whereas online the individual is the root, or the centre, and connects to groups. This is significant difference and while in recent years the university sector has claimed to shift focus onto the students (for example the emergence of the ‘student experience’ as an institutional concept) the core mechanisms of the university remain relatively unchanged.

One very good reason for this is because universities operate at scale. The other reason is that, again in recent years, universities have rightly been required to consider, and respond to, issues of diversity, inclusion, sustainability and equity. It takes a significant amount of ‘structure’ to create an equitable environment at scale. [What I have seen of ‘agile’ networked approaches to learning are often highly exclusive, favouring those with agency and various forms of privilege. I see similar effects when education is undertaken at scale in the digital but in a non-networked manner, for example MOOCs]

There are many examples of courses and groups negotiating the tension between the network and hierarchy successfully at UAL but they tend to have four characteristics in common.

  1. They are the smaller courses, with lower student numbers
  2. They are led by individuals with a clear understanding of the value of working in a networked (often Resident) manner
  3. The teaching team are happy to use a combination of institutional and Web-based platforms as appropriate
  4. Much of the networked activity is not formally revealed to the institution for fear of it being shut down

On point four, it’s of great interest to me how an institution (I’m taking in general terms here, not specifically about UAL) approaches the networked environments and practices. Most institutions now understand there is value in the network but often kill that value in the process of institutionalising it. For example, most Social Media policies stifle, rather than promote, the use, and potential value for the institution of staff being active in Social Media. On the other hand we are all aware of the ideological compromises, risks and potential exclusivity of many networked approaches such as running a course via Facebook.

My day job as Head of Digital Learning is at the nexus of these issues and tensions. For me it’s about designing ways of supporting networked approaches at scale (and articulating the value of those approaches) while keeping connected to the institution at key points (for example summative assessment). I don’t believe we need to redesign the whole institution to make this work but we do need to reconsider the principles our teaching and learning is based on. A few ‘design’ principles that I’d recommend:

  1. We need to find ways of operating in a networked manner which can work at scale but which don’t assume that technology is the ‘answer’ in of itself.
  2. We need to positively incorporate networked approaches and stop thinking of the digital as only ‘that thing we have to do because we have run out of floor space’, or ‘that thing we do because there are “too many” students’.
  3. We need to stop designing our courses with the underlying notion that the face-to-face is the course and the digital is only there to support the face-to-face. (most students spend more time learning online than face-to-face no matter how high their ‘contact’ hours are)
  4. We need to frame ‘independent’ study as much more than ‘doing the homework’ or (in keeping with the point above) what you do in between face-to-face sessions.
  5. We need to acknowledge that the network (the Web) exists and design our courses accordingly.
  6. We need to acknowledge that using disciplines as a primary mode of structuring our institutions has serious limitations for students in a digital era.
  7. Given the point above, we need to acknowledge that students operate in a much larger information and communal (possibly collaborative) environment than the university itself.
  8. We need to redesign the way we formally capture the design of courses and the way we articulate these designs to students while still being mindful of diversity, inclusion and equity.

There are two projects currently directly responding to many of these points at UAL: Modual, run by Fred Deakin and UAL Futures, run by Luke Whitehead. There are also numerous examples of courses at UAL which are well aware of these themes/issues and do a great job of negotiating tensions between the network and the hierarchy to the benefit of their students. In my role I attempt to identify inclusive uses of networked approaches and look for ways to embed this in the quotation of the university.

We are brilliant at working in an agile, networked manner in activities which sit alongside the machinery of running and awarding degrees – we also know what ‘good practice’ looks like within courses. Our challenge is in creating institutional structures (hierarchy) which can encourage and support those approaches while holding them in an open hand.

 

I am helping to run a, free, open to all, ‘Platform’ event on the 1st of December at Chelsea college of art entitled ‘Critical Creative Digital: Shaping the university in a networked era’. http://events.arts.ac.uk/event/2017/12/1/Critical-Creative-Digital-Shaping-the-university-in-a-networked-era/  (do sign-up and come along if you can make it)

 

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Visualising digital practices using V&R

Myself and Alison Le Cornu recently published “Using ‘Visitors and Residents’ to visualise digital practices” an open access paper reviewing the development of the Visitors and Residents idea. The paper describes the heritage of the V&R mapping process and details a visual pattern-based approach to clustering and analysing large groups of maps. This is a significant step as it expands the Visitors and Residents work beyond a discussion facilitating metaphor to a workable qualitative research instrument.

At the heart of the paper is the presentation and analysis of data from a Higher Education Academy funded project which generated circa 400 V&R maps from staff and students at 18 higher education institutions from across the UK.

From: Using ‘Visitors and Residents’ to visualise digital practices
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 8 – 7 August 2017
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7802/6515
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i18.7802   – (Graphic design by Paul Tabak)

I won’t rehash the description of the data collection and analysis here as that’s all in the paper, so do take a look if you are interested in using the V&R mapping as part of a qual data method.

What’s rewarding is to have finally captured the narrative of the progression of the work from ‘a fun thing to do in a conference session’ to an innovative research instrument. Significantly, the Visitors and Residents narrative contains contributions from numerous friends and colleagues who have enriched the thinking and taken the work in new directions. For me this is a perfect example of the richness of working opening and posting CC licenced materials online for others to use and modify.

I’m currently working with Ian Truelove on a version of the mapping which crosses the digital/physical space (locations) divide in teaching and learning. The mapping approach we are discussing includes ‘Independent’ and ‘Dependant’ for the vertical axis and the extension of Visitor and Resident metaphor into ‘hunter gatherer’ (Visitor) and ‘farmer’ (Resident). The plan is to use this with course teams to visualise and discuss how they provide ‘nutrition’ for students (and how they support students in developing their own, sustainable, forms of ‘nutrition’ – yes, this is a bit like the ‘give a man a fish – teach him to fish’ idea).

The original description of V&R was largely based on ‘visibility’ or leaving a social trace. That doesn’t operate as well in physical environments where it is possible to be visible while in Visitor mode, for example, studying alone in the library. The hunter gatherer/farmer interpretation allows us to describe learner modes of engagement in both digital and physical environments.

The vertical axis of Independent and Dependant draws out the important distinction between those times where teaching/technical/library staff are involved (this could be expressed as ‘contact’ time) and those times where students are working without direct input from staff. We have been careful to ensure that the digital/physical boundary is not tied to either axis as all modes of learning engagement can take place in either type of space.

I’m keen to counter the idea that particular spaces (physical or digital) are intrinsically linked with a specific pedagogy. For example, while a lecture theatre does engender or encourage (partly through tradition) more didactic forms of teaching it can be used in many different ways (especially when digital spaces are incorporated into the face-to-face teaching). Similarly, Social Media as a genre of space does not mandate a particular form of dialogue or engagement. The new mapping process we are working on is designed to explore the relationship between spaces of all forms and modes of teaching and learning.

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Creative Digital Attributes

One of the challenges we face is bridging the macro and the micro of approaches to teaching and learning. On the one hand we have high level university-wide strategies and on the other the design of individual teaching sessions. The gulf between these two ‘levels’ is so wide that it can be difficult to understand how strategy might influence the immediacy of day-to-day teaching.

Generally, course validation process, handbooks and the design of assessments should bridge this gap but it’s rare to meet anyone in a teaching role that sees the course validation process as a positive design opportunity – one which draws clear threads between teaching values or principles and the day-to-day of running a course.

Incorporating digital into teaching and learning  inevitably suffers from the same problem. We can create strategies that talk of embedding digital into all aspects of teaching and discuss digital ‘tips and tricks’ for teaching sessions but struggle to define, or work with, course level digital learning design. The result is often laudable institutional aspirations and a smattering of ‘groovy’ digital interventions by confident staff who have agency through their structural position within the institution… 

This year the University of the Arts London launched its Creative Attributes Framework (CAF), which provides a valuable shared language to respond to the challenges I’ve outlined. It’s nine high level attributes which are clustered into three areas (all of which fall under the banner of Agency):

Making things happen Proactivity
Enterprise
Agility
Sharing abilities and accomplishments with others  Communication 
Connectivity
Storytelling
Life-wide learning Curiosity
Self-efficacy
Resilience

The CAF was designed by Careers and Employability at UAL and is a great example of how taking a ‘becoming’ rather than ‘skills’ approach to employability stops ‘getting a job’ being in opposition to ‘getting a degree’. Or perhaps it demonstrates that curriculum and employability can operate on similar principles if the focus is on personal development rather than on collecting-knowledge-and-skills. The CAF has been well received at UAL and because many aspects of digital teaching and learning are about ‘becoming’ it was an obvious next step to develop a digital lens for the CAF.

The CAF-Digital or D-CAF as it’s becoming known is currently a simple list of digital skills, practices, capabilities, literacies, behaviours… which operate on a meso level, providing bridges or stepping stones between the macro and the micro – a form of curricular or learning design scaffolding. For example:

  • Being able to switch between different discussions and roles online – in Agility
  • Managing collaborative writing or media production online – in Communication
  • Documenting, reflecting on and analysing the development of an idea online – in Storytelling
  • Managing and analyzing large bodies of data – in Enterprise
  • Constructively responding to critique online – in Resilience
  • Seeking out people from beyond your immediate community – in Curiosity

Trying to define the D-CAF elements as a particular type in terms of skills, practices etc is not the aim. What is important is that they operate at a meso, in-between, level and that we agree that they are a valuable aspect of developing a particular creative attribute in the digital. The elements of the D-CAF are designed to be contextualised by disciplines and courses, each of which can describe their approach to facilitating a relevant collection of the D-CAF elements. Importantly, courses can also map their curricular to the D-CAF to highlight which elements their teaching supports in a language students can relate to.

The current draft D-CAF has around 30 elements mapped to the nine CAF attributes. We are in the process of consulting with colleagues from around the university to ensure that these elements are in the best possible form before we publish/post a version 1.0. I have a basic rule that the D-CAF has to fit on one sheet of A4 paper, just to keep us disciplined… I’ll share version 1.0 here under a CC license. My hope is that others can build on the work and modify it to reflect the character/aspirations of their own institutions.

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Future Happens – Social Media

On May the 5th around 49 people from 19 institutions gathered at LSE for the second Future Happens event – “Connect:Disconnect” focusing on Social Media in teaching and learning. The event was co-run by LSE and UAL, hosted by myself, Peter Bryant and Donna Lanclos. Over the afternoon we facilitated a series of ‘hacks’ in which we challenged groups to develop positive ‘principles’ in response to key areas. For example, how can Social Media practices help to:

  • Develop and share identity
  • Build and support community
  • Engage in debate and dialogue
  • Generate and share creativity

…in teaching and learning. This was preceded by an ‘intervention’ (via Skype) from Bon Stewart to get our minds up and running.

‘BURNT’ notes

(The background to the event is here http://www.futurehappens.org/future-happens-2/

The responses to the hacks were captured in a series of Google docs which can be found here: http://www.futurehappens.org/fh2/

Example principles generated on the day include:

  • Valuing difference in yourself and others, being civil and inclusive.
  • Enabling informed choice and empowering through awareness of options
  • Building communications channels and removing barriers to realise a connected community outside the physical space
  • Crowdsourcing/co-creation via social media enhances a sense of belonging and gives access to a greater diversity of perspectives, facilitating critical reflection
  • Encourage debate to span multiple spaces, including out of sight of the institution
  • Participation comes with an understanding that their are collective rights and responsibilities

We plan to gently curate the principles and make them available to help frame the collation/development of examples of teaching practice (or to inform the development of positive Social Media guidelines). The point being that the principles are not in-of-themselves rules or guidelines but principles-to-inform-practice. The hacks framed discussions that, within our institutions, we often can’t find the time for or which get bogged down by parochialism.  

Before we hit the hack section of the afternoon we ran an activity called ‘BURNT’. I believe we were referring to the notion of getting-your-fingers-burnt but we can’t exactly remember where the name came from. The idea was to bring all of the hopes, fears and paranoia surrounding Social Media to the surface to clear the air before we attempted to develop the principles.

Everyone wrote three post-its on this basis:

  • ORANGE: Imagined worst case scenario
  • GREEN: Super positive personal aspiration
  • PINK: True life horror story

(all in the context of teaching and learning)

Donna and Peter then clustered the results while the hacks took place. Clusters included:

Imagined worst case scenario

  • Disconnection
  • Psychological/Physical harm
  • Tech fail
  • Abuse of power
  • Reputation
  • Job security
  • Exposure

Super positive personal aspiration

  • Breaking down Barriers
  • Open and Flexible
  • Political activism/Citizenship
  • Connected Teaching & Learning
  • Career benefits

True life horror story

  • Bad things happen to me
  • Bad things happen to them
  • #fail
  • Falsification

With a few lone Post-its such as ‘@piersmorgan’ in True life horror story…

The BURNT activity did appear to clear the air and, we hope, helped groups to generate positive principles over the afternoon. We think there is something valuable to build on here in conjunction with the principles as a fairly mixed room produced BURNT items which clustered reasonably neatly (the true life horror stories we the trickiest to cluster). Alongside curating the principles we hope to get permission from participants to post the BURNT items online.

In parallel to this we also encouraged participants to note down learning designs or activities which had worked well using Social Media. For me, uncovering workable nuggets of teaching and learning is key to propagating positive practice.


Having initially run through the various outputs from the event it is clear to me than many of the risks associated with the use of Social Media in teaching contexts are the most powerful opportunities. For example, risks around personal and professional reputation are an opportunity to discuss ‘collective rights and responsibilities’. Similarly, unease around identity and credibility is an opportunity to approach, as one group put it, ‘understanding authenticity in different contexts’. Another example is the potential to explore issues of verification and epistemology in the context of fake news or disinformation.

If we take a positive teaching approach to Social Media then the very aspects of it that are held up as problematic become opportunities to explore pertinent themes such as, identity, authenticity, citizenship and diversity. For me, this is about framing or scaffolding our students forms of engagement with Social Media to foster awareness, reflection and critical thinking. All of which underpin positive identity formation and becoming.

An important ingredient in this is establishing trust between teaching staff and their own institution. Things can go wrong no matter how well they have been designed and framed. This is when the institution needs to stand by teaching staff who have taken the time highlight the risks to students and emphasised the personal responsibility each student has in public/visible environments (through teaching and not only by issuing a list of rules).


The next step for us after the hack is to post a lightly curated version of the work from the afternoon which can feed into post-hack events run by participants in their own institutions. I hope to run a post-hack at UAL in which we collate examples of teaching that build on, or respond to, each principle. Circulating well contextualised ‘learning designs’ that take advantage of Social Media as a teaching and learning space feels like a pragmatic way to build on the hard work and critical thinking of the event. Thanks to all who took part.

 

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Politics and Social Media

Recently I was invited to speak at a hack event on Politics and Social Media for our Culture and Enterprise Programme at Central Saint Martins (the description of the event is below). The event was designed and facilitated by Richard Reynolds the course leader of the MA Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries (one of my favourite course titles of all time). Richard opened the day with a talk entitled “Politics, Social Media and the Practice of Ritual Magic” in which he made the distressingly convincing argument that Trump operates much like a magician or tribal mystic and his Tweets are in the form of ritual incantations.

I followed Richard with a talk on Trust and Digital Politics, in which I started by stating:

Not Trump – How Trump?

It’s easy to critique or satirise an individual but, following on from Richard’s talk, much more interesting to explore the factors that allowed Trump to gain and maintain power – especially as unless these conditions change we will see a succession of Trump-like leaders emerging in the West.

In terms of Trust I argued that the Digital has allowed us to Disintermediate institutions. The Web allows Trump to pronounce directly to ‘the people’ via Twitter, circumventing the media, the government and his own party.

A disintermediating Tweet.

Our trust tended to be placed in institutions which resonated with our values and we’d have faith, to a certain extent, that those institutions had integrity. Until recently political leaders in the West would represent or embody those institutions. Increasingly we see the emergence of the celebrity, or media, politician who uses political institutions as a vehicle for their persona.This is an inevitable effect of the cult-of-the-individual that the Web amplifies so efficiently.  So we have lost the trust-mechanism of institutions which, for better or worse, represented identifiable ideologies and are now left with individuals whose primary aim is to seek power. (The struggles of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK are demonstrative of this shift away from ideologically focused politics towards new forms of political persona)

The video of my talk starts from this point so I won’t essay it all out here.

Ultimately, I agree with Paul Mason in his assertion that much of what we are experiencing can be understood as a “fight between network and hierarchy” which has been brought about by digital technology:

Paul Mason

I see this fight taking place in education as much as in politics as we respond to the all pervasiveness of the Web. This was writ large for me as I prepared a session on Networked Learning for our Postgraduate Certificate Academic Practice in Art, Design and Communication. In a description of Connectivism George Siemens’ highlights the same tension between networks and hierarchies.

Hierarchy imposed structure, while networks reflect structure.

The challenge for us is in negotiating the relationship between network and hierarchy. Institutions embed and petrify power in structures which privilege particular groups. Networks tend to generate ‘mystics’ and ‘high priests’  who could, if they wished, operate without the balance hierarchical democracy can, but often doesn’t, bring.  (A phenomenon I’ve seen occur within Connectivist courses). It’s complex, fascinating, and requires our immediate attention.

 

 


A WORLD OF OUR OWN: POLITICS and SOCIAL MEDIA

“The Future of Trust in Digital Politics”

(event description by Richard Reynolds)

Many of us are living in a post-truth world, a world defined by ‘alternative facts’. The Brexit referendum and its aftermath have been shaped by irrational trolling and online ranting. President Trump tweets his policy decisions. Terrorists and other outlawed groups use – or attempt to use – the same online platforms as government agencies. States wage hybrid warfare, and use online disinformation as a tool in their blended online/offline military strategies. Access to news is shaped and distorted by each individual’s known tastes and preferences. Citizens have uploaded their political life and identity, and sometimes struggle to make any connection back to the politics of the offline world.

It’s scarcely necessary to describe the impact that social media is having on politics. We only have to look at the outcomes of elections, referendums and other political conflicts around the world. More than simply a tool, Social Media has changed the way that politicians structure their careers, and the ways in which voters (and non-voters) engage with politics and respond to political debates. Social Media has become central to the ways in which governments articulate and impose the power of the state over its citizens.

On Friday 24 March and Saturday 25 March, the Culture and Enterprise Programme at Central Saint Martins will be hosting a two-day immersive conference and hackathon on the future of politics and social media. Expert guests will be sharing their views on the present and future role of Social Media in our political life. All delegates will have the opportunity to participate in a two-day interactive group project, which will attempt to answer the question: ‘What is the future of trust in digital politics?’

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Digital leadership framework

Last year I wrote a quick post proposing a simple way to manage high level discussions about digital. This came from my involvement in digital strategy discussions which often slid across thematic and organisational areas, ending up with a scattering of actions which looked like a troubleshooting list and a desire to ‘get involved’ with new technology. The framework I jotted down simply proposed that discussions should understand their location within three areas: Digital Culture, Digital Medium, Digital Service.

For a recent talk I was asked to give by the Leadership Foundation on Digital Leadership I refined the framework and illustrated it with categories which sit within each area. I started with three headlines which set the context for the framework:

Digital is not the future: An idea the formed the basis of www.futurehappens.org with Peter Bryant

To harness the digital at an institutional level we have to focus on the present and not place digital in that the-next-big-thing-will-save-us category. Clearly we need to keep an eye on the horizon but I know our students would thank us if we prepared them for the digital ‘now’ not an unknown and variously utopian/dystopian imagined future.

The digital and physical coexist – something I’ve written about as ‘coalescent spaces’

I’ve written about this before but in summary – we need to respond to the digital as one part of the ‘real’ world not as a separate entity. Digital and non-digital activities flow in and out of each other.

Digital is too big

It’s an element of almost everything we do and not a viable starting place for a discussion, hence the framework.

Culture – Medium – Service: A digital leadership framework

Clearly the subcategories are not exhaustive and some of the have an Art and Design twist but I hope they show how the main areas differ. What’s interesting is how decisions in one layer effect activities in the others but as institutions we struggle to make these connections. So for example we might install new technology in the service layer but neglect to discuss how this might affect teaching and learning in the Medium layer. We might make bold assertions in the Culture layer but struggle to understand the implications for the Service layer etc. This is why I think the framework is useful, assuming you can get the right mix of people from across the institution involved in discussions. Before I go any further I’ll quickly describe the layers as I see them:

Service

In a digital context this could simply be IT. It’s the layer students are most likely to comment on if asked about ‘digital’ because when most people think of digital they think the technology itself rather than their practices within digital contexts. If this layer isn’t working then the other two don’t stand a chance. There’s not much point in trying to develop a digital identity if the Wifi is down.

Medium

This is where most of our day-to-day activities take place. It’s where the digital has become the location for our work and the place where we connect with each other. This is where the real work of the institution is done, for example, teaching and learning. It’s also the layer which is often least discussed strategically as discussions swing from the need to buy more 3D printers to the risks of Social Media use and not much in between.

Culture

These are the high level principles which inform the character and direction of the institution. As is always the case with culture these are often implicit or assumed to be shared values. So, for example, in my institution we have a culture of creativity and the desire to help students develop their own creative practices. How this is expressed in the digital should be an ongoing negotiation. It’s also of note that emerging practices in the digital and new forms of access/connectedness shift culture or call aspects of it into question.

You could take the framework and use it with a second axis such as scale. So we could take teaching as a subject and consider what is needed in Culture, Medium and Service terms, mapped against Individual, Course and Institution. Or to be more specific we might take a particular question from the National Student Survey in the UK such as “My course is intellectually stimulating” and consider what is required to ensure this within that grid. Or we could map against the student journey of Pre-arrival, Induction, First year, Second Year, Third year etc. These are the kind of discussions I’d like to frame at my own institution to develop a better shared understanding of the digital which cuts across traditional structural areas such as IT, Teaching and Learning and Senior Management.

The framework was well received at the Leadership Foundation event I presented at. I hope it proves to be useful. Thanks to the many colleagues who listened to me as I was formulating the framework and offered useful feedback and advice.

 

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What is the value of a library with no content?

This piece was written as an editorial for UKSG, an organisation “connecting the knowledge community and encouraging the exchange of ideas on scholarly communication”.

I don’t work in libraries but I often get invited to speak to groups of library staff about my views on the influence of ‘the digital’ in higher education. My role is teaching and learning focused and I argue that in the digital era academic libraries need to become a home for learning rather than content. Don’t panic, learning necessarily involves content.This is about emphasis, not a dualist polemic on throwing books away and making libraries into wifi flooded barns (those are known as coffee shops).

CC - Scott Library York U - https://www.flickr.com/photos/7883660@N05/466221141
CC – Scott Library York U – https://www.flickr.com/photos/7883660@N05/466221141

Many incoming students are caught in a trap. On the one hand they have been led to believe, sometimes explicitly, that knowledge captured in a physical form such as a book is good quality, or the home of ‘truth’. On the other hand they find much of the information they need for their studies out on the web in a number of different guises. The information they find rarely lets them down but they fear that much of it isn’t academically viable. Often they are right but this commonly has more to do with the strictures of academia than the nature of ‘non-library’ sources.

The trouble stems from our cultural love of certain forms of publishing and expertise over and above the substance of information we discover in any of the many forms it might take. For example, I remember a conversation with a publisher a few years ago in which he got excited about a near future when e-books could include videos, quizzes and be connected to the internet. I didn’t have the heart to point out that what he described was a website because I was pretty sure he wanted to sell ‘books’. . .

The other trap we fall into is confusing academia for learning. For the researcher or the postgrad these territories might naturally flow into one another but for an early-stage undergraduate the mechanisms, rules and culture of academia can often seem strangely abstract and obscure. An early-stage student I interviewed for a research project was struggling with just this when she commented that she had been told not to use Wikipedia because it ‘wasn’t reliable’ even though she had never found that to be the case. Her conclusion was that her institution wanted learning to be ‘difficult’ (but not in a good way).

Access to content ‘beyond’ the library is what’s new here and it’s at the root of these tensions. Unfortunately instead of responding to this new abundance of information by evolving and extending what it means to be a library some prefer to put effort into defending the purity of library content and historic, academic, ways of working as distinct from the web. This isn’t an approach that incoming students readily understand.

Many of our new students have a queasy sense that what Google points them to might not be the ‘best’ sources (without even knowing what ‘best’ means) but don’t yet have the academic tools-of-the-trade to discern or to harness the value of library-based content. Perhaps instead of showing incoming students how to use the library we should first be discussing why they should use the library or any source of information whether we ‘own’ it or not. So this brings me to the title of this editorial because rather than getting caught up in a discussion about the relative merits of digital and physical sources I prefer to ask, “What is the value of a library with no content?”. The simple answer is “expertise”.

In this era of information abundance what students desperately need is guidance not more content. A librarian should be an expert at navigating content, not owning it, and by extension they should be adept at helping students to navigate. This process is fundamentally a form of teaching which positions the library as directly responsible for learning rather than a ‘service’ one step removed from the pedagogical activities of the curriculum.

In addition to supporting what it takes to gain a qualification, a focus on learning, rather than content, is also required to foster digital capabilities which support what Leo Appleton described in an earlier editorial as ‘digital citizenship’. Here there is a clear opportunity to enrich students’ sense of self and empower them to influence the environments they find themselves in rather than simply working at becoming as employable as possible.

There are a number of challenges involved in moving any library towards this emphasis on learning:

  • there is inherently a huge amount of process based work in keeping a library running, leaving little time to help students navigate
  • it’s difficult to form meaningful teaching and learning based partnerships with academic staff are who are often too busy to engage beyond handing over reading lists
  • things have changed rapidly and many people chose to work in libraries because they like to commune with content and prefer strictly defined ways of connecting with users
  • libraries are not always in the habit of making the their staff visible to students as experts (see previous point)
  • current roles and responsibilities don’t necessarily reflect the emerging forms of engagement (off and online) that libraries now need to foster

Forgive me, this is my view from ‘outside’ the library and is somewhat reductionist but possibly not unrecognisable? On the positive side I see academic libraries as having the flexibility to continue to adapt within an expansionist higher education sector. Some of the most vibrant thinking around ‘what it means to learn and to produce knowledge’ in the digital era has been nurtured by libraries.

There is pressure on curriculum to respond to a growing set of policies and external measures which risks dehumanising the core of what students experience. Given this it’s crucial that libraries present opportunities to engage with expertise in a friendly and person-centric manner. In a time where students can Google their way to almost any ‘answer’, access to content has become less important than access to people who understand what that content means and where to head next.

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Technology isn’t human(e)

Why do we build our institutions on the principle that technology in-of-itself does useful or interesting things? I suspect it’s because culturally we cling to well ingrained assumptions, such as:

  1. Technology makes work more efficient – it reduces labour
  2. Technology is about automation – the machine ‘working’ while we control it
  3. Technology is neutral – it performs tasks without bias
  4. Technology is always developing – it is the ‘solution’ to our ‘problems’
CC Dennis Hill - https://www.flickr.com/photos/fontplaydotcom/504000141
CC Dennis Hill – https://www.flickr.com/photos/fontplaydotcom/504000141

These do hold true to a certain extent but only if you take a strict techno-centric view. The statements above are questionable as soon as we bring people into the picture and, of course, technology is an artifact. It’s designed, made and used by us.

The reason I feel the need to spell this, somewhat facile, principle out is because I worry that we do think of technology as an ‘other’, outside and beyond us. We can’t grasp its complexities so it becomes a mystery and, as is our habit, we develop superstitions about that which we do not fully understand. We almost go as far as personifying technology which is where the problem starts.

Take for example the last of the statements above: ‘Technology is always developing’. It sounds ok until you consider that technology doesn’t magically develop on its own. The statement should be: ‘People are continually developing technology’. Yet we seem comfortable to extract ourselves from the picture and think of technology, if not as an independent consciousness, then as a self-evolving entity.

The irony is that while on the one hand we lean towards personifying technology in its apparently neutral forms we are also extremely wary of those moments when it attempts to ape humanness directly. (again, I can’t get away from the forms of language here as I just said ‘it’ instead of ‘people design it to’) We like to know when we are interacting with a person and when we are interacting with code and feel at best conned and at worst abused if we confuse one for the other.

I’ve seen this in so many forms: suspicion of bots in text-based MUDs and MOOs, our response to avatars in virtual worlds (am I controlling ‘it’ or is it ‘me’?), our distaste for algorithmically generated news, our unease with talking to search bots in public and, in my case, a complex relationship with @daveobotic, my Twitter bot.

We dislike the idea of being socially or intellectually satisfied by an algorithm because we fear things we can’t clearly define as sentient, sensing a loss of our own humanity if we discover we’ve believed the code is a person. This is a classic human concern, whether it’s a Golem, Frankenstein’s monster, any number of cyborgs or artificial intelligence we have always been troubled by that which is animated but not explicitly alive. It’s one of the ways we explore the question of our own consciousness, a tantalising theme revisited throughout history in various forms.

I see these tensions playing out were education intersects with the digital. The business-like element of our institutions prefer to think of technology as in-of-itself efficient and neutral. The potential of technology to be the ‘solution’ for the ‘problem’ of teaching and learning at scale is attractive and, to a certain extent, operable if you frame education as a problem-to-be-solved. This breaks down if we see learning as transformational rather than transactional though – if we see it as a process of becoming. This is where education is intrinsically human with all of the  vulnerabilities, prejudices and generally messiness that comes as standard where people are involved – a form of education that anyone who has ever taught will understand.

Nevertheless, I see an emerging trend in which we set-out to synthesise ‘contact’ in the digital to scale-up what we claim to be transformational education using a shell of transactions masquerading as persons. An early example of this is the planned nudging messages of encouragement, warning or even advice sent to students driven by ‘learning analytics’.

We are being tempted by this line of thought even though we have explored all this before and know that we are masters of detecting soulless interventions. Even if our algorithms are efficient and effective our experience will be hollow and unsatisfying. I deeply doubt our ability to develop as individuals on this basis (the ‘becoming’ form of education I believe in) and argue that while the digital can be a valuable place for people to connect with each other, technology is inherently limited in its ability to ‘scale humanly’. This is not because we are incapable of designing incredibly sophisticated code, it’s because we have an instinct and desire for the conscious.

(This line of thinking extends from the “Being human is your problem” keynote given by myself and Donna Lanclos at the ALT-C conference.)

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Fighting the Learning Machine

This year’s Designs on eLearning was hosted by the New School in Manhattan. The theme ‘Anxiety and Security’ brought out some challenging thinking, especially in the keynotes which were given by Joel Towers and George Siemens (in the form of a debate) and by Audrey Watters (who posted a full transcript of her talk) on day two. Both keynotes contained much about the role education should play in society and the responsibilities we have as educators to consider ideas of social justice and respect rather than falling into behaviourist modes. This, as Audrey pointed out, is especially important if we work with digital technology because ‘edtech’ emerges  from a behaviourist ideology in which students become dehumanised extensions of a learning machine. This learning machine then becomes complicit in the bolstering of inequalities and a failure to, as George put it, ‘normalise opportunity’. In addition to this a learning machine approach does not equip our students with the ability and resilience to respond to complex problems which should be a central tenet of design education.

A particular angle on some famous complexity
A particular angle on some famous complexity

For me, developing methods of approaching complex problems as networks of practitioners demands creativity but this is then inherently in tension with what can be the ‘learning machine’ drive underpinning our institutions. The easy way to respond to this is with an ironic smile and a quasi-academic shrug. What can we do when our institutions that purport to support creativity and individuality have to run at a scale which makes the learning machine approach look like a neat ‘solution’?

One response beyond a shrug is to respond, as I believe many of the delegates at DeL did, by realising that we won’t solve these problems but that we can push back against them. For me this isn’t an either/or situation. We do need machines and algorithms to work at a scale which helps to ‘normalise opportunity’ but we also need approaches based on becoming and belonging. For example, we need to be able to upload assignments and track feedback but we also need to create moments of human connection, reflection and discourse. The digital can support both these elements of what it means to be a successful and meaningful university. Nevertheless many people want, or think of, the digital to be one or the other – a corporate machine of efficiency or an ecology of connections.

'Order' also has value
‘Order’ also has value – smashing the system is not the aim.

My view is that we do need to fight to provide more than a learning machine as the instrumental aspects of our institutions are hard wired to perpetuate (often in response to external factors) while the more humane side suffers unless we constantly advocate for it. What’s important is that this fight is not seen as an attempt to smash-the-system but rather a desire to enrich and extend what we provide to support an ideology of design and creativity which we all claim to believe in.

My hope is that we can continue to develop DeL as a space where we can facilitate this kind of discourse. The digital is quickly becoming the context where important questions about the value and nature of our work as educators are discussed – questions which perhaps struggle to find a home elsewhere? I got the sense that the delegates at DeL knew they could ‘make the tech do what they wanted’ which has shifted us towards asking: what do we want?  who is this for? and what are our responsibilities?  

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Visitors & Residents – navigate the mapping

Myself, Donna Lanclos and Lawrie Phipps are delighted to release a facilitators guide and slides for running the Visitors and Residents mapping activities (a workshop format for reflecting on, and responding to, various forms of digital engagement). These resources were developed for the Jisc Digital Leaders Programme but can be edited and adapted for different audiences. For example, a version of the individual mapping activity could be run with Students and/or teaching staff while the group mapping activity could be adapted for course teams. This post from James Clay is a good example of how the mapping can be adapted.


‘Vanilla’ version of the slides with detailed notes – designed to be edited and adapted. 

The thinking captured in these resources has been developed over a few years and refined each time we have running the mapping activity. If you have experience of running workshops then the resources should give you what you need to facilitate a mapping session.

I was once told that you had to be “Dave White” to run the discussion parts of the workshop so there is a large section in the guide which highlights themes arising from individuals maps that have been recurrent across workshops and how they can be constructively discussed. If I’m honest then the only mapping sessions that have proved challenging to run have been those with educationalists (if that’s the right term). They tend to enjoy deconstructing the principle of Visitors and Residents and the nature of the mapping rather than doing the mapping itself. I enjoy those discussions and have found them helpful in developing the work but time is limited in any workshop and sometimes you have to encourage people to get started on an activity and then discuss it’s pros and cons.

One of the strengths of the workshop format is that it is not attempting to cajole participants towards a specific set of responses:

This workshop will not hand any participant a bullet list of things to do. The intention is not to build skill sets, but to provide a space from which intentions and objectives around institutional policies can emerge. The list of things to do next will necessarily emerge from the participants, not be given by the facilitators.”

This did vex someone who asked me “what do people learn in the workshop?”, to which I replied “It depends on who they are and what direction they want to take things”. In this sense the workshop format is completely in keeping with the designers pedagogical philosophy of providing the conditions for reflection and strategic thinking without being perspective about the ‘right’ way to do things.

If you do run a Visitors and Residents mapping workshop then (if you feel moved) please let us know by using the #VandR tag in Twitter.

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