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.

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.)

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?  

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.

Education as Becoming

In the last few talks I’ve given to teaching & learning and library folk I’ve spoken about my views on what I believe education should be at the start. Rather than gently constructing an argument for my ideology and meandering towards a slow reveal (assuming anyone would notice) I’ve opened with a few simple statements to provide a frame for the rest of the talk. This appears to work well as there is an honesty to it that I suspect people appreciate.

My starting point is not new, it does not advocate smashing the system and it’s not a performance of liberal hand-wringing. I simply believe that education is a process of becoming.

This is a principle which then informs everything from curriculum design to the planning of physical spaces and the use of Social Media etc. Our undergrad students want to become one of those people that is hidden in the title of their course.

A business student and a dance student as promoted by Plymouth University using simple identifiers
A business student and a dance student as promoted by Plymouth University on an identity basis

And this is a good thing. Students come out of school looking for simple identity hooks which is why the disciplines are such a powerful way of dividing up the world. However, once we have nurtured their disciplinary sense of self and taught some key intellectual tools we should encourage the questioning of overly neat identity associations. For me this is the bridge between undergraduate and post-graduate approaches. By the time students leave their undergraduate programmes they should be weaning themselves off simplistic, generic forms of identification and using what they have learned to develop their own, more complex, sense of self.

Clearly the Resident Web is an excellent location for this process of becoming and revealing. More than that, the networked, anyone-can-publish, identity-rich side of the Web is in-of-itself amplifying the potential to ‘become’ in ways which are less aligned with specific institutions and disciplines. This is what we need to consider when designing curriculum and pedagogy underpinned by the notion of becoming in a post-digital environment.

We need to ensure that the trajectory of undergraduate programmes is towards the top of the triangle, not just because of the presence of the digital but because it is the direction needed to foster becoming.


Digital as… Culture, Medium, Service

As “The Digital” becomes a headline theme in many institutions I have been thinking about ways in which it can usefully be split into high-level areas so that various lines of activity and discussion don’t become confused. For my institution, the University of the Arts, I’m proposing the following three areas which I believe map quite well to existing groups/units/services within the university (although there are healthy overlaps). I was tempted to neaten this into a nice diagram but thought it was better to capture it before succumbing to the desire to squeeze out the blurry edges. The result is three key areas:

Digital – Culture

A set of spaces and behaviours
  • “Resident” online behaviours – co-presence
  • Teaching and learning
  • ‘Open’ scholarship and research
  • Identity and visibility
  • Discursive – collaborative – communal

Digital – Medium

A set of techniques and practices
  • Digital as a medium for expression and critique
  • Digital ‘making’
  • Design – graphic, fashion, architecture etc
  • Video, photography – ‘native’ practices
  • Digital in the context of the disciplines
  • Both “Resident” and “Visitor” modes

Digital – Service

A set of tools and transactions
  • “Visitor” modes online – leaves no social trace
  • Infrastructure
  • Access – connectivity
  • Information
  • Storage – curation
  • Entertainment
  • Commerce

I’ve arrived at these three areas by bringing together the perspectives of colleagues who are invested in differing aspects of the digital. So it’s a group effort with a modicum of ‘clustering’ added by me.

Overarching these areas for me are two principles which I believe should be fundamental to all of our digital activities:

  1. How does the activity proposed foster belonging?
  2. How does the activity proposed reduce anxiety?

Both of those could be condensed into “increase confidence” and both of them apply to students *and* staff. Obviously there are many nuances hiding in these principles, such as the idea that good pedagogy will often require all involved to take risks. Having said that, I feel that anxiety is now a default state and we need to reduce ‘bad’ anxiety before we can be constructive with risk taking.

Truth and Method – a review of Visitors and Residents

Recently I was invited to give a keynote talk as part of the research week at the Open University of Catalonia. Founded in 1994 it was the first fully online university. As you can imagine they have seen a lot of changes in the way people learn online and asked me to speak about Visitors and Residents (V&R) as a useful way of understanding online engagement. This gave me the opportunity to gather together some of the various uses of the idea that myself and others have developed.

The Palau de la Música was our UOC dinner venue (much phone based image wrangling was involved in this image 🙂

UOC did a nice job of videoing my keynote talk (if you have plenty of time – if not then read on)


You can find out about the ‘standard’ V&R mapping process here which is an effective method of making visible individuals’ engagement online. This process has been used by people in various contexts globally with one of my favourites being by Amanda Taylor with Social Work students. This starts from the principle that if we now, at least in part, live online then Social Workers need to be present in online spaces (or at least understand them as somewhere people are present).

Another interesting use of the basic mapping has been undertaken by the Mapping the digital practices of teacher educators project run by Peter Albion, Amanda Heffernan and David Jones. In an award winning paper they describe how they used a vertical axis on the map running from “Use” to “Replacement” to get teachers to map where they have used institutional platforms as they were intended and where they have reconfigured, customised or replaced them.  This is a great way of mapping the actual practice of an institution rater than assuming the technology is only being used along ‘official’ lines.

From the paper presented at SITE’2016. One of three papers awarded the Ann Thompson TPACK Paper Award. Authors: Peter Albion, Amanda Heffernan, David Jones

From the paper presented at SITE’2016. One of three papers awarded the Ann Thompson TPACK Paper Award.
Authors: Peter Albion, Amanda Heffernan, David Jones

The standard mapping process has also been used extensively by Lynn Connaway and colleges to explore how students engage with university services. A really interesting technique they are using is to extract each online tool/space to see how broad the modes of engagement are in specific groups. (The following slides were part of a presentation at the OCLC Global Council meeting, Building Our Future, April 12, 2016, Dublin, Ohio.)

Connaway, L. S., & Harvey, W. (2016). Scaling learning: Learning about our users
Connaway, L. S., & Harvey, W. (2016). Scaling learning: Learning about our users

Note how Twitter maps across all four quadrants, not just the Resident side of the map.

Connaway, L. S., & Harvey, W. (2016). Scaling learning: Learning about our users
Connaway, L. S., & Harvey, W. (2016). Scaling learning: Learning about our users

Here we can see that these students engage in email in a far narrower, less present, manner than the librarians which gives a useful insight into the manner in which the library should engage users online.

OCLC are also developing an online V&R mapping app so that individuals can map digitally and the maps can be more efficiently analysed.

This is where I come back to the “Truth and Method” title which is a reference to work by the philosopher Gadamer which Anthony Johnston, a colleague at UAL, recommended. It highlighted for me the tension between understanding practice individual by individual (Truth) and trying to uncover larger trends or themes across groups (Method). The mapping process originated as an activity for a conference session on the original V&R project. It’s gradually evolved down a number of branches into a research instrument designed to inform institutional strategy and policy. The work Lynn and OCLC is doing gathering together maps of specific services is a good example of how the process can be used to highlight trends.

Another good high-level (Method) modification of the mapping process has been designed by Lawrie Phipps for Jisc. This is a ‘group’ or ‘institutional’ mapping process which has been used in a number of workshops (some run with the help of myself and Donna Lanclos) to help staff gain an understanding of the digital ‘landscape’ or identity of there institution.

Institutional map created at a Jisc digital leadership workshop. Lawrie has updated the process more recently, replacing Visitor and Resident with Broadcast and Engage on the horizontal axis
Institutional map created at a Jisc digital leadership workshop. Lawrie has updated the process more recently, replacing Visitor and Resident with Broadcast and Engage on the horizontal axis

I was lucky enough to attend a packed workshop on this at the Jisc digifest in March. The process works well, highlighting the balance between open content, stuff you need an institutional logon for and open engagement. In Lawrie’s version Visitor and Resident is swapped out for Broadcast and Engage which broadly map to V&R in principle but are a little more direct for folk who think along institutional lines. Significantly, the vertical axis is changed to Individual and Group to capture the location of identity the activity is linked to. For example, the main university website vs a individual academic on Twitter talking about their work.

Jisc will be releasing detailed guides on running strategic V&R mapping workshops which include both the individual and group mapping formats.

The art in research terms here is to develop methods which reveal larger trends across groups without sacrificing the ‘truth’ of individuals’ personal practices. It’s certainly the case that Web provides an environment where individuals can develop practices and modes of engagement which reflect their aspirations and context in an highly personal manner.  Every V&R map is different and everyone who maps can describe in detail why their map is a particular shape.

Given that I’m wary of approaches which aim to take rich, qualitative data, and turn it into bar graphs. Sometimes numbers create a false truth, or perhaps I’m suspicious because I see numbers being used as if they are ideologically neutral. For example, we undertake interviews then code them and turn the coding into numbers. These numbers are then presented as a successful ironing-out of the idiosyncrasies of any given participant and any of our potential bias as researchers – is that really the point? In Gadamer’s view this would be Method winning out over Truth. Nevertheless we can’t respond as institutions on an individual by individual basis so we have tread a delicate path towards larger trends.

My first attempt at this was to layer maps and create what I though of as a heat-map of a given group:

V&R 'heat map'
V&R ‘heat map’

This one is of around 20 MBA students. It works ok because they all happened to map in a similar manner so you can see group patterns in the modes of engagement. The process is less effective when everyone is mapping in their own style. For example, how could you include the map below in a layered heat-map?

An individual's map from a Jisc digtal leadership workshop
An individual’s map from a Jisc digital leadership workshop

So in attempting to create ‘accurate’ layered maps I was in danger of trying to smooth-out the charismatic and personal nature of them. You’d have to give people the same kind of pens and set a bunch of rules about how to map which takes away the interpretation of the process, it removes agency from the participant. This would be killing one of the characteristics of the mapping which I enjoy the most – seeing the person in the *way* they have mapped not just *what* they have mapped. In essence, the manner in which individuals approach the mapping is important data in of itself.

I worked with Alison LeCornu on The Higher Education Academy ‘Challenges of Online Residency’ project which involved 18 higher education institutions mapping teaching staff and cohorts of students. From this I received circa 400 maps each tagged with participant data. Sifting through the maps it appeared that they did fall into broad categories based on the quadrants which had been mapped to. This led me to propose the following ‘engagement-genre templates’

Templates

The darker blue marks out the areas which an individual would have mapped to. The names of these templates aren’t hugely helpful as they are a little reductionist but, you know, naming.. etc. For example, I don’t want to imply that someone with a ‘connectivist’ map isn’t ‘engaged’.

Having created the templates I set a colleague the fun task of reviewing all of the maps and tagging them along these lines whilst also discarding mappers who appeared to have utterly misconstrued the process (bad data). The result was pleasantly surprising – most maps do fall into one of the templates fairly neatly.

Given that we were working form a convenient sample I normalised the results into ratios to look for trends. A few key patterns did emerge and it’s possible to interpret them in a manner which resonates with the narratives of higher education. We are currently writing up an open access paper on this so I won’t go into detail here.

One highlight worth mentioning in passing is the distribution of age ranges that had a ‘Social-Engaged’ map. This is a map in which there is activity in all four quadrants. The temptation might be to think that this form of map would skew young but the results show a fairly even spread of ages.

Detail from the visualisation of the HEA project V&R map data

 

This is the age bracket and educational level of the 208 ‘Social-Engaged’ maps in ratio form. Both these categories show even distribution, demonstrating again that age is not a significant factor in the overall mode of engagement of individuals online.  What we do need to be mindful of is that the character of activities undertaken across the maps might change significantly within a given genre template which is where capturing discussion that arises during the mapping process, undertaking follow-up interviews or asking participants to annotate their maps comes in to play. Nevertheless, I’m confident that using the templates is a valid approach and strikes a reasonable balance between Truth and Method when dealing with a large body of qualitative data.Hopefully we will have the paper written on this fairly soon and can share in more detail.

Overall it’s been rewarding to see the various routes the V&R work has been taking. It’s a good example of the benefits of  working in an open manner and letting an idea evolve. One of the most pleasing outcomes from this approach is the V&R Wikipedia article which, for me, is a real vote of confidence in the value of the work.

(please add, edit and update the article if you have been working with V&R – it needs work 🙂

 

 

Coalescent spaces

Designing pedagogy which coalesces digital and physical spaces

The keynote at our UAL Learning and Teaching day last week explored ‘Creative Learning Spaces’. As the images of new and co-opted spaces flashed by I started to think about how many of them would exist it it wasn’t for Wifi, laptops, tablets, smartphones and ultimately the Web.

Traditionally learning spaces would have been constructed around specific modes of knowledge transmission and proximity to knowledge. The main independent learning space being the library because it was useful to be adjacent to knowledge in the form of books.

It seemed obvious to me that the new physical environments we are designing in universities are a reflection of what the digital provides us and the way in which this has disbanded the geography of knowledge. Even so it was clear that this influence on physical spaces hadn’t been closely considered.

This comes about, I suspect, because the digital is commonly seen as a set of tools not a series of spaces or places. When I’m introducing the Visitors and Residents idea I’m careful to define ‘space’ as ‘any location where other people are’ or ‘any location where we go to be co-present with others’. It’s then clear that our motivation to go online is often very similar to our motivation to go to particular physical locations. The implications for teaching and learning are significant, especially when we take the example of students using connected devices in traditional face-to-face spaces such as the lecture theater.

It we think in terms of the digital as a set of tools then our perception on the room might look like this:

If we think of the digital as a set of spaces then it might look like this.

spacesA1

My view (if we exclude digital tools for a moment) is more along these lines:

spacesA2

This is because I tend to think in terms of presence rather than attention. As the tutor I could become preoccupied with how much attention students are paying to me or how ‘distracted’ they are by their screens. This is a very limited and unhelpful way of modeling the situation. A more interesting way of framing this is ‘where are my students?’ Just because I can see them sat in front of me doesn’t mean they are ‘in the room’. When they are looking at their screens they could be present in another space altogether.

This is where the digital/physical overlap becomes really fascinating. When we go online in Resident mode we are present in multiple concurrent spaces. We are always present in the physical world to a certain extent because we are embodied. However, we may be more present in the space on our screen than in the physical environment. This isn’t specifically a digital phenomenon, being multiply present is a human capability we are all strangely good at. How many times have you been transported into the world of the film or the novel you are gripped by? And yet when we conceptualise the digital it is often not along these lines. I suspect this is because the digital is still quite new culturally (even though it is well established technologically) so we don’t like the idea of the digital as immersive or captivating. For example, it’s acceptable to say that you ‘lost yourself’ in a book but to say that you ‘lost yourself’ in Twitter or on a website is still seen as suspicious or second rate (this is an extension of the books = good vs screens = bad problem).

My response to this in teaching and learning terms is to design pedagogy which coalesces physical and digital spaces. Accept that students can, and will, be present in multiple spaces if they have a screen with them and find ways to create presence overlaps. This is different from simply attempting to manage their attention between room to screen.

A coalesced pedagogy would lead to this:

spacesB

Here are a few suggested coalescent designs:

Discussing student work that has been created by students in the digital space when f2f.
A good example of this comes from our foundation course at Central St Martins in which students use our eStudio platform, Workflow, to gather research and to write reflections on their design plans. During f2f sessions student areas of Workflow are brought up on screen for discussion. Students can browse round their peers work in the platform and update their work during f2f time too. Obviously this could work well for any course in which the process of student work is captured as they develop it in an open or quasi-open online space. I think of this as a ‘soft-flip’ if we are talking in flipped classroom terms. Soft, because the f2f session is also bringing in the digital.

Online discourse while ‘in the room’
The best example of this is when a class or group join in with a live hashtag discussion. If the course has been designed in an open manner then it might be possible of the student’s themselves to promote and run a live discussion in this manner. The real advantage here is that a relatively small class can connect with a larger group which ensures a wider range of views and a good critical mass to drive discussions. The tutor can pick out salient points and convene a meta-discussion in the room in parallel with the hashtag discussion online.  This is an event driven format which can be extremely engaging but it also has the advantage of being reviewed and reflected on in a more measured fashion after the f2f session.

Collaborative, critical, knowledge construction
This is as simple as putting a Padlet up on screen and then asking students to gather relevant resources on a topic into the space. They should also be encouraged to contextualise the resources they bring in. Once the Padlet starts getting crowded a f2f discussion can be started around how best to cluster resources into  categories or sub themes. Again, the Padlet can be revisited after the session to support ongoing project work, acting as a co-constructed pool of resources or references.

Active knowledge contribution/construction
AKA a Wikipedia mini-editathon. Getting a room full of students to live edit specific Wikipedia pages to improve them or to create new pages. This is quite technical to get set-up as Wikipedia is likely to block sudden activity from a single place but Wikimedia UK are more than happy to provide support to get you started. They also have loads of good resources online to get you started on Wikipedia in an educational context.

There are just a few possible approaches that coalesce the digital and the physical around learning. For me the principle concept here is providing opportunities to be communal across the physical and the digital and to not get to hung up on the idea of collaboration. The communal is both easier to engender and potentially more engaging than the collaborative. It also allows for elegant lurking and doesn’t discount the notion of being present and engaged without ‘visible’ participation. Yes, students want access to the ‘stuff’ they need to get their courses done but unless we design communal digital spaces and coalesce the digital and the physical they will have a fractured and disconnected experience.

 

Trapped in the Chinese Room with Google

Part of my thinking around the Web and education is as follows:

  1. The Web is brilliant at feeding us the information we need to get things done in a highly relevant manner.
  2. We still tacitly design pedagogy as if this wasn’t the case on the basis that ‘good quality’ information must in-of-itself be difficult to obtain and that by implication online information ‘can’t be trusted’
  3. This approach is founded in our cultural adherence to the form rather than the substance of information. (for example our veneration of the concept of a ‘book’ or notions of what it means to be an ‘expert’)
    (both 2 and 3 are a hangover from a period in time when we held information behind locked doors)
  4. The new challenge for education, driven by point 1, is how to encourage learners to ‘think’ in an era where answers are easy to come by (on the basis that the challenge of finding information used to, in-of-itself, encourage critical thinking and reflection)

Let’s imagine a scenario where most of the key ‘answers’ to curriculum are easily found online. (This will increasingly be the case on a relevance driven Web as the answer to any regularly asked question will rise to the top of the search return).  If we construct our pedagogies around the search for answers in this manner then the efficiency of the Web will place students in a role similar to that of the person inside Searle’s famous Chinese Room thought experiment.

CC - https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheeprus/3696035131
CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheeprus/3696035131

In the thought experiment Searle, who does not understand Chinese, is locked in a room with a set of rules in English which “enable [him] to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols” – the latter symbols being the Chinese language. Given this, people can post questions in Chinese into the room and Searle can translate them successfully, posting back answers without having any knowledge of Chinese himself. The people receiving these answers falsely believe there is someone in the room who understands Chinese.

This has been used to make a case against the notion of Artificial Intelligence by claiming that Searle’s activity in the room doesn’t  require him to understand Chinese and that by implication he is not thinking or reflecting on the Chinese language but simply following a set of rules.

In my version of the scenario Searle is our student, the Web is the set of rules and the Chinese language is any question posed by our pedagogy to which an answer can be found online with a simple search. Ironically this frames the student as ‘unthinking’ technology and the Web as the embodiment of intelligence via the algorithms, or ‘rules’, it employs to feed answers back via the student.

We have compounded this problem in the light of the Web by losing our confidence in teaching how to think and retrenching to defending our authority as the font of knowledge. Education should not be about establishing the worthiness of certain forms of knowledge, especially if we ascribe to Feyerabend’s rejection of universal method, it should be dialectic process, interrogating, synthesising and pushing forward our understanding.

[Side Note: There are numerous examples of sectors/businesses moving into a protectionist mode just before being overtaken by the digital. Good examples include newspapers and imho traditional academic journals. Universities embody high levels of cultural capital and are more diversified than many people realise. Nevertheless, they risk becoming overly anachronistic if they don’t equip graduates with significantly more than what can be gained by owning a smartphone. Side, Side, Note: Clearly the ‘beauty’ of higher tier universities is their ability to make being anachronistic the very basis of their cultural capital]

Once we realised that anyone can publish online (the most radical aspect of the Web) our first reaction as educational institutions was to focus on evaluating sources because they hadn’t been pre-vetted by the library or written by one of us. My contention is (and my research shows) that the Web works very well in terms of information quality and relevance which in turn re-emphasises the importance of teaching how to use and connect knowledge not simply how to decide if a piece of information is to be trusted. For me this is as the very heart of what a higher education should be.

The challenge for us then is in finding ways to encourage learners to critically reflect on the manner in which they engage with, and use, the Web epistemologically rather than only concentrating on the critical evaluation of isolated chunks of information. In some senses this is simply a move in emphasis from ‘digital’ literacy to a more generalised form of literacy. 

Getting this approach across to students requires clarity though because it usually cuts against their perception, and experience of, education as an exercise in  discovering ‘answers’ (especially if they have recently left school). Just warding students off the Web or implying that online sources are fine as long as they are the same as things you might find in the library (the usual marker for credibility) is missing the point. The Web should be encouraging us to move to the higher rungs in Bloom’s taxonomy all the sooner or our pedagogy risks students in the Chinese Room with Google Search.  

Make it relevant

Having been invited to give a talk at the British Library I naturally decided to create my own theory of the history of information… This was to illustrate my musings on a general shift from taxonomies to relevance in our information seeking. To be fair the librarians representing the BL and other academic institutions seemed quite sympathetic to the overarching point I was trying to make so here’s the idea:

Relevance diagram
A brief history of information…

In a pre-literate, pre-printing age information was embodied in kin, peers and those that you might happen to meet within a limited geography – in this sense information was physically located and arranged. Obviously I’m no expert in this area having just a smattering of old-school Anthropology to draw on so this part of the idea/diagram is simply there as a backdrop.

Then along comes printing (sure, the monks and tax collectors etc were busy before printing…) so knowledge stacks-up and needs organising so that it can be retrieved efficiently. There is a new category of knowledge which, while still linked to individuals as authors*, is not wholly embodied in the same way as before. Taxonomies are invented to structure printed knowledge, generating lines and relationships between ideas and information, creating a more defined model of understanding.

In the last 20 years or so we then see the rise of the digital and the network, search evolves from the dialect of databases to natural language. At this point something fundamental shifts. Our relationship with knowledge moves from interrogating taxonomies (think Dewey Decimal for example) to an expectation of relevance. Knowledge is no longer physically embodied so we don’t need systems to tell us where it is or what’s sat nearby.

Clearly all of the above forms of knowledge still co-exist, for example, students going to Social Media to ask others for the most relevant information sources. Nevertheless the Web has driven a massive shift from taxonomy to relevance. One way to think of this is that the Web circumnavigates taxonomy for us, connecting us to information and people without the need for hierarchy.

Relevance Diagram

For example, if you want to discover a specific piece of information do you do move through a hierarchy do you simply search and then sift the results? When was the last time you found the Wikipedia article you wanted by moving through the taxonomy of the online encyclopaedia? We are increasingly driven by the stack of notifications in Social Media and/or via our phones where we can design the factors which stack what we feel is most relevant to the top of the pile.

Even when it comes to our own personal resources, many simply throw things into the cloud then search or look of ‘last modified’. In my institution most students use Apple Macs and organise their files visually. I suspect most would not be able to identify ‘where’ those files are within the structure of the hard-drive.

Of all of these it’s the manner in which search has evolved which has the largest implication for educational intuitions. If we take Google as an example we see that the taxonomy is hidden in the algorithm and this algorithm evolves to incorporate the traces of those that went before. Consider this in pedagogical terms: much of what it meant to learn was centred on an individual’s ability to navigate the taxonomies of knowledge, to find the ‘good stuff’. Intellectual effort was expended on discovery and on formulating links across chunks of information (aka books etc). Now the effort of making those connections is captured within the search algorithm and handed to the next person who searches on that topic. There is much less need for each new scholar to understand the larger model/taxonomy of a particular discipline. In essence, what we used consider to be part ‘study’ is now embodied in the technology (another example of the Post-digital). If our pedagogy continues to be based on notion, and still rewards effort, based on navigating these taxonomies then we are radically out of step.

And yet even as we move to an era of relevance, educational institutions continue to operate on taxonomic principals. This makes sense for the HR and the finance department but becomes problematic when it underpins curriculum design and assessment. Institutions have always operated in a hierarchical manner and yet the Web, the place many of our students (and staff) undertake the majority of their learning, doesn’t.  One of the reasons students struggle to understand the course handbook or the set-up of their course in the VLE is because they rarely encounter structures of this nature. When I consider the requests students make to improve the digital provision and information sources of the university most of it can be characterised as “Please can you filter that complex structure into a feed based on what’s most relevant to me”.

*See “The Resident Web and it’s Impact on the Academy” at Hybrid Pedagogy for some thoughts on the relationship between ‘content’ and individuals/authors. http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/resident-web-and-impact-on-academy/