On the 10th July 2019 we ran the ‘Networked Making’ event at the University of the Arts London. This post introduces a podcast in which myself and Jon Martin reflect on the ‘Making Networks’ workshop activity we designed for the start of the day (with input from Dr Sheena Calvert and the ‘Interpolate’ student group) .
The activity was described as: “A workshop session in which participants collaboratively make and reflect on a physical model/metaphor of their networks.”
The Podcast is offered here unedited. I may try and edit it down to around 20min for Spark, our UAL creative teaching and learning journal.
Themes touched upon in the podcast include: reflection, thinking-through-making, ambiguity, risk, trust, play.
There is also a YouTube version of the podcast if you require captions
Sheena and two Interpolate students, Jack and Safiya, helped to facilitate the activity.
Participants were asked to ‘make’ a version of their networks and were presented with a number of peg-boards, a few other objects, cord, index cards, pegs, pens, various fasteners etc. The boards had labels on them such as ‘Work – Mode’, ‘Tool – Space’, ‘People – Institution’ and ‘Desire – Aspiration’.
Around 30 participants engaged with the activity for about half-an-hour then we convened a short discussion.
The best way to get a sense of the activity is to watch this very short video:
Whether it be through collaboration, in a collective or as part of a cohort, the practices of making are never without context and commonly not undertaken alone. We understand that our students are keen to make and work in disciplinary and interdisciplinary networks as this nourishes and supports creative practice, reflecting the fluidity of the professional environment.
Networked making, including writing, is often facilitated by digital connections which allow us to go beyond the physical boundaries of the studio, seminar room or lecture theatre. Yet, while we all work online’ in some form, the practices of networked making are still emerging. The diversity of voices the digital allows us to include and connect encourages us to reconsider our modes of learning and teaching for making.
This UAL Teaching Platform invites participants to discover and explore the potential of networked making through collaboration, discussion and, of course, making. “
Back in 2009 I was one of a group of men with the time and money to get together and attempt to make sense of what was going on with digital technology and the Web. What we came up with was the notion of the postdigital – the original proposition is here: Preparing for the postdigital era.
It’s a short document which explains a simple idea: now that digital tech and the network are so prevalent our thinking should go beyond the tech in-of-itself and focus on the way our interactions are played out in/on the digital.
For me the idea was a useful counter to techno-centred narratives of the time which pushed new platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as things everyone should ‘get into’ but without really discussing why. It all felt highly uncritical and implied that the tech, rather than those using the tech, was ushering in a new era. I was bored of talking about how ‘revolutionary’ technology was and saw the postdigital concept as a good way to take a shortcut past the shiny surface of the machine to discuss what might be happening in socio-cultural terms.
At the time the idea was met with a mixture of mild confusion and ambivalence. Broadly it was misunderstood as an attempt to negate the importance or existence of the digital and just an exercise in coining a phrase. It appeared we had decided that just at the moment digital went mainstream we thought it would be radical to not-talk-about digital. There is some truth in this but things have moved on…
So now, in 2019, the notion of the postdigital has gained some ground. Not necessarily as a response to our original paper but in parallel and in a number of locations. One of these locations is the newly founded journal of Postdigital Science and Education edited by Petar Jandrić. Petar discovered our paper along with some later reflections and requested that the group revisited the theme a decade after its inception.
The group is currently posting their 2019 reflections:
There is much discussion of how the technology is becoming ‘transparent’ in the 2009 paper. This transparency is framed as an opportunity to be less tech, and more person-centric when considering digital. In 2019 we are unknowingly postdigital, not because our tech objects have become transparent but because the network they are part of is not, and never has been, visible. We don’t ‘see’ the infrastructure because we are still enthralled by the obscuring new-shiny surfaces of our phones/laptops/tablets/tvs. We are happy to swap understanding for ‘intuitive’, ‘frictionless’ and convenient tech. This is reasonable but dangerous.
I don’t want to return to the days when the tech infrastructure was so tenuous that I spent more time trying to get-it-to-work than doing the work I needed it for. Nevertheless, I think those moments of failure, when the connection goes down or the software crashes, are important in revealing just how quickly we pass through the digital to the postdigital. In 2019 many people are surprised when the tech stops working, whereas I’m constantly surprised it works at all, given how complex it is.
What we have failed to comprehend in the last decade (or didn’t want to think about) was the complexity, power and intention(s) of the network and those that control it. The network has never even gone through a ‘digital’ stage (in the terms of the paper) where we get over excited about its newness, it has in some sense never existed in the public consciousness even though it saturates our lives and our spaces. When we buy a new phone we are told about how amazing the camera on it is, not the fact that we are renting a node on a network which is a vast, relatively unregulated, corporate space.
Only very recently has the nature of the network appeared via stories of ‘bad actors’, the manipulation of democracy through globalised targeted propaganda and the aggressive use of ‘personal’ data to feed uncanny algorithms. In 2019 I’d suggest we need to be less postdigital about the network. There is ongoing work to reveal the network, making it un-transparent and to educate and regulate towards a place which supports citizens over and above the drive for power and capital. The trouble is that it’s super boring compared to the latest app or a few more megapixels and if you want keep a secret, don’t hide it, just make it super-dull.
While we play at being human on the surface of the network we simultaneously being dehumanized, converted into forms of interoperable data. Here is where Donna Haraway’s, A Cyborg Manifesto was so prescient. Writing before the Web in 1984 she highlights our rush to convert all things into the universal ‘exchange’ language of code:
“No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language. Exchange in this world transcends the universal translation effected by capitalist markets that Marx analyzed so well.”
A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Donna Haraway
There is a section in the original postdigital paper which speaks of our hope that the digital environment will be a place where we can ‘become’ in positive and connected ways. It’s difficult to retain that hope in 2019 but we know that negative stories travel the fastest. Ultimately society has moved online, and while it might seem misanthropic, I’d argue that the pettiness, hate and abuse of power is evidence that we are now postdigital and that this is what it looks like when (almost) everyone gets online. More sinister is that while this sound and fury is played out on the cultural meniscus of the Web we are simultaneously being codified in the networked waters that lurk beneath. Ironically it is this process of digitising and ‘codifying’ being which is moving us from the digital to the postdigital at such a rate we can’t even see it happening.
Some thoughts on the production of the original position paper
Looking back over the original position paper I feel a mild sense of guilt. We appear to have been naively working on the assumption that the technology was neutral. In 2009 none of us were really aware of how our data was being used and abused. If I recall correctly the principle that ‘if the platform is free to use then you are the product’ might have been starting to surface but most of us interpreted this as the risk that we might have to look at a few adverts.
Certainly my thinking in this area was still based on broadcast media and crudely targeted ad campaigns which had to scatter their messages far and wide in the hope of making a sale. We hadn’t understood the manner in which politics and ideology could be embedded in code. We were keen to develop language and models that would somehow explain what was really going on if you could pull away from all the ‘newness’ and increasing corporatisation of the Web which up until then had mainly been endearingly shoddy, slow and full of nerdy guys like us. We wanted to mansplain what was actually interesting to all these newcomers who we felt were hypnotised by the shiny tech. We wanted to own what it all meant, in the same way we had owned what it all was.
I still believe postdigital is a useful concept because it shifts emphasis away from the technocentric. I also feel uneasy about our motivations for developing the idea and the manner in which it came about. It’s fair to say that the reason we didn’t discuss the potential negative aspects of the digital is because we were not in marginal or precarious positions and so didn’t have perspectives that arise from vulnerability. (perhaps I should say ‘I’ not ‘we’ as I can’t speak for the other members of the group)
Through the Visitors and Residents work I am frequently involved in discussions around identity, especially in relation to online spaces. Often discussions that start with technology, move onto practice and then morph into questions of identity: How does my professional identity relate to my personal identity? How does my online identity relate to my offline identity? To what extent am I performing different identities? Which of these many dimensions is the most authentic or is that authenticity contextual? etc.
These types of questions are brought to the surface by our relationship with the digital because it provides a new mirror to hold up to ourselves. Going online in Resident modes is not unlike travel in this sense, we question who we are as we encounter new spaces, forms of communication, modes of meaning and ways of being.
I’ve always been happy to facilitate these discussions but I’ve not taken a position on identity apart from making it clear that using the term ‘real’ (as in ‘real-life’ vs ‘digital’) is spectacularly unhelpful as generally when people use term ‘real’ casually they mean ‘something I’ve become normalized to’. My sensitivity to hard-edged distinctions around real/digital or authentic/fake is indicative of my belief in the importance of interpretation. This is why when a colleague gave me a book entitled “Hermeneutics, Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information” by John D. Caputo I drank it in.
Chapter 7 on ‘The Call of Justice and the Short Arm of the Law’ which explores a lecture given by Derrida in 1989 at the Cardozo Law School inspired me the most. It didn’t fire me up about the law or justice but rather the character of Derrida’s approach to Deconstruction. Where Derrida spoke of law and justice I could read identity and self. The more I mused on this the more helpful I’ve found it in describing a model of identity which is based on becoming-through-interpretation. So, to this end, I will inelegantly summarise a wafer of Derridean thinking and then extend this into a new, identity-based, context.
The most important aspect of justice as described by Derrida, via Caputo, is that it is impossible and does not exist. Justice is unreachable but it yet it calls us to move towards it (Caputo likens this to a spectre or ghost), whereas the law is constructed and has force (and structures and physical components – courts, police, prisons etc).
We hope to make just laws but will never attain a perfectly just legal system. Any attempts to respond to the call of justice require that we interpret law in each given situation or context. A law applied without interpretation is extremely likely to lead to an unjust outcome. Our attempts to be just exist between the deconstruction (or interpretation) of the law and the undeconstructable call of justice.
We need the impossible to create a distance within which can deconstruct or interpret. (I recommend you read the chapter – I can’t do it justice here…)
It struck me that the notion of the ‘self’ was much like Derrida’s positioning of justice. It calls to us like a ghost or a dream but it is contested and slips through our fingers as we attempt to define or describe it. Attempts to define self and being is the fuel of philosophy – as alluring as it is confounding. Perhaps this is because, like justice, self is simply impossible and its power is in this undeconstructablity – a horizon we might travel towards but never reach. A journey we might take knowing we will never arrive.
To extend this, identity becomes akin to Derrida’s depiction of the law, something which is constructed and has force within the world. If we run with this line of thinking then it is through interpretation of identity that we respond to the call of self. We can never fully arrive at our-selves but we can deconstruct our identities through interpretation, towards the self . I consider this process of continual deconstruction and reaching through interpretation, usually via dialogue, to be ‘becoming’.
As with justice and the law what becomes crucial within this conception of self and identity is the willingness to deconstruct or interpet. Damaging essentialization based on shoring-up (sure-ing up?) well worn binaries such as real/virtual, authentic/fake falls away as the ‘work’ of identity becomes interpretation, questioning and negotiation.
This is in stark contrast to the view that we already somehow contain our true self, a self we must express through our identity. On this view we are constantly attempting to project our self into the world as an authentic identity. There is a kind of violence to this in which we fight external factors (institutions, individuals, society, culture etc) that might repress our true self. In some cases, where individualism has reached its zenith, we are told that it is us who is repressing our own true self and are invited to unlock our real selves, usually via purchasing something. Certainly there is plenty of money being made via products that claim to help us to express, or be, the ‘real’ us on this model.
Our digital environment also supports this model as within Social Media negotiation of identity through interpretive presence is commonly replaced by acknowledgement of essence. Collecting followers and likes authenticates and quantifies our existence without the need for deconstruction. We will not move any closer to the horizon of self if our sense of identity is based on validation through acknowledgement rather than engaging in dialogue and deconstruction. This then leads to a creeping alienation in which we constantly seek acknowledgement to secure our identity but make no progress toward self and feel increasingly ephemeral.
Similarly we cannot reach towards self if the only people we connect with provide a homophilic mirror of our current identity state – this is a comforting form of identity stasis which, in conjunction with the need for essential acknowledgment, breeds polarisation. We inevitably bolster our ‘authentic’, internalised self through the constant re-establishment of what we are not, in a process of unbecoming.
In my view then, agency is not the power to enforce our identity on the world but the conditions and desire that support us in deconstructing our identity towards self. This form of becoming is challenging, requires us to be vulnerable and is fraught with risk. Given this, the conditions become crucial and it is much less risky for those in a structurally privileged position, such as myself, to engage in identity deconstruction. I have many institutional safe-spaces I can retreat to if I ‘overreach’ towards self.
In this regard there is much work to be done to move our institutions to places in which a diversity of identities can be negotiated. I understand why certain environments can only be engaged with through a forceful projection of self and identity, especially where individuals feel misunderstood, repressed or ignored. Those are the mono-culture environments which pretend to invite negotiation but which are merely looking for acceptance and assimilation.
Those environments create conditions which breed polarisation and amplify individualism in a manner which extends, rather than interprets, difference – our identities become fixed and our horizons become walls we build. In astronomy there are no walls, we can see to the edges of the universe and glimpse our shared beginning. Through deconstruction of identity we travel towards a shared and connected horizon of self.
A couple of months ago I joined a running club and discovered two things:
Running is quite hard
I can’t explain my job to anyone at the running club
This forced me to ask ‘what am I?’ (professionally) – this is a reflection on that question partly for myself after a busy year but also because I often see the Higher Education sector struggling to frame and locate Head of Digital Learning (or similar) roles.
Sometimes Digital Learning is just attached to a senior academic post which doesn’t account for the size of the territory or sheer amount of work involved. In other places it is positioned as a kind of soft IT role which makes it difficult to get away from a technocentric approach.
There is a strong theme of ‘Technology Won’t Save Us’ running through my professional community and I agree this. Nevertheless, UK Higher Ed is a massified system which requires technology to manage scale while, hopefully, being mindful that the tech is not in-if-itself the practice of education (despite what anyone says about learner analytics or AI etc I believe that teaching is human-centric – our students demand more contact time not ‘cleverer tech’).
The idea that technology will ‘solve’ the messiness of being human resonates with what Haraway claims is an obsession with our own extinction at the hands of the technology we have created. This is why we get a cheap thrill from those Boston Dynamics videos of robots opening doors and jumping over boxes which are so carefully constructed to play to our extinction fetish.
Fortunately I work at an institution which isn’t attempting to eradicate our own humanity in the service of efficiency, wealth or security. I’d say in the creative arts we try to do the opposite, as evidenced by this short video on Ambiguity by Prof Susan Orr (my boss).
It’s crucial for me that my role and my team is within our Teaching and Learning group as it gives me the opportunity to position technology in the context of ambiguity and complexity rather than as something which solves ‘problems’. This has allowed me to bridge what can sometime be an academic/tech divide and create the Digital Learning Transformation Group which includes our CIO, Deans of Academic Planning our Associate Deans Teaching & Learning and a cross section of digital and ‘elearning’ roles. I’m not sure how I would have brought together a group with this mix of roles in it if I wasn’t able (structurally) to travel laterally across the institution. (It also helps that I’m a member of our main Learning and Teaching committee and Academic Board so senior management are aware of my work.) As a group we are developing, and responding to, various digital strategies from our colleges and central services.
Despite always been asked to ‘get the screen working’ wherever I go I’m not always thought of as the ‘digital guy’ (I do almost always get the screen to work which probably doesn’t help). I do oversee our main Digital Learning platforms which is a big operational responsibility but there is a recognition that ‘making the platforms work’ and ‘Teaching & learning’ are related but not the same.
Introducing the Digital Creative Attributes Framework has been positive and it’s beginning to become an embedded part of the curriculum design process. What you will notice about the framework is that it’s based on practices, not skills or specific tech. As such it accounts for the diversity of contexts and courses across the university and avoids ‘selling’ technology. Again, I believe it’s my location within Teaching and Learning which has allowed me to represent the richness (and complexity) of digital practices in the framework.
Navigating complexity has been a key theme for me this year. It was the focus of my keynote for the LILAC information literacy keynote and has been an important element of my teaching around UAL (MA Fine Art & Digital, MA Innovation Management, PgCert Academic Practice and MA Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries).
Those that offer simplicity and narrow worldviews are still in ascendancy. More than ever we need to acknowledge complexity and equip our students to respond to super-complex environments. This is something I have been considering and writing about in the background this year in a piece (essay? start of a book?) with the working title of ‘Encoding Beliefs’. Technologists imply that ‘everything’ can be captured and that once this task is done ‘everything’ will be known:
“Hiding within this deep current is a belief that once everything is captured and correct we can free ourselves from moral responsibility – all will be revealed and all behaviour will become rational, fair and ethical as a result. This hope is driven by a reaction to the supercomplexity which the digital has both created and revealed. The connectivity and computational power of the digital has outstripped our ability to comprehend the complexity of the world it has exposed.”
This digital omniscience is a secular form of faith which I find extremely interesting and is at the root of the “Technology will/won’t save us” contention. It’s a line of thought I hope to develop further in 2019.
Securing a Visiting Fellowship for Bonnie Stewart this year has been a real boon as she is helping me to develop links between a number of broad ideas and Teaching and Learning practice. The first fruits of this are the Teaching Complexity series of free, open, online seminars which we have co-curated and start in January 2019. These are a show-not-tell example of the kind of Open Educational Practice I want to encourage and support at my institution. Over the last few months I have become increasingly convinced that open values are crucial in responding to complexity and also an important ideological framing when re-imagining the university in the digital or networked era.
Over 2018 I have also enjoyed working with other institutions which are interested in learning from our experience (expertise?) in Teaching and Learning. The scale of UAL gives us the capacity to develop Teaching and Learning as a creative practice in it’s own right to an extent that many creative art and design institutions would struggle to respond to. As such this year I was invited to the Bezalel School of Art and Design and the University of the Arts Helsinki to help them design strategic approaches to the support of teaching practice across their institutions. The challenges in teaching art and design appear to be similar the world over and it’s great to share our successes and failures.
Looking at the length of this post I think I’ve just demonstrated again that I’m not very good at explaining what I do. Having said that, the process of writing has helped me to see some strong themes emerging across my work which has been obfuscated by busyness.
What I will say is that digital-is-the-university, it’s a teaching and knowledge space that is now just as important as our physical spaces. As such any Head of Digital Learning role has to be connected into the heart of the institution. This is not an area which can be ‘added-in’ after academic or operational plans have been made. I took this job because it was located within Teaching & Learning and, while it’s been bumpy at times, I can now say with confidence that my institution has embraced Digital Learning as distinct from ‘Digital’. This is encouraging for me and will help the university develop in ways which support staff and students without pretending education is a ‘problem technology can solve’.
Universities are caught between network and hierarchy. We are institutions which work at scale, supporting, scaffolding and ranking students – awarding degrees, undertaking research and maintaining quality. All of this requires a hierarchical structure and approach. And yet, as institutions, we recognize the value of the network; of connected, collaborative and interdisciplinary modes of learning and working. We acknowledge that complex and super-complex challenges (the kind of challenges we claim our sector can help with – equipping graduates for uncertain futures, aging populations, climate change, the effects of globalization etc) can only be responded to by operating in a connected manner which deliberately extends beyond the borders of disciplines and our immediate communities. There is also a recognition that networked and connected modes of working and being are of value to staff and students in ways which can confer new forms of prestige on the institution.
In my role of Head of Digital Learning at the University of the Arts London I’ve been asked what the ‘vision’ is for the institution in a networked, globalized environment? I frame this as ‘how do we best operate as hierarchy and network?”. This is fundamentally challenging as ‘institutionalizing’ networked modes inherently turns them into hierarchies and thereby kills them. What is required is not the operationalizing of networked approaches but a clear statement of the ‘networked’ values that the institution supports, but importantly, does not seek to ‘own’.
These values fall under the banner of ‘openness’ which is a theme I started pursuing in a Teaching and Learning context but which I now see as a principle which reifies emergent responses to the network across key areas which constitute the university: Teaching & learning, Research and Knowledge Exchange. I believe it’s important for the institution to ascribe to these values at the highest possible level to establish a clear ideology which influences the character of the institution and the practical outworking of ‘openness’ in a myriad of ways.
In consultation with colleagues at UAL, and with support from Catherine Cronin, I have been leading on the development of Open Practice Principles here at UAL. These are still developing and require further consultation. They will also require the support of senior staff if they are to become institutional values (beyond the context of ‘innovative’ teaching and learning). In the spirit of the values themselves I’m posting the draft principles here for comment. I hope this will encourage others to take this route and will help me to connect with people who have already developed (and embedded) institutional values of this kind.
Open Practice at the University of the Arts London:
Makes teaching, learning and research visible and accessible
Collectively creates knowledge and practices
Connects a diversity of voices
Reaches beyond subject and organizational borders
Manages risk in open and public contexts
Develops digital attributes and identities
As I mentioned, at this stage these are merely proposed values. What is important at this point is that they establish a constructive and open institutional ideology towards the network which can be translated into operational support for openness in a manner which respects the need for diversity of practice and accepts non-hierarchical forms of risk (i.e. it does not try to mitigate networked forms of risk by subsuming networked and open practice into hierarchical systems of quality and control). They also need to be succinct and in a form which can be interpreted into a variety of contexts. At UAL I’m confident that these values will encourage positive sharing of practice which already takes place ‘under the radar’. They will also give some confidence that the institution will support staff if things-go-wrong when working openly.
Clearly these values will require case-studies, guides and policy in given contexts. In practice, much of the policy is already there an simply needs the equivalent of ‘this also applies in digital spaces’ added to it (I’m thinking of bullying, harassment, codes-of-conduct etc). I have already drafted a number of illustrations-of-practice under each value from a Teaching and Learning perspective but what’s important is to start with the values ‘at the top’ as it were and not to work in the hope that institutionally scattered examples of openness will naturally percolate into the psychology of the institution. One area where it’s possible to see the impact of high level values of this kind is in aspects of the Research Excellence Framework in the UK , I’d like to see the same happen with teaching via Teaching Excellence Framework too.
In the short term, we will be embodying these values through our free, open, online seminar series entitled ‘Teaching Complexity’ #techcomUAL which will run from Jan – March 2019. The seminars will: “…explore how open and creative approaches to teaching and learning can help students navigate the complexity of higher education and the digital environment.” The series is co-curated by myself and Bonnie Stewart in her role as Visiting Fellow at UAL. The facilitators for the sessions include some of the most interesting and innovative voices in open educational practice so do come along to all, or any, of the seminars.
One weakness of a ‘graduate attributes’ approach for student development is that it looks lovely in strategy documents but can be difficult to respond to on a day-to-day basis, especially in digital contexts. For example, a graduate attribute that talks about students becoming ‘agile connectors’ sounds positive but how does a course leader respond to that when designing curriculum? They might have a sense of what agile connecting looks like in their discipline but add digital to the mix and it suddenly they are casting about for the latest app or platform as a placeholder for teaching practice. Unfortunately, this fuels a demand for a more ‘skills focused’ approach in which a list of this week’s popular technologies is drawn up with advice on what it can be ‘used for’. With the best will in the world this approach always puts the tech before the teaching and course leaders feel a pressure to ‘introduce technology’ to ‘keep up’.
There are four significant advantages to this approach:
DCAF practices are stable. Digital platforms, apps and software might change but the practices we require to thrive in the digital environment remain the same.
DCAF is not discipline specific so each group can contextualise relevant practices in a manner which makes sense for them.
DCAF can be used to articulate current curriculum in digital-practice terms. It’s not a list of ‘things you haven’t managed to include’ but a framework which can highlight to students the value of engaging in the curriculum in certain ways.
DCAF provides a shared language which works for staff, students and the creative industries.
The last point was extremely important to me because I’ve been in too many meetings where the lack of a shared language around digital has seriously disrupted meaningful progress. Essentially, when we say the word ‘digital’ in an institutional context everyone thinks of different things and wants to set different priorities. The tech folk call for more kit, senior folk want a clear ‘vision’ and everyone else just wants some support and guidance. Saying ‘let’s talk about digital’ is the same as saying ‘let’s talk about the university’ both these topics are far too big and neither of them can be ‘solved’.
The DCAF is designed to focus these discussions around a set of practices we know the students want/need to develop. It respects the importance of disciplinary context and avoids the techno-solutionist trap.
We have released the DCAF under a Creative Commons licence to open it out to all. It gives a good insight into the digital practices which underpin creative working and as such is relevant to anyone taking a creative approach to teaching and learning.
This is a summary of my Lilac 18 keynote on the changing character of ‘information literacy’ – the talk was entitled “Posthuman literacies: reframing the relationship between information, technology and identity”. This was described as ‘the most cyberpunk title for a lilac talk ever’ (which I’m quite proud of) but could have been rephrased as “Don’t Fear Complexity”. There is a video of the talk and a shorter write-up from Shelia Webber.
Section 1: Two ‘new’ identities
As with anything relating to education it’s important to frame the ‘self’ before defining values and approaches. This is especially important with information literacy as the relationship between our identities and the information we engage with is now tightly interwoven. We can no longer work on the principle that we a neutral seekers of facts and truth traveling through a disinterested taxonomy of information. We have to frame the self or risk getting taken for an ideological ride.
What it means to be human involves an ongoing incorporation of technology. Whether this is books, reading glasses, cars, the Web, connected devices etc. We (those who can afford to) quickly build the ‘new’ into social norms. For example, it’s now increasingly inappropriate to ask a fellow human a question which could easily be Googled. I encountered this at the doctors when I explained my mild symptoms and he replied “Why didn’t you just look this up online…?”.
This is the technoself: when we consider our phones, laptops, tablets etc – they are not just devices, they are an extension of who we are and an element of what it means to be human. The educational implication being that when we teach information literacy or advise on digital practices we are hoping the student will extend or change their who they are. Identity, information and technology flow into, and through, each other. The best way I’ve seen this put is that we are not addicted to our phones, we are addicted to being social.
The notion of the dataself has recently exploded into the public consciousness via the Cambridge Analytica story. I suspect the reason that story has resonated is as much to do with people feeling they have had something stolen as it is about fears around the erosion of democracy. Even so, it has made it abundantly clear that our interactions online generate a dataself or ‘shadow profile’. This highlights again that Facebook and others don’t simply ‘connect people’, they also connect people to organisations, institutions and businesses in ways which are unseen and anything but neutral.
The implication for information literacy is that it must reveal these mechanisms and reframe our relationship with information.
Section 2: Two forms of information
My response to the dataself is the need to now characterise information into two broad categories –
Information we actively seek out
Information we receive without consciously asking a question
In some senses category one has traditionally been the remit of information literacy while category two has mainly fallen under media literacy. I would argue that any critical approach to the Web has to combine the two.
The (Dave) White Ignorance Cycle
I’ve condensed the negative aspects of category two into a diagram which mirrors Kolb’s learning cycle (which I have never been particularly comfortable with). It is designed to capture what I see as a relatively new form of information illiteracy which might be better thought of as a lack of digital fluency.
This process drives polarisation and cedes power via polaristion to both the providers of the platform and those paying for the targeted message. In short, we have a responsibility to make this cycle visible to students to equip them with the critical faculties they need to retain any real agency in the networked environment.
Section 3: It’s not about facts
“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility.” Jacob Bronowski
Firstly, let me be clear, I’m not a total relativist, I do believe that information can be more, or less, ‘true’. What I’m more interested in though is regularly questioning why we believe something to be true and, most importantly, focusing on how we respond to information. While information literacy clearly isn’t only about validating sources to establish ‘factiness’ I am concerned that this is how is often comes across. I worry that implicit in information literacy is the notion that if we could all understand how to separate facts from lies then the world would be a better place.
This implication plays into the hands of those that secure power through polarisation as it is, in of itself, a polarising approach. We can fall into the trap of arguing over ‘who is right’ rather than respecting and understanding diversity, different perspectives and experiences. Much of what society runs on is socially constructed, negotiated knowledge and understanding. There is very little in the day-to-day which is utterly objective. I’d argue that totally objective information is only that which has no moral or ethical implications. As a corollary of that I suspect our desire to define something as a fact is often an attempt to portray our worldview as the ‘natural order’ and therefore not morally questionable. Mark Fisher put it well:
“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” Mark Fisher
As I alluded to earlier, the key to emancipation over polarisation is to always frame the self as integral to the process. I proposed the following practical response to this:
“Questioning why you agree with something is more valuable than bolstering your views on what you disagree with”
This is my antidote to ‘Truthiness’, a problem which has been amplified by the way in which the network facilitates both individualism and homophily.
“Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I *feel* it to be true, but that *I* feel it to be true.” Stephen Colbert
Truthiness is especially dangerous where the ignorance cycle has unconsciously and uncritically maneuvered an individual into ‘truths’ or a false consciousness which serve those in power.
Section 4: So what?
My conclusion is unashamedly educational.
At my institution, the University of the Arts London, we see the value in uncertainty. In many of our courses it is important that our students are in a liminal state for much of the time within which they are not quite sure of what they know. This is a key aspect of the process of creativity and it’s also central to my reframing, or extension of, information literacy. Questioning our self, our motivations and methods, for seeking and validating information is our only chance of maintaining our agency within complexity. Not being afraid of being immersed in complexity requires understanding the value of uncertainty. This is all the more important where we receive information as an effect of our interactions. To ask how what we engage with has arrived in front of us and why we are comfortable with it (in the context of our identity and position) has to be central to what it means to critically evaluate.
To maintain the agency of our students (and ourselves) and not fall into the trap of assuming a ‘natural order’ which just so happens to be our current worldview we must reveal, not simplify, complexity. In tandem with this we must provide the critical tools to navigate complexity without denying it.
Finding ways to articulate the flow of political and personal power online is inherently complex because it takes place across numerous contexts and at the intersection of many conceptual territories. Identity, gender, culture, class, to name a few, which then have to be considered within, or through, the lens of networks, hierarchies, communities, factions, nations, and so on.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial that we don’t let this complexity obscure the actions of those that seek power through manipulation, fear and coercion. Recently we have seen these modes of power acquisition move into the public, some would say civic, spaces of the Web. This post introduces a paper I co-wrote with Richard Reynolds which explores the visible, or surface, aspects of manipulation and control via the network. It does not deal with the undertow of algorithms and bots but with ‘magical’ modes of rhetoric which the disintermediated orality of Social Media makes effective at a scale we haven’t previously witnessed.
Last year Richard invited me to speak at his ‘Politics and Social Media’ event at Central St Martins which is part of the University of the Arts London. Richard opened the day with a talk on ‘Politics, Social Media and the Practice of Ritual Magic’ focusing on Trump’s use of Twitter and I followed by discussing ‘Trust and Digital Politics’.
There was an obvious resonance between our talks, so after the event we put together a paper combining our positions. We have struggled to find a home for this paper through traditional academic or journalistic routes as it doesn’t sit well in either camp so we humbly offer it here in its current, tidy-but-not-peer-reviewed state:
We have attempted present some of the shifting relationships between reason, belief and power in the networked era without falling into hard definitions real or fake. We are simply exploring ways of understanding the complex interplay of politics, celebrity and power as they are played-out through Social Media.
“Several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick. The myth-busting seems to work but then our memories fade and we remember only the myth. The myth, after all, was the thing that kept being repeated. In trying to dispel the falsehood, the endless rebuttals simply make the enchantment stronger.”
I think it’s important to accept that we all respond to the mythical as some level and that, unchecked, this can lead to intolerance and polarisation. Personally, I celebrate faith-based forms of understanding, wonder and fellowship. I hope by acknowledging that I’m not especially rational I can be more conscious of the ideological and belief-based manner in which I construct my worldview.
For me, this isn’t about not holding a position, it’s about being aware of my position and respecting those that differ. Crucially, it’s also about being able to identify when you are being sold a line which allows you to negatively stoke your identity (I’m in the right because I’m not like them, for example) while simultaneously feeding the power of those doing the selling.
Richard, myself and others will be continuing our exploration of power in the digital era at ‘The Search for Privacy and Truth’ Steamhack event on 23th March. If you are near Central St Martins then do come along. (contact me for details)
This is difficult for me to write because I’m still tense about much of it. I have recently got one of those ‘health tracker’ watches and while reviewing the video of the session with Marc Prensky at Online Educa my heart rate did spiral upwards.
The debate was a chaired, hour long session, between myself and Marc which promised to ‘go beyond’ metaphors to discuss the ‘realities’ of how education systems should respond to digital. In the end we didn’t discuss Visitors & Residents or Natives & Immigrants directly (something Marc was careful to avoid). However, our underlying educational ideologies were laid bare during the debate and effectively revealed the thinking behind our respective metaphors.
A simple way to read the session is in cultural terms, as a colleague pointed out to me I had a European-style ‘critical thinking’ perspective while Marc has a ‘pioneering’ North American flavoured focus on ‘accomplishment’. If I was to put it bluntly, I characterised Marc as Libertarian while he characterised me as Elitist and an Ivory Tower academic.
Having reviewed the video of the session I can see that Marc’s point of view was generally geared around schools level education rather than higher education. In fact, his framing of higher education approximated Oxbridge of 30 years ago (or now depending which course you are on). This is vexation number one: repeatedly being told by people that don’t teach that the education system is broken. Marc clearly has very little experience, or knowledge, of the majority of the higher education sector in the UK (in fact many of the speakers at Educa had little or no day-to-day experience of working in education institutions). Marc evidenced his lack of direct experience in a few comments:
He described a form of group-based teaching as good idea, as if we don’t ALREADY DO THIS A LOT.
He suggested we should do more project-based learning which is something WE ALREADY DO A LOT.
He seemed to be under the impression that all we do is ‘think’, and teach students how to ‘think like us’, which he characterised as of little value, suggesting that it would be better if we thought less and did more.
Vexation number two: implying that ‘thinking’ is elitist. Working on the basis that you are either thinking *or* doing is ridiculous, but I suspect Marc was alluding to ‘academic’ thinking AKA ‘not doing anything useful’ rather than the thinking required to DO THINGS(?). I believe that having learned some literacies at school it’s part of higher education’s responsibility facilitate students in extending their ability to think critically and question intelligently. That’s not to say that, as Marc suggested, I assume that incoming students don’t know how to think. However, don’t believe that we are all ‘naturally’ good at this (Excepting those who are so privileged they are never put in a position where their actions are called out an unthinking?). Most of us benefit from some teaching and some challenging in this area.
So I take offence at the implication I’m elitist for holding the view that thinking is a good thing, especially as this is part of a process by which students can, I hope, reject or challenge dominant modes of thought and those who have taught them. I love a well reasoned argument from a student about why my views don’t stand up and I hope I’m open enough to take new ideas on board. (At one point Marc highlighted that I’d brought some notes with me to the session, as if this was somehow an elitist, academic move, rather than ‘being somewhat prepared’.)
Vexation number three: the repeated use of terms like ‘effective’ and ‘successful’ with no frame of reference. As you would expect, the Digital Natives guy basically espoused a kind of ‘let the kids get on with it because they have the Web’ approach whereas I suggested that we need to teach critical thinking and facilitate a broadening worldview. Towards the end of the debate I gave a little speech about privilege, quoting Orwell: “All animals are born equal, but some are born more equal than others”. If our education systems can’t provide opportunities to those born ‘less equal’ then what’s the point? Obviously my problem with Marc’s position is it assumes a Libertarian equity of opportunity and runs on the basis that you just need to be your best, most individual, self and you will‘ succeed. It’s easy to see how Marc, having been through Harvard Business School, might promote this idea and how this would be lurking behind the Digital Natives stuff. It’s the old ‘being successful means being like me’ problem.
Vexation number four: celebrating human doing over human being. For Marc, ‘success’ seemed to be about doing things to the world to ‘make it’ a better place, whereas I suggested notions of becoming and, I hope, being part of humanity. This is why I’m ok with the notion of, what is often described as, ‘learning for learning’s sake’ because I think it enriches us – it’s probably better described as ‘learning for our own sake’, and if we are active within our communities and beyond then ‘own sake’ means society as much as ourselves.
How about we focus on becoming decent, thoughtful, human beings before confidently ‘fixing’ the world? Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’m confident that concentrating on the former is more likely to improve the general state of affairs. Ultimately, Marc sees the Web, or the network, as a largely non-hierarchical location in which anyone with some gumption can achieve great things, as if the Web was some kind of neutral space in which the ‘good’ succeed and those that sink only have themselves to blame. This is effectively the mantra Silicon Valley hides behind.
I hope that for those in the room our sharply opposing views led to a meaningful debate. I personally found it quite distressing but maybe I’m just not native enough to market-driven conference environments? 🙂
Having said this, now I’ve had time to reflect I have to admit it’s been a useful process for me. I’ve learnt a lot and I value the opportunity to debate with people who hold differing views. After all, where is the challenge in only speaking to people who already agree with us? So, thanks for your time Marc, I can’t see us agreeing on much but I’d be up for round two if you are.
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.
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.
They are the smaller courses, with lower student numbers
They are led by individuals with a clear understanding of the value of working in a networked (often Resident) manner
The teaching team are happy to use a combination of institutional and Web-based platforms as appropriate
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:
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.
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’.
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)
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.
We need to acknowledge that the network (the Web) exists and design our courses accordingly.
We need to acknowledge that using disciplines as a primary mode of structuring our institutions has serious limitations for students in a digital era.
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.
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.