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.

 

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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.  

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