The digital erosion of trust

This post is an exploration of a theme which I mentioned in the 16/04/2020 edition of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with  Bonni Stachowiak and Jose Bowden.

it was also part of the discussion at the online workshop Bonnie Stewart and myself ran at OER20.

Given the dangers currently involved in daily life it’s understandable why many people want to employ every aspect of information which can be reaped from the digital environment to reduce risk. In China we hear of an app which shows the body temperature of your delivery driver and in the UK there appear to be plans for an app which will tell you if you have been in close proximity to someone who may have the virus. Forms of surveillance that only weeks ago would have been considered such a serious infringement of our rights they might have been left unsaid, are now being mooted on a daily basis. 

CC:BY Peter Leth https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterleth/4505254988

This is where I find the phrase: “Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should” extremely useful. The reason being that once technology presents us with an opportunity to reduce risk – with the inevitable negation of trust* – we feel a pressure to employ it (who wants to be the person who has to say ‘We decided not to use it’ when something goes wrong?). This plays out in numerous ways across society and in education, which myself and Bonnie Stewart explored in our session for OER20.

Our OER20 session

Care vs Surveillance 

In preparing the session, Bonnie suggested that many of the most contentious issues around the use of technology for teaching can be expressed as a tension between care and surveillance. For example, it could be considered caring to track students in digital platforms to understand how they are engaging with their learning. It can also be considered surveillance. In technology, care and surveillance tend to go hand-in-hand.

If we ignore this data and don’t identify that some students have all but dropped out then are we failing in our duty as educators? Once this source of information exists we have to be extremely deliberate in our reasons for using it or avoiding it. In a sector which is increasingly massified, data often stands in for relationships as the notional medium for care, and yet no institution has ever increased surveillance without claiming its role is to create a more caring, or safer, environment. 

Trust vs Fairness

The main casualty here is trust. Whenever we introduce something to increase ‘fairness’ we also reduce trust. For example, with online submissions of assessed work we track very closely if students hand-in work late. We can also identify which student we think submitted which piece of work by looking at their login. In many cases we don’t need to trust students to do the right thing because we have a digital process which negates trust in favour of fairness.

This could also be seen as protecting the reputation of the institution and the value of what it awards. Trust vs fairness and surveillance vs care are not simple problems to solve, they are tensions which require complex negotiation across managers, teachers and students. Even so, we all have stories of technologies which have been introduced that circumvent any negotiation by reifying aspects of surveillance and fairness as standard ‘features’. This often makes concrete an implicit aspect of institutional culture which actually required significant discretion.

Upholding freedoms 

As education moves online we are going to have to get better at stating, and upholding, our values around trust and care with the concomitant acknowledgment of the risk we are accepting to protect certain freedoms. If not, then education will continue to merge with the corporate/civic surveillance state we are now only too aware of. To avoid sleepwalking into this new normal there will be times where we must deliberately refuse to use aspects of the data and control which technology offers, even when there are demands framed in terms of fairness or reduction of risk. 

Freedom is risky and risk requires trust. I believe that educational institutions, especially universities, should create spaces of negotiated risk. My hope is that we can do this in both our physical and digital spaces so that the latter does not become a surveillance tool we use to ‘balance out’ trust gifted in other environments. Certainly now is a time to uphold trust in the face of surveillance whether that be with our students as we teach online or in wider society. Extending our ability to know and control is not axiomatic as it is better to be free than to be risk free.

The Global (viral) Village

Back in the day, when the internet was a place of hope, upbeat phrases abounded such as: Information SuperHighway and Web Surfing. The Coronavirus has illuminated the fruition and implications of one of these classic West Coast style phrases, The Global Village.

Thought experiment

To explore this idea I’m not going to claim any solid evidence or analysis but would like to pose a question: “How has access to the Web influenced the UK population’s response to the Coronavirus?”

I suggest that without access to an abundance of information on the spread of the virus and national responses beyond the UK we would not be ahead of Public Health England’s timings on social distancing and the closing of institutions. I also suspect we would be seeing less panic buying and less anxiety about a ‘lack of action’. 

To be clear, I’m not commenting on the rights and wrongs of any course of action. I only wish to explore the influence of the Web as a global network. 

By https://www.pixilart.com/santaclawswolf

It’s a big heap of everything – like a village.

One of the aspects of the Web which makes it so difficult to make sense of is that it’s always operating in multiple, intersecting modes. For example, what we see on a daily basis online is a chaotic mix of official announcements and total speculation. We see complex data next to pure antidote – published ‘fact’ interwoven with conversation and gossip. The traditional demarcation of ‘information’ and ‘speculation’ by notions of public and private has dissolved. Just like a village, word travels fast and the community decides how to respond whatever the leaders might be saying. 

If we wind back around 20 years then we would be receiving news of the virus mainly through broadcast and print media.There were news websites back then but they tended to operate in a broadcast mode. In 2000 around 26% of the UK had a connection compared to over 96% today and, of course, there was no Social Media to speak of. The information environment was largely as it had been for the preceding 60 years or so with institutions we trusted conveying the ‘truth’ of events. 

While broadcast media would have given us a sense of what was happening ‘abroad’ it would have seemed more remote and any scare mongering would have been done by outlets which were known to do this as a matter of course. Even as the virus appeared in the UK it’s difficult to imagine mass panic buying of toilet paper before any state of emergency had been called.

It’s a two-way street

One of the main factors in the ‘it’s a big heap of everything’ effect is that anyone with a connection can publish. This means that the Web is a powerful communication network for ‘us’ as well as ‘them’ – however you want to ascribe that distinction. As such, if an institution wants to cancel events ahead of official advice then it can, and at negligible cost in terms of communication. 

We have access to an abundance of hybrid, village-like information. We also have the means to take mass action – a shout from the village green which can reach tens of thousands. There is no need to go through official channels, so we can both decide and respond without the nod from the institutions which used to control-the-message.

What is Rome? – Whatever it is, it has blurrier edges now.

My hope is that we will respond to the effects of the The Global Village coming to pass by collectively admitting that the biggest challenges we face do not respect national borders. So far, on a national level, our membership of this Global Village and the complex world it reveals has amplified our desire to run back to simple, often negatively defined, forms of identity. When the virus is past its peak and we have done all we can to keep people safe will we better understand that our planet is now more of a village than a collection of nations?


Undisciplined advantage

We regularly use the word ‘practice’ at creative arts universities to denote an area of expertise and tends to relate to a general discipline area. For example, people will broadly associate themselves with Fine Art as a practice or Media Production. Many colleagues in my part of the university would see themselves as having an ‘educational’ practice of some form. 

Snakes and ladders
The pros and cons of being disciplined (CC-AT Matt Brown)

A lack of practice

A couple of weeks ago I was asked what my practice was and I struggled to answer. I started work in the late nineties, just as the Web was gaining ground as a new location for media, design and tech practices. I’ve taught in communications media, made digital media prototypes for the BBC, developed online distance courses and undertaken national research studies on digital education. Ultimately though, I don’t associate with a particular discipline and, as an extension of that, I don’t feel I have a practice. I also don’t hold a PhD and so am missing an easy identifier of expertise.

Given this lack of easy labels I’m often defined as ‘digital’ which is never very helpful as digital is a medium, not a practice. Claiming digital as a practice is like describing carpentry as ‘wood’ or painting as ‘art supplies’. The result of this miscategorisation is I’m often asked to ‘fix the screen’ in meetings when the presenter is struggling to make their slides appear. I have, at times, gone as far as to hide my technical skills so as not to be given the ‘tech-guy/digital’ mantle which risks my exclusion from strategic activities in favour of being brought in to fix things when they are ‘broken’. 

In many ways my lack of a practice has been a huge advantage. It gives me a clear perspective as I don’t come to an understanding through the specific lens of any given discipline with all its attendant histories and politics. In essence, I don’t need to be territorial to establish my credibility and can choose methods, tools and modes-of-thinking from disciplines or practice-areas which are most likely to progress a project or illuminate an area of complexity. 

Working in a third space

I was reminded of this when reading about a partnership between Central St Martins (one of our colleges) and Tokyo Institute of Technology. This has been designed as a hybrid, transdisciplinary partnership between the arts and sciences. This approach and philosophy is elegantly elucidated in a piece about the partnership by Dr. Betti Marenko in which she discusses the location of transdisciplinarity as a ‘third space’, sitting outside other disciplinary spaces while drawing on, and making connections with them. 

“Transdisciplinarity allows us to go beyond what exists already. Instead, it pushes us to make the present more complicated, more interesting, and richer. It is within this space of risk, the unexpected, and positive uncertainty that the real adventure of thinking together becomes palpably alive.”

Dr. Betti Marenko

This resonated with me as it set’s my lack of a practice and disciplinary home in a new light. I’ve always enjoyed questioning the structure of any given mode-of-thought or method and have often felt restless when I become too comfortable with a particular genre of understanding. I also feel restless when I’m travelling towards the center of a given community as I can sense the emphasis shifting from questioning to interpersonal allegiances and politics. The all-too-common academic milieu where who holds what position becomes more important than the value of the thinking itself. 

For me, all disciplines bring depth but often with the cost that what constitutes a legitimate question and approach is narrowed. I want to stay in the ‘space of risk and positive uncertainty’ which is one of the many reasons I enjoy working in and around the creative arts. If this means that I lose easy identifiers of expertise and practice then that’s a price I’m willing to pay. I’ll never gain the kind of credibility colleagues who become experts in their field will but I might be able to make connections that they can’t and I reduce the chance of becoming stuck in a specific currency of expertise.

Travels with an alt identity

Over a decade ago, I took a home brewed virtual ethnography approach to a project looking at communal and cooperative player behaviour in World of Warcraft. It appeared to me that the teamwork and sense of belonging in the game was exactly what we were trying to foster in online learning. 

The method I used was to sit with a player as they gamed, asking the occasional question while I set-up screen recording software. I then left the hard-drive with them and asked them to record any moments that they thought were significant over a period of about a week. I picked up the recordings and made notes as I watched them. Then I went back to the player with specific questions about aspects of the play and the dynamics of the gaming community I needed interpreting. It worked well and led to my thinking on ‘Social Capital in the Pursuit of Slaying Dragons’.

Four turtles and a Moorhen
Feeling very ‘alt’
( John K CC BY-NC-SA)

In the world and of the world

What was clear was that the players were extremely present in the game world, as embodied by their player avatars – they weren’t controlling a character from afar, they were within the world when they were gaming. The game was a space in which they were co-present, which is one of the reasons that an ethnographic approach worked. This principle influenced much of my subsequent work and I find it useful when considering the notion of digital fluency. In essence, you can’t understand the modes-of-engagement of a space by only learning it’s technical functionality as if it were a tool – you need to understand how it works as a social space. A simple example is Twitter – learning about ‘at’ replies, retweets and direct messages doesn’t tune you into the culture or discourse of the network of co-present individuals. You completely miss the role and value of Resident-mode platforms if you only consider how it works in abstracted, technical, terms.

So when it comes to teaching about the potential role and value of Resident online spaces I tend to take a digital fieldwork approach which draws on this ethnographic thinking. There are usually decent guides on the basics of online platforms you can point people too so, beyond this, what becomes important is the fieldwork brief which provides a motivation to engage with the dialogue and the culture of the space. This is what I had in mind when I designed the digital fieldwork activities which we used as part of the Teaching Complexity seminar series.

Digital Fieldwork activities

The activities range from simply appearing in a Resident space (for those that have never operated in this mode) through to experimenting with an alternative identity or faking out a social media platform. The six activities come with a short video intro from me as explaining the context for the approach is extremely important. This is especially the case for the activities which involve experimenting with identity as it’s not about tricking anyone, so participants need to be sensitive in the way they present themselves and connect.   

2min intro to the activities

The identity based activities are inherently self-reflexive as they encourage participants to not be ‘themselves’ – this creates contrasts which can be reflected upon. In our daily engagement with Resident online spaces we will struggle to ‘see’ how the platform is influencing us because we are generally connected to like-minded, similar people and are therefore focused on the substance of those relationships rather than on the structure or culture of the environment. 

This is similar to the anthropological principle that it’s difficult to see our own culture because we are normalised to it, which is why when we travel we gain insights through the contrast with other cultures. Taking on an alternative identity online is the equivalent of going ‘abroad’. The same Social Media platform is many different places depending on who you appear to be and how the platform encourages you to build your network based on your personal characteristics (age, gender, location, ethnicity, and anything else it can glean from your data)

My Instagram experience with an alt identity

A good example of this in the digital fieldwork was my own experience of the ‘Try on a New Identity’ activity. I started an Instagram account (having not had one before) as an alternative persona and began by following profiles/accounts suggested by the platform. The result was extremely informative. I gained an insight into the predominant aesthetic (in terms of fashion and ‘look’) of the platform and found just how much more sophisticated Social Media had become in shaping connections since I last ‘started from scratch’ in Twitter over a decade ago. Because I was an alternate persona it was extremely obvious why Instagram was throwing certain things at me based on my apparent age, location and gender. 

It was now clear to me how the platform might cause anxiety through the pressure to conform to a very particular body image, mode-of-speech and lifestyle. It was also clear that various forms of authenticity were being performed which appeared to shift as accounts became more popular (the I’m-so-popular-I-can-now-reveal-the-real-me effect). Lastly, I was shocked that despite certain flags from the platform it was impossible to tell the difference between a person and a brand. I didn’t know when I was being sold something and, in some senses, everyone was selling ‘self’.

For me it was a distressing window into the convergence of self/product/brand which I often hear discussed but hadn’t seen so directly. The experience gave me a real insight into one of the potential reasons why our students can feel anxious about the online environment. Instagram implies that everyone can be famous but only by conforming to very particular ways-of-being (or performed ways-of-being). Obviously I had experienced a very limited and, in many ways, naive window into Instagram, which is what I had set out to do. There a many positive aspects to engaging with the platform which I didn’t experience because of the route I had taken.

Caution

My advice on approaching the identity related activities

To be clear (and in keeping with my own advice on the fieldwork) I was careful to only like posts and never commented or got into conversation. I didn’t gain access to anything that wasn’t already openly visible on the Web.  I also only ran the account for a couple of weeks and it’s now mothballed. The activities are not designed to be used as research and as you can see I’ve been totally non specific even in this reflection. The persona I chose was not special, famous or someone anyone could have hoped to gain something from. I wouldn’t claim any persona is ‘neutral’ but I tried to be as boring as possible. 

Reflections from participants

You can read some participants’ reflections on the digital fieldwork activities on the Teaching Complexity website. One of the most encouraging aspects of the approach for me was the depth of discussion generated by participants simply considering, but not doing, the activities. There was much discussion and reflection in the online sessions from people exploring why certain activities made them feel uncomfortable and the implications this might have for students who would be navigating similar choices. Ultimately, the activities are a useful prompt to generate thinking about how our identities are being used, and possibly abused, online and how this is now inextricable from the overall student experience. 

Please talk while I talk

One of the highlights of last year was designing and running a series of open, online seminars with our online Visiting Fellow, Dr Bonnie Stewart. The ‘Teaching Complexity’ series was 100% open, in the sense that anyone with a connection to the Web could attend for free. The territory the seminars explored was the complexity of the digital environment we now teach in and how we might respond. 

The topics covered within the seminars all responded to the opportunities and challenges of the networked environment. A common theme being how to counter the creep of polarisation and support a diversity of voices within digital spaces.

One advantage of the seminars being open is that all of the materials (slides, recordings, comments etc) are available at the Teaching Complexity website which I created using our blogging platform. I’ve included a list of the seminars at the end of the post and know that quite a few people caught-up with them this way after the live ‘event’. 

The motivation to run the seminars was two fold:

Understanding the new teaching environment

Responding to the complexity of the Web as a teaching and  learning environment is an important topic to discuss. I now work on the principle that ‘All Courses are Blended Courses’ as I’d argue that any student, on any course, will spend significant amounts of time online. Some of that time will be spent discussing, or negotiating, the course with peers even were there is no, formal, online aspect to the curriculum. You’d be hard pressed to find a student who isn’t keen to develop their ability to navigate the Web for study or to make contacts which might lead to work. The Digital Creative Attributes we developed at UAL are a reflection of this but I realised that while I had clear principles in mind as we developed the DCAF I had not provided many examples of what a good response to the DCAF might look like in design terms. Hence Teaching Complexity.

Teaching Complexity

A good example of open practice

It was clear that for some the Open Practice Values I introduced at UAL caused some confusion. I personally see my approach here as a failure of communication on my part with some useful institutional lessons learned. I spend quite a lot of time considering open approaches and feel part of a community of open practitioners, so I underestimated how alien this line of thinking can be to people who are mainly (and rightly) focused on keeping the wheels of the university turning. When I presented the Principles at committee they split the room, with some immediately seeing the relevance (both in the manner in which the university could connect outwards and in the way our colleges could collaborate more closely) and some clearly worried that this would be yet another, distinct, layer of work which would detract rather than enhance, day-to-day teaching (A dis-integrated view of Open Practice). Given this, the Teaching Complexity Seminars were my ‘Show not Tell’ example of what teaching which embodies the Open Practice Values can look like. 
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Attendance and feedback

We had between 50-100 participants at each of the main seminars and more will have caught up with the recordings later. Those that responded to the evaluation questionnaire were mainly teaching staff, in roles overseeing or enhancing teaching or people involved in staff development of different forms. People attended from across the globe with the main locations being Europe and North America. Having been involved in this type of teaching quite regularly I’ve become a little blase about the geography involved and have to remind myself how incredible it is that we can facilitate these kinds of international moments so easily. 

The feedback was almost universally positive and at times effusive. A number of participants commented that they have very little staff development opportunities at their institution so the seminars provided a rare moment for them to consider and discuss themes which were unlikely to appear in the normal flow of their work. I feel that working in an open mode is integral to my work, especially as I represent a large institution with the capacity to be outward facing. Given that, I hadn’t thought of the seminars as ‘generous’, but this is how many participants respond to them. Overall I would have liked to have seen more people from my own institution at the seminars but UAL tends to be attracted by creative arts rather than teaching themes. I need to put some more thought into how best to describe opportunities like this in a manner which resonates at home as it were.

Some key points I took away from the seminars:

Be explicit

Given that anyone could turn-up and type in a name of their choice there was always a risk that someone could be disruptive with no cost to themselves. My view is that this would be extremely unlikely unless the topic under discussion is contentious or the facilitator is particularly famous/notorious. I equate this to Wikipedia vandalism – yes, the articles on Trump, Iran or Transgender are likely to be the focus of edit wars and vandalism but articles on Contructivism or John Dewey are unlikely to get messed with, because where’s the fun in that? The Teaching Complexity seminars definitely fell into the latter category – as would most teaching scenarios. Even so, I made sure to introduce every seminar with a brief and friendly talk about the social contract of the space. We were there to explore complex themes through mutually supportive discussion. I also highlighted that the sessions were being recorded and would be made openly available. This, I felt, gave me the right to remove people from the room if they stepped outside of these bounds. We never came close to anyone breaking the trust of the room but I still think it’s worthwhile being explicit about social and collaborative expectations. If you’re upfront about this then any disruptive individual is, in some ways, excommunicating themselves through their actions and you mitigate being placed into a ‘policing behaviour’ role as it’s likely there will be, post-event, group consensus on removing people.

Is anybody with me? 

Small moments of sharing go a long way in creating a sense of belonging online. For example, we would sometimes ask what the temperature was at participant’s locations with a notional prize for the highest and lowest (the range was always spectacular). The ‘live slides’ where everyone could write (or scrawl) a response to a question on screen on the whiteboard gave a powerful sense of being in the same, communal, space. In webinar type spaces like the one we were using it’s crucial for people to get a sense that they are co-present with others. This does not come for ‘free’ as it does in face-to-face environments, so these small moments of sharing become very important.  The risk of people moving slides, drawing all over the screen or accidentally un-muting their mic at a random moment was more than balanced out by the inclusive atmosphere that giving people these options supported (we did have a few strange moments but they were all harmless). Giving everyone ‘moderator’ status by default was a good way of subverting the didactic design principle of the platform we were using (Blackboard Collaborate Ultra).

A favourite moment for me was when Dave Cormier asked people to play with the whiteboard while we waited to get started. This is the result:

This is a good example of responses to a ‘live slide’ question. One of the interesting aspects of this is how people started to highlight or draw around answers they felt were important as the seminars progressed. The messiness here creates a friendly atmosphere which somewhat counters the slightly sterile and inhuman feeling of the default webinar platform.

I also very much enjoyed how quickly somebody (in about 5 seconds…) wrote ‘Moms Spaghetti’ on the following slide (see the ‘classic memes’ section of pop-culture…).

Please talk while I’m talking

Building on the point above, I’m a huge fan of encouraging people to use the text chat while the seminar is in progress. Actually getting this going requires some facilitation in itself which is why all of the sessions would have a lead facilitator and a kind of support facilitator who could give some momentum to the chat and highlight interesting questions. When you have 50 or more people the chat can get quite lively and really helps the facilitators by giving a live indication of how well they are connecting with the group. All the facilitators for the seminars were experienced in speaking online so could respond to the chat as the seminar progressed. This is one of the distinct advantages of the online space over the face-to-face as it allows sessions to be discussed in the moment – it erodes the ‘expert broadcast’ aspect of online teaching in a very pleasing way.

If it could have been a video, you’re doing it wrong

I have a general rule of thumb that if, on reflection, a synchronous online event could have been a YouTube video then you have got the approach wrong. Why turn up ‘live’ if there is no interaction? Even though I was vocal about this in the planning stages, a few of the sessions had long sections of ‘just talk’. What I’ve subsequently realised is that these sessions were not actually all that long but that our concentration threshold is somewhat shorter in a webinar room than in a physical room. Some of that is to do with there being less to look at – less, or no, physical presence. It is also to do with the culture of the space, by which I mean that when we are in front of our laptops we are used to interacting quite often unless we are in ‘Netflix mode’. The differing socio-cultural expectations of online vs face-to-face are probably more of a factor than the notion of a concentration threshold as, by my estimate, it’s acceptable to speak for at least 20 minutes with no interaction face-to-face but this is probably reduced to around 7 minutes online. Beyond 7 minutes I suspect we start going into Netflix mode or getting distracted by the other tabs we have open. 

Be clear it’s not about absorbing everything

Speaking to a couple of UAL colleagues in the following weeks I discovered that the seminars had been quite overwhelming for them, with ‘a lot going on’ at the same time (i.e. the facilitator speaking, parallel text chat, whiteboard interactions, voting and Tweeting). It was a useful reminder to me that I personally enjoy navigating, and reflecting on,  multiple channels simultaneously but that this is not the case for everyone. So, perhaps my 7min threshold is too short and people need longer periods of ‘broadcast’ mode to be able to take in new topics. Overall I suspect the biggest cognitive shift for many is paying attention to the speaker while simultaneously keeping up with the text chat. That would certainly be overwhelming if you felt you had to take every detail in, so a message at the start explaining that the aim is not to absorb everything that’s happening on screen might help.
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Learning from the seminars

The substance of the Teaching Complexity seminars was extremely interesting with sessions like Inclusive Spaces exploring ideas which are often not considered in digital contexts. Commonly the notion of ‘innovation’, which is often attached to digital approaches, avoids difficult thinking around inclusion and exclusion by implying that it’s going to change the way we interact so the problem simply won’t exist and therefore does not need to be confronted…

Beyond the ‘content’ of the seminars, I will be incorporating what I’ve learnt about the format of the sessions (the modes of interaction) into future work. This includes a project which is looking at transcultural arts education across an international partnership of arts schools and the development of more sophisticated ‘hybrid’ events which take place face-to-face and online in parallel.

1. Connected Teaching  – Jan 8th 3-4pm GMT –
Recording and slides
Designing ‘connected’ teaching and learning which works on and offline.
Facilitators: Bonnie Stewart, Amy Collier, David White

2. Openness and Prestige –  Jan 29th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Exploring how ‘giving stuff away’ and working openly online can be good for you and your students.
Facilitators: Bonnie Stewart, Catherine Cronin

Digital fieldwork part 1 – Feb 5th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Get tooled up to undertake some exploratory digital fieldwork.
Facilitators: Matt Lingard, David White

3. Complexity and creativity –  Feb 19th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Learn how to take a creative approach to complex subjects.
Facilitators: David Cormier, Tobias Revell

Digital fieldwork part 2 – Feb 26th 3-4pm GMT
Recording
Sharing your digital fieldwork experiences.
Facilitators: Matt Lingard, David White, Sheldon Chow4. Inclusive spaces – Mar 5th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Ensuring digital teaching and learning welcomes a variety of voices
Facilitators: Bonnie Stewart, Maha Bali , Chris Giliard

What am I?

A couple of months ago I joined a running club and discovered two things:

      1. Running is quite hard
      2. 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.

A spectacular looking (but not painful) injury sustained in during a ‘social run’…

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).

Ambiguity in the Art School Curriculum (subtitled) from Teaching and Learning Exchange on Vimeo.

Which is an interesting counterpoint to this:

Which makes me feel: 

I wasn’t aware intelligence was a problem?

Anyway…

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.

‘Complexity’ – an illustration   CC-BY-NC-ND Katharine Dwyer

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’.

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.

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‘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.

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.

 

Love of Learning society

An online society open to all dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and the love of learning.

“For the LoL”

This is an idea that was developed with the help of Simon Thomson at the Jisc Creativity Workshop run by Lawrie Phipps.

CC - https://www.flickr.com/photos/pollyann/329186325
CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/pollyann/329186325

The LoLs 10 Tenets:

  1. Not for profit
  2. No credentials or qualifications given or required
  3. 100% online
  4. $5 lecture fee
  5. All lectures happen live with no limit on the number of students
  6. All lectures to be funded in a ‘kickstarter’ style with visible speaker fee
  7. Anyone can run a lecture as an expert
  8. 50% of lecture running time to be Q&A/discussion with questions chosen by the students
  9. All sessions released as a recording under an open, noncommercial license
  10. All income (after expert fee and admin) to go to educational charities that work to widen participation and make knowledge freely available

The following to be decided by the expert for each lecture:

  • Subject focus
  • Lecture length (must be a prime number of minutes between 7 and 29)
  • Speaker fee, which will be visible to the potential students (the fee will either be waived or a prime number)

LoLs student (sLoL) journey:

  1. Become a member of the society by signing up to the LoLs platform.
  2. Seek out an interesting  lecture and pledge $5. (It will be clear how close the lecture is to the minimum funding level needed. Beyond this point all income goes to charity. All lectures have a set start time.)
  3. If they make a pledge early (before the minimum funding has been reached) they can submit a question to be asked during the Q&A portion of the lecture. If they are in later than this then they can vote potential question up and down. The number of questions used will be proportional to the length of the lecture.
  4. They might explore some of the pre-lecture links if any have been submitted by the expert. They can also check the lecture hashtag to get involved in pre-lecture discussion and connect with others who have pledged.
  5. If the minimum funding level is reached they receive a reminder of the lecture time and an access code of some sort.
  6. The lecture runs in a Google Hangouts style platform with a video feed from the expert, a hashtag driven back channel and a text chat area. More confident experts could use whiteboards and polls etc. All lectures are supported by a facilitator to assist with the tech and to moderate. Facilitators can work for free or be paid in $5 lecture tokens. Experts will be encouraged to respond to the backchannel and text chat as much as possible.
  7. At exactly half-time the lecture moves into Q&A mode with the facilitator stepping through the top questions as voted for by participants. If there is time left they can respond to questions that have emerged from the backchannel and text chat.
  8. Exactly on time the platform shuts down the lecture with extreme prejudice (automatically 🙂
  9. The video feed is then placed on YouTube or a similar channel under an open, non-commercial license.
  10. Discussion can continue on the hashtag.
  11. Participants can rate the lecture and the expert within limited LoLs criteria.

LoLs expert (eLoL) journey:

  1. Become a member of the society by signing up to the LoLs platform.
  2. Experts must have participated in at least two lectures before having the option to create their own lecture and have completed a LoLs expert tutorial.
  3. Create a lecture by submitting the following:
    • Subject area, title, blurb etc
    • Level (novice, intermediate, advanced)
    • Associated material and links
    • Pick a speaker fee for themselves
    • Pick a lecture length and time
    • Pick a charity or charities (from a LoLs list) that any income over the minimum will go to
  4. The expert can mark what they think are good questions with an expert tag during the voting process but can’t create questions.
  5. The expert might join in the hashtag based discussion.
  6. They may also promote the lecture via their networks to ensure it reaches the minimum funding level.
  7. If the funding level is reached they are given an expert code of some sort to access the lecture space which they can visit as much as they want to set-up.
  8. The lecture runs (all they need is a webcam and headset). Experts and facilitators arrive 30 minutes before the start time to ensure the tech is working smoothly.
  9. After the lecture the expert can chose to join in with any additional hashtag based discussion. The expert or the facilitator may put a link to the recording in appropriate Wikipedia articles.

So that’s about it in simple terms. It’s based on a number of principles:

  • People like to be involved in live events even if this is less convenient than watching a recording. (See ‘Eventedness‘)
  • The format is honest about paying the experts if they want a fee. The $5 format also negates the need for advertising (depending on what platforms are used) or sponsorship.
  • People like to influence events and have input – in this case via submitting or voting on questions or via the live discussion. 
  • Most people can relate to ‘classic’ nomenclature such as ‘lecture’, ‘expert’ and ‘student’. This is a deliberate choice and has no bearing on the style of pedagogy experts chose.  
  • It allows for huge mainstream lectures and niche ones designed for no more than a few students.
  • People like to lead up to and away from live events – in this case via the lecture hashtag.
  • ‘Big names’ can chose a big fee or munificence.
  • in keeping with the LoL principle only lectures that people are truly interested in will run.
  • Popular lectures are very likely to bring in income for the chosen charities as there is minimal (if any) cost as student numbers increase.
  • People tend to be more invested in something they have paid for even if the fee is minimal (and incidentally a prime number).
  • The format encourages both the expert and keen students to promote the lecture.
  • No knowledge is withheld as all lectures are freely available as recordings.
  • Anyone can get involved in hashtag discussions.

I’d estimate that a LoLs pilot could initially be developed by stitching together a number of free-to-use platforms. The difficult part is managing the way the money flows around. I suspect a bespoke pilot platform could be put together for less than the cost of developing the materials for a mainstream MOOC.

So, who’s interested? 🙂

P.S. If this got off the ground then I’d form a parallel organisation called the Love of Learning institute ( LoLi – pronounced lolly). This would also be not for profit and would handle any commercial interests in LoLs content. For example a number of LoLs lectures under a given theme could be built into a curriculum structure and accredited. The LoLi protects the tenants of the LoLs and would hopefully feed more money to educational charities.