The future is not quite real-time

In a discussion with Lawrie Phipps (@Lawrie) I was reminded of something I was thinking about last year around the advantages of not quite real-time (NQRT). It’s one of the few genuinely unique affordances of the web. Asynchronous communication has been with us since cave painting and synchronous since two people first clapped eyes on each other. What is relatively new is the cultural acceptability of having anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 hours between contributions to a discussion or conversation (although between 10 seconds and around 5 minutes is the more interesting time-frame).

Egg Timer
Photo by Ian Barbour: http://goo.gl/Kojve

I’m thinking here about ‘Instant’ messaging, a Twitter stream, a Facebook wall and even ‘rapid’ emailing or forum posting. For example, I can receive a text message in Skype, check the web for information or speak to a colleague in the room and then respond. It’s powerful because it doesn’t demand the immediate attention of a f2f encounter or a ringing phone and it also gives me time to gather my thoughts/cross check information.

Not quite real-time is the main reason why most people are wittier, cleverer and all together more attractive online than they are f2f (note, I say ‘are’ not ‘appear to be’ – the web is real and so are the things that happen there…). It’s also a key reason why more people are comfortable to be perfomative on Facebook walls and in Twitter streams i.e. visible social interaction. This is a communication mode in which we feel a sense of interpersonal connection but also have some level of control over pace/timing. It’s a powerful because it’s social but doesn’t aggressively demand attention. This is why text will always be the dominant visible form of communication online and why many of us chose to not put our cameras on when Skyping.

The downside of NQRT is when it’s used as part of a focused event or discussion with more than two participants. In these cases the pace tends to increase rapidly until NQRT becomes achingly close to f2f speeds (4 seconds is about the maximum time between responses in a f2f conversion ) and the thinking-time gaps are crushed. When this happens the quickest thinkers and fastest typists win-out (or those who have pre-prepared text which they paste in…). This is why text-chats are often feel so exclusive, especially in an educational context – the usual suspects take the floor. It could be one of the many modes of engagement which erode when shifted from a personal to an institutional context?

It would be fascinating to study the nature of NQRT communications because it appears to be unique to the web and a relatively new cultural phenomenon. What is effect of NQRT on maintaining relationships and/or supporting communities? Is it a more inclusive form because it levels out the playing field and those who like to muse before expressing themselves can be part of the flow or is it fated to always speed-up and lose its advantages as soon as a discussion becomes interesting? It’s certainly something that warrants research, assuming a practical methodology could be developed…

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New Places to Learn

Yesterday I tweeted:

“Annoyed by the ‘Digital Natives’ idea? Explore alternatives: ‘New Places to Learn’ Oxford Apr19 http://goo.gl/Sdf3w

The (free) event I’m referring to is being run by the HEA and is using the Visitors and Residents metaphor  as a broad framework to explore the implications of the web as a ‘place’ for the education sector. The intention is to break away from outmoded age or tech skill related correlations to discuss new modes of engagement which are emerging based on co-presence online. To put it in ‘Visitors and Residents’ terms: exploring pragmatic approaches to operating at the Resident end of the continuum.

Visitor restrictions
CC: A-NC-SA Flickr: 'Celita'

The danger when learning is moved online is that the focus tends to be on curriculum and content rather than the less instrumental aspects of what makes a course work such as social cohesion and a sense of belonging. The traditional lecture in a physical space may not be pedagogically ideal but it has inherent co-presence, giving students the sense that they belong to a particular cohort and that they are legitimate members of their institution. These ‘side effects’ of traditional modes of engagement are easy to take for granted and often forgotten in the move online.

This move is a response to increasing student numbers, the need to deliver learning with greater flexibility, the availability of online resources (some of which are in ‘beyond text’ formats) and the desire to attract oversees students. The underlying drivers here are efficiency, flexibility and scalability. As we discovered in our HEFCE Study of Online Learning one of the key pedagogical design approaches that can address these drives is that of peer learning.  This is a form of inter-student support and collaboration that is well supported by the physical institution. The library, the coffee shop, the pub etc have all evolved to create ‘places’ for, amongst other things, peer-learning. As a sector we haven’t been very successful to-date in creating or using similar places (or places which facilitate similar forms of interaction) online and we often underestimate the importance of co-presence when trying to encourage peer-learning on the web.

It is  generally accepted that it’s  easier to discuss learning with a fellow student you ‘know’ than with a stranger so if that learning is taking place predominantly online it’s crucial that your fellow students have an online social presence. If the majority of a cohort have a social presence online  it is more likely that individuals will feel that all important sense of belonging and accountability which will support them though the challenging aspects of their study (especially when the course is large scale and tutoring staff don’t have the time to keep a close pastoral overview).

Understanding the role and value of Resident/presence based modes of engagement should be a high priority for a sector that is moving online. It should no longer be the exotic preserve of the ‘high tech’ or the ‘innovator’ and needs to be taken up by the ingenious pragmatists amongst us. I am very happy to say that the ‘New Places to Learn’ event has secured the services of a number of these ingenious characters who will discuss the challenges of working at scale online from different perspectives:

  • Dave Cormier comes to the ‘web as place’ as one of the early instigators of the ‘MOOC’ format which builds on the inherent connectivity of the web to form agile learning scenarios. I think of this approach as highly Resident, emerging from the culture of the web and loosely tethered to the traditional institution where necessary.
  • Martin Weller has been involved in moving large scale Open University courses online as well as initiatives such as Open Learn. He understands what is involved when a large organisation reaches out into the web and what it means to be a ‘Digital Scholar’ online.
  • Lawrie Phipps and Ben Showers from JISC will be facilitating an activity which aims draw on the collective expertise in the room to map the pros and cons of Resident modes of engagement.

Alison Le Cornu the academic lead for Flexible Learning for the HEA will be chairing the day and drawing together the thinking to inform the strategic direction of the academy in this area.

I myself will be picking up on the themes in this post and discussing our JISC funded Visitors and Residents project which is in the early stages of describing educational/online ‘genres of participation’ and mapping the associated literacies which learners use.  We also hope to hear about the progress of  projects in the JISC Developing Digital Literacies strand.

If you are interested in the web as a place for learning or you have your own thoughts or practice to share then sign-up. If you can’t make it to Oxford then visit the HEA booking page on the day for a link to the live stream.

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The cost of Residency?

We like to think of online platforms usurping each other as we move to the latest and greatest of a particular format, leaving the previous version eroding in a Kipple like fashion – the MySpace to Facebook to Google+ narrative. I’m not convinced that this is a useful story and wonder if the web is better thought of as an ever expanding space rather than a migrating community. I suspect that Google+ for example will be inhabited by more than the diaspora from Facebook and Twitter. In fact what interests me about Google+ beyond ‘circles’ is the way in which the platform has expanded the geography of social web so massively in such a short space of time.

Estate agent window smashed

Given this Google’s new platform highlights the impossibility of residing everywhere online, of having a live profile in all of the key places – it’s time-consuming to maintain a meaningful presence in one social media space let alone two or three.  To keep things practical you have to decide where you are going to reside online and have a reasonable idea of what role that residency will play in your life: personal, professional, academic, escapist or a delicate cocktail of the above (and we all know how dangerous cocktails can be). To counter the potential alienation of residing online it is useful to reflect on what your motivation to engage is: maintaining f2f relationships, living-out ‘strong-tie’ relationships, building a professional network, building a personal learning network or just good old fashioned self promotion in the hope of invites to warm places… Time is the non-negotiable cost to Residency and to maintaining fulfilling relationships of any form. The way this precious resource is spent, especially in the context of learning, needs to be better understood by those of us promoting the idea of digital literacy.

We are just coming to the end of the pilot phase of the JISC funded Visitors and Residents project framed round my original idea for understanding individual’s engagement with the web. The project is in partnership with the OCLC and for the pilot phase we interviewed students from the US and the UK in late-stage high school and first-year University. There are many interesting trends emerging from the project and it is the case that some students are more Resident than others. Most of our participants talked about the cost of being Resident online in some form which has led us to include ‘time-wasting’, ‘distraction’ and ‘addiction’ into the code-book we are using to analyse the interviews.

I thought like coming into A levels, I’d need to be able to focus without having Facebook at the back of mind, because at GCSE, you know when you have coursework, I’d always go, okay I’ll go on Facebook, I’m going on MSN, I’d just stay logged in and then I’d do my coursework on the side, but I just ended up staying on Facebook.

UKS6

I live on my email and Facebook also, which I’m not as proud of.  Just because it’s a time vortex.

USS3

I am not that bad with Facebook but I get annoyed sometimes … I find myself being on there for more than 15 minutes or 20 minutes. It is pointless, it is a waste of time and then I think sometimes I get annoyed with how long I can spend on the computer when I could be probably doing something else.

USU1

Essentially if your normal mode of operation is mainly Resident then it’s difficult to go online and get on with activities that require a Visitor approach without checking-in to all your Resident spaces and risking distraction. The participants in our study are well aware of this and one even put her Facebook account on ice so that she could pursue her learning more effectively. It’s a tough decision though as much homework is discussed and possibly collaborated on (participants are always wary of this idea as it is unclear where collaboration merges into plagiarism) in Facebook IM. If your friends aren’t logged into Facebook at that moment then a text message goes round asking them to get online so that work can be tackled.

People do post a Facebook thing so and saying something like, “Everybody in my Biology class, what was it we were supposed to be doing?”

UKS8

Like usually with homework I usually can do it myself.  But like, like sometimes I will just like IM my friend on Facebook and will be like, “Hey do you know how to do this?”

USS6

Facebook messaging has really replaced email in the lives of students.  So that’s – if it’s more something that we’re trying to structure and actually build upon over some time, it would be a Facebook message…

UKU5

When the Visitors and Residents idea is discussed it is often with the implication that becoming more Resident or facilitating that process is going to be of value. In my video discussing V&R I make the point that a Visitor approach to formal education is more likely to be successful than a Resident one given that all students are likely to end-up isolated at a desk in an exam room at the end of their courses – i.e. the education system assesses our ability to be Visitors not Residents.

We also have to consider which mode of engagement is most appropriate for the world of work and perhaps more importantly which mode best supports individuals as citizens or as members of a range of communities? Thinking in terms of mode-of-engagement is one way of framing our approaches to digital literary– the definition of this as taken by the JISC strand of digital literacy projects being appropriately broad:

“..digital literacy defines those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society..”

Characterising digital literacy as a  simple drive towards Residency would be dangerous; digital literacies are required and acquired as much at the Visitor end of the continuum as they are at the Resident. If we are attempting to support students and equip them with relevant digital literacies we need to be more precise about the value of ‘just-visiting’ or ‘moving into’ particular online spaces. Our project is mapping motivations-to-engage and evaluating a wide range of approaches.  I’m hopeful that we will be able to develop methods by which individuals and groups can plan their travels through the ever expanding online landscape.

 

Image credit:  CC – Some rights reserved http://www.flickr.com/photos/pigsonthewing/3241588102/

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Does the Technology Matter?

Recently I have given keynotes at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference (video here .wmv format) and the  Technology Enhanced Learning Symposium at DeMontfort University (slides here), both of which explored the flow of technology from shiny innovation through to  embedded use within an institutional environment. I did this from the perspective of the individuals/groups involved rather than by describing the evolving affordances of digital platforms. This approach being an attempt to avoid the ‘what’ of technological determinism, concentrating instead on the ‘why’ of institutional/individual motivations.

A few of the things I covered included:

  • Drawing out the similarities and differences between the geeks gate keeping the BBC Micro in 1982 with the beautiful people (in expensive jeans) ‘life-styling’ the iPad in 2010.
  • Highlighting the daunting breath of activity and motivations that now come under the increasingly useless banner of ‘digital’ by contrasting the excellent Hierarchy of Digital Distractions with the contents of the 2009 GCSE in Information Communications Technology.
  • Asking the audience to reflect on their own personal motivations and positions relative to my ‘Six Very Simple Diagrams’: Role, Desire, Pedagogy, Technology, Motivation and Bickering.

Of these ‘Role’ seems to cause the most discussion:

Role

Do you see your role as one of successfully embedding technology  until it becomes ‘transparent’ or is it more about challenging current practices using the tech as a driver for change? It could of course be a combination but my experience within the Higher Education sector is that groups coalesce around either ‘disappear’ or ‘disrupt’. This, in my opinion, is why individuals who can facilitate communication between these groups are crucial to the ongoing innovation-embedding flow within any institution.

The apparent opposition within the disappear-disrupt paradigm was brought back to mind when I was invited to take part in a ‘Does the Technology Matter?’ debate for the ALT-C conference later this year. Inspired by some slightly belligerent Tweeting around the concept by myself, @josiefraser and @mweller Dave Cormier hung the tensions embodied in the statement very elegantly on Smartboards (although he could have chosen any number of technologies) in his ‘It’s about the technology and it isn’t’ post. In the post he neatly balances the push-pull nature of the introduction of new tech into a classroom situation, highlighting what the effects of a new technology can be and what is simply foregrounded by the presence of that technology.

For me this aligns well with the disappear-disrupt concept in that your position on this continuum will underpin your reaction to the ‘Does it Matter?’ statement. This brings me to extend the question into a more useful form: ‘Does the Technology Matter for What?’ which does not have an objective answer as it is inextricably linked with ‘What do you Think you are Trying to Achieve?’ Oddly the latter question is often passed over when ‘new’ technologies are being introduced with vague allusions to ‘efficiency’ or ‘it’s what the students want’.

Again it’s the ‘what’ not the ‘why’ which tends to get focused on. As an example I would cite the ‘digital literacy’ debate in which motivations to engage frequently go unexplored leading to a focus on how to develop and maintain a successful digital identity as if this is the only way to live and learn. This in turn inevitably moves onto interminable discussions around facebook privacy options that ultimately spiral into the nature of society as a whole until lunch brings the whole thing to an inconclusive finish. Too much ‘what’ morphs into a woolly ‘why’ just as people start to get really hungry.

What I’m lobbying for here is a properly balanced conversation around ‘Does the Technology Matter’ in which we avoid simplistic posturing by making it clear what our assumptions and motivations are. In this way the discussion will help us to reflect on our own positions and how we can successfully collaborate with those around us who hold differing views but might well be trying to achive similar things. I’m not saying that I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing I just think that our underlying approach to technology is still a little 1982 and it’s time to accept that the picture is a bit more complex.

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The Transition from the Co-Digital to the Post-Digital.

Having made public the original discussion paper ‘Planning for the Post-Digital’ members of the 52group then blogged the concept. These posts generated some strong responses, both in comments and in further blog reactions.Initial reactions to the Post-Digital interpreted the concept as dismissing the importance of technology (and the technologically minded) claiming that somehow the ‘digital’ had passed into history:

“In short, this isn’t the post-digital world, just like it isn’t the post-jet age or the post-space age. All of these technologies are not magic, they’re here, they’re real and they have real consequences. The way to deal with these changing technologies is the same as every craftsman has done since the iron age: respect the tools of your trade, without being obsessive about them (leave that to the toolmakers), and remember that any tool can be improved, and therefore will be.” Wilber Krann (comment on original post)

&

“I think that we should have some people obsessed with the technology (where has most of the technology come from?) and we should have people who can analyse it, and critique it, and say “Yes, this works in this situation because X” or ‘This is not useful as a learning technology’.” Pat Parslow

The Post-Digital was seen as a negative principle which devalues engagement with the technical encouraging us to be unthinking consumers of new hardware and platforms as they become ever more culturally ‘transparent’.

“what are the implications for accepting that we are in a postdigital age?  Don’t we then accept that our IT environment will be owned by the mega-corporations – Google and Microsoft…It strikes me that the postdigital agenda is a conservative one, in which we are asked to accept that we (in our institutions and in our working environment) cannot shape our digital environment. And for me that is a worrying point of view which I don’t accept.” Brian Kelly

Alongside these discussions Frances Bell suggested the term Co-Digital as a better term to describe the process of  “…seizing the opportunities presented by the newness of technologies to spot changes and then shape the development of the technology.”

The Co-Digital then describes the period of ‘flux’ (this is a term from the ‘Digital Habitats’ by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith) which a technology goes through as the user community appropriates it and influences its development. This period is early in a technologies life-cycle but may not be in effect for very long as the user community expands.

Instead of the Co-Digital replacing the Post-Digital I think that they are concepts which describe different points of a larger process of transition.

I have tried to describe the transition technologies make from the Co to the Post-Digital in the diagram below. The model is an attempt to bring together the thinking that has emerged from the Post-Digital idea and put it in a larger context.

postdigital
Technological transition from the Co-Digital to the Post-Digital.

(The visual design of the diagram is a homage to the excellent ‘Hierarchy of Digital Distractions’ by David McCandless which I have stuck to the wall by my desk)

Rather than attempt to discuss through the diagram in detailed prose I have written up some simple notes which may help to describe the overall model:

Transition Stages

Co Digital:

The point at which the socio-tech flux (Wenger uses the term ‘Vortex’) is most fluid. Social appropriation of the tech influences its development. Similarly the tech starts to form the manner in which social engagement takes place and in which social capital is built.

Digital:

The tech is seen a culturally ‘shiny’ but its role is beginning to become ‘fixed’ in the mind of its growing community and in its socio-tech function.

Post-Digital:

The tech is no longer ‘shiny’. It is culturally normalised and not conceived of as ‘technology’ (‘Disappearing into Use’ is an brilliant phrase I have hear which describes this).  The tech is now understood by its core function i.e. culturally, the phone is seen as the conversations you have when using it. It is not generally considered in technological terms anymore. This phenomenon could also be seen as a transition to the Post –Technical.

‘Types’ of Users

Pioneers:

They build new stuff because they think it’s cool. Likely to be very tech orientated. Pushing the boundaries of what is possible technologically.

Players:

Probably community leaders. Not as tech focused as the Pioneers but they are adept at appropriating the new tech to their own ends. This is often done by building networks/community or promoting themselves as a brand. They are happy to subvert functionality and influence the evolution of the tech.

Pragmatists:

They follow players into technologies. They want to know what a tech is ‘for’ and how to use it ‘correctly’ before joining. They enjoy the ‘shiny’ once there is a cultural consensus. i.e. They are buying iPhones from Tesco’s now. They also actually like ‘top ten’ style lists on how to use platforms properly.

Phollowers (apologies):

They use the tech once it is fully culturally normalised. They are not interested in experimenting. This group bought the mobile phones they claimed they didn’t need once all their friends had one.

Institutions:

When these guys get involved they accelerate the shift from the Co Digital to the Digital. Think Twitter and the BBC.

What is the point?

  1. We need to influence the evolution of technology while it’s in the Co-Digital space. i.e. Edtech folk need to be players (well, some of them at least). Once a tech has moved out of the Co-Digital it is difficult to influence although it may be re-appropriated later in a different context. In my opinion Twitter is currently moving out of the Co-Digital space.
  2. As the user base in a tech expands the Pragmatists begin to out number the Players. Because the Pragmatists have a relatively fixed idea about the function of the tech this means that it becomes increasingly difficult for the tech to stay in flux. Think of the backlash every time facebook attempts to make changes to its interface or functionality.
  3. Once tech hits the Post Digital it is pretty much game over for direct innovation (but as I have mentioned re-appropriation is possible). Once Google and the ‘cloud’ become Post-Digital they will actually be running the world.

The model is clearly a work in progress…  I welcome your thoughts (especially as it was comments and posts on the original idea that helped move this forward to this stage)

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Visitors & Residents: The Video

Last month I gave a presentation on the ‘Visitors & Residents’ principle at the ALT-C conference which was well received so I thought it would be worth videoing the talk under laboratory conditions…

Some of you might also be interested in our paper on Visitors and Residents:

Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011
http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/3171/3049

Just a few notes to go with the video:

The original ‘Prezi’ presentation is here: http://prezi.com/x0nxciep_mlt/

The tinyURL that is supposed to link to Andy Powell’s ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post is incorrect. Please follow this link instead.

At points I use the term ‘real life’ which seems to imply that anything which is online is somehow not part of ‘real life’. A better phrase would have been ‘offline’. Language in this area is difficult at best…

The quote “…just knowing how to use particular technologies makes one no wiser than just knowing how to read words” is a quote from Prensky’s recent paper on ‘Digital Wisdom’. In the journal ‘Innovate’. In other versions of the talk I refer to Prensky directly but seem to have omitted it when I was in front of the camera.  All other non-attributed quotes are anonymised statements from our students.

The images I used are under the Creative Commons license:

‘Tourist Trap’ visitor image http://www.flickr.com/photos/sharpshutter/232909207/
‘Rusholme’ resident image http://www.flickr.com/photos/raver_mikey/2224048987
‘Sunny Park’ web as a space image http://www.flickr.com/photos/nhudson/2504679411
‘Tool Box’ web as a toolbox image http://www.flickr.com/photos/howardstrong/3238293371

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Post-digital – an update?

Earlier this week I ran a post-digital session with Rich Hall as part of the fringe (#falt09) activities around the ALT-C conference. We had an interesting time in the upstairs room of the Lass O Gowery in Manchester debating a series of statements which were designed to provoke post-digital thoughts, for example:

  • Learning technologists are obsessed with technology more than learning, which is why elearning will never make the mainstream.
  • We are purveyors of the worst kind of spin: ‘This new thing will solve all your problems’.
  • The speed of the change has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on the canvas of the digital.
  • People with educations have huge advantages over those with skills and always will.

While these did lead to a lively discussion, I was still no clearer by the end as to how to describe post-digital as a concept. For many the term seems to imply a discarding of digital technologies as if they were no longer important. It also appears to promise some sort of new world order – which is not helpful.

After the fringe session I was even more convinced that the post-digital was a useful concept but that we hadn’t found the right way of expressing it yet.

A room with a view at ALT-C 2009

A couple of days later I gave my presentation at the ALT-C conference on my ‘Visitors & Residents’ principle. I had inserted a reference to the post-digital at the end of the talk to make the point that the Visitors & Residents idea rests on issues of motivation and personal preference rather than age or technical skill. This seemed to me to be a post-digital principle but, influenced by my conversations around the subject during the conference, I suggested that the term post-technical might be more appropriate.Ok so before I continue, yes this is a kind of semantic exercise, but what we have here I think is a strong idea which is difficult to express. One of the conclusions of the fringe sessions was that the rapid rate of change in technology is causing accelerated cultural effects which we are struggling to describe. (This was echoed in Michael Wesch’s keynote at the conference.) So I think it’s important to develop our thinking in this area even if it is a bit of a bumpy ride.

I can recommend Ian Truelove’s recent post on some of the pragmatic effects a post-technical approach can have in education. As Ian points out the technical is all about learning, and then following, a series of rules. Rules that we need to grasp before we can express ourselves ‘properly’. The manual for most software is written in this style – a button-pressing, linear approach. And yet the most successful (I’m thinking here in terms of uptake) online platforms don’t seem to have manuals. This is not necessarily because they are especially simple to use, but because they are massively multi-user and simply by watching the behaviour of fellow users it is possible to ‘pick up’ not only how to use the platform but also why you might want to use it. This should come as no surprise as we are particularly good at learning by observing fellow members of our own species. (There will be a fancy pedagogic/sociological term for this. If you know it then please insert it here as you read.)

Basic button-pressing, user-interface-comprehending activity is becoming culturally normalised and an ever-decreasing factor in our engagement with digital technologies (i.e. many of us are already digitally literate, if you will excuse the terminology). In effect our approach to technology need not be technical.

A simple post-technical example: the substantive effects of Twitter as a platform cannot be described by its technical functionality. Reading a technical manual for Twitter would not help a user to become resident in that online space. As Andy Powell suggests this in his ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post, individuals have to experience the culture of the groups/communities/networks/flocks/whatever to really ‘get’ what the platform is all about.

The post-technical then does not put technology second or first, it simply liberates the debate from those who build/code/provide the technology and puts it into the hands of those who appropriate it, the users, or ‘people’ as I like to call them, who write essays and poetry in Word, transform images in Photoshop, sustain friendships in Facebook, learn stuff by reading Wikipedia and express opinions in blogs.

The perspectives we are currently using, to come to an understanding of the cultural/educational influence of digital technologies and the opportunities therein, need to be reconsidered. I’m not sure yet if the answer lies in post-digital or post-technical approaches but I’m looking forward to tending these ideas over the next few months and seeing if something beautiful grows.

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Postdigital: Escaping the Kingdom of the New?

New things are exciting. For example social networking. It’s a whole new way to interact with others, a reason why society is moving online isn’t it? But how to make it useful? What can we do with this new digital tool that goes beyond chit-chat? It should be possible to use facebook and Twitter for something of value for education but which one is better? Which one is more popular? Maybe there is something new just around the corner? …What could we do with Google Wave?…

I admit that I have a habit of thinking in this manner. It’s exhausting and somehow hollow. On a bad day I get a form of techno paranoia which involves creating a profile on any number of new services most of which I never revisit. To be totally honest some of my most successful conference presentations are attended by an audience 50% of whom are driven there out of a mild form of this paranoia. I like ‘new things’ and I enjoy talking about what new developments could mean for education but at times I have been overwhelmed and lost focus.

Digital Danger

 The Dangers of Being Digital
http://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/49634405/

I have been numbed by a tidal wave of the new:

“The speed of the change, however, has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on a the canvas of the digital; that the digital itself is the main driver of change.”

This quote comes from a working document outlining the postdigital. A principle which highlights the dangers of assuming the digital is the sole driver of change and makes the point that the digital as ‘new’ will quickly pass away.

As the ‘Planning for the Postdigital’ document describes all technologies go through a transition whereby they become culturally normalised. For example, the pen and the book have become ‘transparent’ tools, extensions of ourselves to be used appropriately to achieve goals but rarely discussed in of themselves. In the same way email and word processing are well on there way to becoming transparent. We now send a message or write a document. The digital is not discussed. It has ceased to be new.

“Things digital will be accepted alongside our other technologies and the slate swept clear of many of the distracting dualisms (and technological factions) that pervade the educational discourse. The postdigital frees us to think more clearly and precisely about the issues we face, rather than become tied to an obsession with, and the language of, the new.”

Electronic Calculator
An ‘Electronic’ Calculator?
http://www.flickr.com/photos/thecheals/2780671422/

Too much time is spent arguing about the relative merits of digital spaces such as Twitter and facebook. The key term here being ‘relative’. We are pitting digital against digital, new against new, a form of one-upmanship which distracts from the larger picture.

“The transition to a postdigital way of thinking allows for that previously coded as ‘digital’ to be woven into the wider discussion of social dialects that people bring to their acts of collaboration. One of the things we’ve learned from social research is that people tend to go online to find people they know and tend to replicate, at least in part, their social performances online. These performances, the communities that they occur in and the dialects that they represent and produce should be the critical loci for research in the postdigital age, not the technologies themselves.”

During the recent Open Habitat project, activity in a digital space (in this case Second Life) forced us to reflect upon and change our educational approach in day-to-day non-digital spaces. As this mirror effect emerged I became increasingly uncomfortable. We had set ourselves the goal of discovering new ways of teaching with new technologies not re-considering the nature traditional teaching. Worse than that, because Second Life supported a high level of social interaction the skills needed to teach within the digital space had a large overlap with those needed in a physical classroom. “When are you going to tell us something new” was the comment I received halfway through one presentation on the project.

I of course should not have felt uncomfortable but at the time my thinking was locked onto the digital and what it could provide that was new rather than what it brought that was of value. The Open Habitat project discovered approaches that were of relevant both online and offline. I needed to adjust my thinking to accept that this was valid, that it was ok to revisit age-old principles of socialisation and collaboration. The new technology could be a catalyst for this thinking even if it wasn’t the ultimate home for all of the what we had learnt.

The discourse that surrounds elearning (an ‘e’ which is increasingly redundant) is in danger of stagnating. As the digital becomes increasingly transparent we are likely to find ourselves squabbling over ever smaller chunks of newness. We will become like tadpoles in an evaporating pond, fighting for the last of what will inevitably disappear. Maybe it’s time for a metamorphosis in approach, away from the digital, towards the postdigital.

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Where does Digital Identity lead to?

Recent debates about ‘digital identity’ often diverge into two groups.

  1. Complex technical discussions about ‘identity management’ which become laden with acronyms and battling tech factions.
  2. Complex esoteric discussions about the nature of identity, truth and the human condition in which favored philosophers, linguistic theorists or psychoanalysts are brought out from the bottom draw and those involved in the debate either tune-out or have some form of digital-existential crisis.

Both of the above quickly become abstract and are almost impossible to combine in a pragmatic manner. In an attempt to move this debate forwards I simply want to change the focus from ‘What is digital identity?’ to ‘What is the point of having a digital identity?’ In essence: What is the function of my online persona?

My answer is that a representation of identity is a necessary precursor to forming relationships (personal/professional/educational). To put it another way the majority of us want to exchange social capital, to built trust, to gain kudos and to communicate with others. It’s much more effective (or maybe satisfying is a better word) to do this via a persona or identity rather than a blank-faced identifier.

The diagram below places the notion of ‘digital relationship’ in context.

Digital Relationships in Context

We seem to be very poor a separating these three layers when discussing what the web can, and does, provide for us.

In my opinion it is not valuable to explore the web represents as a ‘means of content distribution’ anymore. Content is no longer the webs weak point in the way it used to be 15 years ago, Wikipedia is proof of that (the trust issues being a smoke screen thrown-up by traditionalists).

I’m drowning in content…

Producing content and uploading is of course integral to the web but it needs to be seen in its proper context and not presented as ‘new’. For example, podcasts are simply a way of moving content around. They do have an impact as a new mode of distribution but at heart they are exactly the same as sending audio cassettes through the post. We need to be careful not to misrepresent efficiency/feasibility as fundamental change.

At another level we have become comfortable with using the web for basic communications. If we are honest this is mainly email which most people are comfortable with because it’s simply a version of an offline format. Where it starts to get interesting though is when individuals move beyond the simple identifier of an email address and start to project a persona onto the web that could be called a social presence.

The web offers a myriad of ways to do this. Some of them such as photos are not new but others like, microblogging, social networking and 3D avatars are. These new modes of representation do throw up complex identity issues but what is really important is that they allow us to form relationships and build trust in a manner which is more immediate and dynamic than the pen pal style interaction of email. The potential of these new modes of interaction to increase the ‘emotional bandwidth’ available to build relationships is both exciting and daunting.

In an educational context it is important to consider how the manner in which identity can be ‘projected’ by certain online services might affect the facilitation of the traditional student, tutor relationship1.. This moves us away from the web as a means of content distribution and focuses back on the heart of teaching and learning. The most valuable ‘reusable learning object’ is the tutor. They contain expertise which can be automatically tailored to a given teaching situation. They are one of the key reasons individuals choose to attend university instead of staying at home and reading books (other than gaining a qualification and socialising). The emergence of ‘digital identities’ marks a new maturity in the web which has becomes a platform capable of sustaining educational relationships.

The new forms of social engagement available online influence educational relationships in a variety of ways; for example, microblogging and MUVEs tend to erode the traditional stratification of expertise and authority between students and tutors whereas online meeting rooms and VLEs tend to support existing hierarchies by replicating real life roles such as ‘Presenter’ and ‘Participant’. It is also possible to see subtle shifts in dialect and acceptable behavior when moving between online services, an understanding of which should be included in the notion of what it is to be ‘digitally literate’.

So, let’s avoid getting caught-up in the recent epistemological cul-de-sac that is the digital identity of the individual by considering not what digital identity is but where it leads. Let’s explore how it can move us to the place where the potential for the most intense learning resides; in the relationship between the tutor and the student.

1. Of course there are also the student-student and tutor-tutor relationships, not to mention the word ‘community’ etc but I can’t cover all these angles in a single post…

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Eventedness

Following on from my ‘That Was an Interesting Experience’ post I got to thinking about how to define what makes MUVEs distinct from other online spaces. The diagram below is my attempted answer, a diagram which I ‘trailed’ in my presentation at the Eduserv+JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event last Friday. (slidecast of the presentation at the end of this post)

Eventedness and Co-presence

During the JISC funded ‘Open Habitat’ project we piloted Second Life with art & design undergrads and with lifelong distance learners studying philosophy. The axes of the diagram represent two of the major effects we saw across the pilots that are central to what an MUVE provides.

Eventedness: This goes beyond a shared experience which could be aimless in activity terms and assumes that everyone involved is heading towards a particular goal even if this goal does not involve close collaboration. For example, a themed philosophical discussion which, if it goes well, should have a shared direction as the learning moves forwards.

Co-presence: As well as the Co-presence that comes from being embodied as avatars this definition includes what is experienced when an individual is certain that their contribution (usually in text form) will be read and responded to by others. For example it is possible to get a strong sense of the presence of others when microblogging because the exchanges are often frequent, they often reference each other and the response time can be a matter of seconds. Messages are linked to the particular point in time and their value erodes over time. There is a relationship between the speed in which the value of nodes of communication erode within a technology and the potential for Co-presence. In addition the individuals’ level of trust that their contribution will be understood and responded to within a particular technology has a large bearing on both Co-presence and Eventedness. It is of note that there is very little latent social presence in MUVEs. When you log-off your presence all but evaporates leaving almost no trace of your identity or that fact that you were in the MUVE. This is in contrast to social networking sites which are designed to extend your presence after you log-off. (See my ‘Visitors – Residents‘ post which discusses why this form of latent social presence is an important issue)

So, the green areas are not a quantative mapping of a range of functionalities but the qualitative potential of a technologies ability to provide a certain type of experience. The greater the chance of Co-presence the greater the chance of Eventedness and vice versa which is why the green areas have diagonal tops.

I should point out that the relative mapping of the technologies in the diagram could be debated until the cows come home because the axes are dealing with subjective terms. Individuals encounters with these technologies will vary greatly in the context of these terms hence the use of ‘potential’ which allows for a latitude in experiences.

A key point here is that the MUVE has the potential to support a huge range of experiences. This is partiality because of the effect of avatars but also because an MUVE is not a single technology but a cluster of tools gathered around a 3D environment. To tie this down a bit I will run through the types of experience that I think take place at points ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ on the diagram.

‘a’: At this point an individual feels isolated from others and alienated by the environment. They are directionless and have not discovered the ‘point’ of the environment for themselves. This sense of isolation and alienation is amplified by the knowledge that there are others in the MUVE who are enjoying being part of a social group that they are excluded from (either socially or because of a lack of technical skills). It is also amplified because they can see other avatars who appear to be much better looking, better dressed and with more elaborate hairstyles. They begin to fell anonymous, unskilled and lacking in a definable persona (they are part of the homogenous ‘n00b’ category). All of this is compounded by the fact that it is very difficult to ‘lurk’ in an MUVE. There a few opportunities to learn the in world culture(s) and mode(s) of communication that don’t involve social engagement. This is in contrast to other successful online social platforms have functionality such as an open chat channels (World of Warcraft) or the ability to see the flow of communication (Twitter) giving new users the opportunity to absorb the culture of that space before making their voice heard.

‘b’: At this point the individual feels like they are contributing to a shared endeavour, that they are part of a relevant activity. They have come to know and trust the other participants in their group and enjoy both the learning and the social aspects of the experience. This is only likely to take place if a member of that community has organised an activity. Or, to put it another way, the tutor has planned a relevant session. (The implication here being that the tutor needs to be part of a community of learners not above it in the MUVE space)

‘c’: At this point the individual is probably spending time with people they know and trust. They are socialising within the MUVE but are not attempting to achieve anything beyond simply being together. They are likely to feel part of a community but not that they are communally working towards a goal.

In terms of teaching and learning this huge breath of potential experience is what makes using MUVEs a high risk option. The better designed a session and the more responsive the tutor the higher it will map against Eventedness but a strong sense of Co-presence will only grow over time. Initially this happens as people get to grips with the technology then increasingly as they form relationships and trust grows. This breath of potential is in my opinion why a bad session in an MUVE leads to the suspicion that it would have been more satisfying and more effective to have simply used a straight text chat format or in some cases a traditional forum. This is compounded by the fact that MUVEs really lock you in and if a session breaks down it is complex and disruptive to sidestep to another format. Nevertheless, some of the most engaging and exciting online teaching and learning I have experienced has taken place in an MUVE.

As the diagram makes clear MUVEs do have the potential to outstrip many other technologies in their ability to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. However, if you don’t feel that words such as ‘belonging’, ‘communal’ or ‘experience’ are relevant to your practice then MUVE are probably not for you. Even for those of us that do think these aspects of learning are important MUVEs are a high risk option which require teaching sessions that are both well organised and highly reactive. We hope that the guidance and advice that comes from our experiences in the ‘Open Habitat’ project (to be published in March) will reduce this risk but it is like so many things in life MUVEs will remain a challenging option with the potential of great rewards.

Below is a slidecast of the my presentation at the Eduserv + JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event on 16/01/09 in Glasgow. Thanks to Rowin Young for providing the slidecast.

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