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?  

Truth and Method – a review of Visitors and Residents

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V&R 'heat map'
V&R ‘heat map’

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

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

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

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

Templates

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

Coalescent spaces

Designing pedagogy which coalesces digital and physical spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

spacesA1

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

spacesA2

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

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

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

A coalesced pedagogy would lead to this:

spacesB

Here are a few suggested coalescent designs:

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

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

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

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

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

 

eLearning grows up

Designs on eLearning 2015

DeL booklet

When you get “The best elearning conference I’ve attended in 15 years” as feedback you feel you must have done something right. Over the weekend I’ve been musing on why we received comments like this and overall I think it comes down to the maturity of the discourse. It felt like elearning had grown up and avoided the normal tussle between the four main areas I see ascribed to the label ‘elearning’:

  1. Replicating core institutional functions at scale.
    This includes eSubmission, making available content and generally moving paper-based processes into the digital.
  2. Techno-solutionism.
    Plugging in technology to solve particular problems with the assumption that once the technology is working ‘correctly’ the problem will be eradicated. (Often part of the drive in the approach above)
  3. Fetishising the new.
    Leaping on the ‘next big thing’ and claiming it will ‘revolutionise’ something. (linked to number 2)
  4. Focusing on pedagogy and people.
    Exploring how the tech can support forms of teaching, learning and engagement.

At DeL there was a healthy emphasis on number 4 with a concurrent wariness of 1, 2 and 3. Almost all of the sessions I attended discussed the complexities that arise when people and tech mingle. There was also a healthy skepticism of the Digital Natives idea, with very few people starting with that principle as a basis to build from (either directly or tacitly). It was as if the discourse around elearning had grown-up and become less polarised. Perhaps this was also helped by the mix of elearning folk, teaching staff and students. The parallel sessions had an honesty to them in which the subtly and complexity of teaching was respected (No ‘how can we foist this week’s cool tech on staff or students’).

Rhetoric and reality

What also stood out for me was an interesting tension between some of the keynote “the digital has arrived” rhetoric and the reality of developing elearning projects within institutions. This spawned the hashtag #undertheradar as most of what we heard in  parallel sessions included a comment along the lines of “We didn’t really tell anyone we were doing this” or “We kept this quiet until we were sure we had the design right”. I’m wondering now if this is a response to the techno-solutionism approach which is gaining ground as institutions seek to stabalise and consolidate processes via technology. The iterative approach in which projects take a number of cycles to find their way is, in my opinion, the only way to develop the ‘pedagogy and people’ side of things. And yet despite the fact that we hear noises from the top that digital is the way forward we are still nervous about revealing the leading edge of our work. I wonder how we can gain confidence and make it clear that there is no ‘plug-and-play’ where we are looking to support pedagogy?

Digital segregation

The second theme for me was closely linked to creative practice but stems from a more general challenge, namely that we still segregate the digital. This problem was mentioned in a few of the student keynotes which questioned the hiving off of expensive Apple Macs into pristine labs when the creative process often needed a multi-modal and messy environment. The truth is that the tech we buy as institutions to impress incoming students might not always be the tech they need to undertake their studies. This is a tricky one as a random set of slightly out of date, battered laptops isn’t going to look good but it might free students up and start breaking down disciplinary boundaries which are currently reinforced by the geography of our physical spaces and the fear of breaking expensive stuff. My hope is that the tech will become unchained one day in the same way books once were. For the time-being the march of technology and consumerism is too strong.

This notion of digital segregation goes beyond the physical and is often inherent in numbers 1,2 and 3 above whereby ‘learning’ and ‘work’ is perceived as being undertaken in physical locations (even when we are working with a digital device) and the digital is conceptually segregated off as a series of tools rather than a place in which that self-same learning and work can happen (a shift in thinking I’ve been attempting to influence for some time now).

 

I’m still thinking through DeL2015 and how we can build on the character of discourse that it fostered. It was a pleasure to host an elearning conference in which the ‘e’ took a back seat.

Student-as-product

Working at a large arts focused university and collaborating with colleagues in institutions of various types including Russell-group is giving me a broad insight into the changing character of Higher Education in the UK. A major shift we’ve all witnessed with the introduction of fees is the student-as-consumer effect. We are groping our way towards the American model, discussing the Student Experience but with institutions that are almost entirely structured to deliver curriculum. As Eric Stoller pointed out at the recent Jisc Creativity workshop we don’t have the equivalent of ‘Student Affairs’ in our institutions and anything that isn’t directly aligned with delivering the curriculum is scattered across libraries, academic support, the student union, careers/employability etc.

Job fair CC - https://www.flickr.com/photos/frisno/3324516149
Job fair.   CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/frisno/3324516149

Treating education as a product is problematic and in the Digital Student Project we are always quick to point out the importance of managing and challenging student’s expectations as well as meeting them. The student-as-consumer effect is usually concerned with the education we provide being, or becoming, ‘product’ – but that’s a mistaken reading of the situation. The real product is employability and by inference the student themselves.

The sadness for me is that while there has always been an element of increasing-your-chances-of-getting-a-decent-job about Higher Education the underlying philosophy remained one of citizenship not economic viability (as discussed in this episode of the Philosophy bites podcast on the Aims of Education). This was even the case when taking so-called vocational courses – the focus was employment but the ideology was predominately educational not economic.

I worry that as a sector we have lost confidence in the value of learning as part of what it means to contribute to society and to become more engaged in the world. I’m not against employability. I can completely understand student’s motivations here and the need for institutions to take some responsibility in supporting them in finding work. My concern is that we are not cutting enough space for students to come to an understanding of themselves as learners and citizens *before* constructing themselves as ‘professionals’. Our preoccupation with the problem of curriculum-as-product has masked the larger problem of student-as-product or ‘entrepreneur’.

Unfortunately I see this being powerfully played out in digital contexts. The potential agency that the Web affords individuals is being co-opted as part of the process of student-as-product.  This became clear to me when I contributed to the design of a masters-level module called The Mediated Self at a prestigious UK university. This was an interesting co-design process with a both staff and students contributing ideas. The module was largely going to explore what it meant for the ‘self’ to be mediated on the Web and the students proposed a really strong structure complete with relevant readings and clear themes. I myself had had a fascinating time getting lost in notions of the self by reading a large chunk of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. My point was that you can always argue about the nature of the self but what’s interesting in a digital context is our ability to manage our ‘self’ in concurrent spaces, the digital and the physical. To me this is an inherently new situation brought about as an effect of the digital being a social space not simply ‘content’.

What struck me in our discussions was that the student’s motivation to learn this type of material was mainly to help them construct a ‘successful’ identity online. Implicit in this motivation was the notion of a hypothetical ‘super-employable professional persona’ which one could somehow work towards or enact online as a self-standing entity. There was a sense that there must be a correct way to ‘be’ online and that this module would help them to uncover this truth as if being-in-the-world was similar to successfully passing an exam. In effect, there was more motivation to mediate a professional persona than there was to develop a ‘self’. Instead of the Web being viewed as a place for ‘becoming’, for self-expression and human connection (ideas my institution really understands the value of) it was being seen as the location to present a perfect model of student-as-employable-product.

The academic staff at the design session were well aware of this and I could tell they would be gently pushing against these narrow motivations in an attempt to help the students come to a deeper understanding of the modules themes. My feeling is that most teaching staff attempt to challenge employability as the be all and end all of education but I fear that as a sector we are amplifying the student-as-product message rather than championing learning as an end in itself. The effect of this will the ‘production’ of students who are adept at modelling ’employability’ but may well lack the depth and agility to make their way in the world beyond economic success. My view is that University should be a place where we enlarge our ‘selves’ through learning. I suggest that as a sector we regain our confidence in the principle that a rich sense-of-self is the single most ‘employable’ attribute individuals can develop.

Against intuitive technology

“I want my technology to be intuitive” is a statement that has always irked me. Musing over why I can feel my eye twitching when I hear it I realised that ‘intuitive’ is a proxy for ‘I don’t want to think about the technology’. The assumption being that the tech is only there to facilitate at task. Presumably this task mirrors something the individual has done many times before in analogue form giving them the ability to intuit the process. For example, paying a bill or writing a report. “I don’t want the technology to get in the way of what I’m trying to achieve” being the sibling of the ‘intuitive’ comment.

Baby with iPad
Proof that bright lights are attractive to babies. (CC – lynnmarentette)

What many call intuition in their lives is almost always something that has been learnt. Beyond basic responses, such as a baby throwing its arms out (the Moro reflex – although here I may have moved from intuition to instinct), much of what we think of as intuition is simply stuff-we-have-learned-and-then-forgotten-we-learned. Knowing that the Diskette symbol means ‘save’ is not intuitive, especially as the skeuomorphism of our icons slips a generation and becomes wholly abstract.  More fundamentally, a Diskette might be the symbol for ‘save’ but what does ‘save’ mean? It’s certainly not an intuitive concept in the non-physical milieu of the digital where we have to create our own mental maps of where information is located and how it’s curated.

To my mind the most successful ‘intuitive’ aspect of contemporary technology is its ability to support modes of consumption. Adverts for the Kindle Fire phone show beautiful people using the technology to buy goods and services in a variety of ways which smoothly align to their beautiful lives. It’s hardly surprising that the dominant ideology of capitalism should be mirrored in the technology so successfully and received as ‘good design’ or ‘intuitive’ rather than ‘learnt’ or ‘programmed’.

What does it mean when the technological process many find the most intuitive is buying something from Amazon or seeking out information using a search engine that primarily exists to target adverts? The same applies with individual production online, as for most this involves packaging their identity into neat slices for others to consume via Social Media.

This is what comes to my mind when I’m asked why all technology isn’t more intuitive. For me learning the technology is part of the larger learning process. In an educational context there are many occasions when I don’t want the tech to be transparent, I want it to be questioned.

In the creative sphere nobody complains that software such as Photoshop or Final Cut are complex and require tutorials and workshops to master. It’s recognised that they’re powerful tools which need to be understood before they can be harnessed or appropriated. For example, we know that if we don’t get to grips with Photoshop the result is a dumb replication of a particular aesthetic (or Instagram as it’s known).  Photographers and filmmakers don’t expect the technology they use to be intuitive, they expect to be powerful, requiring effort to learn and to bend it to produce the results they desire.

It’s likely that this use of ‘intuitive’ in educational circles comes from writing being the predominant mode of production. Obviously as with any form of literacy writing must be learnt but the physical tools required to realise ideas in this mode are relatively simple. Bounce that into digital technology and you have MS Office Word which at its core is a straight reflection of the physical paradigm. This I suspect is where most people who demand ‘intuitive’ are coming from, they are not considering the possibility that some technologies operate in new paradigms that cannot be tenuously mapped back to existing practices. New modes of practice need to be developed in these cases. The manner in which technology can call us to question and adapt our practices by getting-in-the-way is the muse for much creativity and innovation.

I don’t want technology to be ‘transparent’ – a bland tool which supports practices we already understand. I want it to be challenging, I want it to inspire by being unexpected, open enough to be appropriated in new ways by intelligent, engaged individuals. Learning the technology, learning how it can be appropriated, recontexualised,  disrupted, abused and used is part of the process of education not something that should be designed out.

Connection and anxiety

As I hinted at in my (Re)humanising eLearning post I directed a group performance entitled “A performance of connection and anxiety” as part of my Spotlight Stage session at Online Educa. The audience played the part of first year undergraduates while I represented ‘the institution’ in all its various forms. This involved everyone standing up, putting their hand on the next person’s shoulder and closing their eyes (100+ people seemed surprisingly willing to enter into this piece of shared theater).

Connection
Photograph by David Ausserhofer, Mark Bollhorst and Maren Strehlau. All copyrights by ICWE GmbH. CC 2.0 Germany

As I’d hoped this created a certain frisson in the room and when we remained silent for about 15 seconds that strange feeling of togetherness started to grow despite most of the audience being strangers to one other. I then circulated round the room ‘selecting’ individuals by tapping them on the shoulder while they had their eyes closed, representing the moments they might be ‘chosen’ or engaged with by your institution in some way.

Discussing this with people afterwards some commented that they had hoped to be chosen but they didn’t know why as I hadn’t explained what the implications would be. Others hoped not to be chosen but overall there was a healthy tension in the room – I like to think of this as the ‘good’ form of anxiety.

When I asked everyone to open their eyes and sit down if they hadn’t  been selected many people were looking around to see who the chosen few were. At this point I admitted that I hadn’t chosen anyone which fortunately got a laugh (possibly of relief :).

Overall it did feel like we’d all shared in a specific moment of connection and one, as I outline in the original post, which worked between strangers because we were physically co-present. Gaining that sense of connection online requires more up-front identity work but I believe it’s crucial if we see the value of the digital as a place we can learn together.

The three key areas I proposed for consideration to create connection online and rehumanise elearning were:

1. Spaces
Think of and use the digital as a series of spaces or places where individuals can be co-present and connected. (rather than just a mechanism to broadcast content)

2. Eventedness
Design in synchronous moments or ‘events’ online. This helps to create a feeling of belonging and that ‘I was there’ factor. The technology to support this is now pretty reliable.

3. Conversation at scale
Design mechanisms for discourse to take place at scale. Hashtags, commenting, shared postings, crowd-sourcing, editathons etc. This is the area which we are least adept at but I believe the technology is now in place to support conversation at scale if we can design our teaching to take advantage of it.

All of the above are underpinned by individual’s developing an online presence and identity. Something which is central to almost all Digital Literacy frameworks but which we often don’t prioritise when supporting our students and/or staff.

#Digitell Identity

It was lovely to be invited to speak alongside Christian Payne (@Documentally) at the Digitell symposium held at The University of the Arts London. The focus of the student run event was digital identity, one of the themes students had highlighted out of a community of practice supported by the Jisc funded ‘DIAL’ project and CLTAD.

So I rolled up my thinking-sleeves and considered the way identity functions in the creative arts… The result was a talk which included DuchampAbramović and Banksy. Obviously it’s a complex subject and many have been lost down the rabbit-hole of identity but I gave it my best shot.

Marcel was ere
Found by @otheragent in the toilets at Chelsea college of art during digitell.

With Fountain Duchamp shifted the emphasis away from the artist as sole generator of meaning but the effect of this move to the conceptual appears to have put more rather than less focus on the identity of the artist. If the art is a found object we want to know even more about what the artist was thinking and ‘who they are’. The work/piece and the identity of the artist are inextricably linked. Abramović’s The Artist is Present is the absolute extreme of this, she is both her ‘self’ and a found object. I finished this section of the talk by pointing out that a Banksy piece is valuable because of its attachment to ‘Bansky’ as an identity even though he/she is anonymous. Even when the identity of the creator is not known it is still  a powerful influence on the way we interpret and receive the work.

My overall point here is that people are fascinated by people and most work, artistic or otherwise, is an expression of identity in some form. To my mind ‘identity’ is a proxy for ‘humanness’.

In digital contexts I suggested that there are two major ways of realising an identity online:

  1. Identity embodied through works (Abramović being the most pointed example).

Rather than being present directly online in social media or similar spaces individuals can express themselves through objects/work they have created. This is where the notion of the Web as a ‘Shop Window’ works well (see my Breaking Down Digital post). This form of online identity only functions when the work is created in an ‘I made this’ mode. Obviously this is closely aligned with the creative arts but I’d argue that anyone who has written an academic paper for example is doing the same thing. Our online identity is the sum of what we post and what is posted about us. This includes anything that has our name/pseudonym linked to it. The significant point here is that there is little desire for visible discourse online around the work by those posting it. The way to connect is likely to be ‘email me if you are interested’ or similar.

  1. Identity expressed through discourse

This is where the Web is a series of spaces where we can be co-present with others, where thoughts are expressed with the expectation of response. Identity in this mode is more directly linked to a notion of the individual’s persona and presence rather than mediated or expressed through ‘finished’ work. This is likely to involve real-time or nearly-real-time discourse and connection with those around them. This is the highly Resident form of online identity of which Christian Payne was a great example. While identity embodied via work is likely to be focused on finding an audience identity expressed through discourse it likely to be about building networks and communities.

An interesting overlap between these forms of identity is the opportunity to reveal aspects of the process involved in heading towards a finished piece of work and seek comment/input.  This is one of the most powerful and potentially rewarding ways of operating and being present online and acts as a good transition between ‘Shop Window’ and more Resident forms of engagement.

I finished by suggesting that one of the advantages of a digital identity is that we can shape, nurture and control it to a certain extent. We can decide who-we-are online but only if we have a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve.  Christian then went on to challenge this perspective by describing how his online identity was owned/mediated  by the people who engage with him – he didn’t control the interpretation of his identity. (a statement which @otheragent pointed out echoes the notion of the art coefficient — the difference between what the artist intended and how the world interprets it)

In the panel session we went on to discuss a broad range of topics including authenticity and value. What interested me most in the discussion was that while Christian felt authenticity was important in online identity he does chose what to post and what not to post, thereby controlling his identity with great nuance without necessarily being inauthentic. Personally I’m not sure what authenticity is but that’s a different rabbit hole…

Thanks to Kimberly Cunningham, Joe Easeman and Chris Follows for running such great event.

Digitell B1NQm8YIQAE0wdM

Breaking down digital

I was delighted to be asked to keynote at the Designs on eLearning conference last month. It’s run by my group based at UAL and Penn State with a different host institution each year. This time it was Texas State with Claudia Roeschmann et al doing an excellent job bringing us all together.

DeL
One of the various designs in the DeL mini-programme booklets,

Part of my job as Head of Technology Enhanced Learning is to develop institutional strategies around digital and learning so I thought the DeL keynote would be a great chance to propose a simple way of setting out the territory:

‘Digital’ is too broad a term to be useful now but it is still an area which is ‘different’ enough in the mind of institutions to be dealt with as a distinct entity. Whether this is a healthy approach is debatable as ‘digital’ and ‘technology’ tends to be defined as anything-that-is-new or anything-we-don’t-quite-know-how-to-use-yet. For example, technology that has become totally embedded stops being thought of as tech; email, texting, Googling etc. It’s not that we don’t know that it’s digital we just don’t discuss it in strategic terms because ‘everybody does it’. That tends to mean that digital strategies point towards incorporating the new without focusing on the better use of the mundane.

(The term ‘mundane technology’ was brought up by Jo Morisson from UAL who pointed out that smartphones are now ‘mundane’ but are integral to students day-to-day learning and creative practices i.e. the fundamental incorporation of the digital into practice tends to be around the use of ‘boring’, not-new, tech)

To attempt to break down the digital into manageable areas I suggested the following ‘practice boxes’ or categories which split the manner in which we use technology into three sections. This provides a very simple framework for discussions about where and how practice intersects with, or resides within, the digital. My Visitors and Residents framework underpins this approach which means that the boxes build on motivation-to-engage rather than the functional affordances of the technology (something which can be considered after you’ve decided what it is you are trying to achieve).

3 digital-practice boxes on the V&R continuum (CC attribution only)
3 digital-practice boxes on the V&R continuum (CC attribution only)

From left to right:

‘Tools and Stuff’ – This is the predominant institutional perception of what digital technology is – a series of tools that help to make existing practices more efficient or better quality. It also tends to be students main expectation of the digital services their institution will provide. ‘Give me access to the right tools (including the Web) and access to digital content (stuff) that will help me get through my course. This was one of the key findings from or recent work on The Digital Student project for Jisc. No social trace is left in this mode which is mainly about information seeking, and non-visible production & consumption.

‘Shop Window’ – This is a shift from Tools and Stuff towards using the Web as a place for publication and dissemination – the look-at-what-I-have-created motivation which is essentially using the Web as a means of distribution for self-generated content. This is institutions and individuals in broadcast mode and while work that is being presented might be ascribed to the creator of that work it is not necessarily connected to a persona as such beyond a name or a brand. The Web becomes a location to promote the best of our completed work with the actual creative or intellectual practice taking place offline or in non-visible tools.

‘Spaces’ – This is where the digital (mainly the Web) becomes a series of spaces or places in which we enact our practice. We go to these spaces to be present with others in some form. This could be within private groups or openly online. So the Web becomes the location where we develop work and thinking in a ‘networked’ or communal manner. This involves individuals operating via (or being embodied within) a digital identity of some form which might be a simple projection of self or could be a deliberately disassociated, managed or pseudonymous persona. (This gets philosophical very quickly but a simple version would be an individual being in ‘student-mode’ when in certain digital spaces). I’ve broken this category into three sections:

  1. Using digital spaces to communally or collaboratively create work. For example, collaborative editing of Google doc or using an online whiteboard/sketching platform to build work in groups. This type of activity could be ‘live’ or asynchronous but the closer to live it is the more the digital will feel like a space rather than a tool.
  1. Discourse around artifacts. – This is the most common form of activity within this category and is possibly the most broadly relevant in an educational context. I’m most interested in forms of discourse which influence the evolution of work, for example a constructive discussion in the comments on a blog post which leads to the original author refining their ideas. It could also be the discourse of a group negotiating the direction of future activities and posting iterations of work which is developed outside of the digital space in which the discussion is taking place. Obviously material that is posted in Shop Window mode can become the focus for discourse with the possibility of recontextualisition or remixing.
  1. Critique or re-appropriation of digital spaces – this one is more specific to Art & Design but important nevertheless. The digital is a space that should be questioned a deconstructed as a place where society resides and operates. This is something that the creative arts need to be doing if they wish to be a relevant voice. I was disappointed with the recent Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican which made no attempt to deconstruct the digital in this manner and simply presented a parade of amusing and entertaining digital bits and bobs. In an age of ‘elegant digital consumption’ Art & Design needs to re-present the Digital through a critical and questioning lens.

——

What’s interesting is how the pedagogy we use can shifts teaching practice from Shop Window to Spaces within given platforms. For example at UAL both our blogging (WordPress) and our ePortfolio (Mahara) platforms can be used in both modes depending on the teaching approach. It’s even possible to gently transition from Shop Window to Spaces within these platforms over time which has enormous potential for supporting students in developing their practice and in building professional/practice based online personas.

My hope is that the 3 categories will frame conversations within and beyond UAL and break down the ‘digital’ in a useful non-tech-deterministic manner.