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.

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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.

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Phase 2 plans for our Philosophers

We learnt a few things in the first phase of the Open Habitat project which have informed the set-up of our next pilots. I’m currently planning the pilot that will run with philosophy students in Second Life. The main challenge with the first pilot was the sheer speed of debate in SL. The experienced philosophy students are used to being able to gather their thoughts, write a paragraph or two and pop it into a forum.

Taking the time to reflect is important in any educational process but it is especially precious to the discipline of philosophy. Having said this, the students loved the vibrant, social feeling of SL and the sense of presence being embodied in an avatar brought. In fact they liked it so much they have continued to run non-tutored sessions in SL once a week managed via a facebook group. (This included giving the students building rights so that they could rearrange the environment each week to fit the topic under discussion)

For phase 2 it was clear that we needed to balance the reflective and the dynamic which we are planning to do by ‘bookending’ the SL session with Moodle. Here is a draft of how the pilot will flow:

Stage One (framing the debate):

  1. Marianne (the tutor) to post briefing page on Moodle
  2. students to post kneejerk response in blog
  3. Marianne to respond one to one
  4. students to reconsider in light of Marianne’s comments and prepare second kneejerk
  5. second kneejerk to be posted on Moodle
  6. all students to read, think and prepare third kneejerk for posting on whiteboard in second life
  7. third kneejerk to be sent to Dave for posting in world

Stage two (dynamic in world discussion):

  1. Everyone arrives in second life to find third kneejerk responses on board
  2. People read these and reflect as everyone arrives
  3. Marianne asks each student in turn to comment
  4. after everyone has responded people go into groups (arranged in advance), go to their ‘stations’ and prepare jointly a ‘final statement’
  5. final statements to be sent to Dave
  6. Marianne reconvenes students and the session ends with a final discussion.

Stage three (reflection):

  1. Marianne to annotate final statements, and add comments
  2. Dave to post final statements and the chat log on Moodle
  3. Students free to discuss final statements and Marianne’s comments by themselves.

It’s not rocket science but I think this really takes advantage of what SL is good for and is a genuine answer to the ‘user needs’ that came out of phase 1. We will then run this cycle a second time either continuing the same philosophical theme or starting a new on depending on how well it runs!

The other significant change to the pilot will be the use of edu-gestures which should allow for more non-verbal communication whilst the group is deep in discussion. We have a nice set (agree, confused, yes, no, I’m thinking etc) of gestures that the students can use during the sessions using a ‘lite’ version of the Sloodle toolbar generously created for us by the Sloodle project. I’m planning to introduce these gestures as a key part of the orientation session so that their use is seen as a ‘basic’ skill. In this way I hope we get the benefits of embodiment/presence as well as the benefits of non-verbal communication which is so important in RL but has not really developed in detail within SL.

It’s odd to think that an environment that renders you as an avatar (face, head, arms, legs etc) does not rely very heavily on non-verbal cues (apart from where you are standing and the biggie: what you look like). I’m hoping that this aspect of Multi-User Virtual Environments will develop as the language of communication (text, voice, visual) within virtual worlds becomes more sophisticated.

Most importantly the pilot has been designed in conjunction with the students who are going to advise on the layout of the in world environment and are enthusiastic about the changes to the format.

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