The horizon of self

Through the Visitors and Residents work I am frequently involved in discussions around identity, especially in relation to online spaces. Often discussions that start with technology, move onto practice and then morph into questions of identity: How does my professional identity relate to my personal identity? How does my online identity relate to my offline identity? To what extent am I performing different identities? Which of these many dimensions is the most authentic or is that authenticity contextual? etc.  

Horizon

These types of questions are brought to the surface by our relationship with the digital because it provides a new mirror to hold up to ourselves. Going online in Resident modes is not unlike travel in this sense, we question who we are as we encounter new spaces,  forms of communication, modes of meaning and ways of being.

I’ve always been happy to facilitate these discussions but I’ve not  taken a position on identity apart from making it clear that using the term ‘real’ (as in ‘real-life’ vs ‘digital’) is spectacularly unhelpful as generally when people use term ‘real’ casually they mean ‘something I’ve become normalized to’. My sensitivity to hard-edged distinctions around real/digital or authentic/fake is indicative of my belief in the importance of interpretation. This is why when a colleague gave me a book entitled “Hermeneutics, Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information” by John D. Caputo I drank it in.


Hermeneutics, Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information – John D. Caputo

Chapter 7 on ‘The Call of Justice and the Short Arm of the Law’ which explores a lecture given by Derrida in 1989 at the Cardozo Law School inspired me the most. It didn’t fire me up about the law or justice but rather the character of Derrida’s approach to Deconstruction. Where Derrida spoke of law and justice I could read identity and self. The more I mused on this the more helpful I’ve found it in describing a model of identity which is based on becoming-through-interpretation. So, to this end, I will inelegantly summarise a wafer of Derridean thinking and then extend this into a new, identity-based, context.

The most important aspect of justice as described by Derrida, via Caputo, is that it is impossible and does not exist. Justice is unreachable but it yet it calls us to move towards it (Caputo likens this to a spectre or ghost), whereas the law is constructed and has force (and structures and physical components – courts, police, prisons etc).

We hope to make just laws but will never attain a perfectly just legal system. Any attempts to respond to the call of justice require that we interpret law in each given situation or context. A law applied without interpretation is extremely likely to lead to an unjust outcome. Our attempts to be just exist between the deconstruction (or interpretation) of the law and the undeconstructable call of justice.

We need the impossible to create a distance within which can deconstruct or interpret. (I recommend you read the chapter – I can’t do it justice here…)

It struck me that the notion of the ‘self’ was much like Derrida’s positioning of justice. It calls to us like a ghost or a dream but it is contested and slips through our fingers as we attempt to define or describe it. Attempts to define self and being is the fuel of philosophy – as alluring as it is confounding.  Perhaps this is because, like justice, self is simply impossible and its power is in this undeconstructablity – a horizon we might travel towards but never reach. A journey we might take knowing we will never arrive.

To extend this, identity becomes akin to Derrida’s depiction of the law, something which is constructed and has force within the world. If we run with this line of thinking then it is through interpretation of identity that we respond to the call of self. We can never fully arrive at our-selves but we can deconstruct our identities through interpretation, towards the self . I consider this process of continual deconstruction and reaching through interpretation, usually via dialogue, to be ‘becoming’.  

As with justice and the law what becomes crucial within this conception of self and identity is the willingness to deconstruct or interpet. Damaging essentialization based on shoring-up (sure-ing up?) well worn binaries such as real/virtual, authentic/fake falls away as the ‘work’ of identity becomes interpretation, questioning and negotiation.

This is in stark contrast to the view that we already somehow contain our true self, a self we must express through our identity. On this view we are constantly attempting to project our self into the world as an authentic identity. There is a kind of violence to this in which we fight external factors (institutions, individuals, society, culture etc)  that might repress our true self. In some cases, where individualism has reached its zenith, we are told that it is us who is repressing our own true self and are invited to unlock our real selves, usually via purchasing something. Certainly there is plenty of money being made via products that claim to help us to express, or be, the ‘real’ us on this model.

Our digital environment also supports this model as within Social Media negotiation of identity through interpretive presence is commonly replaced by acknowledgement of essence. Collecting followers and likes authenticates and quantifies our existence without the need for deconstruction. We will not move any closer to the horizon of self if our sense of identity is based on validation through acknowledgement rather than engaging in dialogue and deconstruction. This then leads to a creeping alienation in which we constantly seek acknowledgement to secure our identity but make no progress toward self and feel increasingly ephemeral.

Similarly we cannot reach towards self if the only people we connect with provide a homophilic mirror of our current identity state – this is a comforting form of identity stasis which, in conjunction with the need for essential acknowledgment, breeds polarisation. We inevitably bolster our ‘authentic’, internalised self through the constant re-establishment of what we are not, in a process of unbecoming.

In my view then, agency is not the power to enforce our identity on the world but the conditions and desire that support us in deconstructing our identity towards self. This form of becoming is challenging, requires us to be vulnerable and is fraught with risk. Given this, the conditions become crucial and it is much less risky for those in a structurally privileged position, such as myself, to engage in identity deconstruction. I have many institutional safe-spaces I can retreat to if I ‘overreach’ towards self.

In this regard there is much work to be done to move our institutions to places in which a diversity of identities can be negotiated. I understand why certain environments can only be engaged with through a forceful projection of self and identity, especially where individuals feel misunderstood, repressed or ignored. Those are the mono-culture environments which pretend to invite negotiation but which are merely looking for acceptance and assimilation.

Those environments create conditions which breed polarisation and amplify individualism in a manner which extends, rather than interprets, difference – our identities become fixed and our horizons become walls we build. In astronomy there are no walls, we can see to the edges of the universe and glimpse our shared beginning. Through deconstruction of identity we travel towards a shared and connected horizon of self.

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Digital leadership framework

Last year I wrote a quick post proposing a simple way to manage high level discussions about digital. This came from my involvement in digital strategy discussions which often slid across thematic and organisational areas, ending up with a scattering of actions which looked like a troubleshooting list and a desire to ‘get involved’ with new technology. The framework I jotted down simply proposed that discussions should understand their location within three areas: Digital Culture, Digital Medium, Digital Service.

For a recent talk I was asked to give by the Leadership Foundation on Digital Leadership I refined the framework and illustrated it with categories which sit within each area. I started with three headlines which set the context for the framework:

Digital is not the future: An idea the formed the basis of www.futurehappens.org with Peter Bryant

To harness the digital at an institutional level we have to focus on the present and not place digital in that the-next-big-thing-will-save-us category. Clearly we need to keep an eye on the horizon but I know our students would thank us if we prepared them for the digital ‘now’ not an unknown and variously utopian/dystopian imagined future.

The digital and physical coexist – something I’ve written about as ‘coalescent spaces’

I’ve written about this before but in summary – we need to respond to the digital as one part of the ‘real’ world not as a separate entity. Digital and non-digital activities flow in and out of each other.

Digital is too big

It’s an element of almost everything we do and not a viable starting place for a discussion, hence the framework.

Culture – Medium – Service: A digital leadership framework

Clearly the subcategories are not exhaustive and some of the have an Art and Design twist but I hope they show how the main areas differ. What’s interesting is how decisions in one layer effect activities in the others but as institutions we struggle to make these connections. So for example we might install new technology in the service layer but neglect to discuss how this might affect teaching and learning in the Medium layer. We might make bold assertions in the Culture layer but struggle to understand the implications for the Service layer etc. This is why I think the framework is useful, assuming you can get the right mix of people from across the institution involved in discussions. Before I go any further I’ll quickly describe the layers as I see them:

Service

In a digital context this could simply be IT. It’s the layer students are most likely to comment on if asked about ‘digital’ because when most people think of digital they think the technology itself rather than their practices within digital contexts. If this layer isn’t working then the other two don’t stand a chance. There’s not much point in trying to develop a digital identity if the Wifi is down.

Medium

This is where most of our day-to-day activities take place. It’s where the digital has become the location for our work and the place where we connect with each other. This is where the real work of the institution is done, for example, teaching and learning. It’s also the layer which is often least discussed strategically as discussions swing from the need to buy more 3D printers to the risks of Social Media use and not much in between.

Culture

These are the high level principles which inform the character and direction of the institution. As is always the case with culture these are often implicit or assumed to be shared values. So, for example, in my institution we have a culture of creativity and the desire to help students develop their own creative practices. How this is expressed in the digital should be an ongoing negotiation. It’s also of note that emerging practices in the digital and new forms of access/connectedness shift culture or call aspects of it into question.

You could take the framework and use it with a second axis such as scale. So we could take teaching as a subject and consider what is needed in Culture, Medium and Service terms, mapped against Individual, Course and Institution. Or to be more specific we might take a particular question from the National Student Survey in the UK such as “My course is intellectually stimulating” and consider what is required to ensure this within that grid. Or we could map against the student journey of Pre-arrival, Induction, First year, Second Year, Third year etc. These are the kind of discussions I’d like to frame at my own institution to develop a better shared understanding of the digital which cuts across traditional structural areas such as IT, Teaching and Learning and Senior Management.

The framework was well received at the Leadership Foundation event I presented at. I hope it proves to be useful. Thanks to the many colleagues who listened to me as I was formulating the framework and offered useful feedback and advice.

 

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Technology isn’t human(e)

Why do we build our institutions on the principle that technology in-of-itself does useful or interesting things? I suspect it’s because culturally we cling to well ingrained assumptions, such as:

  1. Technology makes work more efficient – it reduces labour
  2. Technology is about automation – the machine ‘working’ while we control it
  3. Technology is neutral – it performs tasks without bias
  4. Technology is always developing – it is the ‘solution’ to our ‘problems’

CC Dennis Hill - https://www.flickr.com/photos/fontplaydotcom/504000141
CC Dennis Hill – https://www.flickr.com/photos/fontplaydotcom/504000141

These do hold true to a certain extent but only if you take a strict techno-centric view. The statements above are questionable as soon as we bring people into the picture and, of course, technology is an artifact. It’s designed, made and used by us.

The reason I feel the need to spell this, somewhat facile, principle out is because I worry that we do think of technology as an ‘other’, outside and beyond us. We can’t grasp its complexities so it becomes a mystery and, as is our habit, we develop superstitions about that which we do not fully understand. We almost go as far as personifying technology which is where the problem starts.

Take for example the last of the statements above: ‘Technology is always developing’. It sounds ok until you consider that technology doesn’t magically develop on its own. The statement should be: ‘People are continually developing technology’. Yet we seem comfortable to extract ourselves from the picture and think of technology, if not as an independent consciousness, then as a self-evolving entity.

The irony is that while on the one hand we lean towards personifying technology in its apparently neutral forms we are also extremely wary of those moments when it attempts to ape humanness directly. (again, I can’t get away from the forms of language here as I just said ‘it’ instead of ‘people design it to’) We like to know when we are interacting with a person and when we are interacting with code and feel at best conned and at worst abused if we confuse one for the other.

I’ve seen this in so many forms: suspicion of bots in text-based MUDs and MOOs, our response to avatars in virtual worlds (am I controlling ‘it’ or is it ‘me’?), our distaste for algorithmically generated news, our unease with talking to search bots in public and, in my case, a complex relationship with @daveobotic, my Twitter bot.

We dislike the idea of being socially or intellectually satisfied by an algorithm because we fear things we can’t clearly define as sentient, sensing a loss of our own humanity if we discover we’ve believed the code is a person. This is a classic human concern, whether it’s a Golem, Frankenstein’s monster, any number of cyborgs or artificial intelligence we have always been troubled by that which is animated but not explicitly alive. It’s one of the ways we explore the question of our own consciousness, a tantalising theme revisited throughout history in various forms.

I see these tensions playing out were education intersects with the digital. The business-like element of our institutions prefer to think of technology as in-of-itself efficient and neutral. The potential of technology to be the ‘solution’ for the ‘problem’ of teaching and learning at scale is attractive and, to a certain extent, operable if you frame education as a problem-to-be-solved. This breaks down if we see learning as transformational rather than transactional though – if we see it as a process of becoming. This is where education is intrinsically human with all of the  vulnerabilities, prejudices and generally messiness that comes as standard where people are involved – a form of education that anyone who has ever taught will understand.

Nevertheless, I see an emerging trend in which we set-out to synthesise ‘contact’ in the digital to scale-up what we claim to be transformational education using a shell of transactions masquerading as persons. An early example of this is the planned nudging messages of encouragement, warning or even advice sent to students driven by ‘learning analytics’.

We are being tempted by this line of thought even though we have explored all this before and know that we are masters of detecting soulless interventions. Even if our algorithms are efficient and effective our experience will be hollow and unsatisfying. I deeply doubt our ability to develop as individuals on this basis (the ‘becoming’ form of education I believe in) and argue that while the digital can be a valuable place for people to connect with each other, technology is inherently limited in its ability to ‘scale humanly’. This is not because we are incapable of designing incredibly sophisticated code, it’s because we have an instinct and desire for the conscious.

(This line of thinking extends from the “Being human is your problem” keynote given by myself and Donna Lanclos at the ALT-C conference.)

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Visitors & Residents – navigate the mapping

Myself, Donna Lanclos and Lawrie Phipps are delighted to release a facilitators guide and slides for running the Visitors and Residents mapping activities (a workshop format for reflecting on, and responding to, various forms of digital engagement). These resources were developed for the Jisc Digital Leaders Programme but can be edited and adapted for different audiences. For example, a version of the individual mapping activity could be run with Students and/or teaching staff while the group mapping activity could be adapted for course teams. This post from James Clay is a good example of how the mapping can be adapted.


‘Vanilla’ version of the slides with detailed notes – designed to be edited and adapted. 

The thinking captured in these resources has been developed over a few years and refined each time we have running the mapping activity. If you have experience of running workshops then the resources should give you what you need to facilitate a mapping session.

I was once told that you had to be “Dave White” to run the discussion parts of the workshop so there is a large section in the guide which highlights themes arising from individuals maps that have been recurrent across workshops and how they can be constructively discussed. If I’m honest then the only mapping sessions that have proved challenging to run have been those with educationalists (if that’s the right term). They tend to enjoy deconstructing the principle of Visitors and Residents and the nature of the mapping rather than doing the mapping itself. I enjoy those discussions and have found them helpful in developing the work but time is limited in any workshop and sometimes you have to encourage people to get started on an activity and then discuss it’s pros and cons.

One of the strengths of the workshop format is that it is not attempting to cajole participants towards a specific set of responses:

This workshop will not hand any participant a bullet list of things to do. The intention is not to build skill sets, but to provide a space from which intentions and objectives around institutional policies can emerge. The list of things to do next will necessarily emerge from the participants, not be given by the facilitators.”

This did vex someone who asked me “what do people learn in the workshop?”, to which I replied “It depends on who they are and what direction they want to take things”. In this sense the workshop format is completely in keeping with the designers pedagogical philosophy of providing the conditions for reflection and strategic thinking without being perspective about the ‘right’ way to do things.

If you do run a Visitors and Residents mapping workshop then (if you feel moved) please let us know by using the #VandR tag in Twitter.

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Digital as… Culture, Medium, Service

As “The Digital” becomes a headline theme in many institutions I have been thinking about ways in which it can usefully be split into high-level areas so that various lines of activity and discussion don’t become confused. For my institution, the University of the Arts, I’m proposing the following three areas which I believe map quite well to existing groups/units/services within the university (although there are healthy overlaps). I was tempted to neaten this into a nice diagram but thought it was better to capture it before succumbing to the desire to squeeze out the blurry edges. The result is three key areas:

Digital – Culture

A set of spaces and behaviours
  • “Resident” online behaviours – co-presence
  • Teaching and learning
  • ‘Open’ scholarship and research
  • Identity and visibility
  • Discursive – collaborative – communal

Digital – Medium

A set of techniques and practices
  • Digital as a medium for expression and critique
  • Digital ‘making’
  • Design – graphic, fashion, architecture etc
  • Video, photography – ‘native’ practices
  • Digital in the context of the disciplines
  • Both “Resident” and “Visitor” modes

Digital – Service

A set of tools and transactions
  • “Visitor” modes online – leaves no social trace
  • Infrastructure
  • Access – connectivity
  • Information
  • Storage – curation
  • Entertainment
  • Commerce

I’ve arrived at these three areas by bringing together the perspectives of colleagues who are invested in differing aspects of the digital. So it’s a group effort with a modicum of ‘clustering’ added by me.

Overarching these areas for me are two principles which I believe should be fundamental to all of our digital activities:

  1. How does the activity proposed foster belonging?
  2. How does the activity proposed reduce anxiety?

Both of those could be condensed into “increase confidence” and both of them apply to students *and* staff. Obviously there are many nuances hiding in these principles, such as the idea that good pedagogy will often require all involved to take risks. Having said that, I feel that anxiety is now a default state and we need to reduce ‘bad’ anxiety before we can be constructive with risk taking.

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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 🙂

 

 

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The Big Apple and a Strategic Mellon

Last week I helped to run two Visitors and Residents mapping workshops in the United States. The first one at The New School in New York was in the ‘opportunity to reflect’ mode which we have run with staff and students before. The second one was a new, two day, format designed to inform the direction of Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh university libraries.

Meaningful Honking only in New York...
Meaningful Honking only in New York…

The mapping process has evolved over the last few years from the reflective activity section of a conference session or workshop to an approach which can inform high level institutional strategy. I see it as a bridge between the realities of day-to-day practice and broader institutional aspirations. The process is ostensibly focused on ‘making visible’ practice that takes place in digital contexts but what we find when exploring this is that we hold a mirror up to the underlying principles and ideology which staff or students ascribe to – the tacit values in an organisation which rarely have an opportunity to surface. So typically participants start by considering technology, then discussing the value of the practices in around the digital, finally moving on to reflecting on the wider aspirations they hold and how these relate to the overall aims of the institution – sometimes this can get quite lively…

V&R map
An unusual shaped map from an academic at The New School

The structure of the Carnegie workshop worked along these lines:

  1. Initial discussion (via email) with senior staff to gain a sense of where the organisation (in this case the two sets of libraries) are in terms of the role and values of digital practices.
  2. Day 1: The core Visitors and Residents mapping workshop is run with staff (A pdf for the core format is available here). At Carnegie this was about 34 staff in various roles from Carnegie and Pittsburgh libraries)
  3. Day 2:  A condensed version of the mapping is run with senior staff, key maps generated during day 1 are discussed, followed by a more general discussion about the implications of what we found during day 1 and overall strategies that could be employed to encourage and support valuable emerging forms of practice.

At Carnegie the most interesting ‘new’ forms of digital practice were around the various ways that the library can engage users via the digital, the focus being on relationships rather than simply broadcasting information (See Donna Lanclos’ post on the workshops).

The roles involved in running the workshop were crucial to its success:

  • Myself – bringing a broad knowledge of the culture of the Web and the way individuals/institutions have variously attempted to manage or take advantage of this.
  • Donna Lanclos – from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte bringing in ethnographic expertise which is especially relevant to V&R as it is predicated on the notion of ‘place’
  • Lynn Silipigni-Connaway – from OCLC bringing in a good understanding of the culture and history of the institutions is question and expertise on academic libraries.

In the UK I could envisage Jisc being in a good position to provide the necessary institutional knowledge and connections.

Pittsburgh 'Cathedral of Learning'
Pittsburgh ‘Cathedral of Learning’

My favourite part of the workshop on day one is when we bring up some of the V&R maps created in the morning on screen and ask the author of each map to talk us through them. Despite this taking place in quite a large group most people are happy to discuss their practices and significantly they commonly describe *why* there maps are a certain shape and how this relates to the wider work of the department or service they work within. The realities of time, risk and institutional politics come to the fore during the afternoon reflecting the realities of day-to-day work rather than becoming a phantom let’s-all-do-lots-of-social-media event…

Day 2 with the senior managers evolved into a discussion about the best way to facilitate and encourage some of the more engaged digital practices we discovered in day 1. The challenge here being how to institutionally proliferate what are most commonly practices which need to be owned by individuals. For example, abstracting the practice of a member of staff who is using Twitter successfully into a person-neutral model then requiring other staff to enact this hollow model is sure to fail. For me it’s about indicting the value of these individualistic practices for the institution without attempting to corporately own them. Emerging practices need to be shared in a community-of-practice manner by staff who are confident that what they do is credible and valued by the institution but won’t be ‘stolen’ or locked-down by senior folk.

I always enjoy being the eccentric English guy when I visit the States and suspect my accent tends towards the more ‘respectable‘ end of it’s parameters. This trip was intense and jet-laggy but I did learn just how hard you have to work to build trust when you are doing more than facilitating an ‘interesting’ one off workshop.

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Elegant Lurking

One effective way to learn is to use Social Media un-sociably. The traditional term for this is Lurking – hanging around a discursive space online without speaking up. It’s an inherently negative sounding term with connotations of voyeurism and surveillance – a fundamental aspect of not being embodied online. For example, if you attend a lecture but  don’t ask a question you presumably aren’t Lurking because people can see you?

Elegant Lurking
CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/gdiazfor/7538320058

I’d like to propose the more positive notion of Elegant Lurking. This involves learners following key people in their disciplines (fellow students, ‘thought leaders’ practitioners, academics etc.) within Social Media to tune into the discourses within the subject. Often this is an effective way to discover interesting and valuable sources of information on a topic, especially those in formats which aren’t formally curated anywhere such as blog posts.

The bonus for learners is the additional discussion around these sources which takes place when they are shared. Comment and opinion on the subjects tackled and the relative credibility of the author and/or the material itself are extremely useful when you’re new to a particular area. Elegant Lurkers are critically evaluating the critical evaluation of thinking in their area of study… part of which involves assessing the credibility of the people involved in the discourse.

The value of this mode of engagement has be highlighted by the various Visitors & Residents mapping workshops like the one we recently ran in Galway for Catherine Cronin. It’s common for individuals maps to contain a Resident style platform (Twitter, Facebook etc) in the Visitor side of the map. Often this is because the individual is Elegantly Lurking. They are not yet interested in being visible online in a learning context but they find watching the discourse very useful.

V&R map

A map from a 1st year Post-grad students in the Arts and Humanities. Note the position of Twitter at the visitor end of the continuum indicating ‘Elegant Lurking’ in a Resident style platform.

All successful Social Media platforms allow for Lurking in some form. It’ allows individuals to tune into the ‘dialect’ of a particular network or community so that when they first decide to say something they’re reasonably confident it will be in an acceptable tone. Some learners will choose never to speak-up though, especially if they are following an intimidating network of venerable ‘thought leaders’ or if they assume they won’t be responded to. Others might find that they gain confidence over time as they come to understand the discourse in greater depth and discover that they do have something to say.

I’ve seen this numerous times where a student or someone new to a field signals that this is the ‘the first time I’ve commented on this’ or ‘I’ve written my first post on this subject and thought you might be interested’. This is an extremely important transition point for a learner from knowledge-consumer to active community member. It’s the point at which they are exploring their ‘voice’ within the discourse.

Supporting students to move towards this transition should be central to the overall trajectory of our pedagogy in more nuanced ways than simply assigning marks to the act of blog posting. Elegant Lurking is an important ingredient in the subtle business of becoming a member of a community.

This also highlights the mercurial nature of what it means to ‘engage’. The Elegant Lurker can be much more engaged than the noisy contributor and not being visible doesn’t mean you aren’t present. I worry that in the race towards quantifying engagement via analytics the more gentle, qualitative modes of engagement such as Elegant Lurking will be overlooked.

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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.


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(Re)humanising eLearning

For my ‘Spotlight stage’ session at Online Educa (15:35 on Thursday 4th) I’m  exploring ‘Re-humanising eLearning’. This is a theme very much inspired by Catherine Cronin’s keynote at ALT-C this year in which she spoke, among other things, about the value of online identity and open practice.

When I’ve mentioned the theme of Re-humanising eLearning to colleagues many of them suggested that eLearning was never particularly ‘human’ in the first place. This is a reasonable, if disappointing, comment. Nevertheless, take a look at almost any Digital Literacy framework and it will have the distinctly human (in that it is about the ‘self’) concept of a Digital Identity highlighted in it somewhere. In my favourite framework/hierarchy from Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe Digital Identity is the apex of digital capability.

Yet the primary experience and conception of eLearning for most learners is based around receiving a bunch of content that has been placed into a curricular structure somewhere online. No need for an identity in this scenario, just anonymously grab what you need to get your work done.

In my session at Educa I’m going to highlight how the efficiency and flexibility of this impersonal form of eLearning risks holding students at arms length. This is especially the case those who have many calls on their time (work, childcare etc.) and can’t make it to face-to-face sessions or have chosen predominantly online forms of learning to fit around other activities.  In this scenario it’s crucial that the digital becomes a humane learning space in which a sense of ‘togetherness’ can grow.

What interest me is how meeting in physical locations has an automatic feeling of togetherness built in, we feel we are sharing an experience without having to ‘know’ the other people in the room (a trip to the cinema is a good example of this). The very fact everyone has chosen to turn up to the event/session/lecture shows a common purpose. (I’m planning a little shared performance which involves the whole room in my Educa session to prove this point… See http://daveowhite.com/perfomance)

Online it’s a different story, when we move to predominantly text based environments we have to project our identity before we can interact or feel a sense of connection. What good would Twitter or Facebook be if we didn’t know who was talking/posting, if the screen way just a series of sentences with no attribution?

Identity and self expression are writ large in my mapping of ‘digital capabilities’ on to my 3 category model of digital engagement (see Breaking down digital).

I’m not sure I’ve captured everything I need to here but I’m confident that as soon as we move towards the Resident/Spaces end of the continuum we are engaging, however minimally, in forms of self-expression which leads to the projection of identity.  It could be argued that it works along these lines:

Technology (and the people in it) fosters agency > forms of self-expression > formation of identity > increased agency > and so on…
(note: should make this into a looping diagram)

So in a digital context identity and self-expression are crucial to becoming and belonging, whereas in face-to-face scenarios some ‘togetherness’ can be felt without identity. Those who are fortunate enough to be able to regularity attend face-to-face sessions are likely to feel connected to their learning and their institution; to engender this online requires more explicit fostering of identity and expression.

At this point we could switch ‘digital’ for ‘higher education’ and the principle still fits. The digital in this case is simply a mirror for what I believe to be the overall point of higher education – to encourage and challenge students to nurture their identities as legitimate participants within their field of study. They arrive with a delicate sense of who they are in the world and leave with purpose and a solid sense of self…

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