What am I?

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

      1. Running is quite hard
      2. I can’t explain my job to anyone at the running club

This forced me to ask ‘what am I?’ (professionally) – this is a reflection on that question partly for myself after a busy year but also because I often see the Higher Education sector struggling to frame and locate Head of Digital Learning (or similar) roles.

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

Sometimes Digital Learning is just attached to a senior academic post which doesn’t account for the size of the territory or sheer amount of work involved. In other places it is positioned as a kind of soft IT role which makes it difficult to get away from a technocentric approach.

There is a strong theme of ‘Technology Won’t Save Us’ running through my professional community and I agree this. Nevertheless, UK Higher Ed is a massified system which requires technology to manage scale while, hopefully, being mindful that the tech is not in-if-itself the practice of education (despite what anyone says about learner analytics or AI etc I believe that teaching is human-centric – our students demand more contact time not ‘cleverer tech’).

The idea that technology will ‘solve’ the messiness of being human resonates with what Haraway claims is an obsession with our own extinction at the hands of the technology we have created. This is why we get a cheap thrill from those Boston Dynamics videos of robots opening doors and jumping over boxes which are so carefully constructed to play to our extinction fetish.

Fortunately I work at an institution which isn’t attempting to eradicate our own humanity in the service of efficiency, wealth or security. I’d say in the creative arts we try to do the opposite, as evidenced by this short video on Ambiguity by Prof Susan Orr (my boss).

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

Which is an interesting counterpoint to this:

Which makes me feel: 

I wasn’t aware intelligence was a problem?

Anyway…

It’s crucial for me that my role and my team is within our Teaching and Learning group as it gives me the opportunity to position technology in the context of ambiguity and complexity rather than as something which solves ‘problems’. This has allowed me to bridge what can sometime be an academic/tech divide and create the Digital Learning Transformation Group which includes our CIO, Deans of Academic Planning our Associate Deans Teaching & Learning and a cross section of digital and ‘elearning’ roles. I’m not sure how I would have brought together a group with this mix of roles in it if I wasn’t able (structurally) to travel laterally across the institution.  (It also helps that I’m a member of our main Learning and Teaching committee and Academic Board so senior management are aware of my work.) As a group we are developing, and responding to, various digital strategies from our colleges and central services.

Despite always been asked to ‘get the screen working’ wherever I go I’m not always thought of as the ‘digital guy’ (I do almost always get the screen to work which probably doesn’t help). I do oversee our main Digital Learning platforms which is a big operational responsibility but there is a recognition that ‘making the platforms work’ and ‘Teaching & learning’ are related but not the same.

Introducing the Digital Creative Attributes Framework has been positive and it’s beginning to become an embedded part of the curriculum design process. What you will notice about the framework is that it’s based on practices, not skills or specific tech. As such it accounts for the diversity of contexts and courses across the university and avoids ‘selling’ technology. Again, I believe it’s my location within Teaching and Learning which has allowed me to represent the richness (and complexity) of digital practices in the framework.

Navigating complexity has been a key theme for me this year. It was the focus of my keynote for the LILAC information literacy keynote  and has been an important element of my teaching around UAL (MA Fine Art & Digital, MA Innovation Management, PgCert Academic Practice and MA Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries).

Those that offer simplicity and narrow worldviews are still in ascendancy. More than ever we need to acknowledge complexity and equip our students to respond to super-complex environments. This is something I have been considering and writing about in the background this year in a piece (essay? start of a book?) with the working title of ‘Encoding Beliefs’. Technologists imply that ‘everything’ can be captured and that once this task is done ‘everything’ will be known:

“Hiding within this deep current is a belief that once everything is captured and correct we can free ourselves from moral responsibility – all will be revealed and all behaviour will become rational, fair and ethical as a result. This hope is driven by a reaction to the supercomplexity which the digital has both created and revealed. The connectivity and computational power of the digital has outstripped our ability to comprehend the complexity of the world it has exposed.”

This digital omniscience is a secular form of faith which I find extremely interesting and is at the root of the “Technology will/won’t save us” contention. It’s a line of thought I hope to develop further in 2019.

Securing a Visiting Fellowship for Bonnie Stewart this year has been a real boon as she is helping me to develop links between a number of broad ideas and Teaching and Learning practice. The first fruits of this are the Teaching Complexity series of free, open, online seminars which we have co-curated and start in January 2019. These are a show-not-tell example of the kind of Open Educational Practice I want to encourage and support at my institution. Over the last few months I have become increasingly convinced that open values are crucial in responding to complexity and also an important ideological framing when re-imagining the university in the digital or networked era.

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

Over 2018 I have also enjoyed working with other institutions which are interested in learning from our experience (expertise?) in Teaching and Learning. The scale of UAL gives us the capacity to develop Teaching and Learning as a creative practice in it’s own right to an extent that many creative art and design institutions would struggle to respond to. As such this year I was invited to the Bezalel School of Art and Design and the University of the Arts Helsinki to help them design strategic approaches to the support of teaching practice across their institutions. The challenges in teaching art and design appear to be similar the world over and it’s great to share our successes and failures.

Looking at the length of this post I think I’ve just demonstrated again that I’m not very good at explaining what I do. Having said that, the process of writing has helped me to see some strong themes emerging across my work which has been obfuscated by busyness.

What I will say is that digital-is-the-university, it’s a teaching and knowledge space that is now just as important as our physical spaces. As such any Head of Digital Learning role has to be connected into the heart of the institution. This is not an area which can be ‘added-in’ after academic or operational plans have been made. I took this job because it was located within Teaching & Learning and, while it’s been bumpy at times, I can now say with confidence that my institution has embraced Digital Learning as distinct from ‘Digital’. This is encouraging for me and will help the university develop in ways which support staff and students without pretending education is a ‘problem technology can solve’.

Open values

Universities are caught between network and hierarchy. We are institutions which work at scale, supporting, scaffolding and ranking students – awarding degrees, undertaking research and maintaining quality. All of this requires a hierarchical structure and approach. And yet, as institutions, we recognize the value of the network; of connected, collaborative and interdisciplinary modes of learning and working. We acknowledge that complex and super-complex challenges (the kind of challenges we claim our sector can help with – equipping graduates for uncertain futures, aging populations, climate change, the effects of globalization etc) can only be responded to by operating in a connected manner which deliberately extends beyond the borders of disciplines and our immediate communities. There is also a recognition that networked and connected modes of working and being are of value to staff and students in ways which can confer new forms of prestige on the institution. 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/severalseconds/25692158804

In my role of Head of Digital Learning at the University of the Arts London I’ve been asked what the ‘vision’ is for the institution in a networked, globalized environment?  I frame this as ‘how do we best operate as hierarchy and network?”. This is fundamentally challenging as ‘institutionalizing’ networked modes inherently turns them into hierarchies and thereby kills them. What is required is not the operationalizing of networked approaches but a clear statement of the ‘networked’ values that the institution supports, but importantly, does not seek to ‘own’.

These values fall under the banner of ‘openness’ which is a theme I started pursuing in a Teaching and Learning context but which I now see as a principle which reifies emergent responses to the network across key areas which constitute the university: Teaching & learning, Research and Knowledge Exchange. I believe it’s important for the institution to ascribe to these values at the highest possible level to establish a clear ideology which influences the character of the institution and the practical outworking of ‘openness’ in a myriad of ways.

In consultation with colleagues at UAL, and with support from Catherine Cronin, I have been leading on the development of Open Practice Principles here at UAL. These are still developing and require further consultation. They will also require the support of senior staff if they are to become institutional values (beyond the context of ‘innovative’ teaching and learning). In the spirit of the values themselves I’m posting the draft principles here for comment. I hope this will encourage others to take this route and will help me to connect with people who have already developed (and embedded) institutional values of this kind.

Open Practice at the University of the Arts London:

  1. Makes teaching, learning and research visible and accessible
  2. Collectively creates knowledge and practices
  3. Connects a diversity of voices
  4. Reaches beyond subject and organizational borders
  5. Manages risk in open and public contexts
  6. Develops digital attributes and identities

As I mentioned, at this stage these are merely proposed values. What is important at this point is that they establish a constructive and open institutional ideology towards the network which can be translated into operational support for openness in a manner which respects the need for diversity of practice and accepts non-hierarchical forms of risk (i.e. it does not try to mitigate networked forms of risk by subsuming networked and open practice into hierarchical systems of quality and control). They also need to be succinct and in a form which can be interpreted into a variety of contexts. At UAL I’m confident that these values will encourage positive sharing of practice which already takes place ‘under the radar’. They will also give some confidence that the institution will support staff if things-go-wrong when working openly.

Clearly these values will require case-studies, guides and policy in given contexts. In practice, much of the policy is already there an simply needs the equivalent of ‘this also applies in digital spaces’ added to it (I’m thinking of bullying, harassment, codes-of-conduct etc). I have already drafted a number of illustrations-of-practice under each value from a Teaching and Learning perspective but what’s important is to start with the values ‘at the top’ as it were and not to work in the hope that institutionally scattered examples of openness will naturally percolate into the psychology of the institution. One area where it’s possible to see the impact of high level values of this kind is in aspects of the Research Excellence Framework in the UK , I’d like to see the same happen with teaching via Teaching Excellence Framework too.

Teaching Complexity

In the short term, we will be embodying these values through our free, open, online seminar series entitled ‘Teaching Complexity’ #techcomUAL which will run from Jan – March 2019. The seminars will: “…explore how open and creative approaches to teaching and learning can help students navigate the complexity of higher education and the digital environment.” The series is co-curated by myself and Bonnie Stewart in her role as Visiting Fellow at UAL. The facilitators for the sessions include some of the most interesting and innovative voices in open educational practice so do come along to all, or any, of the seminars.

Digital Creative Attributes Framework

[The framework, handbook and associated guidance can be found here: http://dcaf.myblog.arts.ac.uk – a PDF of the core framework can be downloaded here

One weakness of a ‘graduate attributes’ approach for student development is that it looks lovely in strategy documents but can be difficult to respond to on a day-to-day basis, especially in digital contexts. For example, a graduate attribute that talks about students becoming ‘agile connectors’ sounds positive but how does a course leader respond to that when designing curriculum? They might have a sense of what agile connecting looks like in their discipline but add digital to the mix and it suddenly they are casting about for the latest app or platform as a placeholder for teaching practice. Unfortunately, this fuels a demand for a more ‘skills focused’ approach in which a list of this week’s popular technologies is drawn up with advice on what it can be ‘used for’. With the best will in the world this approach always puts the tech before the teaching and course leaders feel a pressure to ‘introduce technology’ to ‘keep up’.

DCAF Handbook

So, we often end up with the macro of ‘attributes’ and the micro of the tech-list. What is missing is a ‘meso’, or middle level, connecting the two. Connecting high-level aspirations through to practical activity is the principle behind the Digital Creative Attributes we have developed at the University of the Arts London. These are an extension of the Creative Attributes Framework at the UAL which lays out nine key attribute areas in three groups. The Digital Creative Attributes Framework (rather pleasingly the ‘D-CAF’) is a digital expression on the CAF, not a whole new framework. It provides a meso layer of digital practices for courses to build on or map to.

There are four significant advantages to this approach:

  1. DCAF practices are stable. Digital platforms, apps and software might change but the practices we require to thrive in the digital environment remain the same.
  2. DCAF is not discipline specific so each group can contextualise relevant practices in a manner which makes sense for them.
  3. DCAF can be used to articulate current curriculum in digital-practice terms. It’s not a list of ‘things you haven’t managed to include’ but a framework which can highlight to students the value of engaging in the curriculum in certain ways.
  4. DCAF provides a shared language which works for staff, students and the creative industries.

The last point was extremely important to me because I’ve been in too many meetings where the lack of a shared language around digital has seriously disrupted meaningful progress. Essentially, when we say the word ‘digital’ in an institutional context everyone thinks of different things and wants to set different priorities. The tech folk call for more kit, senior folk want a clear ‘vision’ and everyone else just wants some support and guidance. Saying ‘let’s talk about digital’ is the same as saying ‘let’s talk about the university’ both these topics are far too big and neither of them can be ‘solved’.

The DCAF is designed to focus these discussions around a set of practices we know the students want/need to develop. It respects the importance of disciplinary context and avoids the techno-solutionist trap.

We have released the DCAF under a Creative Commons licence to open it out to all. It gives a good insight into the digital practices which underpin creative working and as such is relevant to anyone taking a creative approach to teaching and learning.

Arguing with the Digital Natives guy in four vexations

This is difficult for me to write because I’m still tense about much of it. I have recently got one of those ‘health tracker’ watches and while reviewing the video of the session with Marc Prensky at Online Educa my heart rate did spiral upwards.

The debate was a chaired, hour long session, between myself and Marc which promised to ‘go beyond’ metaphors to discuss the ‘realities’ of how education systems should respond to digital. In the end we didn’t discuss Visitors & Residents or Natives & Immigrants directly (something Marc was careful to avoid). However, our underlying educational ideologies were laid bare during the debate and effectively revealed the thinking behind our respective metaphors.

A simple way to read the session is in cultural terms, as a colleague pointed out to me I had a European-style ‘critical thinking’ perspective while Marc has a ‘pioneering’ North American flavoured focus on ‘accomplishment’. If I was to put it bluntly, I characterised Marc as Libertarian while he characterised me as Elitist and an Ivory Tower academic.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cblSaK56AXQ[/embedyt]

Having reviewed the video of the session I can see that Marc’s point of view was generally geared around schools level education rather than higher education. In fact, his framing of higher education approximated Oxbridge of 30 years ago (or now depending which course you are on).

This is vexation number one: repeatedly being told by people that don’t teach that the education system is broken. Marc clearly has very little experience, or knowledge, of the majority of the higher education sector in the UK (in fact many of the speakers at Educa had little or no day-to-day experience of working in education institutions). Marc evidenced his lack of direct experience in a few comments:

  1. He described a form of group-based teaching as good idea, as if we don’t ALREADY DO THIS A LOT.
  2. He suggested we should do more project-based learning which is something WE ALREADY DO A LOT.
  3. He seemed to be under the impression that all we do is ‘think’, and teach students how to ‘think like us’, which he characterised as of little value, suggesting that it would be better if we thought less and did more.

Vexation number two: implying that ‘thinking’ is elitist. Working on the basis that you are either thinking *or* doing is ridiculous, but I suspect Marc was alluding to ‘academic’ thinking AKA ‘not doing anything useful’ rather than the thinking required to DO THINGS(?). I believe that having learned some literacies at school it’s part of higher education’s responsibility facilitate students in extending their ability to think critically and question intelligently. That’s not to say that, as Marc suggested, I assume that incoming students don’t know how to think. However, don’t believe that we are all ‘naturally’ good at this (Excepting those who are so privileged they are never put in a position where their actions are called out an unthinking?). Most of us benefit from some teaching and some challenging in this area.

So I take offence at the implication I’m elitist for holding the view that thinking is a good thing, especially as this is part of a process by which students can, I hope, reject or challenge dominant modes of thought and those who have taught them. I love a well reasoned argument from a student about why my views don’t stand up and I hope I’m open enough to take new ideas on board. (At one point Marc highlighted that I’d brought some notes with me to the session, as if this was somehow an elitist, academic move, rather than ‘being somewhat prepared’.)

Vexation number three: the repeated use of terms like ‘effective’ and ‘successful’ with no frame of reference. As you would expect, the Digital Natives guy basically espoused a kind of ‘let the kids get on with it because they have the Web’ approach whereas I suggested that we need to teach critical thinking and facilitate a broadening worldview. Towards the end of the debate I gave a little speech about privilege, quoting Orwell: “All animals are born equal, but some are born more equal than others”. If our education systems can’t provide opportunities to those born ‘less equal’ then what’s the point? Obviously my problem with Marc’s position is it assumes a Libertarian equity of opportunity and runs on the basis that you just need to be your best, most individual, self and you will‘ succeed. It’s easy to see how Marc, having been through Harvard Business School, might promote this idea and how this would be lurking behind the Digital Natives stuff. It’s the old ‘being successful means being like me’ problem.

Vexation number four: celebrating human doing over human being. For Marc, ‘success’ seemed to be about doing things to the world to ‘make it’ a better place, whereas I suggested notions of becoming and, I hope, being part of humanity. This is why I’m ok with the notion of, what is often described as, ‘learning for learning’s sake’ because I think it enriches us – it’s probably better described as ‘learning for our own sake’, and if we are active within our communities and beyond then ‘own sake’ means society as much as ourselves.

How about we focus on becoming decent, thoughtful, human beings before confidently ‘fixing’ the world? Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’m confident that concentrating on the former is more likely to improve the general state of affairs. Ultimately, Marc sees the Web, or the network, as a largely non-hierarchical location in which anyone with some gumption can achieve great things, as if the Web was some kind of neutral space in which the ‘good’ succeed and those that sink only have themselves to blame. This is effectively the mantra Silicon Valley hides behind.

I hope that for those in the room our sharply opposing views led to a meaningful debate. I personally found it quite distressing but maybe I’m just not native enough to market-driven conference environments? 🙂

Having said this, now I’ve had time to reflect I have to admit it’s been a useful process for me. I’ve learnt a lot and I value the opportunity to debate with people who hold differing views. After all, where is the challenge in only speaking to people who already agree with us? So, thanks for your time Marc, I can’t see us agreeing on much but I’d be up for round two if you are.

Shaping the university in a networked era

The University of the Arts London is a dynamic environment containing a heady range of teaching and learning practices. What all of these approaches have in common is that they have to (if they aren’t extra curricular) negotiate the structures required to validate and quality control higher education degrees in the UK. As soon as any course considers the digital (beyond posting content in the VLE or teaching a specific software) they discover that they are caught between network and hierarchy.

CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulgodard

To put it another way, they are caught between the Web and the Institution which operate on radically different principles. For example, within the institution the course tends to be the root organising principle with students grouped within it, whereas online the individual is the root, or the centre, and connects to groups. This is significant difference and while in recent years the university sector has claimed to shift focus onto the students (for example the emergence of the ‘student experience’ as an institutional concept) the core mechanisms of the university remain relatively unchanged.

One very good reason for this is because universities operate at scale. The other reason is that, again in recent years, universities have rightly been required to consider, and respond to, issues of diversity, inclusion, sustainability and equity. It takes a significant amount of ‘structure’ to create an equitable environment at scale. [What I have seen of ‘agile’ networked approaches to learning are often highly exclusive, favouring those with agency and various forms of privilege. I see similar effects when education is undertaken at scale in the digital but in a non-networked manner, for example MOOCs]

There are many examples of courses and groups negotiating the tension between the network and hierarchy successfully at UAL but they tend to have four characteristics in common.

  1. They are the smaller courses, with lower student numbers
  2. They are led by individuals with a clear understanding of the value of working in a networked (often Resident) manner
  3. The teaching team are happy to use a combination of institutional and Web-based platforms as appropriate
  4. Much of the networked activity is not formally revealed to the institution for fear of it being shut down

On point four, it’s of great interest to me how an institution (I’m taking in general terms here, not specifically about UAL) approaches the networked environments and practices. Most institutions now understand there is value in the network but often kill that value in the process of institutionalising it. For example, most Social Media policies stifle, rather than promote, the use, and potential value for the institution of staff being active in Social Media. On the other hand we are all aware of the ideological compromises, risks and potential exclusivity of many networked approaches such as running a course via Facebook.

My day job as Head of Digital Learning is at the nexus of these issues and tensions. For me it’s about designing ways of supporting networked approaches at scale (and articulating the value of those approaches) while keeping connected to the institution at key points (for example summative assessment). I don’t believe we need to redesign the whole institution to make this work but we do need to reconsider the principles our teaching and learning is based on. A few ‘design’ principles that I’d recommend:

  1. We need to find ways of operating in a networked manner which can work at scale but which don’t assume that technology is the ‘answer’ in of itself.
  2. We need to positively incorporate networked approaches and stop thinking of the digital as only ‘that thing we have to do because we have run out of floor space’, or ‘that thing we do because there are “too many” students’.
  3. We need to stop designing our courses with the underlying notion that the face-to-face is the course and the digital is only there to support the face-to-face. (most students spend more time learning online than face-to-face no matter how high their ‘contact’ hours are)
  4. We need to frame ‘independent’ study as much more than ‘doing the homework’ or (in keeping with the point above) what you do in between face-to-face sessions.
  5. We need to acknowledge that the network (the Web) exists and design our courses accordingly.
  6. We need to acknowledge that using disciplines as a primary mode of structuring our institutions has serious limitations for students in a digital era.
  7. Given the point above, we need to acknowledge that students operate in a much larger information and communal (possibly collaborative) environment than the university itself.
  8. We need to redesign the way we formally capture the design of courses and the way we articulate these designs to students while still being mindful of diversity, inclusion and equity.

There are two projects currently directly responding to many of these points at UAL: Modual, run by Fred Deakin and UAL Futures, run by Luke Whitehead. There are also numerous examples of courses at UAL which are well aware of these themes/issues and do a great job of negotiating tensions between the network and the hierarchy to the benefit of their students. In my role I attempt to identify inclusive uses of networked approaches and look for ways to embed this in the quotation of the university.

We are brilliant at working in an agile, networked manner in activities which sit alongside the machinery of running and awarding degrees – we also know what ‘good practice’ looks like within courses. Our challenge is in creating institutional structures (hierarchy) which can encourage and support those approaches while holding them in an open hand.

 

I am helping to run a, free, open to all, ‘Platform’ event on the 1st of December at Chelsea college of art entitled ‘Critical Creative Digital: Shaping the university in a networked era’. http://events.arts.ac.uk/event/2017/12/1/Critical-Creative-Digital-Shaping-the-university-in-a-networked-era/  (do sign-up and come along if you can make it)

 

Visualising digital practices using V&R

Myself and Alison Le Cornu recently published “Using ‘Visitors and Residents’ to visualise digital practices” an open access paper reviewing the development of the Visitors and Residents idea. The paper describes the heritage of the V&R mapping process and details a visual pattern-based approach to clustering and analysing large groups of maps. This is a significant step as it expands the Visitors and Residents work beyond a discussion facilitating metaphor to a workable qualitative research instrument.

At the heart of the paper is the presentation and analysis of data from a Higher Education Academy funded project which generated circa 400 V&R maps from staff and students at 18 higher education institutions from across the UK.

From: Using ‘Visitors and Residents’ to visualise digital practices
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 8 – 7 August 2017
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7802/6515
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i18.7802   – (Graphic design by Paul Tabak)

I won’t rehash the description of the data collection and analysis here as that’s all in the paper, so do take a look if you are interested in using the V&R mapping as part of a qual data method.

What’s rewarding is to have finally captured the narrative of the progression of the work from ‘a fun thing to do in a conference session’ to an innovative research instrument. Significantly, the Visitors and Residents narrative contains contributions from numerous friends and colleagues who have enriched the thinking and taken the work in new directions. For me this is a perfect example of the richness of working opening and posting CC licenced materials online for others to use and modify.

I’m currently working with Ian Truelove on a version of the mapping which crosses the digital/physical space (locations) divide in teaching and learning. The mapping approach we are discussing includes ‘Independent’ and ‘Dependant’ for the vertical axis and the extension of Visitor and Resident metaphor into ‘hunter gatherer’ (Visitor) and ‘farmer’ (Resident). The plan is to use this with course teams to visualise and discuss how they provide ‘nutrition’ for students (and how they support students in developing their own, sustainable, forms of ‘nutrition’ – yes, this is a bit like the ‘give a man a fish – teach him to fish’ idea).

The original description of V&R was largely based on ‘visibility’ or leaving a social trace. That doesn’t operate as well in physical environments where it is possible to be visible while in Visitor mode, for example, studying alone in the library. The hunter gatherer/farmer interpretation allows us to describe learner modes of engagement in both digital and physical environments.

The vertical axis of Independent and Dependant draws out the important distinction between those times where teaching/technical/library staff are involved (this could be expressed as ‘contact’ time) and those times where students are working without direct input from staff. We have been careful to ensure that the digital/physical boundary is not tied to either axis as all modes of learning engagement can take place in either type of space.

I’m keen to counter the idea that particular spaces (physical or digital) are intrinsically linked with a specific pedagogy. For example, while a lecture theatre does engender or encourage (partly through tradition) more didactic forms of teaching it can be used in many different ways (especially when digital spaces are incorporated into the face-to-face teaching). Similarly, Social Media as a genre of space does not mandate a particular form of dialogue or engagement. The new mapping process we are working on is designed to explore the relationship between spaces of all forms and modes of teaching and learning.

Future Happens – Social Media

On May the 5th around 49 people from 19 institutions gathered at LSE for the second Future Happens event – “Connect:Disconnect” focusing on Social Media in teaching and learning. The event was co-run by LSE and UAL, hosted by myself, Peter Bryant and Donna Lanclos. Over the afternoon we facilitated a series of ‘hacks’ in which we challenged groups to develop positive ‘principles’ in response to key areas. For example, how can Social Media practices help to:

  • Develop and share identity
  • Build and support community
  • Engage in debate and dialogue
  • Generate and share creativity

…in teaching and learning. This was preceded by an ‘intervention’ (via Skype) from Bon Stewart to get our minds up and running.

‘BURNT’ notes

(The background to the event is here http://www.futurehappens.org/future-happens-2/

The responses to the hacks were captured in a series of Google docs which can be found here: http://www.futurehappens.org/fh2/

Example principles generated on the day include:

  • Valuing difference in yourself and others, being civil and inclusive.
  • Enabling informed choice and empowering through awareness of options
  • Building communications channels and removing barriers to realise a connected community outside the physical space
  • Crowdsourcing/co-creation via social media enhances a sense of belonging and gives access to a greater diversity of perspectives, facilitating critical reflection
  • Encourage debate to span multiple spaces, including out of sight of the institution
  • Participation comes with an understanding that their are collective rights and responsibilities

We plan to gently curate the principles and make them available to help frame the collation/development of examples of teaching practice (or to inform the development of positive Social Media guidelines). The point being that the principles are not in-of-themselves rules or guidelines but principles-to-inform-practice. The hacks framed discussions that, within our institutions, we often can’t find the time for or which get bogged down by parochialism.  

Before we hit the hack section of the afternoon we ran an activity called ‘BURNT’. I believe we were referring to the notion of getting-your-fingers-burnt but we can’t exactly remember where the name came from. The idea was to bring all of the hopes, fears and paranoia surrounding Social Media to the surface to clear the air before we attempted to develop the principles.

Everyone wrote three post-its on this basis:

  • ORANGE: Imagined worst case scenario
  • GREEN: Super positive personal aspiration
  • PINK: True life horror story

(all in the context of teaching and learning)

Donna and Peter then clustered the results while the hacks took place. Clusters included:

Imagined worst case scenario

  • Disconnection
  • Psychological/Physical harm
  • Tech fail
  • Abuse of power
  • Reputation
  • Job security
  • Exposure

Super positive personal aspiration

  • Breaking down Barriers
  • Open and Flexible
  • Political activism/Citizenship
  • Connected Teaching & Learning
  • Career benefits

True life horror story

  • Bad things happen to me
  • Bad things happen to them
  • #fail
  • Falsification

With a few lone Post-its such as ‘@piersmorgan’ in True life horror story…

The BURNT activity did appear to clear the air and, we hope, helped groups to generate positive principles over the afternoon. We think there is something valuable to build on here in conjunction with the principles as a fairly mixed room produced BURNT items which clustered reasonably neatly (the true life horror stories we the trickiest to cluster). Alongside curating the principles we hope to get permission from participants to post the BURNT items online.

In parallel to this we also encouraged participants to note down learning designs or activities which had worked well using Social Media. For me, uncovering workable nuggets of teaching and learning is key to propagating positive practice.


Having initially run through the various outputs from the event it is clear to me than many of the risks associated with the use of Social Media in teaching contexts are the most powerful opportunities. For example, risks around personal and professional reputation are an opportunity to discuss ‘collective rights and responsibilities’. Similarly, unease around identity and credibility is an opportunity to approach, as one group put it, ‘understanding authenticity in different contexts’. Another example is the potential to explore issues of verification and epistemology in the context of fake news or disinformation.

If we take a positive teaching approach to Social Media then the very aspects of it that are held up as problematic become opportunities to explore pertinent themes such as, identity, authenticity, citizenship and diversity. For me, this is about framing or scaffolding our students forms of engagement with Social Media to foster awareness, reflection and critical thinking. All of which underpin positive identity formation and becoming.

An important ingredient in this is establishing trust between teaching staff and their own institution. Things can go wrong no matter how well they have been designed and framed. This is when the institution needs to stand by teaching staff who have taken the time highlight the risks to students and emphasised the personal responsibility each student has in public/visible environments (through teaching and not only by issuing a list of rules).


The next step for us after the hack is to post a lightly curated version of the work from the afternoon which can feed into post-hack events run by participants in their own institutions. I hope to run a post-hack at UAL in which we collate examples of teaching that build on, or respond to, each principle. Circulating well contextualised ‘learning designs’ that take advantage of Social Media as a teaching and learning space feels like a pragmatic way to build on the hard work and critical thinking of the event. Thanks to all who took part.

 

Politics and Social Media

Recently I was invited to speak at a hack event on Politics and Social Media for our Culture and Enterprise Programme at Central Saint Martins (the description of the event is below). The event was designed and facilitated by Richard Reynolds the course leader of the MA Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries (one of my favourite course titles of all time). Richard opened the day with a talk entitled “Politics, Social Media and the Practice of Ritual Magic” in which he made the distressingly convincing argument that Trump operates much like a magician or tribal mystic and his Tweets are in the form of ritual incantations.

I followed Richard with a talk on Trust and Digital Politics, in which I started by stating:

Not Trump – How Trump?

It’s easy to critique or satirise an individual but, following on from Richard’s talk, much more interesting to explore the factors that allowed Trump to gain and maintain power – especially as unless these conditions change we will see a succession of Trump-like leaders emerging in the West.

In terms of Trust I argued that the Digital has allowed us to Disintermediate institutions. The Web allows Trump to pronounce directly to ‘the people’ via Twitter, circumventing the media, the government and his own party.

A disintermediating Tweet.

Our trust tended to be placed in institutions which resonated with our values and we’d have faith, to a certain extent, that those institutions had integrity. Until recently political leaders in the West would represent or embody those institutions. Increasingly we see the emergence of the celebrity, or media, politician who uses political institutions as a vehicle for their persona.This is an inevitable effect of the cult-of-the-individual that the Web amplifies so efficiently.  So we have lost the trust-mechanism of institutions which, for better or worse, represented identifiable ideologies and are now left with individuals whose primary aim is to seek power. (The struggles of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK are demonstrative of this shift away from ideologically focused politics towards new forms of political persona)

The video of my talk starts from this point so I won’t essay it all out here.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AydoQtqM2Wg[/embedyt]

Ultimately, I agree with Paul Mason in his assertion that much of what we are experiencing can be understood as a “fight between network and hierarchy” which has been brought about by digital technology:

Paul Mason

I see this fight taking place in education as much as in politics as we respond to the all pervasiveness of the Web. This was writ large for me as I prepared a session on Networked Learning for our Postgraduate Certificate Academic Practice in Art, Design and Communication. In a description of Connectivism George Siemens’ highlights the same tension between networks and hierarchies.

Hierarchy imposed structure, while networks reflect structure.

The challenge for us is in negotiating the relationship between network and hierarchy. Institutions embed and petrify power in structures which privilege particular groups. Networks tend to generate ‘mystics’ and ‘high priests’  who could, if they wished, operate without the balance hierarchical democracy can, but often doesn’t, bring.  (A phenomenon I’ve seen occur within Connectivist courses). It’s complex, fascinating, and requires our immediate attention.

 

 


A WORLD OF OUR OWN: POLITICS and SOCIAL MEDIA

“The Future of Trust in Digital Politics”

(event description by Richard Reynolds)

Many of us are living in a post-truth world, a world defined by ‘alternative facts’. The Brexit referendum and its aftermath have been shaped by irrational trolling and online ranting. President Trump tweets his policy decisions. Terrorists and other outlawed groups use – or attempt to use – the same online platforms as government agencies. States wage hybrid warfare, and use online disinformation as a tool in their blended online/offline military strategies. Access to news is shaped and distorted by each individual’s known tastes and preferences. Citizens have uploaded their political life and identity, and sometimes struggle to make any connection back to the politics of the offline world.

It’s scarcely necessary to describe the impact that social media is having on politics. We only have to look at the outcomes of elections, referendums and other political conflicts around the world. More than simply a tool, Social Media has changed the way that politicians structure their careers, and the ways in which voters (and non-voters) engage with politics and respond to political debates. Social Media has become central to the ways in which governments articulate and impose the power of the state over its citizens.

On Friday 24 March and Saturday 25 March, the Culture and Enterprise Programme at Central Saint Martins will be hosting a two-day immersive conference and hackathon on the future of politics and social media. Expert guests will be sharing their views on the present and future role of Social Media in our political life. All delegates will have the opportunity to participate in a two-day interactive group project, which will attempt to answer the question: ‘What is the future of trust in digital politics?’

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.

 

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.)