The lecture paradox

The lecture is one of the easiest teaching formats to ‘replicate’ online and one of the most high risk during COVID-19. So why do students appear to be missing on-site lectures so much when they can learn just as much from the online version?

The lecture as symbolic and shared

The on-site lecture is a potent metonym in our conceptualisation of ‘university’, especially for incoming students who are likely to have formulated their image of what university is from various fictional accounts in films and novels. Given this, arguing about the pedagogical effectiveness of the lecture misses the point. The lecture is better evaluated as a cultural symbol than as a learning opportunity. This is one of the reasons why lectures are still so popular in an era of easily accessible recordings and information abundance. 

More significantly, the on-site lecture is also a powerful shared moment. They are highly ‘Evented’ in a manner which is difficult to transpose into online spaces. Even an awful lecture will have a strong sense of presence and fellowship. In fact, a really poor lecture can feel like more of a shared experience than a good one – a collective act of survival tends to bring people together. 

A really awful online lecture or recording is alienating and lonely. There is little sense of connection and no post-lecture coffee to share notes over. This is not an online ‘problem’ in-of-itself, it’s more that a simple mirroring of face-to-face practices online tends to amplify the weaknesses of the original. The positive aspects of embodied co-presence are immediately lost. It’s also because online we often neglect to facilitate the informal moments which cluster around the formal moments, such as the lecture. We lose the way our physical environment is designed to encourage those connections.

Shared moments are the new scarcity

The lecture operates in the same sociocultural manner as many other collective moments we are dearly missing during COVID-19. Despite it being significantly more convenient to listen to music at home, that doesn’t stop us wanting to attend music festivals. Similarly, we still go to the cinema even though we have access to films at home. This is also, I suspect, the underlying reason why so many people recently rushed to ‘inessential’ shops in the UK. It’s not about access to the products, it’s about ‘shopping’ as a social activity. The same holds true with lectures, it’s not about access to the content it’s about the shared experience.

Both the music and the film industry have started to trust the immutability of our desire for these shared moments and, for the most part, do not withhold content (even with cinema the multi-platform release is becoming more common). They understand that engineering a false scarcity of content damages their reputation and have rebuilt themselves around the scarcity of shared experience.

It’s not shared if there is a lack of presence 

The principle of a shared experience goes hand-in-hand with the importance of presence I discussed in a previous post. It won’t feel like a shared moment unless we feel the presence of others which is why our approach to online teaching often feels un-Evented/un-shared/un-communal even when it’s synchronous. To counter that involves rethinking how we teach and avoiding the ‘practice mirroring’ replication of on-site/face-to-face modes.

The higher education sector has come to a keen understanding of this over the last few months and will hopefully re-think notions of attendance, timetabling and engagement in a broader, presence-based, manner. Even so, the humble on-site lecture (or similar) plays an important role in drawing us to the building. It  becomes the focal point for many other types of encounters in-and-around the formal session in a smooth manner which we still struggle to model in our digital environments. 

Making it worth turning up for ‘live’

I suspect we know that the lecture is not as much of a draw as live music or the big screen – the ‘live’ experience is perhaps too similar to the recorded version. This means that we need to work on our live presence (on-site and online), just as many bands have had to, and there are many techniques that can be employed. I’d argue that presence and good pedagogy go hand-in-hand. How can we expect our students to be engaged in something which is unengaging?

We need to refocus our idea of university around the importance of creating moments of shared presence to facilitate new connections – connections in our thinking and connections with those around us.

Digital amplification: why work has become so intense.

Given that ‘online’ is often spoken of in deficit terms when compared to ‘normal’ working you might have expected a feeling of attenuation, something lesser, during COVID-19, but somehow everything feels amplified, more extreme. It’s as if the sudden shift to online has turned the volume up on themes and issues which were always there but in a quieter way. 

CC BY-NC https://www.flickr.com/photos/crashmaster/3262933193

This is also playing out on an individual level, as we find ourselves working from our, radically different, private contexts without the ‘levelling’ shared space of the campus or office. We are densely connected through the technology but have less shared ground. Our cultural and physical conception of ‘work’ has been redistributed across a myriad of differences. This is a moment in which we can re-imagine our intersecting spaces and practices of work in new ways which are kinder, more inclusive and not only tied to the physical. 

Digital amplification

In a session I teach on our Academic Practice programme I ask the question “What aspects of the digital environment are unique?”. There are plenty of good answers to this and it always turns into a lively opening discussion, partly because you can find pre-digital examples of most things. The two answers I tend to focus on are:

  • Anyone with a connection can ‘publish’ – the digital gives us a two-way street where there was once only the one-way system of broadcast and print media.
  • Everything is hyper-connected in the forms of a network supporting a churn of hierarchies – as apposed to a set of distinct hierarchies.

The effects of these two factors are not fundamentally new but importantly they are massively amplified. I can post a Tweet which hundreds of thousands can have read within minutes if it goes viral. I can connect with individuals and groups almost instantly. I can find myself in an online meeting before I’ve had time to think…

This is what I believe many of us are experiencing right now, an amplification of the way we experience work. No longer contained by the rituals and expectations we had implicitly agreed on, work has become restless. It’s now variously exhilarating, exhausting, empowering and stressful. It’s less tactile and less sensory but cognitively and emotionally the volume has been turned to 11.

Outrun by our own technology

Our physical spaces had agreed modes of interaction (or lack of interaction in some cases) which were as much a sociocultural agreement embodying particular power dynamics as they were an effect of the affordances of the space. We even got to the point that the names of the rooms themselves indicated the expected mode – lecture theatre, seminar room, the library, the studio etc. This made things predictable, it limited the ‘volume’ but tied us to ways of working enmeshed with historical notions of authority and power most of us would prefer to move on from. All of that has gone now, hasn’t it?

The amplification I’m speaking of comes from the introduction of technologies which reshape what it means to interact in ways which go beyond our slow-to-change models of the world – models which are still tied to the physical even now. We have been outrun by our own technologies for over 100 years. The First World War being a key example of where we were shocked by the destructive force – the potential for explosive change – of what we had invented. Right now we are being outrun by the level of connectivity and new modes of communication our digital technology provides. This is why things feel so intense even while we have lost so much.

Letting go of physical thinking

The intensity created by this amplification comes about as much from the difficulty we have in letting go of our models of work than it is to do with our ability to grasp the technology. We have ‘proper’, known, ways of working which are constantly being extended and confused by our shifting technological contexts – a new feature arrives without warning and suddenly meetings work differently. A text chat bar appears at the side of the speaker but how should we use it?

I was in a discussion about all the opportunities for interaction that are now available now that a conference I help run will be fully online but this had to be weighed against the expectations of delegates that they would experience a ‘keynote’. 

My hope is that we will actively negotiate the value of our work, of what we can contribute and continue to move away from paradigms which were defined by the name of physical rooms. What’s important to recognise is that for most of us things have got louder with the move online and quieting, shared, concepts such as ‘office’, ‘campus’ or ‘university’ feel distant and abstract.

The university is not ‘shut’

Of the many things the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted about higher education, two have become very apparent to me over the last couple of weeks: 

  1. The notion of ‘university’ is still, for the most part, linked to a set of buildings.
  2. Language is largely embodied – we struggle to express how we interact online in a non deficit manner.

This thinking was sparked by my vexation at theCoronavirus: Students to pay full tuition fees even if universities are shut headline in a recent article in the Times. The full article is behind a paywall so I can’t comment on that. The headline, however, rather negates all the hard work of staff and students who are actively working together online. At my institution the majority of us are busier than ever and we have plenty of examples of attendance and engagement improving as compared to a ‘normal’ term.  

It’s not the same experience but it’s not ‘shut’

Clearly, for those students expecting campus-based activities the experience has become limited. My eldest son ‘took issue’ (he’s a first-year History and Politics student at Sheffield University) with my critical retweet of the Times story. His point was that even though his course is online he is missing out on student life, so for him university is ‘shut’ as a cultural experience (I also can’t go to the pub but I do understand what he means :). Those institutions that were not already operating online had quite a task just moving a viable curriculum online. The social, cultural and ‘ambient’ aspects of university don’t automatically appear as a side effect of curriculum online – they have to be designed in.  

Similarly, many of the students at my institution rightly expected to be able to undertake all manner of tactile and embodied making and performance practices. While some of the learning around these practices can be undertaken online there is no digital equivalence for the tactile, for the feel of different materials or the experience of various spaces. It is also difficult to create those moments of serendipity and inspiration which come from wandering around a building which is full of creative ideas and work. I miss all of that, but I don’t think my university is ‘shut’.

The need for non-deficit language

We have to start finding better ways of talking about online teaching and learning which are not poor echos of physical paradigms if we are ever to break the ‘deficit-by-default’ conceptualisation of digital in education. This is going to be crucial as the Times headline suggests that students will not be willing to pay full fees while universities are thought of as ‘shut’. At a teaching focused university a significant portion of fees goes on paying teaching and support staff who will be working just as many hours online as they would have been in a normal term. If we can’t acknowledge this just because we aren’t in the same building then the whole sector is going to struggle during COVID-19 and beyond.

The need for Presence not ‘Contact Hours’

This is a reflection on some key areas which have come to light with the sudden move to online teaching. I wanted to write this post very early our academic term (less than two weeks in) to capture the moment.

While some of the thoughts might appear a bit grumpy, that’s not really representative of how I feel. From what I’ve seen at my institution the move online has had its bumpy moments but overall it’s going ok. If you’d asked me what moving to 100% online over about three weeks would look like then I’d have predicted some kind of socio-tech disaster. Instead, it’s spectacular how quickly everyone has adapted and how well the tech has held up. Perhaps we are discovering we were already working more in digital spaces than we cared to admit?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/markdodds/8572486521 CC: BY NC SA

1. What is crisis and what is digital?

It’s important to separate out our experience of the COVID crisis from our responses to teaching in the digital environment. Access issues and digital platforms struggling under the weight of unplanned for levels of usage are due to the crisis. The speed of the shift to online accounts for the prevalence of some teaching practices which experienced online educators would not recommend (see the points on deficit and practice mirroring). This is to be expected as we all bring the practices we know into new environments. It takes some time to transpose/modify how we work. 

2. Scrutiny

It’s definitive that we don’t scrutinise that which we are normalised to. As such, we tend not to ask too many questions of face-to-face teaching around themes like engagement and participation. Actually, that’s not fair, we do ask a lot of questions, but classic lecture and the seminar practices are still basically sacred and carry massive cultural weight in terms of representing ‘university’. When we move to the digital though, all the questions we should be asking about face-to-face suddenly appear, as the change of location breaks the normalisation spell and greater scrutiny is applied. 

I’d argue that all the pedagogical questions we are asking about the digital environment should also be applied to the physical environment, especially on questions of engagement, access and inclusion. I’ve seen the ‘How do we know students are really engaging?’ question being applied with more enthusiasm online than it usually is face-to-face because embodiment is a powerful, but false, proxy for engagement. 

3. Deficit 

Because we are responding to a crisis we are inevitably clashing with our current (face-to-face) students’ expectations of what they signed-up for. Given this, it’s inevitable that online teaching is framed by what it’s not rather than what it is. It’s seen in deficit, which tends to mask opportunities and the take up of ‘new’ modes of teaching. The simplest example of ‘new’ (retro-novel) being the use of asynchronous modes of engagement, such as the humble discussion forum (a lively discussion forum is a difficult thing to foster, but then a lively discussion amongst students in any context has always required expert facilitation).  

That’s not st say that we aren’t already recognising the benefits of online teaching. Anecdotally I’m hearing that lots of courses are seeing much higher levels of attendance than before and that many students find the online environment more inclusive, especially those who are perhaps more reflective or those for whom English is not their first language.

4. Practice mirroring

The principle of Contact Hours is, in my opinion, the biggest stumbling block for the move to online teaching. The narrow definition of Contact Hours in the UK basically boils down to ‘time spent in the same room together’. In largely face-to-face institutions there are vague gestures towards ‘online’ as contact but in most courses this doesn’t seem to be officially mapped in. This is amplified by a cultural attachment to the University as a set of buildings. (Until you can screw a plaque to a VLE with the name of a benefactor on it I guess buildings will always win?)

So in the move to online teaching our initial instinct is to preserve Contact Hours by mirroring what would have been face-to-face sessions with webinar style sessions. What this looks like is exhausting 3-4 hour online sessions which must be almost impossible to stay engaged with. Not only is this unstatable, it is also damaging to the learning process. In short, our limited conception of ‘Contact’ is antithetical to what we claim we are trying to achieve, especially when we move online.

Broadening  presence

In an era of information abundance we know that students are more interested in moments of contact than they are in access to content. Beyond credintialisaion, it’s access to expertise and those moments of feedback and co-presence which come to signify ‘what they are paying for’. Of course, some courses also offer access to specialist equipment but even then I’d argue that access to expertise is still the main concern. 

What I propose is that instead of thinking in terms of Contact Hours we should move to the concept of presence -the extent to which a member of teaching staff is present and in what mode. This could come in many forms:

  1. A fairly quick, reliable, turnaround to emailed questions
  2. Being active ‘live’ in forums or text chats (an ‘office hours’ approach to asynchronous)  
  3. Lively synchronous sessions – such as, webinars with plenty of Q&A
  4. Artfully ‘flipped’ use of pre-recorded teaching videos 
  5. Audio, video or text summative feedback (if it’s been created just for you then it’s always a moment of presence)
  6. …and of course face-to-face sessions in various forms.

We are highly attuned to the levels of presence and attention (we are social beings) which is why a move to online shouldn’t involve cutting staff time or staff-student ratios. 

With some thought it should be possible to weight the various modes of engagement as forms of presence and broaden out beyond the ‘time spent in the same room’ concept. Making this work would involve being explicit with students how these various forms of presence support learning and contextualising the value of face-to-face as one of many presence modes. Communicating that will not be easy, as it requires a shift in what we perceive as ‘university’, but this is something we need to do if we are going to be increasingly online from now on. 

The digital erosion of trust

This post is an exploration of a theme which I mentioned in the 16/04/2020 edition of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with  Bonni Stachowiak and Jose Bowden.

it was also part of the discussion at the online workshop Bonnie Stewart and myself ran at OER20.

Given the dangers currently involved in daily life it’s understandable why many people want to employ every aspect of information which can be reaped from the digital environment to reduce risk. In China we hear of an app which shows the body temperature of your delivery driver and in the UK there appear to be plans for an app which will tell you if you have been in close proximity to someone who may have the virus. Forms of surveillance that only weeks ago would have been considered such a serious infringement of our rights they might have been left unsaid, are now being mooted on a daily basis. 

CC:BY Peter Leth https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterleth/4505254988

This is where I find the phrase: “Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should” extremely useful. The reason being that once technology presents us with an opportunity to reduce risk – with the inevitable negation of trust* – we feel a pressure to employ it (who wants to be the person who has to say ‘We decided not to use it’ when something goes wrong?). This plays out in numerous ways across society and in education, which myself and Bonnie Stewart explored in our session for OER20.

Our OER20 session

Care vs Surveillance 

In preparing the session, Bonnie suggested that many of the most contentious issues around the use of technology for teaching can be expressed as a tension between care and surveillance. For example, it could be considered caring to track students in digital platforms to understand how they are engaging with their learning. It can also be considered surveillance. In technology, care and surveillance tend to go hand-in-hand.

If we ignore this data and don’t identify that some students have all but dropped out then are we failing in our duty as educators? Once this source of information exists we have to be extremely deliberate in our reasons for using it or avoiding it. In a sector which is increasingly massified, data often stands in for relationships as the notional medium for care, and yet no institution has ever increased surveillance without claiming its role is to create a more caring, or safer, environment. 

Trust vs Fairness

The main casualty here is trust. Whenever we introduce something to increase ‘fairness’ we also reduce trust. For example, with online submissions of assessed work we track very closely if students hand-in work late. We can also identify which student we think submitted which piece of work by looking at their login. In many cases we don’t need to trust students to do the right thing because we have a digital process which negates trust in favour of fairness.

This could also be seen as protecting the reputation of the institution and the value of what it awards. Trust vs fairness and surveillance vs care are not simple problems to solve, they are tensions which require complex negotiation across managers, teachers and students. Even so, we all have stories of technologies which have been introduced that circumvent any negotiation by reifying aspects of surveillance and fairness as standard ‘features’. This often makes concrete an implicit aspect of institutional culture which actually required significant discretion.

Upholding freedoms 

As education moves online we are going to have to get better at stating, and upholding, our values around trust and care with the concomitant acknowledgment of the risk we are accepting to protect certain freedoms. If not, then education will continue to merge with the corporate/civic surveillance state we are now only too aware of. To avoid sleepwalking into this new normal there will be times where we must deliberately refuse to use aspects of the data and control which technology offers, even when there are demands framed in terms of fairness or reduction of risk. 

Freedom is risky and risk requires trust. I believe that educational institutions, especially universities, should create spaces of negotiated risk. My hope is that we can do this in both our physical and digital spaces so that the latter does not become a surveillance tool we use to ‘balance out’ trust gifted in other environments. Certainly now is a time to uphold trust in the face of surveillance whether that be with our students as we teach online or in wider society. Extending our ability to know and control is not axiomatic as it is better to be free than to be risk free.

Visitors & Residents – teaching during Coronavirus

Prensky’s suspect notion of Digital Natives and Immigrants is predicated on levels of ‘innate’ comfort and skill with digital technology based on age. In contrast, the Digital Visitors and Residents idea is based on motivation-to-engage with networked technology.

Coronavirus has given millions motivation-to-engage, no matted their age, as social contact and educational provision has become almost entirely online-only overnight. We are all becoming ‘skilled’ with networked tech incredibly quickly, not because we are ‘native’ to it but because we have an immediate and obvious need. Our social and professional lives have become a parade of audio/video meetings and shared documents.

This highlights that the term  ‘social distancing’ does not account for the Web and is better described as ‘physical distancing’. Many of us are now more Resident online than ever before and are therefore highly social (if not more social) during the quarantine.

Teaching during Coronavirus

The abrupt need to move face-to-face education online can be mapped to the Visitor – Resident continuum. At my university we have produced a ‘Core practice guide’ which highlights the need for a balance of ‘content’ (Visitor) and ‘contact’ (Resident) for/with student groups. Just as with the Visitor – Resident continuum one mode is not ‘better’ than the other and any effective online educational provision will use a mix of both. The important factor, in terms of the design of teaching, is how we connect together what we are providing across these modes so that the elements (resources, fora, webinars, recordings)  build on each other and increase our student’s motivation-to-engage. 

It’s not about the tech it’s about the teaching

It is also important to note that, as highlighted by the Visitor and Resident mapping activity, the type of technology does not inherently foster a  particular mode-of-engagement. A poorly run online lecture (or webinar) will be less engaging for students than watching a recording or making use of some elegantly contextualised resources. My mantra is that if a synchronous (or ‘live’) piece of online teaching could have been a recording – from a student experience perspective – then it has little value beyond being an way-point in their week (see Eventedness).  

Making online education engaging requires effective, well-structured , teaching way more than it does any specific digital platform. The most brilliant and fully-featured ‘webinar’ space will not counter a lack of framing activities and resources either side of the session. The same can principle be applied to text-chats, fora, quizzes etc. 

If you like diagrams…

The following illustrates this point diagrammatically by showing that particular genres of digital provide the potential for certain levels/modes of engagement but that higher levels of engagement rely on the design of our teaching more than on how ‘immediate’ the tech experience might be.

The diagram is based on medium-to-large groups of students rather than small groups (less than 10) or one-to-one scenarios. Fostering engagement-at-scale is a central challenge for higher education and one which is crucial to consider as we transition to online teaching (and at any other time to be frank).

Content – Contact for online teaching – CC: BY (click image for full sized version)

I’m defining ‘Engagement’ as a mix of social presence and active/critical thinking. The mix is complex but important, as one without the other can lead to either noisy-but-unthinking moments or thoughtful-but-distancing experiences. We want our students to develop their thinking *and* feel a sense of belonging.

Connecting it together

Any single technology or mode will not be enough to engage a group over a period of time. This requires connecting together a set of modes with a clear articulation of how they flow into one another. At my university we are promoting the use of a combination of Moodle and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra as these can be combined to effectively cover a huge range of Content – Contact. For example: read/watch a resource > respond to a relevant question in an actively facilitated discussion forum > engage with ‘live’ discussion in a webinar which is framed around the themes arising from the forum > write a reflection on the themes and the overall process to be posted to the VLE/LMS (or create image/audio/video with accompanying written reflection).

Fundamentally, one mode or tech is not ‘better’ than another. What is important is how we connect them as a learning narrative and how we communicate that narrative to foster engagement. This helps to ensure we provide opportunities which are mindful of the range of technical, geographical (time-zone), cognitive, social and emotional contexts/experiences of our students and teaching staff.

Twisted intentions

Virtuous, human-centered, intentions can quickly be co-opted by systems and hierarchies to more instrumental ends. It is common to hear of organisations populated by ‘good people’ that nevertheless perpetuate negative or oppressive practices because the institution, or broader environment, demands it. 

This twist is something I explored at OER19 through the notion of ‘Openness as a performance of surplus’. Open Educational Practices are generally thought of as an antidote to the traditional hierarchical gate-keeping of knowledge and opportunity. They are seen as a way of using digital networks to counter ‘standard’ institutional modes.This is all to the good but only institutions with enough surplus can ‘generously’ be open at scale. If we consider the big players in Open Education then it’s perhaps no surprise that they tend to be high status and wealthy institutions (I’m thinking of the institutions behind some of the major MOOC platforms for example). 

This is not to say that there aren’t good intentions or effects in ‘massive’ or institutional-level approaches to openness, it’s more a call to be alert to the risk that these intentions can get subsumed by agendas around status and profile – they can quickly be drawn back into the business ideology they (in theory) attempt to circumvent.  

The Big Moka approach to generosity

In the OER19 session I explored how generosity can hide poor intentions through the story of Ongka’s Big Moka, an ethnographic film from the 70s I was shown as an undergrad*. The film follows Ongka, a leader within the Kawelka people in Papua New Guinea, as he attempts to collect together enough pigs and other items of value to put on a successful Moka event. In the ceremony Ongka gifts all that he has amassed to the ‘big man’ of a neighbouring community. Ongka’s aim is to give gifts of a greater value than he received in the last Moka and thus demonstrate, through generosity, that he is the ‘bigger man’. As Ongka says when he is successful: 

“Now that I have given you these things, I have won.
I have knocked you down by giving so much.”

Ongka

I worry that this is how the values of Open Educational Practice are twisted when institutionalised and scaled. A sincere generosity becomes warped into a performance of surplus or power which risks perpetuating digital forms of colonialism.

Who cares?

The danger of these twists is something myself and Bonnie Stewart want to explore in the context of ‘Care’ at OER20. In the workshop we are asking if open forms of pedagogy can help to scale care. The workshop is shaped by our concern that care is usually framed through the development of relationships – it’s a social process. Given this, it’s important to consider how care might work in massified education systems.

“On all fronts within higher ed the responsibility to respond with care converges on front-line teaching staff who may be oxymoronically required to offer emotional labour within ambivalent or uncaring structures, creating pedagogical commitments which may not be sustainable, or may foster feelings of inadequacy (Bryant, Lanclos, and White, 2019). What do we achieve if only those who are privileged enough to have few students, or an abundance of time, are in an actual position to invest in an ethic of care?”

OER20 workshop submission

Technology doesn’t care

Many of us are concerned that technology is being proposed as the ‘solution’ to care-at-scale. With terms such as ‘personalisation’ and ‘predictive analytics’ often being used in a way which implies that the tech can take the strain as long as we feed it enough data. This is why the subject of care-at-scale within education is so important to discuss. Especially where it risks becoming a technologically supported institutionalised asset which we have to then build safe, human-centred, spaces of authentic care outside of (or to hide from it). 

I think it’s fair to say that myself and Bonnie are not convinced that open pedagogy can help to scale care, or even if ‘scaling care’ is a valid idea. What we are sure of is that this is a discussion that needs to take place, especially in education systems where, despite the promise of technology, the burden of care is often with overworked members of staff in precarious roles.


*Part of Granada Television’s Disappearing World Series which ran from 1969-1993. It was first aired in the UK on 11 December 1974
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ongka%27s_Big_Moka
I studied on a ‘Time-Based Media’ course which was developed from an ethnographic film making course. As such, key academics were Anthropologists interested in how digital technology opened up new modes of storytelling and narrative. It was an excellent course.

Bryant, P., Lanclos, D. and White, D. (2019). Precarious voices: The shared hopes and dreams of those teaching and supporting learning in digital contexts . https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/handle/2123/20694/precarious%20voices.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

Travels with an alt identity

Over a decade ago, I took a home brewed virtual ethnography approach to a project looking at communal and cooperative player behaviour in World of Warcraft. It appeared to me that the teamwork and sense of belonging in the game was exactly what we were trying to foster in online learning. 

The method I used was to sit with a player as they gamed, asking the occasional question while I set-up screen recording software. I then left the hard-drive with them and asked them to record any moments that they thought were significant over a period of about a week. I picked up the recordings and made notes as I watched them. Then I went back to the player with specific questions about aspects of the play and the dynamics of the gaming community I needed interpreting. It worked well and led to my thinking on ‘Social Capital in the Pursuit of Slaying Dragons’.

Four turtles and a Moorhen
Feeling very ‘alt’
( John K CC BY-NC-SA)

In the world and of the world

What was clear was that the players were extremely present in the game world, as embodied by their player avatars – they weren’t controlling a character from afar, they were within the world when they were gaming. The game was a space in which they were co-present, which is one of the reasons that an ethnographic approach worked. This principle influenced much of my subsequent work and I find it useful when considering the notion of digital fluency. In essence, you can’t understand the modes-of-engagement of a space by only learning it’s technical functionality as if it were a tool – you need to understand how it works as a social space. A simple example is Twitter – learning about ‘at’ replies, retweets and direct messages doesn’t tune you into the culture or discourse of the network of co-present individuals. You completely miss the role and value of Resident-mode platforms if you only consider how it works in abstracted, technical, terms.

So when it comes to teaching about the potential role and value of Resident online spaces I tend to take a digital fieldwork approach which draws on this ethnographic thinking. There are usually decent guides on the basics of online platforms you can point people too so, beyond this, what becomes important is the fieldwork brief which provides a motivation to engage with the dialogue and the culture of the space. This is what I had in mind when I designed the digital fieldwork activities which we used as part of the Teaching Complexity seminar series.

Digital Fieldwork activities

The activities range from simply appearing in a Resident space (for those that have never operated in this mode) through to experimenting with an alternative identity or faking out a social media platform. The six activities come with a short video intro from me as explaining the context for the approach is extremely important. This is especially the case for the activities which involve experimenting with identity as it’s not about tricking anyone, so participants need to be sensitive in the way they present themselves and connect.   

2min intro to the activities

The identity based activities are inherently self-reflexive as they encourage participants to not be ‘themselves’ – this creates contrasts which can be reflected upon. In our daily engagement with Resident online spaces we will struggle to ‘see’ how the platform is influencing us because we are generally connected to like-minded, similar people and are therefore focused on the substance of those relationships rather than on the structure or culture of the environment. 

This is similar to the anthropological principle that it’s difficult to see our own culture because we are normalised to it, which is why when we travel we gain insights through the contrast with other cultures. Taking on an alternative identity online is the equivalent of going ‘abroad’. The same Social Media platform is many different places depending on who you appear to be and how the platform encourages you to build your network based on your personal characteristics (age, gender, location, ethnicity, and anything else it can glean from your data)

My Instagram experience with an alt identity

A good example of this in the digital fieldwork was my own experience of the ‘Try on a New Identity’ activity. I started an Instagram account (having not had one before) as an alternative persona and began by following profiles/accounts suggested by the platform. The result was extremely informative. I gained an insight into the predominant aesthetic (in terms of fashion and ‘look’) of the platform and found just how much more sophisticated Social Media had become in shaping connections since I last ‘started from scratch’ in Twitter over a decade ago. Because I was an alternate persona it was extremely obvious why Instagram was throwing certain things at me based on my apparent age, location and gender. 

It was now clear to me how the platform might cause anxiety through the pressure to conform to a very particular body image, mode-of-speech and lifestyle. It was also clear that various forms of authenticity were being performed which appeared to shift as accounts became more popular (the I’m-so-popular-I-can-now-reveal-the-real-me effect). Lastly, I was shocked that despite certain flags from the platform it was impossible to tell the difference between a person and a brand. I didn’t know when I was being sold something and, in some senses, everyone was selling ‘self’.

For me it was a distressing window into the convergence of self/product/brand which I often hear discussed but hadn’t seen so directly. The experience gave me a real insight into one of the potential reasons why our students can feel anxious about the online environment. Instagram implies that everyone can be famous but only by conforming to very particular ways-of-being (or performed ways-of-being). Obviously I had experienced a very limited and, in many ways, naive window into Instagram, which is what I had set out to do. There a many positive aspects to engaging with the platform which I didn’t experience because of the route I had taken.

Caution

My advice on approaching the identity related activities

To be clear (and in keeping with my own advice on the fieldwork) I was careful to only like posts and never commented or got into conversation. I didn’t gain access to anything that wasn’t already openly visible on the Web.  I also only ran the account for a couple of weeks and it’s now mothballed. The activities are not designed to be used as research and as you can see I’ve been totally non specific even in this reflection. The persona I chose was not special, famous or someone anyone could have hoped to gain something from. I wouldn’t claim any persona is ‘neutral’ but I tried to be as boring as possible. 

Reflections from participants

You can read some participants’ reflections on the digital fieldwork activities on the Teaching Complexity website. One of the most encouraging aspects of the approach for me was the depth of discussion generated by participants simply considering, but not doing, the activities. There was much discussion and reflection in the online sessions from people exploring why certain activities made them feel uncomfortable and the implications this might have for students who would be navigating similar choices. Ultimately, the activities are a useful prompt to generate thinking about how our identities are being used, and possibly abused, online and how this is now inextricable from the overall student experience. 

Explicit education

I still remember the taboo breaking promise of stickers on CDs at Woolworths which said ‘Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics’. These days the tag on Spotify songs simply says ‘Explicit’ which a small part of my mind responds to as: ‘it’s nice they are being clear about what they have to say’ – and, in a way, they are being really clear…

Parental Advisory sticker

What do we assume is obvious?

This idea of being explicit keeps reappearing at work. Not in the sweary way but in being clear, questioning what remains implicit and the confusion this can cause for students. I was encouraged to start thinking about this by a casual comment in Emily Nordmann’s work on supporting Lecture Capture. She has published some helpful research which highlights the need to explain to students (and staff) that recorded lectures should be used as supplemental to attending ‘live’. Accompanying the research are guides for students explaining how best to incorporate the use of recorded lectures into their independent learning strategies. 

The point being, that unless these strategies are explicitly stated, students are likely to make assumptions about the reasons why the recordings exist and how they might be used (usually based on not being able to attend lectures rather than on more positive, long-term, learning strategies). When highlighting the need to be explicit about the use of recordings Nordmann asked if we ever explain to students what the value of attending lectures face-to-face is – or do we simply assume it’s obvious? 

This facinanted me because I suspect we say it’s important to attend, but might not explain why it’s important to attend in terms of learning strategies. I work at a university where there are no marks awarded for attendance (or, let’s be honest, no marks removed for not attending) so if it’s not clear what the value of attending is in terms of learning, why would you? Information is now abundant and if there is a recording, what’s the point of being there ‘live’?

Is our model of ‘university’ relevant?

What’s significant is that elements of the process/practice of education which remain implicit point to aspects of the institution which we are culturally normalised to. We might not explain what the learning-value of lectures are because lectures are a constituent part of what we tacitly hold to be ‘university’. Unfortunately, this tacit understanding tends to be held by staff who hold a model of the institution which may have been constructed before information and recording were as abundant. In contrast, students, especially incoming students, might have more of a pop culture model of the institution based on media portrayals of ‘university’. So, students could begin term attending lectures because ‘that’s what you do at university’ but then fall away because they can’t identify the value of attending in terms of learning. The cultural impulse to attend only lasts for so long before getting on the bus seems like a lot of effort when you can YouTube-Wikipedia-VLE-ask-your-friends-on-Facebook your way through.

This then creates a dangerous spiral in which the introduction of new technology such as Lecture Capture is seen as a threat to a model of ‘university’ which is held impicitly and is more cultural than it is educational. Perhaps students who are more focused on learning than ‘doing university’ as a broad, cultural rite-of-passage find this bemusing. Our response should be to be more explicit. If we can’t, or don’t, explicitly describe to students what the learning value of a particular mode of teaching is then students are likely to disengage. 

Are we anxious about tech or protective of our model of university?

The disconnect in expectations can lead to claims that students don’t understand how to study or aren’t willing to put the effort in when they might have developed extremely effective independent learning strategies which simply don’t intersect with the tacit model of ‘doing university’ the institution operates on.

I’m not denigrating the learning-value of lectures as a mode of teaching here and we all know that quality and approach varies. I’m using lectures as an example of a practice central to our idea of what a university is and is therefore in danger of not being explained. Other examples could include: using the library, group work, the value of non tactical learning (not learning to the test), the value of ‘research’ beyond Wikipedia and YouTube etc. We need to be explicit about the value of all of these and more.

It’s interesting that the learning-value of new Digital Learning approaches is always closely scrutinized because it has not yet been mapped into our (staff) notion of ‘university’. While, on the other hand, the anxiety about new approaches tends to be based more on how they might damage relatively un-critiqued notions of ‘university’ rather than on what the value might be to students. 

Students’ not comprehending the value of engaging in certain ways is more likely to be a failure in our teaching than their willingness to learn (especially if we create a culture in which success becomes exclusively about marks and credentialization). The question we have to ask is if what we provide as ‘university’ goes beyond the value of what our students can engage with outside of our formal offer. 

Please talk while I talk

One of the highlights of last year was designing and running a series of open, online seminars with our online Visiting Fellow, Dr Bonnie Stewart. The ‘Teaching Complexity’ series was 100% open, in the sense that anyone with a connection to the Web could attend for free. The territory the seminars explored was the complexity of the digital environment we now teach in and how we might respond. 

The topics covered within the seminars all responded to the opportunities and challenges of the networked environment. A common theme being how to counter the creep of polarisation and support a diversity of voices within digital spaces.

One advantage of the seminars being open is that all of the materials (slides, recordings, comments etc) are available at the Teaching Complexity website which I created using our blogging platform. I’ve included a list of the seminars at the end of the post and know that quite a few people caught-up with them this way after the live ‘event’. 

The motivation to run the seminars was two fold:

Understanding the new teaching environment

Responding to the complexity of the Web as a teaching and  learning environment is an important topic to discuss. I now work on the principle that ‘All Courses are Blended Courses’ as I’d argue that any student, on any course, will spend significant amounts of time online. Some of that time will be spent discussing, or negotiating, the course with peers even were there is no, formal, online aspect to the curriculum. You’d be hard pressed to find a student who isn’t keen to develop their ability to navigate the Web for study or to make contacts which might lead to work. The Digital Creative Attributes we developed at UAL are a reflection of this but I realised that while I had clear principles in mind as we developed the DCAF I had not provided many examples of what a good response to the DCAF might look like in design terms. Hence Teaching Complexity.

Teaching Complexity

A good example of open practice

It was clear that for some the Open Practice Values I introduced at UAL caused some confusion. I personally see my approach here as a failure of communication on my part with some useful institutional lessons learned. I spend quite a lot of time considering open approaches and feel part of a community of open practitioners, so I underestimated how alien this line of thinking can be to people who are mainly (and rightly) focused on keeping the wheels of the university turning. When I presented the Principles at committee they split the room, with some immediately seeing the relevance (both in the manner in which the university could connect outwards and in the way our colleges could collaborate more closely) and some clearly worried that this would be yet another, distinct, layer of work which would detract rather than enhance, day-to-day teaching (A dis-integrated view of Open Practice). Given this, the Teaching Complexity Seminars were my ‘Show not Tell’ example of what teaching which embodies the Open Practice Values can look like. 
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Attendance and feedback

We had between 50-100 participants at each of the main seminars and more will have caught up with the recordings later. Those that responded to the evaluation questionnaire were mainly teaching staff, in roles overseeing or enhancing teaching or people involved in staff development of different forms. People attended from across the globe with the main locations being Europe and North America. Having been involved in this type of teaching quite regularly I’ve become a little blase about the geography involved and have to remind myself how incredible it is that we can facilitate these kinds of international moments so easily. 

The feedback was almost universally positive and at times effusive. A number of participants commented that they have very little staff development opportunities at their institution so the seminars provided a rare moment for them to consider and discuss themes which were unlikely to appear in the normal flow of their work. I feel that working in an open mode is integral to my work, especially as I represent a large institution with the capacity to be outward facing. Given that, I hadn’t thought of the seminars as ‘generous’, but this is how many participants respond to them. Overall I would have liked to have seen more people from my own institution at the seminars but UAL tends to be attracted by creative arts rather than teaching themes. I need to put some more thought into how best to describe opportunities like this in a manner which resonates at home as it were.

Some key points I took away from the seminars:

Be explicit

Given that anyone could turn-up and type in a name of their choice there was always a risk that someone could be disruptive with no cost to themselves. My view is that this would be extremely unlikely unless the topic under discussion is contentious or the facilitator is particularly famous/notorious. I equate this to Wikipedia vandalism – yes, the articles on Trump, Iran or Transgender are likely to be the focus of edit wars and vandalism but articles on Contructivism or John Dewey are unlikely to get messed with, because where’s the fun in that? The Teaching Complexity seminars definitely fell into the latter category – as would most teaching scenarios. Even so, I made sure to introduce every seminar with a brief and friendly talk about the social contract of the space. We were there to explore complex themes through mutually supportive discussion. I also highlighted that the sessions were being recorded and would be made openly available. This, I felt, gave me the right to remove people from the room if they stepped outside of these bounds. We never came close to anyone breaking the trust of the room but I still think it’s worthwhile being explicit about social and collaborative expectations. If you’re upfront about this then any disruptive individual is, in some ways, excommunicating themselves through their actions and you mitigate being placed into a ‘policing behaviour’ role as it’s likely there will be, post-event, group consensus on removing people.

Is anybody with me? 

Small moments of sharing go a long way in creating a sense of belonging online. For example, we would sometimes ask what the temperature was at participant’s locations with a notional prize for the highest and lowest (the range was always spectacular). The ‘live slides’ where everyone could write (or scrawl) a response to a question on screen on the whiteboard gave a powerful sense of being in the same, communal, space. In webinar type spaces like the one we were using it’s crucial for people to get a sense that they are co-present with others. This does not come for ‘free’ as it does in face-to-face environments, so these small moments of sharing become very important.  The risk of people moving slides, drawing all over the screen or accidentally un-muting their mic at a random moment was more than balanced out by the inclusive atmosphere that giving people these options supported (we did have a few strange moments but they were all harmless). Giving everyone ‘moderator’ status by default was a good way of subverting the didactic design principle of the platform we were using (Blackboard Collaborate Ultra).

A favourite moment for me was when Dave Cormier asked people to play with the whiteboard while we waited to get started. This is the result:

This is a good example of responses to a ‘live slide’ question. One of the interesting aspects of this is how people started to highlight or draw around answers they felt were important as the seminars progressed. The messiness here creates a friendly atmosphere which somewhat counters the slightly sterile and inhuman feeling of the default webinar platform.

I also very much enjoyed how quickly somebody (in about 5 seconds…) wrote ‘Moms Spaghetti’ on the following slide (see the ‘classic memes’ section of pop-culture…).

Please talk while I’m talking

Building on the point above, I’m a huge fan of encouraging people to use the text chat while the seminar is in progress. Actually getting this going requires some facilitation in itself which is why all of the sessions would have a lead facilitator and a kind of support facilitator who could give some momentum to the chat and highlight interesting questions. When you have 50 or more people the chat can get quite lively and really helps the facilitators by giving a live indication of how well they are connecting with the group. All the facilitators for the seminars were experienced in speaking online so could respond to the chat as the seminar progressed. This is one of the distinct advantages of the online space over the face-to-face as it allows sessions to be discussed in the moment – it erodes the ‘expert broadcast’ aspect of online teaching in a very pleasing way.

If it could have been a video, you’re doing it wrong

I have a general rule of thumb that if, on reflection, a synchronous online event could have been a YouTube video then you have got the approach wrong. Why turn up ‘live’ if there is no interaction? Even though I was vocal about this in the planning stages, a few of the sessions had long sections of ‘just talk’. What I’ve subsequently realised is that these sessions were not actually all that long but that our concentration threshold is somewhat shorter in a webinar room than in a physical room. Some of that is to do with there being less to look at – less, or no, physical presence. It is also to do with the culture of the space, by which I mean that when we are in front of our laptops we are used to interacting quite often unless we are in ‘Netflix mode’. The differing socio-cultural expectations of online vs face-to-face are probably more of a factor than the notion of a concentration threshold as, by my estimate, it’s acceptable to speak for at least 20 minutes with no interaction face-to-face but this is probably reduced to around 7 minutes online. Beyond 7 minutes I suspect we start going into Netflix mode or getting distracted by the other tabs we have open. 

Be clear it’s not about absorbing everything

Speaking to a couple of UAL colleagues in the following weeks I discovered that the seminars had been quite overwhelming for them, with ‘a lot going on’ at the same time (i.e. the facilitator speaking, parallel text chat, whiteboard interactions, voting and Tweeting). It was a useful reminder to me that I personally enjoy navigating, and reflecting on,  multiple channels simultaneously but that this is not the case for everyone. So, perhaps my 7min threshold is too short and people need longer periods of ‘broadcast’ mode to be able to take in new topics. Overall I suspect the biggest cognitive shift for many is paying attention to the speaker while simultaneously keeping up with the text chat. That would certainly be overwhelming if you felt you had to take every detail in, so a message at the start explaining that the aim is not to absorb everything that’s happening on screen might help.
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Learning from the seminars

The substance of the Teaching Complexity seminars was extremely interesting with sessions like Inclusive Spaces exploring ideas which are often not considered in digital contexts. Commonly the notion of ‘innovation’, which is often attached to digital approaches, avoids difficult thinking around inclusion and exclusion by implying that it’s going to change the way we interact so the problem simply won’t exist and therefore does not need to be confronted…

Beyond the ‘content’ of the seminars, I will be incorporating what I’ve learnt about the format of the sessions (the modes of interaction) into future work. This includes a project which is looking at transcultural arts education across an international partnership of arts schools and the development of more sophisticated ‘hybrid’ events which take place face-to-face and online in parallel.

1. Connected Teaching  – Jan 8th 3-4pm GMT –
Recording and slides
Designing ‘connected’ teaching and learning which works on and offline.
Facilitators: Bonnie Stewart, Amy Collier, David White

2. Openness and Prestige –  Jan 29th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Exploring how ‘giving stuff away’ and working openly online can be good for you and your students.
Facilitators: Bonnie Stewart, Catherine Cronin

Digital fieldwork part 1 – Feb 5th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Get tooled up to undertake some exploratory digital fieldwork.
Facilitators: Matt Lingard, David White

3. Complexity and creativity –  Feb 19th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Learn how to take a creative approach to complex subjects.
Facilitators: David Cormier, Tobias Revell

Digital fieldwork part 2 – Feb 26th 3-4pm GMT
Recording
Sharing your digital fieldwork experiences.
Facilitators: Matt Lingard, David White, Sheldon Chow4. Inclusive spaces – Mar 5th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Ensuring digital teaching and learning welcomes a variety of voices
Facilitators: Bonnie Stewart, Maha Bali , Chris Giliard