Truth and Method – a review of Visitors and Residents

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V&R 'heat map'
V&R ‘heat map’

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

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

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

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

Templates

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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Coalescent spaces

Designing pedagogy which coalesces digital and physical spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

spacesA1

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

spacesA2

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

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

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

A coalesced pedagogy would lead to this:

spacesB

Here are a few suggested coalescent designs:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Trapped in the Chinese Room with Google

Part of my thinking around the Web and education is as follows:

  1. The Web is brilliant at feeding us the information we need to get things done in a highly relevant manner.
  2. We still tacitly design pedagogy as if this wasn’t the case on the basis that ‘good quality’ information must in-of-itself be difficult to obtain and that by implication online information ‘can’t be trusted’
  3. This approach is founded in our cultural adherence to the form rather than the substance of information. (for example our veneration of the concept of a ‘book’ or notions of what it means to be an ‘expert’)
    (both 2 and 3 are a hangover from a period in time when we held information behind locked doors)
  4. The new challenge for education, driven by point 1, is how to encourage learners to ‘think’ in an era where answers are easy to come by (on the basis that the challenge of finding information used to, in-of-itself, encourage critical thinking and reflection)

Let’s imagine a scenario where most of the key ‘answers’ to curriculum are easily found online. (This will increasingly be the case on a relevance driven Web as the answer to any regularly asked question will rise to the top of the search return).  If we construct our pedagogies around the search for answers in this manner then the efficiency of the Web will place students in a role similar to that of the person inside Searle’s famous Chinese Room thought experiment.

CC - https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheeprus/3696035131
CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheeprus/3696035131

In the thought experiment Searle, who does not understand Chinese, is locked in a room with a set of rules in English which “enable [him] to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols” – the latter symbols being the Chinese language. Given this, people can post questions in Chinese into the room and Searle can translate them successfully, posting back answers without having any knowledge of Chinese himself. The people receiving these answers falsely believe there is someone in the room who understands Chinese.

This has been used to make a case against the notion of Artificial Intelligence by claiming that Searle’s activity in the room doesn’t  require him to understand Chinese and that by implication he is not thinking or reflecting on the Chinese language but simply following a set of rules.

In my version of the scenario Searle is our student, the Web is the set of rules and the Chinese language is any question posed by our pedagogy to which an answer can be found online with a simple search. Ironically this frames the student as ‘unthinking’ technology and the Web as the embodiment of intelligence via the algorithms, or ‘rules’, it employs to feed answers back via the student.

We have compounded this problem in the light of the Web by losing our confidence in teaching how to think and retrenching to defending our authority as the font of knowledge. Education should not be about establishing the worthiness of certain forms of knowledge, especially if we ascribe to Feyerabend’s rejection of universal method, it should be dialectic process, interrogating, synthesising and pushing forward our understanding.

[Side Note: There are numerous examples of sectors/businesses moving into a protectionist mode just before being overtaken by the digital. Good examples include newspapers and imho traditional academic journals. Universities embody high levels of cultural capital and are more diversified than many people realise. Nevertheless, they risk becoming overly anachronistic if they don’t equip graduates with significantly more than what can be gained by owning a smartphone. Side, Side, Note: Clearly the ‘beauty’ of higher tier universities is their ability to make being anachronistic the very basis of their cultural capital]

Once we realised that anyone can publish online (the most radical aspect of the Web) our first reaction as educational institutions was to focus on evaluating sources because they hadn’t been pre-vetted by the library or written by one of us. My contention is (and my research shows) that the Web works very well in terms of information quality and relevance which in turn re-emphasises the importance of teaching how to use and connect knowledge not simply how to decide if a piece of information is to be trusted. For me this is as the very heart of what a higher education should be.

The challenge for us then is in finding ways to encourage learners to critically reflect on the manner in which they engage with, and use, the Web epistemologically rather than only concentrating on the critical evaluation of isolated chunks of information. In some senses this is simply a move in emphasis from ‘digital’ literacy to a more generalised form of literacy. 

Getting this approach across to students requires clarity though because it usually cuts against their perception, and experience of, education as an exercise in  discovering ‘answers’ (especially if they have recently left school). Just warding students off the Web or implying that online sources are fine as long as they are the same as things you might find in the library (the usual marker for credibility) is missing the point. The Web should be encouraging us to move to the higher rungs in Bloom’s taxonomy all the sooner or our pedagogy risks students in the Chinese Room with Google Search.  

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Make it relevant

Having been invited to give a talk at the British Library I naturally decided to create my own theory of the history of information… This was to illustrate my musings on a general shift from taxonomies to relevance in our information seeking. To be fair the librarians representing the BL and other academic institutions seemed quite sympathetic to the overarching point I was trying to make so here’s the idea:

Relevance diagram
A brief history of information…

In a pre-literate, pre-printing age information was embodied in kin, peers and those that you might happen to meet within a limited geography – in this sense information was physically located and arranged. Obviously I’m no expert in this area having just a smattering of old-school Anthropology to draw on so this part of the idea/diagram is simply there as a backdrop.

Then along comes printing (sure, the monks and tax collectors etc were busy before printing…) so knowledge stacks-up and needs organising so that it can be retrieved efficiently. There is a new category of knowledge which, while still linked to individuals as authors*, is not wholly embodied in the same way as before. Taxonomies are invented to structure printed knowledge, generating lines and relationships between ideas and information, creating a more defined model of understanding.

In the last 20 years or so we then see the rise of the digital and the network, search evolves from the dialect of databases to natural language. At this point something fundamental shifts. Our relationship with knowledge moves from interrogating taxonomies (think Dewey Decimal for example) to an expectation of relevance. Knowledge is no longer physically embodied so we don’t need systems to tell us where it is or what’s sat nearby.

Clearly all of the above forms of knowledge still co-exist, for example, students going to Social Media to ask others for the most relevant information sources. Nevertheless the Web has driven a massive shift from taxonomy to relevance. One way to think of this is that the Web circumnavigates taxonomy for us, connecting us to information and people without the need for hierarchy.

Relevance Diagram

For example, if you want to discover a specific piece of information do you do move through a hierarchy do you simply search and then sift the results? When was the last time you found the Wikipedia article you wanted by moving through the taxonomy of the online encyclopaedia? We are increasingly driven by the stack of notifications in Social Media and/or via our phones where we can design the factors which stack what we feel is most relevant to the top of the pile.

Even when it comes to our own personal resources, many simply throw things into the cloud then search or look of ‘last modified’. In my institution most students use Apple Macs and organise their files visually. I suspect most would not be able to identify ‘where’ those files are within the structure of the hard-drive.

Of all of these it’s the manner in which search has evolved which has the largest implication for educational intuitions. If we take Google as an example we see that the taxonomy is hidden in the algorithm and this algorithm evolves to incorporate the traces of those that went before. Consider this in pedagogical terms: much of what it meant to learn was centred on an individual’s ability to navigate the taxonomies of knowledge, to find the ‘good stuff’. Intellectual effort was expended on discovery and on formulating links across chunks of information (aka books etc). Now the effort of making those connections is captured within the search algorithm and handed to the next person who searches on that topic. There is much less need for each new scholar to understand the larger model/taxonomy of a particular discipline. In essence, what we used consider to be part ‘study’ is now embodied in the technology (another example of the Post-digital). If our pedagogy continues to be based on notion, and still rewards effort, based on navigating these taxonomies then we are radically out of step.

And yet even as we move to an era of relevance, educational institutions continue to operate on taxonomic principals. This makes sense for the HR and the finance department but becomes problematic when it underpins curriculum design and assessment. Institutions have always operated in a hierarchical manner and yet the Web, the place many of our students (and staff) undertake the majority of their learning, doesn’t.  One of the reasons students struggle to understand the course handbook or the set-up of their course in the VLE is because they rarely encounter structures of this nature. When I consider the requests students make to improve the digital provision and information sources of the university most of it can be characterised as “Please can you filter that complex structure into a feed based on what’s most relevant to me”.

*See “The Resident Web and it’s Impact on the Academy” at Hybrid Pedagogy for some thoughts on the relationship between ‘content’ and individuals/authors. http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/resident-web-and-impact-on-academy/

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eLearning grows up

Designs on eLearning 2015

DeL booklet

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

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

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

Rhetoric and reality

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

Digital segregation

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

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

 

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

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Student-as-product

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Big Apple and a Strategic Mellon

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

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

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

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

The structure of the Carnegie workshop worked along these lines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elegant Lurking

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

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

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

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

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

V&R map

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

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

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

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

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

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Post-digital revisited

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective:


I was in a vexed mood when I wrote my ‘Escaping the kingdom of the new’ post reflecting on our Post-digital working paper back in 2009. The edtech community were still in a ‘Web 2.0’ fueled miasma, heralding each digital platform as the next-big-thing. It was a slavish attachment to the ‘new’ that was blind to the simple duplication of existing practice from the analogue to the digital.

Nearly 5 years on the term Post-digital is becoming accepted in Higher Education circles as describing the normalisation of the digital in almost all aspects of activity. Elearning is a good example of this and huge success in some senses. I could prove this, for example, by pulling the plug on any university’s VLE and watching a riot break out. These kinds of tech, those that predominantly use the Web as a means of shuffling content are quickly ‘disappearing into use’. They have become Post-digital precisely because they don’t challenge the underlying way we run our institutions or engage students.

A Post-digital appropriation? CC-NC-SA https://www.flickr.com/photos/irisheyes/7201102646
A Post-digital appropriation? CC-NC-SA https://www.flickr.com/photos/irisheyes/7201102646

Meanwhile many students themselves struggle to answer the question ‘how do you do the research you need for your assignments’ because for most it’s difficult to imagine the answer could be anything other than ‘Google’. Similarity the incorporation of the Smartphone into the fabric of how students study is already Post-digital to the extent that it’s been described as ‘mundane technology’.

And yet moves to shift pedagogy to more collaborative, peer supported or open models are still met with confusion and trepidation. We have managed to ‘disappear’ much of the technology but predominantly in the service of mediocre models, efficiency and scale (MOOC?). One simple reading of this is that practice evolves at a much slower pace than technology. Another would be that institutions incorporate the ‘new’ only to serve what they already understand.

We appear to have moved from evangelising the new and shiny to using it without question. Perhaps it’s time to reexamine that of the digital which has become ‘post’, to question the embedded and ask if it is pushing boundaries or simply ossifying business-as-usual, petrifying forms of practice we assumed the ‘new’ of digital would disrupt.

More fundamentally the move to the Post-digital is submerging ideology: big-data, search engine optimisation, learner analytics, we-recommend-this-course-based-on-your-previous-attainment-levels etc. The surface this presents is one of apparent neutrality and in our cultural naivety we don’t recognise, or are barred from seeing, that the underlying algorithm has been marinated in a bath of vested interests. The new normalcy of being connected has created a Post-digital environment in which ideology can be embodied in code – a form that most believe to be free of bias.

I believe that in the same way Media Literacy shines a light on the political, cultural and ideological assumptions shot through broadcast media Digital Literacy should make visible the the very same which is crystallised in code. It might be too late though, we may already be completely Post-digital. The code we need to ‘see’ being too many layers down from the shiny surface of the technology we barely think about anymore.


Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

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Against intuitive technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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