Visitors and Residents – an update

Last week myself and Lynn Connaway of OCLC gave an update on the JISC funded Digital Visitors and Residents project for the JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme. It was an online session with a healthy flow of text-chat discussion/banter.

Thanks to the support of the JISC infoNet folk the session is also available to play back ‘live’ or in audio form. Dr. Bex Lewis (@drbexl/@digitalfprint) also constructed some very useful live notes which contain key screenshots and links.

A number of themes/questions emerged from the session some of which Helen Beetham has captured in a blog post which I have reproduced (including comments) with very minor edits below. The ensuing discussion in the comments (possibly) demonstrates how closely the notion of digital literaces is tied to fundamental conceptions of education and the function of universities. I wonder if this is because taking a literacies approach helps to direct discussion away from simplistic tech = efficiency notions which often lurk within teaching and learning related projects?

The Digital Visitor and Residents project will report on its activity and findings in phases 1 and 2 towards the end of January. The report extends much of what is discussed in the online session by suggesting the implications of our findings for the sector. As the project progresses into its 3rd phase next year we hope to evolve these implications into pragmatic recommendations for the sector. In the meantime we will continue to raise themes that we think are of value as we discover them in our data.

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Taken from HelenB’s e-learning blog
http://design-4-learning.blogspot.com/2011/12/digital-visitors-and-residents-some.html

Digital visitors and residents – some thoughts

I took part in an online seminar on the Digital visitors and residents project at a Collaborate seminar organised by the JISC last week. I think this is a useful metaphor to have in play, and the findings of the project which look extremely valuable in extending our understanding of what motivates students to engage in the digital environment. There are obvious links with the JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme: by helping explain what strategies students are using, the project can help us understand what educators might do to validate or further develop those strategies, or introduce others that might give students greater repertoire and fluency.

Some of the early findings obviously replicate work that has been done in the past to problematise the digital natives narrative, to demonstrate that personal/social skills with technology are not highly transferable to learning, and to recognise that students have many strategies for using technology to support their studies which do not necessarily coincide with what institutions see as ‘good’ study skills (the Learners’ experiences of e-learning studies confirmed both of these).

I do have some thoughts about the metaphor itself, which I shared at the seminar. For example:

  • Is the place vs tool metaphor one that the project is using, or one they are finding that participants use in thinking about the online space?
  • How far is the metaphor a design artefact of the environment and how far is it a property of the individual’s stance towards the environment? For example, ‘windows’ are intuitively spatial. Drop down menus are intuitively tool-like. Most software interfaces combine both to give different messages to the user about how to behave.
  • We know that people’s behaviour in online environments is very strongly influenced by those environments – arguably more than any innate factors including age, confidence with technology etc. At least, it is a question that can be researched: to what extent is behaviour in online environments an aspect of relatively stable aspects of the person and to what extent it is environmentally determined? This might vary depending on the environment in question (and even on the person??)
  • I am assuming that the metaphor distinguishes behaviours and not individuals. i.e. we are all visitors and residents in different contexts.
  • As described in the seminar, the visitors-residents continuum seems to combine a range of behavioural and perceptual aspect: the metaphors we use when we engage with technology; whether we are behaving as individual or social participants/learners; whether we are behaving as consumers, collaborators or producers of content etc. There is an empirical question here: to what extent are these different factors linked? Is this a question the project is trying to answer?

One of the dimensions along which visitors and residents were said to differ is whether their behaviour is ‘instrumental’ or ‘networked’. For me, the web 2.0 era is essentially one in which to be networked IS to be instrumental. Asking a question of my twitter followers is me being instrumental. In exercising my agency I recognise the value of collaboration.

So, this post is meant to open a conversation that I hope will be a productive one!
Posted by HelenB at 03:25

7 comments:

David White said…

These are all very useful questions that contribute to what is an evolving idea.

My experience is that at the simplest level people find the V&R continuum helpful in coming to an understating of their own practice. Often it becomes a useful validation of Visitor style approaches (Yes, this is about behaviour and context) and counters some of the more damaging aspects of techno-evangelism that circulate.

In answer to the ‘environment’ question I find Google Docs is a useful example: When I’m using Google docs I tend to engage with it in exactly the same manner as I would Microsoft Word – to me it’s a tool (I act in a Visitor mode). However, as soon as somebody else appears and starts to edit alongside me the tool becomes a ‘space’ and my engagement with it shifts (My mode of engagement becomes more Resident). So my notion of ‘space’ is somewhere-where-there-are-other-people. My ‘Social Threshold’ post goes through this is a bit more detail: http://goo.gl/b0il2

Your point about the possible stable aspects of a person vs environment is a tricky one because, for example, I will lurk in Twitter sometimes and sometimes I will be active. It depends on what I stand to gain and the context of the moment. So I don’t think it’s possible to develop a fixed model of person + environment = mode of engagement. It may be possible to develop the most probable mode of engagement given certain factors which is something I hope the project will be able to address.

Yes there are a lot of factors here and rather than become too entangled in them I try to cut the Gordian knot by always asking what the learner thinks they are trying to achieve – why did they choose to engage in a certain way? Having said that, I’m very interested in exploring possible links between Visitor and/or Resident modes of engagement and the way in which learners perceive the process of learning itself.
14 December 2011 08:55

HelenB said…

Nice comment Dave, and thanks for adding more detail to the V&R analysis.

I like the nuanced metaphor you are offering and I especially like that it is a useable one (it is a tool for understanding what we do/who we are, therefore a Good Thing to have). But deep down I suppose I believe that the really important difference between people in all their spheres of action is one of capital/power. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, the internet’s knowledge resources are no different from other resources of intellectual capital in this respect. If you are already reasonably well endowed, you perceive it as a tool, a space, a library, an extension of personal agency. If you are not, you perceive it as a place to shop and watch other people’s home videos. Or perhaps you see it as frightening, disempowering, a labyrinth, a pit of immorality. Arguably, the internet just makes it easier for those who know what they want to know to find it, and those who already know who to know, to build their networks.

So how people behave – and the metaphors available to them for understanding their own behaviour – for me always have to be seen against that larger picture and the metaphors should not take on a life of their own.

Also I think we need to be aware of devices, interfaces and services as designed for use (design as a means of achieving power over the user as well as providing a service). They have designs on us, even though we can appropriate them for our own ends individually and collectively. So perhaps for me a sign of digital literacy development would be (a) an awareness of the metaphors we are being offered as users, as being the first step to a conscious adoption or resistance to them (b) a capacity to generate alternative metaphors as users, and (c) eventually a capacity to design new metaphors for ourselves and others by developing (co-developing) new interfaces, communities, networks, and uses. I’m not sure how this trajectory maps to the visitor-resident continuum.

Seb Schmoller has this evening drawn my attention to a nice article on the digital divide in Scientific American: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/12/14/digital-divide-and-social-media-connectivity-doesnt-end-the-digital-divide-skills-do/
14 December 2011 12:45
David White said…

The learners we have been interviewing are predominantly driven by convenience, this is their primary reason for engaging online even when they know that what they might find is only going to be ‘good enough’ and that other sources or places might be ‘better’. It is interesting to consider how much power we are prepared to give up to devices and services in the name of convenience.

I agree that it’s important to make visible the age old power/capital situations which are being mirrored online. In my opinion learning how to ‘see’ media and the internet in these terms is an important literacy. This, I think, is especially important for those looking to gain credibility or power via Resident style approaches. Having said this I don’t see the value of focusing directly on inequalities online. I can attest to the fact that it’s much easier to get to the information in Wikipedia than it is to get into the Bodleian. What makes me suspicious is the denigration of extremely accessible forms of knowledge online by those who currently hold positions of intellectual power. – My point being that the web is in some ways so empowering that we occasionally find it culturally unacceptable or perhaps we find it difficult to adjust to the new ways in which power can flow.

The Visitors and Residents metaphor is a relatively basic tool for unpicking the complexity of our engagement with technology and, possibly more importantly, our engagement with others via technology. As with any metaphor it can only be taken so far before it fractures but it is proving to be a useful lens for coming to an understanding of how learners are appropriating (and being pushed around by) technology. It has also been useful in understanding why certain institutional technological interventions/services fail even though their web based counterparts are highly successful.

I have seen the metaphor appropriated in a variety of ways and had useful conversations around the different contexts it can be used in. For me it’s value is the understanding it facilitates.
15 December 2011 02:14

Martin Oliver said…

“How far is the metaphor a design artefact of the environment and how far is it a property of the individual’s stance towards the environment?”

…presumes a neat division exists between the two, whereas elsewhere in the post (e.g. in relation to visitor in one context, resident in another) the two intertwine in a much more ANT-like way.

I tend to wonder, how much is the metaphor recognisable to an individual, given their previous experiences – and is it so recognisable that they fail to notice it? So – like some of the other learner experience work – I’m really curious about the way biographies shape our ability and inclination to read and use what we encounter.

Really liked the point about the Internet as tool/space/shop/scary labyrinth. As you say in the original post, being really ‘digitally literate’ could or should include being able to read such metaphors in a critical way, and even construct alternatives. I was in a digital literacies meeting today (http://blogs.ubc.ca/newliteracies/) where Mary Lea made a passionate plea not to loose that critical tradition in digital literacy work – a plea made because it seemed to be getting lost in the more skills/cognition take on digital literacies that was at the fore in several of the presentations.

BTW, in relation to the presentation – it may just be me worrying unnecessarily, but I really hope that the interest in demographic prevalence analyses doesn’t re-create the native/immigrant binary by the back door.
15 December 2011 12:04

HelenB said…

Thanks Martin for adding your voice to this exchange. I don’t think I disagree with anything David is saying: I think it’s just a matter of emphasis. Yes, ‘it’s much easier to get to the information in Wikipedia than it is to get into the Bodleian’, but let’s not elevate this to a ‘new pedagogy’ or imagine that it abolishes other inequalities of access. Critical thinking and acting requires more than information. Universities are not the only source of critical thinking in/of/about digital media, perhaps not even the most influential but let’s define what Universities ARE good for in this age of information. For my money it’s public/open scholarship plus developing digital literacies of the critical variety.
For a fabulous example of both, here’s a web site/activist project/geography programme at Exeter that I’ll be learning more about tomorrow. I can’t wait:
http://www.followthethings.com
http://www.followthethings.com/FIY.html
15 December 2011 13:28

David White said…

I use the Visitor and Resident metaphor as a method of understanding what is going on out there in terms of practice. I try not to be too prescriptive about the actions that could be taken having gained a better understanding (although I’m happy to make suggestions 🙂

For me the skills/cognition route is an odd one given that we are supposed to be ‘higher’ education. It hints a an underlying learning-technology-as-a-machine mindset. This is where I think the ‘web as a space/place as well as a tool’ idea can be useful in encouraging a critical approaches.

@Martin I’m trying to avoid a demographic based analysis by talking about Educational Stages not age. It’s complicated by the fact that most undergrads are between the ages of 18 and 21 so the notion of educational context and age tend to be coupled. Ideally I would like to extend the project to investigate a wide range of lifelong learners. This should lead to results which break the educational context – age link. Within the current project we have tried where we can to interview a-typical students within the educational stages but our sample is quite small so I’m not convinced this will be enough to counter the problem.

@Helen What is interesting me is the extent to which learners are developing their own literacies and the extent to which they can access information outside of traditional contexts. Much of what is happening isn’t new in essence (as we so often find once we decide that something being ‘digital’ doesn’t automatically make in ‘new’) but the scale of activity has powerful implications.

Overall the message is very encouraging. Time and time again learners indicate their desire to be taught and to improve their critical thinking. There is a huge respect for the idea of the university and for the expertise that it represents. It reminds me that while the sector should understand it’s position relative to the web and the ‘network’ it needs to hold true to it’s tradition of critical thinking and of disrupting lazy world views.
16 December 2011 01:59

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Disappearing digital resources

One of the most striking aspects of our JISC funded Open-Educational-Resources Impact study was the extent to which using digital resources has become embedded in teaching practice. Digital resources are ‘disappearing into use’ as they become part of the fabric of higher education.

We interviewed strategists, academics and students to find out how they found and used digital resources. It wasn’t surprising to find that students were Googling for anything they could get their hands on but the extent to which academics are doing this as well was unexpected. The difference between the groups was that staff have the expertise required to critically evaluate what they find while the students are nervous about waiting-time using resources which might prove to be off-topic. They are also uncertain of how to cite non-traditional resources or if they should admit to using them as all. This is a good example of where digital literacy and traditional research skills are both essential.

But what about licensing? Well, those whose practice was highly visible on the web and therefore closely tied to the reputation of their institution were keen to use openly licensed materials. E.g. an online distance elearning team or groups that make modules which are rereleased out onto the web. Those in course or programme teams were less focused on licensing because their practice is largely private – within the VLE, in the lecture theatre etc. In day-to-day teaching the technicalities of reuse come second to the potential of a resource to make the student’s learning experience richer.

The OER Impact project analysed the link between the value of use and its impact in teaching and learning. There is a full research report and a shorter ‘accessible’ report available for download from JISC. Or you can watch the short video below to get an overview of our findings.

The video is published under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC BY)

OER Impact project team-

Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning:
Mr David White
Ms Marion Manton

Learning Technologies Group:
Dr Elizabeth Masterman
Ms Joanna Wild

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Product or Public Good?

I was delighted to be invited to speak about our Study of Online Learning our group authored for the HEFCE Task Force at this years ALT-C conference. I  focused on the issues that I felt arose from the long awaited report which is due to be published shortly.

Or view the talk in the ALT-C youTube channel

The vast majority of online distance offerings are postgraduate ‘professional’ courses. eg. Masters in Law, Medicine, Business, Engineering etc.

I made it clear in my presentation at ALT-C that I don’t see this as a problem in of itself. The institutions providing these courses have found that the online distance format works well for those in full-time employment and that these types of courses have a ready market. Setting up successful online distance programmes is challenging enough so it make sense to pick the low hanging fruit in terms of potential customers when developing new products.

Did that last sentence grate a bit? It does for me and not just because of the dubious grammar. As soon as we talk in terms of ‘customers’ and ‘product’ I get nervous. There seems to be something inherently at odds with the philosophy of higher education as I understand it when it is couched in economic terminology. This is then compounded by the apparent keenness of the government to involve private partners in the delivery of higher education programmes online with the possibility of giving some companies the right to award degrees directly.

ALT Proceedings
A fortifying cup of tea with some mini-chedders

I was at an amusing talk recently given by an American company who claimed that their “for-profit university was not preoccupied with money”. It’s very easy to sit in a university and poke fun at commercial educational providers, too easy in fact, especially as I’m quite happy to take my salary home each month. I haven’t done an MBA so I’m not an expert but I find it difficult to distinguish the financial approaches of public and private sector bodies sometimes. Universities are diverse businesses and have many money-making activities some of which are funded by the government and some which are straight commercial ventures. I believe that a simplistic argument around ‘for-profit’ and ‘not for-profit’ masks the real issue which in the case of online distance learning is to do with diversity.

Almost every institution in this field whether a university or a big corporate is providing an extremely narrow curriculum because certain courses have a better Return on Investment than others. The problem is not what we are providing online but what we are neglecting to provide. Where are the humanities and liberal arts? Where are the foundation and undergraduate degrees? There are a few examples of these (I cited The Sheffield College) but certainly not enough to reflect the character of our face-to-face universities.

The reason for this lack of diversity in both curriculum and academic levels is because non-STEM, non-Business, non-Postgrad courses have a less reliable income stream. It’s expensive to kick start an online programme. It’s a lot less expensive than building a lecture theatre or a library but because it’s a ‘new’ mode of delivery it’s assessed outside the economic machinery embedded in our institutions and has to be seen to pay-for-itself. Here is where the financial challenges bite. At ALT-C I made the statement that “Universities should enrich society not make society rich”. I admit that this becomes increasingly difficult when money is scarce but I feel that it’s important that we retain those aspects of our activity which work towards the public good. A public good which is not predicated on wealth and material growth but on wellbeing, one which equips individuals to be more than economic units.

Dave Walks
I got quite animated (Image: Creative Commons "Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales" : Mark Gregory of Photoshy.com)

This challenge is distinct from abstract notions of ‘quality’. I can’t honestly say what the standard of teaching and learning is like on the offerings our study discovered but I see no evidence that a lucrative course is destined to be a less ‘educational’ experience than one that loses money. In many cases I suspect that the quality of online learning is higher than equivalent face-to-face courses because students expect significant amounts of contact when at a distance. In face-to-face teaching scenarios the lecture (a controversial subject this year) provides a very efficient sense of contact and notional cohort cohesion. For online this cohesion has to be built by regular feedback, tutor-student contact and peer-to-peer learning. The risk of a lack of social presence in a predominantly text based medium coupled with the influence of the micro-contact culture of the web means that only the online courses with excellent learning design will survive. The mode of delivery inherently demands good pedagogy and active engagement or students simply drop out.

I think it’s helpful to consider this area in terms of identity because this forces a consideration of values beyond the economic. As it stands the ‘digital identity’ of online higher education provided by the UK largely looks like a highly academic professional development programme. I must reiterate that I’m not criticising this activity in of itself rather I am holding out hope that future funding models will allow programmes outside this area to move online and better represent the varied and excellent teaching and learning this country is rightly known for.

If you are keen to discuss the role of technology within/around higher education in a political context then you might want to consider registering your interest for the proposed ‘Tech, Power, Education’ seminar series.

Slides from the talk:

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Does the Technology Matter?

Recently I have given keynotes at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference (video here .wmv format) and the  Technology Enhanced Learning Symposium at DeMontfort University (slides here), both of which explored the flow of technology from shiny innovation through to  embedded use within an institutional environment. I did this from the perspective of the individuals/groups involved rather than by describing the evolving affordances of digital platforms. This approach being an attempt to avoid the ‘what’ of technological determinism, concentrating instead on the ‘why’ of institutional/individual motivations.

A few of the things I covered included:

  • Drawing out the similarities and differences between the geeks gate keeping the BBC Micro in 1982 with the beautiful people (in expensive jeans) ‘life-styling’ the iPad in 2010.
  • Highlighting the daunting breath of activity and motivations that now come under the increasingly useless banner of ‘digital’ by contrasting the excellent Hierarchy of Digital Distractions with the contents of the 2009 GCSE in Information Communications Technology.
  • Asking the audience to reflect on their own personal motivations and positions relative to my ‘Six Very Simple Diagrams’: Role, Desire, Pedagogy, Technology, Motivation and Bickering.

Of these ‘Role’ seems to cause the most discussion:

Role

Do you see your role as one of successfully embedding technology  until it becomes ‘transparent’ or is it more about challenging current practices using the tech as a driver for change? It could of course be a combination but my experience within the Higher Education sector is that groups coalesce around either ‘disappear’ or ‘disrupt’. This, in my opinion, is why individuals who can facilitate communication between these groups are crucial to the ongoing innovation-embedding flow within any institution.

The apparent opposition within the disappear-disrupt paradigm was brought back to mind when I was invited to take part in a ‘Does the Technology Matter?’ debate for the ALT-C conference later this year. Inspired by some slightly belligerent Tweeting around the concept by myself, @josiefraser and @mweller Dave Cormier hung the tensions embodied in the statement very elegantly on Smartboards (although he could have chosen any number of technologies) in his ‘It’s about the technology and it isn’t’ post. In the post he neatly balances the push-pull nature of the introduction of new tech into a classroom situation, highlighting what the effects of a new technology can be and what is simply foregrounded by the presence of that technology.

For me this aligns well with the disappear-disrupt concept in that your position on this continuum will underpin your reaction to the ‘Does it Matter?’ statement. This brings me to extend the question into a more useful form: ‘Does the Technology Matter for What?’ which does not have an objective answer as it is inextricably linked with ‘What do you Think you are Trying to Achieve?’ Oddly the latter question is often passed over when ‘new’ technologies are being introduced with vague allusions to ‘efficiency’ or ‘it’s what the students want’.

Again it’s the ‘what’ not the ‘why’ which tends to get focused on. As an example I would cite the ‘digital literacy’ debate in which motivations to engage frequently go unexplored leading to a focus on how to develop and maintain a successful digital identity as if this is the only way to live and learn. This in turn inevitably moves onto interminable discussions around facebook privacy options that ultimately spiral into the nature of society as a whole until lunch brings the whole thing to an inconclusive finish. Too much ‘what’ morphs into a woolly ‘why’ just as people start to get really hungry.

What I’m lobbying for here is a properly balanced conversation around ‘Does the Technology Matter’ in which we avoid simplistic posturing by making it clear what our assumptions and motivations are. In this way the discussion will help us to reflect on our own positions and how we can successfully collaborate with those around us who hold differing views but might well be trying to achive similar things. I’m not saying that I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing I just think that our underlying approach to technology is still a little 1982 and it’s time to accept that the picture is a bit more complex.

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Visitors & Residents: The Video

Last month I gave a presentation on the ‘Visitors & Residents’ principle at the ALT-C conference which was well received so I thought it would be worth videoing the talk under laboratory conditions…

Some of you might also be interested in our paper on Visitors and Residents:

Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011
http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/3171/3049

Just a few notes to go with the video:

The original ‘Prezi’ presentation is here: http://prezi.com/x0nxciep_mlt/

The tinyURL that is supposed to link to Andy Powell’s ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post is incorrect. Please follow this link instead.

At points I use the term ‘real life’ which seems to imply that anything which is online is somehow not part of ‘real life’. A better phrase would have been ‘offline’. Language in this area is difficult at best…

The quote “…just knowing how to use particular technologies makes one no wiser than just knowing how to read words” is a quote from Prensky’s recent paper on ‘Digital Wisdom’. In the journal ‘Innovate’. In other versions of the talk I refer to Prensky directly but seem to have omitted it when I was in front of the camera.  All other non-attributed quotes are anonymised statements from our students.

The images I used are under the Creative Commons license:

‘Tourist Trap’ visitor image http://www.flickr.com/photos/sharpshutter/232909207/
‘Rusholme’ resident image http://www.flickr.com/photos/raver_mikey/2224048987
‘Sunny Park’ web as a space image http://www.flickr.com/photos/nhudson/2504679411
‘Tool Box’ web as a toolbox image http://www.flickr.com/photos/howardstrong/3238293371

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Post-digital – an update?

Earlier this week I ran a post-digital session with Rich Hall as part of the fringe (#falt09) activities around the ALT-C conference. We had an interesting time in the upstairs room of the Lass O Gowery in Manchester debating a series of statements which were designed to provoke post-digital thoughts, for example:

  • Learning technologists are obsessed with technology more than learning, which is why elearning will never make the mainstream.
  • We are purveyors of the worst kind of spin: ‘This new thing will solve all your problems’.
  • The speed of the change has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on the canvas of the digital.
  • People with educations have huge advantages over those with skills and always will.

While these did lead to a lively discussion, I was still no clearer by the end as to how to describe post-digital as a concept. For many the term seems to imply a discarding of digital technologies as if they were no longer important. It also appears to promise some sort of new world order – which is not helpful.

After the fringe session I was even more convinced that the post-digital was a useful concept but that we hadn’t found the right way of expressing it yet.

A room with a view at ALT-C 2009

A couple of days later I gave my presentation at the ALT-C conference on my ‘Visitors & Residents’ principle. I had inserted a reference to the post-digital at the end of the talk to make the point that the Visitors & Residents idea rests on issues of motivation and personal preference rather than age or technical skill. This seemed to me to be a post-digital principle but, influenced by my conversations around the subject during the conference, I suggested that the term post-technical might be more appropriate.Ok so before I continue, yes this is a kind of semantic exercise, but what we have here I think is a strong idea which is difficult to express. One of the conclusions of the fringe sessions was that the rapid rate of change in technology is causing accelerated cultural effects which we are struggling to describe. (This was echoed in Michael Wesch’s keynote at the conference.) So I think it’s important to develop our thinking in this area even if it is a bit of a bumpy ride.

I can recommend Ian Truelove’s recent post on some of the pragmatic effects a post-technical approach can have in education. As Ian points out the technical is all about learning, and then following, a series of rules. Rules that we need to grasp before we can express ourselves ‘properly’. The manual for most software is written in this style – a button-pressing, linear approach. And yet the most successful (I’m thinking here in terms of uptake) online platforms don’t seem to have manuals. This is not necessarily because they are especially simple to use, but because they are massively multi-user and simply by watching the behaviour of fellow users it is possible to ‘pick up’ not only how to use the platform but also why you might want to use it. This should come as no surprise as we are particularly good at learning by observing fellow members of our own species. (There will be a fancy pedagogic/sociological term for this. If you know it then please insert it here as you read.)

Basic button-pressing, user-interface-comprehending activity is becoming culturally normalised and an ever-decreasing factor in our engagement with digital technologies (i.e. many of us are already digitally literate, if you will excuse the terminology). In effect our approach to technology need not be technical.

A simple post-technical example: the substantive effects of Twitter as a platform cannot be described by its technical functionality. Reading a technical manual for Twitter would not help a user to become resident in that online space. As Andy Powell suggests this in his ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post, individuals have to experience the culture of the groups/communities/networks/flocks/whatever to really ‘get’ what the platform is all about.

The post-technical then does not put technology second or first, it simply liberates the debate from those who build/code/provide the technology and puts it into the hands of those who appropriate it, the users, or ‘people’ as I like to call them, who write essays and poetry in Word, transform images in Photoshop, sustain friendships in Facebook, learn stuff by reading Wikipedia and express opinions in blogs.

The perspectives we are currently using, to come to an understanding of the cultural/educational influence of digital technologies and the opportunities therein, need to be reconsidered. I’m not sure yet if the answer lies in post-digital or post-technical approaches but I’m looking forward to tending these ideas over the next few months and seeing if something beautiful grows.

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Reflections on the ‘Conference that Cares’

Attending the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) conference in Brighton last week was an intriguing experience for me. There was something in the atmosphere that I had trouble tuning into, something which pervaded every session but which I couldn’t pin down. Until, at the end of the first day I had sudden moment of clarity, the mysterious and all pervading dimension to this conference that was evading me was the fact that these people really care about what they do.

The first clue was an impassioned keynote from Ronald Barnett, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education. This was a presentation from someone who believed in education and had a real feeling for the emotive realities that students face, pulling out terms such as “anxiety”, “excitement” and “scary” from student quotes. In my opinion we often forget the emotional rollercoaster learning can be and how that ‘ride’ is integral to the experience not something that should be entirely ironed out.  In tension with this notion is the challenge that tertiary education continues to face under an implicit acceptance of ‘students as consumers’. This topic was not shied away from leading to a pithy debate on Twitter which included the plea: “We must kill off this idea before it kills us off”…

The importance of not allowing educational research and teaching practice to continue to diverge was a key theme which suffused the conference. This trend is to the detriment of both groups who need to learn from each other. It seemed clear to me that institutions should to do more to create roles which are less segregated, roles sit under the larger banner of ‘academic practice’ that can denote research and teaching.  The challenges inherent in making this happen was an area which I touched upon in my session entitled ‘Not Killing the Creative’. I reflected on the methods employed (some more successfully than others) in the recent JISC funded ‘Open Habitat’ project. Methods which attempted to make the overlap in the centre of the ‘educational researcher’ and ‘teaching practitioner’ Venn diagram as wide as possible.

The majority of the SEDA delegates are in professional positions which act as a bridge between the highest tiers of policy making and the teaching/research (there’s that problem again) staff within universities. These are the people who have the ability to embed new teaching and learning strategies and to influence culture change within tertiary education. It was refreshing to hear the closing thoughts in the opening keynote including the phrases ‘We need to play the game” and “We have to be subversive”. If institutional approaches are to be improved from within then a subversive playing of the game by people who care is exactly what is needed.

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Eventedness

Following on from my ‘That Was an Interesting Experience’ post I got to thinking about how to define what makes MUVEs distinct from other online spaces. The diagram below is my attempted answer, a diagram which I ‘trailed’ in my presentation at the Eduserv+JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event last Friday. (slidecast of the presentation at the end of this post)

Eventedness and Co-presence

During the JISC funded ‘Open Habitat’ project we piloted Second Life with art & design undergrads and with lifelong distance learners studying philosophy. The axes of the diagram represent two of the major effects we saw across the pilots that are central to what an MUVE provides.

Eventedness: This goes beyond a shared experience which could be aimless in activity terms and assumes that everyone involved is heading towards a particular goal even if this goal does not involve close collaboration. For example, a themed philosophical discussion which, if it goes well, should have a shared direction as the learning moves forwards.

Co-presence: As well as the Co-presence that comes from being embodied as avatars this definition includes what is experienced when an individual is certain that their contribution (usually in text form) will be read and responded to by others. For example it is possible to get a strong sense of the presence of others when microblogging because the exchanges are often frequent, they often reference each other and the response time can be a matter of seconds. Messages are linked to the particular point in time and their value erodes over time. There is a relationship between the speed in which the value of nodes of communication erode within a technology and the potential for Co-presence. In addition the individuals’ level of trust that their contribution will be understood and responded to within a particular technology has a large bearing on both Co-presence and Eventedness. It is of note that there is very little latent social presence in MUVEs. When you log-off your presence all but evaporates leaving almost no trace of your identity or that fact that you were in the MUVE. This is in contrast to social networking sites which are designed to extend your presence after you log-off. (See my ‘Visitors – Residents‘ post which discusses why this form of latent social presence is an important issue)

So, the green areas are not a quantative mapping of a range of functionalities but the qualitative potential of a technologies ability to provide a certain type of experience. The greater the chance of Co-presence the greater the chance of Eventedness and vice versa which is why the green areas have diagonal tops.

I should point out that the relative mapping of the technologies in the diagram could be debated until the cows come home because the axes are dealing with subjective terms. Individuals encounters with these technologies will vary greatly in the context of these terms hence the use of ‘potential’ which allows for a latitude in experiences.

A key point here is that the MUVE has the potential to support a huge range of experiences. This is partiality because of the effect of avatars but also because an MUVE is not a single technology but a cluster of tools gathered around a 3D environment. To tie this down a bit I will run through the types of experience that I think take place at points ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ on the diagram.

‘a’: At this point an individual feels isolated from others and alienated by the environment. They are directionless and have not discovered the ‘point’ of the environment for themselves. This sense of isolation and alienation is amplified by the knowledge that there are others in the MUVE who are enjoying being part of a social group that they are excluded from (either socially or because of a lack of technical skills). It is also amplified because they can see other avatars who appear to be much better looking, better dressed and with more elaborate hairstyles. They begin to fell anonymous, unskilled and lacking in a definable persona (they are part of the homogenous ‘n00b’ category). All of this is compounded by the fact that it is very difficult to ‘lurk’ in an MUVE. There a few opportunities to learn the in world culture(s) and mode(s) of communication that don’t involve social engagement. This is in contrast to other successful online social platforms have functionality such as an open chat channels (World of Warcraft) or the ability to see the flow of communication (Twitter) giving new users the opportunity to absorb the culture of that space before making their voice heard.

‘b’: At this point the individual feels like they are contributing to a shared endeavour, that they are part of a relevant activity. They have come to know and trust the other participants in their group and enjoy both the learning and the social aspects of the experience. This is only likely to take place if a member of that community has organised an activity. Or, to put it another way, the tutor has planned a relevant session. (The implication here being that the tutor needs to be part of a community of learners not above it in the MUVE space)

‘c’: At this point the individual is probably spending time with people they know and trust. They are socialising within the MUVE but are not attempting to achieve anything beyond simply being together. They are likely to feel part of a community but not that they are communally working towards a goal.

In terms of teaching and learning this huge breath of potential experience is what makes using MUVEs a high risk option. The better designed a session and the more responsive the tutor the higher it will map against Eventedness but a strong sense of Co-presence will only grow over time. Initially this happens as people get to grips with the technology then increasingly as they form relationships and trust grows. This breath of potential is in my opinion why a bad session in an MUVE leads to the suspicion that it would have been more satisfying and more effective to have simply used a straight text chat format or in some cases a traditional forum. This is compounded by the fact that MUVEs really lock you in and if a session breaks down it is complex and disruptive to sidestep to another format. Nevertheless, some of the most engaging and exciting online teaching and learning I have experienced has taken place in an MUVE.

As the diagram makes clear MUVEs do have the potential to outstrip many other technologies in their ability to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. However, if you don’t feel that words such as ‘belonging’, ‘communal’ or ‘experience’ are relevant to your practice then MUVE are probably not for you. Even for those of us that do think these aspects of learning are important MUVEs are a high risk option which require teaching sessions that are both well organised and highly reactive. We hope that the guidance and advice that comes from our experiences in the ‘Open Habitat’ project (to be published in March) will reduce this risk but it is like so many things in life MUVEs will remain a challenging option with the potential of great rewards.

Below is a slidecast of the my presentation at the Eduserv + JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event on 16/01/09 in Glasgow. Thanks to Rowin Young for providing the slidecast.

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What has the Open Habitat project been doing?

As phase 1 of the Open Habitat project draws to a close it is time to take stock. We have run our ‘Multi-User Virtual Environments’ pilots with Art & Design and Philosophy students, gathered our data and are a long way through the process of making sense of it. Concepts are starting to cluster and hypothesis to be tested in phase 2 are emerging. We have edited together a 3 minute video of phase 1 activity that can be viewed here http://blip.tv/file/1208348 to give a snapshot of activity so far.

For anyone with a little more time a 25 minute talk summarising a number of the issues/concepts arising from phase 1 can be viewed here http://media.conted.ox.ac.uk/res02 .  As always a flow of posts which captures the thinking of the Open Habitat team meanders through http://www.openhabitat.org 

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The Importance of the Cheesy Disco?

I have just returned from the Online Educa conference at which I was part of a symposium panel discussing Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVES). The session was entitled ‘No Life in Second Life’ and was a look at some of the current practices and issues around teaching in MUVEs. My 10 minutes was on the range of environments in Second Life from amphitheatres to ‘cheesy discos’. Each brings with it a set of cultural expectations and modes of use.

After the session the point was raised that the term ‘cheesy’ may not be universally understood by an international audience. What struck me about this discussion was not its content but the environment it was taking place in. We were attending the conference dinner and ‘entertainment’. The venue for this entertainment was an oversized, modernist hall on the ground floor of the hotel with floor to ceiling glass and orange up lighters. The view out of the 12 foot windows was of a stark courtyard containing a number of neat, isomorphic trees and plants. Inside, small groups of smartly dressed individuals stood round in clusters and made small talk while an untidy mass of energetic attendees executed a range of jerky dance moves with no overall style or pattern. The music was slick and very definitely middle of the road.

In short we were in a cheesy disco which appeared to have been designed as a re-enactment of many scenes in Second Life, certainly in architectural terms but also socially. Love them of hate them it struck me that this real life cheesy disco was an accepted part of the conference system and designed to help people to talk and network. For undergraduates the nightclub or union bar is an integral part university life. For online distance students there is no clear equivalent. As we experiment with MUVEs for teaching and learning will the cheesy disco in prove to be as important as the amphitheatre?

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