What exactly are your students up to online?

This is probably not a question you want a comprehensive answer to but it would be handy to know how they are using the Web to engage with the learning challenges you are setting.

I’m currently leading a project with the Higher Education Academy which uses the ‘Visitors and Residents’ mapping process to help teaching staff to gain a better understanding of how their students are using the Web for their learning. Successful applicants will receive £1500 to attend two workshops (12 Feb and 7 May 2014). The first workshop will teach you how map your own online practice to set you up to run the process with a group of your students. The second workshop will review the maps generated by your students and provides an opportunity to explore how you might evolve your teaching practice to engage them in new ways online.

V&R map
Simple Visitor & Resident map

The pilot version of this workshop format proved very successful, with a number of institutions going on to run further mapping sessions at their institutions to get an holistic, high level, sense of how the Web is being using in teaching and learning by both staff and students (with the view to informing overall teaching and learning strategy/policy).

Obviously I’m biased but I like to think that the mapping is a pragmatic way of understanding online learning practices which often go undiscussed in education. It has proved to be a good starting point for reflecting on overall approaches to teaching and for informing how best to work with students online: for example, negotiating the complexities of connecting with students in platforms which are based on a ‘friendship’ paradigm.

It’s only a 500 word application process so if you are part of a higher education teaching team in the UK please take a look at the form on the HEA website. The deadline for applications is the 20th of January. Perhaps I will see you at the workshops? 🙂

Education should move us

Last week I was involved in the ‘New Places to Learn’ HEA event held at the Said Business School in Oxford. The focus of the event was Flexible Learning and online Residency. It was my job to frame the day by laying out the Visitors and Residents metaphor and encourage the participants to consider the relevance of the Resident end of the continuum.

It’s a complex area and one which the HE sector is only just beginning to consider properly. It’s not clear where the boundaries lie (or even if there should be boundaries) in terms of ownership, roles and time.

Academic and Personal Development in the context of Visitors and Residents
Academic and Personal Development in the context of Visitors and Residents (Photo by Josie Fraser)

What is becoming clear, as mentioned by Alison Le Cornu, is the cultural shift away from the institution and towards the individual. With the erosion of the job-for-life principle our learning and professional progression is rarely framed by a single institution. Over time we are likely to become temporarily tethered to a sequence of institutions or to clusters of institutions. Any continuity is likely to be provided by our activity or presence online, the web providing the meta-place in which, to a certain extent, all the institutions we encounter exist. The continuity I’m referring to goes beyond the notion of the CV or even the ePortfolio, it includes the knowledge we produce and the communities/networks we belong to. The web allows the individual, beyond the institution, to become the hub that knowledge and value clusters around. Our relationships with institutions lend weight to the knowledge we produce and to our influence, but they no longer own those aspects of our persona as wholly as they used to.  As an example consider the movers and shakers in the field of Edtech – do they mainly blog under an institutional banner or as ‘themselves’?

This has always been the case for the high-flyers or the ‘thought leaders’ in many fields but the ubiquity of the web is giving those of us in more humble positions the opportunity to operate beyond the institution.

Will this be the predominant professional and learning mode-of-operation in the near future?

Those promoting Digital Literacies as more than a simple set of skills, such as JISC, certainly seem to think so. Their descriptions of ‘Digital Literacies’ often incorporate words like ‘professional, ‘lifelong’ and ‘personal’ in the same sentence. This broad remit which has been fostered by the social-web is also reflected in many of the graduate attributes universities aspire towards. For example, Brookes University talks of graduates ‘…engaging productively in relevant online communities’ while Southampton University promotes the importance of  using technology ‘…to work, research, learn and influence others in an increasingly digital world’. In my talk at New Places to Learn I proposed that to gain these ‘attributes’ individuals would increasingly need to engage with the web in a Resident as well as a Visitor mode.

At the event Dave Cormier proposed that the role of education should be to equip learners with the ability to cope with uncertainty, that we should be encouraging agile, innovative thinkers who can move and create in rapidly changing sectors. He suggested that having a ‘Resident’ approach online is now an important element of that agility.

Lindsay Jordan and Dave Cormier
Lindsay Jordan and Dave Cormier - (Photo by Josie Fraser)

It could be the case that building an extra-institutional persona and engaging with professional communities online is a good way to respond to increasing uncertainty? Is a Resident approach an opportunity for individuals to become more resilient at a time when institutions are becoming less so?

Even if this is the case many find being visible in their practice online stressful. Reflecting on her own teaching practice Lindsay Jordan highlighted that moving students from a Visitor to a more Resident mode online is often a painful process. She spoke of how distressing encouraging her students to start sharing in an open manner via blogging was – distressing both for her and for them.

Alan Cann spoke about his use of Google+ with students and showed that although they all had profiles on the platform their modes of engagement were actually spread evenly along the Visitor Resident continuum. It was clear that some students were tentative about sharing their thoughts and themselves online and engaged only because activity within the social media platform was being assessed. As a sector we struggle to engage students at the Resident end of the continuum and haven’t yet found elegant ways of activating learner-owned-literacies in an institutional context.

Last year I blogged about how I felt education should make us anxious. It’s a fine line to tread but I think it’s the role of the educator to push learners in this way. This is what Lindsay has been doing and it sounded like a tough but ultimately rewarding journey.  If we are going to equip learners to live and learn in an uncertain world it will surely involve a certain amount of pain and anxiety?

While I don’t think that a Resident mode of engagement is ‘better’ than a Visitor mode I am beginning to realise its importance in equipping individuals to become resilient beyond a single role or institution. Moving is always a painful process and this holds true when we move to inhabit ‘places’ online. The anxiety that this causes is, in my opinion, part of what it is to learn. Whatever our direction of travel education should move us.

My slides from the day:

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

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

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


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.

That Was an Interesting Experience

As the piloting activity of the Open Habitat project draws to a close it’s time to gather out data and our thoughts and consider what it all might mean. We have plenty of evidence that MUVEs are a useful for teaching and learning and much guidance and direction to give to teaching practitioners considering taking the plunge. We also have, I think, an overarching message from the project:

“Teaching and learning in virtual worlds is an experience.”

I’m not trying to be facetious or flippant I mean it in the true sense of the term. Taking part of a teaching session in an MUVE is more than simply using a tool or achieving a task, it feels like an event, a particular moment in time when you have the chance to interact with others at a level of intensity which is rarely felt in other online spaces. A teaching session in an MUVE can become a focal event for a significant slice of teaching. A learning design can be created which leads up to and then away from an MUVE session. Much like a traditional field-trip, the teaching can frame the time that students spend out in the field or in this case the MUVE and work generated during that time can be considered upon their return. The ‘otherness’ of the alternative environment can act as a mirror for the students, helping then to reflect on their practice as they see how it is influenced by the virtual world.

Like any immersive experience it is at times challenging for an individual to assess what they have learnt during the experience itself but over time the benefits of being taken out of the comfort of their day-to-day environment starts to become apparent. If you believe that MUVEs are capable of supporting an online culture or beyond that an online society then maybe a session in one is akin to visiting another country. We are socially and psychologically transposed into this new land and whilst not physically transported we are visually represented. Like any exploration into new territories it can be chaotic, alienating, exhausting, and frustrating. There are new forms of communication to learn and new cultural norms to adjust to. It can be intriguing, surprising and occasionally exhilarating, offering inspiration and new perspectives on ideas which may have become stagnant. These experiences with others in these virtual worlds is a form of travel and they do say that travel broadens the mind.

Phase 2 plans for our Philosophers

We learnt a few things in the first phase of the Open Habitat project which have informed the set-up of our next pilots. I’m currently planning the pilot that will run with philosophy students in Second Life. The main challenge with the first pilot was the sheer speed of debate in SL. The experienced philosophy students are used to being able to gather their thoughts, write a paragraph or two and pop it into a forum.

Taking the time to reflect is important in any educational process but it is especially precious to the discipline of philosophy. Having said this, the students loved the vibrant, social feeling of SL and the sense of presence being embodied in an avatar brought. In fact they liked it so much they have continued to run non-tutored sessions in SL once a week managed via a facebook group. (This included giving the students building rights so that they could rearrange the environment each week to fit the topic under discussion)

For phase 2 it was clear that we needed to balance the reflective and the dynamic which we are planning to do by ‘bookending’ the SL session with Moodle. Here is a draft of how the pilot will flow:

Stage One (framing the debate):

  1. Marianne (the tutor) to post briefing page on Moodle
  2. students to post kneejerk response in blog
  3. Marianne to respond one to one
  4. students to reconsider in light of Marianne’s comments and prepare second kneejerk
  5. second kneejerk to be posted on Moodle
  6. all students to read, think and prepare third kneejerk for posting on whiteboard in second life
  7. third kneejerk to be sent to Dave for posting in world

Stage two (dynamic in world discussion):

  1. Everyone arrives in second life to find third kneejerk responses on board
  2. People read these and reflect as everyone arrives
  3. Marianne asks each student in turn to comment
  4. after everyone has responded people go into groups (arranged in advance), go to their ‘stations’ and prepare jointly a ‘final statement’
  5. final statements to be sent to Dave
  6. Marianne reconvenes students and the session ends with a final discussion.

Stage three (reflection):

  1. Marianne to annotate final statements, and add comments
  2. Dave to post final statements and the chat log on Moodle
  3. Students free to discuss final statements and Marianne’s comments by themselves.

It’s not rocket science but I think this really takes advantage of what SL is good for and is a genuine answer to the ‘user needs’ that came out of phase 1. We will then run this cycle a second time either continuing the same philosophical theme or starting a new on depending on how well it runs!

The other significant change to the pilot will be the use of edu-gestures which should allow for more non-verbal communication whilst the group is deep in discussion. We have a nice set (agree, confused, yes, no, I’m thinking etc) of gestures that the students can use during the sessions using a ‘lite’ version of the Sloodle toolbar generously created for us by the Sloodle project. I’m planning to introduce these gestures as a key part of the orientation session so that their use is seen as a ‘basic’ skill. In this way I hope we get the benefits of embodiment/presence as well as the benefits of non-verbal communication which is so important in RL but has not really developed in detail within SL.

It’s odd to think that an environment that renders you as an avatar (face, head, arms, legs etc) does not rely very heavily on non-verbal cues (apart from where you are standing and the biggie: what you look like). I’m hoping that this aspect of Multi-User Virtual Environments will develop as the language of communication (text, voice, visual) within virtual worlds becomes more sophisticated.

Most importantly the pilot has been designed in conjunction with the students who are going to advise on the layout of the in world environment and are enthusiastic about the changes to the format.

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 

Not ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’

As part of the JISC funded Isthmus project we have been taking a close look not at whattechnologies our students use but at how our they use them. We found that our students could not be usefully categorised as Digital Natives or Digital Immigrants. I.e. This distinction does not help guide the implementation of technologies it simply provides the excuse that “some people ‘just don’t get it’ which is why your new approach has failed so badly…”

Anyway, our students appropriation of online services did not seem to follow a simple pattern based on skill level. It seemed to depend on if they saw the web as a ‘place to live’ or as a collection of useful tools. This underlying motivation led us to outline two main categories of distance learning student.

The ‘Resident’

The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have an persona online which they regularly maintain. This persona is normally primarily in a social networking sites but it is also likely to be in evidence in blogs or comments, via image sharing services etc  The Resident will of course interact with all the practical services such as banking, information retrieval and shopping etc but they will also use the web to socialise and to express themselves. They are likely to see the web as a worthwhile place to put forward an opinion. They often use the web in all aspects of the of their lives; professionally, for study and for recreation. In fact the resident considers that a certain portion of their social life is lived out online. The web has become a crucial aspect of how they present themselves and how they remain part of networks of friends or colleagues.

The ‘Visitor’

The Visitor is an individual who uses the web as a tool in an organised manner whenever the need arises. They may book a holiday or research a specific subject. They may choose to use a voice chat tool if they have friends or family abroad. Often the Visitor puts aside a specific time to go online rather than sitting down at a screen to maintain their presence at any point during the day. They always have an appropriate and focused need to use the web but don’t ‘reside’ there. They are sceptical of services that offer them the ability to put their identity online as don’t feel the need to express themselves by participating in online culture in the same manner as a Resident.

In effect the Resident has a presence online which they are constantly developing while the Visitor logs on, performs a specific task and then logs off.

This is of course not a polar distinction. There is a spectrum of which the Resident and the Visitor represent two extremes (Watch this space for a couple of possible sub-categories). It is a useful distinction because it is not based on gender or age. While our data would indicate that the portion of the population over 55 is predominantly made up of Visitors there are examples of Residents in this section of the demographic. Similarly it is the case that not everyone younger than 25 is a Resident.

It is not always easy to spot who is in each category as the level of sophistication with which a Visitor might use any single service might well be greater than that of a Resident. Again, this is not a skill based distinction. In fact I know of at least one ed-tech researcher who considers himself to be a Visitor out of choice.

The Resident is likely to have arranged some sort of system to manage the relationship between services and the flow of information through their browser but this does not mean that they will be any more effective at researching a specific topic than a Visitor. This is why data from a survey that simply asks what online services a group of students use is next to useless.

This Visitor, Resident distinction is useful when considering which technologies to provide for online learners. For example if your learners are mainly Visitors they are unlikely to take advantage of any feed based system for aggregated information you may put in place. They are also unlikely to blog or comment as part of a course. The Resident will expect to have the opportunity to offer opinions on topics and to socialise around a programme of study. In fact they are likely to find ways of doing this even if they are not ‘officially’ provided. We offered membership of a facebook group to our students as they left their online courses. The majority signed-up without question as they wanted to stay in touch with fellow students and continue discussions. The remainder saw the group as pointless and a possible invasion of privacy. Both sides of this argument are correct… It’s a question of approach and motivation, hence Visitors and Residents.

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

Initial Impressions from the first Open Habitat Pilot

As the first Open Habitat pilot with Art & Design students draws to a close it’s worth reflecting on how the process has gone before we dive into the formal analysis of interview transcripts, surveys and building work in Second Life.

After 3 weeks of working infrequently in OpenSim and Second Life some of the Art and Design students seem to have got to that self motivating stage at which their creativity and their curiosity combine and the tutor facilitates when needed rather than leads by the nose. The atmosphere in the computer room and in Second Life (3 of the students were working from home) was relaxed and chatty. Not too much sign of the noob paranoia that could have bloomed from the first couple of teaching days.

A few informal impressions that I have come away with are:

1. Maybe ‘collaboration’ in these MUVE environments is more about discussion than construction. When people collaborate in world they are rarely to be found wrestling over the same polygons/prims. It’s more likely that one will be building while the other muses over what direction the build should take. In this way students can use the specific skill they are best at in a larger build (modelling, texturing, scripting etc) not unlike the RL equivalent of the trades.

2. Just how much of a motivator is knowing that there is a potential audience for your work in world? Does seeing those little green dots on the map inspire an individual to create or simply make them feel a little lonely? I can’t say that I have ever felt lonely using Adobe Photoshop (no map, no green dots) but as some of the students alluded to it’s an odd feeling knowing that there are people in world who have chosen not to talk to you.

3. If the students that have been inspired can produce work like the example below in three weeks, what could they achieve in three years? It’s the length of a degree after all and it’s worth remembering that even the most experienced Second Lifers (the penal inference here may be apposite) have only been in world for about this length of time.

PART III by Mark O’Brien

Part III by Mark O’Brien. Work produced as part of the Open Habitat pilot with Leeds Metropolitan Art and Design students.