Visualising digital practices using V&R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Think Less – Find More

This is an idea I’ve been musing over for a while and regularly encounter in different contexts. The phrase ‘Think Less – Find More’ is my suggested strap line for Google search as it’s essentially what they are selling. Obviously this isn’t how they market their search service but it is in essence the message they are giving to users. The evolution from keyword to natural language searching and the increasing use of user data to tailor results is part of a drive towards answering (in part) your information ‘needs’ before you even know you have them (I’m thinking of Google Now here).

Think
CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/erikeckel/2133261517

In the Visitors and Residents research project one of the questions we asked participants (students ranging from late-stage secondary school all the way through university) was “If you had a magic wand what would be the ideal thing you’d want to help you learn”. A common answer could be characterised as “Something which highlighted the best information and the right answers”.  For example one student described a library type scenario in which the most useful books would glow in response to a question.

Unknowingly to our participants what many of these responses boiled down to was “I’d like Google to work perfectly” by which they meant that the top search results would be ‘correct’ so they wouldn’t have to spend time evaluating them or cross checking. So what we might describe as the process of research (evaluating and synthesising a range of sources into a cogent narrative or argument) they were thinking of as ‘what you have to do because the technology doesn’t quite work properly yet’. They had been sold Think Less – Find More.

I’m not saying that Google is evil or that these students were misguided, my point is that this is the culture we need to respond to in education.  Our pedagogy is still based in Dewey Decimal times while our students (and staff) are actually operating in a radically different knowledge environment. If we take into account the Think Less – Find More culture shift this is a huge opportunity for us as educators. Google allows us to shift from knowledge transfer mode and concentrate on helping students to develop their ability to think. How we managed to create an education system which doesn’t have this as its central tenant is a mystery to me…

If we redesign teaching incorporating the Web we will be nurturing agile and powerful thinkers who can build on the power of abundant information rather than leaving them to worry that going online is tantamount to ‘cheating’.

 

I talk about Think-Less Find More and ‘Currencies of Credibility’ in this video:

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Mapping online engagement

Back in June I wrote a post about the Visitors and Residents mapping process. Since that posting I have run mapping sessions with people in various roles from a range of institutions.  This has helped me to refine and simplify the process.

During those sessions I got requests to produce a V&R mapping kit that people could use to run the process with groups at their institution. I haven’t got as far as I would like with that yet but in the meantime I have extracted the most relevant 10 minute segment from the original mapping video. I’m hoping that anyone who watches this extract will have all the info they need to create their own map.

A single engagement map is all that is required for an individual and should drive a useful discussion if the mapping is done in a group situation. It should also be useful to then create a map of your department/library/project/group. This way you can assess the digital footprint (The character and visibility of your group online) of your section of your institution and the various modes of engagement you may, or may not, be using. It’s worth noting that if you are mapping with students some of them may relate better to the word ‘course’ instead of  ‘institutional’ on the vertical axis of the map.

I have collated a few maps from various people (including my own from the video) on this Padlet wall so you can get a sense of how varied the process can be depending on the context of the individual:
http://padlet.com/wall/visitorsandresidents

The maps on the wall have no commentary attached to them to preserve anonymity.

The mapping process originates from research funded by Jisc

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V&R mapping at Educause

What I was first reminded of at Educause 2012 in Denver was how much money is tied-up in educational technologies. The Expo was a daunting journey into the world of CIO budget power – the kind of issues my research makes visible did not appear to be top of the agenda. I fended off my feelings of alienation with the reflection that the attendees of this conference were exactly the kind of people who I should be ‘disseminating’ our findings and approach to. This was not going to be cosy preaching-to-the-converted situation in which we got to discuss the esoteric side of becoming-a-legitimate-participant, digital fluency or the shifting nature of credibility on the web. Add to this the fact that our session was scheduled for 8am on Friday and you can probably see why I was expecting a handful of participants who may have accidently wandered into the wrong room.

Denver
My view of Denver

I was encouraged somewhat though by the number of people who approached me to discuss the challenges of ‘MOOCing’ the Humanities after my question on this to Harvard’s CIO who was speaking about edX. (I’m not saying that projects like edX aren’t game changers but they seem to have confused experimenting with business/access models with ‘revolutionising learning’. At least that’s how the presentation came across.)

Friday, 7.30AM – and myself, Donna Lanclos & Lynn Connaway were so focused on trying to find enough dry-wipe markers for our session that we didn’t notice the room filling-up. By the time we were due to start we had about 60 people and some of them looked fairly awake.

Mapping
Proof that some people were awake while ‘mapping’

In the room were Heads of elearning, Deans, Library Directors, Senior Learning Technologists etc. People who are paid to make high-level strategic decisions about the approach of their staff and institutions.

The format of our session was very interactive: Starting with a brief overview of Visitors and Residents (the project and the idea) and then straight into attendees mapping their own personal engagement with the web on the Visitor/Resident–Personal/Institutional quadrant. I had shown a version of my engagement map created in a Google Drawing and put my Gmail address up on screen in the hope that people might share their maps. Almost everyone got stuck into the exercise and against my expectations over the next 15 minutes a few Google drawings did arrive along with a couple of photos of whiteboard maps. This meant we could talk through the results of the activity on the main screen using some examples drawn from the room. We had gone from outlining the Visitors and Residents idea to producing and discussing participant’s modes of engagement with the web in less than 30 minutes. It was the ultimate workshop turnaround and it got people talking because we had quickly moved from discussing an idea in the abstract to deconstructing the actual engagement behaviour of those in the room.

We then asked the attendees to map the engagement of their ‘clients’ (e.g. academics, student, researchers, library users etc.) with the services they provided in their institutions. Again I received a couple of Google Drawings which led to a brief discussion about the challenges of providing institutional services that are designed to engage in a Resident mode. In hindsight we could have done with about 20 minutes longer but I felt we had cracked the Visitors and Residents workshop format. We certainly got good feedback, including one participant who said that if we could put the workshop format online he could use it “all the time” at his institution. I started to wonder if we should extract the mapping elements of the proposed Visitors and Residents course and post them as a do-it-yourself workshop format.

During the hour after the session I received a few more personal engagement maps in a variety of formats, Google Drawings, pics of whiteboards/notepads and an Evernote Skitch. I gathered some of these together on the plane home:

Educause V&R maps
Educause – Personal V&R maps

Full-size version

There is a wealth of intriguing information here but the aspect which is most immediately striking and which came out during the session is how the same platforms are engaged with in a variety of ways. To demonstrate this I have highlighted the location of Facebook across the maps.

V&R maps with Facebook highlight
V&R maps – Facebook highlighted

Full-size version

This didn’t come as a surprise to me as the data from our Visitors and Residents project shows that many people use Facebook privately (Messaging or 1-to-1 IMing) or organisationally (keeping track of friends/colleagues but not posting or communicating via the platform). This supports one of the original tenets of the Visitors and Residents idea which is that discovering *what* technology people use does not give an insight into *why* they are using it or even, it would appear, what they are actually doing.

Skype & IM
V&R map – Skype and GTalk highlighted

Full-size verison

A pointed example of this can be seen in the most detailed map submitted wherein the functionally equivalent technologies of Skype and GTalk are mapped to different places because they are being used as a method of keeping certain areas of life compartmentalised (as an attempt to fend off personal/institutional convergence, or the ‘decompartmentalision’, that tends to be a side effect of Residency)

It was very rewarding to see the Visitors and Residents idea being used as a tool for reflection and planning. I hope that many of the relatively senior people who attended our session will be taking V&R thinking back to their institutions. I felt it was worthwhile equipping some of the Educause delegates with this approach as it should prove to be a useful way for them to understand their students/clients when they are bombarded with claims about efficiency, student retention and ‘intuitive’ platforms at the next big edtech expo.


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Break out of the loop and see the helix

I was reminded by the writings of King Solomon of an idea I had a few years ago but neglected to write down. In Ecclesiastes he draws a picture of the never-ending cycles of life which could be seen as having a beautiful balance and harmony but perhaps more commonly as acting like a monotonous cage.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Spring
CC – tidefan http://goo.gl/LE4Jl

Certainly my recent experience online  has felt like being trapped in a loop. I have been on/in Twitter for about five years now and most of what I see sailing past about education and/or technology appears to me to be a rehash of ideas I heard in previous years. Similarly in the land of shiny-tech there seems to have been very little of interest. It’s all higher rez, faster and thinner but in essence it’s not moving on. Witness the bored response to the latest iPhone. It’s as if we greedily consumed technology, are now feeling queasy and couldn’t possibly consume another Smartphone. We talk of elegant consumption but it feels bloated to me. Where has the dynamic, frontier-like web gone? Am I suddenly too old to ‘see’ the leading edge or is a large part of what happens online just the passive reception of main-stream media?

I worked on digital projects for the BBC at the turn of the century. Back then us young-guns felt as if we were on the verge of something genuinely new – outside of the loop (we were enthusiastic and a little naive). Looking back now it appears that the moment the iPlayer started to work smoothly the BBC stepped away from Social Media engagement and many there heaved a huge sigh of relief when they realised that ‘online’ could be used to distribute TV and Radio. Despite the promise of the web are we trapped in our classic producer-consumer cycle? Perhaps advertising a hash-tag at the start of a programme is all that is needed, maybe that’s what taking-part was always going to mean? The truth is that there are very few people out there with something to say and the skills to express it, those that do are quickly assimilated into a broadcast mindset. Beyond 150 people it’s all celebrity and performance?

The never ending loop
A surface view only sees the loop

This is all surface though and the reality, as ever, is far more complex than my rant. There are fascinating and disruptive things happing out there in the unpredictable currents of the tide fight where society and tech wrestle. Our immediate perspective is often of a Solomon’s recursive loop but if we know how to ‘see’ rather than to just look we gain a much more interesting view.

A new perspective
A different perspective shows the slow forward movement of the helix

I think of socio-technical phenomenon as a helix. Viewed with an end-on limited perspective everything appears to be travelling repetitively around the same loop, it appears to be a closed circle but if we put more effort into seeing beyond the surface, into new methods of data collection and analysis, we can gain a side view, revealing a helix.  This perspective shows us a  slow but powerful movement forward. Often though, we are so trapped in the loop of the ever-new present that this progression is only seen in hindsight. Getting past the upgrade-now, 10 tips for teaching with iPads, HD, 3D, faster, better, stronger noise of the loop – sidestepping it if you like and seeing the real morphing/evolution of science and society is, for me, what higher education should be all about.

The single biggest factor that can give us the side-on perspective is the ability to critique and to ask pertinent questions. It’s the role of education to equip students with this ability to ask questions rather than to only seek the answers to questions posed by others. Historically the effort required to seek-out answers encouraged students to ask additional questions of their own but now we can find answers online so efficiently we don’t have to engage in critical thinking. Generally these answers are correct and appropriate – this is an issue which is more fundamental than ‘quality’ or ‘validity’, it’s part of a paradigm shift in what in means to ‘know’.

I joked that Google’s strap-line should be “Think Less – Find More”. I’m finding that idea less and less amusing, especially after seeing Google Now which is the current apex of not-thinking tech. I’m not against instant access to answers or technology that makes our lives ‘easier’, what I do want though is pedagogy that equips students from an early age with the ability to question the answers thrown back by this kind of tech. The huge cognitive offsetting the web offers us creates a space in which we should be able to ask more and better questions and yet our pedagogy and our assessment is still focused largely on answers until around second year of university (if you are lucky).

‘Bring Your Own Device’ or ‘Smuggle-in Your Own Device’ ensures that students are taking advantage of the cognitive offsetting of the web, it’s time to accept this and take-up the slack. Our Visitors and Residents project is finding that the digital literacies students develop at Secondary/High school are taken through well into university. We haven’t interviewed students younger than 17 years-old but I suspect that the digital literacies (and in some cases the critical literacies) of a 9 year-old are similar to those of a first-year undergraduate. As educators we have to teach critical thinking at a much earlier age otherwise students will be trapped in the highly pervasive info-factory of the web. Yes they will be able to find correct answers but will they be capable of questioning the loop conveniently designed around them (whether well meaning or not) from about the age of 8 by Google, Facebook and the like?

This brings me to the knotty problem of serendipity which as been bothering me for some time. It’s not possible to capture it’s essence without it slipping through your fingers. It is in this regard nicely Truth and Beauty in a romantic, dreaming-spires kind of a way and generally a bit of a headache for those outside of the social sciences and humanities. Proponents of the importance of serendipity such as Aleks Krotoski make the crucial point that the individual has to have the ability to be able to recognise the moment it happens (or the moment of potential). In other words they need to be able to bridge two apparently unrelated pieces of information and “…have the creativity to do something new with them” (Here I am talking about the individuals role in taking advantage of putative serendipity rather than technologies possible role in increasing the potential for serendipity to take place) . I now think of the moment of serendipity as jumping sections of the helix. It’s a transverse movement across the traditional corrals of understanding.

Serendipity and the helix
The transverse leap of serendipity

If the helix is imagined as a spiral staircase then those that can ‘see’ serendipitous moments have the ability to jump beyond their floor and leap multiple storeys in a single bound. Not only can they make this leap but they have the perspective to see the distance they have travelled. I would argue that this is unlikely to happen if the individual has been educated to only find answers to questions set by others.

In this era of instant answers where technology (or the business model of those providing the technology) is winding the loop around us ever tighter I’m pro equipping our students with the ability to make serendipitous leaps. I’m for stretching the helix so that each turn pushes us further. We need to promote critical pedagogies which put pressure on students to ask questions. Questions that gain perspectives beyond recursive consumption. Instead of falling into “Think Less – Find More” we should be encouraging our students to be suspicious of the loop, to be anxious to make leaps, and hopefully to “Question More – See Further”.

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The future is not quite real-time

In a discussion with Lawrie Phipps (@Lawrie) I was reminded of something I was thinking about last year around the advantages of not quite real-time (NQRT). It’s one of the few genuinely unique affordances of the web. Asynchronous communication has been with us since cave painting and synchronous since two people first clapped eyes on each other. What is relatively new is the cultural acceptability of having anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 hours between contributions to a discussion or conversation (although between 10 seconds and around 5 minutes is the more interesting time-frame).

Egg Timer
Photo by Ian Barbour: http://goo.gl/Kojve

I’m thinking here about ‘Instant’ messaging, a Twitter stream, a Facebook wall and even ‘rapid’ emailing or forum posting. For example, I can receive a text message in Skype, check the web for information or speak to a colleague in the room and then respond. It’s powerful because it doesn’t demand the immediate attention of a f2f encounter or a ringing phone and it also gives me time to gather my thoughts/cross check information.

Not quite real-time is the main reason why most people are wittier, cleverer and all together more attractive online than they are f2f (note, I say ‘are’ not ‘appear to be’ – the web is real and so are the things that happen there…). It’s also a key reason why more people are comfortable to be perfomative on Facebook walls and in Twitter streams i.e. visible social interaction. This is a communication mode in which we feel a sense of interpersonal connection but also have some level of control over pace/timing. It’s a powerful because it’s social but doesn’t aggressively demand attention. This is why text will always be the dominant visible form of communication online and why many of us chose to not put our cameras on when Skyping.

The downside of NQRT is when it’s used as part of a focused event or discussion with more than two participants. In these cases the pace tends to increase rapidly until NQRT becomes achingly close to f2f speeds (4 seconds is about the maximum time between responses in a f2f conversion ) and the thinking-time gaps are crushed. When this happens the quickest thinkers and fastest typists win-out (or those who have pre-prepared text which they paste in…). This is why text-chats are often feel so exclusive, especially in an educational context – the usual suspects take the floor. It could be one of the many modes of engagement which erode when shifted from a personal to an institutional context?

It would be fascinating to study the nature of NQRT communications because it appears to be unique to the web and a relatively new cultural phenomenon. What is effect of NQRT on maintaining relationships and/or supporting communities? Is it a more inclusive form because it levels out the playing field and those who like to muse before expressing themselves can be part of the flow or is it fated to always speed-up and lose its advantages as soon as a discussion becomes interesting? It’s certainly something that warrants research, assuming a practical methodology could be developed…

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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:

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New Places to Learn

Yesterday I tweeted:

“Annoyed by the ‘Digital Natives’ idea? Explore alternatives: ‘New Places to Learn’ Oxford Apr19 http://goo.gl/Sdf3w

The (free) event I’m referring to is being run by the HEA and is using the Visitors and Residents metaphor  as a broad framework to explore the implications of the web as a ‘place’ for the education sector. The intention is to break away from outmoded age or tech skill related correlations to discuss new modes of engagement which are emerging based on co-presence online. To put it in ‘Visitors and Residents’ terms: exploring pragmatic approaches to operating at the Resident end of the continuum.

Visitor restrictions
CC: A-NC-SA Flickr: 'Celita'

The danger when learning is moved online is that the focus tends to be on curriculum and content rather than the less instrumental aspects of what makes a course work such as social cohesion and a sense of belonging. The traditional lecture in a physical space may not be pedagogically ideal but it has inherent co-presence, giving students the sense that they belong to a particular cohort and that they are legitimate members of their institution. These ‘side effects’ of traditional modes of engagement are easy to take for granted and often forgotten in the move online.

This move is a response to increasing student numbers, the need to deliver learning with greater flexibility, the availability of online resources (some of which are in ‘beyond text’ formats) and the desire to attract oversees students. The underlying drivers here are efficiency, flexibility and scalability. As we discovered in our HEFCE Study of Online Learning one of the key pedagogical design approaches that can address these drives is that of peer learning.  This is a form of inter-student support and collaboration that is well supported by the physical institution. The library, the coffee shop, the pub etc have all evolved to create ‘places’ for, amongst other things, peer-learning. As a sector we haven’t been very successful to-date in creating or using similar places (or places which facilitate similar forms of interaction) online and we often underestimate the importance of co-presence when trying to encourage peer-learning on the web.

It is  generally accepted that it’s  easier to discuss learning with a fellow student you ‘know’ than with a stranger so if that learning is taking place predominantly online it’s crucial that your fellow students have an online social presence. If the majority of a cohort have a social presence online  it is more likely that individuals will feel that all important sense of belonging and accountability which will support them though the challenging aspects of their study (especially when the course is large scale and tutoring staff don’t have the time to keep a close pastoral overview).

Understanding the role and value of Resident/presence based modes of engagement should be a high priority for a sector that is moving online. It should no longer be the exotic preserve of the ‘high tech’ or the ‘innovator’ and needs to be taken up by the ingenious pragmatists amongst us. I am very happy to say that the ‘New Places to Learn’ event has secured the services of a number of these ingenious characters who will discuss the challenges of working at scale online from different perspectives:

  • Dave Cormier comes to the ‘web as place’ as one of the early instigators of the ‘MOOC’ format which builds on the inherent connectivity of the web to form agile learning scenarios. I think of this approach as highly Resident, emerging from the culture of the web and loosely tethered to the traditional institution where necessary.
  • Martin Weller has been involved in moving large scale Open University courses online as well as initiatives such as Open Learn. He understands what is involved when a large organisation reaches out into the web and what it means to be a ‘Digital Scholar’ online.
  • Lawrie Phipps and Ben Showers from JISC will be facilitating an activity which aims draw on the collective expertise in the room to map the pros and cons of Resident modes of engagement.

Alison Le Cornu the academic lead for Flexible Learning for the HEA will be chairing the day and drawing together the thinking to inform the strategic direction of the academy in this area.

I myself will be picking up on the themes in this post and discussing our JISC funded Visitors and Residents project which is in the early stages of describing educational/online ‘genres of participation’ and mapping the associated literacies which learners use.  We also hope to hear about the progress of  projects in the JISC Developing Digital Literacies strand.

If you are interested in the web as a place for learning or you have your own thoughts or practice to share then sign-up. If you can’t make it to Oxford then visit the HEA booking page on the day for a link to the live stream.

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