Coronavirus has given millions motivation-to-engage, no matted their age, as social contact and educational provision has become almost entirely online-only overnight. We are all becoming ‘skilled’ with networked tech incredibly quickly, not because we are ‘native’ to it but because we have an immediate and obvious need. Our social and professional lives have become a parade of audio/video meetings and shared documents.
This highlights that the term ‘social distancing’ does not account for the Web and is better described as ‘physical distancing’. Many of us are now more Resident online than ever before and are therefore highly social (if not more social) during the quarantine.
Teaching during Coronavirus
The abrupt need to move face-to-face education online can be mapped to the Visitor – Resident continuum. At my university we have produced a ‘Core practice guide’ which highlights the need for a balance of ‘content’ (Visitor) and ‘contact’ (Resident) for/with student groups. Just as with the Visitor – Resident continuum one mode is not ‘better’ than the other and any effective online educational provision will use a mix of both. The important factor, in terms of the design of teaching, is how we connect together what we are providing across these modes so that the elements (resources, fora, webinars, recordings) build on each other and increase our student’s motivation-to-engage.
It’s not about the tech it’s about the teaching
It is also important to note that, as highlighted by the Visitor and Resident mapping activity, the type of technology does not inherently foster a particular mode-of-engagement. A poorly run online lecture (or webinar) will be less engaging for students than watching a recording or making use of some elegantly contextualised resources. My mantra is that if a synchronous (or ‘live’) piece of online teaching could have been a recording – from a student experience perspective – then it has little value beyond being an way-point in their week (see Eventedness).
Making online education engaging requires effective, well-structured , teaching way more than it does any specific digital platform. The most brilliant and fully-featured ‘webinar’ space will not counter a lack of framing activities and resources either side of the session. The same can principle be applied to text-chats, fora, quizzes etc.
If you like diagrams…
The following illustrates this point diagrammatically by showing that particular genres of digital provide the potential for certain levels/modes of engagement but that higher levels of engagement rely on the design of our teaching more than on how ‘immediate’ the tech experience might be.
The diagram is based on medium-to-large groups of students rather than small groups (less than 10) or one-to-one scenarios. Fostering engagement-at-scale is a central challenge for higher education and one which is crucial to consider as we transition to online teaching (and at any other time to be frank).
I’m defining ‘Engagement’ as a mix of social presence and active/critical thinking. The mix is complex but important, as one without the other can lead to either noisy-but-unthinking moments or thoughtful-but-distancing experiences. We want our students to develop their thinking *and* feel a sense of belonging.
Connecting it together
Any single technology or mode will not be enough to engage a group over a period of time. This requires connecting together a set of modes with a clear articulation of how they flow into one another. At my university we are promoting the use of a combination of Moodle and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra as these can be combined to effectively cover a huge range of Content – Contact. For example: read/watch a resource > respond to a relevant question in an actively facilitated discussion forum > engage with ‘live’ discussion in a webinar which is framed around the themes arising from the forum > write a reflection on the themes and the overall process to be posted to the VLE/LMS (or create image/audio/video with accompanying written reflection).
Fundamentally, one mode or tech is not ‘better’ than another. What is important is how we connect them as a learning narrative and how we communicate that narrative to foster engagement. This helps to ensure we provide opportunities which are mindful of the range of technical, geographical (time-zone), cognitive, social and emotional contexts/experiences of our students and teaching staff.
Back in the day, when the internet was a place of hope, upbeat phrases abounded such as: Information SuperHighway and Web Surfing. The Coronavirus has illuminated the fruition and implications of one of these classic West Coast style phrases, The Global Village.
To explore this idea I’m not going to claim any solid evidence or analysis but would like to pose a question: “How has access to the Web influenced the UK population’s response to the Coronavirus?”
I suggest that without access to an abundance of information on the spread of the virus and national responses beyond the UK we would not be ahead of Public Health England’s timings on social distancing and the closing of institutions. I also suspect we would be seeing less panic buying and less anxiety about a ‘lack of action’.
To be clear, I’m not commenting on the rights and wrongs of any course of action. I only wish to explore the influence of the Web as a global network.
It’s a big heap of everything – like a village.
One of the aspects of the Web which makes it so difficult to make sense of is that it’s always operating in multiple, intersecting modes. For example, what we see on a daily basis online is a chaotic mix of official announcements and total speculation. We see complex data next to pure antidote – published ‘fact’ interwoven with conversation and gossip. The traditional demarcation of ‘information’ and ‘speculation’ by notions of public and private has dissolved. Just like a village, word travels fast and the community decides how to respond whatever the leaders might be saying.
If we wind back around 20 years then we would be receiving news of the virus mainly through broadcast and print media.There were news websites back then but they tended to operate in a broadcast mode. In 2000 around 26% of the UK had a connection compared to over 96% today and, of course, there was no Social Media to speak of. The information environment was largely as it had been for the preceding 60 years or so with institutions we trusted conveying the ‘truth’ of events.
While broadcast media would have given us a sense of what was happening ‘abroad’ it would have seemed more remote and any scare mongering would have been done by outlets which were known to do this as a matter of course. Even as the virus appeared in the UK it’s difficult to imagine mass panic buying of toilet paper before any state of emergency had been called.
It’s a two-way street
One of the main factors in the ‘it’s a big heap of everything’ effect is that anyone with a connection can publish. This means that the Web is a powerful communication network for ‘us’ as well as ‘them’ – however you want to ascribe that distinction. As such, if an institution wants to cancel events ahead of official advice then it can, and at negligible cost in terms of communication.
We have access to an abundance of hybrid, village-like information. We also have the means to take mass action – a shout from the village green which can reach tens of thousands. There is no need to go through official channels, so we can both decide and respond without the nod from the institutions which used to control-the-message.
What is Rome? – Whatever it is, it has blurrier edges now.
My hope is that we will respond to the effects of the The Global Village coming to pass by collectively admitting that the biggest challenges we face do not respect national borders. So far, on a national level, our membership of this Global Village and the complex world it reveals has amplified our desire to run back to simple, often negatively defined, forms of identity. When the virus is past its peak and we have done all we can to keep people safe will we better understand that our planet is now more of a village than a collection of nations?
Over a decade ago, I took a home brewed virtual ethnography approach to a project looking at communal and cooperative player behaviour in World of Warcraft. It appeared to me that the teamwork and sense of belonging in the game was exactly what we were trying to foster in online learning.
The method I used was to sit with a player as they gamed, asking the occasional question while I set-up screen recording software. I then left the hard-drive with them and asked them to record any moments that they thought were significant over a period of about a week. I picked up the recordings and made notes as I watched them. Then I went back to the player with specific questions about aspects of the play and the dynamics of the gaming community I needed interpreting. It worked well and led to my thinking on ‘Social Capital in the Pursuit of Slaying Dragons’.
In the world and of the world
What was clear was that the players were extremely present in the game world, as embodied by their player avatars – they weren’t controlling a character from afar, they were within the world when they were gaming. The game was a space in which they were co-present, which is one of the reasons that an ethnographic approach worked. This principle influenced much of my subsequent work and I find it useful when considering the notion of digital fluency. In essence, you can’t understand the modes-of-engagement of a space by only learning it’s technical functionality as if it were a tool – you need to understand how it works as a social space. A simple example is Twitter – learning about ‘at’ replies, retweets and direct messages doesn’t tune you into the culture or discourse of the network of co-present individuals. You completely miss the role and value of Resident-mode platforms if you only consider how it works in abstracted, technical, terms.
So when it comes to teaching about the potential role and value of Resident online spaces I tend to take a digital fieldwork approach which draws on this ethnographic thinking. There are usually decent guides on the basics of online platforms you can point people too so, beyond this, what becomes important is the fieldwork brief which provides a motivation to engage with the dialogue and the culture of the space. This is what I had in mind when I designed the digital fieldwork activities which we used as part of the Teaching Complexity seminar series.
Digital Fieldwork activities
The activities range from simply appearing in a Resident space (for those that have never operated in this mode) through to experimenting with an alternative identity or faking out a social media platform. The six activities come with a short video intro from me as explaining the context for the approach is extremely important. This is especially the case for the activities which involve experimenting with identity as it’s not about tricking anyone, so participants need to be sensitive in the way they present themselves and connect.
The identity based activities are inherently self-reflexive as they encourage participants to not be ‘themselves’ – this creates contrasts which can be reflected upon. In our daily engagement with Resident online spaces we will struggle to ‘see’ how the platform is influencing us because we are generally connected to like-minded, similar people and are therefore focused on the substance of those relationships rather than on the structure or culture of the environment.
This is similar to the anthropological principle that it’s difficult to see our own culture because we are normalised to it, which is why when we travel we gain insights through the contrast with other cultures. Taking on an alternative identity online is the equivalent of going ‘abroad’. The same Social Media platform is many different places depending on who you appear to be and how the platform encourages you to build your network based on your personal characteristics (age, gender, location, ethnicity, and anything else it can glean from your data)
My Instagram experience with an alt identity
A good example of this in the digital fieldwork was my own experience of the ‘Try on a New Identity’ activity. I started an Instagram account (having not had one before) as an alternative persona and began by following profiles/accounts suggested by the platform. The result was extremely informative. I gained an insight into the predominant aesthetic (in terms of fashion and ‘look’) of the platform and found just how much more sophisticated Social Media had become in shaping connections since I last ‘started from scratch’ in Twitter over a decade ago. Because I was an alternate persona it was extremely obvious why Instagram was throwing certain things at me based on my apparent age, location and gender.
It was now clear to me how the platform might cause anxiety through the pressure to conform to a very particular body image, mode-of-speech and lifestyle. It was also clear that various forms of authenticity were being performed which appeared to shift as accounts became more popular (the I’m-so-popular-I-can-now-reveal-the-real-me effect). Lastly, I was shocked that despite certain flags from the platform it was impossible to tell the difference between a person and a brand. I didn’t know when I was being sold something and, in some senses, everyone was selling ‘self’.
For me it was a distressing window into the convergence of self/product/brand which I often hear discussed but hadn’t seen so directly. The experience gave me a real insight into one of the potential reasons why our students can feel anxious about the online environment. Instagram implies that everyone can be famous but only by conforming to very particular ways-of-being (or performed ways-of-being). Obviously I had experienced a very limited and, in many ways, naive window into Instagram, which is what I had set out to do. There a many positive aspects to engaging with the platform which I didn’t experience because of the route I had taken.
To be clear (and in keeping with my own advice on the fieldwork) I was careful to only like posts and never commented or got into conversation. I didn’t gain access to anything that wasn’t already openly visible on the Web. I also only ran the account for a couple of weeks and it’s now mothballed. The activities are not designed to be used as research and as you can see I’ve been totally non specific even in this reflection. The persona I chose was not special, famous or someone anyone could have hoped to gain something from. I wouldn’t claim any persona is ‘neutral’ but I tried to be as boring as possible.
Reflections from participants
You can read some participants’ reflections on the digital fieldwork activities on the Teaching Complexity website. One of the most encouraging aspects of the approach for me was the depth of discussion generated by participants simply considering, but not doing, the activities. There was much discussion and reflection in the online sessions from people exploring why certain activities made them feel uncomfortable and the implications this might have for students who would be navigating similar choices. Ultimately, the activities are a useful prompt to generate thinking about how our identities are being used, and possibly abused, online and how this is now inextricable from the overall student experience.
Finding ways to articulate the flow of political and personal power online is inherently complex because it takes place across numerous contexts and at the intersection of many conceptual territories. Identity, gender, culture, class, to name a few, which then have to be considered within, or through, the lens of networks, hierarchies, communities, factions, nations, and so on.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial that we don’t let this complexity obscure the actions of those that seek power through manipulation, fear and coercion. Recently we have seen these modes of power acquisition move into the public, some would say civic, spaces of the Web. This post introduces a paper I co-wrote with Richard Reynolds which explores the visible, or surface, aspects of manipulation and control via the network. It does not deal with the undertow of algorithms and bots but with ‘magical’ modes of rhetoric which the disintermediated orality of Social Media makes effective at a scale we haven’t previously witnessed.
Last year Richard invited me to speak at his ‘Politics and Social Media’ event at Central St Martins which is part of the University of the Arts London. Richard opened the day with a talk on ‘Politics, Social Media and the Practice of Ritual Magic’ focusing on Trump’s use of Twitter and I followed by discussing ‘Trust and Digital Politics’.
There was an obvious resonance between our talks, so after the event we put together a paper combining our positions. We have struggled to find a home for this paper through traditional academic or journalistic routes as it doesn’t sit well in either camp so we humbly offer it here in its current, tidy-but-not-peer-reviewed state:
We have attempted present some of the shifting relationships between reason, belief and power in the networked era without falling into hard definitions real or fake. We are simply exploring ways of understanding the complex interplay of politics, celebrity and power as they are played-out through Social Media.
“Several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick. The myth-busting seems to work but then our memories fade and we remember only the myth. The myth, after all, was the thing that kept being repeated. In trying to dispel the falsehood, the endless rebuttals simply make the enchantment stronger.”
I think it’s important to accept that we all respond to the mythical as some level and that, unchecked, this can lead to intolerance and polarisation. Personally, I celebrate faith-based forms of understanding, wonder and fellowship. I hope by acknowledging that I’m not especially rational I can be more conscious of the ideological and belief-based manner in which I construct my worldview.
For me, this isn’t about not holding a position, it’s about being aware of my position and respecting those that differ. Crucially, it’s also about being able to identify when you are being sold a line which allows you to negatively stoke your identity (I’m in the right because I’m not like them, for example) while simultaneously feeding the power of those doing the selling.
Richard, myself and others will be continuing our exploration of power in the digital era at ‘The Search for Privacy and Truth’ Steamhack event on 23th March. If you are near Central St Martins then do come along. (contact me for details)
On May the 5th around 49 people from 19 institutions gathered at LSE for the second Future Happens event – “Connect:Disconnect” focusing on Social Media in teaching and learning. The event was co-run by LSE and UAL, hosted by myself, Peter Bryant and Donna Lanclos. Over the afternoon we facilitated a series of ‘hacks’ in which we challenged groups to develop positive ‘principles’ in response to key areas. For example, how can Social Media practices help to:
Develop and share identity
Build and support community
Engage in debate and dialogue
Generate and share creativity
…in teaching and learning. This was preceded by an ‘intervention’ (via Skype) from Bon Stewart to get our minds up and running.
Valuing difference in yourself and others, being civil and inclusive.
Enabling informed choice and empowering through awareness of options
Building communications channels and removing barriers to realise a connected community outside the physical space
Crowdsourcing/co-creation via social media enhances a sense of belonging and gives access to a greater diversity of perspectives, facilitating critical reflection
Encourage debate to span multiple spaces, including out of sight of the institution
Participation comes with an understanding that their are collective rights and responsibilities
We plan to gently curate the principles and make them available to help frame the collation/development of examples of teaching practice (or to inform the development of positive Social Media guidelines). The point being that the principles are not in-of-themselves rules or guidelines but principles-to-inform-practice. The hacks framed discussions that, within our institutions, we often can’t find the time for or which get bogged down by parochialism.
Before we hit the hack section of the afternoon we ran an activity called ‘BURNT’. I believe we were referring to the notion of getting-your-fingers-burnt but we can’t exactly remember where the name came from. The idea was to bring all of the hopes, fears and paranoia surrounding Social Media to the surface to clear the air before we attempted to develop the principles.
Everyone wrote three post-its on this basis:
ORANGE: Imagined worst case scenario
GREEN:Super positive personal aspiration
PINK:True life horror story
(all in the context of teaching and learning)
Donna and Peter then clustered the results while the hacks took place. Clusters included:
Imagined worst case scenario
Abuse of power
Super positive personal aspiration
Breaking down Barriers
Open and Flexible
Connected Teaching & Learning
True life horror story
Bad things happen to me
Bad things happen to them
With a few lone Post-its such as ‘@piersmorgan’ in True life horror story…
The BURNT activity did appear to clear the air and, we hope, helped groups to generate positive principles over the afternoon. We think there is something valuable to build on here in conjunction with the principles as a fairly mixed room produced BURNT items which clustered reasonably neatly (the true life horror stories we the trickiest to cluster). Alongside curating the principles we hope to get permission from participants to post the BURNT items online.
In parallel to this we also encouraged participants to note down learning designs or activities which had worked well using Social Media. For me, uncovering workable nuggets of teaching and learning is key to propagating positive practice.
Having initially run through the various outputs from the event it is clear to me than many of the risks associated with the use of Social Media in teaching contexts are the most powerful opportunities. For example, risks around personal and professional reputation are an opportunity to discuss ‘collective rights and responsibilities’. Similarly, unease around identity and credibility is an opportunity to approach, as one group put it, ‘understanding authenticity in different contexts’. Another example is the potential to explore issues of verification and epistemology in the context of fake news or disinformation.
If we take a positive teaching approach to Social Media then the very aspects of it that are held up as problematic become opportunities to explore pertinent themes such as, identity, authenticity, citizenship and diversity. For me, this is about framing or scaffolding our students forms of engagement with Social Media to foster awareness, reflection and critical thinking. All of which underpin positive identity formation and becoming.
An important ingredient in this is establishing trust between teaching staff and their own institution. Things can go wrong no matter how well they have been designed and framed. This is when the institution needs to stand by teaching staff who have taken the time highlight the risks to students and emphasised the personal responsibility each student has in public/visible environments (through teaching and not only by issuing a list of rules).
The next step for us after the hack is to post a lightly curated version of the work from the afternoon which can feed into post-hack events run by participants in their own institutions. I hope to run a post-hack at UAL in which we collate examples of teaching that build on, or respond to, each principle. Circulating well contextualised ‘learning designs’ that take advantage of Social Media as a teaching and learning space feels like a pragmatic way to build on the hard work and critical thinking of the event. Thanks to all who took part.
Recently I was invited to speak at a hack event on Politics and Social Media for our Culture and Enterprise Programme at Central Saint Martins (the description of the event is below). The event was designed and facilitated by Richard Reynolds the course leader of the MA Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries (one of my favourite course titles of all time). Richard opened the day with a talk entitled “Politics, Social Media and the Practice of Ritual Magic” in which he made the distressingly convincing argument that Trump operates much like a magician or tribal mystic and his Tweets are in the form of ritual incantations.
I followed Richard with a talk on Trust and Digital Politics, in which I started by stating:
It’s easy to critique or satirise an individual but, following on from Richard’s talk, much more interesting to explore the factors that allowed Trump to gain and maintain power – especially as unless these conditions change we will see a succession of Trump-like leaders emerging in the West.
In terms of Trust I argued that the Digital has allowed us to Disintermediate institutions. The Web allows Trump to pronounce directly to ‘the people’ via Twitter, circumventing the media, the government and his own party.
Our trust tended to be placed in institutions which resonated with our values and we’d have faith, to a certain extent, that those institutions had integrity. Until recently political leaders in the West would represent or embody those institutions. Increasingly we see the emergence of the celebrity, or media, politician who uses political institutions as a vehicle for their persona.This is an inevitable effect of the cult-of-the-individual that the Web amplifies so efficiently. So we have lost the trust-mechanism of institutions which, for better or worse, represented identifiable ideologies and are now left with individuals whose primary aim is to seek power. (The struggles of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK are demonstrative of this shift away from ideologically focused politics towards new forms of political persona)
The video of my talk starts from this point so I won’t essay it all out here.
Ultimately, I agree with Paul Mason in his assertion that much of what we are experiencing can be understood as a “fight between network and hierarchy” which has been brought about by digital technology:
I see this fight taking place in education as much as in politics as we respond to the all pervasiveness of the Web. This was writ large for me as I prepared a session on Networked Learning for our Postgraduate Certificate Academic Practice in Art, Design and Communication. In a description of Connectivism George Siemens’ highlights the same tension between networks and hierarchies.
The challenge for us is in negotiating the relationship between network and hierarchy. Institutions embed and petrify power in structures which privilege particular groups. Networks tend to generate ‘mystics’ and ‘high priests’ who could, if they wished, operate without the balance hierarchical democracy can, but often doesn’t, bring. (A phenomenon I’ve seen occur within Connectivist courses). It’s complex, fascinating, and requires our immediate attention.
A WORLD OF OUR OWN: POLITICS and SOCIAL MEDIA
“The Future of Trust in Digital Politics”
(event description by Richard Reynolds)
Many of us are living in a post-truth world, a world defined by ‘alternative facts’. The Brexit referendum and its aftermath have been shaped by irrational trolling and online ranting. President Trump tweets his policy decisions. Terrorists and other outlawed groups use – or attempt to use – the same online platforms as government agencies. States wage hybrid warfare, and use online disinformation as a tool in their blended online/offline military strategies. Access to news is shaped and distorted by each individual’s known tastes and preferences. Citizens have uploaded their political life and identity, and sometimes struggle to make any connection back to the politics of the offline world.
It’s scarcely necessary to describe the impact that social media is having on politics. We only have to look at the outcomes of elections, referendums and other political conflicts around the world. More than simply a tool, Social Media has changed the way that politicians structure their careers, and the ways in which voters (and non-voters) engage with politics and respond to political debates. Social Media has become central to the ways in which governments articulate and impose the power of the state over its citizens.
On Friday 24 March and Saturday 25 March, the Culture and Enterprise Programme at Central Saint Martins will be hosting a two-day immersive conference and hackathon on the future of politics and social media. Expert guests will be sharing their views on the present and future role of Social Media in our political life. All delegates will have the opportunity to participate in a two-day interactive group project, which will attempt to answer the question: ‘What is the future of trust in digital politics?’
Last year I wrote a quick post proposing a simple way to manage high level discussions about digital. This came from my involvement in digital strategy discussions which often slid across thematic and organisational areas, ending up with a scattering of actions which looked like a troubleshooting list and a desire to ‘get involved’ with new technology. The framework I jotted down simply proposed that discussions should understand their location within three areas: Digital Culture, Digital Medium, Digital Service.
For a recent talk I was asked to give by the Leadership Foundation on Digital Leadership I refined the framework and illustrated it with categories which sit within each area. I started with three headlines which set the context for the framework:
To harness the digital at an institutional level we have to focus on the present and not place digital in that the-next-big-thing-will-save-us category. Clearly we need to keep an eye on the horizon but I know our students would thank us if we prepared them for the digital ‘now’ not an unknown and variously utopian/dystopian imagined future.
I’ve written about this before but in summary – we need to respond to the digital as one part of the ‘real’ world not as a separate entity. Digital and non-digital activities flow in and out of each other.
It’s an element of almost everything we do and not a viable starting place for a discussion, hence the framework.
Clearly the subcategories are not exhaustive and some of the have an Art and Design twist but I hope they show how the main areas differ. What’s interesting is how decisions in one layer effect activities in the others but as institutions we struggle to make these connections. So for example we might install new technology in the service layer but neglect to discuss how this might affect teaching and learning in the Medium layer. We might make bold assertions in the Culture layer but struggle to understand the implications for the Service layer etc. This is why I think the framework is useful, assuming you can get the right mix of people from across the institution involved in discussions. Before I go any further I’ll quickly describe the layers as I see them:
In a digital context this could simply be IT. It’s the layer students are most likely to comment on if asked about ‘digital’ because when most people think of digital they think the technology itself rather than their practices within digital contexts. If this layer isn’t working then the other two don’t stand a chance. There’s not much point in trying to develop a digital identity if the Wifi is down.
This is where most of our day-to-day activities take place. It’s where the digital has become the location for our work and the place where we connect with each other. This is where the real work of the institution is done, for example, teaching and learning. It’s also the layer which is often least discussed strategically as discussions swing from the need to buy more 3D printers to the risks of Social Media use and not much in between.
These are the high level principles which inform the character and direction of the institution. As is always the case with culture these are often implicit or assumed to be shared values. So, for example, in my institution we have a culture of creativity and the desire to help students develop their own creative practices. How this is expressed in the digital should be an ongoing negotiation. It’s also of note that emerging practices in the digital and new forms of access/connectedness shift culture or call aspects of it into question.
You could take the framework and use it with a second axis such as scale. So we could take teaching as a subject and consider what is needed in Culture, Medium and Service terms, mapped against Individual, Course and Institution. Or to be more specific we might take a particular question from the National Student Survey in the UK such as “My course is intellectually stimulating” and consider what is required to ensure this within that grid. Or we could map against the student journey of Pre-arrival, Induction, First year, Second Year, Third year etc. These are the kind of discussions I’d like to frame at my own institution to develop a better shared understanding of the digital which cuts across traditional structural areas such as IT, Teaching and Learning and Senior Management.
The framework was well received at the Leadership Foundation event I presented at. I hope it proves to be useful. Thanks to the many colleagues who listened to me as I was formulating the framework and offered useful feedback and advice.
In the last few talks I’ve given to teaching & learning and library folk I’ve spoken about my views on what I believe education should be at the start. Rather than gently constructing an argument for my ideology and meandering towards a slow reveal (assuming anyone would notice) I’ve opened with a few simple statements to provide a frame for the rest of the talk. This appears to work well as there is an honesty to it that I suspect people appreciate.
My starting point is not new, it does not advocate smashing the system and it’s not a performance of liberal hand-wringing. I simply believe that education is a process of becoming.
This is a principle which then informs everything from curriculum design to the planning of physical spaces and the use of Social Media etc. Our undergrad students want to become one of those people that is hidden in the title of their course.
And this is a good thing. Students come out of school looking for simple identity hooks which is why the disciplines are such a powerful way of dividing up the world. However, once we have nurtured their disciplinary sense of self and taught some key intellectual tools we should encourage the questioning of overly neat identity associations. For me this is the bridge between undergraduate and post-graduate approaches. By the time students leave their undergraduate programmes they should be weaning themselves off simplistic, generic forms of identification and using what they have learned to develop their own, more complex, sense of self.
Clearly the Resident Web is an excellent location for this process of becoming and revealing. More than that, the networked, anyone-can-publish, identity-rich side of the Web is in-of-itself amplifying the potential to ‘become’ in ways which are less aligned with specific institutions and disciplines. This is what we need to consider when designing curriculum and pedagogy underpinned by the notion of becoming in a post-digital environment.
We need to ensure that the trajectory of undergraduate programmes is towards the top of the triangle, not just because of the presence of the digital but because it is the direction needed to foster becoming.
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.
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
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.)
Note how Twitter maps across all four quadrants, not just the Resident side of the map.
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.
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:
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?
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’
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.
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 🙂
Having been invited to give a talk at the British Library I naturally decided to create my own theory of the history of information… This was to illustrate my musings on a general shift from taxonomies to relevance in our information seeking. To be fair the librarians representing the BL and other academic institutions seemed quite sympathetic to the overarching point I was trying to make so here’s the idea:
In a pre-literate, pre-printing age information was embodied in kin, peers and those that you might happen to meet within a limited geography – in this sense information was physically located and arranged. Obviously I’m no expert in this area having just a smattering of old-school Anthropology to draw on so this part of the idea/diagram is simply there as a backdrop.
Then along comes printing (sure, the monks and tax collectors etc were busy before printing…) so knowledge stacks-up and needs organising so that it can be retrieved efficiently. There is a new category of knowledge which, while still linked to individuals as authors*, is not wholly embodied in the same way as before. Taxonomies are invented to structure printed knowledge, generating lines and relationships between ideas and information, creating a more defined model of understanding.
In the last 20 years or so we then see the rise of the digital and the network, search evolves from the dialect of databases to natural language. At this point something fundamental shifts. Our relationship with knowledge moves from interrogating taxonomies (think Dewey Decimal for example) to an expectation of relevance. Knowledge is no longer physically embodied so we don’t need systems to tell us where it is or what’s sat nearby.
Clearly all of the above forms of knowledge still co-exist, for example, students going to Social Media to ask others for the most relevant information sources. Nevertheless the Web has driven a massive shift from taxonomy to relevance. One way to think of this is that the Web circumnavigates taxonomy for us, connecting us to information and people without the need for hierarchy.
For example, if you want to discover a specific piece of information do you do move through a hierarchy do you simply search and then sift the results? When was the last time you found the Wikipedia article you wanted by moving through the taxonomy of the online encyclopaedia? We are increasingly driven by the stack of notifications in Social Media and/or via our phones where we can design the factors which stack what we feel is most relevant to the top of the pile.
Even when it comes to our own personal resources, many simply throw things into the cloud then search or look of ‘last modified’. In my institution most students use Apple Macs and organise their files visually. I suspect most would not be able to identify ‘where’ those files are within the structure of the hard-drive.
Of all of these it’s the manner in which search has evolved which has the largest implication for educational intuitions. If we take Google as an example we see that the taxonomy is hidden in the algorithm and this algorithm evolves to incorporate the traces of those that went before. Consider this in pedagogical terms: much of what it meant to learn was centred on an individual’s ability to navigate the taxonomies of knowledge, to find the ‘good stuff’. Intellectual effort was expended on discovery and on formulating links across chunks of information (aka books etc). Now the effort of making those connections is captured within the search algorithm and handed to the next person who searches on that topic. There is much less need for each new scholar to understand the larger model/taxonomy of a particular discipline. In essence, what we used consider to be part ‘study’ is now embodied in the technology (another example of the Post-digital). If our pedagogy continues to be based on notion, and still rewards effort, based on navigating these taxonomies then we are radically out of step.
And yet even as we move to an era of relevance, educational institutions continue to operate on taxonomic principals. This makes sense for the HR and the finance department but becomes problematic when it underpins curriculum design and assessment. Institutions have always operated in a hierarchical manner and yet the Web, the place many of our students (and staff) undertake the majority of their learning, doesn’t. One of the reasons students struggle to understand the course handbook or the set-up of their course in the VLE is because they rarely encounter structures of this nature. When I consider the requests students make to improve the digital provision and information sources of the university most of it can be characterised as “Please can you filter that complex structure into a feed based on what’s most relevant to me”.
*See “The Resident Web and it’s Impact on the Academy” at Hybrid Pedagogy for some thoughts on the relationship between ‘content’ and individuals/authors. http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/resident-web-and-impact-on-academy/