(Re)humanising eLearning

For my ‘Spotlight stage’ session at Online Educa (15:35 on Thursday 4th) I’m  exploring ‘Re-humanising eLearning’. This is a theme very much inspired by Catherine Cronin’s keynote at ALT-C this year in which she spoke, among other things, about the value of online identity and open practice.

When I’ve mentioned the theme of Re-humanising eLearning to colleagues many of them suggested that eLearning was never particularly ‘human’ in the first place. This is a reasonable, if disappointing, comment. Nevertheless, take a look at almost any Digital Literacy framework and it will have the distinctly human (in that it is about the ‘self’) concept of a Digital Identity highlighted in it somewhere. In my favourite framework/hierarchy from Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe Digital Identity is the apex of digital capability.

Yet the primary experience and conception of eLearning for most learners is based around receiving a bunch of content that has been placed into a curricular structure somewhere online. No need for an identity in this scenario, just anonymously grab what you need to get your work done.

In my session at Educa I’m going to highlight how the efficiency and flexibility of this impersonal form of eLearning risks holding students at arms length. This is especially the case those who have many calls on their time (work, childcare etc.) and can’t make it to face-to-face sessions or have chosen predominantly online forms of learning to fit around other activities.  In this scenario it’s crucial that the digital becomes a humane learning space in which a sense of ‘togetherness’ can grow.

What interest me is how meeting in physical locations has an automatic feeling of togetherness built in, we feel we are sharing an experience without having to ‘know’ the other people in the room (a trip to the cinema is a good example of this). The very fact everyone has chosen to turn up to the event/session/lecture shows a common purpose. (I’m planning a little shared performance which involves the whole room in my Educa session to prove this point… See http://daveowhite.com/perfomance)

Online it’s a different story, when we move to predominantly text based environments we have to project our identity before we can interact or feel a sense of connection. What good would Twitter or Facebook be if we didn’t know who was talking/posting, if the screen way just a series of sentences with no attribution?

Identity and self expression are writ large in my mapping of ‘digital capabilities’ on to my 3 category model of digital engagement (see Breaking down digital).

I’m not sure I’ve captured everything I need to here but I’m confident that as soon as we move towards the Resident/Spaces end of the continuum we are engaging, however minimally, in forms of self-expression which leads to the projection of identity.  It could be argued that it works along these lines:

Technology (and the people in it) fosters agency > forms of self-expression > formation of identity > increased agency > and so on…
(note: should make this into a looping diagram)

So in a digital context identity and self-expression are crucial to becoming and belonging, whereas in face-to-face scenarios some ‘togetherness’ can be felt without identity. Those who are fortunate enough to be able to regularity attend face-to-face sessions are likely to feel connected to their learning and their institution; to engender this online requires more explicit fostering of identity and expression.

At this point we could switch ‘digital’ for ‘higher education’ and the principle still fits. The digital in this case is simply a mirror for what I believe to be the overall point of higher education – to encourage and challenge students to nurture their identities as legitimate participants within their field of study. They arrive with a delicate sense of who they are in the world and leave with purpose and a solid sense of self…

Lonely Natives?

I stumbled across a piece by Lauren Laverne on the Guardian website this weekend in which she unquestioningly evoked the idea of Digital Natives and Immigrants (which appears to have been largely drawn from Michael Harris’s The End of Absence).

“Anyone born after 1985 is a ‘digital native’”

Alone
CC – Lee Haywood https://www.flickr.com/photos/leehaywood/6563902327

What interested me was that her interpretation of the concept was social rather than technical. Launching from her feeling that the best new music ‘sounds lonely’ inspite of the connectivity of the Web Lauren describes the manner in which the Web and Social Media have led to a generation that know little of solitude or unconnected moments. This is in contrast to her childhood in a pre-digital era in which she regularly experienced many moments of being ‘alone’. This, she claims, allowed for more reflection and perhaps an opportunity to build a sense of self in a way the Web has forced into cultural extinction.

What intrigued me was that she in no way claimed that her generation used Social Media any less than ‘the kids’ or that the ‘the kids’ were any more adept than she was at living via digital means. The influence of the digital is being framed here as entirely social, not technical. This, for me, is more evidence that we are becoming Postdigital, wherein the digital permeates everything so the focus shifts back to the human. For example now that all phones are an anonymous slab of screen and ‘everyone’ owns one we can see past the tech to sociocultural effects. This is not to say that the drive of the ‘Natives’ argument isn’t unhelpful bunkum (As highlighted by Josie Fraser in a recent post) – beyond “kids naturally ‘get’ technology” classics include:

  1. Kids have lost the ability to concentrate
  2. Kids don’t know how to be alone
  3. Kids don’t know how to think deeply anymore
  4. Kids are incapable of reading more than a few sentences at a time
  5. Kids feel alienated, alone and confused
  6. Kids are losing their moral compass

…because of the Web…

Swap ‘Web’ with ‘comics’, ‘pop music’, ‘TV’, ‘videos’ or ‘videos games’ and these statements can be applied to the ‘youth’ generation at any point since 1945. Everyone loves a generation gap…

The truth is that people like connecting to each other by any means possible so of course if there is an opportunity to feel that delicate sense of connection and belonging we will take it. That’s why the humble telephone became so popular and it’s why Social Media exists. Solitude is a subtle discipline and one which may need to be learnt now that it isn’t foisted upon us by a lack of connectivity. Even so, are older folk any better at taking timeout than the kids and was my generation any less alienated or distracted than today’s youngsters? I doubt it.

What exactly are your students up to online?

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

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

V&R map
Simple Visitor & Resident map

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

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

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

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

Visitors and Residents mapping process: the video

This is a video of the mapping process which we first piloted at Educause last year. It’s designed to help you explore and reflect upon how you engage with the digital environment and then investigate how your students/users/staff engage with what you provide. Feel free to use the video to help plan your own mapping session and let me know how you get on. The video is CC licensed so it’s ok to embed it into your work/courses directly with an attribution if that’s helpful.


Firstly, I should apologise for my appalling handwriting in the video. I hope that the gesturing opportunities of the whiteboard outweigh the lack of legibility. As a back-up I have included the two maps I draw in the video in digital form at the end of this post.

This video has been created for ‘The Challenges of Residency’ project I’m piloting as academic lead for the Higher Education Academy. The project is exploring the way Resident forms of practice might differ across disciplines. A larger call for that project will be coming out in the autumn, so if you are interested and UK based keep an eye out for it.

As mentioned in the video the mapping process is an output of the Jisc funded ‘Digital Visitors and Residents’ project which is a collaboration between Jisc, Oxford, OCLC and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The Jisc project has run the mapping process a number of times face-to-face in the US and the UK, with design sessions planned for a library focused ‘infokit’ on V&R being run at SUNYLA and ALA. The video will hopefully become part of that infokit, recontexualised to shift the emphasis toward information seeking.

In conjunction with this we are going to use the mapping process in a course we are developing with Jisc Netskills based around V&R. The course is designed to help higher education teaching practitioners explore and possibly incorporate Resident forms of practice into their work.

In the video I also make a passing reference to some work facilitated by Alan Cann at Leicester who used the V&R continuum to map the preferred modes of engagement of a complete cohort of students.

The process itself is in three parts:

  1. Map your personal engagement with the digital environment
    This is a good way to tune-in to the issues and will make visible how Visitor or Resident you generally are in different contexts.
  2. Map how you think your students/users/staff engage with what you provide
    This can include your practice online (teaching, support, information provision etc) or the services you provide in terms of platforms (VLEs, catalogues etc). In most cases your practice and the service you provide will be interwoven.
  3. Gather a small group of students/users/staff and ask them to map how they engage with what you provide

Depending on your role you may find large overlaps between maps 1 and 2. The overall aim here is to compare maps 2 and 3 to explore where expectations are being met or are being miss-interpreted. As I mention in the video discussions around the process tend to move from a technology focus to the underlying motivations and attitudes which inform the modes of engagement employed online. I think this is the strength of the process as it helps to avoid the technology-as-solution approach and instead focuses on practice and what it means in a range of contexts or online ‘places’.

For more information on Visitors and Residents:

  • The original video outlining the V&R idea and continuum
  • Our paper on Visitors and Residents for First Monday
  • The progress report of the Digital Visitors and Residents project (pdf)

Or you can contact me at david.white at conted.ox.ac.uk

More legible versions of the maps I create in the video:

My personal map (with a little more detail):

Personal map

My map of how I imagine students engage with what I provide online

Student map

We have become the barn

In Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise Jack and Murray, two academics, take a trip to see The Most Photographed Barn in America. On arriving there are indeed many people taking photographs. The academics stand to one side, Murray theorising about the meaning of this process while the Jack remains steadfastly silent.

I was reminded of this passage when I visited the Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Almost all of the visitors were capturing images of the building on a variety of digital devices. Why were they doing this when the web is already abundant with equivalent images? For me Murray’s postulating in White Noise has the answer:

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura.  Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

How many of those pictures of Gaudi’s cathedral will remain perfectly stored in the digital purgatory of a never accessed memory card?  Not that this matters because the point is not the image itself but the act of capturing the image. The object gains authority in proportion to this act and as tourists we were happy to reinforce the building’s authenticity by taking part in the collective theatre of imaging. The principal factor being that the object of our capturing was easy to find because it resides in a fixed location which is relatively straightforward for a great number of people to visit.

The Social Web allows us to objectify ourselves in a similar manner. We can post aspects of our lives and identity online which remain in a fixed location and are relatively easy for a great number of people to visit. These representations take the form of Social Media profiles and postings, images, videos and comments. We create this presence for others to capture, the elegance of the Social Web being its ability to quantify the act of capturing. Each imaging is collated and displayed: hits, views, likes, retweets, comments, followers, friends. The higher the number the more authentic we become. We reside online and retain a presence beyond our live engagement. We have become the barn, available to be capture-constructed around the clock. The danger if we come to rely on defining ourselves in this manner…

“Nobody sees the barn anymore,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

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.