Open values

Universities are caught between network and hierarchy. We are institutions which work at scale, supporting, scaffolding and ranking students – awarding degrees, undertaking research and maintaining quality. All of this requires a hierarchical structure and approach. And yet, as institutions, we recognize the value of the network; of connected, collaborative and interdisciplinary modes of learning and working. We acknowledge that complex and super-complex challenges (the kind of challenges we claim our sector can help with – equipping graduates for uncertain futures, aging populations, climate change, the effects of globalization etc) can only be responded to by operating in a connected manner which deliberately extends beyond the borders of disciplines and our immediate communities. There is also a recognition that networked and connected modes of working and being are of value to staff and students in ways which can confer new forms of prestige on the institution. 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/severalseconds/25692158804

In my role of Head of Digital Learning at the University of the Arts London I’ve been asked what the ‘vision’ is for the institution in a networked, globalized environment?  I frame this as ‘how do we best operate as hierarchy and network?”. This is fundamentally challenging as ‘institutionalizing’ networked modes inherently turns them into hierarchies and thereby kills them. What is required is not the operationalizing of networked approaches but a clear statement of the ‘networked’ values that the institution supports, but importantly, does not seek to ‘own’.

These values fall under the banner of ‘openness’ which is a theme I started pursuing in a Teaching and Learning context but which I now see as a principle which reifies emergent responses to the network across key areas which constitute the university: Teaching & learning, Research and Knowledge Exchange. I believe it’s important for the institution to ascribe to these values at the highest possible level to establish a clear ideology which influences the character of the institution and the practical outworking of ‘openness’ in a myriad of ways.

In consultation with colleagues at UAL, and with support from Catherine Cronin, I have been leading on the development of Open Practice Principles here at UAL. These are still developing and require further consultation. They will also require the support of senior staff if they are to become institutional values (beyond the context of ‘innovative’ teaching and learning). In the spirit of the values themselves I’m posting the draft principles here for comment. I hope this will encourage others to take this route and will help me to connect with people who have already developed (and embedded) institutional values of this kind.

Open Practice at the University of the Arts London:

  1. Makes teaching, learning and research visible and accessible
  2. Collectively creates knowledge and practices
  3. Connects a diversity of voices
  4. Reaches beyond subject and organizational borders
  5. Manages risk in open and public contexts
  6. Develops digital attributes and identities

As I mentioned, at this stage these are merely proposed values. What is important at this point is that they establish a constructive and open institutional ideology towards the network which can be translated into operational support for openness in a manner which respects the need for diversity of practice and accepts non-hierarchical forms of risk (i.e. it does not try to mitigate networked forms of risk by subsuming networked and open practice into hierarchical systems of quality and control). They also need to be succinct and in a form which can be interpreted into a variety of contexts. At UAL I’m confident that these values will encourage positive sharing of practice which already takes place ‘under the radar’. They will also give some confidence that the institution will support staff if things-go-wrong when working openly.

Clearly these values will require case-studies, guides and policy in given contexts. In practice, much of the policy is already there an simply needs the equivalent of ‘this also applies in digital spaces’ added to it (I’m thinking of bullying, harassment, codes-of-conduct etc). I have already drafted a number of illustrations-of-practice under each value from a Teaching and Learning perspective but what’s important is to start with the values ‘at the top’ as it were and not to work in the hope that institutionally scattered examples of openness will naturally percolate into the psychology of the institution. One area where it’s possible to see the impact of high level values of this kind is in aspects of the Research Assessment Framework in the UK , I’d like to see the same happen with teaching via Teaching Excellence Framework too.

Teaching Complexity

In the short term, we will be embodying these values through our free, open, online seminar series entitled ‘Teaching Complexity’ #techcomUAL which will run from Jan – March 2019. The seminars will: “…explore how open and creative approaches to teaching and learning can help students navigate the complexity of higher education and the digital environment.” The series is co-curated by myself and Bonnie Stewart in her role as Visiting Fellow at UAL. The facilitators for the sessions include some of the most interesting and innovative voices in open educational practice so do come along to all, or any, of the seminars.

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Don’t fear complexity

This is a summary of my Lilac 18 keynote on the changing character of ‘information literacy’ – the talk was entitled “Posthuman literacies: reframing the relationship between information, technology and identity”. This was described as ‘the most cyberpunk title for a lilac talk ever’ (which I’m quite proud of) but could have been rephrased as “Don’t Fear Complexity”. There is a video of the talk and a shorter write-up from Shelia Webber.

Section 1: Two ‘new’ identities

As with anything relating to education it’s important to frame the ‘self’ before defining values and approaches. This is especially important with information literacy as the relationship between our identities and the information we engage with is now tightly interwoven. We can no longer work on the principle that we a neutral seekers of facts and truth traveling through a disinterested taxonomy of information. We have to frame the self or risk getting taken for an ideological ride.

Technoself

What it means to be human involves an ongoing incorporation of technology. Whether this is books, reading glasses, cars, the Web, connected devices etc. We (those who can afford to) quickly build the ‘new’ into social norms. For example, it’s now increasingly inappropriate to ask a fellow human a question which could easily be Googled. I encountered this at the doctors when I explained my mild symptoms and he replied “Why didn’t you just look this up online…?”.

This is the technoself: when we consider our phones, laptops, tablets etc – they are not just devices, they are an extension of who we are and an element of what it means to be human. The educational implication being that when we teach information literacy or advise on digital practices we are hoping the student will extend or change their who they are. Identity, information and technology flow into, and through, each other. The best way I’ve seen this put is that we are not addicted to our phones, we are addicted to being social. 

Dataself

The notion of the dataself has recently exploded into the public consciousness via the Cambridge Analytica story. I suspect the reason that story has resonated is as much to do with people feeling they have had something stolen as it is about fears around the erosion of democracy. Even so, it has made it abundantly clear that our interactions online generate a dataself or ‘shadow profile’. This highlights again that Facebook and others don’t simply ‘connect people’, they also connect people to organisations, institutions and businesses in ways which are unseen and anything but neutral.

The implication for information literacy is that it must reveal these mechanisms and reframe our relationship with information.

Section 2: Two forms of information

My response to the dataself is the need to now characterise information into two broad categories –

  1. Information we actively seek out
  2. Information we receive without consciously asking a question

In some senses category one has traditionally been the remit of information literacy while category two has mainly fallen under media literacy. I would argue that any critical approach to the Web has to combine the two.

The (Dave) White Ignorance Cycle

I’ve condensed the negative aspects of category two into a diagram which mirrors Kolb’s learning cycle (which I have never been particularly comfortable with). It is designed to capture what I see as a relatively new form of information illiteracy which might be better thought of as a lack of digital fluency.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This process drives polarisation and cedes power via polaristion to both the providers of the platform and those paying for the targeted message. In short, we have a responsibility to make this cycle visible to students to equip them with the critical faculties they need to retain any real agency in the networked environment.

Section 3: It’s not about facts

“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility.” Jacob Bronowski

Firstly, let me be clear, I’m not a total relativist, I do believe that information can be more, or less, ‘true’. What I’m more interested in though is regularly questioning why we believe something to be true and, most importantly, focusing on how we respond to information. While information literacy clearly isn’t only about validating sources to establish ‘factiness’ I am concerned that this is how is often comes across. I worry that implicit in information literacy is the notion that if we could all understand how to separate facts from lies then the world would be a better place.

This implication plays into the hands of those that secure power through polarisation as it is, in of itself, a polarising approach. We can fall into the trap of arguing over ‘who is right’ rather than respecting and understanding diversity, different perspectives and experiences. Much of what society runs on is socially constructed, negotiated knowledge and understanding. There is very little in the day-to-day which is utterly objective. I’d argue that totally objective information is only that which has no moral or ethical implications. As a corollary of  that I suspect our desire to define something as a fact is often an attempt to portray our worldview as the ‘natural order’ and therefore not morally questionable. Mark Fisher put it well:

“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” Mark Fisher

As I alluded to earlier, the key to emancipation over polarisation is to always frame the self as integral to the process. I proposed the following practical response to this:

“Questioning why you agree with something is more valuable than bolstering your views on what you disagree with”

This is my antidote to ‘Truthiness’, a problem which has been amplified by the way in which the network facilitates both individualism and homophily.

“Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I *feel* it to be true, but that *I* feel it to be true.” Stephen Colbert

Truthiness is especially dangerous where the ignorance cycle has unconsciously and uncritically maneuvered an individual into ‘truths’ or a false consciousness which serve those in power.

Section 4: So what?

My conclusion is unashamedly educational.

At my institution, the University of the Arts London, we see the value in uncertainty. In many of our courses it is important that our students are in a liminal state for much of the time within which they are not quite sure of what they know. This is a key aspect of the process of creativity and it’s also central to my reframing, or extension of, information literacy. Questioning our self, our motivations and methods, for seeking and validating information is our only chance of maintaining our agency within complexity. Not being afraid of being immersed in complexity requires understanding the value of uncertainty. This is all the more important where we receive information as an effect of our interactions. To ask how what we engage with has arrived in front of us and why we are comfortable with it (in the context of our identity and position) has to be central to what it means to critically evaluate.

To maintain the agency of our students (and ourselves) and not fall into the trap of assuming a ‘natural order’ which just so happens to be our current worldview we must reveal, not simplify, complexity. In tandem with this we must provide the critical tools to navigate complexity without denying it.

———-

The new definition of Information Literacy which CILIP Information Literacy Group launched at Lilac 18 is well aligned with much of what I have discussed here.

 “The ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use. It empowers us as citizens to reach and express informed views and to engage fully with society.”

The next challenge is to develop pragmatic ways to respond to the new definition in educational terms.

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Digital-magic and Power

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:

Politics, Social Media and Practical Magic_Reynolds White 

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.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/37709691@N05/8692494129

Recently I have been strolling around the fringes of the Engagement in a time of Polarization ‘pop-up MOOC’ course, facilited by Dr. Natalie Delia Deckard and Dr. Bonnie Stewart. Through this I have found some great readings, including The Problem with Facts by Tim Harford. His article is a good companion piece to our paper as also discusses the way we tend to respond to certain modes of language in a non-rational manner:

“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)

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Creative Digital Attributes

One of the challenges we face is bridging the macro and the micro of approaches to teaching and learning. On the one hand we have high level university-wide strategies and on the other the design of individual teaching sessions. The gulf between these two ‘levels’ is so wide that it can be difficult to understand how strategy might influence the immediacy of day-to-day teaching.

Generally, course validation process, handbooks and the design of assessments should bridge this gap but it’s rare to meet anyone in a teaching role that sees the course validation process as a positive design opportunity – one which draws clear threads between teaching values or principles and the day-to-day of running a course.

Incorporating digital into teaching and learning  inevitably suffers from the same problem. We can create strategies that talk of embedding digital into all aspects of teaching and discuss digital ‘tips and tricks’ for teaching sessions but struggle to define, or work with, course level digital learning design. The result is often laudable institutional aspirations and a smattering of ‘groovy’ digital interventions by confident staff who have agency through their structural position within the institution… 

This year the University of the Arts London launched its Creative Attributes Framework (CAF), which provides a valuable shared language to respond to the challenges I’ve outlined. It’s nine high level attributes which are clustered into three areas (all of which fall under the banner of Agency):

Making things happen Proactivity
Enterprise
Agility
Sharing abilities and accomplishments with others  Communication 
Connectivity
Storytelling
Life-wide learning Curiosity
Self-efficacy
Resilience

The CAF was designed by Careers and Employability at UAL and is a great example of how taking a ‘becoming’ rather than ‘skills’ approach to employability stops ‘getting a job’ being in opposition to ‘getting a degree’. Or perhaps it demonstrates that curriculum and employability can operate on similar principles if the focus is on personal development rather than on collecting-knowledge-and-skills. The CAF has been well received at UAL and because many aspects of digital teaching and learning are about ‘becoming’ it was an obvious next step to develop a digital lens for the CAF.

The CAF-Digital or D-CAF as it’s becoming known is currently a simple list of digital skills, practices, capabilities, literacies, behaviours… which operate on a meso level, providing bridges or stepping stones between the macro and the micro – a form of curricular or learning design scaffolding. For example:

  • Being able to switch between different discussions and roles online – in Agility
  • Managing collaborative writing or media production online – in Communication
  • Documenting, reflecting on and analysing the development of an idea online – in Storytelling
  • Managing and analyzing large bodies of data – in Enterprise
  • Constructively responding to critique online – in Resilience
  • Seeking out people from beyond your immediate community – in Curiosity

Trying to define the D-CAF elements as a particular type in terms of skills, practices etc is not the aim. What is important is that they operate at a meso, in-between, level and that we agree that they are a valuable aspect of developing a particular creative attribute in the digital. The elements of the D-CAF are designed to be contextualised by disciplines and courses, each of which can describe their approach to facilitating a relevant collection of the D-CAF elements. Importantly, courses can also map their curricular to the D-CAF to highlight which elements their teaching supports in a language students can relate to.

The current draft D-CAF has around 30 elements mapped to the nine CAF attributes. We are in the process of consulting with colleagues from around the university to ensure that these elements are in the best possible form before we publish/post a version 1.0. I have a basic rule that the D-CAF has to fit on one sheet of A4 paper, just to keep us disciplined… I’ll share version 1.0 here under a CC license. My hope is that others can build on the work and modify it to reflect the character/aspirations of their own institutions.

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Future Happens – Social Media

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.

‘BURNT’ notes

(The background to the event is here http://www.futurehappens.org/future-happens-2/

The responses to the hacks were captured in a series of Google docs which can be found here: http://www.futurehappens.org/fh2/

Example principles generated on the day include:

  • 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

  • Disconnection
  • Psychological/Physical harm
  • Tech fail
  • Abuse of power
  • Reputation
  • Job security
  • Exposure

Super positive personal aspiration

  • Breaking down Barriers
  • Open and Flexible
  • Political activism/Citizenship
  • Connected Teaching & Learning
  • Career benefits

True life horror story

  • Bad things happen to me
  • Bad things happen to them
  • #fail
  • Falsification

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.

 

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Education as Becoming

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.

A business student and a dance student as promoted by Plymouth University using simple identifiers
A business student and a dance student as promoted by Plymouth University on an identity basis

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.


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eLearning grows up

Designs on eLearning 2015

DeL booklet

When you get “The best elearning conference I’ve attended in 15 years” as feedback you feel you must have done something right. Over the weekend I’ve been musing on why we received comments like this and overall I think it comes down to the maturity of the discourse. It felt like elearning had grown up and avoided the normal tussle between the four main areas I see ascribed to the label ‘elearning’:

  1. Replicating core institutional functions at scale.
    This includes eSubmission, making available content and generally moving paper-based processes into the digital.
  2. Techno-solutionism.
    Plugging in technology to solve particular problems with the assumption that once the technology is working ‘correctly’ the problem will be eradicated. (Often part of the drive in the approach above)
  3. Fetishising the new.
    Leaping on the ‘next big thing’ and claiming it will ‘revolutionise’ something. (linked to number 2)
  4. Focusing on pedagogy and people.
    Exploring how the tech can support forms of teaching, learning and engagement.

At DeL there was a healthy emphasis on number 4 with a concurrent wariness of 1, 2 and 3. Almost all of the sessions I attended discussed the complexities that arise when people and tech mingle. There was also a healthy skepticism of the Digital Natives idea, with very few people starting with that principle as a basis to build from (either directly or tacitly). It was as if the discourse around elearning had grown-up and become less polarised. Perhaps this was also helped by the mix of elearning folk, teaching staff and students. The parallel sessions had an honesty to them in which the subtly and complexity of teaching was respected (No ‘how can we foist this week’s cool tech on staff or students’).

Rhetoric and reality

What also stood out for me was an interesting tension between some of the keynote “the digital has arrived” rhetoric and the reality of developing elearning projects within institutions. This spawned the hashtag #undertheradar as most of what we heard in  parallel sessions included a comment along the lines of “We didn’t really tell anyone we were doing this” or “We kept this quiet until we were sure we had the design right”. I’m wondering now if this is a response to the techno-solutionism approach which is gaining ground as institutions seek to stabalise and consolidate processes via technology. The iterative approach in which projects take a number of cycles to find their way is, in my opinion, the only way to develop the ‘pedagogy and people’ side of things. And yet despite the fact that we hear noises from the top that digital is the way forward we are still nervous about revealing the leading edge of our work. I wonder how we can gain confidence and make it clear that there is no ‘plug-and-play’ where we are looking to support pedagogy?

Digital segregation

The second theme for me was closely linked to creative practice but stems from a more general challenge, namely that we still segregate the digital. This problem was mentioned in a few of the student keynotes which questioned the hiving off of expensive Apple Macs into pristine labs when the creative process often needed a multi-modal and messy environment. The truth is that the tech we buy as institutions to impress incoming students might not always be the tech they need to undertake their studies. This is a tricky one as a random set of slightly out of date, battered laptops isn’t going to look good but it might free students up and start breaking down disciplinary boundaries which are currently reinforced by the geography of our physical spaces and the fear of breaking expensive stuff. My hope is that the tech will become unchained one day in the same way books once were. For the time-being the march of technology and consumerism is too strong.

This notion of digital segregation goes beyond the physical and is often inherent in numbers 1,2 and 3 above whereby ‘learning’ and ‘work’ is perceived as being undertaken in physical locations (even when we are working with a digital device) and the digital is conceptually segregated off as a series of tools rather than a place in which that self-same learning and work can happen (a shift in thinking I’ve been attempting to influence for some time now).

 

I’m still thinking through DeL2015 and how we can build on the character of discourse that it fostered. It was a pleasure to host an elearning conference in which the ‘e’ took a back seat.

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Visitors and Residents – an update

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

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

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

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

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

Digital visitors and residents – some thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 comments:

David White said…

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

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

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

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

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

HelenB said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Oliver said…

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

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

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

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

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

HelenB said…

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

David White said…

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

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

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

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

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

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Disappearing digital resources

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

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

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

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

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

OER Impact project team-

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

Learning Technologies Group:
Dr Elizabeth Masterman
Ms Joanna Wild

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Product or Public Good?

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

Or view the talk in the ALT-C youTube channel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slides from the talk:

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