Trapped in the Chinese Room with Google

Part of my thinking around the Web and education is as follows:

  1. The Web is brilliant at feeding us the information we need to get things done in a highly relevant manner.
  2. We still tacitly design pedagogy as if this wasn’t the case on the basis that ‘good quality’ information must in-of-itself be difficult to obtain and that by implication online information ‘can’t be trusted’
  3. This approach is founded in our cultural adherence to the form rather than the substance of information. (for example our veneration of the concept of a ‘book’ or notions of what it means to be an ‘expert’)
    (both 2 and 3 are a hangover from a period in time when we held information behind locked doors)
  4. The new challenge for education, driven by point 1, is how to encourage learners to ‘think’ in an era where answers are easy to come by (on the basis that the challenge of finding information used to, in-of-itself, encourage critical thinking and reflection)

Let’s imagine a scenario where most of the key ‘answers’ to curriculum are easily found online. (This will increasingly be the case on a relevance driven Web as the answer to any regularly asked question will rise to the top of the search return).  If we construct our pedagogies around the search for answers in this manner then the efficiency of the Web will place students in a role similar to that of the person inside Searle’s famous Chinese Room thought experiment.

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In the thought experiment Searle, who does not understand Chinese, is locked in a room with a set of rules in English which “enable [him] to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols” – the latter symbols being the Chinese language. Given this, people can post questions in Chinese into the room and Searle can translate them successfully, posting back answers without having any knowledge of Chinese himself. The people receiving these answers falsely believe there is someone in the room who understands Chinese.

This has been used to make a case against the notion of Artificial Intelligence by claiming that Searle’s activity in the room doesn’t  require him to understand Chinese and that by implication he is not thinking or reflecting on the Chinese language but simply following a set of rules.

In my version of the scenario Searle is our student, the Web is the set of rules and the Chinese language is any question posed by our pedagogy to which an answer can be found online with a simple search. Ironically this frames the student as ‘unthinking’ technology and the Web as the embodiment of intelligence via the algorithms, or ‘rules’, it employs to feed answers back via the student.

We have compounded this problem in the light of the Web by losing our confidence in teaching how to think and retrenching to defending our authority as the font of knowledge. Education should not be about establishing the worthiness of certain forms of knowledge, especially if we ascribe to Feyerabend’s rejection of universal method, it should be dialectic process, interrogating, synthesising and pushing forward our understanding.

[Side Note: There are numerous examples of sectors/businesses moving into a protectionist mode just before being overtaken by the digital. Good examples include newspapers and imho traditional academic journals. Universities embody high levels of cultural capital and are more diversified than many people realise. Nevertheless, they risk becoming overly anachronistic if they don’t equip graduates with significantly more than what can be gained by owning a smartphone. Side, Side, Note: Clearly the ‘beauty’ of higher tier universities is their ability to make being anachronistic the very basis of their cultural capital]

Once we realised that anyone can publish online (the most radical aspect of the Web) our first reaction as educational institutions was to focus on evaluating sources because they hadn’t been pre-vetted by the library or written by one of us. My contention is (and my research shows) that the Web works very well in terms of information quality and relevance which in turn re-emphasises the importance of teaching how to use and connect knowledge not simply how to decide if a piece of information is to be trusted. For me this is as the very heart of what a higher education should be.

The challenge for us then is in finding ways to encourage learners to critically reflect on the manner in which they engage with, and use, the Web epistemologically rather than only concentrating on the critical evaluation of isolated chunks of information. In some senses this is simply a move in emphasis from ‘digital’ literacy to a more generalised form of literacy. 

Getting this approach across to students requires clarity though because it usually cuts against their perception, and experience of, education as an exercise in  discovering ‘answers’ (especially if they have recently left school). Just warding students off the Web or implying that online sources are fine as long as they are the same as things you might find in the library (the usual marker for credibility) is missing the point. The Web should be encouraging us to move to the higher rungs in Bloom’s taxonomy all the sooner or our pedagogy risks students in the Chinese Room with Google Search.  

Make it relevant

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:

Relevance diagram
A brief history of information…

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.

Relevance Diagram

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.

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.

Love of Learning society

An online society open to all dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and the love of learning.

“For the LoL”

This is an idea that was developed with the help of Simon Thomson at the Jisc Creativity Workshop run by Lawrie Phipps.

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The LoLs 10 Tenets:

  1. Not for profit
  2. No credentials or qualifications given or required
  3. 100% online
  4. $5 lecture fee
  5. All lectures happen live with no limit on the number of students
  6. All lectures to be funded in a ‘kickstarter’ style with visible speaker fee
  7. Anyone can run a lecture as an expert
  8. 50% of lecture running time to be Q&A/discussion with questions chosen by the students
  9. All sessions released as a recording under an open, noncommercial license
  10. All income (after expert fee and admin) to go to educational charities that work to widen participation and make knowledge freely available

The following to be decided by the expert for each lecture:

  • Subject focus
  • Lecture length (must be a prime number of minutes between 7 and 29)
  • Speaker fee, which will be visible to the potential students (the fee will either be waived or a prime number)

LoLs student (sLoL) journey:

  1. Become a member of the society by signing up to the LoLs platform.
  2. Seek out an interesting  lecture and pledge $5. (It will be clear how close the lecture is to the minimum funding level needed. Beyond this point all income goes to charity. All lectures have a set start time.)
  3. If they make a pledge early (before the minimum funding has been reached) they can submit a question to be asked during the Q&A portion of the lecture. If they are in later than this then they can vote potential question up and down. The number of questions used will be proportional to the length of the lecture.
  4. They might explore some of the pre-lecture links if any have been submitted by the expert. They can also check the lecture hashtag to get involved in pre-lecture discussion and connect with others who have pledged.
  5. If the minimum funding level is reached they receive a reminder of the lecture time and an access code of some sort.
  6. The lecture runs in a Google Hangouts style platform with a video feed from the expert, a hashtag driven back channel and a text chat area. More confident experts could use whiteboards and polls etc. All lectures are supported by a facilitator to assist with the tech and to moderate. Facilitators can work for free or be paid in $5 lecture tokens. Experts will be encouraged to respond to the backchannel and text chat as much as possible.
  7. At exactly half-time the lecture moves into Q&A mode with the facilitator stepping through the top questions as voted for by participants. If there is time left they can respond to questions that have emerged from the backchannel and text chat.
  8. Exactly on time the platform shuts down the lecture with extreme prejudice (automatically 🙂
  9. The video feed is then placed on YouTube or a similar channel under an open, non-commercial license.
  10. Discussion can continue on the hashtag.
  11. Participants can rate the lecture and the expert within limited LoLs criteria.

LoLs expert (eLoL) journey:

  1. Become a member of the society by signing up to the LoLs platform.
  2. Experts must have participated in at least two lectures before having the option to create their own lecture and have completed a LoLs expert tutorial.
  3. Create a lecture by submitting the following:
    • Subject area, title, blurb etc
    • Level (novice, intermediate, advanced)
    • Associated material and links
    • Pick a speaker fee for themselves
    • Pick a lecture length and time
    • Pick a charity or charities (from a LoLs list) that any income over the minimum will go to
  4. The expert can mark what they think are good questions with an expert tag during the voting process but can’t create questions.
  5. The expert might join in the hashtag based discussion.
  6. They may also promote the lecture via their networks to ensure it reaches the minimum funding level.
  7. If the funding level is reached they are given an expert code of some sort to access the lecture space which they can visit as much as they want to set-up.
  8. The lecture runs (all they need is a webcam and headset). Experts and facilitators arrive 30 minutes before the start time to ensure the tech is working smoothly.
  9. After the lecture the expert can chose to join in with any additional hashtag based discussion. The expert or the facilitator may put a link to the recording in appropriate Wikipedia articles.

So that’s about it in simple terms. It’s based on a number of principles:

  • People like to be involved in live events even if this is less convenient than watching a recording. (See ‘Eventedness‘)
  • The format is honest about paying the experts if they want a fee. The $5 format also negates the need for advertising (depending on what platforms are used) or sponsorship.
  • People like to influence events and have input – in this case via submitting or voting on questions or via the live discussion. 
  • Most people can relate to ‘classic’ nomenclature such as ‘lecture’, ‘expert’ and ‘student’. This is a deliberate choice and has no bearing on the style of pedagogy experts chose.  
  • It allows for huge mainstream lectures and niche ones designed for no more than a few students.
  • People like to lead up to and away from live events – in this case via the lecture hashtag.
  • ‘Big names’ can chose a big fee or munificence.
  • in keeping with the LoL principle only lectures that people are truly interested in will run.
  • Popular lectures are very likely to bring in income for the chosen charities as there is minimal (if any) cost as student numbers increase.
  • People tend to be more invested in something they have paid for even if the fee is minimal (and incidentally a prime number).
  • The format encourages both the expert and keen students to promote the lecture.
  • No knowledge is withheld as all lectures are freely available as recordings.
  • Anyone can get involved in hashtag discussions.

I’d estimate that a LoLs pilot could initially be developed by stitching together a number of free-to-use platforms. The difficult part is managing the way the money flows around. I suspect a bespoke pilot platform could be put together for less than the cost of developing the materials for a mainstream MOOC.

So, who’s interested? 🙂

P.S. If this got off the ground then I’d form a parallel organisation called the Love of Learning institute ( LoLi – pronounced lolly). This would also be not for profit and would handle any commercial interests in LoLs content. For example a number of LoLs lectures under a given theme could be built into a curriculum structure and accredited. The LoLi protects the tenants of the LoLs and would hopefully feed more money to educational charities.


Working at a large arts focused university and collaborating with colleagues in institutions of various types including Russell-group is giving me a broad insight into the changing character of Higher Education in the UK. A major shift we’ve all witnessed with the introduction of fees is the student-as-consumer effect. We are groping our way towards the American model, discussing the Student Experience but with institutions that are almost entirely structured to deliver curriculum. As Eric Stoller pointed out at the recent Jisc Creativity workshop we don’t have the equivalent of ‘Student Affairs’ in our institutions and anything that isn’t directly aligned with delivering the curriculum is scattered across libraries, academic support, the student union, careers/employability etc.

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Job fair.   CC –

Treating education as a product is problematic and in the Digital Student Project we are always quick to point out the importance of managing and challenging student’s expectations as well as meeting them. The student-as-consumer effect is usually concerned with the education we provide being, or becoming, ‘product’ – but that’s a mistaken reading of the situation. The real product is employability and by inference the student themselves.

The sadness for me is that while there has always been an element of increasing-your-chances-of-getting-a-decent-job about Higher Education the underlying philosophy remained one of citizenship not economic viability (as discussed in this episode of the Philosophy bites podcast on the Aims of Education). This was even the case when taking so-called vocational courses – the focus was employment but the ideology was predominately educational not economic.

I worry that as a sector we have lost confidence in the value of learning as part of what it means to contribute to society and to become more engaged in the world. I’m not against employability. I can completely understand student’s motivations here and the need for institutions to take some responsibility in supporting them in finding work. My concern is that we are not cutting enough space for students to come to an understanding of themselves as learners and citizens *before* constructing themselves as ‘professionals’. Our preoccupation with the problem of curriculum-as-product has masked the larger problem of student-as-product or ‘entrepreneur’.

Unfortunately I see this being powerfully played out in digital contexts. The potential agency that the Web affords individuals is being co-opted as part of the process of student-as-product.  This became clear to me when I contributed to the design of a masters-level module called The Mediated Self at a prestigious UK university. This was an interesting co-design process with a both staff and students contributing ideas. The module was largely going to explore what it meant for the ‘self’ to be mediated on the Web and the students proposed a really strong structure complete with relevant readings and clear themes. I myself had had a fascinating time getting lost in notions of the self by reading a large chunk of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. My point was that you can always argue about the nature of the self but what’s interesting in a digital context is our ability to manage our ‘self’ in concurrent spaces, the digital and the physical. To me this is an inherently new situation brought about as an effect of the digital being a social space not simply ‘content’.

What struck me in our discussions was that the student’s motivation to learn this type of material was mainly to help them construct a ‘successful’ identity online. Implicit in this motivation was the notion of a hypothetical ‘super-employable professional persona’ which one could somehow work towards or enact online as a self-standing entity. There was a sense that there must be a correct way to ‘be’ online and that this module would help them to uncover this truth as if being-in-the-world was similar to successfully passing an exam. In effect, there was more motivation to mediate a professional persona than there was to develop a ‘self’. Instead of the Web being viewed as a place for ‘becoming’, for self-expression and human connection (ideas my institution really understands the value of) it was being seen as the location to present a perfect model of student-as-employable-product.

The academic staff at the design session were well aware of this and I could tell they would be gently pushing against these narrow motivations in an attempt to help the students come to a deeper understanding of the modules themes. My feeling is that most teaching staff attempt to challenge employability as the be all and end all of education but I fear that as a sector we are amplifying the student-as-product message rather than championing learning as an end in itself. The effect of this will the ‘production’ of students who are adept at modelling ’employability’ but may well lack the depth and agility to make their way in the world beyond economic success. My view is that University should be a place where we enlarge our ‘selves’ through learning. I suggest that as a sector we regain our confidence in the principle that a rich sense-of-self is the single most ‘employable’ attribute individuals can develop.

The Big Apple and a Strategic Mellon

Last week I helped to run two Visitors and Residents mapping workshops in the United States. The first one at The New School in New York was in the ‘opportunity to reflect’ mode which we have run with staff and students before. The second one was a new, two day, format designed to inform the direction of Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh university libraries.

Meaningful Honking only in New York...
Meaningful Honking only in New York…

The mapping process has evolved over the last few years from the reflective activity section of a conference session or workshop to an approach which can inform high level institutional strategy. I see it as a bridge between the realities of day-to-day practice and broader institutional aspirations. The process is ostensibly focused on ‘making visible’ practice that takes place in digital contexts but what we find when exploring this is that we hold a mirror up to the underlying principles and ideology which staff or students ascribe to – the tacit values in an organisation which rarely have an opportunity to surface. So typically participants start by considering technology, then discussing the value of the practices in around the digital, finally moving on to reflecting on the wider aspirations they hold and how these relate to the overall aims of the institution – sometimes this can get quite lively…

V&R map
An unusual shaped map from an academic at The New School

The structure of the Carnegie workshop worked along these lines:

  1. Initial discussion (via email) with senior staff to gain a sense of where the organisation (in this case the two sets of libraries) are in terms of the role and values of digital practices.
  2. Day 1: The core Visitors and Residents mapping workshop is run with staff (A pdf for the core format is available here). At Carnegie this was about 34 staff in various roles from Carnegie and Pittsburgh libraries)
  3. Day 2:  A condensed version of the mapping is run with senior staff, key maps generated during day 1 are discussed, followed by a more general discussion about the implications of what we found during day 1 and overall strategies that could be employed to encourage and support valuable emerging forms of practice.

At Carnegie the most interesting ‘new’ forms of digital practice were around the various ways that the library can engage users via the digital, the focus being on relationships rather than simply broadcasting information (See Donna Lanclos’ post on the workshops).

The roles involved in running the workshop were crucial to its success:

  • Myself – bringing a broad knowledge of the culture of the Web and the way individuals/institutions have variously attempted to manage or take advantage of this.
  • Donna Lanclos – from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte bringing in ethnographic expertise which is especially relevant to V&R as it is predicated on the notion of ‘place’
  • Lynn Silipigni-Connaway – from OCLC bringing in a good understanding of the culture and history of the institutions is question and expertise on academic libraries.

In the UK I could envisage Jisc being in a good position to provide the necessary institutional knowledge and connections.

Pittsburgh 'Cathedral of Learning'
Pittsburgh ‘Cathedral of Learning’

My favourite part of the workshop on day one is when we bring up some of the V&R maps created in the morning on screen and ask the author of each map to talk us through them. Despite this taking place in quite a large group most people are happy to discuss their practices and significantly they commonly describe *why* there maps are a certain shape and how this relates to the wider work of the department or service they work within. The realities of time, risk and institutional politics come to the fore during the afternoon reflecting the realities of day-to-day work rather than becoming a phantom let’s-all-do-lots-of-social-media event…

Day 2 with the senior managers evolved into a discussion about the best way to facilitate and encourage some of the more engaged digital practices we discovered in day 1. The challenge here being how to institutionally proliferate what are most commonly practices which need to be owned by individuals. For example, abstracting the practice of a member of staff who is using Twitter successfully into a person-neutral model then requiring other staff to enact this hollow model is sure to fail. For me it’s about indicting the value of these individualistic practices for the institution without attempting to corporately own them. Emerging practices need to be shared in a community-of-practice manner by staff who are confident that what they do is credible and valued by the institution but won’t be ‘stolen’ or locked-down by senior folk.

I always enjoy being the eccentric English guy when I visit the States and suspect my accent tends towards the more ‘respectable‘ end of it’s parameters. This trip was intense and jet-laggy but I did learn just how hard you have to work to build trust when you are doing more than facilitating an ‘interesting’ one off workshop.

Elegant Lurking

One effective way to learn is to use Social Media un-sociably. The traditional term for this is Lurking – hanging around a discursive space online without speaking up. It’s an inherently negative sounding term with connotations of voyeurism and surveillance – a fundamental aspect of not being embodied online. For example, if you attend a lecture but  don’t ask a question you presumably aren’t Lurking because people can see you?

Elegant Lurking
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I’d like to propose the more positive notion of Elegant Lurking. This involves learners following key people in their disciplines (fellow students, ‘thought leaders’ practitioners, academics etc.) within Social Media to tune into the discourses within the subject. Often this is an effective way to discover interesting and valuable sources of information on a topic, especially those in formats which aren’t formally curated anywhere such as blog posts.

The bonus for learners is the additional discussion around these sources which takes place when they are shared. Comment and opinion on the subjects tackled and the relative credibility of the author and/or the material itself are extremely useful when you’re new to a particular area. Elegant Lurkers are critically evaluating the critical evaluation of thinking in their area of study… part of which involves assessing the credibility of the people involved in the discourse.

The value of this mode of engagement has be highlighted by the various Visitors & Residents mapping workshops like the one we recently ran in Galway for Catherine Cronin. It’s common for individuals maps to contain a Resident style platform (Twitter, Facebook etc) in the Visitor side of the map. Often this is because the individual is Elegantly Lurking. They are not yet interested in being visible online in a learning context but they find watching the discourse very useful.

V&R map

A map from a 1st year Post-grad students in the Arts and Humanities. Note the position of Twitter at the visitor end of the continuum indicating ‘Elegant Lurking’ in a Resident style platform.

All successful Social Media platforms allow for Lurking in some form. It’ allows individuals to tune into the ‘dialect’ of a particular network or community so that when they first decide to say something they’re reasonably confident it will be in an acceptable tone. Some learners will choose never to speak-up though, especially if they are following an intimidating network of venerable ‘thought leaders’ or if they assume they won’t be responded to. Others might find that they gain confidence over time as they come to understand the discourse in greater depth and discover that they do have something to say.

I’ve seen this numerous times where a student or someone new to a field signals that this is the ‘the first time I’ve commented on this’ or ‘I’ve written my first post on this subject and thought you might be interested’. This is an extremely important transition point for a learner from knowledge-consumer to active community member. It’s the point at which they are exploring their ‘voice’ within the discourse.

Supporting students to move towards this transition should be central to the overall trajectory of our pedagogy in more nuanced ways than simply assigning marks to the act of blog posting. Elegant Lurking is an important ingredient in the subtle business of becoming a member of a community.

This also highlights the mercurial nature of what it means to ‘engage’. The Elegant Lurker can be much more engaged than the noisy contributor and not being visible doesn’t mean you aren’t present. I worry that in the race towards quantifying engagement via analytics the more gentle, qualitative modes of engagement such as Elegant Lurking will be overlooked.

Post-digital revisited

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective:

I was in a vexed mood when I wrote my ‘Escaping the kingdom of the new’ post reflecting on our Post-digital working paper back in 2009. The edtech community were still in a ‘Web 2.0’ fueled miasma, heralding each digital platform as the next-big-thing. It was a slavish attachment to the ‘new’ that was blind to the simple duplication of existing practice from the analogue to the digital.

Nearly 5 years on the term Post-digital is becoming accepted in Higher Education circles as describing the normalisation of the digital in almost all aspects of activity. Elearning is a good example of this and huge success in some senses. I could prove this, for example, by pulling the plug on any university’s VLE and watching a riot break out. These kinds of tech, those that predominantly use the Web as a means of shuffling content are quickly ‘disappearing into use’. They have become Post-digital precisely because they don’t challenge the underlying way we run our institutions or engage students.

A Post-digital appropriation? CC-NC-SA
A Post-digital appropriation? CC-NC-SA

Meanwhile many students themselves struggle to answer the question ‘how do you do the research you need for your assignments’ because for most it’s difficult to imagine the answer could be anything other than ‘Google’. Similarity the incorporation of the Smartphone into the fabric of how students study is already Post-digital to the extent that it’s been described as ‘mundane technology’.

And yet moves to shift pedagogy to more collaborative, peer supported or open models are still met with confusion and trepidation. We have managed to ‘disappear’ much of the technology but predominantly in the service of mediocre models, efficiency and scale (MOOC?). One simple reading of this is that practice evolves at a much slower pace than technology. Another would be that institutions incorporate the ‘new’ only to serve what they already understand.

We appear to have moved from evangelising the new and shiny to using it without question. Perhaps it’s time to reexamine that of the digital which has become ‘post’, to question the embedded and ask if it is pushing boundaries or simply ossifying business-as-usual, petrifying forms of practice we assumed the ‘new’ of digital would disrupt.

More fundamentally the move to the Post-digital is submerging ideology: big-data, search engine optimisation, learner analytics, we-recommend-this-course-based-on-your-previous-attainment-levels etc. The surface this presents is one of apparent neutrality and in our cultural naivety we don’t recognise, or are barred from seeing, that the underlying algorithm has been marinated in a bath of vested interests. The new normalcy of being connected has created a Post-digital environment in which ideology can be embodied in code – a form that most believe to be free of bias.

I believe that in the same way Media Literacy shines a light on the political, cultural and ideological assumptions shot through broadcast media Digital Literacy should make visible the the very same which is crystallised in code. It might be too late though, we may already be completely Post-digital. The code we need to ‘see’ being too many layers down from the shiny surface of the technology we barely think about anymore.

Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

Against intuitive technology

“I want my technology to be intuitive” is a statement that has always irked me. Musing over why I can feel my eye twitching when I hear it I realised that ‘intuitive’ is a proxy for ‘I don’t want to think about the technology’. The assumption being that the tech is only there to facilitate at task. Presumably this task mirrors something the individual has done many times before in analogue form giving them the ability to intuit the process. For example, paying a bill or writing a report. “I don’t want the technology to get in the way of what I’m trying to achieve” being the sibling of the ‘intuitive’ comment.

Baby with iPad
Proof that bright lights are attractive to babies. (CC – lynnmarentette)

What many call intuition in their lives is almost always something that has been learnt. Beyond basic responses, such as a baby throwing its arms out (the Moro reflex – although here I may have moved from intuition to instinct), much of what we think of as intuition is simply stuff-we-have-learned-and-then-forgotten-we-learned. Knowing that the Diskette symbol means ‘save’ is not intuitive, especially as the skeuomorphism of our icons slips a generation and becomes wholly abstract.  More fundamentally, a Diskette might be the symbol for ‘save’ but what does ‘save’ mean? It’s certainly not an intuitive concept in the non-physical milieu of the digital where we have to create our own mental maps of where information is located and how it’s curated.

To my mind the most successful ‘intuitive’ aspect of contemporary technology is its ability to support modes of consumption. Adverts for the Kindle Fire phone show beautiful people using the technology to buy goods and services in a variety of ways which smoothly align to their beautiful lives. It’s hardly surprising that the dominant ideology of capitalism should be mirrored in the technology so successfully and received as ‘good design’ or ‘intuitive’ rather than ‘learnt’ or ‘programmed’.

What does it mean when the technological process many find the most intuitive is buying something from Amazon or seeking out information using a search engine that primarily exists to target adverts? The same applies with individual production online, as for most this involves packaging their identity into neat slices for others to consume via Social Media.

This is what comes to my mind when I’m asked why all technology isn’t more intuitive. For me learning the technology is part of the larger learning process. In an educational context there are many occasions when I don’t want the tech to be transparent, I want it to be questioned.

In the creative sphere nobody complains that software such as Photoshop or Final Cut are complex and require tutorials and workshops to master. It’s recognised that they’re powerful tools which need to be understood before they can be harnessed or appropriated. For example, we know that if we don’t get to grips with Photoshop the result is a dumb replication of a particular aesthetic (or Instagram as it’s known).  Photographers and filmmakers don’t expect the technology they use to be intuitive, they expect to be powerful, requiring effort to learn and to bend it to produce the results they desire.

It’s likely that this use of ‘intuitive’ in educational circles comes from writing being the predominant mode of production. Obviously as with any form of literacy writing must be learnt but the physical tools required to realise ideas in this mode are relatively simple. Bounce that into digital technology and you have MS Office Word which at its core is a straight reflection of the physical paradigm. This I suspect is where most people who demand ‘intuitive’ are coming from, they are not considering the possibility that some technologies operate in new paradigms that cannot be tenuously mapped back to existing practices. New modes of practice need to be developed in these cases. The manner in which technology can call us to question and adapt our practices by getting-in-the-way is the muse for much creativity and innovation.

I don’t want technology to be ‘transparent’ – a bland tool which supports practices we already understand. I want it to be challenging, I want it to inspire by being unexpected, open enough to be appropriated in new ways by intelligent, engaged individuals. Learning the technology, learning how it can be appropriated, recontexualised,  disrupted, abused and used is part of the process of education not something that should be designed out.

Connection and anxiety

As I hinted at in my (Re)humanising eLearning post I directed a group performance entitled “A performance of connection and anxiety” as part of my Spotlight Stage session at Online Educa. The audience played the part of first year undergraduates while I represented ‘the institution’ in all its various forms. This involved everyone standing up, putting their hand on the next person’s shoulder and closing their eyes (100+ people seemed surprisingly willing to enter into this piece of shared theater).

Photograph by David Ausserhofer, Mark Bollhorst and Maren Strehlau. All copyrights by ICWE GmbH. CC 2.0 Germany

As I’d hoped this created a certain frisson in the room and when we remained silent for about 15 seconds that strange feeling of togetherness started to grow despite most of the audience being strangers to one other. I then circulated round the room ‘selecting’ individuals by tapping them on the shoulder while they had their eyes closed, representing the moments they might be ‘chosen’ or engaged with by your institution in some way.

Discussing this with people afterwards some commented that they had hoped to be chosen but they didn’t know why as I hadn’t explained what the implications would be. Others hoped not to be chosen but overall there was a healthy tension in the room – I like to think of this as the ‘good’ form of anxiety.

When I asked everyone to open their eyes and sit down if they hadn’t  been selected many people were looking around to see who the chosen few were. At this point I admitted that I hadn’t chosen anyone which fortunately got a laugh (possibly of relief :).

Overall it did feel like we’d all shared in a specific moment of connection and one, as I outline in the original post, which worked between strangers because we were physically co-present. Gaining that sense of connection online requires more up-front identity work but I believe it’s crucial if we see the value of the digital as a place we can learn together.

The three key areas I proposed for consideration to create connection online and rehumanise elearning were:

1. Spaces
Think of and use the digital as a series of spaces or places where individuals can be co-present and connected. (rather than just a mechanism to broadcast content)

2. Eventedness
Design in synchronous moments or ‘events’ online. This helps to create a feeling of belonging and that ‘I was there’ factor. The technology to support this is now pretty reliable.

3. Conversation at scale
Design mechanisms for discourse to take place at scale. Hashtags, commenting, shared postings, crowd-sourcing, editathons etc. This is the area which we are least adept at but I believe the technology is now in place to support conversation at scale if we can design our teaching to take advantage of it.

All of the above are underpinned by individual’s developing an online presence and identity. Something which is central to almost all Digital Literacy frameworks but which we often don’t prioritise when supporting our students and/or staff.