Coronavirus has given millions motivation-to-engage, no matted their age, as social contact and educational provision has become almost entirely online-only overnight. We are all becoming ‘skilled’ with networked tech incredibly quickly, not because we are ‘native’ to it but because we have an immediate and obvious need. Our social and professional lives have become a parade of audio/video meetings and shared documents.
This highlights that the term ‘social distancing’ does not account for the Web and is better described as ‘physical distancing’. Many of us are now more Resident online than ever before and are therefore highly social (if not more social) during the quarantine.
Teaching during Coronavirus
The abrupt need to move face-to-face education online can be mapped to the Visitor – Resident continuum. At my university we have produced a ‘Core practice guide’ which highlights the need for a balance of ‘content’ (Visitor) and ‘contact’ (Resident) for/with student groups. Just as with the Visitor – Resident continuum one mode is not ‘better’ than the other and any effective online educational provision will use a mix of both. The important factor, in terms of the design of teaching, is how we connect together what we are providing across these modes so that the elements (resources, fora, webinars, recordings) build on each other and increase our student’s motivation-to-engage.
It’s not about the tech it’s about the teaching
It is also important to note that, as highlighted by the Visitor and Resident mapping activity, the type of technology does not inherently foster a particular mode-of-engagement. A poorly run online lecture (or webinar) will be less engaging for students than watching a recording or making use of some elegantly contextualised resources. My mantra is that if a synchronous (or ‘live’) piece of online teaching could have been a recording – from a student experience perspective – then it has little value beyond being an way-point in their week (see Eventedness).
Making online education engaging requires effective, well-structured , teaching way more than it does any specific digital platform. The most brilliant and fully-featured ‘webinar’ space will not counter a lack of framing activities and resources either side of the session. The same can principle be applied to text-chats, fora, quizzes etc.
If you like diagrams…
The following illustrates this point diagrammatically by showing that particular genres of digital provide the potential for certain levels/modes of engagement but that higher levels of engagement rely on the design of our teaching more than on how ‘immediate’ the tech experience might be.
The diagram is based on medium-to-large groups of students rather than small groups (less than 10) or one-to-one scenarios. Fostering engagement-at-scale is a central challenge for higher education and one which is crucial to consider as we transition to online teaching (and at any other time to be frank).
I’m defining ‘Engagement’ as a mix of social presence and active/critical thinking. The mix is complex but important, as one without the other can lead to either noisy-but-unthinking moments or thoughtful-but-distancing experiences. We want our students to develop their thinking *and* feel a sense of belonging.
Connecting it together
Any single technology or mode will not be enough to engage a group over a period of time. This requires connecting together a set of modes with a clear articulation of how they flow into one another. At my university we are promoting the use of a combination of Moodle and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra as these can be combined to effectively cover a huge range of Content – Contact. For example: read/watch a resource > respond to a relevant question in an actively facilitated discussion forum > engage with ‘live’ discussion in a webinar which is framed around the themes arising from the forum > write a reflection on the themes and the overall process to be posted to the VLE/LMS (or create image/audio/video with accompanying written reflection).
Fundamentally, one mode or tech is not ‘better’ than another. What is important is how we connect them as a learning narrative and how we communicate that narrative to foster engagement. This helps to ensure we provide opportunities which are mindful of the range of technical, geographical (time-zone), cognitive, social and emotional contexts/experiences of our students and teaching staff.
Back in the day, when the internet was a place of hope, upbeat phrases abounded such as: Information SuperHighway and Web Surfing. The Coronavirus has illuminated the fruition and implications of one of these classic West Coast style phrases, The Global Village.
To explore this idea I’m not going to claim any solid evidence or analysis but would like to pose a question: “How has access to the Web influenced the UK population’s response to the Coronavirus?”
I suggest that without access to an abundance of information on the spread of the virus and national responses beyond the UK we would not be ahead of Public Health England’s timings on social distancing and the closing of institutions. I also suspect we would be seeing less panic buying and less anxiety about a ‘lack of action’.
To be clear, I’m not commenting on the rights and wrongs of any course of action. I only wish to explore the influence of the Web as a global network.
It’s a big heap of everything – like a village.
One of the aspects of the Web which makes it so difficult to make sense of is that it’s always operating in multiple, intersecting modes. For example, what we see on a daily basis online is a chaotic mix of official announcements and total speculation. We see complex data next to pure antidote – published ‘fact’ interwoven with conversation and gossip. The traditional demarcation of ‘information’ and ‘speculation’ by notions of public and private has dissolved. Just like a village, word travels fast and the community decides how to respond whatever the leaders might be saying.
If we wind back around 20 years then we would be receiving news of the virus mainly through broadcast and print media.There were news websites back then but they tended to operate in a broadcast mode. In 2000 around 26% of the UK had a connection compared to over 96% today and, of course, there was no Social Media to speak of. The information environment was largely as it had been for the preceding 60 years or so with institutions we trusted conveying the ‘truth’ of events.
While broadcast media would have given us a sense of what was happening ‘abroad’ it would have seemed more remote and any scare mongering would have been done by outlets which were known to do this as a matter of course. Even as the virus appeared in the UK it’s difficult to imagine mass panic buying of toilet paper before any state of emergency had been called.
It’s a two-way street
One of the main factors in the ‘it’s a big heap of everything’ effect is that anyone with a connection can publish. This means that the Web is a powerful communication network for ‘us’ as well as ‘them’ – however you want to ascribe that distinction. As such, if an institution wants to cancel events ahead of official advice then it can, and at negligible cost in terms of communication.
We have access to an abundance of hybrid, village-like information. We also have the means to take mass action – a shout from the village green which can reach tens of thousands. There is no need to go through official channels, so we can both decide and respond without the nod from the institutions which used to control-the-message.
What is Rome? – Whatever it is, it has blurrier edges now.
My hope is that we will respond to the effects of the The Global Village coming to pass by collectively admitting that the biggest challenges we face do not respect national borders. So far, on a national level, our membership of this Global Village and the complex world it reveals has amplified our desire to run back to simple, often negatively defined, forms of identity. When the virus is past its peak and we have done all we can to keep people safe will we better understand that our planet is now more of a village than a collection of nations?
Virtuous, human-centered, intentions can quickly be co-opted by systems and hierarchies to more instrumental ends. It is common to hear of organisations populated by ‘good people’ that nevertheless perpetuate negative or oppressive practices because the institution, or broader environment, demands it.
This twist is something I explored at OER19 through the notion of ‘Openness as a performance of surplus’. Open Educational Practices are generally thought of as an antidote to the traditional hierarchical gate-keeping of knowledge and opportunity. They are seen as a way of using digital networks to counter ‘standard’ institutional modes.This is all to the good but only institutions with enough surplus can ‘generously’ be open at scale. If we consider the big players in Open Education then it’s perhaps no surprise that they tend to be high status and wealthy institutions (I’m thinking of the institutions behind some of the major MOOC platforms for example).
This is not to say that there aren’t good intentions or effects in ‘massive’ or institutional-level approaches to openness, it’s more a call to be alert to the risk that these intentions can get subsumed by agendas around status and profile – they can quickly be drawn back into the business ideology they (in theory) attempt to circumvent.
The Big Moka approach to generosity
In the OER19 session I explored how generosity can hide poor intentions through the story of Ongka’s Big Moka, an ethnographic film from the 70s I was shown as an undergrad*. The film follows Ongka, a leader within the Kawelka people in Papua New Guinea, as he attempts to collect together enough pigs and other items of value to put on a successful Moka event. In the ceremony Ongka gifts all that he has amassed to the ‘big man’ of a neighbouring community. Ongka’s aim is to give gifts of a greater value than he received in the last Moka and thus demonstrate, through generosity, that he is the ‘bigger man’. As Ongka says when he is successful:
“Now that I have given you these things, I have won. I have knocked you down by giving so much.”
I worry that this is how the values of Open Educational Practice are twisted when institutionalised and scaled. A sincere generosity becomes warped into a performance of surplus or power which risks perpetuating digital forms of colonialism.
The danger of these twists is something myself and Bonnie Stewart want to explore in the context of ‘Care’ at OER20. In the workshop we are asking if open forms of pedagogy can help to scale care. The workshop is shaped by our concern that care is usually framed through the development of relationships – it’s a social process. Given this, it’s important to consider how care might work in massified education systems.
“On all fronts within higher ed the responsibility to respond with care converges on front-line teaching staff who may be oxymoronically required to offer emotional labour within ambivalent or uncaring structures, creating pedagogical commitments which may not be sustainable, or may foster feelings of inadequacy (Bryant, Lanclos, and White, 2019). What do we achieve if only those who are privileged enough to have few students, or an abundance of time, are in an actual position to invest in an ethic of care?”
OER20 workshop submission
Technology doesn’t care
Many of us are concerned that technology is being proposed as the ‘solution’ to care-at-scale. With terms such as ‘personalisation’ and ‘predictive analytics’ often being used in a way which implies that the tech can take the strain as long as we feed it enough data. This is why the subject of care-at-scale within education is so important to discuss. Especially where it risks becoming a technologically supported institutionalised asset which we have to then build safe, human-centred, spaces of authentic care outside of (or to hide from it).
I think it’s fair to say that myself and Bonnie are not convinced that open pedagogy can help to scale care, or even if ‘scaling care’ is a valid idea. What we are sure of is that this is a discussion that needs to take place, especially in education systems where, despite the promise of technology, the burden of care is often with overworked members of staff in precarious roles.
*Part of Granada Television’s Disappearing World Series which ran from 1969-1993. It was first aired in the UK on 11 December 1974 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ongka%27s_Big_Moka I studied on a ‘Time-Based Media’ course which was developed from an ethnographic film making course. As such, key academics were Anthropologists interested in how digital technology opened up new modes of storytelling and narrative. It was an excellent course.
We regularly use the word ‘practice’ at creative arts universities to denote an area of expertise and tends to relate to a general discipline area. For example, people will broadly associate themselves with Fine Art as a practice or Media Production. Many colleagues in my part of the university would see themselves as having an ‘educational’ practice of some form.
A lack of practice
A couple of weeks ago I was asked what my practice was and I struggled to answer. I started work in the late nineties, just as the Web was gaining ground as a new location for media, design and tech practices. I’ve taught in communications media, made digital media prototypes for the BBC, developed online distance courses and undertaken national research studies on digital education. Ultimately though, I don’t associate with a particular discipline and, as an extension of that, I don’t feel I have a practice. I also don’t hold a PhD and so am missing an easy identifier of expertise.
Given this lack of easy labels I’m often defined as ‘digital’ which is never very helpful as digital is a medium, not a practice. Claiming digital as a practice is like describing carpentry as ‘wood’ or painting as ‘art supplies’. The result of this miscategorisation is I’m often asked to ‘fix the screen’ in meetings when the presenter is struggling to make their slides appear. I have, at times, gone as far as to hide my technical skills so as not to be given the ‘tech-guy/digital’ mantle which risks my exclusion from strategic activities in favour of being brought in to fix things when they are ‘broken’.
In many ways my lack of a practice has been a huge advantage. It gives me a clear perspective as I don’t come to an understanding through the specific lens of any given discipline with all its attendant histories and politics. In essence, I don’t need to be territorial to establish my credibility and can choose methods, tools and modes-of-thinking from disciplines or practice-areas which are most likely to progress a project or illuminate an area of complexity.
Working in a third space
I was reminded of this when reading about a partnership between Central St Martins (one of our colleges) and Tokyo Institute of Technology. This has been designed as a hybrid, transdisciplinary partnership between the arts and sciences. This approach and philosophy is elegantly elucidated in a piece about the partnership by Dr. Betti Marenko in which she discusses the location of transdisciplinarity as a ‘third space’, sitting outside other disciplinary spaces while drawing on, and making connections with them.
“Transdisciplinarity allows us to go beyond what exists already. Instead, it pushes us to make the present more complicated, more interesting, and richer. It is within this space of risk, the unexpected, and positive uncertainty that the real adventure of thinking together becomes palpably alive.”
Dr. Betti Marenko
This resonated with me as it set’s my lack of a practice and disciplinary home in a new light. I’ve always enjoyed questioning the structure of any given mode-of-thought or method and have often felt restless when I become too comfortable with a particular genre of understanding. I also feel restless when I’m travelling towards the center of a given community as I can sense the emphasis shifting from questioning to interpersonal allegiances and politics. The all-too-common academic milieu where who holds what position becomes more important than the value of the thinking itself.
For me, all disciplines bring depth but often with the cost that what constitutes a legitimate question and approach is narrowed. I want to stay in the ‘space of risk and positive uncertainty’ which is one of the many reasons I enjoy working in and around the creative arts. If this means that I lose easy identifiers of expertise and practice then that’s a price I’m willing to pay. I’ll never gain the kind of credibility colleagues who become experts in their field will but I might be able to make connections that they can’t and I reduce the chance of becoming stuck in a specific currency of expertise.
Over a decade ago, I took a home brewed virtual ethnography approach to a project looking at communal and cooperative player behaviour in World of Warcraft. It appeared to me that the teamwork and sense of belonging in the game was exactly what we were trying to foster in online learning.
The method I used was to sit with a player as they gamed, asking the occasional question while I set-up screen recording software. I then left the hard-drive with them and asked them to record any moments that they thought were significant over a period of about a week. I picked up the recordings and made notes as I watched them. Then I went back to the player with specific questions about aspects of the play and the dynamics of the gaming community I needed interpreting. It worked well and led to my thinking on ‘Social Capital in the Pursuit of Slaying Dragons’.
In the world and of the world
What was clear was that the players were extremely present in the game world, as embodied by their player avatars – they weren’t controlling a character from afar, they were within the world when they were gaming. The game was a space in which they were co-present, which is one of the reasons that an ethnographic approach worked. This principle influenced much of my subsequent work and I find it useful when considering the notion of digital fluency. In essence, you can’t understand the modes-of-engagement of a space by only learning it’s technical functionality as if it were a tool – you need to understand how it works as a social space. A simple example is Twitter – learning about ‘at’ replies, retweets and direct messages doesn’t tune you into the culture or discourse of the network of co-present individuals. You completely miss the role and value of Resident-mode platforms if you only consider how it works in abstracted, technical, terms.
So when it comes to teaching about the potential role and value of Resident online spaces I tend to take a digital fieldwork approach which draws on this ethnographic thinking. There are usually decent guides on the basics of online platforms you can point people too so, beyond this, what becomes important is the fieldwork brief which provides a motivation to engage with the dialogue and the culture of the space. This is what I had in mind when I designed the digital fieldwork activities which we used as part of the Teaching Complexity seminar series.
Digital Fieldwork activities
The activities range from simply appearing in a Resident space (for those that have never operated in this mode) through to experimenting with an alternative identity or faking out a social media platform. The six activities come with a short video intro from me as explaining the context for the approach is extremely important. This is especially the case for the activities which involve experimenting with identity as it’s not about tricking anyone, so participants need to be sensitive in the way they present themselves and connect.
The identity based activities are inherently self-reflexive as they encourage participants to not be ‘themselves’ – this creates contrasts which can be reflected upon. In our daily engagement with Resident online spaces we will struggle to ‘see’ how the platform is influencing us because we are generally connected to like-minded, similar people and are therefore focused on the substance of those relationships rather than on the structure or culture of the environment.
This is similar to the anthropological principle that it’s difficult to see our own culture because we are normalised to it, which is why when we travel we gain insights through the contrast with other cultures. Taking on an alternative identity online is the equivalent of going ‘abroad’. The same Social Media platform is many different places depending on who you appear to be and how the platform encourages you to build your network based on your personal characteristics (age, gender, location, ethnicity, and anything else it can glean from your data)
My Instagram experience with an alt identity
A good example of this in the digital fieldwork was my own experience of the ‘Try on a New Identity’ activity. I started an Instagram account (having not had one before) as an alternative persona and began by following profiles/accounts suggested by the platform. The result was extremely informative. I gained an insight into the predominant aesthetic (in terms of fashion and ‘look’) of the platform and found just how much more sophisticated Social Media had become in shaping connections since I last ‘started from scratch’ in Twitter over a decade ago. Because I was an alternate persona it was extremely obvious why Instagram was throwing certain things at me based on my apparent age, location and gender.
It was now clear to me how the platform might cause anxiety through the pressure to conform to a very particular body image, mode-of-speech and lifestyle. It was also clear that various forms of authenticity were being performed which appeared to shift as accounts became more popular (the I’m-so-popular-I-can-now-reveal-the-real-me effect). Lastly, I was shocked that despite certain flags from the platform it was impossible to tell the difference between a person and a brand. I didn’t know when I was being sold something and, in some senses, everyone was selling ‘self’.
For me it was a distressing window into the convergence of self/product/brand which I often hear discussed but hadn’t seen so directly. The experience gave me a real insight into one of the potential reasons why our students can feel anxious about the online environment. Instagram implies that everyone can be famous but only by conforming to very particular ways-of-being (or performed ways-of-being). Obviously I had experienced a very limited and, in many ways, naive window into Instagram, which is what I had set out to do. There a many positive aspects to engaging with the platform which I didn’t experience because of the route I had taken.
To be clear (and in keeping with my own advice on the fieldwork) I was careful to only like posts and never commented or got into conversation. I didn’t gain access to anything that wasn’t already openly visible on the Web. I also only ran the account for a couple of weeks and it’s now mothballed. The activities are not designed to be used as research and as you can see I’ve been totally non specific even in this reflection. The persona I chose was not special, famous or someone anyone could have hoped to gain something from. I wouldn’t claim any persona is ‘neutral’ but I tried to be as boring as possible.
Reflections from participants
You can read some participants’ reflections on the digital fieldwork activities on the Teaching Complexity website. One of the most encouraging aspects of the approach for me was the depth of discussion generated by participants simply considering, but not doing, the activities. There was much discussion and reflection in the online sessions from people exploring why certain activities made them feel uncomfortable and the implications this might have for students who would be navigating similar choices. Ultimately, the activities are a useful prompt to generate thinking about how our identities are being used, and possibly abused, online and how this is now inextricable from the overall student experience.
I still remember the taboo breaking promise of stickers on CDs at Woolworths which said ‘Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics’. These days the tag on Spotify songs simply says ‘Explicit’ which a small part of my mind responds to as: ‘it’s nice they are being clear about what they have to say’ – and, in a way, they are being really clear…
What do we assume is obvious?
This idea of being explicit keeps reappearing at work. Not in the sweary way but in being clear, questioning what remains implicit and the confusion this can cause for students. I was encouraged to start thinking about this by a casual comment in Emily Nordmann’s work on supporting Lecture Capture. She has published some helpful research which highlights the need to explain to students (and staff) that recorded lectures should be used as supplemental to attending ‘live’. Accompanying the research are guides for students explaining how best to incorporate the use of recorded lectures into their independent learning strategies.
The point being, that unless these strategies are explicitly stated, students are likely to make assumptions about the reasons why the recordings exist and how they might be used (usually based on not being able to attend lectures rather than on more positive, long-term, learning strategies). When highlighting the need to be explicit about the use of recordings Nordmann asked if we ever explain to students what the value of attending lectures face-to-face is – or do we simply assume it’s obvious?
This facinanted me because I suspect we say it’s important to attend, but might not explain why it’s important to attend in terms of learning strategies. I work at a university where there are no marks awarded for attendance (or, let’s be honest, no marks removed for not attending) so if it’s not clear what the value of attending is in terms of learning, why would you? Information is now abundant and if there is a recording, what’s the point of being there ‘live’?
Is our model of ‘university’ relevant?
What’s significant is that elements of the process/practice of education which remain implicit point to aspects of the institution which we are culturally normalised to. We might not explain what the learning-value of lectures are because lectures are a constituent part of what we tacitly hold to be ‘university’. Unfortunately, this tacit understanding tends to be held by staff who hold a model of the institution which may have been constructed before information and recording were as abundant. In contrast, students, especially incoming students, might have more of a pop culture model of the institution based on media portrayals of ‘university’. So, students could begin term attending lectures because ‘that’s what you do at university’ but then fall away because they can’t identify the value of attending in terms of learning. The cultural impulse to attend only lasts for so long before getting on the bus seems like a lot of effort when you can YouTube-Wikipedia-VLE-ask-your-friends-on-Facebook your way through.
This then creates a dangerous spiral in which the introduction of new technology such as Lecture Capture is seen as a threat to a model of ‘university’ which is held impicitly and is more cultural than it is educational. Perhaps students who are more focused on learning than ‘doing university’ as a broad, cultural rite-of-passage find this bemusing. Our response should be to be more explicit. If we can’t, or don’t, explicitly describe to students what the learning value of a particular mode of teaching is then students are likely to disengage.
Are we anxious about tech or protective of our model of university?
The disconnect in expectations can lead to claims that students don’t understand how to study or aren’t willing to put the effort in when they might have developed extremely effective independent learning strategies which simply don’t intersect with the tacit model of ‘doing university’ the institution operates on.
I’m not denigrating the learning-value of lectures as a mode of teaching here and we all know that quality and approach varies. I’m using lectures as an example of a practice central to our idea of what a university is and is therefore in danger of not being explained. Other examples could include: using the library, group work, the value of non tactical learning (not learning to the test), the value of ‘research’ beyond Wikipedia and YouTube etc. We need to be explicit about the value of all of these and more.
It’s interesting that the learning-value of new Digital Learning approaches is always closely scrutinized because it has not yet been mapped into our (staff) notion of ‘university’. While, on the other hand, the anxiety about new approaches tends to be based more on how they might damage relatively un-critiqued notions of ‘university’ rather than on what the value might be to students.
Students’ not comprehending the value of engaging in certain ways is more likely to be a failure in our teaching than their willingness to learn (especially if we create a culture in which success becomes exclusively about marks and credentialization). The question we have to ask is if what we provide as ‘university’ goes beyond the value of what our students can engage with outside of our formal offer.
One of the highlights of last year was designing and running a series of open, online seminars with our online Visiting Fellow, Dr Bonnie Stewart. The ‘Teaching Complexity’ series was 100% open, in the sense that anyone with a connection to the Web could attend for free. The territory the seminars explored was the complexity of the digital environment we now teach in and how we might respond.
The topics covered within the seminars all responded to the opportunities and challenges of the networked environment. A common theme being how to counter the creep of polarisation and support a diversity of voices within digital spaces.
One advantage of the seminars being open is that all of the materials (slides, recordings, comments etc) are available at the Teaching Complexity website which I created using our blogging platform. I’ve included a list of the seminars at the end of the post and know that quite a few people caught-up with them this way after the live ‘event’.
The motivation to run the seminars was two fold:
Understanding the new teaching environment
Responding to the complexity of the Web as a teaching and learning environment is an important topic to discuss. I now work on the principle that ‘All Courses are Blended Courses’ as I’d argue that any student, on any course, will spend significant amounts of time online. Some of that time will be spent discussing, or negotiating, the course with peers even were there is no, formal, online aspect to the curriculum. You’d be hard pressed to find a student who isn’t keen to develop their ability to navigate the Web for study or to make contacts which might lead to work. The Digital Creative Attributes we developed at UAL are a reflection of this but I realised that while I had clear principles in mind as we developed the DCAF I had not provided many examples of what a good response to the DCAF might look like in design terms. Hence Teaching Complexity.
A good example of open practice
It was clear that for some the Open Practice Values I introduced at UAL caused some confusion. I personally see my approach here as a failure of communication on my part with some useful institutional lessons learned. I spend quite a lot of time considering open approaches and feel part of a community of open practitioners, so I underestimated how alien this line of thinking can be to people who are mainly (and rightly) focused on keeping the wheels of the university turning. When I presented the Principles at committee they split the room, with some immediately seeing the relevance (both in the manner in which the university could connect outwards and in the way our colleges could collaborate more closely) and some clearly worried that this would be yet another, distinct, layer of work which would detract rather than enhance, day-to-day teaching (A dis-integrated view of Open Practice). Given this, the Teaching Complexity Seminars were my ‘Show not Tell’ example of what teaching which embodies the Open Practice Values can look like. ——————————————————-
Attendance and feedback
We had between 50-100 participants at each of the main seminars and more will have caught up with the recordings later. Those that responded to the evaluation questionnaire were mainly teaching staff, in roles overseeing or enhancing teaching or people involved in staff development of different forms. People attended from across the globe with the main locations being Europe and North America. Having been involved in this type of teaching quite regularly I’ve become a little blase about the geography involved and have to remind myself how incredible it is that we can facilitate these kinds of international moments so easily.
The feedback was almost universally positive and at times effusive. A number of participants commented that they have very little staff development opportunities at their institution so the seminars provided a rare moment for them to consider and discuss themes which were unlikely to appear in the normal flow of their work. I feel that working in an open mode is integral to my work, especially as I represent a large institution with the capacity to be outward facing. Given that, I hadn’t thought of the seminars as ‘generous’, but this is how many participants respond to them. Overall I would have liked to have seen more people from my own institution at the seminars but UAL tends to be attracted by creative arts rather than teaching themes. I need to put some more thought into how best to describe opportunities like this in a manner which resonates at home as it were.
Some key points I took away from the seminars:
Given that anyone could turn-up and type in a name of their choice there was always a risk that someone could be disruptive with no cost to themselves. My view is that this would be extremely unlikely unless the topic under discussion is contentious or the facilitator is particularly famous/notorious. I equate this to Wikipedia vandalism – yes, the articles on Trump, Iran or Transgender are likely to be the focus of edit wars and vandalism but articles on Contructivism or John Dewey are unlikely to get messed with, because where’s the fun in that? The Teaching Complexity seminars definitely fell into the latter category – as would most teaching scenarios. Even so, I made sure to introduce every seminar with a brief and friendly talk about the social contract of the space. We were there to explore complex themes through mutually supportive discussion. I also highlighted that the sessions were being recorded and would be made openly available. This, I felt, gave me the right to remove people from the room if they stepped outside of these bounds. We never came close to anyone breaking the trust of the room but I still think it’s worthwhile being explicit about social and collaborative expectations. If you’re upfront about this then any disruptive individual is, in some ways, excommunicating themselves through their actions and you mitigate being placed into a ‘policing behaviour’ role as it’s likely there will be, post-event, group consensus on removing people.
Is anybody with me?
Small moments of sharing go a long way in creating a sense of belonging online. For example, we would sometimes ask what the temperature was at participant’s locations with a notional prize for the highest and lowest (the range was always spectacular). The ‘live slides’ where everyone could write (or scrawl) a response to a question on screen on the whiteboard gave a powerful sense of being in the same, communal, space. In webinar type spaces like the one we were using it’s crucial for people to get a sense that they are co-present with others. This does not come for ‘free’ as it does in face-to-face environments, so these small moments of sharing become very important. The risk of people moving slides, drawing all over the screen or accidentally un-muting their mic at a random moment was more than balanced out by the inclusive atmosphere that giving people these options supported (we did have a few strange moments but they were all harmless). Giving everyone ‘moderator’ status by default was a good way of subverting the didactic design principle of the platform we were using (Blackboard Collaborate Ultra).
A favourite moment for me was when Dave Cormier asked people to play with the whiteboard while we waited to get started. This is the result:
This is a good example of responses to a ‘live slide’ question. One of the interesting aspects of this is how people started to highlight or draw around answers they felt were important as the seminars progressed. The messiness here creates a friendly atmosphere which somewhat counters the slightly sterile and inhuman feeling of the default webinar platform.
I also very much enjoyed how quickly somebody (in about 5 seconds…) wrote ‘Moms Spaghetti’ on the following slide (see the ‘classic memes’ section of pop-culture…).
Please talk while I’m talking
Building on the point above, I’m a huge fan of encouraging people to use the text chat while the seminar is in progress. Actually getting this going requires some facilitation in itself which is why all of the sessions would have a lead facilitator and a kind of support facilitator who could give some momentum to the chat and highlight interesting questions. When you have 50 or more people the chat can get quite lively and really helps the facilitators by giving a live indication of how well they are connecting with the group. All the facilitators for the seminars were experienced in speaking online so could respond to the chat as the seminar progressed. This is one of the distinct advantages of the online space over the face-to-face as it allows sessions to be discussed in the moment – it erodes the ‘expert broadcast’ aspect of online teaching in a very pleasing way.
If it could have been a video, you’re doing it wrong
I have a general rule of thumb that if, on reflection, a synchronous online event could have been a YouTube video then you have got the approach wrong. Why turn up ‘live’ if there is no interaction? Even though I was vocal about this in the planning stages, a few of the sessions had long sections of ‘just talk’. What I’ve subsequently realised is that these sessions were not actually all that long but that our concentration threshold is somewhat shorter in a webinar room than in a physical room. Some of that is to do with there being less to look at – less, or no, physical presence. It is also to do with the culture of the space, by which I mean that when we are in front of our laptops we are used to interacting quite often unless we are in ‘Netflix mode’. The differing socio-cultural expectations of online vs face-to-face are probably more of a factor than the notion of a concentration threshold as, by my estimate, it’s acceptable to speak for at least 20 minutes with no interaction face-to-face but this is probably reduced to around 7 minutes online. Beyond 7 minutes I suspect we start going into Netflix mode or getting distracted by the other tabs we have open.
Be clear it’s not about absorbing everything
Speaking to a couple of UAL colleagues in the following weeks I discovered that the seminars had been quite overwhelming for them, with ‘a lot going on’ at the same time (i.e. the facilitator speaking, parallel text chat, whiteboard interactions, voting and Tweeting). It was a useful reminder to me that I personally enjoy navigating, and reflecting on, multiple channels simultaneously but that this is not the case for everyone. So, perhaps my 7min threshold is too short and people need longer periods of ‘broadcast’ mode to be able to take in new topics. Overall I suspect the biggest cognitive shift for many is paying attention to the speaker while simultaneously keeping up with the text chat. That would certainly be overwhelming if you felt you had to take every detail in, so a message at the start explaining that the aim is not to absorb everything that’s happening on screen might help. ————————-
Learning from the seminars
The substance of the Teaching Complexity seminars was extremely interesting with sessions like Inclusive Spaces exploring ideas which are often not considered in digital contexts. Commonly the notion of ‘innovation’, which is often attached to digital approaches, avoids difficult thinking around inclusion and exclusion by implying that it’s going to change the way we interact so the problem simply won’t exist and therefore does not need to be confronted…
Beyond the ‘content’ of the seminars, I will be incorporating what I’ve learnt about the format of the sessions (the modes of interaction) into future work. This includes a project which is looking at transcultural arts education across an international partnership of arts schools and the development of more sophisticated ‘hybrid’ events which take place face-to-face and online in parallel.
On the 10th July 2019 we ran the ‘Networked Making’ event at the University of the Arts London. This post introduces a podcast in which myself and Jon Martin reflect on the ‘Making Networks’ workshop activity we designed for the start of the day (with input from Dr Sheena Calvert and the ‘Interpolate’ student group) .
The activity was described as: “A workshop session in which participants collaboratively make and reflect on a physical model/metaphor of their networks.”
The Podcast is offered here unedited. I may try and edit it down to around 20min for Spark, our UAL creative teaching and learning journal.
Themes touched upon in the podcast include: reflection, thinking-through-making, ambiguity, risk, trust, play.
There is also a YouTube version of the podcast if you require captions
Sheena and two Interpolate students, Jack and Safiya, helped to facilitate the activity.
Participants were asked to ‘make’ a version of their networks and were presented with a number of peg-boards, a few other objects, cord, index cards, pegs, pens, various fasteners etc. The boards had labels on them such as ‘Work – Mode’, ‘Tool – Space’, ‘People – Institution’ and ‘Desire – Aspiration’.
Around 30 participants engaged with the activity for about half-an-hour then we convened a short discussion.
The best way to get a sense of the activity is to watch this very short video:
Whether it be through collaboration, in a collective or as part of a cohort, the practices of making are never without context and commonly not undertaken alone. We understand that our students are keen to make and work in disciplinary and interdisciplinary networks as this nourishes and supports creative practice, reflecting the fluidity of the professional environment.
Networked making, including writing, is often facilitated by digital connections which allow us to go beyond the physical boundaries of the studio, seminar room or lecture theatre. Yet, while we all work online’ in some form, the practices of networked making are still emerging. The diversity of voices the digital allows us to include and connect encourages us to reconsider our modes of learning and teaching for making.
This UAL Teaching Platform invites participants to discover and explore the potential of networked making through collaboration, discussion and, of course, making. “
Back in 2009 I was one of a group of men with the time and money to get together and attempt to make sense of what was going on with digital technology and the Web. What we came up with was the notion of the postdigital – the original proposition is here: Preparing for the postdigital era.
It’s a short document which explains a simple idea: now that digital tech and the network are so prevalent our thinking should go beyond the tech in-of-itself and focus on the way our interactions are played out in/on the digital.
For me the idea was a useful counter to techno-centred narratives of the time which pushed new platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as things everyone should ‘get into’ but without really discussing why. It all felt highly uncritical and implied that the tech, rather than those using the tech, was ushering in a new era. I was bored of talking about how ‘revolutionary’ technology was and saw the postdigital concept as a good way to take a shortcut past the shiny surface of the machine to discuss what might be happening in socio-cultural terms.
At the time the idea was met with a mixture of mild confusion and ambivalence. Broadly it was misunderstood as an attempt to negate the importance or existence of the digital and just an exercise in coining a phrase. It appeared we had decided that just at the moment digital went mainstream we thought it would be radical to not-talk-about digital. There is some truth in this but things have moved on…
So now, in 2019, the notion of the postdigital has gained some ground. Not necessarily as a response to our original paper but in parallel and in a number of locations. One of these locations is the newly founded journal of Postdigital Science and Education edited by Petar Jandrić. Petar discovered our paper along with some later reflections and requested that the group revisited the theme a decade after its inception.
The group is currently posting their 2019 reflections:
There is much discussion of how the technology is becoming ‘transparent’ in the 2009 paper. This transparency is framed as an opportunity to be less tech, and more person-centric when considering digital. In 2019 we are unknowingly postdigital, not because our tech objects have become transparent but because the network they are part of is not, and never has been, visible. We don’t ‘see’ the infrastructure because we are still enthralled by the obscuring new-shiny surfaces of our phones/laptops/tablets/tvs. We are happy to swap understanding for ‘intuitive’, ‘frictionless’ and convenient tech. This is reasonable but dangerous.
I don’t want to return to the days when the tech infrastructure was so tenuous that I spent more time trying to get-it-to-work than doing the work I needed it for. Nevertheless, I think those moments of failure, when the connection goes down or the software crashes, are important in revealing just how quickly we pass through the digital to the postdigital. In 2019 many people are surprised when the tech stops working, whereas I’m constantly surprised it works at all, given how complex it is.
What we have failed to comprehend in the last decade (or didn’t want to think about) was the complexity, power and intention(s) of the network and those that control it. The network has never even gone through a ‘digital’ stage (in the terms of the paper) where we get over excited about its newness, it has in some sense never existed in the public consciousness even though it saturates our lives and our spaces. When we buy a new phone we are told about how amazing the camera on it is, not the fact that we are renting a node on a network which is a vast, relatively unregulated, corporate space.
Only very recently has the nature of the network appeared via stories of ‘bad actors’, the manipulation of democracy through globalised targeted propaganda and the aggressive use of ‘personal’ data to feed uncanny algorithms. In 2019 I’d suggest we need to be less postdigital about the network. There is ongoing work to reveal the network, making it un-transparent and to educate and regulate towards a place which supports citizens over and above the drive for power and capital. The trouble is that it’s super boring compared to the latest app or a few more megapixels and if you want keep a secret, don’t hide it, just make it super-dull.
While we play at being human on the surface of the network we simultaneously being dehumanized, converted into forms of interoperable data. Here is where Donna Haraway’s, A Cyborg Manifesto was so prescient. Writing before the Web in 1984 she highlights our rush to convert all things into the universal ‘exchange’ language of code:
“No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language. Exchange in this world transcends the universal translation effected by capitalist markets that Marx analyzed so well.”
A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Donna Haraway
There is a section in the original postdigital paper which speaks of our hope that the digital environment will be a place where we can ‘become’ in positive and connected ways. It’s difficult to retain that hope in 2019 but we know that negative stories travel the fastest. Ultimately society has moved online, and while it might seem misanthropic, I’d argue that the pettiness, hate and abuse of power is evidence that we are now postdigital and that this is what it looks like when (almost) everyone gets online. More sinister is that while this sound and fury is played out on the cultural meniscus of the Web we are simultaneously being codified in the networked waters that lurk beneath. Ironically it is this process of digitising and ‘codifying’ being which is moving us from the digital to the postdigital at such a rate we can’t even see it happening.
Some thoughts on the production of the original position paper
Looking back over the original position paper I feel a mild sense of guilt. We appear to have been naively working on the assumption that the technology was neutral. In 2009 none of us were really aware of how our data was being used and abused. If I recall correctly the principle that ‘if the platform is free to use then you are the product’ might have been starting to surface but most of us interpreted this as the risk that we might have to look at a few adverts.
Certainly my thinking in this area was still based on broadcast media and crudely targeted ad campaigns which had to scatter their messages far and wide in the hope of making a sale. We hadn’t understood the manner in which politics and ideology could be embedded in code. We were keen to develop language and models that would somehow explain what was really going on if you could pull away from all the ‘newness’ and increasing corporatisation of the Web which up until then had mainly been endearingly shoddy, slow and full of nerdy guys like us. We wanted to mansplain what was actually interesting to all these newcomers who we felt were hypnotised by the shiny tech. We wanted to own what it all meant, in the same way we had owned what it all was.
I still believe postdigital is a useful concept because it shifts emphasis away from the technocentric. I also feel uneasy about our motivations for developing the idea and the manner in which it came about. It’s fair to say that the reason we didn’t discuss the potential negative aspects of the digital is because we were not in marginal or precarious positions and so didn’t have perspectives that arise from vulnerability. (perhaps I should say ‘I’ not ‘we’ as I can’t speak for the other members of the group)
Through the Visitors and Residents work I am frequently involved in discussions around identity, especially in relation to online spaces. Often discussions that start with technology, move onto practice and then morph into questions of identity: How does my professional identity relate to my personal identity? How does my online identity relate to my offline identity? To what extent am I performing different identities? Which of these many dimensions is the most authentic or is that authenticity contextual? etc.
These types of questions are brought to the surface by our relationship with the digital because it provides a new mirror to hold up to ourselves. Going online in Resident modes is not unlike travel in this sense, we question who we are as we encounter new spaces, forms of communication, modes of meaning and ways of being.
I’ve always been happy to facilitate these discussions but I’ve not taken a position on identity apart from making it clear that using the term ‘real’ (as in ‘real-life’ vs ‘digital’) is spectacularly unhelpful as generally when people use term ‘real’ casually they mean ‘something I’ve become normalized to’. My sensitivity to hard-edged distinctions around real/digital or authentic/fake is indicative of my belief in the importance of interpretation. This is why when a colleague gave me a book entitled “Hermeneutics, Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information” by John D. Caputo I drank it in.
Chapter 7 on ‘The Call of Justice and the Short Arm of the Law’ which explores a lecture given by Derrida in 1989 at the Cardozo Law School inspired me the most. It didn’t fire me up about the law or justice but rather the character of Derrida’s approach to Deconstruction. Where Derrida spoke of law and justice I could read identity and self. The more I mused on this the more helpful I’ve found it in describing a model of identity which is based on becoming-through-interpretation. So, to this end, I will inelegantly summarise a wafer of Derridean thinking and then extend this into a new, identity-based, context.
The most important aspect of justice as described by Derrida, via Caputo, is that it is impossible and does not exist. Justice is unreachable but it yet it calls us to move towards it (Caputo likens this to a spectre or ghost), whereas the law is constructed and has force (and structures and physical components – courts, police, prisons etc).
We hope to make just laws but will never attain a perfectly just legal system. Any attempts to respond to the call of justice require that we interpret law in each given situation or context. A law applied without interpretation is extremely likely to lead to an unjust outcome. Our attempts to be just exist between the deconstruction (or interpretation) of the law and the undeconstructable call of justice.
We need the impossible to create a distance within which can deconstruct or interpret. (I recommend you read the chapter – I can’t do it justice here…)
It struck me that the notion of the ‘self’ was much like Derrida’s positioning of justice. It calls to us like a ghost or a dream but it is contested and slips through our fingers as we attempt to define or describe it. Attempts to define self and being is the fuel of philosophy – as alluring as it is confounding. Perhaps this is because, like justice, self is simply impossible and its power is in this undeconstructablity – a horizon we might travel towards but never reach. A journey we might take knowing we will never arrive.
To extend this, identity becomes akin to Derrida’s depiction of the law, something which is constructed and has force within the world. If we run with this line of thinking then it is through interpretation of identity that we respond to the call of self. We can never fully arrive at our-selves but we can deconstruct our identities through interpretation, towards the self . I consider this process of continual deconstruction and reaching through interpretation, usually via dialogue, to be ‘becoming’.
As with justice and the law what becomes crucial within this conception of self and identity is the willingness to deconstruct or interpet. Damaging essentialization based on shoring-up (sure-ing up?) well worn binaries such as real/virtual, authentic/fake falls away as the ‘work’ of identity becomes interpretation, questioning and negotiation.
This is in stark contrast to the view that we already somehow contain our true self, a self we must express through our identity. On this view we are constantly attempting to project our self into the world as an authentic identity. There is a kind of violence to this in which we fight external factors (institutions, individuals, society, culture etc) that might repress our true self. In some cases, where individualism has reached its zenith, we are told that it is us who is repressing our own true self and are invited to unlock our real selves, usually via purchasing something. Certainly there is plenty of money being made via products that claim to help us to express, or be, the ‘real’ us on this model.
Our digital environment also supports this model as within Social Media negotiation of identity through interpretive presence is commonly replaced by acknowledgement of essence. Collecting followers and likes authenticates and quantifies our existence without the need for deconstruction. We will not move any closer to the horizon of self if our sense of identity is based on validation through acknowledgement rather than engaging in dialogue and deconstruction. This then leads to a creeping alienation in which we constantly seek acknowledgement to secure our identity but make no progress toward self and feel increasingly ephemeral.
Similarly we cannot reach towards self if the only people we connect with provide a homophilic mirror of our current identity state – this is a comforting form of identity stasis which, in conjunction with the need for essential acknowledgment, breeds polarisation. We inevitably bolster our ‘authentic’, internalised self through the constant re-establishment of what we are not, in a process of unbecoming.
In my view then, agency is not the power to enforce our identity on the world but the conditions and desire that support us in deconstructing our identity towards self. This form of becoming is challenging, requires us to be vulnerable and is fraught with risk. Given this, the conditions become crucial and it is much less risky for those in a structurally privileged position, such as myself, to engage in identity deconstruction. I have many institutional safe-spaces I can retreat to if I ‘overreach’ towards self.
In this regard there is much work to be done to move our institutions to places in which a diversity of identities can be negotiated. I understand why certain environments can only be engaged with through a forceful projection of self and identity, especially where individuals feel misunderstood, repressed or ignored. Those are the mono-culture environments which pretend to invite negotiation but which are merely looking for acceptance and assimilation.
Those environments create conditions which breed polarisation and amplify individualism in a manner which extends, rather than interprets, difference – our identities become fixed and our horizons become walls we build. In astronomy there are no walls, we can see to the edges of the universe and glimpse our shared beginning. Through deconstruction of identity we travel towards a shared and connected horizon of self.