Does the Technology Matter?

Recently I have given keynotes at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference (video here .wmv format) and the  Technology Enhanced Learning Symposium at DeMontfort University (slides here), both of which explored the flow of technology from shiny innovation through to  embedded use within an institutional environment. I did this from the perspective of the individuals/groups involved rather than by describing the evolving affordances of digital platforms. This approach being an attempt to avoid the ‘what’ of technological determinism, concentrating instead on the ‘why’ of institutional/individual motivations.

A few of the things I covered included:

  • Drawing out the similarities and differences between the geeks gate keeping the BBC Micro in 1982 with the beautiful people (in expensive jeans) ‘life-styling’ the iPad in 2010.
  • Highlighting the daunting breath of activity and motivations that now come under the increasingly useless banner of ‘digital’ by contrasting the excellent Hierarchy of Digital Distractions with the contents of the 2009 GCSE in Information Communications Technology.
  • Asking the audience to reflect on their own personal motivations and positions relative to my ‘Six Very Simple Diagrams’: Role, Desire, Pedagogy, Technology, Motivation and Bickering.

Of these ‘Role’ seems to cause the most discussion:


Do you see your role as one of successfully embedding technology  until it becomes ‘transparent’ or is it more about challenging current practices using the tech as a driver for change? It could of course be a combination but my experience within the Higher Education sector is that groups coalesce around either ‘disappear’ or ‘disrupt’. This, in my opinion, is why individuals who can facilitate communication between these groups are crucial to the ongoing innovation-embedding flow within any institution.

The apparent opposition within the disappear-disrupt paradigm was brought back to mind when I was invited to take part in a ‘Does the Technology Matter?’ debate for the ALT-C conference later this year. Inspired by some slightly belligerent Tweeting around the concept by myself, @josiefraser and @mweller Dave Cormier hung the tensions embodied in the statement very elegantly on Smartboards (although he could have chosen any number of technologies) in his ‘It’s about the technology and it isn’t’ post. In the post he neatly balances the push-pull nature of the introduction of new tech into a classroom situation, highlighting what the effects of a new technology can be and what is simply foregrounded by the presence of that technology.

For me this aligns well with the disappear-disrupt concept in that your position on this continuum will underpin your reaction to the ‘Does it Matter?’ statement. This brings me to extend the question into a more useful form: ‘Does the Technology Matter for What?’ which does not have an objective answer as it is inextricably linked with ‘What do you Think you are Trying to Achieve?’ Oddly the latter question is often passed over when ‘new’ technologies are being introduced with vague allusions to ‘efficiency’ or ‘it’s what the students want’.

Again it’s the ‘what’ not the ‘why’ which tends to get focused on. As an example I would cite the ‘digital literacy’ debate in which motivations to engage frequently go unexplored leading to a focus on how to develop and maintain a successful digital identity as if this is the only way to live and learn. This in turn inevitably moves onto interminable discussions around facebook privacy options that ultimately spiral into the nature of society as a whole until lunch brings the whole thing to an inconclusive finish. Too much ‘what’ morphs into a woolly ‘why’ just as people start to get really hungry.

What I’m lobbying for here is a properly balanced conversation around ‘Does the Technology Matter’ in which we avoid simplistic posturing by making it clear what our assumptions and motivations are. In this way the discussion will help us to reflect on our own positions and how we can successfully collaborate with those around us who hold differing views but might well be trying to achive similar things. I’m not saying that I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing I just think that our underlying approach to technology is still a little 1982 and it’s time to accept that the picture is a bit more complex.

The Transition from the Co-Digital to the Post-Digital.

Having made public the original discussion paper ‘Planning for the Post-Digital’ members of the 52group then blogged the concept. These posts generated some strong responses, both in comments and in further blog reactions.Initial reactions to the Post-Digital interpreted the concept as dismissing the importance of technology (and the technologically minded) claiming that somehow the ‘digital’ had passed into history:

“In short, this isn’t the post-digital world, just like it isn’t the post-jet age or the post-space age. All of these technologies are not magic, they’re here, they’re real and they have real consequences. The way to deal with these changing technologies is the same as every craftsman has done since the iron age: respect the tools of your trade, without being obsessive about them (leave that to the toolmakers), and remember that any tool can be improved, and therefore will be.” Wilber Krann (comment on original post)


“I think that we should have some people obsessed with the technology (where has most of the technology come from?) and we should have people who can analyse it, and critique it, and say “Yes, this works in this situation because X” or ‘This is not useful as a learning technology’.” Pat Parslow

The Post-Digital was seen as a negative principle which devalues engagement with the technical encouraging us to be unthinking consumers of new hardware and platforms as they become ever more culturally ‘transparent’.

“what are the implications for accepting that we are in a postdigital age?  Don’t we then accept that our IT environment will be owned by the mega-corporations – Google and Microsoft…It strikes me that the postdigital agenda is a conservative one, in which we are asked to accept that we (in our institutions and in our working environment) cannot shape our digital environment. And for me that is a worrying point of view which I don’t accept.” Brian Kelly

Alongside these discussions Frances Bell suggested the term Co-Digital as a better term to describe the process of  “…seizing the opportunities presented by the newness of technologies to spot changes and then shape the development of the technology.”

The Co-Digital then describes the period of ‘flux’ (this is a term from the ‘Digital Habitats’ by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith) which a technology goes through as the user community appropriates it and influences its development. This period is early in a technologies life-cycle but may not be in effect for very long as the user community expands.

Instead of the Co-Digital replacing the Post-Digital I think that they are concepts which describe different points of a larger process of transition.

I have tried to describe the transition technologies make from the Co to the Post-Digital in the diagram below. The model is an attempt to bring together the thinking that has emerged from the Post-Digital idea and put it in a larger context.

Technological transition from the Co-Digital to the Post-Digital.

(The visual design of the diagram is a homage to the excellent ‘Hierarchy of Digital Distractions’ by David McCandless which I have stuck to the wall by my desk)

Rather than attempt to discuss through the diagram in detailed prose I have written up some simple notes which may help to describe the overall model:

Transition Stages

Co Digital:

The point at which the socio-tech flux (Wenger uses the term ‘Vortex’) is most fluid. Social appropriation of the tech influences its development. Similarly the tech starts to form the manner in which social engagement takes place and in which social capital is built.


The tech is seen a culturally ‘shiny’ but its role is beginning to become ‘fixed’ in the mind of its growing community and in its socio-tech function.


The tech is no longer ‘shiny’. It is culturally normalised and not conceived of as ‘technology’ (‘Disappearing into Use’ is an brilliant phrase I have hear which describes this).  The tech is now understood by its core function i.e. culturally, the phone is seen as the conversations you have when using it. It is not generally considered in technological terms anymore. This phenomenon could also be seen as a transition to the Post –Technical.

‘Types’ of Users


They build new stuff because they think it’s cool. Likely to be very tech orientated. Pushing the boundaries of what is possible technologically.


Probably community leaders. Not as tech focused as the Pioneers but they are adept at appropriating the new tech to their own ends. This is often done by building networks/community or promoting themselves as a brand. They are happy to subvert functionality and influence the evolution of the tech.


They follow players into technologies. They want to know what a tech is ‘for’ and how to use it ‘correctly’ before joining. They enjoy the ‘shiny’ once there is a cultural consensus. i.e. They are buying iPhones from Tesco’s now. They also actually like ‘top ten’ style lists on how to use platforms properly.

Phollowers (apologies):

They use the tech once it is fully culturally normalised. They are not interested in experimenting. This group bought the mobile phones they claimed they didn’t need once all their friends had one.


When these guys get involved they accelerate the shift from the Co Digital to the Digital. Think Twitter and the BBC.

What is the point?

  1. We need to influence the evolution of technology while it’s in the Co-Digital space. i.e. Edtech folk need to be players (well, some of them at least). Once a tech has moved out of the Co-Digital it is difficult to influence although it may be re-appropriated later in a different context. In my opinion Twitter is currently moving out of the Co-Digital space.
  2. As the user base in a tech expands the Pragmatists begin to out number the Players. Because the Pragmatists have a relatively fixed idea about the function of the tech this means that it becomes increasingly difficult for the tech to stay in flux. Think of the backlash every time facebook attempts to make changes to its interface or functionality.
  3. Once tech hits the Post Digital it is pretty much game over for direct innovation (but as I have mentioned re-appropriation is possible). Once Google and the ‘cloud’ become Post-Digital they will actually be running the world.

The model is clearly a work in progress…  I welcome your thoughts (especially as it was comments and posts on the original idea that helped move this forward to this stage)

Visitors & Residents: The Video

Last month I gave a presentation on the ‘Visitors & Residents’ principle at the ALT-C conference which was well received so I thought it would be worth videoing the talk under laboratory conditions…

Some of you might also be interested in our paper on Visitors and Residents:

Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011

Just a few notes to go with the video:

The original ‘Prezi’ presentation is here:

The tinyURL that is supposed to link to Andy Powell’s ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post is incorrect. Please follow this link instead.

At points I use the term ‘real life’ which seems to imply that anything which is online is somehow not part of ‘real life’. A better phrase would have been ‘offline’. Language in this area is difficult at best…

The quote “…just knowing how to use particular technologies makes one no wiser than just knowing how to read words” is a quote from Prensky’s recent paper on ‘Digital Wisdom’. In the journal ‘Innovate’. In other versions of the talk I refer to Prensky directly but seem to have omitted it when I was in front of the camera.  All other non-attributed quotes are anonymised statements from our students.

The images I used are under the Creative Commons license:

‘Tourist Trap’ visitor image
‘Rusholme’ resident image
‘Sunny Park’ web as a space image
‘Tool Box’ web as a toolbox image


Following on from my ‘That Was an Interesting Experience’ post I got to thinking about how to define what makes MUVEs distinct from other online spaces. The diagram below is my attempted answer, a diagram which I ‘trailed’ in my presentation at the Eduserv+JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event last Friday. (slidecast of the presentation at the end of this post)

Eventedness and Co-presence

During the JISC funded ‘Open Habitat’ project we piloted Second Life with art & design undergrads and with lifelong distance learners studying philosophy. The axes of the diagram represent two of the major effects we saw across the pilots that are central to what an MUVE provides.

Eventedness: This goes beyond a shared experience which could be aimless in activity terms and assumes that everyone involved is heading towards a particular goal even if this goal does not involve close collaboration. For example, a themed philosophical discussion which, if it goes well, should have a shared direction as the learning moves forwards.

Co-presence: As well as the Co-presence that comes from being embodied as avatars this definition includes what is experienced when an individual is certain that their contribution (usually in text form) will be read and responded to by others. For example it is possible to get a strong sense of the presence of others when microblogging because the exchanges are often frequent, they often reference each other and the response time can be a matter of seconds. Messages are linked to the particular point in time and their value erodes over time. There is a relationship between the speed in which the value of nodes of communication erode within a technology and the potential for Co-presence. In addition the individuals’ level of trust that their contribution will be understood and responded to within a particular technology has a large bearing on both Co-presence and Eventedness. It is of note that there is very little latent social presence in MUVEs. When you log-off your presence all but evaporates leaving almost no trace of your identity or that fact that you were in the MUVE. This is in contrast to social networking sites which are designed to extend your presence after you log-off. (See my ‘Visitors – Residents‘ post which discusses why this form of latent social presence is an important issue)

So, the green areas are not a quantative mapping of a range of functionalities but the qualitative potential of a technologies ability to provide a certain type of experience. The greater the chance of Co-presence the greater the chance of Eventedness and vice versa which is why the green areas have diagonal tops.

I should point out that the relative mapping of the technologies in the diagram could be debated until the cows come home because the axes are dealing with subjective terms. Individuals encounters with these technologies will vary greatly in the context of these terms hence the use of ‘potential’ which allows for a latitude in experiences.

A key point here is that the MUVE has the potential to support a huge range of experiences. This is partiality because of the effect of avatars but also because an MUVE is not a single technology but a cluster of tools gathered around a 3D environment. To tie this down a bit I will run through the types of experience that I think take place at points ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ on the diagram.

‘a’: At this point an individual feels isolated from others and alienated by the environment. They are directionless and have not discovered the ‘point’ of the environment for themselves. This sense of isolation and alienation is amplified by the knowledge that there are others in the MUVE who are enjoying being part of a social group that they are excluded from (either socially or because of a lack of technical skills). It is also amplified because they can see other avatars who appear to be much better looking, better dressed and with more elaborate hairstyles. They begin to fell anonymous, unskilled and lacking in a definable persona (they are part of the homogenous ‘n00b’ category). All of this is compounded by the fact that it is very difficult to ‘lurk’ in an MUVE. There a few opportunities to learn the in world culture(s) and mode(s) of communication that don’t involve social engagement. This is in contrast to other successful online social platforms have functionality such as an open chat channels (World of Warcraft) or the ability to see the flow of communication (Twitter) giving new users the opportunity to absorb the culture of that space before making their voice heard.

‘b’: At this point the individual feels like they are contributing to a shared endeavour, that they are part of a relevant activity. They have come to know and trust the other participants in their group and enjoy both the learning and the social aspects of the experience. This is only likely to take place if a member of that community has organised an activity. Or, to put it another way, the tutor has planned a relevant session. (The implication here being that the tutor needs to be part of a community of learners not above it in the MUVE space)

‘c’: At this point the individual is probably spending time with people they know and trust. They are socialising within the MUVE but are not attempting to achieve anything beyond simply being together. They are likely to feel part of a community but not that they are communally working towards a goal.

In terms of teaching and learning this huge breath of potential experience is what makes using MUVEs a high risk option. The better designed a session and the more responsive the tutor the higher it will map against Eventedness but a strong sense of Co-presence will only grow over time. Initially this happens as people get to grips with the technology then increasingly as they form relationships and trust grows. This breath of potential is in my opinion why a bad session in an MUVE leads to the suspicion that it would have been more satisfying and more effective to have simply used a straight text chat format or in some cases a traditional forum. This is compounded by the fact that MUVEs really lock you in and if a session breaks down it is complex and disruptive to sidestep to another format. Nevertheless, some of the most engaging and exciting online teaching and learning I have experienced has taken place in an MUVE.

As the diagram makes clear MUVEs do have the potential to outstrip many other technologies in their ability to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. However, if you don’t feel that words such as ‘belonging’, ‘communal’ or ‘experience’ are relevant to your practice then MUVE are probably not for you. Even for those of us that do think these aspects of learning are important MUVEs are a high risk option which require teaching sessions that are both well organised and highly reactive. We hope that the guidance and advice that comes from our experiences in the ‘Open Habitat’ project (to be published in March) will reduce this risk but it is like so many things in life MUVEs will remain a challenging option with the potential of great rewards.

Below is a slidecast of the my presentation at the Eduserv + JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event on 16/01/09 in Glasgow. Thanks to Rowin Young for providing the slidecast.

Learning from the Games Designers

The designers of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games face a significant educational challenge. They need to efficiently and subtly teach new players how to use their game. This involves teaching players about the environment and the interface whist keeping them motivated and drawing them into the challenges of the game itself. This is situated learning in which the games designer is the ‘master’ and the player is the ‘apprentice’.

This educational challenge is similar to the one faced by those intending to teach in Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVE’s) such as Second Life. There are a significant amount of basic skills that need to be mastered before students can successfully engage in meaningful collaborative activity. The traditional ‘orientation’ process in Second Life is didactic and generic, teaching skills in an abstract technical manner. This has come about because unlike an MMO, Second Life has no shared goal, its possible uses are many and varied. However, a teacher who wishes to use Second Life should have a defined set of goals or learning outcomes they wish to achieve. They should be able to define task orientated activities which are relevant to the students motivations, for example, Art and Design students can be asked to compete to build the tallest monolith as a focus for learning building skills in Second Life rather than being given general instructions on how to create, scale and texture objects. In teaching terms this seems like an obvious approach but often when faced with a complex new platform teaching practitioners will often fall back on a basic instructivst style which may not align well with the approach generally taken at HE level for that discipline.

This is where we can learn from the MMO designers who are careful not to fall into this trap as it is likely to make a players initial engagement in a game seem like a chore. For subscription based MMOS such as World of Warcraft this would mean a high drop out rate and a massive loss of revenue, something that the HE sector can emphathise with.

The JISC funded Habitat project intends to learn from the game designers by capturing the processes in World of Warcraft in its initial stages and mapping the styles and types of task to the learning outcomes they fulfil. The data will be captured using pre and post activity questionnaires and video screen capture synchronised with video of the player at the computer. This data will then be used in the process of designing appropriate orientation sessions for pilots in Second Life with students from two disciplines: Art and Design & Philosophy. The Habitat project recognises that some of the most sophisticated collaborative learning spaces online at the moment are MMOs and that the design of these games can be a relevant model for the pedagogical structures that we put in place for the educational use of MUVEs such as Second Life.

Keep watching to see how we get on.

Following Online Society Across Time and Tech

Below is a pitch for a research project that doesn’t exist yet because I can’t describe it properly. The ‘Open Social’ concept and Social Graph API seem to be a tech kind of response to the phenomenon I am attempting to outline. I can’t seem to find an academic tool/framework to help me though…


The web continues to expand and diversify its capacity to support communication and collaboration. This is evident in the expansion and popularity of social networking sites such as FaceBook and communication tools such as Skype. The increase in groups that now straddle the real and the virtual is now having significant cultural impact. Individuals are increasingly part of a network of friends, acquaintances and colleagues that is distributed across multiple locations on and off-line.

These groups of distributed individuals are relatively new in form and are constantly changing in character as advances in online technologies provide new affordances which interplay with individuals aspirations to extend/refine their group and collaborate in novel and useful ways. Despite this being in a constant state of flux it is highly likely that individuals in the first world will be part of a distributed group for the majority of their lives. A 28 year-old in 2008 may have been part of an online group for over 10 years, a group that has morphed as that individual moved through a number of different life stages. The group is likely to have moved across a number of online technologies or environments and may exist across multiple environments at any one time.

Collaborative groups have been characterised in many ways, for example, Affinity Groups (Gee), Communities of Practice (Wenger) and Knotworks (Englestrom). Each theory describes different motivations, goals and structures of groups of people attempting to work together with some sense of shared participation. In each instance the theory in question is based on a particular area or type of collaboration or interaction for example fandom or institutional work. This is not to say that these theories are not applicable in a wider sense rather that their underpinning rational has a specific types or styles of groups. A similar bounding can often be seen in research undertaken in this area which is often focused on activities that take place within a particular tool or environment for example, Second Life, FaceBook or World of Warcraft.

It is increasingly important that we gain a better understanding of the phenomenon of the persistent distributed group, one which is not too closely tied to a particular style of interaction or type of technology. We are at a point in time where it is possible to trace the history of an individuals relationship with these groups, following that individuals changing relationship with other members of the groups they are part of and the technology involved. This would require investigating individuals motivations for being members of a group, their reasons for types and levels of participation and their changing perception of what constitutes the ‘real’ or what Castronova calls the ‘Semi-Permeable Membrane’ between online and offline worlds. The aim being to discover and map the underlying principles that are forming as online technologies facilitate the changing makeup of societies, becoming paradoxically more distributed and fractured while at the same time affording greater flexibility for communication and collaboration. In thinking about this it is important not to bounded by a single technology but to accept that many groups transcend specific technological advances or shifts and morph across the changing online environment. In this way a clearer perspective will be gained and a better understanding of the longer term implications and opportunities for society will be understood.


So there it is. I’m assuming that if you made it this far you are intrigued by the idea. Let me know what you think.

Social Capital and Community Development in the Pursuit of Dragon Slaying

What can the massively multiplayer game ‘World of Warcraft’ teach us about how to facilitate learning communities? Below is a video of the talk I gave at the Games Learning and Society conference in Madison Wisconsin. (Running time 26 minutes)[flv: 500 375]

If you want more details before watching here is the abstract…

This presentation is an evaluation of ethnographic field work conducted in and around the World of Warcraft MMO. The study focuses on the motivation of guild members to construct communities of practice both to learn and to socialize. This suggests that the guilds can act as useful models for understanding how online social networks function and how they could influence the ideology of next generation e-learning services.

Successful collaborative learning can only be sustained if the individuals involved feel part of a group or community in which they can trust. The most robust communities tend to be those that form via a collective aim or interest; their formation has a social underpinning and is not totally utilitarian.

If an aspiration of e-learning is to move away from simply providing online programs of study, demarcated by subject, to increasingly fluid spaces in which students can build social networks, then we need to understand how contemporary collaborative and participatory environments encourage the formation of these types of groupings.

Some of the most sophisticated examples of online community creation and management take place in and around MMO environments. The current apex of this field is the ‘guild’ system which suffuses the World of Warcraft MMO. Guilds are effectively goal-oriented clubs or societies, many of which utilize the latest Web 2.0 technologies out-of-game and multi-channel text chat and VOIP systems in-game both to organize and to socialize.

This paper is based on data collected over a period of six months from an ongoing ethnographic study comprising self-reflexive observation and semi-structured interviews conducted in World of Warcraft and face-to-face with guild members. This extends into a study of the social software used out-of-game by community members that acts as a communication base for the guilds.

The data is evaluated using Wenger’s notion of communities of practice, which highlights the interweaving of goal-orientated learning and the immersion of those participating in trusted social networks. This has the effect of generating and communicating what Bourdieu calls cultural capital, the lack of which often makes online learning a poor second to traditional face-to-face learning.

The challenge here is how to abstract underpinning principles and practice that will be of value to e-learning away from the immediate goals or ideology of a particular MMO. This is not to suggest that killing dragons in collaborative groups is the future of e-learning. Instead it proposes that much can be gained from reflecting on the success of MMOs in motivating the formation of vibrant online communities and the ways in which these communities interweave socializing and learning.