Desituated Art School (a provocation)

Recently I had an interesting conversation with Professor Susan Orr in which she highlighted the current importance of rethinking the ontology of the Art School in the context of COVID and lockdowns past, and maybe future. This encouraged me to consider how the identity and approach of creative disciplines, especially ‘making’ focused disciplines, might need to shift where there is little or no access to physical spaces. This, I believe, is an important question to ask even when we do find our way back into our buildings.

Desituated Art School – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZ-FoZFtRq0

Lockdown has highlighted that teaching online has significant advantages over working in-buildings. This includes, flexibility, forms of inclusivity, expanded forms of access, international/transcultural opportunities and the potential for more open and connected forms of education. Clearly, we lose a lot when we are denied our buildings but that doesn’t negate the importance of the question posed by Prof Orr.

The Digitally Engaged Learning conference

My submission to the Digitally Engaged Learning Conference responds to this in the forms of a short video-based provocation. It is designed to facilitate discussion in my session on how we might reimagine, rather than replicate, our institutions online. I’ve focused on the Art School here but I believe the ideas I raise apply to any higher education institution which is predominantly thought of in terms of physical spaces.  

The Digitally Engaged Learning Conference is fully online and free to attend. It takes place 24-25 September 2020, hosted by Parsons Design School. This is the link to register.

References in the video:

Other influences on this line of thinking.

Earlier in the year I was lamenting the narrative that universities were ‘shut’ when teaching was continuing online – only the buildings were shut. I had this in mind when reviewing the data from a survey we undertook with staff and students about the effects of COVID on teaching and learning. It struck me that much of what students appear to consider ‘teaching’ online is a mirror of modes which take place in our buildings. Lectures, seminars, tutorials. Asynchronous activities and the provision of recordings is much appreciated in terms of flexibility but generally not thought of as part of teaching.

In this sense the physical building, and the teaching modes associated with it, are still what defines ‘teaching’ even when we are fully online. Online is not yet conceptualised as a teaching location in its own right when students are taking part in what is considered to be a face-to-face course, even when the design of the course involves a significant amount of online activity.

I have also been influenced in my thinking by colleagues who have been exploring what it means to teach creative subjects online. Tobias Revell has been defining the Desituated Design Studio. Tobias and his colleague Eva Verhoven have been running design studios fully online and across multiple locations internationally. Their approach doesn’t start with the building as a paradigm but with modes of interaction. The work of Dr Mark Ingham, who is a Reader in Critical and Nomadic Pedagogies, is relevant too. Mark’s work isn’t about digital per say, it’s more of an ideology which looks for the liminal spaces in which learning takes place. The value of liminal moments is keenly felt socially but is it always understood in pedagogical terms as well?

It’s time to reimagine

My headline from Lockdown is that we (including students) often have a too narrow conceptions of what constitutes teaching. We need to expand what we think of when we say ‘Art School’ or ‘University’ to integrate online or our students will not see the value of much of what we now offer.

The lecture paradox

The lecture is one of the easiest teaching formats to ‘replicate’ online and one of the most high risk during COVID-19. So why do students appear to be missing on-site lectures so much when they can learn just as much from the online version?

The lecture as symbolic and shared

The on-site lecture is a potent metonym in our conceptualisation of ‘university’, especially for incoming students who are likely to have formulated their image of what university is from various fictional accounts in films and novels. Given this, arguing about the pedagogical effectiveness of the lecture misses the point. The lecture is better evaluated as a cultural symbol than as a learning opportunity. This is one of the reasons why lectures are still so popular in an era of easily accessible recordings and information abundance. 

More significantly, the on-site lecture is also a powerful shared moment. They are highly ‘Evented’ in a manner which is difficult to transpose into online spaces. Even an awful lecture will have a strong sense of presence and fellowship. In fact, a really poor lecture can feel like more of a shared experience than a good one – a collective act of survival tends to bring people together. 

A really awful online lecture or recording is alienating and lonely. There is little sense of connection and no post-lecture coffee to share notes over. This is not an online ‘problem’ in-of-itself, it’s more that a simple mirroring of face-to-face practices online tends to amplify the weaknesses of the original. The positive aspects of embodied co-presence are immediately lost. It’s also because online we often neglect to facilitate the informal moments which cluster around the formal moments, such as the lecture. We lose the way our physical environment is designed to encourage those connections.

Shared moments are the new scarcity

The lecture operates in the same sociocultural manner as many other collective moments we are dearly missing during COVID-19. Despite it being significantly more convenient to listen to music at home, that doesn’t stop us wanting to attend music festivals. Similarly, we still go to the cinema even though we have access to films at home. This is also, I suspect, the underlying reason why so many people recently rushed to ‘inessential’ shops in the UK. It’s not about access to the products, it’s about ‘shopping’ as a social activity. The same holds true with lectures, it’s not about access to the content it’s about the shared experience.

Both the music and the film industry have started to trust the immutability of our desire for these shared moments and, for the most part, do not withhold content (even with cinema the multi-platform release is becoming more common). They understand that engineering a false scarcity of content damages their reputation and have rebuilt themselves around the scarcity of shared experience.

It’s not shared if there is a lack of presence 

The principle of a shared experience goes hand-in-hand with the importance of presence I discussed in a previous post. It won’t feel like a shared moment unless we feel the presence of others which is why our approach to online teaching often feels un-Evented/un-shared/un-communal even when it’s synchronous. To counter that involves rethinking how we teach and avoiding the ‘practice mirroring’ replication of on-site/face-to-face modes.

The higher education sector has come to a keen understanding of this over the last few months and will hopefully re-think notions of attendance, timetabling and engagement in a broader, presence-based, manner. Even so, the humble on-site lecture (or similar) plays an important role in drawing us to the building. It  becomes the focal point for many other types of encounters in-and-around the formal session in a smooth manner which we still struggle to model in our digital environments. 

Making it worth turning up for ‘live’

I suspect we know that the lecture is not as much of a draw as live music or the big screen – the ‘live’ experience is perhaps too similar to the recorded version. This means that we need to work on our live presence (on-site and online), just as many bands have had to, and there are many techniques that can be employed. I’d argue that presence and good pedagogy go hand-in-hand. How can we expect our students to be engaged in something which is unengaging?

We need to refocus our idea of university around the importance of creating moments of shared presence to facilitate new connections – connections in our thinking and connections with those around us.

Digital amplification: why work has become so intense.

Given that ‘online’ is often spoken of in deficit terms when compared to ‘normal’ working you might have expected a feeling of attenuation, something lesser, during COVID-19, but somehow everything feels amplified, more extreme. It’s as if the sudden shift to online has turned the volume up on themes and issues which were always there but in a quieter way. 

CC BY-NC https://www.flickr.com/photos/crashmaster/3262933193

This is also playing out on an individual level, as we find ourselves working from our, radically different, private contexts without the ‘levelling’ shared space of the campus or office. We are densely connected through the technology but have less shared ground. Our cultural and physical conception of ‘work’ has been redistributed across a myriad of differences. This is a moment in which we can re-imagine our intersecting spaces and practices of work in new ways which are kinder, more inclusive and not only tied to the physical. 

Digital amplification

In a session I teach on our Academic Practice programme I ask the question “What aspects of the digital environment are unique?”. There are plenty of good answers to this and it always turns into a lively opening discussion, partly because you can find pre-digital examples of most things. The two answers I tend to focus on are:

  • Anyone with a connection can ‘publish’ – the digital gives us a two-way street where there was once only the one-way system of broadcast and print media.
  • Everything is hyper-connected in the forms of a network supporting a churn of hierarchies – as apposed to a set of distinct hierarchies.

The effects of these two factors are not fundamentally new but importantly they are massively amplified. I can post a Tweet which hundreds of thousands can have read within minutes if it goes viral. I can connect with individuals and groups almost instantly. I can find myself in an online meeting before I’ve had time to think…

This is what I believe many of us are experiencing right now, an amplification of the way we experience work. No longer contained by the rituals and expectations we had implicitly agreed on, work has become restless. It’s now variously exhilarating, exhausting, empowering and stressful. It’s less tactile and less sensory but cognitively and emotionally the volume has been turned to 11.

Outrun by our own technology

Our physical spaces had agreed modes of interaction (or lack of interaction in some cases) which were as much a sociocultural agreement embodying particular power dynamics as they were an effect of the affordances of the space. We even got to the point that the names of the rooms themselves indicated the expected mode – lecture theatre, seminar room, the library, the studio etc. This made things predictable, it limited the ‘volume’ but tied us to ways of working enmeshed with historical notions of authority and power most of us would prefer to move on from. All of that has gone now, hasn’t it?

The amplification I’m speaking of comes from the introduction of technologies which reshape what it means to interact in ways which go beyond our slow-to-change models of the world – models which are still tied to the physical even now. We have been outrun by our own technologies for over 100 years. The First World War being a key example of where we were shocked by the destructive force – the potential for explosive change – of what we had invented. Right now we are being outrun by the level of connectivity and new modes of communication our digital technology provides. This is why things feel so intense even while we have lost so much.

Letting go of physical thinking

The intensity created by this amplification comes about as much from the difficulty we have in letting go of our models of work than it is to do with our ability to grasp the technology. We have ‘proper’, known, ways of working which are constantly being extended and confused by our shifting technological contexts – a new feature arrives without warning and suddenly meetings work differently. A text chat bar appears at the side of the speaker but how should we use it?

I was in a discussion about all the opportunities for interaction that are now available now that a conference I help run will be fully online but this had to be weighed against the expectations of delegates that they would experience a ‘keynote’. 

My hope is that we will actively negotiate the value of our work, of what we can contribute and continue to move away from paradigms which were defined by the name of physical rooms. What’s important to recognise is that for most of us things have got louder with the move online and quieting, shared, concepts such as ‘office’, ‘campus’ or ‘university’ feel distant and abstract.

The university is not ‘shut’

Of the many things the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted about higher education, two have become very apparent to me over the last couple of weeks: 

  1. The notion of ‘university’ is still, for the most part, linked to a set of buildings.
  2. Language is largely embodied – we struggle to express how we interact online in a non deficit manner.

This thinking was sparked by my vexation at theCoronavirus: Students to pay full tuition fees even if universities are shut headline in a recent article in the Times. The full article is behind a paywall so I can’t comment on that. The headline, however, rather negates all the hard work of staff and students who are actively working together online. At my institution the majority of us are busier than ever and we have plenty of examples of attendance and engagement improving as compared to a ‘normal’ term.  

It’s not the same experience but it’s not ‘shut’

Clearly, for those students expecting campus-based activities the experience has become limited. My eldest son ‘took issue’ (he’s a first-year History and Politics student at Sheffield University) with my critical retweet of the Times story. His point was that even though his course is online he is missing out on student life, so for him university is ‘shut’ as a cultural experience (I also can’t go to the pub but I do understand what he means :). Those institutions that were not already operating online had quite a task just moving a viable curriculum online. The social, cultural and ‘ambient’ aspects of university don’t automatically appear as a side effect of curriculum online – they have to be designed in.  

Similarly, many of the students at my institution rightly expected to be able to undertake all manner of tactile and embodied making and performance practices. While some of the learning around these practices can be undertaken online there is no digital equivalence for the tactile, for the feel of different materials or the experience of various spaces. It is also difficult to create those moments of serendipity and inspiration which come from wandering around a building which is full of creative ideas and work. I miss all of that, but I don’t think my university is ‘shut’.

The need for non-deficit language

We have to start finding better ways of talking about online teaching and learning which are not poor echos of physical paradigms if we are ever to break the ‘deficit-by-default’ conceptualisation of digital in education. This is going to be crucial as the Times headline suggests that students will not be willing to pay full fees while universities are thought of as ‘shut’. At a teaching focused university a significant portion of fees goes on paying teaching and support staff who will be working just as many hours online as they would have been in a normal term. If we can’t acknowledge this just because we aren’t in the same building then the whole sector is going to struggle during COVID-19 and beyond.

The need for Presence not ‘Contact Hours’

This is a reflection on some key areas which have come to light with the sudden move to online teaching. I wanted to write this post very early our academic term (less than two weeks in) to capture the moment.

While some of the thoughts might appear a bit grumpy, that’s not really representative of how I feel. From what I’ve seen at my institution the move online has had its bumpy moments but overall it’s going ok. If you’d asked me what moving to 100% online over about three weeks would look like then I’d have predicted some kind of socio-tech disaster. Instead, it’s spectacular how quickly everyone has adapted and how well the tech has held up. Perhaps we are discovering we were already working more in digital spaces than we cared to admit?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/markdodds/8572486521 CC: BY NC SA

1. What is crisis and what is digital?

It’s important to separate out our experience of the COVID crisis from our responses to teaching in the digital environment. Access issues and digital platforms struggling under the weight of unplanned for levels of usage are due to the crisis. The speed of the shift to online accounts for the prevalence of some teaching practices which experienced online educators would not recommend (see the points on deficit and practice mirroring). This is to be expected as we all bring the practices we know into new environments. It takes some time to transpose/modify how we work. 

2. Scrutiny

It’s definitive that we don’t scrutinise that which we are normalised to. As such, we tend not to ask too many questions of face-to-face teaching around themes like engagement and participation. Actually, that’s not fair, we do ask a lot of questions, but classic lecture and the seminar practices are still basically sacred and carry massive cultural weight in terms of representing ‘university’. When we move to the digital though, all the questions we should be asking about face-to-face suddenly appear, as the change of location breaks the normalisation spell and greater scrutiny is applied. 

I’d argue that all the pedagogical questions we are asking about the digital environment should also be applied to the physical environment, especially on questions of engagement, access and inclusion. I’ve seen the ‘How do we know students are really engaging?’ question being applied with more enthusiasm online than it usually is face-to-face because embodiment is a powerful, but false, proxy for engagement. 

3. Deficit 

Because we are responding to a crisis we are inevitably clashing with our current (face-to-face) students’ expectations of what they signed-up for. Given this, it’s inevitable that online teaching is framed by what it’s not rather than what it is. It’s seen in deficit, which tends to mask opportunities and the take up of ‘new’ modes of teaching. The simplest example of ‘new’ (retro-novel) being the use of asynchronous modes of engagement, such as the humble discussion forum (a lively discussion forum is a difficult thing to foster, but then a lively discussion amongst students in any context has always required expert facilitation).  

That’s not st say that we aren’t already recognising the benefits of online teaching. Anecdotally I’m hearing that lots of courses are seeing much higher levels of attendance than before and that many students find the online environment more inclusive, especially those who are perhaps more reflective or those for whom English is not their first language.

4. Practice mirroring

The principle of Contact Hours is, in my opinion, the biggest stumbling block for the move to online teaching. The narrow definition of Contact Hours in the UK basically boils down to ‘time spent in the same room together’. In largely face-to-face institutions there are vague gestures towards ‘online’ as contact but in most courses this doesn’t seem to be officially mapped in. This is amplified by a cultural attachment to the University as a set of buildings. (Until you can screw a plaque to a VLE with the name of a benefactor on it I guess buildings will always win?)

So in the move to online teaching our initial instinct is to preserve Contact Hours by mirroring what would have been face-to-face sessions with webinar style sessions. What this looks like is exhausting 3-4 hour online sessions which must be almost impossible to stay engaged with. Not only is this unstatable, it is also damaging to the learning process. In short, our limited conception of ‘Contact’ is antithetical to what we claim we are trying to achieve, especially when we move online.

Broadening  presence

In an era of information abundance we know that students are more interested in moments of contact than they are in access to content. Beyond credintialisaion, it’s access to expertise and those moments of feedback and co-presence which come to signify ‘what they are paying for’. Of course, some courses also offer access to specialist equipment but even then I’d argue that access to expertise is still the main concern. 

What I propose is that instead of thinking in terms of Contact Hours we should move to the concept of presence -the extent to which a member of teaching staff is present and in what mode. This could come in many forms:

  1. A fairly quick, reliable, turnaround to emailed questions
  2. Being active ‘live’ in forums or text chats (an ‘office hours’ approach to asynchronous)  
  3. Lively synchronous sessions – such as, webinars with plenty of Q&A
  4. Artfully ‘flipped’ use of pre-recorded teaching videos 
  5. Audio, video or text summative feedback (if it’s been created just for you then it’s always a moment of presence)
  6. …and of course face-to-face sessions in various forms.

We are highly attuned to the levels of presence and attention (we are social beings) which is why a move to online shouldn’t involve cutting staff time or staff-student ratios. 

With some thought it should be possible to weight the various modes of engagement as forms of presence and broaden out beyond the ‘time spent in the same room’ concept. Making this work would involve being explicit with students how these various forms of presence support learning and contextualising the value of face-to-face as one of many presence modes. Communicating that will not be easy, as it requires a shift in what we perceive as ‘university’, but this is something we need to do if we are going to be increasingly online from now on. 

The digital erosion of trust

This post is an exploration of a theme which I mentioned in the 16/04/2020 edition of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with  Bonni Stachowiak and Jose Bowden.

it was also part of the discussion at the online workshop Bonnie Stewart and myself ran at OER20.

Given the dangers currently involved in daily life it’s understandable why many people want to employ every aspect of information which can be reaped from the digital environment to reduce risk. In China we hear of an app which shows the body temperature of your delivery driver and in the UK there appear to be plans for an app which will tell you if you have been in close proximity to someone who may have the virus. Forms of surveillance that only weeks ago would have been considered such a serious infringement of our rights they might have been left unsaid, are now being mooted on a daily basis. 

CC:BY Peter Leth https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterleth/4505254988

This is where I find the phrase: “Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should” extremely useful. The reason being that once technology presents us with an opportunity to reduce risk – with the inevitable negation of trust* – we feel a pressure to employ it (who wants to be the person who has to say ‘We decided not to use it’ when something goes wrong?). This plays out in numerous ways across society and in education, which myself and Bonnie Stewart explored in our session for OER20.

Our OER20 session

Care vs Surveillance 

In preparing the session, Bonnie suggested that many of the most contentious issues around the use of technology for teaching can be expressed as a tension between care and surveillance. For example, it could be considered caring to track students in digital platforms to understand how they are engaging with their learning. It can also be considered surveillance. In technology, care and surveillance tend to go hand-in-hand.

If we ignore this data and don’t identify that some students have all but dropped out then are we failing in our duty as educators? Once this source of information exists we have to be extremely deliberate in our reasons for using it or avoiding it. In a sector which is increasingly massified, data often stands in for relationships as the notional medium for care, and yet no institution has ever increased surveillance without claiming its role is to create a more caring, or safer, environment. 

Trust vs Fairness

The main casualty here is trust. Whenever we introduce something to increase ‘fairness’ we also reduce trust. For example, with online submissions of assessed work we track very closely if students hand-in work late. We can also identify which student we think submitted which piece of work by looking at their login. In many cases we don’t need to trust students to do the right thing because we have a digital process which negates trust in favour of fairness.

This could also be seen as protecting the reputation of the institution and the value of what it awards. Trust vs fairness and surveillance vs care are not simple problems to solve, they are tensions which require complex negotiation across managers, teachers and students. Even so, we all have stories of technologies which have been introduced that circumvent any negotiation by reifying aspects of surveillance and fairness as standard ‘features’. This often makes concrete an implicit aspect of institutional culture which actually required significant discretion.

Upholding freedoms 

As education moves online we are going to have to get better at stating, and upholding, our values around trust and care with the concomitant acknowledgment of the risk we are accepting to protect certain freedoms. If not, then education will continue to merge with the corporate/civic surveillance state we are now only too aware of. To avoid sleepwalking into this new normal there will be times where we must deliberately refuse to use aspects of the data and control which technology offers, even when there are demands framed in terms of fairness or reduction of risk. 

Freedom is risky and risk requires trust. I believe that educational institutions, especially universities, should create spaces of negotiated risk. My hope is that we can do this in both our physical and digital spaces so that the latter does not become a surveillance tool we use to ‘balance out’ trust gifted in other environments. Certainly now is a time to uphold trust in the face of surveillance whether that be with our students as we teach online or in wider society. Extending our ability to know and control is not axiomatic as it is better to be free than to be risk free.

Visitors & Residents – teaching during Coronavirus

Prensky’s suspect notion of Digital Natives and Immigrants is predicated on levels of ‘innate’ comfort and skill with digital technology based on age. In contrast, the Digital Visitors and Residents idea is based on motivation-to-engage with networked technology.

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).

Content – Contact for online teaching – CC: BY (click image for full sized version)

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.

The Global (viral) Village

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.

Thought experiment

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. 

By https://www.pixilart.com/santaclawswolf

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?


Twisted intentions

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.”

Ongka

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.

Who cares?

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.

Bryant, P., Lanclos, D. and White, D. (2019). Precarious voices: The shared hopes and dreams of those teaching and supporting learning in digital contexts . https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/handle/2123/20694/precarious%20voices.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

Undisciplined advantage

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. 

Snakes and ladders
The pros and cons of being disciplined (CC-AT Matt Brown)

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.