The problem isn’t AI, it’s the zero-sum future we’re being sold

Upside-down version of Blooms Taxonomy with an explosion of 'create' at the top.
Turning Blooms Taxonomy upside-down and removing the lid – CC BY 4.0 David White

A couple of blog posts ago I suggested that our response to AI is pushing us into a dangerous model of humanness.

“There is a tendency here to imply a zero-sum principle to humanness: the more the tech can do the less it means to be human. This feels wrong to me and isn’t helpful in an educational context.”

https://daveowhite.com/pointy/

I explored this zero-sum idea at a recent talk to staff at Kingston School of Art. To support my line of thought I picked up a quote in a post from Tobias Revell. The quote refers to Science Fiction (SF) but as Tobias points out, our current futures are largely based on SF thinking.

“I would argue, however, that the most characteristic SF does not seriously attempt to imagine the “real” future of our social system. Rather, its multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.”

Progress versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future? 
Fredric Jameson, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, Utopia and Anti-Utopia (Jul., 1982), pp. 147-158 – via https://blog.tobiasrevell.com/2024/02/07/box109-design-and-the-construction-of-imaginaries/

Questioning the future

I’m not a futurist but when it comes to emerging technologies it is useful to question what model of the future we are working with. How that is shaping our present and how this is, in turn, painting humanness into a corner. In short, the specific technology is less problematic than version of the future being sold.

The model of the future promoted around AI, and picked up in education, contains many assumptions and tacit implications. The main one being that once AI systems reach a certain level of complexity and/or have enough data to feed on they will reach ‘Artificial General Intelligence’ (AGI).

“…a type of artificial intelligence (AI) that can perform as well or better than humans on a wide range of cognitive tasks”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_general_intelligence

An image of intelligence entering the station?

A quick scan of the Wikipedia article on this makes it pretty clear that we are nowhere near that and there is little evidence that AI systems are actually on that path. However, the assumption that this has already happened or that it is inevitable is what is behind the zero-sum model of the future.

When I see articles with ‘this feels like AGI’ in them it reminds me of the train entering the station story from the early days of cinema. People allegedly panicked when they saw the film and cinema was, and is, a technology with a massive impact but what people saw was an image of something and not the thing itself.

L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat

We are not computers and intelligence is a sibling of mystery

Some of what drives this is a collective forgetting that the brain is not a computer and that that idea is merely a metaphor. So, building a hugely complex computer can only ever make a metaphorical brain. Or as Mary Midgley argues in Science as Salvation, the problem isn’t that we are operating with myths, the problem is that we have recategorised myth as fact, and therefore inevitable.

Add to this that there is no agreed definition of intelligence, and everything suddenly becomes very murky (Helen Beetham writes elegantly on this point).

My personal view is that we are extending the ‘Chinese Room’ in a manner which is impossible to understand (the way a neural networks operate in programming means that it’s not possible to deduce the process back to any kind of human-readable form). Our working definition of intelligence is then an absence or an ignorance, in that it’s a notion we ascribe to that which remains a mystery. This is another salient factor driving the zero-sum model of the future.

The problem with the pointy bit

When I first pointed out the zero-sum problem, I helpfully provided a bad diagram.

A red triangle diagram with yellow at the top.
A techno-evangelist, overly simplistic interpretation of education triangle diagrams post-AI? – CC BY 4.0 David White

The quick version of this being that many educational models are triangle shaped and the ‘higher order’ learning is in the pointy bit, often labelled as ‘creativity’ or something similar. The reason I called the diagram bad is because it perpetuates the zero-sum model of the future. Technology might help us to move into the pointy bit faster, but the diagram implies that the strictly human nature of pointy bit thinking and learning is small and constantly being chipped away at.

This is the problem with triangles, they get progressively smaller at the top until there is no space left at all. If we go with Blooms Taxonomy here, then it implies that human creativity is finite as if it was possible to complete being creative. Clearly this isn’t what is mean by the diagram, but these implicit notions are powerful and persistent. Having given this some, let’s go for a walk and have a think, time – I came up with a brilliant idea which it turns out a bunch of people have had before.

Flipping Blooms for unbounded creativity

What if we simply turn the triangle upside down rip the lid of it off (this lid ripping is my contribution).

Upside-down version of Blooms Taxonomy with an explosion of 'create' at the top.
Turning Blooms Taxonomy upside-down and removing the lid – CC BY 4.0 David White

What if remembering, understanding, applying etc. are what you dip into to support a process which starts with creativity? That would certainly chime with how students at the University of the Arts London work. Significantly, what if creativity wasn’t a finite pointy bit but was a jumping off point into a space which, by its very nature, cannot be bounded but opens out into unknown possibilities? Moreover, it could be argued that the relative educational weighting (if we go by the size of each slice) is a better reflection of where the educational emphasis should be in an era of information abundance and AI.

Certainly, a model of the future based on a lidless upside-down Blooms Taxonomy would be less fearful than the one we are currently being sold. In this lidless future, emerging technologies become a vehicle for us to explore the ever-expanding outer reaches of creativity rather than the thief of our humanness. I seem to remember that was the model of a technological future before technologists became our new high priests and I’d argue that the move to the zero-sum model is a failure of secularism (a topic I find fascinating but which is too big to get into here).

Not my idea

As I said, I wasn’t the first to up-end Blooms. That idea I’ve managed to trace back to around 2012 and relatively early discussions of the flipped classroom. For example this via Shelly Wright, which I traced back from this Open University post by Tony Hirst.

The OU post also links to a piece from Scott McLeod for around the same time which delves back into the thinking behind Blooms Taxonomy and how it was never mean to imply ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ forms of learning nor that each slice should be seen in terms of ‘amount of learning’. Given this, I suggest that putting it into a triangle was a spectacularly bad idea which, as Scott points out, has perpetuated a pretty impoverished approach within formal education. Hopefully, my lidless upside-down version of Blooms goes someway to redress this.

Embracing a squiggly future

Ultimately my favourite antidote to  the triangle is the squiggle. My favourite struggle of all time being Tristram Shandy’s diagrams of his approach to storytelling in a novel by Lawrence Stern.

A set of four lines with different patterns of squiggles on them.
Lines showing the direction of storytelling in the novel Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Stern – Wikimedia Commons

In the novel Shandy gets side-tracked so often that he never even gets born in the telling of his own life-story. And yet, somehow we learn an enormous amount about him through this wandering and the story is hugely entertaining. For me this is a fabulous touchstone for the principle of assessing the journey and not the output in education.  

The-squiggle-as-process is a much more honest metaphor for learning than the rigour of the triangle because a squiggle is messy, sometimes beautiful, and everyone takes a different route. We squiggle all over Blooms as we learn and we potentially squiggle our way out into the unknown beyond the lid of upside-down Blooms. So here’s to a creative, squiggly future in which education does not fear technology and our humanness knows no bounds.

Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning report

This week I was on a panel hosted at the House of Lords to discuss the launch of the Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning report. The research is from the Higher Education Commission, written by Alyson Hwang.

Close up of red and green wallpaper with an heraldic pattern
Very House of Lords wallpaper

The report’s research heritage has its roots in scrutiny of online learning during Covid lockdowns but things have come a long way since then. The Office for Students commissioned a review of blended learning, led by Professor Susan Orr which was published in October 2022 which forms a basis for this new research. The key finding from that 2022 work was that teaching quality is not relative to mode:

“The review panel took the view that the balance of face-to-face, online and blended delivery is not the key determinate of teaching quality. The examples of high quality teaching that were identified in this review would be viewed as high quality across on campus and online modes of delivery. This also applies to examples of poor teaching quality.”

Blended learning review,  Report of the OfS-appointed Blended Learning Review Panel, October 2022

It seemed that everything moving online during Covid had caused a culture shock and certain voices in Westminster decided that learning online couldn’t possibly as good as learning in buildings. Plus, some students were making the case that they were paying the same fees for an inferior experience.

This was more about university as a cultural-rite-of-passage than as an educational journey, but it largely got framed as being about ‘learning’. A valid question here would be ‘which students are we taking about?’ and ‘on what basis?’. See this recent piece from the Guardian by Roise Anfilogoff, who points our that for many students university became significantly more accessible during lockdowns.

The new report

The Commission found that blended learning has the transformative potential to widen participation and access to higher education for all, improve equality of opportunities, and enhance learning outcomes.

Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning Report, pg 20

The Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning report builds on the Review of Blended Learning, adding information from evidence sessions, interviews and written submissions to support a rangy set of recommendations. The case studies root the research in current, successful, practice.

It’s notable in how positive it is about blended learning and while there are many caveats, all the case studies and stats are upbeat. I’m sure this is an effect of asking institutions to share stories, rather than a taking a detective work approach. However, given the Covid heritage of this line of reporting it’s interesting that nowhere is blended learning portrayed as a bolt-on or fundamentally ‘not as good as’ being in physical rooms. I sense we are heading towards post, post-Covid times in quite a helpful way.

The report covers a lot of ground, ranging from the need for leadership to the state of the ed tech market. All-in-all it’s a useful body of work to support institutional strategy and to make the case for investing in Digital Education in the broadest sense.

Year zero

Much of what is covered and recommended are things which those of us in Digital Education have spent many years arguing for. In this sense the report is largely describing the current start-of-play rather than presenting possible futures. Covid is taken as a kind of year-zero for blended learning which doesn’t change the value of what is being said but always feels strange for those of us who have been working in the space since the 90s.  

The following recommendations in the report are ‘classics’ and well underway in many places:

  • The need for senior leadership roles that own and promote blended learning.
  • The need for more staff development and time to be made available in workload planning for this.
  • The need to incorporate digital literacy/capability into all curriculum to equip students for the workplace (and, I’d add, life…)
  • The need for commercial ed tech development and procurement to be more agile, and possibly collective (Open Source doesn’t get much of a look-in).

Certainly the Association for Learning Technology community have been extremely active in these areas and are well placed to contribute to any cross-sector work.

Asynch

The aspects of the report which open up the most interesting areas for me are around how we might develop more nuanced models of ‘blended’ as a practice and how ‘Quality’ might then be defined. The report proposes the following model:

Time, pace and timingSynchronous and Asynchronous
Space Place and Platform
MaterialsTools, facilities, learning media and other resources (digital, print-based or material)
GroupsRoles and relationships (teacher-led and peer-learning, varieties of learning groups)
Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning Report, pg 7

This is a useful and useable set of categories and it’s heartening to see the concepts of space and place in there. The report goes onto suggest how quality might be overseen, or measured, in recomendation12:

The Office for Students should establish a single, coherent approach for assessing the quality of online and blended learning as the designated quality body, ensuring that metrics do not impose additional bureaucratic burdens on the HE sector.

Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning Report, pg 6

This is complex and problematic because, as the report mentions, all provision is blended to a degree and so any coherent approach for assessing the quality of online and blended learning will actually be assessing all provision. Moreover, if we believe that this is about the quality of teaching (and design of provision) rather than the mode then why would we want to focus on mode? Not to mention that we already have a significant burden of regulation which the report alludes to as potentially distracting.

The HE sector is facing a significant challenge due to the regulatory landscape’s lack of consistency and stability. This diverts resources from developing teaching practices, investing in digital infrastructure, and improving students’ experiences.

Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning Report, pg 33

Teaching beyond mode

This all comes back to a knotty point that, in regulatory terms, we don’t have a workable definition of teaching that operates super to mode and can be applied across face-to-face and digital. For example, when you sift through the OfS Conditions of Registration the examples given which relate to teaching have their roots in face-to-face, ‘synchronous’ practices. There are refences to the need to use ‘current’ pedagogies in digital delivery but these are not described. As in this ‘possible cause for concern’:

The pedagogy of a course is not representative of current thinking and practices. For example, a course delivered wholly or in part online that does not use pedagogy appropriate to digital delivery, would likely be of concern.

OfS Conditions: B1: ‘Academic Quality’, B1.3
High Quality Academic Experience, Cause for concern 332H (b.)

It’s reasonable pedagogic specifics are not described given that ‘current thinking’ is a moving target. However, the side effect of this is that teaching is frequently refenced but never described, which means we fall back into a ‘contact hours’, teaching is the live stuff, way of thinking. Ultimately, most of our measures of teaching quality are proxies via student experience. There is plenty of merit in that but it contributes to the problem that our shared understanding of what teaching is (and what it isn’t) is always implied, or assumed, and never made explicit.

The asynchronous unicorn

Although the regulatory body provided some practical guiding principles, the metrics for assessing the quality of blended provision could be clarified to guarantee quality education rather than penalise innovative practices.

Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning Report, pg 32

This is important because until asynchronous forms of teaching are actually understood as teaching we won’t be able to describe the value of blended, or fully online, learning. Until ‘non-live’ pedagogies are mapped into our understanding of quality we won’t, as a sector, be able to see our own provision clearly.

The effect being that the way in which the digital can support truly student-centred flexible provision will not be acknowledged and much progress in access and inclusion will remain ‘invisible’ to quality frameworks. This extends to the way we design contracts, manage workloads, increase student numbers and widen access. The latter being a key hope attached to the hypothetical flexibility of online and blended provision, especially for those already in work:

Contributors to the inquiry voiced how student needs and demands are changing in line with the economy – more than ever, students are benefitting from flexible, personalised, and accessible delivery of their courses.

Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning Report, pg 4

As mentioned, the key here is to describe and communicate-the-value-of ‘non-live’ teaching in a mode agnostic manner. This isn’t about Digital, it’s about teaching and flexibility– it just so happens that Digital allows us to undertake many forms of ‘non-live’ teaching (whereas non-digital forms of asynchronous largely rely on a postal service).

(aside) What do we think of when we think of teaching?

I’d like to undertake a research project where we ask a cross section of staff and students to describe what they understand by the term ‘teaching’. I suspect views will vary wildly and worry that many of them will be quite narrow.

What can we take from the Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning report?

There is plenty of useful stuff here and I’m sure it will be quoted in many strategies and budget asks. It’s a useful step forward, not least of which because it reflects the reality of the majority of the sector and not some kind of Oxbridge cultural romanticism, projected out from, bricks and mortar.

Overall, I’d ask where the investment and capacity might come from during nervous times and I’m wary of a narrative which is based on the White Heat of Technology as it’s never really about the tech, it’s about the business model. Certainly, in a sector where we are generating an ever growing staff precariat, introducing technology to make things ‘more efficient’ is likely to contribute to instability. I say this not entirely from a Marxist perspective but because I believe that meaningful teaching will always involve confident, highly capable, professionals.

To give the report it’s due, at no point does it suggest that we should do everything with AI or something along those lines, it’s driving more of an access than efficiency agenda, but it’s focus on mode, rather than the practice of teaching could lead people the wrong way. My hope is that the constructive and measured character of this report will provide a basis for us to develop more sophisticated models of practice and quality which are not tied to mode and therefore don’t segregate digital.

Creativity with, or against, the machines?

A recent Ed Tech/HE conference I attended opened day one with a high production value, inspirational, video. Traditionally at this event the opening video has outlined how technology is the future and will enhance everything ‘Empowering students to shape their destinies’ type stuff. (This is normally expressed through metaphor, and images of VR-ish stuff happening).  

However, this year while the main message had a similar drive there was a new subtext. The video showed a young woman who appeared to be suffering from creative block, but through her own determination she broke through this, her ideas flourished, and she ended up inspired to paint and draw etc. I don’t recall much technology being involved beyond some laptop pointing and a bit of indistinct VR use. The human was central.

This seemed to be making the case for what, might be, unique about being human and how technology could support that. Another interpretation is that the video was actively defending humanness in an era of rapidly developing digital technologies. I’m sure this wasn’t the direct intention, but this theme did carry through the opening keynote from a Futurist who insisted, in the way that Futurists do, that we should try to imagine many possible futures. i.e. Not just the future that the technologist insist is inevitable on a hard dystopian / utopian split.

What do we bring to the table?

What I think I’m seeing is a post-AI shift towards a defence of humanity against technology. Or a gentler view might be that it’s an assertion of what is unique about being human – an attempt at defining what humans ‘bring to the table’. This theme isn’t new for example, in the nineteenth century Ruskin advocated for human centric values in the face of industrialised work which separated individuals from craft and nature. Harraway argued against the dehumanising drive of computational and technological ‘progress’ back in the 80s and the ‘what makes us human’ theme has been shot through literature for thousands of years (angels, Der Golem, Frankenstein’s monster, aliens etc.).  

The new aspect for me is that this was an Ed Tech conference, not a symposium on gothic literature, a meeting of theorists. The organisation running the conference are techno-evangelists of sorts and have facilitated and funded a bunch of useful digital things for Higher Education in the UK. And yet their ‘this is what we value’ conference opening video could easily be used by the marketing department of my own university (The University of the Arts London). Our strap line is ‘The World Needs Creativity’. The strapline of the video could have been ‘Being Human Still Has Value’.

I wonder if we are seeing the culmination of a technological narrative which has been building for years. Wherein those promoting the tech must switch to promoting humanness and how the tech amplifies, rather than reduces, our ‘uniqueness’.  There is a tendency here to imply a zero-sum principle to humanness: the more the tech can do the less it means to be human. This feels wrong to me and isn’t helpful in an educational context.

It’s more than the pointy bit – but it is the pointy bit.

I mentioned a few blog posts back that, for me as an educationalist, the role of technology is to give us the opportunity to spend more time in the pointy, top-end, of the educational triangle diagram (you can pick any educational triangle diagram – they all imply that the pointy bit is what we are aiming for). Creativity, or something akin to creativity, often labels the pointy bit for example, in Bloom’s taxonomy the term ‘Create’ is used. In other frameworks it relates to agency and identity – various forms of self-determination and expression.  

A triangle where the bottom two thirds are labelled 'The bit technology can do' and the top third is labelled 'The human bit'.
A techno-evangelist, overly simplistic interpretation of education triangle diagrams post-AI?

The downside of these triangles is that they imply ‘development’ is a kind of ladder. You climb your way to the top where the best stuff happens. Anyone who has ever undertaken a creative process will know that it involves repeatedly moving up and down that ladder or rather, it involves iterating research, experimentation, analysis, reflection and creating (making). Every iteration is an authentic part of the process, every rung of the ladder is repeatedly required, so when I say technology allows us to spend more time at the ‘top’ of these diagrams, I’m not suggesting that we should try and avoid the rest.

I’d argue that attempting to erase the rest of the process with technology is missing the point(y). However, a positive reading would be that, as opposed the zero-sum notion, a well-informed incorporation of technology could make the pointy bit a bit bigger (or more pointy). The tech could support us to explore a constantly shifting and, I hope, expanding, notion of humanness. This idea is very much in tension with the Surveillance Capitalism, Silicon Valley, reading of our times. I’m not saying that the tech does support us to explore our humanity, I’m saying it could and what is involved in that ‘could’ is worth thinking about.

It’s pleasant, in a quiet way, to see technologists reach for a simplistic only-the-pointy-bit version of creativity as the go-to concept when promoting a human-centric view. This is probably also comes about because the auteur-ish, ‘expressive’, aspects of a performative creativity make for good video visuals. My hope is that the new habit of defending, or promoting, humanness by technologists will lead to an increasing understanding of why ‘Art School’ values around not-knowing, risk, ambiguity, play and general graft are exactly what’s needed to continue to expand what it means to be human.

Creative Education Online (CEO)

A conversational seminar series exploring the future of creative art and design education in digital spaces.

The material in the digital.

Digital spaces and practices are evident in almost all creative and learning journeys. This is reflected in students’ experience of Higher Education and in the Creative Industries’ increasing emphasis on online collaboration.

However, fully online creative education remains difficult to imagine as it appears to contradict key characteristics inherent in ‘residential’ provision in various ways, for example:

  1. The ‘desituating’ of material practices, embodiment and notions of co-presence.
  2. An assumed lack of ‘togetherness’ and group cohesion through increased flexibility of provision.

In conversation with experts this series will explore the challenges and opportunities for fully online and digital creative education, the implications for the identity of our subjects and institutions.

To what extent does online provision amplify and reflect current tensions around access, scale, and creativity? What aspects of subject tradition should be questioned in the attempt to be more inclusive and what should be protected?



Context and call

I’ve been working with Chris Rowell and Ruth Powell in the Teaching and Learning Exchange to put together a seminar series with a focus on fully online creative education. The format will be similar to Chris’ excellent ‘AI conversations’ from which he produced a digital book: ‘AI Conversations: Critical Discussions about AI, Art and Education’.

Each seminar will be a 30-minute informal interview, or conversation, with an expert on the relevant theme followed by 15 minutes of Q&A. They will take place on the 1st and 3rd Friday of each month, hopefully starting in May 2024. Below is a brief description of the series and a selection of draft themes.

If you are interested in being the ‘expert’ half of a conversation on one of the themes below, or if you’d like to suggest your own theme within the framing of the series, then let me know on david.white@arts.ac.uk. The questions for each conversation can be agreed in advance, with a focus on fully online but with space to go wider if relevant as almost all themes will have implications well beyond any single mode of ‘delivery’.

Suggested themes

Not all of these themes are my ideas, some came from Chris Rowell and Ruth Powell. I did draft them all, so they are written from my perspective. You might like the look of a theme but want to rework it so it comes from a slightly different perspective. Some of the themes are quite well thought through, while others are just the sketch of an idea. You might also notice that a similar theme has been expressed in more than one form.

Hopefully they give a sense of some of the ground we’d like to cover.


Desituated curriculum

What does it mean to teach creative subjects with little or no shared access to buildings?

Or

What are the implications of teaching and learning having no clear ‘situation’? Everyone involved is embodied in different locations, potentially with no geographical or spatial resonance?

The ‘virtual’ crit

The crit is central to Art School teaching, a practice with a heritage in Fine Art which carries through to many creative subjects and is commonly viewed as a signature pedagogy. Inherent in the crit dialogue in a communal situation. How does this play out online where a sense of togetherness is perhaps more ephemeral and the artefact under consideration will be digital or will have been translated into the digital.

What does an authentic crit look like in online spaces? What is gained and what is lost as we transpose a revered teaching practice into a new context?

Anti-oppressive online

Beyond notions of inclusion, we can ask what it means to be anti-oppressive online. What pedagogic practices “…legitimate students’ epistemologies, foster reflection and discussion, establish expectations of critical awareness, and democratize educator and student roles.”* 

How does the principle of anti-oppression operate in digital spaces and places? How do we successfully navigate the ‘built-in’ power assumptions our online platforms and our own institutional cultures?

*Migueliz Valcarlos, M., Wolgemuth, J.R., Haraf, S. and Fisk, N., 2020. Anti-oppressive pedagogies in online learning: A critical review. Distance Education41(3), pp.345-360.

AI and creativity

Does AI make us more, or less, creative? How is It being incorporated into creative processes? Where is it redefining, or erasing, practices? Where has it morphed esteemed practices into ‘skills’? What are the implications for creative subjects and identities if we consider AI as a technology of cultural production?

AI literacy, AI use

What literacies and uses are emerging in creative education. Exploring day-to-day practices and implications (staff and students). What aspects of AI literacy should we be focusing on as creative educators?

Translate to engage?

Instantaneous text-based language translation was an early, widely available, use of Large Language Model AIs. Now the same process can work in real time with text or audio.

In UK Higher Education there is anecdotal evidence that some students who have English as an additional language habitually translate teaching into their primary language to engage.

Is this a technology of decolonisation and inclusion or a twisty example of cultural homogenisation by Silicon Valley? What does this mean in terms of belonging and the intercultural in an education system which is resolutely ‘taught and assessed in English*’?

Can we imagine the 100% translated course?

*If we are speaking from a UK perspective.

Assessment, feedback and tech

To what extent has a move into the digital environment modified our assessment and feedback practices? Are we replicating or reimagining?

For fully online provision, what does it mean to be assessing a digital simulacrum of material work? Is a shift in emphasis from ‘realisation’ to ‘process’ in assessment a radical turn or simply a reflection of ‘good practice’?

Dispersed materiality

How do we reconceptualise ‘Studio’ as a concept (a shared space, a set of practices and dispositions) when making is dispersed, distributed across time and geography?

A lack of object-ivity?

How does/should object based learning work in the immaterial digital environment?

The tantalising prospect of digital ‘immersion’ – placemaking with VR/XR.

One response to the immaterial nature of the digital environment is to simulate the ‘real’. To what extent is the use of VR/XR a legitimate method of ‘uploading’ art and design practices into the digital? Does spatial tech draw us together by providing new places of co-presence or does it exclude and isolate?

Being and belonging

Creative arts demand a pedagogy of becoming – being through doing. Given the flexible and dispersed nature of online education how do we ensure we are creating the conditions for this?

Digital mess

The spaces of online education are commonly designed in the context of a corporate philosophy of efficiency and task management – they are spaces as imagined by Silicon Valley. Add to this the inorganic nature of computing and the creative possibilities inherent in the massy and the unpredictable become attenuated. To what extent can we co-opt these environments towards mess and chaos-within-bounds which so often inspires the creative process?

Digital and climate emergency

To what extent is moving creative education online an effective response to climate emergency. What are the factors in designing a low carbon digital curriculum? Are we simply dispersing our responsibilities across a myriad of physical locations or does a reduction in travel immediately make fully online education the most climate-ethical mode of education available?

Lumpy stuff and digital

The plastic arts, getting your hands dirty, materiality etc. Where do we handle the ‘lumpy stuff’ in online creative education? What happens when the tactile, the visceral, cannot be sensed or shared through physical co-presence. Is it possible to meaningfully ‘make’ when dispersed across many localities. Additionally, how might we transpose the lumpy work into the digital without losing its essence. What does it mean when all work ends up as a digital image?

Creativity in corporate spaces: i.e., “Microsoft is the location of your college”

Similar to the Digital Mess theme but with more focus on the implications of relinquishing our spaces to Silicon Valley. There is something here about the corporate ownership of communal spaces and notions of the ‘safe space’ online.

Flexibility vs communality

Fully online education is a pragmatic option for people will full lives. It can be offered flexibly to account for the ebb and flow of work, caring responsibilities and ‘life happening’. However, this flexibility erodes the notion of the cohort and the shared experience of a group going on a journey which is ingrained in creative education. To what extent is flexibility the enemy of communality and belonging? What are the possible design responses which create the potential for communality without always mandating that students ‘build their lives around the course’?

Immaterial making

A Fine Art educator once commented that during an online Fine Art MA the students central practice became the art of making PDFs.

How do we ensure that the screen does not dominate in making subjects? What might be effective and enjoyable methods of sharing and communicating the material via the immaterial?

Access vs supervision

Creative arts education is centred on the development of individual and collective creative practice. This lends itself to a ‘pedagogy of supervision’ which supports individualised dialogue and questioning. While this is likely to be meaningful and inspiring for the few who can access it as a form of education it is inherently expensive, demanding significant amounts of academic/teaching time.

To what extent does a financially viable and accessible approach to online education negate a supervision approach? Is it possible that accessible online education unpicks the very nature of creative subjects, or perhaps demands that they be reimagined?

Structure vs reflection

All creative processes require moments of reflection, space to think, space to forget and then reconnect etc. In contract, good practice in online education tends towards structure, and the granular quantification of attention and focus. Given this, how might we design creative online education which scaffolds but does not suffocate, which provides space-to-think but not an absence of purpose? What does it mean when the most intense moments of learning and creativity are often those times that cannot be measured or entirely predicted?

From Skills to Virtues: A model for the design of Higher Education

The ‘SPAV’ Model (Skills, Practices, Attributes, and Virtues)

A diagram containing nested categories of Skills. Practices, Attributes and Virtues.
Skills, Practices, Attributes, Virtues – CC BY 4..0 David White

The model lays out a continuum spanning from Skills to Virtues to be used as a high-level tool in the design of university education. Underlying this is a doing-to-being continuum which is based on an ‘education as a journey of becoming’ principle. In short, we create the conditions for our students to develop as individuals over the time they are with us. Hopefully they leave as more knowledgeable, better equipped citizens with nuanced, and ethically informed, worldviews.

When considering the design of curriculum, the model is intended to be used as a touchstone which provides a holistic view of various strategic drives commonly applied, often unevenly, in the development of HE level courses. For example, many universities have a skills agenda, a set of Graduate Attributes and a Social Justice/Purpose strategy or themes*. These might be expressed separately, leaving those developing curriculum to interweave these educational aspirations which could, on the surface, appear to pull in different directions.

The model is intended to help those that design Higher Education navigate the breath of offer which spans from ’employability’ to ‘making the world a better place’. I believe these can, and should, inform each other but in the day-to-day of university activity they sometimes feel like dis-integrated layers.

*Examples would include positions on Anti Racism, Inclusion, Sustainability, Decolonisation, and Climate.

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It is possible to insert institutionally specific frameworks into the categories to inform design. So the model will stay relevant even as institutional drivers and aspirations change over time. For example, at the University of the Arts London we have a Creative Attributes Framework (Attributes) and a Social Purpose Implementation Plan (Virtues). These are subject-agnostic, whereas frameworks in the Skills and Practices area will differ by school, faculty or subject.

A specialist process

The categories in the model are geared towards the design of education, which is a specialism in its own right. As such, they are not intended for a broad audience without translation or simplification. For example, employers tend to mix aspects from across the model under the banner of ‘Skills’. A survey of employers by Kingston University indicated that ‘Problem Solving’ was the most valued ‘Skill’. Whereas in educational design terms, ‘Problem Solving’ would be a Practice which incorporates relevant Skills and Attributes, guided by Virtues or values. Even so, I wouldn’t attempt to rewire employers use of language. The broad use of ‘Skills’ is fine as long as we, as educators, work with more nuance behind that term.

Similarly, how these categories interrelate does not always need to be made explicit to students, but a good understanding is required across the continuum to inform design. For example, a question or brief might be posed which focuses on developing a Practice but encourages this to be contextualised in terms of Virtues/Social Purpose even if these terms are not used directly.

Definitions if the categories within the model

(Health warning: The categories bleed into one another. For example, one person’s ‘Skill’ is another’s ‘Practice’. The model should be used to inform design and discussion about what is being covered in curriculum, and how it interrelates. It is not attempting to categorise definitively or be an arbiter of semantics. The discussion the model engenders about what and how to teach is more important than trying to make everything ‘fit’ in the model itself.)

Skills

These are usually instrumental, and straight forward to assess as there will be clarity around what mastery of a Skill looks like. This could be understood on a case-by-case basis, or via established competency frameworks. A Skill is likely to be an isolated competency which is expected to be combined with other Skills, or incorporated into Practices, to complete assignments/briefs. For example, brazing two copper pipes together is a Skill, knowing how to install a central heating system is a Practice. Basic numeracy is a Skill, solving a maths problem is a Practice. In short, a Skill can always be gained through a training style of teaching.

Practices

These are where Skills are applied in context to generate new knowledge or understanding (Sometimes the term ‘literacy’, as in Digital Literacy, is used in this area too). Practices can be institutionally defined (where there might be a ‘correct’ approach) or developed by the individual. Often they are a combination of both, whereby they are initially learnt in an agreed form then adapted and owned by the individual over time. As such, Practices can combine aspects of both doing (externalised actions) and being (internalised to the person). Good examples of this would be the Practice of academic writing or the Practice of drawing. Each of these has a raft of accepted techniques and skills which can be adopted and adapted by an individual in the development of a personal style or approach, namely, the development of a personal Practice.

Notably, students will often already have a collection of Practices and skills they ‘own’, which they will bring into an educational process. Curriculum which assumes that students ‘start at zero’ across any of the model’s categories is unlikely to be inclusive in nature.

Thanks to Georgia Steele at UAL for the definition of Practices used in the Model.

Attributes

Often presented as ‘Graduate Attributes’ These characterise an individual’s approach to undertaking work and engaging in the culture of work or scholarship. Attributes underpin an individuals’ ability to ‘make their way in the world’. Higher Education emphasises Attributes as important characteristics of the person (how being informs doing) which usually go beyond what is directly accredited. The successful graduate is then ‘greater’ than the sum of their Skills and can continue to adapt and learn over time in a changing environment.

Commonly referenced Attributes include ‘communication’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘resilience’, but I think more mundane categories such as ‘reliable’ and ‘personable’ give a better sense of the value of Attributes.

Virtues

Being virtuous has negative, entitled, overtones but virtue, and by extension, virtue ethics are useful when defined as ‘striving to do good’, even when doing good is not necessarily expedient – i.e., it’s complex and difficult.

Institutionally, ‘good’ is often expressed across numerous social, cultural, and environmental areas. These are now being gathered under the banner of Social Justice, a term which feels fresher than ‘virtue’ and helps to reveal what could otherwise be ‘Hidden Curriculum’. Being clear about Social Justice values helps to avoid what I call a ‘guess the culture’ approach for students, where students who are culturally aligned to the institution’s values do better in assessment while those who are not tuned into this struggle to understand what they are doing ‘wrong’.

Interestingly, while accruing wealth and power are highly prized elements of ‘success’, they are not inherently virtuous. Given this, Social Justice, as a proxy for virtue, is a useful way of promoting that an institution, and its graduates, are not only driven by revenue and profit. This is increasingly important if universities are to remain distinct cultural entities. Importantly, virtues must be lived-out by the individual and cannot be performed, they require integrity. Where Attributes might be a characteristic of a person, Virtues are embodied. Virtues, and how they relate to the development of worldviews, are therefore closely tied to notions of becoming.

Operating across levels

The model can operate across all HE levels: at the higher levels (in the UK, levels 6/7) students are expected to generate a narrative of their work which interweaves and interrelates multiple categories in a sophisticated manner. This would include the use of theory and relevant frameworks to structure, contextualise, and reflect upon interrelationships across this model. Whereas at lower levels we might expect a student to articulate connections across fewer categories. For example, discussing how they have applied certain Skills to develop a Practice.

Using the model

I’m planning to incorporate this model into our Learning Design process to help us to develop curriculum which is balanced across the categories. I see it as a tool we use at the start of the process to help shape a course or module and something the check-in with the end. Does the design cover relevant categories to the right extent? Does it connect those areas in a manner which aligns with the level of the course? Does the design of assessment reflect this?

Below are further thoughts which I wrote as a ‘way into’ explaining the model. I thought I’d include them here as they might be useful context.

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Virtuous becoming and Constructive Alignment in Art & Design education

UAL teaches subjects which are highly ontological. That is, they aspire towards becoming and the incorporation of practice and knowledge into the identity of the student as they develop nuanced and ethical worldviews. There is a requirement to incorporate anti-racism, climate crisis and sustainability, and decolonisation into curriculum in tandem with inclusive, diverse and intercultural approaches to teaching and learning. This Social Justice imperative is a form of human practical ethics which should inform Skills, Practices and the development of Attributes.

This pushes the boundaries of the Constructive Alignment approach in the design of teaching and learning, as Learning Outcomes which require a particular worldview to be demonstrated could be in tension with inclusion and decolonisation. To what extent should an institution define the ‘correct’ way to be? In this sense, as we move through Attributes and towards Virtues, Learning Outcomes could blur into something we might call Becoming Outcomes, which could be problematic or, at the very least, stretching the idea of Learning Outcomes to breaking point.

However, I suggest that Learning Outcomes can be designed which operate at this end of the continuum if they are centred on developing a position or support informed critical reflection. i.e. They do not mandate a particular view is held even where this might be in tension with the stated Social Purpose standpoint of the institution. Clearly, a student taking this approach would have to develop a line of argument which is articulated with great clarity but in an inclusive, pluralistic, (and I would argue, fundamentally educational) environment this should be possible.

The ‘Art School’ heritage of Practice

The use of Practice within this model has it roots in ‘Art School’ forms of education where Skills are applied to materials through practice to produce new work and new knowledge. This mechanism of applied Skills can be extended beyond distinctly creative contexts. For example, in the UK we might demand a specific level of English language Skills which can then be applied in the practice of academic writing. Similarly, we might require numeracy Skills which can be applied in STEM-based lab Practices.

Levering open the Practice space between Skills and Attributes

Practice is a location in which the academic and the practical can inform each other and is therefore crucial in the design of contemporary Higher Education and is in some sense what binds the model together. Practice can be theorised, and theory (including certain aspects of Social Justice) can be applied to practice. Including Practice in the model also reduces the risks of skills and attributes collapsing together and becoming a confusing, interchangeable, mix of doing and being.

How ‘Art School’ teaching avoids a losing battle with technology.

(…or there is no such thing as a good picture of a horse.)

A little while back I was invited to give a talk at the University of Sydney where I argued that “The ‘Art School’ approach is increasingly relevant across all university-level teaching to avoid our graduates getting drawn into an impotent skills race with technology”. This post is a condensed version of that talk.

The full video of the talk is here: https://vimeo.com/896653558/bbc141a5e1?share=copy

(Thanks to Professor Peter Bryant and the folk at the University of Sydney Business School for the invitation and the excellent hosting)

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No correct answers

I often joke that I help to run a university with 25,000 students who are mostly studying subjects with no correct answers. This can look like a bit of a conundrum, especially when it comes to assessment. We can unpick this if we take into account two Art School-esque principles.

  1. The emphasis is on assessing the creative journey, or the narrative of the work, not the output or the ‘product’ of the work.
  2. There is no such thing as a good picture of a horse.

Before I deal with that second point, it’s worth noting that the ‘the narrative, not the product’ is a version of the idea of ‘assessing the learning not the thing’. In that sense, all of higher education should be taking this approach in one form or another. For example, an exam shouldn’t be assessing how good you are at exams… 

No such thing as a good picture of a horse

If we did operate on the ‘good horse’ or ‘correct answer’ basis then I suspect our marking criteria would look like this:

A drawing of a horse which moves from figurative to a cartoon in style. The figurative end is awarded a first, the cartoon end an 2.2.
Art School assessment practice, if we marked based on the idea of ‘Good’?

This isn’t the case though as while there is significant merit in, and respect for, technical skills these are not the point or the aim. To explain this, it’s useful to consider that ‘all creative work is conceptual’, but sometimes the concept is really basic. For example, the concept might be ‘a painting of a horse that looks very much like a horse’ but it could be ‘a cartoon of a horse which encourages us to question the limits of Generative AI’ . Hiding in this ‘it’s all conceptual’ notion is something I return to a lot, namely a pedagogy of questions, reflection and critique. 

Let’s say I set you the task of creating a picture of a horse, you can achieve this any way you want. The catch is that you have to explain why you have taken a certain approach, what you think the value of this approach is and the extent to which you have been successful relative to that value. (Importantly, you can also reflect on how you might have failed to do this). 

You can use all kinds of tools to construct this story: theory, method, process, your identity, your cultural influences and experiences, a chosen canon of relevant work etc. This forms the narrative of your work and this can be assessed. 

Beyond skills and knowledge

This pedagogy is not radical but it tends to be more prevalent at the ‘top end’ of education systems. The PhD viva and the notion of a ‘defense’ being the classic example. Intriguingly, in arts education, students encounter this form of pedagogy from day one. That’s a tough gig and figuring out how to gently scaffold students into this form of learning is an ongoing challenge. It might be a ‘defense’ in some sense but we don’t want it to be defensive as this simply privileges the privileged.  

The upside here is that an ‘Art School’ approach equips graduates with the ability to go beyond the ever shifting currency of skills and knowledge by developing the ability to question and critique context. To tell a story as much about the ‘why’ as the ‘what’. Our graduates can ‘see’ systems and structures which can then variously be navigated, made visible, modified, avoided or deconstructed. All extremely useful attributes for employers, assuming they work on a trust basis. 

Avoiding a skills ‘arms race’ with technology

So perhaps our marking criteria should look like this?

A drawing of a horse which moves from  cartoon to figurative in style. The cartoon end is awarded a first, the figurative end an 2.2.
Nope

Well no, because we are looking at an output here, not the story. Any of these representations could be strong or weak pieces of work depending on how they respond to the brief and on the quality of the critical-creative narrative of their genesis. 

What we can say is that the front of the horse is the most imaginative and the least likely to be reproducible algorithmically. The cartoonish image doesn’t go head-to-head with techno-solutionist approaches because it simply side steps mainstream notions of ‘good’. It’s genuinely difficult to get Gen AI to produce the crazy looking cartoon because it simply doesn’t have enough to go on. I’m not saying this won’t improve, this is more a point about the limited value of ‘Good’ when processes can are automated. When I tried to generate ‘both ends’ of the horse with Stable Diffusion (as a prompt novice) it produced this:

Two pictures of a horse. One is a fairly figurative black and white drawing, the other looks more like a photo.
My attempt to recreate the aesthetic and character of both ends of the horse using Stable Diffusion an image based Gen AI.

In the talk I used this Gen AI example as the current exemplar of a long line of what be usefully termed as technologies of cultural production. 15 years ago I might have made similar points about Wikipedia, there are many similarities in the questions raised by Gen AI and Wikipedia because they are both technologies of cultural production which rapidly emerged in the public domain. This is a category of technology we consistently struggle with because it recategorises forms of labour and professional identities.

Imagination not imitation

As mentioned, Gen AI, as with any algorithmic technology, imitates but doesn’t imagine (Yui et al. 2023). Here is where the ‘Art School’ approach becomes crucial as reproduction and remixing of canon, i.e. ‘elegant imitation’, is rapidly losing its currency. In the same way that copying and pasting from Wikipedia has very little value but can be very useful, so too with Gen AI. In practice this means much of what we characterised as creative work is being merged into broader notions of ‘production’, something Tobias Revell has discussed in terms of Design potentially ceasing to be a specialist field

This is where we again connect with the limits of focusing on ‘Good’ as the principle of good tends towards imitation as it’s a comparative concept. Good is almost always relative to what has come before. I’d say this is also the same with the idea of being ‘correct’.

Under these circumstances there is an imperative to teach beyond ‘good’, thereby equipping our graduates to swim to the surface of imitation and operate above the ever rising tide of skills-that-can-now-be-done-by-generalists. Now that the sanctity of writing has also been eroded by technology, I’d argue that the ‘No such thing as a good picture of a horse’ approach goes beyond creative subjects and is necessary across the majority of higher education.

 

Yiu, E., Kosoy, E. and Gopnik, A., 2023. Transmission versus truth, imitation versus innovation: What children can do that large language and language-and-vision models cannot (yet). Perspectives on Psychological Science, p.17456916231201401.

Untangling Creative Education (Is subject inextricable from pedagogy?)

The University of the Arts London, where I am currently employed, has ambitions to widen access to creative education through fully-online provision. You can read about this in our university strategy

This isn’t in-of-itself radical excepting that creative subjects have not, traditionally, been the focus of online development. The ‘standard’ subjects for online tend to have a more defined scaffolding of knowledge and learning – there are more ‘correct answers’. Examples include, MBAs, Computer Science and Nursing where learning and assessment can be (if required) perpetuated without the direct intervention of academic staff, up to the point that reflection or individual projects come into play. 

Creative subjects tend to be built around the exact type of individual (or group) projects and critical reflection which require specific critical feedback and dialogue. At UAL almost all of our assessment is based on coursework, not exams, and much of this is evidenced through the development of personal portfolios. This is typically ‘Art School’ in nature and, as a colleague pointed out to me, heavily influenced by the traditions of Fine Art pedagogy. This is not to say that all creative subjects are a version of Fine Art. It’s that deeply held beliefs about what it means to nurture creative practice and thinking across many subjects are rooted in Fine Art style teaching methods. 

Messy abstract painting in a spectrum of colours
Abstract detail (painting by David White CC BY 4.0)

Four foundations of creative teaching

There are many ways to cut this in how we might describe the foundational components of a Fine Art, or ‘Art School’ inflected education. Here is my, not exhaustive, overview:

  1. Teaching process, developing practice: ‘making’ skills, ‘craft’ or ‘technique’.
  2. Teaching theory and canon: The history of the subject. Learning the tools required to contextualise practice and develop a critical position.
  3. Teaching critical reflection: Applying theory to practice and vice versa, reflective writing, academic writing and research. Documenting (telling the story of) enquiry, ideation, process and realisation. 
  4. Teaching-by-supervision to support individual and collective practice. 

(As ever, if we have a broad view of terms like ‘practice’ and ‘process’ then these four points cover most subjects taught at a higher education level – especially if we categorise ‘academic writing’ as a type of practice)

Supervision-as-dialogue is central 

In subjects where the focus is on developing a creative practice, supervision, often in the form of dialogue, becomes the foundation of the teaching & learning approach – the ‘signature pedagogy’. Most academics at my university would see this as crucial, almost axiomatic. If we are honest in our proposition that students can interpret project briefs/assignments creatively, then teaching must mold itself around the variation in those responses, it can’t be generic, it has to be thoughtful. Is a Fine Art course without dialogue Fine Art? It certainly doesn’t feel like it. 

I’d argue that the supervision model of teaching is the primary design consideration when developing accessible online provision. Developing workable models of supervision is at least as important as responding to concerns around materiality and physical making practices. The latter can be re-situated, up to a point, to be local to the student whereas supervision is hard-wired into the identity of creative education. 

For some, supervision is by definition the soul of the course. Dialogue, structured or serendipitous, with experts (academic and technical) is possibly more important than access to specialist equipment and spaces. When students describe ‘the course’ they are most likely to mention moments of real-time supervision coupled with stories of personal, or group, practice. They are less likely to mention text-based feedback even if that was influential. This could simply be because embodied, live,  moments tend to be easier to recall? 

Supervision vs access

The uncomfortable aspect of accepting this is that a supervision model of provision is in tension with access in a number of ways:

  1. Supervision requires significant staff time which risks reducing access in terms of affordability for students.
  2. Supervision is commonly framed around moments of ‘live’ (synchronous) dialogue which is difficult for students with busy lives, or across time zones, to frequently engage with. 
  3. One dimension of increased access is greater student numbers. In a supervision model the limiting factor will quickly become the availability, or even existence, of teaching staff with the right balance of teaching and creative-practice experience. 

So we end up with a scenario where reducing the amount of supervision in creative education provision is not just a curriculum design choice, it’s an erosion of what we believe the subject to be and a dilution of what some students believe they are paying for. On the other hand, predicating any course (and here, I’m going beyond creative education) on supervision risks attenuating access across a number of dimensions. 

The powerful cultural/educational position of supervision is, I suspect, what underpins student demands for moments of ‘live’ teaching (in-building or online) which are then poorly attended. Students and staff need to know these supervisory, or live, moments are happening or they feel the course ‘doesn’t properly exist’. However, when students are not  in a position to attend, or the inconvenience of attending ‘live’ is outweighed by the sense that attendance is not contingent on success, everyone feels unsatisfied at some level. 

The importance of acknowledging ‘non real time’ supervision 

In response, I’m not suggesting that the supervision model of teaching is a problem to be solved. The troublesome aspect is not the practice of supervision but that it is too closely associated with ‘live’, or real-time, teaching. This is often cemented by legal and regulatory approaches to ‘contact time’ – as I’ve discussed before

It’s of note that the coupling of supervision and ‘live’ doesn’t accurately reflect day-to-day practice given that dialogue and feedback is often via text in the form of online messages, comments, annotations etc. In essence, the practice of supervision has adapted to incorporate the not-real-time opportunities of the digital environment but our conception of supervision seems stuck in a previous era. We need to accept, or rather acknowledge, that much of our dialogue takes place in non-real-time forms which are more varied than an epistolary or summative feedback.  

Unfortunately this means that we underestimate, or fail to identify, the actual volume of teaching which takes place. This inability to ‘see’ teaching as anything other than ‘live’ is partly responsible for creating unsustainable work loads. A course as documented and validated is likely to not capture this middle ground between ‘contact time’ and ‘independent’ hours, except perhaps as a vaguely defined form of administration (sometimes this also falls under ‘pastoral’, ‘community’ or ‘support’ type labels). 

Less ‘live’ and more ‘supported’

Extending our definition of supervision to incorporate non-live forms of dialogue is crucial if we are to balance subject and access. My team is defining this as ‘Supported’ teaching. A mode of supervision which provides flexibility for students and softens the line between ‘Live’ and ‘Independent’ teaching and learning. 

The question I’m exploring is how much ‘live’ can become ‘supported’ in online provision before the nature of the subject itself is changed. Or, to put it another way, to what extent is the teaching mode and the subject itself intertwined? If we don’t understand this entanglement then any design process where academics are famed as ‘experts in the subject’ and others are experts in ‘learning’ could grind to a halt. If particular teaching methods are part of the fabric of a subject then we can’t re-design teaching without re-imaging the subject. 

Flexibility vs Belonging

Is there a fundamental tension between student belonging and the flexibility of our university provision? This is the question I have been exploring recently as we develop fully online provision and one which I am repeatedly brought back to when talking with colleagues. 

In an attempt to map the territory within this question I created a simple diagram which I’m going to step through to navigate my thinking.

A diagram describing the relationship between flexibility and belonging in education provision (as discussed in the post)
Flexibility vs belonging in education provision. (David White CC BY 4.0)

Access and Inclusion

I’m unapologetically starting with the idea that access and inclusion are a good thing. This doesn’t represent the thinking of the whole of the Higher Education sector but it’s where I’m starting from. If you believe that education should be hyper selective and only support those with ‘talent’ then this probably isn’t the diagram for you (That sounds facetious but I’m not aiming to disrespect selective approaches. They are just less interesting to me than the access question.).

Flexibility

This is a classic ‘bucket term’ in that it can contain any number of definitions. Often the assumption is that flexibility is related to academic choice but here I mean flexibility in the mode of provision. More specifically, forms of flexibility which account for students having busy lives. Or which don’t assume that students are building their lives around university in the character of a ‘traditional’ school-pipeline residential student. 

One could argue that the form of provision, in terms of the academic calendar, assessment practices and teaching patterns, has not changed significantly during the period UK Higher Education has expanded. Instead we have added ever more support services around a relatively fixed core. Sometimes this support requires more time from already time-poor students. So a struggling student has to find time to do ‘do the course’ and to be ‘supported to do the course’. Clearly, the support itself should be provided but I worry that we don’t add up the total time commitment of a student who is not rich in time or educational capital. 

Intriguingly the fixed ‘core’, or focus, I mentioned is the course itself and not the student. This is, at least in part, because the regulatory frameworks of tertiary education tend to be structured around academic quality and what is required to put students ‘through’ Higher Education. Things are changing quickly though, and the Office for Students in the UK does attempt to advocate for students albeit with somewhat lumbering regulations which don’t necessarily account for the full diversity of life circumstances and motivations. There is still an implicit ‘right way’ to do university surrounded by an increasing set of exceptions and modifications.

Whatever the politics of this might be, what we can say is that a lack of flexibility in the form of provision risks disengagement. Not the kind of they-just-didn’t-seem-to-be-interested disengagement, but a circumstantial inability to engage with the provision because ‘life happens’. Not ideal in terms of access.

Belonging 

I’m wary of this term as it assumes that belonging-to-the-academy in some form is something all students want and is rarely properly defined. Incoming students, especially those who haven’t arrived from the school pipeline, are likely to already belong to quite a few things. I think the mistake we make here is not in thinking belonging is important but in assuming that the institution should be a primary, or significant, location of belonging. Hence the reference to ‘mattering’ which is a principle that applies more evenly across all students, or in fact to everyone – who doesn’t want to matter?

A feeling of not belonging, or alternatively, not mattering is likely to lead to disengagement through alienation or lack of motivation. Not ideal in terms of inclusion. 

Tension

If we run with the idea that flexibility means that students can study at their own pace (within certain bounds) and at a time which works for them, does this always cut against the possibility of belonging? What if that includes multiple course start times, elective modules, recordings of ‘live’ teaching, significant chunks of asynchronous or ‘supported’ teaching etc. That level of flexibility means that no consistent group of students will be ‘together’ at the same time and in the same place very often. The notion of the cohort is eroded, raising the question of what we imagine students are supposed to belong to? (especially in fully online provision where we don’t have the convenience of conflating belonging with ‘being in a building’)

I believe there is a tension here but that it might be being misrepresented, or centered too closely on, a ‘traditional’ student. We need to consider the extent to which any given student expects their relationship with university to be a cultural rite-of-passage or an educational journey. I’d argue that our notions of belonging contain a complex mix of rite-of-passage and education – which are, of course, interwoven. I’d also argue that a fully online student is likely to be primarily interested in aspects of belonging which keep them educationally motivated. They probably don’t imagine going punting will help them finish the course, even if it would help them to feel part of the academy (Extreme example I know). 

To what extent do students who opt for a fully online course hope, or expect, for a cultural-rite-of-passage other than gaining accreditation (and hopefully the associated learning)? I’m not sure we know?

Negotiating the Flexibility-Belonging tension must be done through the design of provision, as I believe we are reaching the limit of what can be achieved by offering more support around a less-than-flexible model. This is not a simple path though, as increasing flexibility is not only in tension with foggy, but well meaning, notions of belonging but possibly also with what we believe the identity of our subjects are. 

Presence

The headline design-principle for educational provision which responds to the flexibility-belonging tension is ‘presence’. I’ve written about presence before and my conclusion is that we should provide the opportunity for students to engage via a range of modes and channels i.e. multiple forms of authentic presence.

We already, variously, do this but I suspect we still have a model of ‘ideal’ engagement lurking in the background which is a subset of the many possible routes to being a successful student. For example, we will often talk of the student who submits brilliant work despite hardly ever ‘attending’ – even in institutions who do not mandate attendance. In this case their work is their authentic presence. Another example would be the student who only seems to watch recordings of teaching but gains a decent mark or the student who never asks a question etc. There has to be many routes to success to reflect the diversity in personal circumstances and motivations, as opposed to a single ‘correct’ route and a stack of support and exceptions.

While we might fear that students are tending away from ‘ideal’ patterns of engagement, this doesn’t appear to have a negative affect on success as we continue to award a large portion of top grades.

The value of inconvenience 

Not of this is straightforward and I worry that multiple forms of authentic presence does not equate to multiple meaningful routes to success. In short, I think it is easy to accidentally choose a pragmatic, but less than enjoyable, route. This brings me back to my Belonging is Inconvenient proposition, in that sometimes it’s good to do things in a less than efficient manner. Sometimes having to go out of our way is what makes the activity worthwhile. 

To be very clear, I’m not saying that it’s good to be draconian, obfuscating or needlessly complex on the basis of providing a ‘character building’ environment (unless your institution is keen to perpetuate and protect entrenched forms of generational privilege and opportunity in the classically mean British style). It may well be character building but I’m not sure I like that particular character.

If we have to go out of our way because of a lack of thought in the design of the provision then I suspect we only learn how to feel annoyed, or that we somehow don’t belong. If we choose to go out of our way because we understand the value of taking a less-than-direct-route then we are gaining in personal agency rather than losing faith in the institution.  

How technology redefines learning (and why this isn’t a problem).

(This post was written before the main wave of interest/anxiety around AI/Large Language Models hit. As such, it’s delightfully non specific and an attempt to outline implications in principle. For me, this is summed-up as follows:

  1. Efficient access to abundant information (the Web) reduced the value of ‘remembering information’ as a skill.
  2. AI reduces the value of synthesis as a skill.

In some ways, technology is climbing up Bloom’s Taxonomy and pushing more of the learning process in the pointy bit of the triangle. Although, interestingly, it does skip some layers which could be a problem. Jumping from knowledge to synthesis and circumnavigating comprehension, application and analysis might prove dangerous. (not that I think we should always run through those things in strict order).

Anyway… below is what was my first run at some of this thinking)


A developer friend of mine recently told me a simple coding task they set when interviewing new staff was successfully answered by a chat bot. My response was, “Chat bots can Google, so I’m not sure what the problem is?”. In the days following my trite response I found myself coming back to the topic and realised that the chat bot ‘problem’ is part of a long history of falsely imagining ‘learning’ to be a fixed concept we are more or less distanced from by technology.

Detail from an abstract painting, mainly in blues and blacks, by David White (CC:BY)
Detail from an abstract painting by David White (CC:BY)

In 2014 I gave a keynote at the Wikipedia conference entitled, “Now that Wikipedia has done all our homework, what’s left to teach?”. This was intended to be a playful way of highlighting that the ‘problem’ was not with Wikipedia but with an education system which placed too much value on answers and not questions. Wikipedia was ‘too good, too available and too accurate’ for a system which was built on the principle that information is difficult to access and recall. 

Looking back, the Wikipedia ‘problem’ seems like the quaint precursor to the lively AI-will-kill/save-education discourse. (all tech debates decend into the kill/save dichotomy, so it’s better to step back from this and ask why this comes about.)

Good / Bad – *yawn*.

Firstly, any institution or system which claims that technology becoming ‘good’ at something is the central problem won’t last long in its current form. Within Capitalist Realism, you simply never win this argument (and yes we could go to the barricades but I’m writing in the context of where we are now). Secondly, withholding technology to force people to ‘learn’, incorrectly assumes that the notion of learning is fixed. Let’s be honest, telling school kids to not use Wikipedia was never going to wash, especially as schools tried this line at around the time they stopped giving out textbooks on the (never to be said out loud) hope that the kids all had access to the internet. 

Saying AI is bad (or good) is a super dull discussion. Admitting it exists and that we will use it for anything that makes our lives a bit easier is a much more interesting starting point. (side note: when I use the term AI, I really mean ‘elegant computer code that does things we think are useful or entertaining’). A brief history of humanity has to include: “We will always use all available tech for good and bad and this process is continually redefining what it means to have power, have skills, be intelligent and be creative.”  These values and how they operate as currencies is always on the move and always has been. 

Is ‘being right’ now wrong?

What my developer friend’s chat bot couldn’t do was reason out, or tell the story of, how it had arrived at its answer. This is how we frame ‘learning’ at the University of the Arts London, we don’t assess the end product we assess the narrative of how the student travelled towards the end product. The narrative is the learning, the artefact (often a creative output at UAL) is the output from that learning. The end ‘product’ is symbolic of the learning rather than an embodiment of it, it needs a narrative wrapped around make meaning out of the process. 

The photography(tech)-drove-art-to-become-more-conceptual argument is a useful touchstone here. If we imagine a near future where most, traditional, assessments of learning can be undertaken successfully by code then our approach to education has to become more about narrative and reasoning than about ‘being right’ or ‘reflecting a correct image of the world back at ourselves’. 

We are feeling our humanity squeezed by tech that can mirror what we, historically, defined as human. This is not a fight with tech but an opportunity to redefine and reimagine what we value. I’m hopeful that this will allow previously marginalised voices and identities to become heard.

I’d argue that ‘being right’ is this century’s outdated skill – this is a good thing.

Just as purely figurative Fine Art lost a bunch of its value as photography gained ground, being right will lose its status relative to being-able-to-think within our networked-tech suffused environment. In many ways, current political and identity polarization is an effect of the rise of networked technologies, both in social (the internet) and neural network (AI) terms. It’s a grasping for the comfort of ‘being right’ in response to a painful, and unsettling, shifting away from the certainty of that very rightness. 

Save and adapt

Back in edu-land: A good essay is a narrative of reasoning, so it does or should, operate as an embodiment of being-able-to-think. Sadly, we have fed so many essays into the network that technology can now reflect a performance of this learning back at us. I have no sympathy for educational institutions who have a naïve understanding of data and also claim that tech which endangers its business model should be shut down. We can’t complain about tech when we use the very same tech to increase revenue. We also can’t de-tech without damaging access and inclusion.

Let’s not to fall into academic navel-gazing on the what-is-learning/what-is-the-academy questions though. Instead let’s focus on how we adapt our lumbering institutions to shifting tech-driven redefinitions of value, while also calling our unethical practices of all kinds. I’m not an accelerationist, I believe that we can adapt while not erasing historical forms of value. Universities are ideally placed to ‘protect’ that which might be destroyed by the headrush of technology but they must not be defined by that impulse. 

The ‘Post-Pandemic’ University

Pre, during or post pandemic – however you look at it, online and blended learning have come in for some serious critique. This has evolved since 2020 from blunt assertions that universities were ‘shut’ during lockdowns, to more considered reviews of ‘blended learning’ such as the one currently being undertaken by Professor Susan Orr (at one time my boss at UAL) for the OfS.

A definition of ‘normal’?

The language around this is interesting as terms like ‘returning to normality’, ‘quality’ and ‘experience’ are used in a manner which implies there is an ideal model waiting to be sculpted from the substance of recent years. Underlying this is an assumption of a homogenous student community which is engaged in a residential undergraduate, or postgraduate, course. The ‘typical’ student will be between 18 and 25, have moved to be close (within a walk or a bike ride) to campus/college and will be on a course which takes between one and four years to complete. i.e. The university experience most people who now run universities had (including me).

I wonder what percentage of the Higher Education student population this represents now? I’m sure it’s a declining percentage, because whatever we decide about online and blended learning we are going to be doing more, not less, of it, and this invites in new/different students.

The tug-o-war

Reflecting on this I realised that debates about key terms such as ‘normality’, ‘quality’ and ‘experience’ are often argued from differing, but rarely explicitly stated, positions. The Venn diagram here maps these as ‘Culture’ and ‘Education’, with ‘Sustainability’ being a key theme emerging from the current tensions.

A Venn Diagram with 'Culture', 'Education' and 'Sustainability' in three circles.
The ‘Post-Pandemic’ university (scare quotes acknowledge that, at time of publication, we are not really ‘post’)

Culture

Type ‘university’ into Google image search and you will see manicured lawns, sophisticated architecture and smiling young folk with mortarboards. This is our cultural conception of Higher Education, a rite-of-passage largely modelled on Oxbridge or Russell Group institutions. For many, ‘doing university’ is an important journey of identity formation and independence which goes way beyond any scholarly activities. I certainly don’t degenerate this aspect of Higher Education, but I do worry that it is still the yardstick we use to assess more diverse modes-of-education than this rite-of-passage concept of ‘university’ can contain.

This is a yardstick largely fashioned by those who experienced a narrow, privileged, route through Higher Education and see it as needing protection from being ‘watered down’. The concern is always for ‘quality of education’, but when scrutinised it can often be shown to be a defence of education-as-cultural-filter. 

University understood as a cultural rite-of-passage is a powerful notion. It is frequently the motivation behind student demands for forms of provision such as in-building teaching which is, in turn, linked to perceptions of value-for-money. We love to know that ‘proper’ university is occurring somewhere, even if we are not always convinced of its ability to help us learn.  

Education

Clearly, any student experiencing university as a rite-of-passage will be learning plenty about what ‘success’ looks like. They will also, we hope, be learning a specific subject or practice in some form. Making progress through a subject, or developing a practice, is linked with notions of the ‘effectiveness’ of the mode. With online or blended modes and there is plenty of evidence that students can be successful in pedagogic/scholarly terms but a lingering suspicion that this is still not an authentic experience.

The confusion starts when focusing on ‘quality’ (as in ‘students were disappointed with the quality of education they received’), which mixes ideas of ‘rite-of-passage’ and ‘education’ in various ratios. Complex terms such as ‘belonging’, ‘community’ and ‘experience’ come into play. Terms which can become so twisty that it’s tempting to reach for the rite-of-passage yardstick to beat them into shape. 

My point is not that these less quantifiable ideas are not important, it is that they are more, or less, important depending on who you are and what you are trying to achieve. Lawns and mortarboards framed as the only, or the root, rite-of-passage makes huge, and culturally romanticised, assumptions about who our students are, what they want, and what means they have to access the ‘education’ of university.

Both the ‘culture’ and the ‘education’ concept of university are valid in different ways, our institutions will always be a shifting mix of both territories. The danger is that by not understanding which side we are arguing from, the discourse stagnates or remains no more than politicised rhetoric. In the meantime, blended and online modes will continue to grow but without a reasonable way of assessing them which accounts for the diversity of incoming students’ circumstances, privilege and aspirations. 

Sustainability

Given that, by any measure, we will be accepting more students and offering a broader mix of modes, the key question shifts from ‘authenticity’ and ‘effectiveness’ to sustainability. Whatever we believe to be the most elegant model of university, it has to be facilitated and run in a way which doesn’t exhaust staff or students. 

This requires clarity in describing the value of the modes we are offering, as opposed to a description of how those modes may, or may not, conform to an imagined ideal. It also requires new definitions of roles which are still designed around lawns and mortarboards in ways which, more often than not, don’t map to the day-to-day demands of the work. 

Over the pandemic this problem has been amplified by an increased use of digital technology as the primary location of our institutions. The management of work-load as a side effect of the physical limits of in-building activity fell away and we discovered we were not adept at managing our time when work can be undertaken 24/7. This was also compounded by a sincere desire to support students and colleagues in a time of crisis.

There is a task ahead to rethink our relationship with work in an environment where technology has outstripped our abilities to set boundaries. Being honest about the conditions of the system we are operating within is the first step towards developing a truly inclusive and sustainable environment for everyone involved.