The current is strong – how to navigate without years of experience being swept away?
It seems everywhere you look across the sector there are adverts for Digital Learning Designers and leaders in Digital Transformation. Suddenly Digital Education is mainstream, and that takes a bit of adjusting to. This is not to say that ‘the digital’ wasn’t already a fundamental aspect of our institutions for admin and teaching – it’s more of a structural acceptance that Digital Education is a key component of the institution alongside areas such as Libraries, Estates and Research.
At the Association for Learning Technology I have been asking what it means to be mainstream; what areas should we focus on now that the ‘evangelism’ era is over. It has been interesting to watch this steady transition over the last seven years or so. As the Web became truly domestic and the negative aspects of being permanently networked came to the surface, EdTech communities started to diverge (polarise?). Those closer to teaching practice generally became professionally sceptical of technology. Those closer to the tech often lent into the tech-as-a-solution stance.
Then along came the pandemic and we all (almost all) dived into digital-land. This forced us to adapt and I have seen so many amazing examples of innovative/fun/engaging pedagogy and connection in digital spaces. This takes place on a backdrop of critique and an enormous amount of use-of-the-critiqued. Knowing that ‘big tech’ wants to mine our identities-as-data while being forced by circumstance to use that very tech on a day-to-day basis creates a queasy dissonance and a pervading low-level sense of alienation.
It would appear that in a crisis people just want to use what ‘works best’ and will put aside years of skepticism for the sake of a smooth ride. It’s not a simple picture, how do we do right by our students? They deserve a stable environment but they also deserve an ethical one. How do we navigate this tension when the bigger the tech company, the more predictable the environment provided tends to be?
But, as ever, it’s the practice as much as the tech. Moving standard practices such as exams online has shone a light on less-than-caring modes of education we were/are normalised to. For example, what is authentic assessment? Is it part of the learning process, or is it a necessary form of academic attrition? Opinions vary, but what we can say is that moving closed-book exams online results in a special kind of dystopia which undercuts romanticised views of musty sun-soaked gym halls and ‘turn your papers over now’.
Claude Lévi-Strauss claimed that looking at another culture is like holding up a mirror to your own. Being forced to move into the digital has held a mirror up to our institutions and not all that has been reflected back is comfortable to behold.
Practices and places
So, what now for Digital Education as it becomes central to what our universities are and the dreaded term ‘bolt on’ starts to fade?
Firstly, we have to hold onto what we have learned over the last 20 years and keep pushing for education which incorporates networked modes of working and collective approaches to knowledge. Often this is held back by technology which is underpinned by master-apprentice assumptions within a fixed canon of knowledge. Even so, I’ve not seen a piece of hierarchical tech which can’t be subverted through thoughtful pedagogy.
Secondly, we need to reshape institutional structures so that the ‘academic’ and the ‘digital’ work in partnership. Digital Education is not a ‘service’ it is a set of practices and places. This is easy to say but difficult to support through the reality, an necessity, of governance and org charts.
At my institution I’m seeing a real desire to maintain the collaborative partnerships catalyzed by the pandemic. There is a delicate process of establishing sustainable ways of working without damaging the communal decision making developed through adversity. I’m not sure where this negotiation between network and hierarchy will take us but I am sure that blurring the boundaries between long standing ‘academic’ and ‘digital’ identities is the right path to take.
In Art and Design the shared endeavour of learning is usually understood as an ontological process, a process of ‘becoming’.
“The outcome of every learning experience is that it is incorporated into our identities: through our learning we are creating our biographies. We are continually becoming…”
Learning to be a Person in Society, Peter Jarvis, 2009
I would argue that this is the case for all education. If our students leave as exactly the same people they were when they entered, we have failed them. Given this, and building on the importance of presence and place, I propose this model of learning-as-becoming which can be used to holistically reimagine our institutions at a time of great flux.
The learning-as-becoming model
Part 1: Pedagogy as placemaking
Last year we took the University of the Arts London online in about three weeks and have been fully online, or heavily blended, ever since. Our teaching, technical and support staff have did an amazing job adapting working practices and redesigning courses so that our students had the best chance of learning and becoming during a global crisis.
There has been a generosity within most of the feedback from staff and students, an acknowledgement that this has been a long-running emergency. Putting aside discussions about fees, our students appreciate the massive effort teaching staff have been putting in and everyone is aware of the struggles involved in both teaching and learning under difficult, and highly varied, circumstances.
Beyond the immediate health and wellbeing concerns I would say that the most challenging aspect of the last 14 months has been a loss of place. Our buildings are a focal point for belonging, presence and community. They are a physical metonymy, a powerful symbol, of the idea of the university itself. Being denied access to our buildings was such a powerful loss of place it shrouded the fact that the work of the university continued online.
The digital non-place
We immediately, and understandably, attempted to recreate a sense of presence and place in the digital environment via our webcams. Many of us have now moved on in our approaches because we quickly found that the ‘mirroring’ of our physical environment in this manner was tiring and sparked an ongoing ethical debate around private space.
Ultimately, the problem was that we thought our Zoom/Teams/Collaborate sessions would give us back a sense of place because, like our buildings, there were people ‘in them’. However, picking up on an idea from anthropologist Marc Augé I would say that these types of digital platforms are ‘non-places’:
“The concept of non-place is opposed, according to Augé, to the notion of “anthropological place”. The place offers people a space that empowers their identity, where they can meet other people with whom they share social references. The non-places, on the contrary, are not meeting spaces and do not build common references to a group. Finally, a non-place is a place we do not live in, in which the individual remains anonymous and lonely.”
Marc Augé, Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, Le Seuil, 1992, Verso. – quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-place
The notion of non-place encouraged me to think about the process of placemaking and how this related to presence. Last year I wrote about the importance of presence, suggesting that we should focus on “Presence, not ‘Contact Hours’” when teaching online. Alongside this, the presence-based Community of Inquiry model started to appear in many discussions on how to move from ‘emergency remote teaching’ to something richer and more sustainable.
It struck me that any form of ‘presence’ needs a location to occur within – presence, by its very nature, requires place. This was the missing piece in my thinking and something we perhaps don’t consider directly when we have access to our buildings, because we take their place-ness for granted.
The symbiosis of presence and place
Our buildings are suffused with cultural and social histories. They are full of artifacts and objects that are coated in the presence of people who passed through before us. Even the leftover coffee cups and the arrangement of the furniture speaks of the presence of others.
Our institutional buildings are more than spaces, more than somewhere to keep the rain off, they are places, full of people and echoes of people expressed through objects and architecture. In contrast, most of our digital spaces are non-places. They are transient, they have no shared geography and, if we think of Zoom/Teams/Collaborate type platforms, we leave little behind to be discovered by others. We are not ‘Resident’ in any form – nobody lives there and we don’t work there.
Crucially, what makes a space, or non-place, into a place is social and intellectual presence. As discussed in previous posts, this presence can be realised, or expressed, in many forms (not just via the webcam). The semi-permanence of text, images, videos, digital post-its and the clutter of artefacts in platforms like Padlet, Miro and MURAL give agency to participants (assuming everyone is allowed to contribute) and build presence and place, especially because they have an inherent spatiality.
There is a complex interplay between the salience of our presence and the extent to which a sense of place is felt. Place and presence have a symbiotic relationship, they build on each other. However, in our transient-and-disembodied-by-default digital platforms we must deliberately set-out to set this symbiosis in motion.
Shared endeavour, leading with pedagogy
In both online and in-building contexts presence and place are catalysed by our pedagogy. That is, by the way we design and facilitate connections and collectively negotiate the shared endeavour of learning. The challenge we have been facing is that in the digital we start with a non-place, whereas our physical buildings have a place-ness we can build on before we even enter.
The emphasis in the model is on a pedagogic approach which first-and-foremost facilitates connections and forms of interaction, creating social, intellectual and creative presence. Through this, the locations of our institutions, especially the digital spaces, become places within which our students have agency. This then increases belonging and supports learning-as-becoming. This is pedagogy as placemaking through the medium of presence.
Part 2: The need to go beyond a model of delivery.
There is a certain pressure at an institutional level to develop models which respond to what we have experienced during the pandemic, reasserting the importance of our buildings and incorporating convenient online modes.There is a mix of motivations behind the development of these models:
Responding to predicted shifts in student expectations, especially in regard to flexibility and cost-of-study.
Managing the expectations of teaching staff in the context of students’ desire to return to buildings.
Exploring the possibility of expanding student numbers and/or to connecting with new communities of students, when the limitations of physical space are mitigated by digital modes.
These models tend to draw on our in-building modes (lecture, tutorial, seminar, workshop, access to support and resources) and then discuss which of these modes are best suited to being ‘delivered’ online. The model then turns to what might be an acceptable ratio, or ‘blend’, of online to in-building delivery.
Practices have changed
This is a useful piece of thinking up to a point, but it falls into the trap of perpetuating the well worn approaches defined by the affordances of our buildings rather than exploring or supporting the more flexible and fluid possibilities in the online environment. This also attenuates our ability to reimagine the use of our physical spaces, which continue to be framed as resources that can be used more efficiently rather than differently. In essence, these are new models of delivery and not new models of practice.
However, I would argue that our practices have changed, as has our understanding of what it means to successfully work, teach and learn. In a recent post James Purnell, our Vice Chancellor and President, explores how we might prototype the future of work. I hope we can also prototype the future of education in a similarly open manner.
Yes, we could take a ‘fill in the gaps’ approach and continue to pit the digital and physical against each other – but that simply uses a mix of locations-of-delivery to perpetuate models of practice which have been outdated by a global emergency. The ‘fill in the gaps’ approach is also not capable of ‘seeing’ the new modes-of-engagement which have developed during the pandemic, modes which don’t neatly fit our classic delivery formats.
This is why I have developed the learning-as-becoming model which is focused on reframing practice and paves the way for models of delivery which can incorporate pedagogic approaches that do more than mirror that which went before.
Like most of us I’ve been involved in many pandemic conversations about what we have lost, the moments that worked well and what we’d like to hold on to.
Having given this much thought I believe that what we have been missing the most is not only being together physically but also the inherent spatiality of physical co-presence. Our ability to connect with each other and to learn is deeply reliant on social and conceptual maps – where things are located relative to each other – and maps are by their very nature spatial.
Our mistake has been to assume that if we can see each other’s bodies then we must be together in the same place.
What the tech doesn’t give us
The pandemic ripped away our opportunities to be physically co-present and we immediately turned to our technology in an attempt to repair this loss. We wanted to ‘see’ each other and feel connected in meaningful ways. The result was a sea of live video feeds, stacked in shifting grids. This was certainly useful for attempting to read emotion and perhaps attention but it felt thin and lacking, insubstantial, often alternating and exhausting.
The technology appeared to be giving us a version of what we had lost and yet it never felt quite right.
We could see bodies but felt disembodied. The reason being that there is no sense of space or location. What is the location of Zoom/Teams/Skype meeting? It’s a non-space, it’s only a time and a list of people – at best its location is ‘on-screen’, which is no place at all.
The grid of faces is constantly shifting and laid-out differently on each person’s screen. Add to this the fact that we see our own body reflected back at us and we are forced to ask ‘Where am I?’. I can’t be ‘with’ the people I see on screen because I’m constantly reminded by the digital reflection of myself that I’m in my room at home, hunched over a computer.
Attempts to mitigate this detached feeling simply throw us into the uncanny valley. The ‘together’ modes, where our images are placed onto a static picture of a room ‘side-by-side’ just serve to remind us of what we have lost. There I am looking back at myself – a digital, synchronous doppelganger floating alongside images of people laminated onto a two dimensional surface like samples on a microscope slide. The result is a distressing panopticon where we are trapped under the omnigaze of all, while somehow not ‘seeing’ each other or feeling any meaningful presence. It’s psychologically and socially exhausting with very little sense of connection.
This situation had arisen through ‘skeuomorphic presence’. As with most technological shifts the initial phases reflect that which went before. We start by replicating the modes we know in new contexts, before we move on to reimagining ways of being. As such, we insisted on the connection between bodies, co-presence and togetherness. And yet, what we found is that attempts to ‘mirror’ the body into the digital feel unreal.
We can read emotion on the face, but that face is a simulacrum. We desperately tried to forget that the camera is a special effect, an image, a process of disembodiment like the floating smile of the Cheshire cat. We clung onto the body to such an extent because we assumed, as with physical co-presence, that putting bodies side-by-side must generate a place but this is not the case and it’s what we need to design back in.
The temptation then might be then to create a more ‘realistic’ and volumetric digital space by moving towards three dimensional imagery, such as gaming*, and further still via ‘immersion’ with VR headsets and haptics etc. While this has many merits, I see it as a red herring which can easily throw us back into an incredibly intricate and exclusive uncanny valley. What I propose is not reaching for the ‘real’ but building on our spectacular ability to work with the map not the territory – to be able to operate in an imagined spatial-conceptual, or topological, manner.
A great example of this is the London Underground map. It allows us to understand the ‘place’ of London schematically. It is not attempting to be ‘real’ and in doing so, gives the most relevant information we need to spatially and conceptually navigate the system it represents. So what might be the equivalent of the Underground map for our online lives?
Creating maps to build shared locations
A couple of years ago I was helping to run a set of design workshops with students with Fred Deakin. We were based out of the Design Museum but ran a number of the days fully online for flexibility and to help the students tune into online modes of collaboration. One of the exercises involved a kind of round-robin where an idea was passed round the group for comment and development. The key was that everyone would go in turn – but how to decide the order of speakers in the Zoom-like platform we were using?
My suggestion was to draw a very simple diagram of a table (just a square) and place each of the participants’ names around it for each group. We then shared this simple ‘map’ into the non-space of the platform and asked the groups to go clockwise around the table. This was an easy way to establish the order the discussion should go in, but I also noticed that there was suddenly a greater sense of togetherness and place. You could imagine who you were sat next to or opposite, and while this didn’t change the functionality of the technology it did change the psychology of it. It didn’t take much to help people imagine themselves into a shared location.
Whether it’s the location of topic areas in the library, the paragraphs in an essay, the bullet points in our notes or the way we arrange files on our computers, understanding (how we arrange and develop our thoughts) has a spatial element to it. Even the phrase ‘making a connection’ is inherently spatial. In a similar manner our social relations are spatial, from where we sit in a meeting to if we spend most of our time in the kitchen at parties. Both the social and the conceptual involve us creating schema and maps to navigate by.
Recently I was developing a set of ‘practice-genres’ to help define what areas of practice any given digital technology could help to facilitate. For example, the VLE/LMS might fall under the ‘organizational’ genre, while Zoom/Teams/Skype would be under ‘real-time teaching/collaboration’. One of the more interesting genres was ‘real-time spatial collaboration’ in which I placed Mural, Miro and Padlet (Although there are plenty of other examples that would fit the genre).
Spatial collaboration is inherent when we are co-present in buildings but often lacking in the online environment. It is a form of collaboration which I’ve found the most rewarding during the pandemic, most notably during a session I ran at the Digitally Engaged Learning conference. In the session I asked everyone in a Zoom ‘room’ to join me in a Mural whiteboard. About 30 people appeared in the form of named cursors and answered three questions with digital sticky notes while we discussed via voice. I think only I had my camera on but nobody was looking at it as we were all concentrating on the Mural space. What we saw was a ‘collaborative swarm’ of cursors which was a little distracting at first but as the sticky notes appeared it suddenly felt like we were together, in the same place, working on the same thing. This is then not an attempt to recreate the physical, it is an imagined space and all the more powerful for that.
There was no uncanny valley here because there were no bodies present – the cursors and notes were enough to give a sense of where people were in a spatial-conceptual hybrid. We were building a map of thinking in a location where we felt co-present, embodied by our work, not by images of our bodies.
This hybrid mode, which maps both the thoughts and the location of individuals in a shared space generates a sense of co-presence which is more substantial and sustainable than a ‘sea of faces’ skeuomorphic presence. I believe that stepping away from our bodies in this manner is what is required for us to create the most rewarding and valuable forms of togetherness online.
It would be remiss for me not to mention what I believe to be the most successful form of online spatial collaboration which is multiplayer gaming. However, this is a complex area as a game will be geared around its own world, goals and challenges. It will not be designed to help get work done other than the work of the game-world itself. There is also the risk of the uncanny valley, here generated by attempts to render the ‘real’ in photorealistic CGI rather than by beaming in our webcam feeds into a grid. The results can be similar though, unless you are prepared to role-play. This is why games like Minecraft are so successful, they create an authentic sense of space and a dependable world with knowable rules and effects but, while it is aesthetically consistent, it is not attempting to recreate the ‘real’ in visual terms. This schematic aesthetic allows us to imagine ourselves into the space in a manner which more ‘real’ simulacra push us away from.
It doesn’t have to be ‘cutting edge’
As with my earlier example of the simple map of a table this approach doesn’t have to involve fancy platforms like Mural or game-worlds. Schematic presence comes in many forms. For example:
Co-editing an online document when each person’s cursor/location in the document is visible.
Creating a schematic of the ‘main’ and breakout rooms in a synchronous online session so that people can imagine moving between them spatially.
Using the whiteboard to answer a question in Zoom/Teams etc
The principle of schematic presence also applies to non ‘real-time’ situations too. It is possible to create a schematic of how different platforms or locations fit together when working on a project or a course. This provides a useful map to help navigate what could otherwise be a totally conceptually disconnected scattering of spaces (or non-spaces). Through developing and iterating a map of this type a group can negotiate their way towards a shared understanding of the imagined space.
The key is to step away from the body as the primary instigator of presence and to generate schematic or topographic forms of location. Avoid trying to recreate the ‘real’ and instead concentrate on providing cues which help to spatialise thinking and identities.
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.
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 online courses mentioned are run by University of the Arts London, University of the Creative Arts and The Open University (in that order).
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 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.
Until recently, there was no solution to buy online prescription drugs, but now many websites are able to sell prescription Viagra online.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
The notion of ‘university’ is still, for the most part, linked to a set of buildings.
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 the “Coronavirus: 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.
The impression I’m getting, and is certainly true of the course I’m on, is that the students and staff are working harder with more going on. No way are we shut. We are more prepared working online than walking into a physical room.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
A fairly quick, reliable, turnaround to emailed questions
Being active ‘live’ in forums or text chats (an ‘office hours’ approach to asynchronous)
Lively synchronous sessions – such as, webinars with plenty of Q&A
Artfully ‘flipped’ use of pre-recorded teaching videos
Audio, video or text summative feedback (if it’s been created just for you then it’s always a moment of presence)
…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.
Update: I developed the ideas in this post further and brought the thinking together in a talk for Online Educa, Berlin:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Coronavirus has given millions motivation-to-engage, no matted their age, as social contact and educational provision has become almost entirely online-only overnight. We are all becoming ‘skilled’ with networked tech incredibly quickly, not because we are ‘native’ to it but because we have an immediate and obvious need. Our social and professional lives have become a parade of audio/video meetings and shared documents.
This highlights that the term ‘social distancing’ does not account for the Web and is better described as ‘physical distancing’. Many of us are now more Resident online than ever before and are therefore highly social (if not more social) during the quarantine.
Teaching during Coronavirus
The abrupt need to move face-to-face education online can be mapped to the Visitor – Resident continuum. At my university we have produced a ‘Core practice guide’ which highlights the need for a balance of ‘content’ (Visitor) and ‘contact’ (Resident) for/with student groups. Just as with the Visitor – Resident continuum one mode is not ‘better’ than the other and any effective online educational provision will use a mix of both. The important factor, in terms of the design of teaching, is how we connect together what we are providing across these modes so that the elements (resources, fora, webinars, recordings) build on each other and increase our student’s motivation-to-engage.
It’s not about the tech it’s about the teaching
It is also important to note that, as highlighted by the Visitor and Resident mapping activity, the type of technology does not inherently foster a particular mode-of-engagement. A poorly run online lecture (or webinar) will be less engaging for students than watching a recording or making use of some elegantly contextualised resources. My mantra is that if a synchronous (or ‘live’) piece of online teaching could have been a recording – from a student experience perspective – then it has little value beyond being an way-point in their week (see Eventedness).
Making online education engaging requires effective, well-structured , teaching way more than it does any specific digital platform. The most brilliant and fully-featured ‘webinar’ space will not counter a lack of framing activities and resources either side of the session. The same can principle be applied to text-chats, fora, quizzes etc.
If you like diagrams…
The following illustrates this point diagrammatically by showing that particular genres of digital provide the potential for certain levels/modes of engagement but that higher levels of engagement rely on the design of our teaching more than on how ‘immediate’ the tech experience might be.
The diagram is based on medium-to-large groups of students rather than small groups (less than 10) or one-to-one scenarios. Fostering engagement-at-scale is a central challenge for higher education and one which is crucial to consider as we transition to online teaching (and at any other time to be frank).
I’m defining ‘Engagement’ as a mix of social presence and active/critical thinking. The mix is complex but important, as one without the other can lead to either noisy-but-unthinking moments or thoughtful-but-distancing experiences. We want our students to develop their thinking *and* feel a sense of belonging.
Connecting it together
Any single technology or mode will not be enough to engage a group over a period of time. This requires connecting together a set of modes with a clear articulation of how they flow into one another. At my university we are promoting the use of a combination of Moodle and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra as these can be combined to effectively cover a huge range of Content – Contact. For example: read/watch a resource > respond to a relevant question in an actively facilitated discussion forum > engage with ‘live’ discussion in a webinar which is framed around the themes arising from the forum > write a reflection on the themes and the overall process to be posted to the VLE/LMS (or create image/audio/video with accompanying written reflection).
Fundamentally, one mode or tech is not ‘better’ than another. What is important is how we connect them as a learning narrative and how we communicate that narrative to foster engagement. This helps to ensure we provide opportunities which are mindful of the range of technical, geographical (time-zone), cognitive, social and emotional contexts/experiences of our students and teaching staff.