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 might, 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’ and ‘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.

————————-

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.

——————————————————————————-

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)

—————————–

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.  

Belonging is inconvenient

Over the pandemic there has been much discussion of the need for community and belonging as part of the education experience. The emphasis in these discussions is that online didn’t/doesn’t ’do’ community very well. However, it’s more accurate to say that that sudden shifts from residential provision to online caused by a pandemic are not ideal for sustaining community.

Residential assumptions

As we develop, or expand, our fully online provision it’s important not to fall into the trap of designing with ‘residential assumptions’. What I mean by this is that we can assume that online students will want what our residential students demand (or what they missed when things moved online). Part of that is the need for community and belonging.  

Inconvenience 

Belonging is inconvenient, it requires commitment, accountability and time. Any anthropologist will tell you that there is no short-cut to belonging. Strong-bond relationships are formed because much time is spent together and the good times and the bad times are shared alike. 

One of the key reasons that students can feel part of a community on residential courses is because they have made a huge commitment in time and effort just to turn-up. In traditional undergraduate terms this is likely to mean relocating the majority of their life to a new city for three years. It’s not just about the physical buildings it’s inherent in the format. In this sense, belonging is exclusive – available only to those who have the time to invest. 

Just visiting

Once we move away from this traditional characterisation of students the need for belonging and community shifts. For example, as anyone who provides upskilling or updating courses knows, students in full-time work usually just want to ‘learn what they need’ and get on with their lives (lives which already involve community and belonging in other areas).

This took me back to the Visitors and Residents continuum, which is predicated on modes-of-engagement based on forms of presence. As such, it’s a simple way to map the relationship between the pedagogy (or format) of an educational offer and how this relates to the need for belonging and community. 

A diagram of the Visitors and Residents continuum with a belonging and community curve mapped to it.
Visitors and Residents, belonging and community mapping

Modes of learning (Not learning styles…)

We can trip over the language here so I’m not going to be too precious about terms, but let’s step through the diagram:

Independent learning

“Independent from what?” That’s always my question. Generally what we mean is “Learning when a member of teaching staff is not immediately present, or nearby”. This is a definition which responds to ‘contact hours’ as the underpinning principle of an educational offer and is therefore quite dangerous, especially when we consider online teaching and learning.

It’s one of the reasons that asynchronous approaches get a bad press. In terms of belonging though, we can say that those who “Just want to learn what they need” and have the ability to learn without staff input are probably not looking to ‘belong’ because they don’t have the time or the need. Here flexibility and convenience far outstrips the value of belonging. We could go a far as to say that if belonging is inconvenient then flexibility is the antithesis of belonging. (which I offer here as more of a provocation than a solid statement)

This is not to say that ‘independent’ always means ‘on your own’, which is why the belonging curve tilts up before the middle of the continuum. Self organised student study groups in various forms are a crucial part of most courses. There are no staff present, but there is a lot of learning happening and it still falls under this definition of ‘independent’.

Independent blurs into communal where the belonging is student facilitated. 

In this mode we don’t need to facilitate belonging or community but we do need to acknowledge the importance of student led communities and be responsive in other ways. The danger here is that we see ‘independent’ as ‘not needing support’. This is where the concept of ‘mattering’, as discussed by Peter Felten here,  is more important than the idea of belonging.

Communal learning

Key idea here is that the middle of the continuum represents engagement with ‘defined groups’. This is where we are expecting to be co-present with others and leave a social trace, but within a specific group rather than totally openly online. Members of the group will have a sense of the ‘audience’ for their contributions and some trust in shared values. They will probably also know at least some of the other members socially and/or professionally (we could look at the Dunbar Number as part of the definition here). This is why platforms such as WhatsApp suddenly became popular because they handed us back the ‘known group’ principle of privacy (on a social, not a data level) which was less exhausting than the constant maintenance of a Digital Identity or performative identity in other Social Media platforms.

The concept of a student cohort and ‘safe-spaces’ within which to learn (digital or physical) neatly fits this definition of ‘defined group’ even though being a member of a cohort is not the same as being part of a community – that depends on how the course is run. 

Courses often rely on a communal pedagogy, learning together, shared endeavour (or the blunt version: ‘group work’). This is my favourtie form of teaching and learning and one of the reasons I currently work at an Art and Design focused institution. This is where belonging and community become a necessary aspect of the learning, and dare I say becoming, process of learning. It’s totally possible to support this online, but online or in-buildings, it’s expensive (time commitment, staff time, use of space, complex feedback and assessment etc) and inconvenient, especially as it usually requires some synchronous moments. Basically, you have to turn up, be present, be engaged and be prepared to compromise and negotiate. All the difficult things. 

In this mode we have to design learning with presence and belonging as headline principles.

Networked learning

At the Residential end of the continuum activity takes place in more open and visible spaces online. These are places where anyone can see your contributions without ‘membership’ being required in a social sense (although you might need a profile on a particular platform). For example, Tweets can be read by anyone, not just the people who follow you. Instagram works in a similar way and TikTok is the ultimate hyper networked, hyper-visible, communal-through-trends-not-social-connections platform right now.  

In learning terms there is perhaps less of a need for belonging and community here and more of a need to be established-within-a-network. The distinction I’m making here between communal and networked needs unpicking further but I’d suggest that a lack of clarity in this area is what has caused confusion and some anxiety in ‘open’ courses. Networked learning can fall into a performative-clique-plus-audience mode, technically ‘open’ but actually exclusive and not really a community. 

Perhaps in this mode we should not be obsessed with facilitating community and more focused on being inclusive.  

Multiple authentics

All of the above applies as much in residential education as it does in online. Just because students come to a building doesn’t mean that want to belong to a cohort or that they somehow automatically become part of a community. This doesn’t have to be a problem though, it’s about designing learning which is not always predicated on assumptions about our traditional, residential students (even if such a category really exists).  

Sometimes at my institution we slide into thinking which implies that full, residential courses are the authentic way to learn and everything else is either geared relative to this or simply a pipeline into it.  We need to design on the basis that there are multiple authentic modes of learning for multiple communities of students. Not all of these require belonging and community but where they do we need to acknowledge that it’s hard work, time consuming, and that access-to-a-building or being-in-a-cohort is not a proxy for membership-of-a-community. 

Welcome to the mainstream

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. 

CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/mypubliclands/36655739825

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. 

Daily dissonance

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?

Uncomfortable reflections

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. 

Pedagogy, Presence and Placemaking: a learning-as-becoming model of education.

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

A Veen diagram with 3 circles: Presence, Pedagogy and Placemaking

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:

  1. Responding to predicted shifts in student expectations, especially in regard to flexibility and cost-of-study. 
  2. Managing the expectations of teaching staff in the context of students’ desire to return to buildings.
  3. 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.

Spatial collaboration: how to escape the webcam

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.

Disembodied images

Image by Adrienspawn, via https://www.deviantart.com/adrienspawn/art/Narcissus-and-Echo-845287570

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.

Skeuomorphic presence 

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.

A publicity image from ‘Zoom’ illustrating skeuomorphic presence

Schematic presence

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?

Detail of London Underground map
Detail of London Underground map

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. 

A simple graphic to share into a discussion amongst these eight students to give a sense of location. Currently our platforms don’t have the functionality to automatically produce schematics of this nature but it would be relatively easy to have a number of ‘layouts’ of this type to chose from. I’m not suggesting overlaying the video feeds where the names are, as this would simply replicate the problem I’m trying to avoid. This is a deliberately imaginary location.

Spatial collaboration

Diagram of the modes of space explored in this post
Modes of space explored in this post

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. 

A crop of the Mural board from my conference session

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. 

*Gaming 

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.  

A not ‘uncanny’ Dave

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.