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.

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

A specialist process

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

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

Definitions if the categories within the model

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

Skills

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

Practices

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

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

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

Attributes

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

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

Virtues

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

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

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

Operating across levels

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

Using the model

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

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

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Virtuous becoming and Constructive Alignment in Art & Design education

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

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

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

The ‘Art School’ heritage of Practice

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

Levering open the Practice space between Skills and Attributes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No correct answers

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

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

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

No such thing as a good picture of a horse

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond skills and knowledge

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

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

Avoiding a skills ‘arms race’ with technology

So perhaps our marking criteria should look like this?

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

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

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

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

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

Imagination not imitation

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

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

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

 

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

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. 

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.

Desituated Art School (a provocation)

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

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

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

The Digitally Engaged Learning conference

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

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

References in the video:

Other influences on this line of thinking.

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

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

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

It’s time to reimagine

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

Please talk while I talk

One of the highlights of last year was designing and running a series of open, online seminars with our online Visiting Fellow, Dr Bonnie Stewart. The ‘Teaching Complexity’ series was 100% open, in the sense that anyone with a connection to the Web could attend for free. The territory the seminars explored was the complexity of the digital environment we now teach in and how we might respond. 

The topics covered within the seminars all responded to the opportunities and challenges of the networked environment. A common theme being how to counter the creep of polarisation and support a diversity of voices within digital spaces.

One advantage of the seminars being open is that all of the materials (slides, recordings, comments etc) are available at the Teaching Complexity website which I created using our blogging platform. I’ve included a list of the seminars at the end of the post and know that quite a few people caught-up with them this way after the live ‘event’. 

The motivation to run the seminars was two fold:

Understanding the new teaching environment

Responding to the complexity of the Web as a teaching and  learning environment is an important topic to discuss. I now work on the principle that ‘All Courses are Blended Courses’ as I’d argue that any student, on any course, will spend significant amounts of time online. Some of that time will be spent discussing, or negotiating, the course with peers even were there is no, formal, online aspect to the curriculum. You’d be hard pressed to find a student who isn’t keen to develop their ability to navigate the Web for study or to make contacts which might lead to work. The Digital Creative Attributes we developed at UAL are a reflection of this but I realised that while I had clear principles in mind as we developed the DCAF I had not provided many examples of what a good response to the DCAF might look like in design terms. Hence Teaching Complexity.

Teaching Complexity

A good example of open practice

It was clear that for some the Open Practice Values I introduced at UAL caused some confusion. I personally see my approach here as a failure of communication on my part with some useful institutional lessons learned. I spend quite a lot of time considering open approaches and feel part of a community of open practitioners, so I underestimated how alien this line of thinking can be to people who are mainly (and rightly) focused on keeping the wheels of the university turning. When I presented the Principles at committee they split the room, with some immediately seeing the relevance (both in the manner in which the university could connect outwards and in the way our colleges could collaborate more closely) and some clearly worried that this would be yet another, distinct, layer of work which would detract rather than enhance, day-to-day teaching (A dis-integrated view of Open Practice). Given this, the Teaching Complexity Seminars were my ‘Show not Tell’ example of what teaching which embodies the Open Practice Values can look like. 
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Attendance and feedback

We had between 50-100 participants at each of the main seminars and more will have caught up with the recordings later. Those that responded to the evaluation questionnaire were mainly teaching staff, in roles overseeing or enhancing teaching or people involved in staff development of different forms. People attended from across the globe with the main locations being Europe and North America. Having been involved in this type of teaching quite regularly I’ve become a little blase about the geography involved and have to remind myself how incredible it is that we can facilitate these kinds of international moments so easily. 

The feedback was almost universally positive and at times effusive. A number of participants commented that they have very little staff development opportunities at their institution so the seminars provided a rare moment for them to consider and discuss themes which were unlikely to appear in the normal flow of their work. I feel that working in an open mode is integral to my work, especially as I represent a large institution with the capacity to be outward facing. Given that, I hadn’t thought of the seminars as ‘generous’, but this is how many participants respond to them. Overall I would have liked to have seen more people from my own institution at the seminars but UAL tends to be attracted by creative arts rather than teaching themes. I need to put some more thought into how best to describe opportunities like this in a manner which resonates at home as it were.

Some key points I took away from the seminars:

Be explicit

Given that anyone could turn-up and type in a name of their choice there was always a risk that someone could be disruptive with no cost to themselves. My view is that this would be extremely unlikely unless the topic under discussion is contentious or the facilitator is particularly famous/notorious. I equate this to Wikipedia vandalism – yes, the articles on Trump, Iran or Transgender are likely to be the focus of edit wars and vandalism but articles on Contructivism or John Dewey are unlikely to get messed with, because where’s the fun in that? The Teaching Complexity seminars definitely fell into the latter category – as would most teaching scenarios. Even so, I made sure to introduce every seminar with a brief and friendly talk about the social contract of the space. We were there to explore complex themes through mutually supportive discussion. I also highlighted that the sessions were being recorded and would be made openly available. This, I felt, gave me the right to remove people from the room if they stepped outside of these bounds. We never came close to anyone breaking the trust of the room but I still think it’s worthwhile being explicit about social and collaborative expectations. If you’re upfront about this then any disruptive individual is, in some ways, excommunicating themselves through their actions and you mitigate being placed into a ‘policing behaviour’ role as it’s likely there will be, post-event, group consensus on removing people.

Is anybody with me? 

Small moments of sharing go a long way in creating a sense of belonging online. For example, we would sometimes ask what the temperature was at participant’s locations with a notional prize for the highest and lowest (the range was always spectacular). The ‘live slides’ where everyone could write (or scrawl) a response to a question on screen on the whiteboard gave a powerful sense of being in the same, communal, space. In webinar type spaces like the one we were using it’s crucial for people to get a sense that they are co-present with others. This does not come for ‘free’ as it does in face-to-face environments, so these small moments of sharing become very important.  The risk of people moving slides, drawing all over the screen or accidentally un-muting their mic at a random moment was more than balanced out by the inclusive atmosphere that giving people these options supported (we did have a few strange moments but they were all harmless). Giving everyone ‘moderator’ status by default was a good way of subverting the didactic design principle of the platform we were using (Blackboard Collaborate Ultra).

A favourite moment for me was when Dave Cormier asked people to play with the whiteboard while we waited to get started. This is the result:

This is a good example of responses to a ‘live slide’ question. One of the interesting aspects of this is how people started to highlight or draw around answers they felt were important as the seminars progressed. The messiness here creates a friendly atmosphere which somewhat counters the slightly sterile and inhuman feeling of the default webinar platform.

I also very much enjoyed how quickly somebody (in about 5 seconds…) wrote ‘Moms Spaghetti’ on the following slide (see the ‘classic memes’ section of pop-culture…).

Please talk while I’m talking

Building on the point above, I’m a huge fan of encouraging people to use the text chat while the seminar is in progress. Actually getting this going requires some facilitation in itself which is why all of the sessions would have a lead facilitator and a kind of support facilitator who could give some momentum to the chat and highlight interesting questions. When you have 50 or more people the chat can get quite lively and really helps the facilitators by giving a live indication of how well they are connecting with the group. All the facilitators for the seminars were experienced in speaking online so could respond to the chat as the seminar progressed. This is one of the distinct advantages of the online space over the face-to-face as it allows sessions to be discussed in the moment – it erodes the ‘expert broadcast’ aspect of online teaching in a very pleasing way.

If it could have been a video, you’re doing it wrong

I have a general rule of thumb that if, on reflection, a synchronous online event could have been a YouTube video then you have got the approach wrong. Why turn up ‘live’ if there is no interaction? Even though I was vocal about this in the planning stages, a few of the sessions had long sections of ‘just talk’. What I’ve subsequently realised is that these sessions were not actually all that long but that our concentration threshold is somewhat shorter in a webinar room than in a physical room. Some of that is to do with there being less to look at – less, or no, physical presence. It is also to do with the culture of the space, by which I mean that when we are in front of our laptops we are used to interacting quite often unless we are in ‘Netflix mode’. The differing socio-cultural expectations of online vs face-to-face are probably more of a factor than the notion of a concentration threshold as, by my estimate, it’s acceptable to speak for at least 20 minutes with no interaction face-to-face but this is probably reduced to around 7 minutes online. Beyond 7 minutes I suspect we start going into Netflix mode or getting distracted by the other tabs we have open. 

Be clear it’s not about absorbing everything

Speaking to a couple of UAL colleagues in the following weeks I discovered that the seminars had been quite overwhelming for them, with ‘a lot going on’ at the same time (i.e. the facilitator speaking, parallel text chat, whiteboard interactions, voting and Tweeting). It was a useful reminder to me that I personally enjoy navigating, and reflecting on,  multiple channels simultaneously but that this is not the case for everyone. So, perhaps my 7min threshold is too short and people need longer periods of ‘broadcast’ mode to be able to take in new topics. Overall I suspect the biggest cognitive shift for many is paying attention to the speaker while simultaneously keeping up with the text chat. That would certainly be overwhelming if you felt you had to take every detail in, so a message at the start explaining that the aim is not to absorb everything that’s happening on screen might help.
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Learning from the seminars

The substance of the Teaching Complexity seminars was extremely interesting with sessions like Inclusive Spaces exploring ideas which are often not considered in digital contexts. Commonly the notion of ‘innovation’, which is often attached to digital approaches, avoids difficult thinking around inclusion and exclusion by implying that it’s going to change the way we interact so the problem simply won’t exist and therefore does not need to be confronted…

Beyond the ‘content’ of the seminars, I will be incorporating what I’ve learnt about the format of the sessions (the modes of interaction) into future work. This includes a project which is looking at transcultural arts education across an international partnership of arts schools and the development of more sophisticated ‘hybrid’ events which take place face-to-face and online in parallel.

1. Connected Teaching  – Jan 8th 3-4pm GMT –
Recording and slides
Designing ‘connected’ teaching and learning which works on and offline.
Facilitators: Bonnie Stewart, Amy Collier, David White

2. Openness and Prestige –  Jan 29th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Exploring how ‘giving stuff away’ and working openly online can be good for you and your students.
Facilitators: Bonnie Stewart, Catherine Cronin

Digital fieldwork part 1 – Feb 5th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Get tooled up to undertake some exploratory digital fieldwork.
Facilitators: Matt Lingard, David White

3. Complexity and creativity –  Feb 19th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Learn how to take a creative approach to complex subjects.
Facilitators: David Cormier, Tobias Revell

Digital fieldwork part 2 – Feb 26th 3-4pm GMT
Recording
Sharing your digital fieldwork experiences.
Facilitators: Matt Lingard, David White, Sheldon Chow4. Inclusive spaces – Mar 5th 3-4pm GMT
Recording and slides
Ensuring digital teaching and learning welcomes a variety of voices
Facilitators: Bonnie Stewart, Maha Bali , Chris Giliard

Digital Creative Attributes Framework

[The framework, handbook and associated guidance can be found here: http://dcaf.myblog.arts.ac.uk – a PDF of the core framework can be downloaded here

One weakness of a ‘graduate attributes’ approach for student development is that it looks lovely in strategy documents but can be difficult to respond to on a day-to-day basis, especially in digital contexts. For example, a graduate attribute that talks about students becoming ‘agile connectors’ sounds positive but how does a course leader respond to that when designing curriculum? They might have a sense of what agile connecting looks like in their discipline but add digital to the mix and it suddenly they are casting about for the latest app or platform as a placeholder for teaching practice. Unfortunately, this fuels a demand for a more ‘skills focused’ approach in which a list of this week’s popular technologies is drawn up with advice on what it can be ‘used for’. With the best will in the world this approach always puts the tech before the teaching and course leaders feel a pressure to ‘introduce technology’ to ‘keep up’.

DCAF Handbook

So, we often end up with the macro of ‘attributes’ and the micro of the tech-list. What is missing is a ‘meso’, or middle level, connecting the two. Connecting high-level aspirations through to practical activity is the principle behind the Digital Creative Attributes we have developed at the University of the Arts London. These are an extension of the Creative Attributes Framework at the UAL which lays out nine key attribute areas in three groups. The Digital Creative Attributes Framework (rather pleasingly the ‘D-CAF’) is a digital expression on the CAF, not a whole new framework. It provides a meso layer of digital practices for courses to build on or map to.

There are four significant advantages to this approach:

  1. DCAF practices are stable. Digital platforms, apps and software might change but the practices we require to thrive in the digital environment remain the same.
  2. DCAF is not discipline specific so each group can contextualise relevant practices in a manner which makes sense for them.
  3. DCAF can be used to articulate current curriculum in digital-practice terms. It’s not a list of ‘things you haven’t managed to include’ but a framework which can highlight to students the value of engaging in the curriculum in certain ways.
  4. DCAF provides a shared language which works for staff, students and the creative industries.

The last point was extremely important to me because I’ve been in too many meetings where the lack of a shared language around digital has seriously disrupted meaningful progress. Essentially, when we say the word ‘digital’ in an institutional context everyone thinks of different things and wants to set different priorities. The tech folk call for more kit, senior folk want a clear ‘vision’ and everyone else just wants some support and guidance. Saying ‘let’s talk about digital’ is the same as saying ‘let’s talk about the university’ both these topics are far too big and neither of them can be ‘solved’.

The DCAF is designed to focus these discussions around a set of practices we know the students want/need to develop. It respects the importance of disciplinary context and avoids the techno-solutionist trap.

We have released the DCAF under a Creative Commons licence to open it out to all. It gives a good insight into the digital practices which underpin creative working and as such is relevant to anyone taking a creative approach to teaching and learning.

Visualising digital practices using V&R

Myself and Alison Le Cornu recently published “Using ‘Visitors and Residents’ to visualise digital practices” an open access paper reviewing the development of the Visitors and Residents idea. The paper describes the heritage of the V&R mapping process and details a visual pattern-based approach to clustering and analysing large groups of maps. This is a significant step as it expands the Visitors and Residents work beyond a discussion facilitating metaphor to a workable qualitative research instrument.

At the heart of the paper is the presentation and analysis of data from a Higher Education Academy funded project which generated circa 400 V&R maps from staff and students at 18 higher education institutions from across the UK.

From: Using ‘Visitors and Residents’ to visualise digital practices
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 8 – 7 August 2017
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7802/6515
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i18.7802   – (Graphic design by Paul Tabak)

I won’t rehash the description of the data collection and analysis here as that’s all in the paper, so do take a look if you are interested in using the V&R mapping as part of a qual data method.

What’s rewarding is to have finally captured the narrative of the progression of the work from ‘a fun thing to do in a conference session’ to an innovative research instrument. Significantly, the Visitors and Residents narrative contains contributions from numerous friends and colleagues who have enriched the thinking and taken the work in new directions. For me this is a perfect example of the richness of working opening and posting CC licenced materials online for others to use and modify.

I’m currently working with Ian Truelove on a version of the mapping which crosses the digital/physical space (locations) divide in teaching and learning. The mapping approach we are discussing includes ‘Independent’ and ‘Dependant’ for the vertical axis and the extension of Visitor and Resident metaphor into ‘hunter gatherer’ (Visitor) and ‘farmer’ (Resident). The plan is to use this with course teams to visualise and discuss how they provide ‘nutrition’ for students (and how they support students in developing their own, sustainable, forms of ‘nutrition’ – yes, this is a bit like the ‘give a man a fish – teach him to fish’ idea).

The original description of V&R was largely based on ‘visibility’ or leaving a social trace. That doesn’t operate as well in physical environments where it is possible to be visible while in Visitor mode, for example, studying alone in the library. The hunter gatherer/farmer interpretation allows us to describe learner modes of engagement in both digital and physical environments.

The vertical axis of Independent and Dependant draws out the important distinction between those times where teaching/technical/library staff are involved (this could be expressed as ‘contact’ time) and those times where students are working without direct input from staff. We have been careful to ensure that the digital/physical boundary is not tied to either axis as all modes of learning engagement can take place in either type of space.

I’m keen to counter the idea that particular spaces (physical or digital) are intrinsically linked with a specific pedagogy. For example, while a lecture theatre does engender or encourage (partly through tradition) more didactic forms of teaching it can be used in many different ways (especially when digital spaces are incorporated into the face-to-face teaching). Similarly, Social Media as a genre of space does not mandate a particular form of dialogue or engagement. The new mapping process we are working on is designed to explore the relationship between spaces of all forms and modes of teaching and learning.

Fighting the Learning Machine

This year’s Designs on eLearning was hosted by the New School in Manhattan. The theme ‘Anxiety and Security’ brought out some challenging thinking, especially in the keynotes which were given by Joel Towers and George Siemens (in the form of a debate) and by Audrey Watters (who posted a full transcript of her talk) on day two. Both keynotes contained much about the role education should play in society and the responsibilities we have as educators to consider ideas of social justice and respect rather than falling into behaviourist modes. This, as Audrey pointed out, is especially important if we work with digital technology because ‘edtech’ emerges  from a behaviourist ideology in which students become dehumanised extensions of a learning machine. This learning machine then becomes complicit in the bolstering of inequalities and a failure to, as George put it, ‘normalise opportunity’. In addition to this a learning machine approach does not equip our students with the ability and resilience to respond to complex problems which should be a central tenet of design education.

A particular angle on some famous complexity
A particular angle on some famous complexity

For me, developing methods of approaching complex problems as networks of practitioners demands creativity but this is then inherently in tension with what can be the ‘learning machine’ drive underpinning our institutions. The easy way to respond to this is with an ironic smile and a quasi-academic shrug. What can we do when our institutions that purport to support creativity and individuality have to run at a scale which makes the learning machine approach look like a neat ‘solution’?

One response beyond a shrug is to respond, as I believe many of the delegates at DeL did, by realising that we won’t solve these problems but that we can push back against them. For me this isn’t an either/or situation. We do need machines and algorithms to work at a scale which helps to ‘normalise opportunity’ but we also need approaches based on becoming and belonging. For example, we need to be able to upload assignments and track feedback but we also need to create moments of human connection, reflection and discourse. The digital can support both these elements of what it means to be a successful and meaningful university. Nevertheless many people want, or think of, the digital to be one or the other – a corporate machine of efficiency or an ecology of connections.

'Order' also has value
‘Order’ also has value – smashing the system is not the aim.

My view is that we do need to fight to provide more than a learning machine as the instrumental aspects of our institutions are hard wired to perpetuate (often in response to external factors) while the more humane side suffers unless we constantly advocate for it. What’s important is that this fight is not seen as an attempt to smash-the-system but rather a desire to enrich and extend what we provide to support an ideology of design and creativity which we all claim to believe in.

My hope is that we can continue to develop DeL as a space where we can facilitate this kind of discourse. The digital is quickly becoming the context where important questions about the value and nature of our work as educators are discussed – questions which perhaps struggle to find a home elsewhere? I got the sense that the delegates at DeL knew they could ‘make the tech do what they wanted’ which has shifted us towards asking: what do we want?  who is this for? and what are our responsibilities?  

Truth and Method – a review of Visitors and Residents

Recently I was invited to give a keynote talk as part of the research week at the Open University of Catalonia. Founded in 1994 it was the first fully online university. As you can imagine they have seen a lot of changes in the way people learn online and asked me to speak about Visitors and Residents (V&R) as a useful way of understanding online engagement. This gave me the opportunity to gather together some of the various uses of the idea that myself and others have developed.

The Palau de la Música was our UOC dinner venue (much phone based image wrangling was involved in this image 🙂

UOC did a nice job of videoing my keynote talk (if you have plenty of time – if not then read on)

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUH-FrPyBqc[/embedyt]


You can find out about the ‘standard’ V&R mapping process here which is an effective method of making visible individuals’ engagement online. This process has been used by people in various contexts globally with one of my favourites being by Amanda Taylor with Social Work students. This starts from the principle that if we now, at least in part, live online then Social Workers need to be present in online spaces (or at least understand them as somewhere people are present).

Another interesting use of the basic mapping has been undertaken by the Mapping the digital practices of teacher educators project run by Peter Albion, Amanda Heffernan and David Jones. In an award winning paper they describe how they used a vertical axis on the map running from “Use” to “Replacement” to get teachers to map where they have used institutional platforms as they were intended and where they have reconfigured, customised or replaced them.  This is a great way of mapping the actual practice of an institution rater than assuming the technology is only being used along ‘official’ lines.

From the paper presented at SITE’2016. One of three papers awarded the Ann Thompson TPACK Paper Award. Authors: Peter Albion, Amanda Heffernan, David Jones

From the paper presented at SITE’2016. One of three papers awarded the Ann Thompson TPACK Paper Award.
Authors: Peter Albion, Amanda Heffernan, David Jones

The standard mapping process has also been used extensively by Lynn Connaway and colleges to explore how students engage with university services. A really interesting technique they are using is to extract each online tool/space to see how broad the modes of engagement are in specific groups. (The following slides were part of a presentation at the OCLC Global Council meeting, Building Our Future, April 12, 2016, Dublin, Ohio.)

Connaway, L. S., & Harvey, W. (2016). Scaling learning: Learning about our users
Connaway, L. S., & Harvey, W. (2016). Scaling learning: Learning about our users

Note how Twitter maps across all four quadrants, not just the Resident side of the map.

Connaway, L. S., & Harvey, W. (2016). Scaling learning: Learning about our users
Connaway, L. S., & Harvey, W. (2016). Scaling learning: Learning about our users

Here we can see that these students engage in email in a far narrower, less present, manner than the librarians which gives a useful insight into the manner in which the library should engage users online.

OCLC are also developing an online V&R mapping app so that individuals can map digitally and the maps can be more efficiently analysed.

This is where I come back to the “Truth and Method” title which is a reference to work by the philosopher Gadamer which Anthony Johnston, a colleague at UAL, recommended. It highlighted for me the tension between understanding practice individual by individual (Truth) and trying to uncover larger trends or themes across groups (Method). The mapping process originated as an activity for a conference session on the original V&R project. It’s gradually evolved down a number of branches into a research instrument designed to inform institutional strategy and policy. The work Lynn and OCLC is doing gathering together maps of specific services is a good example of how the process can be used to highlight trends.

Another good high-level (Method) modification of the mapping process has been designed by Lawrie Phipps for Jisc. This is a ‘group’ or ‘institutional’ mapping process which has been used in a number of workshops (some run with the help of myself and Donna Lanclos) to help staff gain an understanding of the digital ‘landscape’ or identity of there institution.

Institutional map created at a Jisc digital leadership workshop. Lawrie has updated the process more recently, replacing Visitor and Resident with Broadcast and Engage on the horizontal axis
Institutional map created at a Jisc digital leadership workshop. Lawrie has updated the process more recently, replacing Visitor and Resident with Broadcast and Engage on the horizontal axis

I was lucky enough to attend a packed workshop on this at the Jisc digifest in March. The process works well, highlighting the balance between open content, stuff you need an institutional logon for and open engagement. In Lawrie’s version Visitor and Resident is swapped out for Broadcast and Engage which broadly map to V&R in principle but are a little more direct for folk who think along institutional lines. Significantly, the vertical axis is changed to Individual and Group to capture the location of identity the activity is linked to. For example, the main university website vs a individual academic on Twitter talking about their work.

Jisc will be releasing detailed guides on running strategic V&R mapping workshops which include both the individual and group mapping formats.

The art in research terms here is to develop methods which reveal larger trends across groups without sacrificing the ‘truth’ of individuals’ personal practices. It’s certainly the case that Web provides an environment where individuals can develop practices and modes of engagement which reflect their aspirations and context in an highly personal manner.  Every V&R map is different and everyone who maps can describe in detail why their map is a particular shape.

Given that I’m wary of approaches which aim to take rich, qualitative data, and turn it into bar graphs. Sometimes numbers create a false truth, or perhaps I’m suspicious because I see numbers being used as if they are ideologically neutral. For example, we undertake interviews then code them and turn the coding into numbers. These numbers are then presented as a successful ironing-out of the idiosyncrasies of any given participant and any of our potential bias as researchers – is that really the point? In Gadamer’s view this would be Method winning out over Truth. Nevertheless we can’t respond as institutions on an individual by individual basis so we have tread a delicate path towards larger trends.

My first attempt at this was to layer maps and create what I though of as a heat-map of a given group:

V&R 'heat map'
V&R ‘heat map’

This one is of around 20 MBA students. It works ok because they all happened to map in a similar manner so you can see group patterns in the modes of engagement. The process is less effective when everyone is mapping in their own style. For example, how could you include the map below in a layered heat-map?

An individual's map from a Jisc digtal leadership workshop
An individual’s map from a Jisc digital leadership workshop

So in attempting to create ‘accurate’ layered maps I was in danger of trying to smooth-out the charismatic and personal nature of them. You’d have to give people the same kind of pens and set a bunch of rules about how to map which takes away the interpretation of the process, it removes agency from the participant. This would be killing one of the characteristics of the mapping which I enjoy the most – seeing the person in the *way* they have mapped not just *what* they have mapped. In essence, the manner in which individuals approach the mapping is important data in of itself.

I worked with Alison LeCornu on The Higher Education Academy ‘Challenges of Online Residency’ project which involved 18 higher education institutions mapping teaching staff and cohorts of students. From this I received circa 400 maps each tagged with participant data. Sifting through the maps it appeared that they did fall into broad categories based on the quadrants which had been mapped to. This led me to propose the following ‘engagement-genre templates’

Templates

The darker blue marks out the areas which an individual would have mapped to. The names of these templates aren’t hugely helpful as they are a little reductionist but, you know, naming.. etc. For example, I don’t want to imply that someone with a ‘connectivist’ map isn’t ‘engaged’.

Having created the templates I set a colleague the fun task of reviewing all of the maps and tagging them along these lines whilst also discarding mappers who appeared to have utterly misconstrued the process (bad data). The result was pleasantly surprising – most maps do fall into one of the templates fairly neatly.

Given that we were working form a convenient sample I normalised the results into ratios to look for trends. A few key patterns did emerge and it’s possible to interpret them in a manner which resonates with the narratives of higher education. We are currently writing up an open access paper on this so I won’t go into detail here.

One highlight worth mentioning in passing is the distribution of age ranges that had a ‘Social-Engaged’ map. This is a map in which there is activity in all four quadrants. The temptation might be to think that this form of map would skew young but the results show a fairly even spread of ages.

Detail from the visualisation of the HEA project V&R map data

 

This is the age bracket and educational level of the 208 ‘Social-Engaged’ maps in ratio form. Both these categories show even distribution, demonstrating again that age is not a significant factor in the overall mode of engagement of individuals online.  What we do need to be mindful of is that the character of activities undertaken across the maps might change significantly within a given genre template which is where capturing discussion that arises during the mapping process, undertaking follow-up interviews or asking participants to annotate their maps comes in to play. Nevertheless, I’m confident that using the templates is a valid approach and strikes a reasonable balance between Truth and Method when dealing with a large body of qualitative data.Hopefully we will have the paper written on this fairly soon and can share in more detail.

Overall it’s been rewarding to see the various routes the V&R work has been taking. It’s a good example of the benefits of  working in an open manner and letting an idea evolve. One of the most pleasing outcomes from this approach is the V&R Wikipedia article which, for me, is a real vote of confidence in the value of the work.

(please add, edit and update the article if you have been working with V&R – it needs work 🙂