Student-as-product

Working at a large arts focused university and collaborating with colleagues in institutions of various types including Russell-group is giving me a broad insight into the changing character of Higher Education in the UK. A major shift we’ve all witnessed with the introduction of fees is the student-as-consumer effect. We are groping our way towards the American model, discussing the Student Experience but with institutions that are almost entirely structured to deliver curriculum. As Eric Stoller pointed out at the recent Jisc Creativity workshop we don’t have the equivalent of ‘Student Affairs’ in our institutions and anything that isn’t directly aligned with delivering the curriculum is scattered across libraries, academic support, the student union, careers/employability etc.

Job fair CC - https://www.flickr.com/photos/frisno/3324516149
Job fair.   CC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/frisno/3324516149

Treating education as a product is problematic and in the Digital Student Project we are always quick to point out the importance of managing and challenging student’s expectations as well as meeting them. The student-as-consumer effect is usually concerned with the education we provide being, or becoming, ‘product’ – but that’s a mistaken reading of the situation. The real product is employability and by inference the student themselves.

The sadness for me is that while there has always been an element of increasing-your-chances-of-getting-a-decent-job about Higher Education the underlying philosophy remained one of citizenship not economic viability (as discussed in this episode of the Philosophy bites podcast on the Aims of Education). This was even the case when taking so-called vocational courses – the focus was employment but the ideology was predominately educational not economic.

I worry that as a sector we have lost confidence in the value of learning as part of what it means to contribute to society and to become more engaged in the world. I’m not against employability. I can completely understand student’s motivations here and the need for institutions to take some responsibility in supporting them in finding work. My concern is that we are not cutting enough space for students to come to an understanding of themselves as learners and citizens *before* constructing themselves as ‘professionals’. Our preoccupation with the problem of curriculum-as-product has masked the larger problem of student-as-product or ‘entrepreneur’.

Unfortunately I see this being powerfully played out in digital contexts. The potential agency that the Web affords individuals is being co-opted as part of the process of student-as-product.  This became clear to me when I contributed to the design of a masters-level module called The Mediated Self at a prestigious UK university. This was an interesting co-design process with a both staff and students contributing ideas. The module was largely going to explore what it meant for the ‘self’ to be mediated on the Web and the students proposed a really strong structure complete with relevant readings and clear themes. I myself had had a fascinating time getting lost in notions of the self by reading a large chunk of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. My point was that you can always argue about the nature of the self but what’s interesting in a digital context is our ability to manage our ‘self’ in concurrent spaces, the digital and the physical. To me this is an inherently new situation brought about as an effect of the digital being a social space not simply ‘content’.

What struck me in our discussions was that the student’s motivation to learn this type of material was mainly to help them construct a ‘successful’ identity online. Implicit in this motivation was the notion of a hypothetical ‘super-employable professional persona’ which one could somehow work towards or enact online as a self-standing entity. There was a sense that there must be a correct way to ‘be’ online and that this module would help them to uncover this truth as if being-in-the-world was similar to successfully passing an exam. In effect, there was more motivation to mediate a professional persona than there was to develop a ‘self’. Instead of the Web being viewed as a place for ‘becoming’, for self-expression and human connection (ideas my institution really understands the value of) it was being seen as the location to present a perfect model of student-as-employable-product.

The academic staff at the design session were well aware of this and I could tell they would be gently pushing against these narrow motivations in an attempt to help the students come to a deeper understanding of the modules themes. My feeling is that most teaching staff attempt to challenge employability as the be all and end all of education but I fear that as a sector we are amplifying the student-as-product message rather than championing learning as an end in itself. The effect of this will the ‘production’ of students who are adept at modelling ’employability’ but may well lack the depth and agility to make their way in the world beyond economic success. My view is that University should be a place where we enlarge our ‘selves’ through learning. I suggest that as a sector we regain our confidence in the principle that a rich sense-of-self is the single most ‘employable’ attribute individuals can develop.

Against intuitive technology

“I want my technology to be intuitive” is a statement that has always irked me. Musing over why I can feel my eye twitching when I hear it I realised that ‘intuitive’ is a proxy for ‘I don’t want to think about the technology’. The assumption being that the tech is only there to facilitate at task. Presumably this task mirrors something the individual has done many times before in analogue form giving them the ability to intuit the process. For example, paying a bill or writing a report. “I don’t want the technology to get in the way of what I’m trying to achieve” being the sibling of the ‘intuitive’ comment.

Baby with iPad
Proof that bright lights are attractive to babies. (CC – lynnmarentette)

What many call intuition in their lives is almost always something that has been learnt. Beyond basic responses, such as a baby throwing its arms out (the Moro reflex – although here I may have moved from intuition to instinct), much of what we think of as intuition is simply stuff-we-have-learned-and-then-forgotten-we-learned. Knowing that the Diskette symbol means ‘save’ is not intuitive, especially as the skeuomorphism of our icons slips a generation and becomes wholly abstract.  More fundamentally, a Diskette might be the symbol for ‘save’ but what does ‘save’ mean? It’s certainly not an intuitive concept in the non-physical milieu of the digital where we have to create our own mental maps of where information is located and how it’s curated.

To my mind the most successful ‘intuitive’ aspect of contemporary technology is its ability to support modes of consumption. Adverts for the Kindle Fire phone show beautiful people using the technology to buy goods and services in a variety of ways which smoothly align to their beautiful lives. It’s hardly surprising that the dominant ideology of capitalism should be mirrored in the technology so successfully and received as ‘good design’ or ‘intuitive’ rather than ‘learnt’ or ‘programmed’.

What does it mean when the technological process many find the most intuitive is buying something from Amazon or seeking out information using a search engine that primarily exists to target adverts? The same applies with individual production online, as for most this involves packaging their identity into neat slices for others to consume via Social Media.

This is what comes to my mind when I’m asked why all technology isn’t more intuitive. For me learning the technology is part of the larger learning process. In an educational context there are many occasions when I don’t want the tech to be transparent, I want it to be questioned.

In the creative sphere nobody complains that software such as Photoshop or Final Cut are complex and require tutorials and workshops to master. It’s recognised that they’re powerful tools which need to be understood before they can be harnessed or appropriated. For example, we know that if we don’t get to grips with Photoshop the result is a dumb replication of a particular aesthetic (or Instagram as it’s known).  Photographers and filmmakers don’t expect the technology they use to be intuitive, they expect to be powerful, requiring effort to learn and to bend it to produce the results they desire.

It’s likely that this use of ‘intuitive’ in educational circles comes from writing being the predominant mode of production. Obviously as with any form of literacy writing must be learnt but the physical tools required to realise ideas in this mode are relatively simple. Bounce that into digital technology and you have MS Office Word which at its core is a straight reflection of the physical paradigm. This I suspect is where most people who demand ‘intuitive’ are coming from, they are not considering the possibility that some technologies operate in new paradigms that cannot be tenuously mapped back to existing practices. New modes of practice need to be developed in these cases. The manner in which technology can call us to question and adapt our practices by getting-in-the-way is the muse for much creativity and innovation.

I don’t want technology to be ‘transparent’ – a bland tool which supports practices we already understand. I want it to be challenging, I want it to inspire by being unexpected, open enough to be appropriated in new ways by intelligent, engaged individuals. Learning the technology, learning how it can be appropriated, recontexualised,  disrupted, abused and used is part of the process of education not something that should be designed out.

Connection and anxiety

As I hinted at in my (Re)humanising eLearning post I directed a group performance entitled “A performance of connection and anxiety” as part of my Spotlight Stage session at Online Educa. The audience played the part of first year undergraduates while I represented ‘the institution’ in all its various forms. This involved everyone standing up, putting their hand on the next person’s shoulder and closing their eyes (100+ people seemed surprisingly willing to enter into this piece of shared theater).

Connection
Photograph by David Ausserhofer, Mark Bollhorst and Maren Strehlau. All copyrights by ICWE GmbH. CC 2.0 Germany

As I’d hoped this created a certain frisson in the room and when we remained silent for about 15 seconds that strange feeling of togetherness started to grow despite most of the audience being strangers to one other. I then circulated round the room ‘selecting’ individuals by tapping them on the shoulder while they had their eyes closed, representing the moments they might be ‘chosen’ or engaged with by your institution in some way.

Discussing this with people afterwards some commented that they had hoped to be chosen but they didn’t know why as I hadn’t explained what the implications would be. Others hoped not to be chosen but overall there was a healthy tension in the room – I like to think of this as the ‘good’ form of anxiety.

When I asked everyone to open their eyes and sit down if they hadn’t  been selected many people were looking around to see who the chosen few were. At this point I admitted that I hadn’t chosen anyone which fortunately got a laugh (possibly of relief :).

Overall it did feel like we’d all shared in a specific moment of connection and one, as I outline in the original post, which worked between strangers because we were physically co-present. Gaining that sense of connection online requires more up-front identity work but I believe it’s crucial if we see the value of the digital as a place we can learn together.

The three key areas I proposed for consideration to create connection online and rehumanise elearning were:

1. Spaces
Think of and use the digital as a series of spaces or places where individuals can be co-present and connected. (rather than just a mechanism to broadcast content)

2. Eventedness
Design in synchronous moments or ‘events’ online. This helps to create a feeling of belonging and that ‘I was there’ factor. The technology to support this is now pretty reliable.

3. Conversation at scale
Design mechanisms for discourse to take place at scale. Hashtags, commenting, shared postings, crowd-sourcing, editathons etc. This is the area which we are least adept at but I believe the technology is now in place to support conversation at scale if we can design our teaching to take advantage of it.

All of the above are underpinned by individual’s developing an online presence and identity. Something which is central to almost all Digital Literacy frameworks but which we often don’t prioritise when supporting our students and/or staff.

#Digitell Identity

It was lovely to be invited to speak alongside Christian Payne (@Documentally) at the Digitell symposium held at The University of the Arts London. The focus of the student run event was digital identity, one of the themes students had highlighted out of a community of practice supported by the Jisc funded ‘DIAL’ project and CLTAD.

So I rolled up my thinking-sleeves and considered the way identity functions in the creative arts… The result was a talk which included DuchampAbramović and Banksy. Obviously it’s a complex subject and many have been lost down the rabbit-hole of identity but I gave it my best shot.

Marcel was ere
Found by @otheragent in the toilets at Chelsea college of art during digitell.

With Fountain Duchamp shifted the emphasis away from the artist as sole generator of meaning but the effect of this move to the conceptual appears to have put more rather than less focus on the identity of the artist. If the art is a found object we want to know even more about what the artist was thinking and ‘who they are’. The work/piece and the identity of the artist are inextricably linked. Abramović’s The Artist is Present is the absolute extreme of this, she is both her ‘self’ and a found object. I finished this section of the talk by pointing out that a Banksy piece is valuable because of its attachment to ‘Bansky’ as an identity even though he/she is anonymous. Even when the identity of the creator is not known it is still  a powerful influence on the way we interpret and receive the work.

My overall point here is that people are fascinated by people and most work, artistic or otherwise, is an expression of identity in some form. To my mind ‘identity’ is a proxy for ‘humanness’.

In digital contexts I suggested that there are two major ways of realising an identity online:

  1. Identity embodied through works (Abramović being the most pointed example).

Rather than being present directly online in social media or similar spaces individuals can express themselves through objects/work they have created. This is where the notion of the Web as a ‘Shop Window’ works well (see my Breaking Down Digital post). This form of online identity only functions when the work is created in an ‘I made this’ mode. Obviously this is closely aligned with the creative arts but I’d argue that anyone who has written an academic paper for example is doing the same thing. Our online identity is the sum of what we post and what is posted about us. This includes anything that has our name/pseudonym linked to it. The significant point here is that there is little desire for visible discourse online around the work by those posting it. The way to connect is likely to be ‘email me if you are interested’ or similar.

  1. Identity expressed through discourse

This is where the Web is a series of spaces where we can be co-present with others, where thoughts are expressed with the expectation of response. Identity in this mode is more directly linked to a notion of the individual’s persona and presence rather than mediated or expressed through ‘finished’ work. This is likely to involve real-time or nearly-real-time discourse and connection with those around them. This is the highly Resident form of online identity of which Christian Payne was a great example. While identity embodied via work is likely to be focused on finding an audience identity expressed through discourse it likely to be about building networks and communities.

An interesting overlap between these forms of identity is the opportunity to reveal aspects of the process involved in heading towards a finished piece of work and seek comment/input.  This is one of the most powerful and potentially rewarding ways of operating and being present online and acts as a good transition between ‘Shop Window’ and more Resident forms of engagement.

I finished by suggesting that one of the advantages of a digital identity is that we can shape, nurture and control it to a certain extent. We can decide who-we-are online but only if we have a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve.  Christian then went on to challenge this perspective by describing how his online identity was owned/mediated  by the people who engage with him – he didn’t control the interpretation of his identity. (a statement which @otheragent pointed out echoes the notion of the art coefficient — the difference between what the artist intended and how the world interprets it)

In the panel session we went on to discuss a broad range of topics including authenticity and value. What interested me most in the discussion was that while Christian felt authenticity was important in online identity he does chose what to post and what not to post, thereby controlling his identity with great nuance without necessarily being inauthentic. Personally I’m not sure what authenticity is but that’s a different rabbit hole…

Thanks to Kimberly Cunningham, Joe Easeman and Chris Follows for running such great event.

Digitell B1NQm8YIQAE0wdM

Breaking down digital

I was delighted to be asked to keynote at the Designs on eLearning conference last month. It’s run by my group based at UAL and Penn State with a different host institution each year. This time it was Texas State with Claudia Roeschmann et al doing an excellent job bringing us all together.

DeL
One of the various designs in the DeL mini-programme booklets,

Part of my job as Head of Technology Enhanced Learning is to develop institutional strategies around digital and learning so I thought the DeL keynote would be a great chance to propose a simple way of setting out the territory:

‘Digital’ is too broad a term to be useful now but it is still an area which is ‘different’ enough in the mind of institutions to be dealt with as a distinct entity. Whether this is a healthy approach is debatable as ‘digital’ and ‘technology’ tends to be defined as anything-that-is-new or anything-we-don’t-quite-know-how-to-use-yet. For example, technology that has become totally embedded stops being thought of as tech; email, texting, Googling etc. It’s not that we don’t know that it’s digital we just don’t discuss it in strategic terms because ‘everybody does it’. That tends to mean that digital strategies point towards incorporating the new without focusing on the better use of the mundane.

(The term ‘mundane technology’ was brought up by Jo Morisson from UAL who pointed out that smartphones are now ‘mundane’ but are integral to students day-to-day learning and creative practices i.e. the fundamental incorporation of the digital into practice tends to be around the use of ‘boring’, not-new, tech)

To attempt to break down the digital into manageable areas I suggested the following ‘practice boxes’ or categories which split the manner in which we use technology into three sections. This provides a very simple framework for discussions about where and how practice intersects with, or resides within, the digital. My Visitors and Residents framework underpins this approach which means that the boxes build on motivation-to-engage rather than the functional affordances of the technology (something which can be considered after you’ve decided what it is you are trying to achieve).

3 digital-practice boxes on the V&R continuum (CC attribution only)
3 digital-practice boxes on the V&R continuum (CC attribution only)

From left to right:

‘Tools and Stuff’ – This is the predominant institutional perception of what digital technology is – a series of tools that help to make existing practices more efficient or better quality. It also tends to be students main expectation of the digital services their institution will provide. ‘Give me access to the right tools (including the Web) and access to digital content (stuff) that will help me get through my course. This was one of the key findings from or recent work on The Digital Student project for Jisc. No social trace is left in this mode which is mainly about information seeking, and non-visible production & consumption.

‘Shop Window’ – This is a shift from Tools and Stuff towards using the Web as a place for publication and dissemination – the look-at-what-I-have-created motivation which is essentially using the Web as a means of distribution for self-generated content. This is institutions and individuals in broadcast mode and while work that is being presented might be ascribed to the creator of that work it is not necessarily connected to a persona as such beyond a name or a brand. The Web becomes a location to promote the best of our completed work with the actual creative or intellectual practice taking place offline or in non-visible tools.

‘Spaces’ – This is where the digital (mainly the Web) becomes a series of spaces or places in which we enact our practice. We go to these spaces to be present with others in some form. This could be within private groups or openly online. So the Web becomes the location where we develop work and thinking in a ‘networked’ or communal manner. This involves individuals operating via (or being embodied within) a digital identity of some form which might be a simple projection of self or could be a deliberately disassociated, managed or pseudonymous persona. (This gets philosophical very quickly but a simple version would be an individual being in ‘student-mode’ when in certain digital spaces). I’ve broken this category into three sections:

  1. Using digital spaces to communally or collaboratively create work. For example, collaborative editing of Google doc or using an online whiteboard/sketching platform to build work in groups. This type of activity could be ‘live’ or asynchronous but the closer to live it is the more the digital will feel like a space rather than a tool.
  1. Discourse around artifacts. – This is the most common form of activity within this category and is possibly the most broadly relevant in an educational context. I’m most interested in forms of discourse which influence the evolution of work, for example a constructive discussion in the comments on a blog post which leads to the original author refining their ideas. It could also be the discourse of a group negotiating the direction of future activities and posting iterations of work which is developed outside of the digital space in which the discussion is taking place. Obviously material that is posted in Shop Window mode can become the focus for discourse with the possibility of recontextualisition or remixing.
  1. Critique or re-appropriation of digital spaces – this one is more specific to Art & Design but important nevertheless. The digital is a space that should be questioned a deconstructed as a place where society resides and operates. This is something that the creative arts need to be doing if they wish to be a relevant voice. I was disappointed with the recent Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican which made no attempt to deconstruct the digital in this manner and simply presented a parade of amusing and entertaining digital bits and bobs. In an age of ‘elegant digital consumption’ Art & Design needs to re-present the Digital through a critical and questioning lens.

——

What’s interesting is how the pedagogy we use can shifts teaching practice from Shop Window to Spaces within given platforms. For example at UAL both our blogging (WordPress) and our ePortfolio (Mahara) platforms can be used in both modes depending on the teaching approach. It’s even possible to gently transition from Shop Window to Spaces within these platforms over time which has enormous potential for supporting students in developing their practice and in building professional/practice based online personas.

My hope is that the 3 categories will frame conversations within and beyond UAL and break down the ‘digital’ in a useful non-tech-deterministic manner.

Phase 2 plans for our Philosophers

We learnt a few things in the first phase of the Open Habitat project which have informed the set-up of our next pilots. I’m currently planning the pilot that will run with philosophy students in Second Life. The main challenge with the first pilot was the sheer speed of debate in SL. The experienced philosophy students are used to being able to gather their thoughts, write a paragraph or two and pop it into a forum.

Taking the time to reflect is important in any educational process but it is especially precious to the discipline of philosophy. Having said this, the students loved the vibrant, social feeling of SL and the sense of presence being embodied in an avatar brought. In fact they liked it so much they have continued to run non-tutored sessions in SL once a week managed via a facebook group. (This included giving the students building rights so that they could rearrange the environment each week to fit the topic under discussion)

For phase 2 it was clear that we needed to balance the reflective and the dynamic which we are planning to do by ‘bookending’ the SL session with Moodle. Here is a draft of how the pilot will flow:

Stage One (framing the debate):

  1. Marianne (the tutor) to post briefing page on Moodle
  2. students to post kneejerk response in blog
  3. Marianne to respond one to one
  4. students to reconsider in light of Marianne’s comments and prepare second kneejerk
  5. second kneejerk to be posted on Moodle
  6. all students to read, think and prepare third kneejerk for posting on whiteboard in second life
  7. third kneejerk to be sent to Dave for posting in world

Stage two (dynamic in world discussion):

  1. Everyone arrives in second life to find third kneejerk responses on board
  2. People read these and reflect as everyone arrives
  3. Marianne asks each student in turn to comment
  4. after everyone has responded people go into groups (arranged in advance), go to their ‘stations’ and prepare jointly a ‘final statement’
  5. final statements to be sent to Dave
  6. Marianne reconvenes students and the session ends with a final discussion.

Stage three (reflection):

  1. Marianne to annotate final statements, and add comments
  2. Dave to post final statements and the chat log on Moodle
  3. Students free to discuss final statements and Marianne’s comments by themselves.

It’s not rocket science but I think this really takes advantage of what SL is good for and is a genuine answer to the ‘user needs’ that came out of phase 1. We will then run this cycle a second time either continuing the same philosophical theme or starting a new on depending on how well it runs!

The other significant change to the pilot will be the use of edu-gestures which should allow for more non-verbal communication whilst the group is deep in discussion. We have a nice set (agree, confused, yes, no, I’m thinking etc) of gestures that the students can use during the sessions using a ‘lite’ version of the Sloodle toolbar generously created for us by the Sloodle project. I’m planning to introduce these gestures as a key part of the orientation session so that their use is seen as a ‘basic’ skill. In this way I hope we get the benefits of embodiment/presence as well as the benefits of non-verbal communication which is so important in RL but has not really developed in detail within SL.

It’s odd to think that an environment that renders you as an avatar (face, head, arms, legs etc) does not rely very heavily on non-verbal cues (apart from where you are standing and the biggie: what you look like). I’m hoping that this aspect of Multi-User Virtual Environments will develop as the language of communication (text, voice, visual) within virtual worlds becomes more sophisticated.

Most importantly the pilot has been designed in conjunction with the students who are going to advise on the layout of the in world environment and are enthusiastic about the changes to the format.