Given that ‘online’ is often spoken of in deficit terms when compared to ‘normal’ working you might have expected a feeling of attenuation, something lesser, during COVID-19, but somehow everything feels amplified, more extreme. It’s as if the sudden shift to online has turned the volume up on themes and issues which were always there but in a quieter way.
This is also playing out on an individual level, as we find ourselves working from our, radically different, private contexts without the ‘levelling’ shared space of the campus or office. We are densely connected through the technology but have less shared ground. Our cultural and physical conception of ‘work’ has been redistributed across a myriad of differences. This is a moment in which we can re-imagine our intersecting spaces and practices of work in new ways which are kinder, more inclusive and not only tied to the physical.
In a session I teach on our Academic Practice programme I ask the question “What aspects of the digital environment are unique?”. There are plenty of good answers to this and it always turns into a lively opening discussion, partly because you can find pre-digital examples of most things. The two answers I tend to focus on are:
Anyone with a connection can ‘publish’ – the digital gives us a two-way street where there was once only the one-way system of broadcast and print media.
Everything is hyper-connected in the forms of a network supporting a churn of hierarchies – as apposed to a set of distinct hierarchies.
The effects of these two factors are not fundamentally new but importantly they are massively amplified. I can post a Tweet which hundreds of thousands can have read within minutes if it goes viral. I can connect with individuals and groups almost instantly. I can find myself in an online meeting before I’ve had time to think…
This is what I believe many of us are experiencing right now, an amplification of the way we experience work. No longer contained by the rituals and expectations we had implicitly agreed on, work has become restless. It’s now variously exhilarating, exhausting, empowering and stressful. It’s less tactile and less sensory but cognitively and emotionally the volume has been turned to 11.
Outrun by our own technology
Our physical spaces had agreed modes of interaction (or lack of interaction in some cases) which were as much a sociocultural agreement embodying particular power dynamics as they were an effect of the affordances of the space. We even got to the point that the names of the rooms themselves indicated the expected mode – lecture theatre, seminar room, the library, the studio etc. This made things predictable, it limited the ‘volume’ but tied us to ways of working enmeshed with historical notions of authority and power most of us would prefer to move on from. All of that has gone now, hasn’t it?
The amplification I’m speaking of comes from the introduction of technologies which reshape what it means to interact in ways which go beyond our slow-to-change models of the world – models which are still tied to the physical even now. We have been outrun by our own technologies for over 100 years. The First World War being a key example of where we were shocked by the destructive force – the potential for explosive change – of what we had invented. Right now we are being outrun by the level of connectivity and new modes of communication our digital technology provides. This is why things feel so intense even while we have lost so much.
Letting go of physical thinking
The intensity created by this amplification comes about as much from the difficulty we have in letting go of our models of work than it is to do with our ability to grasp the technology. We have ‘proper’, known, ways of working which are constantly being extended and confused by our shifting technological contexts – a new feature arrives without warning and suddenly meetings work differently. A text chat bar appears at the side of the speaker but how should we use it?
I was in a discussion about all the opportunities for interaction that are now available now that a conference I help run will be fully online but this had to be weighed against the expectations of delegates that they would experience a ‘keynote’.
My hope is that we will actively negotiate the value of our work, of what we can contribute and continue to move away from paradigms which were defined by the name of physical rooms. What’s important to recognise is that for most of us things have got louder with the move online and quieting, shared, concepts such as ‘office’, ‘campus’ or ‘university’ feel distant and abstract.
This post is an exploration of a theme which I mentioned in the 16/04/2020 edition of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with Bonni Stachowiak and Jose Bowden.
it was also part of the discussion at the online workshop Bonnie Stewart and myself ran at OER20.
Given the dangers currently involved in daily life it’s understandable why many people want to employ every aspect of information which can be reaped from the digital environment to reduce risk. In China we hear of an app which shows the body temperature of your delivery driver and in the UK there appear to be plans for an app which will tell you if you have been in close proximity to someone who may have the virus. Forms of surveillance that only weeks ago would have been considered such a serious infringement of our rights they might have been left unsaid, are now being mooted on a daily basis.
This is where I find the phrase: “Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should” extremely useful. The reason being that once technology presents us with an opportunity to reduce risk – with the inevitable negation of trust* – we feel a pressure to employ it (who wants to be the person who has to say ‘We decided not to use it’ when something goes wrong?). This plays out in numerous ways across society and in education, which myself and Bonnie Stewart explored in our session for OER20.
Care vs Surveillance
In preparing the session, Bonnie suggested that many of the most contentious issues around the use of technology for teaching can be expressed as a tension between care and surveillance. For example, it could be considered caring to track students in digital platforms to understand how they are engaging with their learning. It can also be considered surveillance. In technology, care and surveillance tend to go hand-in-hand.
If we ignore this data and don’t identify that some students have all but dropped out then are we failing in our duty as educators? Once this source of information exists we have to be extremely deliberate in our reasons for using it or avoiding it. In a sector which is increasingly massified, data often stands in for relationships as the notional medium for care, and yet no institution has ever increased surveillance without claiming its role is to create a more caring, or safer, environment.
Trust vs Fairness
The main casualty here is trust. Whenever we introduce something to increase ‘fairness’ we also reduce trust. For example, with online submissions of assessed work we track very closely if students hand-in work late. We can also identify which student we think submitted which piece of work by looking at their login. In many cases we don’t need to trust students to do the right thing because we have a digital process which negates trust in favour of fairness.
This could also be seen as protecting the reputation of the institution and the value of what it awards. Trust vs fairness and surveillance vs care are not simple problems to solve, they are tensions which require complex negotiation across managers, teachers and students. Even so, we all have stories of technologies which have been introduced that circumvent any negotiation by reifying aspects of surveillance and fairness as standard ‘features’. This often makes concrete an implicit aspect of institutional culture which actually required significant discretion.
As education moves online we are going to have to get better at stating, and upholding, our values around trust and care with the concomitant acknowledgment of the risk we are accepting to protect certain freedoms. If not, then education will continue to merge with the corporate/civic surveillance state we are now only too aware of. To avoid sleepwalking into this new normal there will be times where we must deliberately refuse to use aspects of the data and control which technology offers, even when there are demands framed in terms of fairness or reduction of risk.
Freedom is risky and risk requires trust. I believe that educational institutions, especially universities, should create spaces of negotiated risk. My hope is that we can do this in both our physical and digital spaces so that the latter does not become a surveillance tool we use to ‘balance out’ trust gifted in other environments. Certainly now is a time to uphold trust in the face of surveillance whether that be with our students as we teach online or in wider society. Extending our ability to know and control is not axiomatic as it is better to be free than to be risk free.
Coronavirus has given millions motivation-to-engage, no matted their age, as social contact and educational provision has become almost entirely online-only overnight. We are all becoming ‘skilled’ with networked tech incredibly quickly, not because we are ‘native’ to it but because we have an immediate and obvious need. Our social and professional lives have become a parade of audio/video meetings and shared documents.
This highlights that the term ‘social distancing’ does not account for the Web and is better described as ‘physical distancing’. Many of us are now more Resident online than ever before and are therefore highly social (if not more social) during the quarantine.
Teaching during Coronavirus
The abrupt need to move face-to-face education online can be mapped to the Visitor – Resident continuum. At my university we have produced a ‘Core practice guide’ which highlights the need for a balance of ‘content’ (Visitor) and ‘contact’ (Resident) for/with student groups. Just as with the Visitor – Resident continuum one mode is not ‘better’ than the other and any effective online educational provision will use a mix of both. The important factor, in terms of the design of teaching, is how we connect together what we are providing across these modes so that the elements (resources, fora, webinars, recordings) build on each other and increase our student’s motivation-to-engage.
It’s not about the tech it’s about the teaching
It is also important to note that, as highlighted by the Visitor and Resident mapping activity, the type of technology does not inherently foster a particular mode-of-engagement. A poorly run online lecture (or webinar) will be less engaging for students than watching a recording or making use of some elegantly contextualised resources. My mantra is that if a synchronous (or ‘live’) piece of online teaching could have been a recording – from a student experience perspective – then it has little value beyond being an way-point in their week (see Eventedness).
Making online education engaging requires effective, well-structured , teaching way more than it does any specific digital platform. The most brilliant and fully-featured ‘webinar’ space will not counter a lack of framing activities and resources either side of the session. The same can principle be applied to text-chats, fora, quizzes etc.
If you like diagrams…
The following illustrates this point diagrammatically by showing that particular genres of digital provide the potential for certain levels/modes of engagement but that higher levels of engagement rely on the design of our teaching more than on how ‘immediate’ the tech experience might be.
The diagram is based on medium-to-large groups of students rather than small groups (less than 10) or one-to-one scenarios. Fostering engagement-at-scale is a central challenge for higher education and one which is crucial to consider as we transition to online teaching (and at any other time to be frank).
I’m defining ‘Engagement’ as a mix of social presence and active/critical thinking. The mix is complex but important, as one without the other can lead to either noisy-but-unthinking moments or thoughtful-but-distancing experiences. We want our students to develop their thinking *and* feel a sense of belonging.
Connecting it together
Any single technology or mode will not be enough to engage a group over a period of time. This requires connecting together a set of modes with a clear articulation of how they flow into one another. At my university we are promoting the use of a combination of Moodle and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra as these can be combined to effectively cover a huge range of Content – Contact. For example: read/watch a resource > respond to a relevant question in an actively facilitated discussion forum > engage with ‘live’ discussion in a webinar which is framed around the themes arising from the forum > write a reflection on the themes and the overall process to be posted to the VLE/LMS (or create image/audio/video with accompanying written reflection).
Fundamentally, one mode or tech is not ‘better’ than another. What is important is how we connect them as a learning narrative and how we communicate that narrative to foster engagement. This helps to ensure we provide opportunities which are mindful of the range of technical, geographical (time-zone), cognitive, social and emotional contexts/experiences of our students and teaching staff.
Back in the day, when the internet was a place of hope, upbeat phrases abounded such as: Information SuperHighway and Web Surfing. The Coronavirus has illuminated the fruition and implications of one of these classic West Coast style phrases, The Global Village.
To explore this idea I’m not going to claim any solid evidence or analysis but would like to pose a question: “How has access to the Web influenced the UK population’s response to the Coronavirus?”
I suggest that without access to an abundance of information on the spread of the virus and national responses beyond the UK we would not be ahead of Public Health England’s timings on social distancing and the closing of institutions. I also suspect we would be seeing less panic buying and less anxiety about a ‘lack of action’.
To be clear, I’m not commenting on the rights and wrongs of any course of action. I only wish to explore the influence of the Web as a global network.
It’s a big heap of everything – like a village.
One of the aspects of the Web which makes it so difficult to make sense of is that it’s always operating in multiple, intersecting modes. For example, what we see on a daily basis online is a chaotic mix of official announcements and total speculation. We see complex data next to pure antidote – published ‘fact’ interwoven with conversation and gossip. The traditional demarcation of ‘information’ and ‘speculation’ by notions of public and private has dissolved. Just like a village, word travels fast and the community decides how to respond whatever the leaders might be saying.
If we wind back around 20 years then we would be receiving news of the virus mainly through broadcast and print media.There were news websites back then but they tended to operate in a broadcast mode. In 2000 around 26% of the UK had a connection compared to over 96% today and, of course, there was no Social Media to speak of. The information environment was largely as it had been for the preceding 60 years or so with institutions we trusted conveying the ‘truth’ of events.
While broadcast media would have given us a sense of what was happening ‘abroad’ it would have seemed more remote and any scare mongering would have been done by outlets which were known to do this as a matter of course. Even as the virus appeared in the UK it’s difficult to imagine mass panic buying of toilet paper before any state of emergency had been called.
It’s a two-way street
One of the main factors in the ‘it’s a big heap of everything’ effect is that anyone with a connection can publish. This means that the Web is a powerful communication network for ‘us’ as well as ‘them’ – however you want to ascribe that distinction. As such, if an institution wants to cancel events ahead of official advice then it can, and at negligible cost in terms of communication.
We have access to an abundance of hybrid, village-like information. We also have the means to take mass action – a shout from the village green which can reach tens of thousands. There is no need to go through official channels, so we can both decide and respond without the nod from the institutions which used to control-the-message.
What is Rome? – Whatever it is, it has blurrier edges now.
My hope is that we will respond to the effects of the The Global Village coming to pass by collectively admitting that the biggest challenges we face do not respect national borders. So far, on a national level, our membership of this Global Village and the complex world it reveals has amplified our desire to run back to simple, often negatively defined, forms of identity. When the virus is past its peak and we have done all we can to keep people safe will we better understand that our planet is now more of a village than a collection of nations?
Over a decade ago, I took a home brewed virtual ethnography approach to a project looking at communal and cooperative player behaviour in World of Warcraft. It appeared to me that the teamwork and sense of belonging in the game was exactly what we were trying to foster in online learning.
The method I used was to sit with a player as they gamed, asking the occasional question while I set-up screen recording software. I then left the hard-drive with them and asked them to record any moments that they thought were significant over a period of about a week. I picked up the recordings and made notes as I watched them. Then I went back to the player with specific questions about aspects of the play and the dynamics of the gaming community I needed interpreting. It worked well and led to my thinking on ‘Social Capital in the Pursuit of Slaying Dragons’.
In the world and of the world
What was clear was that the players were extremely present in the game world, as embodied by their player avatars – they weren’t controlling a character from afar, they were within the world when they were gaming. The game was a space in which they were co-present, which is one of the reasons that an ethnographic approach worked. This principle influenced much of my subsequent work and I find it useful when considering the notion of digital fluency. In essence, you can’t understand the modes-of-engagement of a space by only learning it’s technical functionality as if it were a tool – you need to understand how it works as a social space. A simple example is Twitter – learning about ‘at’ replies, retweets and direct messages doesn’t tune you into the culture or discourse of the network of co-present individuals. You completely miss the role and value of Resident-mode platforms if you only consider how it works in abstracted, technical, terms.
So when it comes to teaching about the potential role and value of Resident online spaces I tend to take a digital fieldwork approach which draws on this ethnographic thinking. There are usually decent guides on the basics of online platforms you can point people too so, beyond this, what becomes important is the fieldwork brief which provides a motivation to engage with the dialogue and the culture of the space. This is what I had in mind when I designed the digital fieldwork activities which we used as part of the Teaching Complexity seminar series.
Digital Fieldwork activities
The activities range from simply appearing in a Resident space (for those that have never operated in this mode) through to experimenting with an alternative identity or faking out a social media platform. The six activities come with a short video intro from me as explaining the context for the approach is extremely important. This is especially the case for the activities which involve experimenting with identity as it’s not about tricking anyone, so participants need to be sensitive in the way they present themselves and connect.
The identity based activities are inherently self-reflexive as they encourage participants to not be ‘themselves’ – this creates contrasts which can be reflected upon. In our daily engagement with Resident online spaces we will struggle to ‘see’ how the platform is influencing us because we are generally connected to like-minded, similar people and are therefore focused on the substance of those relationships rather than on the structure or culture of the environment.
This is similar to the anthropological principle that it’s difficult to see our own culture because we are normalised to it, which is why when we travel we gain insights through the contrast with other cultures. Taking on an alternative identity online is the equivalent of going ‘abroad’. The same Social Media platform is many different places depending on who you appear to be and how the platform encourages you to build your network based on your personal characteristics (age, gender, location, ethnicity, and anything else it can glean from your data)
My Instagram experience with an alt identity
A good example of this in the digital fieldwork was my own experience of the ‘Try on a New Identity’ activity. I started an Instagram account (having not had one before) as an alternative persona and began by following profiles/accounts suggested by the platform. The result was extremely informative. I gained an insight into the predominant aesthetic (in terms of fashion and ‘look’) of the platform and found just how much more sophisticated Social Media had become in shaping connections since I last ‘started from scratch’ in Twitter over a decade ago. Because I was an alternate persona it was extremely obvious why Instagram was throwing certain things at me based on my apparent age, location and gender.
It was now clear to me how the platform might cause anxiety through the pressure to conform to a very particular body image, mode-of-speech and lifestyle. It was also clear that various forms of authenticity were being performed which appeared to shift as accounts became more popular (the I’m-so-popular-I-can-now-reveal-the-real-me effect). Lastly, I was shocked that despite certain flags from the platform it was impossible to tell the difference between a person and a brand. I didn’t know when I was being sold something and, in some senses, everyone was selling ‘self’.
For me it was a distressing window into the convergence of self/product/brand which I often hear discussed but hadn’t seen so directly. The experience gave me a real insight into one of the potential reasons why our students can feel anxious about the online environment. Instagram implies that everyone can be famous but only by conforming to very particular ways-of-being (or performed ways-of-being). Obviously I had experienced a very limited and, in many ways, naive window into Instagram, which is what I had set out to do. There a many positive aspects to engaging with the platform which I didn’t experience because of the route I had taken.
To be clear (and in keeping with my own advice on the fieldwork) I was careful to only like posts and never commented or got into conversation. I didn’t gain access to anything that wasn’t already openly visible on the Web. I also only ran the account for a couple of weeks and it’s now mothballed. The activities are not designed to be used as research and as you can see I’ve been totally non specific even in this reflection. The persona I chose was not special, famous or someone anyone could have hoped to gain something from. I wouldn’t claim any persona is ‘neutral’ but I tried to be as boring as possible.
Reflections from participants
You can read some participants’ reflections on the digital fieldwork activities on the Teaching Complexity website. One of the most encouraging aspects of the approach for me was the depth of discussion generated by participants simply considering, but not doing, the activities. There was much discussion and reflection in the online sessions from people exploring why certain activities made them feel uncomfortable and the implications this might have for students who would be navigating similar choices. Ultimately, the activities are a useful prompt to generate thinking about how our identities are being used, and possibly abused, online and how this is now inextricable from the overall student experience.
Finding ways to articulate the flow of political and personal power online is inherently complex because it takes place across numerous contexts and at the intersection of many conceptual territories. Identity, gender, culture, class, to name a few, which then have to be considered within, or through, the lens of networks, hierarchies, communities, factions, nations, and so on.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial that we don’t let this complexity obscure the actions of those that seek power through manipulation, fear and coercion. Recently we have seen these modes of power acquisition move into the public, some would say civic, spaces of the Web. This post introduces a paper I co-wrote with Richard Reynolds which explores the visible, or surface, aspects of manipulation and control via the network. It does not deal with the undertow of algorithms and bots but with ‘magical’ modes of rhetoric which the disintermediated orality of Social Media makes effective at a scale we haven’t previously witnessed.
Last year Richard invited me to speak at his ‘Politics and Social Media’ event at Central St Martins which is part of the University of the Arts London. Richard opened the day with a talk on ‘Politics, Social Media and the Practice of Ritual Magic’ focusing on Trump’s use of Twitter and I followed by discussing ‘Trust and Digital Politics’.
There was an obvious resonance between our talks, so after the event we put together a paper combining our positions. We have struggled to find a home for this paper through traditional academic or journalistic routes as it doesn’t sit well in either camp so we humbly offer it here in its current, tidy-but-not-peer-reviewed state:
We have attempted present some of the shifting relationships between reason, belief and power in the networked era without falling into hard definitions real or fake. We are simply exploring ways of understanding the complex interplay of politics, celebrity and power as they are played-out through Social Media.
“Several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick. The myth-busting seems to work but then our memories fade and we remember only the myth. The myth, after all, was the thing that kept being repeated. In trying to dispel the falsehood, the endless rebuttals simply make the enchantment stronger.”
I think it’s important to accept that we all respond to the mythical as some level and that, unchecked, this can lead to intolerance and polarisation. Personally, I celebrate faith-based forms of understanding, wonder and fellowship. I hope by acknowledging that I’m not especially rational I can be more conscious of the ideological and belief-based manner in which I construct my worldview.
For me, this isn’t about not holding a position, it’s about being aware of my position and respecting those that differ. Crucially, it’s also about being able to identify when you are being sold a line which allows you to negatively stoke your identity (I’m in the right because I’m not like them, for example) while simultaneously feeding the power of those doing the selling.
Richard, myself and others will be continuing our exploration of power in the digital era at ‘The Search for Privacy and Truth’ Steamhack event on 23th March. If you are near Central St Martins then do come along. (contact me for details)
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.
UOC did a nice job of videoing my keynote talk (if you have plenty of time – if not then read on)
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
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.)
Note how Twitter maps across all four quadrants, not just the Resident side of the map.
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.
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:
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?
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’
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
Last week I helped to run two Visitors and Residents mapping workshops in the United States. The first one at The New School in New York was in the ‘opportunity to reflect’ mode which we have run with staff and students before. The second one was a new, two day, format designed to inform the direction of Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh university libraries.
The mapping process has evolved over the last few years from the reflective activity section of a conference session or workshop to an approach which can inform high level institutional strategy. I see it as a bridge between the realities of day-to-day practice and broader institutional aspirations. The process is ostensibly focused on ‘making visible’ practice that takes place in digital contexts but what we find when exploring this is that we hold a mirror up to the underlying principles and ideology which staff or students ascribe to – the tacit values in an organisation which rarely have an opportunity to surface. So typically participants start by considering technology, then discussing the value of the practices in around the digital, finally moving on to reflecting on the wider aspirations they hold and how these relate to the overall aims of the institution – sometimes this can get quite lively…
The structure of the Carnegie workshop worked along these lines:
Initial discussion (via email) with senior staff to gain a sense of where the organisation (in this case the two sets of libraries) are in terms of the role and values of digital practices.
Day 2: A condensed version of the mapping is run with senior staff, key maps generated during day 1 are discussed, followed by a more general discussion about the implications of what we found during day 1 and overall strategies that could be employed to encourage and support valuable emerging forms of practice.
At Carnegie the most interesting ‘new’ forms of digital practice were around the various ways that the library can engage users via the digital, the focus being on relationships rather than simply broadcasting information (See Donna Lanclos’ post on the workshops).
The roles involved in running the workshop were crucial to its success:
Myself – bringing a broad knowledge of the culture of the Web and the way individuals/institutions have variously attempted to manage or take advantage of this.
Donna Lanclos – from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte bringing in ethnographic expertise which is especially relevant to V&R as it is predicated on the notion of ‘place’
Lynn Silipigni-Connaway – from OCLC bringing in a good understanding of the culture and history of the institutions is question and expertise on academic libraries.
In the UK I could envisage Jisc being in a good position to provide the necessary institutional knowledge and connections.
My favourite part of the workshop on day one is when we bring up some of the V&R maps created in the morning on screen and ask the author of each map to talk us through them. Despite this taking place in quite a large group most people are happy to discuss their practices and significantly they commonly describe *why* there maps are a certain shape and how this relates to the wider work of the department or service they work within. The realities of time, risk and institutional politics come to the fore during the afternoon reflecting the realities of day-to-day work rather than becoming a phantom let’s-all-do-lots-of-social-media event…
Day 2 with the senior managers evolved into a discussion about the best way to facilitate and encourage some of the more engaged digital practices we discovered in day 1. The challenge here being how to institutionally proliferate what are most commonly practices which need to be owned by individuals. For example, abstracting the practice of a member of staff who is using Twitter successfully into a person-neutral model then requiring other staff to enact this hollow model is sure to fail. For me it’s about indicting the value of these individualistic practices for the institution without attempting to corporately own them. Emerging practices need to be shared in a community-of-practice manner by staff who are confident that what they do is credible and valued by the institution but won’t be ‘stolen’ or locked-down by senior folk.
I always enjoy being the eccentric English guy when I visit the States and suspect my accent tends towards the more ‘respectable‘ end of it’s parameters. This trip was intense and jet-laggy but I did learn just how hard you have to work to build trust when you are doing more than facilitating an ‘interesting’ one off workshop.
In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.
To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: “Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age”. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.
To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective:
I was in a vexed mood when I wrote my ‘Escaping the kingdom of the new’ post reflecting on our Post-digital working paper back in 2009. The edtech community were still in a ‘Web 2.0’ fueled miasma, heralding each digital platform as the next-big-thing. It was a slavish attachment to the ‘new’ that was blind to the simple duplication of existing practice from the analogue to the digital.
Nearly 5 years on the term Post-digital is becoming accepted in Higher Education circles as describing the normalisation of the digital in almost all aspects of activity. Elearning is a good example of this and huge success in some senses. I could prove this, for example, by pulling the plug on any university’s VLE and watching a riot break out. These kinds of tech, those that predominantly use the Web as a means of shuffling content are quickly ‘disappearing into use’. They have become Post-digital precisely because they don’t challenge the underlying way we run our institutions or engage students.
Meanwhile many students themselves struggle to answer the question ‘how do you do the research you need for your assignments’ because for most it’s difficult to imagine the answer could be anything other than ‘Google’. Similarity the incorporation of the Smartphone into the fabric of how students study is already Post-digital to the extent that it’s been described as ‘mundane technology’.
And yet moves to shift pedagogy to more collaborative, peer supported or open models are still met with confusion and trepidation. We have managed to ‘disappear’ much of the technology but predominantly in the service of mediocre models, efficiency and scale (MOOC?). One simple reading of this is that practice evolves at a much slower pace than technology. Another would be that institutions incorporate the ‘new’ only to serve what they already understand.
We appear to have moved from evangelising the new and shiny to using it without question. Perhaps it’s time to reexamine that of the digital which has become ‘post’, to question the embedded and ask if it is pushing boundaries or simply ossifying business-as-usual, petrifying forms of practice we assumed the ‘new’ of digital would disrupt.
More fundamentally the move to the Post-digital is submerging ideology: big-data, search engine optimisation, learner analytics, we-recommend-this-course-based-on-your-previous-attainment-levels etc. The surface this presents is one of apparent neutrality and in our cultural naivety we don’t recognise, or are barred from seeing, that the underlying algorithm has been marinated in a bath of vested interests. The new normalcy of being connected has created a Post-digital environment in which ideology can be embodied in code – a form that most believe to be free of bias.
I believe that in the same way Media Literacy shines a light on the political, cultural and ideological assumptions shot through broadcast media Digital Literacy should make visible the the very same which is crystallised in code. It might be too late though, we may already be completely Post-digital. The code we need to ‘see’ being too many layers down from the shiny surface of the technology we barely think about anymore.
Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group: