One effective way to learn is to use Social Media un-sociably. The traditional term for this is Lurking – hanging around a discursive space online without speaking up. It’s an inherently negative sounding term with connotations of voyeurism and surveillance – a fundamental aspect of not being embodied online. For example, if you attend a lecture but don’t ask a question you presumably aren’t Lurking because people can see you?
I’d like to propose the more positive notion of Elegant Lurking. This involves learners following key people in their disciplines (fellow students, ‘thought leaders’ practitioners, academics etc.) within Social Media to tune into the discourses within the subject. Often this is an effective way to discover interesting and valuable sources of information on a topic, especially those in formats which aren’t formally curated anywhere such as blog posts.
The bonus for learners is the additional discussion around these sources which takes place when they are shared. Comment and opinion on the subjects tackled and the relative credibility of the author and/or the material itself are extremely useful when you’re new to a particular area. Elegant Lurkers are critically evaluating the critical evaluation of thinking in their area of study… part of which involves assessing the credibility of the people involved in the discourse.
The value of this mode of engagement has be highlighted by the various Visitors & Residents mapping workshops like the one we recently ran in Galway for Catherine Cronin. It’s common for individuals maps to contain a Resident style platform (Twitter, Facebook etc) in the Visitor side of the map. Often this is because the individual is Elegantly Lurking. They are not yet interested in being visible online in a learning context but they find watching the discourse very useful.
A map from a 1st year Post-grad students in the Arts and Humanities. Note the position of Twitter at the visitor end of the continuum indicating ‘Elegant Lurking’ in a Resident style platform.
All successful Social Media platforms allow for Lurking in some form. It’ allows individuals to tune into the ‘dialect’ of a particular network or community so that when they first decide to say something they’re reasonably confident it will be in an acceptable tone. Some learners will choose never to speak-up though, especially if they are following an intimidating network of venerable ‘thought leaders’ or if they assume they won’t be responded to. Others might find that they gain confidence over time as they come to understand the discourse in greater depth and discover that they do have something to say.
I’ve seen this numerous times where a student or someone new to a field signals that this is the ‘the first time I’ve commented on this’ or ‘I’ve written my first post on this subject and thought you might be interested’. This is an extremely important transition point for a learner from knowledge-consumer to active community member. It’s the point at which they are exploring their ‘voice’ within the discourse.
Supporting students to move towards this transition should be central to the overall trajectory of our pedagogy in more nuanced ways than simply assigning marks to the act of blog posting. Elegant Lurking is an important ingredient in the subtle business of becoming a member of a community.
This also highlights the mercurial nature of what it means to ‘engage’. The Elegant Lurker can be much more engaged than the noisy contributor and not being visible doesn’t mean you aren’t present. I worry that in the race towards quantifying engagement via analytics the more gentle, qualitative modes of engagement such as Elegant Lurking will be overlooked.
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).
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:
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)
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.
This is an idea I’ve been musing over for a while and regularly encounter in different contexts. The phrase ‘Think Less – Find More’ is my suggested strap line for Google search as it’s essentially what they are selling. Obviously this isn’t how they market their search service but it is in essence the message they are giving to users. The evolution from keyword to natural language searching and the increasing use of user data to tailor results is part of a drive towards answering (in part) your information ‘needs’ before you even know you have them (I’m thinking of Google Now here).
In the Visitors and Residents research project one of the questions we asked participants (students ranging from late-stage secondary school all the way through university) was “If you had a magic wand what would be the ideal thing you’d want to help you learn”. A common answer could be characterised as “Something which highlighted the best information and the right answers”. For example one student described a library type scenario in which the most useful books would glow in response to a question.
Unknowingly to our participants what many of these responses boiled down to was “I’d like Google to work perfectly” by which they meant that the top search results would be ‘correct’ so they wouldn’t have to spend time evaluating them or cross checking. So what we might describe as the process of research (evaluating and synthesising a range of sources into a cogent narrative or argument) they were thinking of as ‘what you have to do because the technology doesn’t quite work properly yet’. They had been sold Think Less – Find More.
I’m not saying that Google is evil or that these students were misguided, my point is that this is the culture we need to respond to in education. Our pedagogy is still based in Dewey Decimal times while our students (and staff) are actually operating in a radically different knowledge environment. If we take into account the Think Less – Find More culture shift this is a huge opportunity for us as educators. Google allows us to shift from knowledge transfer mode and concentrate on helping students to develop their ability to think. How we managed to create an education system which doesn’t have this as its central tenant is a mystery to me…
If we redesign teaching incorporating the Web we will be nurturing agile and powerful thinkers who can build on the power of abundant information rather than leaving them to worry that going online is tantamount to ‘cheating’.
I talk about Think-Less Find More and ‘Currencies of Credibility’ in this video:
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
This is probably not a question you want a comprehensive answer to but it would be handy to know how they are using the Web to engage with the learning challenges you are setting.
I’m currently leading a project with the Higher Education Academy which uses the ‘Visitors and Residents’ mapping process to help teaching staff to gain a better understanding of how their students are using the Web for their learning. Successful applicants will receive £1500 to attend two workshops (12 Feb and 7 May 2014). The first workshop will teach you how map your own online practice to set you up to run the process with a group of your students. The second workshop will review the maps generated by your students and provides an opportunity to explore how you might evolve your teaching practice to engage them in new ways online.
The pilot version of this workshop format proved very successful, with a number of institutions going on to run further mapping sessions at their institutions to get an holistic, high level, sense of how the Web is being using in teaching and learning by both staff and students (with the view to informing overall teaching and learning strategy/policy).
Obviously I’m biased but I like to think that the mapping is a pragmatic way of understanding online learning practices which often go undiscussed in education. It has proved to be a good starting point for reflecting on overall approaches to teaching and for informing how best to work with students online: for example, negotiating the complexities of connecting with students in platforms which are based on a ‘friendship’ paradigm.
It’s only a 500 word application process so if you are part of a higher education teaching team in the UK please take a look at the form on the HEA website. The deadline for applications is the 20th of January. Perhaps I will see you at the workshops? 🙂
Back in June I wrote a post about the Visitors and Residents mapping process. Since that posting I have run mapping sessions with people in various roles from a range of institutions. This has helped me to refine and simplify the process.
During those sessions I got requests to produce a V&R mapping kit that people could use to run the process with groups at their institution. I haven’t got as far as I would like with that yet but in the meantime I have extracted the most relevant 10 minute segment from the original mapping video. I’m hoping that anyone who watches this extract will have all the info they need to create their own map.
A single engagement map is all that is required for an individual and should drive a useful discussion if the mapping is done in a group situation. It should also be useful to then create a map of your department/library/project/group. This way you can assess the digital footprint (The character and visibility of your group online) of your section of your institution and the various modes of engagement you may, or may not, be using. It’s worth noting that if you are mapping with students some of them may relate better to the word ‘course’ instead of ‘institutional’ on the vertical axis of the map.
I have collated a few maps from various people (including my own from the video) on this Padlet wall so you can get a sense of how varied the process can be depending on the context of the individual: http://padlet.com/wall/visitorsandresidents
This is a video of the mapping process which we first piloted at Educause last year. It’s designed to help you explore and reflect upon how you engage with the digital environment and then investigate how your students/users/staff engage with what you provide. Feel free to use the video to help plan your own mapping session and let me know how you get on. The video is CC licensed so it’s ok to embed it into your work/courses directly with an attribution if that’s helpful.
Firstly, I should apologise for my appalling handwriting in the video. I hope that the gesturing opportunities of the whiteboard outweigh the lack of legibility. As a back-up I have included the two maps I draw in the video in digital form at the end of this post.
This video has been created for ‘The Challenges of Residency’ project I’m piloting as academic lead for the Higher Education Academy. The project is exploring the way Resident forms of practice might differ across disciplines. A larger call for that project will be coming out in the autumn, so if you are interested and UK based keep an eye out for it.
As mentioned in the video the mapping process is an output of the Jisc funded ‘Digital Visitors and Residents’ project which is a collaboration between Jisc, Oxford, OCLC and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The Jisc project has run the mapping process a number of times face-to-face in the US and the UK, with design sessions planned for a library focused ‘infokit’ on V&R being run at SUNYLA and ALA. The video will hopefully become part of that infokit, recontexualised to shift the emphasis toward information seeking.
In conjunction with this we are going to use the mapping process in a course we are developing with Jisc Netskills based around V&R. The course is designed to help higher education teaching practitioners explore and possibly incorporate Resident forms of practice into their work.
In the video I also make a passing reference to some work facilitated by Alan Cann at Leicester who used the V&R continuum to map the preferred modes of engagement of a complete cohort of students.
The process itself is in three parts:
Map your personal engagement with the digital environment This is a good way to tune-in to the issues and will make visible how Visitor or Resident you generally are in different contexts.
Map how you think your students/users/staff engage with what you provide This can include your practice online (teaching, support, information provision etc) or the services you provide in terms of platforms (VLEs, catalogues etc). In most cases your practice and the service you provide will be interwoven.
Gather a small group of students/users/staff and ask them to map how they engage with what you provide
Depending on your role you may find large overlaps between maps 1 and 2. The overall aim here is to compare maps 2 and 3 to explore where expectations are being met or are being miss-interpreted. As I mention in the video discussions around the process tend to move from a technology focus to the underlying motivations and attitudes which inform the modes of engagement employed online. I think this is the strength of the process as it helps to avoid the technology-as-solution approach and instead focuses on practice and what it means in a range of contexts or online ‘places’.
As the IT director for Sainsburys pointed out at BETT a couple of weeks ago ‘self-service’ caused a revolution in retail during the 20th century. It allowed for greater choice, efficiency and of course scale. It put the ‘super’ in supermarket in the same way that the web has put the (potential) ‘massive’ into MOOC.
At first glance the current wave of publicity-garnering MOOCs appear to be the equivalent of self-service education. Big out-of-town locations for education with an increasing range of products that you are free to browse at leisure.
Pick a product and pay for accreditation as you pass through the tills…
This perhaps is a little disingenuous though as there is more effort required than simply putting a course in your basket to gain validation. Automated testing and peer assessment are legitimate ways of assessing levels of knowledge and, if properly designed, increasing understanding. This is the real challenge for MOOCs, as it is for any course; how can we encourage students to think? How do we best mix the ingredients we have available to increase the chances that those engaging with our courses will finish them with *both* increased knowledge and increased understanding? – I hope we can all agree that teaching with a view to increasing understanding is a large part of what higher education institutions are for(?)
I have heard teaching described as ‘what you have to do because there are more of them than there are of you’, it’s inherently about dealing with scale. In this sense many of the pedagogical challenges faced by the designers of MOOCs are the same as those to be found in face-to-face or non-massive courses. The danger though is that xMOOC style self-service education favours those who already equipped with the intellectual and academic techniques required to interrogate a subject. How do we encourage those who don’t have the necessary higher-education ‘literacies’ to wade through swathes of video lectures and online resources? One answer is already hiding in the MOOC format: the ‘event’.
MOOCs generally have a start and finish date which makes them a form of slow-burn event. Even though the web has an always-on, always-connected, constant-flow paradigm it is still largely event driven. We are drawn to specific moments in time which act as way-points in the ceaseless river of information and social noise. MOOCs are useful island in this river with a beginning, middle and end, a simple narrative we can organise around and hopefully contribute to even if we don’t choose to listen to the whole story. The principle of the event can be taken further though as I believe it is highly compelling, especially in an online context. This is what I’m focusing on with the new Oxford Connect format.
Educators and technologists have become adept at putting-the-curriculum-online but we have yet to master the nuances of the live event outside of the lecture theatre. Pi Day Live, the pilot event for Oxford Connect, is designed to be a moment in time where hundreds of participants gather online to take part in collective activity. It will be highly ‘Evented’ (an idea originally attached to ‘virtual worlds’ but which is broadly applicable), encouraging participants to be as Resident as possible for a short period. My hope is that in time this live format will become a valuable way of communicating ideas, concepts and research from Oxford. I envisage this format being used as part of large-scale online courses, incorporating the fellowship of live events to support communities of learners and to act as milestones in a larger pedagogical structure.
Perhaps the live event is what is missing from xMOOCs and the expertise of the connectivists is what’s needed to counter a self-service mentality which disenfranchises those without with the literacies required to go-it-alone in online learning?
What I was first reminded of at Educause 2012 in Denver was how much money is tied-up in educational technologies. The Expo was a daunting journey into the world of CIO budget power – the kind of issues my research makes visible did not appear to be top of the agenda. I fended off my feelings of alienation with the reflection that the attendees of this conference were exactly the kind of people who I should be ‘disseminating’ our findings and approach to. This was not going to be cosy preaching-to-the-converted situation in which we got to discuss the esoteric side of becoming-a-legitimate-participant, digital fluency or the shifting nature of credibility on the web. Add to this the fact that our session was scheduled for 8am on Friday and you can probably see why I was expecting a handful of participants who may have accidently wandered into the wrong room.
I was encouraged somewhat though by the number of people who approached me to discuss the challenges of ‘MOOCing’ the Humanities after my question on this to Harvard’s CIO who was speaking about edX. (I’m not saying that projects like edX aren’t game changers but they seem to have confused experimenting with business/access models with ‘revolutionising learning’. At least that’s how the presentation came across.)
Friday, 7.30AM – and myself, Donna Lanclos & Lynn Connaway were so focused on trying to find enough dry-wipe markers for our session that we didn’t notice the room filling-up. By the time we were due to start we had about 60 people and some of them looked fairly awake.
In the room were Heads of elearning, Deans, Library Directors, Senior Learning Technologists etc. People who are paid to make high-level strategic decisions about the approach of their staff and institutions.
The format of our session was very interactive: Starting with a brief overview of Visitors and Residents (the project and the idea) and then straight into attendees mapping their own personal engagement with the web on the Visitor/Resident–Personal/Institutional quadrant. I had shown a version of my engagement map created in a Google Drawing and put my Gmail address up on screen in the hope that people might share their maps. Almost everyone got stuck into the exercise and against my expectations over the next 15 minutes a few Google drawings did arrive along with a couple of photos of whiteboard maps. This meant we could talk through the results of the activity on the main screen using some examples drawn from the room. We had gone from outlining the Visitors and Residents idea to producing and discussing participant’s modes of engagement with the web in less than 30 minutes. It was the ultimate workshop turnaround and it got people talking because we had quickly moved from discussing an idea in the abstract to deconstructing the actual engagement behaviour of those in the room.
We then asked the attendees to map the engagement of their ‘clients’ (e.g. academics, student, researchers, library users etc.) with the services they provided in their institutions. Again I received a couple of Google Drawings which led to a brief discussion about the challenges of providing institutional services that are designed to engage in a Resident mode. In hindsight we could have done with about 20 minutes longer but I felt we had cracked the Visitors and Residents workshop format. We certainly got good feedback, including one participant who said that if we could put the workshop format online he could use it “all the time” at his institution. I started to wonder if we should extract the mapping elements of the proposed Visitors and Residents course and post them as a do-it-yourself workshop format.
During the hour after the session I received a few more personal engagement maps in a variety of formats, Google Drawings, pics of whiteboards/notepads and an Evernote Skitch. I gathered some of these together on the plane home:
There is a wealth of intriguing information here but the aspect which is most immediately striking and which came out during the session is how the same platforms are engaged with in a variety of ways. To demonstrate this I have highlighted the location of Facebook across the maps.
This didn’t come as a surprise to me as the data from our Visitors and Residents project shows that many people use Facebook privately (Messaging or 1-to-1 IMing) or organisationally (keeping track of friends/colleagues but not posting or communicating via the platform). This supports one of the original tenets of the Visitors and Residents idea which is that discovering *what* technology people use does not give an insight into *why* they are using it or even, it would appear, what they are actually doing.
A pointed example of this can be seen in the most detailed map submitted wherein the functionally equivalent technologies of Skype and GTalk are mapped to different places because they are being used as a method of keeping certain areas of life compartmentalised (as an attempt to fend off personal/institutional convergence, or the ‘decompartmentalision’, that tends to be a side effect of Residency)
It was very rewarding to see the Visitors and Residents idea being used as a tool for reflection and planning. I hope that many of the relatively senior people who attended our session will be taking V&R thinking back to their institutions. I felt it was worthwhile equipping some of the Educause delegates with this approach as it should prove to be a useful way for them to understand their students/clients when they are bombarded with claims about efficiency, student retention and ‘intuitive’ platforms at the next big edtech expo.
I was reminded by the writings of King Solomon of an idea I had a few years ago but neglected to write down. In Ecclesiastes he draws a picture of the never-ending cycles of life which could be seen as having a beautiful balance and harmony but perhaps more commonly as acting like a monotonous cage.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Certainly my recent experience online has felt like being trapped in a loop. I have been on/in Twitter for about five years now and most of what I see sailing past about education and/or technology appears to me to be a rehash of ideas I heard in previous years. Similarly in the land of shiny-tech there seems to have been very little of interest. It’s all higher rez, faster and thinner but in essence it’s not moving on. Witness the bored response to the latest iPhone. It’s as if we greedily consumed technology, are now feeling queasy and couldn’t possibly consume another Smartphone. We talk of elegant consumption but it feels bloated to me. Where has the dynamic, frontier-like web gone? Am I suddenly too old to ‘see’ the leading edge or is a large part of what happens online just the passive reception of main-stream media?
I worked on digital projects for the BBC at the turn of the century. Back then us young-guns felt as if we were on the verge of something genuinely new – outside of the loop (we were enthusiastic and a little naive). Looking back now it appears that the moment the iPlayer started to work smoothly the BBC stepped away from Social Media engagement and many there heaved a huge sigh of relief when they realised that ‘online’ could be used to distribute TV and Radio. Despite the promise of the web are we trapped in our classic producer-consumer cycle? Perhaps advertising a hash-tag at the start of a programme is all that is needed, maybe that’s what taking-part was always going to mean? The truth is that there are very few people out there with something to say and the skills to express it, those that do are quickly assimilated into a broadcast mindset. Beyond 150 people it’s all celebrity and performance?
This is all surface though and the reality, as ever, is far more complex than my rant. There are fascinating and disruptive things happing out there in the unpredictable currents of the tide fight where society and tech wrestle. Our immediate perspective is often of a Solomon’s recursive loop but if we know how to ‘see’ rather than to just look we gain a much more interesting view.
I think of socio-technical phenomenon as a helix. Viewed with an end-on limited perspective everything appears to be travelling repetitively around the same loop, it appears to be a closed circle but if we put more effort into seeing beyond the surface, into new methods of data collection and analysis, we can gain a side view, revealing a helix. This perspective shows us a slow but powerful movement forward. Often though, we are so trapped in the loop of the ever-new present that this progression is only seen in hindsight. Getting past the upgrade-now, 10 tips for teaching with iPads, HD, 3D, faster, better, stronger noise of the loop – sidestepping it if you like and seeing the real morphing/evolution of science and society is, for me, what higher education should be all about.
The single biggest factor that can give us the side-on perspective is the ability to critique and to ask pertinent questions. It’s the role of education to equip students with this ability to ask questions rather than to only seek the answers to questions posed by others. Historically the effort required to seek-out answers encouraged students to ask additional questions of their own but now we can find answers online so efficiently we don’t have to engage in critical thinking. Generally these answers are correct and appropriate – this is an issue which is more fundamental than ‘quality’ or ‘validity’, it’s part of a paradigm shift in what in means to ‘know’.
I joked that Google’s strap-line should be “Think Less – Find More”. I’m finding that idea less and less amusing, especially after seeing Google Now which is the current apex of not-thinking tech. I’m not against instant access to answers or technology that makes our lives ‘easier’, what I do want though is pedagogy that equips students from an early age with the ability to question the answers thrown back by this kind of tech. The huge cognitive offsetting the web offers us creates a space in which we should be able to ask more and better questions and yet our pedagogy and our assessment is still focused largely on answers until around second year of university (if you are lucky).
‘Bring Your Own Device’ or ‘Smuggle-in Your Own Device’ ensures that students are taking advantage of the cognitive offsetting of the web, it’s time to accept this and take-up the slack. Our Visitors and Residents project is finding that the digital literacies students develop at Secondary/High school are taken through well into university. We haven’t interviewed students younger than 17 years-old but I suspect that the digital literacies (and in some cases the critical literacies) of a 9 year-old are similar to those of a first-year undergraduate. As educators we have to teach critical thinking at a much earlier age otherwise students will be trapped in the highly pervasive info-factory of the web. Yes they will be able to find correct answers but will they be capable of questioning the loop conveniently designed around them (whether well meaning or not) from about the age of 8 by Google, Facebook and the like?
This brings me to the knotty problem of serendipity which as been bothering me for some time. It’s not possible to capture it’s essence without it slipping through your fingers. It is in this regard nicely Truth and Beauty in a romantic, dreaming-spires kind of a way and generally a bit of a headache for those outside of the social sciences and humanities. Proponents of the importance of serendipity such as Aleks Krotoski make the crucial point that the individual has to have the ability to be able to recognise the moment it happens (or the moment of potential). In other words they need to be able to bridge two apparently unrelated pieces of information and “…have the creativity to do something new with them” (Here I am talking about the individuals role in taking advantage of putative serendipity rather than technologies possible role in increasing the potential for serendipity to take place) . I now think of the moment of serendipity as jumping sections of the helix. It’s a transverse movement across the traditional corrals of understanding.
If the helix is imagined as a spiral staircase then those that can ‘see’ serendipitous moments have the ability to jump beyond their floor and leap multiple storeys in a single bound. Not only can they make this leap but they have the perspective to see the distance they have travelled. I would argue that this is unlikely to happen if the individual has been educated to only find answers to questions set by others.
In this era of instant answers where technology (or the business model of those providing the technology) is winding the loop around us ever tighter I’m pro equipping our students with the ability to make serendipitous leaps. I’m for stretching the helix so that each turn pushes us further. We need to promote critical pedagogies which put pressure on students to ask questions. Questions that gain perspectives beyond recursive consumption. Instead of falling into “Think Less – Find More” we should be encouraging our students to be suspicious of the loop, to be anxious to make leaps, and hopefully to “Question More – See Further”.