This is a reflection on some key areas which have come to light with the sudden move to online teaching. I wanted to write this post very early our academic term (less than two weeks in) to capture the moment.
While some of the thoughts might appear a bit grumpy, that’s not really representative of how I feel. From what I’ve seen at my institution the move online has had its bumpy moments but overall it’s going ok. If you’d asked me what moving to 100% online over about three weeks would look like then I’d have predicted some kind of socio-tech disaster. Instead, it’s spectacular how quickly everyone has adapted and how well the tech has held up. Perhaps we are discovering we were already working more in digital spaces than we cared to admit?
1. What is crisis and what is digital?
It’s important to separate out our experience of the COVID crisis from our responses to teaching in the digital environment. Access issues and digital platforms struggling under the weight of unplanned for levels of usage are due to the crisis. The speed of the shift to online accounts for the prevalence of some teaching practices which experienced online educators would not recommend (see the points on deficit and practice mirroring). This is to be expected as we all bring the practices we know into new environments. It takes some time to transpose/modify how we work.
It’s definitive that we don’t scrutinise that which we are normalised to. As such, we tend not to ask too many questions of face-to-face teaching around themes like engagement and participation. Actually, that’s not fair, we do ask a lot of questions, but classic lecture and the seminar practices are still basically sacred and carry massive cultural weight in terms of representing ‘university’. When we move to the digital though, all the questions we should be asking about face-to-face suddenly appear, as the change of location breaks the normalisation spell and greater scrutiny is applied.
I’d argue that all the pedagogical questions we are asking about the digital environment should also be applied to the physical environment, especially on questions of engagement, access and inclusion. I’ve seen the ‘How do we know students are really engaging?’ question being applied with more enthusiasm online than it usually is face-to-face because embodiment is a powerful, but false, proxy for engagement.
Because we are responding to a crisis we are inevitably clashing with our current (face-to-face) students’ expectations of what they signed-up for. Given this, it’s inevitable that online teaching is framed by what it’s not rather than what it is. It’s seen in deficit, which tends to mask opportunities and the take up of ‘new’ modes of teaching. The simplest example of ‘new’ (retro-novel) being the use of asynchronous modes of engagement, such as the humble discussion forum (a lively discussion forum is a difficult thing to foster, but then a lively discussion amongst students in any context has always required expert facilitation).
That’s not st say that we aren’t already recognising the benefits of online teaching. Anecdotally I’m hearing that lots of courses are seeing much higher levels of attendance than before and that many students find the online environment more inclusive, especially those who are perhaps more reflective or those for whom English is not their first language.
4. Practice mirroring
The principle of Contact Hours is, in my opinion, the biggest stumbling block for the move to online teaching. The narrow definition of Contact Hours in the UK basically boils down to ‘time spent in the same room together’. In largely face-to-face institutions there are vague gestures towards ‘online’ as contact but in most courses this doesn’t seem to be officially mapped in. This is amplified by a cultural attachment to the University as a set of buildings. (Until you can screw a plaque to a VLE with the name of a benefactor on it I guess buildings will always win?)
So in the move to online teaching our initial instinct is to preserve Contact Hours by mirroring what would have been face-to-face sessions with webinar style sessions. What this looks like is exhausting 3-4 hour online sessions which must be almost impossible to stay engaged with. Not only is this unstatable, it is also damaging to the learning process. In short, our limited conception of ‘Contact’ is antithetical to what we claim we are trying to achieve, especially when we move online.
In an era of information abundance we know that students are more interested in moments of contact than they are in access to content. Beyond credintialisaion, it’s access to expertise and those moments of feedback and co-presence which come to signify ‘what they are paying for’. Of course, some courses also offer access to specialist equipment but even then I’d argue that access to expertise is still the main concern.
What I propose is that instead of thinking in terms of Contact Hours we should move to the concept of presence -the extent to which a member of teaching staff is present and in what mode. This could come in many forms:
A fairly quick, reliable, turnaround to emailed questions
Being active ‘live’ in forums or text chats (an ‘office hours’ approach to asynchronous)
Lively synchronous sessions – such as, webinars with plenty of Q&A
Artfully ‘flipped’ use of pre-recorded teaching videos
Audio, video or text summative feedback (if it’s been created just for you then it’s always a moment of presence)
…and of course face-to-face sessions in various forms.
We are highly attuned to the levels of presence and attention (we are social beings) which is why a move to online shouldn’t involve cutting staff time or staff-student ratios.
With some thought it should be possible to weight the various modes of engagement as forms of presence and broaden out beyond the ‘time spent in the same room’ concept. Making this work would involve being explicit with students how these various forms of presence support learning and contextualising the value of face-to-face as one of many presence modes. Communicating that will not be easy, as it requires a shift in what we perceive as ‘university’, but this is something we need to do if we are going to be increasingly online from now on.
Update: I developed the ideas in this post further and brought the thinking together in a talk for Online Educa, Berlin:
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?
Virtuous, human-centered, intentions can quickly be co-opted by systems and hierarchies to more instrumental ends. It is common to hear of organisations populated by ‘good people’ that nevertheless perpetuate negative or oppressive practices because the institution, or broader environment, demands it.
This twist is something I explored at OER19 through the notion of ‘Openness as a performance of surplus’. Open Educational Practices are generally thought of as an antidote to the traditional hierarchical gate-keeping of knowledge and opportunity. They are seen as a way of using digital networks to counter ‘standard’ institutional modes.This is all to the good but only institutions with enough surplus can ‘generously’ be open at scale. If we consider the big players in Open Education then it’s perhaps no surprise that they tend to be high status and wealthy institutions (I’m thinking of the institutions behind some of the major MOOC platforms for example).
This is not to say that there aren’t good intentions or effects in ‘massive’ or institutional-level approaches to openness, it’s more a call to be alert to the risk that these intentions can get subsumed by agendas around status and profile – they can quickly be drawn back into the business ideology they (in theory) attempt to circumvent.
The Big Moka approach to generosity
In the OER19 session I explored how generosity can hide poor intentions through the story of Ongka’s Big Moka, an ethnographic film from the 70s I was shown as an undergrad*. The film follows Ongka, a leader within the Kawelka people in Papua New Guinea, as he attempts to collect together enough pigs and other items of value to put on a successful Moka event. In the ceremony Ongka gifts all that he has amassed to the ‘big man’ of a neighbouring community. Ongka’s aim is to give gifts of a greater value than he received in the last Moka and thus demonstrate, through generosity, that he is the ‘bigger man’. As Ongka says when he is successful:
“Now that I have given you these things, I have won. I have knocked you down by giving so much.”
I worry that this is how the values of Open Educational Practice are twisted when institutionalised and scaled. A sincere generosity becomes warped into a performance of surplus or power which risks perpetuating digital forms of colonialism.
The danger of these twists is something myself and Bonnie Stewart want to explore in the context of ‘Care’ at OER20. In the workshop we are asking if open forms of pedagogy can help to scale care. The workshop is shaped by our concern that care is usually framed through the development of relationships – it’s a social process. Given this, it’s important to consider how care might work in massified education systems.
“On all fronts within higher ed the responsibility to respond with care converges on front-line teaching staff who may be oxymoronically required to offer emotional labour within ambivalent or uncaring structures, creating pedagogical commitments which may not be sustainable, or may foster feelings of inadequacy (Bryant, Lanclos, and White, 2019). What do we achieve if only those who are privileged enough to have few students, or an abundance of time, are in an actual position to invest in an ethic of care?”
OER20 workshop submission
Technology doesn’t care
Many of us are concerned that technology is being proposed as the ‘solution’ to care-at-scale. With terms such as ‘personalisation’ and ‘predictive analytics’ often being used in a way which implies that the tech can take the strain as long as we feed it enough data. This is why the subject of care-at-scale within education is so important to discuss. Especially where it risks becoming a technologically supported institutionalised asset which we have to then build safe, human-centred, spaces of authentic care outside of (or to hide from it).
I think it’s fair to say that myself and Bonnie are not convinced that open pedagogy can help to scale care, or even if ‘scaling care’ is a valid idea. What we are sure of is that this is a discussion that needs to take place, especially in education systems where, despite the promise of technology, the burden of care is often with overworked members of staff in precarious roles.
*Part of Granada Television’s Disappearing World Series which ran from 1969-1993. It was first aired in the UK on 11 December 1974 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ongka%27s_Big_Moka I studied on a ‘Time-Based Media’ course which was developed from an ethnographic film making course. As such, key academics were Anthropologists interested in how digital technology opened up new modes of storytelling and narrative. It was an excellent course.
We regularly use the word ‘practice’ at creative arts universities to denote an area of expertise and tends to relate to a general discipline area. For example, people will broadly associate themselves with Fine Art as a practice or Media Production. Many colleagues in my part of the university would see themselves as having an ‘educational’ practice of some form.
A lack of practice
A couple of weeks ago I was asked what my practice was and I struggled to answer. I started work in the late nineties, just as the Web was gaining ground as a new location for media, design and tech practices. I’ve taught in communications media, made digital media prototypes for the BBC, developed online distance courses and undertaken national research studies on digital education. Ultimately though, I don’t associate with a particular discipline and, as an extension of that, I don’t feel I have a practice. I also don’t hold a PhD and so am missing an easy identifier of expertise.
Given this lack of easy labels I’m often defined as ‘digital’ which is never very helpful as digital is a medium, not a practice. Claiming digital as a practice is like describing carpentry as ‘wood’ or painting as ‘art supplies’. The result of this miscategorisation is I’m often asked to ‘fix the screen’ in meetings when the presenter is struggling to make their slides appear. I have, at times, gone as far as to hide my technical skills so as not to be given the ‘tech-guy/digital’ mantle which risks my exclusion from strategic activities in favour of being brought in to fix things when they are ‘broken’.
In many ways my lack of a practice has been a huge advantage. It gives me a clear perspective as I don’t come to an understanding through the specific lens of any given discipline with all its attendant histories and politics. In essence, I don’t need to be territorial to establish my credibility and can choose methods, tools and modes-of-thinking from disciplines or practice-areas which are most likely to progress a project or illuminate an area of complexity.
Working in a third space
I was reminded of this when reading about a partnership between Central St Martins (one of our colleges) and Tokyo Institute of Technology. This has been designed as a hybrid, transdisciplinary partnership between the arts and sciences. This approach and philosophy is elegantly elucidated in a piece about the partnership by Dr. Betti Marenko in which she discusses the location of transdisciplinarity as a ‘third space’, sitting outside other disciplinary spaces while drawing on, and making connections with them.
“Transdisciplinarity allows us to go beyond what exists already. Instead, it pushes us to make the present more complicated, more interesting, and richer. It is within this space of risk, the unexpected, and positive uncertainty that the real adventure of thinking together becomes palpably alive.”
Dr. Betti Marenko
This resonated with me as it set’s my lack of a practice and disciplinary home in a new light. I’ve always enjoyed questioning the structure of any given mode-of-thought or method and have often felt restless when I become too comfortable with a particular genre of understanding. I also feel restless when I’m travelling towards the center of a given community as I can sense the emphasis shifting from questioning to interpersonal allegiances and politics. The all-too-common academic milieu where who holds what position becomes more important than the value of the thinking itself.
For me, all disciplines bring depth but often with the cost that what constitutes a legitimate question and approach is narrowed. I want to stay in the ‘space of risk and positive uncertainty’ which is one of the many reasons I enjoy working in and around the creative arts. If this means that I lose easy identifiers of expertise and practice then that’s a price I’m willing to pay. I’ll never gain the kind of credibility colleagues who become experts in their field will but I might be able to make connections that they can’t and I reduce the chance of becoming stuck in a specific currency of expertise.
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.
I still remember the taboo breaking promise of stickers on CDs at Woolworths which said ‘Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics’. These days the tag on Spotify songs simply says ‘Explicit’ which a small part of my mind responds to as: ‘it’s nice they are being clear about what they have to say’ – and, in a way, they are being really clear…
What do we assume is obvious?
This idea of being explicit keeps reappearing at work. Not in the sweary way but in being clear, questioning what remains implicit and the confusion this can cause for students. I was encouraged to start thinking about this by a casual comment in Emily Nordmann’s work on supporting Lecture Capture. She has published some helpful research which highlights the need to explain to students (and staff) that recorded lectures should be used as supplemental to attending ‘live’. Accompanying the research are guides for students explaining how best to incorporate the use of recorded lectures into their independent learning strategies.
The point being, that unless these strategies are explicitly stated, students are likely to make assumptions about the reasons why the recordings exist and how they might be used (usually based on not being able to attend lectures rather than on more positive, long-term, learning strategies). When highlighting the need to be explicit about the use of recordings Nordmann asked if we ever explain to students what the value of attending lectures face-to-face is – or do we simply assume it’s obvious?
This facinanted me because I suspect we say it’s important to attend, but might not explain why it’s important to attend in terms of learning strategies. I work at a university where there are no marks awarded for attendance (or, let’s be honest, no marks removed for not attending) so if it’s not clear what the value of attending is in terms of learning, why would you? Information is now abundant and if there is a recording, what’s the point of being there ‘live’?
Is our model of ‘university’ relevant?
What’s significant is that elements of the process/practice of education which remain implicit point to aspects of the institution which we are culturally normalised to. We might not explain what the learning-value of lectures are because lectures are a constituent part of what we tacitly hold to be ‘university’. Unfortunately, this tacit understanding tends to be held by staff who hold a model of the institution which may have been constructed before information and recording were as abundant. In contrast, students, especially incoming students, might have more of a pop culture model of the institution based on media portrayals of ‘university’. So, students could begin term attending lectures because ‘that’s what you do at university’ but then fall away because they can’t identify the value of attending in terms of learning. The cultural impulse to attend only lasts for so long before getting on the bus seems like a lot of effort when you can YouTube-Wikipedia-VLE-ask-your-friends-on-Facebook your way through.
This then creates a dangerous spiral in which the introduction of new technology such as Lecture Capture is seen as a threat to a model of ‘university’ which is held impicitly and is more cultural than it is educational. Perhaps students who are more focused on learning than ‘doing university’ as a broad, cultural rite-of-passage find this bemusing. Our response should be to be more explicit. If we can’t, or don’t, explicitly describe to students what the learning value of a particular mode of teaching is then students are likely to disengage.
Are we anxious about tech or protective of our model of university?
The disconnect in expectations can lead to claims that students don’t understand how to study or aren’t willing to put the effort in when they might have developed extremely effective independent learning strategies which simply don’t intersect with the tacit model of ‘doing university’ the institution operates on.
I’m not denigrating the learning-value of lectures as a mode of teaching here and we all know that quality and approach varies. I’m using lectures as an example of a practice central to our idea of what a university is and is therefore in danger of not being explained. Other examples could include: using the library, group work, the value of non tactical learning (not learning to the test), the value of ‘research’ beyond Wikipedia and YouTube etc. We need to be explicit about the value of all of these and more.
It’s interesting that the learning-value of new Digital Learning approaches is always closely scrutinized because it has not yet been mapped into our (staff) notion of ‘university’. While, on the other hand, the anxiety about new approaches tends to be based more on how they might damage relatively un-critiqued notions of ‘university’ rather than on what the value might be to students.
Students’ not comprehending the value of engaging in certain ways is more likely to be a failure in our teaching than their willingness to learn (especially if we create a culture in which success becomes exclusively about marks and credentialization). The question we have to ask is if what we provide as ‘university’ goes beyond the value of what our students can engage with outside of our formal offer.
One of the highlights of last year was designing and running a series of open, online seminars with our online Visiting Fellow, Dr Bonnie Stewart. The ‘Teaching Complexity’ series was 100% open, in the sense that anyone with a connection to the Web could attend for free. The territory the seminars explored was the complexity of the digital environment we now teach in and how we might respond.
The topics covered within the seminars all responded to the opportunities and challenges of the networked environment. A common theme being how to counter the creep of polarisation and support a diversity of voices within digital spaces.
One advantage of the seminars being open is that all of the materials (slides, recordings, comments etc) are available at the Teaching Complexity website which I created using our blogging platform. I’ve included a list of the seminars at the end of the post and know that quite a few people caught-up with them this way after the live ‘event’.
The motivation to run the seminars was two fold:
Understanding the new teaching environment
Responding to the complexity of the Web as a teaching and learning environment is an important topic to discuss. I now work on the principle that ‘All Courses are Blended Courses’ as I’d argue that any student, on any course, will spend significant amounts of time online. Some of that time will be spent discussing, or negotiating, the course with peers even were there is no, formal, online aspect to the curriculum. You’d be hard pressed to find a student who isn’t keen to develop their ability to navigate the Web for study or to make contacts which might lead to work. The Digital Creative Attributes we developed at UAL are a reflection of this but I realised that while I had clear principles in mind as we developed the DCAF I had not provided many examples of what a good response to the DCAF might look like in design terms. Hence Teaching Complexity.
A good example of open practice
It was clear that for some the Open Practice Values I introduced at UAL caused some confusion. I personally see my approach here as a failure of communication on my part with some useful institutional lessons learned. I spend quite a lot of time considering open approaches and feel part of a community of open practitioners, so I underestimated how alien this line of thinking can be to people who are mainly (and rightly) focused on keeping the wheels of the university turning. When I presented the Principles at committee they split the room, with some immediately seeing the relevance (both in the manner in which the university could connect outwards and in the way our colleges could collaborate more closely) and some clearly worried that this would be yet another, distinct, layer of work which would detract rather than enhance, day-to-day teaching (A dis-integrated view of Open Practice). Given this, the Teaching Complexity Seminars were my ‘Show not Tell’ example of what teaching which embodies the Open Practice Values can look like. ——————————————————-
Attendance and feedback
We had between 50-100 participants at each of the main seminars and more will have caught up with the recordings later. Those that responded to the evaluation questionnaire were mainly teaching staff, in roles overseeing or enhancing teaching or people involved in staff development of different forms. People attended from across the globe with the main locations being Europe and North America. Having been involved in this type of teaching quite regularly I’ve become a little blase about the geography involved and have to remind myself how incredible it is that we can facilitate these kinds of international moments so easily.
The feedback was almost universally positive and at times effusive. A number of participants commented that they have very little staff development opportunities at their institution so the seminars provided a rare moment for them to consider and discuss themes which were unlikely to appear in the normal flow of their work. I feel that working in an open mode is integral to my work, especially as I represent a large institution with the capacity to be outward facing. Given that, I hadn’t thought of the seminars as ‘generous’, but this is how many participants respond to them. Overall I would have liked to have seen more people from my own institution at the seminars but UAL tends to be attracted by creative arts rather than teaching themes. I need to put some more thought into how best to describe opportunities like this in a manner which resonates at home as it were.
Some key points I took away from the seminars:
Given that anyone could turn-up and type in a name of their choice there was always a risk that someone could be disruptive with no cost to themselves. My view is that this would be extremely unlikely unless the topic under discussion is contentious or the facilitator is particularly famous/notorious. I equate this to Wikipedia vandalism – yes, the articles on Trump, Iran or Transgender are likely to be the focus of edit wars and vandalism but articles on Contructivism or John Dewey are unlikely to get messed with, because where’s the fun in that? The Teaching Complexity seminars definitely fell into the latter category – as would most teaching scenarios. Even so, I made sure to introduce every seminar with a brief and friendly talk about the social contract of the space. We were there to explore complex themes through mutually supportive discussion. I also highlighted that the sessions were being recorded and would be made openly available. This, I felt, gave me the right to remove people from the room if they stepped outside of these bounds. We never came close to anyone breaking the trust of the room but I still think it’s worthwhile being explicit about social and collaborative expectations. If you’re upfront about this then any disruptive individual is, in some ways, excommunicating themselves through their actions and you mitigate being placed into a ‘policing behaviour’ role as it’s likely there will be, post-event, group consensus on removing people.
Is anybody with me?
Small moments of sharing go a long way in creating a sense of belonging online. For example, we would sometimes ask what the temperature was at participant’s locations with a notional prize for the highest and lowest (the range was always spectacular). The ‘live slides’ where everyone could write (or scrawl) a response to a question on screen on the whiteboard gave a powerful sense of being in the same, communal, space. In webinar type spaces like the one we were using it’s crucial for people to get a sense that they are co-present with others. This does not come for ‘free’ as it does in face-to-face environments, so these small moments of sharing become very important. The risk of people moving slides, drawing all over the screen or accidentally un-muting their mic at a random moment was more than balanced out by the inclusive atmosphere that giving people these options supported (we did have a few strange moments but they were all harmless). Giving everyone ‘moderator’ status by default was a good way of subverting the didactic design principle of the platform we were using (Blackboard Collaborate Ultra).
A favourite moment for me was when Dave Cormier asked people to play with the whiteboard while we waited to get started. This is the result:
This is a good example of responses to a ‘live slide’ question. One of the interesting aspects of this is how people started to highlight or draw around answers they felt were important as the seminars progressed. The messiness here creates a friendly atmosphere which somewhat counters the slightly sterile and inhuman feeling of the default webinar platform.
I also very much enjoyed how quickly somebody (in about 5 seconds…) wrote ‘Moms Spaghetti’ on the following slide (see the ‘classic memes’ section of pop-culture…).
Please talk while I’m talking
Building on the point above, I’m a huge fan of encouraging people to use the text chat while the seminar is in progress. Actually getting this going requires some facilitation in itself which is why all of the sessions would have a lead facilitator and a kind of support facilitator who could give some momentum to the chat and highlight interesting questions. When you have 50 or more people the chat can get quite lively and really helps the facilitators by giving a live indication of how well they are connecting with the group. All the facilitators for the seminars were experienced in speaking online so could respond to the chat as the seminar progressed. This is one of the distinct advantages of the online space over the face-to-face as it allows sessions to be discussed in the moment – it erodes the ‘expert broadcast’ aspect of online teaching in a very pleasing way.
If it could have been a video, you’re doing it wrong
I have a general rule of thumb that if, on reflection, a synchronous online event could have been a YouTube video then you have got the approach wrong. Why turn up ‘live’ if there is no interaction? Even though I was vocal about this in the planning stages, a few of the sessions had long sections of ‘just talk’. What I’ve subsequently realised is that these sessions were not actually all that long but that our concentration threshold is somewhat shorter in a webinar room than in a physical room. Some of that is to do with there being less to look at – less, or no, physical presence. It is also to do with the culture of the space, by which I mean that when we are in front of our laptops we are used to interacting quite often unless we are in ‘Netflix mode’. The differing socio-cultural expectations of online vs face-to-face are probably more of a factor than the notion of a concentration threshold as, by my estimate, it’s acceptable to speak for at least 20 minutes with no interaction face-to-face but this is probably reduced to around 7 minutes online. Beyond 7 minutes I suspect we start going into Netflix mode or getting distracted by the other tabs we have open.
Be clear it’s not about absorbing everything
Speaking to a couple of UAL colleagues in the following weeks I discovered that the seminars had been quite overwhelming for them, with ‘a lot going on’ at the same time (i.e. the facilitator speaking, parallel text chat, whiteboard interactions, voting and Tweeting). It was a useful reminder to me that I personally enjoy navigating, and reflecting on, multiple channels simultaneously but that this is not the case for everyone. So, perhaps my 7min threshold is too short and people need longer periods of ‘broadcast’ mode to be able to take in new topics. Overall I suspect the biggest cognitive shift for many is paying attention to the speaker while simultaneously keeping up with the text chat. That would certainly be overwhelming if you felt you had to take every detail in, so a message at the start explaining that the aim is not to absorb everything that’s happening on screen might help. ————————-
Learning from the seminars
The substance of the Teaching Complexity seminars was extremely interesting with sessions like Inclusive Spaces exploring ideas which are often not considered in digital contexts. Commonly the notion of ‘innovation’, which is often attached to digital approaches, avoids difficult thinking around inclusion and exclusion by implying that it’s going to change the way we interact so the problem simply won’t exist and therefore does not need to be confronted…
Beyond the ‘content’ of the seminars, I will be incorporating what I’ve learnt about the format of the sessions (the modes of interaction) into future work. This includes a project which is looking at transcultural arts education across an international partnership of arts schools and the development of more sophisticated ‘hybrid’ events which take place face-to-face and online in parallel.
On the 10th July 2019 we ran the ‘Networked Making’ event at the University of the Arts London. This post introduces a podcast in which myself and Jon Martin reflect on the ‘Making Networks’ workshop activity we designed for the start of the day (with input from Dr Sheena Calvert and the ‘Interpolate’ student group) .
The activity was described as: “A workshop session in which participants collaboratively make and reflect on a physical model/metaphor of their networks.”
The Podcast is offered here unedited. I may try and edit it down to around 20min for Spark, our UAL creative teaching and learning journal.
Themes touched upon in the podcast include: reflection, thinking-through-making, ambiguity, risk, trust, play.
There is also a YouTube version of the podcast if you require captions
Sheena and two Interpolate students, Jack and Safiya, helped to facilitate the activity.
Participants were asked to ‘make’ a version of their networks and were presented with a number of peg-boards, a few other objects, cord, index cards, pegs, pens, various fasteners etc. The boards had labels on them such as ‘Work – Mode’, ‘Tool – Space’, ‘People – Institution’ and ‘Desire – Aspiration’.
Around 30 participants engaged with the activity for about half-an-hour then we convened a short discussion.
The best way to get a sense of the activity is to watch this very short video:
Whether it be through collaboration, in a collective or as part of a cohort, the practices of making are never without context and commonly not undertaken alone. We understand that our students are keen to make and work in disciplinary and interdisciplinary networks as this nourishes and supports creative practice, reflecting the fluidity of the professional environment.
Networked making, including writing, is often facilitated by digital connections which allow us to go beyond the physical boundaries of the studio, seminar room or lecture theatre. Yet, while we all work online’ in some form, the practices of networked making are still emerging. The diversity of voices the digital allows us to include and connect encourages us to reconsider our modes of learning and teaching for making.
This UAL Teaching Platform invites participants to discover and explore the potential of networked making through collaboration, discussion and, of course, making. “