Author Archive

What exactly are your students up to online?

Monday, January 6th, 2014

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.

V&R map

Simple Visitor & Resident map

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? :)

Mapping online engagement

Friday, October 11th, 2013

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

Created with Padlet

The maps on the wall have no commentary attached to them to preserve anonymity.

The mapping process originates from research funded by Jisc

Visitors and Residents mapping process: the video

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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’.

For more information on Visitors and Residents:

  • The original video outlining the V&R idea and continuum
  • Our paper on Visitors and Residents for First Monday
  • The progress report of the Digital Visitors and Residents project (pdf)

Or you can contact me at david.white at conted.ox.ac.uk

More legible versions of the maps I create in the video:

My personal map (with a little more detail):

Personal map

My map of how I imagine students engage with what I provide online

Student map

We have become the barn

Monday, April 8th, 2013

In Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise Jack and Murray, two academics, take a trip to see The Most Photographed Barn in America. On arriving there are indeed many people taking photographs. The academics stand to one side, Murray theorising about the meaning of this process while the Jack remains steadfastly silent.

I was reminded of this passage when I visited the Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Almost all of the visitors were capturing images of the building on a variety of digital devices. Why were they doing this when the web is already abundant with equivalent images? For me Murray’s postulating in White Noise has the answer:

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura.  Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

How many of those pictures of Gaudi’s cathedral will remain perfectly stored in the digital purgatory of a never accessed memory card?  Not that this matters because the point is not the image itself but the act of capturing the image. The object gains authority in proportion to this act and as tourists we were happy to reinforce the building’s authenticity by taking part in the collective theatre of imaging. The principal factor being that the object of our capturing was easy to find because it resides in a fixed location which is relatively straightforward for a great number of people to visit.

The Social Web allows us to objectify ourselves in a similar manner. We can post aspects of our lives and identity online which remain in a fixed location and are relatively easy for a great number of people to visit. These representations take the form of Social Media profiles and postings, images, videos and comments. We create this presence for others to capture, the elegance of the Social Web being its ability to quantify the act of capturing. Each imaging is collated and displayed: hits, views, likes, retweets, comments, followers, friends. The higher the number the more authentic we become. We reside online and retain a presence beyond our live engagement. We have become the barn, available to be capture-constructed around the clock. The danger if we come to rely on defining ourselves in this manner…

“Nobody sees the barn anymore,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

A massive slice of pi

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

On the March 14th at 1.59pm (3.14159 in geek speak) we ran Pi Day Live, a free online event ‘rediscovering’ the famous number hosted by Professor Marcus du Sautoy. During the event participants were invited to use one of our Find Pi methods to derive pi and then upload it to our website as part of  a crowd sourcing experiment. We had around one thousand participants pre-register for the ‘Online Lecture Theatre’ (Blackboard Collaborate run by JISC Netskills (Massive thanks to them for providing such a professional and friendly service) from 17 different countries. About 800 of these were schools who signed up as classes via teachers. The pupils ranged from 11 to 18 years old. We also had circa 1500 participants who simply turned-up on the day and got involved via our YouTube ‘Big Screen’ (Google Hangouts on Air).

You can watch a recording of the event and run your own Find Pi activity here: http://oxfordconnect.conted.ox.ac.uk/

Pi Day Live was a pilot event for an engagement format I designed called Oxford Connect. The thinking behind Oxford Connect is to create a conversational and involving way to engage with ‘concepts, ideas and research’ from the University of Oxford. This is a Public Engagement approach but it also has potential for Widening Participation and the Impact agenda. The emphasis is very much on the live aspect of the event i.e. what differentiates this from a pre-recorded video, what would motivate participants to get involved at a particular moment in time? In the case of Pi Day Live we did everything we could to make it worthwhile engaging live. There was the opportunity for discussion, for your questions about pi to be answered and of course the Find Pi activities with associated crowd sourcing. In essence the event had all the technicalities of a live television broadcast coupled with the complexities of an online discussion and social media with some crowd sourcing thrown in for good measure.

We threw everything at Pi Day Live to see what worked:

1. The live event
I can’t overstate how compelling delivering a live event was. From the moment we received Tweets showing our live feed on screens in classrooms there was a real feeling that everyone participating was involved in something unique. Marcus started by giving a few shout-outs to some of the schools and individuals who had pre-registered. After the event Marcus discovered that he had many requests for shout-outs from schools via Twitter. I wasn’t expecting Twitter to be such a live channel in this case. Reporting on the changing crowd sourced value of pi was also a compelling aspect of being live.

2. The Find Pi activities
These appeared to be popular and as far as we can tell focused people’s minds during the middle part of the event. We currently have circa 300 results and a value of pi at 3.104. Our expectation was that we would have a few hundred people hitting the Oxford Connect site during the event. On the day we got well over 2000 which choked our server and cut down the number of people who could submit results.

Can you see when our server got so busy it couldn't even send data to our logging software? :)

Can you see when our server got so busy it couldn’t even send data to our logging software? :)

3. The discussion – responding to questions
This aspect of the event went less well, we didn’t receive many questions and the discussions in Blackboard Collaborate were relatively quiet. I think we threw too much at the participants who were happy to watch, Tweet or get on with the Find Pi activities. We also split people’s attention by leaving Marcus on screen commentating on his own Buffon’s Needle experiment during the Find Pi section of the event. I suspect that some people had gone into sit-back-and-watch mode which we need to balance with the interactive elements. We had provided more than one mode of engagement in parallel which isn’t ideal but was a side effect of our piloting approach.

My View of Pi Day Live

My View of Pi Day Live

Reflecting on the event I’m thinking there are probably discursive and an activity focused versions of Oxford Connect events. It’s also clear that Twitter or something as ‘light touch’ as Twitter can be enough of a ‘conversational’ channel to sustain live engagement when everyone is also running their own experiments and uploading results. I’m hoping that we can run similar event for other departments here at Oxford in the future. We are also talking about using the live format as an anchor for a quasi-open online version of our department’s face-to-face day schools. Overall I’m pleased with how the pilot ran, we learnt a lot and the technology held up well. We got plenty of positive feedback and some people disappointed they couldn’t get to the Oxford Connect webpage as our server tried to keep-up. The complexities of going out live were more than outweighed by the buzz and sense of connection that came with it. I’m confident that we can run a more streamlined version of Pi Day Live for other disciplines which is less risky while increasing the level of engagement for those who get involved live. Success in terms of ‘massive’ numbers is a dangerous thing though, especially for live events – we are going to need a bigger server…

MOOC: Self-Service Education?

Monday, February 18th, 2013

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…

Lost in the supermarket

CC-NC-ND http://www.flickr.com/photos/sputnik57/3583618864/

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?

 

V&R mapping at Educause

Monday, November 19th, 2012

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.

Denver

My view of Denver

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.

Mapping

Proof that some people were awake while ‘mapping’

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:

Educause V&R maps

Educause – Personal V&R maps

Full-size version

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.

V&R maps with Facebook highlight

V&R maps – Facebook highlighted

Full-size version

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.

Skype & IM

V&R map – Skype and GTalk highlighted

Full-size verison

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.


Break out of the loop and see the helix

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

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.

Spring

CC – tidefan http://goo.gl/LE4Jl

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?

The never ending loop

A surface view only sees the loop

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.

A new perspective

A different perspective shows the slow forward movement of the helix

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.

Serendipity and the helix

The transverse leap of serendipity

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”.

Who’s excited about maths?

Monday, September 17th, 2012

For the last two years I have been the Creative Director of the ‘Maths in the City’ project. At the helm was Marcus du Sautoy, that maths guy from the TV and Radio who also happens to be a member of my Continuing Education department here at Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. The idea for the project came from discussions Marcus had with secondary schools in London. The overall aim being to ‘engage’ the public with maths by demonstrating how the science of numbers is integral to the urban environments most of us inhabit. The 2 minute video below gives a flavour of what it’s all about.

Funded by the EPSRC (who fielded an excellent and experienced mentor for the project)  via a public engagement grant the project ran a series of walking tours around Oxford and London which anyone could attend for free. The tours were highly interactive (string, chalk, sweets, springs, sticks, marbles etc.) and designed to interest people of all ages with potentially a very basic understanding of maths. The guides for the tours were all maths students drawn from Marcus’ cabal here at the university called M3. An important aspect of the project was giving these students the opportunity to practice their public speaking skills at the sharp end of maths-communication i.e. in a street with a group of strangers that have  random levels of subject understanding. To support and promote the tours we built a nifty website. Nifty because it allows anyone in the world to create a maths ‘site’ and, if they so desire, a tour of their own. The M3 group used the site to help author our main tours of Oxford and London. It also gave us an opportunity to run a competition to increase the visibility of the project and to help populate the website with maths from around the world.

The officially funded part of the project is coming to a close but I’m happy to say that the M3 group will continue to run and develop the tours. Overall the project was a great success:

  • over 2500 people engaging with us via social media
  • over 460 people attended mathematical walking tours of Oxford and London
  • over 130 examples of ‘maths in the city’, from around the world, posted on www.mathsinthecity.com, the vast majority from members of the general public.

Having a world renown mathematician and broadcaster as a figurehead certainly helped promote Maths in the City but the project team who were all assigned 1.5 days a week or less were the real behind-the-scenes workers: designing the details of the tours, putting together the website, encouraging an online community, training the tour-guide students and generally dealing with all the nuts-and-bolts involved in running public walking tours. What I am most proud of is that we designed multiple ways to engage with the project, for example:

  • To promote the project and to give it a ‘friendly’ face (we don’t underestimate how daunting contributing to an Oxford University project might be for some) we provided cut-out-and-keep template of our logo/mascot ‘Maths Dave’. Much to our delight people began to submit photos of their very own versions of Maths Dave.
Maths Daves' in Turkey

Maths Dave’s in Turkey

  • People could submit a mathematical site from their city. These ranged from elementary maths such as this site on triangles (one of our competition winners) through to sites such as the ‘Squeaking Labyrinth’ (which is certainly beyond me) and everything in between.
  • The tour ‘sites’ were essentially neat chunks of teaching material (all openly licensed as ‘Open Educational Resources’) which all included great hands-on activities. The project used the tour sites to give ‘stationary’ walking tours or ‘talks’ as they are normally known as part of public lecture series i.e. you don’t have to take the walk to get the maths. One of the most widely appropriated was the Sheldonian Roof site which inspired a whole morning of teaching at one secondary school culminating in this spectacular model.

No glue was used!

  • If balancing a ridiculous amount of rulers across desks is not for you then there was always the geeky banter to enjoy over on our Twitter stream and Facebook page or the opportunity to read about the project in one of our many write-ups including the New Scientist.
  • The hub of the project’s activity was of course the physical tours themselves. I went on a few to check everything was running smoothly and remember a six year old and his older brother happily helping to make triangles, rectangles and hexagons with a loop of string in one of the quads of St. Johns college while the adults discussed the shapes which most efficiently tessellate on a two dimensional plane.

A maths student leads a London tour across Millennium bridge with the aid of Maths Dave on a stick.

Engaging the public both online and offline is a delicate business especially when your tour-guide group  is made-up of volunteers new to public speaking, trying to complete Oxford degrees and acting as the public face to an institution which has very refined views on ‘reputation’ and ‘credibility’. Instead of writing a dusty report on the project which would end its days in unread pdf purgatory on the outskirts of a funding council website we have chosen to write a series of blog post which discuss our approaches to public engagement on the topics of; teaching/public delivery of complex material, what makes the public participate in public engagement initiatives, community facilitation/the use of social media and the management/encouragement of volunteers. Watch @daveowhite or @mathsinthecity as we release the posts over the next few weeks. I hope they will be insightful for those of you considering public engagement projects.

Analysing digital literacies – four headlines

Friday, July 13th, 2012

One of the recent activities of the Visitors and Residents project has been the development of an analysis framework to help us to gain a deeper understanding of how our participants are engaging with technology for their learning. During the process of coding our interviews we noted down recurrent underlying themes and used these as headlines for the framework. We query the data in NVivo using our original coding e.g. “(ANY: Social Media, Facebook, Twitter, Blog) AND (ANY: Authority, Relevance, Reliability)” – the results are then mapped into the framework which captures the nuances of participants views and motivations.

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CC – http://goo.gl/Ib7eb

Getting involved in discussions at a couple of JISC Developing Digital Literacies project cluster meetings I found myself using the high-level themes from the framework to respond to reporting from the projects. I was tentative about this as the framework is still evolving but the feedback from the cluster meetings was positive so I promised to make the high-level themes available as a reference point to help structure evaluation and/or dissemination. What follows is a brief review of the four top-level themes in our framework:

1. Genres of participation

This is the overarching perspective with Visitor (web perceived as a collection of tools) and Resident (web perceived as a series of co-present spaces) as the principle genres placed at either end of a continuum of engagement (see our First Monday paper). With regard to digital literacies it’s possible to equate the ‘skills’ based (learning the essential functionality of technology) approaches with Visitor and the more experiential/personal-professional identity approaches with Resident. Of course there is no hard-line between these genres of participation, for example many of our participants use social media only for organisational purposes. They are using an apparently Resident technology in a purely functional, Visitor manner. Having said that for reporting or evaluation it’s often useful to initially separate skills based approaches from experiential approaches as measuring their ‘impact’ requires different methods.

2. Attitudes

In the Visitors and Residents project we are exploring ‘motivation to engage’. Often the participant’s motivation is influenced by an underlying attitude or ideology. This can be as simple as not trusting ‘crowd sourced’ resources or as complex as their views on what ‘learning’ is or should be. For the most part these attitudes will not have been closely considered or deconstructed by participants and in some cases simply boil down to forms of prejudice. Good examples of areas which can be highly attitudinal and effect motivations to engage are:

  • Views on the authority and role of Wikipedia and other non-traditional sources.
  • Views on the legitimacy and validity of academic blogs and blogging.
  • Views on the role of social media as a valid space for learning.
  • Views on the relative authority of various media e.g. the ‘a printed book always has more authority than a blog post’ stand-point.

The majority of these areas can be related back to issues of credibility which is proving to be a very useful concept to ‘take the temperature’ of many of these underlying attitudes. What is or isn’t credible in the service of learning and academia is highly contested and has been massively broadened and disrupted by the affordances of the web. There are some very interesting tensions between credibility and convenience emerging from our data which we hope to explore further.

3. Transition points

Whether a particular ‘moment’ or a slow incremental slide it is useful to consider what factors encourage or force individuals to shift their mode of engagement. The majority of the transitions we see in our data are from a Visitor to a Resident mode as the Visitor mode tends to be the ‘default’ state in an institutional context. However we do have examples of participants who have transitioned back into a Visitor mode having found a Resident approach to be inefficient, distracting or uncomfortable. Good examples of transition points include:

  • Geographically relocating – engaging with social media to keep in contact with remote friends and family or students from a previous institution.
  • Course requirements – assessment being attached to a Resident mode of engagement such as blogging.
  • Social tipping point – participants discover that the majority of their peer group are organising social events via social media and so they have to create a profile to ‘stay in the loop’
  • Professional identity – participants decide that it is of value to be ‘active’ online and to develop a visible online profile around their professional role.
  •  Efficiency – participants discover that a Resident approach is ultimately a reasonably efficient/effective way to gather trusted sources and to further their thinking.

A key factor here is the participant’s attitude towards open practice. Being required by an institution to post work in ‘open’ online spaces is counter to most participant’s experience of the educational process. While they might be happy to be part of, for example, a student run Facebook group attached to a course that is very different from being required to engage in a Resident manner. If a participant is generally suspicious of ‘open’ they are unlikely to make any transitions and they are also less likely to trust non-traditional sources (or a least admit to using them…).

4. Management

This again is useful to consider via the genres of participation. The methods participants develop to manage their engagement with technology tend to vary based on whether they are in a predominantly Visitor or Resident mode in a given context. Often participants in a Visitor mode want to retain control over what they engage with and when. There is a desire to keep their time and their roles compartmentalised so that work and personal activities remain distinct making it easier to predict the time and effort that will be required when they log on. Participants with a compartmental approach tend to decide what they want to achieve before they go online. In contrast to this the almost inevitable decompartmentalisation that is an effect of Residency means that participants in this mode are more likely to go online a ‘see what’s happening’. The principle management issues for the Resident mode are likely to be around addiction, distraction and the artful maintenance of the blurred boundaries between differing roles and personas e.g. the perennial ‘do I friend my students?’ conundrum.

 

These high-level areas have been a useful in making-sense of our data and we are busy discussing more granular sub-themes. I hope you find them a useful starting point when considering digital literacies and reviewing your approaches to facilitating new forms of learning and teaching practice online.

The project is also designing a four session learning resource based around these thematic areas. It will be an Open Education Resource under an appropriate Creative Commons licence and we hope that in the first instance it will be a helpful resource for staff developers and those involved in professional development programmes. We will be releasing a first draft of the structure of the ‘course’ for comment in the next few days so watch-this-space.