Archive for the 'creative commons' Category

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

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

Leading a walking tour – a step by step guide

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

There are many facets to the Maths in the City projectpublic engagement, connecting through social media and working with volunteers. The central goal of the project was to develop and lead mathematical walking tours of the ‘city’ – we wanted to tell the stories of the maths in the city to as wide a range of people as possible.

The people telling these stories were mathematics students, many of whom had no public speaking, science communication or teaching experience at the start of the project.  They didn’t even necessarily have experience in the areas of mathematics they were communicating but what these students did have was enormous enthusiasm about their subject and for the Maths in the City project.

In order to make the walking tours a success we had to harness that enthusiasm and make it as simple as possible to lead the tours. We found that there are four steps to designing walking tours that are simple to lead:

1. Take care of the practicalities

Minimise the amount of walking, traffic hassles

We quickly realised that if we were to have enough time for discussion at different stops on the tour we weren’t going to be able to walk very far.   It seems that the walking pace of a group of people exponentially slows down with the size of the group (NB – this may not be a mathematically rigorous conclusion!)

Keep an eye on your group size

We also found that the ideal size of a group on the tour was around 15 people.  The tours still worked well with larger and smaller sizes (we ran tours for 4-30 people) but 15 meant that everyone could participate without feeling constantly in the spotlight.

The best location to talk about a site isn’t always where the site actually is

The locations for the sites on a tour are an exercise in compromise. You need space available for a group of people to gather, the levels of background noise need to be taken into consideration, and you need to factor in the distance between the previous and the next stops on the tour.  For example our site about the Gherkin in London is on the opposite side of the river to the building, which allows the group to have a view of the skyline and has the space to build structures out of garden canes.  Similarly, our site for the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford often ends up being outside the adjacent building due to space available on the busy pavement.

2. Make the maths accessible

Revealing the depth of simple ideas

We wanted our tours to be accessible to as wide a range of people as possible: grandchildren to grandparents, maths graduates to maths phobics, teachers and interested bystanders.  Simple concepts, such as the strength of triangles or the efficiency of hexagons, proved enticing to people who might initially think maths is daunting.  Guides then explored the deeper mathematical consequences of these simple ideas or wider applications, which provided interest for the more mathematically experienced.

A model that demonstrates the properties of caternary curves

“On the occasions when it started out too simplistic, the guides were happy to answer deeper questions.”

Hands-on demonstrations can make complex ideas more concrete

This didn’t mean that we shied away from sophisticated mathematics.  We found that you could make concepts like graph theory, topology, symmetry and group theory more down-to-earth by involving the group in demonstrations that illustrated and explored the ideas.

A demonstration about GPS using chalk and string

“The practical demonstrations made the concepts easy to understand”

3. Make the communication easy

Telling stories

The most important thing for us to remember has been that we are telling stories, stories that just happen to be about maths. It helped to emphasise that these stories should have a beginning (often pointing out the link to the location), a middle (revealing the maths) and an end (perhaps a surprising demonstration or revealing the maths in a wider context). We particularly tried to provide a final sentence that would provide a punchy and conclusive end to the story, enabling the guide to wrap up that site and move onto the next.

Crib sheets

Some of the stories involved maths concepts set in a historical or modern context and a number of hands-on demonstrations using multiple props.  We quickly discovered that for these more complicated sites it helped to provide a crib sheet at the end of the notes highlighting how to weave together the main points of the story with the demonstrations.

Questions and conversations

We asked our guides to think of the tours as conversations.  We suggested lots of questions in the tour notes that guides could ask to engage the group and they encouraged people to ask them questions too. We found this advice from our EPSRC mentor about asking and encouraging questions very useful:

  • Start with easy questions that anyone could answer (eg. what shapes/patterns can you see on this building?) and build up questions in layers of understanding.
  • Give people time to think and respond, don’t be worried by silence, it’s just a little thinking time.
  • When someone answers a questions, clearly repeat their answer.  This makes sure that everyone has heard the answer and is a nice affirmative response for the person concerned.  It also is an opportunity for you to use the language they have supplied, helping you establish the group’s vocabulary and level of understanding and building from there.

People on the tour often had information about sites that we didn’t know or their questions and interests that meant the story we told on our walking tours was different every time.  The tour notes were just a suggestion and guides were encouraged to tell the stories their own way and respond to the interests of the group.

 4. It’s personal

Marcus du Sautoy discussing maths with tour guides outside the Tate Modern

“The tour guides were fantastic!”
“ I’m appreciating the things around us in a different way, looking afresh at things.”

In the end it was our tour guides, as much as our content, that made the project such a success.  This personal interaction with mathematicians, both on the walking tours and through our social media, has had as strong an impact on our audience as the mathematical stories we told.  For many tour participants meeting the maths students who led the tours and hearing about their personal journeys in maths has created a lasting image of mathematicians as creative, entertaining, passionate and ordinary people.  We hope we have helped people see mathematics, as well as the city, in a new light.


This post was written by Rachel Thomas, Public Engagement Officer for Maths in the City, and is part of a series of posts that discuss our approaches to public engagement.


Let them eat cake: thoughts on managing volunteers

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Over the last two years we have had the pleasure of working with a wonderful group of students from the University of Oxford on the Maths in the City project.  In fact, as you will have no doubt realised from our previous posts about the project, these student volunteers have been vital to the success of the project.  Over the last two years they have:

  • come on maths hunts in London and Oxford to take pictures and get ideas for mathematical sites;
M3 think about examples of maths in the city of London

“If you have other students who can present like these two, mathematics outreach is in good hands.”

  •  created mathematical sites as examples for a public competition;
  • brainstormed new ideas for the tours and developed existing ideas further in workshops;
  • helped out at a competition event, engaging with visitors and assisting with the inaugural the tours;
  • trained as guides, learning storytelling and communication skills as well as the content of the tours;
  • lead 35 tours (reaching around 450 people): 31 for the general public, 3 for school groups, one for university students and one for university alumni;
  • provided feedback on tours, suggesting improvements in their design and content;
  • and used social media to promote the project and interact with the growing community, enabling us to reach an audience of over 2,000 people on Twitter and around 500 people on Facebook (this online community meant many tours were filled within days of being announced through our website and social media).
Testing the strength of a structure with books

“The tour guides were absolutely delightful – if the two young presenters find mathematics too restricting, a life on the stage is clearly an option :)”

We were very fortunate to be able to build on the success of M3, the group of volunteers founded by Marcus du Sautoy to visit schools and science festivals promoting mathematics.  The core group of these students that were actively involved in Maths in the City grew from eight students in 2010 to around twenty in 2011.

In order to make the most of the time and enthusiasm of these volunteers, we discovered it was important to keep the following things in mind over the course of our project:

  • Availability: We had to accommodate their schedules and manage expectations of how much time they could contribute during busy periods in the university calendar (eg. most were busy with exams in Trinity (summer) term) and holidays.
  • Travel costs: It’s not fair to expect students to pay for travel between cities for all elements of the project (workshops, training, as well as the tours themselves).  This restricts access to the project for some potential volunteers.
  • Reminders: The students are very reliable but they do have busy lives.  We put in place a system of reminders, checking they were aware of upcoming events they were involved with (say a fortnight before and again a few days before), sending all necessary information (eg. meeting place, time, expected participants, tasks for the day).
  • Backup system: It’s good to build in some redundancy, for example having three volunteers for each tour if you really only need two so it doesn’t matter if someone drops out but this wasn’t always possible.  We were lucky enough to have paid staff who were always available to back students up if one of them was unable to run the tour.
  • Use their strengths: The students were very happy to work hard in the workshops and other events but didn’t necessarily have time between events to work individually on the project.  We focussed on priming them for a workshop or event with material they could use on the day but designing the workshop so it didn’t matter if they hadn’t been able to read the material beforehand.  We realised their strength was generating ideas in a workshop, which the project team then developed into full resources that the students would go on to use on the tours.
Two people tied together in a demonstration about topography

“The tour guides did a wonderful job at putting across often complex mathematical concepts in simple straightforward language”

Some of the previous points are specific to a project that requires volunteers to travel to and run events.  We’ve learned, however, that there are some factors that would help any volunteer-based project succeed.  Here are our top tips for making the most of your volunteers…

  • Emphasise what they will get out of the project: As well as asking them to help us we also made it clear what they would gain from their involvement – communication skills, experience in public engagement and science communication and an excellent addition to their CV.
  • Have them involved from the ground up: Some of the students have been involved in the project from the very first meeting.  We have tried to involve them in as many aspects as possible and kept them informed of how the project as a whole was developing, as well as the parts they were involved in.  Not only did this build their expertise, which was a great benefit for their and other student’s involvement in the project, but it also created a sense of ownership of the project for the group of volunteers.
  • Give them ownership: We fully supported their growing sense of ownership.  They we acknowledged at all times, on all material, as being a core part of the project, we asked for, and responded to, their feedback.
  • Let them jump in at the deep end:  After giving them initial training, we made sure they felt fully supported.  For example the week before the initial run of pilot tours a team member and the kit were available every afternoon for practice runs.  We also gave them the project mobile and help numbers to call so they felt like they had backup on the day.  Then the project team essentially stepped back and handed the responsibility over to them – they lead the tours themselves with very little assistance from the project team.  Expecting the best of them seemed to give the students confidence which grew each time they worked face-to-face with the public.
  • Use peer to peer teaching: After initial training workshops, the best way of training new guides has been to team them up with an experienced guide and learn from them on the job.  Not only has this meant we can continue to deliver tours while taking on new guides, it seemed to give both the experienced and inexperienced guides confidence in their abilities.
  • Have a variety of involvement: Students could volunteer at any time during the project, they could attend and contribute to any of the workshops and they could volunteer to lead or just assist on tours or to join our online team.  This meant that people could be involved in whatever way felt most comfortable for them and for whatever time they could contribute.  And often once someone was involved in one aspect (say attending workshops or assisting on tours) they gained the confidence to participate in other ways.
  • Say thank you: We regularly acknowledged, individually and as a group, the efforts of the volunteers involved.
  • Let them eat cake: We provided snacks and drinks at workshops and meetings wherever possible.  We also covered their lunch on the days they ran tours (they could claim up to £8 in expenses). Although this might seem a frivolous thing to include in a budget this was an important part in the success of our volunteer team.  It encouraged people to come to meetings, particularly when they ran over lunchtime or in the evenings.  Providing snacks and drinks also creates a positive atmosphere around the project as it is a physical manifestation of our respect for the volunteers and a recognition of their efforts and commitment to the project.  We couldn’t have done it without them.

I hope you found this helpful. If you did or think we’ve missed anything, tell us by commenting below or dropping us a line on Facebook and Twitter.

This is part of a series of blog posts 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 and using social media for public engagement. There’s also an intro post that gives an overview of the Maths in the City project.

This post was written by Rachel Thomas, Public Engagement Officer for Maths in the City.

Seven secrets to successful public engagement via social media (plus a diagram)

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

The Maths in the City is a public engagement project that, in short, went really well. There are many factors that contributed to its success and in this post I shall share the secrets behind our effective public engagement through social media.

Diagram time!

The broadcast approach

The broadcast approach

This is the classic institutional mindset, all forms of engagement  being ‘broadcast’ to a public ‘out-there’ from behind institutional lines.



The conversational approach

Our approach was de-centralised and more conversational. The offline activities promoted online  ways to engage and vice-versa. This created a virtuous circle and a kind of many-to-many relationship between all of our activities. This was supported by a project team with overlapping skills and responsibilities (i.e. we all moved ideas and items around the loop). Key to this approach was constantly ‘drawing-in’/responding to opinions and artefacts from the public and the co-production of materials with our group of student tour-guides.  This we felt was a more honest form of engagement and in keeping with the conversational tone of social-media.

This is how we applied our approach (yes, there are seven points):

1) Tone. I went for a fun, slightly irreverent tone while also expressing a wonder for the beauty of mathematics. I adopted this tone based on what I observed to be the majority tone adopted by maths communities on Facebook and Twitter.

2) Content. I only had a basic background in mathematics. However, I found that the ability to find funny and interesting material was more important than depth of knowledge.

Our most popular tweet

This tweet really caught the pure mathematician zeitgeist… 205 retweets! It linked to this cartoon:

In the first year I relied on posts/tweets from others in the maths community, pictures of the project mascot (Maths Dave) and, I am not too proud to admit, Google searches. In the second year of the project, a group of student volunteers got involved and they added a layer of further interest by setting puzzles and teasers for people to solve.

3) Message. The majority of tweets and posts communicated the joy of mathematics and included a push to the project website when relevant. We found that this maintained a sense of community and presence, which in turn led to a swift response to any project-specific news and calls to action.

4) Frequency. In the first year of the project, I tweeted three times a day and posted on Facebook every 1-2 days. Initially, I set aside 15 minutes every morning, lunchtime and afternoon in which to tweet/post content. This time got less as I identified reliable sources for content. In the second year, I visited the project Twitter feed and Facebook page just once a day as student volunteers contributed to content.

5) Critical mass. We wanted to get our follower numbers on Twitter into the hundreds and ‘likes’ of our Facebook page to 100 as soon as possible so that we could get the flow of communication going. In the first month of launching our Twitter feed and Facebook page, friends of the project who had significant followers of their own were asked to publicise the project and encourage their followers to follow/’like’ Maths in the City. They were happy to do so because they were asked by people whom they respected and we had already placed strong content in our Twitter feed/Facebook page.

6) Volunteers. Volunteer students from the University of Oxford were an important part of the project deliverables and we had a pool of talented and motivated students who were passionate about sharing their love of maths with the public. Some of them did not have time to participate in the face to face aspects of the project so our social media channels provided them with a volunteering opportunity that fitted in with their study commitments. Those who joined the online public engagement team helped to double follower numbers in the second year of the project.

Student volunteers working on content for Twitter and Facebook

We meet in the pub because there is free wifi. There’s no other reason. Now what’s the budget code for a pint of bitter?

They could either use the project Twitter account or their own and  if using the project account, they followed some simple guidelines regarding the tone, message and purpose of their activity.  Becoming the voice of the project or interacting with the project under their own accounts seemed to contribute to the volunteers’ sense of ownership of the project.

7)Sustainability. We put a lot of thought into making sure Maths in the City had a life after the end of the project. The student volunteers who have been an integral part of this project are part of Marcus’ Marvellous Mathemagicians, a public engagement team run by the University of Oxford’s maths department. Their social media networks are small so the project Twitter feed and Facebook page will be repurposed so that they can take on the networks established by the project to support their own public engagement activities.


So that’s how we did public engagement through social media. This is part of a series of blog posts 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 and the management/encouragement of volunteers. There’s even an intro post that gives an excellent overview of the Maths in the City project. (Dave White made me say that.) If you find any of these posts useful, let us know by commenting below or dropping us a line on Facebook and Twitter.

Engage! (Please)

Friday, September 21st, 2012

To paraphrase Dave White in the first blog post in this series about the Maths in the City project, engaging the public is a delicate business, particularly when you want meaningful levels of involvement.

Getting involved in Maths in the City takes effort. We ran mathematical walking tours in the snow, hail and pouring rain and in most of these tours, everyone who booked turned up. Creating an example of maths in the city on our website requires registration and then at least ten minutes to post a picture and write about it. The quality of some of the examples suggest that far more time than this has been invested. We are in regular communication with followers/fans on Twitter and Facebook who don’t know the names and faces of the people behind the tweets and posts.

A tour happening in the rain

“Exceeded my expectations! The tour was interesting, exciting and FUN, even in the pouring rain! Thank you”

So why are all these people so keen to participate? Here are our top four reasons.

1. Everybody loves a competition
We launched Maths in the City on an unsuspecting world by announcing a competition. We offered serious prizes and the quality of entries were superb. To see a list of winners and what they won, visit this page on the Maths in the City website. The competition is responsible for 60% of the examples of maths in the city on this site.

Winners and runners up included a man from Ireland, a group from Spain and a young lady from Hong Kong. Despite the fact that we could not pay for travel, all winners and runners up attended an award day at Oxford except for the girl from Hong Kong, who sent a video message. Pictures from the award day are available on Flickr.

The winners of the Maths in the City competition, with Marcus du Sautoy

The winners of the Maths in the City competition, with Marcus du Sautoy

2. Everybody loves a Dave
Maths in the City has a mascot, named Maths Dave. Placed as a resource on the project website as piece of whimsical fun, the cult of Maths Dave quickly grew, as evidenced in the Maths Dave forum. (Get your own Maths Dave here.)

One maths teacher from Walthamstow School for Girls used Maths Dave in her lessons; her class did such a great job with their Maths Daves and Davinas that the teacher and two students were invited to the competition award day to receive a special prize on behalf of the class. A year later we had the pleasure of taking 60 girls from the school on our London maths tour.

The Maths Daves and Davinas created by the year 1 maths class from Walthamstow School for Girls

The Maths Daves and Davinas created by the year 1 maths class from Walthamstow School for Girls

3. Everybody loves seeing their homework on the fridge door
The Maths in the City project is produced and managed by us lot at TALL. We also design online courses, including The Number Mysteries, which is based on a book written by Marcus du Sautoy of the same title. This course includes an assignment option in which students write an example of maths in the city, which they can add to once it has been marked. Here is an example on Umhlanga Pier, written by a South African student. Students of the Number Mysteries course appear to enjoy the opportunity to share their work in a public place and the project benefits from a steady stream of high quality examples of maths in the city from around the world.

Add your mathematical stories to

Add your mathematical stories to

4. Everybody loves a delightful and articulate student who is passionate about their subject
The lifeblood of this project has been the student volunteers who have helped to design the walking tours, lead the walking tours and engage with the public through our social media channels. A journalist from the Oxford Times was so charmed by one of our volunteers that I think he fell a little bit in love. Read his article ‘Oxford by numbers’ and judge for yourself.

Two of our fabulous maths walking tour guides

“I would like to thank our guide for making the mathematical concepts very clear, and the tour very enjoyable”


These are our top four reasons why we got meaningful engagement with the public. Do you have other reasons that have come from your experience in public engagement? Please tell us by  commenting below or by dropping us a line on Facebook and Twitter.

(And when you’ve done that, keep your eyes peeled for the rest in our series of posts on our approaches to public engagement. Topics to come are; teaching/public delivery of complex material, community facilitation/the use of social media and the management/encouragement of volunteers. We’ll be announcing them on Facebook and Twitter.)

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, 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.


CC –

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.



Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Our new Introduction to Statistics in Healthcare Research course has been massively enhanced by the inclusion of  XKCD cartoons, stats courses require a bit of light relief.  All set to negotiate the copyright clearance when we discovered they are cc licensed.  I love Creative Commons. All I can say is anyone who is involved in developing a stats course should be using these.

Work found at / CC BY-NC 2.5

Disappearing digital resources

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

One of the most striking aspects of our JISC funded Open-Educational-Resources Impact study was the extent to which using digital resources has become embedded in teaching practice. Digital resources are ‘disappearing into use’ as they become part of the fabric of higher education.

We interviewed strategists, academics and students to find out how they found and used digital resources. It wasn’t surprising to find that students were Googling for anything they could get their hands on but the extent to which academics are doing this as well was unexpected. The difference between the groups was that staff have the expertise required to critically evaluate what they find while the students are nervous about waiting-time using resources which might prove to be off-topic. They are also uncertain of how to cite non-traditional resources or if they should admit to using them as all. This is a good example of where digital literacy and traditional research skills are both essential.

But what about licensing? Well, those whose practice was highly visible on the web and therefore closely tied to the reputation of their institution were keen to use openly licensed materials. E.g. an online distance elearning team or groups that make modules which are rereleased out onto the web. Those in course or programme teams were less focused on licensing because their practice is largely private – within the VLE, in the lecture theatre etc. In day-to-day teaching the technicalities of reuse come second to the potential of a resource to make the student’s learning experience richer.

The OER Impact project analysed the link between the value of use and its impact in teaching and learning. There is a full research report and a shorter ‘accessible’ report available for download from JISC. Or you can watch the short video below to get an overview of our findings.

The video is published under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC BY)

OER Impact project team-

Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning:
Mr David White
Ms Marion Manton

Learning Technologies Group:
Dr Elizabeth Masterman
Ms Joanna Wild

Reuse in action

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Having been involved in several research projects around the area of OERs (especially OpenSpires) and more specifically the reuse of existing content (Mosaic and Cascade),  it is really gratifying to see some of this work enter our mainstream course production practice.   A major benefit of Mosaic was a real tightening up of our approaches to reuse, copyright and IPR across our entire short course programme and this is now starting to really pay dividends.

An example is the course we are currently developing on Globalization, available in May.  Among other things, this course is using podcasts recorded by the author Jonathan Michie with the OpenSpires team.  As we will be providing transcripts to make the course fully accessible we can make sure that these are fed back to enhance the original OERs – a virtuous circle.