Archive for the 'Digital literacy' Category

New Places to Learn

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Yesterday I tweeted:

“Annoyed by the ‘Digital Natives’ idea? Explore alternatives: ‘New Places to Learn’ Oxford Apr19

The (free) event I’m referring to is being run by the HEA and is using the Visitors and Residents metaphor  as a broad framework to explore the implications of the web as a ‘place’ for the education sector. The intention is to break away from outmoded age or tech skill related correlations to discuss new modes of engagement which are emerging based on co-presence online. To put it in ‘Visitors and Residents’ terms: exploring pragmatic approaches to operating at the Resident end of the continuum.

Visitor restrictions

CC: A-NC-SA Flickr: 'Celita'

The danger when learning is moved online is that the focus tends to be on curriculum and content rather than the less instrumental aspects of what makes a course work such as social cohesion and a sense of belonging. The traditional lecture in a physical space may not be pedagogically ideal but it has inherent co-presence, giving students the sense that they belong to a particular cohort and that they are legitimate members of their institution. These ‘side effects’ of traditional modes of engagement are easy to take for granted and often forgotten in the move online.

This move is a response to increasing student numbers, the need to deliver learning with greater flexibility, the availability of online resources (some of which are in ‘beyond text’ formats) and the desire to attract oversees students. The underlying drivers here are efficiency, flexibility and scalability. As we discovered in our HEFCE Study of Online Learning one of the key pedagogical design approaches that can address these drives is that of peer learning.  This is a form of inter-student support and collaboration that is well supported by the physical institution. The library, the coffee shop, the pub etc have all evolved to create ‘places’ for, amongst other things, peer-learning. As a sector we haven’t been very successful to-date in creating or using similar places (or places which facilitate similar forms of interaction) online and we often underestimate the importance of co-presence when trying to encourage peer-learning on the web.

It is  generally accepted that it’s  easier to discuss learning with a fellow student you ‘know’ than with a stranger so if that learning is taking place predominantly online it’s crucial that your fellow students have an online social presence. If the majority of a cohort have a social presence online  it is more likely that individuals will feel that all important sense of belonging and accountability which will support them though the challenging aspects of their study (especially when the course is large scale and tutoring staff don’t have the time to keep a close pastoral overview).

Understanding the role and value of Resident/presence based modes of engagement should be a high priority for a sector that is moving online. It should no longer be the exotic preserve of the ‘high tech’ or the ‘innovator’ and needs to be taken up by the ingenious pragmatists amongst us. I am very happy to say that the ‘New Places to Learn’ event has secured the services of a number of these ingenious characters who will discuss the challenges of working at scale online from different perspectives:

  • Dave Cormier comes to the ‘web as place’ as one of the early instigators of the ‘MOOC’ format which builds on the inherent connectivity of the web to form agile learning scenarios. I think of this approach as highly Resident, emerging from the culture of the web and loosely tethered to the traditional institution where necessary.
  • Martin Weller has been involved in moving large scale Open University courses online as well as initiatives such as Open Learn. He understands what is involved when a large organisation reaches out into the web and what it means to be a ‘Digital Scholar’ online.
  • Lawrie Phipps and Ben Showers from JISC will be facilitating an activity which aims draw on the collective expertise in the room to map the pros and cons of Resident modes of engagement.

Alison Le Cornu the academic lead for Flexible Learning for the HEA will be chairing the day and drawing together the thinking to inform the strategic direction of the academy in this area.

I myself will be picking up on the themes in this post and discussing our JISC funded Visitors and Residents project which is in the early stages of describing educational/online ‘genres of participation’ and mapping the associated literacies which learners use.  We also hope to hear about the progress of  projects in the JISC Developing Digital Literacies strand.

If you are interested in the web as a place for learning or you have your own thoughts or practice to share then sign-up. If you can’t make it to Oxford then visit the HEA booking page on the day for a link to the live stream.

Questions of creativity

Friday, February 24th, 2012

The Harvard based Berkman Center for Internet & Society recently published a report entitled ‘Youth and Digital Media: From Credibility to Information Quality’.  It uses a promising contextual framework to assess a broad body of literature focused on the information seeking behaviours of learners 18 years old or younger.

What I like about their approach is the use of  academic, personal and social as the overlapping contexts in which information is sought, shared and consumed. There are also useful distinctions made about the basis on which information is assessed with the phrase ‘adult-normative criteria’ often employed. The most encouraging part of the report for me is its attempt to explore the relationship between ‘information creation and dissemination practices’ and learners overall perceptions of information. Two of the areas that the report suggests are currently underexplored caught my attention:

1. “How increased levels of creative interaction with information shape users’ ideas of information quality and how they influence search and evaluation behavior.”

2. “How to leverage youth content creation and dissemination activities effectively from the
personal and social contexts for the academic context, and how to resolve the conflicts of
expectations and norms between these two contexts.”

Both of these areas are a key part of our JISC funded Digital Visitors and Residents project which is interviewing and surveying learners from four educational stages which span late-stage secondary school, through university, to experienced academics. By using the Visitors and Residents principle as an underlying framework I believe we are beginning to gain an understanding of the answer to question 1 and we are certainly discovering some of the key factors within question 2.

For me ‘content creation and dissemination’ would involve the expected blogging, media posting and commenting etc but should also include tweeting, posting to Facebook and other forms of interpersonal contact/expression online. Content ‘creation and dissemination’ in this sense is closely linked to the notion of a Resident mode of engagement. This is especially relevant when considering the role of creativity as expressed in question 1 i.e. what is the individual contributing when they make, modify and/or share?

Plotting our participants engagement with the web along the Visitors and Residents continuum makes visible the common dislocation between these Resident style literacies often employed in a personal/social context and the more Visitor style literacies employed by learners academically. There are areas of cross-over such as what I have termed ‘Emergency Collaboration’ and the occasional participant who has an active professional/social network online. Generally however what we are finding is a range of ‘learner owned’ Resident literacies which are not officially valued by higher education institutions.

UKU3 map

V&R mapping of a UK university participant showing a distinct division between 'Institutional/Visitor' and 'Personal/Resident' activity.

It could be argued that this is not a problem and that Visitor style approaches are what we should reasonably expect to employ during our formal studies. However, if as the Berkman report suggests an ‘increased creative interaction with information’ has a positive influence on learners ideas about information and how to find it then understanding and ‘leveraging’ Resident literacies becomes extremely important.

The first of our 4 educational stages is the ‘Emerging’ stage which includes late-stage secondary school (from 17 years old) through to first year undergraduates. I was keen to include this ‘bridging’ stage in the project as I felt that historically there had been too hard a distinction between the educational research carried out with schools and that carried out with universities. It was almost as if we thought of these learners as two different species rather than individuals who normally only have a gap of a few weeks between these two forms of education. Our early findings indicate that learner’s information and digital literacy practices do not alter significantly as they enter university. This is why it’s so important for the higher education sector to take note of reports such as this, reports that give an insight into the information and digital literacies of incoming students who are unlikely to significantly modify their approaches to the web in their first years at university.

Visitors and Residents – an update

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Last week myself and Lynn Connaway of OCLC gave an update on the JISC funded Digital Visitors and Residents project for the JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme. It was an online session with a healthy flow of text-chat discussion/banter.

Thanks to the support of the JISC infoNet folk the session is also available to play back ‘live’ or in audio form. Dr. Bex Lewis (@drbexl/@digitalfprint) also constructed some very useful live notes which contain key screenshots and links.

A number of themes/questions emerged from the session some of which Helen Beetham has captured in a blog post which I have reproduced (including comments) with very minor edits below. The ensuing discussion in the comments (possibly) demonstrates how closely the notion of digital literaces is tied to fundamental conceptions of education and the function of universities. I wonder if this is because taking a literacies approach helps to direct discussion away from simplistic tech = efficiency notions which often lurk within teaching and learning related projects?

The Digital Visitor and Residents project will report on its activity and findings in phases 1 and 2 towards the end of January. The report extends much of what is discussed in the online session by suggesting the implications of our findings for the sector. As the project progresses into its 3rd phase next year we hope to evolve these implications into pragmatic recommendations for the sector. In the meantime we will continue to raise themes that we think are of value as we discover them in our data.

Taken from HelenB’s e-learning blog

Digital visitors and residents – some thoughts

I took part in an online seminar on the Digital visitors and residents project at a Collaborate seminar organised by the JISC last week. I think this is a useful metaphor to have in play, and the findings of the project which look extremely valuable in extending our understanding of what motivates students to engage in the digital environment. There are obvious links with the JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme: by helping explain what strategies students are using, the project can help us understand what educators might do to validate or further develop those strategies, or introduce others that might give students greater repertoire and fluency.

Some of the early findings obviously replicate work that has been done in the past to problematise the digital natives narrative, to demonstrate that personal/social skills with technology are not highly transferable to learning, and to recognise that students have many strategies for using technology to support their studies which do not necessarily coincide with what institutions see as ‘good’ study skills (the Learners’ experiences of e-learning studies confirmed both of these).

I do have some thoughts about the metaphor itself, which I shared at the seminar. For example:

  • Is the place vs tool metaphor one that the project is using, or one they are finding that participants use in thinking about the online space?
  • How far is the metaphor a design artefact of the environment and how far is it a property of the individual’s stance towards the environment? For example, ‘windows’ are intuitively spatial. Drop down menus are intuitively tool-like. Most software interfaces combine both to give different messages to the user about how to behave.
  • We know that people’s behaviour in online environments is very strongly influenced by those environments – arguably more than any innate factors including age, confidence with technology etc. At least, it is a question that can be researched: to what extent is behaviour in online environments an aspect of relatively stable aspects of the person and to what extent it is environmentally determined? This might vary depending on the environment in question (and even on the person??)
  • I am assuming that the metaphor distinguishes behaviours and not individuals. i.e. we are all visitors and residents in different contexts.
  • As described in the seminar, the visitors-residents continuum seems to combine a range of behavioural and perceptual aspect: the metaphors we use when we engage with technology; whether we are behaving as individual or social participants/learners; whether we are behaving as consumers, collaborators or producers of content etc. There is an empirical question here: to what extent are these different factors linked? Is this a question the project is trying to answer?

One of the dimensions along which visitors and residents were said to differ is whether their behaviour is ‘instrumental’ or ‘networked’. For me, the web 2.0 era is essentially one in which to be networked IS to be instrumental. Asking a question of my twitter followers is me being instrumental. In exercising my agency I recognise the value of collaboration.

So, this post is meant to open a conversation that I hope will be a productive one!
Posted by HelenB at 03:25


David White said…

These are all very useful questions that contribute to what is an evolving idea.

My experience is that at the simplest level people find the V&R continuum helpful in coming to an understating of their own practice. Often it becomes a useful validation of Visitor style approaches (Yes, this is about behaviour and context) and counters some of the more damaging aspects of techno-evangelism that circulate.

In answer to the ‘environment’ question I find Google Docs is a useful example: When I’m using Google docs I tend to engage with it in exactly the same manner as I would Microsoft Word – to me it’s a tool (I act in a Visitor mode). However, as soon as somebody else appears and starts to edit alongside me the tool becomes a ‘space’ and my engagement with it shifts (My mode of engagement becomes more Resident). So my notion of ‘space’ is somewhere-where-there-are-other-people. My ‘Social Threshold’ post goes through this is a bit more detail:

Your point about the possible stable aspects of a person vs environment is a tricky one because, for example, I will lurk in Twitter sometimes and sometimes I will be active. It depends on what I stand to gain and the context of the moment. So I don’t think it’s possible to develop a fixed model of person + environment = mode of engagement. It may be possible to develop the most probable mode of engagement given certain factors which is something I hope the project will be able to address.

Yes there are a lot of factors here and rather than become too entangled in them I try to cut the Gordian knot by always asking what the learner thinks they are trying to achieve – why did they choose to engage in a certain way? Having said that, I’m very interested in exploring possible links between Visitor and/or Resident modes of engagement and the way in which learners perceive the process of learning itself.
14 December 2011 08:55

HelenB said…

Nice comment Dave, and thanks for adding more detail to the V&R analysis.

I like the nuanced metaphor you are offering and I especially like that it is a useable one (it is a tool for understanding what we do/who we are, therefore a Good Thing to have). But deep down I suppose I believe that the really important difference between people in all their spheres of action is one of capital/power. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, the internet’s knowledge resources are no different from other resources of intellectual capital in this respect. If you are already reasonably well endowed, you perceive it as a tool, a space, a library, an extension of personal agency. If you are not, you perceive it as a place to shop and watch other people’s home videos. Or perhaps you see it as frightening, disempowering, a labyrinth, a pit of immorality. Arguably, the internet just makes it easier for those who know what they want to know to find it, and those who already know who to know, to build their networks.

So how people behave – and the metaphors available to them for understanding their own behaviour – for me always have to be seen against that larger picture and the metaphors should not take on a life of their own.

Also I think we need to be aware of devices, interfaces and services as designed for use (design as a means of achieving power over the user as well as providing a service). They have designs on us, even though we can appropriate them for our own ends individually and collectively. So perhaps for me a sign of digital literacy development would be (a) an awareness of the metaphors we are being offered as users, as being the first step to a conscious adoption or resistance to them (b) a capacity to generate alternative metaphors as users, and (c) eventually a capacity to design new metaphors for ourselves and others by developing (co-developing) new interfaces, communities, networks, and uses. I’m not sure how this trajectory maps to the visitor-resident continuum.

Seb Schmoller has this evening drawn my attention to a nice article on the digital divide in Scientific American:
14 December 2011 12:45
David White said…

The learners we have been interviewing are predominantly driven by convenience, this is their primary reason for engaging online even when they know that what they might find is only going to be ‘good enough’ and that other sources or places might be ‘better’. It is interesting to consider how much power we are prepared to give up to devices and services in the name of convenience.

I agree that it’s important to make visible the age old power/capital situations which are being mirrored online. In my opinion learning how to ‘see’ media and the internet in these terms is an important literacy. This, I think, is especially important for those looking to gain credibility or power via Resident style approaches. Having said this I don’t see the value of focusing directly on inequalities online. I can attest to the fact that it’s much easier to get to the information in Wikipedia than it is to get into the Bodleian. What makes me suspicious is the denigration of extremely accessible forms of knowledge online by those who currently hold positions of intellectual power. – My point being that the web is in some ways so empowering that we occasionally find it culturally unacceptable or perhaps we find it difficult to adjust to the new ways in which power can flow.

The Visitors and Residents metaphor is a relatively basic tool for unpicking the complexity of our engagement with technology and, possibly more importantly, our engagement with others via technology. As with any metaphor it can only be taken so far before it fractures but it is proving to be a useful lens for coming to an understanding of how learners are appropriating (and being pushed around by) technology. It has also been useful in understanding why certain institutional technological interventions/services fail even though their web based counterparts are highly successful.

I have seen the metaphor appropriated in a variety of ways and had useful conversations around the different contexts it can be used in. For me it’s value is the understanding it facilitates.
15 December 2011 02:14

Martin Oliver said…

“How far is the metaphor a design artefact of the environment and how far is it a property of the individual’s stance towards the environment?”

…presumes a neat division exists between the two, whereas elsewhere in the post (e.g. in relation to visitor in one context, resident in another) the two intertwine in a much more ANT-like way.

I tend to wonder, how much is the metaphor recognisable to an individual, given their previous experiences – and is it so recognisable that they fail to notice it? So – like some of the other learner experience work – I’m really curious about the way biographies shape our ability and inclination to read and use what we encounter.

Really liked the point about the Internet as tool/space/shop/scary labyrinth. As you say in the original post, being really ‘digitally literate’ could or should include being able to read such metaphors in a critical way, and even construct alternatives. I was in a digital literacies meeting today ( where Mary Lea made a passionate plea not to loose that critical tradition in digital literacy work – a plea made because it seemed to be getting lost in the more skills/cognition take on digital literacies that was at the fore in several of the presentations.

BTW, in relation to the presentation – it may just be me worrying unnecessarily, but I really hope that the interest in demographic prevalence analyses doesn’t re-create the native/immigrant binary by the back door.
15 December 2011 12:04

HelenB said…

Thanks Martin for adding your voice to this exchange. I don’t think I disagree with anything David is saying: I think it’s just a matter of emphasis. Yes, ‘it’s much easier to get to the information in Wikipedia than it is to get into the Bodleian’, but let’s not elevate this to a ‘new pedagogy’ or imagine that it abolishes other inequalities of access. Critical thinking and acting requires more than information. Universities are not the only source of critical thinking in/of/about digital media, perhaps not even the most influential but let’s define what Universities ARE good for in this age of information. For my money it’s public/open scholarship plus developing digital literacies of the critical variety.
For a fabulous example of both, here’s a web site/activist project/geography programme at Exeter that I’ll be learning more about tomorrow. I can’t wait:
15 December 2011 13:28

David White said…

I use the Visitor and Resident metaphor as a method of understanding what is going on out there in terms of practice. I try not to be too prescriptive about the actions that could be taken having gained a better understanding (although I’m happy to make suggestions 🙂

For me the skills/cognition route is an odd one given that we are supposed to be ‘higher’ education. It hints a an underlying learning-technology-as-a-machine mindset. This is where I think the ‘web as a space/place as well as a tool’ idea can be useful in encouraging a critical approaches.

@Martin I’m trying to avoid a demographic based analysis by talking about Educational Stages not age. It’s complicated by the fact that most undergrads are between the ages of 18 and 21 so the notion of educational context and age tend to be coupled. Ideally I would like to extend the project to investigate a wide range of lifelong learners. This should lead to results which break the educational context – age link. Within the current project we have tried where we can to interview a-typical students within the educational stages but our sample is quite small so I’m not convinced this will be enough to counter the problem.

@Helen What is interesting me is the extent to which learners are developing their own literacies and the extent to which they can access information outside of traditional contexts. Much of what is happening isn’t new in essence (as we so often find once we decide that something being ‘digital’ doesn’t automatically make in ‘new’) but the scale of activity has powerful implications.

Overall the message is very encouraging. Time and time again learners indicate their desire to be taught and to improve their critical thinking. There is a huge respect for the idea of the university and for the expertise that it represents. It reminds me that while the sector should understand it’s position relative to the web and the ‘network’ it needs to hold true to it’s tradition of critical thinking and of disrupting lazy world views.
16 December 2011 01:59



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

The cost of Residency?

Monday, August 15th, 2011

We like to think of online platforms usurping each other as we move to the latest and greatest of a particular format, leaving the previous version eroding in a Kipple like fashion – the MySpace to Facebook to Google+ narrative. I’m not convinced that this is a useful story and wonder if the web is better thought of as an ever expanding space rather than a migrating community. I suspect that Google+ for example will be inhabited by more than the diaspora from Facebook and Twitter. In fact what interests me about Google+ beyond ‘circles’ is the way in which the platform has expanded the geography of social web so massively in such a short space of time.

Estate agent window smashed

Given this Google’s new platform highlights the impossibility of residing everywhere online, of having a live profile in all of the key places – it’s time-consuming to maintain a meaningful presence in one social media space let alone two or three.  To keep things practical you have to decide where you are going to reside online and have a reasonable idea of what role that residency will play in your life: personal, professional, academic, escapist or a delicate cocktail of the above (and we all know how dangerous cocktails can be). To counter the potential alienation of residing online it is useful to reflect on what your motivation to engage is: maintaining f2f relationships, living-out ‘strong-tie’ relationships, building a professional network, building a personal learning network or just good old fashioned self promotion in the hope of invites to warm places… Time is the non-negotiable cost to Residency and to maintaining fulfilling relationships of any form. The way this precious resource is spent, especially in the context of learning, needs to be better understood by those of us promoting the idea of digital literacy.

We are just coming to the end of the pilot phase of the JISC funded Visitors and Residents project framed round my original idea for understanding individual’s engagement with the web. The project is in partnership with the OCLC and for the pilot phase we interviewed students from the US and the UK in late-stage high school and first-year University. There are many interesting trends emerging from the project and it is the case that some students are more Resident than others. Most of our participants talked about the cost of being Resident online in some form which has led us to include ‘time-wasting’, ‘distraction’ and ‘addiction’ into the code-book we are using to analyse the interviews.

I thought like coming into A levels, I’d need to be able to focus without having Facebook at the back of mind, because at GCSE, you know when you have coursework, I’d always go, okay I’ll go on Facebook, I’m going on MSN, I’d just stay logged in and then I’d do my coursework on the side, but I just ended up staying on Facebook.


I live on my email and Facebook also, which I’m not as proud of.  Just because it’s a time vortex.


I am not that bad with Facebook but I get annoyed sometimes … I find myself being on there for more than 15 minutes or 20 minutes. It is pointless, it is a waste of time and then I think sometimes I get annoyed with how long I can spend on the computer when I could be probably doing something else.


Essentially if your normal mode of operation is mainly Resident then it’s difficult to go online and get on with activities that require a Visitor approach without checking-in to all your Resident spaces and risking distraction. The participants in our study are well aware of this and one even put her Facebook account on ice so that she could pursue her learning more effectively. It’s a tough decision though as much homework is discussed and possibly collaborated on (participants are always wary of this idea as it is unclear where collaboration merges into plagiarism) in Facebook IM. If your friends aren’t logged into Facebook at that moment then a text message goes round asking them to get online so that work can be tackled.

People do post a Facebook thing so and saying something like, “Everybody in my Biology class, what was it we were supposed to be doing?”


Like usually with homework I usually can do it myself.  But like, like sometimes I will just like IM my friend on Facebook and will be like, “Hey do you know how to do this?”


Facebook messaging has really replaced email in the lives of students.  So that’s – if it’s more something that we’re trying to structure and actually build upon over some time, it would be a Facebook message…


When the Visitors and Residents idea is discussed it is often with the implication that becoming more Resident or facilitating that process is going to be of value. In my video discussing V&R I make the point that a Visitor approach to formal education is more likely to be successful than a Resident one given that all students are likely to end-up isolated at a desk in an exam room at the end of their courses – i.e. the education system assesses our ability to be Visitors not Residents.

We also have to consider which mode of engagement is most appropriate for the world of work and perhaps more importantly which mode best supports individuals as citizens or as members of a range of communities? Thinking in terms of mode-of-engagement is one way of framing our approaches to digital literary– the definition of this as taken by the JISC strand of digital literacy projects being appropriately broad:

“ literacy defines those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society..”

Characterising digital literacy as a  simple drive towards Residency would be dangerous; digital literacies are required and acquired as much at the Visitor end of the continuum as they are at the Resident. If we are attempting to support students and equip them with relevant digital literacies we need to be more precise about the value of ‘just-visiting’ or ‘moving into’ particular online spaces. Our project is mapping motivations-to-engage and evaluating a wide range of approaches.  I’m hopeful that we will be able to develop methods by which individuals and groups can plan their travels through the ever expanding online landscape.


Image credit:  CC – Some rights reserved

Re-using 2 minutes guides

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Last term we added a 2 minute guide to our comprehensive online  support site. This site has always been designed for the least technically confident user imaginable, as we know from our support calls that they are the ones who need the help.  However in  the last couple of years it has become clear that the  majority of our students are competent IT users who didn’t look at our support site because it was too large.  Paradoxically this meant they missed out on the information even a confident IT user really did need –  hence our 2 minute guide.

In developing the guide I decided to take the OER route as surely we were not the first to write such a thing.  The nadir of this process was finding a 2 minute guide as a 5 minute video.  However,  in the end, old fashioned non OER reuse was the solution – I asked permission and paraphrased something someone else in the Department had written.

So an everyday story of pragmatic reuse.  Something I have recently been reminded about both in the context of our OER Impact work and our recent google analytics report which showed that the average time spent on the 2 minute guide page was 2.02 minutes – shall I let the person who originally wrote the content know?

Image: 1305 Seconds / Rob Lockhart / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Social Threshold

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Society is constantly negotiating the boundaries between the public and the private. Surveillance, comments made in private but at work and exposing private lives in the papers are just some of the areas under permanent discussion. Back in days-of-yore the threshold between the public and the private was commonly the door-step. We talk of ‘Crossing the threshold’ as in stepping in from the public space of the street to the privacy of a dwelling. All cultures have always had back channels which circumnavigate the formality of this type of threshold, of being ushered into the front parlour, but it generally used to be possible to assess the level of privacy of a given situation by the walls it was taking place within and who was in the room.

Front Door

Social Threshold (some rights reserved:

The integration of technology into society and the new forms of interpersonal connections it can facilitate erodes the ‘who is in the room?’ or ‘what room am I in?’ systems of assessing privacy. This stretches from snail-mail all the way through to security cameras. We can easily be caught out by technology which makes socially demarked spaces leaky. For example:

  • Discovering the mobile phone in your bag has dialled someone and left a 5 minute voice message of the private conversation you were having with a colleague.
  • Realising that the baby monitor has projected the lullaby you were singing to your child into the living room and probably the living rooms of a number of neighbours who also have young children.
  • Finding out after the fact that the conference session in which you made an offhand comment at about your institution was being live streamed onto the web.
  • Stumbling across tagged photos of you at a party posted in Facebook by others.

These are examples of where the public/private character of a physical space is disrupted by technology. When the primary ‘space’ is online the situation becomes more complex. Here are a few examples from my own experience:

  • Discovering that my ‘Can someone please make it lunchtime?’ tagged tweet in a small parallel conference session was being projected in a Twtterfall on a huge screen behind an eminent panel in the main hall.
  • Being told in an online meeting room that all private text chat messages were visible to moderators, after having made slightly disparaging remarks about the session in ‘private’ to a colleague.
  • Essentially being told-off on the phone by my very Scottish mother for using the American spelling of ‘whiskey’ in a tweet about 30 minutes after I posted it.

In all these cases assumed levels of privacy had to be reassessed in an uncomfortable moment of disjuncture. My imagined social map of the spaces had to be quickly redrawn as the original boundaries were shown to be permeable.

Researchers investigating Massively Multiplayer Online games or Virtual Worlds understand this type of disjuncture which in these cases is forgrounded by the presence of an avatar. The potential embodiment of the individual’s identity and form within the virtual space highlights the fact that he or she is existing simultaneously across two worlds. It’s the shifting nature of the extent to which the individual is in the physical or the virtual world which can cause suspicion and unease to the uninitiated. The boundary between the online and offline worlds has been described as a ‘semi-permeable membrane’ with influences passing in both directions.

I suggest that these membranes or social thresholds not only exist between online and offline spaces, but also between online platforms and constantly need to be redrawn as we attempt to map our own sense of the public and the private. In my case I was technically aware that my tweets were open to Google but it was only at the point at which I discovered my mother Googled for them that the threshold shifted. A wall had been knocked down in my public/private landscape.

My ‘Digital Visitors and Digital Residents’ continuum focuses on the importance of the social perceptions and motivations of individuals as they approach the web. A shift from Visitor to Resident activity involves crossing a social threshold. The position and width of the threshold along the Visitors and Residents continuum will be different for each individual, dependant on their perception of when a platform or online activity becomes social or public (with a small or large P). This is the point at which a platform changes from being a ‘tool’ to a ‘space’ in the mind of the individual, when the mode of engagement takes on a social edge. Google Docs is a good example; for me it is simply a word-processing tool until I notice that others are editing, at which point the public/private boundaries shift slightly and the tool has became a social space; it has moved one step closer to being public. My behaviour changes as I begin to cross the social threshold.

Google Docs

Word processing becomes social

Social media platforms, with their inherent hyper-connectivity require the user to hold highly complex multi-dimensional maps of them as social spaces, with many thresholds of differing permeability. It’s a long way from closing-the-front-door type methods of creating privacy boundaries. Some people are very skilled at managing the ‘edges’ of these social maps and manage their digital identities with great skill and to great effect. The rest of us have come to expect occasional moments of disjuncture.

I would argue that our notions of the public and the private don’t yet account for the width of these social thresholds or for the speed at which they can shift. We constantly negotiate the boundaries between the public and the private but we have an expectation that these boundaries, while moving, will remain sharp. The web and especially social media platforms defocus our understanding of these boundaries. Our ability to map and remap our relationship with these social thresholds is a key form of digital literacy, and possibly a new life-skill (if I can call it that).

What intrigues me is the possibility that those growing-up with these technologies may have a different perception of what privacy means and different approaches to managing their social landscapes. We now generally agree that the Digital Native does not exist as defined by age, but other generational nuances may exist, not in access and skill but in terms of managing and accepting shifting social thresholds.

Does the Technology Matter?

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Recently I have given keynotes at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference (video here .wmv format) and the  Technology Enhanced Learning Symposium at DeMontfort University (slides here), both of which explored the flow of technology from shiny innovation through to  embedded use within an institutional environment. I did this from the perspective of the individuals/groups involved rather than by describing the evolving affordances of digital platforms. This approach being an attempt to avoid the ‘what’ of technological determinism, concentrating instead on the ‘why’ of institutional/individual motivations.

A few of the things I covered included:

  • Drawing out the similarities and differences between the geeks gate keeping the BBC Micro in 1982 with the beautiful people (in expensive jeans) ‘life-styling’ the iPad in 2010.
  • Highlighting the daunting breath of activity and motivations that now come under the increasingly useless banner of ‘digital’ by contrasting the excellent Hierarchy of Digital Distractions with the contents of the 2009 GCSE in Information Communications Technology.
  • Asking the audience to reflect on their own personal motivations and positions relative to my ‘Six Very Simple Diagrams’: Role, Desire, Pedagogy, Technology, Motivation and Bickering.

Of these ‘Role’ seems to cause the most discussion:


Do you see your role as one of successfully embedding technology  until it becomes ‘transparent’ or is it more about challenging current practices using the tech as a driver for change? It could of course be a combination but my experience within the Higher Education sector is that groups coalesce around either ‘disappear’ or ‘disrupt’. This, in my opinion, is why individuals who can facilitate communication between these groups are crucial to the ongoing innovation-embedding flow within any institution.

The apparent opposition within the disappear-disrupt paradigm was brought back to mind when I was invited to take part in a ‘Does the Technology Matter?’ debate for the ALT-C conference later this year. Inspired by some slightly belligerent Tweeting around the concept by myself, @josiefraser and @mweller Dave Cormier hung the tensions embodied in the statement very elegantly on Smartboards (although he could have chosen any number of technologies) in his ‘It’s about the technology and it isn’t’ post. In the post he neatly balances the push-pull nature of the introduction of new tech into a classroom situation, highlighting what the effects of a new technology can be and what is simply foregrounded by the presence of that technology.

For me this aligns well with the disappear-disrupt concept in that your position on this continuum will underpin your reaction to the ‘Does it Matter?’ statement. This brings me to extend the question into a more useful form: ‘Does the Technology Matter for What?’ which does not have an objective answer as it is inextricably linked with ‘What do you Think you are Trying to Achieve?’ Oddly the latter question is often passed over when ‘new’ technologies are being introduced with vague allusions to ‘efficiency’ or ‘it’s what the students want’.

Again it’s the ‘what’ not the ‘why’ which tends to get focused on. As an example I would cite the ‘digital literacy’ debate in which motivations to engage frequently go unexplored leading to a focus on how to develop and maintain a successful digital identity as if this is the only way to live and learn. This in turn inevitably moves onto interminable discussions around facebook privacy options that ultimately spiral into the nature of society as a whole until lunch brings the whole thing to an inconclusive finish. Too much ‘what’ morphs into a woolly ‘why’ just as people start to get really hungry.

What I’m lobbying for here is a properly balanced conversation around ‘Does the Technology Matter’ in which we avoid simplistic posturing by making it clear what our assumptions and motivations are. In this way the discussion will help us to reflect on our own positions and how we can successfully collaborate with those around us who hold differing views but might well be trying to achive similar things. I’m not saying that I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing I just think that our underlying approach to technology is still a little 1982 and it’s time to accept that the picture is a bit more complex.

Visitors & Residents: The Video

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Last month I gave a presentation on the ‘Visitors & Residents’ principle at the ALT-C conference which was well received so I thought it would be worth videoing the talk under laboratory conditions…

Some of you might also be interested in our paper on Visitors and Residents:

Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011

Just a few notes to go with the video:

The original ‘Prezi’ presentation is here:

The tinyURL that is supposed to link to Andy Powell’s ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post is incorrect. Please follow this link instead.

At points I use the term ‘real life’ which seems to imply that anything which is online is somehow not part of ‘real life’. A better phrase would have been ‘offline’. Language in this area is difficult at best…

The quote “…just knowing how to use particular technologies makes one no wiser than just knowing how to read words” is a quote from Prensky’s recent paper on ‘Digital Wisdom’. In the journal ‘Innovate’. In other versions of the talk I refer to Prensky directly but seem to have omitted it when I was in front of the camera.  All other non-attributed quotes are anonymised statements from our students.

The images I used are under the Creative Commons license:

‘Tourist Trap’ visitor image
‘Rusholme’ resident image
‘Sunny Park’ web as a space image
‘Tool Box’ web as a toolbox image

Post-digital – an update?

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Earlier this week I ran a post-digital session with Rich Hall as part of the fringe (#falt09) activities around the ALT-C conference. We had an interesting time in the upstairs room of the Lass O Gowery in Manchester debating a series of statements which were designed to provoke post-digital thoughts, for example:

  • Learning technologists are obsessed with technology more than learning, which is why elearning will never make the mainstream.
  • We are purveyors of the worst kind of spin: ‘This new thing will solve all your problems’.
  • The speed of the change has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on the canvas of the digital.
  • People with educations have huge advantages over those with skills and always will.

While these did lead to a lively discussion, I was still no clearer by the end as to how to describe post-digital as a concept. For many the term seems to imply a discarding of digital technologies as if they were no longer important. It also appears to promise some sort of new world order – which is not helpful.

After the fringe session I was even more convinced that the post-digital was a useful concept but that we hadn’t found the right way of expressing it yet.

A room with a view at ALT-C 2009

A couple of days later I gave my presentation at the ALT-C conference on my ‘Visitors & Residents’ principle. I had inserted a reference to the post-digital at the end of the talk to make the point that the Visitors & Residents idea rests on issues of motivation and personal preference rather than age or technical skill. This seemed to me to be a post-digital principle but, influenced by my conversations around the subject during the conference, I suggested that the term post-technical might be more appropriate.Ok so before I continue, yes this is a kind of semantic exercise, but what we have here I think is a strong idea which is difficult to express. One of the conclusions of the fringe sessions was that the rapid rate of change in technology is causing accelerated cultural effects which we are struggling to describe. (This was echoed in Michael Wesch’s keynote at the conference.) So I think it’s important to develop our thinking in this area even if it is a bit of a bumpy ride.

I can recommend Ian Truelove’s recent post on some of the pragmatic effects a post-technical approach can have in education. As Ian points out the technical is all about learning, and then following, a series of rules. Rules that we need to grasp before we can express ourselves ‘properly’. The manual for most software is written in this style – a button-pressing, linear approach. And yet the most successful (I’m thinking here in terms of uptake) online platforms don’t seem to have manuals. This is not necessarily because they are especially simple to use, but because they are massively multi-user and simply by watching the behaviour of fellow users it is possible to ‘pick up’ not only how to use the platform but also why you might want to use it. This should come as no surprise as we are particularly good at learning by observing fellow members of our own species. (There will be a fancy pedagogic/sociological term for this. If you know it then please insert it here as you read.)

Basic button-pressing, user-interface-comprehending activity is becoming culturally normalised and an ever-decreasing factor in our engagement with digital technologies (i.e. many of us are already digitally literate, if you will excuse the terminology). In effect our approach to technology need not be technical.

A simple post-technical example: the substantive effects of Twitter as a platform cannot be described by its technical functionality. Reading a technical manual for Twitter would not help a user to become resident in that online space. As Andy Powell suggests this in his ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post, individuals have to experience the culture of the groups/communities/networks/flocks/whatever to really ‘get’ what the platform is all about.

The post-technical then does not put technology second or first, it simply liberates the debate from those who build/code/provide the technology and puts it into the hands of those who appropriate it, the users, or ‘people’ as I like to call them, who write essays and poetry in Word, transform images in Photoshop, sustain friendships in Facebook, learn stuff by reading Wikipedia and express opinions in blogs.

The perspectives we are currently using, to come to an understanding of the cultural/educational influence of digital technologies and the opportunities therein, need to be reconsidered. I’m not sure yet if the answer lies in post-digital or post-technical approaches but I’m looking forward to tending these ideas over the next few months and seeing if something beautiful grows.