Archive for the 'society' 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

We have become the barn

Monday, April 8th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long silence followed.

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

MOOC: Self-Service Education?

Monday, February 18th, 2013

As the IT director for Sainsburys pointed out at BETT a couple of weeks ago ‘self-service’ caused a revolution in retail during the 20th century. It allowed for greater choice, efficiency and of course scale. It put the ‘super’ in supermarket in the same way that the web has put the (potential) ‘massive’ into MOOC.

At first glance the current wave of publicity-garnering MOOCs appear to be the equivalent of self-service education. Big out-of-town locations for education with an increasing range of products that you are free to browse at leisure.

Pick a product and pay for accreditation as you pass through the tills…

Lost in the supermarket


This perhaps is a little disingenuous though as there is more effort required than simply putting a course in your basket to gain validation. Automated testing and peer assessment are legitimate ways of assessing levels of knowledge and, if properly designed, increasing understanding. This is the real challenge for MOOCs, as it is for any course; how can we encourage students to think? How do we best mix the ingredients we have available to increase the chances that those engaging with our courses will finish them with *both* increased knowledge and increased understanding? – I hope we can all agree that teaching with a view to increasing understanding is a large part of what higher education institutions are for(?)

I have heard teaching described as ‘what you have to do because there are more of them than there are of you’, it’s inherently about dealing with scale. In this sense many of the pedagogical challenges faced by the designers of MOOCs are the same as those to be found in face-to-face or non-massive courses. The danger though is that xMOOC style self-service education favours those who already equipped with the intellectual and academic techniques required to interrogate a subject. How do we encourage those who don’t have the necessary higher-education ‘literacies’ to wade through swathes of video lectures and online resources? One answer is already hiding in the MOOC format: the ‘event’.

MOOCs generally have a start and finish date which makes them a form of slow-burn event. Even though the web has an always-on, always-connected, constant-flow paradigm it is still largely event driven. We are drawn to specific moments in time which act as way-points in the ceaseless river of information and social noise. MOOCs are useful island in this river with a beginning, middle and end, a simple narrative we can organise around and hopefully contribute to even if we don’t choose to listen to the whole story. The principle of the event can be taken further though as I believe it is highly compelling, especially in an online context. This is what I’m focusing on with the new Oxford Connect format.

Educators and technologists have become adept at putting-the-curriculum-online but we have yet to master the nuances of the live event outside of the lecture theatre. Pi Day Live, the pilot event for Oxford Connect, is designed to be a moment in time where hundreds of participants gather online to take part in collective activity. It will be highly ‘Evented’ (an idea originally attached to ‘virtual worlds’ but which is broadly applicable), encouraging participants to be as Resident as possible for a short period. My hope is that in time this live format will become a valuable way of communicating ideas, concepts and research from Oxford. I envisage this format being used as part of large-scale online courses, incorporating the fellowship of live events to support communities of learners and to act as milestones in a larger pedagogical structure.

Perhaps the live event is what is missing from xMOOCs and the expertise of the connectivists is what’s needed to counter a self-service mentality which disenfranchises those without with the literacies required to go-it-alone in online learning?


Break out of the loop and see the helix

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

I was reminded by the writings of King Solomon of an idea I had a few years ago but neglected to write down. In Ecclesiastes he draws a picture of the never-ending cycles of life which could be seen as having a beautiful balance and harmony but perhaps more commonly as acting like a monotonous cage.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.


CC – tidefan

Certainly my recent experience online  has felt like being trapped in a loop. I have been on/in Twitter for about five years now and most of what I see sailing past about education and/or technology appears to me to be a rehash of ideas I heard in previous years. Similarly in the land of shiny-tech there seems to have been very little of interest. It’s all higher rez, faster and thinner but in essence it’s not moving on. Witness the bored response to the latest iPhone. It’s as if we greedily consumed technology, are now feeling queasy and couldn’t possibly consume another Smartphone. We talk of elegant consumption but it feels bloated to me. Where has the dynamic, frontier-like web gone? Am I suddenly too old to ‘see’ the leading edge or is a large part of what happens online just the passive reception of main-stream media?

I worked on digital projects for the BBC at the turn of the century. Back then us young-guns felt as if we were on the verge of something genuinely new – outside of the loop (we were enthusiastic and a little naive). Looking back now it appears that the moment the iPlayer started to work smoothly the BBC stepped away from Social Media engagement and many there heaved a huge sigh of relief when they realised that ‘online’ could be used to distribute TV and Radio. Despite the promise of the web are we trapped in our classic producer-consumer cycle? Perhaps advertising a hash-tag at the start of a programme is all that is needed, maybe that’s what taking-part was always going to mean? The truth is that there are very few people out there with something to say and the skills to express it, those that do are quickly assimilated into a broadcast mindset. Beyond 150 people it’s all celebrity and performance?

The never ending loop

A surface view only sees the loop

This is all surface though and the reality, as ever, is far more complex than my rant. There are fascinating and disruptive things happing out there in the unpredictable currents of the tide fight where society and tech wrestle. Our immediate perspective is often of a Solomon’s recursive loop but if we know how to ‘see’ rather than to just look we gain a much more interesting view.

A new perspective

A different perspective shows the slow forward movement of the helix

I think of socio-technical phenomenon as a helix. Viewed with an end-on limited perspective everything appears to be travelling repetitively around the same loop, it appears to be a closed circle but if we put more effort into seeing beyond the surface, into new methods of data collection and analysis, we can gain a side view, revealing a helix.  This perspective shows us a  slow but powerful movement forward. Often though, we are so trapped in the loop of the ever-new present that this progression is only seen in hindsight. Getting past the upgrade-now, 10 tips for teaching with iPads, HD, 3D, faster, better, stronger noise of the loop – sidestepping it if you like and seeing the real morphing/evolution of science and society is, for me, what higher education should be all about.

The single biggest factor that can give us the side-on perspective is the ability to critique and to ask pertinent questions. It’s the role of education to equip students with this ability to ask questions rather than to only seek the answers to questions posed by others. Historically the effort required to seek-out answers encouraged students to ask additional questions of their own but now we can find answers online so efficiently we don’t have to engage in critical thinking. Generally these answers are correct and appropriate – this is an issue which is more fundamental than ‘quality’ or ‘validity’, it’s part of a paradigm shift in what in means to ‘know’.

I joked that Google’s strap-line should be “Think Less – Find More”. I’m finding that idea less and less amusing, especially after seeing Google Now which is the current apex of not-thinking tech. I’m not against instant access to answers or technology that makes our lives ‘easier’, what I do want though is pedagogy that equips students from an early age with the ability to question the answers thrown back by this kind of tech. The huge cognitive offsetting the web offers us creates a space in which we should be able to ask more and better questions and yet our pedagogy and our assessment is still focused largely on answers until around second year of university (if you are lucky).

‘Bring Your Own Device’ or ‘Smuggle-in Your Own Device’ ensures that students are taking advantage of the cognitive offsetting of the web, it’s time to accept this and take-up the slack. Our Visitors and Residents project is finding that the digital literacies students develop at Secondary/High school are taken through well into university. We haven’t interviewed students younger than 17 years-old but I suspect that the digital literacies (and in some cases the critical literacies) of a 9 year-old are similar to those of a first-year undergraduate. As educators we have to teach critical thinking at a much earlier age otherwise students will be trapped in the highly pervasive info-factory of the web. Yes they will be able to find correct answers but will they be capable of questioning the loop conveniently designed around them (whether well meaning or not) from about the age of 8 by Google, Facebook and the like?

This brings me to the knotty problem of serendipity which as been bothering me for some time. It’s not possible to capture it’s essence without it slipping through your fingers. It is in this regard nicely Truth and Beauty in a romantic, dreaming-spires kind of a way and generally a bit of a headache for those outside of the social sciences and humanities. Proponents of the importance of serendipity such as Aleks Krotoski make the crucial point that the individual has to have the ability to be able to recognise the moment it happens (or the moment of potential). In other words they need to be able to bridge two apparently unrelated pieces of information and “…have the creativity to do something new with them” (Here I am talking about the individuals role in taking advantage of putative serendipity rather than technologies possible role in increasing the potential for serendipity to take place) . I now think of the moment of serendipity as jumping sections of the helix. It’s a transverse movement across the traditional corrals of understanding.

Serendipity and the helix

The transverse leap of serendipity

If the helix is imagined as a spiral staircase then those that can ‘see’ serendipitous moments have the ability to jump beyond their floor and leap multiple storeys in a single bound. Not only can they make this leap but they have the perspective to see the distance they have travelled. I would argue that this is unlikely to happen if the individual has been educated to only find answers to questions set by others.

In this era of instant answers where technology (or the business model of those providing the technology) is winding the loop around us ever tighter I’m pro equipping our students with the ability to make serendipitous leaps. I’m for stretching the helix so that each turn pushes us further. We need to promote critical pedagogies which put pressure on students to ask questions. Questions that gain perspectives beyond recursive consumption. Instead of falling into “Think Less – Find More” we should be encouraging our students to be suspicious of the loop, to be anxious to make leaps, and hopefully to “Question More – See Further”.

The future is not quite real-time

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

In a discussion with Lawrie Phipps (@Lawrie) I was reminded of something I was thinking about last year around the advantages of not quite real-time (NQRT). It’s one of the few genuinely unique affordances of the web. Asynchronous communication has been with us since cave painting and synchronous since two people first clapped eyes on each other. What is relatively new is the cultural acceptability of having anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 hours between contributions to a discussion or conversation (although between 10 seconds and around 5 minutes is the more interesting time-frame).

Egg Timer

Photo by Ian Barbour:

I’m thinking here about ‘Instant’ messaging, a Twitter stream, a Facebook wall and even ‘rapid’ emailing or forum posting. For example, I can receive a text message in Skype, check the web for information or speak to a colleague in the room and then respond. It’s powerful because it doesn’t demand the immediate attention of a f2f encounter or a ringing phone and it also gives me time to gather my thoughts/cross check information.

Not quite real-time is the main reason why most people are wittier, cleverer and all together more attractive online than they are f2f (note, I say ‘are’ not ‘appear to be’ – the web is real and so are the things that happen there…). It’s also a key reason why more people are comfortable to be perfomative on Facebook walls and in Twitter streams i.e. visible social interaction. This is a communication mode in which we feel a sense of interpersonal connection but also have some level of control over pace/timing. It’s a powerful because it’s social but doesn’t aggressively demand attention. This is why text will always be the dominant visible form of communication online and why many of us chose to not put our cameras on when Skyping.

The downside of NQRT is when it’s used as part of a focused event or discussion with more than two participants. In these cases the pace tends to increase rapidly until NQRT becomes achingly close to f2f speeds (4 seconds is about the maximum time between responses in a f2f conversion ) and the thinking-time gaps are crushed. When this happens the quickest thinkers and fastest typists win-out (or those who have pre-prepared text which they paste in…). This is why text-chats are often feel so exclusive, especially in an educational context – the usual suspects take the floor. It could be one of the many modes of engagement which erode when shifted from a personal to an institutional context?

It would be fascinating to study the nature of NQRT communications because it appears to be unique to the web and a relatively new cultural phenomenon. What is effect of NQRT on maintaining relationships and/or supporting communities? Is it a more inclusive form because it levels out the playing field and those who like to muse before expressing themselves can be part of the flow or is it fated to always speed-up and lose its advantages as soon as a discussion becomes interesting? It’s certainly something that warrants research, assuming a practical methodology could be developed…

Education should move us

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Last week I was involved in the ‘New Places to Learn’ HEA event held at the Said Business School in Oxford. The focus of the event was Flexible Learning and online Residency. It was my job to frame the day by laying out the Visitors and Residents metaphor and encourage the participants to consider the relevance of the Resident end of the continuum.

It’s a complex area and one which the HE sector is only just beginning to consider properly. It’s not clear where the boundaries lie (or even if there should be boundaries) in terms of ownership, roles and time.

Academic and Personal Development in the context of Visitors and Residents

Academic and Personal Development in the context of Visitors and Residents (Photo by Josie Fraser)

What is becoming clear, as mentioned by Alison Le Cornu, is the cultural shift away from the institution and towards the individual. With the erosion of the job-for-life principle our learning and professional progression is rarely framed by a single institution. Over time we are likely to become temporarily tethered to a sequence of institutions or to clusters of institutions. Any continuity is likely to be provided by our activity or presence online, the web providing the meta-place in which, to a certain extent, all the institutions we encounter exist. The continuity I’m referring to goes beyond the notion of the CV or even the ePortfolio, it includes the knowledge we produce and the communities/networks we belong to. The web allows the individual, beyond the institution, to become the hub that knowledge and value clusters around. Our relationships with institutions lend weight to the knowledge we produce and to our influence, but they no longer own those aspects of our persona as wholly as they used to.  As an example consider the movers and shakers in the field of Edtech – do they mainly blog under an institutional banner or as ‘themselves’?

This has always been the case for the high-flyers or the ‘thought leaders’ in many fields but the ubiquity of the web is giving those of us in more humble positions the opportunity to operate beyond the institution.

Will this be the predominant professional and learning mode-of-operation in the near future?

Those promoting Digital Literacies as more than a simple set of skills, such as JISC, certainly seem to think so. Their descriptions of ‘Digital Literacies’ often incorporate words like ‘professional, ‘lifelong’ and ‘personal’ in the same sentence. This broad remit which has been fostered by the social-web is also reflected in many of the graduate attributes universities aspire towards. For example, Brookes University talks of graduates ‘…engaging productively in relevant online communities’ while Southampton University promotes the importance of  using technology ‘…to work, research, learn and influence others in an increasingly digital world’. In my talk at New Places to Learn I proposed that to gain these ‘attributes’ individuals would increasingly need to engage with the web in a Resident as well as a Visitor mode.

At the event Dave Cormier proposed that the role of education should be to equip learners with the ability to cope with uncertainty, that we should be encouraging agile, innovative thinkers who can move and create in rapidly changing sectors. He suggested that having a ‘Resident’ approach online is now an important element of that agility.

Lindsay Jordan and Dave Cormier

Lindsay Jordan and Dave Cormier - (Photo by Josie Fraser)

It could be the case that building an extra-institutional persona and engaging with professional communities online is a good way to respond to increasing uncertainty? Is a Resident approach an opportunity for individuals to become more resilient at a time when institutions are becoming less so?

Even if this is the case many find being visible in their practice online stressful. Reflecting on her own teaching practice Lindsay Jordan highlighted that moving students from a Visitor to a more Resident mode online is often a painful process. She spoke of how distressing encouraging her students to start sharing in an open manner via blogging was – distressing both for her and for them.

Alan Cann spoke about his use of Google+ with students and showed that although they all had profiles on the platform their modes of engagement were actually spread evenly along the Visitor Resident continuum. It was clear that some students were tentative about sharing their thoughts and themselves online and engaged only because activity within the social media platform was being assessed. As a sector we struggle to engage students at the Resident end of the continuum and haven’t yet found elegant ways of activating learner-owned-literacies in an institutional context.

Last year I blogged about how I felt education should make us anxious. It’s a fine line to tread but I think it’s the role of the educator to push learners in this way. This is what Lindsay has been doing and it sounded like a tough but ultimately rewarding journey.  If we are going to equip learners to live and learn in an uncertain world it will surely involve a certain amount of pain and anxiety?

While I don’t think that a Resident mode of engagement is ‘better’ than a Visitor mode I am beginning to realise its importance in equipping individuals to become resilient beyond a single role or institution. Moving is always a painful process and this holds true when we move to inhabit ‘places’ online. The anxiety that this causes is, in my opinion, part of what it is to learn. Whatever our direction of travel education should move us.

My slides from the day:

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.

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



The Learning Black Market

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Last week I gave a talk about what I call the Learning Black Market at a Guardian seminar on the uses of Social Media for learning and teaching in higher education. It’s something that I have seen emerging from the data we are collecting for the Visitors and Residents project and from interviewing students for our study on the use of Open Educational Resources. In simple terms students personal use of the internet is generally very effective for their education but they are nervous that their practices are not valid and don’t reveal them to their tutors. The messages or lack of messages from educational institutions on these practices is generating a learning black market which masks the sheer scale of these new modes of engagement.

Scott Room at the Guardian

Printing press outside our Guardian seminar room

The Visitors and Residents project is capturing student’s motivations to engage with the web for learning in as broad a manner as possible. To guide our understanding of the interviews with students in the UK and the US we have added a vertical axis (see below) to the Visitor and Resident continuum. The Personal/Institutional axis allows us to plot student’s online learning activity and accepts that this activity is not bounded by resources and opportunities provided directly by the institution they are studying at. As the project progresses we hope to plot students trajectory through this digital landscape. It should also be possible to use this map as a tool to reflect on institutional approaches to digital literacy.

The learning black market exists largely in the Personal area of the map. Our data from the Transitional education-stage (Late stage secondary school + first year undergraduate) is indicating that learning activity in this area has two main elements:

Vistors and Residents map

1.    Emergency collaboration

Many of the students we have interviewed wait until the night before coursework is due then IM their friends in Facebook to confirm what they have been asked to do and to check they are taking the right approach. If they can’t find their friends in Facebook they text them to either ask for clarification or to encourage them to log-in to Facebook. There is an expectation that someone from their class will be in Facebook when they need them which is one of the reasons that coursework can be left to the last minute. I suspect that Facebook IM is used extensively for homework as it’s convenient and immediate. It’s also private and a very low risk way of collaborating with a fellow student. The extent to which coursework is actually completed via this method rather than just clarified is difficult to assess. There is a lack of understanding amongst students as to what constitutes plagiarism in this scenario and a consequential wariness around discussing this type of practice. The line between collaboration and plagiarism is not easy to define and I believe students would benefit from this area being openly discussed. This practice is also an interesting reminder that much of the activity in Social Media is not visible. Wall postings and twitter streams only represent a portion of the activity in these spaces meaning that platforms such as Facebook are effective at facilitating Visitor style approaches.

2.    G.W.R.

The majority of students activity is information seeking, this could be via another person but is usually a more direct engagement with ‘content’. What appears to be a common practice (we are still in the process of analysing our data) is this very simple process.

Google > Wikipedia > References

A search on Google to help complete an assignment commonly returns a Wikipedia article. As we know Wikipedia articles are pitched at an ideal level and length to get a handle on a new subject which is something our Transitional students have to do a lot. The problem is that most of the students in the Transitional education stage we have spoken to in the US and the UK have been told not to use Wikipedia and so keep this practice a secret. A simple way to do this without losing the value of the platform is to cite the references attached to the Wikipedia article rather than the article itself.  This appears to be a very successful strategy for coursework but can be done without any substantive learning taking place.

Learning Black MarketThere appear to be two main reasons that students have been told not to use Wikipedia. The usual, culturally acceptable, reason is that it’s not accurate because ‘anyone can edit it’. It’s difficult to support this claim and as Jimmy Wales said recently the decline in Wikipedia editing activity is partly because many entries are now so accurate that only key experts could add to them. There are examples of what I would call knowledge vandalism but these tend to be so farcical that they are easily identified. Even so the students are wary of Wikipedia despite rarely finding it lacking when they use it:

“…a lot of the times teachers say don’t use .com or don’t use Wikipedia, they like hate when we use Wikipedia.  But Wikipedia is always right, so I always use that. “

The second and more telling reason which is rarely expressed is because it’s too convenient. One of the US students asked a tutor outright why they didn’t like Wikipedia and got this response:

“The problem with Wikipedia is it’s too easy.  You can go to Wikipedia, you can get an answer, you don’t actually learn anything, you just get an answer. ”

The tutor then goes on to say that the process of learning is about collating and critiquing multiple sources not simply taking in a correct answer i.e. the path you take in forming a new understanding is as important as the resultant knowledge. The very valid ‘show your workings’ standpoint.

Student at laptopThis is fundamental to the debate around technology and learning and the real issue at stake. Describing the web or Wikipedia as ‘inaccurate’ or negating the use of sources that have been written by multiple ‘non-expert’ authors has little impact on the actual practice of students (or the success of those practices). The debate should be around how we evolve educational processes to take advantage of or to account for these new forms.  We cannot continue to teach the literacies that have been the mainstay of the educational system in their current form because the web smashes traditional paths to understanding.

There are good examples of the ways in which the web can be used to facilitate learning, new approaches which accept the situation has fundamentally changed and that learning is now less likely to be the result of successful information seeking. Many of these methods involve a more Resident approach to negotiating understanding and use classic scholarly notions of discourse to encourage learning over and above the now largely redundant retention of knowledge.  Unfortunately it appears that many practitioners are turning a blind eye to these issues and are stigmatising emerging learning practices by simply banning talk of platforms such as Wikipedia.

“They don’t fail you but you get ridiculed in front of everyone for sourcing Wikipedia.”

This is generating the learning black market in which is it all too easy to simulate understanding for coursework and formal assessments. Worse still, it is a market in which genuine learning can take place but is not being recognised because resources and practices are not seen as valid and therefore do not become visible to the formal education system. Students have told us that they learn from Wikipedia but also skim read the textbook to cover their backs in case they are asked a direct question…

Whatever the case it is clear that students need guidance on how to engage with the web for their learning and would greatly benefit from clearer messages around what it means to learn in the twenty-first century and how their practices may or may not intersect with the formal educational frameworks they find themselves in.


Scott Room – David White – CC attribution
Visitors and Residents map – CC attribution
Learning Black Market – Gilderic
Student at laptop – cindiann

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