Archive for the 'teaching and learning' Category

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.

Postdigital: Escaping the Kingdom of the New?

Friday, June 19th, 2009

New things are exciting. For example social networking. It’s a whole new way to interact with others, a reason why society is moving online isn’t it? But how to make it useful? What can we do with this new digital tool that goes beyond chit-chat? It should be possible to use facebook and Twitter for something of value for education but which one is better? Which one is more popular? Maybe there is something new just around the corner? …What could we do with Google Wave?…

I admit that I have a habit of thinking in this manner. It’s exhausting and somehow hollow. On a bad day I get a form of techno paranoia which involves creating a profile on any number of new services most of which I never revisit. To be totally honest some of my most successful conference presentations are attended by an audience 50% of whom are driven there out of a mild form of this paranoia. I like ‘new things’ and I enjoy talking about what new developments could mean for education but at times I have been overwhelmed and lost focus.

Digital Danger

 The Dangers of Being Digital
http://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/49634405/

I have been numbed by a tidal wave of the new:

“The speed of the change, however, has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on a the canvas of the digital; that the digital itself is the main driver of change.”

This quote comes from a working document outlining the postdigital. A principle which highlights the dangers of assuming the digital is the sole driver of change and makes the point that the digital as ‘new’ will quickly pass away.

As the ‘Planning for the Postdigital’ document describes all technologies go through a transition whereby they become culturally normalised. For example, the pen and the book have become ‘transparent’ tools, extensions of ourselves to be used appropriately to achieve goals but rarely discussed in of themselves. In the same way email and word processing are well on there way to becoming transparent. We now send a message or write a document. The digital is not discussed. It has ceased to be new.

“Things digital will be accepted alongside our other technologies and the slate swept clear of many of the distracting dualisms (and technological factions) that pervade the educational discourse. The postdigital frees us to think more clearly and precisely about the issues we face, rather than become tied to an obsession with, and the language of, the new.”

Electronic Calculator
An ‘Electronic’ Calculator?
http://www.flickr.com/photos/thecheals/2780671422/

Too much time is spent arguing about the relative merits of digital spaces such as Twitter and facebook. The key term here being ‘relative’. We are pitting digital against digital, new against new, a form of one-upmanship which distracts from the larger picture.

“The transition to a postdigital way of thinking allows for that previously coded as ‘digital’ to be woven into the wider discussion of social dialects that people bring to their acts of collaboration. One of the things we’ve learned from social research is that people tend to go online to find people they know and tend to replicate, at least in part, their social performances online. These performances, the communities that they occur in and the dialects that they represent and produce should be the critical loci for research in the postdigital age, not the technologies themselves.”

During the recent Open Habitat project, activity in a digital space (in this case Second Life) forced us to reflect upon and change our educational approach in day-to-day non-digital spaces. As this mirror effect emerged I became increasingly uncomfortable. We had set ourselves the goal of discovering new ways of teaching with new technologies not re-considering the nature traditional teaching. Worse than that, because Second Life supported a high level of social interaction the skills needed to teach within the digital space had a large overlap with those needed in a physical classroom. “When are you going to tell us something new” was the comment I received halfway through one presentation on the project.

I of course should not have felt uncomfortable but at the time my thinking was locked onto the digital and what it could provide that was new rather than what it brought that was of value. The Open Habitat project discovered approaches that were of relevant both online and offline. I needed to adjust my thinking to accept that this was valid, that it was ok to revisit age-old principles of socialisation and collaboration. The new technology could be a catalyst for this thinking even if it wasn’t the ultimate home for all of the what we had learnt.

The discourse that surrounds elearning (an ‘e’ which is increasingly redundant) is in danger of stagnating. As the digital becomes increasingly transparent we are likely to find ourselves squabbling over ever smaller chunks of newness. We will become like tadpoles in an evaporating pond, fighting for the last of what will inevitably disappear. Maybe it’s time for a metamorphosis in approach, away from the digital, towards the postdigital.

Where does Digital Identity lead to?

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Recent debates about ‘digital identity’ often diverge into two groups.

  1. Complex technical discussions about ‘identity management’ which become laden with acronyms and battling tech factions.
  2. Complex esoteric discussions about the nature of identity, truth and the human condition in which favored philosophers, linguistic theorists or psychoanalysts are brought out from the bottom draw and those involved in the debate either tune-out or have some form of digital-existential crisis.

Both of the above quickly become abstract and are almost impossible to combine in a pragmatic manner. In an attempt to move this debate forwards I simply want to change the focus from ‘What is digital identity?’ to ‘What is the point of having a digital identity?’ In essence: What is the function of my online persona?

My answer is that a representation of identity is a necessary precursor to forming relationships (personal/professional/educational). To put it another way the majority of us want to exchange social capital, to built trust, to gain kudos and to communicate with others. It’s much more effective (or maybe satisfying is a better word) to do this via a persona or identity rather than a blank-faced identifier.

The diagram below places the notion of ‘digital relationship’ in context.

Digital Relationships in Context

We seem to be very poor a separating these three layers when discussing what the web can, and does, provide for us.

In my opinion it is not valuable to explore the web represents as a ‘means of content distribution’ anymore. Content is no longer the webs weak point in the way it used to be 15 years ago, Wikipedia is proof of that (the trust issues being a smoke screen thrown-up by traditionalists).

I’m drowning in content…

Producing content and uploading is of course integral to the web but it needs to be seen in its proper context and not presented as ‘new’. For example, podcasts are simply a way of moving content around. They do have an impact as a new mode of distribution but at heart they are exactly the same as sending audio cassettes through the post. We need to be careful not to misrepresent efficiency/feasibility as fundamental change.

At another level we have become comfortable with using the web for basic communications. If we are honest this is mainly email which most people are comfortable with because it’s simply a version of an offline format. Where it starts to get interesting though is when individuals move beyond the simple identifier of an email address and start to project a persona onto the web that could be called a social presence.

The web offers a myriad of ways to do this. Some of them such as photos are not new but others like, microblogging, social networking and 3D avatars are. These new modes of representation do throw up complex identity issues but what is really important is that they allow us to form relationships and build trust in a manner which is more immediate and dynamic than the pen pal style interaction of email. The potential of these new modes of interaction to increase the ‘emotional bandwidth’ available to build relationships is both exciting and daunting.

In an educational context it is important to consider how the manner in which identity can be ‘projected’ by certain online services might affect the facilitation of the traditional student, tutor relationship1.. This moves us away from the web as a means of content distribution and focuses back on the heart of teaching and learning. The most valuable ‘reusable learning object’ is the tutor. They contain expertise which can be automatically tailored to a given teaching situation. They are one of the key reasons individuals choose to attend university instead of staying at home and reading books (other than gaining a qualification and socialising). The emergence of ‘digital identities’ marks a new maturity in the web which has becomes a platform capable of sustaining educational relationships.

The new forms of social engagement available online influence educational relationships in a variety of ways; for example, microblogging and MUVEs tend to erode the traditional stratification of expertise and authority between students and tutors whereas online meeting rooms and VLEs tend to support existing hierarchies by replicating real life roles such as ‘Presenter’ and ‘Participant’. It is also possible to see subtle shifts in dialect and acceptable behavior when moving between online services, an understanding of which should be included in the notion of what it is to be ‘digitally literate’.

So, let’s avoid getting caught-up in the recent epistemological cul-de-sac that is the digital identity of the individual by considering not what digital identity is but where it leads. Let’s explore how it can move us to the place where the potential for the most intense learning resides; in the relationship between the tutor and the student.

1. Of course there are also the student-student and tutor-tutor relationships, not to mention the word ‘community’ etc but I can’t cover all these angles in a single post…

Reflections on the ‘Conference that Cares’

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Attending the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) conference in Brighton last week was an intriguing experience for me. There was something in the atmosphere that I had trouble tuning into, something which pervaded every session but which I couldn’t pin down. Until, at the end of the first day I had sudden moment of clarity, the mysterious and all pervading dimension to this conference that was evading me was the fact that these people really care about what they do.

The first clue was an impassioned keynote from Ronald Barnett, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education. This was a presentation from someone who believed in education and had a real feeling for the emotive realities that students face, pulling out terms such as “anxiety”, “excitement” and “scary” from student quotes. In my opinion we often forget the emotional rollercoaster learning can be and how that ‘ride’ is integral to the experience not something that should be entirely ironed out.  In tension with this notion is the challenge that tertiary education continues to face under an implicit acceptance of ‘students as consumers’. This topic was not shied away from leading to a pithy debate on Twitter which included the plea: “We must kill off this idea before it kills us off”…

The importance of not allowing educational research and teaching practice to continue to diverge was a key theme which suffused the conference. This trend is to the detriment of both groups who need to learn from each other. It seemed clear to me that institutions should to do more to create roles which are less segregated, roles sit under the larger banner of ‘academic practice’ that can denote research and teaching.  The challenges inherent in making this happen was an area which I touched upon in my session entitled ‘Not Killing the Creative’. I reflected on the methods employed (some more successfully than others) in the recent JISC funded ‘Open Habitat’ project. Methods which attempted to make the overlap in the centre of the ‘educational researcher’ and ‘teaching practitioner’ Venn diagram as wide as possible.

The majority of the SEDA delegates are in professional positions which act as a bridge between the highest tiers of policy making and the teaching/research (there’s that problem again) staff within universities. These are the people who have the ability to embed new teaching and learning strategies and to influence culture change within tertiary education. It was refreshing to hear the closing thoughts in the opening keynote including the phrases ‘We need to play the game” and “We have to be subversive”. If institutional approaches are to be improved from within then a subversive playing of the game by people who care is exactly what is needed.