Digital and physical spaces – notes from the reading group

Amy read – Institutional to Individual: realising the postdigital VLE? by Lawrie Phipps.

Lawrie starts this article by quoting himself – ‘Digital is about people’. He believes that learning is effective when we are connection in conversations and in groups – this is been proven many times over – but that these conversations should not be confined. The ‘confinement’ he talks of is the attempt by unnamed institutions to restrict their teaching staff by controlling the access and provision of alternative tools, which, Lawrie argues, don’t often align with their everyday activities. He mentions two projects that are taking places at universities – the Personalised User Learning & Social Environments (PULSE) project at Leeds Beckett (difficult to find anything about this online) and the Aula team, who have created a ‘conversational layer’ to run alongside a VLE and provide an ‘ecosystem for a range of other tools’.

The article moves on to discuss the emerging trend of disaggregation as being an indicator of ‘post digital academic practice’… I’d be interest to know what he means by this but the article does not shed any light on this. If I were to guess at its meaning I would think that the digital is becoming so integrated into our lives that it can no longer be considered a practice – it is seamless, and therefore doesn’t need to be recognised. He reminds us to be mindful of the other emerging themes of digital spaces; control, surveillance and ‘weaponised’ metrics used by corporate bodies and the use of algorithms to control our feeds.

Lawrie finishes by letting us know that ‘the report’ (I presume the ‘Next Generation Digital Learning Environments’, mentioned earlier in the article) is coming together nicely, and urges the reader get in touch if they have any relevant cases of disaggregation for practical purposes.

 

Chrysanthi read Digital sanctuary and anonymity on campus by Sian Bayne.

The article is trying to make a case for anonymity in online social exchange in the context of higher education.

The author points out that as part of the point of higher education is to help students own and defend their knowledge, anonymity is not usual, barring exceptions like peer review. But this works better for those with privileges than those without and it doesn’t work for every topic that a student would be interested in. In their view, anonymity offers 1. social value and 2. a way to resist digital surveillance. By looking at the use of an anonymous social media app called Yik Yak – which was popular for 2-3 years, but then removed the anonymity and then closed – they realised that it was a tool often used to facilitate anonymous peer support, which was very helpful to students concerning topics like social difficulties or isolation, relationships, health (sexual and emotional) or teaching-related issues.

Anonymity also serves to resist the ubiquitous surveillance that occurs in large part through social media, that record everything individuals do and like for their financial benefit. But there can be online social networks where students don’t need to hand over their data to be able to use them.

They argue that the absence of an app like this reduces students’ opportunities to a support group and that the counter argument usually put forward – that anonymous spaces facilitate abuse – is weak, considering abuse can and does happen everywhere, including non anonymous social media like Facebook. They are concerned about where the supportive conversations that people would previously have anonymously are happening now, for topics like mental health or relationships.  Overall, they believe universities need such anonymous spaces and should figure out how to implement them balancing data, trust & safety.

I think the author makes good points. Regarding where the conversations are happening now, I am assuming

1. other anonymous but not higher education specific spaces, such as reddit, which means people will get support, although from a broader population that is not coming from the same context, with all the challenges this implies.

2. non anonymous spaces, like Facebook, which means people are essentially broadcasting their issues on platforms that a. may use this information for their benefit and the student’s detriment, b. store and display the data with the user’s name for a long time, with no guarantees for who can/ cannot see it. This makes abuse easier, as well as enabling people looking up the individual (e.g. future employers) to see information they should otherwise not have access to.

3. they are not getting support, which could lead to isolation.

Overall, I do see the point of universities implementing anonymous digital spaces for their students.

 

Naomi read: The SCALE-UP Project: A Student-Centred Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programmes by Robert J. Beichner.

The author starts by describing these scale-up areas as places where ‘student teams are given interesting things to investigate, while their instructor roams.’ Although this is one of the short areas we hear about how the actual space is designed to improve learning and collaboration.The purpose of these teaching spaces is to encourage discussion between student’s and their peers. By working in small groups on separate tables within the classroom student’s can work on separate activities and use a shared laptop or whiteboard to research or make note of their findings. Thay can then discuss with other groups.

The main point of the paper revolves around the idea of social interaction between students and their teachers being the ‘active ingredient’ in making this approach to teaching work. Beichner talks about how student’s in these classes gain a better conceptual understanding then the student’s taking traditional lecture-based classes. Studies saw a high rise in student’s confidence, their problem-solving skills, as well as teamanship and communication. There is some concern about whether this approach is meaning less content is being delivered to the students, but Beichner argues the content is being developed and created by the student’s themselves.

Discussion led learning is always going to be popular, but we need to think about the physical space too and whether it is needed or not. The size of these classes needs to be considered too – what can be classed as too big? Beichner’s study was interesting, but not surprising, and it would have been good to know how the design or the space and tables aiding the learning too.

 

Suzi read The Educause NDingle and an API of one’s own by Michale Feldstein (which is a rebuttal to a rebuttal of the Educause Next Generation Digital Learning Environment report)

This is a clear and interesting artical discussing where learning management systems (LMSs) could/should go – as digital spaces for learning. The perspective on this is relatively technical, discussing the underlying architecture of the system but the key ideas are very approachable:

LMSs could move from being one application that tries to do everything, to being more like an oporating system on a mobile phone – hosting apps and managing the ways they can communicate with each other

Lego is also used as a metaphor for this more adaptable LMS, but Feldstein discusses the tension between having fairly generic blocks that don’t build anything in particular but allow you to be very creative (Lego from my childhood), and having sets which are intended to build a particular thing but which are then less adaptable (more typical of modern Lego). I found this a harder idea to apply, though I can appreciate that just because something comes in blocks and can be taken apart, doesn’t mean it is genuinely flexible and adaptable.

Personal ownership of data is discussed – the idea of students even hosting their own work and having a personal API via which they grant the institution’s LMS (and hence teachers) access to read and provide feedback on their work (“an API of one’s own”). This seems to me an attractive idea, in a purist origins-of-the-web way. People have suggested similar approaches in various domains, social media in particular, and I don’t know of any that have worked.

 

Suzanne read Semiotic Social Spaces and Affinity Spaces From The Age of Mythology to Today’s Schools by James Paul Gee. The premise of this text is to reconsider the idea of a community of practice, to think about it as related to the space in which people interact (and in what way), rather than membership of the community (particularly membership given to people by others, or through arbitrary groupings). Gee argues that thinking about community in this way is more useful, as membership means so many different things to different people, so trying to decide who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a group is problematic. He explains his ‘alternative’ to thinking about a ‘community of practice’ as an ‘affinity space’ in quite a lot of detail, using the analogy of a real-time computer game as an example, which here I won’t try to explain fully. However, some key ideas around what makes an ‘affinity space’ are that there needs to be some kind of content, generated by the community around a common endeavour. The people who interact with this content do so with an agreed set of ‘signs‘ with their own particular ‘grammar‘ or rules. This grammar can be internal (signs decided on within the group), or external (eg the way that people’s beliefs and identities are formed around these signs, and their relationship with them), and the external grammar can influence the internal grammar. Another interesting aspect is the idea of portals. An affinity space will have a number of ways that people can interact with it. To take the game example, the game itself could be a portal, but so could a website about game strategy, or a forum discussing the game. Importantly, the content, signs and grammar of the space can be changed by those interacting through those portals, so the content is not fixed. The final points are that people interacting in the space are both ‘expert’ and ‘novice’, and both intensive and extensive knowledge is valued. Individuals with specific skills or who a great amount of knowledge about a specific thing are as valued by the space as those who work to build a more distributed community of knowledge, and there are many different ways people can participate. Gee’s text presents quite an in depth concept, which seems quite theoretical. However, thinking about something like the Bristol Futures themes (Global Citizenship, Innovation and Enterprise or Sustainable Futures), we discussed how it might be applied, and how it might help us to think about things like reward and recognition, or success measures, in a very different way.

Suggested reading

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