The Ends of the Humanities

September 16, 2017

A conference with the same title, held between 10-13 September 2017, at the Université du Luxembourg’s Belval Campus, Esch-sur-Alzette, was provocative, insightful and challenging. Of our contribution later, but it’s worth pointing out that of all the discipline groups it is perhaps the Humanities that increasingly struggles to justify their place in the academic pantheon. The Arts, despite unfunded, at least sees tangible products in its performance. Science delivers the ‘advances’ that our societies demand and the Social Sciences observe, comment on and pontificate over such advances. It is the Humanities that feel so out of place, with the contemporary, with the narcissistic individualism focused on ‘me right now’ and the imminent promises of tomorrow.

There is a clear need emerging from this conference to remind our societies that they depend on the cultural skills and knowledge highlighted through the humanities disciplines. They are invaluable in revealing the present and future, reflected in the past. The Humanities sense of their responsibility towards societies is sadly not requited.

The conference provided multiple tracks all serving to highlight the means by which the humanities engage with, and inform, future societal cultural endeavours. The emphasis, at times with a tinge of defensiveness, was clearly on an acknowledgement of the need to reach beyond established academic practice. Hence there were contributions from neuroscience and linguistics, from political science and social policy as well as some analysis of the curriculum disparities in the humanities disciplines.

Our contribution, that of my wife Dr Jeanette Atkinson and myself, was a presentation entitled “An Alternative Education for the Heritage Decision Makers of the Future”. The presentation documented the course development process I’ve been evolving over a decade, and first taught as a PGCert module at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences in 2011.  It integrates other personal scholarship, notably around educational taxonomies and constructive alignment (S. P. Atkinson, 2013), but the process is in essence a structured professional dialogue between educational developer and academic course teams.

In this case the dialogue originated from a need, identified by Jeanette, based on her experience in researching and writing about the perspectives of heritage professionals in New Zealand (J. C. Atkinson, 2014). This work prompted a desire to inform practice in postgraduate education for future heritage professionals, focussed less on the preservation of the past, but rather on future societal impact through a popular engagement with heritage. Giving primacy of cultural values in any such education, combined with my research on higher education learning design processes, we went through the design process and originated a Masters programme. Given that the programme is currently being considered by a UK-HEI it is inappropriate to share too many details here, beyond the fact that following a sound educational learning design model, resulting in a constructively aligned curriculum, future graduates will develop not just subject knowledge but a range of contemporary and relevant intercultural skills.

The abilities, identified as being key affective and interpersonal domain learning objectives, are believed to be crucial skills for future graduates in an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape to advise and guide international policy processes well beyond the heritage sector. Flipping the process from ‘what’ to teach but to ‘why’ to teach, results in an original programme structure rich with significance. Arming students with these skills is surely one of the ‘Ends’ of the Humanities.

Atkinson, J. C. (2014). Education, Values and Ethics in International Heritage: Learning to Respect. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Group.

Atkinson, S. P. (2013). Taxonomy Circles: Visualizing the possibilities of intended learning outcomes. London: BPP University College.

#humanities2017

 

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Visual Data Collection Workshop

September 8, 2017

I had the pleasure of working with 9 heritage professionals on Wednesday 7th September at thestudio in Birmingham on a research workshop exploring both a novel data collection methodology and the relevance of a particular educational model to the heritage sector. I have to say that thestudio is a great venue. Accessible, well equipped, well-lit and easy to book and use. It’s a commercial venue so not inexpensive but I figured that since all my participants were doing so for free, the least I could do was to ensure they were provided with a hot lunch and ample supplies of muffins, teas and coffees.

Workshop Photo

thestudio-Birmingham Visual Data Workshop

As a research method it also had the advantage of me not requiring to organize one-on-one interview-style meetings with each individual, paying to travel (and possibly stay over) to wherever they were based. It also ensured that individuals were away from their institutions, working with others, engaged in a professional dialogue as they annotated a large version of learning model. Working in three groups of three, each table annotated a single diagram, recording their existing institutional practices against the elements of the learning model. After lunch, the same teams did the same exercise with the focus of future activity. I borrowed a technique from World-Café workshops I’ve run before where between sessions the teams rotate and can see how other teams have responded.

There is a lot of data to go through, as I plan to convert people’s handwritten annotations into ‘type’. I’m looking forward to going through the responses and looking for any emergent patterns.


Using Learning Design to Unleash the Power of Learning Analytics

December 4, 2015

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Atkinson, S.P. (2015). Using Learning Design to Unleash the Power of Learning Analytics. In T. Reiners, B.R. von Konsky, D. Gibson, V. Chang, L. Irving, & K. Clarke (Eds.), Globally connected, digitally enabled. Proceedings ascilite 2015 in Perth (pp. 358-364 / CP:6-CP:10).


 

A very enjoyable presentation made this week at ascilite 2015 in Perth, Australia. Wonderful to engage with this vibrant and hospitable community. Amongst some fascinating presentations exploring the theoretical and information management dimension of learning analytics and academic analytics, my very foundational work on constructively aligned curricula and transparency in design was I believe welcomed.

I said in my paper that I believed “New learning technologies require designers and faculty to take a fresh approach to the design of the learner experience. Adaptive learning, and responsive and predicative learning systems, are emerging with advances in learning analytics. This process of collecting, measuring, analysing and reporting data has the intention of optimising the student learning experience itself and/or the environment in which the experience of learning occurs… it is suggested here that no matter how sophisticated the learning analytics platforms, algorithms and user interfaces may become, it is the fundamentals of the learning design, exercised by individual learning designers and faculty, that will ensure that technology solutions will deliver significant and sustainable benefits. This paper argues that effective learning analytics is contingent on well structured and effectively mapped learning designs.

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Effective Discussion Forums – disrupting assumptions with VoiceThread

August 25, 2012

An online discussion forum should be an effective way of engaging students in careful and considered reflection, yet often they represent time-consuming and frustrating experiences for faculty. Getting students to share thoughts and ideas, balancing contributions and knowing when to stimulate, moderate or step-back can be challenging. I’ve long found the advice to faculty, much of it still rooted in Computer Mediated Conferencing (CMC) models of the early mid 1990s-mid 2000s, unresponsive to the context of learning and the changing nature, and expectations, of learners.

It is remarkable how quickly Gilly Salmon’s Five-Step-Model (Salmon, 2000) became for the majority what Stephen D. Brookfield might describe as a paradigmatic assumption (Brookfield, 1995). The need for familiarity with the tool or context, a first-step, is itself now profoundly complex. Learners have hugely differing understandings of the function, and etiquette, ‘within‘ a given online communication tool. One of Brookfield’s lovely example of ‘hunting assumptions’ is the illustration of a common-sense assumption that to circulate around the classroom having assigned group tasks shows engagement, interest and commitment, whilst he suggests it may well be interpreted as a lack of trust and distorts learner responses to the task in hand. How quickly have we adopted Salmon’s notion of responsiveness, encouraging faculty to respond to each student posting, as common-sense, our paradigmatic assumption. Salmon herself is not to blame for this, the context of her original model had a very different digital landscape to underpin it, that notion of personal presence less well articulated, learners experiences of commenting, rating, sharing, reviewing in a myriad of different online contexts is something ‘new’.

So this week, while I watch colleagues around the globe initiate MOOCs and discuss global OER standards, I set myself a more modest task. I wanted to explore what we thought worked well in online threaded text-discussion and why there appeared to see an enduring negativity, from students and staff, about the dreaded ‘discussion board’.

Screenshot from asynchronous staff workshop in VoiceThread

Screenshot from asynchronous staff workshop in VoiceThread

I set up a one week asynchronous online continuing professional development (CPD) workshop for faculty and learning support staff discussion effective thread text-based discussions online (we have Blackboard 7). The workshop was to run during the working week, from Monday 9am to Friday 5pm, with a ‘new’ topic added each day and an encouragement for colleagues to ‘dip-in-and-out’. What was different from our usual institutional practice was we did it in Voicethread (www.voicethread.com).

A VoiceThread is a collaborative, multimedia slide-shot that holds images, documents, and videos and allows people to navigate slides and leave comments in four different ways. Users can use text, voice using their computer microphone, upload a pre-recorded audio file or capture a video on their webcam. In the US they can also use the telephone.

Users can also draw on the slides while commenting, allowing them to annotate a diagram, image or schematic; they can also zoom-in to the image for more detail. Users can also create multiple identities, allowing them for instance to take on a group leadership role whilst remaining a member of the group, or adopt more playful and creative personalities. VoiceThreads can be embedded in the existing VLE or another web page and can also be archived. It is primarily a web browser based tool, now also available on iOS mobile devices and available in an accessible screen reader version or very low bandwidth version, and users have no software to install.

The tool itself has strengths and weaknesses and, whilst I declare it is a tool I’ve used and evaluated previously (Burden & Atkinson, 2010), I am not seeking to promote it. Rather what I wanted to do was to take faculty away from their existing assumptions about discussion threads and have the conversation in a very different context. As we explored each day a different theme it proved remarkable how some contributions followed the ‘discussion board’ convention, whilst others playfully sought to exploit the new technological opportunities the environment afforded them. One colleague made a series of short, positive and responsive contributions in response to others, what might be seen as rather appropriate netiquette in online discussions. However, because the comments were all appended to the end of a timeline, those responses (unless clearer ‘tagged’ as such) appeared as ‘hanging interjections’ without context. None of the 79 contributions during the week, except for my own, used anything but text which I felt was disappointing.

In coming weeks I will analyse the pattern and nature of the responses in more detail, and critique my own model of facilitation in this context, but what has emerged immediately is how quickly some ‘assumptions’ have been set and are subsequently modelled even when users find themselves in a different communication context. This is perhaps one of our biggest challenges as educational technologists and developers, or instructional designers, is to recognise our quickly solidifying paradigmatic assumptions and move beyond them. The digi-ecology is in constant flux and we need to consistently challenge how we do what we do.

Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. John Wiley & Sons.

Burden, K., & Atkinson, S. (2010). De-Coupling Groups in Space and Time: Evaluating New Forms of Social Dialogue for Learning. In L. Shedletsky & J. E. Aitken (Eds.), Cases on Online Discussion and Interaction (pp. 141–158). Hershey, Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Salmon, G. (2000). E-moderating : the key to online teaching and learning. London: Kogan Page.


Post human frontiers for educational technology

March 3, 2012

The Society for Research into Higher Education (www.srhe.ac.uk/) or SRHE, held the inaugural meeting if the new Digital University Network, convened by Dr Lesley Gourlay and Dr Kelly Coate, at its office in London on Friday 2nd March 2012.

The network is a response to the changing technological landscape in which Universities now operate and the disruptive opportunities that technologies in education represent. The network aims to being together researchers and practitioners to explore the impact of technologies on academic work. This first session set the tone as clearly one both practical and theoretical, concerned with the impact of technological processes on identity, social networks, research methodologies and the evolution of theory.

Some twenty academic practitioners from across the UK and Ireland attended the inaugural event to share insights into the new emerging theories of education responding to technology. The emphasis of this first session was clearly positioned as moving away from the social ‘human to human’ relationships towards new considerations of the human-object relationship.

Education as Sociomaterial Practices – posthuman frontiers for educational technology
Professor Tara Fenwick, School of Education, University of Stirling

Building on her background in professional studies and professional learning and building her coherent argument around actor-network theory (ANT), with a passing reference to complexity theory, Tara Fenwick provoked debate regarding knowledge located outside of human-human interaction. Working off Bruno Latour, she explored the notion of humans as nodes, with equal status to other objects, within complex networks. The implication being there is only one ‘closed system’, that of everything.

As though to reinforce Latour’s argument that social critiques must embrace empiricism to regain focus and credibility, Professor Fenwick produced a range of theoretical lenses and examples from health, emergency services and education to demonstrated the non-centrality of the individual in ANT. Borrowing on the French notion of ‘assemblage’ she outlined the issue of the importance of materiality, of materials conveying meaning, preventing actions, permitting actions.

This concept of the socio-material assemblage was illustrated with classroom examples (children changing socio-material relations with the introduction of a glue gun) and she argued the social and material not only inextricably intertwined in assemblages of the human and nonhuman, but also that education is itself a ‘network’ or assemblage of ‘practices and knowings’. This ‘posthuman’, not anti-human, approach, prioritises the sociomaterial and poses challenging questions for education and educational technology. It provoked me to consider carefully how we approach the nature of our physical spaces and the particular ‘intrinsic’ affordances of those spaces.

Digital disaggregation: assessing the uncanny posthuman
Dr. Sian Bayne, School of Education, University of Edinburgh

Dr. Bayne ((@sbayne)) followed with a fascinating and wonderfully illustrated presentation of sociomaterial assemblages in both the form of her presentation and the examples of her postgraduate students’ work that she shared. She is the Programme Co-Director of the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in E-learning (http://www.education.ed.ac.uk/e-learning/), and following a review of the literature used examples from this innovative programme to illustrate that to learn and teach across diverse and complex digital spaces is to experience “uncertainty, disorientation and fragmentation”. Drawing on the literature of the ‘posthuman’, but not interestingly of earlier sociological (Schultz), or historical (Innes) perspectives, she explored the idea of ‘strangeness’ in new ‘digitally enabled’ modes of ‘being’ in education. In particular, she raised challenging issues regarding assessment practices in online learning can explicitly engage with disaggregation, spectrality and posthuman pedagogy, as critical moves in re-thinking teaching, learning and assessment for the digital mode.

There was an interesting discussion around the ambiguity of ‘technology-enhanced’ learning and technology-critical perspectives that might be said to imply that technology served simply to enhance what was already effective and human-centered. Using a range of literature from critical post humanism (literary), ecological post humanism (biological sciences) and technological post humanism (technology) Dr. Bayne placed the human ‘outside’ the centre of things, and in so doing illustrated the pervasiveness of the idea of the ‘other’ as essentially ‘other then human’.

Dr. Byane shared some exciting examples of student MSc work, assessed ‘digital essays’ in which the textual artefacts themselves were ‘gatherings’, looking beyond text as representational. Examples from the “thinking otherwise” project included a museum to the cyborg in Second Life called “imaginarium” in which textual content displayed as billboards and notecards, and an apparently traditional essay in which every work was hyperlinked to a different URL, demonstrating the ‘portal’ nature of words (the scene from the lost railway station, ‘Mobil Avenue’ in The Matrix sprang to mind in which Rama Kandra says to Neo, ‘What is Love?, it is a word’). My personal favourite amongst the Edinburgh student work was a digital essay in Google Earth in which connections were illustrated through visual metaphor, analogy and representation, the essay explored the notion of the flâneur, with the audience gaze itself of being acted out as a flâneur.

There was intense discussion about the difficulties and challenges of assessing such work although we were led to believe that the institutional processes were fairly mainstream and the assessment rubric looked like any other Masters level ‘essay’ rubric. There was discussion about the notion of ‘essay’ and concern about the subjectivity of the assessor. I found it intriguing that colleagues felt they could not assess the content because they did not posses the ‘technical’ skills of the authors, demonstrating perhaps that we continue to assess in an ‘apprentice’ framework and not one based on dispassionate criteria. Also perhaps, that we are in assessment practices of all things, still essentially ‘human’.


OER: the death of the solipsistic academic?

October 7, 2011

OER

The challenge faced by the Open Educational Resources University is not translation, context or learning styles, it is not a question of interoperability of learning environments or granularity of learning objects, SCORM compliance or IMS standards; it is perhaps rather a question of academic identity. We have a lot of identify work to do.

I remember first meeting  Wayne Mackintosh at the Third Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF3)  in Dunedin, New Zealand, in July 2004, hosted by DEANZ, the Government of New Zealand and the Commonwealth of Learning (COL). The theme for PCF3 was “Building Learning Communities for Our Millennium: Reaching Wider Audiences through Innovative Approaches”. Wayne was convener of our thoughtful, diverse, varied and anarchic think-tank. We talked about kite-marks, quality standards, intellectual colonialism and poverty. The seeds of the OERu were visible then.

It is no surprise to see Wayne Mackintosh, Director OER Foundation, leading the initiative for Open Educational Resources University, OER university (#oeru). The initiative is raising some interesting critiques, and questions, which Tony Bates summarizes succinctly. But these are still issues of institutional norms, governmental process and sectorial quality assurance. I sense we are asking a lot of people.

There are people in the world who are good at facilitating learners’ encounters with new concepts and ideas, there are people who can enthuse, capture and motivate; and there are those who write, design, narrate and structure learning in meaningful ways. It is as often pride, as much as institutional conventions, that gives rise to academics’ conviction that they must fulfill all these roles. Whilst an academic was once the guardian, seeker, generator and clarifier of the codex of knowledge in their domain, they are now primarily its steward and pride is best placed in a more defined function.

That knowledge was once defined in terms of individual libraries, writings and musings suggests only that it was confined to the means available to communicate it. To consider it now practical, or realistic, for an individual to hold the key to a domain of knowledge is nothing less than a delusion born of vanity.

The world of knowledge creation, dissemination and propagation has changed radically in the last 30 years, and with it, academic identity. It is simply illogical, not to say inefficient, to expect a single academic to research, write, and teach all the content for their university courses. What the OER movement represents is a 21st century model of knowledge propagation, a contemporary revisioning of the master-pupil relationship, and a means of making learning accessible beyond the single, constrained, voice of the solipsistic academic.

For the faculty that make-up our institutions to accept their emerging role as validators of the learning that happens without them necessarily ‘teaching’ what is validated, and teaching what is validated by others….. that is a huge leap into the unknown, and that surely, is the biggest challenge facing the OERu.


Sorry to have missed JISC Design Bash

September 30, 2011

It was a real shame (I’m rarely disappointed) to have had to miss the JISC/CETIS Design Bash in Oxford today. I was very much looking forward to catching up with progress on the LDSE and sharing the SOLE model iteration described in Madison-Wisconsin in August. In the end the meeting I had to attend would have done fine without me, but that’s the way things fall and “beggars can’t be choosers” (or as we say in modern parlance, “the salaried do as they’re told”).

Design Bash

I imagine there was a great deal of interest in Oxford today. The pressure on organisations to share learning designs, share practice, and share efficacies shows no sign of abating. I look forward very much to catching up as best I can with what’s on Cloudworks for this years event.


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