Titling creative work – innovation and agency

As someone with a strong producer self-identity, I think crafting titles can be a useful way of capturing the essence of what you are trying to do and give you focus. This applies to books, articles, essays, student work, videos, songs, blog posts, photographs, paintings, performances… anything that involves a creative process.

A title is like the ultimate elevator pitch. It needs to grab attention and immediately explain what the artefact is about. I tend to do this in two parts – a catchy title followed by an explanatory subtitle.

The title of my new book has changed several times during its writing and bucks the two part method. Book proposal forms are quite prescriptive however: after all, publishers and their editors have much more experience of what works and I was particularly keen to listen to my series editor Professor Sally Brown. Brevity and clarity are characteristics of a good book title.

Book cover

So, we went with Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. This works very well for me. I’ll reflect on the word ‘reimagining’ in a minute, but I’ll start at the end.

Higher Education – this is what the series is about – teaching and learning in higher education. This was always key for me. One of my drivers was the complacency I have experienced over many years in HE about academic innovation. By and large, many teachers accept there are ways of going about things that really do not need to be discussed or which are beyond their powers to change or influence. Similarly, university managers and estates personnel often have remarkably weak understandings of the relationship between teaching and learning and the space we experience. As our understanding of pedagogy continues to develop, especially in relation to the integration of technology, this has become a significant barrier to teaching excellence. This book is very much about setting an agenda for disrupting complacency and inspiring innovation in higher education.

Spaces for learning – not learning spaces? Learning spaces is associated by many with the built environment and it is unhelpful to use this nomenclature. The book is about the built environment in part, but it is about much more. It is about how we, as users of spaces, have more agency than we often realise. It is about any space we deem to be learning space. For example, I emphasise non-formal learning space and ideas of place as being generally neglected in our thinking but important for learning nonetheless. Ultimately, our interest as educators is in the learning experience each student has and how this in affected by space as it is conceived, perceived and used.

Reimagining – I was advised, rightly, to use this. Rightly, because it recognises the role of the reader. The book includes 27 case studies of innovative practitioners who, in my opinion, have reimagined space and put that imagination into practice. In each case the experience covered in the study has been significant for them, though many of the innovations may be quite familiar. Nevertheless, these people have not only reimagined (constructed an alternative view), but enacted this. They have remade their situation. This idea of remaking is important to me and the book. There is a chapter looking at the academic innovator. What comes from this is the idea of agency – innovators take responsibility for their environment. So, ‘remaking’ was an important idea, but perhaps overly esoteric for a title. It needs some explaining. Reimagining, on the other hand, is something that I think everybody does continuously. It is part of a state of being critical and creative.


Time spent with a title is time well spent and the act of committing to a title is both manageable and critical. For creative assignments, from essays to performances, we may ask students to use a given title and analyse it, but perhaps we should appreciate the learning value of constructing titles for our work more often.

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Learning through Co-production #MELSIG_SHU

(CC) Joan-Grífols Human Pyramid Castells conc Dissabte

Learning through co-production makes sense to me. It suggests a form of purposeful, active learning with peers. This is the approach we are taking at the next Media-Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group (MELSIG) event in Sheffield on 21st June. It’s not new for MELSIG – we’ve run workshops, co-produced research and books, and developed social learning methodologies like the #Twalk. All of these have purpose, require active engagement in making things, and all are social in nature.

One of the premises for MELSIG, that’s always been there, is that it doesn’t matter what you know or think you are capable of doing. What matters first and foremost is that you decided to turn up. Not everybody does, not everybody can, but you have proven, by turning up, you want to commit some time and energy to what’s on offer.

At our first event in 2008 (when we were known as the Podcasting for Pedagogic Purposes SIG) it was clear that some people knew more and were more experienced than others. It was great that self-declared ‘novices’ worked alongside immodest self-declared ‘experts’! The reality, of course, is that everyone is valuable in these situations.

People who have particular knowledge and skills about the use of digital media to enhance learning are rarely fluent in all departments. They may know about media, technology, pedagogy and academic innovation and change in varying degrees. They may understand their university context, but not colleges, faculties, or particular disciplines. And vice versa. They may be a student, academic, technologist, developer or something else.

So, in a co-production we recognise that each of us has value and each of us is able to fill in gaps for each other.

At the MELSIG event we will use an emerging methodology called ‘toolkit in a day.’ It is based on this philosophy of co-production. We’ll be constructing three much needed toolkits. After the event we’ll use the toolkits to inspire and support academic innovation at our respective institutions. The toolkits will be on:

  • Podcasting for Pedagogic Purposes
  • Social Media for Learning
  • Flexible Active & Blended Learning

It will be great to revisit some of these areas and apply what we have learnt over the years in the form of practical and inspiring resources. This will bring the MELSIG toolkit count to five as last year we developed toolkits on Audio Feedback and Twalks.

We may arrive thinking we know nothing or very little, but we’ll leave knowing a lot about the three topics and we will have networked and made some good contacts and friends in the process.

Purpose: make something we all need using what know or want to know

Engage: we bring knowledge, skills and good questions that have value

People: we can do things together that we couldn’t dream of doing on our own

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The habit of thinking differently by looking more deeply


An exploration of visual literacies and multiple intelligences

There are many reasons why I have committed to exploring the idea of learning walks in terms of learning space and many of those reasons have been discussed here previously. For the last four months, I have been undertaking a daily experiment to take a photograph a day and publish it to my Instagram and Flickr accounts. This has necessitated a change of lifestyle and the development of new habits resulting in changes in the way I see and think. In this post, I reflect on these real and noticeable changes in my ways of seeing and thinking, and the implications of this for how we understand the learning environment. This post is about visual literacies, therefore, and how we develop linguistic, spatial and kinaesthetic intelligences to use Howard Gardner’s (1983) theory of multiple intelligences (useful web resource), “a combination of heritable potentials and skills that can be developed in diverse ways through relevant experiences.”

Being a visual practitioner

book-coverFirst, a little background. I started out as a photojournalist working for an international press agency for several years before going freelance. Later I studied Fine Art for my undergraduate degree. During this time I became a committed printmaker, intrigued by the interplay of technical process and creativity. It is this idea of interplay between imaginative thinking and actual constraints that has continued to intrigue me as an educator; a frisson that is present in my approach to the study of learning spaces and informing the hypothesis for my new book Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education which is published this month (#RS4L).

Creative and critical thinking as a graduate outcome

So, I have been trained to look deeply and to think differently. This idea of difference is not cussedness nor obstinate contrariness, but a form of critical thinking that begins with curiosity and a belief that there are always other ways of thinking and these are usually worth exploring. It explains why there is a close relationship between creative and critical thinking and from that, I would argue, we begin to understand the value of artists to society. The term disruptive thinking captures this for me, although there is a danger that this can be misunderstood as destructive thinking. Instead, we need graduates of any discipline to be able to demonstrate possibility thinking based on a readiness to immerse themselves in problems and ideas. Whereas all too often we depend upon ideas and assumptions formed early on in life or given to us by our parents, mentors and bosses. This alone is a good reason to consider Mezirow’s concept of Transformative Learning (2000) which begins by asking up to challenge received wisdom through “a critical assessment of assumptions.”

Visual acuity as wellbeing

However, as I have grown older the acuity of my critical visual thinking has blunted due to my dependence on using existing critical thinking patterns – I know how my mind works well and I have tended to let it work that way. This isn’t so much a laziness, more a habitual expedience when life and work are too busy; a good enough strategy for a crowded mind.

In January I was ill. It gave me the opportunity to take stock of life-work habits. My love of walking and photography provided me with a ready answer to kick into a new phase of life while challenging the ‘unchallengeable’. This has produced great results!

The self-imposed requirement to fit in at least two hours of brisk walking and one photograph each day was initially daunting – but only briefly so because, having made the commitment, I rapidly discovered that walking to that extent is mind-freeing and not mind-less. It powers down the busy thinking channels and adrenalin that for many years I believed were my fuel; what kept me fit and focused. In addition, the requirement to take a photograph powered up and has reinvigorated, my visual thinking. However, importantly, this visual and cognitive acuity is itself an outcome of habitual practice. This relates critical thinking to the D3Bs – doing, being, belonging and becoming. While we often hear about fostering belonging and becoming, these ideas of visual literacy focus more on praxis – what we do and our habitual state or ways of being.

Technological mediation

Technology-mediated visual thinking is what I have done as a photojournalist, painter and printmaker. The technology demands and allows you to engage with the world differently by imposing a constrained process on creativity. We can think of it as a framework, a set of conditions, or an aspect of doing that does not require thinking. It is ‘the given’.

I really don’t want to come across here as too airy and mystical; a trap I believe many artists fall into as they translate conceptual thinking into mere words. I think there is an important point to be made here for any student’s critical literacy. Photography and other accessible creative processes (e.g. songwriting, poetry, writing plays, etc) set an expectation for making. For me this is: I walk with my iPhone and a commitment to take one photograph. The technical barriers to creativity, here, are very low and this allows me to scrutinise the world around me and make mental connections to ideas and problems towards resolution. Note, not to solve problems but to be in a state of working towards resolution.

Personal visual frameworks are important here. How and why do you look? What captures your attention? What matters to you, perhaps only you? This way of being and thinking is often mistaken as artistic self-indulgence, however, it is a temporary state towards articulation which itself is contextualised by and leads to co-operation. This brings us back to the idea of learning walks and their value as a social learning space. Walks, like the thinking they support, are formative. To use the cliche, ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’. They are spaces for mulling over emergent ideas and ruminating with others on the significance of peripheral and perhaps mundane matters.

The vibrancy of social learning spaces

Space is experienced differently – we all bring different things to the spaces in which we congregate as we co-construct experience and then modify our knowledge accordingly. Learning space can be understood as inherently vibrant therefore, though often we fail to exploit this vibrancy. Social space is full of uncertainty and possibility and our experience of it is a constant process of interpretation and sense-making. It’s incredible we ever agree about anything! Being together, for example on a walk, allows us to influence and moderate each other’s thinking, as well as our own. The walk, as opposed to formal learning environments, tends to be socially fluid and non-confrontational. It is a convivial space in which we tend to be practised and relaxed.

The visual space is open-ended

While learning is essentially a uniquely personal experience often encountered in a social setting, it is open-ended and this is the clue to creating situations that intrinsically motivate students as learners. Open-ended situations may be threatening to some teachers because, by definition, they cannot be sure where it may lead; the irony is, of course, that learning is an experience that must make a connection with each learner in order for is to be meaningful.

The visual requires interpretation. The literal, on the other hand, can be understood as an attempt to explain and make solid ideas so they can be distributed for common understanding. Both have value to learning, but mediating and valuing open-ended thinking in education is less evident, for example, in course documentation because open-ended outcomes are harder to express and measure.

Valuing the wandering mind

Walking, thinking, talking and learning establish and value open-endedness and promote a sense of immersion. My walking with technology becomes purposeful, but not in an oppressive or stressful sense. The experience is simply framed and within this framework there is freedom to immerse myself in a continuous process of looking and thinking that, through a sense of immersion, reveals shapes, colours and ideas that were there all along but which were part of a background wash or noise. I know little about meditation or prayer, but I think this idea of immersive experience is similar.

My proposition, however, is that this can be mediated by walking with simple technology and a light sense of purpose and consequence. This works for the individual, as in my case, or socially as in the case of learning walks and other non-formal learning experiences where what was previously believed to be inconsequential finds some significance for and amongst the individuals involved.

Knowing how to trust this experience, as a teacher and a learning, is an indication of one’s visual literacy and one’s linguistic, spatial and kinaesthetic intelligence.


Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Mezirow,  J. & Associates (2000). Learning as transformation: critical perspectives on a theory in progress. Jossey-Bass.

Posted in active learning, BYOD, learning space, Literacies and intelligence, Media-enhanced learning, open learning, Possibilities, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Global #Twalkday

Twalkday logoGlobal #Twalkday

Wednesday 3rd October 2018

Theme: Doing, being, becoming, belonging and connecting

Time: 3pm GMT (but options for other time zones to be decided)

What is Twalkday?

The Twalk will be co-ordinated globally and is planned to coincide with the start of a new academic year. It provides teachers with an opportunity to think about and engage their new and returning students in ideas about their course. The #twalk will last an hour and will be structured around five ideas:

  • Doing – what we do on our course and how we learn
  • Being – our culture, philosophy and identity
  • Becoming – our personal and social aspirations as our learning identities grow into professional identities
  • Belonging – how we foster a sense of home
  • Connecting – how the D3Bs work together and how we relate to the world beyond our course

About #Twalks

A twalk is a structured learning walk in which social media is used to connect us and our ideas with individuals and groups located elsewhere by following a common conversational structure. It epitomises a hybrid learning space in which the experience of the local is amplified and enhanced by the shared connected experience. It epitomises a generative learning space in that participants are networked co-producers of knowledge: as you walk and talk you find ways of representing your thinking through tweets and images using a common hashtag (in our case #twalkday).

The practicalities

#Twalkday coincides with the beginning of the new academic year and is intended to be experienced primarily as a local exploration of what it means to be on a course. The addition of Connecting to the D3Bs, however, situates that sense of local identity in ideas of identity beyond the local experience of the course itself. Course leaders, student leaders and other academic leaders at colleges and universities around the world are encouraged to run a #twalk involving their own students and staff. The outline plans, routes, and discussion structure will be common and this means that local #twalk leaders only need to think about,

  • How to establish your walking group
  • How to map the discussion structure to local places and practices at your college or on your course
  • How to introduce, embed, then follow-up the outcomes of the twalk activity.

More details about the #twalkday itinerary will be posted using that hashtag. You are strongly encouraged to use it as you adopt the idea and to double hashtag posts with a local variant so that your local #Twalk group has a common space.

Social media space

While a learning walk involves walking a physical route in structured conversation, this is augmented by the use of social media space. Typically this has involved using a Twitter tweetchat as the method has a lot in common with a structured walk. However, other social media can be used. Instagram, for example, emphasises the visual and allows walkers to quickly capture significant moments and conversations. Using the hashtag in Google+ situates the activity within the context of an existing community, project or network. Similarly, where Facebook is familiar and established as an informal student space, Facebook Groups can work well.

Further information

Further information, guidance and outline maps will follow – watch this space!In the meantime, to find out more about #twalks, what they involve and how they are run look at our MELSIG Twalk toolkit.

Posted in belonging, Digital Placemaking, learning space, Media-enhanced learning, MELSIG, social media for learning, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Missed opportunities – where are the alternatives to Storify?


It’s easy to store, but making sense of it all is an art. photo by Kevin Utting Creative Commons attribution licence

Storify.com is shutting up shop and this has been troubling me since the news was announced several months ago. The main problem, as I see it, is that Storify is a one-of-a-kind service. For educational users, it signalled the potential of social media for learning as an act of curation and construction. I have a couple of case studies in my forthcoming book that reference Storify as a useful space for users-generated digital narrative content, but by and large, I have felt that Storify was under-used in higher education and that curation as an act of learning is not widely appreciated.

If you are not familiar with Storify, it is/was a web-based platform for curating social media by hashtag, using search, aggregation, and drag and drop functionality. Notoriously, tweets from tweetchats could be easily scraped into a Storify archive of the event creating a rich ordered collection and record of discussion incorporating any media and links as tweeted.

This ease-of-use was attractive, but at the same time this led to the development of uncritical habits that could be deemed digital illiteracy. That may be a bit harsh, but evidence of creative narrative making in Storify has been thin on the ground. The scarping of social media is deceptive (and I do it all the time with Evernote): it feels worthy and productive, and there is always the potential to share your scraps, but ultimately your scraps end up in the big web cupboard which you persist in continuously filling from the front until your juicy morsels are out of site and out of mind. You know the scraps are there should you ever need them, but when you do you use Google to find more current information anyway. This poor idea of ‘curation’ is what I think of as social media ‘cupboarding’ or hoarding behaviour: grab it, save it, forget it. This has been a perennial challenge associated with the idea of social media curation since the earliest Web 2.0 platforms such as del.icio.us appeared in 2003 with powerful tagging tools. By the way, Del.icio.us died after a long, slow death in June 2017 – I invested much of my time in that particular cupboard 😦

The use of Storify as an archiving tool has obscured its real potential as a creative educational space for working with digital narratives. It may be hard work (learning was never meant to be easy), but editing in narrative text, re-sequencing tweets, and incorporating digital media from other sources including related and unrelated hashtags are curatorial actions that begin to suggest how Storify might have been used to live up to its name – to make stories and documentaries with purpose.

I’ve begun to look for alternatives to Storify and a quick Google (of course) turns up very little of any use (surprisingly and ironically Google can’t always save us!). George Williams in the ProfHacker blog column in The Chronicle of Higher Education explores the Alternatives to Storify and points to a Google Doc his students have created together to evaluate possibilities. The best bet is Pearltrees, but it would really make very hard work of a task that would have been second nature to Storify.

It feels like we missed our chance – let me know if you know otherwise. Please!


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Where are you taking me? Thinking about the politics of network


The transcript of ‘Learning Networks, Not Teaching Machines’, a keynote delivered at EDEN 2015 in Barcelona by Audrey Watters in 2015, is a good read for anyone interested in networked learning, media-enhanced learning, and the use of social media for learning. I’d not read it before, but it exists to be discovered!

It’s timely for me as I am convincing myself that learning communities have relatively little value compared co-operative learning networks. While recognising that the idea of community membership still has value (as collaborative learning still has value) ideas to do with co-operative learning networks explain my own thinking about pedagogy in higher education.

Watters asks us to think critically about the politics of networked infrastructure. I recognise that my own interest in networks as educational and sociological phenomena cannot be seen as being politically neutral, even if we leave the agenda that drive higher education to one side.

Watters charts how valiant attempts among educators to create or adopt new media have methodically been thwarted by commercial interest. She says, “Education has not historically fared well when it comes to competing with commercial providers – not on the radio, not on the television, nor I’d argue on new computer-based technologies. These networks have triumphed commercially, politically. In turn, they frame what we mean by network – what we expect them to do, who gets to participate in them and how.”
She says we need to ask, “Who owns the “pipes” and “the wire”? Who owns the means by which content is transmitted? Who owns the satellites? Who owns the spectrum? Who owns the cables? Who owns the network? What networks – what infrastructure – have we inherited?”

I would add, “Who owns context?” – that sense that gives each one of us our rationale for the things we think and do.

I aspire to a higher education environment enacted as networked space in which our role is to develop learner agency and promote self-direction and challenge students to become self-determined. The networked space in my mind is a fluid idea of social learning network. Nevertheless, such space is dependent on infrastructures and infrastructure, is an essentially political concept for the student and the graduate that requires navigation and negotiation. Watters acknowledges this space,
“The Internet – and the Web in particular – enable a readable and a writable platform, where a multitude of voices can express themselves as creators not just consumers and not just through text but through a multitude of media – audio, video, still images, code. These new wires have powerful implications for self-organized learning, some argue – a new participatory culture of learning that need not be managed or monitored by formal educational institutions or by traditional sources of information. The new networks, like the Web itself, ostensibly act as this very postmodern sort of technical infrastructure whereby power is decentralized, distributed.”
So, as we continue to develop learner agency and ideas like co-production, and even digital literacies, we need to develop the critical acuity of our learners to use such space well.


Watters, A. (2015, 10 June). ‘Learning Networks, Not Teaching Machines’. Hack Education: The History of the Future of Education Technology. [Blog] Online at: http://hackeducation.com/2015/06/10/eden2015

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Researching academic innovation to foster belonging



 separate ideas or single big idea? Photo by moren hsu on Unsplash

I am working with an innovative subject group at the moment who have done much to foster student belonging. They have a long list of small recent and current initiatives intended to develop a cohesive disciplinary identity. Previously, they have engaged student researchers from their area to evaluate initiatives such as establishing an irregular informal games zone. Looking at their plans for the next year, their pool of student researchers are fully occupied on other projects. I wonder at the possible conflict of interests in students from the discipline researching a belonging project anyway. Ideally, of course, this means they are looking for methods that are easy to run. It seems analysis of qualitative data will inevitably be arduous.


Further, the methods they have used previously are fairly rudimentary and standard qualitative fare: questionnaires and focus groups. However, it does feel as though qualitative methodology is what is needed here as they want to get to the bottom of the problem and understand its nuances. One challenge, still to be clarified, is whether to look at the picture as a whole or to attempt to look at the impact of the various small initiatives that make up their work individually. The latter is problematic as the concept of belonging is psychological and most easily understood as an outcome of experiencing place holistically.

I was wondering about a token-based system like the ones you get in some supermarkets where, as you pay for your shopping, you are given a token o place in one of three or four buckets depending on what charity you would like the supermarket to support this week. If we introduced a new belonging question each week (perhaps picking out key initiatives) I think people who leave the floor could be asked to deposit a token in a Likert scale-type bucket system with tokens weighed/counted at the end of each day? We could also think about using beacon technology to make it easy for users of the space to learn more about the initiatives and leave feedback on their own experience.

So, I’m looking for ideas. If you have any experience to share, or simply ideas, and please do comment on my thoughts above.

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