Between states: metaxis, agency, connectedness and fluency

Photo by Maxime Horlaville on Unsplash

The human mind’s capacity for creative thought is unbounded, yet as we learn we adopt frameworks or find structures to help organise our thinking. We seem to live in a constant tension of working within bounds and across bounds. To some extent this reflects ideas previously discussed around convergent and divergent thinking. As humans we generally understand that learning is a constant process of creating and testing faux certainties and then building upon those foundations (and perhaps destroying them by thinking laterally or outside of the box) to make connections to other frameworks or new stimuli. Learning is a matter of crossing boundaries.

Learning how to navigate and develop our learning agency should enable any of us to learn through life, yet too often outcomes are expressed in terms of what we come to know, rather than how we learn to be. Learning, for me, often describes a state of being between or ‘in-betweenness’. There are many terms that reflect this and, appropriately perhaps, it is valuable to examine the space between these different ideas to discover their value in their nuances.

In this post, therefore, I will set out some terms which touch on the state of being between and then review them to discover what they may have in common. What we can learn about learning as a state of being between?

Metaxis

Falconer (2011) identifies metaxis as a term used by Plato to describe the human condition of ‘in-betweenness’. It points to a sense of suspension in an ecology of polarities or binaries. This reflects my own thinking about how learning exists in a web of continua. I look at this in my consideration of spaces for learning in higher education where I argue that learning can be thought of as acts of transition through this multidimensional constellation of affordances (Middleton, 2018).

Falconer (2011) notes Linds (2005) use of metaxis as “the state of belonging completely and simultaneously to two different autonomous worlds.” Linds’ context is performace and this helps us to understand how being between can refer to being in multiple states: the dramatised world, the ‘real’ world, and experience as the navigation and negotiation of both. Drama, especially in the context of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed discussed by Lands, is a matter of being in a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002) and being convincing to yourself and others.

This echoes the idea of polycontextuality which I have discussed here before.

Polycontextuality

Polycontextuality describes being present in more than one context concurrently. The idea of presence is significant here in relation to agency – polycontextuality recognises the effect of spatial affordances on the person, and the person’s effect on the contexts in which they are simultaneously present.

I have blogged about polycontextuality on many occasions. I have noted how we can consider this in terms of augmented spaces, dissonance, and a complex multi-participant ecology of interaction. In all cases, it is the multiplying effect caused by one or more contexts on another that creates that spark I think of as learning. And this ties into ideas about learning ecologies and loosely tied social constellations (Ryberg et al., 2012), leading us to ideas about hybrid learning studios.

Mostly I have noted this as a bridging effect, picking up on Elstad’s (2017) idea of polycontextual bridging. My own specific examples point to social media tweetchats and twalks, however, during the pandemic, polycontextuality has become a familiar condition to all of us as we have navigated (often with great difficulty) our conflicting identities of home, work, school and leisure.

Navigation and negotiation

Navigation and negotiation appear regularly in so much of what I write. There is a danger that they lose their impact and meaning with overuse. ‘Exploration’ is another case in point of a term that has lost its acuity – it is a useful way of referring to how we learn in an ambiguous or ill-defined space, but the danger is that it is read as “I’ll leave you to take have a look around, pop out, have a fag, and be back in 15 minutes to see if anyone had any ideas while I was away.” When you look at the difference between the words/ideas ‘navigation’ and ‘negotiation’, the significant nuances are revealed.

Implicit in the idea of navigation is an expectation for learner agency that involves using their curiosity to examine and consider the meaning of objects they encounter (ideas, artefacts, conversations, and so forth). It is about being aware of yourself, the way you think, the decisions you make, the discoveries you find, and the conclusions you draw. Navigation, therefore, is central to research and experiential learning. It necessitates reflection (sense making), though this is easily neglected despite being the site of deep learning in the experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984).

Negotiation refers us back to the idea of dissonance, mentioned as a dimension of polycontextuality above, or decision-making and sense making. It assumes the human’s natural desire to make sense of things, especially with other people but sometimes as a purely personal process of synthesis.

Connection

Connection, connectivity and Connectivism (Siemens, 2003, 2005, 2008) allude to our networked and ecological lives. For education it is the socio-technological and semantic situations which connectivity describes that is of interest.

Analysing and reflecting on accounts of academic innovation during the pandemic this week, the idea of ‘digital advantage’ emerges for me as a way to understand that new concept of learning environment we are trying to put our finger on – the 1+1= 3 factor. Connection here is found in a new awareness derived from an actual problem (learning) (1) that comes out of being in a new situation (1) that demands a new valuable response (3), i.e. more than (2) (knowledge we thought we already understood).

Flux

Flux means being in a state of constant change. It is useful here because it encapsulates both movement and being in different states. Learning, knowledge and life are never stable.

This idea of dynamism, when combined with ideas about networks, leads us to the idea of the ecosystem. Change within a constellation of diverse entities or actants creates a sense of chaos in which knowledge can be only a personal attempt to create a momentary faux stability – just as paintings of people are a pretence at representing a reality. This idea of flux conjurs up a mythical fantastical picture for me – perhaps the art of English romanticist William Blake as found in his drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, or Stanley Spencer’s busy people in his Sandham Memorial resurrection murals. Such images are about the constancy of the life-death cycle. Spencer in particular deals with ideas of negotiation – saying goodbye or greeting a new day, as in his original resurrection painting in Cookham.

Tether

Savin-Baden (2015, p. 1) gives us the idea of digital tethering “as both a way of being and a set of practices that are associated with it. To be digitally tethered would generally be associated with carrying, wearing or holding a device that enables one to be constantly and continually in touch with digital media of whatever kind. Practices associated with digital tethering include the practice of being ‘always on’; ‘always engaged’: texting at dinner, or driving illegally while ‘facebooking’.”

The idea of tethering focuses our minds specifically on the importance of the link itself and its effect on the agency of the tethered actant. Is the tether constraining, securing, guiding, misleading, directing, facilitating, etc? What does the tether mean for that in-between space of experience and learning?

Above all, Savin-Baden presents us with ideas about liminality and the idea of learning being liquid.

Liminality

In education many of us will most immediately associate liminality with the idea of threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2003). “Threshold Concepts may be considered to be ‘akin to passing through a portal’ or ‘conceptual gateway’ that opens up ‘previously inaccessible way[s] of thinking about something”. However, threshold concepts are often discussed more in terms of being key concepts – critical nuggets of learning that, once grasped, provide a key to unlock those conceptual gateways to provide access to further knowledge discovery. Indeed, one of its defining attributes is of being bounded. However, while our focus may be on the bounded concept, bounds imply unbounded space that awaits the learner. The promise of liminality is identified within the threshold concept model.

Savin-Baden and Falconer (2016, p. 993) usefully discuss liminality as “a psychological or metaphysical subjective state of being at the threshold of two existential planes”. In this way, liminality captures that sense of frisson or a feeling of expectation. They point to the original anthropological idea of liminality as being to do with the rites and rituals of small human groups: for education we can see the value of demarcating the rite of passage to aid metacognitive learning. As in this post, the authors are intrigued by liminality as describing “a sense of in-betweenness, [one that has] …a stronger sense of shifting identity than the concept of metaxis.” They say, “Liminality is a betwixt and between state often spoken of in studies or rituals or rites of passage as a kind of in-between state.” (Savin-Baden & Falconer, 2016, p. 997)

Thresholds

Thresholds deserve consideration beyond the idea of liminality. Dimensions of social and self-determinism come into play.

Granovator (2004, p. 1422) considers thresholds in relation to collective behaviour. While looking at a riot behaviour, the social setting and its effect on the motivations of individuals are interesting in terms of learned behaviours, influence and negotiation. “A ‘radical’ will have a low threshold: the benefits of rioting are high to him, the cost of arrest, low… People with a 0% threshold are ‘instigators’.” It follows that conservatives have a high threshold because the perceived benefits (derived from held values) are small or negative.

The decision to cross thresholds is dependent upon the way we perceive the benefits and risks of that decision. ‘Bandwagon effects’, ‘domino effects’ and peer groups in a social setting may have a lot to say about joining in, and a person becomes open to reshaping their perceptions or being convinced about the value of ideas. Equally ‘social leaving’ (e.g. the decision to stop doing something or to go home after a party, for example) is interesting here: when is ‘enough’ enough? For learning, how, why and when do we decide to bank an experience and call it learning? When and how is action closed down and learning constructed through reflection? There is something here about learning as being a continual interplay of closing and divergence – not only opening and divergence.

Self-determinism, in relation to thresholds, is about motivations to negotiate a system. “The learner’s ability to be self-determined is inherent in the system: the web is non-linear, allowing the learner to decide in a random way what and how she will learn.” (Blaschke 2013, p. 57) Perhaps the use of ‘random’ here is unhelpful, but the point is that webs continually challenge the learner-navigator to make decisions about crossing thresholds and that decision-making provides the site (no longer a fixed or contained notion) of learning.

Interstices

Interstitial space describes the interface, adjacency, touching or meeting points between two or more spaces. It refers to the latent energy held within the threshold moment itself.

Is this useful to the educator? I think so. It focuses us on the moment of connection, perhaps signalling how or where inspiration can be found. It may point us to the moment a student sees the application of theory to professional practice in a Live Brief activity for example. Knowing that a moment can make impact if it is carefully situated is valuable to the teacher.

Hybridity

Hybridity is another term that is never far from my thinking. It implies ‘neither one thing nor another’ and the implication of that is that it is something else worth having. Again, 1+1=3.

Hybridity is also dependent on difference. Integral to this is the question of whether there is value to be derived from conjoining different dimensions. The question does not imply a single answer should be given, but perhaps that answers to the question might be as diverse as those who attempt to answer it. Hence, hybridity and learning ecologies seem to me to work together well.

In the pandemic, hybrid learning and blended learning have become common currency, often used interchangeably and synonymously. Both are used in many different ways and are ill-defined. However, I am not sure it is useful to tie their meanings down: both are inadequate for conveying what is meant and, usefully, they require further explanation. However, they provide a good start to a conversation.

Often, one of the uses for blended learning is to convey the relationship of the physical learning space to the ‘virtual’ learning space (sorry, I hate the word virtual in this context!). Alternatively, blend is used to describe the balance of synchronous to asynchronous activity. Fundamentally, however, both hybrid and blend assume the provision of a pre-determined space and, as such, that is useful, and even necessary, for those who design learning activities. Acts of learning are likely to be more personal and ultimately self-determined, however.

Permeability

A permeable state is one that is infused with qualities. Permeability supports a sense of ecology. It also suggests something geological in terms of veins or seams that become, or are made, visible after being hidden, although often known about. Permeability implies rich promise – something that is there, but still to be discovered within a setting. Permeability, therefore, is essentially about possibility and agency.

Common ideas

Is there a common idea here?

In this common space exploration (a throwing together and analysis of ideas), I can see ideas about: being, agency and fluency. The implication of this is that the educator should focus less on the defined context (e.g. delivery of certain knowledge; formality; enclosure; etc) and adopt a learner-centred and inclusive appreciation of ideas like ambiguity, uncertainty, movement, patterns of divergence and convergence, reflexivity, doubt, curiosity, exchange, co-operation, and inconclusivity. And, of course, the list might go on…

References

Blaschke, L. M. (2013). E-learning and self-determined learning skills. In S. Hase, & C. Kenyon (Eds.), Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action (pp. 55-66). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.

Elstad, E. (2016). Educational technology and polycontextual bridging. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Falconer, L. (2011, November). Metaxis: the transition between worlds and the consequences for education. Presented at Innovative Research in Virtual Worlds

Granovator, M. (2004). Threshold models of collective behavior. The American Journal of Sociology, 83(6), pp. 1420-1443

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Linds, W. (2005). Metaxis: dancing (in) the in-between. In: Jan Cohen-Cruz, Mady Schutzman (eds.) A Boal companion. London: Routledge.

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising. In: Rust, C. (ed.), Improving student learning: Theory and practice ten years on. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), pp 412-424.

Ryberg, T., Buus, L., & Georgsen, M. (2012). Differences in understandings of networked learning theory: Connectivity or Collaboration? In L. Dirckinck-Holmfeld, V. Hodgson, & D. McConnell (Eds.). Exploring the Theory, Pedagogy and Practice of Networked Learning (pp. 43–52). New York, NY: Springer New York. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-0496-5

Savin-Baden, M. (2015). Rethinking learning in an age of digital fluency: is being digitally tethered a new learning nexus? London: Routledge.

Savin-Baden, M. & Falconer, L. (2016). Learning at the interstices; locating practical philosophies for understanding physical/virtual inter-spaces. Interactive Learning Environments, 24:5, 991-1003, DOI: 10.1080/10494820.2015.1128212

Siemens, G. (2003). Learning ecology, communities, and networks: extending the classroom. Online at: http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/learning_communities.htm

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(10), pp. 3–10.

Siemens, G. (2008). New structures and spaces of learning: the systemic impact of connective knowledge, connectivism, and networked learning.  Online at: http://elearnspace.org/Articles/systemic_impact.htm

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Fluency – standing, walking, dancing

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Being able to distinguish between skills, literacy and fluency is a perennial part of my job as an educational developer. This is most visible in thinking about how to communicate and engage people in conversations to do with digital capabilities, as is the case for me again now. However, it is more fundamental than that – it comes down to how we think about educational development, learning, employability, professional development, and the academic ecosystem in its entirety.

Fluency first

In this post I explain why ‘fluency’ is the right discourse for framing any educational or professional development conversation. Skills and literacies have their rightful places within that discourse, but attention to fluency means attention is given to the agility and agency of the subject, whether academic or student, or the organisation itself. Let us begin by breaking things down. What do we mean by skills, literacy and fluency?

Skills, literacy, and fluency – what do we want?

A skills discourse is the most straightforward – a skill describes the ability to perform a given task. To perform a function. As such, we can see what we have achieved if we have learnt a skill, and it is easy to evaluate whether we can successfully perform that skill at a point in time and in a specific context. It is easy to certificate skills therefore, and this is gratifying for all concerned, especially people who we do not know yet but who, in the future, will seek proof of our abilities. There’s a lot going for a skills discourse, but that’s not with a higher education is about. Graduates and academics need to be more than that. Skills are limited and, after a while, their values diminishes as specific context change and new contexts become apparent. Still, certification also demonstrates that we are capable of acquiring skills and there is some value in that.

Literacy, or being literate, is a good term, especially in the academic world. Being literate suggests we are knowledgeable and well-read. It implies a degree of critical and creative engagement with the subject. It suggests we can interpret and apply some knowledge to what we have to do. However, there is a lot of implication and ambiguity in all that – the literate person is certainly aware of a knowledge domain, but there is no real sense that this awareness will cause the individual think through the implications of what having that knowledge means for their practice or that how it will help them to respond to contexts that are not yet clear. There is still too much suggestion that the knowledge is received rather than something to be considered and owned. Literacy promotes a laisse-faire attitude – we are allowed to engage with the knowledge, but the knowledge is not presented as having significant consequences that must be addressed. Knowledge exists within the intellectual domain.

Fluency, on the other hand, presents knowledge as something that is defined by its ambiguity. The knowledge exists within a complexity that can’t, and mustn’t, be defined or contained. It demands that strategies (e.g. skills) and critical lens is applied to the subject matter. However, what really matters is having a depth of personal knowledge that leads to the individual being able to respond wisely, almost without having to think. Fluency is about self-efficacy therefore.

What do we want? – We (in my case ‘education’) want people who are fluent and therefore relatively autonomous; people who are more than (‘more than’ is important) capable of making wise decisions in a given situation.

Postdigital fluency

As noted, developing digital fluency is an important focus for me in my work at the moment. However, this agenda exists within the context of the postdigital world (Fawns, 2019). This helps and adds to the complexity of how to address this.

The postdigital context refers to ‘the digital’ as being ubiquitous, pervasive, and integral to the lived experience. If we stop talking now about ‘the digital age’ and instead pay attention to our reality of ‘everyware’ ubiquitous technology (Greenfield, 2006), then a skills-led discourse shows itself to be a hinderance to what we really need to develop. It represents a pretence that we are equipping staff or students for the foreseeable future. Whereas the future can’t be foreseen, but we do know it will be significantly different.

Look back 10 years – how has your digital landscape changed since then? What are the implications of this to your life, then, now and the future? We cannot be satisfied simply if someone (academic, student or other) has learnt a new skill. That skill only has meaning and value now and if its acquisition is understood as evidence of a habitual engagement with a fluid context.

Any development activity needs to be labelled: “Use with Caution!” (and criticality).

In terms of complexity, then, an educational discourse requires the development of spatial fluency – that is, each of us must be able to critically and creatively assess the situations in which we exist and respond wisely, as though we have not had to analyse the situation, before participating effectively. Our attention, as developers must be given, therefore to positive ‘agency’ and ‘placemaking’.

Before moving on, spatial fluency allows us to think about other big, bold questions of our times too (Sparrow, 2018).

Dancing is the answer!

I don’t mind writing and thinking here if it sometimes means me tying myself up in knots! This is what this space is primarily for in many ways. However, top of my mind is how to communicate a shift towards fluency, and beyond skills and literacy. How can we all grasp and deal with a university experience as being a space in time to develop complexity strategies? How can I frame this discussion with academics, students and managers in a straightforward way that makes sense to anyone?

My immediate thoughts are to visualise the ideas and to use metaphors. I must acknowledge the excellent podcast Philosophize This! and the second episode on the philosopher John Locke in which the idea of dancing, not standing, was discussed.

Digital fluency reflects the innate agency at the heart of learning – especially in an active learning paradigm in which we have respect for the learner and their own motivations.

While we might be able to teach someone how to stand up straight, that is all we are teaching. Being able to stand up straight is a specific skill. It is a function that can be performed and checked. We can use that skill, but it is difficult to apply it with any versatility or confidence to any other situation that we may encounter. If we learn to stand up from a chair, or on a slope, for example, to what extent can we confidently say we can also stand up in a moving vehicle, or when the slope is down instead of up, when there is or isn’t something to hold on to? A particular skill, and its value, are necessarily limited. We can always teach those other skills, but when do we stop? As parents, we know that standing up is not the ‘be all and end all’ to a small child – they have greater purpose and curiosity that gives them resilience. Focusing on developing curiosity is a clue to how we teach in complex situations and, in fact, an individual’s own, unique context (their part of the ecosystem) is critical to their sense making.

So clearly, thinking about teaching the different skill of walking, rather than standing, would be a better idea. There’s more in it. But what are we teaching the nascent walker? We are still teaching them to stand, but we are also teaching them how to move their legs in the the ‘right’ order so as to move forward, or even backwards. And necessarily we are teaching them to balance and to stop. Of course, we must teach the walker some other basics including how to decide on what direction to travel in and for how long. And to not run before you can walk! Then, we need to consider when to introduce ideas about travelling. Travelling causes their sensory context to change because of the actions they are taking, so that they must be able to respond to that change. It goes without saying that the walker must begin to interpret their context and respond to it. As parents, we know that we don’t sit our child down with a script and go through the ‘how to walk’ manual ‘step by step’ (though this is an interesting thought -there may be a book opportunity there for the unscrupulous teacher!). No, we allow for a few scrapes and bruises and try to put reasonable safeguards in place, but also create a supportive and constructive learning experience. The teacher parent helps the learner walker to reflect on the decisions they made – and then we quickly move on.

Let us now consider dancing and why learning to dance might be more useful than learning to walk or stand up! It is about context, motivation, and agility. Fundamentally it is about agency though.

Dancing is such a joyous act. It is about life itself. It is about who we want to be and how we want to feel. It is that bigger, bolder picture of memorable moments. It is about the freedom, even in or especially in, a social situation that we desire. [nb. anyone who knows me may be surprised to hear me effuse about dancing – just enjoy the moment! ;-)]

Dancing conveys a fluency that is not necessarily so obvious in the functional act of walking. Walking is an intellectual act (usually – but also see ideas of wandering and psychogeography). We tend to approach walking as a perfunctory act that enables us to get things done. We have focus and purpose and, for most of us, we know how to do it and we don’t pay too much attention to it. We know its limitations and will turn to other forms of being ambulant when walking is not going to achieve what we need to do. We have walking literacy.

Dancing, on the other hand, is us at our joyous best – when we are able to respond to any situation with utter confidence and fluidity. We have a sense of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002) and being. Dancing, as an enactment of fluency, involves us in self-demonstrations of exuberance and deep engagement with life. Physically, this dancing fluency is a matter of audacious balance, especially when this involves dancing with a partner.

Balance as a dimension of dancing and movement, perhaps epitomises fluency. Our bodies are dynamic containers of energy in motion and the physical space around us is in a continual ‘split second’ flux. It only goes wrong when we stop to think – when we become too literate and so too conscious of the world around us: I heard the athlete Kelly Holmes on the radio yesterday describe how she lost a podium place by looking up to check her timing as she approached the winning line. Fluency would have carried her over – and later in her career it did.

Balance and fluency, underpinned by technique and a sure knowledge of one’s skills and ability to deploy them, mean that the dancer, the skater, the artist, the musician, the athlete, the theoretician, indeed any of us, all excel when we ‘know’ without having to stop and think.

I argue, then, we should aspire to fluency by focusing on the agency we desire within our learning ecosystem. This takes skills, awareness, and opportunities in which to positively apply ourselves as we explore our worlds being driven by our respective curiosities.

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.

Fawns, T. (2019). Postdigital education in design and practice. Postdigital Science and Education, 1,

Greenfield, A. (2006). Everyware: the dawning age of ubiquitous computing. ‘Voices that matter’, CA: New Riders.

Sparrow, J. (2018). Digital fluency: preparing student to create big, bold problems. New Horizons: EDUCAUSE. Online at: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/3/digital-fluency-preparing-students-to-create-big-bold-problems, 132–145. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-018-0021-8

Posted in Active Learning, Applied Learning, Creativity, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Literacies and Intelligence, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lifewide learning domains: rich intersections or contested spaces

Deerhill in the snow. One of the moor top walks I take to wonder and wander

I noted in my previous post on mapping our learning that I would be engaging in the collaborative inquiry ‘Towards a Better Understanding of Our Own Learning Lives’ led by Norman Jackson, Rob Ward and Jenny Willis. I have just about managed to engage with this in week one (increasingly finding any space in my wide life feels tricky!) and I look forward to reflecting on how we compartmentalise or connect our learning lives across various domains as I pay attention to my own intentional and incidental learning.

This is essentially the focus of the study as I understand it. It coincides so well with my own thinking and questioning, and this blog space is one important strand in my own lifewide learning narrative.

My first task in the exercise has been to devise a Lifewide Learning Domain Map which I share below. I did it really quickly, believing that this cannot be a science and a rough and ready mapping will be as revealing as anything else. Indeed, I have added ‘connections and crossings’ to my map’s title because I think the intersections and contested nature of the domains will reveal more to me as I participate in this study – my role being mostly as a subject. Note, I have also used the word ’emphasises’ as I introduce each domain to again indicate the fuzziness and changing, ambiguous nature of (my) life: ‘If I say [domain name], then it is mostly to do with…, but note entirely or exclusively.’ And for me, this fuzziness is especially relevant to how I/we learn. That cliché of ‘I have my best ideas in the shower’ makes the point well – I find space to think and learn in apparently disconnected spaces and this gives us the concepts of third space and third place, as in the hairdresser’s fire escape fag break (Shortt, 2014).

Psychogeography is a surprising high level domain for me, and I may decide it is too much of a passing interest, however I see it as a broad set of ideas that connect and make sense of a lot of my life. This is quite ironic, because the literature on psychogeography, as far as I can tell, really caricatures it through the aimless nature of the lone wonderer. Obviously, for me, it turns out being aimless is an important dimension in my life, contrasting with the intense purposeful nature of pretty much everything else I do. My waking hours do feel as though I am on an intense mission most of the time. And that is the way I like it. I will return to psychogeography in a future post.

Colliding and compressing domains

In the introductory presentation given by Norman, he asked whether the domains in our lives had lost their distinctiveness during the pandemic. In these days of lockdown everything seems to happen at home. Being online happens at home – hence polycontextuality. The only time I leave the house is to walk or shop for groceries. I don’t expect this to change for a long time. If I’m right, there is an urgency for each of us to reflect on and develop new life strategies.

I think for most of us, this compression of domains will be most evident in those areas of life we have created to do with friends, family and leisure. Simply, friendship feels very different in Zoom. It’s the wrong place, because friendship is often quiet: friendship is about the space between words, being acceptant of social signals, doing things together for no other purpose than doing things with people just feels good. That’s much more difficult than the focused and purposeful activities we undertake at work or when we are being intentionally creative and productive.

Therein lies the crisis of schooling: the primary learning outcome of a formal education is to become a social being – it is not the ‘stuff’ we’re assessed on.

Quiet personal bubbles

And then, even though we are generally experiencing great social isolation during the pandemic, to what extent are we managing to find and protect those transitory dwelling places each of us needs? I get it in walking, taking photographs and posting them to Instagram, playing the guitar, writing, doing a lot of Skill Share courses, and watching a lot of YouTube videos (some ‘serious’, some not).

Often this could induce feelings of guilt though, given that a lot of this involves switching off in my bubble demarcated by my Bluetooth headphones. I can’t really imagine how on earth this plays out in families. Fortunately, I just live with my partner and we navigate our spaces pretty well! (I think?!)

Boundary crossing

As indicated, identifying domains feels somewhat arbitrary to me. It will be interesting to see how it works out for me over the next five weeks of the study. So much of what I think and write about is to do with experiential crossing points – I suggest it is the intersections of our lives in which we come across our meaning, when things get in the way (collisions) or when things add up or multiply (connections).

In terms of learning and what I am doing at work as an educational developer, this is informing what I am doing on Building Learning Communities: developments around non-formal learning space to enrich the student’s experience in a time of great alienation.

References

Shortt, H. (2014). Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’ at work. Human Relations, 6, 1-26. DOI: 10.1177/0018726714536938

Posted in Belonging, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Personal & Professional Development Planning, Polycontextuality, Scholarship and Research, Social Media for Learning, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mapping my learning: visualising not just being visual

The echo of people moving within the display of Jackson Pollock’s paintings at MOMA, New York

A few posts ago I thought through some ideas about using metaphorical maps as a way of navigating learning. I want to pursue this here to discover further intersections and connections, especially as we gear up for the collaborative inquiry ‘Towards a Better Understanding of Our Own Learning Lives’ led by Norman Jackson, Rob Ward and Jenny Willis. I expect this series of online engagements, running over six weeks from 1st February, will challenge us to think further about the significance of lifewide learning and, fundamentally, learning ecologies.

This post begins by focusing on the aesthetics of learning – the way we visually make sense of the world by reconstructing ‘good enough’ representations that stimulate our critical faculties. We begin in the gallery…


Immediately my mind turns to visual metaphors of spaghetti-like organic networks as I think about learning ecologies and networks; so solid and about structure in any snapshot, yet so fluid, incidental and self-directed in reality. There is an incongruity in this which we need to understand if we are to understand active learning (as in a formal conception of how learning is designed and offered) and how it is situated within the more significant space of lifewide learning and personal and social histories and trajectories. To some extent I think I captured this incongruity in the photograph I took at MOMA above. Let’s examine this.

Here we see the work of Jackson Pollock, the doyen of action painting. It would be ridiculous to explain his work, but my interpretation of it is it being a momentary snapshot of movement conveyed through sweeping lines and splashes using a readily available palette combined with traces of the artist’s own state of being as he interacted with the ‘world’ he was creating around him (‘the painting’).

In the foreground of ‘my painting’ (my photograph) we see the same action presented in other media – the people in the foreground who are blurred, moving, in the way, entangled. Who are these people? What are their missions? How did they get here and to what extent will this event actually affect their respective futures? Did I know, as photographer, that later I would have these thoughts and write this post? Did I know what I was capturing? No and no. But I knew something. As one of the people in the room I had my own part to play and my own reasons for being there. I may have had things in common with many co-participants, especially as we briefly intersected on that day. I was a tourist. I have a long backstory of valuing art in my life and a strong desire and curiosity to keep that as part of my lifeline. I had opinions that affected my perception in that moment and the decision to take the photograph in the way I did. Why was making a photograph something I should do – was it simply to remember? No, the photograph is too well framed to be just ‘a capture to look back on’. It is a solid artefact, but like Pollock’s painting, there is little value in its stagnant solidity. I was making a statement to myself (as the likely future viewer – I didn’t know about you then) about who I think I am. And in the act of making the photograph, I was making a statement to all those other people – “Look! I am taking a photo people! I must know something about this cultural stuff!” So, the ego is important in this. And as you listen to yourself talking and to others talking in galleries, self-aggrandisement is never far away.

But there are much more endearing qualities portrayed here: we chose to be here; we know there is more to life than the mere mundane and superficial things we mostly do; we are curious and we haven’t given up/in yet! We know that the essential ambiguity of ‘art’ more closely explains our lives and our futures than the certainties we receive and construct in order to get by each day. I am sure I should cite John Berger at this point or Susan Sontag (though those readings are buried in my ecology somewhere in the region of 30 years back) and many, many others; never mind referring to what the artists themselves may have thought or had to say. I don’t think I’ve heard Pollock talking about his own work, for example. Well, I probably have but it just gets soaked up along the way – and that is kind of the point.

But then, this painting isn’t Pollock’s work. It is my work hanging in an international gallery. Yes! The artist is only mediator or agitator. The only value in the work is the value we individually assign it as we intersect with it, and then the social exchange or influence that comes out of us as we intersect there and then, or subsequently.

I would like to mention psychogeography in passing at this point and quickly move on. Coverley’s book Psychogeography is a great read. For the moment, it describes the history and essentiality of the lone wanderer. I am one of those people – very happy to wonder and wander, walk, gaze, and think with no conscious purpose or intent. To soak it all up! Actually, photography is a wandering ‘crutch’ in my walking (apologies for the Instagram self-aggrandisement). I lean and rest upon photography as I walk and think – with the camera inviting me to pause, analyse, construct and move on (for example, that explains the ‘why’ of the picture above). The camera, for me, is an intersectional device like (small ‘a’) art itself.

Merlin Coverley (2018) Psychogeography book cover
Merlin Coverley (2018) Psychogeography book cover

What’s any of this to do with learning?

There’s a lot going on in the first part of this post. Turning to the post’s title, ‘visualising’ is used as a synonym for constructing or forming, in this case the mental maps that help us make sense, orientate, navigate and self-direct ourselves. I often use the words ‘navigate and negotiate’ as a single phrase when writing about learning: we need to assume agency over our learning and build and revise our personal plan for where we go next. This is about involving the learner as negotiator of their inner monologue but also as actant within their social learning mediating their learning with peers, tutors and friends. In this way we enact our sentience – our being. Philosophically, we could deviate at this point to people like Heidegger and Sartre – but I won’t go there today (I have a walk to go on! And photographs to make!).

The idea of spaghetti-like representations of learning echo the notion of rhizomatic ecosystems: forms which can be represented, but only inadequately because such things are living and open to positive and adverse influence and interference. Learning may be intended, but ultimately it is unpredictable and surprising, we hope. After all, how can we predict what we have not concluded yet. Art and ambiguity have a lot to say about learning (Orr & Shreeve, 2018).

Yet learning, like art, is experienced as being subjective and fascinating. It is always primarily experiential. Learning happens at the moment of intersection: personal and social histories and respective histories and trajectories collide, coalesce or fall apart. Like magnets we tug and push at each other. Intersections and clashes of knowledge and other paradigms too.

I like my choice of Pollock. Initially I was scouring images for motorway intersections, but then I thought about the so-called ‘abstract’ patterns in a painting such as Pollock’s (but actually any painting when you look at its plastic human application beyond any superficial attempt to represent the world ‘realistically’). The lines of Pollock’s swirling liquid paint capture his movement. Pollock, of course, stands over his work dripping and throwing paint and (importantly) standing back momentarily to reflect and make decisions before taking or making the next action. This is learning personified. We respond, make, consider, adjust, assess, commit in a personal continuous noise of action. Now imagine four or five extra Pollocks crashing into each other over the canvas responding to each other’s movements: learning as social performance and happenings!

Above, I mention the apparent subject of my painting foregrounded by people who, if you viewed them from above and traced their steps, would be creating something very similar to what we viewed hanging on the wall. For learning, let us consider the acts of joint endeavour in which we are involved and which we don’t need to think about too much, but which nevertheless do have significance – now or later. Our social, unspoken contract as co-learners is essentially affirming. Our essential human magnetism shifts our relative perspectives as we try to occupy the same space.

I write about status and ego. When we talk we expose ourselves as vulnerable thinkers while being conscious, to differing degrees, of how our contributions are received. We live within the tension of being imposters, co-operators, wise and foolhardy people. When we think about ‘learner engagement’ (as I often do), it is as well to remember that learning is a brave and necessary act. Those people in the gallery understand there is value in the space – but they probably have little real clarity about what that value is. It’s the same with learning. Galleries and education are ‘good things’, it is enough to start there.

There is little value in the artefact itself: it is stagnant and solid I suggest; essentially inert but with affordances. That brings us back to action, reflection, reconstruction. The value is not in what we hold, but in why we find value in what we hold and what this means for our futures; therefore, giving us clues to our intrinsic motivations. Connecting this to teaching, the devices or artifices we have used may be disrupted (e.g. by the pandemic or by bad teaching experiences or lack of currency and ignorance of context, etc), but the value is in how we reimagine and attempt to reconstruct what we do next. Simply, active learning/teaching is essentially productive, reflective and experiential.

The well-framing of a photograph speaks to: doing our best to communicate; attempting to use conforming jargon and language; ‘putting it out there’ – that is, being clear you are trying to make a statement or contribution. These are all things we expect of each other as co-learners and teachers in the active classroom. We should be empathic, even where we see loud, eager, opinionated voices, but certainly as we think about learning as lurking – a discourse which has re-emerged through discussions about ‘cameras on/off’ in educations response to learner engagement in the pandemic.

Let’s refocus on those endearing qualities observed in the gallery-going situation. As learners we have elected to be here – our initial motivations and expectations may not be so ambiguous, but teaching is about openning up ambiguity so that we engage in acts of negotiating trajectories, developing a sense of curiosity and helping each other to reconstruct our identities, now and for the future. As with the gallery-goers, we know there is more to life than the mere mundane and superficial things we are mostly asked to do and, when learning and teaching ‘click’, it is because we make connection by stimulating curiosity. We learn to appreciate the essential ambiguity of knowledge as an opportunity to work things out and make sense of our lives. Which, by the way, is why I blog – it’s not what I know, it’s what I want to know.

Let’s finish with that, and bring us back to visualising rather than being visual, or being engaged in a lifewide experience of perpetual reconstruction rather than in being satisfied with the static/stagnant representation of knowledge. Learning is a matter of ‘trying ideas on’ and seeing how they fit with who we are and who we want to be. The teacher’s role in this is to construct the space and play with the paradox and ambiguity: the canvas, the book; the paint, the text; the movement, the thesis.

As discussed in the previous post on structure, framing learning by offering metaphorical maps to help the learner navigate their learning means that the learner is given space, as colourist, to develop lifelong critical habits that will hold them in good stead.

References

Coverley, M. (2018). Psychogeography. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials.

Orr, S. & Shreeve, A. (2018). Art and design pedagogy in higher education: Knowledge, values and ambiguity in the creative curriculum. London & New York: Routledge.

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Revisting the 5Cs to discover value for different times

Bring Your Own Device 4 Learning

I have had an immense feeling of warmth and solidarity this evening as good thoughts and memories have been triggered by Sheila’s post on How Sheila Sees It ‘Bring your own device for learning or bringing learning to your device?’

Bring Your Own Device 4 Learning was a ground breaking experience (more than a course/not even a course). Structured around the 5Cs over 5 days, incorporating tweet chats and eventually leading to the LTHEchat, it was a remarkable experience – truely ecological, in that everyone who took part, whatever their role, found their own level/value/outcomes. Just as learning should be.

So please read Sheila’s post for a little more on the background and to see her proposition that there could be a place for it in helping us to respond to these difficult times.

Yes, somehow that does make sense. As Sheila says, not as BYOD4L, but BYOD2L – bringing learning to your device. Reaching out, and connecting wherever and however you are.

This idea of ‘wherever and however’ has been central to my own responsibilities and response to the pandemic. Working at Anglia Ruskin University with our commitment to active and inclusive learning, we squared up to the pandemic recommitting to our principles for active and inclusive learning when it might have been simpler to retrench pedagogically. Consequently we continue to advocate, develop and explore Unified Active Learning – a people-centred principle-based philosophy that encapsulates technical responses such as blended, hybrid and HyFlex. I learnt much from my own experience of BYOD4L that informs my thinking around UAL now.

So yes, let us explore together BYOD2L and share what we have learnt and applied from the 5Cs of connecting, communicating, curating, collaborating and creating.

Rediscovering the 5Cs

I know I have examples of pedagogies that reflect each C, and the technical connected space students and teachers have constructed to establish a rich and rewarding experience in trying and unpredictable times. I would love to share and play with the approaches and attitudes we have each drawn upon.

Thanks Sheila!

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Bring your own device for learning or bringing learning to your device? – howsheilaseesIT

Bring your own device for learning or bringing learning to your device? – howsheilaseesIT
— Read on howsheilaseesit.net/curriculum-design/bring-your-own-device-for-learning-or-bringing-learning-to-your-device/

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Structure and memory-mapping in #activelearning

Photo by Alice Butenko on Unsplash

The idiom ‘from pillar to post’ both indicates the role of structure in a journey and, at the same time, cautions that substance, purpose and clarity are necessary to a fruitful experience. In the previous post, I discussed divergence and convergence as ideas that can help the academic to create regular patterns in curriculum design. The strength of pattern is that it suggests substance: a repeating pattern offers the predictability that the viewer needs. It allows them to become part of the creative experience by colouring within the pattern’s outlines. To do this, they use their prior knowledge, experience, or imagination. The viewer becomes colourist. When multiple colourists bring their aesthetics to the task, we create a discourse through collaboration.

In learning design, the patterns and shapes are different, but still the academic plays with ideas like ‘less is more’; leaving space for the learner to bring themselves to the task. The academic avoids filling in the space knowing that it would be futile to make all the aesthetic decisions for each and every student. Leaving space becomes an inclusive learning strategy; one that accommodates their students’ diverse perspectives.

The art of teaching to an active learning philosophy, it seems to me, is about understanding how to create loosely structured learning maps so that each student can bring their aesthetic to it. Our challenge is to create a just enough structure so that our students can fluently navigate their topic or course, without them getting lost along the way; or rather, without them getting irretrievably separated from the core narrative and its intended outcomes. This points to another topic: the value of deviance and self-determination.

Map reading

I incorporate maps in my use of twalks and learning walks. In twalks, where participants are not co-located geographically, the idea of map is incongruous yet perhaps even more important than for situations in which participants are co-located. But how can you use a common map if you are not co-located? While the twalk map depicts common landmark types (i.e. library, lawn, staircase, etc), so that the activities can make reference to the meanings of such places, they can’t do much more than that. The value in a learning twalk often comes from observing the difference between ‘my library’ and ‘your library’; in that way we discover, through our own experience or the storiy we share, ‘library-ness’.

Memory maps – learning as cartography

Your aim as a student on completing a twalk, a walk, or any other active learning event, is essentially to create a memory map.

You are given stimuli, challenges, questions, and discussions and these become structures in your metaphorical map. Each of these constructions has some solidity and acts as a point of reference.

Your learning comes from your response to the stimulus, how you address the challenge, your response (right, wrong or different) to the questions, and what you gather from and contribute to the discussions. Your contribution, as a learning participant, is to distil your memories and to add colour, substance and annotations to your own memory map. That is active learning.

Photo by SEASHELL IN LOVE – Kristin on Unsplash

This points us to the relationship between active and reflective learning and the value of portfolios for learning: collections of personalised memory maps (significant artefacts), carefully stored, curated, and ready to be reviewed by the learner later to inform subsequent explorations.

Co-creating memories

This idea of memory mapping is congruent with the social construction of knowledge. Learning alone can be soulless and dispiriting. In my experience, learning is lifted by comparing what you think to what others think. This can be competitive, but mostly the value is in co-operation and the appreciation of other, different or complementary ideas, and especially the growth of ideas and knowledge that comes from thinking together. In social situations, your experience, alongside the experience of your collaborators, is to create a rich picture from the bare bones scaffold of the landmark activities given you by your teacher, leader, or the situation itself.

Objects, pictures and interpretation

I have worked with colleagues over the years who have been captured by the idea objects as a tangible focus for learning through conversation and contemplation.

For example, Beatriz Acevedo and myself interviewed Alison Greig for our Exquisite Corpse podcast. In the discussion, Alison shares how she engaged her students in learning about systems and sustainability. With participants all over the world, Alison engaged them in discussing ideas by using self-selected geographical landmarks. With minimal framing, they used these as the basis for understanding complex concepts: from a canal in Manchester to a fish market in Hong Kong. In the following recording, Alison presents some useful insights from this experience.

Exquisite Corpse podcast

Alison’s use of self-selected objects in the landscape is a good example of how objects lend themselves to personalised and interpretive discussion. Such analytical devices elicit conversational learning, creating a fluid and immersive experience where the learner has a high degree of agency over their learning. At the same time, the collective contrivance of the object in the landscape, in this case, connects the thinking, and learning, of all those who take part.

In conclusion: daring to provide no more than just enough

Whether it is outlined patterns or objects, the active learning teacher scaffolds learning by creating a learning environment composed of just enough direction to send students on their way with purpose and clarity. Providing clarity and removing clutter go hand-in-hand when the learner is intent on creating their own substance from a process of mapping memories.

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Playing with divergence and convergence: designing #ActiveLearning

Playing with divergence and convergence – designing #activelearning

Active learning is a process of opening up and closing down possibilities.

Whether you look at course, module, session or activity design, knowing that your role as an academic is to play with divergence and convergence can be really helpful. As a teacher, you are a designer and an orchestrator of learning experience.

Divergence

Divergence is about opening possibilities and creating choices (Brown, 2008).

Knowledge is usually hard won, interpreted, and not a matter of certainty in higher education. Ambiguity can be an important characteristic in many disciplines where students learn immersively, taking deep dives to explore ideas and produce new knowledge. Learning requires an open and creative attitude to navigate and negotiate complexity, even when theoretical knowledge is well-established. Exploration, play, brainstorming, problem-solving, experimentation, enquiry are all examples of generative approaches to developing knowledge and they often begin by expanding and making ideas and problems more complex.

Martin (2009) proposes the value of ‘integrative thinkers’: those who can take a broad view of a situation even where this breadth increases complexity when considering problems. Such people are able to consider and evaluate alternative perspectives. They are able to think laterally (de Bono, 1970) and can address detail while keeping the entire problem in mind. Such people are able to think creatively and critically.

Looking at de Bono’s description of brainstorming, it is useful to note that divergence does not by any means equate with a chaotic free-for-all. Sessions are intentional, structured and involve provocative stimuli framed by cross stimulation, suspended judgement, and the formality of the setting. As an approach within active learning, divergent lateral thinking activities make sense. Indeed, “The more formal the setting the more chance there is of informality in ideas within it.” (de Bono, 1970)

However, this opening up, or divergence, can be challenging for many students if their expectation is that they should be told what they are ‘meant’ to know. But there is no challenge in that, and therefore little meaning. Further, knowledge beyond the classroom does not work like that and so generating divergent complexity is as much a strategy for developing self-efficacy as it is for developing knowledge – we learn we are capable of devising thinking strategies. A student learns to see their own capabilities differently as they engage with learning strategies that develop their confidence, resilience and agility.

On the other hand, didactic methods are generally disingenuous to the student – they reflect the ‘spoon feeding’ tendencies of training methods. Instrumental teaching strategies simply give the students what they think they need and are characterised by little divergence or convergence. Lecturing is often described in this way, but we need to be careful. We all remember inspirational lecturers, so it is not about lecturing per se – a good lecture will be one that inspires curiosity (opening up possibilities) and engages the learner in an exploration of a topic’s dimensions before arriving at some conclusion (a convergence).

Convergence

In design thinking, convergence is about working towards a single best solution having started with possibilities. From the breadth of opportunity, learning is often a matter of making sense by trying out and testing ideas, usually with others, through analytical thinking or reflection on action.

The learner has agency over their learning: they are ultimately responsible for the construction of their knowledge. Convergence, therefore, refers to the scaffolded and effective processes that teachers deploy to ensure a student learns by selecting and evaluating options, making decisions or commitments, and drawing conclusions.

Spotting patterns

Patterns of divergence and convergence can be discerned in any active learning strategy at course, module, session, and activity levels of design. They can be repeating patterns as in exploration of a pattern of weekly topics through a module or learning cycles. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (1984), for example, incorporates concrete experience (an open exposure to something), reflective observation (a convergent process of analysing what happened), then abstract conceptualisation (an expansion as the definite experience is generalised), and then active experimentation as generalised knowledge is evaluated and committed (a convergent resolving part of the cycle).

In a webinar I ran recently on divergent and convergent design in active learning, the question of assessment was brought up. It is always interesting for me when assessment comes up. It always feels like we may descend into an impasse. When considered holistically in an active learning paradigm, assessment does have an important (if sometimes distracting) summative purpose; however, assessment should really be considered strategically as a pattern to be designed within the learning experience. Within any assessment pattern there will be elements that appear to have little to do with the summative act but which are, nevertheless, integral to the assessment. This is all to be played with, but elements such as ‘outcome setting’ and ‘challenge’, for example, are orientation dimensions that may be used at the start of a module to open up and develop curiosity. Then ‘brief’, ‘question’, or ‘task’ suggest focus and convergence within the assessment strategy. Good formative feedback is about opening up and generalising the particular so it can be applied to other situations, while the summative task can be used either to test for specific application knowledge (convergence – ‘what is the correct answer?’) or create a divergent learning space (i.e. the major project – ‘tell us what you found out, why and how’). So, the design of active learning assessment strategies provides a good example of how patterns of divergence and convergence and can help the academic designer.

Here’s a list of divergence and convergence ideas:

Divergence:

Explore

Discuss

Compare

Consider

Connect

Generate

Convergence:

Decide

Select

Reduce

Synthesise

Evaluate

Conclude

In conclusion (but only for the moment!)

I was frustrated as an art student. I felt I got little guidance when I needed it. Everything was “open, open, open”. I felt I never arrived. It was dissatisfying – for me. I needed tension, challenge and feedback. But in other situations I have got equally frustrated – HR training courses do my head in! There is no room for contextualisation and interpretation, and quite honestly I don’t retain what I learn on those training courses. I need to be stimulated.

I don’t think I am alone. A well-designed learning experience, I think, is stimulating and has ebbs and flows, loud and quiet movements, complexity and revelation; patterns of activity that are equally inspiring and challenging, and ultimately informing in a way that makes sense to me.

References

Brown, T. (2008). ‘What does design thinking feel like?’ Ideo Design Thinking [blog], 7th September 2008. Online at: https://designthinking.ideo.com/blog/what-does-design-thinking-feel-like

de Bono, E. (1970). Lateral thinking: a textbook of creativity. London: Penguin Books.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Martin, R. (2009). The opposable mind: how successful leaders win through integrative thinking. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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Learning Spaces Iceberg

This infographic represents the complexity of learning space discourse and points to the experiential value of the ‘hidden depths’ where the space is least understood because it is least represented and least visible – who are the advocates for the non-formal experience in which the agency and spatial literacy of all stakeholders is vital?

The iceberg metaphor suggests space is ‘off the radar’ for so many people. We may have a surface engagement with what we perceive, but mostly learning space is not as hospitable as we need, often being cold and alienating and frequently slippery.

We keep our distance from this ambiguous landmass, knowing that it is potentially complex, out of our control, and fraught with dangers – whatever our role.

We understand that we are knowledgeable, experienced, equipped and resourceful to different extents.

At the heart of these dilemmas are the common ontological matters that connect all of us with an interest in education. Space should not be problematic, we know we all want to be part of something and fully engaged in spaces that help us to thrive, together. To thrive we need to understand and develop our spatial literacies.

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Being part of something – having a sense of presence #activelearning

Photo by ThisIsEngineering on Pexels.com

The idea of ‘being’ is about presence and is central to an active learning philosophy. It reflects two things: personal identity and social presence in the learning environment. Lehman and Conceicao (2010) describe this as ‘being there’ and ‘being together’. Both relate to embodiment and the ‘ways of being’ that are projected by individuals and those with whom they associate: who we are, how we come to present ourselves, and how we are received. Fostering presence by paying attention to ‘being’ potentially counteracts “transactional distance” and feelings of separation and even isolation (Moore, 1993). Teacher presence, on the other hand, encourages co-operation, community cohesion, and public discourse (Zilka et al., 2018).

Sung and Mayer (2012) explain that presence refers to the extent that personal connection with others is felt, i.e. being noticed; sharing; interaction; identity.

As such, being and presence connect with both enactment and belonging (association). These ideas also relate to becoming and social connection making.

Being, therefore, is really about being part of something. This is different to having a sense of belonging which describes an affective state; that sense is an emotional response to whether we feel part of something. Being is more active, conscious, intentional and agentic, as in ‘being in the moment’, ‘being there together’, assuming and developing an identity, and experiencing identity as it is mirrored in acts that respond to or affect others. This understanding leads to the teacher considering the nature of interaction and the role of intellectual, emotional and intrinsic feedback; the latter being the feedback that is integral to the learning activity and environment. Teacher presence, thereby, encourages a climate of co-operation, community cohesion, and public discourse.

Being, as embodiment, is about experiencing and curating identity and so is related to learning as reflection; especially reflection in learning – that heightened sense of self-awareness, or self-feedback, which can be equally fragile or exhilarating.

Being, therefore, has great value to learning design. It becomes a useful lens for the academic who, in a student-centred paradigm, can monitor engagement in learning by evaluating the nature of an individual’s active presence: what evidence is there that the learner has bought into the activity or the course as a whole? For example, to what extent has the learner adopted the disciplinary attitudes, tools and language? How do they wear (sometimes literally) their emerging identity? How does the learner position themselves culturally – as an insider, or outsider?

On the learning space walks I organise from time to time I like to look in on labs: what do the white coats mean? What do the lab books mean? What do the half-erased marks on whiteboards mean? What does the smell of the lab mean? What do the burn marks in the work surface mean? What does the apparatus mean? We start to see that our experience of a space is situated within, not only a disciplinary knowledge and tradition, but a culture through enacted behaviours and common beliefs. Our being is part of that story. For me, as a former art student (painting and printmaking urban artefacts as symbols of our own experience) the paint on the studio floor, the smell of turps, and the miscellaneous noticeboards and debris of endeavour were as significant as anything I may have been ‘taught’.

I suggest fostering being as a dimension of learning should be the concern of every academic involved in designing learning activities and creating their learning environment. Developing a supportive communal learning environment that is attentive to student needs will improve the learning and teaching experience and its outcomes (Chickering & Gamson, 2000).

Authenticity is a key word in achieving this. I often use the idea of authenticity to refer to activities that reflect a real world context (e.g. Herrington & Herrington, 2006), however, here I use authenticity to refer to the viability of the learning environment itself as one in which learning activities, teachers and students are in tune: the situation they create exudes commitment and their actions are understood by all as an expression of being and communal presence. The learning environment is not primarily perceived to be an abstracted or ‘pure’ academic construct.

Being, presence and hybridity

Being and presence are particularly recognisable in spaces such as studios, labs, field trips, workshops, editing suites, maker spaces, and those non-formal learning spaces to which learners and teachers gravitate between times (e.g. stair wells, cafes, lawns, social media, perching seats, and water fountains, are a few of the many examples). Such spaces accommodate a high degree of personal agency within a social context while also adding value to the adjacent or the associated formal learning spaces. Together these spaces create a spatial ecosystem, and may reflect an urban metabolism (an idea I am exploring for a future post).

But what about the online digital domain that, on the face of it, appears sterile and ‘other’? How do we penetrate its veneer to reveal “the signs of distress, embarrassment, difficulties with the material being taught” (Zilka et al., 2018) or, more positively, to explore it as affinity space (Gee, 2005) or a space of learning friendship (Middleton, 2018), characteristic of social learning?

Well, if you’ve stumbled across my blog, I know you know that the online domain is equally a place of being. If nothing else, our reading or engagement with what we find gives the domain its life. Online media are intrinsically stimulating – we react to them, even if it is to leave them as quickly as we found them. But as with any learning environment, the online learning spaces we use have their functionality and inviting affordances (Withagen et al., 2017). And by the way, that is no different to any other space: space becomes place once it is experienced (space + meaning).

A hybrid, blended and unifying space

Like any other educational developer in higher education, my challenge since March 2020 has been to understand, make recommendations for, and develop practices and infrastructure for supporting learning across the physical-digital domain. How simple it is to say that!

All of a sudden our academics have discovered that they cannot ignore the significance of space and its relation to either teaching or learning. For example, our students freak out our academics when they turn off their cameras and microphones, becoming invisible (the assumptions about that invisibility can be explored in another post)! So many things we may have taken for granted have melted into air to reveal real insight! C’est ne pas une pipe!

Without exploring the detail of the Unified Active Learning model we have developed to understand the possibilities for engaging all of our students (however they access their learning), there are questions we need to ask: how can the academic designer create hybrid spaces in which a sense of being and a heightened sense of presence have a role? How do we epitomise that notion of authenticity in the ecosystem of personal environments that are experienced each time we meet our students, even when they are co-located temporally but not spatially? Or when they meet each other? How do we manage our own voices and encourage the voices of our students to populate the environments we create together? How do we foster learning cultures and identities in the connected space? Beyond enactment, how do we promote being and presence to ensure becoming and social connectivity follow? What are our ‘lab coats’ and unifying signifiers (Norman, 2013) in this hybrid space?

These are the sorts of questions the academic, as designer and orchestrator, needs to be answering for themselves. Zilka et al. (2018) observe that physical separation between teacher and learners in the blended space may lead to transactional distance. That is the challenge. That distance needs to be reduced by developing teacher presence and social presence. They make the following recommendations from their research,

It is preferable to create a learning environment that supports the learners
and is attentive to their needs and to the creation of an active learning community. It has been found that these factors greatly influence the process and the quality of learning in the course.

ibid

References

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (2000). Development and adaptations of the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. In: M. D. Svinicki (ed.), “Teaching and learning on the edge of the millennium: Building on what we have learned”, pp. 75-81, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gee, J. P. (2005). ‘Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces’. In: David Barton & Karin Tusting, eds, “Beyond communities of practice: language power and social context.” New York: Cambridge University Press.

Herrington, A. & Herriington, J. (2006). What is an authentic learning environment? In Authentic Learning Environments in Higher Education, edited A. Herrington and J. Herrington, pp. 1-14, Information Science Publishing. Online at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/14bb/5449d235750fda45de96aff377389ad69e2d.pdf

Lehman, R. M. & Conceicao, S. C. O. (2010). Creating a sense of presence in online teaching: How to ‘be there’ for distance learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Metabolism of Cities website: https://metabolismofcities.org/

Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining spaces for learning in higher education. Palgrave Learning & Teaching.

Moore, M. G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In: D. Keegan (ed.), “Theoretical principles of distance education”, pp. 22-38. London, New York: Routledge.

Norman, D. (2013). The design of everyday things: Revised and expanded edition. New York: Basic Books.

Sung, E. & Mayer, R.E. (2012). Five facets of social presence in online distance education. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(5), pp. 1738-47.

Withagen, R., Araujo, D., & de Poel, H. J. (2017). Inviting affordances and agency. New Ideas in Psychology, 45, April 2017, pp. 11-18.

Zilka, G. C., Cohen, R.,& Rahimi, I. D. (2018). Teacher presence and social presence in virtual and blended courses.. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research, 17. Online at: http://jite.org/documents/Vol17/JITEv17ResearchP103-126Zilka4515.pdf

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