This article considers the agency of the learner in an active learning context. It considers curation as an act of making; more than taking, the learner processes artefacts to discover new knowledge. Curation is an iterative learning activity of collecting, collating, connecting, constructing and publishing.
Curation describes ‘the act of looking after’ and is most commonly associated with librarianship although it is related in meaning to the social role of the curate. My own interest in curation stems back to the mid-1990s when I realised that digital technologies had the potential to democratise access to visual archives. I set about digitising the works of British scultptor George Fullard and the Art’s Council’s collection of photographs which were held in the art library at Sheffield Hallam University at the time. Both of these acts of digitisation resulted in many transformations: the materials acquired new form and metadata; I became more knowledgeable about the subjects; and the wider public made their own connections with the materials now that they had digital access to them through the multimedia CD-ROMs and web-based sites I created and through the related exhibitions I curated (George Fullard ‘Playing with Paradox’ ; ‘In Search of the English’ ).
Later, with the advent of social media, my role as an educational developer with responsibility for academic innovation ensured I was early to the adoption and exploration of online tools, notably del.icio.us, which was established in 2003 as a free-to-use social bookmarking web-based service for storing, sharing, and discovering browser bookmarks. Del.cio.us was a key tool for me and my colleagues in the Creative Development Team at SHU where we discovered and researched Web 2.0 technologies and their potential for teaching and learning in the context of the Learning & Teaching Institute and the CETL for Promoting Learner Autonomy. By using del.cio.us and other emerging Web 2.0 technologies, I became aware of a tendency to save, store, tag, covet and forget data – it was so easy to find information, skim read it, click save, formulate a folksonomy of tags on the fly and, metaphorically, throw the resource in the cupboard. I amassed many social bookmarks and while I had invested much time in collecting them (and learning by ‘scraping’ the Web), I was essentially involved in an act of what I called ‘cupboarding’ – collecting and stockpiling for the sake of it. I was not interrogating the resources sufficiently or making connections across my own expanding cupboard full of links or, through connection, to the collections of others in my emerging network. I admit, I still work in that way because it does have some value – now I have a massive Evernote collection and, more recently, I have begun to explore Notion which describes itself as “a collaboration platform with modified markdown support that integrates kanban boards, tasks, wikis, and databases .”
Of course, all of this apparent obsession with scraping and storing is of questionable value when the resources I find fall so easily out of Google searches and recommendations. In fact, there is a danger of storing anything in an age of exponential knowledge growth where the reliability of information must be questioned on the grounds of its currency – what was true yesterday is unlikely to be quite so true tomorrow. It is critical that a graduate learns to be digitally critical and fluent.
Finally, in terms of background, in the early 2000s, I had been involved in developing several online learning resources including InfoQuest (an information skills package) and Key Skills Online. From these developments, I had developed an interest in the role of note-taking as an academic skill. However, while considering how audio notes could be made as an act of gathering (Middleton, 2011), I came to understand the significance of learner agency in this act. In the same way that web scraping had some cognitive benefit, the act of the learner as a gatherer of notes took my interest beyond the undergraduate skill towards the act of making; an act involving critical intent and engagement. Note making, rather than simply taking, is what matters. Of course, you have to learn the skill, but as a person with agency, skill acquisition takes on new intrinsic energy.
Implications for active learning
Curation as a pedagogy, therefore, is rich, personal, social and multidimensional. It involves the skill of finding and selecting evidence and evaluating its worth. Both finding and evaluating demand imagination and cognitive agility – the ability to rapidly hypothesise and apply knowledge, like constructing a multidimensional jigsaw without access to a definitive picture. The learning is not procedural; it requires exploration and experimentation, false starts and revelations.
Pedagogically, curation can be understood as:
- Purpose – having a context, either given or assumed, and a reason to use information;
- Navigation – a personal plan for circumscribing knowledge (this ability to strategically deal with information and make sense and use of it becomes a key personal graduate attribute);
- Ideation – having ideas that lead to knowledge or generate further ideas;
- Association – the act of creating or applying folksonomies or cataloguing according to a personal or social construct;
- Negotiation – the ability to weigh up the evidence to hand and make decisions about its value and role in a current challenge, especially in the context of other related evidence, e.g. a project or assignment;
- Organisation and analysis – the ability to sift, sort, select and relate information critically, e.g. tagging, ordering, categorisation, cross-referencing;
- Presentation – using select information to make or support an argument or demonstrate new knowledge, e.g. writing an essay, producing a project report, producing a blog post.
Curation as a pedagogical act demands creativity and develops critical thinking. It induces personal acuity through habitual use, but when used socially, either informally amongst peers or formally through group work, the acts of negotiation and collective moderation take on new significance. Curation, therefore, is a key active learning pedagogy and one suited to the blended domain.
Jenifer Gonzalez, who writes about the Cult of Pedagogy, explores the role of curation as a pedagogy to promote higher-order thinking (“To Boost Higher-Order Thinking, Try Curation“). The BYOD4L free online course with which I was involved used curation as one of its ‘5Cs’ as a basis for considering smart learning (Nerantzi, Middleton & Beckingham, 2014). Access to new personal smart technologies allowed us to consider a wide learning landscape in which active learning could become highly personalised through the exploration of knowledge using a personalised digital toolset and network.
For me, access to digital technologies and media has meant we can devise activities in which the learner is first challenged by dividing or negotiating their learning environment and presentational space. This allows the academic to assign challenges in which a student must deliberate, navigate, negotiate and make the case for claims to knowledge using a range of found and made media. As Gonzales says, “A person could curate a collection of articles, images, videos, audio clips, essays, or a mixture of items that all share some common attribute or theme.” This affords a basic level of assembling knowledge artefacts. Knowledge itself comes from making connections within the assemblage. Contributing these assemblages for the common good is the third level of assemblage, where we see the student as a legitimised agent of new knowledge for the common good. This gives us the following iterative structure of knowledge-based outcomes that helps us to understand curation as a pedagogy:
Middleton, A. (2011). Audio active: discovering mobile learner-gatherers from across the formal-informal continuum. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning, 3(2), 31-42.
Middleton, A. (1998). Playing with paradox: George Fullard, 1923-1973, exhibition catalogue. Sheffield: Sheffield Hallam University Press.
Middleton, A. (1995). In Search of the English – photographs from the Arts Council Collection. Exhibition catalogue, Sheffield: Graves Art Gallery.
Nerantzi, C., Middleton, A., & Beckingham, S. (2014). Facilitators as co-learners in a collaborative open course for teachers and students in Higher Education. ‘Learning in cyberphysical worlds’, eLearning papers (Open Education Europa), 39, 1–10.