Postdigital Education

On the opening day of the University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching Conference 2021, I was invited to talk for 5 minutes about another blog post: Pedagogy and Technology from a Postdigital Perspective. (Am I meta-blogging right now?). This is a rough account of those thoughts. Note: some of the ideas from that earlier post are re-hashed here.

The earlier blog post was inspired by responses I heard from colleagues, worried that technology might be driving pedagogy, that the reverse should be the case: “pedagogy needs to drive technology”. I wrote the post to express why I think it’s not that simple.

As I wrote, we can’t just choose a pedagogy and then a technology. In fact, technology is part of pedagogy: “pedagogy is the thoughtful combination of methods, technologies, social and physical designs and on-the-fly interactions” to stimulate particular kinds of learning. All elements inevitably shape the ways in which the other elements are engaged with and experienced.

I explained that my worry was less that teachers first choose a technology and then think about what to do with it; and more that they often choose a method (e.g. lecture, tutorial, simulation) before thinking enough about the purpose of their teaching. Choices about technology are then shaped by what is possible and available within an already-constrained conception of teaching.

I think this was particularly problematic during last year’s emergency remote teaching as so many teachers seemed to assume that you have to record video lectures and run synchronous video classes. This was often accompanied by worries that it was difficult to tell if students were engaged (particularly if they had their cameras off). Yet by choosing methods first (e.g. recorded lectures and Zoom classes), we can miss out on teaching practices that might be more suitable to our new and diverse online contexts.

This is a bit complicated when viewed through a postdigital perspective in which nothing is strictly digital or non digital. Rather, anything digital is always tangled up in social and material activity. This view challenges various binaries like online / on campus, or virtual / face to face (see my paper on Postdigital Education in Design and Practice). Digital tech has permeated classrooms, homes and social spaces, and so on campus or classroom education is, to a significant extent, digital and online. Remote online learning, on the other hand, is social and material. It doesn’t happen inside a computer – it is embodied; students sit at desks or in buses and cafes or walk around, some lie in bed. Their bodies, and living and learning conditions, powerfully shape their experiences of learning and what it is physically possible to do.

Talking about digital technology as if it is separate from the material and social activity in which it is embedded makes us susceptible to instrumentalism and determinism. Crudely, instrumentalism is the idea that tools are neutral, and we exercise rational control over them and over the outcomes of their use. Determinism, on the other hand, is the idea that technology drives change, and that tools themselves are responsible for the outcomes of their use. Both hide the importance of the diversity of ways in which people actually interact with technologies, in situations that are also shaped by environment, culture, policy, economics, etc.

Sketch of a model of pedagogy and technology

We need to look beyond binary ideas about modalities (e.g. online/digital/e-learning/virtual vs face-to-face, on-campus/in-person) and beyond methods, to the ways that students’ personal circumstances, study environments, etc., might make some activities problematic and may further increase the drive for students to subvert expectations. For me, this is most usefully thought about through the combination of design and orchestration: what we prepare in advance and what we do on the fly, responding to the somewhat unpredictable subversions and diversions of students. This needs to look beyond scheduled classes and fixed modalities, to the places that learning spills out into informal and asynchronous, holistic activity.

Sabine Rolle, in her own talk, mentioned worries about “contact time”. This is, for me, a problematic term because the value of education is actually distributed across time and across different elements, rather than primarily being about how much time the students spend in the same space as the teacher. An entangled pedagogy helps us see the relational aspects of education—that our choices of methods and technology need to be reconciled with our contexts and those of our students, and the purposes in play.

My hope is that this way of thinking can help people think more freely and creatively about the possibilities within any kind of education, but also more realistically in relation to the constraints and possibilities of their students in their particular circumstances.

Design, orchestration and fuelling: seeing past “front of house” teaching

Last year, pre-pandemic, I was asked for some thoughts on how we might understand teaching in a way that more clearly reflects the diverse educational activities that go on at my university. This came after some comments I made in response to the phrase “front of house teaching” that featured prominently in discourse about promotions. While it may not have been intended in this way, I worried that that phrase has connotations of a person standing in front of students, such as in a lecture or a tutorial. It is a phrase that, to me, allows too much recognition to turning up, saying interesting things to students and then disappearing. What about the many forms of teaching that are not like this? Even in the case of lectures and tutorials, what about the many activities that good teachers do outside formally scheduled sessions, that are directly about teaching students? Seeing past “front of house teaching” is more crucial than ever with the move to online, because that model simply won’t work in our current circumstances.

I would like to start with a modest framework for reconsidering the activities that make up teaching of any kind. The following diagram is an adaptation of concepts from Goodyear and Dimitriadis’ (2013) paper, in which I have made the pre-design and evaluative elements more explicit.

Teaching and learning activities, adapted from Goodyear and Dimitriadis (2013)

The simplest place to start is with breaking down a teaching session into design and orchestration. 

Design is about planning tasks and configuring environments such that students are likely to engage in practices that are conducive to learning what it is we want them to learn. In the traditional model, this is the bit that happens during time allocated for preparation.

Orchestration is about responding to emergent conditions as well as what students do (i.e. their practices). There is always a gap between the design intentions and actual student practices (and teacher practices, for that matter), and orchestration is the process through which teachers guide, structure and scaffold student learning on the fly. In the traditional model, this is the bit that happens during the scheduled teaching session.

In the diagram above, design and orchestration are linked by a direct arrow, which signifies that the design configures the sorts of orchestration that are possible and probable. They are also linked through student practices, since the design structures and constrains what the students do, as does orchestration. Of course, orchestration must also do this in response to student practices (hence the two-way arrow). This means that good orchestration is achieved by knowing something about what the students are actually doing (which is not necessarily in line with the design expectations of what they will do). These ideas are explained in more depth from halfway down p. 139 to the bottom of p. 140 in Fawns (2019)

The other two boxes, fuelling and reflection / evaluation are often neglected in workload models. “Fuelling” (my term) is about the learning that needs to happen in order to do a good job of the design and orchestration (e.g. the thinking, reading, and talking that is not working directly on the teaching but is directly related to it, and is not, therefore, general faculty development or CPD). See also Anne-Marie Scott’s post on “Fueling and deprivation“. This could, perhaps, have been called “preparation”, but that word has picked up connotations from previous workload models where, for example, one multiplies the length of a teaching session by 3 for a new lecture or 1 for a lecture that has been delivered previously. That kind of preparation, because of the time allocated, comes to be mostly about working on lecture slides or in-class resources, which is actually just a small element of what I would call “design” within the model I’m presenting here. Some meaningful design work (i.e. thoughtful consideration of aims, pedagogical approaches, analysis of students, structuring of conducive learning environments, etc.) might also be possible within that allocated time if one is quick with one’s preparation of materials. But doing meaningful design well in such a short space of time is only possible if one has learned important things about the subject, the students, the context, and about educational design in relation to these elements. That is what I mean by fuelling. If design is the hands-on work of configuring specific teaching and learning tasks and environments, then fuelling is the learning that supports that design work. It might include discussing ideas with colleagues, reading literature (either about the subject or about pedagogy), or thinking about the kind of teaching that will be appropriate. I separate it out from design because it is important to allow time for this, and because it may include aspects that don’t make it into the design (good fuelling allows for blind alleys and exploration).

Reflection and evaluation are related to fuelling, and might consist of the same kinds of activities, but these are now targeted at making sense of the teaching that has just happened, rather than informing that which is about to happen or is currently happening. It might seem extravagant to separate these two categories, but they represent the actuality of a teacher’s work. We need to think and learn before we design, and we need to think and learn after seeing how our design has manifested. Both the orientation and the timing are different, and so there must be time for both. 

So far, I have presented these as discrete categories, but this still reflects traditional approaches with scheduled teaching sessions as in lectures, tutorials, problem-based learning, etc. It does not capture the important things that teachers do that are not formally scheduled. Breaking down teaching into these categories, and then considering them, not as linear but as ongoing and mutually shaping, can highlight the diversity of approaches, even within the same teaching method (e.g. there are many ways to do a lecture, tutorial, PBL session, or whatever) and the continuity of teaching activity across the year. 

Let’s consider some of the activities that happen in my own online postgraduate taught (PGT) programme, in order to problematise even my more inclusive model of teaching above. On the MSc Clinical Education, the following activities make up just some of my teaching. Those marked with an asterisk may be repetitive (i.e. sometimes I will use the same model as the previous year, but I will always review each activity before making that decision).

Online video tutorials. 

  • Designing the tutorial (design)* 
  • Setting preparation tasks for students to do beforehand (design)*
  • Pre-tutorial announcements (orchestration)
  • Entering early to configure and test the space and settings (design)
  • Running the tutorial (the bit that’s normally called “teaching”) (orchestration)
  • Uploading recordings of tutorials (admin?)
  • Writing up and posting summary notes and questions from the tutorial (orchestration)

Discussion board facilitation

  • Designing the tasks for students to do that week via the discussion board (design)*
  • Reading posts (orchestration – I suppose?)
  • Responding to posts (orchestration)
  • Creating new prompts (orchestration)

Each of these activities takes a varying amount of time depending on the number of students, how the course is going, and the course model – some courses involve more discussion than others. Note, too, that some of this is not related to specific teaching themes but can be to do with clinical education more broadly, or to do with relationship and community building.

Curation (reading lists, pointing to journal articles, web links, exemplars)

Something like 2/3 of this is done before the course starts (design) and may be modelled on the previous year with some updates. The rest is done in-course, in response to what ends up being discussed. While this sounds like orchestration, I would probably characterise most of the work as fuelling, because the interaction with the students is relatively fast, but the searching and processing of information to support that interaction is more onerous and time-consuming. This can also be the case with responding to posts, email responses, commenting on drafts, etc. It is possible to do all of these tasks relatively quickly without fuelling, but the quality of teaching may suffer, particularly when operating at postgraduate level.

Email responses

On my programme, this has many functions, but these mainly fall under pastoral and academic. This takes up a lot of time because we are very invested in our relationships with each student and because email can be an important channel for some, particularly those who cannot attend tutorials or who do not like the open discussion setting of the discussion board. Due to the fact that we are an online PGT programme full of part-time students who are also professionals with significant responsibilities (and, being older, significant family commitments), there are many discussions of extensions, interruptions, etc., which often involves careful handling and supporting of motivation, confidence, etc. I guess this is a form of orchestration, although it often requires learning about regulations and good practices, and is supported by developing a philosophy of teaching (fuelling).

Online meetings (e.g. one-to-one)

We often have ad-hoc, one-to-one video meetings with students where there is a need (e.g. to make sure the student is ok, to handle sensitive issues, to discuss complex ideas). These may be teaching-specific or related to the overall programme. I guess this might be called orchestration?

Formative and summative assignments

Alongside the setting of these and the giving of feedback, assignments generate a huge amount of discussion via various channels. There is an obvious design component, but the marking and feedback can either be seen as a single act of orchestration (where the student does not respond to comments given by the teacher) or as a more drawn out exchange (where there is dialogue around the comments, or where I comment on pre-submission drafts). Within the marking / feedback / dialogue process though, I will often look things up or read about a concept (fuelling) in order to point students at potentially useful ideas and resources. We also often discuss the students’ work within our teaching team and how that informs our understanding of the assignment and the course. And, more generally, the activity of reading and evaluating students’ assignments is a kind of subject-specific fuelling that I can learn a lot from, provided I have the headspace.

It is possible to pay only cursory attention to any of the categories in the diagram above, but the quality of teaching and the student experience will suffer. It is easy to neglect design, for example, by simply teaching the same way over and over, according to a template. The problem is not just that content and style become stale, but that insufficient consideration is given to the specific context of this instance of learning and these students. A related problem is that teachers do not develop experience and knowledge of design. Similarly, it is easy to neglect fuelling by relying on a pre-existing ability to design and orchestrate the subject and the kind of students at hand. However, thinking, talking and reading in the service of developing those abilities for this context will improve the teaching (which, in some situations, is necessary or at least important) and the teacher. Reflection and evaluation can be left to central evaluation systems, but this only provides information (very limited information, at that). By engaging in discussion, by thinking about how things went, by informing oneself about students’ approaches and understandings, and by reading around the topics that arise through those other activities, the teacher can meaningfully judge and understand their own design and orchestration, and can inform not only how they might refine these in future, but what they might need to learn in order to do so successfully (i.e. what kind of fuelling might be important).

I think good teachers will always combine the different activities in the diagram – they are what makes good teachers good. I would like to see this combination recognised and rewarded, rather than thinking of teaching as what happens when the teacher is in front of the class. 

Please let me know what you think in the comments or via @timbocop.

References

Fawns, T. (2019). Postdigital Education in Design and Practice. Postdigital Science and Education1(1), 132–145. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-018-0021-8

Goodyear, P., & Dimitriadis, Y. (2013). In medias res: Reframing design for learning. Research in Learning Technology21, 1–13. http://doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v21i0.19909

A conversation on hybrid teaching and online assessment design with Velda McCune

I’ve appropriated these clips from the University of Edinburgh hybrid teaching exchange in order to bring together the different strands of an interesting conversation with Velda that touched on lots of important issues for education during COVID-19 and more generally. Look out for some impromptu appearances from some of my children!

Designing Assessments for Hybrid Teaching (5 min)
A slightly rambling account of some online assessment designs I’ve been involved with and what I think were the most important considerations for the current situation.

Preparing Assessments for Semester 1 (5 min)
Some thoughts on design for online group assessment and peer learning.

Get to Know Your Students and Let Them Get to Know You (3 min)
Thoughts on the importance and limitations of design, and the importance of trust, honesty, getting to know your students and letting them know you.

The Pros and Cons of Online Exams (7 min)
Thoughts on the problems of remote invigilation (or “proctoring”), the limitations of exams more generally, and how we might think about changing our model of assessment.

There is much more to be said on all of these issues, and no doubt I will post more on all this over the coming academic year.

Links to external posts

While I slowly get my act together and write the first educational post on this site, I thought I’d link out to a couple of posts I wrote elsewhere. The first is with Jen Ross on online assessments and alternatives to exams. It was motivated by discomfort with remote invigilation and wanting to help educators think about how they could do things differently.

The second is my take on technology in education, and how context and purpose should drive our choices about technology as part of an integrated pedagogy.

Are photos destroying memory?

Please Don’t Strip My Mind by Mike Lucarelli (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/9zP7JD

The short answer is “no”. If you can’t be bothered reading the long answer… perhaps you have been using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram too much 🙂

This post is a response to some high-profile but simplistic responses to worries about how the internet or technology might be affecting us. Amongst the slowly-emerging research into the relationship between technology and our brains / minds / thinking / social functioning, it is invariably the strong, universal claims of enhancement and impairment that are most effectively promoted to the wider public. Some of these claims are based on very thin evidence. Susan Greenfield appears to be building a strong career in this area without actually doing any research, but even where genuine research has been carried out, the media have been quick to exaggerate the results in the service of an exciting story. Linda Henkel (2014) found that participants had impaired recall and recognition for details of those museum objects that they had photographed. In a follow-up study, Julia Soares and Benjamin Storm (2018) found that this effect was present even when participants did not expect to have access to the photos. Gia Nardini and colleagues (2019) found that taking photos (with an unfamiliar sort of camera) could impair the enjoyment of “highly enjoyable experiences” (watching a nature show featuring venomous snakes and jellyfish!). There are other examples of relevant studies, but not many. Here are some headlines under which these findings were reported:

“Unplugged weddings: Stopping guests from taking photos could be good for you and them”

“Want to remember a special moment? Put down the camera”

“Put down the camera if you really want to remember what’s in front of you, study says”

“There’s Now A Scientific Reason Why You Shouldn’t Take Pictures At Gigs”

“What constant smartphone photography is doing to our memories”

“Don’t snap your memorable moments, just enjoy them says new study”

The attention that such headlines attracts fuels the status of the research, as each of these papers is then blogged and Tweeted about prolifically. The problem, as I see it, is not that this research is bad, it’s that it is far more limited than the stories in the media suggest. In these examples, the tentative conclusions of studies about engagement with museum objects and TV programmes, experienced in highly-specific, directive and contrived situations, with unfamiliar technology and no agency around how that technology should be used, are being casually applied to all kinds of photography at weddings, gigs, holidays, and everyday life. To be fair, the news stories do mention some caveats (e.g. acknowledging that *looking* at the photos you’ve taken might help you to remember!), but these are quite far down the page, and much of the damage is done in the heading.

In my own research, which began in 2011, I started out by asking similar kinds of questions to the ones that seem to have underpinned these studies, e.g. how is memory affected by increasingly ubiquitous digital photography? However, I took an interdisciplinary approach, reading literature not only from psychology, but also philosophy, media studies, human computer interaction, and more. I soon adjusted my expectations, suspecting that there might not be a simple answer to my question (by the end, that question didn’t even make sense to me).

The perceived complexity evolved by degrees. Early on, for example, I thought that episodic memory (the subjective “reliving” of experience) might degrade while semantic memory (facts and details about the world) was enhanced by the presence of many photographs. I then moved from ideas of degradation to a conception of balance – as I put it in an early book chapter, the availability of many personal photographs might shift the overall balance of memory from episodic towards semantic. This notion then gave way as I began to wonder: does it matter if I took the photographs myself or if someone else took them? If, as was often the case, I saw myself taking the same photograph as someone else had just taken, would it have mattered if, instead, I’d asked that person to send me their version? Would it matter how often I looked at my photographs? What I did with them? Whether I labelled them? Whether I sent them to other people? Whether I talked about them? Was talking about photos through a traditional, synchronous conversation the same as talking about them via Facebook comments, dispersed over months and years? Did the way that I thought and felt about different kinds of photos (e.g. digital vs analogue) influence how my memory works in relation to them? Did my beliefs about photography and memory change the way that I paid attention to scenes, whether I photographed them or not? How did the photographs I already had influence what photographs I might decide to take in the future? Did my skills of composition and image appreciation matter to how I understood events, or to how I looked back at photographs?

As I asked myself these questions, I realised that the answer to my original research question of how photography affects memory was likely to begin with “it depends”. The conclusion to my thesis was going to involve the dreaded “more research is needed”. At the time, this seemed like a bit of a bummer. However, I now recognise that “more research is needed” is actually a very important part of the conclusion to this kind of research, if not all research. The studies cited at the beginning of this post are just steps on a journey; mere snapshots in the great and expanding archive of research into the relationship between thinking and our social and material encounters with technology and media. Unsurprisingly, my research culminated in a paper calling for more research, of the kind that pays attention to the diverse and subtle ways that we engage in photographic practices in everyday life. It is a paper that raises more questions than answers, and so it is unlikely to attract much media attention. If you are interested, you can find it here:

For what it’s worth, the not very exciting headline of my research so far is that photographs are not destroying memory in any straightforward sense. Instead, photographic practices are entangled in how we remember, in ways that are complex, contextual, and cultural. Oh, and much, much more research – based on this premise of contextual complexity – is needed.

References

  • Henkel, L. (2014). Point-and-shoot memories: the influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science25(2): 396–402.
  • Nardini, G., Lutz, R. J., & LeBoeuf, R. A. (2019). How and when taking pictures undermines the enjoyment of experiences. Psychology and Marketing, 1-10.
  • Soares, J. & Storm, B. (2018). Forget in a flash: a further investigation of the photo-taking-impairment effect. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition7: 154–160.

Passed, no corrections!

On Tuesday I had my viva and passed with no corrections. Examiners John Sutton, David Frohlich and Chris Speed were very kind and I actually enjoyed the conversation and experience very much. A great end to the PhD journey.

Interweaving presentation of work in progress

My presentation from 2nd September, 2015 at the “Interweaving: a tapestry of educational and multidisciplinary research in an international context” conference at the Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh can be found here:

http://www.intranet.education.ed.ac.uk/Research/Conferences/Interweaving2015/speaker.php?ID=Tim-Fawns&vRes=SD

This was a presentation of work in progress, given at the half-way point of data collection in my second study. I’ve embedded the Introduction below to give an idea of what it covered.

 

How does photography change remembering? A reflective workshop

Today I went out to the Uni of Edinburgh Veterinary School to run a session with the staff there, the brief being to get people to think about something a bit outside their normal routine. Thanks to Jessie Paterson and Sharon Boyd for setting this up.

I had asked everyone to bring a photo from a year or two ago to the session. It could be in print, on a smartphone or an iPad, as long as they could access it. During the session, each of the 8 participants then told a story relating to the event depicted in the photo which proved to be an interesting exercise in itself. There were rich sensory experiences involving food, music and emotions. There were connections between the time the photo was taken and much earlier experiences. There were also memories of important family bonding experiences. Continue reading “How does photography change remembering? A reflective workshop”

IT Futures Conference 2013

Thursday 12th December was the University of Edinburgh IT Futures Conference. I was privileged to speak alongside the Principal, Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, as well as Vice Principal Jeff Haywood, Sci-Fi novelist and technology guru Cory Doctorow, Aleks Krotoski (who runs the Digital Human show on BBC radio), Chris Speed (Chair in Design Informatics at the Uni of Edinburgh) and James Fleck (Editor-in-Chief of the journal Technology Analysis and Strategic Management).

Photo of me speaking about reflection at the Uni of Edinburgh's IT Futures Conference

Speaking about reflection at the Uni of Edinburgh’s IT Futures Conference. Image by Nicola Osborne

The conference theme was disruption. My talk, called “Digital disruption and blended memory: selectivity, creativity, engagement and reflection” covered insights from my wedding photography study and applied them to reflection on information in more general terms. The central message was that despite some powerful, creative opportunities of emerging digital tools, the cultural trends that arise around technological affordances often push us toward unselectively collecting new information, rather than reflecting on what we already have.

Here is a video of the presentation.

Nicola Osborne has also posted a liveblogged version of events: http://nicolaosborne.blogs.edina.ac.uk/2013/12/12/it-futures-conference-2013-liveblog/

Blended Memory – an overview

The aim of this post is to give a brief overview of the personal and theoretical background to my research. For a more detailed description of my thinking and the literature that informs it, please take a look at my eBook chapter:

When I bought my first digital camera (in 2005: I was a relatively late adopter), I sensed how easy it would be to get carried away and take hundreds upon thousands of photographs, particularly when surrounded by interesting landscapes, monuments and people. Storage was a little more restrictive than it is today and I sometimes found myself having to decide between buying more memory capacity or going through and deleting some of my photographs. This was an interesting economic conundrum of time (to sort through hundreds of photographs), money (to purchase another memory card) and value (of personal memory artefacts). Continue reading “Blended Memory – an overview”