‘Doesn’t matter how far you come, you’ve always got further to go’ – Memory, experience and playing our part


Summer

I have been thinking a lot about the Go-Betweens recently. For those not yet acquainted with their genius, they were the next greatest band of all time in the late 1970s through to the late 1980s (and again in the 2000s for another glorious almost made it moment). They made a string of brilliant, idiosyncratic pop records that make you wonder how they were not chart toppers (they just weren’t). They were from Brisbane, Australia via London, Germany and back through Sydney. They were two lifelong friends, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, who were joined by a series of other critical creative forces in the band to make records that have changed people’s lives, been the soundtracks to births, deaths and marriages and have told and shared stories of love, loss and memory (amongst other things).

The record I have been thinking the most about is their final LP in the first incarnation, called 16 Lovers Lane. This LP (released in 1988) was the sound and words of a band moving from the cold darkness of London back into the Australian summer; with places new and familiar washed bright with sunlight. It was the sound of warm air, dark stories and familiar memories. It was a band held together by a painful breakup, a delirious love affair and two men, connected by friendship, love and an intense creative partnership, steadfast in their belief about importance of their songwriting and their relationship. The album reflected its humanity in spades: life at its most painful, conflicted, joyous and tragic.

Even at the tender age of 17/18 when I bought a copy of the record on cassette from my local record store in Eastwood, NSW these stories of experience and memory resonated, but I wasn’t sure why. I had never been to London, or Brisbane for that matter. I remember watching the clip for Streets of Your Town (see below) on the Australian music show Rage (an all-night music video program that airs to this day on the public broadcaster – ABC) and the clip shone like the sun and butchers’ knife of the lyrics. It was lustrous and bright and not like what I had imagined the London they left was like. It was a far better (and darker) summer song than my previous youthful forays into the Style Council. The songs on the record told of how experience shapes the way we continue to move forward (‘…if you spend your life looking behind you, you won’t see what’s up front’ from the song, Was There Anything I Could Do). They described how memory makes us do the next thing we need to do or risk becoming lost in regret (‘We stood side by side. Strong and true. I just wish you’d remember. Bad times don’t get you through’ from the song Dive for your Memory). They ennoble the importance of reflection and sharing in understanding how to cope with life (‘…I know a thing about darkness, darkness ain’t my friend’ from the song Love Goes On).

In early 2018, after 10 years of living in London, embedding myself and being surrounded by memories, both difficult and joyful, I left the city for a new job back in my hometown of Sydney. It was a quick, wrenching move, played out in difficult and trying work circumstances, with people being hurt for little or no reason. It felt like a bonfire was scorching the earth behind me, poisoning any thoughts of returning. Arsehole landlords, ego maniacal management and stupid, stupid Brexit all made leaving the natural and logical decision. It didn’t make it easy. Too many memories in London, so many of them back home. Memories were unearthed about practical things, family things, old workplaces and long distant battles and alliances. And the sun, the sun was glorious. (‘…and don’t the sun look good today’ from the song Streets of your Town). Memory and experience. But here was the weird bit, and the hook of this story to the land of higher education we all populate. My memories of Sydney were important. But they were just that: memories, fading a little bit each day, echoes of a long bygone past. I could not recreate what I had left behind ten years previously. People moved on, got older, greyer. Things had changed. Just because I wanted to make my experience be like it was, I could not. Lives lived are complex, dirty things. Tragedy, sadness and illness can be shared collectively but is experienced personally. None more so when people chose the path they think is the one of least resistance.

Three months later I am back in London, for a brief trip. Memory and experience snap back to reality. Smells trigger senses of domesticity, exciting travel, local knowledge and that sense of willing wrenching. I make the same mistake, trying to reenact memory and experience when people there are continuing to live their lives. But the experiences are more recent, sometimes raw. You slip back into habits, patterns and being that feels comfortable, if not slightly odd. Memory and experience both know it’s odd, but you can suspend disbelief, even for a short time. And within a flash (ten days being honest) I was back in the sun, the new office and world of new but familiar acronyms, collectives and communities. And I was back at the pub, with my mates, in a scene that to them was tradition but to me was still new and unfamiliar. A stranger in two familiar lands, and in both cases new inhabitants were making their own memories and experiences sans me. It all moves on (as it does, and should).

Winter

Predicting the future of higher education is a brilliant game to play because like most predictions, playing it generally comes consequence free. It is the most popular topic in keynotes at educational conferences. Vendors parade it in front of us with the square peg into the squarer hole solution of their platform or product. We debate it, twitter storm it, hold webinars about it, populate conference sessions with workshops and provocations about it and then when we are at the pub afterwards, we drink to it (or perhaps to the lack of it. Cheers!).

But why do we all play this predictive game of future bingo? Is there a nagging sense that what we have now just isn’t right? Is it driven by a desire to make things better, or a nagging sense of ambition continuously improve? Or is through a sense of discomfort with our role and place in the institution, a challenging of the sense of identity and a fear for how that identity fits into the future? Are these predictive debates, dead ends and fads the educational version of the EU and their place within the Brexit debate and the requisite predictions of project fear and project hope?

Hear me out here.

In the recent C4 movie called ‘Brexit: An Uncivil War’, Craig Oliver (played by Rory Kinnear) working as the leader of the remain campaign interrupted a focus group of diverse voters brought together to inform the leave campaign. His interventions around the damage leaving the EU would do set off a microcosm of the global political climate in a thirty second stanza of anger, names, abuse and fingers in the ear screaming. What he realised in reflecting on the experience was that this referendum was not about the EU. It was twenty years of societies experience leaching through in small drips. Identity. Fear. The Unknown. Job Security. Nationalism. Immigration. Family. Drip. Drip. Drip. And then allowed to come rushing out all at once, in a single vote about the EU and then put front and centre of the political debate through social media and the inevitable polarising effect of speaking to echo chambers. So much of the rhetoric of the leave campaign (and in part, their success to even come close let alone ‘win’) can be summarised in their three-word slogan. Take Back Control. You can go back to a time when you had control. When you were not frightened. When you and people you know had jobs. When you were happy, safe, living your life. When you knew who you were or that it did not matter.

It doesn’t matter if your memory of when you were in control goes back to the days of the Empire, the pluck of the Blitz, the times when you were a kid or a university student, or to last Tuesday, you know the day we downed four pints and watched the game. Taking back control reverts to a time when you are certain and confident that you remember being IN CONTROL. It works in the same way that nostalgia for music, or TV or reminiscing about times gone by does; through the lens of the past and residing in the safe space that is our memory. In those spaces, we can go back to a time that was better (louder, faster, further, safer, cleaner, happier) than it is now and how we fear it will always be.

Autumn

Everyone who works in higher education has experiences and memories of being taught. If you are a teacher, it shapes your philosophy and practice, replicating good experiences and trying not to be ‘that’ teacher when critically reflecting on the bad. If you support teaching, then those experiences and memories provide you with an empathetic and experiential base to enhance your effectiveness in working with academics and students. But are we trying to shape HE to provide the kind of thrilling, personal, transformative social experience we perhaps had? Are we looking at the changes in HE through the prism of a time when we felt (louder, faster, safer, cleaner, fitter, happier, more productive)? Are the discussions driving so much of our time and energy in the sector around transformative, disruptive change and the trolling power of the Internet simply the HE equivalent of the EU? Do they represent the drip, drip, drip of our own fears and concerns about education, our jobs or the role of education in a civil society? Are we caught in a tacit version of nostalgia (perhaps like remembering an album released in 1988) where we trying to defend against change (or take back control of the experience) because it was ‘better in my day’? Is it easier to talk in the abstract about the student experience, the love+hate of AI, the pervasive benefits of learning analytics or the unbound and unreliable future of education than to engage in programs of change that require you to leave skin in the game, to jump into an unknown full of risk, retribution and uncertain reward?

Spring

Middleton and Brown (2005) expose the tensions and fears that exist in that space occupied by memory and experience:

‘… the overwhelming tension is between preservation and loss, the reduction of the everyday flow of our lives to a series of fragments. Brief passing moments and images remain completely intact, unaltered, we feel, despite the passage of time, but the overall framework appears destined to disappear, to be worn away by ageing, the passage of time that levels all, or else by some sudden and fateful intervention.’

 

Middleton, D. & Brown, S. D. (2005). Introducing remembering and forgetting in the social psychology of experience. In The social psychology of experience: Studies in remembering and forgetting (pp. 1-11). London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781446221808.n1

 

There is a risk that collectively as a sector we end up spending some much time and effort trying to remake or contain education in this way that in reality it gets worn away or is taken away by the aforementioned ‘sudden and fateful intervention’. By doing this we are potentially denying students the opportunity to have and make their own experiences and memories. In a policy environment where governments are dictating that university is the means to meaningful employment end. and that curriculum and learning are just ways of embedding the skills required by employers, having an experience (transformative or otherwise) at university is becoming challenging and disappointing. Students expectations are redirected towards the pragmatic assertion that the job is the end goal, university just like doing your reps at the gym.

Equally, the role of higher educators is not to imprint their framework of experiences on students, or to relive their youth vicariously. We can create the environment, the community space and the capacities and opportunities for students to make those experiences themselves. We can help them find the pathway through the policy dictated by the employability end-gamism of modern HE and embrace the idea that university is not the only thing occupying our students lives. They work. They play. They live. They learn. These things intersect and compete. There are tensions that arise when one needs to be prioritised over the other, but they equally generate affordances when the synergies open insights that are new and thrilling.

Some of the research we have been doing at my two most recent institutions with our students has told us that our learners are bound together with initially weak ties centred on the commonly held expectations of a university experience. Sometimes we exceed, others time we disappoint. They are also bound by the need for social interaction, not isolation. They are bound by a belief that at the end there might be some clarity, about work or life. They are bound by how this experience might help define or shape identity. The know that learning is what they need to do, become better at and use effectively to achieve their outcomes. But at some point in their experiences of higher education, one or even all of these weak ties become uncertain, transitory and liminal. And that is where the design of curriculum, teaching, assessment and the student experience becomes critical. It affords the opportunity to find places and spaces to experiment, to test, to succeed and fail, to acquire and apply, to inquire, to challenge and debate, to collaborate, to make and to share.

The next Summer

Platforms like Spotify mean that new people get to hear 16 Lovers Lane every day. They will hear the lyrics for the first time and if they like it, then they will have memories and experiences that emerge from the record. They might fall in love, meet their best friends at a party, be inspired to do something different with their lives, share it with other people, make something new and different, put it on a soundtrack to their study or as they are reading about stuff on the bus. But if I tell them to listen to it as part of my class? What if I get caught up in the nostalgia of times gone by and through my ‘power’ over assessment, compliance and certification I make reflecting on the album a compulsory assessment because it was the way I learnt back in 1989, so shouldn’t they have the same experience as me? What if I compare it unfavorably to the music that inspires them or make them dance around the room in joy? What if I make assertions that by not listening to the glorious harmonies on 16 Lovers Lane, they are wasting their time and they will never get their first job? Or maybe I design an experience that says to students; find something that inspires you to understand Summer. Make a playlist and share it with your colleagues. Swap tracks on whatever platform you feel comfortable using. Tell us the story of the songs and their historical or lyrical context. How do these songs represent Summer (and how could that be used to sell ice cream, or understand culture or influence the way a park is designed or help people with Seasonal Affective Disorder or make an education campaign about skin cancer more effective)?

 

The lyric in the title is from Quiet Heart, by the Go-Betweens. The photo at the top of this post is of the sunset at City Beach in Perth, Western Australia and features my wife and her father.

 

It doesn’t matter what is in your hands

hands

Some strange things seem to be happening in the learning technology and T&L debates at the moment. There appears to be a growing presence of an anti-tech resistance, challenging the efficacy of technology (and those who use it). Some of these ‘think pieces’ question the motivations of those using technology in their class (both students and teachers), demean the status of social media as an active and fertile ground for intellectual debate, try and institute blanket bans for the good of the learner and actively argue that we need to ‘get back to chalk’. These have become battle lines in a fake war between protectors and challengers, defenders of the faith versus the barbarians at the gate. The innocent victims in all this posturing and puffery are the engaged teachers and learners (thanks @antonycoombsHE for the input). We can see the small bubbles of evidence for this assertion increasingly breaking through to the surface Let’s take Facebook as the canary in the coal mine;

  • There are universities who ban Facebook from fixed PCs in labs and student spaces (on the suggestion of other students, apparently)
  • The continued resistance (and active calls to ban) the use of student devices in lectures and tutorials, because of the assertion that ‘they will just be checking their Facebook’
  • On the other hand, a lot of Facebook led pilots at a delivery or curricula level have failed because students don’t like ‘their’ Facebook being hijacked for learning (although there is a lot of evidence that they are stopping using Facebook entirely, or use it to talk to each other, not the teacher!)
  • Universities wanting to hold some sway of what their staff say on social media to present a unanimity of opinion (including Facebook).

 

In the end, these are pointless battles in an entirely distracting conflict.  We are arguing about the toss and not about the game. It doesn’t matter what devices are in their hands. What matters most is good teaching. Does it matter that you have a pair of red shoes on? No. What matters is that they make you feel good. It matters that they help people identify or find you. It matters that they stop that puddle you stepped in from making your socks a squidgy mess. What matters is the experiences that people participate in. Good teaching at its heart is the creation and facilitation of experience. There is an old marketing truism that I have always found insightful. People don’t buy ¼ inch drill bits, they but ¼ inch holes. Good teaching is not the fact that someone has a MacBook open or that you have created a PowerPoint slide or even that you have knowledge that you believe someone else needs to become an expert. Good teaching creates environments and conditions for learning experiences to happen. And the creation and nourishment of any experience is a product of a complex interplay of environmental factors. Good teachers hold and move the faders on those factors in order to achieve some form of synergy. Technology is without doubt one of those factors but by itself is like breathing only the nitrogen part of the air.

 

Good teaching is device/platform/OS agnostic
The kind of devices that people use or the sometimes desperate need to find a use for a piece of technology in teaching (Pokémon GO, it is the new Snapchat) become the easier conversations to have, especially amongst learning technologists and educational developers. Yes, the type of technology being used can and does influence the experiences people learn from. And yes, if the technology doesn’t work it can impact on that experience as well. And yes again, maybe a new platform or social media will seed good ideas and promote innovation. None of these assertions are wrong. But (and there is always a but), by themselves they are the less confronting conversation to have, because they are ignoring the elephant in the room. Good teaching is a hard thing to do. Good teaching is a challenging and emotionally draining thing to do. Good teaching lifts you high and can smack you down, sometimes in the space of a single class. Good teaching sees devices and uses them when they can contribute or challenge or transform what you are trying to do in your class.

 

Denial is not an instrument of good teaching
Making someone turn a device off in order to help them learn is not a critical approach to teaching. I used to work with a teacher who brought a bucket of water into his classroom and said ‘if I hear a phone go off, it goes into the water’. Why have we become so afraid of a phone? Sure, you may want a debate or discussion that asks people to engage, visually and actively. But what kind of learning can devices help with? Learning about how people learn. So, what actually goes on behind that sea of glowing white apples you see in your lecture? Have they all got Facebook open? Probably. Are they chatting with their mates? Yeah. Are they looking up words and definitions on Wikipedia? Almost certainly. How about providing them with a backchannel for conversation using a twitter hashtag, so that you can answer questions. How about providing them with a list of sites where they can check up definitions of words that match the kind of materials you use. Denial just leads to resistance and rebellion. Nothing good will come of it.

 

Good teaching is enabled by good communications. Technology changes the way we communicate
I am not describing all technology as simply instrumental tools, without power to influence good teaching. The way technology is used to collaborate, share, critique, engage (this list is endless) shapes the way we communicate. Creativity is democratised. Identity is fluid. Spaces are safe and dangerous. Risk is minimised and multiplied. People learn differently. To ignore social media and its transformative community of practices would be a dangerous ignorance. That doesn’t mean we have to all communicate through twitter in 140 characters, nor does it mean that crowdsourcing and Yelp recommendations will replace academic knowledge as the purest form of thought.  But it is in those very defences against using technology that one of the most fundamental tensions in higher education lies; you are either with us or against us. It is a polarised debate, with no middle ground and a series of entrenched positions backed with rigid institutional structures and policies and with all the risk dumped heavily on the shoulders of students.  If they choose to deny themselves the use of technology to live their lives, will that help them pass? How strong is the gravitational pull of a 2:1? Does the view of Professor Dr Jones requiring them to only use printed book sources for their essay outweigh their need for employable skills? So, how do they respond? They tell us to use our technology better; we want better PowerPoints, we want the VLE to do stuff to help us learn. And when we can be left on our own to study and prepare and learn (like we are for 90% of our HE experience), we will do things our way. We will use social media, we will chat with each other using whatever apps we like, we will share cool stuff and be visual and we will communicate and engage with people all over the world sharing knowledge, experiences and expertise. Because that is what we do. That is how we communicate and live our lives.

It doesn’t matter what is in their hands, it will be there and it will be used. It is none of our concern whether it is in their hands or not. Knowing it is in their hands empowers both them and us to make better learning experiences.

 

IMG_4990

Title image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/karolfranks/7266270182

Fader image https://www.flickr.com/photos/surroundsound5000

 

Re-imagining learning for a post-digital world (part 3) – A design for learning?

A design for learning?

Part 3 of this extended blog post will focus on how to ‘do’ post-digital learning experiences and make them work as part of an integrated approach to learning and curriculum design.  And the glue that holds these approaches together is design thinking.  Design thinking represents an interesting conceptual framework in which to think about teaching and learning.  Meinel and Leifer (2010) describe four tenets or rules of a design thinking approach;

 

  • The human rule – all design activity is ultimately social in nature
  • The ambiguity rule – design thinkers must preserve ambiguity
  • The re-design rule – all design is re-design
  • The tangibility rule – making ideas tangible always facilitates communication

 

These frames help explore solutions for what design thinkers called ‘wicked problems’; difficult, intractable, nebulous or impossibly contrary questions that challenge the structures and fabrics of practice.  In higher education, wicked problems are pervasive and disruptive for evolving and emerging practices. They arise from the relationship between learners and teachers, between the faculty and institution, between the centre and the Schools, between technology and things remaining the same as they have always been.  But within the design thinking approach there are some perceptive and practical insights that can inform the idea of learning experiences as a critical factor in learning and teaching design.

 

Human  – Teaching and learning is a human activity. It is social and is guided and shaped by the mores, tropes and vagaries of human communication.  Identity, status, privilege, roles, language and intent are pushed into a sense of hyper-reality in the context of education.

Ambiguity is a parlour trick we often use to ensure the fourth wall remains unbreakable.  And next week, you will find out the secret of passing the exam, this week I will tempt, next week I will taunt, maybe a bit of tease the following week.  But ambiguity also can be a positive, taking the next step without knowing what is underfoot; leaping off a cliff hoping there will be someone there to catch you.  Ambiguity is more than a cliff-hanger.  It is a function of learning as an adult, because life is ambiguous.

Re-design – Almost all teaching is a process of redesign, whether its curation, remixing, re-purposing, summarising, aggregating, commenting.

Tangibility – making it and keeping it real.  Case studies, application, life experience, problem solving, practicality, it’s all there in what most people call good teaching and learning.

 

Post-digital learning experiences are a design thinking process.  How do we break the intractable nooses of institutional entropy, technological tensions and the incongruity of expectation?  How do we design tangibility, ambiguity and humanity into teaching and learning so that outcomes are enhanced, durability of learning continues to extend, transferability of experience is enhanced and the effectiveness of education is exponentially increased?  How do we do design thinking for learning?  This post will explore how to design learning experiences relevant for the post-digital age.  The PDLE idea comes from applying a design thinking approach to the wicked problem of teaching and learning in a modern institution, with modern learners and modern disciplines. It comes from the debate constructed so often in my blog about what happens if we do nothing.  What happens if we ignore the changes in learners, learning and society and carry on advocating the holy virtue of pen, paper and note taking?  What happens if we ask people to turn their devices off in order to learn or demonise them for wasting time on frivolous uses of technology?  Because often, that is where we are and that is the entrenched position defended to the death by the pure of heart from the marauding techno-hordes. It comes from the way people design stuff other than learning. Art, media, careers, discoveries, business, innovation and their lives.

 

learning with MOOCs IIlearning with MOOCs

 

Found

Found is the first of the post-digital learning experiences because it is the one closest to my own practice. The notion of making sense from discovery is at the heart of learning.  It has not all been written or discovered.  There are huge swathes of undiscovered countries.  At the core of found are two very powerful learning experiences; bricolage and discovery.  Found represents a way of explaining the sheer capacity of knowledges. Found is a way of understanding something, explaining something, adding a sense of the undiscovered and the unknown;

  • Asking the question without knowing the answer
  • Story without an ending
  • Problems without solutions

 

As a learning experience found can have many guises.  From the discovery of new and exciting ways of thinking and seeing, to the co-opting of knowledge from diverse disciplines in order to have insights into your own.  From seeing an image and telling a story, through to the remix and re-purposing culture of digital media making, through to the finding of meaning, found can change the way learning happens. However, much of modern learning uses found in its paste tense form.  Knowledge has already been found, and the job of the academy is to present you that knowledge.  The job of the research academic is to find out more.  The student is not the finder.   The student is the repeater of found knowledge.  The student is the next in the chain of Chinese whispers. In a modern bricolage culture, found is no longer a past tense.  It is a sense of future discovery; it is a label for artefacts and raw material.  Learning experiences that build on found enhance curiosity, complex linkages, independent thinking, collective intelligence, the progression of knowledge and an educational ambition that sets to to make that sure that there is more than that to be found.  Knowledge as an experience is not static in a found learning design.  It is a body of active pieces waiting to be reconstructed, reinterpreted, rediscovered and reused.

 

Making

There has been an incredibly large amount written about making (in a post-digital world).  For a much better exposition of this idea, I point you to the work of David Gauntlett and his brilliant piece on making called ‘Making is Connecting’.   Making is a core learning experience.  It is rooted in conceptual frameworks like creativity, problem solving, tactility, abstract thinking and practicality. Maker spaces have traditionally been the realm of engineering and sciences but I have been advocating the creation of maker spaces for a wide variety of disciplines.  I am working on what a maker space would like look for the social sciences.  At the core of making for me is the concept of owning.  The learner owns the experience, the space, the outcome and the solutions.  Making challenges the theoretical safety net of HE to be realised in a practical environment.  Equally, creativity is a fundamental.  Technology has democratised creativity.  Technology has made your ability to make with others, share with contemporaries and make your making available exponentially wider and easier.  Everyone is creative in some way.  Creating learning experiences that provide people with the opportunity to make something opens up avenues of learning that consumption and reception can never replicate.  It might be as simple as a case or simulation right through to technology-led practices like media making, app development, product design or innovation.  There is a growing movement to make making more explicit and tactile, maker spaces and labs, simple to use but complex apps that allow everything from music making, to knowledge presentation through to design work to be done on a tablet.  Making is a design activity that is multi-sensual, trans-disciplinary and a tookkit for life-long learning.

 

Identity

I have written a lot about identity in a post-digital age.  It is a complex thing, caught flash hard in the debates about safety, responsibility, expression and citizenship.  Identity as a learning experience is inherently trans-disciplinary, providing a skill relevant across learning trajectories.  Without re-hashing the debates about digital identity (that you can see splashed through my blog history), there are some key aspects relevant to learning design.  Identity formation is a critical learning experience; what is your identity within a discipline? Where do you fit into traditions and discourses?   Identity sharing is a learning experience at the heart of effective portfolio learning, professional development and connected experiences. Identity development is a 21st century skill, knowing how to use and develop, manage and nuance multiple identities for different aspects of your life.  I have written a lot about the digital stranger (the person who reveals only small slices of themselves in an on-line environment, made easier by avatars, light touch registrations and the blurring of identity in social media) and how fleeting connections with people can shape thinking and development of beliefs and practice.  One of my favourite writers, Stephen Brookfield (1984) really nailed this idea in an article called ‘Tales from the dark side: a phenomenography of adult critical reflection’   In this seminal piece, he talks about how identity impacts directly on how we reflect critically as practitioners, identifying senses like impostership (the idea that reflection is not for the ‘likes of me’, cultural suicide (that to be true and honest in reflection could be shaming of friends) and lost innocence (that reflection troubles to address ambiguities best left unaddressed) as darker sides of identity interacting with communication, reflection and the practices of teaching.

 

From the way media can be shared and critiqued, to peer assessment, through to exploring and interrogating the necessity of anonymous double blind marking, identity is a learning experience that crosses through much of the learning activity we engage in.  And like the rest of these learning experiences, it is not the sole domain of our students.  Identity is at the heart of teaching practice too. The cult of the expert, the theatricality of the fourth wall in a lecture, the capacity to always be right and the artifice that protects poor assessment and feedback from anything other than student satisfaction criticism are all informed by crisis’ and concepts of identity.

 

Play

‘Play is at the heart of human behaviour, encouraging healthy relationships, enhanced literacy and creativity (Saracho & Spodek, 1998) and a better developed approach to work and career (Hartung, 2002). Play is not risk free, with some arguing that the best learning should hurt (Mann, 1996). Margitay-Becht and Herrera (2010) note that ‘fun is learning’ and observed little resistance by staff to engaging in fun activities such as virtual worlds and gaming but much higher resistance from the students, who wanted their experiences rooted in reality and play for the times after learning.’

Bryant, Coombs and Pazio (2014)

 

We all play.  Life is full of play.  And play is equal parts fun and risk.  Some of the most fun we have ever have is when we play with risk.  Jumping from planes, falling off slippery dips or singing our signature song at Karaoke, this time in front of a live audience (I will tell you mine, if you share yours.  All song titles in the comments!).  Play is great.  Trouble is that learning can be so damned serious.  Brows get furrowed.  Stress balls are made from competing deadlines.  It seems that we are happy when are students aren’t having fun but worrying and stressing.  Part of life.  And then there is us.  Where has the fun gone in our jobs? Counting down the months, weeks, days, hours and minutes to holidays.  The stress of tenure and the worry that if even the smallest thing goes wrong, we are back searching on jobs.ac.uk.  Failure isn’t an option when it comes to pedagogy.  NSS scores, student evaluations, the push to higher and higher student achievement have driven all the fun and experimentation out of teaching.  So, how do we bring play back into learning? We have to encourage students to experiment, to fail, to fall flat on their faces or find themselves succeeding despite their best efforts, all in safe way.  It is no longer acceptable to simply get a degree in the UK.  You need a good degree (although hopefully this stupidity is now changing).  We have to support a culture where play and experimentation are natural components of good teaching.  Where we learn as much from failure as we do from success and we bring students along with us on the ride.  That way they don’t feel like guinea pigs when they are paying £9000 fees.

Play means a chance to use games, digital storytelling, media making, Lego, role plays and other mechanisms that break reality and put people into slightly uncomfortable roles.  I used to run a class where I used a thing called interactive case studies.  These were all set around a restaurant where certain characters created a scenario for HR or management students. I asked for a few volunteers from the class to play these characters.  I gave each ‘actor’ some basic character traits and asked them to improvise the characters based around them (simple traits like ‘always brought things back to them’ or ‘always lies’ or ‘will always support character Doris, even when she is wrong).  Sometimes it worked, and other times I had to step in, moderate and lead.  But every time I ran it, it was fun.  People laughed and played.  I gave people who weren’t feeling comfortable to chance to ‘tag’ another student into their role.  This was a safe space.  There were no grades, no pressure, some risk of public performance, but it was all about learning.  It tapped into identity, roles, perceptions and attitudes, all crucial  skills for people management.  We learn through play.  It doesn’t have to infantalise or regress people.  Adults play. But experimentation and play, whether it be through humour, or simulation or gamification are effective post-digital learning experiences.

 

Discontinuity

Life is chaotic, messy, non-linear, traumatic, joyful, unexpected and unpredictable.  Memory is much the same.  Learning however, is in the main structured, scaffolded, episodic and linear.  This tension could afford education with a unique opportunity to develop skills in navigating, leveraging and riding the chaos.  Instead, it tries to control it and at worst ignore it, assuming normalcy and norms dominate. This norm driven perspective assumes for example, that the jobs that existed when a student started their degree look exactly like the world they will enter three years later.

 

Discontinuity as a learning experience takes the fear and uncertainty that arises from not knowing if there is something waiting for your next foot fall and learns from the calculations, assumptions and sometimes faith (in the truly atheist sense) that goes through your brain in the split second before you step.  It lets the learner enter the story at the middle, or the end and work through the problem in reverse, identifying and challenging assumptions.  It shows them the natural end of a discourse and asks them to reverse engineer how we got there.  To identify what assumptions were inherent in the debate and what shaped arguments, discoveries or transformative moments.  It drops them in the centre of a problem, like the middle of a maze and encourages then to find and deduct their way out.   Chaos is equally as powerful a learning experience.  The wash of not knowing what is happening, that slight out of control feeling that eventually coalesces (usually around assessment time) has been part of higher education for years.  It can be dizzying, challenging and uncomfortable, like many of the things we experience in life and work.  Replicating even a dash of that through discursive activities, breaking of routines, cracking the fourth wall or challenging power structures brings an element of safe free fall into learning.  And it makes for authentic experiences that replicate the way we in part live our lives.  All of which brings us to…

 

Authenticity

This is an interesting concept, not less for the debates around what is authentic. Authenticity as a learning experience is rooted in ensuring that what the learner does feels and in effect is real.  Realness is a very fuzzy concept in an on-line world.  From the variability of identity to the mask of reality that on-line interaction can afford participants, defining something as authentic is difficult.  We may have defined authenticity in learning pre-digital age as things like field trips, simulations, model offices, work based learning or professional practice.  But in a more complex learning world what can constitute as authentic? At a simple level, it is about making sure that the learning experience means something, that it is not simply a test of character, or the rite of passage afforded to those who get to experience higher education, as an ivory tower hall of rotating knives.  At a more concrete level, it is about the skills required to develop ethical frameworks, approaches to working with and supporting people, developing and changing the world, and an academic/student relationship that is built on a dialogue or a conversation where each are shaped by the interaction, not a monologue delivered by someone who will never know your name.  Authentic experiences are not easy to facilitate, in fact, I would argue that it is the hardest of the PDLE. It is inherently personal.  Authentic experiences rely on trust, the developing of a relationship, the exchange of experiences and the realization that learning is a complex amalgam of the interpersonal and personal.

 

Community

‘…it’s through participation in communities that deep learning occurs. People don’t learn to become physicists by memorizing formulas; rather it’s the implicit practices that matter most. Indeed, knowing only the explicit, mouthing the formulas, is exactly what gives an outsider away. Insiders know more. By coming to inhabit the relevant community, they get to know not just the “standard” answers, but the real questions, sensibilities, and aesthetics, and why they matter.’ (Brown 2001)

 

Community is something that people crave for from a university experience.  Being part of a learning community (as opposed to a community of learners) is empowering.  But equally when that community can crowd-source knowledge and solve problems, when that community can leverage the power of the massive and through technology can span location, engage in social behaviours and create and share knowledge then it becomes truly transformative.   Community learning experiences build on the social aspects of learning; collaboration, collective assessment and engagement, group work etc and social media changes that game entirely.

 

‘Social media has facilitated a complex, co-created and immediate form of learning response, where content and openness challenge the closed, structured nature of modern higher education . Social media has had significant impacts on the way learners connect with people and with the knowledge they require in order to learn across a variety of contexts. Social media support more than user interactivity, they support the development and application of user-generated content, collaborative learning, network formation, critical inquiry, relationship building, information literacy, dynamic searching and reflection.’

(Bryant 2015 ) 

 

A social media community is far more than Facebook and Twitter.  Social media explore innovative pedagogical practices like making, ideation, creation, critique, sociality, connected practice, crowd-sourcing, entrepreneurship, digital citizenship, media making, identity, politics and policy.  And that is just the start.  The communities that form on social media are equally fleeting as they are lasting, large as they are intimate, collaborative as they individual.   They support lurkers, talkers, loud mouths, itinerants and learners.  Social media are being used by your students now.  They may be consuming yours, making their own, using their existing networks to find out stuff or leaving others because they have developed and moved on.  Yes, they can have arseholes in them, but so can a bus.  Yes, they have trolls, but so does a classroom.  Community formation and development through social media is not a ‘trend’, it isn’t ‘new’ nor will it go away like fax-based learning (was that ever a thing?).  Social media is for the foreseeable future how the internet is wired.  It is how society is increasingly wired and it is how many people form and nurture their communities, inside and outside work.  Sure, not everyone is an expert or a natural at social media. Not everyone likes talking on phones neither.  Doesn’t mean we never used them for work.

 

There you have them. Seven post-digital learning experiences.  None of them are ‘new’.  They are all built on good teaching practices that we have done ourselves or experienced.  They are rooted in deep traditions of experience, both socially and professionally.  They are not exclusively digital, but they are amplified and enhanced in a digital environment.  Technology makes them more possible and multiplies their potential.  They will work in off-line, blended and on-line environments because in a post-digital institution, there is no discernible difference.  They will will in open, free learning and closed residential experiences.  I know, we have made them work.  This is the shape of learning in the 21st century.  It is complex for sure.  It is not as simple as a voice in the room and the furious scribbling of pens.  It is not something that can be summarised in a high stakes exam.  But to be honest; effective, active, real learning has never been that anyway.

 

PDLE