Guest post: On being digitally transformed

Our theme for the day at the UCL event on June 21st was broadly around how shared digital platforms can be used creatively and effectively to support learning, formally and informally.  Through rich discussions with many topics and tangents we thought about what this meant in terms of how and where people learn, and what possibilities were being opened up for new ways of learning. Given my role at London College of Fashion, my interests concern learning in all its forms, and particularly the social and auto/biographical questions that arise around identity and participation in used shared platforms in the creative arts.

I opened flippantly by saying something about being David’s high risk strategy as I knew little about digital media and was not sure if I would have anything to say.  In conjunction with my half truth, my fellow speaker, Amy Twigger Holroyd, had also described her work with knitting as primarily offline; both of us were to find that subsequent discussions of our practice post-panel suggested that we were more ‘digitally involved’ than we admitted.  This raised some interesting questions for me about how we perceive ourselves in relation to digital learning, where these views come from, and what it means for how we work and study.

In my case this has meant hitherto seeing myself as a face to face practitioner who uses online and social media rather than seeing myself as a digital expert. Two questions from the floor and preparing for a visit to UCL led me to reappraise this.  The questions, which came from post-panel debate, were 1) are we more digitized than we realize? And 2) if people don’t categorise themselves as digital practitioners, why don’t they, what would it take to shift that perception, and where does it come from? (Technically, I think this makes four questions but we’ll move on).

This question of recognition is one that I think is really at play in the ways we approach formal and informal modes of learning, as it influences what we use, where and how we do things, and the opportunities we miss or gain by so operating. It applies equally to staff and students.

In the next few paragraphs I want to relate these questions to projects I discussed at UCL and elaborate on some of the issues and opportunities that emanate from them.  In planning for the event I turned to David Gauntlett’s excellent 8 principles for building creativity using digital platforms.

At the risk of sounding sycophantic, these provided a brilliant means of bringing into focus for me the different platforms in use that I had not paid much attention to previously, for reasons we will touch on in principle 3. Running through all these are connotations of sharing and networking, two fundamental behaviours to foster community and collaboration, but which are not always unproblematic.  In addition, within all 8 reside implications of the expert/amateur divide, which seems to affect how users of digital media perceive themselves, and which is being dismantled by collaborations fostered through new (or not so new) media.  This divide, (embodied by the fact that in many universities we separate out learning and elearning) had affected me too; I’d set up a collaborative wiki, created web content, blogged, pinned, followed, shared and generally done things “e” – but because I saw myself as an amateur I did not see them ‘counting’ in the same way; experts knew how things worked and pretenders like me did the easy stuff, like clicking. Real digital pedagogues do it with code.

Identifying that this divide has been at work in my own psyche and releasing it into the wild was liberating; I’ll now move on to consider each of the eight principles in relation to our event theme of shared platforms for learning and share some examples and thoughts on where these are in operation.

1. Embrace ‘because we want to’

Learning projects and innovations see varying levels of embracing going on, particularly of the playful, from the dilettante to the aficionado.  However, where some fail to embrace, this may not be out of antipathy, but because they just haven’t seen the point yet. Certain tools and communities are dismissed for hosting trivial ramblings about social lives and dietary habits, but this is more about user choice than flawed tools.  Also key to embracing for many is transparency (which heralds 3); people want to get on and do without having to watch the cogs turn first.  So a platform which facilitates engagement quickly and easily will foster embracing and wanting. So far, so obvious. In the creative disciplines digital media are crucial for broadcasting and disseminating work; where there may be caution in how they are used can be seen in 2.

2. Set no limits on participation

Open participation is something that excites and scares in equal measure.   One of the greatest positives is in the rebalancing of power in terms of validating and accepting contributions from people with all levels of knowledge and experience.  This can be seen in the MyShakespeare project, in which students have been commissioned to ‘interpret, recode and remix’ Shakespeare, and their work features on the new digital platform, myShakespeare, alongside that of artists.  With a global reach, the project allows people who have not had the chance to encounter Shakespeare before to respond to texts and artefacts alongside die hard enthusiasts.

The negatives naturally concern the scope for abuse; What if someone uploads spam? Is a pervert? A Copyright Thief? The unacceptable may not be insults or infamy, but something insidious, belittling or inaccurate. Context for behaviour also plays a part; as the current Twitter joke from @laughbook goes:  “Someone follows you on Twitter YAY, a new follower! Someone follows you in real life HOLY SH*T A STALKER…” The desire to get things out there and share has multiple layers of consequence – while some are happy to offer all, others fear the loss of intellectual property or research/study edge.  Johanna Blakley, in her TED talk, puts a really positive spin on this in relation to fashion and IPR (fashion is deemed to be utilitarian, not art, therefore no IPR applies – you can copyright a trademark but not a design).

The principle of crowdsourcing operates from a position of trust as well; believing that an open call for participation brings richer benefits than assuming one person is the best person for the job. According to the medium and the need, sharing may bring you welcome attention or be counter-productive, as in the case of the singer who was advised to take down her videos from Youtube, not because they weren’t great, but because they made her look waaaay too eager to be noticed.

If we are going to have open participation, however, we need to get better at filtering, sorting and selecting (e.g. Blog-In for grouping your blogs so you just hear from the ones you want) rather than be deluged every day. Perhaps we also need to develop our own etiquette for Not Adding – is being Linked In to people we see every day useful backup or a surfeit of connections?

3. Celebrate participants, not the platform

A great example of this is in Process Arts; its creator Chris Follows describes it as using Drupal, an open source platform, with free functionality and which has the flexibility to move with the times. It has grown exponentially over the last few years from being the-place-where-Chris-keeps-his-stuff to a shared environment where anyone who wants to contribute material and thoughts on creative arts practice can do so. Students across the years can comment on and share work and alumni upload videos from their creative workplaces and spaces.

4. Support storytelling

Stories of student learning appear in their reflective records of all kinds as well as embedded into project evaluations. The digital story movement is well established, while wikis have provided a forerunner of collaborative online spaces where stories can be shared. David has talked about the accumulative power of tweets as stories; the precision of a 140 character reflection can be a using framing tool for saying something thoughtful in as few words as possible. If you want to really raise the bar, write your life story in six words and share it.

5. Some gifts, some theatre, some recognition

Moving into new arenas and spaces changes how we perform and respond, as we all know well. Museums and galleries make creative use of social media and digital platforms to attract visitors to events.  We have also seen our expectations shift in terms of who we can reach, and who might reach us; the spikes and tides of Twitter, where recognition can be sparked off by a single retweet or comment that shifts someone from 11 to 1000 users almost instantaneously. Sir Ken Robinson notes in Out of Our Minds that his phenomenal 5 million hits on a TED talk has been massively surpassed by the ‘talking’ kittens on Youtube (30 million hits).  We also have come to expect entertainment, (but not edutainment, its less palatable relative) in the ways we can learn, as illustrated by the use of Pirates of the Caribbean footage (copyright status notwithstanding?) to illustrate the stages of Bloom’s taxonomy.

6. Online to offline is a continuum

Given the diversity of disciplines within universities (even ‘monotechnics’ like ours which have an enormous range of subjects grouped under the umbrella term creative arts) there may be differences in terms of the kinds of platforms and modes of engagement that staff and students want to use.   A natural flow from online to offline can be seen in the fora and interest groups which spring up; at UAL one such example is the Learning Studio, an open forum for all staff on using technology for learning which meets face to face to discuss the digital.   The reduction in size and portability of technologies makes a blend of approach and suitability of environments much more flexible.  This obviously links into 7,

7. Reinvent learning

This is such a vast area I will only touch on it here but we have already mentioned the shift in relationships and powerbases in terms of collaboration and sharing.  Using apps and a single connecting mobile device already mean that we can photograph work, upload, share, link to, collaborate on and discuss in ways different from before.  Paul Lowe’s NAM project presents new opportunities for co-creation and creativity while focusing on questions of student identity in research (the move from student to practitioner). The NAM project has been funded by JISC and also uses a Drupal based open source site built in collaboration with students, where at the front end they can showcase work created from important resources such as the Stanley Kubrick archive, and at the back end they can collaborate, comment, feedback and curate.

8. Foster genuine communities

Many of our shared platforms are built to sustain special interest groups, projects and any kind of activity which brings people together for a common purpose.  Etienne Wenger’s work around communities of practice is familiar territory for thinking about how these communities are constituted and operate, whether online or offline.  In learning terms, if we are creating digital communities, despite the massive upsurge in use of smartphones and mobile devices we still need to be careful that participation is inclusive and not exclusive – not everyone has these. Having my iPhone stolen on the Central Line revealed to me my reliance on being able to communicate in a certain way; having to go home instead to tweet or use social media because the intermediate phone could not cope was a noticeable obstacle.  Digital media have made it incredibly easy to find people and make connections/create networks. In some cases they have functioned where other approaches have failed, as in the case of a colleague trying to get support with a book whose attempts at cold calling drew blanks, but whose Linked In network did the job.

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From Steven Johnson spells out the benefits which can be had through engaging with all eight principles, not just through 7 and 8. He describes the genesis of ideas through things like The Slow Hunch, the way that breakthrough ideas do not burst forth in a eureka moment but take time to evolve.  This can be considered in tandem with thoughts (pro and con) around the immediacy of digital connections; Johnson suggests that a collision of hunches is required for ideas to multiply – as through online communities and special interest groups; according to Johnson “Chance favours the connected mind” as the historic evolution of combining and connectivity over the centuries is where our innovation and originality comes from.


Alison James is Head of Learning and Teaching at London College of Fashion. Photo by Flickr user Partymonstrrr. Some rights reserved under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

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