Over the last year I have taken thousands of photographs whilst observing students and tutors from Edinburgh University's Architecture programme. At the beginning of this exercise I was mostly interested in recording what took place directly around assessment: preparing the portfolio, presenting work in a review exercise, practices around marking and moderation. Over time though I have sought to capture a broader range of phenomena as I have looked towards sociomateriality as the critical lens for my Doctoral research. From initially focusing on the meaning making rituals of students and tutors around assessment, I have instead been looking to the ways that knowledge construction in the Architecture studio is a more complex entanglement of human, technological and other material interests. Or as Fenwick and Landri describe in their work around sociomaterial assemblages in education:
If I was initially guilty of viewing assessment in an overly simplistic way, as a fairly clear-cut exchange between student and tutor, sociomaterial critiques of education have instead encouraged me to examine the messy reality of what takes in and around the classroom, where 'learning is embedded in action and emerges through practice, processes that produce the objects and characteristics of educational events.’ (Knox and Bayne 2013). In this way assessment can be seen as a performance that depends on the student and tutor, but also looks to the role of curriculum, technology, sound, light, clothing and other visible and invisible actors within an evolving pattern of materiality (Fenwick et al 2011:8).
What this has meant in practice is that, as well as continuing to photograph students and tutors in the Architecture studio, I have pointed my camera down at the floor and upwards to the ceiling. I have crawled under desks and balanced on chairs. I have photographed and recorded the sounds of ventilation shafts, data projectors, corridor conversation. I have attracted troubled glances from students unfamiliar with my research. Without having yet commenced my analysis of the gathered data, a recurring theme to emerge from my photographs and also my written field notes, is the way that food and drink seem to be an integral part of what takes place in the studio. Alongside the more recognisable tools of the architecture student we find snacks: pencils next to a packet of peanuts; chocolate alongside cardboard; Rhino with Red Bull.
click on image to enlarge
Through the image above I have tried to show how my field notes and photographs resonate with some of the principle ideas around sociomateriality within education, in this case echoing work by Gourlay and Oliver (2014) where they offer a sociomaterial account of digital literacy practices:
For the purpose of further illustration I have included below a small selection images which would seem to reiterate Gourlay and Oliver's call to remain alert to the way that our use of digital resources in education, for instance around assessment, is always and inevitably entangled with a much broader range of resources, influences, limitations and opportunities beyond the interests of the assignment task.
click on images to enlarge
Digital sociomaterial journaling
Camera, recorder, scissors, brush: ethnography in a pop-up exhibition
Architecture, multimodality and the ethnographic monograph
Taking a few moments here to talk about my ongoing - and evolving - research around assessment practice. Over time the interest of my PhD has broadened from the phenomenon of digital multimodal assessment to also ask questions more generally about the way that assessment practice in the Humanities is affected by the societal and pedagogical shift to the digital. In particular I am interested in investigating how:
In relation to the third of these lines of inquiry, I am particularly drawn towards sociomateriality's attention to the way that meaning emerges from a broader range of influences, opportunities, limitations and pressures beyond human interest and action. I think this is neatly captured by Fenwick, Sawchuk and Edwards when they propose that sociomaterial research looks to take account of:
In this way assessment feels less like a transaction between student and tutor, or a measure of academic performance, and much more like an assemblage of the seen and unseen, the human and machine, and beyond. As such, sociomateriality (supported by critical posthumanism) has had the effect of lifting my conceptual gaze from the ways that knowledge is conveyed and interpreted, to also take into account what previously seemed peripheral (or invisible or irrelevant) to assessment. This in turn has meant extending my ethnographic fieldwork where I have been observing students and tutors from undergraduate courses in Architecture and History. I have continued to investigate what takes place in the lecture theatre, studio, meeting room, corridor and canteen: at the same time though I have taken two further approaches in order to get a better sense of the resources and restrictions that influence the preparation of a piece of a coursework, whilst also investigating how digital literacy practices are enacted beyond what I was able to observe in class and around campus.
For the time being I am referring to this method as ‘digital sociomaterial journaling’, thereby acknowledging how my approach is influenced by Gourlay and Oliver’s recent proposal of longitudinal multimodal journaling (2016). Combining ethnographic approaches with an interest in sociomateriality and New Literacy Studies, Gourlay and Oliver describe research where they gathered journaling data in order to investigate the digital engagement of a group of postgraduate students. Amongst other methods, participants were provided with iPod Touch devices in order to gather data that would ‘document their day-to-day practices with texts and technologies in a range of settings’ (2016: 302), thereby offering insights into their digital literacy practices.
As well as drawing inspiration from Gourlay and Oliver’s work, I have looked to some of my own earlier research where, along with my colleagues Sian Bayne and Michael Gallagher, we used the elicitation of 'digital multimodal postcards’ alongside semi-structured interviews to investigate how online distance students understand and enact their university, and how they construct space for learning (Bayne, Gallagher & Lamb 2013; Gallagher, Lamb & Bayne 2016). Here then is how these different methodologies have shaped my current research.
Inviting students to record their surroundings as they work on an assignment
For a period of approximately one week in the lead up to a recent essay deadline, five students from the American History course were asked to ‘record their surroundings' on every occasion they worked on the assignment. This included taking a photograph, making a one-minute ambient sound recording, and writing a short description of their location and activity at that moment in time. The data were then submitted electronically using a drop box on this website, via e-mail or USB drive. For the purpose of illustration, this is one of the six submissions that Sarah made as she worked on her assignment about the Civil Rights Movement.
Shadowing students as they work on an assignment
Two of the same students who recorded their surroundings also agreed to let me shadow them at different times as they worked on the essay assignment. In Karen’s case this comprised an afternoon in her flat followed by a later period in the main university library. For Harry meanwhile this involved a full day studying in one of the university's smaller libraries, as well as a nearby common room. As Karen and Harry worked on their essays (and drank tea, checked Facebook, listened to music and so on) I made my own sound recordings, took photographs and typed field notes. The following video gathers together representative sights and sounds from my first observation of Karen (although not as yet with the inclusion of entries from my field notes or reference to her Internet history for the corresponding period that she kindly agreed to supply me with).
The approaches described here were designed to shed light on the some on the recent interest of my research (bulleted above). For instance, how does the algorithmic code that is concealed, as Edwards & Michael (2011) suggest, beneath the sophisticated interface of software applications, influence the search results that appear in Google Scholar? How do perceptions and practices around plagiarism detection software influence composition (a concern recognised in research by Introna & Hayes (2011))? How does the use of sophisticated hardware and software pictured in the different images advance the notion of shared authorship between human and machine (see Knox & Bayne 2013)? Meanwhile, through the shadowing exercise in particular I have sought to gain insights into the ‘minute dynamics and connections’ that Fenwick et al. (2011, p.8) believe to be overlooked when we look to understand educational activities.
For the time being I am resisting the temptation to offer any sort of this response to these questions, not least as next month I will interview the same five students from the American History course. This will include discussion around the sights and sounds each student gathered as they worked on their essay assignment. Before that, for the purpose of comparison, tomorrow morning I will begin the same process all over again with five students from an Architectural Design course.
A note on ethics
Pseudoynms have been used in place of participant's real names. Students gave their consent to participate in the research described above, including the sharing of their supplied data. Participants were offered a £20 gift voucher for participating in each part of this research.
The project New Geographies of Learning: distance education and being 'at' The University of Edinburgh set out to investigate how students participating in a fully online distance learning programme - the MSc in Digital Education - experienced and understood their university. Beginning in 2011, we spent a year gathering narrative and visual data, primarily through:
Our over-arching research question was: What does it mean to be a student at Edinburgh but not in Edinburgh, and what insight does this give us into learning design for high quality distance programmes? We addressed this question in two published journal articles:
More recently Sian Bayne, Michael Gallagher and I revisited the 21 digital multimodal postcards with an interest in exploring what they might tell us about the way that distance students construct and negotiate space for learning. Our approach and findings are described in a chapter 'The Sounded Spaces of Online Learners' within this recently published collection by Lucila Carvalho, Peter Goodyear, Maarten de Laat (2016):
To briefly touch on the way we approached the analysis of the postcards, we took a broadly multimodal approach which recognised that meaning emerged from the particular ways that the different semiotic resources came together in concert. This was augmented by looking towards Fluegge’s work around personal sound spaces (2011) from which we adopted and adapted the notions of territorialism, sonic trespass and spatial-acoustic self-determination. Within the visual realm meanwhile we looked to Rose’s 'site of audiencing' (2012). Our approach was also informed by Monaco’s ideas around coherence (2009) and similarly Van Leeuwen’s work in social semiotics around information linking (2004).
As we had hoped, by paying equal attention to the visual and aural (and the meaning that emerged from their juxtaposition), we gained fascinating insights into the ways that this particular group of students looked to construct and negotiate space. At times this challenged the conventional conceptualisation of distance learners, often depicted through a high level of mobility and digital sophistication. Instead we saw and heard the trappings of the domestic: family and soft furnishings; kitchen table and kettle boiling. We also became aware of how this group of students differently attempted to orchestrate or adapt to the material character of their surroundings. Without suggesting that our findings could be applied to online education across the board, we nevertheless believe that our methodology encourages teachers and course designers involved with online education to consider what is happening on the other side of the screen.
Whenever I'm on campus I'm struck by the amount of attention that has gone into reconfiguring the different buildings into spaces that are conducive to learning. In comparison, there has been very little critical attention to the learning environments of online students. Through the findings and methodology described within our recently published chapter, we hope that we will encourage other researchers, teachers and programme designers to have a good look - and listen - to the learning spaces of online, distance students.
A digital postcard of Daisy's learning space in Xalapa, Mexico.
Away from the university
Listening to the street
Look! Listen! Learn!
I was recently invited to make a video to accompany the Manifesto for Teaching Online (2016). The Manifesto comes from the team behind the MSc in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh and comprises a series of short statements which articulate what it means to teach within digital learning environments. Whereas our work to put together the Manifesto was collaborative, the video should be seen as my own personal interpretation and response each of its 22 statements. Here's the newly completed video:
Rather than trying to explain how I attempted to represent the different statements in the Manifesto, I'm instead going to describe how some of the key ideas around online education influenced my approach as I put the video together.
To begin, reflecting the growing interest in the multimodal character of digital scholarship, I spent time thinking about how the particular configuration of images and sounds could work together in juxtaposition, or what Carey Jewitt (2009) has described as the way that meaning emerges from the particular relationship between different modes. This became quite an iterative process where I would start with a rough idea in response to a Manifesto statement, which would in turn prompt the gathering of field recordings, which then sparked a visual idea and subsequently led to the creation or collection of further sounds. Maybe the best example of this from the video is the ‘Digital Natives’ statement where I started off thinking about Bronislaw Malinowksi’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) and ended up burying a Nokia 5510 (1998) in a sandbox.
Whereas the critical interest in multimodality is often concerned with focusing its gaze on the semiotic resources at work within a document, an artefact or a communicational event, sociomateriality asks us to pay attention to the ways that the wider milieu shapes our meaning-making practices. Therefore where some of the images/sounds in the video seem haphazard or untidy it should be seen/heard in light of what Fenwick et al. (2011) describe as:
I also wanted the video to itself provoke questions about digital authorship, ownership and plagiarism. For instance, what responsibility do we have to the author of a piece of work that we record and then remix beyond its original form or meaning? What are the ethical implications of adding reverb to someone's voice or recolouring their textile work? And how do the conventions of referencing and plagiarism that were conceived around words-on-the-page, take account of video and other digital formats? These are questions similar to those raised by Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2011) in her work around digital authorship and it seemed fitting that she should 'appear' in the video.
Finally, as I prepared the video I also wanted to challenge the visual conceptualisations of online teaching which neglect the physical places where the corporeal bodies of teachers go about their scholarly business. Behind the virtual worlds, learning management systems and social media spaces that are often used as icons of online, there exists the campus, the cafe and the couch. These ‘teaching spaces’ are represented through sight and sound: an office on the 4th floor of St John’s Land in the School of Education; the space at home where I write and read and where I worked on the video itself.
I hope you enjoy the video.
Fenwick, T., Edwards, R. & Sawchuk, P. 2011. Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial. (Oxon, Routledge). pp. 1-18.
Jewitt, C. 2009. An introduction to multimodality. In The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. Jewit, C. (Ed) (London, Routledge): pp. 14-27.
'Kathleen Fitzpatrick: "The Future of Authorship: Writing in the Digital Age"'(2011) YouTube video, added by FranklinCenterAtDuke [Online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4qq01Qskv0 (Accessed 12 June 2016)
Malinowski, B. [1922}. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights, 10 IL: Waveland Press, Inc. Pp. 1-25 (Introduction).
Some pictures from the last few weeks, captured using the webcam on my laptop. On each occasion I was reading, writing or discussing my research with a colleague. In each instance I was situated in a location beyond the physical boundary of university campus.
The gallery doesn’t capture every instance or location where I was studying beyond the physical boundaries of the university. It wasn’t always convenient or appropriate to capture my surroundings while on other occasions I didn’t have my laptop. I also decided that nobody needed to see those private moments where I was working intimately with the literature in my bed at night. This gathering of images is intended as a critical response to the following email I received from the University:
I am interested in this idea of being ‘away from the university’ as it picks up on ideas that emerged from research I undertook a few years ago with Sian Bayne and Michael Sean Gallagher where we investigated notions of space and place amongst online distance students, including how they understood and related to their institution (Bayne et al. 2013). Our research was carried out against a backdrop of the growing strategic and pedagogic interest in the learning that takes place beyond the physical campus, whether through taught Masters programmes, Massive Open Online Courses or other modes of delivery.
One of our key arguments was that in a networked world, where learning increasingly takes place in digital environments, we need to move beyond conceptualisations of the university ‘as a bounded, stable place – a static ‘container’ within which education takes place.’ Drawing on data generated through multimodal postcards submitted by online distance students, and influenced by the work of Sheller and Urry around new mobilities (2006) we instead proposed that the university is enacted in multiple and complex ways. We also looked to the work of Edwards et al. around mobilities and moorings to argue that when teaching and learning takes place within digital online environments, the university becomes characterised by ‘flux and flows rather than simple bounded space’ (2011, p.153). While our research focused on ‘distance’ learners, the distinction between students who attend classes within the university's physical buildings and those who do not, is becoming increasingly blurred.
In this context, the notion of being ‘away from the university’, is more complex than being physically located beyond the perimeter of the campus. Looking at the different images in my gallery, I am simultaneously situated outside the university’s real estate whilst intensely enacting ‘being at university’. In this way perhaps we can see the university less as a container of lecture theatres and laboratories and instead as a performance that is played out across cafes, in hospital waiting rooms, in airport departure lounges, in transit and in the home (as well as in university’s own buildings).
A second point I would make, again developing an idea that emerged from my research with Sian and Michael, is that the phrase ‘away from the university’ unintentionally deprivileges the learning that takes place beyond the campus. Without proposing that it was the suggested meaning of the email I received, or reflective of the University’s position more generally, the notion of being away suggests that the learning which takes place off campus is somehow ‘other’ to what happens in the library, studios, tutorial rooms and other teaching spaces. We argued that the ‘distance education' label could be seen to have the same effect in the way it proposed that learning undertaken away from the campus is defined through its difference to the conventional, established scholarly pursuits that are followed within the university’s boundaries.
In gathering together these images and ideas I have sought to make the point that within a networked educational landscape where we are increasingly looking to the possibilities of blended learning, fully online taught programmes and distance PhD provision, we need to think newly and creatively about what it means to be ‘on a course’ and ‘at the university’ (or indeed, away from the university).
Michael Sean Gallagher, Sian Bayne and I have written about the Sounded Spaces of Online Learners, which will appear as a chapter in Place-Based Spaces for Networked Learning (Routledge) due to be published this August.
Edwards, R., Tracy, F. & Jordan, K. (2011). Mobilities, moorings and boundary marking in developing semantic technologies in educational practices. Research in Learning Technology, 19(3), 219‐232
Bayne, S, Gallagher, MS & Lamb, J 2013, 'Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students' Higher Education., 10.1007/s10734-013-9662-4
Sheller, M. & Urry, J. (2006). The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A, 38, 207‐226.
Since sharing this blog post earlier today (Monday 9 May) I've had a couple of responses on Twitter from fellow PhD students. I'm not alone.
Noise carries its own meaning in different disciplines. It can be psychological, physical, technical, cultural. It accounts for different phenomena within semantics than in communication studies and serves a different purpose again within corners of education research. It variously concerns disruption, distraction and bias.
Right now, noise refers to the sound of machines attacking asphalt within close proximity of PhD Suite (Room 1.10) in the School of Education. The building of subject knowledge is locked in battle with the sound of tarmac being deconstructed. I find myself typing in stop-start rhythm to the sound of steel on concrete, which is fine for some scholarly tasks but not for others. Better than no typing at all. In response, I’ve created a playlist for occasions where composition and contemplation doesn’t lend itself to an industrial soundtrack: anti-noise to aid my concentration.
The playlist is intentionally lyric free, even if there are occasional fragments of dialogue and voice: the reading list in front of me is complex and lengthy enough without the need for additional words to contend with. I realise on playback that, without it being my intention, there’s a clear machine-like quality to some of the tracks here, most notably Arab Strap’s The Bonny Barmaids of Dundee.
Once the building work is complete our office will face onto a courtyard where students and staff will be able to congregate, relax and discuss the matters of the day. This will create its own soundtrack, which may or may not be conducive to the writing and reading that lies in store. When the sound of conversation and laughter penetrates PhD Suite (Room 1.10), I wonder whether I might long for the predictable ambient pattern of excavators attacking paving slabs. Noise carries its own meaning in different disciplines, but it’s also contingent on the activities being attempted within the space and time that it shares.
James Lamb is a PhD student within the School of Education (Room 1.10) at the University of Edinburgh.
This post also appears on the website of the Elektroniches Lernen Muzik.
Maps, music and augmented reality
Surf guitar or The unrehearsed imagination of school
In the last couple of weeks Michael Sean Gallagher and I have been adding the final touches to a book chapter which explores The Sonic Spaces of Online Distance Students. Working with our mentor Professor Siân Bayne from the University of Edinburgh, we have proposed a methodology which uses aural and visual data as a way of understanding how online distance students construct space for studying. The chapter will feature in a wider text concerned with place-based learning that will be published later this year, however this is a subject that Michael and I have been researching and thinking about since 2010.
Our chapter revisits data that Michael and I collected as part of the New Geographies of Learning project that we worked on together in 2011. Along with our colleagues from the MSc in Digital Education at Edinburgh University, we prepared two published papers from this work (references below). We also generated a series of 'digital postcards', where we invited online distance students to 'capture' a space from where they typically engaged with their programme of study. The postcards were digital in the sense that they each combined a photograph, short text description and an audio field recording of the same space. It was this audio and visual data that Michael, Siân and I returned to look at in more detail within our book chapter.
Although the ink is still drying on the print and photographs that make up our chapter, earlier this week Dr Louise Connelly from the Institute of Education at The University of Edinburgh gave us the opportunity to talk about our work as part of her online tutoring course for staff. You can look at my slides from the session, however what you'll learn from a series of images that depict soft furnishings, I'm not sure.
The central thrust of our webinar was a discussion of the methodology we devised. Key to our thinking was to avoid the tendency amongst Internet scholars to privilege image over sound (Sterne 2006), and to instead think about the interdependency, cohesion and conflict between different semiotic material. In the absence of an existing approach to transcription or analysis that suited our needs, we developed our own approach by drawing on a range of methodologies concerned with aural and visual data, and the relationship between different semiotic modes. In brief summary we:
To demonstrate our methodology during Monday's webinar, we invited participants to look at examples of data gathered within the New Georgraphies of Learning project. This included thinking about the digital postcard submitted by Aggie, an online distance student based in Mexico, but completing a programme at Edinburgh University. We invited participants in the webinar to reflect on whether there was anything interesting, surprising or seemingly significant about the study space captured in this postcard image:
Using the Chat function in Collaborate we then asked the group to share their ideas about the study space in the photograph. There were more thought-provoking observations than I have room to include here, however it was interesting to note that a number of themes that Michael and I found to be present in the wider data set (i.e. across many of the 15 submitted postcards) arose during the webinar discussion. This included:
In the second part of the exercise, we invited the group to look at the image once again, but this time whilst listening to the audio clip that Aggie submitted to accompany her image:
As we listened to the orchestration of birdsong, distant brass music, children-at-play and the chopping-of-vegetables that feature in Aggie's field recording, fascinating strands of conversation developed within the Chat box. This included differing positions on what represents 'noise', and whether music can be used to usefully construct spaces that are conducive to studying. Both of these themes are discussed within our forthcoming chapter. What was also interesting was the way that conversation moved onto discuss whether the insights gained from our methodology might practically inform course design and teaching of online distance courses. I have reproduced some of the comments below in order to give a feel for the nature of the discussion.
Within our chapter, Michael, Siân and I have been clear to avoid suggesting that the themes to emerge from our transcription and analysis of the digital postcards necessarily sets hard-and-fast rules about the ways that online students use sound and physical material to construct spaces for studying. What we did propose though was that this type of data - and our methodology - offers new ways of thinking about the nature of these spaces. I think that the conversation reproduced above helps to support this.
If we were to deliver this session again - and I really hope we get the chance to do so as it was great fun and opened up new lines of investigation - I would leave more time for participants to reflect on whether and how the introduction of the aural data altered original impressions of the study space captured in the image. It's clear that listening to Aggie's sound clip enabled the group to see beyond the edges of the photograph, however I think we missed an opportunity to really discuss how the interplay between the aural and the visual data potentially generated meaning over and above the impressions we might have taken from these individual modes. As I mentioned in my introduction, Michael and I have been discussing the nature of online study spaces for close to 5 years: I think this week's webinar suggests there's value in continuing the conversation.
I am an ESRC-funded Doctoral student in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.