DIGITAL EDUCATION. MULTIMODALITY. LEARNING SPACES
Today sees the first Learning and Teaching Conference here at Edinburgh University, which takes as its theme, 'inspiring learning'. For my part, I will be presenting a poster, Exit the classroom! Mobile Learning & Teaching, alongside my colleague from the Centre for Research in Digital Education, Michael Gallagher.
The poster follows a path across six different excursions or exercises where, along with our colleague Jeremy Knox, we have explored the possibilities of mobile learning and methodology. Beginning with a two-day workshop that Michael delivered in Helsinki in 2013, through events in London, Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Bremen, our poster makes the case for taking teaching and learning beyond the boundaries of classroom and campus. The final and most recent activity in this series was a fully online event delivered earlier this year within the University’s Festival of Creative Learning, where our group brought together students, teachers, researchers and learning technologists from across three continents and a range of academic disciplines. In each case our excursion (or that undertaken by participants) was digitally-mediated as we drew on the capabilities of smartphones, instant messaging services and other networked content or applications.
Having previously spoken and written about these exercises (including an article for Qualitative Research that should be available any time now), on this occasion I wanted to share our work in visual form.
If you happen to be at the Learning and Teaching Conference and are interested in the work described here, Michael and I be standing next to the poster between 12.50 and 13.40. We're conveniently close to the refreshments so grab a coffee and Danish and come and say hello. Or you can view and download a pdf copy of the poster here:
I am really glad to be delivering the opening key note presentation at today's Digital Assessment & Feedback: People, Places & Spaces conference at Lancaster University. I will be talking about Multimodality, Assessment and Feedback. These are the slides that I will be talking around:
Although I have talked and written about multimodal assessment before, I am looking forward to arguing for greater attention towards the multimodal character of feedback and dialogue between student and tutor. When the teacher has an important role in encouraging students to recognise the scholarly validity of the digital multimodal form (Lea & Jones 2011), this can be achieved, I will argue, by presenting our comments, guidance or encouragement in corresponding form. Conversely, if our feedback is primarily conveyed through language (whether spoken or written) we implicitly defer to the power of words, while 'othering' alternative approaches as experimental or risky (and thereby less attractive in the high-stakes summative assessment setting).
Considering the intimate link between assessment and feedback, it is surprising that research investigating the relationship between multimodality and feedback is scarce (useful exceptions being work by Mathisen (2012) and Philips et al. (2016)). Plenty has been written about the possibilities and challenges of multimodal assessment however much less has been said about the way that, by taking a multimodal approach within their feedback, teachers can embolden and inspire students towards the representation of knowledge in ways that are simultaneously scholarly and in-tune with our increasingly digital and visually-mediated world.
Thank you to Kathryn James and colleagues at Lancaster University for inviting me to speak at today's conference.
Multimodality, assessment and language education
Stories of transformative multimodal assessment
Interweaving: multimodality, assessment and architecture
Later today I will be contributing to Making Research Visible, an event organised by the Research and Knowledge Exchange Office here at Edinburgh University. The aim behind the day is to explore the different ways that we can think about the accessibility and visibility of our research, for instance through social media. My input will be to talk about the process behind the video I created for the Manifesto for Teaching Online. I will argue that we can raise the profile of our work by presenting it visually. This is the video:
and here are the slides I will present this afternoon:
The portability of the video format, combined with the ability to convey a considerable about of content within a short space of time, allows us to extend the reach of our academic work, for instance through the sharing capacity of social media. In my presentation I will also describe how the medium provided an opportunity to match the representational form of the video with the following Manifesto statements, thereby enacting and advancing the same arguments:
Text has been troubled: many modes matter in representing academic knowledge
Remixing digital content redefines authorship
Arguing for the value of visually-mediated research does not mean dispensing with more conventional printed ways of sharing our research. Neither does it mean that the visual form will always be an appropriate way of sharing academic knowledge. All the same, in our increasingly networked and visually-mediated world, the video format is increasingly in-tune with increasingly multimodal literacy practices and representations of academic knowledge.
Manifesto for teaching online: reaction!
During our recent event, The Mobile Campus: Imagining The Future of Distributed and Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh, Michael Gallagher and I invited our group of 24 students, researchers, learning technologists and lecturers to simultaneously take a photograph of their surroundings. Through this elicitation of images we hoped to get a sense of the different types of 'learning spaces' being occupied across the group, which spanned several campuses and continents.
Since the event, I have pulled the photographs together into a composite image:
Click on the composite image to enlarge
The images shown here could be analysed and then interpreted in a range of ways, however to start with I have attempted to group them under some broad themes: nature; institution; office; home; transit. Some of the photographs transcend these categories. It would also be easy to extend the number of themes.
Although the Mobile Campus event didn't set out to generate research data, it would still be interesting to subject the photographs to some kind of visual analysis. Thinking for instance about Gillian Rose's nine methods of visual analysis (2011), perhaps content analysis or a form of anthropological analysis might enable us to ask what the photographs tell us about the ways that the university is performed across a range of spaces and settings? Another line of inquiry would be to consider how the presence of overtly domestic spaces contrasts with the ways that online education is often (visually) portrayed as overtly sophisticated, clinical and high-tech. Looking across the images, plants outnumber computers while there is an even balance of 'homely' and 'officey' spaces.
The snapshots offer an interesting glimpse into the different ways that the campus is performed and how teachers and learners engage with the university. Without making any claim to generalisability based upon images from a single event, it is tempting to consider whether this approach might help us to think about pedagogy and the nature of the university itself, as education becomes increasingly mobile and dispersed.
The sonic spaces on online students
What does Doctoral research look like?
Away from the university
This is a write-up of a recent event (23.02.18) I jointly co-ordinated with Michael Sean Gallagher, as part of the Festival of Creative Learning here at Edinburgh University. Michael has separately shared his own reflections of the event: I am linking to his piece although not reading it for the moment as I want to see how we experienced the activity from opposite sides of the table.
The ambitious title of our event was The Mobile Campus: Imagining The Future of Distributed and Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh. More succinctly, I saw two possibilities in the activity: first, that it might make the case for mobile learning as pedagogy; second, that we could raise questions about the way we conceptualise ‘campus’ and ‘university’ within increasingly digital learning environments.
The ‘we’ in this case comprised Michael and myself, working with 24 participants. Without knowing the exact geographical spread of our group, we certainly had participants from across three continents, who joined us from a mixture of work, social, domestic and transitory spaces. For our part, Michael and I occupied a booth in the cafe of the University’s David Hume Tower. Our trans-continental class was made of learning technologists, academic staff, postgraduate students, doctoral and post-doctoral researchers and probably more besides. What everyone presumably had in common was an interest in exploring or shaping the future of digital education and pedagogy.
Emphasising our interest in mobile learning, our promotional material explained that the event would be delivered through the Telegram messaging app and that participants could join us from wherever they were likely to find themselves at 1pm (UK time) on 23rd February. Telegram supports the easy (and relatively secure) sharing of images, sounds, words and other content: our event made good use of these features as participants responded through sound clips, photographs and typed messages to questions about the nature of the campus, community and pedagogy.
As well as eliciting a multimodal conversation around the future of digital education, Michael and I used the format of the event to raise questions around traditional ways of thinking about the campus. The possibility that the campus is performed rather than being a collection of buildings is something that Michael and I have previously researched alongside our Digital Education colleague, Sian Bayne, as well as through a series of university workshops (references below).
On this occasion, we were particularly interested in challenging the hierarchical ‘othering’ of the learning that takes place beyond the perimeter of the university’s real estate. Through our event we also saw an opportunity to blur the boundary between on-campus and online. We sought to achieve this firstly through the use of Telegram, where being physically present on a designated campus did not automatically presume some advantage over other locations or situations. Meanwhile, to dissolve the distinction between conventional and more social and domestic learning spaces, we visually projected our Telegram conversation, which was punctuated by images of participants’ learning spaces, into David Hume Tower. Here is is a sample of what participants shared:
The visual traces of our wider campus were accompanied by a soundtrack, pulled together from participant audio recordings, combined with pieces of music nominated during discussion. Resulting from this, students and staff passing through the David Hume Tower cafe over lunchtime would have seen the Telegram dialogue thrown onto the wall of our booth, whilst experiencing a soundscape shaped by sounds from the wider learning space of the university:
While this video clip is included to help explain how we made use of sound, it offers a further insight into our approach. In order that participants could see and hear what we were doing, Michael and I created a YouTube live stream, supported by Michael’s iPhone, an attachable fish-eye lens, a GorillaPod and a borrowed camera tripod. At the same time as merging the different learning spaces of our Telegram group with those in DHT, we were playing the scene back to the group. For a short time, at least, it felt like we were re-mixing the campus. Looking across some of the immediate feedback form our exercise I am really glad that our approach seemed to catch the imagination of some of the group:
What I am less sure about however is whether Michael and I struck the right balance between Telegram dialogue and attempting to engage with the group through the livestream. Although Michael and I had structured-in an ‘interlude’ where participants would shift their gaze from Telegram conversation to the live stream, before that happened we found ourselves attempting to simultaneously contribute to discussion through Telegram whilst responding orally through the live stream. I think perhaps the result was a bit messy (although certainly interesting). At the same time, I am not sure how well a Smartphone screen lends itself to flicking between the different spaces we were using.
All the same, when mobile pedagogy is sometimes seen as an outlier compared to more desk-based online education, I think it’s a testament to the possibilities of the form that participants were able to contribute whilst variously strolling for pizza at lunchtime, stuck in traffic or walking through the snow. This doesn’t mean that we should abandon the discussion board or other institutional collaborative spaces that are a staple of online learning, but I think our experience speaks volumes for the possibilities of mobile learning and how it can help us to re-think - and remix - the campus.
Multimodality and mobile learning in Bremen
The sonic spaces of online students
Last Friday I visited the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds to participate in a seminar on the subject of Assessment and Feedback within Higher Education. I contributed a workshop around the possibilities and potential challenges of multimodal approaches to assessment and feedback within language education. Here are my slides with a full reference list at the end:
Although I have been talking and writing about multimodal assessment for a few years now, the context for Friday’s event presented a new challenge. When the dominant discourse around multimodal assessment concerns a move beyond the central authority of words, does multimodal assessment have a place within courses with a central interest in the study of language (as opposed to using language to communicate meaning of other subject matter)? This question was the starting position for my session which included an activity where, working in groups, colleagues reflected on what might be the critical questions that language educators need to ask in order to ascertain whether multimodality might perform a role around assessment and feedback. Rather than responding to the suggestions from each of the groups, I instead recorded the different ideas (hopefully true their intention) and have grouped them under four themes, below :
Rethinking the nature of assessment
Assessment criteria and marking
Student needs and interests
Although many of the suggestions would apply to assessment and feedback practices across the disciplines, the centrality of language within the group's teaching meant that the workshop raised ideas that I hadn't encountered before. This provides a helpful reminder that the possibilities of multimodal assessment, and the potential barriers to its use, can vary across different learning contexts.
Thank you to Chiara La Sala from the Leeds Centre for Excellence in Language Teaching for the invitation to contribute to Friday's event. Thanks Also to Martin Thomas and Elisabetti Adami who took time out to meet and explore ideas with me.
Stories of Transformative Multimodal Assessment
Multimodality and Mobile Learning in Bremen
Multimodal assessment in the presentation setting
Sound, including the practices of listening and production, have been used in a range of ways to ask questions around community, culture, power and other aspects of our social world. Researchers have turned a critical ear to the sonic environment in order to understand how sound can be used to construct personal space (Flügge 2011), exercise control and enact power in the hospital ward (Rice 2003) improve workplace efficiency (Bijsterveld 2012) and beyond. Elsewhere, reflecting the relationship between emergent technologies and the recording and reproduction of sound, Bull has studied rituals around the iPod (Bull 2005), Sterne makes the case for the MP3 as a cultural artefact (2006) and Prior has recently written about the complex hybrid of human-and-machine in the vocal assemblages of popular music (2017). These examples point to the growing recognition that sound has an important role to play in contemporary research, thus beginning to address what Bauer, writing almost two decades ago, saw as the absence of adequate methodology or mass of research to exploit the critical potential of sound within social inquiry (2000).
These contemporary research-adventures-in-sound have started, in a small way, to challenge what Daza & Gershon describe as the ‘ocular hegemony’ of inquiry, through its devotion to the visual, to speech and to text (2015: 640). A survey of the literature concerned with sound in social settings describes research under the banners of acoustemology, acoustigraphy, acoustic ecology, anthropology of sound, ethnomusicology, pyschoacoustics, sonic cartography, sonic ethnography, sound studies and beyond. Considering the breadth of critical work that begins with sound, alongside the potential for these activities to ask questions around comprehension and epistemology, human relations and hierarchy, it is surprising to find that sonic phenomena and practices have rarely featured within education research. A rare voice in this respect is Walter Gershon who, in making the case for sound as educational systems (2011), questions the ‘scant study of sound in educational contexts either in or out of schools, other than as a distraction to learning.’ (2011: 67). In contrast, Gershon has used what he describes as ‘sonic cartography’ to explore ideas of race and place within the urban school classroom (2003) and more generally argues that an attention to the sociocultural character of sound provides us with insights into the construction of values in educational settings and the nature of meaning itself (2011).
My own education research (investigating meaning-making around assessment) hears Gershon’s call for greater attention to sound as a means of inquiry around learning. Alongside the collection of field recordings in and around the classroom, I have collaborated with students in the creation of music playlists that accompany or inspire their work, and am gradually piecing together an interactive sound map that reflects how epistemology is enacted in the American History and Architectural Design courses that represent my field sites. More recently I have been thinking about whether I can produce sonic artefacts as a way of communicating some of the rituals and meaning-making practices that I have heard, seen and been told about within the dominant learning spaces of these two courses. Rather than simply writing about my experiences (with the associated problems of translating sounds into words) or re-playing recordings, I have been selecting and repackaging this sonic material, considered in the light of my wider research, in order to make arguments about the nature of meaning-making in different educational setting.
There is a precedent for this approach - what we might call the critical manipulation of sonic research material - in Steven Feld’s influential work around acoustemology where he proposes a ‘a union of acoustics and epistemology’ that seeks to ‘investigate the primacy of sound as a modality of knowing and being in the world’ (2003: 226). Rejecting the tendency within ethnography to view sound as supplementary to the serious business of writing-up in monograph-form, Feld produces, manipulates and then releases sound recordings as a way of asking questions and conveying the ‘sense of intimacy and spontaneity and contact between recordist and recorded, between listener and sounds.’ (Feld & Brenneis 2004: 465). The case for this approach is further made within sound studies by Bruyninckx where he adapts Latour’s (1986) belief in the immutability and mobility of inscriptions (1986) to argue that a scientific approach to working with sound should allow the researcher to ‘dominate’ sonic material through cutting-up, recombining and superimposing what was collected (2012:143). As long as the sound recording can never accurately reproduce what was heard in the field (see amongst others Gallagher 2016 and Sterne 2006), we should take advantage of this detachment, Bruyninckx suggests, to meaningfully re-work the gathered sonic material. There are echoes in this work of speculative methodology which encourages imaginative approaches to social research in order to account for the complex and open-ended nature of our lived world. The remixing and repackaging of sonic material resonates with the creative capacity of speculative research (Ross 2016) as well as its interest in nuance and the unhinged rituals of everyday life (Michael 2017) over reproducibility and generalisability that dominates social research. Furthermore, the digital reworking of recorded sonic content, with the purpose of exploring and explicating ideas through research material and activity, is in tune with Ross & Collier’s (2016) call for methods that reflect the increasingly digitally-mediated nature of society.
Combining the interests of speculative research and sonic artefacts as method, I have produced a sonic artefact for each of the American History and Architectural Design courses, primarily drawing on the dominant teaching and learning spaces of each course. Working through my field recordings and field notes, and influenced by ideas that emerged from observing, interviewing and photographing students and tutors across two semesters, each artefact talks about the nature of meaning-making in the corresponding course. The selection, configuration and prominence of the different phenomena (explained in the short commentaries below) are my attempt to use sound to explore and convey ideas around hierarchy, materiality, epistemology and pedagogy that reflect the broader interests of my research. What the artefacts do not attempt is a complete or accurate recording of what takes place in each learning space: the possibility of producing this type of record is challenged by the way that we each hear what we want to hear (Augoyard & Torgue 2005), that sound alters in response to the shifting presence of human and non-human bodies within any setting (Gallagher 2016) and the manner in which devices for recording and re-playing sounds deconstruct, filter and then repackage what is heard in the moment (Sterne 2006).
Sonic adventures in American History
This artefact is made up almost entirely of sounds recorded in (and around) the two lecture theatres and tutorial rooms where teaching was delivered across two semesters. The only exception is a short piece of conversation from a tutor’s ‘office hours’ that took place in a cafe adjoining the History department. Human voice - and more specifically that of the four lecturers and their tutor colleague - dominate this artefact, reflecting how classroom pedagogy depended heavily on a predominantly one-way communication of Historical knowledge. We briefly hear students discussing course content and an upcoming coursework essay (within a tutorial exercise; during office hours) however for the most part the presence of students is audibly present through typing, coughing, shuffling of paper, shuffling into class, and so on. At other times we can vaguely make out the sound of informal chatter as students wait outside the lecture theatre ahead of the scheduled start time: this period of anticipation or hiatus reflects the highly structured nature of the American History course. That we can hear the sound of students producing notes using word processor software (the clicking of keyboards) and also by hand (the zip of a pencil case opening, a fresh page being torn out of an A4 pad) reflects the different approaches I heard and observed during class. The audible contrast between keyboard composition and the more conventional technologies of rollerball pen and refill pad point us towards the varying literacy and meaning-making practices with a body of learners who are often lazily assigned the status of being entirely devoted to digital interests and rituals. Beyond the varying digital literacy practices of students, this sonic artefact makes three suggestions about the nature of meaning-making within the American History class: the communication of a body of Historical knowledge; the hierarchical authority of the lecturer, and; the heavy privileging of language (spoken, written, typed).
Sonic adventures in Architectural Design
The artefact for Architectural Design comprises field recordings from the design studio, exhibition gallery, lecture theatre, print room, crit room and site visit. For the most part however, we hear sounds from the design studio, reflecting its dominance as the space where students and tutors would congregate, and where students for the most part preferred to work. The artefact also captures the conversational nature of teaching and learning: a group tutorial; a one-to-one discussion between student and tutor; a group of students sharing ideas and offering each other feedback. The conversation does veer away from the subject of Architectural Design, however, as we hear students making chatting informally, laughing and generally enacting a sense of social amiability. Returning to the design-work-in-hand, there is the sound of constructing knowledge through technology (typing instructions into design software), paper (the rustling of posters) and other physical materials (sanding a block of wood), thereby reflecting the varied ways that meaning is constructed and conveyed within Architectural Design. We briefly hear music, on this occasion played through laptop speakers but more typically through earphones, when students wanted to enter an ‘auditory bubble’ (Bull 2005: 344) that would exclude the competing actions and distractions of those around them. The pedagogical approach in the Architectural Design course also placed importance on students explaining their work to an audience of peers and tutors, through a multimodal orchestration of voice, gesture, models and visual work: this can be heard in the sound of students presenting their plans-in-progress.
If these artefacts immediately lack the coherence or order of more conventional approaches to communicating scholarship, they should heard in the context of John Law’s work around mess in social research. The fluctuating and occasionally jarring assemblage of sounds surely reflects the untidy reality of our world (and educational practices and spaces). The awkward orchestration of academic content, coughing and construction work penetrating the classroom alerts us to the minutiae that, according to Fenwick et al. (2011) have so often been overlooked in educational research, where inquiry privileges what Fox & Alldred (2017) describe as a ‘what works’ agenda, driven by a desire for outcomes and learning gains, over the complex reality of what takes place within learning events. What the different artefacts do not offer is a complete representation of the meaning-making that takes place across the two courses, only the work which happens in the major teaching spaces. It became clear in conversation and interview, as well as in the ‘digital postcards’ they sent me, that beyond the learning activities represented above, students would write and read, design and research, in a diverse range of settings. Assuming it was possible to gain regular access to these often private and occasionally impromptu study spaces, an alternative and more extensive sonic exercise might seek to account for learning that took place in the cafe, jazz bar, bedroom, train, plane, street and other settings that students described. Taking the example of the American History class, an attention to activities beyond the classroom would reveal how students use the body of knowledge communicated by tutors, demonstrated during other parts of my research, including the days I spent shadowing students in the lead-up to an essay deadline. A further limitation of this approach is that while I think the artefacts feature almost everything significant that took place in the different teaching and learning settings, the use of PowerPoint technology in American History lectures, and the consumption of food and drink in the Architectural Design studio, which were prominent in the visual research material I collected, do not register in my sound recordings and therefore do not feature in the pieces presented here. Therefore where the case is made for sonic methods in social research, this perhaps need to exist in conjunction with an attention to other sensory material in order to recognise that ‘regardless of how they are conceptualized, the senses are utilized in concert with one another’ (Gershon 2011:78). In justifying my own approach, the creation of the sonic artefacts presented here has been shaped by what I wrote, photographed, read and was told, as well as what I heard around the lecture theatre, tutorial room, design studio and beyond.
From design studio to lecture theatre
Finally, as my research is undertaking a comparative analysis of meaning-making across the two courses, I produced a third artefact that brings the two sonic pieces together. Assigning the sounds of the Architectural Design course to the left audio channel and American History the right channel, aural attention shifts over the course of one minute. The unexpected value of this third artefact is that it emphasises the shifting level of formality and student voice between the Architectural Design and American History courses in a way that was less apparent when listening to the individual sound pieces in isolation. More generally, listening to the different courses without interruption emphasises the contrast between the calmness, order and structure of the learning that took place in the lecture theatre, with the more erratic and creative energy of the design studio. In this way the configuration of each sound clip broadly exposes the nature of meaning-making in the two courses, something I am writing about elsewhere. At the same time this artefact reminds us that there are qualities and rituals that transcend disciplinary boundaries: the sound of students at work persists across the combined artefact, even if differently represented through sound. Further, in each case the learning that takes place is interspersed or accompanied by interests and activities beyond the immediate purpose of the Architectural or Historical project: air conditioning, passing cars and chairs; social media notifications, shuffling feet and the slamming shut of desks at the end of class.
Speculative Research feat. Slick Rick
Processing sound for research
The sonic spaces of online students
Edinburgh University’s Festival of Creative Learning sets out to explore innovative, imaginative and collaborative approaches to teaching. The focus of the Festival is a concerted and creative week of experimental learning activities between 19 and 23 February 2018, supported by pop-up events across the year. My contribution to the Festival, alongside my colleague Michael Gallagher, will comprise a series of provocations delivered via mobile messaging on what the future of distributed (and digital) education will be for the University.
We sketched out the idea for this event in September as we orchestrated a digitally-affected excursion through Bremen. Working in groups, conference delegates navigated their way through the city - and through a series of critical and physical prompts - mediated via their smartphones. Looking forward to the Festival of Creative Learning in February, we are re-thinking distance and location as we look to broaden our activity from a single city-centre to instead encompass participation across different continents. Alongside students and staff from Easter Bush, King’s Buildings and the Central Campus of the University, our event will aim to attract participants from much further afield.
One of the arguments that Michael and I will make through our distributed activity is that within an increasingly networked world, mobile technologies can dissolve classroom walls and campus boundaries, as students and tutors in different locations are able to simultaneously and affectively participate in learning events. For the duration of an hour, students and staff in Edinburgh and elsewhere will simultaneously engage in conversation and activities, via their mobile devices, that encourage reflection on the future of education within increasingly digital environments.
If my use of ‘Edinburgh and elsewhere’ would seem to de-privilege those students who engage with the university at a distance, this is simply because Michael and I have yet to spread the word about our event and therefore do not know where participants will be contributing from. One of most important features of our activity will be to challenge the distinction between ‘campus students’ and ‘distance students’ and the corresponding ‘othering’ of education that takes place beyond the bricks and mortar of the university campus, something that Michael and I explored with our colleague Sian Bayne in our work around the social topologies of distance students.
To be clear, we are not arguing that a university’s real estate is insignificant either to students who regularly cross the campus threshold or those who view or imagine it from afar. With this in mind, as the event takes place Michael and I will be in the David Hume Tower cafe on campus, attempting to live mix and broadcast images and sounds generated from the exercise. If it goes to plan it could look and sound something like this:
Our event for Friday 23 February 2018 at 13.00 (Edinburgh time). If you are interested in participating or learning more about what we have in mind, please get in touch with Michael who will be glad to hear from you.
Bayne, S., Gallagher, M. and Lamb, J. (2013) Being ‘at’ University: the social topologies of distance students. Higher Education. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-013-9662-4
Bremen: Multimodality and Mobile Learning
The Sonic Spaces of Online Students
Away from the University
Earlier this afternoon I contributed to a Digital Transformation of Creative Industries conference here at Edinburgh University, which featured stellar presentations covering different aspects of digital culture and technology: sound, labour, heritage, journalism and beyond. Starting from the position that Architecture is one of the creative industries, I drew on my doctoral research to ask what we might learn from the richly multimodal, creative and inter-disciplinary approaches and conditions that exist around Architectural Design pedagogy. These are my slides:
...and this is an approximation of what I said:
Great to be a part of these conversations around the digital transformation of the creative industries.
In between my record player and CD rack sits a small stack of research methods books offering advice on data collection, analytical frameworks, ethical considerations and beyond. Over the past few months I have spent a fair bit of time looking through these texts in the hope of discovering a methodological approach to suit my research interests and to match the range of material produced through my ethnographic study of meaning-making in American History and Architectural Design. How, for instance, to deal with the presence of music in my photos, field recordings and conversations with students and tutors?
During my observation of the Architectural Design course last autumn I became aware that at some point each day every student would put on a set of headphones, thereby replacing the varied and often chaotic aural ambience of the design studio with a more personal, controlled and musical soundtrack. Interested in what the students were listening to and why, I asked them to help me compile a playlist. Using a submission form on my website, students told me how the likes of Slick Rick helped them through a long day in the studio.
At that time I didn’t anticipate that the playlist exercise would be anything other than a brief mention in my thesis, however I'm beginning to think this type of approach has more to offer than I originally thought. Unable to find a tidy neat-and-tidy solution for dealing with my data, I have been looking at alternative ways of approaching method, starting with John Law's argument that research should embrace and interrogate mess and complexity, in place of a desire to impose clarity and order on a world that is unpredictable and avoids straightforward categorisation. Law rejects the conventional wisdom of a ‘healthy research style’ (2004, p 9) that depends on clarity and complementarity, instead recognising the existence of multiple realities and the researcher's role in co-constructing or performing these realities. From there I looked at Fox and Alldred’s ideas around new materialist social inquiry (2014) where (like Law before them) they use Deleuze & Guattari's (1998) concept of assemblage (or ‘agencement’) alongside Braidotti's (2013) work in posthumanism in order to propose a methodological framework which attends to the de-privileging of human agency and which looks to the way that the world is produced through assemblage of the animate and inanimate (2015, p 399).
These ideas of messy research and sociomaterial inquiry led me in turn to recent work by Mike Michael (2016) and Jen Ross (2017) which makes the case for speculative methods in social research. Both Michael and Ross confront the tendency within social inquiry towards a ‘what works’ approach which neglects the messiness and peculiarities of real life in favour of scale, generalisability and reproducibility. In contrast, speculative method encourages imagination, experimentation and risk in order to address the specific questions posed by networked society. Ross in particular argues that we need to make room for creative and participatory approaches in order to interrogate our complex and open-ended world. Therefore with a new perspective on what can represent research material, I have just put together a playlist for the American History course to sit alongside the earlier compilation from Architectural Design. The playlist draws together pieces of music that featured in the digital postcards of learning space that students produced for me, as well as songs and groups mentioned during interview and conversation and listed within Spotify and YouTube playlists that some of the group shared with me.
If these playlists represent an imaginative and participatory way of producing research material, music already features in ethnographic research in a range of ways, from Sterne’s discussion of the mp3 as a cultural artifact (2006), to Bull’s work around the iPod and mobile listening culture (2005), and then to Makagon and Neumann’s conversation around writing and recording culture (2009), and beyond. More generally there is the field of ethnomusicology which studies music from the social and cultural perspective of those who produce it, while my specific interest in the playlist as an ethnographic artefact is shared by Jacob Nerenberg in the Ethnography Lab at the University of Toronto, even if I have been unable to find out much about his work as yet. All the same, in the spirit of a music artist acknowledging their roots, the following questions that I am now asking through my research owe a debt to speculative research.
So then, Speculative Research feat. Slick Rick.
The Sonic Spaces of Online students
Anti-noise: a playlist for PhD research
I am an ESRC-funded Doctoral student in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.