LEARNING SPACES / DIGITAL EDUCATION / MULTIMODALITY / SOUND
Some pictures from the last few weeks, captured using the camera 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.