LEARNING SPACES / DIGITAL EDUCATION / MULTIMODALITY / SOUND
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
The 70th Scottish International Storytelling Festival, happening in Edinburgh just now, takes as its theme the idea that the traditional art of storytelling is more vital than ever in connecting people across geography, generations and cultures. I am really glad to be making a small contribution to the festival, as part of an event at Edinburgh University with the focus on stories of life and learning. Later today I will ask whether multimodal assessment has the potential to support the learning and recognise the talents of refugee and forced migrant students.
Drawing on three case studies - stories of transformative multimodal assessment - I will describe how learners from backgrounds of educational disadvantage benefited from the design and delivery of assessment tasks that took account of digital literacies, access to technology, social practices and the wider life situations and educational histories of students. This includes work by Archer (2015), Newfield et al. (2003) and Stornaiuolo et al. (2009) - references below. This, roughly speaking, is how I will be telling these stories in my presentation later today.
I am grateful to Elisabetta Adami from the Centre for Translation Studies at the Universities for kindly offering feedback on an earlier version of this presentation.
A short report on the walking activity that I delivered with Michael Gallagher last week, our contribution to the 3rd Bremen Conference on Multimodality. Through this 'paper-as-performance' Michael and I sought to make the case for the theoretical and methodological compatibility of multimodality and mobile learning, for instance as a way of investigating our urban surroundings. We also wanted to raise questions about the complex relationship between researcher and the digital, and how this might affect work within multimodality. You can read the background to our exercise on this project site, including a theoretical rationale which explains for instance why Smartphones and the Telegram app were central to the experience.
We can't control the weather: surveying the skies above our meeting point ahead of the excursion.
Despite rain directly beforehand, as well as a full day of conference activity, 19 colleagues assembled at Bremen's main train station to participate in the excursion. Michael and I were really glad that so many people wanted to take part in the walk, bearing in mind the inclement weather, fatigue and Bremen's competing evening attractions. Perhaps some of the enthusiasm we saw for the activity is reflected in the format of the exercise, explained in the invitation written into our conference abstract:
Rather than re-tracing what took place during the excursion I am instead making a record here of some of the key ideas that I will take away from the experience. This following points build on feedback we received after the excursion, as well as subsequent conversations between Michael and myself in the following days.
Perhaps more than anything though, what Michael and I were most excited about in the days following the excursion in Bremen was the potential for this type of digitally distributed mobile learning to be adapted to suit a range of different learning settings. When Michael and I first undertook one of these excursions in January 2015, alongside our colleague Jeremy Knox, we were foremost interested in the walking exercise as an approach that could be adopted in a range of different educational contexts. Looking back at our excursion through Bremen, I think we are getting close to where we wanted to reach.
We wish to thank Andrew Kirk, Cinzia Pusceddu-Gangarosa (both University of Edinburgh) and Ania Rolinska (University of Glasgow) for pavement-testing earlier versions of the activity described here. Meanwhile Jana Pflaeging (Universitat Bremen) enthusiastically supported our plan to deliver this activity as part of the 3rd Bremen Conference on Multimodality.
Dialogue in the Dark
Wondering about the city: making meaning in Edinburgh's Old Town
Dérive in Amsterdam
Briefly in Hamburg, travelling back from the 3rd Bremen Conference on Multimodality last week. I spent the day visiting museums in Hamburg's Speicherstadt, including the Dialog im Dunkeln attraction where, according to my tourist leaflet, there would be the chance to 'embark on a journey into total darkness' in order to 'learn the experience of everyday situations in life, without your sense of sight'. Although uncertain whether my absence of German language ability made this a good proposition, I paid the €21 entry fee: after all, it seemed to neatly fit some of the ideas we had recently been exploring in Bremen.
I needn't have worried about my lack of language skills as the tour was expertly delivered in German and English by Bjorn, our guide. As Bjorn would explain during the journey, he has been blind since birth "because of a problem during incubation" and therefore has no sense of what it would be like to live with sight. He is a 29-year old music student, works part-time in Dialog im Dunkeln and has a wicked sense of humour.
After a brief introduction where we were provided with white canes and a very brief outline of what would follow, our party of eight (comprising two German families and myself) entered a world of complete darkness for the following 90 minutes (even if we had no sense of time, having been asked to place mobile phones and "any other shiny items" in lockers before hand). We moved through a curtain and made slow, awkward steps into a world of black. For the first while I wasn't sure whether to keep my eyes open and found myself instinctively looking around as I tried to get a sense of my surroundings.
In the absence of sight we used Bjorn's voice - its assumed location and his clear instructions - to guide our path through a range of different environments. In each part of the tour the absence of sight drew attention to the way that we - and permanently blind members of our society - use other of the senses to understand their surroundings. Birdsong and the softness of the ground beneath our feet suggested our location within a park; gentle sideways rocking and the lapping sound of water accompanied our short tour around Hamburg's harbour, with Bjorn as the captain of our boat 'The Blindfish'; we used the sloping kerb and distinctive sonic-clicking of a pedestrian crossing to navigate a safe path through traffic.
The only part of the journey that didn't work for me was when we stopped to listen to an 8-minute piece of music that was accompanied by an invitation to focus on the images that it conjured. This appealed much less than thinking about how I had already been creating vivid pictures during our journey as I drew on on my existing life experiences to picture what was in the different spaces. This in turn led me to consider how the journey through darkness resonated with some of the ideas that had been put forward within our discussions around multimodality in Bremen. During the multimodal walking excursion that Michael Gallagher and I had delivered in place of a conventional conference paper, participants were asked to spend a few minutes without speaking to their fellow group members. This short exercise adapted the 'clean ear' games of the acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer, that seek to emphasise the variety of heard phenomena we encounter, for instance by closing our eyes and attempting to foreground the aural. The activity presented by Michael and I differed in the respect that, by temporarily silencing spoken conversation, we wanted participants to recognise the broad range of meaning making phenomena that shape how we make sense of our surroundings (rather than focusing on the aural character of the street in particular). As a participant in Bjorn's exercise, I now recognised how my own meaning-making-without-sight was shaped by sound, movement, touch, smell and other sensory phenomena.
A basic principle of multimodality is an openness to all the resources that have the potential to convey meaning. A second conceptual assumption is that all communicational and representational acts depend on more than one form of semiotic resource or 'mode'. Third, multimodality depends on the belief that the way we construct meaning is shaped by the way that these different resources come together in the moment. Continuing to ignore the ambient-folk soundtrack, I recognised how in each of the different settings - including those described above - I had made sense of my surroundings through a combination of sensory material. This was perhaps most evident when our journey visited a market and we sought to identify the wares on sale through touch combined with the distinctive aroma of particular fruit and vegetables: apples, oranges, cauliflower (I think).
Although I didn't think about it at the time, looking back over the subject matter of the Bremen multimodality conference, there was a strong emphasis upon what is seen within multimodal resources and representation. This would seem to make natural sense in what is described as an increasingly visually-mediated world. At the same time though, Dialog im Dunkeln makes a strong case that we shouldn't neglect the other material that helps us to make make sense of our world, whether it can be seen or not.
This being Germany, our tour concluded in a bar where (still in entire darkness) we drank coffee, coke or beer and reflected on our experiences. Before that though there was the practical and sensory challenge of attempting to judge the value of the coins in our pockets through weight, shape and size, before passing them to Bjorn, now in the guise of barman. As we stood at the bar Bjorn told us that he had recently returned from Birmingham where he had been delivering a training workshop for teachers working in a blind school. In reply I told Bjorn that each day I pass Edinburgh's own blind school, and that I was glad to now have a better appreciation of how the students there make sense of a world that we share, but they cannot see. In more ways than one, this journey into darkness had been enlightening.
Multimodality and mobile learning in Bremen
Processing sound for research
Here are my slides from the Interweaving Conference at Edinburgh University earlier today (6 September 2017). I was presenting on the relationship between multimodality and assessment within increasingly digital learning environments and society more generally.
The central argument of my research was that, contrary to the tendency within the literature to conceptualise multimodal assessment as being new, experimental or unconventional, this position might extend only as far as the boundaries of our own classrooms or disciplines.
The literature that takes a specific interest in multimodality and summative assessment is dominated by those researching or working within what we might describe as ‘language-based’ courses and contexts: primary education literacy, secondary-level English, higher education Humanities; composition classes within US colleges and universities. Presumably this is because these are the subjects and disciplines that are most unsettled by the growing propensity towards richly multimodal ways of constructing and communicating meaning, prompted by the growing presence of digital devices, learning spaces and pedagogies in higher education.
Drawing on my ethnographic study of meaning-making around assessment within an undergraduate architecture programme, I argued that multimodal assessment could be supported by what we might see as firmly established examples of ‘best practice’ around assessment feedback. If this seems a far from ground-breaking observation, it is worth noting that in the considerable body of literature that investigates the relationship between multimodality and assessment, including instances that have examined the introduction of richly multimodal assignments in place of the essayistic form, there are scant references to highly cited work around assessment and feedback. Similarly, there are few examples of researchers, course designers or tutors looking to the work of academic colleagues who are already immersed in multimodal teaching, learning and assessment.
The Interweaving Conference set out to bring together the broad range of research and researchers working in education at Edinburgh University. In line with the interdisciplinary interest of the conference, I concluded my presentation by suggesting that in those situations where we look to introduce richly multimodal assessment to accompany or augment existing essayistic approaches, we might wish to travel beyond the boundaries of own disciplines - and the walls of our classrooms - to look at interesting and firmly-established strategies around assessment and feedback.
Visual and Multimodal Forum at the UCL Knowledge Lab
Assessment, feedback and multimodality in Architectural Design
Architecture, multimodality and the ethnographic monograph
I have a choice of two buses that I can take into the School of Education. The 5 is most direct while the 23 follows a prettier and more interesting route through the city. Stepping off the 23 on George IV Bridge I take a right onto the Royal Mile and follow a historic path down to the University.
Turning right onto the Royal Mile this morning
Seen on old maps of Edinburgh, the Royal Mile resembles the skeleton of a fish: a central spine from which extend hundreds of fishbones denoting the narrow closes that were once a vital part of the city’s life and character. Nowadays there are fewer closes, however they remain an intriguing although easily overlooked part of this deeply historic thoroughfare.
Despite having walked this central part of the Royal Mile hundreds of times I continue to encounter closes for the first time as I wander down to the university. If there is a tendency to overlook some of these closes then perhaps they also represent a missed opportunity in the city’s current life. This is the view taken by the Open Close Project which describes itself as 'an experimental art installation project using sound, light, sculpture, design and visual arts to temporarily re-imagine four of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile closes, transforming them into a sensory open-air gallery.' I've recently been reading Kate McLean's work around sensory maps so was interested to find out what was taking place across the four closes providing a temporary urban canvas for the Open Close Project.
Following my normal routine this morning I took the 23 and stepped off at the usual place. On this occasion though I interrupted my walk down the Royal Mile to visit Carrubbers Close, one of the sites that features in the Open Close project. Walking the length of the close I made sound recordings (extractor fans, passing conversation of office workers, the rattle of case wheels going down steps, drinks being delivered to a hotel) and took photographs (graffiti, signage, brickwork and so on). I've pulled together the gathered images and sounds into this one-minute video:
The video captures Carrubbers Close at a particular moment in time: alongside some of its more permanent fixtures and fittings can be seen a pop-up exhibition of work from the Edinburgh Art Festival which in turn points towards the life that these particular spaces can enjoy. At the same time the video inevitably represents an incomplete record of what I experienced, through the inability of my camera and field recorder to capture some of the sensory phenomena I encountered. Whilst accepting that synaesthesia might allow the viewer to perceive some of the sensory qualities of Carrubbers Close through what is seen and heard, the video isn't able to adequately represent the hardness of the floor or the temperature of the air, even if the images and sounds might be suggestive of the same. That said, in this instance I'm actually fine with the inability of digital devices, as yet, to reproduce the distinct odours rising from the pavement and escaping from public houses I experienced whilst taking photos and making field recordings earlier today. All the same, I like the idea that short videos like this can draw attention to these fascinating and overlooked parts of city, even if I'm not about to take the project on myself.
Over the past three months I have been interviewing students and tutors from an undergraduate History course as I have sought to understand how meaning-making around assessment is affected by the pedagogic and societal shift to the digital. One of the subjects that we discussed - often introduced as a topic of conversation by interview participants themselves - concerned the forthcoming roll-out of lecture recording technology here at Edinburgh University. With the consent of interview participants (comprising five students and five tutors, represented here using pseudonyms) I have reproduced and reflected upon some of the insights they shared. I make no claim to generalisability and what follows reflects the broader interest of my Doctoral research, pointing towards our complex relationship with digital resources.
To begin, the interviewed students broadly saw lecture recording technology as a positive development, predominantly as a resource to return to after class. Suggested benefits included the possibility of revisiting complex ideas that had been covered during the lecture, or particular points where it hadn’t been possible to capture the detail put across by a lecturer. The availability of lectures on video was seen by one student as a "safety blanket" with others welcoming the way it would compensate for the occasions across the semester where illness prevented them from attending class. Several students pointed towards the value of lecture recording as a revision tool, enabling them to look back over lecture content some time after the classes had taken place. Meanwhile two of the students I spoke to also felt it would enhance the lecture experience itself as they would be able to spend more time thinking about what the lecturer was saying, rather than attempting to take notes.
For their part tutors were overall less certain of the benefits that lecture recording would bring, whilst simultaneously recognising its inevitably. Questions were raised around whether it represented the best use of resources, how it might affect the natural rhythm of a course and most commonly, whether it would really support exam revision in some of the same ways that students had suggested:
Rather than positively contributing towards exam revision, some tutors instead suggested that any benefit was more likely to come from the (continued) support of students with learning adjustments, as well as those members of the class who had a first language other than English. Students who missed or misheard part of the tutor's oral delivery would have the benefit or re-watching the corresponding part of the lecture after class, it was suggested.
While all five students that I spoke to broadly welcomed the roll-out of lecture-recording, this was accompanied by a sense of unease around some of its potential effects. A common thread across the interviews was that the convenience of watching video recordings of lectures would make the prospect of attending class less attractive. Lectures most at risk of dwindling attendance would be those taking place at the beginning of the day, those within courses that didn’t use exam assessment and, more bluntly, where the subject matter or its delivery was less than inspiring. For the most part these observations were made in relation to other students, rather than interviewees themselves. In fact, in contradiction to the current tendency to suggest that the conventional lecture has run its course, the students I spoke to were overwhelmingly positive about the lecture as a teaching method, pointing for instance to the enjoyment of watching highly skilled teachers, the structure that it lent to their pattern of study and, from a mental health perspective, as a way of getting them out of the house. Even if lecture attendance might lose out to the occasional lie-in, it remained a vital part of the university experience:
Adopting a position similar to that of their undergraduates, several of the tutors I interviewed felt that as long as the subject matter was interesting and delivered in an interesting way, most students would still prefer to attend lectures. At the same time there was an acknowledgement that attendance already tends to decline across the semester - and that some courses already give clear evidence of students "voting with their feet", as one tutor described it. What didn’t arise in conversation, but would be fascinating to observe next semester, is whether students with previously poor attendance might access more lecture content through the convenience of it being available online? Meanwhile, a further insight which would seem to reflect the neo-liberalisation of higher education, came from a student who suggested that as long as he was paying thousands of pounds in course fees he, rather than the university, had the right to decide whether it was preferable to attend lectures or to watch their recorded equivalent.
Amongst the tutors more concerned about declining attendance there was a question over whether a video recording of a lecture represented a diluted version of what takes place in class. Reminding us that an effective lecture is more than the oral dissemination of content, one tutor pointed to the way that eye contact, conversation and physical movement towards the audience were aspects of the learning experience that would be lost on those viewing a video recording of the lecture. Furthermore, drawing on the experience of teaching on a MOOC, a tutor described the problem of teaching in the absence of the visual cues and other subtle forms of feedback that enhanced his delivery. Thinking about conceptual work around multimodality where it is argued that every communicational act depends on a range of different semiotic content (Jewitt 2009, Kress 2010), it is interesting to consider how the particular configuration of resources within the classroom lecture compares with a video-mediated equivalent (and how in turn this impacts upon knowledge-construction). For instance, how would the absence of eye contact and physical proximity to the lecturer affect interpretations of meaning around a video recording of a lecture?
Looking beyond the practice of delivery the lecture, all of the tutors I spoke to suggested that the content of their slides would need to adapt to recognise that they more explicitly had a life beyond the classroom. This wasn’t necessarily seen as a negative consequence of lecture recording: on the contrary a number of tutors admitted that in future they would pay closer attention to issues of copyright around the use of images. Potentially more problematic according to one tutor was the way that a video seen outside the setting of the lecture class might not convey nuance, potentially leading to misunderstandings and other consequences. The consensus across tutors however was that their approach to delivering lectures would not change in any great way. Several tutors pointed to the historical longevity of the lecture and its efficiency as a medium for reaching large numbers of students in a way that seemed to be positively received (a view supported by the students I spoke to). The overall sense I got from tutors was that, irrespective of the proposed benefits or possible problems attached to the roll-out of lecture recording, it wouldn’t dramatically affect their approach or indeed what takes place in the classroom.
If the classroom experience might largely remain the same, it is interesting to further consider how the experience of viewing a lecture recording might differ from being present in the classroom. It is instructive for instance to look at work by Dicks et al (2006) where they investigated the relative abilities of digital media to record events. While video is able to record moving image and sound, Dicks et al. helpfully remind us that it still offers a selective visual representation of the lecture, dependent upon the positioning and gaze of the camera. Without suggesting this would necessarily be a drawback, the experience of watching a video recording would exclude a panoramic sense of what is taking place in the lecture. Still with an interest in the character of digital recording technologies, it is also worth considering how the experience of viewing the video recording would be subject to the particular capabilities of the computer, tablet or smartphone that it is viewed upon. The visual culture scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff (2015) is amongst those who have drawn attention to the way that sophisticated sensors and code manipulate and reconstruct a digital representation of what is seen or heard. The question arises therefore as to how the exposition of meaning conveyed within a lecture is affected by the complex and concealed calculations that contribute to the way images and sounds are recorded and reproduced for later consumption in digital video form. Finally, without suggesting that the lecture setting is free from distraction (not least by the temptations of Facebook and internet shopping, as I have witnessed whilst observing the History course across two semesters), a number of the students I spoke to suggested that the classroom environment better enabled them to remain focused on the task in hand, compared to competing interests on or beyond the screen.
Thinking meanwhile about embodiment and sensory meaning-making (see for instance Pink 2009), the tactile, physical and corporeal experience of the lecture environment would inevitably be different from the cafe, student flat, library or wherever else a student might watch the video recording. If we accept that light, heat, temperature and touch contribute towards our disposition and therefore our learning, it is interesting to consider how meaning-making within an environment that is purpose-built for teaching might be different to watching a video recording in ostensibly social spaces.
As I wrote within the introduction to this post, my interest lies in the way that meaning-making is affected by the increasingly digital nature of higher education and society more generally. Lecture recording, as I have attempted to show here, is a single example of the complex relationship between student, tutor, subject and technology. In this instance I think it has also shown how vital and inspiring some of long-standing teaching traditions can be. While there was uncertainty expressed surrounding the impact of lecture recording technology, there will evidently continue to be a place for the skilled lecturer enthusiastically sharing his or her work with an interested and inquisitive audience.
How do students differently approach assessment?
The visual, multimodal History classroom
As part of my research investigating meaning-making around assessment I recently shadowed four undergraduate students as they worked on coursework assignments in American History and Architecture. This was part of a lengthier ethnographic study where, for two semesters, I observed and then interviewed the same students, alongside some of their classmates and tutors. These combined activities have provided me with a wealth of data to work through over the summer: thousands of photographs, hundreds of sound clips, countless pages of field notes and 20 interview recordings. As a precursor to the task of transcription, I have pulled together four short videos using images and sounds collected from the days I spent shadowing students: this has been my way of thinking about how I might analyse and present the wider range of gathered data.
When I came up with a plan to spend a single day observing students working on a coursework assignment, I didn’t fully take account of the way that the preparation of an essay (the assessment mode in the American History course) takes place in amongst competing academic activities, as well as others pursuits beyond that. In the case of Karen then, this meant observing her in two blocks rather than across a single day. The positive result here is that the contrasting settings of Karen's flat (where I spent four hours across an afternoon) and the main university library (an hour in-between lectures the following day) has usefully discouraged me from making assumptions about the 'typical' learning environment of a student. As the video shows, the tidy order of the library with its floor-to-ceiling light and clean lines juxtaposes sharply against the gloomy and ‘lived-in’ feel of the living room in Karen's shared student flat.
Whereas Karen actively introduced sound into her learning spaces (TV drama and reality shows playing on her laptop, listening to music on her earphones in the library), Will’s video reflects his attempts to find quiet space. As he explained to me over lunch whilst taking a break from essay-writing, he likes to work at the only desk in the New College Library that sits in isolation. Taking this further, the earphones Will can be seen wearing later in the video were used as a further barrier against the (already minimal) sound of movement and other activity in the library, not for listening to music. The New College Library is itself a place of studied calm: note the basket of ear plugs provided by thoughtful staff in order to reduce disruption caused by the sound of industrial machinery and conversation emanating from a nearby building site.
My observation of Beth took place entirely within the Architecture School, between 9.15am and 5.20pm. I knew from previous visits to the studio that Beth would often work much later, however on this occasion she’d had a long week and had an evening appointment with a Chinese takeaway, booked online during the course of the afternoon. I shadowed Beth on a Friday which meant that what took place was characterised by conversations with her tutor, who was present for the duration of each Friday across semester. Revisiting this data now after a three-month break, I’m struck by the way that the images and audio combine to present a sense of urgency and seriousness as the project deadline approached. I think this can be seen and heard in the tutor’s approach as she gives pointed advice (verbally and literally) on how Beth can make the most of her talents.
If the video of Beth is suggestive of a sedentary approach to the coursework assignment (at least on this particular day), Will was more inclined to movement around and beyond the Architecture School. Whereas Beth ventured as far as the print room in the basement, Will and I made a brisk stroll to the 3D printing room over at the College of Art and then visited the university sports centre where he went for lunchtime swim (not photographed). I should make clear that this isn’t an attempt to critique how Beth and Will went about their work (after all, even if there was a single 'correct' way of executing the design project, I wouldn't be qualified to make that judgement). What the videos do show however is that on an single day, and whilst addressing the same assignment task, students work in quite different ways. If this would seem to be a far from profound observation, my response would be that in the twenty-plus years I've spent working in higher education I have often listened to the ways that students are often neatly and narrow (but necessarily negative) described, ignoring the nuance that is shown in the videos presented above.
Looking beyond what the videos may have to say about the way that students differently approach assessment - and I’m really just scratching the surface with my immediate observations here - from a methodological perspective, the inclusion of sound really seems to add to the overall effect. The media scholar Jonathan Sterne has argued that, even if it isn't a new focus for research, critical work around sound is increasingly coming to the fore (2012). This has been helped by Sterne's own work, as well as that by Schafer around soundscape studies (1994) and Labelle's interest in acoustic territories (2010), amongst others. Nevertheless, within education research there continues to be a heavy privileging of the visual over the aural, reflected I would argue in the research that takes place around learning spaces.
To offer a single example of the value of using sound recordings within research I'm going to draw on an idea I heard described by Martin Parker here at Edinburgh University. As I attempted to capture the tutorial conversation between Will and his tutor in the Architecture studio, the audio recording device was ambivalent to my interest which meant that it picked up the discussion as part of a wider aural assemblage of laughter, movement and other activity unfolding around us in the architecture studio. The wider context of this tutorial conversation was hidden from my photographs and was inadequately recognised in my field notes. As I consider how to transcribe and analyse my gathered data, it feels like sound needs to be considered alongside the thousands of photographs and words I’ve collected over the last year.
The sonic spaces of online students
Sociomaterial entanglement in the Architecture studio
Digital sociomaterial journaling
Content shared with the permission of featured students and tutors.
'Karen' is a pseudonym used in place of the student's real name.
I am a Teaching Fellow in Digital Education, within the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.