DIGITAL EDUCATION, MULTIMODALITY, LEARNING SPACES
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 neither have I sought to evaluate the merit of lecture recording technology. Instead, reflecting the broader interest of my Doctoral research, what follows points towards the complexity of the relationship we enjoy with digital technologies, as well as the ways that their (potential) usage is differently conceptualised amongst groups of students or colleagues who would seem to have a great deal in common.
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, as education looked to respond to some of the technological advances taking place across society . 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, it was suggested, 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 in some quarters 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
Taking a few moments here to talk about my ongoing - and evolving - research around assessment practice. Over time the interest of my PhD has broadened from the phenomenon of digital multimodal assessment to also ask questions more generally about the way that assessment practice in the Humanities is affected by the societal and pedagogical shift to the digital. In particular I am interested in investigating how:
In relation to the third of these lines of inquiry, I am particularly drawn towards sociomateriality's attention to the way that meaning emerges from a broader range of influences, opportunities, limitations and pressures beyond human interest and action. I think this is neatly captured by Fenwick, Sawchuk and Edwards when they propose that sociomaterial research looks to take account of:
In this way assessment feels less like a transaction between student and tutor, or a measure of academic performance, and much more like an assemblage of the seen and unseen, the human and machine, and beyond. As such, sociomateriality (supported by critical posthumanism) has had the effect of lifting my conceptual gaze from the ways that knowledge is conveyed and interpreted, to also take into account what previously seemed peripheral (or invisible or irrelevant) to assessment. This in turn has meant extending my ethnographic fieldwork where I have been observing students and tutors from undergraduate courses in Architecture and History. I have continued to investigate what takes place in the lecture theatre, studio, meeting room, corridor and canteen: at the same time though I have taken two further approaches in order to get a better sense of the resources and restrictions that influence the preparation of a piece of a coursework, whilst also investigating how digital literacy practices are enacted beyond what I was able to observe in class and around campus.
For the time being I am referring to this method as ‘digital sociomaterial journaling’, thereby acknowledging how my approach is influenced by Gourlay and Oliver’s recent proposal of longitudinal multimodal journaling (2016). Combining ethnographic approaches with an interest in sociomateriality and New Literacy Studies, Gourlay and Oliver describe research where they gathered journaling data in order to investigate the digital engagement of a group of postgraduate students. Amongst other methods, participants were provided with iPod Touch devices in order to gather data that would ‘document their day-to-day practices with texts and technologies in a range of settings’ (2016: 302), thereby offering insights into their digital literacy practices.
As well as drawing inspiration from Gourlay and Oliver’s work, I have looked to some of my own earlier research where, along with my colleagues Sian Bayne and Michael Gallagher, we used the elicitation of 'digital multimodal postcards’ alongside semi-structured interviews to investigate how online distance students understand and enact their university, and how they construct space for learning (Bayne, Gallagher & Lamb 2013; Gallagher, Lamb & Bayne 2016). Here then is how these different methodologies have shaped my current research.
Inviting students to record their surroundings as they work on an assignment
For a period of approximately one week in the lead up to a recent essay deadline, five students from the American History course were asked to ‘record their surroundings' on every occasion they worked on the assignment. This included taking a photograph, making a one-minute ambient sound recording, and writing a short description of their location and activity at that moment in time. The data were then submitted electronically using a drop box on this website, via e-mail or USB drive. For the purpose of illustration, this is one of the six submissions that Sarah made as she worked on her assignment about the Civil Rights Movement.
Shadowing students as they work on an assignment
Two of the same students who recorded their surroundings also agreed to let me shadow them at different times as they worked on the essay assignment. In Karen’s case this comprised an afternoon in her flat followed by a later period in the main university library. For Harry meanwhile this involved a full day studying in one of the university's smaller libraries, as well as a nearby common room. As Karen and Harry worked on their essays (and drank tea, checked Facebook, listened to music and so on) I made my own sound recordings, took photographs and typed field notes. The following video gathers together representative sights and sounds from my first observation of Karen (although not as yet with the inclusion of entries from my field notes or reference to her Internet history for the corresponding period that she kindly agreed to supply me with).
The approaches described here were designed to shed light on the some on the recent interest of my research (bulleted above). For instance, how does the algorithmic code that is concealed, as Edwards & Michael (2011) suggest, beneath the sophisticated interface of software applications, influence the search results that appear in Google Scholar? How do perceptions and practices around plagiarism detection software influence composition (a concern recognised in research by Introna & Hayes (2011))? How does the use of sophisticated hardware and software pictured in the different images advance the notion of shared authorship between human and machine (see Knox & Bayne 2013)? Meanwhile, through the shadowing exercise in particular I have sought to gain insights into the ‘minute dynamics and connections’ that Fenwick et al. (2011, p.8) believe to be overlooked when we look to understand educational activities.
For the time being I am resisting the temptation to offer any sort of this response to these questions, not least as next month I will interview the same five students from the American History course. This will include discussion around the sights and sounds each student gathered as they worked on their essay assignment. Before that, for the purpose of comparison, tomorrow morning I will begin the same process all over again with five students from an Architectural Design course.
A note on ethics
Pseudoynms have been used in place of participant's real names. Students gave their consent to participate in the research described above, including the sharing of their supplied data. Participants were offered a £20 gift voucher for participating in each part of this research.
As part of my Doctoral research into multimodal assessment in the Humanities I am undertaking an ethnographic study of an undergraduate American History course. I observe lectures, tutorials and other situations where students and tutors gather to construct meaning, as they explore The Making of the United States of America. There are two reasons I wanted to spend time in a History class. First, in common with the majority of Humanities courses, assessment within History programmes tends to privilege language, commonly in the form of the essay. Second, with its interest in visual artefacts as a means of study - drawings, paintings, maps, photographs - History has an eye for the way that images contribute towards understanding. Bringing these two ideas together, I wondered whether History programmes might be open to assessment practice where attention is paid to the visual, multimodal character of student work. Now that I have reached the third week of the History course (and have a couple of hours before the next class), I am recording some early observations about the role that images have played within classroom teaching.
To begin with some context, this is a second year undergraduate course drawing students from a range of degree programmes. Three times a week the lecture theatre is packed with an audience of around 300, augmented by tutorials with groups of around 12 students each. In all of the classes the tutors have used PowerPoint presentations, with images to the fore. Something that really stands out from my field notes is that these images are always more than a backdrop: they appear central to the knowledge that the tutor wishes to convey. For instance:
In these instances the images work alongside the oral delivery, adding colour and context to what is being said. This isn’t to suggest say the lecturer’s oration and wider performance is presented in monochrome: on the contrary it is enthusiastic and eloquent. Simply, the images are vital in helping the tutor to convey meaning.
Click on images to enlarge. Slides reproduced with kind permission of Professor Frank Cogliano.
On other occasions the images are themselves the central focus of study. Cartoon depictions of individuals and events are used to prompt students to reflect on competing perspectives and attitudes of the time. Newspaper adverts and notices, variously drawing attention to slaves-absconding-or-for-sale, are themselves historical artefacts that demand discussion within the tutorial setting.
For the most part the images on screen are accompanied by reasonably small bursts of text (typed words), mostly single sentence captions providing factual information: title, subject, author, date and so on. Three weeks into the course and I have yet to face down a single bullet point. In terms of both prominence and placement, text immediately seems to perform a functional supporting role to the central positioning and critical purpose of the image. This however disregards the presence of text within many of the images: a political proclamation or newspaper notice may be presented in j-peg format however the conveyed meaning is heavily dependent on the use of text. If we narrow our gaze from the slide in its entirety to instead see an image as a communicational act in its own right, we become aware of the intricate assemblage of meaning conveying resources sitting in juxtaposition: text, font, colour, spacing, layout and so on. When this is combined with the tutor’s oral delivery (volume, tone, pitch, pace, silence) and physical performance (eye contact with the audience, gesture, posture, movement across the space behind the lectern) we see that the History classroom is richly multimodal (or ‘densely modal’ to borrow from Norris (2004)) in the way that meaning is conveyed and interpreted.
Picturing Thomas Payne in the richly multimodal History classroom
In contrast to the highly visual and multimodal character of meaning-making in the classroom, assessment for the American History course privileges the use of written language. Coursework comprises two conventional essays while 20% of the final mark is based upon a ‘practical examination’ in the form of a student’s contribution towards tutorial discussion. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the assessment design is flawed in taking what Newfield (2011) and others might describe as a ‘monomodal’ approach: I am simply drawing attention to the way that it differs from what takes place in the lecture theatre and the tutorial room. When I come to interview course tutors at the end of semester I might find there is a very good reason why measurements of understanding and ability rely on language in its different forms. For the time being however, I have three questions to reflect upon in the coming weeks and months:
Before that however I have a lecture on The Origins of the American Revolution. I expect there to be bullets, but no bullet points.
Assessment, feedback and multimodality in Architecture
Multimodality and the presentation assignment
"I'm just glad it's not an essay!": a poster presentation assignment in music
I am an ESRC-funded Doctoral student in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.