Earlier this year I completed my ESRC-funded PhD research which investigated the relationship between technology and the learning spaces of higher education. Prompted by a recent conversation among colleagues here at Edinburgh University about the potential of the digital dissertation, in this post I explain how my own thesis was presented in multimodal and digital form.
By ‘digital dissertation’, I am referring to the presentation of scholarship in overtly digital and multimodal form in those contexts where work is normally conveyed in a more essayistic and language-privileging format. At least in the arts, humanities and social sciences, it remains difficult to move beyond traditional print-based conventions within the high-stakes assessment setting. In the case of my own thesis, I sought to balance my desire to produce a richly multimodal and digital artefact, with University regulations and tacit disciplinary expectations around the exposition of knowledge.
My wish to produce a digital dissertation came partly from my interest in multimodal assessment, as I have discussed in this journal article, this conference key note and other workshops with academic teachers. More important, though, was finding a representational format that would foreground the sonic and visual data around which much of my PhD was built. As I argue in the thesis itself, sound has tended to exist on the periphery of qualitative research (as discussed by Dicks et al. 2011) while the critical value of audio data has been undermined by a lack of consideration when reproducing sonic material alongside more conventional published researched (see in particular Feld & Brenneis 2004).
The challenge I faced was to present audio and visual content in juxtaposition with written argumentation, while at the same time satisfying University regulations around the preparation of a traditional word-processed thesis. My response was to insert QR codes that linked to different types of digital artefacts. As I explained to the reader in the opening pages of my thesis, the intention here was that they could use a smartphone to access digital material alongside the printed content. True to one of the key ideas of multimodality, argumentation was made through the simultaneous juxtaposition of semiotic material, for instance words, images and sounds.
Therefore where my research involved the use of playlists as ethnographic artefacts, the reader was able to sample the nominated songs alongside my discussion of insights they had provoked into the way that learners used music to negotiate different types of learning spaces. These playlists – one for each of the American History and Architectural Design courses that provided the setting for my research - were hosted on the music-sharing platform Mixcloud. Here is the playlist I created with Architecture students:
Meanwhile in order to convey the sonic character of different teaching spaces, I created interactive sounds maps in Thinglink that situated ambient audio recordings and photographs against corresponding locations within diagrammatic floor plans. Here is the sound map for the area of the design studio where much of my field work took place:
Across more than a year of ethnographic field work I generated several hundred audio recording and thousands of photographs, some of which formed the basis of 15 short videos. Each video combined audio recordings, photographs and excerpts drawn either from my written field notes or from interviews. The following video captures the sights and sound of the architecture studio:
The creation of these different digital artefacts, combined with the way that they could be access via QR code, goes some way to showing how even within the constraints of producing a printed dissertation, it is possible to craft an artefact in digital, multimodal form. An important influence on my approach here was Kress’ work around aptness of mode (2005), the premise of which is that the digital form allows us to consider how we might shape the representational form of a digital artefact in a way that helps to best present the knowledge that is to be communicated. This meant producing a digital, multimodal thesis not for the purpose of experimentation, but rather because it was the most suitable way of executing arguments around the relationship between sound and physical space.
There are sure to be other and more imaginative examples of what a digital thesis can look and sound like, particularly when they emerge from the creative disciplines or within interdisciplinary contexts. And while my use of QR codes (rather than embedded content) may have been a neat concession to University regulations, it does feel like a compromise rather than a true use of the digital form. Nevertheless, I hope that my approach helps to stimulate more conversation about what is possible when it comes to producing richly digital and multimodal scholarship in an assessment setting, perhaps even contributing to conditions that are more conducive to this kind of work.
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
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
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
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 the series of events organised by the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, I recently (18 November 2016) organised a walking seminar through Edinburgh's Old Town. Along with my colleague Jeremy Knox, and joined by participants from inside and beyond the university, we undertook an unscripted excursion where our path through the city was shaped by our varying personal interests as well as the digital mobile devices we brought to the exercise.
Our activity can be situated within the growing critical interest in urban walking (Richardson 2015) as well as the tradition of walking ethnography (Vergunst and Ingold, 2008). Going back further, this type of unrehearsed excursion has its roots in the flânerie of Walter Benjamin and later the dérive of Guy Debord and The Situationst International. By moving our seminar beyond the physical boundaries of the university we dispensed with the abstract or agenda that often lend structure to on-campus conversation, instead inviting participants to bring their own research or professional interests to the exercise. We imagined that the excursion would be of interest to colleagues concerned with digital culture and mobile learning (see for instance Sharples et al. 2007) and those with an interest in how we construct meaning from our surroundings, for instance through sensory ethnography (Pink 2011), multimodality (Kress and Van Leeuwen 2001) or a sociomaterial sensibility (Fenwick, Edwards & Sawchuk 2011).
Across the duration of a lunchtime we walked and talked, sharing our interests, ideas and observations with our newly-found colleagues. At different locations that we broadly agreed to find interesting, we paused to capture our experiences on our mobile devices. This included the gathering of images and audio recordings, some of which are gathered together in the short video that offers a more rich and evocative record of what took place than I would have been able to offer through words.
Photos by Nick Hood, Hamish MacLeod and by me.
Another alternative and imaginative way that technology merged with our trajectory across the Old Town was provided by my colleague Jen Ross, where she compiled a live playlist on Spotify, triggered by her surroundings at different stages of our journey. Members of the group were drawn to Jen's approach and in turn suggested search terms for what became a collaborative playlist. Jen has since mapped the different songs onto the corresponding locations within an interactive Google map. The compiled playlist and map are worthy of space in their own right, however this screengrab presents an alternative way of representing our walk.
The different digital artefacts to have emerged from the excursion - video, music playlist, interactive map - go some way to reflecting the varying interests that participants brought to the exercise. At different times during our walk conversation turned to whether and how we felt this type of exercise might be used in different educational settings. Emergent ideas included:
In the days following our walk my colleague Christine Sinclair used ideas and images from the exercise as a way of encouraging students to reflect on the nature of space and place within the Introduction to Digital Environments for Learning course on the MSc in Digital Education. At the same time I am intrigued by the suggestion that this type of activity might help to break down the "clusters" that can form in university programmes where students from the same international communities group together, meaning that they miss out on what might be learned from their peers and their experiencing of the city beyond the vicinity of the campus.
When Michael Sean Gallagher, Jeremy Knox and I first talked about the idea of enacting digital urban flânerie we were keen that, alongside a possible conceptual contribution, our methodology might be adopted and adapted into practical learning activities. Looking back on the excursion through the Old Town, I think there's mileage in this kind of activity.
Multimodal dérive in Amsterdam
Leaving do/Edinburgh Old and New
EC1 (Sights & Sounds)
What follows is a short video that gathers together images and sounds I collected around a pop-up exhibition by second year Architecture students. As I have explained elsewhere on this blog, I currently spend every Friday in the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture where I observe students and tutors as they participate in teaching, learning and assessment. This ties in with my Doctoral research into multimodal assessment across the disciplines.
Across five hours last Friday (14 October) I made dozens of sound recordings and took hundreds of photographs as students set up the gallery, arranged models for display and finally attended an exhibition of their own work, where they were joined by tutors and other members of the architecture school. The work on display comprised more than 2000 models constructed over the first five weeks of the Architectural Design course. Situating myself in the gallery for the afternoon I was able to observe the small archipelago of buildings sprawl into a city-in-miniature, with a broad panorama of approaches and imagination on display. The quality of work can be seen within the images in the video, but is also heard in the excited laughter during the exhibition of work: listen carefully and you might hear a student expressing how proud she is of what the group had achieved.
Through the gathering of aural and visual data I wanted to make a record of the pop-up exhibition that would inform my research: a piece of video ethnography to represent what would have been hard to achieve through written description or images-in-isolation. In the unrehearsed setting of the pop-up exhibition however I was thrust into the role of general exhibition helper. As I swept the floor and cut display paper down to size I gained a better appreciation of what was taking place than would have possible had I sat on the outskirts. If the ethnographer’s main instrument is him- or herself, in this instance it was accompanied by camera and audio recorder, brush and scissors.
Architecture, multimodality and the ethnographic monograph
Looking beyond photos: the Architectural site visit
Listening to the street
For the duration of this semester I am spending every Friday in the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, observing students and tutors involved in an undergraduate course in Architectural Design. This ethnographic study mirrors my fieldwork in an American History course where I'm observing tutorials and lectures, all in support of my Doctoral research into multimodal assessment across the disciplines.
Each visit to the Architecture School begins a little before 9am with a meeting of the course tutors. They discuss teaching, assessment and other aspects of the course. There is coffee, conversation and a passionate commitment to subject and students. After that the tutors make their their way to the design studio to meet with their groups. The studio occupied by these second year undergraduates achieves the effect of feeling subterranean without in fact being below ground: as one of tutors ruefully put it when attempting to sell the space to her group: "There's a window at the far end - make sure you all get a chance to look out of it." From the uneducated perspective of the observer, the creativity and imagination demonstrated in the models, sketches and other examples of student work sits in stark contrast to the seemingly drab and claustrophobic studio space in which they are constructed or displayed. It is something of a relief then that studio time is interrupted by excursions out of the Architecture building. So far this has included a visit to the Fruitmarket Gallery to see an exhibition by Damian Ortega ("To get you to really think about how you present your work in the studio" as a tutor introduced the exercise) and more recently by a site visit to King Stables Road in the heart of Edinburgh.
The purpose of the visit to King Stables Road was to introduce students to the site for the architecture school they will design for their assessment exercise this semester. The group I followed were encouraged to spend time experiencing the environment that will be central to their thinking in the coming weeks and months. As we assembled in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, the tutor encouraged the group to go beyond merely taking photos and to include time for discussing and reflecting upon what they experienced, in order that they would be able to make a visual, emotional response to the site ahead of the following week's tutorial. For the purpose of my own research I used my iPhone to gather some of the sights and sounds of the exercise, as the group navigated its way around the puddles, discarded wine bottles and polystrene takeaway detritus of King Stables road. I have collected the recorded images and sounds together within this short video:
While the video does the intended job of providing me with a record of the site visit, what it fails to do is adequately take account of the wider experience of the excursion, or the atmosphere in that particular corner of the city. This would seem to echo the tutor's instruction for students to talk and think about their surroundings, rather than rapidly traversing the site whilst gathering photos for later consumption. This emphasis on critical reflection-whilst-walking reminds me of the work of Dicks et al. (2006) where they introduced and critically considered the possibility of multimodal ethnography. Drawing on research where they investigated communication and meaning-making within a Science visitor centre, the authors reflected on the opportunities and limitations of gathering visual data, including photographs and video recordings. While these digital visual approaches were able to go beyond what it was possible to record using conventional field notes, they were insufficient in themselves to take account of movement and the materiality of a space. In response, the authors took to walking through the Science visitor centre in order to experience its ‘physical flow’ and ‘living, material, kinetic environment’ (2006:87).
As the architecture group made its way around the perimeter of the King Stables Road site all of the dozen students took photographs to a greater or lesser degree. In some cases this was augmented by making sketches, peering over walls and pausing to point out different aspects of the site. On another occasion around half of the group stopped for several minutes to variously take in the scene and enter into conversation. In this instance (which is seen and heard in the final photos in my short video), I would suggest that the students went beyond the gathering of photos to think about constructing meaning in-the-moment. Their gathering of photographic representations of the site was interspersed with discussion and then moments of silence as they seemed to reflect on what they could see, hear and feel around them. Perhaps the conclusion to draw here is that although photographs and video recordings provide a useful way of representing particular qualities of our surroundings, they cannot do justice to the sensation of being hit by water dripping from an overhead archway, or of the distinct aroma of last night's discarded take away and tonic wine.
Dicks B, Soyinka B and Coffey A (2006) Multimodal ethnography. Qualitative Research 6(1): 77-96.
Multimodal dérive in Amsterdam
Listening to The Street
The project New Geographies of Learning: distance education and being 'at' The University of Edinburgh set out to investigate how students participating in a fully online distance learning programme - the MSc in Digital Education - experienced and understood their university. Beginning in 2011, we spent a year gathering narrative and visual data, primarily through:
Our over-arching research question was: What does it mean to be a student at Edinburgh but not in Edinburgh, and what insight does this give us into learning design for high quality distance programmes? We addressed this question in two published journal articles:
More recently Sian Bayne, Michael Gallagher and I revisited the 21 digital multimodal postcards with an interest in exploring what they might tell us about the way that distance students construct and negotiate space for learning. Our approach and findings are described in a chapter 'The Sounded Spaces of Online Learners' within this recently published collection by Lucila Carvalho, Peter Goodyear, Maarten de Laat (2016):
To briefly touch on the way we approached the analysis of the postcards, we took a broadly multimodal approach which recognised that meaning emerged from the particular ways that the different semiotic resources came together in concert. This was augmented by looking towards Fluegge’s work around personal sound spaces (2011) from which we adopted and adapted the notions of territorialism, sonic trespass and spatial-acoustic self-determination. Within the visual realm meanwhile we looked to Rose’s 'site of audiencing' (2012). Our approach was also informed by Monaco’s ideas around coherence (2009) and similarly Van Leeuwen’s work in social semiotics around information linking (2004).
As we had hoped, by paying equal attention to the visual and aural (and the meaning that emerged from their juxtaposition), we gained fascinating insights into the ways that this particular group of students looked to construct and negotiate space. At times this challenged the conventional conceptualisation of distance learners, often depicted through a high level of mobility and digital sophistication. Instead we saw and heard the trappings of the domestic: family and soft furnishings; kitchen table and kettle boiling. We also became aware of how this group of students differently attempted to orchestrate or adapt to the material character of their surroundings. Without suggesting that our findings could be applied to online education across the board, we nevertheless believe that our methodology encourages teachers and course designers involved with online education to consider what is happening on the other side of the screen.
Whenever I'm on campus I'm struck by the amount of attention that has gone into reconfiguring the different buildings into spaces that are conducive to learning. In comparison, there has been very little critical attention to the learning environments of online students. Through the findings and methodology described within our recently published chapter, we hope that we will encourage other researchers, teachers and programme designers to have a good look - and listen - to the learning spaces of online, distance students.
A digital postcard of Daisy's learning space in Xalapa, Mexico.
Away from the university
Listening to the street
Look! Listen! Learn!
I was recently invited to make a video to accompany the Manifesto for Teaching Online (2016). The Manifesto comes from the team behind the MSc in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh and comprises a series of short statements which articulate what it means to teach within digital learning environments. Whereas our work to put together the Manifesto was collaborative, the video should be seen as my own personal interpretation and response each of its 22 statements. Here's the newly completed video:
Rather than trying to explain how I attempted to represent the different statements in the Manifesto, I'm instead going to describe how some of the key ideas around online education influenced my approach as I put the video together.
To begin, reflecting the growing interest in the multimodal character of digital scholarship, I spent time thinking about how the particular configuration of images and sounds could work together in juxtaposition, or what Carey Jewitt (2009) has described as the way that meaning emerges from the particular relationship between different modes. This became quite an iterative process where I would start with a rough idea in response to a Manifesto statement, which would in turn prompt the gathering of field recordings, which then sparked a visual idea and subsequently led to the creation or collection of further sounds. Maybe the best example of this from the video is the ‘Digital Natives’ statement where I started off thinking about Bronislaw Malinowksi’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) and ended up burying a Nokia 5510 (1998) in a sandbox.
Whereas the critical interest in multimodality is often concerned with focusing its gaze on the semiotic resources at work within a document, an artefact or a communicational event, sociomateriality asks us to pay attention to the ways that the wider milieu shapes our meaning-making practices. Therefore where some of the images/sounds in the video seem haphazard or untidy it should be seen/heard in light of what Fenwick et al. (2011) describe as:
I also wanted the video to itself provoke questions about digital authorship, ownership and plagiarism. For instance, what responsibility do we have to the author of a piece of work that we record and then remix beyond its original form or meaning? What are the ethical implications of adding reverb to someone's voice or recolouring their textile work? And how do the conventions of referencing and plagiarism that were conceived around words-on-the-page, take account of video and other digital formats? These are questions similar to those raised by Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2011) in her work around digital authorship and it seemed fitting that she should 'appear' in the video.
Finally, as I prepared the video I also wanted to challenge the visual conceptualisations of online teaching which neglect the physical places where the corporeal bodies of teachers go about their scholarly business. Behind the virtual worlds, learning management systems and social media spaces that are often used as icons of online, there exists the campus, the cafe and the couch. These ‘teaching spaces’ are represented through sight and sound: an office on the 4th floor of St John’s Land in the School of Education; the space at home where I write and read and where I worked on the video itself.
I hope you enjoy the video.
Fenwick, T., Edwards, R. & Sawchuk, P. 2011. Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial. (Oxon, Routledge). pp. 1-18.
Jewitt, C. 2009. An introduction to multimodality. In The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. Jewit, C. (Ed) (London, Routledge): pp. 14-27.
'Kathleen Fitzpatrick: "The Future of Authorship: Writing in the Digital Age"'(2011) YouTube video, added by FranklinCenterAtDuke [Online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4qq01Qskv0 (Accessed 12 June 2016)
Malinowski, B. [1922}. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights, 10 IL: Waveland Press, Inc. Pp. 1-25 (Introduction).
I am a Lecturer in Digital Education (Education Futures), within the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.