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.
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I am a Lecturer in Digital Education (Education Futures), within the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.