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 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.
Next Tuesday (6 June), I will spend the day Exploring Visual Methods as a Developing Field, as part of an ESRC summer school taking place at Edinburgh University. Ahead of the event, which will be delivered by Professor Kate Wall from University of Strathclyde’s School of Education, participants have been asked to take 15 photographs which represent what we think it means to be a Doctoral student in 2017. From that we need to select a sub-set of 5 photos that best address the enquiry. Here is what I will be taking to the session:
This photograph is intended to reflect how my research depends on both physical and online spaces and communities. My 'network' is made up of colleagues on campus who are also part of a larger dispersed group of researchers and lecturers, many of whom I have never ‘met’ beyond our exchanges in Twitter and in other digital settings. At the same time I am as likely to be talking about my research online, as on-campus.
Something I really value about being a PhD student is having the flexibility to choose and move between different spaces that I think will support to the task I am working on at a particular time. The Psychology building on George Square is a good space to spend an hour of interrupted writing. Others locations on campus (and beyond) are better for reading, others for conversation, and so on. I usually begin each day with a plan of where I will work, depending on what I need to achieve. Edinburgh is full of pleasant and inspiring place to work. I'm lucky.
This is my PhD supervisor, Sian Bayne, on a billboard outside Old College. There are a few of these posters dotted around campus and more than once they have reminded me that I owe Sian a piece of writing. Subliminal supervision. I have included this picture to represent how the expectations and direction set out by Sian and my second supervisor, Jen Ross, guide my research. If some of the other photographs here point towards the independence that comes with being a PhD student, it is accompanied by guidance and the encouragement to work to a high standard.
This external hard drive represents the data I have collected over the last year whilst carrying out ethnographic field work. It contains thousands of photographs, hundreds of sound recordings and quite a lot of words. Most recently I've been adding lengthy interview recordings which had been exhausting my laptop. This image sheds light on the subject of my research, but also talks about the way that so much of my work is captured and condensed into ones and zeroes.
My doctoral research takes place alongside other interests, activities and responsibilities. Before taking this picture I had been checking e-mail whilst my son had his breakfast. We were listening to music and talking about how long it would take to walk to the moon. After that it’s a rush to get out of the house before 7.45am. It felt important to include a photo which made the point that doing a PhD is never just doing a PhD. The possibility of attending evening seminars, travelling to conferences, taking advantage of study exchanges and other opportunities always depends on more than whether these activities match my research interests or if they justify the cost or time (and I'm not suggesting this is unique to me, of course).
Here are the other images, meanwhile:
Returning to the instructions for this exercise, we have been asked to print out the photos in order that they can be shared as part of a group exercise: it will be interesting to see how my own experiences of doctoral research sit along those of a wider group. Fascinating exercise, not least as I've been using image elicitation in my own research. Looking forward to it.
Digital sociomaterial journaling
Looking beyond photos: the architectural site visit
The visual, multimodal History classroom
Recording the sound of the American History class, November 2016
Notes from a workshop delivered earlier today by Dr Martin Parker (Edinburgh College of Art) on the subject 'Processing Sound for Research'. This was part of the Digital Day of Ideas, organised by the Digital Scholarship team at Edinburgh University. Here is the abstract shared ahead of Martin’s session:
Outlined below are some of the ideas from the session that resonated most closely with my own research, including the gathering of ambient sound recordings as a way of investigating meaning making around assessment, as well as my work around the ways that online students negotiate and construct space for learning.
To begin, there's a growing attention (in terms of the number of interested researchers and accompanying funding) in research that looks to sound in its various forms: sound is “an increasingly lively issue”, according to Martin.
When undertaking these types of research however, we need to be aware that “sound is slippery”. It can be problematic in terms of how it is recorded, reproduced and more generally understood.
At the same time “it’s now or never with sound”: compared to some other forms of data, sound appears and then vanishes in an instant, never to be heard again in the same way.
The microphone is ambivalent to what we are interested in. As researchers we might be focused on what the interview participant is saying, however the microphone will likely be gathering many other (possibly competing) sounds - what Martin referred to as the "cocktail party" effect. This means its necessary to take extra care to where the recording device is placed and being pointed (for instance, the mic on an iPhone is counter-intuitively as the bottom of the device meaning it can often be unknowingly pointed towards the interviewee rather than the research participant).
When we listen to a sound recording we are hearing the effects of the device. The particular qualities (and limitations) of the devices used for recording and reproducing sound will produce an aural representation of what was heard, not an exact record. We need to recognise and acknowledge this when we come to analyse or discuss the gathered data.
When we play sounds, we need to recognise that an audience will hear more than we wanted them to hear. In Martin’s view this presents a need for particular methods and terminology designed around sound.
Every room has what Martin described as a "sonic signature". At the same time, in some of the spaces where we teach and learn we’re being “assaulted by a whole range of sounds” over which we can exercise little control. The place where learning takes place can be a “really fraught space”.
While there is a tendency in some places to fetishise the use of sophisticated technology around the recording of sound, this can act as a barrier to entry. In reality, all sorts of devices including SmartPhones and laptops are built with the capacity for recording sound. When we use devices such as the microphone on an iPhone to record sound we can actually gather a much richer set of data that extends beyond the research participant’s voice: we should acknowledge and exploit this.
Sounds get lost and can be hard to find again (for instance in the way that are saved on devices). It’s essential then that we take care to save, tag and then file sound files as soon as possible after they are recorded. This can be helped by adding metadata to the audio file, even including a photograph of where the sound was recorded. Within iTunes for instance, it's possible add a whole lot of metadata to an audio file which, as well as documenting some of the detail around the sound recording, makes it possible to more easily search for data that otherwise might be hard to find at a later stage in the research process.
Adding metadata to a sound recording.
My colleague (and supervisor) Jen Ross invited me to talk to staff and students here at Edinburgh University about how I use social media to support my research. These are the slides from the session, which took place earlier today:
I began my presentation by offering a rationale for using social media in my research, before going on to talk about some of the benefits and challenges I have experienced though the use of this blog and Twitter. More generally, I put across the following points:
With thanks to Jen Ross and Judy Robertson from the Centre for Research in Digital Education for inviting me to share my experiences.
Yesterday evening I visited the UCL Knowledge Lab where, as a guest of Sophia Diamantopolou and Gunther Kress, I spoke to the Visual and Multimodal Forum about one aspect of my Doctoral research, around the relationship between multimodality and assessment within increasingly digital educational environments. The central argument of my presentation was that our approach to richly multimodal assessment in the Humanities (and other disciplines and courses that heavily privilege language in its various form) might be informed by looking to existing practice around assessment and feedback within the overtly multimodal undergraduate Architecture studio. Based upon my ethnographic study of an Architectural Design course, combined with a review of the relevant literatures, I proposed a set of questions that those of us in the Humanities might ask in order to offer insights into:
Here are my slides:
To offer the group some context I showed a short video I recorded last year which brings together images, sounds and field notes recorded in the Architectural Design studio. Meanwhile, I drew my presentation to a close by delivering a commentary over the following screen capture which records me (or my avatar) marking a piece of coursework prepared by Graeme Hathaway, a student from the MSc in Digital Education at Edinburgh University (thank you, Graeme).
There's no sound on this, just images.
As the group watched my avatar go underwater in order to mark Graeme’s investigation into immersion within virtual worlds, I described the student-tutor dialogue that took place around the assignment. This included how Graeme and I discussed Kress’s (2005) worked around ‘aptness of mode and audience’. In a practical sense, this involved challenging Graeme to think about selecting the medium for his assignment that would most effectively convey his knowledge, understanding and arguments (aptness of mode). At the same time I invited Graeme to think about what he knew of his audience’s (my) interests that would be suggestive of a particular approach (aptness of audience). That Graeme answered these questions so effectively was reflected in a really imaginative and successful (and immersive!) piece of work.
As well as giving me the opportunity to try out ideas on others with an interest in multimodality, the discussion that followed my presentation yesterday evening had the effect of distilling some of the ideas that have been coming out of my research. Most significantly is the question of just how helpful it is describe a coursework exercise as a ‘multimodal assignment’ or similar. I think there’s a danger that this approach confuses the nature of multimodality itself (especially if we accept, as I do, that all communication is multimodal) whilst also framing multimodality as risky, experimental or somehow ‘other’ to what is scholarly. In my experience this can have the effect of discouraging students who do not believe themselves to be particularly creative, visual or technologically sophisticated, whilst at the same distracting other students from asking what is the most appropriate way of conveying their ideas.
The seminar drew to a close with a broad consensus that rather than pushing students to take a multimodal approach, we might instead invite them to think about the medium that is best suited to representing their ideas, as well as closely matching the interests of the audience and the nature of the course itself. The different is slight, however perhaps places greater attention on thinking about content, audience and form, rather than immediately trying to construct something that is first and foremost multimodal.
With thanks to Sophia Diamantopolou and Gunther Kress and other members of the Visual and Multimodal Forum for their valuable feedback.
Assessment, feedback and multimodality in Architectural Design
Assessment, learning and digital education
Looking beyond photos: the Architectural site visit
Camera and recorded, scissors and brush: ethnography of a pop-up exhibition
Earlier today (25 April), Michael Sean Gallagher and I delivered a seminar discussing our research around the way that sound features within learning spaces. Our session was part of a series of events for tutors and others working within online education and was organised by the Institute of Academic Development here at Edinburgh University. The central argument of our seminar was that, through an attention to sound, we can better understand the ways that online students experience and construct space for learning, which in turn has implications for learning design and delivery. Our seminar drew on a journal article and then a book chapter we wrote with Sian Bayne, which built upon earlier work undertaken with our colleagues from the MSc in Digital Education. Towards the end of our presentation we spent a bit of time talking about how we have each gone on to use this methodology (which looks for coherence between visual and aural data) within our individual research around mobile learning (Michael) and digital literacy practices around assessment (my work). Here is a recording of the session, kindly provided by Celeste McLaughlin from the Institute of Academic Development, and here are the slides we used:
Our work here should be seen in the context of growing critical interest in sound. This can be seen in a range of different disciplines and settings, including (but not limited to) Shcafer's work around Soundscape Studies (2012), Gandy and Nielsen's interest in the Acoustic City (2014), Fluegge's Consideration of Personal Sound Space (2011) to Van Leeuwen's discussion of the meaning carrying potential of Speech, Music and Sound from a social semiotic position (1999). With an attention to the research value of sound, we invited today's seminar participants to spend time listening and then reflecting upon the following aural representations of the learning spaces of online distance students. In each case the sound recording was submitted alongside an image and a short textual description, in what we called 'digital multimodal postcards'.
Aggie's Learning Space in Xalapa, Mexico
Elise's learning space in Port Harcourt, Nigeria
Looking to my own research meanwhile, I am currently half-way through a data collection exercise where undergraduate students from courses in American History and in Architectural Design have similarly been creating and then sending me digital postcards. For a period of one week in the lead up to a coursework deadline, the students are recording their learning space on every occasion they work on the essay or design project. On this occasion I am particularly interested in the way that a 'sociomaterial lens' (Gourlay & Oliver 2013) offers insights into the digital literacy practices of students, as part of a wider meaning-making assemblage.
Over the last year I have taken thousands of photographs whilst observing students and tutors from Edinburgh University's Architecture programme. At the beginning of this exercise I was mostly interested in recording what took place directly around assessment: preparing the portfolio, presenting work in a review exercise, practices around marking and moderation. Over time though I have sought to capture a broader range of phenomena as I have looked towards sociomateriality as the critical lens for my Doctoral research. From initially focusing on the meaning making rituals of students and tutors around assessment, I have instead been looking to the ways that knowledge construction in the Architecture studio is a more complex entanglement of human, technological and other material interests. Or as Fenwick and Landri describe in their work around sociomaterial assemblages in education:
If I was initially guilty of viewing assessment in an overly simplistic way, as a fairly clear-cut exchange between student and tutor, sociomaterial critiques of education have instead encouraged me to examine the messy reality of what takes in and around the classroom, where 'learning is embedded in action and emerges through practice, processes that produce the objects and characteristics of educational events.’ (Knox and Bayne 2013). In this way assessment can be seen as a performance that depends on the student and tutor, but also looks to the role of curriculum, technology, sound, light, clothing and other visible and invisible actors within an evolving pattern of materiality (Fenwick et al 2011:8).
What this has meant in practice is that, as well as continuing to photograph students and tutors in the Architecture studio, I have pointed my camera down at the floor and upwards to the ceiling. I have crawled under desks and balanced on chairs. I have photographed and recorded the sounds of ventilation shafts, data projectors, corridor conversation. I have attracted troubled glances from students unfamiliar with my research. Without having yet commenced my analysis of the gathered data, a recurring theme to emerge from my photographs and also my written field notes, is the way that food and drink seem to be an integral part of what takes place in the studio. Alongside the more recognisable tools of the architecture student we find snacks: pencils next to a packet of peanuts; chocolate alongside cardboard; Rhino with Red Bull.
click on image to enlarge
Through the image above I have tried to show how my field notes and photographs resonate with some of the principle ideas around sociomateriality within education, in this case echoing work by Gourlay and Oliver (2014) where they offer a sociomaterial account of digital literacy practices:
For the purpose of further illustration I have included below a small selection images which would seem to reiterate Gourlay and Oliver's call to remain alert to the way that our use of digital resources in education, for instance around assessment, is always and inevitably entangled with a much broader range of resources, influences, limitations and opportunities beyond the interests of the assignment task.
click on images to enlarge
Digital sociomaterial journaling
Camera, recorder, scissors, brush: ethnography in a pop-up exhibition
Architecture, multimodality and the ethnographic monograph
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.
The Assessment, Learning and Digital Education course, part of the MSc in Digital Education at Edinburgh University, sets out to explore how assessment is rapidly evolving in ways that exploit developments in digital technology and pedagogy. I'm glad to be a part of the course team, working with Clara O'Shea, Dai Hounsell and Tim Fawns. My major input to the course concerns multimodal assessment in digital contexts. Through the use of course readings, a discussion forum and an online seminar we explore ideas around digital literacies (see for example Lea & Jones 2011), the problematic nature of authorship (see for example Bayne 2006) and what happens when we newly introduce digital multimodal assessment into summative assessment (see for instance Adsanatham (2012) and De-Palma & Alexander (2015)). The recently re-designed assignment for this section of this course is a scenario-based activity where students are challenged to think critically about the conditions that support or exist in opposition to the introduction of richly digital multimodal assessment: I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens when students step into the tutor's shoes to advise colleagues on how to make digital multimodal approaches attractive and viable within the summative assessment setting!
For the recent online seminar, I took the approach that where we look to introduce richly multimodal assessment into courses or programmes that have been particularly essay-centric or language-based, we might find it helpful to look to existing approaches from colleagues in other parts of the campus, particularly within what we might call the creative disciplines. Within the seminar I talked about my own research where, for the last year, I have been undertaking an ethnographic study of meaning-making practices around assessment in Architecture. This research is already described elsewhere on this blog therefore I'll make do here with sharing my seminar slides, which interweave some of my observations from the Architecture studio, with the literatures around assessment and feedback, multimodal assessment and digital literacies.
I am an ESRC-funded Doctoral student in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.