DIGITAL EDUCATION, MULTIMODALITY, LEARNING SPACES
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
Last Friday I visited the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds to participate in a seminar on the subject of Assessment and Feedback within Higher Education. I contributed a workshop around the possibilities and potential challenges of multimodal approaches to assessment and feedback within language education. Here are my slides with a full reference list at the end:
Although I have been talking and writing about multimodal assessment for a few years now, the context for Friday’s event presented a new challenge. When the dominant discourse around multimodal assessment concerns a move beyond the central authority of words, does multimodal assessment have a place within courses with a central interest in the study of language (as opposed to using language to communicate meaning of other subject matter)? This question was the starting position for my session which included an activity where, working in groups, colleagues reflected on what might be the critical questions that language educators need to ask in order to ascertain whether multimodality might perform a role around assessment and feedback. Rather than responding to the suggestions from each of the groups, I instead recorded the different ideas (hopefully true their intention) and have grouped them under four themes, below :
Rethinking the nature of assessment
Assessment criteria and marking
Student needs and interests
Although many of the suggestions would apply to assessment and feedback practices across the disciplines, the centrality of language within the group's teaching meant that the workshop raised ideas that I hadn't encountered before. This provides a helpful reminder that the possibilities of multimodal assessment, and the potential barriers to its use, can vary across different learning contexts.
Thank you to Chiara La Sala from the Leeds Centre for Excellence in Language Teaching for the invitation to contribute to Friday's event. Thanks Also to Martin Thomas and Elisabetti Adami who took time out to meet and explore ideas with me.
Stories of Transformative Multimodal Assessment
Multimodality and Mobile Learning in Bremen
Multimodal assessment in the presentation setting
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
Edinburgh University’s Festival of Creative Learning sets out to explore innovative, imaginative and collaborative approaches to teaching. The focus of the Festival is a concerted and creative week of experimental learning activities between 19 and 23 February 2018, supported by pop-up events across the year. My contribution to the Festival, alongside my colleague Michael Gallagher, will comprise a series of provocations delivered via mobile messaging on what the future of distributed (and digital) education will be for the University.
We sketched out the idea for this event in September as we orchestrated a digitally-affected excursion through Bremen. Working in groups, conference delegates navigated their way through the city - and through a series of critical and physical prompts - mediated via their smartphones. Looking forward to the Festival of Creative Learning in February, we are re-thinking distance and location as we look to broaden our activity from a single city-centre to instead encompass participation across different continents. Alongside students and staff from Easter Bush, King’s Buildings and the Central Campus of the University, our event will aim to attract participants from much further afield.
One of the arguments that Michael and I will make through our distributed activity is that within an increasingly networked world, mobile technologies can dissolve classroom walls and campus boundaries, as students and tutors in different locations are able to simultaneously and affectively participate in learning events. For the duration of an hour, students and staff in Edinburgh and elsewhere will simultaneously engage in conversation and activities, via their mobile devices, that encourage reflection on the future of education within increasingly digital environments.
If my use of ‘Edinburgh and elsewhere’ would seem to de-privilege those students who engage with the university at a distance, this is simply because Michael and I have yet to spread the word about our event and therefore do not know where participants will be contributing from. One of most important features of our activity will be to challenge the distinction between ‘campus students’ and ‘distance students’ and the corresponding ‘othering’ of education that takes place beyond the bricks and mortar of the university campus, something that Michael and I explored with our colleague Sian Bayne in our work around the social topologies of distance students.
To be clear, we are not arguing that a university’s real estate is insignificant either to students who regularly cross the campus threshold or those who view or imagine it from afar. With this in mind, as the event takes place Michael and I will be in the David Hume Tower cafe on campus, attempting to live mix and broadcast images and sounds generated from the exercise. If it goes to plan it could look and sound something like this:
Our event for Friday 23 February 2018 at 13.00 (Edinburgh time). If you are interested in participating or learning more about what we have in mind, please get in touch with Michael who will be glad to hear from you.
Bayne, S., Gallagher, M. and Lamb, J. (2013) Being ‘at’ University: the social topologies of distance students. Higher Education. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-013-9662-4
Bremen: Multimodality and Mobile Learning
The Sonic Spaces of Online Students
Away from the University
Earlier this afternoon I contributed to a Digital Transformation of Creative Industries conference here at Edinburgh University, which featured stellar presentations covering different aspects of digital culture and technology: sound, labour, heritage, journalism and beyond. Starting from the position that Architecture is one of the creative industries, I drew on my doctoral research to ask what we might learn from the richly multimodal, creative and inter-disciplinary approaches and conditions that exist around Architectural Design pedagogy. These are my slides:
...and this is an approximation of what I said:
Great to be a part of these conversations around the digital transformation of the creative industries.
In between my record player and CD rack sits a small stack of research methods books offering advice on data collection, analytical frameworks, ethical considerations and beyond. Over the past few months I have spent a fair bit of time looking through these texts in the hope of discovering a methodological approach to suit my research interests and to match the range of material produced through my ethnographic study of meaning-making in American History and Architectural Design. How, for instance, to deal with the presence of music in my photos, field recordings and conversations with students and tutors?
During my observation of the Architectural Design course last autumn I became aware that at some point each day every student would put on a set of headphones, thereby replacing the varied and often chaotic aural ambience of the design studio with a more personal, controlled and musical soundtrack. Interested in what the students were listening to and why, I asked them to help me compile a playlist. Using a submission form on my website, students told me how the likes of Slick Rick helped them through a long day in the studio.
At that time I didn’t anticipate that the playlist exercise would be anything other than a brief mention in my thesis, however I'm beginning to think this type of approach has more to offer than I originally thought. Unable to find a tidy neat-and-tidy solution for dealing with my data, I have been looking at alternative ways of approaching method, starting with John Law's argument that research should embrace and interrogate mess and complexity, in place of a desire to impose clarity and order on a world that is unpredictable and avoids straightforward categorisation. Law rejects the conventional wisdom of a ‘healthy research style’ (2004, p 9) that depends on clarity and complementarity, instead recognising the existence of multiple realities and the researcher's role in co-constructing or performing these realities. From there I looked at Fox and Alldred’s ideas around new materialist social inquiry (2014) where (like Law before them) they use Deleuze & Guattari's (1998) concept of assemblage (or ‘agencement’) alongside Braidotti's (2013) work in posthumanism in order to propose a methodological framework which attends to the de-privileging of human agency and which looks to the way that the world is produced through assemblage of the animate and inanimate (2015, p 399).
These ideas of messy research and sociomaterial inquiry led me in turn to recent work by Mike Michael (2016) and Jen Ross (2017) which makes the case for speculative methods in social research. Both Michael and Ross confront the tendency within social inquiry towards a ‘what works’ approach which neglects the messiness and peculiarities of real life in favour of scale, generalisability and reproducibility. In contrast, speculative method encourages imagination, experimentation and risk in order to address the specific questions posed by networked society. Ross in particular argues that we need to make room for creative and participatory approaches in order to interrogate our complex and open-ended world. Therefore with a new perspective on what can represent research material, I have just put together a playlist for the American History course to sit alongside the earlier compilation from Architectural Design. The playlist draws together pieces of music that featured in the digital postcards of learning space that students produced for me, as well as songs and groups mentioned during interview and conversation and listed within Spotify and YouTube playlists that some of the group shared with me.
If these playlists represent an imaginative and participatory way of producing research material, music already features in ethnographic research in a range of ways, from Sterne’s discussion of the mp3 as a cultural artifact (2006), to Bull’s work around the iPod and mobile listening culture (2005), and then to Makagon and Neumann’s conversation around writing and recording culture (2009), and beyond. More generally there is the field of ethnomusicology which studies music from the social and cultural perspective of those who produce it, while my specific interest in the playlist as an ethnographic artefact is shared by Jacob Nerenberg in the Ethnography Lab at the University of Toronto, even if I have been unable to find out much about his work as yet. All the same, in the spirit of a music artist acknowledging their roots, the following questions that I am now asking through my research owe a debt to speculative research.
So then, Speculative Research feat. Slick Rick.
The Sonic Spaces of Online students
Anti-noise: a playlist for PhD research
The 70th Scottish International Storytelling Festival, happening in Edinburgh just now, takes as its theme the idea that the traditional art of storytelling is more vital than ever in connecting people across geography, generations and cultures. I am really glad to be making a small contribution to the festival, as part of an event at Edinburgh University with the focus on stories of life and learning. Later today I will ask whether multimodal assessment has the potential to support the learning and recognise the talents of refugee and forced migrant students.
Drawing on three case studies - stories of transformative multimodal assessment - I will describe how learners from backgrounds of educational disadvantage benefited from the design and delivery of assessment tasks that took account of digital literacies, access to technology, social practices and the wider life situations and educational histories of students. This includes work by Archer (2015), Newfield et al. (2003) and Stornaiuolo et al. (2009) - references below. This, roughly speaking, is how I will be telling these stories in my presentation later today.
I am grateful to Elisabetta Adami from the Centre for Translation Studies at the Universities for kindly offering feedback on an earlier version of this presentation.
A short report on the walking activity that I delivered with Michael Gallagher last week, our contribution to the 3rd Bremen Conference on Multimodality. Through this 'paper-as-performance' Michael and I sought to make the case for the theoretical and methodological compatibility of multimodality and mobile learning, for instance as a way of investigating our urban surroundings. We also wanted to raise questions about the complex relationship between researcher and the digital, and how this might affect work within multimodality. You can read the background to our exercise on this project site, including a theoretical rationale which explains for instance why Smartphones and the Telegram app were central to the experience.
We can't control the weather: surveying the skies above our meeting point ahead of the excursion.
Despite rain directly beforehand, as well as a full day of conference activity, 19 colleagues assembled at Bremen's main train station to participate in the excursion. Michael and I were really glad that so many people wanted to take part in the walk, bearing in mind the inclement weather, fatigue and Bremen's competing evening attractions. Perhaps some of the enthusiasm we saw for the activity is reflected in the format of the exercise, explained in the invitation written into our conference abstract:
Rather than re-tracing what took place during the excursion I am instead making a record here of some of the key ideas that I will take away from the experience. This following points build on feedback we received after the excursion, as well as subsequent conversations between Michael and myself in the following days.
Perhaps more than anything though, what Michael and I were most excited about in the days following the excursion in Bremen was the potential for this type of digitally distributed mobile learning to be adapted to suit a range of different learning settings. When Michael and I first undertook one of these excursions in January 2015, alongside our colleague Jeremy Knox, we were foremost interested in the walking exercise as an approach that could be adopted in a range of different educational contexts. Looking back at our excursion through Bremen, I think we are getting close to where we wanted to reach.
We wish to thank Andrew Kirk, Cinzia Pusceddu-Gangarosa (both University of Edinburgh) and Ania Rolinska (University of Glasgow) for pavement-testing earlier versions of the activity described here. Meanwhile Jana Pflaeging (Universitat Bremen) enthusiastically supported our plan to deliver this activity as part of the 3rd Bremen Conference on Multimodality.
Dialogue in the Dark
Wondering about the city: making meaning in Edinburgh's Old Town
Dérive in Amsterdam
Briefly in Hamburg, travelling back from the 3rd Bremen Conference on Multimodality last week. I spent the day visiting museums in Hamburg's Speicherstadt, including the Dialog im Dunkeln attraction where, according to my tourist leaflet, there would be the chance to 'embark on a journey into total darkness' in order to 'learn the experience of everyday situations in life, without your sense of sight'. Although uncertain whether my absence of German language ability made this a good proposition, I paid the €21 entry fee: after all, it seemed to neatly fit some of the ideas we had recently been exploring in Bremen.
I needn't have worried about my lack of language skills as the tour was expertly delivered in German and English by Bjorn, our guide. As Bjorn would explain during the journey, he has been blind since birth "because of a problem during incubation" and therefore has no sense of what it would be like to live with sight. He is a 29-year old music student, works part-time in Dialog im Dunkeln and has a wicked sense of humour.
After a brief introduction where we were provided with white canes and a very brief outline of what would follow, our party of eight (comprising two German families and myself) entered a world of complete darkness for the following 90 minutes (even if we had no sense of time, having been asked to place mobile phones and "any other shiny items" in lockers before hand). We moved through a curtain and made slow, awkward steps into a world of black. For the first while I wasn't sure whether to keep my eyes open and found myself instinctively looking around as I tried to get a sense of my surroundings.
In the absence of sight we used Bjorn's voice - its assumed location and his clear instructions - to guide our path through a range of different environments. In each part of the tour the absence of sight drew attention to the way that we - and permanently blind members of our society - use other of the senses to understand their surroundings. Birdsong and the softness of the ground beneath our feet suggested our location within a park; gentle sideways rocking and the lapping sound of water accompanied our short tour around Hamburg's harbour, with Bjorn as the captain of our boat 'The Blindfish'; we used the sloping kerb and distinctive sonic-clicking of a pedestrian crossing to navigate a safe path through traffic.
The only part of the journey that didn't work for me was when we stopped to listen to an 8-minute piece of music that was accompanied by an invitation to focus on the images that it conjured. This appealed much less than thinking about how I had already been creating vivid pictures during our journey as I drew on on my existing life experiences to picture what was in the different spaces. This in turn led me to consider how the journey through darkness resonated with some of the ideas that had been put forward within our discussions around multimodality in Bremen. During the multimodal walking excursion that Michael Gallagher and I had delivered in place of a conventional conference paper, participants were asked to spend a few minutes without speaking to their fellow group members. This short exercise adapted the 'clean ear' games of the acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer, that seek to emphasise the variety of heard phenomena we encounter, for instance by closing our eyes and attempting to foreground the aural. The activity presented by Michael and I differed in the respect that, by temporarily silencing spoken conversation, we wanted participants to recognise the broad range of meaning making phenomena that shape how we make sense of our surroundings (rather than focusing on the aural character of the street in particular). As a participant in Bjorn's exercise, I now recognised how my own meaning-making-without-sight was shaped by sound, movement, touch, smell and other sensory phenomena.
A basic principle of multimodality is an openness to all the resources that have the potential to convey meaning. A second conceptual assumption is that all communicational and representational acts depend on more than one form of semiotic resource or 'mode'. Third, multimodality depends on the belief that the way we construct meaning is shaped by the way that these different resources come together in the moment. Continuing to ignore the ambient-folk soundtrack, I recognised how in each of the different settings - including those described above - I had made sense of my surroundings through a combination of sensory material. This was perhaps most evident when our journey visited a market and we sought to identify the wares on sale through touch combined with the distinctive aroma of particular fruit and vegetables: apples, oranges, cauliflower (I think).
Although I didn't think about it at the time, looking back over the subject matter of the Bremen multimodality conference, there was a strong emphasis upon what is seen within multimodal resources and representation. This would seem to make natural sense in what is described as an increasingly visually-mediated world. At the same time though, Dialog im Dunkeln makes a strong case that we shouldn't neglect the other material that helps us to make make sense of our world, whether it can be seen or not.
This being Germany, our tour concluded in a bar where (still in entire darkness) we drank coffee, coke or beer and reflected on our experiences. Before that though there was the practical and sensory challenge of attempting to judge the value of the coins in our pockets through weight, shape and size, before passing them to Bjorn, now in the guise of barman. As we stood at the bar Bjorn told us that he had recently returned from Birmingham where he had been delivering a training workshop for teachers working in a blind school. In reply I told Bjorn that each day I pass Edinburgh's own blind school, and that I was glad to now have a better appreciation of how the students there make sense of a world that we share, but they cannot see. In more ways than one, this journey into darkness had been enlightening.
Multimodality and mobile learning in Bremen
Processing sound for research
Here are my slides from the Interweaving Conference at Edinburgh University earlier today (6 September 2017). I was presenting on the relationship between multimodality and assessment within increasingly digital learning environments and society more generally.
The central argument of my research was that, contrary to the tendency within the literature to conceptualise multimodal assessment as being new, experimental or unconventional, this position might extend only as far as the boundaries of our own classrooms or disciplines.
The literature that takes a specific interest in multimodality and summative assessment is dominated by those researching or working within what we might describe as ‘language-based’ courses and contexts: primary education literacy, secondary-level English, higher education Humanities; composition classes within US colleges and universities. Presumably this is because these are the subjects and disciplines that are most unsettled by the growing propensity towards richly multimodal ways of constructing and communicating meaning, prompted by the growing presence of digital devices, learning spaces and pedagogies in higher education.
Drawing on my ethnographic study of meaning-making around assessment within an undergraduate architecture programme, I argued that multimodal assessment could be supported by what we might see as firmly established examples of ‘best practice’ around assessment feedback. If this seems a far from ground-breaking observation, it is worth noting that in the considerable body of literature that investigates the relationship between multimodality and assessment, including instances that have examined the introduction of richly multimodal assignments in place of the essayistic form, there are scant references to highly cited work around assessment and feedback. Similarly, there are few examples of researchers, course designers or tutors looking to the work of academic colleagues who are already immersed in multimodal teaching, learning and assessment.
The Interweaving Conference set out to bring together the broad range of research and researchers working in education at Edinburgh University. In line with the interdisciplinary interest of the conference, I concluded my presentation by suggesting that in those situations where we look to introduce richly multimodal assessment to accompany or augment existing essayistic approaches, we might wish to travel beyond the boundaries of own disciplines - and the walls of our classrooms - to look at interesting and firmly-established strategies around assessment and feedback.
Visual and Multimodal Forum at the UCL Knowledge Lab
Assessment, feedback and multimodality in Architectural Design
Architecture, multimodality and the ethnographic monograph
I am an ESRC-funded Doctoral student in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.