Trust and anonymity

I used to teach at MECIT in Oman and some of the lecturers there had written about the increases that occurred in the amount of communication in forums once they allowed pseudonimity in the posts. Oman is a Sultanate, with an extensive royal family, so there’s a considerable and highly structured social hierarchy based around closeness of relationship with the sultan. For this reason many students don’t use their surname, just giving their first name twice because otherwise it would influence their relationships with other students. Hiding their offline identity further, so not revealing sex or ethnicity extended their freedom further. Online names were all inanimate objects, but even flower names weren’t used (as in most languages flowernames are female). The amount and depth of the communication increased substantially.

In eastern Asian cultures as well there is a lot of importance attached to creating a public social identity associated with the concept of face which can be very different from their private identities. So for these reasons they use different social media platforms like Weibo, since this enables people to go online without revealing their offline identities. In the west there are a lot of communities in which people want to protect their offline identities because of their sexuality (predominantly but there are other concerns). A lot of social media platforms don’t permit this, Facebook and google being particularly bad perpetrators of disclosurism – disclosurism is a term given to people who want to know your offline identity in online interactions. This gave rise to the so-called “nymwars” when they introduced these policies. I think it’s a failure of privileged white guys not realising how difficult it can be for people not at the top of the social ladder. A lot of women pass as men in order to avoid harassment, for example.

The worry is that being anonymous licenses a lot of inappropriate behaviour, because there is no consequence for abusive behaviour, but I’ve usually found that pseudonymity is very different from anonymity. Even if you don’t know someone’s offline identity, if they are sufficiently invested in their online identity, antisocial behaviour is still not consequence-free because they can find themselves cut out of their online-only relationships if they transgress certain rules.

The most troubling of the positions I find with the requirement to disclose a particular name; the whole a/s/l insistence, is the concept of a “real” identity. Identity can’t be packaged or defined in a particularly nuanced way. Telling someone your age, sex or location doesn’t actually inform them about anything important. At an ALT-C conference I once declared that you can tell a person’s gender more easily online than offline. It was a statistic I made up, but I did so to see if anyone quibbled with it. No-one did. Most people aren’t transgender, and yet there are enough transgender people around that you can’t presume you can tell someone’s gender by being able to see their sex. My made-up statistic was meant to reinforce the possibility that, once online, we are freed of the imposition of the physical onto who we are. Online no-one knows you’re bald, no-one can impose a gender; you can claim to be any age, any height, any species. And no-one has a right to interfere with, or prevent you from, defining yourself how you wish. We shouldn’t necessarily assume that this is about hiding one’s true self, it can be (and maybe is more frequently) about revealing one’s true self, once all that pesky physical reality stuff is dispensed with.

Whichever route we as educators go down, pseudonymity, anonymity or onymity (it’s a real word there is nothing more fruitful than a discussion about the pros and cons of the course taken with students. I’ve had some fascinating conversations about it in class (OK I mean specifically when teaching digital identity – I can’t see how it would crop up in a physics lesson). Essentially the pros and cons of either route need to be explored.


Metaxis and liminality

“In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey”

Just as I began to write this blog I experienced an excellent example of Metaxis – I’m sitting in the local car servicing garage, in the waiting room, but absorbed in what I’m doing. My sense of presence is removed from my immediate surroundings, my mind is entirely within the online environment, and then Beck (Loser) starts playing on the radio. Straight away I’m pulled out of what I’m doing and (3-2-1) I’m back in the room. It’s that good a song. And appropriately the garage is called In ‘n’ Out. And now it’s Guns and Roses (Sweet Child of Mine). This will take a while.

Liminality is a word that’s banded around a lot, and sometimes I’m not entirely sure people have a grip on what it is. It’s a word that starts in discussions of the theatre and has been adopted more generally by anthropologists, and has made its way into education. The limen is the edge of the stage, it’s the threshold that separates the world of the performers and the world of the audience. Liminality is then the experience of transition between two spaces. In a theatre the edge between make-believe and reality is an obvious one; there’s also an important transition between outside and inside the theatre.

“Where do we go now?”

It’s different from an interstitial space however. Interstitial is between two other spaces, true, and is unallocated, so opens up a range of possibilities. The BLTC conference is largely constructed around interstitial spaces. Corridors, bridges, studio workspaces, dining rooms, without the rules of regular spaces, other things can happen.

The learning commons type of learning environments work like interstitial spaces, they’re neither formal nor informal spaces, they’re institutional but also personal. In Oldenberg’s typology they’re both second and third places – so two-and-a-halfth spaces.

Liminal spaces describe something different than just this interstiality … interstitialness … interstitial nature. The world of the stage isn’t like the regular world. It has a narrative.

damn the Stones are on … there will be another intermission

The people on it are supposed to be people other than who they appear to be. They’re not the two actors off the X-Men movies, they’re Estragon and Vladimir, for example. To engage properly with the space requires a willing suspension of disbelief, or rather (I’d suggest) an engagement of belief.

“I saw her today at the reception”

It’s not just theatre and it’s not just space either. We’ve seen in this blog entry how music can create a separate world within another one. There can be a moment of liminality, a transition from one world to another, anywhere. I can be sitting in a room but not aware of it because the background sound is some bland pop music, and it lulls the senses. I become absorbed in the world of what I’m doing online, it’s just me and you, my audience, and then some familiar strains of a rock track starts up on the radio and I’m pulled out of the world I’m creating, and pulled into the world that the musicians create. I suppose you might not like the Rolling Stones, or Beck, or Guns and Roses (if that’s the case, you might want to check your pulse) and it might not have the same effect. You might be able to sit in the audience of a play and not get drawn into the action because Beckett’s not your thing. Engagement of belief is key.

Other spaces have the same requirement. Ritual spaces, game spaces, sports arenas. Other media create the same transition within a space, books, TV, (with narrative media it’s called the diegetic effect). You cross that limen and you’re somewhere else.

Except you’re not entirely. That’s where metaxis comes in. Your sense of location and presence is a zero sum. The more you leave one world, the more you enter the other, but you can be split between the two to various extents. Sirs Ian and Patrick might be great, but you’re aware of the pressure of the seat in front of you on your knees; you’re absorbed in the stuff you’re writing, but aware that the Cranberries have just started. Or you’re getting wound up because you’ve just landed on Yavin IV for the third time in a row, but it’s only Monopoly so doesn’t *really matter. Not really. Honest.

Virtual worlds depend on engagement of belief to be fully effective as learning environments. For students so located within the physical world, they can’t lose their sense of their surroundings, and so can’t fully engage in the belief in the virtual. I think imagination has something to do with it too. Carrie Heeter calls it the Peter Pan effect, which sums it up nicely.

So why do it if it disadvantages some students? Well one reason is that for those who can experience these liminal spaces as they are meant to be experienced, it can open up new opportunities for interaction, for expression and engagement. If you can stand on the steps of the Theatre of Dionysus, as it was in ancient Greece, and actually feel it, that’s qualitatively different from just looking at a picture. And from personal experience I’d say conveys something more than standing on those steps as it is now (though that’s impressive too).

But also liminality isn’t just about the experience of presence in those spaces, it’s also about all the other things that transform when we’re in those imagination-dependent spaces (which I call 4th places for short – extending Oldenberg’s typlogy by one more). Identity, roles, rules of behaviour, community, all are transfigured by stepping over that limen. Some people would argue that the rationale for creating those spaces is that those things are transformed. Turner talked about the sense of communitas in a theatrical experience, fellowship and agápē are often words to describe the feeling of ritual spaces. Bernard Suits suggested that attending sporting events isn’t really about whether your team scores a goal or not, it’s about that feeling of camaraderie that occurs when the goal is scored. Because metaxis-wise there’s always the small voice at the back of your head that says this God doesn’t really exist, it doesn’t really matter whether my team wins, those two guys aren’t really waiting for Godot, the actual world outside the 4th places  intrudes to some extent but is suppressed to make the space you’re in work properly.

As far as education goes, these spaces can be enormously valuable, but I’d say that we’re still working out how they work, and what they mean. Looking for commonalities between them can also be instructive. They can also be difficult spaces to set up and support, but you know, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find, you get what you need.





Interstitial and liminal spaces

In an interesting bit of synchronicity, the BLTC planning and the themes identified, have coincided with an online discussion group that I’ve recently joined on the subject of inbetween spaces. It’s been mainly an email discussion group, but we’ve also met up online in a Google circle. The video of that first meeting is here:


You can see here evidence of the strength of the written word over spoken in my case. A combination of lack of sleep (insomnia could be an upcoming blog post) and the mania that comes with being exposed to a mass of interesting ideas from interesting people rendered me almost unintelligible at moments, but I think the others make plenty of sense, so the video is well worth watching.

Liminal spaces is one of the themes of Making Sense of Space; a book I worked on with my friend Iryna Kuksa. The book proposal was hers, and she invited me to contribute to it. I was stuck for what to contribute, then decided to rework a proposal I’d made for a Marie Curie Fellowship, which had fallen through. It was an excellent complementarity between Iryna’s work and mine; she’d got a monograph on design of spaces in virtual worlds, I’d got my stuff on the experience of spaces in virtual worlds, we put them together and co-wrote an introduction and conclusion. I’d also got a couple of chapters’ worth of work that was on work I’d collaborated on in both education and performance in virtual worlds, and it all fitted together really well – after Iryna had honed out many of my off-topic musings (I managed to persuade her to leave some in).

One thing that helped me pull my bit together was a model I’d come up with a few years earlier, which is an extended version of Activity Theory. Activity Theory has evolved over the years; starting with Vygotsky, then reformulated by Leont’ev and extended by Engestrom. To that illustrious list you can now add Childs :-p

I like activity theory as a description of what goes on when activities take place. It’s pretty simple to get hold of once you realise it’s not really a theory. It simplifies quite a complicated process by breaking it into its component parts, and enables you to singly consider the connections between those parts. It usually gets represented as a triangle, like this:


Obviously it’s just a representation – reality is what Adams once described as a WSOGMM (whole sort of general mish-mash) – but that’s too messy to really get a handle on.

The problem with activity theory is that it misses out two factors that a elemental in understanding activities and that is the participants’ sense of presence, with the space and with each other, and their identity, as learners, teachers, whatever. Now it’s fair to say that identity is probably already in there, it only makes sense in terms of community, or in the roles that we’re assigned, or I’d say it’s actually a tool we use in interaction. But anything that’s smeared across so many other categories just adds to the messiness of the analysis, so it’s simpler to just add it as another category.

What we then get is a triangle with identity and presence on either side – which actually looks like this when made a bit more regular:

activity theory

These eight categories then give a useful way of breaking down the specific characteristics of liminal spaces.

That’s a lot to go into here (plus, you know, buy the book) but I’ll talk about just one of these, in the next post; presence.


Written v. spoken interaction

In a recent discussion on TOOC (Teaching Online Open Course) that I’m a tutor on at Brookes a couple of participants commented on how they feel more exposed when writing than speaking online as it creates a permanent record – this prompted the following thoughts which I’m posting here:

There’s a move towards providing feedback to students in the form of audio – one reason is because some people find it quicker to produce the feedback that way. In the one audio feedback project I’ve worked on, the two academics chose to actually write their feedback out first then read out what they’d written, so it certainly wasn’t the case on that occasion. The real benefit of producing audio feedback is that it is less open to interpretation. There is a natural tendency, particular amongst students perhaps, who are in a position of constantly being assessed and so are probably more vulnerable to criticism, to read into the text the most negative tone possible. With audio feedback anyone commenting on the work can do so in a more conciliatory gentle tone and that’s appreciated.

Issues with audio though are that firstly it can be more difficult for non-native English speakers. At times in my life I’ve had passable skills at other languages (I pick them up quickly then forget them quickly) but that was always written – it’s easier to pick identify the words when written down than when they’re spoken. The other is speed – I hate manuals that exist solely as a series of videos. I want to be able to scan down some text quickly and pick out the useful bit, I don’t want to have to wade through a whole set of irrelevant stuff, which is often a little sales pitch and some theme music. Audio feedback doesn’t do that (imagine an online world where we all have our own theme music …. actually on second thoughts that seems pretty cool) but it’s still more laborious to sit through.

Although it’s easier to create an audio file, it’s still maybe preferable to write stuff. It’s the rehearsal stage that’s easier. In computer-mediated communication rehearsal is anything that happens before publishing, so all of the corrections and changes that happen before you hit “post” is rehearsal; everything you change after is revision. Although I try to maintain as conversational a tone as possible in my posts and blogs, there’s still a bit of reading through to make sense (believe it or not) before posting. Spelling and grammar also get a bit of a look over too, even in a chat room. It’s when you need to do something speedily in text that the problems really start. Chat can be a nightmare, so can twitter if you have lots of people simultaneously contributing to a conference or something. You’re trying to type fast in order to get your point across while it’s still relevant, and meanwhile the conversation has moved along as the faster typists dominate the conversation.

In teaching situations where I’ve used chat as a medium (this goes back to when I was at Warwick just over 10 years ago) this was identified as the biggest challenge for ESL speakers. It takes longer to compose a chat post if English isn’t your first language, but also if the conversation fragments, so that a line can be a response to a dialogue three lines up, but in between two other conversations are happening, (for example), then that can be very difficult to follow too, unless your language skills are up to it.

For that reason it’s common netquette to start a line with @name (if several conversations are going on at once) so you know which conversation it refers to, but what we used to do at Warwick was ask the students to take it in turns. A student could say “pass” if they had nothing to say, but it meant that no-one was unconsciously censored. It slows the interaction down considerably, but I think this is something that is simply part of the adjustment that has to be made when moving online.

I was going to say this in our first webinar. I’m aware that in a mixed-mode webinar, where some are coming in via text, and others via voice, that this creates a power-relationship, the voice people dominate. In some occasions this is actually preferable. If you’re teaching then you might want to be the only one with voice, and have the students respond with text, and just bring them in with voice if they have a long or complex contribution, but this is still by invitation. Otherwise you can have lots of people breaking in over each other and it becomes difficult to follow.

Encouraging people to adapt to this slower pace is difficult but worthwhile, I think. Patiently waiting for someone to finish typing their post so they can contribute equally to the conversation, rather than carrying on talking, is an essential technique in running a webinar. Some people say they miss the energetic to-and-fro of a face-to-face conversation, but … that’s a good thing. Energetic toing-and-froing is awful for some people (me included) because if you’re someone who needs a second or two to collect your thoughts before contributing, there’s never a long enough gap to begin your contribution.

I once surveyed a class about an online lesson, both by written questionnaire and by focus group. The differences in the results were very marked. The predominating written response was it was engaging and fun, the predominating spoken result was that it was slow and boring. My interpretation of the results was that the focus group was dominated by people who excelled at face-to-face interactions, and in the move to online working they were losing their dominant role. The remainder found online more egalitarian.

For this reason, I think online meetings and lessons are MORE effective than offline ones. At the very least we should mix them up, so that the strengths of both modes can come into play.

I think feeling exposed when writing online is something that we can get used to – you’ll see that my written stuff on my blog and on these posts is largely stream of consciousness. With more time I would be more coherent, but I still check for spelling and grammar to some extent. However, as long as we are more or less understandable I think this matters less in these environments than in more official scenarios. The only time it is crucial is when correcting someone else’s punctuation and grammar. Getting it wrong then is extremely embarrassing. The observation that when correcting someone you’ll make a mistake yourself is known as Muphry’s Law. And these written things are still more coherent than my spoken stuff. For some research last year I interviewed a range of people in the Ethiopian government, and when transcribed there were one or two whose transcripts read like a text book. I was aware they were eloquent, but that ability to talk without shifting tenses, or confusing the object, or changing flow halfway through is extremely difficult. Most of us do that all the time, but like you said, it’s not recorded.

That’s different here of course, Marion, Simon and I are recorded. I haven’t played back my videos because I think they’d be excruciating to watch. My intro video was scripted, but I tried to make it sound naturalistic, because I think that’s easier to listen to. I think I may have gone too far and actually ended up sounding incoherent. Hopefully they’re not too bad.

As an addendum, though really it should be line one: if you have any hearing-impaired participants, then of course you should use text only. There’s really interesting stuff written by Diane Carr on how the introduction of voice to platforms (mainly Second Life) has marginalised deaf people. Well worth reading up on that. I’ll add references to the comments.

Mental Space

The Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference site is live I’m not going to be able to make it due to a prior commitment (an Iron Maiden + Ghost gig in Wroclaw – already booked when the conference dates were announced). It’s frustrating that two things I really want to go to are on at the same time – not least because I wrote most of the copy for the conference themes so I feel like I’ve shaped it a bit. That’s not to say they were my idea, we’d already agreed to include the three conceptualisations of space from the a recent project led by Kirsti Lonka (the keynote speaker) called 3 spaces i.e. mental, digital and physical, and the idea of liminal spaces had been bouncing round for a while in the discussions. All I did was pull them together and add some discussion points.

Since I won’t be there, I thought I’d do a series of blogs about the themes, so at least I’m making a contribution somewhere.

The discussion points for the theme of mental space are:”How do we address the mental space of students? Do we push students out of their comfort zone, and how far? Are embodiment, presence and identity important for learning? Are HEIs spaces without emotional conflict?” These were really prompted by a discussion I’d had with George Roberts, triggered by his blog a while back,

It’s also a train of thought that was started by Warwick Students Union banning Maryam Namazie Though they backtracked once the media outcry started, it still doesn’t change the fact that a group of students, or at least one student acting on their own, thought that was OK. It raises all sorts of alarm bells about freedom of speech, and about how it is being undermined in the name of creating a safe space for students. What was even more worrying is that at Goldsmiths when there was a protest against her visit, the university’s feminist and LGBTQ+ societies wrote in support of the protestors, two groups that I’d have expected to stand for free speech.

On the other hand, I’m not totally in favour of free speech irrespective of the consequences. Inciting hatred of people can be threatening for those on the receiving end of the hatred. Inviting people who will then rail against particular ethnicities, or homosexuality, or particular individuals is something we should protect students against. There’s a tendency everywhere for people to say the most ridiculous or objectionable things and then follow up any criticism with “well that’s my opinion and I’m entitled to have one as much as you do”. I spend too much time looking at the bottom half of the Internet. It doesn’t do much for your opinion of humanity.

Well, you probably are entitled to any opinion you wish to hold, but I’d add the caveat, and usually do when I get drawn into these discussions, that you’re only entitled to share it if you can back it up with a credible argument, and some evidence. You have an opinion that America is the best country in the world? Well the UN Human Development Index says that it’s the 8th, so which study are you referring to? You’re citing the Bible or Koran as your supporting evidence? Then you’ll need to prove the existence of God for that one to count as a credible argument. Over to you.

So if someone wants to speak at your university, they need to have some academic credibility in order to get a platform to express their ideas. Where’s their study? What’s their evidence? Without that, then what are they doing there anyway? And why would we want to encourage our students to buy into unsupported dialogues?

If your students still feel threatened by what a speaker has to say, then we really need to start addressing why they’re so lacking in resilience. You are entitled to feel personally safe, free from the potential from harm, emotional and physical. Verbal and physical threats and assaults, or anything that might lead to them, shouldn’t be countenanced. But having your ideas, opinions and sensibilities threatened, that should be part of the normal daily existence of all of us. We should be encouraging our students to welcome those challenges, not shielding them from them. If something challenges your way of thinking, come up with an argument as to why they’re wrong, though preferably after you’ve given them due consideration as to whether they could be right. If that’s too much work, then learn to ignore them. Above all don’t take a discussion of ideas personally. Because then you become no better than a politician.

Where to draw the line about what is fair game for criticism is a tricky one. I’d originally thought that a good place to draw it is between ideas and people. Criticise ideas all you like, but lay off people. Then I heard Ricky Gervais’s interview with Conan O’Brien, just before the Golden Globes this year. Gervais said that for him the division is between what people do, and who they are. Make fun of what they do, but accept who they are. His routine at the Golden Globes ceremony about Caitlin Jenner is a perfect example of this. He refers to her pre-transition as Bruce Jenner, perfectly and chronologically accurate. He admires her for courage in transitioning, also laudable. Then makes a dig at the vehicular manslaughter she was accused of. ie what she did, not who she is. He walked that line spot on. That’s the line as universities we should be walking. Everything open to criticism, except when we’re talking about who someone is. Ethnicity, sex, sexuality. They’re not choices, they’re out of bounds for criticism. Religion, politics, economics; they’re choices and are fair game, providing you’ve got the evidence to back it up.





Creating presence online

Last week my headset stopped working in a videoconference with my line manager. I asked him to wait a few minutes while I found a replacement and went to the Bag of Useful Things at the end of my sofa. My cat was sitting on the arm.

Cat (looking on): Meeeoooww.

Me (to cat): I know, I’m looking for a spare headset.

Cat: Meeeeoooww.

Me (tipping stuff onto floor): OK it’s a mess, I’ll clear it up later.

Cat: Meeeooow

Me: No. Nothing there. I’ll give up.

I went back to the laptop, and see that I’ve forgotten to mute the microphone. The one thing more embarrassing than talking TO your cat when people can hear is talking WITH your cat.

On a forum earlier today too I was talking about Teresa MacKinnon’s work with Wimba discussion boards. A colleague had been talking about a voice-recording plug-in for Moodle. I suggested that if it had the functionality of Teresa’s work, i.e. having an option to just click on the set of reply options to open up a recording dialogue, which you could then record a reply and click on it to upload, this is far better than going to a recording program and creating, storing and uploading a file. I used a shorthand phrase to describe this —  a Wimba way. A new post means I can drag out all the old puns that got tired in the previous post.

So both of these things came up in the webinar this morning while we were waiting for people to turn up. I relayed the conversation with my cat (quoting the cat’s parts). Then I recounted the “a Wimba way” pun (which works better in audio than text). Which meant that the participants entered the Connect room either hearing me meowing, or me and my colleague singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight before the session started.

Now anyone who knows me is aware one of my biggest faults is a poor filter mechanism. I don’t play out in my head things before saying them. So maybe that doesn’t always come across as professional. However, I am going to argue that actually in online teaching, it’s incredibly useful.

One of the topics of the presentations in the seminar covered the role of humour in teaching. The presenter said how useful it is. She also pointed out how much we as teachers rely on visual cues from students and how that’s missing in an online environment. I’d agree with that, but only to a point, in that it’s also possible to develop the habit of supplying and looking for other cues. Emoticons, brief comments, even just seeing the “(typing)” notification appear in the chat box are all cues that the audience is engaged. After one particularly bad experience with presenting via videoconference (no camera at the far end, and no typed responses to my questions – but I still kept going – then found out when I finished that no-one had been listening to me because a row had broken out at the far end about a previous session, and the row had got so bad that people had actually been thrown out) I will now not continue unless I get a response. “I’m waiting …. I can wait all day if necessary.” We need to train our students into supplying those cues during our teaching.

Another presenter discussed the role of cake in teaching. In order to engage her students she brings them cake. Cake also helps with encouraging them to attend focus groups. I have been employed by 10 universities now, and Brookes does have the best cake. Another lecturer discussed Lego which we also all agreed was an excellent motivation for learning but a real bastard to kneel on.

At the end of the session all of the presenters said it was a lot less nerve-wracking than they’d been expecting. One of them said it was a real laugh.

The problem with presence online is a difficult one to overcome. You can never be as present online as you can in a proximal situation. The technology can only do so much at bridging distance. However, this can be compensated for by a whole range of mechanisms, particularly humour, and being relaxed, and being as personable as possible (in words of Mel C, be yourself, unless you’re a tw.t, in which case be someone else), and off-topic at times, and talking about cake, can all add to that sense of being together. It takes a couple of goes to relax that much, to be able to function despite the visual cues (actually for me it’s probably a lot easier without them because the visual cues are quite often eye-rolling). I’d suggest we all attempt to inculcate that type of interaction as much as possible.

And I’ll carry on having conversations with my cat.

On gobbledygook

One of the tasks for participants in the First Steps in Learning and Teaching course that I’m helping to convene at Brookes is to create an annotated bibliography. The discussion that has spun out from this has been fascinating. One of the participants particularly drew attention to this quote from Cathy Davidson: “if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?”

Academic gobbledygook is one of my main bugbears. There are so many different things that can make something impenetrable to readers, some of which are really difficult to avoid. One comes from the idea of threshold concepts, which are steps in learning that change your perspective on a field. These can be particularly difficult to teach, not least because, once you grasp them, it’s very difficult to then see things the way that you used to see them, and therefore communicate to people who then haven’t acquired that mindset. Concepts and the language to describe them become so intrinsic to the way you see the world that communicating with people who haven’t crossed over to that mindset becomes particularly difficult.

Another problem is that within a particular discipline, some terminology is regularly used, to an extent that you’re no longer aware that it’s a specialist terminology. I used to research into subcultures in virtual worlds, and ranted to friend that an editor of a paper asked me to explain the words “furry” and “steampunk”. I just felt it was asking me to talk down to my audience. Rather than commiserating, my friend responded with doubts about my own sanity, that I’d probably got too far into my own little world because those definitely aren’t words that everyone would recognise. Terminology is useful, when it encapsulates a range of ideas that would otherwise take a long time to unpack, but we always need to be prepared to unpack them for our audience. When doing a session on technology enhanced learning I always ask people to flag when I’ve used a term or abbreviation they don’t know.

What does annoy me in those situations though is, that you can get some people who act all outraged when you use a phrase that they don’t know. I was at one workshop on PDAs (that dates it) where someone in the audience got very belligerent with the person running it that she hadn’t said what PDA stood for. It was in the title of the session. Why attend if you don’t know what it is? Or spend 10 seconds googling it. Or work it out from context. Lack of understanding about terminology is a failing of two people, not just one. It’s not like spelling it out helps anyway. Anyone know what DVD stands for? Does knowing that help you watch a movie?

I think the one thing we can guard against more easily in the fight against gobbledygook is the tendency to pack ideas together so densely that sentence structure and following the conceptual trail of an argument, become difficult to follow. Sometimes this is sloppiness, but it is often because the writer is unsure about the validity, or even academicness, of the subject they’re talking about. The temptation is to dress it up with fancy words, or cram two previously unmatched ideas together and expect the audience to work out for themselves what those two concepts when blended actually mean. When I next come across an example of that I’ll add it to the comments below.

Being a reviewer for a few journals has helped me enormously here in being prepared to go through something a colleague or submitter has written and say “I don’t understand what this means”. I could probably have a go at working it out, or forming that synthesis in my head myself, but that’s not something a reader should have to do. That’s the author’s job.

Another thing that we do is placing so many caveats and double-negatives around something in order to actually avoid making as firm a statement. It’s not inconceivable to doubt that the absence of double-negatives can lead to the lessening of the propensity to reduce the failings in sensemaking of many statements.

Gobbledygook is just being a poor communicator. However there’s a form of academic writing that starts with a phrase like “it is not inconceivable that” and then uses this as an axiom in an argument. The master of this is Greenfield, who’s created a whole new career out of making statements like “children are on social media so much, it is not inconceivable that it will have an effect on them” and then working up to “given that there is such an effect what can we do to limit it.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s how the reasoning works). The discussion then subtly glosses over the element that the original statement is totally unsupported and a bit weasely. At no point is there actually any lying going on, it’s just a subtle misdirection that sounds like a valid argument. At this point we’ve got past gobbledygook and are into the realm of bullshit, which I will post about next time.


For great examples of bullshit, one of my favourite books is Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. I think if more people were primed to detect it, and have little less patience with it, we would all contribute to making academic writing a bit more accessible.


On escape, enhancement and exceptionalism

Last week I did a guest spot in a lecture at (although whether it was really “at” is a moot point) Surrey University. The students’ regular lecturer is Lee Campbell and we share an interest in the idea of embodiment online, particularly its role in performance (although Lee knows way more about the performance angle). His module is actually on Digital Performance.

I used this as an opportunity to bring together three different (though linked) strands of what I’ve been researching and writing about, digital identity, online spaces and embodiment. The linking theme of all of these is really that we aren’t just physical beings; that our interactions with technology are so integrated with our sense of selves, spaces, bodies, that the technology is an extension of us. Understanding who we are (and more relevant to using TEL) understanding how we act online, can be informed by adopting this perspective. And by “act” I mean it in both senses, or rather that  an essential part of acting (as in performing an action) is acting (as in performing).

The question about whether I was actually “at” Surrey Uni is a debatable one because I was at home, on the sofa. My image and voice were on a screen in a classroom there through the auspices of Skype. But where I actually was was kind of my topic.

Also to put together the presentation, I pulled together bits from three different presentations. The one on identity was re-used from my SOLSTICE keynote from a couple of years ago where I contrasted developing my identity in the physical world (cue pictures of me as a baby, in toddlers clothing, in a baggies strip, and as a 15 year old nerd) compared to four stages of my avatar (standard start-up form, first bought skin, more textured skin, sitting in a home). While describing this I said that my identity up until 15 was purely an offline one because …. because the internet hadn’t been invented.

I’d never actually mentioned that in a presentation before, but of course, for students now, that’s quite a novel idea. OK there was ARPANET, but I was nearly 30 before anyone I knew had actually been online.

That aside led to being positioned with a weird sort of authority “as someone who was around before the internet”. The question I was asked though was “as someone who was around before the internet, what do you think about the use of virtual worlds and games as a means of escapism?”

Working in virtual worlds, it’s a question I’ve been asked before. The games-based learning field leads into it too. Recently at a conference I was asked whether we should be encouraging students to play games.

My answer is always a bit inconsistent, because I’m not sure what assumptions are leading people to ask the question, so I try and answer both simultaneously.

The first is that there’s something wrong with escapism. There isn’t. I’ve spent a large proportion of my life escaping to some fictional world or other. A central thesis of Saler’s “As if” (“As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality” – an exceptional book, I assume from the small amount I read before I lost my copy – or maybe it escaped) is that the completeness of fantastical worlds is so that they can function as places to escape to. And those sorts of fictional worlds have been around for a long time. Games have been with us for thousands of years. I’m sure the reason our ancestors sat around a few pebbles and lines drawn in the sand it was to escape from the daily pressures of hunting down bison or evading sabre-toothed tigers (editorial caveat: I’m not an anthropologist).

But this isn’t the sort of escape that the gaming naysayers are worried about. If someone is curled up in an armchair with a Trollope (I’m thinking Anthony but Joanna would do), that is A Good Escape, but if they’re firing away at the Covenant in the latest Halo, that’s a Bad Escape. No coherent reason is given for distinguishing between the two.

The other is that escapism is happening when it isn’t. This applies particularly to when they’re contesting virtual worlds. The name Second Life doesn’t help in this argument, in that it implies something other to normal life. My response to these people is that the online world is an authentic experience for those who take part in it. That the relationships built up there are as real as those in the physical world to those that want them to be. That this extension of our bodies, lives, selves, spaces into the virtual is a real change that society has experienced, and that actually ignoring it is the real escape.

So … as someone who was born before the Internet my position is: “If you haven’t fought off the Reapers in Mass Effect then you need to ask yourself the question, “why not? What are you trying to escape from?””

The reason for the double-standards is, of course, that technology is still seen by many as exceptional to the human experience, not an integral part of it. It’s something that’s added on to what we are, and we are losing ourselves in. It has at its route a technophobia or even neophobia; that technology itself is seen as other, and any change towards incorporating it is a move away from some imaginary golden age ideal of what being human is.

This issue has cropped up in conversations at work about the idea of Technology Enhanced Learning, with reference to beliefs, anxieties and miscommunications about the idea of Enhancement. Some people see the TEL agenda as being one of trying to impose some sort of technocratic imperialism on them. Others feel that they are being singled out for enhancement because they aren’t performing.

This is difficult for someone that just gets excited about new tech to realise, and communicate with. For me change (with or without technology) is an essentially human thing. The first caveman who picked up a hand axe must have been excited about it, they’re such undeniably cool things. But even then there must have been other people who looked on them with suspicion and carried on hitting things with ordinary shaped rocks.

I tried to encapsulate these various positions into a single matrix (because simplifying things is how I deal with them). This is what I came up with:

Change is for all Change is imposed on the disadvantaged
Technological change is an essential part of the human condition Extropianism Technological dystopianism/class warfare
Technology is dehumanising Technophobia The eugenics debate

These could probably be expanded with some examples. But that’s probably for another time. But for a little self-test here’s an item taken from today’s headlines.

Now I admit there are ethical issues, and we need to engage our brains before making a decision, but isn’t the initial emotional instinctive reaction to the idea of GM babies “woah, cool”?  Isn’t that the most human response?




On evaluation design pt 2.

Third set of principles

The other thing to remember is that even if you’re leading the evaluation, it’s not your evaluation. One thing you don’t want to create is an “us and them” division within a project, where teachers provide data for the researchers. Education research should be designed with the end user in mind, which is educators, and they know better what they need to know. And everyone in the project is bound to have a good idea about research questions (I refrained from saying “better idea” but that’s probably true too). So the research questions, survey design, sources of data, all need to be collaboratively created, with practitioners and (if they’re interested) students. If there are other practitioners who want to contribute to the evaluation and writing of the report and any papers coming out of the project, they also have a right to do that, and should be included. I know of some projects (none I’ve been involved with thankfully) where academics have just gone to ground with the results and months later have a paper published, without offering anyone else within the project the opportunity to be involved and get a publication out of it. Which isn’t on. The AMORES project brought some of the schoolchildren along to the final conference. This shouldn’t really be exceptional, but it still is. Arguably it’s the learners who are the rationale behind doing all of the research in the first place. (Competing arguments are that it’s our mortgage lenders who are the rationale for doing it, but that’s another post entirely).

So .. #3 evaluation design should be Egalitarian, Inclusive, participative.

Now would be a good time to mention ethics, probably as it brings together all of the principles we’ve discussed so far.

Obviously everyone who takes part in the project needs to be protected. Everyone has the right to anonymity if they are taking part, so usually I get students to adopt a pseudonym for all interactions. There’s a piece of paper somewhere that matches pseudonym to real name (in case the student forgets and needs to look it up) but that never goes online and never leaves the classroom. Protecting the identities of staff is also important if that’s what they want, but also acknowledging their participation if that’s what they want too. Just remember to ask which it is. But ethics is really the underlying reason why you want the evaluation to be useful (you’re obliged ethically to put something back into the sector if you’re taking time and resources from it) and to be egalitarian (everyone deserves a chance to be published and have a creative input to the process.

So #4 Be ethical

The fifth set of principles are possibly the most difficult to put in place. Up to now every previous principle put in place has led to a whole set of different data, from different sources, that just happen to be around, contributed by and perhaps analysed by, a lot of different people. At this stage, it could be seen to be a bit of a mess.

However, that’s where the skill of the evaluator comes into its own. It’s taking these disparate sets of data, and looking for commonalities, differences, comparisons, and even single case studies that stand out and elucidate an area on their own. The strength of having such disparate sets of data are that they are :

#5.1 eclectic, multimodal, mixed methodologically,

However, it’s still necessary to put a minimum (remember, light touch) more robust evaluation in place at the core, in the form of a survey/questionnaire etc. This needs to contain a pre- and post-test and be open to quantitative analysis (some people only take numbers seriously). This runs against the idea of aligned with practice and opportunistic, as it’s an imposed minimum participation, but I think as long as it’s not too onerous, it’s not too much to ask. Usually though, this is the bit that requires the most struggle to get done.

So .. #5.2  quantitative comparative analysis, demanding minimum imposed involvement from practitioners to complete, provides an essential safeguard to the research to ensure robustness

However, this is not the only robust aspect. Even though the remainder of the data are opportunistic, because they are so wide-ranging they will inevitably provide qualitative data in sufficient quantity (and be triangulated), that this would in itself be an effective evaluation. It’s just good to have some numbers in there too.

To make the best of these elements, post-hoc, is the most difficult aspect of this style of evaluation, and requires a bit of time just sifting through everything and working out what it is you’ve actually got. Allow a week without actually getting anything concrete done. It’s OK, it’s just part of the process. It requires the evaluator synthesise the findings from each set of data and therefore to be

#5.3 flexible, creative, patient

As Douglas Adams once said (though he was quoting Gene Fowler) “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”


Finally the outputs. Both the BIM Hub project and the AMORES project have the same two sets of evaluation reports. Given the aims of the project to be both useful, and robust methodologically, I think having the outputs in these two forms is essential.

Typically these two forms are:

A “how to” guide – the AMORES one is at this link:

The BIM Hub one is here:

Both of these summarise the key points of learning from the project, in a form that practitioners can adopt this learning and incorporate it into their own practice.

However, backing up these documents are fuller evaluation reports detailing the data and analysis and showing how these points of learning were arrived at, and providing the evidential basis for making the claims. This isn’t essential for people to read, but these documents do provide the authority for the statements made in the summary documents.

Finally both projects also include visual materials that contribute to the evidence. In the BIM Hub project, this is recordings of the meetings the students held, showing how their abilities developed over time. For the AMORES project there are dozens of examples of the students’ digital artefacts. In short, when you’re publishing the evaluation you also want to reassure your audience that you haven’t just made the whole thing up.

i.e. The final principle generate artefacts during the project so that at the end you can: show that it is a real project, with real students, doing real stuff







On evaluation design pt 1.

Some thoughts on my approach to evaluation design

I’ve just finished another internal evaluation of a project. This time it’s the AMORES project Reflecting on the evaluation, and the similarities with the previous evaluation I did, led me to some realisations about the sort of evaluations I conduct, how they are designed, and what their essential elements are. I thought I’d collect these together into a couple of blog posts, mainly so that the next time I design one, I can remember the best of what I did before.

I should specify that I’m discussing particularly internal evaluation. For those not familiar with educational projects, most of them have two evaluation strands. One is the external evaluation; this is conducted by someone outside of the project who examines how well the project functioned, whether it met its goals or not, how well communications worked within it, and so on. It’s part of the Quality Assurance, compliance and accountability process.

The internal evaluation asks questions of the learners, teachers and anyone else involved with the educational aspects to identify good practice, look for tips that can be passed on, and encapsulate the overall experience for the learners and educators. In short, it’s there to answer the research questions addressed by the project.

There’s a good deal of overlap between the two, but they are essentially different things, and should be done by different people. You merge the two at your peril, as part of the external evaluation is to address the success of the internal evaluation. And you do really need both to be done.

I’ve been the internal evaluator on 13 education projects now, but the last two (the other one was the BIM Hub project were very similar in evaluation design; I think I’ve cracked the essential elements of what an internal evaluation should look like.

Part of the issue with being an internal evaluator is that, even though you’re part of the project team, you’re not (usually) one of the teachers. And teachers on projects have their own agenda, which is to teach (obviously) and, quite rightly, this takes precedence over all the analysis, research and general nosiness that a researcher wants to conduct.

For this reason, an evaluation design needs to be as unobtrusive as possible. Most education activities generate a lot of data in themselves, artefacts, essays, recordings of teaching sessions, all of these can be used without placing any additional burden on the learners or teachers. Sometimes the evaluation can drive some of the learning activities. So, for example, you need students’ perceptions of their learning; so you set as an assignment a reflective essay. You need something to disseminate, so you set students the task of creating a video about their experiences, which can also be evaluation data. And when we’ve done this, not only does this prove to be a very useful set of data, it also becomes an excellent learning opportunity for the students. Teaching generates a lot of data already, too, such as grades, results of literacy testing, pupil premium figures, tracer studies. As long as the institution releases the data, then this is stuff you can use with no impact on the learners or teachers.

So here’s the first set of criteria. Evaluations must be:

Unobtrusive, opportunistic, aligned with teaching practice

The second set of criteria is related to actually having an evaluation that makes sense. There’s no point gathering a set of data that are more than you can deal with (having said that, every project I’ve done has). Also the data you collect have to be targeted towards finding out something that will be of use to other practitioners once you’ve finished the project (I’ll come to outputs later). The RUFDATA approach is a good one here. There’s also no point trying to gather so many data that no-one will look at the surveys you’re distributing, or complete them if they start them. For length of survey principles that seem to work are:

Quantitative questions – no more than one page (and use a 5-point Lykert scale obviously – anything else looks ridiculous – but add “don’t know” and “N/A” as options too.

Free text questions: well no-one wants to write an essay, and if it’s on paper you’ll have to transcribe them at some point anyway. As far as numbers go, a good rule of thumb is that if it’s a number you’d see in a movie title it’s OK. So seven, or a dozen, or even 13, is fine. More than that is pushing it (and if you’re going to ask about 451 or 1138 questions then full marks for movie trivia, but minus several million for being a smart arse. The point of the movie title thing is that if you see your research questions as characters in the narrative you’re going to weave, then you don’t want to overcrowd your story anyway. Putting too many in then becomes pointless. You want all your questions to be Yul Brynners, rather than Brad Dexters.

So: useful, targeted, light touch, practicable

A third set of principles is based around whose research is it anyway? Which will be covered when we reconvene in the next post.