Geocaching activity in Kathmandu

Just thought I’d do a brief post – along the lines of what I did on my holidays. Although actually I was still working quite a few of the days as … well that’s the ideal thing about a job based on the Internet, you can do it anywhere. Anyway, I had the chance to try out this activity, a totally new one to me, basically just a small update to an activity my wife started off a few years back.

Geocaching learning activity April 11th 2016

The original geocache site was set up at the Mahan Siddhartha High School on 20th November 2010. It was an off-set cache – visitors to the stupa at Boudha answered clues based on the stupa and this led them to the school – but this had to be revised after the earthquake damage in April 2015 due to the school being relocated and rebuilding of the stupa. The geocaching activity on the 11th April updated the location of the cache, and children from the school also identified new questions, based on the buildings and objects around the stupa, rather than the stupa itself. A video of the original activity can be seen at

The new co-ordinates for the cache are

N 27 degrees 42.942

E 085 degrees 21.418

The geocaching activity that visitors undertake when visiting Kathmandu is to visit the website and search for nearby gecocaches, of which this (at is just one, and answer a series of questions to find the cache.

The co-ordinates are made into a puzzle by substituting letters for the numbers in the co-ordinates and setting clues for those letters. Taking the smallest four of these numbers, 1, 2, 4 and 5, the remainder of the digits can be created from those, where, if A=1, B=2, C=4 and D=5.

The principle of this was explained to the children from the school and, as a quick simple maths test, they were asked how all the numbers could be created from these four. The children identified that the larger numbers could be made up from the smaller ones like this:

N B (D+A)  degrees C B . (D+C) C B

E 0 (BxC) D degrees B A . C A (BxC)

The group took one walk around the partially-rebuilt stupa looking for clues that would produce the answers 1,2,4 and 5. The clues produced were:

How many maps are there as you go round the stupa? = A (answer 1)

How many dragons are there on the front of the Guru Lakhang monastery? = B (answer 2)

How many gates are there into the stupa? = C (answer 4)

How many leopards are there in the Guru Lakhang monastery? = D (answer 5)

Also as part of the exercise, the geocache was re-upped with three new trackables or travel bugs. Travel bugs are picked up and dropped off at the geocaches along the travels of the geocachers. By visiting a page associated with the bugs, geocachers can see what the mission of the bug is, and who else has picked up and dropped off the bug along the way. To individualise the bugs (which are just flat pieces of metal similar to dogtags) keyrings can be attached to them.

The children were asked to choose three keyrings that they felt represented their culture (as an example they were shown an Iron Man keyring to represent Western culture). One of the children chose a representation of a Gorkha  – a long Nepali blade. It was given the mission of collecting reflections about what the site visited means to the visitor’s culture and to them personally. To start off the bug’s mission the children were asked the significance of the stupa to their culture and to them personally. Responses were that culturally it was an important landmark site, but that personally it was where they came to be close to God. It can be tracked at

The second keyring was a Vajra, although the children only identified this as “a Buddhist symbol”. Vajras represent thunderbolts. This bug replicated the mission of the bug from the original creation of the cache, to visit places of worship.  It can be tracked at

The original bug can be tracked at It had a very brief journey, being taken by one geocacher to Lisbon, and then picked up by a second who took it to Egypt and back. It was only on the move between 28.11.2010 and 26.8.2012

The third keyring chosen was a representation of the stupa. The MS School has links with a UK school, children took part in a collaborative exercise whereby they wrote a short description of themselves and their lives, together with a photo, to share with children at the other school. This bug is aiming to travel to a cache near that school. The intention is that it will be picked up and dropped off at different caches en route, and randomly make its way to the right place. It can be tracked at

These three travel bugs were then placed in the cache at the Mahan Siddharta High School. Visitors to the stupa will then be led to the school, where they can fill in a logbook, drop off their trackables at the cache, and collect a different trackable from the cache. They can also fill in their experiences of the visit to the stupa and school, and completing the puzzle, at the website. This is then something the children at the school can watch developing, and see what other parts of the world their school becomes connected to.

There can be only one


Earlier this week I had a bizarre notification on Twitter. I was being praised for my role with Samsung Canada and my work with raising awareness of autism. As this wasn’t something I was aware of having done, I guessed it was a different Mark Childs that was being referred to. Sure enough the Chief Marketing Officer of Samsung Canada is called Mark Childs. There are plenty of us. If you Google my name I’m the first page of hits now, but for a long while the top ten were dominated by the uncle and nephew combination of Mark Childses, the (substantially more famous) Cantor and cellist. My mother has their CDs in her collection. I also have this novel on my shelf at home.

Neither of this is particularly unusual. There are plenty of cases of mistaken identity on twitter, often caused by someone less prestigious getting there before the more well-known version. The US teacher John Lewis (“Computer science educator, father of four, social liberal, atheist, and not a retail store”), Ashley “I’m not a freaking cricket match” Kerekes (twitter handle @theashes) or the woman in New York called Elizabeth Line are cases we’ve all heard of. It’s a confusion we’ve come to expect.

This doesn’t really come into a discussion on identity. Identity is a word used in completely different meanings, with very little overlap. Identity in maths is when an equation is true no matter which values are chosen. Identity in the phrase “identity theft” or “identity management” is really just a “construct of credentials” (a great phrase coined by my wife in Peachey and Withnail, 2013) it has little to do with actually what we mean when we talk about identity, which is really the construction of the various ways in which we perceive and define ourselves.

The problem is, how do we create an online presence for ourselves when our names can be blurred across so many different people? On Amazon it can be a problem finding my stuff, because not only is there the novelist called Mark Childs and the guy writing about urban planning called Mark Childs, you’ll also get anything written about children by anyone called Mark appearing above any of us in the returned search. Or in the case of Peachey, A., how do we maintain a single profile if you change your name?

This can be fixed on Amazon by creating an author page. It’s means that everything written by me can be grouped together, with a unique author’s ID (B00DHHKCIS – these things never trip off the tongue), so find one and you can find the others.

Writing journal papers is even trickier than books because you need to be traceable through citation indices and there are more people writing them with whom you can get mixed up. It’s why we have unique IDs, though they’re not as unique as they should be, as there’s ResearcherID, Google Scholar ID, OrcidID and Scopus. So not one standard, which is time-consuming, and also prone to complication. Orcid automatically populates its database with publications, but the algorithms are a bit flawed in that it created a hybrid personality composed of me and one other academic. Apparently, it’s far more probable that a professor at MIT might stop publishing about the physics of crystal lattices, drop his middle name and move to Wolverhampton to write about elearning, than that coincidentally one Mark Childs retires as the other’s career starts. Disentangling the two merged beings took a while but we’re know recognised as separate entities by the database.

Although enabling this construct of credentials to be processed unambiguously is not really part of one’s identity, it has led to me making some adaptations to who I am. I don’t actually have a middle name. My brother doesn’t have one, and going up the paternal line to the early 1800s, no-one else has one either. Whereas some families have a traditional name that is used, the Childses traditionally have a blank. That was fine until the need of logins to have a unique usernames. Anyone who’s on TOOC 16 at the moment will see I’m registered as Mark P Childs. As I had already logged in as Mark Childs using my google account, when setting up a Moodle account I needed a way to tell them apart. So the no middle name became a problem. My brother has encountered the same problems with registering email addresses, so is known as Andrew X Childs. If pressed he’ll tell you the X stands for Xavier. So why P? I recently found out that my mother was playing with the idea of calling me Ptolemy. She just liked the name. But changed her mind before registering it. Just as well; it sort of writes a cheque I can’t cash. But if the need to disambiguate my name ever crops up, that’s what goes in there.

I don’t think it changes the way I see myself. Or how others see me. But it’s starting to grow on me.



Peachey, A. and Withnail, G. (2013) “A Sociocultural Perspective on Negotiating Digital Identities in a Community of Learners” in Warburton, S. and Hatzipanagos, S. (Eds) Digital Identity and Social Media USA: IGI Global


A brief history of mobile devices


Reading elsewhere in A History of the World in 100 Objects I came across this quote from a letter by Geoffrey Chaucer to his 10-year-old son, Lewis.

I have seen that there will be some instructions that will not in all things deliver their intended results; and some of them be too hard for thy tender age of ten years to understand.

Chaucer senior was talking about the user manual for the astrolabe that he’d bought for his son. This is an astrolabe:

It can be used to tell positions of stars and planets, your latitude, and is an inclinometer. And probably a few other things too. The parallels with smartphones is obvious. A new device, that fits in the pocket, and does an amazing amount of things. And so complicated it takes a ten-year-old to understand it. The parallels with the hand axe are apparent too. Again hand-sized (pocket-sized except it was probably invented before the pocket) with a wide variety of applications.

The fascination with technology is an in-built human experience. Anyone who claims that technology is dehumanising hasn’t really been paying attention to how we evolved. Sure it changes us, but that’s a fundamental part of the human experience. And yet frequently in education I’ve come across resistance, not because it’s difficult or time-consuming (though it can be that) but because people have said they have an ideological opposition to it. Which is perhaps overstating their case. It’s more accurate to say they didn’t like it.

But look at that. Imagine you’re in 1391 – how cool would it be to own one of those? Scratch that, it’s still cool in 2016. Alone that shouldn’t be the basis of educational experience (the “cult of the shiny”) but it has to count for something.

That’s one reason why mobile devices are so loved. They are cool, and they’re always to hand, and they have a multitude of uses. Torch, satnav, book, music player, games console, text messager, internet browser, clock, stopwatch, timezone converter, camera, (still and movie), calculator, TV. About the only thing I don’t use mine for is as a phone. I wouldn’t say it was a fixed part of me (I’m always putting mine down somewhere and forgetting it). But it is an extension of my means to interact with the world. That’s my one quibble with the book. The 100th object is a credit card, supposedly being the device that sums up our time in the way that the astrolabe summed up the 14th century. I think even back in 2010 when the book came out, the smartphone was evidently the defining device of our time. And now of course it’s making the credit card obsolete.

Douglas Adams described technology as a tool that doesn’t work yet. Marshall McLuhan described a tool that becomes an extension of us as a prosthesis. So gradually there’s an evolutionary process of our devices, from technology, to tool, to prosthesis. We appropriate the technology into our sense of our own selves, so that as a prosthesis it’s part of our proprioceptive system. Once the device becomes an extension of our bodies we don’t want to be separated from it, but it becomes an ideal medium for learning, because while operating it we don’t think about how to operate it, any more than we think about how to pick things up with our hands. It’s truly an invisible technology.

This is why designers change an interface at their peril. Often people will respond to the howls of protest with derision, as if it’s just a knee-jerk antipathy to change. Sure change is the only constant, but the impediment to that sense of a device as prosthesis is real. Once you’re slowed down by having to think where everything is on the device, it starts getting in the way again, like having to relearn how to walk if you’ve had your left and right feet swapped. When it seems like the upgrade has just been for the sake of it (or worse, because they’ve come up with a more intrusive way to sell you stuff – take note Twitter and Skype) then people are right to be pissed off.

It’s also why mobile learning is so effective. Yes it frees people from being tied to one spot for their learning. I can now read anywhere I’ve got a few minutes, because I’ll have my phone on me whereas I rarely would have a book on me, as they don’t fit in my pocket. Anywhere can then become a learning space (more interstitial spaces). But it’s also because mobile devices aren’t a technology, they’re not even a tool, they’re part of us. We therefore feel connected to them in a way we’re not connected to other things, and whatever takes place with them or through them makes the activities feel more personal, and more engaging and, arguably, a more fully-realised experience, because the experience isn’t just on a screen, it’s physically engaged with. Part of The Body Electric.



Knapping, reification and messy talk

Or: How language helps us make stuff, and objects help us communicate.

I’ve written before on constructivsm, or constructionism. In the previous post I’ve defined the distinction, one is only about the learning from making things, the other is about both learning through making and through the social activity around making things, but as I’ve now forgotten which is which, you’ll need to go back to that post to find the definition.

As I’m now on leave I’ve spent much of today reading … this book.

I listened to the podcast when it was on, but the failure of the podcast is that you can’t see the objects. In a way that’s kind of the point, as the conceit of the book is that it’s an alternative way of seeing history, not on the macroscale of empires and so on, but from individual items and what they tell us about the times. It’s as complete a revelation in how to see history as was Connections or biology and The Selfish Gene.

One of the first things I read in it was about the Olduvai Hand Axe.


From History of the World in 100 Objects

It’s from 1.2 million to 1.4 million years ago, has many applications, and enabled humans to leave the African rift Valley and make it across all of Europe and Asia within a couple of hundred thousand years – there have been some found in the UK that date back a million years.

One thing MacGregor says is that language and the ability to make things actually are activated in the same part of the brain. The development of communication and of manufacturing occur at the same time, and reinforce each other. The theory underpinning constructionism (or constructivism – making and social learning in combination anyway) actually has a neurological basis.

I’ve put together a presentation to support this week’s TOOC topic, which is about online collaboration. There is a video recording of the presentation.  a video recording   Alternatively you can see the PowerPoint and read a transcript of the audio. It explains why creating artefacts is an ideal task to set students.

However, I think it’s also useful for our own practice to make things and share them, and then communicate about them. I regularly now share things half made – notes from meetings, ideas about websites, a tool I’m working on for staff development in TEL – and then ask for feedback. For one thing it makes it easier to work out what I’m thinking. It’s a process Wenger (do I reference him a lot?) calls reification, or “thingness”. “Thingness” is a brilliantly unpretentious word, it says exactly what it means. By making something concrete (if it’s digital it’s not really concrete, but you can see it and play with it) you can see the flaws, see what needs to be done, and work on the next bit. I’m sure whoever made the first hand axe had some idea in his or her head of what it should look like, but that idea would have evolved as more bits were struck off. That’s the process called knapping,  and I think it’s a really effective one to replicate with digital artefacts. Chip away, shape it gradually, share that process.

The other reason is communication. It’s difficult to really convey exactly what a digital tool or website should contain, so more and more I will sketch it out – usually poorly – and pass around those ropey sketches, rather than sit and explain what I think it should contain. I’m not sure everyone is used to these half-formed ideas being shared, but I think in the long term it’s a faster and more accurate way to convey information.

One of the principles of early stages of collaboration is what Carrie Dossick at the University of Washington calls “messy talk”. this is the unruly, scribbly, incremental and reiterative process of bringing together ideas, of ensuring a shared mental space (to go back to the BLTC themes) between collaborators. This is notoriously difficult to do online, but I think there’s a cultural and professional reticence to share the messy stages with others. I’d suggest sharing the messy bit and encouraging others to get stuck in at that stage, (and bigging up my own discipline finding ways to do that effectively online) is an important practice to develop.

Images — an example of a messy stage in collaboration




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.