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. https://markchilds.org/2015/02/11/2186/ 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.

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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

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Using social media to support online collaboration

Today I presented a session at Teresa MacKinnon’s seminar “Realities of social media in learning and teaching” part of the HE Academy’s Changing the Learning Landscape seminar series – more details at http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/events/detail/2014/24_April_SocialMedia_CLL

Most of my research at the moment is in online collaboration for design, but I wanted to support the seminar, so looked for an overlap between what I’m doing and social media. Online collaboration involves social media, but on reflection I realised the link is closer than that. Social media really forms the safety net for collaborative design.

The argument I was putting forward is that online collaboration can be as effective as offline collaboration as long as trust is maintained in the team. When trust diminishes (usually because one part of the team fails to fulfil allocated tasks) then the difference between online and offline collaborations becomes apparent. If you’re working in an offline team, then you can collar the weaker links in the corridor, or drag them off for lunch, and re-establish the sense of social commitment that underlies most effective collaborations. If you’re working online there are no real ways to do this.

However, research going back to the 1990s shows that trust is developed in online computer mediated communication by socialising, disclosure, joking around. By encouraging usage of social media, then the online teams would have a social recourse to re-establishing trust. However, the students we’ve worked with in online collaboration don’t actually socialise within the groups online. One of the reasons raised by the participants in the workshop was that maybe they don’t want to – which is true – if you’re falling out with someone over work, the last thing you want to do is swap funny cat pictures. However, doing this is (according to the literature) the way to re-establish rapport.

It might seem odd that digitally literate students (and they are) don’t use the communication platforms to socialise. They do create Facebook groups, but these are nearly always purely functional, they are just there to arrange meetings or discuss work. Partly this is because they felt the necessity to maintain a professional demeanour online, since their perception was that this is what you’re supposed to do. With more experience of the world of work, I think it becomes evident that being too professional is counter-productive – peers want to see an authentic online personality. I think another reason, and this was confirmed by the students in the room at the seminar, is that there is a generational difference between people of our generation and those who are younger, one that we see particularly in evidence in virtual worlds. For the middle-aged, we conduct a lot of our relationships online, we have jobs, families, employment patterns mean we’ve moved apart from our peer groups, and so we are comfortable with having online relationships that are solely online. For students who are usually of a younger generation, online relationships are almost exclusively extensions of their face-to-face ones. They usually don’t get to know people only online. They’re not seen as “real friends”. Encouraging students in online collaborations to form these social bonds online therefore can’t be left to chance – the process needs to be scaffolded with activities to facilitate the online socialising process.

There is a link to my presentation on slideshare following. At the moment it won’t let me in because it doesn’t seem to recognise the password that my browser has stored. So either Firefox has let me down on remembering the password, or Slideshare has screwed up my login details. Either way, this technology is not as easy to use as it should be. If I get the reset email (which hasn’t arrived yet, so either my email account is playing sillybuggers or Slideshare is way too slow at sending out my password reset link) then it will appear in my next post.

 

BIM Level 3 compliance

Still blogging about the BIM-Hub project from at the website http://bim-hub.lboro.ac.uk/ As we’re half way through the PI and I have started looking at follow-up projects and one of the grants going round at Loughborough at the moment is Enterprise funding. So we were looking at commercial exploitability of what we were doing. Throughout the project we’ve been looking at a range of things, one of these is how to set up collaborative projects between multiple universities, and what needs to be in place for the students to conduct them effectively. On top of that are the skills that the students need to collaborate. Breaking those down though we can see that some of these aren’t specific to online collaboration, they are generic skills for any type of collaboration, meeting deadlines, planning activities, that sort of stuff. However all of them need to be in place, and not all of them can be assumed to be amongst the skillsets of the students. Well in fact you shouldn’t assume any of them. For me though, the most fascinating are the skills that need to be acquired to make the online synchronous interactions work effectively. It ties into my work on presence a great deal, and has been called by one of my colleagues situational awareness. You can see in the recordings of early meetings, there is little in the way of an online situational awareness, and this really gets in the way of an effective collaboration.

Looking at commercial exploitability the PI on the project was talking about a new version of BIM that is being introduced. BIM is Building Information Modelling, which is a kind of transactional online space in which architects’ plans, building models etc are all shared, together with timelines, deadlines and so on (OK that’s a given if we’re talking about a transactional online space, but this is specifically for the Built Environment sector). Level 3 is introducing realtime collaborative manipulation of 3D models to facilitate online co-creation of digital artefacts. The technology will be in place, but experience indicates that the skillset in order to make this work effectively won’t be thought about until people start screwing up. It was the same with videoconferencing. The trainers and techies would come in, set up the link, explain which button to press, and leave people to it, assuming “well they know how to teach”. Thing was, the skills needed to teach in a videoconferencing environment are far different than a classroom. You have to emote more, you have to pay a lot more attention to backchannels, you have to take your own level of participation way down (because the cognitive load of watching a lecturer on the screen is way higher than following them in a lecture room) and you also need to give them stuff to do in classroom, to bring back to the videoconference, so they get a break from it. And you also need to find little tricks to create a stronger link between the two ends (matching physical artefacts, that sort of stuff). There’s other techniques too.

So teachers would come in, use the videoconferencing kit as they’d been shown, but with no training in the specific skills on *how to function in that environment. The session would be a disaster and they’d go back to travelling a day or two to do a two-hour lesson.

So, the dangers are that BE businesses are going to use Level 3 BIM, not realise there are a load of soft skills they need to apply to make the collaboration effective and deem the whole thing a failure. What we’ve realised we’ve done in the project is to dry run the whole Level 3 BIM thing with students in a working simulation, with similar software, and identify what the issues are in order to provide guidance for anyone using Level 3 BIM. There may be some more once it gets used in the commercial sector, but we have a strong evidence base for what needs to be done.

So … even if the bid for further funding isn’t successful – putting the bid together has been useful because it clarifies the value of what we’re doing on the current project. I’m a big fan of utilisation evaluation, you just find out the stuff you can use. On the project we’ve now got a really good idea of what we need to find out, and for whom. And … that it will have a real practical use.

Starting the BIM-Hub project

I’ve recently started working on a new project – this one is at Loughborough University. It’s been a while getting involved; unlike my other projects this one is actually salaried – I’m an employee! – so the contract inevitably takes longer to set up than with other clients. Also September and October were very very busy with other previous commitments, mainly with the Open University and CSIR Meraka, which meant I could really only get into it once I was back from leave I booked way back before we even got the funding allocated. Still … the 4th November finally came round and at last I could get down to working on it properly, rather than odd bits here and there squeezed between other things.

What’s great, for a start, is that I’d already worked at one of the collaborating partners already and with the other the project is with Coventry University and Ryerson University. It’s also a follow-up to a project that the PI and I had already completed, and written up, and reflected on. That was the Creating a Better Built Environment project. So often you start on something and need to spend a while getting a handle on everything. This time I already know most of the issues and how to evaluate. The danger is though that there’s a tendency to think “business as usual” – every new project, even a second iteration of a running project, throws up new things.

The first thing to get underway was the evaluation of the learning so far – although it’s an 18 month project, that really only contains one academic year, so there’s only one shot at everything. By the time I came on board the students were almost at the end of their first semester, so I wanted to get into getting feedback on their experiences straight away.

It’s always a dilemma what to go for with getting student experiences. Obviously you survey them, that generates lots of numerical data, which always gives you something to analyse, and is the only stuff some people look at, so getting all those numbers makes everyone on the project feel secure. Immediately though we hit an impasse – 5 point or 4 point Lykert scales for responses? I’m firmly on the 5 point side of the argument, but others on the team were on the 4 pt side. I’m not at all convinced by the argument on the other side (in fact, if I’m asked to fill in a 4 pt scale I either draw a fifth point in the middle and tick that, or refuse to fill it in). However, luckily on the team we’ve got a few lateral thinkers one of whom suggested we do both, then analyse the differences. So, not only a compromise, but also another spin off research question which we can publish on. Win-win.

The dilemma with getting the qualitative feedback is interviews or focus groups. On the last project we interviewed the teams separately. and got quite different responses from each team. The ability to do comparative analyses between the different groups proved really useful. However, lots and lots of interviews is not only time consuming to conduct (and we’re trying to limit the impact on the students) but also is a real pain to transcribe (and that’s my job). However, the project plan calls for focus groups (if in doubt always check back with the project plan – really obvious thing to do but frequently forgotten). But I’m hoping to do one or two interviews too. So far I’ve done two, one at Coventry f2f and one at Ryerson via GoToMeeting. Both went well, the Coventry lot needed a bit of prompting at first but soon got very talkative, the Ryerson lot needed no prompting, but audio problems meant I couldn’t always hear what they said – in fact my voice coming over their speakers was all I could hear at times. However I got a great range of data – the best you could hope for really in that some of what they said confirmed what we got last time, some of it was new stuff, and between the groups there was some stuff they shared and some that was different. Of the new stuff what the CU students said was that the chance to do virtual teamworking felt more like the real thing because they were working with external people. That’s not something I’d thought of before. We think of the issues and skills of virtual teamworking as the issues with being at a distance, or cultural (or timezone) differences, or institutional differences, but the outward facing aspects of the project was also something they found a challenge (not in the sense of it being difficult, but in the sense of it being something they had to address and found to be a valuable experience). What was also reassuring was that my answer to my last question (“how do you feel about being part of a research project”) was a very positive one for both groups. We so often hear that in the age of the “student as customer” (grrr) that students want to be cosseted and spoonfed – and won’t take on any risks because they want value for money. Both the British and Canadian students were even bewildered that this should be an issue. In Coventry I got puzzled looks and the answer “well we volunteered for it” and in Ryerson it was a jubilant “we’re pioneers”. Reassuring that educational research is not meeting any flak from the student end. Perhaps we can start being a bit less hesitant about doing it.