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Shaping an Identity: hacking the human?

Higher education shapes identity on many levels. We can readily identify three:

  1. the individual student/academic;
  2. the institutional characteristics of the higher education sector;
  3. and wider transnational cultural-historical activity.

This slicing into comprehensible tranches is characteristic of my pragmatic approach to knowing, characterised by a logic of effectiveness in the present: sure, it is a continuum, but clumping into useful groups helps if you want to do something.

The empiricist might gather observational data and seek patterns by which to describe and explain observed phenomena from the past.

The rationalist normalises a desired arrangement of tranches and posits steps towards hypothesised (predicted, anticipated) outcomes.

Again we see the pragmatist slicing into parts: rational, empirical and pragmatic. These and other ways of discovering, synthesising, applying and curating knowledge form orientations to scholarship and academic practice. That is, our orientation to knowledge itself is part of our identity.

Knowledge has two foundational questions underpinning it: identity and agency.

  • Who is it that knows? The question of mind-body dualism, multiplicity or unity underpins approaches to education. Any theory predicated on the nature of the learner must have variants of this question at heart. Do we have “souls”? Can our consciousness be abstracted: uploaded to a sufficiently powerful computer? Can we “insert” knowledge into others?
  • How does the knower shape their knowledge (free will v. determinism?). Are we a behavioural bundle of conditioned responses? Are our acts determined by our cultural-historical performance roles: gender, colour, cohort, ability, religion, status, etc? Are we, or to what extent are we, agents of our world?

These two questions shape our approach to education policy.

Knowing authentic learning experiences

Evidence is one truth condition. There are at least three others. These give us a way of knowing authentic learning experiences and provide indicators of engagement, participation and outcomes. They are, also unsurprisingly, aligned with conceptions of authority and power.

Badiou (2014) recognises four truth conditions: four ways that truths or a truth may be known or experienced: 1) desire, 2) maths, 3) poetry and 4) politics. These may be re-expressed as: love, science, art and action. I have observed, drawing on Scheffler (1965) and more recent work on reliablism (Smith 2016, Riedel 2009), that a contemporary epistemology might also recognise four conditions for truth: 1) rational, 2) empirical, 3) poetic and 4) pragmatic. I suggest these systems are perhaps unsurprisingly also closely aligned around conceptions of authenticity – true to (Kreber et al. 2007) – and engagement in learning and teaching.

Each of these conditions has different orientations to authority, knowing, theory and time. As teachers, I suggest this is our “toolbox”, and may be recognisable in collections of intended learning outcomes and evaluation (marking) criteria (rubrics), which may be set and aligned. Continue reading

Scaffolding Ed Dev conversations: a response to Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2017)

  • Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2017). Agency and structure in academic development practices: are we liberating academic teachers or are we part of a machinery suppressing them? International Journal for Academic Development, 22(2), 95–105.

Roxå and Mårtensson (2017) argue that the discourses of academic development as mediated through formal education and training programmes by academic development departments are seen by some academics as:

a suppressing machinery anchored in globalisation and economification with an agenda to control academic teachers for the benefit of economic growth linked to a neoliberal ideology of life… Academic teachers can no longer embody the idea of academia as a place for free and critical inquiry (p 97).

To counter this critique they assert an absence. They say:

“Academic teachers need to talk to each other about their experiences of teaching and student learning and about their everyday life inside higher education organisations” (103).

I invite the question, do academics in disciplines not already do this? Is this conversation a terra nullius? That such conversations may not make it to the ears of academic developers does not mean that they are not being enunciated. Roxå and Mårtensson (2017) continue, suggesting the absence: “… implies a counter discourse: … an alternative discourse about academic teaching and student learning (103).”

They suggest that academic developers must be the problematisers, the problem posers who stimulate conversations. “Our job…” they say, “… as academic developers is to scaffold these conversations to become informed and critical and ultimately transformative.”

The result they suggest is that:

Over time, conversations will grow in frequency and in quality. The result is a trace of learning and knowledge-production linked to genuine experiences made by academic teachers (p 103).

Maybe. If “we”, “as academic developers”, have “power” to amass voices of the everyday reality of learning in higher education, and claim – and sometimes exercise – the power to problematise, then our project or our purpose becomes one of ethics and morality. We can easily end in a trap that is a problem for Freireians: the authentic experiences of groups learning through the authentic artefacts of indigenous cultures may produce both pick-up trucks of masked paramilitaries as well as doctors without borders. If we simply scaffold the conversations and stand back without aligning them to a course, have we any right to complain about the outcome? Or do we just continue to problematise? This is the interpretivist rabbit hole: the unending end of Socratism: no-one really knows anything.

Or, instead of doing the problematising ourselves, we might try to stand back as an empiricist and describe what was at a particular moment or for a particular period in time past.

Another trap is to argue rationally that there is a better future, which can be reached if historical truth will be more accurately known, and such truth rigorously applied (aligned) according to better theory. That such rigorous application may lead to Stalinistic “broken eggs” is unfortunate, unavoidable; we should shed few tears. This is the critical-theoretical (what could be called the Leninist or “final”, sometimes Machiavellian) solution.

I suggest we have to navigate this complexity with both truth and morality as a guide. Without both these touchstones in the argument, the word “transformation” becomes an empty signifier meaning simply “good in someone’s judgement”. While accepting Badiou’s “Real” – in the sense that real people are really drowning on beaches on Greek holiday islands – and Lyotard’s “pétits réceits” – in the sense that the holiday makers and the drowning migrants have equally valid narratives of the situation, are we, as Žižek (2008, xlvii) invites us to consider, “… an ethically neutral instrument which can be put to different sociopolitical uses, from the most peaceful ones to the most destuctive?” How do we “scaffold these conversation”? Do we build the scaffold first? Do we throw down a bunch of poles? Do we even use poles? Do we let others figure out how to build even the scaffold not to mention the structure it supports. Any scaffold presumes a structure (or at least a range). Are we building the scaffold that we are being asked to build, that we need to build or that we want to build?

Is the machine us?

Wait a minute. Learning analytics are always mediated by a human, or by humans (plural).

Sheila MacNeil, in a thought provoking post subtitled … analytics of the oppressed, launches into “… the learning analytics interventions should always be mediated by a human debate later this week at Digifest.”

Software and machinery always embed human values and beliefs about what is good and how to achieve it. And when it is asserted that “the machine says…” the first point holds true. The machine says only what people have enabled it to say. Whether the machine is reflective and self-aware, with anything like a recognisable value system? This is a question we can no more meaningfully ask of a machine than we can of a lobster, except to the extent that we can recognise the machine as an emergent phenomenon of human technology, and the lobster, arguably, not.

Unless, as Mike Wetsch put it, the machine is us? And then we have to ask, who are we?


When the tin of TEF was first opened a few days ago with all the shiny gold, silver and bronze foil-wrapped toffees, chocolates and what nots, it was entertaining and galling in measures to see who got what and what my own gaff got. Although I had been given a steer away from expecting gold, as an Educational Developer at a teaching focussed university with a heritage of teaching development initiatives, I kind of think we should have got gold. Or it is to some small extent down to me if we didn’t? Or, who knows? Maybe without me and my colleagues we would be scraping bronze?

So when I take the lid off the TEF tin a few days later it is all smelling like fudge. Grant Chapman Clarke (@elgranto) got me thinking when he pointed out who was shouting about results and who wasn’t. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that the only criterion applied to awarding the foil was how to keep the “shouting” to the very minimum possible.

And to achieve this the evaluators must have had to apply a lot of fine judgement.

QAA Quality Enhancement Network 12/11/2015

Fiona Handley from University of Brighton uses the term “Graduate Attribute” for digital literacy, where blended learning is the starting point. Focus on the learning and then ask about the technology that “suits me”.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that at an event devoted to digital literacies, the connection to the internet is unreliable, there is no power supply to the tables and the format is all Powerpoint.

Brighton digital literacy framework links to UK PSF. Full roll out to the university.

Fiona Harvey, Southampton using PathBright open source eportfolio tool, badges to support and scaffold learning. Open badge factory for the iChamp badge, Suggests Open Badge Academy.

Benefit is in enthusiasm, confidence

Towards a new education?

I asked Richard Murphy a question on Twitter after reading his post, “It’s not just a new politics we need: we need a new economics too.”
“And a new education?”
He replied “Almost certainly”.

This “new education” has to lie in what Murphy calls “collective” or shared narratives: “… where the individual seeks to achieve their purpose within the constraints that the planet now so very obviously imposes upon us… because achieving purpose is about substituting meaning for material consumption.” Narratives make meaning. Narrative must replace material consumption. As Max Tegmark (2014: 256) puts it, “… nature contains many types of entities that are almost begging to be named.”

I am leaning on Murphy and Tegmark here because both come from disciplines that value mathematical descriptions of the world above what Tegmark calls “baggage” or words. And both reveal the uncertainty at the base of measure, or to put it another way, they explore the measure problem. How you define constraints, if there are any?

And that I suggest is as ever: new or old education is about making meaning. Making meaning gets us very quickly into measures: pictures, categories, ranges, constraints; about how many lions are there over there? Meaning without baggage? Or is it all always baggage? Pragmatically, at what point do our useful approximations break down into mere baggage?

I spent much of Thursday and Friday last week immersed in dimensions of digital leadership in higher education, represented diagramatically. I started writing about this here. The base for this diagrammatic thinking was the range between “Visitor” and “Resident” in or to or in respect of/with reference to the digital. This model was constructed by Dave While and Alison leCornu several years ago in response to the “Native/Immigrant” model proposed by Presnky. There are other typologies, such as the “voyeur/flaneur” of dana boyd (2011) but the Jisc Co-designers find the visitor-resident one productive and useful.

To get the workshop talking and thinking together, the workshop facilitators laid another axis at 90 degrees to the visitor-resident x-axis. They labelled the upper end of the range “Personal” and the lower end “Institutional”. And this was the end of my messy thinking in my last post.

Tools as spaces as practises

Tools as spaces as practises

The next day we started again with a slightly rephrased map, where the top element was changed: “Individual” replaced “Personal” and rather than our own “digital capability” we were asked to map our institution’s.

Figure 1

Figure 1

It immediately struck my colleague, Richard Francis, that a small circle in the centre might represent the “disengaged learner” and that more “pressure” outward along any axis could be construed as a transformation of some sort.

Figure 2

Figure 2

I then observed that just maybe there were limits outward in some directions. It struck me that a person who was increasingly a visitor to one’s own individuality might lack self awareness (top left. And, in the same way travel too far lower right and a person might be in danger of becomming fully institutionalised.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Both these outer areas might break the “Identity and Wellbeing” circle suggested by the Jisc’s model of Digital Capability

6 Elements

6 Elements of Digital Capability

The last move in this opening development was to observe that the boundaries were at least elastic: that pressures towards self awareness might press inward while counterveiling pressures might push outward. And that these spaces might be characterised in various ways. Richard Francis proposed that being a visitor to one’s self from time to time might be construed as reflection rather than a tendency towards solipciism.

Figure 4

Figure 4

At this point in the morning the facilitators asked us to consider “openness” and “authenticity”. Richard Francis asked if perhaps the visitor-resident continuum might be relabelled “consumer-producer”? It struck me that an urge towards production and self-actualising transformation seemed to produce something like a wave or flow of force through the model, rupturing the membranes inward from the left to outward on the right. We realised that there was a relatively narrow band on either side of each of the main axes. We called the horozontal band the “Mean of engagement”: more or less individual and more or less institutional. We called the vertical band the “Mode of action”: more or less visitor and more or less resident. We also noticed an impact axis punching in another dimensionfrom lower left towards upper right. It appeard that the far left might be characterised by a lack of authenticity:. As one approached outer limits various pejorative warnings began to attach themselves to the image: at the outer and upper left solipcism and maybe hyper-capitalism dwelt, while at the upper right fully resident in individualism lurked the bully and the narcissist, with no self-control. There was a sweet spot for us upward and rightward from the centre where we put terms like open engagement, community, access and authority, while authoritarian by way of contrast fell out somewhere lower right.

Ruptured matrix

Ruptured matrix

We began to see institutional functions appear: assessment and the VLE seemed to occupy a backwater and the digital impact criteria of attention and presence firmly resided within the mean of engagement.

So all this was very satisfying as a means of understanding our world, but now the challenge is to turn it into action.



danah boyd. (2011). Dear Voyeur, Meet Flâneur… Sincerely, Social Media.” Surveillance and Society 8(4), 505-507

Tealab? TEL me about it

Reviving Tealab: Tealab is explicitly a Teaching Laboratory and discussion “space”. There are a number of excellent initiatives across the university that lap over the territory. When Tealab was set up it was intended to replace the Learning and Teaching  Forum (LTF),  with a focus on people (possibly “younger” whatever that might mean) interested in new or innovative teaching practices. These practices did not need to make use of learning technologies, but given the zeitgeist and interests of the proponents of Tealab there was a strong learning technology focus.

The institutional learning and teaching focus is currently on the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) Framework with its participatory underpinning. The aim of the framework is expressed in four domains: Learning, Identity, Community and Place and is intended to enable the creative appropriation of tools, transformative academic practice, inclusive communities and safe spaces for learning.

Now, the Technology Experimentation Group (TEG), has a clear learning technologies focus and the Minerva Seminar Series is focused on teaching excellence.

Tealab can do two things.

One is serve as a clearing house and notice board of all the extra and co-curricular learning opportunities for teachers at Brookes, pulling from many sources: OBIS training, Library training courses, Digital Services training and various Guides, and OCSLD teaching courses.

And second Tealab can serve as a forum for collaborative discussion and development of the aspirations of the TEL framework. With this in mind, I am planning a series of Lunch-time sessions (and I know that time is troublesome so forgive me if these sessions are not accessible for you; we will simulcast and record for later review). I am proposing three this semester:

  • Monday 19 October 1200-1330 – Participation in learning, aspirations for teaching: introducing the TEL Framework
  • Monday 09 November 1200-1330 – Creative appropriation and appropriate technology for teaching
  • Monday 30 November 1200-1330 – Academic Identity today

And three next semester (dates to be announced)

  • Learning Communities
  • Holding space
  • Frameworks for learning and teaching



Victim of the system

I am very frustrated by not having access to our VLE/LMS today. The system, which is externally hosted by ULCC is “down”. It is Thursday 2 weeks after assignments were due. I and the team have 60+ papers to mark and/or moderate and upload grades. I am committed to my students to getting this done by tomorrow. There is precious little slack in any diary. I can’t just shift everything. I cannot do tomorrow’s stuff today because I have appointments tomorrow. This must be one of the biggest marking weeks in UK higher education. I am a champion of online assignment handling and marking. But 10 days ago I had to give all my students an extra day to hand work in because TurnItIn was down on the actual due-day. These incidents have to be factored into any risk assessment of online assignment handling and feedback systems that might be adopted.

Reasons to be cheerful

I am starting to experiment with Ben Werdmuller’s new creation, Known. Ben is well known around UK higher education as the co-author of Elgg.

I use several platforms: 2 WordPress sites, Twitter, Facebook and very occasionally Google+. In the old days – oh, about 2 or 3 years ago I used Posterous and Tweetdeck to manage my random collection of thoughts across several platforms  But Twitter killed both these lovely applications. I also use Oxford Brookes University’s learning environment: Moodle and another Moodle running on I am wondering if Known and Known for Education might help pull all this together. I buy what Ben says about multiple audiences and the blurring of boundaries between social media platforms. Some people are on Twitter only. Many more on Facebook only. But some people are in several places at once. And these people may be different audiences: work colleagues, friend friends, political activists, poets, family. If I only post to Facebook, I get some of these. G+ tried to make this work through “circles” but the asymmetry was too much for my poor brain. So let’s see what I can make happen, here, with Known.

Reposted from Reasons to be cheerful, posted in Known