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Teaching Complexity: A reflection on experimenting with Digital Fieldwork

Teaching Complexity was a series of open online seminars curated by Bonnie Stewart (Visiting Fellow, UAL) and David White (Head of Digital Learning, UAL) from the Teaching and Learning Exchange at the University of the Arts London.

Through talks, discussion and other activities, the seminars explored how open and creative approaches to teaching and learning can help students navigate the complexity of higher education and the digital environment.

Designed for anyone in a teaching, teaching related or staff development role in higher education, TeachCom featured participants connecting with each other from around the world using two of our Digital Learning Platforms – Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and MyBlogs.

Two of the seminars focused on Digital Fieldwork. The first seminar, led by Matt Lingard (Digital Learning Director at LCC) and David White, encouraged participants to undertake one of a number of experiential online digital activities. These six activities were designed to give an insight into the pros and cons of some of the more ‘open’ forms of digital practice, especially those that involve the development of a digital identity. The second seminar, led by Sheldon Chow (Head of Digital Learning at LCF) provided a space for participants to discuss their experiences and reflect on what they meant for their own digital identity and the implication for teaching.

Facilitator Matt reflected on his experience leading part 1 and using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra:

One of the successes of the series for me has been the online format and the tool we have used (Collaborate). It has worked well with a large number of participants and facilitated more interaction – though ‘live slides’ andthe chat function – than might have been expected. It comes with challenges for a facilitator though. For example, silence. In a physical classroom I’m comfortable with pausing and giving participants time to think. In a webinar it’s trickier as the first reaction to silence is that the audio has stopped working! In my session I experimented with breakout rooms too and my takeaway from that is participants need a lot more time than you think.

An example of the live drawing featuring reflective comments including: 'I did not expect to feel so 'vulnerable' in an alternative persona.' and 'Being 'forced' to undertake something that I normally resist - and to fully reflect on the feelings - the experience...'
An example of the live-drawing feature on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Participants were asked to reflect on their experiences in the activities.

While you can read through the details of the activities on the TeachCom site, the conversations occurring on the part-one page are central to understand the participants’ experience. During the two-week span between Fieldwork seminars, participants posted comments detailing their experiences attempting or completing one of more of the activities. By engaging in an activity, participants were able to have a challenging reflective journey on digital identity, awareness, engagement, the impact of intentional choices on social media and how platforms tailor what we see based on what we ‘like.’ There were videos posted on the Digital Fieldwork (part one) page on MyBlogs explaining any risks associated with the activities.

There are a few examples laid out here, but more on the Digital Fieldwork (part one) page and more explored in the comments section on the Digital Fieldwork (part two) session recording. We have posed a few questions here about each example. Let us know your experience in the comments below.

Activity 2: Make, Curate and Share

marching death robots aka the UK crashing out without a deal

Posted by Run out recordings on Friday, 22 February 2019

Darren set up a Facebook page called Run Out Recordings which is ‘a celebration of the unique hypnotic sounds produced by vinyl record run out grooves.’ He wrote:

I’ve always been fascinated /distracted by sounds, particularly when they cross over into something musical (to my ears at least) … The sonic qualities of run out grooves… are an unintended, rude but sometimes welcome interruption to the artist’s carefully crafted composition.In contrast with the digital, run out grooves are inherently analogue. Digital has the ability to detect and correct unwanted aberrations (noise, clicks etc.) and remove them. Hence digital recordings can be reproduced and replayed countless times without deviation from the original source – up to a point when errors can no longer be corrected and it becomes unplayable (digital is binary, it either works or it doesn’t). Unlike digital, analogue doesn’t hide these artefacts – it highlights them; the more the original source is copied, the more it’s played, the more the sound degrades – sometimes gracefully, other times disgracefully but with often interesting and unintended sonic results that can become etched into the record’s run out groove. Run out Recordings aims to capture and share these random, happy accidents.

Question: Darren created a digital artefact out of an analogue device. How do you use both digital technology and analogue devices in your teaching and learning practices?

Activity 3: Contribute to discourse/knowledge.

A student working on their laptop, designing a graphic image of a kitchen dining room.
Courtesy of UAL. © Alys Tomlinson

Sandra decided to take part in an online chat occurring weekly on Twitter. She wrote:

This was not the first time I participated in this Chat – but it has been many many months – so it was good coming back to it afresh. I noticed this time that a couple of the big hitters who normally attend were not there. Much as they were missed – I felt that it added a whole new level of democracy and democratic participation to the conversation. There was no sense that special participation status was conveyed by one of the great ones liking or retweeting one of your responses – or conversing with you. Even without that dimension – it is really interesting how a desire to join in a conversation – also becomes side-line exciting by seeing how your ‘notifications’ rack up – showing whether and how often you are liked/retweeted/conversed with.

Question: Being recognised by one’s peers can make one feel like a valuable contributor to a project or conversation. Do you feel that publicly striving for recognition hinders the actual work needing to be done? Why or why not?

Activity 4: Try on a new identity.

Two girls holding paper masks in front of their faces.
Courtesy of UAL.

Ann struggled in choosing the parameters of social identity for her fake persona – gender, change age, change social class, change educational achievement. She eventually chose a young 7-year-old male child named Cody. She felt her choice made several ethical dilemmas. Ultimately, she decided not to experiment further with this persona as it made her uncomfortable to explore what outcome those dilemmas could bring.

I am also in the throes of considering the platform and rejected some very quickly – not a character on or ResearchGate because that is a sensitive community in which an Avatar may be inappropriate to the specific purposes of those platforms with a community sensitive to fakery and ethical hesitations too……

I hesitate to put Cody into Reddit or other social platforms (Will he be preyed upon? ignored?) and am now considering just Twitter for him, or maybe a free [Yahoo] email address and watch what adverts appear for him… Another reflection – if I create him and someone back-tracks him, what then are the consequences for me as his creator? I think I am tangled in all the possibilities, ethical pauses and so on for “Cody”. I am glad though – it opened many important thought trails and musings for me…

TeachCom curator David responded to her that ‘it’s interesting how many factors you can get ‘stuck’ on that a 7-year-old would never consider. It’s certainly a complex environment out there. I’m not sure how Twitter, for example, would react to a 7-year-old. Depends very much on who you choose to connect to.’

Darren added that he had also considered setting up a fake persona, but the more he reflected on it, the uncomfortable he became:

I envisaged one of two consequences; 1) I start a conversation that no one responds to, which would be disappointing and frustrating, or 2) someone did respond, and they would assume they were entering a genuine dialogue with who I was claiming to be. This could be disappointing and frustrating for them when I ended the conversation (I couldn’t keep up the pretence forever). What if they wanted to develop the conversation further? This I think would be unfair.

Question: Anne’s experiment raises complex questions around ethical behaviour in creating a digital identity. If you presented this case to a student, what questions would you want them to ask?

Activity 4: Try on a new identity.

A row of cell phones mounted to the wall. The phones go from older generations on the left to the newest on the right.
Courtesy of UAL

David also chose to complete activity 4 where he returned to an Instagram profile that he had created previously. When he created it, he ‘followed whatever was suggested to [him] so it’s all, supposedly, aimed at [his] ALT persona.

I think I’ve got used to the fashion and body aesthetic of the people and brands I follow now…. Now that I can see past those images which I found so constructed and uncanny, I have been enjoying the visual nature of the platform. It’s been rewarding to post ‘pretty’ photos of sky, flowers, trees etc. (I have to avoid selfies…). The kind of pics I’d never post to Twitter as they are so derivative and my Twitter persona is more critical and – dare I say it? – sophisticated?

Posting ‘nice things’ and getting the occasional ‘like’ is simple and somehow refreshing. Just using the visual aspects of the platform has liberated me from the work of crafting sentences.

So, this time around, I’ve been less concerned about the lens on identity that my ALT has given me and have been enjoying the liberation of not having to consider my reputation and audience in the manner I feel I have to with my professional persona in Twitter.

Question: What is your thought process before you post something online? Do you have a specific persona you want to maintain – be it personal or professional? How do you decide what to post and what to keep offline?

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