Ambient congeniality


When I travel to London, the first part of the journey takes me, in a bone-shaker, from Ulverston to Lancaster. We cross Morecambe Bay and the views, as you can see from the image above – taken through the train window – are spectacular.

On Wednesday, I was on this train but I missed the view. I was not present. I was elsewhere.  The image is not mine – I have taken it from a website to illustrate what ‘I’ missed even though ‘I’ was there.

Although my body was on the train, I wasn’t present. I was reading (Garrison and Anderson (2003)* and was experiencing what Lombard and Ditton (1997)** term ‘presence as transportation’. I have experienced this form of presence since I learned to read. My parents used to complain that they had to physically touch me to get my attention when I was reading as I wouldn’t hear them when they called if I was in Narnia or in The Hundred Acre Wood. I have spent much of my life ‘there’ and not ‘here’ – transported to other worlds, other conversations, other spaces through text.

We have been exploring presence and experiencing – through our Skype voice conversation – different types of presence this week. The Skype conversation*** created, for me, a different sense of presence, a different sense of connection with my peers, what Lombard and Ditton term ‘presence as social richness’. It wasn’t a straightforward and immediately comfortable space. There were many silences; it turns out that ‘lurking’ in a Skype conversation is much more awkward that doing so online. We were being asked provocative and demanding questions about our readings and about our experiences on the course and it was difficult – for me – to shift to the immediacy of an oral conversation about this rather than having time to reflect on this and respond via text. Paul commented on this in one of the discussions this week and reflected on the fact that this form of engagement offers more opportunity to be stupid:

However, towards the end of the conversation, there was more laughter and more ‘openness’. We reflected on our own silences, our own sense of what ‘participation’ means, and where our responsibility as learners lies when thinking about how we can create ‘social presence’ and a community of inquiry. We reflected on our use of Twitter too and Jen used the term ‘ambient congeniality’ to define how she and others experienced the medium. I like that. She also said that, at times, Twitter could feel ‘pleasantly overwhelming’. I liked that too.

Do I feel I ‘know’ this group of four better for having spoken with them? Perhaps. Ruth said that she felt she had more of a sense of what we were like. Roxane observed that, when she next saw our posts on the forum she would remember something about us now – perhaps a sound or a laugh. I didn’t experience the sense of what Lombard and Ditton refer to as ‘we are together’ but I did feel connected – somewhere ‘in-between’ (Greenhalgh-Spencer, 2014).

*Garrison, D. and Anderson, T. (2003). Community of inquiry, chapter 3 of E-Learning in the 21st Century.  Routledge-Falmer, London
**Lombard, M. and Ditton, T. (1997).  At the heart of it all:  The concept of presence.  The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(2) [Online]
***with Renee (Bahrain), Roxane (Paris), Lisa (Switzerland), Ruth (New Zealand) and Jen (Edinburgh)

My Forum of Failure

One of the projects which I have been attempting to breathe some life into/resuscitate is an online forum for nominated ‘Digital Leaders’ from a number of schools within a multi-academy trust. The forum was established to support these DLs in the roll-out of new technologies, software and curricula within their schools by providing them with the facility to share experiences, resources and ideas.

I met with them in Manchester in July and we spent two days together, discussing and plotting e-learning initiatives and developing and extending their plans for the delivery of the Computing curriculum. During those few days, I introduced the forum to them and we began to use it as a collaboration space: resources were shared, conversations were started and plans were hatched. All left enthused and promising to keep in touch via the forum. And then…well, very little. A few more posts dripped through and then there was silence. Partly this was due to the summer break but my attempts to reinvigorate this digital space since then have failed. And the reason is that we/I haven’t created an effective community and the reason for this is, primarily, a lack of teaching presence.

I took a ‘field of dreams’ approach to the development of the forum…’build it and they will come’. Unfortunately, creating a space does not encourage presence. As the facilitator, I provided no ‘rules of engagement’: participation was informal, voluntary and unstructured. I had not effectively designed, directed and informed the transaction:

‘One of the difficulties with early computer conferencing was sustaining participation and high levels of discourse (Gunawardena 1991; Hiltz and Turoff 1993). Low levels of interest and participation were rooted in a lack of structure and focus resulting from an excessively ‘democratic’ approach. While there must be full and open participation, for a purposeful educational experience there is an inherent need for an architect and facilitator to design, direct, and inform the transaction.’ (Garrison and Anderson, 2003, p.29*)

I have been reflecting on this forum failure and contrasting it with the success of our engagement with the various digital environments we have been using during these first weeks of the course. We have been part of the successful development of what Garrison and Anderson term a ‘community of inquiry’, ‘a learning community’ which is ‘a fusion of individual (subjective) and shared (objective) worlds.’ (ibid, p.23). The key to the success of this is that there is ‘the right balance and blend of collaborative and individual learning activities’ (ibid, p.24). Our blog has enabled us to develop ‘cognitive independence’ (ibid, p.23)and the forums, Skype and Twitter have developed our ‘social interdependence’ (ibid, p.23):

‘It is the juxtaposition of both aspects of this seemingly contradictory relationship that creates the spark that ignites a true educational experience that has personal value and socially redeeming outcomes.’ (ibid, p.23)


So, my Forum of Failure can be turned around. And the key is not to look at the space but at the structure of the community, at how I can, through effective teaching presence, foster social and cognitive presence to deliver a meaningful and purposeful experience.  I need to define and share a programme for engagement and develop a blend of activities for participants to engage in. I also need to incentivise their participation – to provide a reason to be present. Our presence on the course is goal-driven: we are working towards an MSc. The incentive I can use with the DLs is the Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE) programme. All of the DLs are, in November, to begin their engagement with this programme and this will provide the ideal framework through which we can inculcate a community of inquiry, to realise ‘personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes’ (Anderson et al, 2001 quoted in Garrison and Anderson, 2003, p.29)

*Garrison, D. and Anderson, T. (2003), E-Learning in the 21st Century.  Routledge-Falmer, London