Moorings and Black Holes

We have, in the past week, been establishing our own community of IDEL students, our own network, our own web of connections, communications and knowledge. We have been developing moorings. We have been provided with/pointed towards multiple streams via which to do this: Lino, the Moodle forums, the WebQuest and Twitter. We have been engaged in developing ‘patterns of concentration that create zones of connectivity, centrality, and empowerment in some cases’ (Graham and Marvin, 2001, quoted in Shelly and Urry  ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm’, Environment and Planning A 2006, volume 38, p.210).


This is my first experience of a fully online course and the experience  of connecting only virtually has been stimulating and curious. I’m not sure, however, that ’empowerment’ is accurate at this stage. I am more anxious, circumspect and reflective about what I write than about what I would say. That is, perhaps, inevitable. As Mary noted in her reflections on ‘The Black Hole’ story, discussion forums are public and permanent spaces and it is this permanence which can, for me, induce inhibitions. The lack of paralinguistic signals is also difficult; emoticons just don’t fill that gap ;-). At the heart of many of these concerns is, I think, the notion of what ‘self’ I’m creating and presenting and how that ‘fits’ within the wider community of users. How can I be ‘in a sense present while apparently absent’? (Shelly and Urry, ibid, p. 207). Additionally, when it comes to the ideas I’m presenting, I fear that this is the case:


From Information is Beautiful – David McCandless

This has been a salient learning point for me and one which I must bear in mind as I encourage the network of teachers I work with to interact on the various forums which are available to them. Many of them, too, will be nervous about contributing and being empathetic to this and considering ways in which I might support and encourage is vital. Lino is an ideal ice-breaking medium and a WebQuest will provide focus for the discussion and for collaboration and community-building.

However, I cannot abstract from my subjective response to this medium to all learners’ responses: it’s not all negative, of course. As Stig points out, one of the many benefits of engaging via discussion forums is that we become more reflective, taking our time in responding and returning to and reconsidering points that we wish to make. Some learners will find the slow, asynchronous nature of such forums reassuring: they can construct and draft before contributing.

The ‘Black Hole’, the first story I’ve focused on in detail on the forum this week, threw up many questions connected to community and self. Discussions around this story moved to explorations about how we interact in spaces and how interactions can be moderated, guided and enhanced. Given that many of us are, or have been, teachers, the discussion quickly moved to assessment and whether assessment would enhance or diminish effective discussion. Threads also hovered around the notion of what is ‘authentic’ and whether assessment would mean that discussions would become less ‘real’ and would become parallel grandstanding threads. (As an aside, concerns and worries about the calibre of contribution are intensified within this assessed forum. I must acknowledge what Rory helpfully defined as a form of stage-fright when it comes to constructing blog posts. I’m sure that this will lessen with time.)

Additionally, the story also highlighted the human ‘will to connection’ (Simmel, 1997, p.171, quoted in Shelly and Urry, ibid, p.215). The community of learners, without direction, followed their will to connect and formed a hub around their shared love of cats. As Simmel highlights, people are attracted to each other simply for ‘free-playing sociability’ and, without guidance, moderation and intervention, online forums can become unfocused and, to quote Joanne, ‘cliquey’.

In our IDEL community, we have, so far, reached broad agreement on the following principles which could mitigate some of the issues outlined in ‘The Black Hole:

  1. Tutor presence is key. They help to set the tone, to ‘model’ appropriate interaction and they can guide, encourage, moderate and help to structure discussion. A tutor’s presence shifts the context of the discussion from peer-to-peer and ensures that the community is more explicitly defined as a learning community.
  2. Guidance and ‘rules of engagement need to be established.
  3. Forums should have an explicit purpose.
  4. Multiple streams of communication, including those which facilitate more informal socialising, should be available.

As digital technology use is, as Shirky notes, a ‘hybrid of tool and community’ (Shirky, 2008, p.136), we must, when designing online courses/content, be attuned to:

  1. what tools should be used when and for what purpose;
  2. how communities are established and created within online environments.

We need to facilitate positive and meaningful communication and support the construction of healthy learning communities. We have to become builders of bridges, as the ‘achievement of connection reaches its zenith with a bridge that connects two places; it ‘symbolizes the extension of our volitional sphere over space.’ (Simmel, 1997, p.171, quoted in Shelly and Urry, ibid, p.215).

bridge header

A thought snippet: Pigs in (Cyber) Space

smart_pigI’ll not go into the details of *that* Cameron story but, one of the articles about the ‘scandal’ which I read this week used a phrase which struck me as interesting “…the Internet has decided…”. Now, I’ve probably happened upon that phrase hundreds, if not thousands of times before but my engagement with this course is having the effect of ‘making the familiar strange’ (Selwyn 2011, p.16).

The Internet as artefact cannot ‘decide’ anything. As artefact it is, as Shelly and Urry note, composed of ‘multiple fixities or moorings on a substantial physical scale that enable the fluidities of liquid modernity’ (Shelly and Urry, ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm’, Environment and Planning A 2006, volume 38, p.207).

The phrase ‘the Internet has decided’ highlights Selwyn’s repeated proposition that ‘technology’ is not just the artefact, the thing, but also activities, practices, and context (Selwyn, 2011, p.8, p.17). The ‘Internet’ is a community and it is the epitome of ‘liquid modernity’.

“Ow! My brains!” ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

‘…education is on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies; however, it has been on that brink for some decades now.’ – Laurillard (2008, p.1)


This picture was produced by my 12 year-old nephew in Art today:


He brought it home and it was posted up on Facebook by my sister (ignore the lack of capitalisation – she’s grammatically lazy on social media):


10 minutes later, I had stolen acquired it, messed around with it a little in Photoshop and had it posted on here as my new blog header:


The process by which I discovered, acquired and used this image is quotidian, mundane; we stumble across, come upon or seek out knowledge, images, help and companionship daily via the web, and we share, disseminate, communicate and engage instantly. It’s the norm. It’s obvious. But, in a week in which I’ve been asked to reflect on why I’m doing the course and what I hope to get out of it, I began to think about this knowledge exchange in different terms.

The image of the bird was purloined by gifted to me via technology. But, as Selwyn notes, ‘technology’ – etymologically at least – ‘has always referred to the processes and practices of doing things, understanding things and developing knowledge’ (2011, p.7). So, nothing too different here then. Is what is really different the digitisation of knowledge, of images, of self? That’s where the immediacy is after all, isn’t it? But again, it’s more than that. This digital bird flew in from the internet and ‘when people talk about the internet they are usually referring to the activities that they engage in online, the cultures that can be said to surround these social activities, and the knowledge that results from these activities. As such, it is far more useful to describe the internet in terms of its social ‘content’ rather than its technical forms (Wessels 2010).’ (Selwyn, 2011, p.8). I got the bird from my nephew, via my sister via the internet. And many other people in our particular social milieu got that bird too.

I first graduated from Edinburgh University in 1996. When I left, the most advanced piece of technology I had used to help me in my studies was my much loved Brother electronic typewriter. A few months after graduating in English, I was at Napier studying multimedia technology. It was a dizzying and exciting shift. After being a (contented) reader and writer, I now felt like a maker, a producer. We used Macromedia Director and Authorware to produce interactive content. My first product was a little programme which used Mr Men characters to teach spelling. I remember the thrill of making things move after years of (wonderful) passivity. From Napier, I went to SCET and worked on a CD-ROM to teach children Gaelic. My Gaelic was non-existent and my programming skills weren’t too much better, but it was exciting. I worked with teachers and pupils for the first time, collaborating with them to determine what worked and what didn’t; what helped them to teach and to learn. And I was hooked: education was surely ‘on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies…’ Laurillard (2008, p.1)

Since then, I’ve spent most of my career in educational technology. I’m a qualified teacher, but I now work as an ‘EdTech consultant’ (“whatever that means” – thank you Mother). I like a lot of the work that I do. It’s thrilling to work with augmented reality, with 3D technologies and with apps and it’s good to share that thrill with teachers and pupils. However, a phrase which really stuck when I came across it in this week’s reading was ‘the realities of technology use are often more mundane and compromised’ (Selwyn. 2011, p.32). A lot of the time, I am called into schools to deal with broken kit, broken budgets and broken enthusiasm. I see more dead, unused and under-used technologies than I see ‘guides on the side’ or ‘flipped classrooms’. The artefact has, in too many instances, been confuted with change. Technological determinism has ensured failure from the outset. And, therefore, we remain, after decades, ‘on the brink of change’.

So, I guess that’s why I’m here. I want to be able to reflect on my own practice. I want to work with others to discuss what educational technology and digital education mean. I also want to reflect on what is seemingly mundane – a picture being shared on Facebook – and see that, once again, for the complex and vital interchange which it really is.

I am hoping that I can keep up: it’s a vibrant, talented and global community of IDEL students.  I’m concerned about the limits of my own creativity: I am diligent, industrious and organised but my creative capacity pales in comparison with some of the artists and musicians on the course. And writing this hasn’t been easy: I’ve spent years writing IT strategies, business plans and training plans, so my reflective, engaged, academic prose is, to say the least, rusty. Still, it’s written, it’s done. My first blog post finished. And the process hasn’t felt mundane at all.