My Edinburgh

“… the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum.”
– Jacques Derrida

“This (Edinburgh) is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.”
– Alexander McCall Smith

ed viewIn their 2013 paper, ‘Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students’, Bayne et all consider ‘how online distance students enact the space of ‘the university’ (p569).  The paper explores the ‘topological multiplicities’ (p.571) which constitute what it is to ‘be at’ Edinburgh University on a course such as this:

‘…institutional formation and personal identity, location and diaspora, mobility and stasis are continually and creatively re-thought, re-formed and re-shaped’.  (p.571)

University is, the paper argues ‘recast as a complex enactment’ (p.571). As online distance learners, our social spaces are ‘fluid’ (Mol and Law 1994) and Law and Mol’s concept of ‘fire’ (2001) serves to denote the ‘complex intersections of presence and absence’ which comprise our experience, our spaces and our learning. So far so postmodern: online distance learning offers alterity to and the logos, the fixed and the physical. Academically and intellectually, this definition of our experience appeals: as with the metaphor of the rhizome, the rejection of sedentarist assumptions about what is normal – stability, meaning and place – for a definition of space as a ‘dynamic entity’ (p.572) reflects the role we have as creators of our own definitions of what our class is, what our university is and what our learning is.

However, Bayne et al state that, although distance students relish ‘their immersion in the networked, fluid and fire spaces of the online mode’ (p.573), they counter-balance this multiplicity with the construction of ‘their own version of the ‘certainties’ of bounded campus space.’ (p.573).

‘Not me!’ I thought.

And then, reading on, I rethought.

Bayne et al identify and define three key themes which characterise distance students’ conceptualisation and experience of ‘Edinburgh University’; of the ways ‘in which ‘university’ space is enacted’ (p.575). All had resonance for me:

1. Homing and the sentimental campus
I studied in Edinburgh from ’92 – ’96. I was determined to make a success of my time there having transferred from Oxford (where I was reading PPE) to read English which which was my passion. You can only imagine how delighted my parents were, especially as I was the first in my family to make it to university. Anyway…my love of literature was quickly augmented by my love of the city. I continued to live in Edinburgh after I graduated and, since then, have left and returned on a number of occasions. Starting this course feels like another return; I am once again experiencing a sense of connection with the city, ‘a conceptual homeward return’ (p.577).

2. The metaphysics of presence or ‘campus envy’.
Edinburgh University is, for me, ‘a kind of touchstone – a logos’. It is a point (albeit imagined) of fixity, of presence in our online experience of ‘the fire’: the ‘lambent interdependency of the ‘here’ and ‘not here” (p.582). Bayne et al record students’ ‘sense of the possibility of campus presence’ (p.583). I have enacted the same need for physical connectedness – registering for and receiving a student card which I am unlikely to use and making arrangements to attend – in person – the anniversary celebration at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on 26th November.


3. The imagined campus
My Edinburgh University campus is multiple and varied, I ‘operate within a material space of ‘churn and flow’. This week, my class has been a restaurant table in a Best Western in Wilmslow, an office in Stockport and my spare room at home in Cumbria. Next week, it will be a hotel in Cornwall. Paradoxically, the complex ‘entanglements’ which ‘enact (this) institutional space’ (p.583) serve to provide me with a sense of constancy wherever I happen to be. Edinburgh University comes with me.

My experience being ‘at Edinburgh’ is one in which I feel both here and there; I feel connected and disconnected, absent and present and ‘somewhere in between’:

‘To be ‘at’ Edinburgh…is to be oriented in multiple ways to the institution, to be simultaneously inside and outside, in flux and in stasis, in presence and in absence’ (p.581)

I do, however, feel that I am in exactly the right place and space for me.

Bayne, S., Gallagher, M. S., & Lamb, J. (2014). Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students. Higher Education, 67, 569-583.

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

Losing the thread…

When I started this course, I was lucky enough to have a few weeks off work. This proved to be invaluable: I was able to become familiar with the different information and communication streams, spend time on the discussion boards and kick-start my blog. As a learner, I felt, in the main, in control and on top of things.

The asynchronous nature of the discussions in Weeks 0 and 1  served to reinforce this sense of ordered, systematic, linear learning. I was able to approach and engage in discussions as and when I could and, due to the slow pace of the threads, I didn’t feel that I was left behind or out of the loop. The one-off synchronous Skype discussion in Week 2, although frenetic, was also manageable: it was a commitment of one hour and I felt fully ‘present’* and part of the conversation.

This week, we’ve been using Twitter. In theory, this medium shouldn’t prove to be too different to using a discussion forum. I can log onto Twitter and participate on my own terms and in my own time; I can review tweets in a conversation in the same way as I can read posts on a discussion board and respond (or not) as and when suits me. So far, so like the discussion board.

And yet, so different.

Reflecting on why, I think Twitter is a more demanding technology:

  1. Twitter has, as part of its cultural norms, a demand for greater immediacy than discussion boards.
    • SO: once the first tweets started appear about the readings on Monday, I started to feel a sense of exclusion. I hadn’t yet got to the readings and yet there were conversations emerging about them which I didn’t feel equipped to participate in. This anxiety is, I acknowledge, is my construct, but I didn’t feel it when we were contributing via the boards.
  2. Twitter demands 140 characters or less.
    • SO: it’s often easier to convey your point by linking to other content, resulting in an ever-increasing list of things I felt I needed to read, watch or do.
  3. To follow and participate in the threads, Twitter demands a #.
    • SO: I spent a lot time deleting tweets and then tweeting them again with the #added
  4. Twitter demands more actions to view and follow conversations, especially via the mobile app.
    • SO: I had to work to find the start of conversations, in order that I ‘jumped in’ at the right point.
  5. To respond to others, Twitter demands a @.
    • SO: I spent a lot time deleting tweets and then tweeting them again with the right combinations of @ added.

Some felt differently:


But it was heartening and reassuring (if a little sadistic) to see that others also felt some sense of exclusion:



And that others were equally bemused and confused at times:


One of the anxieties I didn’t have which others expressed was that of our discussions being more broadly public:


Rather, I felt that the hastag provided a ‘walled garden’ for our learning community.

So, all bad?

No, not at all.

In spite of Twitter shifting me out of my controlled, linear, preferred PLE, it is an incredible tool for learning. This week, it has proved to be a brilliant way to crowd-source (albeit an overwhelming amount of) information, ideas and links. But, more importantly, I really feel that this week we’ve been able to develop more of an identity for our learning community by developing a greater sense of the identities of those who make up that community. At the start of the week, I reflected on the fact that it if ‘off-task’ activities that help us to build connections.



And Twitter is the ideal medium for off-task interchanges. These reached their inevitable zenith this week with a silly cat video. Susie rocks.


*I acknowledge the many caveats that should come with my use of that term…

What font are you wearing?

Last week, I reflected on the notion of online ‘presence’, and how we create ourselves in words online. At the end of that week, I tuned in to Saturday Live (with the Reverend Richard Coles of the parish of the Communards) and heard this item about fonts.

Sat 26 Sep 2015

The sensory experiments which graphic designer and font aficionado Sarah Hyndman conducted on the show, where she showed that fonts can be associated with different senses, were fascinating.

Sarah is fascinated by fonts and claims that the font you choose is as important as the clothes you wear. It’s an interesting proposition and one which pertains to some digital and printed communications (I judge users of Comic Sans harshly). However, within the media which we have been communicating in so far, we have little to no choice about the fonts which are used: they’re preset. As to which font I might choose to use, it would be Trebuchet or Segoe UI Semilight: I think those mark me out as dull…

You can find out more about this particular episode and about Sarah’s work more generally here.


Thought snippet: absence and presence

This mini-post is just to note that a lot of my thinking this week has revolved around “Being in a sense present while apparently absent” (Shelley and Urry, ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm, ibid, p.208)

The prompt for this strand of exploration was the story of ‘The Invisible Student’ and the comment that Rory made about online environments offering, on occasion, the chance to take a ‘holiday from the self’.

Ren? Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009
René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009

I started to think about what the last few weeks have been about is how to establish our presence and to feel present when, in essence, absent. Currently, we’re establishing our MSc selves in words, creating our presence in text; this reminds me of one of my favourite Beckett quotes, “I’m in words, made of words, others’ words” (Endgame). There’s the sense that words are not quite enough. Indeed, many of the issues highlighted in this week’s stories could be accredited to that Derridean gap between the sign and the signified. It will be interesting to see how our online selves and our community morphs as we develop our presence using other media – once we see others on Skype and engage through voice and video.

Slightly tangentially, this article was in The Guardian this week: maybe it’s harder than we think to escape from our ‘real’ selves when online.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993