Cascade out and about – an update on project wanderings

It’s been a busy few weeks for the project. First we submitted our baseline report to the JISC, which has now been synthesised into a sector summary report, forthcoming soon. Some of the key findings of the Exeter audit process are echoed nationally, while some are relatively unique. For example, the preference for public, third party, cloud and open source applications among researchers was echoed by the Vitae survey. The emergence of mobile and social technologies was also matched by other findings. All the surveys I have seen confirmed that technology adoption is overhwhelmingly self-directed and peer-supported. But projects differ in the groups of staff/students they are working with, and our focus on PGRs has given us some particular insights into how research practice is changing.

We have had a joint proposal accepted for the HEA conference, put together a proposal for the International Blended Learning Conference, and begun drafting a symposium proposal for the annual Association for Learning Technology conference in the autumn. In all of these we are working with other projects in our programme cluster. There is the possibility of a paper to Improving Student Learning as well.

Last week Dale and I travelled to Bristol to meet a group of projects, professional bodies, and one institution from outside the programme, to discuss the disciplinary aspects of digital literacy. This is an area of work we will be taking forward both through digital literacy profiles of the different subjects in which our PGR interns are situated, and through subject-specific case studies. We know that research practice is highly dependent on the subject and even the topic of research, so the skills researchers need are not well developed by generic programmes or techniques. This is something we will explore further at College level.

Finally I’ve been invited to speak on a Guardian panel, Developing Digital Literacy in Higher Education. This will be live on Friday 2nd March – if you are reading this post at a later date you will find a recording and summary online.

Digital Expression

I was talking with a couple of PhD students. One who does work in maritime archaeology was talking about her frustrations with writing her current chapter. She said she was having a hard time with the fact that in each chapter she started to bring in too much stuff- there were too many connections- and she was having a hard time with the fact that chapters always have to be linear- so B follows A and C follows B, in logical order.

I asked her if she had ever used mind-mapping software to help. She said no. The other PhD student who was sitting there suggested that she not use mind-mapping, but rather that she use a graphing software which creates networks in all directions between your ideas as opposed to restricting you to single tree of ideas that is then disconnected from other trees.

The archaeologist said ‘come on, that makes more sense, you don’t really think in this linear way’.

It occurred to me how true that statement is; you don’t think in a linear way- the progression of a 100,000 word PhD thesis will have to act as a tour guide through ideas, taking you along the way to the right sites at the right time. But all the sites might have connections with each other.

Now, humans have been telling stories for mellenia. We have been telling stories to our children and grandchildren, to our students, and to our community verbally for God knows how long. Thousands of years ago, we started writing stories on rocks, and then eventually on scribes of Papyrus. Obviously, a story- a linear progression of ideas- is a good format for transmitting knowledge and ideas. But knowledge transmission doesn’t always follow a linear path- for example, listen closely to how someone tells you a story- it’s rare that it really goes from A, to B, to C in a logical way- usually it meanders a little, and the meander is often an important part of the logic of the communication. And some people argue that communicating things in a logical, linear progression is actually not the best means of communicating about a complex, interconnected world.

I am quite interested in systems thinking as an approach to the world. I first began to think about linear logic when I was an undergraduate student studying intercultural communication for business, and I was really inspired by one paper we had to read about different approaches to communication. The Western world’s communication is shaped like an arrow- the ideas move in one direction, whereas this is not universal and other cultures have a variety of different approaches. For example, it’s common among Native American cultures to use a circular logic. Having lived in Alaska and worked for a Native Company, I can say I can understand this, although it’s not something that is easy to explain as cultural things often are not. The point is that Native stories are often not quite the same as European stories, although they are both communicating their message.

When I started to learn about systems thinking, I got very excited about this approach. I guess it’s probably because I studied environmental science, environmental archaeology and environmental economics at an interdisciplinary university that I became really aware of how linked things are in the world, and how much things exist only in their surroundings, especially in the context of something like the environment.

The Open University’s Learning Space has a page dedicated to Systems Thinking in Education, where there is a big image of what looks like a neural network-several topics linking with each other. Systems Thinking as a Languagediscusses how the way we use language relates to notions of linearity and interconnectedness.

Okay, I will finally get to the point. As of now, we publish things in a very linear format. But how is that changing or going to change with increasing digitisation?

Ten years ago, you would read a newspaper and you would read story (and it might say ‘look at this place for more information, but the story was there and contained) but now, you read a newspaper article online and there are constant links in the text- to explain what or who they are talking about, to relate to another article, to give more information in case you want it. Just look at the homepage for the New York Times, it’s not the same as the front page of a print newspaper.

In academia, increasingly articles are being linked in text. On blogs, people commonly refer to other blogs or other sources of information very freely and in a way that is much more integrated with the post than a citation in a paper. When I share Google Docs with the Exeter Cascade Team, I often link different Google Docs to each other, to show that each Google Doc relates to the others and to simplify where the different, related information can be found.

I think that what I am trying to say is well illustrated by looking at PowerPoint and Prezi. Many agree that Prezi is the presentation tool of the future. Why? It allows more connection, more ideas within ideas, more freedom than the PowerPoint which says 1,2,3, now 4, oh let’s look for another minute at the graph on 2, 5, 6, 7…Prezi, I think, works more in the way that I think. It allows me to express that more adequately. I can still draw a path through the presentation, of course, but it’s set up in a way that doesn’t assume that what I have to say is in essence linear.

So I started to wonder about my friend the archaeologist’s frustration. In the future- say, 50, 100 years, or less, from now, will writing still be expected to follow the same format? Will PhD theses of the future include links and connections-will ‘chapters’ become ‘ideas’ which are not placed in order, but rather shown as a package? I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that publications, including academic ones, will look different in the future. Publishing is always changing. Print publishing changed from being something that only a small few could produce to something that could be mass produced yet was still selective because of economics, to something that is growing less dominant to online.

Anyways, just a little ponderance.

Interns arrive

I’m not sure I know the collective noun for a group of postgraduate interns, but given the calibre of people we have been privileged to interview over the past few weeks I’m going to suggest a ‘talent’ of interns. The ‘talent’ we’ve collected together is larger than we first imagined, partly because there were so many applicants we couldn’t bear to let go. So after a period of baselining and taking stock, it feels as if the project is really ready to start making an impact in the colleges and departments of the University.

We know from our baselining process – public report due shortly – that many PGRs are innovators in their research fields, particularly when it comes to collecting data, and supporting collaboration and communication. Data capture and visualisation, use of video, simulations, and the more generic research processes of information and reference management, are all issues we will be exploring in more detail. And of course we will look at how we can cascade digital know-how to other PGRs, undergraduates, and senior members of departments.

We are also looking at what PGRs need to be effective researchers in a digital age, and how the University can provide an exceptional environment for innovation.

All this kicks off on Thursday with our first monthly seminar. With so many different perspectives on digital scholarship, and so much technical know-how in the room, I’m a little nervous about orchestrating it all. But I’ve no doubt it will be fascinating.

It’s time for change.

It’s election week on campus and, as is true with the population as a whole, there is no better time to assess the mood of the campus and to take encouragement and inspiration from the candidates manifestos and the associated votes. Mixed in among the innuendo, stunts and bombardment with flyers that make up this week, there are the policies themselves which form the campaigns and the future direction of the University. This blog post is a look at the proposals which relate to our project – and in the interest of impartiality they have been anonymised from the original source:

Better use of technology actually takes up a decent chunk of the manifestos when you consider the wide range of topics that need to be covered in these elections – and this was not limited to any single role. There are repeated promises of increasing the use of social networking and improving both the style and use of websites, wanting up-to-date information, events calendars and discussion forums. Clearly we have students who are using technologies in their everyday life and wanting to integrate this further into their education. New ways of communicating with students is a popular theme, with candidates calling for the more effective use of emails and wider use of online discussion being touted alongside an idea to make sure that every student gets regular feedback from SSLC via a new ELE homepage and has the ability to instantly feedback through polls and open questions. This makes me think that the future of student engagement, in all senses, will always be online. Where do tablets and smartphones fit into this? Candidates want apps for all the functions provided by ELE and MyExeter. This will allow them to work on the go and to work with the tools they choose.

ELE received a vote of confidence from the candidates, being described as a “valuable resource”, but there is a clear desire for its use to be taken further. So, students want training and guidance to be given to members of staff (and students where necessary) on its use and upkeep, they want all modules to have adequate notes online, and they want these to be accessible on 24 hours (at least) prior to the lecture to give students a chance to prepare. This is not just an example of digital literacy; it is an example of diligence. Beyond this, it seems that students support online submission, want technological teaching aids (TVs or Smart boards for example) installed in every teaching room to encourage a more modern approach to teaching and for all lectures to have video or voice recordings made.

To take this outside of the classroom, one candidate wants to encourage the University and students to use the skills of Xmedia to create audio tours, podcasts, blogs and videos. This demonstrates a key finding in the CASCADE project so far – that students learn from sharing knowledge of others. Some candidates want to use MyExeter as a log book for students to record extra-curricular activities which can later be used as proof of participation for employers.

Of course, for all the praise and encouragement being displayed for technology, it wouldn’t be an Exeter election without a complaint about IT, MyExeter going down at peak times and Wi-Fi on campus. Direct quote from a manifesto: “WIFI. My grandma has it. Even Cornwall has it. So why do some of our lecture rooms and parts of campus not?”

Social Media and Graduate Career Hunters

Last week, a colleague highlighted a thought-provoking infographic.  This draws attention to the changing attitudes amongst today’s students whilst they evaluate their options for their first steps into the workplace and tomorrow’s graduates.

According to this ‘worldwide survey’ of students and young professionals, conducted by Cisco:

  • 2/3 of college students will ask about social media policies during job interviews
  • 56% will not accept a job form a company than bans social medial, or they will circumvent the policy
  • 1/3 prioritise social media freedom and device flexibility over salary

Whilst we are highly sceptical about the validity of these specific findings, there are other results that have sparked some interest:

  • Almost 1/3 believe their digital and social media literacy was a factor in becoming employed
  • 1/3 of employees say they use at least 3 devices at work
  • 63% of students want access to corporate information and networks from home computers, 51% want access from mobile devices

The increasing awareness of the importance of mobile availability and device flexibility is a trend that has been experienced in terms of accessing university data and services.  However these latter statistics suggest that students are becoming mindful of the importance of digital technology skill and availability as they embark on their professional lives.

In other news, watch out for our own infographics coming soon, highlighting some of the key findings from our work to baseline current levels of digital literacy amongst students and staff at the university.

A critical digital literacy – what would that look like?

A lot like Bertie’s blog posts about ipads, IMO.

I love apple products. Edited a book on one of the first Macintosh computers in 1984 and bought my own two years’ later. This one took me through my undergraduate degree, then I bought a Mac Pro during a period of graphic and web design work, and kept it for my career as a writer and editor. After a nasty spell in the early 2000s when nobody seemed to be compatible with me and I went over to the other side, I returned to the fold three years ago and now own an iMac, MacBook Air, ipod and iphone, all synced of course. But I’m aware that in buying into this beautifully designed and apparently life-completing technology I’m also selling my future media choices back to Apple – yes the iTunes store knows my credit card number and isn’t afraid to use it. Through my love of Apple products I am a bit in the Apple business machine.

I’ve blogged elsewhere about what a critical digital and media literacy should look like. An awareness that technology and the business interests behind technology have designs on us as well as serving our ‘needs’.

At a project meeting today, I heard again the argument that digital technology should be invisible. That digital skills are nothing more than the capacity to find the information you need to make the technology work, without thinking too hard about it. At University I think we should be in the business of thinking hard, including about our technologies and the designs they have on us. I’d rather be making technology relentlessly visible, and visible in new ways, than simply succumbing to its allure, its ease of use.

Though yes, I am writing this with my headphones and iTunes DJ on.

A big welcome to Bertie. And a small note to JISC – we are not buying him an ipad.

The intersection of education and technology

Yesterday’s Apple announcement probably won’t cause massive ripples in Higher Education. The reason I know this is that I currently have a job. If universities didn’t already know that technology has a key place in the future of education I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. What it will do instead is present a challenge for universities, but interestingly the solution isn’t necessary through Apple.

In a nutshell, Apple’s plan to bring education out of the dark ages is to make sure that everyone can learn in the most engaging and up-to-date way, wherever they are and at anytime. Three new apps were introduced, adding to the 20,000 education apps that already exist: iBooks 2, iBooks Author and iTunes U. The first two let teachers write impressive and interactive (maybe even fun?) textbooks for iPads and students use these for reading, highlighting, revising, testing – all elements of learning. This is Apple “reinventing the textbook” and making them more portable, durable, interactive, searchable and current than traditional books.

iTunes U has now graduated from being a part of iTunes to its own app. I already use this to watch lectures from participating universities in any and every subject. This update now makes iTunes U the place to do everything you need as a student, down to signing up for modules and finding out your lecturers office hours. The most interesting part of this announcement is that teachers can push information to students – this can be assignments, reading, notes – and this allows a much greater engagement between teacher and student. The Open University is already signed on. Will other universities follow?

They don’t need to. Apple say they are making it “easy to be a good student”. One catch – you need an iPad. Actually, everyone needs an iPad. For this to work every every student and teacher in a school or university needs an iPad – if one person doesn’t have one, the whole scheme fails because the textbooks need to be exclusive to Apple. But no education discount or schemes were announced; in fact, iPads were described as affordable. The whole keynote felt like a long iPad advert, but it is unfair to assume that every student can afford the latest Apple technology. So, what can universities do? They can help everyone in education to buy an iPad (either in full or subsidised) and ensure teachers are fully utilising the possibilities, but they should not run headlong into this so soon, particularly as nothing today related to research or academic writing.

Nevertheless, the challenge is there. Apple is now offering a one-stop-shop for education in the technological world; will universities create their own alternatives or buy-in to Apple’s vision for the future of education?

Do I need an iPad? Introductory thoughts from a new team member

When I tell people that my new job is on a digital literacy research project their initial reaction is one of two things: iPads or Kindles. This might have something to do with my digital background – I am known to be a quick adopter of technologies and knowledgeable of new and upcoming advances. I don’t have an iPad though (hint hint). Then again, it may simply be the common misconceptions of digital literacy coming through: iPads for everybody = digitally literate.

Clearly this isn’t right, surely I’m not the only person who gets frustrated when they see people with “all the gear but no idea”? A problem (a very first-world problem) faced by Apple retail employees is that their marketing is just too good! People flood to their stores saying “I want an iPad”, when actually it is very clear they would make much better use of a notebook. So, what’s the solution? Fittingly enough for a university, the solution is education.

Digital literacy is not always using the latest technology, just as literacy itself does not mean always reading the latest books. Instead, it is having the ability to do so if you wanted – being equipped to pick up a new technology (or book) and get to grips with it quickly. This enables us to use the technologies that are right for us, to make our work more efficient, to achieve our targets in the best possible way. Some people will always prefer cracking the spine of a physical book, but they can get to this stage much quicker if they use the libraries online catalogue to find where to look.

That’s my brief view on digital literacy as I join this project. Making sure that our students and staff are comfortable using new technological methods of teaching and researching so that they can weigh the pros and cons for themselves. My interest in technology, the importance I place on innovation (not just my own, but the company I work for and the environment that it is in) and my experience in education at this university as an undergraduate and as Vice President Academic Affairs of the Students’ Guild all contribute to my excitement to be on this project, and will I hope contribute to its successful conclusion.

Flavour of the month

Digital literacy certainly seems to be the flavour of the month, with the Guardian announcing its Digital Literacy campaign (including an article about the JISC Developing Digital Literacy programme), Michael Gove expressing the view that digital literacy should infuse subjects across the curriculum, and lots of coverage for the NextGen report from Nesta – actually produced earlier last year – on preparing graduates and school leavers to work in the gaming and video/effects industries. Gove has even suggested a wiki-based approach to curriculum development nationally, which sounds rather similar to what we have going on with the Design Studio!

While I’ve written slightly more cynically about this on my own blog, and while the conflation of digital literacy with ICT teaching is unhelpful, I do think the national interest reflects what is happening at a smaller scale here at Exeter. Who would have thought ‘digital literacy’ would be so openly discussed as a concern and a priority, so soon after our project kicked off?

I had a valuable meeting with an Associate Dean today who described digital scholarship as the way forward not only for Exeter University but for any UK University trying to establish and retain a global reputation. And at our monthly literacies lunch on Tuesday this week, there were lively discussions with people from very different parts of the University, including academic advisers talking about plagiarism and new writing habits, and our Head of Student Skills wondering how best to ensure students are wise to the myriad possibilities of digital networking.

Food for thought as we plunge into the maestrom that is making sense of our baselining data.

I’m living in a digital world and I am a digital girl

Today, I heard someone say something that really clicked in my head: he said, it’s interesting that scholars in the social sciences will often think that digital technology is not important in their research, because the ideas, they say, comes from inside, the internal process-however, he said they are failing to see how connected the outside ‘digitized’ world where they get there data is to their internal landscape, where these ‘ideas’ form.

As Liz noted, this really comes down to questions of knowledge- what is knowledge?-how is it created?- Can someone who is surrounded by digital technology, and who uses it in their personal life, really say that their research is not dependent on it, even in unlikely case that they avoid using it in their work? Even in the case that someone does not use technology in their work or their personal life- say they don’t even have an email address and never visit Google or YouTube, they are still integrated with technology. To believe that one person is autonomous and so comes up with ‘their’ ideas independent of all the interactions they have with the rest of the world is, I think, overly simplistic and rudimentary. Therefore, even if your colleagues are using twitter, your research is affected- because the conversations you have with your colleagues (who are using twitter and communicating with researchers internationally who are also communicating with other researchers) are affecting your ideas. I mean, sure people aren’t so susceptible that every little piece of information everyone shares with us is somehow really integral in every thought we have- but we can’t pretend that our ideas are really 100% ours either, they just aren’t.

So this is a really interesting way to see digital technologies impact on our research. In a sense, because the world is digitized our research must be a product of that reality-we already ate that apple, left that garden, we can’t now return.

This really gets into digital literacy also as a way of thinking, not just a way of acting. I mean, one way of looking at it is being able to hit the right buttons, get the right outputs- or even being able to approach a new software and learn how to hit the right buttons. But, a deeper way of looking at it is about how our conciousness is actually affected by digitization (for better or for worse). Many of the PGRs I have interviewed agree that a lot of these technologies are great because they allow certain things (for example, being able to read and understand Greek texts that are now online with the help of online tools that will automatically translate words for you). They have also agreed that these benefits come with flip sides (so, you won’t as easily learnthe Greek words). Really, digitization is changing the way we learn, and changing what knowledge is considered important because it’s changing what is seen as the job of the human brain, as opposed to an instrument. So, yes, it’s true that we won’t remember historical facts because Google can do it for us. But is that a bad thing? Maybe being digitally literate is about knowing which pieces of information to know and which can be found, knowing how to find information and knowing what constitutes important information….

I think I have gone on about this before, but I remember this one day when I was working in a glacier and whale tour boat in Alaska, there was a really nice customer there on the tour. I think he had some big highfalutin job in marketing or something-I was surprised actually we started having such a radical conversation-maybe it was the whales. He started talking about having an experience (okay, it was drug induced) where he saw somehow that all of humanity was interconnected in this web- that our conciousness was all connected, that we’re all so reliant on each other and created with/from/into each other all the time…he had this sort of spiritual vision, and the directly related that to our current digitization, saying that he saw in this vision [drug trip] that all the technology infrastructure that we are building- email, mobile phones, Google, blogs, is all about reconnecting us, is all about finding our connected conciousness. I was really impacted by that conversation, somehow- it was such an interesting way to see it. But I really can see what he was saying. I mean, so much of digital technology- of the internet specifically-is about this connectedness. People even talk about it that way, about being ‘connected’, and feel when they aren’t online they aren’t connected. All of this is true obviously of things like Facebook, Twitter, email, Skype- it’s about connecting. But I think if you think deeply it’s also true of semi scholarly and fully scholarly technologies…in the case of blogging, what more are people doing than sharing their conciousness, and looking to bridge connections, looking to feel understood? In the case of academic journals, this issue exists. We now have a drive to make things more open-why?-so we can be more connected-via the digital technology. I would say that personally 90% of my technology use is about connecting to other people. I call Mom with Skype. I keep in touch on Facebook. I meet new people are share my space on couchsurfing. Even my use of Word, etc, is generally towards something I want to share with other people. Academically, I don’t know how different it is- because if you are a successful academic, people are reading and considering your ideas, right?

So I think that being digitally literate is about knowing how to use digital technology, and knowing how it’s affecting your learning/thinking processes. I think that digital technology on the whole is absolutely affecting our understanding not only of our research but of our world.