In 1947, after the devastation of World War II, the founding vision was to reunite people through great art and “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”. In these historic early moments, people overcame the post-war darkness, division and austerity in a blooming of Festival Spirit.
“The International Festival would focus on common ground, on undisputed greatness and in so doing would make itself a safe place to come together. This was most symbolically achieved with the reuniting of Jewish conductor Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.”
“LiberatEd is an initiative created by Edinburgh University Students’ Association and led by Black and Minority Ethnic (BME), Disabled, LGBT+ and Women students from across the University, aimed at challenging the academic establishment to become more diverse, more inclusive, and more critical of historically dominant narratives.”
“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.” (Charles Mackay – Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds)
I write you from the eye of the storm. It’s festival season again in Edinburgh. If you’ve never been here in August it’s hard to describe. Our city is transformed into a palace of wonder and delight. Every pub is simultaneously an art gallery / comedy venue / popup flophouse. Kitchen cupboards are rented as theatres. For one month streetfood doesn’t mean 2 seagulls fighting over a chip. Comedy stars flock to Edinburgh like competitive sheep shearers to the Golden Shears. A garden square in the heart of the New Town magically turns into a world-class book festival. We illuminate the city, and everyone thinks it’s totally reasonable to go see Jane Austen improv in a giant upside down inflatable cow-shaped theatre.
Locals are marked out by their scowls, tutting, and general frustration with not being able to walk anywhere in the city at speed. Don’t talk about flyers.
Every year it seems too overwhelming. Every year I promise myself some restraint. Not to overcommit. It’s going well this year. If by “well” you mean totally bat-shit-crazy like a cat in a field of nip.
Having spent the morning indulging myself in reading a bunch of blogs on the web I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. I can’t really keep up, and the distance and the gap to where I am is immense. I’ve mostly been reading back through the archives of people who have been blogging for years. It’s been a really valuable exercise in better understanding the lines of thought behind what those people are writing about at the moment.
I also feel pretty dumb by comparison now.
However, it’s given me real pause for thought in terms of where I want to go with my own foray into blog-land. It wasn’t really ever a consideration to do anything but host my blog myself. I wanted the freedom to do whatever with this space, but I am still working that out. My professional identity is multi-faceted – between paid employment and volunteering work – and how much of my personal life I want to be able to share remains unclear. What I am weighing up most heavily is the implications of putting anything I write into a public space. Reading back over some other blogs there’s a really rich and varied tapestry of topics, thoughts and opinions there, but there’s also strong evidence of privilege. I can’t imagine being able to write so openly on such a wide range of topics. Don’t get me wrong, I know I have privilege of my own – first world problems and all that – but it’s still hard. Imposter syndrome is a thing. Being a woman in IT is a thing. Considering how other people in my story would feel if I wrote about them is a thing. Fundamentally I believe that anything I put out there publicly moves beyond my control immediately and even if I curate my archive over time, become a serial deleter even, it’s too late. Calculating the potential future weight of my words is a bit exhausting.
With that in mind, I’m going to try catch 2 shows in the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas series (part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe). Both by colleagues of mine. See what I mean about an overwhelming abundance of smart people out there. Hopefully I’ll have some more insight.
One of the reasons that I still default to pencil and paper for a lot of my sense-making writing is that I write my thoughts and an ongoing commentary on them at the same time. I annotate a lot. My marginalia is huge.
I’m enjoying the blogging that I’ve been doing, but I’m not enjoying that each blog post is such a static thing once written. Actually I’m finding it pretty frustrating. I want to be able to revisit a post and annotate it with additional thoughts – to note other sources of more info, to make links to other things, or to generally add another layer of critique. I don’t want to change the post itself, just to be able to continue overlaying more thoughts to it as time passes.
Ideally I’d like to be able to do this within WordPress itself, so that I don’t loose that stuff should an external service suddenly disappear. The layer of commentary and marginalia is as vital to me as the main body of the thing.
I’ve had a look at inline comments on WordPress and generally solutions seem to be a reworking of the existing comments functionality on the platform – which isn’t what I want because I still want other people to be able to add comments (actually I want to be able to annotate them too – I’m greedy like that).
So far I haven’t found a good solution, so I’ve signed up for Hypothes.is and installed the plugin on my site so that I have something at least. I’m continuing to be brave and I’ve made my annotations public so others shouldn’t need to login to see them. Let’s see how well this works…
The more I read, the more convinced I am that this NGDLE tale is the Emperor’s New Clothes over again. “Zen like emptiness” anyone? And Jim and Brian’s blog posts both accurately identify what risks being stolen away from us (clue: data). A colleague reminded me of the inevitability of the hype cycle and we are probably at the zenith with this particular one, about to plummet down the slope. Whilst VLE vendors double down on their current positions, and everyone else discovers that this is harder than they thought, I want to expand out on a little of my own thinking under some loosely connected headings for future posterity. We can all laugh together later…
My own concerns are that this current vision for an NGDLE is fundamentally limited in scope and vision. That sounds quite strong, but I’m sticking with it. Until I change my mind.
Absence of student voices
“As part of this research effort, EDUCAUSE conducted a series of conversations with experts to gain insight into the limitations of the current tools and seek ideas for shaping new learning environments. In seven such discussions, we spoke with more than 70 educators, campus-based technologists, and developers from the private sector. Specific voices from the conversations are found in quotes throughout this paper” (1)
This vision for next generation learning environments has from all that I can see, been conceived of by people who are probably at least one generation away from the students of today, talking about what the students of a future generation might encounter. We are all kidding ourselves if we think that our understanding of what it is to be a student today is in any way authentic. Although the report draws upon ECAR research that includes student survey data, no students appear to have been in any of the blue-skies conversational spaces. I hear a fair amount of concern about the extent to which meeting student satisfaction targets is driving the agenda on our campuses, but to exclude students from the conversation entirely introduces a heavy bias from the outset. If the intention of this vision is to provide a more learner-centred environment then the voice of the majority group of learners needs to be incorporated. We need to admit students into the conversation about the development of learning technology (and technology more generally) on our campuses. Far too often we speak for our students instead of giving them a platform to speak for themselves.
Last September I started a major project, with a huge procurement component and we made the decision to include a student on the procurement team. I don’t mean we let some students score the supplier demos (we did that too), I mean that we had a student sitting at the negotiating table along with our senior team, meeting and quizzing each of the suppliers on equal terms. We didn’t always agree with her perspective, she didn’t always agree with ours and there were compromises all round. The overall outcome was better for her being there though. She brought the experience of being a student right now which was enlightening, and she brought an increased level of accountability to the process by not giving us an easy out. I see nothing like that in the production of this vision or in much of the subsequent analysis.
Only what can be wired together technically
“Finding: Interoperability is the linchpin of the NGDLE. The ability to integrate tools and exchange content and learning data enables everything else.” (1)
I’m never going to argue against better and easier interoperability, but my overriding concern with the current definition of the NGDLE is that it fetishes technology to the exclusion of broader thinking about the digital. It is absolutely concerned only with what can be wired together at a technical level. The concept of a Next Generation Digital Learning Environment should be larger than this and admit those things online that can be wired together at a conceptual level. It should also include some conceptual space for things students use that we don’t know about or need to know about. There are significant risks here if we don’t: We will marginalize creative and valuable academic practice, including supporting risky practice, and we continue to neglect the potential to develop truly useful digital literacy skills in our students.
One example in my own context would be the work that we do supporting the use of Wikipedia in the classroom. I defy anyone to explain to me how learning to write for Wikipedia wouldn’t be an excellent example of working in a digital learning environment (I’ll admit it’s not next generation in terms of technology, but actually that’s kind of the point that I’m trying to make) and I absolutely don’t see why we would need to hardwire Wikipedia into a learning environment beyond providing a URL and some scaffolding for the activity students are undertaking. There are valuable lessons in our Wikipedia activities about working with knowledge on the open web that include how you construct your own identity and how you negotiate and conduct yourself within a community. The ‘realness’ that our students enjoy and find motivating is in no small part bound up in the nature of what they are doing and that it lies outside the system, outside the institution in the ‘real world’.
The open web is a thing. Our students will use services on the open web explicitly because they want to work outside of institutional systems, or because they have their own ways of working that they brought with them, or because their finances or circumstances are constrained and they’re just doing what works, or because we gave them their own domain and encouraged them to. Whilst we don’t need to know all the detail, neither should we turn a blind eye. If we admit that all these things are part of the wider NGDLE our students experience then we also have an obligation to consider what kind of support and advice we can provide to help make smart and informed choices.
Part of teaching students digital identity has to be teaching them to be anonymous within the tools they will use outside college.
Educause Review calls for us to be the architects of the NGDLE. I am one of those architects – I have 20+ years of experience building enormous complex systems that integrate things (distributed EPOS systems; enterprise portals; identity and access management systems; edTech). It’s hard, and once you’ve done it is when the real work begins. Because maintenance. Maintenance costs are a stone-cold killer. I’m not talking about the technical integrations, though that’s hard enough. I’m talking about the reality that each LEGO brick in this NGDLE architecture is a moving part (must be Technic LEGO), and they’re all moving at different speeds, shaped by different agendas, communities and commercial realities. Managing the information flow, the release schedule, the updates to training and documentation when change happens – this stuff isn’t sexy innovation, but it’s over 50% of what any team will need to do just to keep the lights on, and it’s the work that is constantly being squeezed to free up more resource for “innovation”. Remember too that our institutions are in the eye of the storm managing this complexity, because they and they alone carry all the risks around failure. When components fail, or change in ways that break workflows, the student experience suffers and our academic colleagues lives are made harder. High maintenance costs and risky student experience just isn’t something that institutions find easy to stomach.
Talking about this makes for a rubbish conference presentation though. So we rarely do.
Temporary autonomous zones
“The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.” (2)
Very little in this vision for an NGDLE deals with issues of consent and control around data and the potential for the chilling effects of increased data collection. Jim has covered this well in his blog post already, but I’d like to push this element on a little further and pick up again on some of the ideas in Amy Collier’s Digital Sanctuary blog post – particularly our habit of hoarding data. Amy highlighted my institution’s Data Protection Policy as a model of good practice, but to me it looks pretty normal. The European environment is very different and generally data protection regulation is seen a public good, rather than interference from government. In May 2018 the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect and it will persist beyond the enormous act of self-harm that is the UK Brexit. Our different data protection environment already makes life fun when negotiating with non-European vendors and I wonder about the extent to which it will influence the direction of travel of the market in the future versus the extent to which some tools and components just won’t be possible for us to use.
“The biggest change is that institutions will be held far more accountable for the data they hold. As well as records of what personal data exist within the organisation, the GDPR requires a documented understanding of why information is held, how it is collected, when it will be deleted or anonymised, and who may gain access to it.”
“The GDPR introduces new requirements on the way new information-handling processes and systems are developed. Data protection must be designed in from the start; systems must have default settings that protect privacy.” (3)
I’ve also seen a flurry of tweets over the last few days espousing the benefits and values of small simple tools, which is pretty exciting. I’m particularly fond of Alan Levine and Brian Lamb’s SPLOTs (a.k.a. the acronym that defies definition) as they are both simple to use and make a positive principal out of not collecting more data than is needed. JISC also toyed with an interesting idea when they talked about the “pop-up VLE” as part of a recent co-design consultation. There seems to be real enthusiasm and creativity around these ideas at the moment, but I think I mentioned already that maintenance is a thing. In my experience the quickly hacked together doo-da that does a neat small thing at point of need has a nasty habit of becoming the thing on the server 3 years later that nobody knows about and just won’t die.
With that in mind, I have been re-visiting Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, and whilst I probably can’t subscribe to the full breadth of his anarchist vision in my professional practice, it has got me very interested in the idea of simple, pop-up tools that gather minimal data and delete themselves.
I’m increasingly interested in exploring the idea of an NGDLE which includes a suite of small, simple, lightly managed tools that are easy for our academic colleagues and students to pop-up an instance of and use, but which by their very nature are designed to self-destruct. They may or may not collect and share data, they may be less or more well integrated with other systems, they key thing is that they are explicitly temporary zones. Temporary could be a day, a week, a year, several years, it should be configurable, but all of these instances of tools should have an expiry date. We need to think from the very start about how to keep our environment clean and get into the habit of putting our rubbish in the bin when we are finished. I’d also be interested to see whether “ephemerality by design” changes behaviour. Hopefully I am going to have an opportunity in the next 12 months to put some of these ideas into practice within my projects…watch this space
I got a bit rage filled today at the following post on Twitter and it’s worth thinking a little more about why I had such a strong reaction to it. Apart from the fact that I am deeply offended by the idea that a fridge can run my life better than I can, there was something more…
Anyone who follows my Twitter feed will have seen amongst the random detritus quite a few posts about art or craft of varying sorts. I have quite wide ranging and eclectic tastes but one of my abiding interests is the Arts and Crafts movement – both the aesthetics and the politics. If you find yourself in Edinburgh during August this year I might therefore recommend that you visit one of the following free events that happen as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe:
In 1993 I dragged my then boyfriend along to an exhibition of work by an Irish born arts and crafts artist Phoebe Anna Traquair at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. I wasn’t well enough off to afford the exhibition catalogue, but a year later I was working for the city tourist board and in a cupboard were some old exhibition posters, including one for the Phoebe Traquair exhibition and I was able to save it from the bins. That poster graced various walls over the years, including my little flat and a couple of workplaces.
In around 1995 or 1996 I think I went to a cabaret evening at what was Cafe Grafitti – a club held in an old church on Mansfield Place, on the edge of the Edinburgh New Town. It was very badly lit, but I remember seeing glimpses of enormous gilded Phoebe Traquair murals high up on the walls. There was a lot of candlelight for atmosphere and of course indoor smoking, because this was still the 1990s. I saw performers from Cirque du Soleil dance on a ribbon strung from 60 feet up in the chancel, and it took my breath away.
In 2000 I went to visit the Song School at St Mary’s Cathedral as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to see their Phoebe Traquair murals. After the tour we were pointed towards a modest exhibition stand with photos of more incredibly beautiful murals, in heartbreakingly poor condition. A couple of volunteers from the Friends of Mansfield Place Church charity were waiting nearby, ready to explain the precarious position the building and it’s murals had been in. I sympathised, and never told them about that night in Cafe Graffitti when I might have contributed to the cigarette smoke in the air.
Thankfully with assistance from the City Council the building had just been purchased by the Mansfield Traquair Trust, and they were about to embark upon a multi-million pound project to restore the fabric of the building and convert it into an events and office space fit for modern use, followed by another multi-million pound project to conserve and restore the murals. The tenants for the building once complete would be SCVO – the umbrella organisation for the third sector in Scotland. The Friends were seeking volunteers to join and help prepare for the re-opening of the building. I was hooked. I still remember being given a tour by torchlight of the building just before work started. Again there were the tantalising glimpses of the murals up high, though this time they were mostly covered in protective panels to protect them from the imminent building work.
It will be 17 years this August since I joined the Friends, and I have served on their committee for most of that time. Each year I register our entry for the Festival Fringe and help my colleagues prepare to guide yet more visitors around this building that we all love so much. It’s now nearly 9 years since I was invited to join the Board of Trustees of the Mansfield Traquair Trust, and I am pleased to say I have also now managed to save up enough pennies to buy my own copy of the 1993 exhibition catalogue.
If you find yourself at a loose end in August, do visit. I promise it will take your breath away, and if you’re lucky, I may be your tour guide at Mansfield Traquair.
I had a holiday recently, and some parts of it really were actually a holiday. Each year I take a bit of time off-grid in the French countryside. No TV, no wi-fi. Right out in farming country where I have as much connectivity as I can get with a smartphone (normally a weak 3G signal from the driveway).
Most years I spend a good portion of my time knocking an acre of garden into shape, but thanks to some brutal measures I took last year, there was less that absolutely needed doing this year.
I decided that as well as some light gardening duties (and the hunt for the mystery septic tank – which is a whole *other* story) I would make a concerted effort to indulge myself in things I find myself having less time for than I’d like. I’d already loaded up on reading material via a visit to Lighthouse Books before I went, and I had my trusty notebook and pencil for writing (I am decidedly old school in my writing – this blogging thing is another concerted effort to try something different). However I thought my patchy connectivity was probably still good enough that that I’d also try complete the DS106 Daily Create each day I was away. I was interested in how far I could get working within the constraint of only using a smartphone (I have some pretty long-standing skills with Photoshop and the like on a full-fat computer). The first hurdle I hit was that I needed a couple of additional apps within the first few days and I didn’t have a good enough signal to download them. Cue a visit to the local village where there is a more reliable signal. Conveniently there is also a most excellent family boulangerie et patisserie. Oops.
(This is a “religieuse” – and I love these so much I taught myself to make them a few years ago)
During June there was a #30dayTDC challenge running and within the first few days of holiday I was having so much fun that I decided to backtrack and try complete the whole month. A few things contributed to the fun and because there is literally NOTHING more fun than a list, here is what they were:
Other people. The feedback, likes and tweets from others doing the challenges were lovely, particularly from those who are hardcore devotees. So welcoming. The infamous Talky Tina appeared too. She is lovely and not at all a word I am not supposed to use. Being lovely she also offered a special badge for everyone who completed the full 30 days of challenges. Challenge accepted!
The challenges. Not only were the challenges fun to do, but many of them asked us to explore online tools or sites that I hadn’t encountered before.
Different but related perspectives. Being on holiday my days were less structured. Having the challenge to do each day was strangely grounding. Also having made a concerted effort to indulge myself in creativity of many kinds (photo exhibitions, giant automata, gardening, crafting, cooking, writing) I found they fit well and I could use things I was already creating.
My staple apps for photo-editing (beyond the built in editing) have been Snapseed and PS Express, but through this challenge I’ve expanded my toolkit of apps. I’ve tried quite a few different things and whittled back down to the following list. Photoshop Mix and Pixlr are pretty much the core of what I have come to rely on, with others mixed in as required.
Photoshop Mix – cutout / blend / layout. Great support for layers.
Pixlr – effects and text overlay on images
Photo Lab – massive range of filter effects including the ones I used the ‘cartoon’ myself.
Comic Life – making comic strips. I’ve also found this useful for quick assembly of photo montages where I don’t want a template.
5SGif – making / editing animated GIFs – often used in conjunction with Photoshop Mix.
Skitch – quick and simple drawing on photos
Brushes Redux – freehand drawing, plus ability to import photos and draw on. Good support for layers.
SketchBook – simple drawing tools. In time I suspect I might end up using Brushes Redux instead, but the simplicity of this works well for me now.
In the end I did manage to complete the #30dayTDC. Some are feeble, some are ropey and some I am quite pleased with. Since I returned home and to work it’s been harder to keep doing them, but I’m going to continue to try for a couple a week, just to keep my hand in.