postcard from the deakin archipelago

‘postcard from the Deakin archipelago’, a presentation by Dr Christopher Moore

This presentation was prepared for the unit EEE710 – Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, the first unit undertaken for a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education in Trimester 2, 2012 at Deakin University. The ‘prezi’ presentation slides are available here:

The plan is to share how I used Google’s social network and video conferencing ‘Hangout’ feature to run ‘LIVE’ tutorials for students regardless of location. I’m going to keep the technical details to a minimum, and if you are interested in the experiment I have my contact details at the end of the presentation slides and I am more than happy to chat about the finer points and problems.

I am going to draw attention, in a open and hopefully thought provoking way, to the strengths and weaknesses, or the ‘Fail’ and the ‘Win’, of my approach, and to point out that when experimenting with digital and online technologies in pedagogical contexts that sometimes ‘winning’ is actually failing, and that ‘failing’ spectacularly can always be looked at as ‘winning with style’.

LIVE the future
So the remit or the mandate for the presentation, is to critically examine an example of a recent  teaching and learning practice, but I am going to frame the discussion as a response to Deakin’s Corporate’s Agenda 2020 LIVE the Future strategic plan.

I usually  mispronounce the ‘LIVE’, preferring ‘live’ (as in going live, or live act), mostly because unless you are a Looper, you can’t really live the future, and even then it’s a short lived experience.

Deliberately mistaking live for live the whole theme takes on new dimensions, and  liveness, as in being alive or live as in electrically charged has connotation of being both powerful and dangerous. Another sense of LIVE, that I want to focus on with this presentation is to go live, to be broadcast, to be in the public’s eye, to be alive and living in the present, which in social and media media terms means the experience of networked communications, and to take another term adopted by Deakin Corporate, is the experience of the ‘cloud’.

the archipelago
I began teaching at Deakin in March 2012 and babysat a unit (Researching Media: Texts, Audiences and Industries’ for Dr. Nina Weerakkody) which was my first introduction to the deakin archipelago: this distinct arrangement of campuses across multiple Victorian regions and regionalities features a diverse student population and multiple modes of interaction: Burwood, Waurn Ponds, Warrnambool and the off-campus iterations of all of these locations. I have tried to represent these [in the presentation slides]  in a kind of semi-rhizomatic structure indicating where the horizon of the physical locations of these campuses intersects with less well defined territory of the ‘cloud’.

the mythical cloud
Whenever I hear the term ‘cloud’, I think of the quote from Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “ I do not think that word means what you think it means…”

The cloud as defined by Deakin in the 2020 strategic plan:

Cloud learning’ is Deakin’s term for harnessing new and emerging technologies to provide highly visual, media-rich, interactive learning experiences wherever our students are located. It signals our intention to re-imagine assessment and learning experiences — both in the cloud or on campus or industry sites— as personalised and accessible in all times zones, enabling our students to access premium learning resources and work collaboratively with teachers, mentors, peers and potential employers, generating ideas and solving real world problems in preparation for the jobs and skills of the future.

The cloud, as envisioned by the edupunk movement (circa 2004-2006), which borrowed the concept from cloud computing, is a means to liberate educational experiences from behind the closed doors of ivory tower thinking and boardroom strategising. From Keith Kirkwood (2010) on the edupunk DIY philosophy of the cloud:

Constructivist, collaborative and connectivist pedagogies have found their enablers in the tools and technologies of the read/write web. Increasingly, web-savvy instructors are abandoning institutionally-sanctioned closed-access systems for the greater flexibility and facility of Cloud-based platforms. Those who are venturing into the Cloud are finding new ways to bring students and student contributions into the academic conversation and curriculum, in a renewed focus on the power of peer- and community- based learning.

Kirkwood (2010) goes further when he argues:

This new form of distributed learning signals something much more profound: it signals a reinvention of formal education, at a time when even some professors are starting to say out loud that without such changes, universities will be irrelevant in another ten years’ time .

the big picture
Trimester one at Deakin was a real eye opener for me, not only were the students, tutors, and support staff in this isolated island arrangement, with little to no interaction between the various modes and campuses, I also had to come to terms with all the separate systems and unconnected databases involved in the administration of a unit: from tutorial organisation to student histories and the antediluvian grading system, it all made me feel like I was trying to pilot the Battlestar Galactica.

the galactica
The Battlestar Galactica – is the last surviving ship of the first Cylon War, and to protect it from a viral attack – none of its computer systems are networked – and so like all of Deakin’s various intranet, databases,DSO logins, library systems, email servers, phone systems – everything runs really well on their own, but there is no intercommunication which makes navigation, coordination and communication that much harder.

the staff online experience
Making sure all students and tutors have access to the same information at the same time, and can make use of it in the same way, is therefore an unrealistic dream…
(one that I not sure any MOOC or LMS can actually help us achieve)

Is this a situation where the problem exists between keyboard and chair? Is this a feature or a bug? My take is to think on this as a feature and to think about the role of the human in the system to help the overcoming the isolation and siloing effects of compartmentalised systems, people and locations.

the dso galactica
Bruno Latour in discussing the rise of machines with artificial intelligence, alluded to the already existing role of humans as the artificial intelligence of machines, saying that with the current generation of software programming “The engineering dream is to morph the human into a rational machine.” while “The humanist counterdream is to recover an intentional, reflexive and coherent carriers of values. while the result is a rather bizarre cyborg that ressembles nor the machine nor the human, or as I like to call it the DSO (the learning management system recently introduced at Deakin, based on the Desire2Learn platform).

It’s no secret that I think LMS like Blackboard and DSO are really big cash cows that are a complete waste of time and money – its the kind of thing you paid for when you paid for internet browsers – and the result is more machine than human. The D2L platform, like Blackboard before it, is a walled garden, a legacy of the principles of management that demand centralisation and control, this goes against what the cloud is actually about,  but I do admit that the current version of the DSO does embeds html in a much more user friendly manner (allowing YouTube, Delicious, Scribd, Prezi and other platform integration).

So Galactica is a relic…
The Galactica is a relic, but its power, utility, survivability and expertise is in the crew and the crew at Deakin are endlessly supportive and innovative.

There is chatter everywhere and with back channels like Yammer and Deakin’s social network presence is slowly emerging, but the point is no matter how good or how bad your systems are, it is what we as academics bring to their iteration, what we add to them – the ‘live’ component.

That extra bit of something else is what makes the machines work and function seamlessly, and its something that only we can bring to the network and make them useful. It’s a ‘something’ that is fragmented across multiple services and structures.

That something, in the digital era, leaves a trace, a footprint, and a series of impressions, that coalesce into what we call our persona. Think of the academic’s ‘persona’ not as a concrete ‘thing’, but rather a digitally organic networked embodiment of “the art of making do”.

the art of making do
In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau (1984, p. 30) perceives an aesthetic in the work of those whose creativity is both constrained and enlivened by  spaces, both cultural and physical, in language, in the home, at work, and at play, where the boundaries of circumstance leave no choice but to live with a sense of plurality and innovation:

“By an art of being in between, the artists draws unexpected results from his situation.”

So our systems don’t communicate – well that becomes part of our experience of the Deakin existence….so there is no WiFi COVERAGE in the Media and Communication department, we make do…

In the religious doctrine of The Sweedish Church of Kopysim, the pressing of the ‘control + c’ and ‘ctrl + v’ keys are sacred invocations. Each time you copy and paste you are conducting the holy sacraments and these everyday technology shortcuts suddenly become an act of worship.

With similar thinking then, every conversation with a student, every online post or news item, every work related email, every database you open, ever powerpoint presentation and word document you create, you are enacting and enlivening yourself in your role as teacher, academic, administrative agents, etc and in the acts of making do that we are forced to adopt with these technologies, there spaces, functions, limitations and affordances for your own unique impressions on the world.

The persona of the academic self, as Kim Barbour and Professor David Marshall describe, in a recent issue of First Monday, is the idea of identity as a performance.

digital persona – I wish I were more like my online persona
A digital persona is accrued over time, as our activities across our many networks and communications and media devices leave footprints, make new connections and generate data about our everyday acts of being an academic, that do translate in very small but meaningful ways as creative acts of expression.

Social media helps to render these acts visible, lending them a semi-permanence, and enables us to reveal what it is we actually  think and do in a publicly visible way

One of the features of using Skype and Google mail is the status icon so that students in my network can see when I am online and can announce my availability to students – so that my emails session can double as consultation times if I want them to – but it also helps identity times that I am not approachable, during other admin, research, writing and other times.

My Facebook, Twitter and G+ timelines are locations and records of important work related-conversations, following PhD candidate Edwin Ng on Facebook for example, comes with a good amount of required background reading in Foucault, Derrida and Secular Criticism.

Harry Persona
The academic persona, and indeed any digital persona in general is, to cite Barbor and Marshall (2012), an idea of “intentional presentation of a specific identity from the ‘composite of multiple selves’ which exist in all of us the idea of the persona is the very embodiment of the LIVEness of the Deakin plan, but how does the concept persona help address the archipelago issue, and how do we steer the Galactica?

steering the Galactica
I inherited a subject titled ‘Globalisation and the Media’ to teach in trimester 2, 2012.  I had previously experimented with a blogging assessment that is based on weekly writing and underpinned by a rigorous peer review structure, and I knew this would help bring students across the campus together as a common audience but I suspected we could do more.

I was thinking about the term the ‘deakin archipelago’, which I am sure I heard from Professor Paul Carter, and in searching for the term I came across Karen Le Rossignol’s article on what she calls Archipelago design. She writes about achieving “… a nexus between experiential and formal knowledge that can be engendered by relevant teaching/learning design, by an associational or archipelago approach”.

“Archipelago design …. conceptualises a string of associated communities of online learning, providing an interactivity and immersion by the participants, and a social community of collaborative knowledge.” (Le Rossignol, 2011)

Much of Karen’s approach aligns with the goals of the new Deakin strategic plan, where technology serves a structural role. From experience the experiential and integrated learning environments that result in productive communities of knowledge and learning  are co-generated between teacher and student, and student and peers. The beauty of this approach is to shift the focus on expertise from the context of learning to the content: acknowledging the students probably know more about the technology in use than we do is one thing, but incorporating them into the everyday running of the unit, as co-collaborators and facilitators as well as audience.

The issue then  becomes, not how to speak or transmit information to everyone at once, in a broadcast framework, but how to establish an online persona that makes the best and creative use of all the technologies and platforms availables to establish a presence and activity that is useful to all students, tutors, peers, institutions etc at all times.

This gave the idea of using the social network and the hangout feature of G+ to reach students enrolled but disinterested in tutorials, and reach those students in off campus mode who miss out on the ‘liveness’ of the tutorial interaction.

hanging out
Google’s social network might be less popular than alternatives like Facebook and Twitter, but the clutter-free interface makes G+ and the video-conferencing ‘Hangout’ feature an extremely easy to use.

The circles features gives a nuanced control over your social groups and their online iterations – making the groups of large numbers of students easy to sort and identify. At the start of each ‘live’ tutorial I broadcast an invitation to the tutorial that is only going out to students enrolled in the unit.

At the start of the tutorial I use the ‘circles’ social network feature of the G+ system to invite students enrolled in the unit to participate in the video conference ‘Hangout’ via a laptop.

Using the laptop I can face the webcam towards the whiteboard, especially when using the material on the web (does that make tutes online?) and during discussion small group work etc, I can swivel the laptop around to be another set of voices in the discussions and students can accompany me as I move to between individual, small group and class interactions.

The video feed switches automatically to the person talking, which prompts turn taking and can be automatically uploaded to YouTube to be reviewed later, although none of the tutorials this trimester were uploaded to YouTube, as we are still working out the public/private ethical and Deakin policy issues involved in this, but hopefully it will be practical to implement and embed in the DSO next year.

The trial with G+ during this trimester has been ‘successful’, frustrated only by the vagaries of the WiFi at the Burwood campus. As I have found experimenting with other platforms and practices, like Facebook, Twitter, Online Video, Podcasting, Social Bookmarking and Blogging (the list goes on), these early failures are typical and useful stepping stones towards a more reliable and informed use.

The philosophy of teaching here is one of expertise in content not context, which requires the student to become an expert themselves in the relevant digital literacies involved; calling on them to provide peer-based technical support, the active sharing of knowledge, making recommendation on use, guidelines, sharing information, combat cheating and plagiarism, and reviewing implementation that can be crucial to the use and improvement of the technology in supporting not an online or offline, but an ‘enlivened’ and connected student and teacher experience.

The trial was a ‘success’ through failure, mostly technical in nature. The big fail was the WiFi,  some days it would behave and other days it was simply absent, and most times only partly awake. The second big fail was structural, as the setting up of the G+ Hangout typically took up to 15 minutes,which is simply far too long for a 50 minutes tutorail. The real ‘win’ was with those students helping me to get the hangout service working, helped me troubleshoot and report on browser issues and audio/video connectivity- and next time I will foster this collaboration to a much higher degree.

Kirkwood, K. 2010, ‘The wisdom of the clouds Distributed learning, MOOCs, edupunks, and the challenge to formal education’, Proceedings of The Second International Workshop on Open source and Open Content WOSOC 2010, aviailable October 7, 2012.

Bruno Latour 1995 ‘Social theory and the study of computerized work sites’
in W. J. Orlinokowski, Geoff Walsham (editors) Information Technology and Changes in Organizational Work, Chapman and  Hall, London, pp.295-307

Le Rossignol, Karen 2011, Archipelago design : virtualopolis and the interactive virtual team scenario, in Experiential learning in virtual worlds, Inter-Disciplinary Press, Witney, England, pp.147-154.