Disrupting Vision A Technology Experimentation Group thought piece by Richard Francis

Image source: POSIAC 2014 - 3rd International Summer School of Perception of Space in Architecture and Culture. Accessed 12.08.2015 at: posiac.org/workshops/distorted-vision/

This short paper is a thought piece for the Technology Experimentation Group (TEG), a cross-disciplinary team, co-ordinated by the Learning Resources directorate but open to all staff and students who share a taste for digital adventure. The paper does not seek to disrupt vision in such a way as would require a visit to the oculist but does challenge current views of technologies and spaces for learning. To use a different metaphor, it ventures out onto the terrain of experimentation and therein sows the seeds of discussion of what the Technology Experimentation Group might seek to achieve.

The paper was inspired by a visit Debbie Lenihan and I made in June of this year to the Disruptive Media Learning Lab (DMLL) at the University of Coventry. It was a fascinating experience and I wish to thank our hosts, the Lab's founders Shaun Hides and Jonathan Shaw, for having been so generous with their time and information.

We went to the DMLL with several questions in mind. One was:

as a centre for innovation, should TEG have a physical location?

The message from the DMLL is yes. Unusual spaces can predispose their occupants to think adventurously and this was certainly our experience as we were taken around the DMLL's premises on the top floor of the Lanchester Library. Our pre-conceptions were challenged at every step.

First impressions count

Talking with the lab’s founders in what felt like a grassy bower in some ornamental garden from another era was an altogether different experience from that which we would have had if the conversation had taken place in our habitual meeting room JHB111.

Minimalism in JHB 111
Could TEG similarly create an ambience which prompts exploration/innovation?

I believe we could. For example, the Gibbs building is undergoing refurbishment and there is an opportunity to break new ground there. The entrance area is largely unused and currently very shabby. It is used only for the self-service cash till and to issue bus passes in the area previously occupied by the Natwest bank.

Why always closed?

The Gibbs lobby contains a very unusual Japanese garden and tea ceremony area which, to my knowledge, is never opened - a great pity. A Japanese Summer School student asked me why it was always closed - I could not give an answer.

There are several vacant areas of a similar size around the lobby which could be converted into zones representing other cultures from around the world (perhaps reflecting the nationalities of our international student population). These could be designed by students in consultation with academics in the building, e.g. anthropologists, geographers, literature, theatre and drama specialists, modern linguists

A world tour in the lobby of Gibbs?

Gibbs is also the new home of parts of OBIS, including the TEL development team. For a more hi-tech flavour, the entrance area could showcase their work, e.g. mobile Moodle apps. The various zones around the lobby could take the visitor on journeys through time, evoking technologies from other eras. Looking back in time often gives new perspectives on the future. For example, the technique of evoking of a scene from a library of the 19th Century proved effective in setting the scene for a discussion of the library of the future at this year’s learning and teaching conference.

Walk into Gibbs, travel through technological time
Wouldn’t it be too costly?

The designers of the DMLL said otherwise; indeed they were keen to point out that much of the Lab's decor was of the DIY, flatpack variety, e.g. carpet tiles, shelves, tables and chairs, wall coverings (see below). Our aim would be to suggest other worlds, not to re-create them. It would in any case be unwise to display objects of any great value in an insecure area such as the Gibbs lobby.

"WOOD" a themed Project Room In the dmll
What does this have to do with technology?

One of the goals of the TEG is to encourage staff and students to be creative with technology in support of learning. We have reached a point at which technology is so much a part of the scene that it is becoming unremarkable, invisible almost. Indeed for some it makes its presence felt only when it breaks down or when it impedes us from working ‘normally’. Network outages, cyber attacks, system updates, software upgrades, targeted marketing videos that cannot be skipped, all disrupt and intrude into our daily routines with frustrating regularity. Standardised use of technology and space encourages behaviour which maintains 'business as usual', not innovation.

technology makes its presence felt only when it breaks down or when it impedes us from working ‘normally’.

A physical space which does not prescribe how it is to be used but rather encourages exploration would mirror and model the spirit of creativity and adventure in the classroom that an initiative like the TEG aims to instil. Literacy with digital technologies is not achieved through procedural competence, i.e. knowing which buttons to press on the teaching console (though this helps!); it demands the confidence to venture into new pedagogic territory and to appropriate such technologies as will best help us on our way. With a sense of adventure would come a redefinition of what is 'business as usual', a readiness to confront uncertainty and the will to overcome obstacles.

Integrating virtual and physical space

Physical and virtual space are no longer distinct.

Today’s learning environments are local and remote, physical and virtual, synchronous and asynchronous. They have become malleable and continually reconfigurable by individuals and groups according to their preferences and circumstances.” (Brookes TEL Framework 2015-20, Francis & Roberts forthcoming)

The resulting extension of potential “space” for learning offers exciting opportunities for pedagogic exploration. This could be a major theme of the TEG’s activities.

The JHBB Forum

Without doubt, the Forum of the JHBB, and, in less positive ways, the design of some staff accommodation, have given rise to new ways of collaborating in physical space. It’s not uncommon now to prefer the JHBB Forum over office areas or meeting rooms for small group gatherings (attracted by the informality and anonymity of the large space and the presence of refreshments). Full access to the network, email, shared documents, the VLE, calendars, social media etc. is (usually) maintained and at any point in the proceedings, people in other locations can join in electronically, via Google Hangouts, Skype, Connect etc.. Their participation is not significantly compromised as they can engage via video, audio and text. If need be, we can even log in to our desktop PCs remotely via VPN.

While in no way advocating any reduction in individual space (there is a continuing need for peace and quiet, confidentiality, space for belongings etc.), we should reflect on the professional and pedagogic benefits that these collective, integrated spaces can bring: ad hoc encounters are frequent; inter-disciplinary, cross-team meetings work well because the territory is neutral and flexible; spontaneous action is not deterred by room dimensions, layouts or labels.

What is less evident in the JHBB Forum, however, is a sense of community. The atmosphere remains somewhat austere and impersonal. By contrast, the DMLL, as a space, bears the mark of its inhabitants. Everywhere, one encounters interesting things written on panels, partitions and other temporary surfaces, attesting to ongoing efforts by a heterogeneous but close-knit group of people to initiate, take forward and share ideas and activities. There are few closed off areas and sound permeates spaces (perhaps to an uncomfortable degree!); there are few fixed workstations or desks (except in the study areas), but plenty of soft furnishings, irregular shapes and colour, and a central kitchen area - an air of domesticity even. In the digital world, the environment might be compared to a shared family computer, as opposed to a pooled PC with a managed desktop.

Inside the DMLL

The first thing you meet when you enter is The Hill. Part sculpture, part theatre, this unusual structure immediately prompts the visitor to think of novel uses for it.

One very original idea was an unannounced orchestral flash mob that took place at the DMLL's Expo event in March 2015. It was led by musical educator Laura Ritchie and the unsuspecting performers were the delegates themselves!

A conference lunch break with a difference. Image courtesy of Laura Ritchie and Crostóbal Cobo.

The atmosphere is bright and welcoming with colourful carpet tiles, good light and lots of plants.

Interesting things written on walls and partitions are evidence of vibrant activity.

There are few fixed workstations, no room numbers, few straight lines, lots of irregular shapes.

JHBB 112 by contrast...

... everything in rows but there is fudge aplenty.

Lessons for Brookes

What this suggests to me is that the Technology Experimentation Group should have a physical concomitant, which integrates the physical and the virtual, is multi-disciplinary and multi-faceted and, above all, is shaped by its users, not just a show home but a lab or workshop - and not particularly tidy.

Just beneath the surface, or rather just invisible to the naked eye, there should be a lot going on. One group of people will be layering digital information over the physical, using Augmented Reality; another will be bringing other, hard-to-reach spaces into easy reach with Virtual Reality. Yet another will have drifted off into outer space inside their 3D headsets. Visitors will know exactly where to find us thanks to enhanced Google maps and when they arrive, we will welcome them not only in person but with information displayed directly on their smartphones courtesy of discreetly located iBeacons.

A sandbox, literally...

TEG will be a sandbox for new pedagogies facilitated by integrated physical and virtual spaces. What better example than this Augmented Reality Sandbox at UCLA's Modeling and Educational Demonstrations Laboratory?

Navigate indoor spaces with your smartphone

Google Indoor Maps will make navigating large complex spaces like the Library in JHBB much easier for new students.

Yes but when I try to use technology something always goes wrong and I end up wasting valuable time.

We all know this feeling but it is the way we felt in the early days of wi-fi, when we were stuck in the vicious circle of low take-up/poor coverage/user unfriendliness. Now we all rely on and demand wi-fi and coverage has improved greatly. In other words, the best way to obtain improvements is to keep raising the bar on what we expect to be able to do. It can be a frustrating experience, there is no denying, but the alternative is immobility and passivity.

The TEG must seek to establish an institutional culture in which staff and students are empowered to be creators of digital resources and environments, instigators of change, not mere consumers.

Mobile ethnography

In our integrated space, manifestations of behaviour will not be exclusively verbal or motorial. The person with the 3D headset may be making some very odd movements. How will we know what is going on?

The person with the 3D headset may be making some very odd movements. Image © Time magazine August 2015.

We faced a similar problem a decade ago when trying to design Virtual Learning Environments for blended learning (how dated that sounds). We wanted to find out how technology could make learning more accessible by asking learners what they did with it. The Learner Experience of eLearning Research programmes of the noughties (e.g. Sharpe, Beetham et al 2009) revealed a lot about how students adapt technologies to meet their needs and some sophisticated research techniques were developed in the process. But much of this has ceased and we have fallen back on crude survey data to gauge students’ (and staff) satisfaction with our learning environments. Worse still, we seem ready to let data produced by the electronic tracking of learner actions online guide our efforts to keep students engaged. It is akin to hiring a private detective to save a marriage.

But I teach very large classes. How else can I know whether everyone is engaged?

Teaching that inspires learners to venture outside their comfort zone stands a better chance of keeping their attention and transforming their learning than that which follows a well-trodden path. There will be mistakes, but mistakes made together in the open with a common purpose are seldom culpable or negligent.

An alternative approach is to observe ourselves and invite observation by our peers. Visitors to the TEG will be able to use the latest techniques of mobile digital ethnography to record their own actions, impressions, doubts and achievements. And will be encouraged to share their experiences with others. Only thus will we make the technology our own.

Image courtesy Tricia Wang. Ethography matters

Partnership with students

TEG ethnographers will be students, as well as staff, and this will be in keeping with the aims of Brookes' Framework for Technology Enhanced Learning (Francis & Roberts 2015) in the coming five years, which will stress that the development of learning literacies for a post-digital age is a shared responsibility, achievable only through staff/student partnership. We will see greater efforts on the part of the University to elicit the views of students in more imaginative ways than simply via the NSS, which in itself is soon to change. One way to do so will be to draw the undergraduate student earlier into the research community, so that they see their contributions to learning as having value beyond the formal requirements of assessment (vis-à-vis the PESE 2 Get Published! Project). Another is through co-curricular activity - an arena in which students can play a central part in University life. Schemes such as InStePP, module assistants and peer mentoring demonstrate this principle in practice.

Instepp epioneer CONSULTANCY model

The TEG should fully embody the principle of staff/student partnership. Digital literacy is an essential skill for all members of the University, for learning and for life. As such, its development should be acknowledged to be a joint endeavour. It is also an active, creative process, indeed one of identity building through self-expression in digital media. We do not become digitally literate merely by receiving information, however accessible the institution seeks to make it, or by consuming learning content, however engagingly presented. In order fully to appropriate technology for the purpose of learning, staff and students must become co-creators in the digital medium. In so doing we will recover something of the original significance of tekhne, which in ancient Greek referred primarily to the art or skill of making or doing, and of technology which Random House defines as

the sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization.

Things we make for ourselves, using whatever technology, become the object of pride. Making them gives us perspective on the place or community we inhabit and is inherently a social activity - we are motivated to share what we produce or to teach others the skills we have acquired (or patent them). Creative appropriation of technology can thus be inclusive and potentially liberating, as higher education in general should be. The art of making or doing becomes a value, not merely a skill.

Solutions looking for problems

Technology companies are good at convincing institutions that they have problems to which the company's product can provide a solution. In reality, the 'problem' may be one that the institution either does not have or does not fully understand. The TEG must avoid the mistake of buying and showing off 'kit' and then wondering why nobody is interested in it. Successful technology is that which bends to our needs, not to which we must adapt. One size does not fit all.

Institutions are gradually learning that monolithic, proprietary systems are not necessarily the most appropriate way to provide inclusive, personalisable online environments for learning. With our Moodle LMS we have taken a first step away from the client/corporation model, and have begun to forge new relationships with our service providers. As a result, we are creating space for innovation and partnership. The process is just beginning and is fraught with difficulty and suspicion but already we see a greater organisational responsiveness to our ever-changing needs and expectations. Mobile apps tailored to Brookes students’ preferences and aspirations are a first sign; the gradual rise of Open Online Courses is another.

Two Brookes mobile apps designed with and for students.

The DMLL is moving forward with determination on a broader front. It is experimenting not only with space and technology but with new pedagogies and ways of working. On the way it is having to deal with the occasional hiccup. For instance, when we asked what the DMLL had learnt about iBeacon technologies, our hosts reminded us to be clear about why we wanted them in the first place. Buying the hardware is the easy bit. Defining a specific set of educational needs for iBeacons and then accessing the skills necessary to write the software to meet those needs is more difficult - and much more important. There can also be organisational setbacks - the DMLL has an agreement with a third party software developer which is temporarily on hold while the company re-organises itself - but such risks are regarded as normal; collaboration with industry is one of Coventry University’s strong points.

Experimentation with working practices is also evident in the many ways in which members of the university can engage with the DMLL, through secondments, exchanges, placements and innovation grants to name a few. I would urge the TEG seek to take up the suggestion by the DMLL’s founder Shaun Hides that we and they exchange staff for a time. In the spirit of experimentation, our orientation should be to try to make this happen, rather than find reasons for it not to happen. We have after all some experience of ‘job swapping’ as a development activity in the Learning Technologies Forum, which was seen as valuable by those who took part.

Media Workshop staff and DMeLDs swapped jobs for a day in 2013
What’s in it for students?

We have already argued that TEG should be in part student-driven and this, in my mind, would be the most valuable form of experimentation with regard to working practices.

The InStePP consultancy model for digital literacy development (Francis 2013) reveals how much student ePioneers appreciate the opportunity to work with staff as equals. Innovation based on role reversal and shared responsibility may be a viable model in a world where funding moves with the learner and the learner looks for the chance to demonstrate the leadership skills that will give them an edge in a competitive employment market.

Technology start-ups are booming, with the successful ones becoming the stuff of legend. Many of the successes bypass the political, fiscal and legal boundaries of nation states, which are seen as remote, ideological and anti-competitive. Furthermore, they undermine traditional business practices. The idea behind ventures such as airbnb™ and uber™, for example, is the monetisation of private resources through universal peer-to-peer sharing. In a world of economic polarisation, the opportunity to make a little money from the sharing of things you already own and use is beguiling. There are echoes of the mutual cooperatives of yore, except that today there is a proprietor.

Airbnb™ - a new take on the co-operative business model

Just as happens to many technology start-ups, some of our experiments will have limited success; there will be an element of trial and error and we must not be discouraged if we go down the occasional blind alley. Again we can learn from the DMLL in this regard. The ‘success’ of the DMLL is being measured not in terms of the success of the experiments or the level of disruption achieved - how would this be measured? - but in terms of engagement, and with well over thirty projects currently underway, the organisers have already exceeded the targets set for them by the VC.

I hope this has whetted readers' appetites for more experimentation with learning technologies or at least prompted some new ideas. It was written from the generalist perspective of someone in a cross-disciplinary academic support role and I look forward to the responses of our academic and student colleagues in their own disciplines and departments. I believe that part of the success of Coventry's DMLL comes from it having been the brainchild of academics in a professionally related discipline* and as such being rooted in pedagogic research in a disciplinary context (e.g. van Mourik Broekman 2014). None of this is really about the technology after all ...

* The Centre for Disruptive Media in the School of Art and Design.


Francis, R & Roberts, G (2015 forthcoming). Oxford Brookes University Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL)Framework. Internal policy document. Accessed 12.08.2015 at https://docs.google.com/a/brookes.ac.uk/document/d/1D2cth8DB5__rXwBgjLdW3hlvh-I6_5i1OjJNcz8U3gs/edit?usp=docslist_api

Francis, R (2013). InStePP - Institutional Student ePioneer Partnerships. Final Report. Retrieved 12.08.2015 from http://jiscdesignstudio.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/74349062/InStePP%20-%20Final%20Project%20Report.pdf

Get Published! Be heard. Be seen. Be read. (2015). Programme for the Enhancement of the Student Experience Phase 2. Website accessed 12.08.2015 at https://www.brookes.ac.uk/staff/pese/get-published/

Sharpe, R., Beetham, H., et al. (2009). "Learners Experiences of E-learning Synthesis Report: Explaining Learner Differences." [Online] Retrieved 10 June, 2009, from https://wiki.brookes.ac.uk/ display/JISCle2f/Findings.

Tillyer, Langton & Francis (2012). InStePP Development and Support Wheel. Accessed 12.08.2015 at http://www.brookes.ac.uk/mediaworkshop/instepp-wheel/instepp-wheel-1-6.html

van Mourik Broekman, P. , Hall, G. , Byfield, T. , Hides, S. and Worthington, S. (2014). Open education: A study in disruption. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Created By
Richard Francis
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