There are two people that I’ve heard about repeatedly in beginner PhD student circles as goldmines of advice – Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson. I’m lucky enough to work at the same institution as Inger and occasionally get the chance to chat in person but her blog – Thesis Whisperer – also carries a wealth of ideas and experiences from across the scholarsphere that help me to remember that I’m not alone and anything that I’m facing has been overcome by far smarter people than I.
Pat Thomson is regarded just as highly and her blog, Patter, has been just as helpful. She recently posted some suggestions for keeping your own PhD journal/blog/thing that have struck a chord with me. Happy to see that some of them I’ve already touched on but I think I’ll make an effort to work through this list in future updates.
This week I’ll go with
Dealing with things I can’t immediately change means I need to…
Dealing with things I can’t immediately change means I need to learn from them, reflect on how (or whether) my actions have contributed to the situation and consider what I need to do to get/keep things moving again. I also need to make a decision about whether I just let go.
I’ve mentioned my ideas and work on STELLAR, a gamified academic professional development program here before – I had planned to run a semester long version this semester (starting mid Feb) but college priorities haven’t aligned and this has now been put on hold. What I’ve learned is that I need to get better at making my case clearly and navigating institutional politics. I’ve also been told directly that academics would find it insulting to be taught how to teach (I think the subtext there was ‘by a professional staff member’) which I don’t 100% accept. While I recognise that some academics have no/little interest in teaching because research is still the source of status in the university, there are plenty who take a scholarly mindset and understand that developing one’s craft in this area is a life-long endeavour. I also need to remember that just because an idea is rationally (and empirically) sound, this isn’t all that is needed to sell it. There is a whole other set of complex emotional factors that sway decision making and simply being (or believing oneself to be) right about something is far from enough.
Coming back to my research, I’ve also been diving into Social Practice Theory and am kind of kicking myself for not taking advice better and pursuing it earlier. I’m not 100% sold on all facets of it yet – there seems to be a lot of discounting of more complex aspects of practice for the sake of making the theoretical model work – but there’s more than enough to be able to use in shaping a framework for what I’m hoping to do. Currently this seems to be talking to a lot of ‘at the coal-face /screenface’ TELT Advisors about what they do in their day to day work. (Oh and in the process of developing a Special Interest Group through ASCILITE for this community, I’m edging towards TEL edvisors as an umbrella name that seems to flow better. This is still up for discussion but it looks better I think.)
My much amended project plan is once more out the window but it is also based on an arbitrary deadline of July/August to get my proposal in.
In a nutshell though, I think I want to narrow focus from what universities can do to support TELT practices to what TEL edvisors do (and can do), which seems like a positive step. Viewing this through a social practice theory / sociomaterial lens helps to focus it a little further too.
Hopefully my supervisor agrees when I chat to him in a week.
Having set out the case for defining practice as the interwoven relationship between three key elements; materials, meaning and competences (I always want to say competencies here) in Chapter 1 & 2, the authors move on to examine how the elements can exist independently, how they (and by definition, practices) move from place to place and how practices emerge, disappear and persist.
I’ll be honest, it gets kind of meta in some places and there’s a degree of toing-and-froing (which they acknowledge) between the idea that in a practice, the three elements can or can’t exist without each other. We seem to land on the fact that clearly they can but the practice itself can’t exist without them all.
The good news is that the more I read of this, the more it seems like a nice theoretical hook to hang my research on. So far I can generally accept the ideas that are being put forth and I’m starting to substitute TELT practices into their other examples to see how well they fit. It’s all got me thinking about practices in a new way that I think might help me to pin down how I plan to actually conduct this research. (Spoiler alert, after having the grandest of ambitions for a massive multi-part research project last year, I’m realising that something more modest would still be perfectly acceptable)
Here are some of the core ideas put forward in this chapter, some useful supporting quotes and some of my stray ideas, questions and observations. (Quick note to self – reading this as an e-book means that there are no proper page numbers – the front cover of the book is considered page 1 – so double check the page numbers for quotes that you actually plan to use)
Practices constantly evolve while their component elements tend to stay more stable.
As structured and situated arrangements, practices are always in the process of formation, re-formation and de-formation. By contrast, elements are comparatively stable and are, as such, capable of circultating between the places and enduring over time. We are consequently surrounded by things that have outlived the practices of which they were once a vital part… Abandoned biscuit presses, outdated computer equipment and tools for tasks no longer undertaken are obvious examples but understandings, meanings and types of expertise are also discarded as practices evolve. (p.46)
The authors make a sweeping statement that I’m still considering on a philosophical level but looking around my desk at all of the ‘made’ objects (materials), it kind of makes sense. I’m trying to think of things, skills or meanings that we don’t have a use for that we do these things with. I have half a thought that there would be practices that are “carried” or move between locations based on new ideas about uses of material items but I’m not yet sure what that means to me.
…it is only through their integration in practice that elements are reproduced, eroded or carried from one setting or population to another (p.47)
The fact that requisite elements co-exist does not guarantee that they will be linked together but the potential is there (p.47)
The question of access to specific materials needed for practices is raised and ties to the development of different technologies (trains, trucks, planes etc) that mean that access options change and thus associated practices can emerge or evolve. I’d say that the Internet sits nicely in that category of access when it comes to the material elements of TELT practices – though I’m curious about where exactly software and web services sit. They’re on one hand a thing that people use but on the other, contain certain knowledge/competences that save people from having to carry out particular sub-practices in the course of doing larger practices. But perhaps that is just what tools (materials) do? Hopefully we’ll go deeper into the crossover between materials, tools and competences.
There’s also the question of what impact the choice of specific materials in a practice means – some materials playing better with others and creating opportunities to do some things but not others. (Which feels like another of the many areas where these ideas cross paths with sociomaterial theory). I definitely think there’s room in my research for a look at what impact the choice of particular technologies has on practices.
At this point, the authors observe that in terms of practices moving from place to place, the issues faced in terms of the material elements differ from those related to competences and meaning.
Rather, the point is to recognise that whereas forms of (co)location, transportation and access are typically important for the diffusion of material elements, forms of competence and meaning circulate in characteristically different ways (p.49)
The authors go on to explain that they appreciate the importance of the human factor in learning/developing competences but also that they are more interested in the wider question of how competences travel between practices as well as between people. I can accept that this is the nature of the theory that they are formulating but I’m also mildly concerned about the extent to which they have been discarding complexities in the pursuit of an argument.
I do still think that there is merit in what they are exploring though, so it might just need to be a matter of remembering to re-add these factors down the track when I’m doing my research. The practice of in-person learning-by-doing in a teacher/student relationship seems kind of pertinent when we’re looking at interventions to pass along skills and knowledge (competences), rather than looking at them in the abstract. Maybe we’ll get back to this later in the book – I believe the next chapter is about how people are recruited to practices.
When looking at how competences travel, particularly between different contexts, the authors talk about ‘abstracting’ and ‘reversal’ as core parts of the process. By ‘abstracting’, they mean stripping away localisations in the knowledge/skill that wouldn’t apply everywhere to leave the essential ‘knowledge’. On arrival at the new location, this ‘abstracted’ knowledge needs to be ‘reversed’ so that it again becomes contextually relevant.
Personally I don’t feel that ‘abstracted’ or ‘reversed’ (moreso the latter) really work well in terms of capturing these concepts. My video background makes me lean more towards encode (or code) and decode, from the Codec software used in the process of creating and sharing video files. (But maybe these aren’t perfect either).
The basic idea that knowledge has to be ‘abstracted’ form a local situation before it can travel, and that it needs to be ‘reversed’ when it arrives in some new destination, complicates popular interpretations of knowledge transfer as a simple process of sending and receiving. This representation is, however, consistent with an account of practices as integrative performances in which elements are conjoined. The suggestion that abstract knowledge circulates between such moments or sites of enactment is also relevant in thinking about how competences circulate (p.49)
This new space that the competences can sit in between the start point and destination is another thing that I’m still trying to grasp. Is it just a verbose way of describing publishing and documenting of knowledge of activities within practices?
Theories of abstraction and reversal depend on distinguishing between local understanding on the one hand, and what Disco and van der Meulen (1998) term ‘global-level cognitive ‘cosmopolitan’ knowledge, that is, knowledge that has been dis-embedded from its local origins and is consequently capable of travelling widely whilst maintaining its own integrity. As discussed in Chapter 2, this idea brings with it the related, and somewhat strange, image of knowledge temporarily existing in limbo, contained in what Arie Rip describes as a dislocated holding tank or reservoir, carried by what one might call an epistemic community and knowledge users pick up their own new combinations from the reservoir (1998). This vision of a gigantic depot of abstracted, de-contextualised buy not yet re-embedded knowledge is intriguing, as is the related suggestion that resources like libraries and the Internet, along with material objects and systems of regulation and certification, harbour pools of knowledge that have been variously certified, legitimated and prepared for travel (p.50)
I find the idea of the Internet acting as a reservoir of ‘cosmopolitan’ knowledge interesting but would argue that there is an abundance of local knowledge as well. Fortunately, the authors choose not to dwell on the reservoir, though I imagine I’ll go back to this, and move on to questions around what “has to be done to make knowledge movable (decontextualization and packaging), to let it move (infrastructure) and to make it work elsewhere (contextualization, standardization) (Deuten, 2003: 18)” (p.50)
Having the skills to decode is seen as it’s own special form of know-how and Shove et al suggest that this ability is often tied to pre-existing related knowledge of the competence.
This suggests know-how can only travel – by means of abstraction and reversal – to sites in which practitioners are already prepared to receive it because of prior, first-hand, practice based experience (p.50)
I’m broadly ok with this but think it ignores the capacity of teachers at the arriving end to teach inexperienced people these new skills. Maybe (and I’d suggest often) the teachers come from the originating place to run training and then leave. Clearly it’s easier for people to learn something (and teach it) if it can be connected to existing scaffolded knowledge but it’s far from impossible otherwise. I guess learning how to learn comes into this somewhere as well. The importance of standards and regulations relating to practices can’t be underestimated either, in that it increases the quality of the practices which would be an incentive to participate.
The extent to which competences can be used in a number of different practices is also a key factor in their transportability.
The concept of transferable skills is relevant in this regard. Having been mastered in one setting, competences like those of controlling a ball or speaking in public can be carried over and reproduced in others… This does not necessarily involve recognizable stages of abstraction and codification. Instead, specific competences are transferable because they are common, or at least common enough to a number of different practices (p.51)
This leads us to the question of whether we can reframe the way that we think about the contexts in which certain practices prevail as a way to foster the transfer of competences. In order to help sell more home appliances (e.g washing machines), there was a push in the late 18th century to move the ‘efficient practices and attitudes’ of the business world into the home. This was largely intended to change attitudes to housework that made it easier to sell the time/labour saving benefits of the new technology. (It probably wasn’t done with a specific understanding of social practice theory but they knew what they were doing)
Developing these ideas, certain elements of know-how bridge between practices not by means of abstraction and reversal but by somehow constituting – and potentially changing – the texture and the quality of the social fabric in which many such practices were rooted (p.52)
This brings us along neatly to the final element of the trio, meaning.
One thing that occurs to me here is the necessity of shifting the culture in Higher Education to one that is more willing to embrace TELT practices. I’ve been considering trying to appeal to the notion of scholarship in this regard – academics don’t suddenly stop researching and learning about their disciplines so why should teaching be any different. At the same time though, it is different and getting academics to look at teaching from a different mindset than their research one is a clear goal. Whereas research is a relatively individualistic practice, teaching is better explored collectively. I don’t kid myself that getting this message across will be easy but I think it’s valuable.
On that note, emotions and feelings seem to be an important factor in determining what practices a teacher will and more importantly will not embrace. My suspicion is that they have far more impact than any rational arguments in favour of doing a thing and my question is, how do we examine and address them. Do they sit in the meaning element or kind of alongside? Is this an area that people have looked into deeply – I’ve seen plenty of work about attitudes but I don’t think this is what I need.
The authors accept that the question of meaning is complex and it could be very easy to get caught up in discussions about local/personal meaning and disputed meanings. Once again, they choose to simplify this to pursue their core ideas about “how elements of meaning diffuse and what this means for the circulation of practices in and of which they are a part” (p.53)
Linking new knowledge, ideas and meanings to existing ones is identified as a core element of this. Firstly however, the authors identify the need to isolate meaning related to practice from the meaning attached to which groups in society (and their attendant status) participate in this practice.
The dynamic relation between the status of participants and the meaning of the practices they carry is widely discussed, usually with the aim of understanding how social and cultural hierarchies are reproduced and sustained. By participating in some practices but not others, individuals locate themselves within society and in doing so simultaneously reproduce specific schemes and structures of meaning and order. In Bourdieu’s terms, all cultural practices are ‘automatically classified and classifying, rand ordered and rank ordering’ (1984: 223). … In other words, the interest in what Nordic Walking says about the person who does it, not in how meanings like those of outdoor life circulate between practices or in how they combine with or break away from other symbolic constructs. By contrast, we want to put the element of meaning at the centre of our enquiry (p.53)
While it’s not what the authors intend, this discussion of the ties between status and meaning suggests to me that, in my work, I should consider opportunities to link the use of TELT practices with being a more well-rounded scholar.
Shove et al clarify what they hope to do by shifting focus from the people to the meanings nicely here
But in the context of the present discussion the question is not ‘Who determines whether smoking cigarettes and driving fast cars is transgressive or cool?’ but rather “How are categories like those of being cool, healthy or youthful populated with practices, how does this population change and with what consequences for these frames of meaning?’ (p.54)
Discussion of meaning meanders a little here, largely because the authors acknowledge that it is complex and not something that any one practitioner is able to shape. They point out that meaning changes and is “extended and eroded as a result of dynamic processes of association” (p.54) and also that meanings can merge into larger meanings – such as youth culture becoming seen as part of ‘Americanization’ (p.54). Their key point though is that meaning is often mediated – or at least people/groups attempt to mediate it and spread it though the community.
The catch is that while the media has a vital role in disseminating ideas, pictures and texts, there is no guarantee that these will stick. As with the abstraction and reversal of competence, the decoding and appropriation of meaning is an inherently local, inherently uncertain process. In addition, opportunities for association and re-classification are, to a degree, constrained and enabled by existing patterns and distributions of meaning (p.54)
In other words, you can try to shift meanings to embed new practices but don’t count on being able to do so. (This is perhaps where the authors’ preference for simplifying complex ideas lets them down.) I can still see the value in trying though and off the top of my head, I would think that desirable meanings to have associated with TELT practices would include; innovation/ being up to date, caring, quality and connection.
One of the things that I’m liking the most about this book is that the authors are strong on their structure and their process for building an argument. They start and end each new idea (or set of ideas) with a robust summary of the key points. There’s a solid summary of the six key ideas that we’ve just worked through on page 55. (I’m not including it because I think I’ve covered it already) . They then return to the central theme, that the elements are interdependent in practice.
Although we have discussed them separately, competence, material and meaning are often so closely related that if one element should travel alone (abstracted and packed in isolation), it is likely to remain dormant until joined by others capable of bringing it into the frame of a living practice. This observation reminds us that the relevant elements need to co-exist if practices are to extend or endure (p.55)
Emergence, disappearance and persistence
The final section of this chapter is somewhat shorter than the rest but continues to explore interesting territory. I’ve previously looked at this idea under the concept of ‘change and continuity’ – introducing new practices but supporting effective current ones as well. The tertiary education sector in Australia (and I imagine globally) has undergone massive change in some ways over the last 30+ years and this has, I believe, led to change-fatigue and a mistrust of ‘innovation’. This mistrust of innovation in general dates back far further than this, clearly – remembering the Luddites – and the authors find a great quote to sum it up
innovation of this sort disrupts and destroys. It changes the technology of process or product in a way that imposes requirements that existing resources, skills and knowledge satisfy poorly o not at all. The effect is thus to reduce the value of existing competence, and in the extreme case, to render it obsolete. (Abernathy and Clark, 1985: 6) (p.56)
In TELT terms, this makes me think of the SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Replacement) model, which sets out perhaps a gentler set of steps to climb in innovation.
Shove et al’s main point here appears to be that as some practices emerge, they replace others which fade into redundancy. Their component elements may or may not go down the same path, depending on whether they can be repurposed elsewhere.
Practices themselves might change – such as the act of writing with ink, which went from quills, to fountain pens and then to biros. The competence stayed largely the same – though the skills needed to manage the materials changed – but the materials changed greatly. The meaning of using a fountain pen 80 years ago (functional) also changed in comparison to those who use it now (luxurious).
It was at this point, as I was reading about changes in practice and materials that I noted that I was writing notes on a printed piece of paper with a pencil while leaning on the back of a new iPad. I had read previous chapters as an eBook on the iPad but wasn’t happy with the way that I was able to take notes and make comments directly on the text. I’m not entirely sure what this means but it seems interesting at the very least. I guess it’s that the material still needs to be fit for purpose and we will change our practices based on what works best for us. Perhaps there’s something in there about the precise affordances offered by the materials and the emotional responses that we have to them – I do like the tactile nature of pencil.
The text that I was reading at the time seems particularly apt
For our second example, we home-in on the relation between materials and competence. In organising and scripting human and non-human actors, objects and infrastructures determine boundaries of competence, certain aspects being delegated to the technology, others remaining with the human. In some situations, materials stabilise and obdurately reproduce know-how from the past, but in other cases the effect is the reverse. As we have seen, radical technological innovations can undermine the value of established skills and knock rival artefacts and systems out of the way. These processes are often linked. As things fall out of use, the know-how associated with them tends to disappear as well (p.57)
There’s a particular point made in here about machines removing the need to have know-how to do certain things, effectively taking over competences. This is definitely something that I’ll be thinking over in more depth.
Shove et al sum up this section as follows
In describing instances of emergence, disappearance and persistence we have noticed that relations between elements may vary as patterns of participation change. We have shown that material elements transform, carry and preserve forms of competence; that instructions are useful in keeping knowledge in circulation but that more [performance] is required to keep it alive; and that elements of meaning are capable of hopping from one practice to the next (p.59)
So what do I take away from this?
It’s useful to consider how the elements function and move and evolve in their own right and it is equally important to remember that their relationships with their other elements have a significant impact on what forms they take.
In terms of my research into how TELT advisors (or possible TEL edvisors – toying with a terminology change) support TELT practices, this can inform strategies for implementing change as well as creating additional lines of inquiry into what the barriers to TELT practices are.
Next chapter up is about how people are recruited to practices – though it’s been a while since I’ve done a research update here so that seems kind of important too.
For people working in roles like mine in tertiary education – education designers, academic developers, learning technologists etc – one our greatest challenges is being listened to and having our skills and knowledge recognised.
I think that adopting an overarching term for our roles such as TELT (Technology Enhanced Learning & Teaching) Advisor might be one way to address this.
Celia Whitchurch (2008) describes a sector of the workforce in Higher Education whose day to day work overlaps the teaching and administration areas – the so-called ‘third space professionals’. She refers to a broader set of staff members than I am here – she includes curriculum developers, student study skills advisors and more – but people who support and advise academics/teachers about teaching practices without actually teaching themselves certainly fit well into the third space category.
I’ve been involved in many discussions trying to find an umbrella term for people in these roles – the academic developers (people who train academics in teaching and learning), learning technologists (people who support the use and implementation of educational technology) and education designers/developers (people who help to design and build courses and learning resources). All of these people do more than the minimal descriptions that I’ve offered and the vast majority tend to do all three of these things at different times.
In the course of discussions with my colleagues, we have settled (for now) on Education Advisor as an umbrella term for our roles. Using Advisor rather than Support person was an important distinction for more than a few people because they felt strongly that Advisor puts us on a more equal footing.
We are frequently (but not exclusively) professional staff members which means that while we may have extensive experience in teaching and learning and qualifications to match, in the academic-centric culture of universities, because we are not teaching (or researching), we are not part of the tribe, we are not peers to the teachers we work with. We are Other. Even the academics that move over to roles in this area are sometimes jokingly referred to as having ‘gone over to the dark side’.
On a personal level, none of this bothers me overly. The vast majority of academics that I work with are decent people that appreciate my support and I enjoy the work that I do. Teaching & Learning and Research are the core reasons for being of universities so I can understand how the culture of the institution tends to privilege the people working directly at the chalkface – or Screenface if you will. (And the research-face as well, of course. Yes, this term started well but…).
This culture also means that there is significant pressure on academics to demonstrate their value, both in their research and (to a lesser extent still, sadly) in their teaching practice. Knowledge is the currency of the academic. To admit that you don’t know something is therefore to make yourself vulnerable. It is assumed then that academics are experts in their field (reasonably so) and also in teaching.
The assumed expertise in teaching seems curious in some ways, given that teaching is a profession and a craft in its own right and people working in this area at any level other that higher education are mandated to have relevant qualifications. There are, of course, many fantastic teachers among academics, but it’s often more by luck than design. Some do choose to undertake teaching qualifications or training but in an institutional culture that strongly favours research over teaching, there is little incentive to do so.
Education Advisors however, do tend to have these qualifications and training, as well as years of experience in teaching and learning. In spite of this, there is an intense reluctance from academics to seek or take pedagogical advice from education advisors. I don’t understand why this is but I have some theories. Seeking or taking advice on teaching, I believe, is effectively seen as sending up a signal that they lack some of the core skills that define their value to the university. It might also come down to basic tribalism in some instances – education advisors aren’t in the teaching tribe, they’re professional staff (mostly) and therefore what could they really offer. I’m sure there are other factors and this may not mirror the experiences of all of my colleagues but I’ve had university leaders say to me directly “I’m going to hire an academic to support this project because they understand pedagogy”.
This is where being a TELT advisor is an advantage.
Yes, it grows a little tiresome being seen primarily as the first port of call for technical questions relating to the use of the LMS or the lecture capture system or any of the other institutional ed. tech tools when we know how much more we have to offer BUT academics are far more willing to admit that they need help with education technology than with education. They’re not expected to know the tech and this liberates them to be learners.
TELT knowledge is our ticket to the conversation about teaching and learning in our institutions. Rather than burning energy trying to demonstrate that we know more about teaching and learning than just the TELT side (which, can still be what we make it), we should make the most of our niche.
Another key reason to do this is that the higher up the chain you go in tertiary education institutions, the more excitement there is about ‘innovation’ and the promise of education technology. Sometimes the excitement is because the executive actually see the benefits in teaching and learning terms and sometimes it is because it represents ‘doing something’ (and being seen to be ‘doing something’) and sometimes it is even just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses – or one-upping them. Whatever the reasons, and I hope I’m being pragmatic rather than cynical, being the local ‘experts’ in ed tech and innovation in TELT practices gives us more perceived value in these terms than other teaching support areas and creates more opportunities to do good.
So in a nutshell, we’re better off self-identifying as TELT advisors because it creates a niche, academics are more open to seeking advice and support in areas tied to technology and we sit comfortably in the innovation space, which is so hot right now.
(I’ll concede that it’s a clunky term but I’m yet to hear a better one that truly reflects our knowledge, skills and practices and which keeps the focus on teaching and learning)
Social Practice Theory echoes Sociomaterial theory it seems, in that it takes an holistic perspective of things and treats them very much as the sum of their parts. In this instance however we are looking at the things that people do (practices) rather than how things are organised.
SPT was suggested to me early on by my supervisor as an area for exploration but for some reason it (and all theory for that matter) got put into the ‘for later’ basket. I think at some level I didn’t want to color the way that I looked at the questions too much – but I think I was also daunted by the high-concept nature of theory. I probably still am but now that I’ve finally decided to take a look, it does at least seem as though it will become digestible as I spend a little more time with it.
Another reason to trust your supervisor anyway.
Given that the central focus of my research question is Technology Enhanced Learning & Teaching PRACTICES, it makes sense to spend time unpacking what we actually mean by practices. What I hadn’t considered until now is that there are a lot of facets to practice and this may well lead to new ways of thinking about them for me, as well as presenting new opportunities to help shape them.
When I launched into this book – and as it’s a book, it seems useful to post chapter by chapter – it quickly became apparent to me that I have entered a new headspace. It seemed to be a very ontological and epistemological world, laden with a lot of abstract philosophy about the nature of being. As we’ve progressed the authors have grounded it somewhat with more tangible examples – skateboarding and driving a car – as well as asking the question – so why is it helpful to look at this? This has been invaluable in helping me to consider the practicalities and as I read on I was able to start substituting TELT in whatever the text example of a practice was.
What I’m going to do for now, rather than summarise the intro and opening chapter, is summarise key ideas and questions that have been raised, along with some notable quotes.
Chapter 1 – Introduction
One of the aspects of the discussion that drew me in immediately was the importance of both change and stability in practice. I have previously, slightly cheekily perhaps, identified “change and continuity” (see also Veep – HBO series; Turnbull. Malcolm) as being of equal importance when looking at TELT practices. Embracing innovation but also refusing to throw the baby out with the bathwater by exploring options to maintain existing good practices.
The authors begin with an overview of the literature on practice to provide context and also to demonstrate the areas where current theory is lacking, building an argument for SPT. As such, it jumped around significantly and ideas that I grappled with and eventually understood (and in some cases agreed with) were then summarily dismissed. Value was still found in some recent work by Giddens, Reckwitz and Schatzki. Latour pops up with work in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Bourdieu also makes an appearance.
Bourdieu has worked with ideas of practice since the 1970s – Outline of a theory of practice (1977 – English version) and The logic of practice in 1990. He described “habitus – concept embodying aspects of practical consciousness and of norms and rules of conduct. (Aspects that other theorists take to be part of practice themselves)” (p.13)
Reckwitz sees a practice as “routinized behaviour” that exists as a “block or pattern which can be filled out by a multitude of single and often unique actions” (p.14). Schatzki sees it as a “temporally and spatially dispersed nexus of doings and sayings” (p.14). The ‘doings’ and ‘sayings’ thing came up regularly in looking at Sociomaterial theory. Reckwitz also identified “interdependencies between diverse elements including forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, ‘things’ and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge” (p.14)
From this, Shove et al simmer practice down into three core elements, all interrelated: Competences, Materials and Meanings. Pretty well everything from here on in when it comes to practices is built on these categories. (They acknowledge that this does represent a simplification of what is contained in the elements but it is the relationships between the elements that seem to be the key). To provide an example, in the practice of skateboarding, the material includes the skateboard, helmet and the built environment that is skated in/on. The competences include the ability to ride the skateboard and perhaps the ability to avoid the police when skating in wrong areas. The meaning is bigger and broader and might include how bystanders feel about skaters or how the skaters see themselves as rebels of some kind.
practices emerge, persist, shift and disappear when connections between elements of these three types are made, sustained or broken (p.19)
On the material side, the theorists get more complicated and I must admit that I’m still processing some of these ideas. Hopefully it’s just the language being used. Schatzki says that “artefacts, materials and technologies are not literally part of practices but instead form ‘arrangements’ that are co-produced with practice but which are nonetheless distinct…the practices that are tied to arrangements… help constitute social phenomena” (p.16)
“Other authors reach much the same conclusion, defining technologies as ‘configurations that work’ (Rip and Kemp, 1998) and observing that ‘individual technologies add value only to the extent that they are assembled together into effective configurations’ (Suchman et al, 1999 p.399)” (p.17)
Another core idea is that a practice exists largely in its own right, rather than being something owned or controlled by a practitioner. They aren’t simply a set of actions in the mind of an individual, but “essentially modes of social relations, of mutual action” (p.15). Individuals are more like the carrier/hosts of a practice.
A final key idea is that when someone ‘does’ a practice, it is a performance of that practice. In being performed, the practice “exists and endures because of countless recurrent enactments” (p.15) I’d have to suggest that the individual tweaks that people bring to their specific performances lead to a gradual evolution of the practice over time.
I have to wonder if there is an element of practice that is the act of looking for ways to enhance practice – and is this a meaning or a competence?
Shove et al draw five core questions from these ideas that they then go on to discuss individually in subsequent chapters. Chapter 2, covers the first question and is discussed in this post.
How do practices emerge, exist and die?
What are the elements of which practices are made?
How do practices recruit practitioners?
How do bundles and complexes of practice form, persist and disappear?
How are elements, practices and links between them generated, renewed and reproduced? (p.20)
Chapter 2 – Making and breaking links
Our strategy is to follow the elements of practice and to track changing configurations over time (p.23)
The authors use the practice of driving to illustrate their points here. When people began driving, it was accessible mainly to the rich, with unreliable cars that meant that one needed to be as proficient a mechanic as one was a driver. Chaffeurs with mechanic skills were in high demand. Driving was seen as an adventure rather than a day to day activity. To sell more cars, they became more reliable (also presumably due to manufacturers learning more about the art of car making and collecting feedback from drivers) and so the meaning of driving changed and so did the skills needed and the materials themselves.
Some more definitions of Materials / Competence / Meaning
Materials – “objects, infrastructures, tools, hardware and the body itself” (p.24)
Competences – “Know-how, background knowledge, understanding, deliberately cultivated skill / shared understandings of good or appropriate performance in terms of which specific enactments are judged. Knowing in the sense of being able to evaluate a performance is not the same as knowing in the sense of having the skills required to perform” (p.24)
Meaning – “social and symbolic significance of participation at any one moment” (p.24)
The discussion of Meaning takes a brief sidestep at this point into an idea of Schatzki’s called “teleoaffactive structures” (p.24). The authors describe this as “embracing ends, projects, tasks, purposes, beliefs, emotions and moods… central to the organising and ordering of practice and to the location of social practice within what Schatzki describes as ‘timespace’ (Schatzki, 2010b). He uses this concept to elaborate on the point that what people do has a history and a setting: to show that doings are future oriented, and that both aspects are united in the moment of performance” (p.24) It seems that Schatzki puts this outside of practice but Shove et al prefer to keep it in, in meaning, for simplicity.
I found another definition, evidently from one of Schatzki’s doctoral students. It takes us on a slightly different path to Shove et al but is certainly interesting to consider and probably makes my job harder but hopefully richer 🙂
Schatzki defines a social practice as nexus of doings and sayings organized by understandings, rules, and what he terms “teleoaffective structures.” An understanding is a sense of how to go on in a basic activity, e.g. knowing how to ask questions, give orders, make a left-hand turn, show respect by bowing, and so on. A rule is a linguistic formulations concerning how things should count or how they should or should not proceed. A teleoaffective structure is a linking of ends, means, and moods appropriate to a particular practice or set of practices and that governs what it makes sense to do beyond what is specified by particular understandings and rules.
(No discernable information about the author of this blog post sadly)
A key point that the authors return to is that the linking of the three elements isn’t the end point or normalisation of a practice – the linkages need to keep being remade over and over.
As time passes and practices evolve, the nature of a competence might change. So the ability to crank start a Model T Ford on a cold day moves from doing ‘driving’ to doing ‘history’. Meanings – particularly in terms of social significances – just tend to be overlain with the new ones.
Another interesting question raised was
“Do shared elements bridge between different practices and if so, with what consequences for the different pursuits of which they are a part” (p.32)
There’s another quote worth sharing relating to the local differences in practices
One way of making sense of the relation between standardization and persistent diversity is to suggest that practices like driving are ‘homegrown’ in the sense that each instance of doing is informed by previous, related and associated practices. At the same time, each instance is to a large extent defined by the elements of which it is composed. Manufacturers, governments, driving schools and international associations are consequently instrumental in circulating common forms of competence, meaning and materiality. In so doing, the contribute to the standardization of driving as it is reproduced in different locations. This distinction between elements – which can and do travel – and practices viewed as necessarily localized, necessarily situated instances of integrations (which does not travel) is useful in making sense of the roles consumers, producers and governments play in the reproduction and diffusion of different ways of life. (p.34)
What happens when performances of a practice occur simultaneously in the same space?
The fact that driving is constituted by and takes place in the midst of the routines and habits of other road users, all of whom have ‘careers’ of different durations, reminds us that the lives of practitioners and practices intersect. In short, there is something emergent and collective about driving (and other practices) which has to do with the relation between many co-existing performances situated alongside and in the context of collectively accumulated experience (p.35)
This makes me think that it is worth considering that the practice of teaching occurs at the same time as the practice of learning. (And also that, as more people do a thing, the meaning of that thing changes)
So, what does all of this mean and more importantly, what does it mean for my research?
I think that the key ideas about practice are certainly worth pursuing further and I’ll be interested to see where they lead. To bring this back to TELT practices, it’s more evident that ever now that TELT really represents two distinct practices and I’ll probably want to spend more time breaking down learning and teaching into their composite elements. I think my main focus is still going to be teaching, as this is the area that I support. I think SPT gives me some interesting options to explore in terms of how practices are shared and how they evolve, which speaks to change but also to stability/continuity.
Ideally, I’ll find some new and better ways to understand and describe (and have others do the same with their personal practices) what TELT practices really are and what they are made of.
In terms of developing a research methodology, I’m still not entirely clear but it feels like it leads to a clearer path, whatever that ends up being.
While I’m still letting the sociomaterial stew simmer in the back of my mind, it seems like a good time to dig in to something that feels slightly more practical (not to mention incredibly relevant to my day to day work).
This paper is about the first stage of research in a major Australian project looking at the use of (and attitudes towards) ePortfolios in Higher education business schools. As someone working in a business school and advocating the use of ePortfolios, it is unsurprisingly of some interest. Now that we’ve had a real live semester of ePortfolios actually being used in teaching – rather than speculated upon – it’s particularly nice to be able to come to this with something more than a theoretical viewpoint. (I’ll freely admit that it was used only in two subjects and in one, the lecturer only picked up the tool in week 6 of a 13 week semester, but what they’ve already learned and the success that they have had has been incredibly encouraging)
As you might expect, the paper dives into a detailed explanation of the context of using ePortfolios in Higher Ed – it notably hasn’t been as commonly used in business disciplines, something that the authors attribute in part to the diversity of kinds of disciplines in this field. Some (e.g. accounting) have distinct pathways with clearly articulated accreditation leading to specific careers while others contribute more generally to a student’s ability to work in ‘business’. The authors suggest that professions including medicine, law, engineering, teaching and architecture might be more suited to tools and practices supporting the collection of evidence that can be used in external accreditation processes and this might be why ePortfolios have been reported on less frequently in business. All the same, they argue that there are still many compelling reasons that ePortfolios should be used in business schools.
This paper focuses particularly on attitudes towards ePortfolios amongst academic leaders in business schools – Associate Deans (Education/ Teaching & learning), program/course directors and subject/course/unit conveners. (It does seem that survey responses from teachers were also accepted though the details on this are a little hazy).
A lot of reasons (excuses?) are given for why ePortfolios aren’t being used widely which align with those that I’ve come across commonly in the literature (and day to day practice) about the use/non-use of ed. tech in general. Seeing these has helped me to reframe my research question – though I still need to run this by my supervisors – to How can (and do?) Education (or TELT?) Advisors help universities overcome barriers to adopting TELT practices? (Previously – How can Higher Education better support TELT practices?). This is no small thing for me, as it feels like I’m narrowing the focus of the research to something more achievable and personally meaningful.
Anyway, there are a few points of particular interest that this paper covers – reasons for using ePortfolios in business ed., perceived strengths amongst management and the beginnings of a framework for effective implementation of ePortfolios in this space.
Reasons to use ePortfolios
The use of ePortfolios across Higher Ed. is tied very closely to the development of professional capabilities (a.k.a competencies) and employability skills. I’d suggest that the technology can do more than this in terms of offering new opportunities for content management, creation and publishing that might finally enable us to move beyond linear text heavy essays into student construction of richer resources that more adequately reflect the world that we now live in. That said, the portfolio has been a vital tool for demonstrating one’s skills to prospective employers for centuries and the ePortfolio is simply the latest iteration of this.
The authors identify a common set of professional capabilities that universities aspire to equip students with via threshold learning outcomes and program and graduate attributes. ( I think we include something about being a global citizen and thought leader but the rest all seem fairly common and laudable)
1. Professional judgement: Use knowledge and skills to solve novel business challenges.
2. Problem solving: Use knowledge and skills to identify and solve common business problems.
3. Communication: Demonstrate oral, written and visual communication skills appropriate to the needs of different business stakeholders.
4. Teamwork: Demonstrate skills in working collaboratively with colleagues in undertaking complex and varied work tasks.
5. Leadership: Demonstrate skills in constructively influencing the work of colleagues individually and in teams towards mutually agreed goals.
6. Digital literacy: Use knowledge and skills in ICT to frame, analyse and report on business problems and their solutions.
7. Self-management: Demonstrate skills in self-initiative, self-motivation and self-directed learning in business studies and practices.
8. Creativity and innovation: Demonstrate the capacity to generate new ideas to meet customer needs, and in the understanding of how good ideas become marketable products.
9. Entrepreneurship: Appreciate how new businesses are created, grow and adapt to changing market conditions.
10. Social responsibility: Develop a critical awareness of businesses’ obligations to the societies within which they operate, and to those parties who directly contribute to their viability.
11. Cultural awareness: Demonstrate knowledge and skills in working effectively with cultural diversity as related to global and international business practices.
12. Sustainability as applied to business organisations: Develop a critical awareness of businesses’ need to evolve and adapt to the imperatives of an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable world in the service of future generations.
13. Ethics: Develop a personally meaningful set of values to guide professional practice which reflect honesty, fairness, respectfulness, loyalty, composure and competence. (p.5-6)
The academic leaders were asked which of these they rated as most important and which they were most satisfied with the current development of in their students. Communication and problem solving were rated as most important with entrepreneurship at the end of that list. (Accountants tended to rate creativity and innovation lower than others). In terms of how well they think their colleges/schools are doing, academic leaders felt most confident about problem solving, digital literacy and communication and least about leadership and creativity/innovation. (However, confidence in the teaching of all 13 capabiliities ranged from 2.53/5 to 1.68/5, so across the board, there’s work to be done in this space)
There’s also an interesting breakdown of the pedagogical approaches that academic leaders in business colleges saw as being valuable in supporting these varying capabilities – I’m not sure if they were provided with a set list because the choices seem limited. Exams are nowhere to be seen though, which I find heartening.
1. Problem solving: Ranked in order of decreasing importance, respondents indicated: 1. Case studies; 2. Projects; 3. Work-placement; and 4. Simulations, might be effective ways to assess a student’s ability to solve problems.
2. Communication: Case studies, projects, presentations and written work appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to communicate.
3. Teamwork: Group projects and work placements appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to work in a team.
4. Leadership: Projects appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to lead a team.
5. Digital literacy: Projects, simulations and assignments appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s digital literacy.
6. Self-management: Projects and work placements appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to self-manage.
7. Creativity and innovation: Projects appears to be the most favoured way to assess a student’s creativity and innovation.
8. Entrepreneurship: Projects perhaps within a business context appears to be the most favoured way to assess a student’s entrepreneurial skills.
9. Social responsibility: Projects and Case studies appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s sense of social responsibility.
10. Cultural awareness: International study and work tours appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s cultural awareness.
11. Business Sustainability: Case studies, work placements and projects appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s understanding of sustainability in a business context.
12. Professional judgement: Case studies, work placements and simulations appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s professional judgement skills.
13. Ethics: Case studies and projects (p.9-10)
The perceived drivers of the implementation of ePortfolios offers some interesting insights into the value that academic leaders ascribe to ePortfolios and perhaps some selling points to stress when having the discussion about using them. (I have to admit at this point though that I’ve noticed that a lot of research seems to centre around people’s perceptions of things rather than the concrete realities of them. Maybe this is just the nature of education as a social science and there is certainly value in understanding why people make the decisions that they do in this space but just because people feel a certain way about a tool or a practice doesn’t necessarily make it so. Unless we are also looking at what is needed to shift perceptions, I’m not altogether sure what we hope to achieve by simply cataloguing them.)
The best reasons seen for using ePortfolios included “Improve student reflective learning”, “Enhance Student work placement experience”, “allow students to better demonstrate the achieve of learning outcomes to others” and “improve student understanding of learning outcomes.” (p. 11) Considered least important was “the imperative to use technology given the nature of the institution, i.e. mission, vision etc” (p.11) – which I’m fairly ok with and I’m also pretty happy that a teaching and learning goal was most highly valued. (But are people saying this because it seems like the right thing to say?)
In examining which kinds of support were most useful when using ePortfolios (and I suspect any other ed. tech), there was no clear preference for any of the following:
guidance on the purpose of the ePortfolio; guidance on how to use the ePortfolio; a workshop alongside to support the ePortfolio process; tutor/mentor support; IT helpdesk support for the learner; and support for producing media files. (p.12)
At least this seems like a solid checklist for developing a support plan and an implementation strategy.
The paper draws a few implications from the survey results as well as the existing literature, these align pretty well with my own feelings about ePortfolios and unfortunately they tend to make implementation projects harder, because taking a whole of program/degree approach to the use of ePortfolios in a siloed institution tends to get put quickly into the ‘too-hard basket’.
Housego and Parker (2009) and Woodley and Sims (2011), reflecting on their respective investigations, conclude that ideally ePortfolios should be integrated appropriately into the whole curriculum. With this in mind, ePortfolio implementation for assessing professional capabilities can be seen in the context of: whole-of-program-based curriculum designs; the major disciplinary studies allowing specialisation in business degrees; key areas of the curriculum dealing with work-integrated learning (WIL) (see Papadopoulos, Taylor, Fallshaw, & Zanko, 2011), foundational core and capstone studies, and those dealing directly with managerial capabilities like intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. (p.14)
I do note with some interest though that perhaps my college’s biggest success story with ePortfolios came in a fairly reflective unit related to management (post-grad), which aligns well with the final line of the paragraph.
The final section of the paper and perhaps the one that gives me the most to unpack (and which also excites me the most about the future work of this team) is a preliminary guidance framework for the implementation of ePortfolios in undergraduate business programs.
This is absolutely something that I’m going to take to the powers that be at my institution to explore further. All in all this is a rich paper and I greatly look forward to future reports from this project.
Papadopoulos, T., Taylor, T., Fallshaw, E., & Zanko, M. (2011). Engaging industry: Embedding professional learning in the business curriculum final report. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.
Maybe it’s two papers or maybe it’s a paper and an essay – but they’re both published in journals so I think they should be considered valuable in terms of my lit review. I think I prefer essays in all honesty, though it seems like papers have more currency. My problem with papers is that more rigour is required to demonstrate the value or validity of one’s argument while an essay is able to cut to the heart of the idea more quickly and spend more time teasing it out. If I understood Sociomateriality better I suspect that I could probably explain this in terms of the ‘constitutive entanglement’ between the form/technology and the practice of writing but I’m not quite there yet. These two pieces however have at least given me enough of a taste of this theory to want to pursue it further.
Looking at Orlikowski’s work in this area is a slightly sideways step for me in that it focuses on the complex, holistic relationships that exist between the material (primarily technology in this instance) and people and what they do in the workplace. Clearly Higher Ed is a workplace as much as a place of learning (it would be interesting to see where learning sits on a spectrum of work) but her interest lies more in conventional workplaces and her discipline is more about management and organisations.
One thing that I found in reading these is that it became a lot clearer after I got to the tangible examples, so I’m going to start with that and then backtrack to the more cerebral side of the theory. (I actually find this in a lot of presentations – I’d really like people to show me the thing first and then explain why and how they did it.) The author does a nice thing in the 2010 paper where she describes a scenario of people using a “synthetic world” (p.127) (essentially a company virtual world like Second Life but before the virtual part of the term was in wider use) and then refers back to this as she describes how the different current theoretical approaches would explore it.
Anyway, the two examples that cut through best for me were descriptions of searching via Google and what happens when a workplace gives its staff all Blackberries (mid-2000s) with push email. The core idea put forward is that when we examine how organisations work, we shouldn’t consider what people do and what impacts tech has as two separate things but more as a unified whole.
Orlikowski starts by describing the way we often discuss searching with Google.
‘I googled it’ has become a well-accepted and widely understood reference to the online activity of information searching on the web. And what most of mean by this colloquialism is that we ‘used’ the Google search capabilities to obtain some information.
But this account, while simple and descriptive, is problematic. In the terms of the preceding discussion, it privileges the users, clearly putting the locus of control principally in the hands of the human researchers and relegating the technology to a relatively passive, even domesticated role (2007, p.1439)
She quickly moves on to describe how Google searches work, driven by the PageRank algorithm that weigh up incoming and outgoing links and credibility (to an extent) and relationships between linking webpages to determine the order in which search results are displayed. (Presumably there are some commercial influencers in there as well). It is people however that actually choose which sites to link to and how – and this changes organically over time – so when we think about how we search, if we focus more on the machine or the people, we aren’t getting as clear a picture as if we were to focus on both at one, as one integrated system of sorts. I think this is what she means when she uses (frequently) the term ‘constitutive entanglement’ (2007, p.1435)
At this point I need to reiterate that most of these concepts are fairly new to me in terms of taking an ontological (nature of being) and epistemological (theory of knowledge) view on things. I haven’t spent a lot of time considering them but I can see that they offer an interesting lens to look at larger questions through.
Orlikowski helpfully went on to explain why this mattered.
The same Google search issued by a researcher at different times will produce different results in terms of webpages displayed and their order. While this would also be the case if the researcher had conducted her search in libraries and colleague’s offices, the Google example manifests it more acutely. The information obtained with a Google search done today will shape research practices differently than had the Google search been done last week or last month. And in certain circumstances, such differences may be quite consequential. Indeed, as contemporary commentators writing about the web have noted, algorithms such as Google’s PageRank don’t so much ‘search reality’ as create it (2007, p.1440)
Her other example that illustrated the interconnectivity between the social and material was a case study about Plymouth, a small(ish) private equity firm in 2000 that gave its employees BlackBerrys. (Prestige mobile phones with push email notification – kind of a big deal when they came out but now massively overshadowed by smartphones). This company had a relatively decent philosophy when it came to work/life balance and treated employees well.
In the course of analyzing the communication practices of these information professionals, it became increasingly evident that attempting to understand their practices in conventional ‘media use’ terms neglects critical aspects of what they are experiencing. In particular, viewing the professionals as ‘using’ their BlackBerrys to communicate with each other significantly overlooks how their communication practices have been substantially reconfigured through their engagement with Blackberrys. (2007, p.1441)
In a nutshell, everyone in the company became addicted to checking their emails and responding almost immediately. (The ‘Crackberry’ effect) If people didn’t get a reply from someone at virtually any time, they would quickly grow worried that something was wrong. It wasn’t necessarily that everyone became workaholics but their behaviour changed. This wasn’t the intent in introducing the tech and nor was it what the tech was designed to do but in examining the phenomena, Orlikowski realised that existing theoretical approaches either focused on the tool or the people but not sufficiently on the intertwining of the two and the way that each shaped the other.
As sociomaterial practices, mobile communications at Plymouth is signficantly changing why, when, where and how members interact. Norms of communication are reconfigured, altering expectations of availability and accountability, redefining the boundaries of the workday, and extending and intensifying interactions within the communication network. Plymouth members experience both increased flexibility (about where and when to work) and increased obligation to be continually responsive. The resulting blurring of employees’ work and and personal lives is beginning to undermine the espoused family-friendly values of the firm. (2007, p.1444)
Orlikowski’s main point throughout these papers is that current approaches to examining organisations either ignore the role of ‘things’ (“absent presence” – 2010, p.127) or overplay them (“exogenous force” – 2010, p.127) or overplay the way that people use them (“emergent process”- 2010, p.127). By delving deeper into how things shape behaviour and vice versa by treating people and things as more of an holistically integrated kind of entity (if my understanding holds up), we can come to a richer understanding of how organisations function. (To be honest though, I do still feel like I need to dig much deeper into this theory as I feel like this explanation is missing some core points.)
One of the biggest problems that I have in appreciating Sociomateriality at this point brings me back to the 2010 paper that uses the example of the ‘synthetic’ (virtual) ‘world’ to describe how the different preceding approaches would explore in looking at the use of that tech in the workplace. It contrasts this with what a sociomaterial exploration would examine. It’s probably a matter of my more practical orientation but I’m more interested in the questions examined in the other ‘flawed’ approaches. Perhaps the trick is to find the kinds of questions that a sociomaterial focus would support.
In the ‘absent presence’ approach, Orlikowski considers that
“organisational researchers could use synthetic worlds methodologically, as platforms for coordinating and conducting their inquiries into social behaviour. They are unlikely, however, to inquire into specific technological entailments of synthetic worlds, how they are taken up and changed by participants or how they configure participants’ interactions and with what outcomes. In the absent presence perspective thus, the role and influence of synthetic worlds for distributed collaboration – like technology more generally – will likely remain backstage concerns” (2010, p.129)
This seems less problematic to me than the author if the researchers aren’t actually researching the interaction between technology and behaviour. It almost feels as though Orlikowski’s point is that ‘you aren’t looking at this thing – distributed collaboration – that I consider important and this lessens your research’. But perhaps I’m missing something.
Next we come to the ‘exogenous force’ approach, which assumes that “technology is an exogenous and relatively autonomous driver of organisational change, and as such, that it has significant and predictable impacts on various human and organisational outcomes, such as governance structures, work routines, information flews, decision making, individual productivity and firm performance” (2010, p.129)
Orlikowski feels that researchers working through this lens
“would generally not be interested in studying the specific instance of the MPK20 synthetic world. Instead, common features of various synthetic worlds would be assessed (or represented through proxies such as investment value or information richness) in an attempt to produce statistical regularities about the effects of synthetic worlds in general. These worlds would be predicted to produce certain identifiable impacts on organisations, including impacts on the phenomenon of distributed collaboration. For example, studies might focus on how investments by organisations in synthetic worlds influence the productivity of distributed participants and how these effects might vary across the type of team, organisation or industry.” (2010, p.130)
Once again, this kind of feels like comparing apples and oranges, even though I’m happy to agree that simply exploring the role of tech (and assuming that it leads to change autonomously) seems fairly flawed.
The flip-side of this viewpoint seems to be that of the ’emergent process’ with scholars arguing that “technology results from the ongoing interaction of human choices, actions, social histories and institutional contexts. Technology here is understood as material artifacts that are social defined and socially produced, and thus as relevant only in relation to the people engaging with them… Scholars working from this perspective sought to explain how the particular interests and situated actions of multiple social groups shaped the designs, meanings and uses of new technologies over time.” (2010, p.131)
“With respect to studying the MPK20 synthetic world, researchers following an emergent process perspective would likely conduct detailed analyses of specific interpretations of and interactions in MPK20 to understand how such a world enables and constrains distributed collaboration. Thus, researchers might conduct ethnographic studies of the MPK20 environment, becoming members of Project Wonderland and participating in the various events and activities of the team. These inquiries might examine how members’ communication in MPK20 differs from their face-to-face interaction, how the roles, norms and identities generated by members within MPK20 resemble or differ from those outside MPK20… Structurational accounts might focus on what forms of structuring are evident in users’ situated engagements with MPK20, comparing the practices of Project Wonderland team members within and outside of MPK20 in an attempt to identify whether and how existing or new structures for distributed collaboration are enacted by team members in the synthetic world, and with what individual, team and organisational consequences over time” (2010, p.132)
Once again, if that was what I was investigating, this seems like a reasonable way to do it. Personally I would find the results of this research interesting. Orlikowski does make a reasonable point that it assumes that the technology is finished and finalised (in design terms) when people start using it, when the reality is that peoples’ use and discover of flaws or opportunities to improve it based on their usage – particularly in software – can lead to significant changes from the first version.
In essence, I guess the main flaws identified with these approaches, and the reason for pushing for a new, more holistic one, is that they lack nuance and underestimate the complexity of both tech and human behaviour. They don’t see the interrelationships between the two and the ways that each shapes the other – the “constitutive entanglements” (2010, p.135). From here the paper digs deep into metaphysics and a lot of discussion of the nature of existence that, coming into this cold, I’m currently struggling with. Orlikowski does refer to Barad’s notion of ‘thingification’ which I at least enjoy as a word. In terms of my research, I’m honestly not sure how deep down the ontological rabbit hole I want or need to go but I imagine I’ll come back to this for a further poke around at some point.
Bringing it all back then to what a sociomaterial exploration of the ‘synthetic world’ would look like, which gives us something to compare to the other lens, Orlikowski offers this.
a perspective of entanglement would focus on understanding MPK20, not as the necessary result of a powerful technological infrastructure, or as principally reflecting the interpretations and interactions of the human developers or users, but as a dynamic sociomaterial configuration performed in practice. Rather than attributing agency either to individual actors (designers, engineers, team members) or particular technologies (computers, algorithms, graphics engines, networks), capacities for action would be studied as relational, distributed and enacted through particular initiations of the MPK20 synthetic world. Drawing, for example, on the notion of apparatus, researchers might study how different performances of the MPK20 synthetic world configure communication and information sharing in Project Wonderland, and how these make some practices and knowledge more salient and determinate than others and with what consequences. A sociomaterial perspective would highlight how synthetic worlds are not neural or determinate platforms through which distributed collaboration is facilitated or constrained but integrally and materially part of constituting that phenomenon. Researchers might also examine how integrating MPK20 into everyday practices reconfigures the phenomenon of distributed collaboration within an organisation and what implications this generates for inclusion and exclusion, for responsibility and control. (2010, p.136)
I wouldn’t normally include that much text in a quote but it’s the closest I can come to understanding how a sociomaterial viewpoint looks. It does seem like it could be valuable in certain circumstances but I’m not yet sold that it is a be-all and end-all. The author on the other hand appears to think that it is.
I propose that we recognise that all practices are always and everywhere sociomaterial, and that this sociomateriality is constitutive, shaping the contours and possibilities of everyday organizing (2007, p.1444)
I had grand ambitions of working on my research every day over the Christmas/New Year break – I took a few days off beforehand, my housemate is overseas, conditions were ideal.
Ultimately I realised that what I actually needed was time to do nothing. Between full-time work and serious study last year, it felt at times as though my mind never quite shut down. So when the time came to sit down and read and process and write, my brain just said “nope” and I said “well ok then”. It was the right thing to do.
I’ve accepted that I can’t answer all the questions that interest me and that I need to delve more fully into a specific area. My other professional activities seem to be nudging me towards the role of Education Advisors in Tertiary Education in supporting TELT – though I do feel as though there is a rich vein to explore currently in looking at the nature of the Higher Ed. executive in driving learning innovation, particularly in terms of fast tracking plans to blow up the lecture by demolishing large lecture spaces. Lots of good stuff for a sociomaterialist in there I’d imagine.
However Education Advisors (I think) occupy a space that I find a little more relatable and that hopefully I can do more with in the longer term.
My project plan is fairly well out of whack in terms of covering the literature that I had hoped to on a month by month basis, if I intend to have my thesis proposal ready by July. July is an arbitrary target that I’ve set and I think it could be pushed out a couple of months without too much tut-tutting.
I’ve been avoiding looking at theory too much up until now, fearing that it would limit my scope and my ability to explore. Also I suspect I was a little scared of picking the wrong one or rejecting the one that I should or need to pursue. But I guess I can’t really make that call until I have a better idea of what’s in them so I spent today swimming through a soup of new language and concepts in the realm of Sociomaterial theory. I’d come across Wanda J Orlikowski a few times previously so I read an essay and a paper by her relating to new ways of thinking about technology in the workplace. I’m still processing it and feeling like spending the last few years studying sociology and management/organisation concepts might’ve been useful but it does offer an interesting lens to look through.
Among the new terms that I’ve encountered:
constitutive entanglement (not playing Twister in the High Court)
sociotechnical ensemble (not Inspector Gadgets party overcoat)
temporally emergent (not coming out of the Tardis)
absent presence (not the lack of gifts from deadbeat friends)
thingification (that’s just cool)
Happy New Year and I hope you have a marvellous 2017 full of wonder and joy. I hope we all do.