More creating opportunities and less kicking goals

I’ve been playing a bit of Rocket League on the Playstation 4 lately and it’s had me thinking about what I do at work. The game is essentially soccer with rocket powered, jumping stunt cars – it can be played multiplayer with up to 8 people or individually with AI team mates and opposition.

I’ve been playing solo because my home internet is awful and it’s been fun but my AI team mate is a bit dumb. Or to be fair, his programming means that he has a tendency to just dive at the ball whenever I’m about to score a goal and knock it in the wrong direction.

So I’ve started trying more to create situations where I’m positioning the ball well near the goal and he can just charge in and score our goal instead. As long as the goals are being scored, the team wins and we make our way to the finals.

Which is something like what we do in education – create opportunities for students to learn. They still need to apply their knowledge and skills to kick the goal but we’ve set the stage for them to make this happen. And maybe this is what I do as a TEL edvisor. I’m not the one working with the learners, the teacher is. I might have a very clear idea of what goals can and should be kicked but so does the teacher and it’s fair that they are the ones that get to do so. (I’m not suggesting here that the teachers are dumb or have bad programming – the analogy fell down long before now – more that it can be exciting for us to see the opportunities for scoring learning goals and forget that we’re here to create opportunities for the teachers to score them.)

Maybe just playing the game (and it’s a fun game) and being on the winning team is enough.

 

 

Looking for a new narrative

I woke from a dream this morning – no, it’s ok, I’m not going to tell you about it in detail – and am now wondering about the kind of story that I see myself living in.

I have a lot of obstacle/barrier dreams, the frustrating kind of dreams where you are trying to do something simple but you never seem to be able to get it done because things are always not going to plan. (My dentist tells me that I grind my teeth in my sleep – I’m guessing that this is why). I’m now starting to wonder if this shapes my outlook on the world in my waking hours – if the story that I see myself living in is an ongoing struggle against the things getting in the way of what I’m hoping to achieve. (At an unconscious level at least).

As someone with a keen interest in storytelling, it occurs to me that this is a fairly common model for narratives – at least in the Western tradition that I’m most familiar with. We have a hero (clearly me, because if you can’t be the hero in your own story, then when?) who needs to do something, overcomes opposition/barriers to do so and is generally triumphant. This is almost invariably the model in video games, where you also develop skills and/or acquire resources that help you to overcome increasingly challenging obstacles (or enemies) until the final “boss fight”. Or take a romantic comedy – the hero (or heroine) has a goal but obstacles get in the way (more often hilarious misunderstandings or their own character flaws) that need to be addressed before they achieve their objective.

We all instinctively understand this model and this is why it’s the in-between material in the story (what do we know about the character, what unusual scenario did they confront, what other incidental things happened) that we use to judge whether it’s a good or a bad story – which is to say whether or not it is well told. When things don’t go to plan and the hero doesn’t achieve their goal, well, we have mental models for this as well so it’s not necessarily a surprise but because it’s still an outlier in many ways, the story seems to carry extra emotional weight.

I think maybe the way that I’m currently looking at my PhD topic sits firmly in this (former) narrative structure. The hero (either teachers or intrepid TEL edvisors) want to enhance teaching and learning using technology (because there are bucket-loads of evidence that this can help) yet there are barriers (cultural, competence-based, resource related and ???) that prevent this from happening. The quest is to overcome these barriers so that teaching and learning is enhanced and everyone lives happily ever after.

What if, however, this whole storytelling model is wrong?

What if it is grounded too much in this idea of competing and opposing forces where only one can triumph? I’ll happily acknowledge that most of these issues are far more nuanced than this makes out and the conflict of needs/priorities is generally not oppositional or malicious but I have to wonder whether our (or my) storytelling model is sophisticated enough to deal with this. How often have I taken circumstance as a personal slight and missed an opportunity to work with instead of against it. I read somewhere recently that brain scans indicate that when people read something online that goes against their beliefs, the brains first immediate response is to go straight to the defensive part of fight-or-flight and our capacity for cognition and understanding drops instantly. So it’s not just me struggling with our conflict based paradigm perhaps at least.

Something else I’m mindful of here is the impact of the Western emphasis on individualism vs collectivism. I like people but, as an introvert, I’m also pretty happy with my own company and I’m mindful that maybe in my story, as the hero, I expect myself to do most of the work. I understand rationally that this is simply just not how things will or can happen and that it takes a village etc etc but this is the model of many of the stories that we tell. The hero might get some help from friends but they largely resolve the quest on their own.

So if our (my) current story isn’t the best one, then what is? Is there are better way of looking at this question of how we can better support TEL practices than simply overcoming obstacles and getting from A to B? I have to give credit to my supervisor here, who, when I was putting together my initial PhD proposal suggested that I change the focus from barriers to more positive strategies. I think perhaps what I missed was that it doesn’t just need to be positive strategies for overcoming the barriers – because this is still a barrier-centric position.

I don’t have the answers but I like that I can at least see more clearly that there are different paths.

Research update #21 – Where is this going?

When I tell academics what stage of my PhD I’m up to, they invariably smile wistfully and tell me that this stage is probably the best part of academia ever and I should just enjoy it. ‘It’ being the freedom of exploration and just meandering through the literature while I work out what I’m actually trying to do. There’s no overt pressure to publish – though the need to have my thesis proposal accepted looms over my head – and in some ways it’s the purest opportunity to be scholarly.

Which is fine and I do enjoy a good meander but the more I think about my question – currently What can TEL advisors do to better support TEL practices in Higher Ed – the more it seems to be leading down some quixotic path to single-handedly change centuries old organisational cultures. Actually tangible pedagogical questions seem kind of tangential to addressing the bigger issue of how to affect meaningful change. (I know I have a tendency to wildly overreach in projects). It seems as though I’m spending far more time thinking about organisational and structural kinds of questions than teaching and learning – I guess it’s all social sciences and the aim is ultimately to enhance teaching and learning but I sometimes wonder if I’m going the right way. This was magnified by the last thing that I read, a draft chapter that is going into a book on the practices and contributions of professional staff in Higher Ed. I will write up a post about it shortly but I’m not sure what the etiquette is in this instance – it feels like I should wait until the book is published.

In broad strokes though, there were some interesting – though perhaps not as revolutionary as the author seems to think – ideas about different organisational models for providing multi-disciplinary support in professional development. So, again, it almost feels as though I’m studying some aspect of management than education but it still seems quite valuable and – most importantly for me – practically applicable. It does feel as though large chunks are gradually coalescing – I need to talk about what TELT advisors (I should really say TEL edvisors but I just don’t know that this term does everything that I want it to) are and what we do and how we sit in the current H.E. context. This then leads into what teachers do here – there’s something about practices and how and where they overlap and how we can find synergies (who knew that was a word I would ever take seriously). From there maybe something about the practices of the organisational leadership and then wrapping it all up with an exploration of a host of practical actions and strategies to take us forward. But I’m not sure that this is researchy enough – however having somewhere to go afterwards stills seems vital at this stage.

Bringing this all back to my Pat Thomson list of PhD blogging topics, I guess this sits square in “Things that worry me about my PhD“. I understand that this is meant to be a research apprenticeship and that it’s not about solving problems necessarily but not ending up with something meaningful feels wasteful. I also get that it’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize and it’s just part of a lifelong journey, so maybe that’s how I need to think to avoid getting sucked into the trap of needing to solve all the problems yesterday.

Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice, Chapter 8 – Every day life and how it changes, Promoting Transitions in Practice (Shove, Pantzar and Watson,2012)

One of the things that frustrates me most when I read a lot of academic writing is the distance between theory and action. So many papers seem happy to conclude that further research is needed and leave it at that. There’s often seemingly little if any followup. (Of course, I’m generalising, it’s the vibe)

This is why I was pleasantly surprised with the final chapter of Shove et al’s book. They’ve carefully built a case that examining practices in a particular way can help us to better understand them at a societal level and they wrap it all up with some broad discussions of how these ideas might then be put into practice in a social policy setting – particularly in terms of how we might try to address climate change.

The authors’ acknowledge that this is no simple thing, given that currently public policymaking appears to be largely dominated by “concepts from economics and psychology (e.g. theories of planned behaviour, models of rational economic action, representations of habits as drivers of behaviours etc.) and is for the most part untouched by developments in sociological theory” (p.139). (Don’t get me started on economics).

The core difference between the current approach taken to social change, particularly in terms of the practices contributing to climate change, and practice theory derived approaches lies in the current belief that the behaviour of individuals is shaped by attitudes and governments need to give people the choice to change their behaviours at this individual level. Choice is seen as a fairly big deal. Assuming that I understand what the authors have to say, their alternative is to work more to shape practices directly across populations by intervening in the availability of elements of the practices and the relationships between practices, as well as making more of an effort to do this in line with the existing local variations in practices instead of taking something of a cookie-cutter approach. (I’m pretty sure this is a gross oversimplification but that seems to be the broad strokes). They have a nice table to illustrate this:

social practice table

(p.141)

This dominant paradigm of the ‘ABC’, in which A stands for Attitude, B for Behaviour and C for Choice (Shove, 2010), underpins two classic strategies for promoting more sustainable ways of life: one is to persuade people of the importance of climate change and thereby increase their green commitment; the second is to remove barriers obstructing the smooth translation of these values into action. Over the last few years, the language of motivators and barriers has been extended, behavioural economics has come into view and there is increasing reference to the need for a more holistic approach. However, none of this has altered the basic outline of what remains a thoroughly individualistic understanding both of action and change (p.140)

I have to say that while the assertions that the authors are making about overemphasising the idea of choice and people’s attitudes in changing their behaviour, I’m not sure that they utterly demolish the reasons for doing so. The points made though about how this overlooks cultural, geographical and historical contexts that help shape variations in practice between areas/groups/etc are valid and I would suggest that adding an examination of practices to the policy toolkit is highly sensible. From what I can see overall though, the methods for achieving change through these broader methods feel slightly hazy and seem to forget that there are many competing agendas at play (getting re-elected for example) that this holistic approach doesn’t necessarily play nicely with.

This argues for what Rip describes as a modest approach to policy, not based on a quest for control or an ambition to nudge the drivers of behaviour, but on a subtle and contingent ‘understanding of the sociological and economic nature of the processes they seek to influence’ (Grin et al., 2010:2007). Defined like this, policy making is not a matter of pursuing pre-defined outcomes by means of manipulating driving or obstructing factors. It is instead better understood as a more process-based ‘succession of short and fairly rapid steps’ involving sequences of ‘trial-and-error learning or ‘serial adjustment’, anchored in and never detached from the details and specificities of the practices in question (p.142)

As always, I try to bring the ideas in the literature back to my own day-to-day work in a university and frame it in terms of evolving teaching practices. I don’t disagree with any of the ideas here philosophically but have some serious pragmatic questions about how well this approach would be received by sceptical academics and how implementable it is.

The authors draw on earlier chapters in the book to identify four ways in which a practice oriented approach to change might be achieved:

In brief, the policy makers and other actors, past and present, can and do influence: a) the range of elements in circulation; b) the ways in which practices relate to each other; c) the careers and trajectories of practices and those who carry them; and d) the circuits of reproduction. (p.143)

A) The range of elements in circulation

In terms of climate change, the idea is to remove or reduce the bad ‘elements’ of practices rather than bad behaviours. The authors discuss this in terms of Japan’s “Cool Biz” initiative – which actually is quite fascinating. It’s mainly about changing office culture – supporting more casual, warm weather work wear than conventional suit and tie for men – to enable less use of air-conditioning (or keeping offices at higher temperatures – a range between 20-28 rather than the current 22-24). This program is in its 12th year now and other than some resistance from tie companies (really) and some initial uncertainty about cultural practices when meeting people from non-Cool Biz offices (workers took to carrying ties with them), it is a success.

Stories like these remind us that elements of meaning – including the meaning of office-wear, style and comfort – do not arrive fully formed but are reproduced and transformed in social situations that are already laden with significance (p.146)

I’m a little hazy on exactly how this differs from changing behaviours – it seems to be doing so from a slightly different direction from what I can see. In terms of my own work, I guess our equivalent is demolishing large lecture spaces.

B) Configuring relations between practices

This section talks at length about the relationships between cycling and driving. From what I can see, when you have a competitive relationship, one practice tends to need to lose something for the other one to benefit. How a practice is perceived depends on how it’s competitor is seen. So compared to walking, cycling was considered speedy but compared to driving, slow.

Thus far we have discussed driving and cycling in order to draw attention to the changing relation between practices, to the potential for symbiotic as well as competitive relationships and to the consequences of past configurations for the accumulation, character and durability (or otherwise) of relevant elements. Since policy interventions take place within and not outside specific histories of practice, issues of timing are crucial (p.148)

C) Configuring careers: carriers and practices

Most of what I got out of this section was about looking at defections from practices – what we can do to discourage someone from continuing in an undesirable practice. It took a big veer off into social theory territory and Bourdieu and I can see that this is an area that might be helpful to explore down the line but for now, it seems a little too tangential.

D) Configuring connections

Communities of practice feature in here and creating the conditions for practices to flourish. Most of the rest of it seemed to be about change management, which I’ve dug into previously and there didn’t seem to be much new.

In summary, taking a social/practice perspective – because there is social theory and there is practice theory too – offers some interesting new angles for implementing change and understanding practices.

I’ve enjoyed the ideas in this book and will certainly explore them further – I’ve particularly valued the authors methodical approach to breaking down the ideas and simplifying parts in the pursuit of higher truths. In terms of my work and my research, it’s certainly given me some ideas for understanding what third space TEL workers (I should really just say TEL edvisors) do and I think that where this will get particularly interesting is when I start to look at the crossovers between the practices of TEL edvisors, teachers, students and maybe even university management. I strongly suspect that this is where we will find (hopefully) some useful answers to the questions around how we can do TELT better.

Research update #20 – Language language covfefe

Nothing like using a word that will be terribly dated in a week’s time in a title to anchor it in space/time. Language has been a particular interest in the last few weeks and months as I have worked with my TELedvisor co-convenors to explore the different role types and practices of TEL edvisors – notably academic developers, education/… designers and learning/… technologists. I presented about our work yesterday at our TELedvisors webinar – if you’re interested, I’ll add the video at the end of this post. The last 20 mins is discussion but it was a pretty interesting conversation. Dom McGrath from UQ was the other presenter and (happily) his work took a slightly different approach but I think we arrived at largely the same conclusions.

Language was still a challenge even as we discussed final touches on the paper this morning – the nature of design vs develop and what these practices really mean and also what the develop in Academic Developer really means. (My take is that it helps to see that mostly as a training role and keep ‘develop’ to the practice of building things like learning resources or curriculum but I don’t think we’re all 100% on the same page – which is fine because this is representative of the bigger issue around the lack of clarity in this language in our sector)

I’ve forgotten to look at my list of Pat Thomson PhD blog questions for a little while but here’s this week’s.

Am I too hard on myself?

Maybe? Probably? I hope that it’s more about an attitude of continuous improvement but I’m much more interested in the bits that can be better than the bits that are working – I’m happy to just leave them be. I know that perfect is the enemy of the good and I think I’ve made strides in accepting when things are good enough but I also like to think that I have high standards, so it’s a toss-up. My bigger worry is less that I am hard on myself but that this normalises being hard on others – by being open to (ideally constructive) criticism and perhaps trusting it more than praise – childhoods, ugh – I suspect that I might think everyone has the same attitude and is more accepting of criticism than they actually are. I guess it’s probably mainly a matter of walking more confidently on that fine line between helping and offending.

Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice; Chapter 7, Representing the Dynamics of Social Practice (Shove, Pantzar and Watson, 2012)

This chapter primarily sums up the core ideas of the book (probably should’ve read it first). If I was to sum up the summary, I’d say that their argument is that streamlining the various elements of practice into materials, competences and meanings helps to understand practices in a broader context (and thus the emergence, evolution, dissemination and decline of practices). They also spend some time explaining the different relationships that practices have with both time and space – in a nutshell, time and space shape practices and practices shape (our perceptions of) time and space. Finally they touch briefly on the fact that practices affect power and privilege and, again, vice versa. (There’s also a bit of stuff about how and if practices compete with one another and where people sit in terms of practices – are they simply automaton style ‘carriers’ of a practice or are they more?)

To unpack this a little further:

Simplifying the definition of practice

Two quotes explain the decision making process pretty well – both on page 97.

We come back to the more complicated challenge of conceptualising elements in a moment but one obvious development, at least as regards more classically social theories, is our inclusion of materiality as a constitutive element of practice. Though barely mentioned iby Giddens (1984), artefacts, technologies and infrastructures feature in Schatzki’s account not as parts of practice, but as aspects of ‘arrangements’ to which practices are tied (2010b: 135)

and

we took our inspiration from Reckwitz and from his suggestion that practices consist of interdependent relations between elements including ‘forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, “things” and their use, a background knowledge of in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge’ (2002)

By looking at Reckwitz’s list in particular, we can see how Shove et al have streamlined emotion and motivational knowledge into ‘meaning’, which has also allowed for broader social contextual factors to play a part. This works well for me because it’s important to recognise that a practice exists within a larger context and is impacted by other people.

The authors also try to broaden our idea of practices to encompass the micro-changes and variations that occur between performances, practitioners and contexts. They note that:

‘theories of practice are commonly thought to deal better with routine reproduction than with innovation… however this is not the only way to go. Throughout this book we have been keen to build on the observation that not all enactments of practice are consistent or faithful and that each performance is situated and in some respect unique. In addition, in some small way each enactment changes the elements of which practices are made. (p.98)

Shove et al come back again to the significance of material elements, which speaks in some ways to the bigger question about how deterministic these can be in driving and/or creating practices. They observe that ‘numerous studies suggest that technologies and artefacts ‘script’ bodily performance and the types of competence required to produce configurations that work (Akrich, 1992)’.

On the question of how much impact people have on their practices, the authors stress that ‘practices are active integrations of elements’ (p.100) – the implication clearly being that it’s people that need to be doing the integrating.

One consequence, then, is that human agency is loosely but unavoidably contained with a universe of possibilities defined by historically specific complexes of practice. It is in this sense that practices make agency possible, a conclusion that is not all incompatible with the related point that practices do not exist unless recurrently enacted by real-life human beings (p.100)

All of which is getting a little philosophical for me but we press on. Well, we press on in some ways into even more philosophical areas in some ways relating to the nature of time and space. (Which I maintain would exist perfectly happily without the existence of people at all and so what we are probably actually talking about here is our perception of space/time – just for the record)

Practices in time and space

In exploring the relationship between practices, time and space, the authors find that there are four, not-incompatible ways of thinking about both time and space in terms of practices. They launch out of the blocks with this idea:

Should we view space and time as resources for which practices compete, in effect treating them as additional elements? Alternatively would it make better sense to think of space and time as coordinates in terms of which the location of a practice might be described and plotted? Or should we go along with Schatzki’s interpretation of activity timespace (Schatzki, 2010b) as something that is forged in the moment of doing, and through which past and future are integrated? (p 100-101).

At which point I start to scratch my head and hope that my assumption that Schatzki is referring to perceptions of time is valid. Because otherwise I don’t buy it. The authors spend a fair bit of time on the different ways of view time and space in terms of practice and I don’t see any of them as necessarily wrong, just valid in different situations. What I’m most interested in what it means in terms of overall application.

So, to precis, time is a limited element in that when you are performing one practice, you aren’t performing another. However, because we prioritise practices, we schedule them in ways that help us to achieve as much as we possibly can. Now the authors don’t get into this idea but I’d suggest that part of the way that we do this is by understanding that a practice has time as one of its attributes – we know that it will take 5 mins to brush our teeth – and we factor this into the way that we schedule things. So, so far, time shapes our practices and our engagement with them. What gets interesting is that this goes the other way, to an extent. Practices also shape our time. Certain practices are commonly only done at certain times – brushing your teeth before going to bed, for instance. So the meaning of a practice comes into play. At a larger scale, the kinds of practices that we engage in shape the way that we structure our week – weekdays for ‘work’ and weekends for ‘leisure’. So as I say, there are a number of different kinds of relationships between practices and time and they are not mutually exclusive. Going to work shows us that we don’t always control our time when it comes to practices either, so we need to be conscious of the fact that there are limitations on when we practice.

Societal rhythms are defined by the recurrent scheduling and sequencing of specific practices and, over the longer run, changing patterns of daily life reflect the dynamics of social practice (p.103)

The authors go on to discuss how practices exist when they aren’t being performed and their answer is that the persistence of the elements of the practice across time are what enable this. Seems obvious enough.

Similarly the relationship between space and practice has a number of facets. Some practices require more space than others and this impacts on our ability to perform them. Dedicating a space to a particular practice (e.g roads and driving) means that this space is no longer available to other practices (e.g farming). The need to have access to a large space for a particular practice adds a barrier to accessing that practice – more of an equity/societal issue perhaps and more on that shortly. Space impacts the way that elements travel (e.g to a mountain top) and this shapes the availability of a practice. However space might also see a number of practices co-existing within it – cyberspace for example. Looking at things the other way around, practices also influence space. Consider a kitchen and the way that this room is largely reconfigured for the practice of cooking. Without cooking, we would have no need for kitchens. This reconfiguration of the space can also serve to perpetuate the existence of the practice.

As driving and flying reconstitute space and time around them, they help embed the future inevitability of driving and flying. Both become necessary if life is to go on within the reconfigured spacialities and temporalities these practices have engendered (p.105)

So the core of Shove et al’s point is that time and space are more than just elements.

Space and time are not elements equivalent to those of materiality, meaning and competence. They do not circulate in their own right, nor are they shared and stored in the same way. Equally spatial and temporal coordinates do not merely define the settings and scenes in which practices are enacted. Arrangements of time and place are structured by past practices and are themselves relevant in structuring future pathways of development and/or diffusion. In this role, they act like elements in that they constitute media of aggregation and storage, holding the traces of past practice in place in ways that are relevant for the future, and for the perpetuation of unequal patterns of access. (p.106)

Dominant projects and power

The final section kind of continues on with this theme, digging more into how and why certain practices and the projects that they are associated with, become dominant in a society. (Spoiler, it’s about having power and access to resources).

Those who have the means to engage in valued social practices are in an especially privileged position in that is is they who contribute to the direction in which such practices develop. The specification of relevant elements and their circulation/distribution are in this respect intimately connected (Bourdieu, 1984) (p.106)

The authors wrap up this chapter by noting that sometimes those people with power will seek to shape the meaning surrounding a practice (e.g. washing hands) to help them make a profit. They talk about a soap manufacturer working with the church (among others) to reframe the notion of dirt and its undesirability to ultimately sell more soap.

Some stray ideas

A few thoughts came to mind as I read this chapter, triggered largely by this final sentence

The question is then whether policy makers can intervene in the dynamics of social practice and if so how, on what basis and with what chance of success? (p.107)

Bringing this all back to my work and my research, I need to think about this in terms of good TEL practices, TEL edvisors and teachers/lecturers. If practices are to some extent determined by the powerful, we either need to find someone with enough power to impose them or get the powerful to embrace them. Or both, really.

I also wonder what the role of time and space in Higher Education is – new purpose built teaching spaces are being designed and constructed that will presumably try to shoehorn people into particular teaching practices by removing the option of other approaches. The time needed to teach effectively with technology/online is also something that I assume has been explored but I need to look further into this because I really get the feeling that the unions negotiating our contracts aren’t.

Research update #19 – small ideas

Research this week has mainly involved a continuation of working on the concise paper relating to TEL edvisor (though we’re not using this term because, well, we kind of made it up) roles and meanings connected to practices.

After chatting to Peter, a few extra ideas have emerged – not really for the paper as much as things that I just want to file away to think about later.

A big one is that the roles of TEL edvisors (academic developers, learning designers, ed technologists etc etc) are generally named and advertised by senior people in institutions who may or may not have a full understanding of what the position entails or what they actually need from it. The point was also made that the dearth of ‘thought leaders’ (it really is a terrible term) in the higher levels of institutions with a rich understanding of TEL is a big problem and it’s perhaps why we get stuck with the ‘MOOC panic’ and ‘the infectious spread of flipped classrooms’ in the absence of strategic leadership. (Both of these approaches clearly have their place but they do seem to be latched on to as some kind of silver bullet far too often, when a more nuanced appreciation of the full range of TEL options would be preferable)

I’ve also been thinking again that I prefer TELT to TEL because it’s important to recognise that Teaching involves a very different set of practices and meanings than Learning does. Learning is clearly the desired outcome but there must be a Venn diagram somewhere that shows that there are clear parts of the act of teaching that are removed from learning. The thing is though, that our warm and gooey feels are all meant to to revolve around students and learning and so there is an inherent bias in the common language to focus only on this. TEL flows off the tongue a little easier as well, which probably has an effect on a subliminal level. In my day to day though, I work with teachers and I know that this is where my attentions lie. Teaching should be designed to create the right conditions for learning but it is not learning in itself.

One other thing – we’ve been looking at the practices that might be specifically attributed to (and which define?) TEL edvisors and came up with a list of seven (more on this another time) based on unpacking the meaning of duty statements. One practice that I think we haven’t covered but which TEL edvisors do a lot is advocate/innovate (maybe these are different). We are often in a position to try to move an individual teacher or the entire institution forward towards things that haven’t really been tried before. Making this happen requires advocacy. Arguably this could be bundled in with research but research rarely seems to be about actually enacting things, more about noting them. No idea what I want to do with this particular thought at this time but I suspect I’ll be coming back to it.

 

Research update #18: Wow, it’s been a while

While I haven’t been ‘here’ writing up things about readings, there’s still been a little bit of research action going on under the surface. I had a great meeting in person with Peter and Lina a month or so ago where I asked more questions than normal and it felt like more of a two-way conversation. (In our phone/skype chats, I’ve often felt like I needed to prove that I’ve been working, so I’ve largely just rattled off things that I’ve come across and new ideas for directions for the research, rather than drawing on the wisdom at the other end of the line. I mean, I still got some of that in the comments but seeking it out more pro-actively definitely seems more productive)

I’ve also been working on a paper submission with my TELedvisor network colleagues for ASCILITE 2017. What was meant to be a 5 page concise paper, kind of describing a work in progress rapidly blew out to 17+ pages (without appendices). I think this might have been partially because we have a lot to say on this topic – why the names for TEL edvisor roles are so ill-defined and what it means as workers in the third space – and perhaps a little bit because there’s a little bit of a sense of having something to prove. We aim to shape this into a journal paper, so will need to trim it pretty substantially.

The work has helped me to think more about how Social Practice Theory might be practically applied – I haven’t found much if anything about this in the literature yet but I’m assuming that’s more because I haven’t looked enough rather than that my ideas are breath-takingly innovative. I think that it will be useful to go deeper into the practices of TEL edvisors and the practices of teachers (and maybe or maybe not management) to see what the barriers to good TEL practices actually are – rather than the plausible excuses that people use to make them sound better.

I also seem to have gotten caught up with a lot of research adjacent work – putting together an application to be a HERDSA Fellow for example – which seems useful long term and professionally (I hope) but not directly relevant. I think I’m looking to bolster my pedagogical and research credibility – which, as a professional staff member, I’m almost never given credit for.

I was seriously pondering printing out all of my education qualifications this morning and creating a poster that I would stick to my office door – maybe with a sign saying “You can talk to me about teaching too, you know”. Might come across as a little defensive – or, you know, unhinged. So I probably won’t do that.

Anyhoo, back to the reading. I only have two chapters to go in this social practice theory book – now I just need to find it in my newly set up study. (I did move house, so I feel that has contributed to my study gap in some ways)

 

Research update #17: Making connections, learning from others

I’ll write a fuller post on this but I’ve recently helped launch a SIG (special interest group) for TEL edvisors through ASCILITE. I have a lot of different reasons for doing this, chief amongst them is the fact that there are a lot of incredibly smart and talented people working in this sector (education designer/developers, learning technologists, academic developers etc) doing fantastic work but it’s largely in isolation.

Given that I’ve chosen to focus my research on this area, because I believe that we can do a lot of good, I do hope that being a part of this community will make my research better and make it more practically useful. (I get that a PhD is a research apprenticeship but the thought of spending years working on something that is then only read by 3 people and buried deep in a library really scares me, particularly when I don’t know that further post-doc research is the direction I want to take afterwards. It might be, I just don’t know)

Anyway, a lot of the last month has centred around kicking the SIG (I prefer network) into gear. We held our first monthly webinar last week, with a great discussion about minimum standards for online course design (to put it in overly simple terms) and had three contributors – Lynnae Venaruzzo from Western Sydney Uni, Leanne Ngo from Deakin and our own Kate Mitchell (one of the co-founders and organisers of the network) from LaTrobe sharing their work and ideas.

Between this and the usual busyness of the start of a semester, there wasn’t as much other work on my studies – specifically reading – but I am getting back into it and am happy to have passed the hump of the most complex chapter of the Dynamics of Social Practice Theory book.

I haven’t heard anything from my supervisors and don’t have much to report or discuss just yet, though I feel as though I’m close to being able to write up a post about what I’m hoping to explore that will give us something to discuss. I’m still caught in this dilemma of what to talk about when I meet/Skype with them – I don’t want to ask them what I should do because surely this is for me to work out and I’m a grown-arsed adult. But when I tell them what I’m doing, the response is generally just keep going with a reading suggestion or two. (Reading material I am not short of, though I do need to remember that if I’d followed the advice to explore SPT sooner, I might be further along. Then again, maybe I wasn’t ready for it until I was. )

Next of the list of Pat Thomson’s PhD journalling topics:

How stress affects my ability to get things done.

Not well, really. Not well. Between being told the owner of my house is selling up and discovering that I’m kind of too old (or have too much furniture – seriously, almost every share place now is fully furnished) to share a house any more (I like living in a house and in the inner ‘burbs and it’s cheaper) and also having a close friend waiting on health news, I haven’t been feeling the study love. Progress is being made here though – just signed a lease on a flat, it’ll be my first time living alone, which will be interesting – and I’m slowly getting back on with things. The distance of the finish line makes it easy enough to say “tomorrow” – though there’s still the proposal itself to write and have accepted which is far sooner.

Garbage (sugar) stress eating definitely doesn’t help – it just smashes my ability to concentrate, so taking steps in the right direction there has been a positive move.

So yeah, stress and studying, not great allies. (Surprise)

Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice; Chapter 6 Circuits of Reproduction (Shove et al, 2012)

This chapter seemed to take forever to work through, possibly because a bit of life stuff came up in the interim but it’s also at the more complex end of the discussion. It concludes the overall examination of the dynamics of social practice and in some ways felt like a boss level that I’d been working up to. Most of the chapter made sense but I must confess that there is a page about cross-referencing practices as entities that I only wrote “wut?” on in my notes. Maybe it’ll make more sense down the road.

The good news is that there was more than enough more meaningful content in this chapter to illuminate my own exploration of practices in my research and it sparked a few new stray ideas for future directions. There’s a decent summary near the end of the chapter that I’ll start with and then expand upon. (The authors do great work with their summaries, bless them)

In this chapter we have built on the idea that if practices are to endure, the elements of which they are made need to be linked together consistently and recurrently over time (circuit 1). How this works out is, in turn, limited and shaped by the intended and unintended consequences of previous and co-existing configurations (circuit 2). Our third step has been to suggest that persistence and change depend upon feedback between one instance or moment of enactment and another, and on patterns of mutual influence between co-existing practices (circuit 3). It is through these three intersecting circuits that practices-as-entities come into being and through these that they are transformed. (p.93)

So let’s unpack this a little. There are a number of reciprocal relationships and cycles in the lives of practices. The authors discuss these in two main ways – through the impact of monitoring/feedback on practices (both as individual performances and larger entities) and also by cross-referencing different practices (again as performances and entities)

Monitoring practices as performances

A performance of a practice will generate data that can be monitored. It might be monitored by the practitioner (as a part of the practice) and it might also be monitored by an external actor that is assessing the performance or the results/outputs. (This might be in an education/training context or regulatory or something else). This monitoring then informs feedback which improves/modifies that performance and/or the next one/s and so the cycle continues. In some way, potentially, in every new performance, the history of past performances can help refine the practice over time.

This isn’t all that evolves the practice; materials, competences and meanings play their part too, but it is a significant factor.

Monitoring, whether instant or delayed, provides practitioners with feedback on the outcomes and qualities of past performance. To the extent that this feeds forward into what they do next it is significant for the persistence, transformation and decay of the practices concerned… self-monitoring or monitoring by others is part of, and not somehow outside, the enactment of a practice (what are the minimum conditions of the practice?) is, in a sense, integral to the performance. Amongst other things, this means that the instruments of recording (the body, the score sheet, the trainee’s CV) have a constitutive and not an innocent role. (p.83-4)

So far, so good. This also makes me think that many practices are made up of elements or units of practice – let’s call them steps for simplicity. The act of monitoring is just another step. (This does take us into the question of whether it is a practice or a complex/bundle of practices – like driving is made up of steering, accelerating, braking, signalling etc – but nobody says they’re going out accelerating)

Monitoring practices as entities

Looking at a practice as an entity is to look much more at the bigger picture of the practice.

the changing contours of practices-as-entities are shaped by the sum total of what practitioners do, by the variously faithful ways in which performances are enacted over time and by the scale and commitment of the cohorts involved. We also noticed that practices-as-entities develop as streams of consistently faithful and innovative performances intersect. This makes sense, but how are the transformative effects of such encounters played out? More specifically, how are definitions and understandings of what it is to do a practice mediated and shared, and how do such representations change over time (p.84)

An interesting side-note when considering the evolution of practice is the contribution of business. This example was in a discussion of snow-boarding

As the number of snowboarders rose, established commercial interests latched on to the opportunities this presented for product development and profit (p.85)

This ties back to the influence of material elements (new designs and products in this case) on shaping a practice.

Technologies are themselves important in stabilising and transforming the contours of a practice. In producing snowboards of different length, weight, width and form, the industry caters to – and in a sense produces – the increasingly diverse needs of a different types of user… Developments of this kind contribute to the ongoing setting and re-setting of conventions and standards. (p.85)

This in turn brings up back to one of the other key roles played by monitoring (and feedback) in terms of practices as entities, which is describing and defining them. The language that is used to describe a practice and its component parts and also to define what makes good practice is of vital importance in determining what a practice is and what it becomes.

…if we are to understand what snowboarding ‘is’ at any one moment, and if we are to figure out how the image and the substance of the sport evolves, we need to identify the means by which different versions of the practice-as-entity relate to each other over time. Methods of naming and recording constitute one form of connective tissue. In naming tricks like the ollie, the nollie, the rippey flip and the chicken salad, snowboarders recognise and temporarily stabilize specific moves. Such descriptions map onto templates of performance- to an idea of what it is to do an ollie, and what it means to do one well… in valuing certain skills and qualities above others, they define the present state of play and the direction in which techniques and technologies evolve. (p.85)

So clearly, monitoring and description and standardisation/regulation and the dissemination of all of this is hugely important on practices. Interestingly, a Community of Practice for TEL edvisors that I’ve started recently had our first webinar yesterday looking at the different standards that Australian universities have for online course design. It probably merits a blog post of its own but I guess it’s a good example of what needs to happen to improve Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching practices.

The final piece of the puzzle when it comes to monitoring – which ties back to our webinar nicely once more – is mediation.

Describing and materializing represent two modes of monitoring in the sense that they capture and to some extent formalize aspects of performance in terms of which subsequent enactments are defined and differentiated. A third mode lies in processes of mediation which also constitute channels of circulation. Within some snowboarding subcultures, making and sharing videos has become part of the experience. These films, along with magazines, websites and exhibitions, provide tangible records of individual performance and collectively reflect changing meanings of the sport within and between its various forms. Put simply, they allow actual and potential practitioners to ‘keep up’ with what is happening at the practice’s leading edge(s) (p.86)

I find the fact that monitoring/documenting and sharing the practice is considered an important part of practice quite interesting. Looking at teaching, I’ve tried to launch projects to support this in teaching but management levels have not seen value in this. (I’ll just have to persevere and keep making the argument).

There’s another nice description of the role of standards

…standards, in the form of rules, descriptions, materials and representations, constitute templates and benchmarks in terms of which present performances are evaluated and in relation to which future variants develop (p.86)

The discussion of the role of feedback notes that positive feedback can be self-perpetuating, in “what Latour and Woolgar refer to as ‘cycles of credibility’ (1986). Their study of laboratory life showed how the currencies of scientific research – citations, reputation, research funding – fuelled each other. In the situations they describe, research funding led to research papers that enhanced reputations in ways which made it easier to get more research funding and so on” (p.86)

Ultimately, feedback helps to sustain practices (as entities) by keeping practitioners motivated.

At a very basic level, it’s good to know you are doing well. Even the most casual forms of monitoring reveal (and in a sense constitute) levels of performance. In this role, signs of progress are often important in encouraging further effort and investment of time and energy (Sudnow, 1993). The details of how performances are evaluated (when how often, by whom) consequently structure the careers of individual practitioners and the career path that the practice itself affords. This internal structure is itself of relevance for the number of practitioners involved and the extent of their commitment (p.86)

Cross-referencing practices-as-performances

The act of participating in a performance of a practice means that it has been prioritised over other practices – the time spent on this performance is not available to the others.

…some households deliberately rush parts of the day in order to create unhurried periods of ‘quality’ time elsewhere in their schedule. In effect, short-cuts and compromises in the performance of certain practices are accepted because they allow for the ‘proper’ enactment of others (p.87)

Shove et al examine the importance of time as a tool, a coordinating agent that helps in this process. In a nutshell, it is a vital element of every practice and shapes the interactions between practices (and also practitioners). They move on to explore the change from static ‘clock-time’ to a more flexible ‘mobile-time’. Their argument is essentially that our adoption of mobile communication technologies (i.e. smart phones) is giving us a more fluid relationship with time because we can now call people on the fly to tell them that we are running late.

However some commentators are interested in the ways in which mobile messaging (texting, phoning, mobile emailing) influences synchronous cross-referencing between practices (p.88)

I’ll accept that mobile communication is changing the way we live but I’m not convinced that it is having the impact on practices that the authors suggest. Letting someone know that you’re running late particularly doesn’t change what is to be done, it just pushes it back. Perhaps letting someone know of a change of venue has more impact, in that it would allow a practice that might not otherwise have occurred to do so, but this doesn’t strike me as something that would happen regularly enough to change our concepts of time or practice.

The authors express this somewhat more eloquently than I:

But is this of further significance for the ways in which practices shape each other? For example, does the possibility of instant adjustment increase the range of practices in which many people are involved? Does real-time coordination generate more or less leeway in the timing and sequencing of what people do? Are patterns of inattention and disengagement changing as practices are dropped or cut short in response to news that something else is going on? Equally, are novel practices developing as a result? In thinking about these questions it is important to consider how technologies of ‘micro’-coordination relate to those that operate on a global scale (p.89)

Another significant idea that this generated for me was that the things that we do shape our world because we design and modify our world to suit the things that we do. This then may change our ability to do those things and we enter a cycle where practice shapes environment shapes practice etc.

Or as the authors put it:

we have shown that moments of performance reproduce and reflect qualities of spacing and timing, some proximate, some remote. It is in this sense that individual practices ‘make’ the environments that others inhabit (p.89)

I guess then, the real question is how we as TEL edvisors can make this work for us.

Cross-referencing practices-as-entities

This is the section that lost me a little but parts made sense. It’s something to do with the way that separate practices might be aggregated as part of a larger issue – such as eating and exercise both sit within this issue of obesity. Clearly obesity isn’t a practice but it does encompass both of these practices and creates linkages that wouldn’t necessarily otherwise be there. This happens in part by tying in monitoring and creating a discourse/meaning attached to them all.

The authors refer to this combination of the discourse and the monitoring via measurement technologies as “epistemic objects, in terms of which practices are conjoined and associated, one to another” (p.92). (And arguably monitoring and discourse create their own cyclical relationship)

They move on to expand the significance of the elements of a practice (material, competence and meaning),

this time viewing them as instruments of coordination. In their role as aggregators, accumulators, relays and vehicles, elements are more than necessary building blocks: they are also relevant for the manner in which practices relate to each other and for how these relations change over time. (p.92)

Writing and reading – as competences rather than practices I guess – occupy a vital space here in terms of the ways that they are vital in the dissemination of practices, meanings and techniques.

They discuss two competing ideas by other scholars in the field (Law and Latour) that posit that either practices need elements to remain stable for significant periods of time to allow practices to become entrenched or that they benefit from changes in the elements that enable practices to evolve. I don’t actually think that these positions are mutually exclusive.

Other thoughts

I jotted down a number of stray thoughts as I read this chapter that don’t necessarily tie to specific sections, so I’ll just share them as is.

Is a technology a material or does it also carry meanings and competences?

Does research culture/practice negatively impact teaching practice? Isolated and competitive – essentially the antithesis of a good teaching culture.

Does imposter syndrome (in H.E. specifically) inhibit teachers from being monitored/observed for feedback? Does rewarding only teaching excellence inhibit academic professional development in teaching because it stops people from admitting that they could use help. Are teaching excellence awards a hangover from a research culture that is highly competitive?
What if we could offer academics opportunities to anonymously and invisibly self assess their teaching and online course design? 

Is Digigogy (digital pedagogy) the ‘wicked problem’ that I’m trying to resolve in my research – in the same way that ‘obesity’ is an aggregator for exercise and eating as practices? I do like ‘digigogy’ as an umbrella term for TEL practices.

Where do TEL edvisors sit in the ‘monitoring’ space of TEL practices?

This ‘epistemic objects – cycle of monitoring/feedback and discourse’ is probably going to play a part in my research somehow. Maybe in CoPs.

So what am I taking away from this?

I guess it’s mainly that there are a lot of different ways in which practices (and performances of practices) are connected which impact on how the evolve and spread. Monitoring and feedback – particularly when it is baked into the practice – is a big deal. The whole mobile time thing feels like an interesting diversion but the place of technology (and what exactly it is in practice element terms) will be a factor, given that I’m looking at Tech Enhanced Learning. (To be honest though, I think I’m really looking at Tech Enhanced Teaching)

In specific terms, it seems more and more like what I need to do is break down all of the individual tasks/activities that make up the practice of ‘teaching’ – or Tech Enhanced Learning and Teaching – and find the cross-over points with the activities that make up the practice of a TEL edvisor. I think there is also merit in looking at the competition between the practices of research for academics and teaching, which impacts their practice in significant ways.

On now to Chapter 7, where the authors promise to bring all the ideas together. Looking forward to it.