Digital Ruins and Ghost Towns

reflections on functional realism and decay in 3D virtual worlds

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Recently an article was shared by a friend on Facebook, it concerned Second Life, the article was an account of walking through Second Life (SL) empty halls and campuses, and wondering where all the hope had gone (see here). A thread developed around the post. Some noting it had not died at all, reflecting on the temporary trends that often fixate learning technology with those who chase the latest new thing often the fore. Two things struck me:

First the idea of ruins, abandoned physical appear to have an aesthetic value that these digital ones do not;

Secondly, I wondered on the relation to other legacy spaces, do we feel the same way about an old project website as a do about an abandoned virtual campus, and if not why not.

In this post I explore the implications of these questions for the design of online spaces.

470px-Roughbounds

Figure 1: RoughBounds Sparker on the Teen Grid in 2007, Image by Rebecca Ferguson, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Ruins in Second Life

Before exploring this I should admit I have engaged with SL but not for some time. From July 2007 to late 2008 I was part of an OU project on the Teen Grid as part of a programme called Schome, and then later as a consultant on a JISC funded project. I wrote a paper for the second SL conference based on my experiences, of feeling neither in the place nor fully at my desk at home, somehow inbetween. In particular with the arrival of sound and hearing the background noises on others audio which brought their world in, and reminded me they were not fully there either (Macintyre 2008). At the time I was thrall to Heidegger and the essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” (Heidegger [1950] 2000) and wondered what neither dwelling in one place or the other meant for authentic learning.

While I am no longer as interested in Heidegger and dwelling as I once was, it was a formative experience, and questions of authenticity, of place making and of where learning takes place shape my design work. Therefore while it was “not for me”, I still hold onto a bunch of questions about these spaces. Perhaps this relates back to the earlier question about the aesthetics of ruins. In the physical world it is not the absence of people that signals that something is no longer used, it is the decay, the crumbling buildings, the grass and trees sprouting forth, the work of man [sic] succumbing to nature is part of the sublime, at its peak people built ruins. In his book “In Ruins” Woodward (2001) notes the importance of impermanence in Christianity, when Pope Pious II introduced a law in 1462 to protect Rome’s ruins it was to act as a reminder, a memento mori, of the fragility of human creation in the face of divineness.

Walking around SL one does not experience decay, when I logged in for the first time in a decade what I experienced on landing was a naked people. I think this is perhaps a different matter. Moving on, SL still partly remembered me and I had a list of addresses  already in place, the island’s I visited were empty, in many cases I could not tell if they were still education islands as they were filled with adverts, but not people. The buildings, hours of time rendered in digital form stood as fresh as the day they were created. It is not the decaying hope of Fordlandia, Fords experimental rubber plant and city in the Brazilian jungle now overgrown, nor is it Robert Owen’s New Lanark another Utopian vision now rendered as a heritage experience.  Though these pristine spaces do feel like a photo essay in a design magazine, and the lack of decay in a space you know to be neglected is jarring, it almost as if the idea that once abandoned it ought to fall into ruin foreshadows our understanding of these spaces.

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Figure 2: A Domestic Mememto Mori, a gift from my partners mother, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Legacy Sites

Compare this with project websites, the sites often remain, mostly they still works. Do these sites feel strangely abandoned, eerily quiet? No they don’t. They are more like an unread project report that sits on a shelf, or those old files in a shared folder, one day it might be useful.  The sense of emptiness is something that only occurs when project has social presence built in. Project websites are information repositories. The lack of people is visible in SL, and the lack is different from being without people because they are yet to be inhabited and carry with them expectations like Fordlandia, and once empty the decay of unrealised hope.

In robotics people talk about the “uncanny valley”, the sense of uneasiness that comes from perceiving a humanoid robot falls in the uncomfortable position between being too real and not quite real enough. 3D virtual worlds are a long way from this level of visual realism, but designer do use functional realism, ways of knowing about spaces, of throughways, of buildings, they call to our familiarity with the built environment as cues to what one might use these spaces for. So there is an element of uncanniness, what is missing from this low resolution functional realism is decay.  This question of decay reminds of another question I had about SL, the role of forgetting. At the time I was observing, note taking, recording reflections about SL one of my colleagues suggested I could double check the SL logs in case I missed anything, and the logs might be usefully mined for insights.  It was the first time I realised how important forgetting was.

As a researcher it is the other side of remembering, sometimes through repetition, sometimes through their singular occurrence and sometimes through their absence you recognise and remember. In his book on remembering in the digital age “delete” Mayer-Schonberger (2011) notes the important role forgetting has in allowing people to make decisions, too much information is too much. He suggested digital memory form embarrassing videos on you tube to project files ought to have an expiration date.  You can see an inkling of how expiration might work if you wander around the UK OER site JORUM now hosted on The Way Back Machine . It is broken links and unsaved pages, the next step would be for it to slowly fade. So how is this relevant to SL. Educators and learners interest in SL is on the wane, and they are like old project sites. However, something else will emerge, we will find ourselves in 3D virtual worlds perhaps in VR worlds like Decentraland, and when we do we will need to have a sense of what happens once it is over, I am going to suggest if we are to mimic the use of physical spaces then we build in entropy,  we allow them to decay.

Conclusion and Design Implications

One of the common archetypes in SL is the garden, in her essay on Little Sparta addressing Finlay as “he” Susan Stewart (2005) opens the essay with the phrase

“He who makes a garden is own unmaking makes”,

closing with

“He who makes a garden, his own remembering makes”

Perhaps useful for the makers of 3D virtual worlds in the future, as it means attending to what happens without maintenance. Sites that are neglected but do not decay alert us to their uncanniness, as designers we need to attend to the cues we draw from the physical into the virtual and how following or disturbing the pattern alters how we experience these spaces when they are live with people and when they are dead.

 

References

Heidegger M. ([1950] 2000) Building Dwelling Thinking, in Krell D. F. Ed., Basic Writing: Revised and Expanded Edition, Routledge: London, pp343-364

Macintyre R. (2008) Inbetweenness OR in two places at once, In Peachey A. Ed., ReLIVE 08 Researching Learning on Virtual Worlds, Open University 20th -21st of November 2008,  pp208-216

Mayer-Schonberger V. (2011) delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Princeton University Press: Oxford

Stewart S. (2005) The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetic”, University of Chicago Press: London

Woodward C. (2001) In Ruins, Chatto & Windus: London

 

The Co-op Uni: From Pedagogy to Governance and Back

Despite having banked with the Co-op for most of my adult life, being a member, and using its services, I don’t know much about the Co-op Group, and as Chrissi Nerantzi and I walked to the Co-operative Quarter in Manchester it was odd to pass 1 Balloon St Manchester, whose only previous life for me was in the completion of direct debits. We were heading towards the Co-operative College along with 90 or so others to attend “Making the Co-operative University: New Places, Spaces and Models of Learning” .

selfpFigure 1: The Co-op Uni, A long time coming, An idea whose time has come, Ronald Macintyre, CC BY SA 4.0

I admit I struggled through the day with the question that kept rattling through my head, if a Co-op University is the solution, what was the problem in the first place. It was a question that arose from a sense that many of the people here were disaffected with Higher Education, and articulated it through the lens of losing their own jobs. A mood that obscured other problems, and for me clouded the day somewhat until, I was able to read the blog Chrissi put together, and go away and think about it. In thinking about it I pulled “Building a Co-operative: A Business History of The Co-operative Group, 1863-2013” of the shelf. Written before some of the groups recent troubles it has a tone of, this is our time, and I recollected how at the start of the day we were told the time was right for a Co-op Uni,  a tone that reminds of many struggles in a state of becoming, where success is perpetually immanent.

So, having thought about this immanence, my mind settled on the pedagogy workshop I attended, and the question of whether I attended the right one, should I have gone to governance, a thought process I tease out below.

One of the key aspects for me from the day were the questions around co-design/production, when people talked about it I couldn’t get the sense whether it was brought up as a novel approach, or a just as good practice. I suspect the former, and this was a surprise as it has been fashionable with the Higher Education Academy and Quality Assurance Agency for some time, albeit with little traction within the academy, a thin participation I blogged about  a couple of years ago (see here ).  Where I suggest learner co-design as articulated in a context where the learner is a customer, leads to the application of co-design models from the private sector, so called Service Design Logic, which is thin participation and does not address underlying social and structural relations within education. However, that simply describes the problem, how do we move beyond that.

selfpFigure 2: The Pedagogy Subgroup Questions, Ronald Macintyre CC BY SA 4.0

One view, which I have tried to explore in the past in relation to widening participation, is to see learner’s engagement as academic labour, learning involves everyone doing work, they need to have the skills to do the work, the opportunity to express that skills, and to be able to benefit from the value which accrues through this shared labour. My original analysis focussed on the barriers experienced by some learners as the look to do this work (see here ), it was really a thinly veiled Marxist analysis of adult learning. However, having attended the event I see where co-operation could lead, and perhaps unblock some of the issues which have made co-design/production in HE an unreachable aspiration.

I have long been interested in participatory design, in particular its roots in labour movements in Scandinavia, here it was called co-operative design focussed on how workers, managers and academics might work together to design work process’s (for a critical reading from OU academic and Co-op Tech person Steve Walker see here). I do not draw attention to the historical development of participatory design, or the connection to labour movements idly. Could a Co-op University be an organisation that was just as concerned with the organisation and power relations in work finally see the application of co-operative/participatory design to Higher Education. Perhaps it could. Perhaps the thin sense of this approach that has informed co-design, which takes some of the practices but filters them through a commercial logic will be undone by a co-operative logic. I take Richard Hall’s point regarding the sense in simulating a thing whose image of itself is predicated in unequal power relations. However, perhaps the co-operative model, the flattening of power relations within the whole academic community might be the thing to turn learner engagement into something more than a rhetorical device. With the flattening of labour relations within the broader academic community, i.e. a change in governance relations, ushering in many of the pedagogic ones that remain unrealised.

Clearly lots of things need to align before perhaps becomes real. Some of the things that seem to clear to me are a need to connect with Labour movements more broadly, Workers Education Association of course, but also Trade Union Learning. I would also ask those in this space to reach out to those in Open Education, not just the Open University, or those in Open Education Resources/Practices, though clearly they have much in common, in particular similar challenges.  With lessons from the former about sustainability and the latter about emerging models of provision and accreditation as organisations like University of the People and OERu  look to establish challengers as well. But also the wider Open Education movement, for example, “The Jane Austen” series by Casey and Greller (see here for a recent update) which draws inspiration from Art Schools to combat neoliberalism , or Alex Dunedin harking back to ragged schools though the Ragged University , or the miners libraries and weavers reading groups.

Talking of further reading Joss Winn from Lincoln University has produced a bibliography see here

 

Porous, Permeable, Praxis, Pedagogy, more P’s less HE

 

After a busy couple of days at the Porous University event in Inverness on the 8th and 9th of May I went back to “the croft”, Keith, Frank and I had spent a lot of time thinking about how to structure an event that was not structured, unconference seemed too fashionable for us, but something like that was what we aimed for. In the end our gathering started slow with people reaching out beyond their own context, sense making, find their place, and I think in part getting a feel for how safe it was to say what often is left unsaid. Left unsaid not because people think it is unimportant, left unsaid because it is vitally important, because these are thoughts, opinions and reactions to our contexts that might leave us exposed.

People did open up, and there is an excellent selection of blogs and resources, some on this blog here, and many on the Ragged University see here for some talks (more coming) and here for some reflections from Alex. I see no need to add my own summary of the day to those excellent accounts. One thing I did want to pick up was a comment by Alan Levine who joined virtually, he suggested Porous was incorrect as a description or an intention, we should really be talking about permeability. Where porous describes the qualities of the thing (the amount of space), where permeable describes the ease by which things can pass through – see here from Alan. It is interesting, not least as the graphic I used to “advertise” it on the OEPS blog was of a semi-permeable membrane.  The phrase porous university slipped out of my mouth at the OE Global Conference  when presenting on “The Hidden Tariff” in OER in response to a question asking what I meant by openness as a dialogical process. As someone with a biological sciences background I think I used in the sense of whether a plant or animals has pores, i.e. a membrane is porous, it has pores, from the same Greek, Latin Old French root, and perhaps also from literary theory, the idea of boundary crossing. But still I was being slippery in the way I understood it, is is the flow itself or the thing (the pores/structures/systems/process) which enable the flow.

However, his comment stayed with me, not just because I wondering about the right P, but because it highlighted the U, was the day really about Uni. Actually it was, and I think one of the issues was we often ended up talking about and for those outside the academy, with the best intentions we made visible the barriers and the problems, but from within HE. While as people within HE we have no choice but to speak for, we are also people in the world, with opinions, with views, with families, who engage socially and politically, who form groups, volunteer and campaign.

Elephant

Figure 1: The Elephant Not in the Room, Macintyre 2010, CC BY SA 4.0

We are in the world, so perhaps what we need to do is take out the University and add some extra P’s. This is by no means a definitive list but I would like to suggest permeable (to accept Alan Levine comment), but I think the important ones are pedagogy and praxis. Praxis because one of the things that ran through the two days was how our education practice transforms and is itself transformed though our actions, and in turn how those practices are used (or not) to create change.  Pedagogy, because of the sense, if we are looking at shifting locus of knowledge creation and production, of opening up, then we need to understand and develop appropriate pedagogies to support those changes.

I think dropping Uni, or University might also help with another thing that made me worry post event, I have already alluded to the tendency to “talk from within”, at least at first, in part this related to talking about what we know, but its dominance at the event was because most participants were from HE, as you can tell from the way I use “we”, I assume are most of those reading this post. If we are serious about reaching out and reaching in then we need a broader community, the “we” needs to be more inclusive. Otherwise the assumption is that “reaching in” is in the gift of those within the academy. When lots of the examples of reaching is those outside barging in, rowdy, unplanned, rudely asking those within to listen. I am not saying Uni is acting as some sort of barrier, “this is not a network for me”, but instead a change to better describe not what we are at present but where we want to be.

So with this in mind and getting where you are meant to be can I say

“Oh kind friends and companions come join me in rhyme,

 And lift up your voices in chorus wi mine;

 Let’s drink and be merry all grief to refrain,

 For we may or might never all meet here again

.…

Here’s a health to the company and one to my love,

 We’ll drink and be merry all out of one glass;

 Drink and be merry all grief to refrain,

 For we may or might never all meet here again.”

Or Better Watch this

Affect, Messiness and Values in Learning Design: Reflecting on the Alzheimer Society Ireland Showcase

Start at the end

At the end of an excellent day organised by The Alzheimer Society of Ireland, Flexible Education Norway and Ic Dien a further education college in Belgium, we went upstairs to a computer lab, something I had imaged no longer existed. We gathered round PC’s to review the module created by the team to support family carers of people with Dementia – see the project website for further information.

A small group of us started to talk our way through the site, asking questions like, will this be screen reader compliant, does the flow work here, how do I get back, is it clear what to do on this page, should the title here be changed to make the purpose clearer. What gave us the sense we had a legitimate right to comment, to second guess the designer. Well, for one he had asked us to second guess him, to sense check the module. So how do we know, what do we base our judgement on as we talk through our questions, we use words like “I think”, “I feel”, we talk about familiar forms which we think “work” we draw out positive and negatives experiences. Experience counts both ways, it can be used “in my experience” to call on patterns “you know” work, and also lack of experience, and “I am not familiar with this but …” Bringing the less sure user into the narrative.

This seems to touch on something that came up through the day, about how one decides on what to do. In our work creating online material with the aim of enabling individual transformation for values based organisations, how is it we know? Does working with values based organisations make any difference, does it make a difference that the learning is informal? Isn’t it just learning, or at best online learning we need to consider? When people talked about their judgement, how they knew, what informed decisions, it was not the online that carried the most weight but experience of learning and working directly with clients, people grounded their comments in real and imagined learners. Talked about how they felt, whether they felt something was right and fitted with what they knew of the learners and organisational values, and when things didn’t feel right and asking themselves why. Of course it is just as important to ask questions of the comfortable decisions as the ones that are troublesome, but what it emphasised for me is the personal craft of creating a course.

Never knowingly neat and tidy

The sense of learning in these contexts as a messy problem with complex, incomplete and clumsy solutions emerged at the start of the day.  It was great to hear the explicit recognition of the difference between a project plan, a neat timetable of discrete activities, and the reality. The need to inhabit all the phases at the same time, patterns  of activities blur into each other, for example, in design you look back to your experience and forward to the live course,  and as you do you are conditioned by production. Or, in writing you move to and from the image of the learner you started writing for, the one you are bringing into being through writing and looking forward to what it will enable them to do and how you will know if it has worked. These cycles are not captured in linear project plans with set start and end dates. Uncertainty is useful, it makes you question things, the need to keep changing, asking yourself what is the right thing to do, recognising the temporality of solutions. So it was useful to see this at the start of the day with Gibbs Reflective cycle as a project management methodology, it was quite a clear and bold statement in a world of online learning design which often talks about Agile or other such methods.

reflective-cycle.jpg
Figure 1: Kari Olstad Flexible Education Norway talks about Gibbs Reflective Cycle as a Project Management Approach, Ronald Macintyre CC BY SA 4.0

 

It was bold, and even bolder because it asked us to consider how well project management methods borrowed from tech company’s suited values based organisations, or indeed any organisations development of learning materials. Certainly some do, if I replaced clumsy temporal solutions with “rolling beta”, it probably is similar enough, and within “sprints” in software development are we pretending people are not reflecting on their practice. However, I think what was different and the risk with some of the linear models where “reflection on action” is not explicit is the tendency to look down, to focus on the plan, on the detail, and not “look up”, to place what you are doing in its broader context, the values of the organisation, the needs of the learner, and crucially what learning enables them to do.

Just to close thanks to Fergus Timmons Alzheimer Society of Ireland for inviting me and sense checking this account of the day.

Here is a link to my own presentation

Best Wishes

 

Ronald.

Action Research and Learning Design

The issue is examining why it is we follow a particular track

oransay

Credit: Ronald Macintrye, Postal Deliveries to the tidal Isle of Oransay, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Evaluation of Learning Experience of e-Learning Special Interest Group (ELESIG) recently launched a MOOC on the EU MOOC platform and aggregator EMMA. The MOOC is titled “Researching Learners experiences and use of technology using action research” #LERMOOC. It includes linked case studies based on partnership work by OEPS. In them I reflect on the three phases of content development, reflecting on design, production and use. I explore the value and tensions around working in partnership with an external organisation, in this example Parkinson’s UK.

The value of partnership comes from getting closer to the learners and their experiences through working with practitioners, in particular in the design phase where you can surface and test assumptions, evaluating them as part of the design process; but also in use, where the materials can be embedded in existing social contexts through the partner’s networks. The tension is often about how systems speak to each other; sometimes these are technical questions, sometimes ones of organisational culture.

The purpose is to create partnerships with organisations to allow you to get closer to understanding the learners, it is exploratory, and the case studies focus on the process, on wayfinding, surfacing my own action research into the learner experience as part of being a reflective practitioner.

Click on this link to read the OEPS case studies.

Ronald Macintyre

Mind Now: this is about learning

Pete Cannell and coauthored a paper at OER17 called Mind the Gap, it is concerned with lifelong learning and the role of free open online resources in filling in and creating routes into learning for those distanced from it, and more broadly reflects on the gaps within those journeys as local authorities colleges retreat from this space and Third Sector organisations look to fill those structural holes as best they can. I selected the title for its double meaning, to be careful, and to remember and keep it in our minds. It was only when I started to listen to Rosa Murray at the recent forum organised jointly by Learning for Sustainability Scotland (LfSS) and OEPS on shared values, my use of to mind’ means ‘to recollect’ and this use is a particularly Scottish thing .

Rosa touched on her work with Rowena Griffiths, asking us to consider whether we “mind enough”; suggesting the need for us to explore what a “pedagogy of minding” looked like (here are the slides). The workshop was about sustainability, and the role of openness and open practices in supporting learning for sustainability. Most attendees were “at home” in this space and looking to learn from OEPS about openness. In the self-organised afternoon discussion groups three clusters emerged:

  • How to use openness in teacher education, how to make it meaningful and engaging in ways that align to their values;
  • How and/or will openness transform education, and if it does what will it look like;
  • How to open up content to use and reuse.

LfSS end of session whiteboard

Big questions, questions that often surface when considering open educational practices. However, the focus on sustainability and equity and social justice did draw out some different issues. In particular, there were questions around who is empowered by openness and ensuring that openness and putting stuff online is not used as an argument for withdrawing support for other activities.  For me this went back to what Rosa said about shared values, and minding.  She suggested there was a particular Scottish focus on sustainability as a question of equity and social justice. For LfSS minding is about learning to care about the world, to mind about inequalities.

Concern about the world, care for the environment, has moved from the margins to the mainstream, to a point where every pupil in Scotland is “entitled” to learn about sustainability. As a movement OER/OEP is a long way from this, more people are using open resources, but do more people care. Is it something to care about, what are the things we ought to care about, and what would a pedagogy of minding about openness look like? An approach to education that plays on the distinctive Scottish sense of minding, of saying “I mind”, a sense between remembering, caution and caring.

Honestly, I have no answers, but I think openness is at the heart of a pedagogy of minding, as both a something that goes in as a value, and is an outcome of caring. If I look at Joe Wilson’s blog post about the UNESCO European Regional Consultation on OER and even further back to the work done on the Open Scotland Declaration, I see the articulation of a particular Scottish approach to openness. As the OER/OEP community looks forward, perhaps it is useful to take a side glance at the work done on sustainability, as the focus on values, and minding, might suggest a way forward.

 

Ronald Macintyre

“The Gathering”

“Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos “, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina Image Source: Mariano, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argentina#/media/File:SantaCruz-CuevaManos-P2210651b.jpg, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos “, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina, Mariano, CC BY SA 3.0

OEPS will be attending the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) event “The Gathering” on the 22 and 23 of February 2017 with a stall (near the entrance) and a workshop on the 23 of February at 10 am. Why are we operating in this space, after all OEPS is an HE project isn’t it?  The short answer is many of OEPS key partnerships are with Third Sector organisations, and we have something to share about our experiences. Our starting point was research in widening participation which suggests the most effective way to draw someone distanced from learning into education is through partnerships with organisations they trust – see a recent OEPS post about Barriers to participation in online learning. So, we also have plenty to learn from attending.

Rather than reflect on OEPS interest, perhaps a more interesting thing to consider is why the Third Sector is operating in this space. When we consider the role of the Third Sector, we typically think about their role in filling gaps, the spaces left by the public and private sectors, structural holes often experienced most acutely by the most vulnerable in our society. Exclusion is experienced across a range of axes, and these can layer over and accentuate each other.  Our partners tell us education is one of these, and access to good quality free and open as a resource for educators and learners is vital.

We will share our experience of partnership working and using approaches informed by participatory design to develop approaches to engaging people in the design, production and use of OER. Partners from Parkinson’s UK and Scottish Union Learn will be on hand to share experiences. However, we are also aware our experiences are partial, a snapshot.  The workshop is an opportunity for us to share the issues but also to share the questions and learn together. In particular looking at what a future which assumes education and information is free and open look like for Third Sector organisation and for learners/clients they support.

We still have a few spaces left. You will need to register for “The Gathering”  (which is free) before being able to book the workshop.

We look forward to seeing you at the event.

Ronald Macintyre