Digital Ruins and Ghost Towns

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.


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.


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.



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.


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

Action Research and Learning Design

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


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

“The Gathering”

“Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos “, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina Image Source: Mariano,, (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

The Porous University

“The Porous University – A critical exploration of openness, space and place in Higher Education

Time and venue: Two day symposium in late April/early May 2017 (dates tbc), Inverness Campus, University of the Highlands and Islands

Contacts: Ronald Macintyre (Open Educational Practices Scotland, Open University) and Keith Smyth (UHI)

The idea for this symposium arose out of a series of conversations and reflections on the nature of openness within Higher Education. It started with the observation that openness is increasingly seen as a technical question, whose solution lies in employing the low transaction costs associated with digital technologies with open licences to open up academic content to new groups of learners. Where critical voices have engaged this partial reading they have often rightly critiqued the degree to which this is truly open, for example, drawing on older traditions of open to question the freedoms free content allows for those already distanced from education. However, other questions also arise, what does it mean beyond releasing content? What is the role of open academics in dealing with problems “in the world”, how should staff and students become learners within community contexts, developing and negotiating curriculum based on those contexts? What would it mean for openness as a way to allow new voices into the academy, to acknowledge knowing and ways of knowing outside the academy, and where can and should our open spaces – both digital and physical – intersect?  If we are to advocate allowing learners experience and organisations to inform the academy how open should academics be to the influence of private capital? These are the kinds of questions we want to explore in this symposium.

Further details and a call for contributions and participation is forthcoming in December 2016. Attendance at this event is free.

For further information or to express an interest in becoming involved please contact Ronald Macintyre ( or Keith Smyth (”


Students as Co-Producers …?

The problem with students as co-producers is that they already are creators of value, we just need to recognise it

At the OEPS forum in Glasgow in late 2015 the final plenary was about what the OEPS project does.  On one level the agreement with the Scottish Funding Council details exactly this. Kerr Gardiner, from the OEPS steering group (you can read an interview with him on the OEPS hub) argued that OEPS would have only met the letter of the KPI’s if it only “made stuff”. I agree, educational practices are about doing things, and doing things to find out how to do things, to find answers, and to find out what the right questions are in the first place. One of the questions Kerr asked on that day was, why open educational practices are not leading to a world where students are recognised and valued as creators/producers of knowledge.

I said to Kerr at the end of the day that I had also wondered about this question and I would think about it further. The Thought piece: students Participation, Openness and the Curriculum is the result. In it I make some quite provocative claims. I suggest one of the problems is quality assurance, where student participation is part of a series of competition mimicking metrics and part of the application of private sector models to public goods. Academics are rightly suspicious of “tick box” approaches to measuring the value of education, as are many learners, and student co-production has become tarnished by association.  This links to treating learners as customers and approaches to student co-production drawn from contemporary narratives on “Service Design”, designing for and from end users, or “Design Thinking”, start with the assumption of learner as consumer. This approach fatally undermines participation, as even though learners sometimes behave as service users, learning is about more than this. Learners know this, as do educators.

Atención al cliente: Customer Service, Rahul Rodriguez, (CC BY-SA-2.0)

I mention design, in part because I used to feel “Design Thinking” was part of the solution, I now see the assumptions about customers and how value is created do not map well onto education. However, what does apply is the sense of who is the expert, designers think of themselves as the experts in process and, even when listening to “customer”, the product. Likewise, educators have their own values. I noted above that this makes them suspicious of approaches to education that treat learners as customers and measuring the value of education through crude metrics. However, being the arbiter of quality and value in learning also makes it difficult for educators to “let go”. So while it is tempting to blame issues around student participation on the marketisation and metricisation of value in HE perhaps educator ego also makes a contribution.

“Letting go” is not easy.  For example, in community development, where educators have done so, they report feeling uneasy about their role and function. There are pressures from learners to be the expert, not to mention organisational resistance to change and the effect on career prospects. Learners are also at risk, opening up the curriculum means building learner capacity, it has resource implications and needs to be supported, and it has long-term risks around raised expectations, which go unfulfilled.

The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future, quote from Antione de Saint-Just, from Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden “Little Sparta”, Little Sparta, (CC BY-SA-2.0)

These are fraught questions, clearly the technical affordances of digitisation and open licences offer the promise of opening up curriculum. However, as I argue above, and in more detail in the paper, political, organisational and cultural issues, assumptions and attitudes embedded within the stories education organisations tell about themselves represent a significant hurdle to opening up curriculum to learners. As I indicated at the start, the issue with students as co-creators of value in education is that they already are; it is just we have trouble seeing it.

Thought Piece: Students Participation Openness and the Curriculum

Ronald Macintyre

Social Learn

Just back from a Web2.0 event in rural Buckinghamshire. Flat farmland and red brick. No opportunities for exploring the areas natural heritage. Plenty other things to think about.

The idea that learning is a social activity and that feeling part of a learning community is key to engaging and retaining learners is quite well worn. It is something that a distance learning deliverer like the Open University takes very seriously. Social Learn is an OU project that is exploring the form and function of social networking and Web2.0 tools to develop learning communities. It draws on the open learn programme (free but not accredited learning resources) and it exploring some fairly interesting ideas. Especially regarding giving content away and selling services – like student support and accreditation.

It was an intense few days. The workshops had presentations running while like top stuck fingers twittered or blogged or added to discussion threads on the ning network. I feel the most exciting element was the idea that free and intuitive technologies could be pulled together to create your own personal space. A facebook/igooogle/blog/wiki/forum/all sorts of different things for the learner. Beta will be out in July, so we will see what it feels like.