Arriving at purposeful action: changing attitudes to course blogging as a pedagogic tool

I have been engaged on a fairly long-term project inspired by the use of course blogs I have seen in other disciplines. It is ongoing and I can’t say I have solved all of the problems that we have encountered along the way. The recent shift to online course delivery as a consequence of a worldwide pandemic has started me thinking again about how to better embed the use of course blogs into a media practice course. The biggest challenge is of course buy-in, from staff and students, but alongside that are lots of issues to do with contact time, models of summative assessment, misconceptions about the nature of media practice and above all student’s resistance to reading and writing. What follows is a sort of summary of a paper that has already been published which was originally written as a proposal for a book chapter. I don’t like to waste good writing (well it may not be that good) so I have posted it here. I use the blog as a writing sketch book so you can think of this as a sketch for a paper that was at that point still being written.

The paper, now published can be found here if it is of interest:

Hanney, R. & Skirkeviciutey, G. (2019), ‘Reflection, identity, community: Affordances of blogging for social interaction and reflective dialogue’, Education and Information Technologies, 1-17.

Introduction

The adoption of blogging as a pedagogic tool in Higher Education is widely explored in the learning and teaching literature (cf. Sim and Hew 2010) and is commonly thought to provide a range of benefits such as promoting the attainment of skills in researching, academic writing, critical reflection and professional identity formation. Notwithstanding some of the difficulties faced by educators wishing to employ blogging in an educational context (cf. Robertson 2011). There is a clear sense of an opportunity for learners to engage with acts of personal and critical reflection, identity building and community membership through the use of Web 2.0 technologies such as course blogs. This blog post explores some of these ideas through research undertaken into the implementation of course blogging on an undergraduate media production programme at an English university.

Rationale

The use of course blogs is valued as an example of ‘purposeful action’ (cf. Arendt 1998) that offers the potential for a transformative pedagogy. One that manifests as the students’ performance of a professional self in a public sphere. The research evaluates the effectiveness of the implementation through the framework of educational affordances (cf. Gaver 1991, Gibson 1979) in order to identify the social dimensions of the pedagogic environment and consider how action within this milieu might foster or inhibit engagement with course blogging. The research employs a qualitative approach drawing on the concept of ‘dwelling’ as a focus group methodology. The resulting data includes post-it notes, posters, ethnographic notes and transcriptions of recordings. Including data from students as well as a group of tutors tasked with implementing the use of course blogs. The production of two data sets, one from staff and one from the students allows for a comparison that aims to identify disconnectedness between the staff conception of blogging and that of the students. Thereby offering the possibility for determining the particular set of educational affordances required to achieve the aims of the project. Interim findings suggest that in the early stages of the implementation one of the biggest challenges to the use of course blogs are one of change management in relation to leadership of academic teams. While among students the core theme is around ownership and motivation.

Discussion

The research evidenced a disjunction between the aims of the implementation and its effectiveness. In particular it illustrated the need for a much clearer change management approach to support the implementation of any pedagogic innovation. The central issue of concern was not one of technological or functional affordances of blogging technologies. Although in one or two instances digital literacy of staff was identified as an obstacle to the implementation. Instead the discussion centred around a need for the development of a community of practice that included staff and students. With the aim of making apparent the social affordances that would enable a wholehearted engagement with the practice of blogging as a dialogic activity, undertaken by a community of practioners. An important factor in any socialisation process is the need for modelling of practice and the research identified that this was one of the key barriers to the implementation of course blogging. Lacking a process of socialisation, the aim of encouraging students to take ‘purposeful action’ (cf. Arendt 1998) flounders at the first hurdle. Taking on board this finding the course team initiated a number of changes to the ongoing course blog implementation. Changes that are designed to enhance and develop a community of practice approach.

Impact

Through the dissemination of the experience of researching and evaluating the implementation of a pedagogic innovation. It is hoped to share not only the vision for the use of blogging as an educational tool. But also, to communicate a reflection on change management and educational leadership at a course team level. The discussion evidences a need for a consideration of the social above and beyond that of the techno-functionality of educational technology. It also lays the groundwork for an exploration of a communities of practice model for change management. One that places collaborative approaches to teacher-student engagement at its heart.

References

Arendt, H. (1998). The human condition (2nd ed.). Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

Gaver, W. W. (1991). Technology affordances. CHI ’91: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 79-84.

Gaver, W. W. (1996). The social is material for design. Ecological Psychology, 8(2), 111–129.

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston; London: Houghton Mifflin.

Robertson, J. (2011). The educational affordances of blogs for self-directed learning. Computers and Education.

Sim, J. W. S., & Hew, K. F. (2010). The use of weblogs in higher education settings: A review of empirical research.

The Writers Toolbox & Free Writing II

Another short writing exercise at this week’s writing group drawn from the Writers Tool Box provided here by way of example and because I don’t often get to do creative writing, and when I do I feel like preserving it. Not sure if that is just ego or good/bad writing practice. This blog though, is a place to capture ideas, it’s a sketch book of sorts. So, I have parked the writing here for now.

Rules: take three cards, turn the first over and free write for 3 minutes in response to the cues on the card, be specific in description of objects, things and places. After three minutes turn over the next card and continue the story responding to the cue on the card. Repeat for the third card.

My cards were: Jenny Craig Centre, November in Cincinnati, sound of Henry crying.

THE STORY

The Jenny Craig Centre sat atop a tall jutting rock that peered out into the ocean mist, the bough of a mysterious cutter breaking through the still morning waters. Sunlight edged over the nearby hills, verdant and strewn with woolly mittens, frosty, glistening in the golden rays, chilled under the blue sky, a spring morning singing lark like as it bursts forth blindingly, burning off the sea haze and leaving a salty waft in the air.

It was nothing like November in Cincinnati. Nothing at all, though, it is worth noting that my memory of that time is a hazy as the mist now departing the still seas around the Jenny Craig Centre. The black Mercedes taxi wound its way up the raggedy hedged country lane, bouncing over the potholes, listing around the sharp corners, pausing half in ditches to let others pass downhill towards the chocolate box village that nestled around a smattering of fishing boats, nets hanging from their beams.

In the back of the taxi I could hear the sound of Henry quietly crying. There is not much to say about that. She could see her future ahead clearer than I could see my past. Perhaps her crystal vision would shock me from my slumbers, but I doubted it. The cool sun now risen blessing the green and pleasant land as we rolled into the long driveway, under the gated arch of the Jenney Craig Centre. If anything, Cincinati seemed like a dream, slipping away just as the foggy delirium of sleep creeps away like a ghost at a séance.

Comments from the group: we wonder what the Jenny Craig Centre is.

The Writers Toolbox & Free Writing I

I am part of a writers group, an academic one but we still like to think of ourselves as creatives. We meet irregularly but often and I personally find it a highly productive experience. We usually kick off the writing sessions with a creative exercise followed by a little goal setting and brief discussion with partners. This aims to loosen up our creative ideas and to help us focus on what we are trying to do. then the rest of the day we just write. It is a joy let me tell you.

Anyway, this last writers group we were introduced to the Writers Toolbox, a really useful tool for sparking ideas and for structuring a free writing exercise. I had seen these tool boxes around and often wondered about trying them out in the classroom. Now I have had a goo I will certainly use it. In fact I have just ordered one and will try t out in a week or so when I get a chance.

We used the writers prompts and followed a three stage exercise: the first two sentences had to begin a paragraph and the final one had to end a paragraph (though I go this confused so ended up using it at the start and at the finish. I love free writing, it is amazing what you are capable of when you turn off the filters. This is a conversation I have with students all the time during ideation sessions. Turn off the filters, give yourself permission to be creative and make some time for free writing.

Anyway this is what I came up with and the lines I was given are in blue:

Dad gave me a wink, like we were pals or something while the nurse tucked in the corder of the bed sheets. A bright morning sun streamed into the room, illuminating the pale walls and blinding us, forcing every bit of life out of the shadows. I hovered over the solitary chair, wondering if I should sit or stand. Distracted by the wink as the last breath eased out of my fathers chest.

Margaret had a habit of spitting, it began to get on my nerves. It shouldn’t have worried me after so long, but it did and every time I heard her hawk it raised my hackles a trifle more.I should have been able to look beyond it. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. I still loved her though, we were inseparable, despite the spitting and hawking, despite the endless trail of phlegm that traced our every pathway through our life together.

The way Herb defrosted the refrigerator always left me wondering if the man had been born with an ounce of common sense. It always ended the same way, with a mop and a pail with a pile of defrosted food ready for the bin. Why he couldn’t leave it alone I could never understand. But that was him all over. He was a breath of fresh air, the sun in my life, but please, leave the defrosting to me. The way Herb defrosted the refrigerator, it always made me as mad as hell.

This was written in around 20 minutes, after we read the stories out aloud though I declined as it felt too personal, too emotional. I still feel like that and I doubt if I would have been ale to access that depth of feeling with out the free writing. As I say, you need to turn the filters off and let your deeper mind do the work it wants to do while the chattering of the monkey mind is quite.

Dwelling Story Development Workshop: rapid story development for student-led creative practice

This last week I was given the opportunity to lead a workshop at the Active Learning Network Conference at University of Sussex. The entire day was a great experience and I got meet a lot of new people and to explore lots of really interesting ideas about Active Learning. The workshop was great fun even though I managed to set up in the wrong room and had to prepare everything really quickly. Luckily the participants were really helpful and together we got everything ready in just a few minutes.

The workshop set out to model a silent collaborative activity that has an aim of placing inclusivity and quite reflection at the heart of a story development through Dwelling. The idea is that participants respond silently to a visual trigger and inscribe their contribution to the story idea via posters which are continually added to in an iterative process of questioning and response. The final posters are then taken away, either individually or in groups and used as the basis for further fiction/factual, script/story development. The approach can be as a rapid development activity that is of benefit where time for ideas development is restricted. It can also be adapted easily to other settings, contexts and subject disciplines. The workshop simulated the use of this technique on a media practice fiction production course where there is a need for rapid development of an outline story idea that can go into preproduction.

The idea for the workshop came about through a number of different influences. The first was the discovery of an alternative to brainstorming called brain writing. This technique has been around for a while and there are lots of different versions of it. However, the form I came across in an article online was a little different from the way it is usually done and also, I adapted it a little to fit the story development process. The basic premise is that the ideation part of the process is to be undertaken in silence and involves participants writing ideas on post-it notes. The aim is for everyone involved to come up with as many ideas as possible in a restricted time. One of the benefits of this approach is that there is no judging of ideas, there is no nervousness, there is no dominating and people are free to just have ideas.

A second influence was an experience I had at the Rethinking Research Conference at Coventry University earlier in the year. By the way, the conference keynote was delivered as a cabaret which was truly inspiring and made me want to learn to sing. Anyway, one of the workshops I attended was run by three Practitioner-Researchers from The University of Central Lancashire’s, Dance Performance and Teaching team: Sara Giddens, Ruth Margaret Spencer and Justyna Katarzyna Urbanczyk The session was entitled quite simply ‘Dwelling‘. During the workshop large, blank sheets of paper covered each of the tables around which we were sat. At the centre of each table was a one word theme and participants were asked to respond in writing to the theme in a state of silence. It was an interesting experience and not only did we inscribe our thoughts but we added to other people’s comments in this way developing a conversation with others in the room, though we might not know who they were.

Though the emphasis of the workshop was on how slowing-down and finding-still-ness might inform alternative approaches to research. The experience seemed to be just as applicable to the classroom setting. The aim of bringing mindfulness to the classroom seemed to be more than appropriate and certainly resonated with the experience of using brain writing in ideation sessions with students. Mindfulness offers an opportunity to regulate attention by focusing on the present moment and this is something I felt very strongly during the workshop, that engagement and focus without interruption. There is also a sense of openness about the process of focusing on the moment which seems to instil a sense of curiosity. There is even research that suggests mindfulness can lead to changes in the way students apprehend information, process it and even how they manage learning (Lynch 2013).

The workshop leaders informed us that they in turn were inspired by Heidegger’s idea of “attentive dwelling” (1978:150). In fact, Heidegger has spoken on Dwelling a number of times and he seems to suggest that building (or perhaps we can change this to creating) and dwelling a synonymous (Heidegger & Hofstadter 1971, 10). My reading of his ideas (a novice reading at best I acknowledge), to me posits the notion that dwelling clears a space for building (creating), one that opens up for the potentiality of ideas to reveal themselves. A space in which an idea is able to gather to itself, in its own way, those things around it. Heidegger uses a metaphor of a bridge to explain how this process occurs pointing out that the bridge gathers two sides together and locates itself as a site for the confluence, of what might be thought of as the unconscious spirit of ideas that lies below the surface of realisation. There is then, a sense that for Heidegger dwelling is about return to a sense of peace in which the true nature of things is known (Heidegger & Hofstadter 1971, 3). That Dwelling as a form of thinking that returns us to where we always have been, without the noise, without the distraction, to recognise we are already there through careful attention to the moment.

I and my colleagues (I attended the conference with two research assistants) were very taken by this approach and we adapted it to a focus group methodology for a project we were at the time, just about to initiate. With the intention of evaluating the introduction of course blogs at our institution, the focus group session started with participants (in this case students) writing ideas down on post-it notes in response to a prompt. These were then placed on large sheets of paper on which each key theme had been inscribed at the centre. They were then encouraged to add other comments to the posters in an iterative, but silent process. This worked very well and after each Dwelling session we were able to facilitate a lively and productive discussion around the poster comments.

Alongside the development of the focus group methjod, I also adapted the approach to tackle a problem with a drama production module I was about to run for a group of second year production students. The issue here is that without teaching screenwriting (which would take a good 6 to 8 weeks) I needed the students to generate a story idea within the first three weeks of the semester so that we could get the pre-production planning started as early as possible. I also hopped to tackle another associated issue I which is that left to their own devices students, as novice screenwriters will tend to default to the lowest common denominator and you get stories that are immature, predicable, reflect a narrow world view and mostly involve a gun. A final problem I wished to tackle revolved around the attachment students have to their first idea. They seem to think that their first idea is the only idea and own it with such deep emotional attachment that it is difficult to shift them from it.

So, the aim of the story workshop would hopefully fast track the development of an idea, root that idea in a real-world experience and divest students of their attachment to their own first idea.

It seemed to work, the students were extremely engaged, and really excited about the posters (they were virtually ripped off the wall by their respective owners). Plus, the trick I played on them (see below for more on this) seemed to work in that their ideas changed and they continued to change as they received further feedback during the later stages of the story development process. Perhaps the real evidence of the approaches success though, concerns a group of students who arrived back from the winter break some three or four weeks into the semester. Having missed the workshop, they were offered the opportunity to develop a script on any topic they chose (this was the control group that added an empirical dimension to the research). Needless to say, while all the other scripts were dramas with a real depth to them, this one group made a somewhat cliched film about gangsters that featured a gun.

For anyone who wishes to adopt the methodology for this approach to story development I will close with a short recipe for its use. Feel free to adapt it any way you chose and I look forward to hearing of other people’s experience of using dwelling in other ways.

Workshop Methodology

Context: the need for rapid story development for drama production, to address the difficulty for novice screenwriters to write anything complex and mature i.e. without a, to break them of their addiction to their first idea.

Preamble: in advance invite participants to bring with them to the workshop an image or artefact from their past which for them evokes a story that they can tell. It is of value if they believe that they will be expected to tell this story in class and if possible it should be written down in advance (one page – title, logline, synopsis) and handed in to the workshop facilitator. Even though the participants won’t get to tell the story they have prepared it is important they have one in mind so that at the end of the workshop they can compare their first idea with their new ideas.

Instructions: place large A0 sheets of paper around the room with at least one per workshop participant. Invite the participants to stick their photo or artefact to the centre of a poster. Explain that in silence (you may need to police this) everyone will now go around the room and look at each poster in turn. Explain that they should write whatever comes to mind (what does the image or artefact make them think of). Let them know that as the workshop evolves you will be giving verbal prompts to add other comments to the posters. They should understand that they can write anything, they can add to other comments, change them, engage in dialogue with others through their comments. However, they are not allowed to write on their own poster.

Process: as the workshop evolves give prompts to initiate further writing (I use prompts designed to develop a three-act structure i.e. people, place, time; inciting incident; problem encounters; resolution or ending). You should probably allow anything between 45 minutes to an hour but be sure to give time for each participant to write something on each poster after your prompts. At the conclusion of the workshop invite the participants to take sometime to view their own posters. Ask them “has your idea changed”?

References

Giddens, S., Spencer, R.M., Urbanczyk, J.K., (2018). ‘Dwelling’, paper presented to Rethinking Research: Disrupting Challenges Research Practices, Coventry University, January 19th 2018. Available at: https://goo.gl/twYVCg [Accessed 9 June 2018].

Heidegger, M., 1978 (first published in 1956). The Origin of the Work of Art. In: D. Farrell Krell, ed. Basic Writings. London: Routledge.

Heidegger, M., & Hofstadter, A. (1971). Building Dwelling Thinking. Poetry, Language, Thought, (1), 42.

Lynch, S, 2013. Mindfulness in Higher Education: It’s a Win-Win Situation. Enhancement Themes, [Online]. Available at: https://goo.gl/4EyxtV [Accessed 9 June 2018].

Tucker, C., (2017). Borrowing a Powerful Brainstorm Protocol from IDEO. In: Catlin Tucker, 1st September 2017. Available at: https://goo.gl/R47B3p [Accessed 9 June 2018].