Present at a distance and distant when present…

The past two and a half years have been punctuated with moments in which I have become acutely aware of being both the object of my research – the learner; and the subject of the enterprise of – learning. So it comes as no surprise that the 2014 Networked Learning Conference provided me with pause for thought. In this post I will reflect on the experience of learning with and from the same people: at a distance and in person.

Before the conference began the organisers hosted a number of online ‘Hot Seats’. More often than not I was an active but silent participant. I did engage and if learning is measured by change in the learner – I did learn. This learning was unseen, happening at a distance in silent asynchronous dialogue with people unknown. And it was not until I was invited to contribute something of myself, in the form of a sketch detailing my learning practice that I was visibly drawn into the online dialogue. I am interested in the places of learning and how they shape the activity of learning and this was an invitation to turn the mirror on myself. It was also something I could talk ‘knowledgably’ about in a legitimate academic space in a way that, somewhat inadvertently, made me knowable.

I followed the contributions of others to this thread with interest and – in an odd sort of way I came to know those with whom I ‘chatted’. Many of the themes of our asynchronous dialogue remain delightfully unresolved in my mind and I continue to mull over them at odd intervals.

Today, however, I’d like to reflect on the experience of being physically co-present and yet mentally distant. This is in no way intended as a criticism – it is merely an observation. For dialogues are two sided and I was at liberty to initiate conversation – and yet I didn’t?

It was not until the conclusion of the conference that I returned to the thread and rereading it I noticed the quality of the exchange. I think we often equate physical proximity with higher degrees of engagement. Consciously or unconsciously we track eye contact, gestures and posture looking for clues about when to speak, how to speak and how are we are being received. All of these traces are apparently absent in asynchronous dialogue and yet I had had the opportunity to speak in person with these very same people. The ones with whom I had shared a lively, engaging and often personal dialogue – and, in the most part, I didn’t?

I think this is interesting on at least two levels. First, there was something about the nature of that task that is worth exploring; and second, our characterisation of dialogue at a distance, as being distant – some how impoverished – needs revision.

I’ve hinted at why I was initially drawn in. It was something that interested me and I felt I could speak with both authenticity and personal authority. It invited personal reflection on changes in practice in a world in flux. It gave me an opportunity to be known at a distance. Philippa Sheail, spoke about a project in which a Google map was used to encourage geographically distant participants in an online course to introduce themselves. They were not asked to place a marker that pined them, immutable and immobile, to their official places of residence. Rather, they were invited to populate the map with short, multi sensorial traces of their lived experiences of the places that were important to them. Examples included a note marking a favorite run, complete with the ability to visually travel this path at a distance, using ‘street view’. A second contained two images and an audio file: the first a desk complete with books, papers and a black cat, the second a view from the window alongside the desk and the audio file carried with it the sounds of the black cat purring.

So I have something to say about why I think these types of task are valuable in bridging distance. As to our notions about presence at a distance, and distance when present – well, I will have to think about that a bit more. Suffice to say – they are not as fixed as we may have once thought?

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Lense two: Observing the latent power of place

The large welcoming entry acted to draw the students in. Situated at the top of a rise, adjacent to two outdoor seating areas, there is generous space on both sides of the doors and the transition from one area to the next is gradual. Once inside, Marcus had sight of five different zones: to his left a gallery displaying student work; alongside that, an audio visual immersion zone, and directly ahead a double volume teaching space. Beyond this was the outdoor garden room and to his right, past the stairs, he could see his teacher within the curve of a seating arrangement.

Marcus made his way towards him, greeted him, and sat within the crescent alongside his classmates. Gathering, they discussed what had been done and the details of the task for the day.  After which the students were free to work within agreed upon boundaries defined by both physical elements – in the form of walls, a stair case, and furniture – and by the requirement that they were to remain within line-of-sight of their teacher.

In the angle where the stairs rise is a nook which houses a few small tables. Marcus and his partner made their way towards the tables, but didn’t stop. They continued on to the point where the underside of the stairs meets the floor. There, they made themselves comfortable on the carpet.

Busying themselves with their work they moved from the physical, to the virtual and back again. The ability to do this was taken as given by both the students and the teacher. Movement in the service of learning wasn’t confined to traversing between the physical and the virtual but was also apparent in how students and staff configured and reconfigured formations of furniture to create different places in which to work. A second, less visible layer of controls ensured a temperate climate and task-appropriate lighting, audio zoning and video projection.

In this description it is the spatial formations of gathering, dispersal and regathering that fascinate me. How the simple act of creating a semi-circle and standing within it cued the introductory discussion, whilst standing behind it initiated the joint viewing of the students’ work. During the phase of dispersal the teacher did not remain anchored to any one point but walked through the space. Is this common-sense, just good practice – or does it warrant further investigation?

Part of the process of describing how materials participate in practice is accounting for their forms of presence – it is in turning to these forms of presence that we begin to see the latent power of place.

Watching it all in motion it is hard to point to the combination of things which ‘held’ that group, engaged in that place, on that particular day. However, one can’t help but notice how the provision of these elements enabled a different style of interaction and how those interactions facilitated engagement that appeared to be an ongoing dialogue calling forth a place, in which doing became thinking.

Please note that this series of one, plus three first appeared in the  extended research proposal of my PhD  (2012). I am sharing it because it is a central part of the evolution of this project. Where posts include in text citations I will add the full citations to a post I shall call – Bibliography! As with all my writing please note that pseudonyms are used for people. However, the school in which I conducted my observations is very real – and I have their permission to refer to them by name.  

Lense one: Observing the materiality of things

The doors through which Marcus entered the learning environment were generous, allowing him to pause as he entered. He moved through the entrance, visually scanning the space. He located his teacher within a semi-circular seating arrangement, made his way towards him, and took a seat. Was any of that material? Did the presence of large doors, leading Marcus to a central point from where he could quickly scan the environment, contribute to an experience of materiality?  How did the seating configuration act to cue the students about what was to come? What was it that kept the laptop, pencil case, and books inert, resting on his knees as he waited?

How did knowing that the verbal instructions were mirrored in the online class environment change his experience of sitting, watching and listening to his teacher?

Did having the freedom to choose where to sit and work change his engagement with the lesson? Was it the choice in and of itself – the tailoring of the environment to suite his preferences – or was it something else?

Without further instruction Marcus and his partner settled themselves, opened their laptops and began working. They referred to their individual physical work journals, and one laptop was used to access online learning resources, whilst the other was used as a recording device. A school-wide Wi-Fi network facilitated this and Marcus and his partner navigated without hesitation between the physical and virtual environments.

With paper and pencil firm in their grasp, their fingers skipping across the keyboard, they initiated, paused and re-recorded their work. The meter of their voices calmed as they practiced, and they changed their physical orientation on the floor countless times. On receiving a reminder about time constraints they emailed their audio file, the only trace of their work, and returned to the red amphitheater. This time the focal point was not their teacher, who stood behind the semi-circular seating arrangement, but the whiteboard, on which their work appeared. Today’s work, in the form of an audio track, provided the sound track to a previously compiled visual montage.

If materiality is, as Sorensen (2007) describes, the ability of an object to relate to other objects through a particular arrangement of socio-technical elements, how then do we begin to make sense of this arrangement. How do we leverage the available tools and plan learning encounters that apprehend the affordances of materiality?

Please note that this series of one, plus three first appeared in the  extended research proposal of my PhD  (2012). I am sharing it because it is a central part of the evolution of this project. Where posts include in text citations I will add the full citations to a post I shall call – Bibliography! As with all my writing please note that pseudonyms are used for people. However, the school in which I conducted my observations is very real – and I have their permission to refer to them by name.  

Shapes in the landscape

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I do wish this picture captured the movement in and out and around this installation. ‘In person’, these figures were not at all scary and it was the smallest observers who most often joined in the business of this circle. Facing the centre and copying the half-sitting, half-standing stance of the group assembled, they talked across the interior to others, both known and unknown; pausing at regular intervals to look up at the faces of the figures they had chosen to come alongside. Others, taking it to be a readymade audience, danced into the middle, looped back out and through the silent assembly, and others – who like me –  watched on in wonder at this primitive urge so unselfconsciously evoked by the formation of a circle.

Whether it was this experience or the fact that we, as sociable creatures understand the language of shapes, stance and a shared focus of attention – I can’t help but see circles wherever I go. I have watched on in fascination at their formation, wondered at what held them together, and guessed at what precipitated their dissolution. In cataloguing my photographs I find that I have developed a taxonomy of circles. For although each has a resonance of its own there do seem to be some central organising principles. Some are more formal than others, some form around a shared activity and others around a desire for shared presence, some rely on the scaffolding of furniture or the instructions of a teacher; and then there are those that form a little too tightly, or where participants sit back-towards-the-centre which serves to subvert ‘the rules of the circle’, thereby limiting its potential for inclusion.

How then should we think about the natural emergence of shapes in learning environments? Do all environments lend themselves equally well to the natural formation of shapes? And how should we harness their affordances and read their contours in the service of learning?

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Inspiration from the in-between; on the ownership of space

In much the same way that architects and planners have begun to value in-between spaces as opportunities to insert private, reflective eddies into physical spaces. The creators of applications for mobile technologies have begun to actively exploit the ways in which ambient technologies function to interpenetrate time, space and practice.

The in-between spaces of the built environment tend to be private enclaves carved out of the public arena. They are most often found in once disused and often ‘un-loved’ corners of the public domain, and more often than not they punctuate the pathways between important public venues. As such they function as opportunistic stopping points between centres of organised, collective activity.

Arguably it is the advent of mobile computing that has raised their profile, for in the presence of ambient technology these way stations become an office, a study, a consulting room, a design studio and much more. The paradox is – that in creating these eddies, we return to the once privileged spaces and find them wanting. Maybe it is time to rethink our relationship with the formally defined work-space. To move from a model in which territorial ownership regardless of need, gives way to a model which offers inhabitants the freedom to select according to activity-based needs?