Saturday, 7 November 2009

Learning outcomes v0.1

This is my first stab at imagining some new course learning outcomes. They are currently very similar to the source outcomes I have stolen from the QAA Art & Design subject benchmark statement document that I mentioned in my last post. I hope to simplify them in due course so that they are a bit more student friendly. I also hope to incorporate the views of the course team and students in the development of them, probably by getting everyone to read these blog posts and comment. I've split them into 4 broad categories, Risk, Production, Reflection and Theory, but this is up for debate along with everything else.

BA(Hons) Graphic Arts & Design
Course learning outcomes, Version 0.1

On completion of the course, you will be able to present a body of work which demonstrates your ability to:


employ both convergent and divergent thinking in the processes of observation, investigation, speculative enquiry, visualisation and making

select, test and make appropriate use of materials, processes and environments


generate ideas, concepts, proposals, solutions or arguments

develop ideas through to outcomes

work independently and/or collaboratively in response to set briefs and/or as self-initiated activity


identify personal strengths and needs, and reflect on personal development.

formulate reasoned responses to the critical judgements of others


source and research relevant material, assimilating and articulating relevant findings

locate your practice within the wider social, cultural, professional and ethical contexts both within and beyond the field of graphic arts and design.

analyse information and experiences, formulate independent judgements, and articulate reasoned arguments through reflection, review and evaluation

Friday, 6 November 2009

Your course is about to expire. Please take action now.

Why have I not blogged recently?

I've been busy busy with the reality of teaching and learning in the 21st century; managing the move into our fantastic new art school building, Broadcasting Place, and dealing with the day-to-day hubbub on a massive undergraduate course. I've had things to say about learning and technology, but I've been too busy doing the business to find the time to write about it all.

Also, I don't write things in this blog for you to read, I write mainly to try and pin the things down that I'm intrigued by, but not totally sure about. Today I opened up a massive can of worms when I decided to start planning for the imminent periodic review of the BA(Hons) Graphic Arts & Design course that I'm currently in charge of at Leeds Met.

If you're not familiar with periodic review, it's basically the process by which a course renews its licence. It happens at least once every five years, and as well as giving the institution the chance to do a proper check on the health of the course, it also opens up the possibility to make major changes. It's a chance to refresh and update everything for the better. I've been a bit-part player in previous reviews, but with the departure of nearly all of my senior colleagues in the School, the task seems to have landed on my lap. That's not a bad thing. I like a challenge.

And a challenge it is. A quick peep at the relevant documentation reveals a mountain of paperwork that will need to be produced for the review, and it's not easy stuff. However, as a trained designer, I have a methodology to tackle this mammoth task.

The first stage is to define the brief, which I have made a start on today. These are the things that Leeds Met says I will need to produce:

• Briefing Statement
• Critical Appraisal
• Course Document
• Programme Specification
• Mapping of Subject benchmark statements
• Module Specifications
• Admissions profile
• Staff CVs
• Statement of Resources

Having half-guessed my way through most of these things, I got stuck on the Mapping of Subject benchmark statements. I had a rough idea of what the benchmarks were from the last review, but sensed that this might be the really important bit. Ultimately, the benchmarks define what degree level means in relation to art & design subjects, so it effectively forms the root of the brief. I quickly found the QAA benchmark statement for Art & Design and, surprisingly, found myself enthralled by what I read. This document was obviously written by people that understand the essence of art and design education, and beautifully articulate all of the things that us purists hold dear. For example:

2.2 Learning in art and design develops:
• the capacity to be creative
• an aesthetic sensibility
• intellectual enquiry
• skills in team working
• an appreciation of diversity
• the ability to conduct research in a variety of modes
• the quality of reflecting on one's own learning and development
• the capacity to work independently, determining one's own future learning needs.

And things like this:
"divergent forms of thinking, which involve generating alternatives, and in which the notion of being 'correct' gives way to broader issues of value, are characteristic of the creative process."

Brilliant. The QAA put 'correct' in quotes. Who are we to doubt the QAA in their questioning of the dogma of the measurable.

This is my favourite: 'Students [in art & design] will have the ability to anticipate and accommodate change, and work within contexts of ambiguity, uncertainty and unfamiliarity.' Call me a saddo, but the celebration of ambiguity and uncertainty in the educational process by the ultimate official authority on the subject in the UK fills me with joy. It also gives me a big, big stick with which to beat off institutional doubters when the reviewers try to pick the thing to pieces.

I've just made a start on adapting some of the learning outcomes from this benchmark statement to use in our new course document, but I'm finding it hard to change it to the point where it's not so obviously stolen from QAA. Much more work will be needed over the next few months, but it feels good to get started. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Post-technical drawing

I thought I better do a quick post, seeing as I handed out my blog URL at the EduBloggers F-ALT bash last night, and there is a slim chance that I have new eyeballs to annoy.

Anyhow, back to the old postdigital thing again. I've had a couple of quick chats with Dave-o-White about the slight unease that we both share about the term 'post-digital'. I can't quite put my finger on it (possibly because the concept isn't yet anywhere near fully formed), but postdigital just seems a bit of a distraction, especially when you start discussing it with people for the first time, as Dave and Rich Hall did the other night at an F-ALT debate.

During Dave's excellent presentation at ALT-C this morning about the much more tangible 'Visitors and Residents' concept, he inadvertently tried to explain postdigital by saying "actually, it's more post-technical". This instantly stuck me as a more useful term, as it removes some of the perceived anti-digital vibes. It also draws attention to one of the clearer points in the debate: the desire to focus not on the technical aspect, but on the human aspects. We can reject the technical fetishisation of both the digital and the analogue using the term post-technical, and we use the term to remind us that it is the human triumphs, albeit enabled by technology, that should be promoted.

What do I mean? I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps an example might be useful to tease this out a bit.

'The Manual' that we devised and used in the Open Habitat Second Life pilots is an example of a post-technical approach to learning. 'The Manual' does not attempt to teach any technical skills. Pursuing the tasks in it will inevitably lead to the acquisition of technical skill, but it is the broader and deeper learning that is emphasised, as we think it is more important.

Technical skills are not a bad thing. Technical skills are a very good thing. But over emphasising the technical, especially at the start of a project, sets the wrong tone for learning. By dwelling on the technical, we are saying to the students "You cannot learn the deep stuff, the fun stuff, the creative stuff, the uncertain but important stuff, until you have the technical skills!". Not only does this take all the fun out of learning (well, for me and most of my students anyway), its logic is fundamentally flawed. How much technical stuff is necessary before you can start? Do you need to know, and do you need to have been tested on every feature in Final Cut Pro before you can edit a film? When I used to do software instruction, I used to teach my students one technical skill in FCP - a cut edit - and then I asked them to edit a film for the next hour. And then I didn't do any more FCP classes. Seriously. 99.9 percent of edits in any film are cuts. What is important in editing is timing and sequencing and trial and error. Learning every feature in Final Cut Pro won't help you to become a good editor. As an educator, I shouldn't be promoting the illusion that a comprehensive technical knowledge of software alone will enable them to succeed at HE level. Technical skills are important, but they can be gained as and when needed, at a pace appropriate to the individual learner.

I don't instruct my students in the sharpening of pencils, and I don't prevent them from drawing until they have passed a pencil proficiency test. I ask them to bring me their drawing so that we can talk about their ideas.

Oh, I'm rambling again. If you are new to my blog, I should point out that I use it mainly to tame my badly formed thoughts. Don't take it too seriously. Reading my post back, I think I may have some gaping holes in my arguments. I'll have to plug them later. I'm off the the F-ALT09 party now.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Never believe what artists say, only what they do.

It all started for me with David Hockney. I 'got' art because of him. The reason my alter-ego is called Cubist is because of Hockney. Most importantly, he lives in Bridlington, which is just up the road from where I live in Filey.

Last night's Hockney documentary on BBC1 reminded me why I'm in this game. More than anything, it is Hockney's attitude and approach that I aspire to. The ceaseless dedication to exploration. The blunt, non-nonsense Yorkshireness. The love of drawing. The fact that he does not let anyone or anything get in the way, not even his own previous declarations about what is right and wrong.

Enough of the fan-mail. The reason I'm writing this post is because I viewed last night's programme through the lens of postdigitalism. At one point, Hockney said something like, "This is art for the new post-photographic age", which obviously struck a chord with me. In my postdigital musings, I've referred to the predicted death of painting when photography was invented, and the conflict between these two media forms has been the focus of Hockney's most interesting work. The supposed supremacy of photography as the ultimate form of 'realism' is challenged when Hockney points out photography's limitations. Unlike futurism and, Hockney has argued, cubism and traditional painting, photography removes the time from an artwork. The time it takes to craft the work, the period of time the work represents - all but a hundredth of a second are eradicated from the photograph. Space and time are the same dimension, so traditional photography also removes the space, fixing the viewer to the spot. In real life, we never stop moving - "If your eyes stop moving, you're dead" as Hockney stated in the documentary - but the photograph freezes the world, whereas painting is about the continuum of space-time, with a living human being at its centre.

This recognition of the limitations of photography sometimes sees Hockney reject the photographic process altogether, but at other times it liberates him to use the camera more like a paint brush. The most obvious example of this is a Hockney's photo-collage 'joiner', with multiple perspectives via multiple photographs all collaged into one composition. Time and space return to the artwork, and the photographic medium is commandeered to serve the eye, heart and hand once more.

Might this tension between photography and painting in Hockney's work inform for the postdigital debate? The photograph and the digital have a lot in common. I'm not referring directly to digital photography here, but rather to the way that a snapshot captures and reduces the world to a small abstracted piece. It denies the continuum of life. It is one tiny part of the whole. Similarly, the digital captures and reduces the world into lots of tiny pieces. What is gained from this process of digitisation - the ability to make accurate copies, for example - drowns out the fundamental things that are lost. Identifying something fundamental that education loses in the digital, as Hockney identifies something fundamental that art loses in the photographic, may help us to form a coherent postdigital view. Just as the camera is liberated from the dogma of photography to serve art, so the computer may be liberated from the dogma of the digital to serve education.

Enough of this aspirational theorising. I have a degree course to re-write this year. How exactly will all of this postdigital stuff help me to write a better course? This will be real test. It's time for some convergent thinking.

Imagine (2009) David Hockney - A Bigger Picture. London, BBC1, 30 June.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Google Waves 'hello!' to the postdigital learner

"Where the digital proposes the perfect finite conditions for a perfect existence regardless of matter, (as for example in the human genome project), in the postdigital analogue (as for example in the ironies of genetic and wet biological art) human consciousness is regarded as almost infinitely malleable, able to shape its identity in response to local (and technological) conditions aware all the time of the range of possibilities (digital and analogue) that are not developed." (Punt, 2001)

Excuse me whilst I go off on some uncertain tangents. There is a high probability that I am about to talk poppycock, but as Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”

A few years ago, I spent a lot of time downloading chunks of DNA from the National Center for Biotechnology Information's Genebank, and wrote some code to visualise them. My basic idea was to read the As, Gs, Ts and Cs, and move a pixel either up, down, left or right, tracing a line. Different DNA chunks drew different squiggles. They looked like they made some sort of sense, which of course they did, and I got particularly obsessed with comparing mitochondria sequences from different organisms. You can see some of this stuff on my old site:

Along with every other living organism that has ever existed, we are digital to our very core. We are code. Our existence is encoded in a very long sequence of As, Ts, Cs and Gs. We are Data, Not Animals. But, of course, we are animals, not data. We are fuzzy and vague and interesting. We are wet and unimaginably complex. We are a whole, conscious being that exists over time. We are not digital. We are postdigital.

Not really sure where that one is going, but it might give me an excuse to do some more DNA art. Lets move onto some different poppycock.

The original article that the opening quote is taken from also mentions Gene Youngblood, who reminded us 25 years ago that, "the computer translates the continuous phenomena of the world into discrete units." The inescapable reduction of the homogenous whole into separate pieces, through the process of digitisation, might provide a useful metaphor for education. One of the things that struck a chord with me when I watched Liz Coleman's talk last week was her criticism of the fragmentation of education. I have rallied against the tyranny of the module as the dominant unit of learning ever since it was imposed on us. This quantising of education, splitting learning into smaller and smaller units, serves the inspectors, the financiers and the timetable police very well. It does not serve the whole learner – a complex human being – very well at all. The reason I dislike (and refuse to use) VLEs is primarily because they reinforce and often impose this modular approach. Perhaps it is this sort of 'digitisation' of education that postdigitalism might react against. To re-appropriate the words of Peter Weibel as detailed in Punt's article, education should follow the analogical principles of 'similarity, congruency and continuity', and reject the 'discontinuous, non homogenous elements' as characterised by the digital, and played out in the modular system. The 3 year long, holistic view of learning as promoted by Professor Graham Gibbs and others aligns with this newly invented version of postdigitalism. Taking this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, the postdigital learner is the lifelong learner, the informal and formal learner, the whole human learner. Not a learner who has been captured, cut, and pasted into easily measurable and inspectable chunks, but an integrated learner, inseparable from the world that they are connected to. In this parallel postdigital universe, I'm allowed to get excited about Google Wave, as it may potentially provide an excellent way to support the postdigital learner.

I think I'm rambling a bit now. I'll stop.

Punt, M. (2001) Human Consciousness and the Postdigital Analogue. Leonardo 35 (2), 2002. pp119-120

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The blinded leading the blind

I've been pondering over the 'non-digital' to 'digital' to 'postdigital' cycle, and wondering where the creative potential is. I can see how this cycle can provide us with a useful way of analysing and making sense of things, and I'm sure that it will prove to be a very useful tool in the hands of capable researchers. But I want to make things. I want to do things. I want to create something useful. I want to make new art and design. I want to craft something that helps my students to learn.

I can see quite clearly the possibilities in the 'non-digital' to 'digital' bit of the cycle. It's very exciting being able to do things that you couldn't previously do because of a new digital invention. The transition between the 'non-digital' and the 'digital' is loaded with creative potential. I can see new opportunities for art and design, and for learning, when the technolust kicks in. I am guided by the guts of art and education to keep me from being completely blinded by the technolust, but new technology amplifies my ambitions and accelerates my output. But where is the potential when we come out the other side? When digital loses meaning and becomes restrictive, what can be tapped in the transition to the postdigital?

Recognising that something has gone, is going, or needs to go 'postdigital' might act as an alarm. Perhaps the creative potential disappears at this stage of the cycle, and we need to look for some newly digitalised thing to manipulate. Perhaps the postdigital alarm bell rings when we are flogging a dead horse. Time to move on. What's the next Twitter?

Maybe I'm being defeatist. One of the first things that I pondered over when the term was proposed was 'What might postdigital art be?". The term comes from the arts, but the original 'postdigital' only partly aligns with the spirit of the 52group document. In relation to music, and in particular, Kim Cascone's work, it seems to refer mainly to glitch - the deliberate embracing of digital 'mistakes' (I may well be wrong on this – I need to re-read that stuff). But if 52group postdigitalism is about the natural or forced transparency of the digital, where is the potential in that? Is it in the transition? It it in the forcing? Could an artist identify something that is stupidly digital and force it, kicking and screaming, into the postdigital? The artist as provocateur, winding things up. Smashing things down. Sounds very anti-digital to me, and I don't enjoy upsetting people, so I think this way of thinking is a dead end.

If it's not about art, could it be about design? In an earlier blog post, I quoted an essay by Beatrice Ward that explored the importance of transparency in typography. If you're busy noticing the letter-forms instead of being enthralled by the author's wit, then the typesetting is probably bad. You don't notice good typography, it is transparent. Likewise, if you notice an edit when you are watching a film, it's probably a bad edit. Transparent editing – editing you don't notice – is almost always desirable. Design might have a role to play in helping to make the digital disappear when a need for it to do so has been identified. Designers have no fear of their efforts not getting noticed. They might help tease the digital away from the thing that has been enabled by it, and bring some clarity. Perhaps we are talking about re-design – the equivalent taking a page set in 18 point Comic Sans and resetting it so that it no longer makes your eyes bleed. We could look at something that is overtly digital, and 'redesign' it to emphasise the essence of that thing. By deliberately neutralising the overbearing influence of the digital, we might see more clearly what is important, and unlock hidden opportunities.

Russell Davies describes a project by Schulze & Webb & Jones Crew (Point three in the post) as postdigital. Here, he is talking about a project that has moved beyond 'digital infatuation and analogue nostalgia'. I must admit that I'm attracted to this flavour of postdigitalism. This might be where the potential is, and it seems to align with 52group thinking to some extent. So, the postdigital in relation to design, advertising and art could be about making appropriate use of a combination of digital and non-digital processes. Oh, hang on, that sounds very much like normal practice round my neck of the woods. As I detailed in an earlier post, I feel like we have already moved to the postdigital on the course that I teach on. However, we do still spend a lot of time gently steering students away from digital infatuation and analogue nostalgia in their own best interests. We are effectively steering them towards this version of the postdigital. Maybe I will start saying to techno-blinded and techo-blind students, "Let's consider your work in a postdigital context."

Much more thinking required. I'll pin it down eventually.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

After digital?

Does the term 'postdigital' best represent the spirit of the 52group's draft paper? In its 'ism' form, it most likely means everything that came after digitalism. Alternatively, it could mean a reaction against digitalism. As there isn't really a thing called digitalism to react against, or follow on from, postdigitalism could be seen as a reaction against nothing. However, the term 'digital' is well established, and its use is widespread. 'Digital', 'electronic' and 'e', are used as a prefixes to distinguish something from the preceding, non digital item (digital watch, digital calculator, digital radio, e-commerce, email). When the distinction no longer needs to be made, because the digital version of the item is the norm, then we have moved beyond digital as a useful description. In this way, a calculator is postdigital - the time to call it a digital or electronic calculator has passed - the calculator is 'after-digital'.

What about an interpretation of the term as reactionary? If we feel that the use of the term 'digital' or 'e' is no longer appropriate or limiting, then we can react against its use. When the use of electronic devices is so widespread in learning that it goes without saying, we might react against the term e-learning. The 'e' will have served a useful purpose in promoting the differences from previous modes of learning, but it may have become restrictive in its scope, excluding or devaluing non-digital aspects of learning.

The use of the 'e' or 'digital' prefix is not wrong. It is a necessary and useful way of redefining a previously non-digital item. I should imagine that there are a whole load of things that have not yet 'gone digital', but will need to be labelled as such when they do. When the time comes for e-glasses, digital pants and electronic flat-caps, then it would be handy to emphasise that these items are now different from their analogue counterparts. But when most pants are digital, the term will become quite unnecessary.

It may (technically) be a mistake to add the 'ist' and the 'ism' onto the end of postdigital, but I quite like the fact that isms provoke strong feelings and extreme cynicism, so I think I will keep using these terms. It might draw a few more people into this debate, which will make it more fun.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

A postdigital peacetime era

"Modern art exists because of our technology. Whether built from existing inventions, or from brand new technologies such as computers, many modern works of art rely upon technology as a medium. Technology's role in artistic media ranges from disciplines such as architecture to areas where technology is the complete basis for the medium, in fields such as photography and holography. Generally, whenever a new technological medium is introduced, many members of the art community embrace the technology as the best and brightest form possible. Others automatically reject the use of technology, assuming that it will be detrimental to their particular art form. While to a limited extent these statements are both true, most new technologies simply create other viable mediums. Photography did not replace painting, just as holograms and stereoscopic computer images have not replaced sculpture. While not all artwork may contain direct elements of recent technology, almost all has benefited from increases in technology"

(Benthall, 1972).

One of the reasons that I am harping on about postdigitalism is that it embodies something that I have felt for a long time, but could never quite articulate.

When I started my design education in 1986, our college had just taken delivery of a roomful of tiny, cute Apple Macs. At that time, the graphic design industry was still entrenched in a whole range of traditional printing technologies, and over the course of my subsequent studies and early career, I lived through a digital revolution. This often felt like a war between anti and pro digital camps. I was often enlisted to fight for the pro digital cause, but as I learned more about design, I felt increasingly uneasy with this role. Whilst it seemed bleeding obvious to me that it was a waste of time learning copy-fitting when we would never use this dying aspect of typesetting in our future professional lives, I objected equally strongly to the rejection by the digital camp of all that had gone before. I began to fight for both sides, and when I got my first job setting up and looking after a Mac suite on a Graphic Design course, I fought not just for the new technology, but for the old. The authority that my techno-geek status gave me, allowed me to argue for the importance of screen-printing and metal-type. Around this time, many design colleges were chucking their old fashioned kit in the skip, but I knew that this was a grave mistake. Most often, I would talk about how photography did not replace painting, as many had claimed at the time, but that it did change painting. I would argue that the digital should not replace the traditional, but we could free the old processes from the 'proper' ways of using them now that they no longer served the same purpose. As well as extending the canvas by providing new ways of doing and being, the postdigital also extends the canvas by lifting the restrictions on previous practice. In the context of graphic design, digital typesetting means that I don't have to follow the 'rules' of metal typesetting any more, and freed from the fun-killing tedium of 'casting-off' and such like, I can exploit the rich potential of the old. So, postdigitalism both extends and changes the canvas of creative potential.

On the graphic design course that I now lead, at least, the war is over. We no longer fight about the digital in relation to graphic design technology. We live in a postdigital peacetime era. However, the war between the digital fetishists and the digital refuseniks is still raging on the battleground of education. I oppose the war. Please don't shoot me.

Benthall, Jonathan. Science and Technology in Art Today. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

Saturday, 20 June 2009


"There are a lot of people around now who have thoroughly integrated 'digitalness' into their lives. To the extent that it makes as much sense to define them as digital as it does to define them as air-breathing. ie it's true but not useful or interesting."
Russell Davies, Meet the new schtick

The 52group are not the pioneers of postdigitalism. The current Wikipedia entry points to an early adoption of the term in the field of digital art. There are others that have co-opted the term with good effect. Russell Davies is a really interesting man who, amongst other things, writes for Wired and Campaign. He wrote a post outlining his take on postdigitalism back in January 2009.

There are three key elements that make up his version of the postdigital. The first questions the supremacy of screens - or 'visual display units' as they used to be called in the digital age - and argues for physical displays units (like paper). The second point, which is quoted at the start of this post, pretty much sums up the 52group's position. The third point is interesting because, by the 52group definition, it is a form of digitalism. It talks about embracing the shiny new ways of the digital, and using the essence of these new ways of being, to build physical things. Davies points to an ink printed on paper thing called 'Things our friends have written on the Internet 2008'. In the context of 52group postdigitalism, dwelling on the digital - even to de-digitalise it, or liberated it from the constraints of binary - is a form of techno-lust. It is digital fetishism, even if it is played out in meat-space.

52group postdigitalism it may not be, but the irony of non-digital techno-worship sounds like fun. Remind me to come back to this when I talk about how I've already lived through one transition to postdigitalism in my next post.

Friday, 19 June 2009


"Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favourite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in colour. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain."
The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible by Beatrice Warde (1900 -- 1969)

The 'postdigital' is not a new term or concept, but it is a term and a concept that has been forcibly re-appropriated by the 52group, in a draft paper that seeks to refocus our attention, particularly in relation to education. The basic premise is that 'digital' is becoming increasingly meaningless, as technology becomes crystal-clear, thin as a bubble, and transparent. Being fooled into mistaking the 'digital' for a thing in itself, rather than seeing it purely as an enabler (and just one alongside many other non-digital enablers), is a mistake that I make all the time. I have been more guilty than most of gaining more pleasure from the exquisitely patterned golden goblet than from the wine.

However, absorbing and accepting postdigitalism has brought clarity to my thinking, and I have already found myself responding to everyday work related issues from a postdigitalist viewpoint. I have spontaneously and effortlessly argued that 'it's not really about the technology', whereas in the past I might have happily argued that is was. That's not to say that I have suddenly become anti-digital. Far from it. It's just that anti or pro digital is not the issue. 'The canvas of the digital' provides me with an ever changing medium from which I can tap creative potential, but the canvas itself is not the art. More importantly, this digital canvas is not the only one in my studio. From a postdigitalist perspective, to dwell on the canvas misses the point. It is about the idea, the intention, the expression, the interpretation. It is about the conversations and the arguments. It is about the spirit of the artist and the success of the artwork. The skill with which the artist manipulates the paint on the canvas is crucial and should not be undervalued or rejected, just as we should not undervalue or reject the digital, but the art is not created by the canvas or the paint. It is created by the artist.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Urge

There's something in the air. I can feel the urge returning. The creative hunger is making my belly rumble. I know there is a really big thing that, at the moment, I can only call a micro-reflection-conversation-engagement engine. I'm sure there's something even bigger hidden somewhere here in the murk. Where's my torch?

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Curvy knowledge. Curved like a saddle. Like the shape of the Universe. And it smells of pie.

Forgive me blogosphere, for I have been a-tweeting at my blog's expense. That, and the fact the Open Habitat has finished, I've have 300 students bothering me, I've been planning the move to our new art school building and I've got a bit bored of virtual worlds.

However, my shackles have been shaken by a blog post that I have just read by Dave Cormier about open educational resources, which introduces the term 'curvy knowledge'. Dave's had quite a bit of flack about this term, but I like it, mainly because it sounds friendly and fun. Not like serious old flat knowledge, all precise and logical. Curvy knowledge (I'm largely imagining) is less certain, and has the convenience of not being right or wrong. It's the sort of knowledge that my colleagues and students generate and mediate on our arts courses. Maybe the flat of objectivity is curved by subjectivity. Curved like a saddle, I think. Like the shape of the Universe. Traversing curvy knowledge sometimes means sliding down a slippery slope, sometime climbing up a slippery incline. Sometimes it's grabbing flat knowledge and curving up to make someone else slide down to somewhere they weren't indenting to go, or making them climb up a previously straightforward route. I like curvy knowledge. It smells like a nice pie.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009


Emerge, the Open Habitat project and the JISC Users & Innovation strand officially ended yesterday. For evidence of how great these projects have been, look at: and

But this is not the last blog post of the project. I stopped blogging for Open Habitat when I reached my 100th post last month.

This is the first post the new project.

Not sure exactly what the new project is yet. Here are a list of possible ingredients:

OpenSim for all my students.
OpenSim for the ex-Emergers
OpenSim for Leeds Met.
The 2D Virtual Studio Environment
The 3D Virtual Studio Environment
The 2D+3D Virtual Studio Environment
Fractal tree based course management
Digital identity
Art & technology
Non-linear, associational portfolios.
Mobile computing
iPhone & Android
QR Codes
Augmented reality.

Binary course management:
Connectivism & Control.
Formative feedback & stimulation
Subject specialists & coaches
White weeks & Yellow weeks.
Public & private.
Accredited & free.
Staff responsibility & student responsibility
Blended & distance.
Here & there.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Horizontal Meme transfer.

Bit of a thought in progress, this post. Also a tribute to Darwin, who was born 200 years ago today.

I read this article about horizontal gene transfer, and it got me thinking about how this might apply to creative thinking and ideas generation. The article reveals that the tree of life isn't really a tree, but a bit of tangled old mess, as genes keep getting transplanted from one species to another by viruses and hybridisation and the like. Apparently, there's a bit of snake DNA in the cow genome. The other really fascinating thing in this article is the section about species with larval stages, like caterpillars/butterflies. Some researchers think that this is the result of the amalgamation of the genomes of two different species into one functioning genome. The idea is that the genomes are expressed sequentially, with one organism's original life-code doing the business first, with a metamorphosis leading to the second species DNA taking over to finish the job off. This seems quite reasonable. If an alien landed on earth and looked at a caterpillar and a butterfly, they would assume they were different species. If you find all of this hard to swallow, read the bit about the starfish.

Anyway, if memes are idea genes, then what if we embrace horizontal transfer, hybridisation and dual genomes to enrich the evolution of strong ideas? If the right two jokes got stuck together, would they become one dominant joke? Would we eventually forget that it ever existed as two separate jokes? If we took other persistent memes and swapped chunks of them, would new, more successful memes emerge? How might this process work in a shorter time frame, like the course of an ideas generation workshop or student project? How might it apply to social software? Can I think of a way of using Twitter to test this hypothesis?

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The Butterfly Effect.

I've blogged about 'abductive reasoning' a couple of times before. This is a sort of action focussed speculative analysis, reasoning what might be, and is a common trait in designers.

After group heckling the atrocious film 'The Butterfly Effect' during the Emerge event in York last week, my mind has been full of time travel ideas, and I started wondering how abductive reasoning might be applied at the end of a research project, in a giant 'What if?' exercise. At the start of Open Habitat, I spent a lot of time applying abductive reasoning to the construction of project scenarios. Now that we have the benefit of experience behind us, what might we have done differently, and how catastrophically good or bad might that have been for the project? If we travel back in time to key points in the Open Habitat project, and imagine that we had made a different choice, where might we be now?

Sunday, 1 February 2009

False Dichotomy

I love the potential for serendipitous moment when in public. As an avid fan of public transport I enjoy the excitement, and the dangers, and the opportunities for mental stimulation that mixing with all sort of strangers brings. Some of the best conversations I have ever had have been with nutters who happened to sit next to me on the train. I also recognise the value of closed communities, like a University degree course. When I'm at Uni, I have conversations with people that I automatically have something in common with. I know who they are, and they know who I am.

I love the potential for serendipitous moment when in Second Life. As an avid fan of random double clicking on the mainland map, I enjoy the excitement, and the dangers, and the opportunities for mental stimulation that mixing with all sort of strangers brings. Some of the best conversations I have ever had have been with nutters who happened to stand next to me on a sim. I also recognise the value of closed communities, like a University degree course's private OpenSim grid. If I had a Uni MUVE, I could have conversations with people that I automatically have something in common with. I would also know who they were, and they would know who I am.

It would be pretty sad if my students and I stayed inside Uni all the time, but it would be pretty pointless having a degree course if we spent all our time outside. Private is good. Public is good. Similarly, the public space of Second Life provides amazing opportunities for deep learning through role-play and engagement with worldwide communities, but a private OpenSim grid would give all of our students a safe space to inhabit. Authentic identities would enable a blending of the virtual and the real, and once hooked, the students would possess the necessary skills and confidence to stride out into Second Life as whoever they choose to be.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Primary education

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague about the optimum group size for seminars and tutorials yesterday. My colleague is a long standing and very experienced tutor, and he has often talked to me about his theories about the perfect number of students in a group, based on his observations of past successful and unsuccessful learning situations. His magic number is 7, and the absolute no-no is 8. So close, but in his view, so very different.

An article in last week's New Scientist magazine about the ideal size for a committee caught my eye, as it reported that computer simulations had identified committees with 8 members as the absolutely, definitely worse group size ever. I pointed my colleague to this article, and we started speculating about why this might apply to tutorial groups. One of the characteristics of 8 is that it can be divided up in many ways. If you are a member of a group of 8, we mused, then you may subconsciously think of yourself as in either in one group, in one half of two sub-groups, as one partner in one of 4 pairs, or as an individual. In a group of 7, you are either a member of one group, or an individual. The more times you can evenly divide a group up, we decided, the more difficult it is for the members to cope with the mental multiple membership issue. So, the ultimate group size should always be a prime number. I suggested that we should test this theory out, but my colleague said that we would need to set up deliberately bad group sizes in order to know for sure, and that would be unethical. "Fortunately, we're artists and not scientists, so we can just do what we feel is right." I half-joked.

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31

Monday, 12 January 2009

The future of education. If it can pay the mortgage.

Graham Attwell predicts that "2009 will be the year of Open Education. Seminars, workshops, lectures, courses - all available on line and for free."

I really like the idea of free, open education. I've had several conversations about this over the last few years, but the time feels right now. As ever, to say that I've even half-thought this through would be a massive exaggeration, but that's never stopped me blogging in the past...

So, free education. No fees. How could that be possible?

Well, if it was online distance education, then the overheads would be low. No buildings to pay for. No heating bills. No security guards or cleaners to pay.

The software could all be web based services, so no costs to the provider there. We could take advantage of free services like Flickr and Twitter and Second Life.

If the educational experience was primarily based on the mediation of knowledge by expert tutors, then the only cost would be for their wages. I'll come back to this.

What about accreditation? I often hear that students only study to get marks so that they can get a degree. Students that care more about learning for its own sake, and don't give a damn about marks and qualifications, might be attracted to the idea of open education. Personally, I want to help students that love learning more than validation. It would also remove the inefficiencies that summative assessment and its subsequent iterations of inspection and quality assurance result in.

What about assessment? Hang on, didn't I just blow that one out of the water in that last paragraph? Well, I have a problem with summative assessment, but I think formative assessment is fantastic. The regular and precise assessment of where someone is, where they want or need to be, and what can or should be done to get there is the key to efficient learning, in my humble opinion. In an open education system, there need be no limit to just how far this process could take a student. No top limit imposed by the level of a qualification.

Would open education need technical support? Savvy students can solve technical problems, but point of need support can oil learning very effectively. Maybe e-technicians would be as useful as academic guides. Maybe peer support could fulfill this role.

Without accreditation, inspections and physical overheads, then what management structure would be needed to support this open educational structure? Well, ideally, very little. Maybe education could be primarily about tutors and students.

So the only significant costs are the wages of the tutor. It would be nice to think that quality academic staff would work for free, but I get very well paid by the old fashioned education system, thank you very much. Why would I work for free? I'd consider a wage cut that equalled the money I would save by not traveling on a train to Leeds twice a week and paying hotel bills. So who pays my wages? This is where my thinking gets even fuzzier, and possibly more controversial.

Maybe HEFCE pays wages directly to me, bypassing all of the layers of top-slicing middlemen. They're going to want to know that their money isn't wasted though, which would probably fire up the whole inspection/quality beast again and spoil all the fun.

Perhaps the students could pay fees, but they might want a qualification for their money, powering up the crushing machinery of accreditation.

Maybe a philanthropic institution or individual might grant no-strings-attached funding, as long as their name is plastered all over everything.

Similarly, maybe a commercial sponsor might provide the dosh, insisting on the strategic placing of their logos and applying corporate branding to everything. The PR opportunites might make it worth their while. Open education - sponsored by Coca Cola - refreshing learning worldwide!

Maybe the whole thing is funded by advertising. It seems to work for Google, although the current economic climate demonstrates how volatile this might be as a funding stream. I want to know how much I'm going to earn next year.

Maybe there's another way.

Oh, I don't know. I'm just blabbering as usual. It's how I entertain myself.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Bigger. Better. More.

I thought I better spill some of the ideas I had whilst in London this week before they dissolve.

I took part in a one day Eduserv workshop on digital identities on Thurday, which used the design patterns format currently being explored by the PLANET project and others. This involved taking stories previously submitted by participants and working in small groups to distil patterns that might be of use to others. I've listened to various presentations about patterns before, but I could never get the image of knitting and wallpaper out of my head. It was only by going through the process of using this design patterns approach that I started to appreciate what it was all about. I still don't quite fully get it. The ultimate aim seems to be to produce a clear output - a solution to a problem within a particular context - so that others can take that and make use of it. This sets off a few warning bells for me, as it seems to suggest that it's about making written rules that others should follow, and I instinctively rebel against rules. The important thing about the process for me was the process, not the output. This process involved working with Andrew Eglinton's story about gauging his followers on Twitter, comparing it to Shirley William's Facebook story, discussing lots of aspects of identity in relation to these stories with Andrew, Shirley, Graham Hibbert, Mark Childes and Ed Barker, and pinning down our thoughts in the pattern template. The result was the identification of 'Digital Identity Panic' when previously disconnected personal social networks collide.

The value for me was the shared learning experience, with all the complex elements of socialisation, face to face communication, confidence building, bonding and fun. The thing we wrote down at the end of the session was of little value or interest in comparison to the experience of creating it, and I doubt it will be of much value to anyone else who wasn't there at the time. Does this matter? I sometimes find the obligation to measure and justify everything with cold, hard words in this strange new research world that I increasingly live in, a teensy bit depressing and possibly deeply wrong.

This leads me onto day 2 of my London jaunt, which was a major day of Open Habitat mopping up, ready for final report writing. Dave White's excellent new research assistant, Alison, interviewed me and Graham about the whole thing, from before Emerge to now. It was really good to have the opportunity to rabbit on for several hours about all of the things that I feel passionate about in relation to learning. It's all so crystal clear in the context of an interview. During the interview, I really felt it all - why we are spending all this time and effort doing this research. All of the subtleties and complexities and connection between the bigger picture and the minute details spilt out all over the place. It became evident during the interview that we moved beyond piloting half way through the project, and the thing we have been calling the second pilot is actually the embedding and implementation of the research - stage four of the UIDM. The second phase saw mass Open Sim inductions with 125 first year students, and the running of an assessed project within an existing module.

The original aim of the Open Habitat project, collaborative learning, was thoroughly tested through the use of the excellent 10 principles that Steve and Marga derived from our last London workshop. This was the bit that still remained the 'research' bit in the second pilot. This was the thing that was structured, purposeful, on-message but uncertain. As I argued with Steve Warburton when he joined us in the afternoon, collaboration is not the most important part of what we have done with Open Habitat, and it is certainly not the most successful element, but it is what we set out to test, and it is what we are best able to demonstrate our testing of. The really important but less measurable stuff like students getting better at learning more rapidly, being happier, gaining confident, enjoying a higher level of personal support and becoming more creative, are the bits that we needed no evidence of in order to proceed to implementation.

Our discussion about collaboration in London has provoked more thoughts. I think that there are two main reasons that collaborative learning didn't work out as I'd hoped in Open Habitat. The first is the nature of the students. Artist generally don't like to collaborate directly with other artists. They might put on a group exhibition, but the wouldn't share a canvas. Designers like to collaborate with everyone except other designers. They'll work with a printer and a client, but they get would find it hard to agree on the best typeface with a peer. (yes, i know this is an easily disputed generalisation, but for the sake of argument..). There is a saying that we often hear in our department - "You can't design by committee". Open source challenges that, and despite the frustrations that I have experienced trying to make collaboration work during Open Habitat, I still believe that there is potential to crack this nut. One of the reason that open source works is that it has a potentially huge worldwide community of collaborators, a fertile environment (sourceforge or whatever) to support collaboration, self-motivated participants, and lots of decentralised time to spend on the job. How well would a 3 week open source pilot work with 10 new programmers? What I'm trying to say is that the restrictions imposed by the need to measure the research - two 3 week pilots with 10 students at a time - destroyed any chance of it succeeding at the level that I would want it to. It forced us to impose a level of control through induction and briefs that denied the rhizomic swellings that I still dream of witnessing.

What we need to do now if we want to help this dream become a reality is open the doors and enable hundreds of students to access their own virtual world with no control whatsoever imposed on them. One massive blank canvas with enough room and time for hundreds of students to learn what they want with whoever they want, gently teased along by skilled tutors inquiring about each individual's learning. I probably won't get funding for this, but I don't care. BRING ON THE OPENSIM!