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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Twitter @alibrown18

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Why the UCU strike against casualisation is also a fight for students: A story of personal experience

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Students at 60 universities have now lost five days of teaching due to strike action, with a further three days to come next week. Whether I've been standing on the physical picket line, listening at our teach outs, or digitally canvassing on twitter, the amount of support and solidarity students have given back has been empowering. 

Yet it would also be understandable why students, perhaps even the silent majority of them, may question the impact the action is having on them. Students are being told that staff need secure pensions, a pay rise to reflect inflation, less extreme workloads, greater equality for female and BAME colleagues, and fewer casual contracts to improve the efficacy of the teaching that they deliver. Yet if a student has lost out on several hours of contact time, the immediate impact on any individual learner - a definitive event - feels harsh when weighed against the speculation that these enhancements for lecturers might support prospective students in the future. In the transactional economy that is university education these days, some students will feel that our claims are stretched to breaking point across two poles: the projected benefits to us, and the immediate deficits to them.

Will Dr Jones's lecture on mammalian evolution in the ice age really be ten percent better next year if Dr Jones knows that she will have a good pension in thirty years time? Will fixed-term teaching fellow Dr Williams give feedback on essays about Jane Austen's heroines that will be three times more useful if his contract lasts for three years rather than one?

Of course, the polarising us-and-them division is invalid given the structural market inequities within HE from which we all suffer. Yet at the level of the individual student, things can feel instinctively muddier. Alongside the higher-level analyses, it's important to represent the individual teacher's point of view and their actual work with students. My recent experiences at the Open University give a particular, tangible example of how improved conditions for staff will improve teaching, not just speculatively but in the here and now.

I find myself in a peculiar position in this dispute. Because while I've been fully supportive of the action in relation to my role at Durham University, at the Open University the zombie horror of endless casualisation is something that has recently been put to the stake. Weirdly, at the very moment when morale nationally is at an all-time low, mine personally is riding high as far as the OU is concerned. And it has immediately improved my support of students.

To see how and why, let's turn back the clock a couple of years.

By early 2018 I was in a bad place mentally, linked to the deconstruction of the institution as a whole. Then Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, was threatening to, in essence, turn the OU into a giant MOOC, doing away with the personal tutor-student relationship that we know is essential to student success; this came on the back of a disastrous implementation of a new tuition policy which made face-to-face support harder to access for many. And running longer term in the background to all this was the fact that, despite me knowing from student feedback, teaching observations, marking statistics, and peer monitoring that I'm good at what I do, I have had to apply to the OU 17 times in the decade I've been there, as contracts on individual modules came to an end or as I was made redundant on one and had to apply for another to compensate. After the background hum of casualisation, the noise of the Horrocks revolution meant I had never felt more precarious in ten years working in HE.

As a consequence, my motivation slumped, and students suffered. I stopped making extra (unpaid) phone calls to check up on particularly struggling students. Instead of posting weekly or even daily to my tutor group forums, far beyond what was workloaded, I only did the light touch moderation expected. Instead of busting a gut to return marking, I worked up to my 10-working-day contractual turnaround.  Rather than responding to student emails more or less every day, I checked email two or three times a week, and uninstalled my OU account from my phone. I was working to contract, and although I hope I still gave a decent experience and support to students - and most won't have known it could have been different - I certainly didn't do the extra which I, like most of my colleagues, do.

This is what the threat of casualisation, and the erosion of working conditions more generally, does. Teachers are not robots. We are passionate about what we do -  but because that passion is already exploited with us putting in many hours of unpaid labour, it's easy to become utterly demotivated once it goes entirely unrecognised by institutional strategies that treat you as a disposable problem. It was not inapt that Peter Horrocks was ultimately ousted for claiming that 'academics don't teach'.

Fast-forward to the present. Thanks to the endeavours of an active union, and a now-responsive management, change is coming. Associate Lecturers will be employed on a more conventional, permanent basis. The leadership of interim VC Professor Mary Kellet was exemplary, while her replacement Professor Tim Blackman looks set to be a similarly positive appointment. And along with the enhanced prospect, so tooI'm back to my old self. All those things listed above, which I stopped doing when demotivated, I've started doing once again.

But as well as having an immediate benefit to students, giving teachers long-term confidence also entails long-term payback in terms of teaching enhancement.

In any one hour in the classroom, my teaching is probably no better than many a brand-new PhD teaching assistant could do. What I do have on my side is pedagogic experience, which I can contribute if I'm employed for the long term. Here are some of the scholarship projects I'm currently involved in across both Durham and the OU:

  • Investigating how we might help students to feel more integrated into a subject learning community
  • Sitting on an Athena Swan panel and contributing to the actions that should significantly improve areas like the inclusivity of events, and the gender diversity of the undergraduate intake from A-Level
  • Pioneering digital storytelling to help students to reflect upon their learning
  • Experimenting with ways to employ playful learning in online forums, and delivering staff development workshops on the subject
  • Contributing data to explore how students with BAME and disability profiles engage with synchronous online teaching

Each of these projects will take more than one year to come to fruition. In the cycle of scholarship, you might well test a new technique in the classroom one year and gather some preliminary feedback to see whether it has potential; refine and redeliver the next year with a more robust survey methodology; disseminate within the institution; and eventually publish the findings externally. These are not quick or easy wins.

In each of these projects I am collaborating with one or more colleagues (who I won't name in this particular post - but you know who you are). These aren't people I just plucked out of a university email directory. They are trusted friends with whom I've built up relationships over a number of years, so that we have the mutual confidence to be frank with one another, to experiment, to fail, and then to fail better.

If you're employed on casual contracts, without knowing what will come after that twelve month period, you simply cannot iterate and enhance like this. As any Silicon Valley CEO will know, the most valuable asset an innovative organisation can utilise is not money, but time to think: throw that away, as universities do when they employ people short-term, and you lose potential.

Students might only notice what is not happening right now, amid the strike, namely hours in the classroom. My experience at the OU shows why there should be immediate returns to students and a better experience if we have teachers who aren't utterly demotivated and demoralised by working conditions, in spite of their ingrained desire to do their best for those they teach. But it's important to reflect on what also will not happen next year, or in five years, or ten years, if endemic casualisation, workloads, and other challenges to staff motivation continue to rot the foundations of what we do, and what we love.

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Dwarves, Zombies, and Play Doh Caterpillars: Some Thoughts on Playful Learning

Friday, July 19, 2019

It's a week since I returned from the fun-filled but pedagogically insightful Playful Learning Conference 2019. It's a conference like no other. I'm not sure where else you'd find delegates assembled in running gear at 8.00 in the morning ready to track down the well-dispersed postboxes of Leicester or trying to unlock an escape room while being assaulted by balloons.

We grown-ups tend to treat the word 'play' as something for kids, and antithetical to such maturities as 'work' or 'learning'. And certainly I found myself suffering a mild existential breakdown: work should not be this fun! But I did learn a lot. For example, I discovered my true character:

I realised through Adam Boal that it's very hard to find ways to get double-glazing salesmen to share their expertise with computer scientists while visiting an aquarium. And if you're organising a biological zombie apocalypse in a major city, you might want to warn the relevant authorities first.

I learned that I cannot make Play Doh ducklings, but can make a good caterpillar (even if I can't spell the word).

These three activities probably seem flippant to the outside observer, but all three speak to the enablements of play. In the first, I was helped to reflect on career pathways and professional attributes; in the second to take some extreme public engagement scenarios and use them to conceptualise how we connect experts with the public in the mainstream; in the third to think with the hands as well as the mind.

In all of them, gaming with other people, having a laugh, or fiddling creatively while sat round a table can stimulate conversation and breakdown the intimidating barriers of networking. Conferences matter not just for the content but for the serendipitous encounters they allow for; play is a way to create community.

I've come away with lots of great ideas for gaming and play in education, and won't go into other specifics. Other stuff happened too, but...fishing trip


More generally, one wider theme I'm reflecting on is the importance of failure in play, but also the need to position 'failure' carefully. Several times I heard delegates celebrate that failure has to be embraced. Play removes us from real-world consequences, and allows us to fail with fun. My colleage Malcolm Murray came up with probably the gold-winning tweet of the conference:

He's right, but we need to nuance where that failure takes place. In the moment of playing a game, for example, having a student or staff participant fail or encounter a difficulty can certainly be productive: an opportunity for reflection on why something didn't work, discussion, and meaningful development.

However, if we simply announce that to design a playful learning activity you have to be prepared to fail as a teacher, this is not a message that will translate well to staff. In an era of NSS, promotion criteria predicated on student satisfaction, and the pervasive pressure of the student-consumer who wants an experience that simply works, academics will naturally be wary of testing new methodologies in teaching, especially those that admittedly may not work. We need to build in systems of reassurance - like play testing groups - that demonstrate that.

We must distinguish between allowing failure in a learning game, while protecting against failure of a learning game where possible.

Another key reflection was the way in which play is a truly interdisciplinary opportunity - but one that also extends beyond our conventional sense of what a 'discipline' is within a university context. Although there were some delegates (like myself) from a particular academic department and subject, there seemed to be many more learning technologists, librarians, those with training and staff development responsibilities, and people who work in outreach and public engagement. There was also a memorable keynote from James Charnock, events manager at Manchester Metropolitan University and rather fetching duck:

His work supporting the Playful Learning conference in its first iterations at MMU had led him and his team to introduce the playful ethos throughout what they do and offer to other conferences, with meaningful results. Why not get your catering team to dress as pirates, for example? Conference organisers are (or should be) increasingly alert to diversity and inclusivity issues. How often does this extend to bringing the professional services teams that usually support behind the scenes into the workings of a conference itself?

So on the back of Playful Learning, what will I do next in the classroom?

  1. Design an escape room for the widening participation summer schools I'll be teaching to sixth-formers in a few weeks. These will be based around detective fiction, an ideal topic to integrate with puzzles and decoding. Previously, I have tried to use some playful activities - for example, I strung up a washing line of narrative events in 'Murders in the Rue Morgue' (the victim is a washerwoman) and got students to rearrange them in chronological sequence. This didn't work as well as I'd envisaged, I think in part because it was so unexpected. Ironically, for first-generation students with little prior experience of university, their perception of a university as somewhere remote and elevated may have led them to anticipate something more 'intellectual', and they were discomfited when given permission to have fun. They didn't really know what to do with that permission, what the 'rules' of the higher education game at large include. I'll need to frame the escape room carefully to make this work. I'll also be reflecting carefully on how to make the game inclusive and accessible, thanks to ideas I picked up at Playful Learning.
  2. I played Cheryl Reynolds's clever and informative Bourdieu game, where we drew on our social and cultural credit cards and saw how they might have different value in various fields.

    In teaching theory we're always coming back to issues of symbolic value and the cultural capital that we bring to our views of the canon and what it should or could be. I have in mind a deck of 'canonical text' cards which students can have at the start of the year, and then play with repeatedly and differently as they encounter new theoretical ideas.
  3. I desperately want to figure a way to make online forums more playful. I'm moderating a few induction and bridging forums at the OU over the summer, each with several thousand potential participants. As with any forum, generating sustained engagement is difficult. Notably, there was nothing at the conference on inculcating play in VLEs, but it would be hugely beneficial if we could do this in distance learning. Again, no specific ideas as yet - and I'll be liaising further with my OU colleagues who were at Playful Learning.
If you have any game-winning ideas on any of the above, drop me a line!

Finally, a huge thanks to the organising team. Conference organising is a tough gig at the best of times, but battling to put a conference programme through the photocopier is nothing compared to the hard task of producing vegetable-based portraits of your keynote speaker. See you next year!

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Lighting a New Fuse

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

I am delighted to announce that, from 1st November, I am doing a sideways shuffle in my career to take up a new post as Postdoctoral Research Associate on the project Creative Fuse North East, with some of my conventional Eng Lit work going into suspended animation for the next year.

Creative Fuse North East is a massive project across the region's five universities, looking at the state of the creative, tech and digital sector and thinking, among other things, about ways to enhance business by engaging imaginatively with arts and humanities, heritage and culture.

Creative Fuse North East Innovation Phase Launch from Creative Fuse North East on Vimeo.

In establishing and running READ: Research English At Durham (which continues), I've come to realise that the arts and humanities in particular have traditionally underestimated the wider value of what we do. Many people - not entirely unjustifiably - lament the impact agenda at universities, but it's become clear to me that when you simply share your research, however niche it might seem, there are people out there who want to listen and who will be inspired by it. Dissemination turns into conversation, and sparks fly. In a similar vein, Creative Fuse North East is in part about getting people from seemingly different sectors to talk to one another, and seeing what happens. The ongoing CAKE events run by the project are a case in point.

I'm looking forward to working with great people in universities, business, arts and culture, and enabling some Creative Fusion.

By David Wilson Clarke, via Wikimedia Commons
But there's a North East aspect to this too, which I feel quite personally and which was one of the reasons I was drawn to this project. I've lived in the North East for more or less 17 years. When I first came, I saw a region trying desperately to pull itself up by the bootstraps in the wake of industrial decline. And the one thing the North East continued to excel in was in downplaying itself.

Unrooted from the beauty and tourism potential of its natural landscape (not as good as Yorkshire!). Uncertain as to how to move from twentieth to twenty-first century industries (damn you, Manchester!). Unsure about the value of its galleries, museums and cultural venues (not up there with London!).

But our slumbering giant is now waking. Sunderland is in the bidding for City of Culture. The Great Exhibition of the North is coming next year. Newcastle has more heritage activity than any city outside of London. And all this despite, rather than because of, public funding and media attention which remains focused on the South East.

Compared to these developments, our digital and creative economy is not at the top yet. The creative economy accounts for 4.9% of all employment in the North East, against 8.3% for the UK as a whole. But it's growing, and with five brilliant universities and all the other cultural resources around, its future is bright. I'm proud that I'm going to be working with some amazing people, and playing a small part in making that happen.

(And if you're working in any of the areas mentioned above, reach out to me @alibrown18 or the Creative Fuse team @CreativeFuseNE on twitter, or find us online.)

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Four Fallacies About Digital Learning

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

By Paul Clark. Reproduced under CC BY licence via Jisc.
The Open University is currently undergoing a massive strategic shift to place its emphasis on digital first. But while this made the headlines, the OU is not the only institution to be debating and instituting these sorts of changes. Without wishing to pin this post to particular individuals, there's something in the weather of HE. As I throw my straws into the wind, and occasionally shout into the discussion forums, meetings, and social media sphere where digital pedagogy is being debated, I seem to keep coming across the same buzzy ideas and, to my mind, misconceptions. Here are four arguments I hear used by the more extreme digital-first evangelists, that represent careless fallacies that should be examined and challenged.

1. That the print v digital debate is dead

This is one of the most puzzling comments I've heard. It's the claim of someone who believes they have nailed jelly to the wall, and turns to you in triumph while the jelly slowly slides down behind them.

Let's leave to one side the not unimportant fact that research is still emerging on the value of print in ensuring retention of information, the claim ignores the ever-moving nature of the digital.

Digital is not in itself a format but simply the means of transmission. It's the interfaces that really matter, and for as long as these are subject to technological advancements, the print v digital discussion must actively continue.

People arguing for digital over print typically have in mind the idea of e-texts presented on tablets. But right now that interface is evolving and indeed may not be fit enough to survive. Tablet sales have begun to slide as large-screen phones increase in popularity. Google and Amazon are working flat out to make verbal and aural, rather than visual, interfaces the way we obtain our information. Microsoft's Hololens is bringing augmented reality into educational settings. With each new interface and rate of uptake of different technologies, we need to revisit the advantages and disadvantages of that new mode compared to print.

And even print itself represents a moving target. Digital culture has deeply affected print culture. Open a copy of any major newspaper or magazine now, for example, and you will find sidebars, box-outs, profile pictures of journalists etc. that borrow from the design practices of the web. The textbooks of the new literature courses I teach at the OU are far more visually appealing and structurally sophisticated than the 20-year-old textbooks for their predecessor modules.

The print v digital debate will never be dead. It returns, Lazarus-like, for every generation.

2. That students (want to) study in digital spaces

Until we enter the brave new world of William Gibson's Neuromancer or of cybernetic transcendentalists like Hans Moravec and Peter Thiel, we do not inhabit digital spaces. We inhabit physical spaces through which we may access the digital. Our screens are merely one information portal among many in the physical environment.

A colleague presented a version of this fallacy, based on their observation that in an academic library most students have their laptops open and are reading journal articles on screen. For them, this was telling evidence of the shift in study habits and proof that students want to study digitally. But wait a minute. The really interesting observation here is not that students are accessing research online - which is hardly revolutionary. It's where they are still choosing to do it - in a library!

With ubiquitous WiFi, there is no practical reason why students should be working in the library rather than the coffee shop or at home. But they are choosing to do so. There is remarkably little research looking directly at how digital has affected footfall in academic libraries, but judging from the building works I see on university campuses, while the role of the library is certainly changing its tangible and architectural presence at the heart of student life has not. The physical space of the library - which plays host to the digital portals of a thousand laptop screens - remains central to embodied student communities.

Further, compelling evidence against this fallacy (or fantasy) of the disembodied student can be seen in distance learning students, who don't have ready access to university libraries. Their social media posts quickly give the lie to the idea that students study in digital spaces. Look at the Instagram feed under #OUStudents for example. Most images include a combination of a digital device, mug of coffee, and mascot, along with a pinboard, sticky notes, highlighter pens and paper.

A post shared by Kate Lymer (@books_hooks_and_tea_cups) on

Even allowing for the fact that social media profiles are self-fashioning - so students may include the iconography that they associate with an idealised representation of study, not necessarily things they use actively to study - these images remind that students have complex and multimodal approaches, and that the physical environment in which they study is a vital asset.

If we were clever about learning we would exploit this multichannel approach (for example, the OU used to give students paper wallplanners), one made possible by the fact that 'digital natives' continue to inhabit the physical world and aren't, a la William Gibson, completely jacked-in to cyberspace.

3. That all students under 25 are digital natives

The 'digital native' is as mythical a creature as the yeti. Debates descend to X-Files levels of conspiracy when the spooky (and intangible) stereotype is used in forums and in discussions as a way to justify big shifts to digital learning. Indeed, the simplest evidence of the term's meaninglessness comes when it is used to identify a generation of student-consumers to which universities must answer. For as soon as a vast cohort falls under the umbrella of a definition, that definition ceases to have value as a research tool or pedagogic identifier.

We need instead to treat the 'digital native' with the same awareness of its intersectional positioning as we would other potentially sweeping categories, like 'male' and 'female' or 'white' and 'black'. The 18-year-old female 'digital native' living in London and studying on her commute on the tube may belong to a different digital community to the 25-year-old male software engineer who is looking for a career change out of the world of computers in which he is otherwise immersed. The 'digital native' who primarily accesses the internet through an Android 4.0 mobile phone has different needs and approaches to the 'digital native' early adopter who can afford an Oculus Rift.

4. That students need digital skills for the economy of the future

The year is 1800. George Stephenson sits patiently in class at his night school. His teacher marches around the stage, robes swishing with ever-increasing vigour: "the steam economy, boys. That's the thing of the future!"

It would have been absurd to imagine, in 1800, all of the forthcoming effects of steam, and while we can probably do a better job with the digital, we cannot possibly equip students now with the practical skills they will need to apply in years down the line. That the economy will be driven by digital is hardly controversial. But given the slew of recent books all desperately trying to predict and unpick the implications of the digital economy - from the rise of automation to the effects of free digital services - what is this 'future' we need to skill them for?

As the Oxford report on the future of employment suggested, it's creativity and underlying soft skills - those that use digital as the means to the end rather than the end in itself - that will be the most adaptable and resistant to artificial intelligence. So, when you burrow into it, we need to give students the underlying skills that are similar to those we've always offered, especially in disciplines like my own of English.

Incidentally, note the conflict between fallacies 3 and 4. If you are arguing that universities must digitalise in order to meet the demands of the 'digital natives', you can't then claim that your university will provide students with the digital literacy skills that they seemingly already possess. What you can focus on is critical digital skills - a different beast from the STEM-orientated vision inherent in government.

5. That these fallacies actually exist

In the digital humanities and pedagogic journals and conferences I'm engaged with the actual discourse is more nuanced and critically reflective than the pastiche I've presented here. But the trouble - and the motivation for writing this off-the-cuff post - is that the debate that matters is not happening in these places.

The debate that matters occurs in the frenzy of a packed Senate, or as a hurried remark in the packed agenda of an education committee. It's here that throwaway phrases like 'of course all our students are digital natives' lodge and take hold as infective ear worms in senior management.

"Digital economy," booms the VC as he gets into his limo, thinking that this will be music to JoJo's ears. "E-books," chirrups the registrar, dreaming that the east wing of the library would make a sparklingly nice hall of residence.*

We as critical digital humanists and pedagogues need continually to be on the defense against the casual conversation that slips these phrases and presumptions in.

* Any resemblance to real persons is entirely** coincidental.
* * Almost.

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