Nov 222015
Distraction or Attention Adjustment?

I have a nagging sense of anxiety that someone is going to tap me on the shoulder and ask me why, when my students are paying £9k fees, that I should be asking them to play cards at the beginning of their workshop sessions for TECH1002 Social Media & Technology?

So this week when we were playing a quick hand at the start of the workshop session, I spent some time chatting and asking what learners thought about starting the workshop sessions with game of Rummy, or Chase the Ace?

I got some useful feedback, and while a small number of students would rather just get stuck in to the tasks specified for the workshop session, most told me that they are happy to have the option to keep playing for the following reasons.

Most told me that they feel that by playing cards they have spoken with a wider range of people than they would have if they had just come in to the computer lab to work. The normal practice is to sit at a computer, stare at the screen and follow the instructions that are dictated and explained by the tutor.

By allocating the students into random groups they told me that they have been able to chat with people that they would never have spoken with before, and that they have a wider sense of who is on their course because they have been able to introduce themselves informally as they learn and play different games.

There’s also a belief that the twenty minutes or so that we play cards, gives learners time to wake-up and adjust to the attention requirements of the workshop.

Some learners come straight from an intense lecture or workshop session for another module, so this short break allows them to readjust their mind and ease into the style of thinking that we are exploring as part of this module. After all, it is social media!

I suggested that cards are a great way to do this because playing a card game doesn’t require our full attention, only part of it, while we chat and discuss issues that are relevant, or even just catch up.

I try to give a subject of conversation each week, such as who their favorite artists might be, or how they share their music. It seems like these conversations are becoming more focused and the learners make adjustments to their awareness of the ideas that are being presented to them in the lectures.

The other useful thing about playing cards is that while some learners have played cards a lot in the past, with their friends and family on a regular basis, many have not. So it’s been a process of collaborative learning, as new games are explored and the rules to different games are shared.

It looks like I’ll have to buy some new card sets because the ones that we have been using are getting worn out.

Overall I’m glad I introduced this technique this year, because for me it feels less of a battle of wills to achieve a sense of focus and engagement with the subjects the module is covering.

It also seems that attendance is holding up as well, as the loosening of the task-orientation that I’ve employed previously, has given learners a greater sense of social identity that is more agreeable to them than just expecting them to get on with their work.

Obviously they are getting on with their work, and the greater sense of trust between the learners and myself is helping to make this a process one that is self-motivated rather than directed with a heavy hand by me.

So, while I’m still anxious, I’m more confident I can explain why this has been a positive learning experience for both the learners and myself.

Nov 072015
Grabbing a Coffee Before Heading to Liverpool

I’ve escaped from Leicester for a couple of days to take a break over the weekend and recharge my batteries. Rather like Superman when he stands in the suns glare, I will head towards the River Mersey and stand at the Pier Head and take in the spray of salt water, the cold wind whipping off the Irish Sea, and contemplate the slate grey sky that forms the backdrop to the Liverpool seafront.

I’ve been enjoying running my modules this year, and have settled into the themes with more confidence, as I’ve been able to develop them and add content that is more to my liking and my tastes. It’s a challenge to run three modules simultaneously, and to refresh the content as I go along. ‘It’s doing the working and the thinking that tires a fellow out!’ Now where did I hear that?

One of the things I’ve introduced to my first year social media module is getting the students to play cards for the first twenty minutes. It’s been useful for a couple of reasons. Firstly it means that the learners are able to sit and chat and get to know one another more easily, as the groups vary each week, and they often teach each other different games. Some students have played cards with their families and friends for years, while others are new to them. What I hope they are gaining from having a couple of short hands of either Pontoon, Rummy, Blackjack or Bullshit, is a sense of sociability and a sense of collaboration while engaging in something that is playful and distracting.

I always introduce a topic of suggested conversation related to the lectures I’ve delivered, and as we’ve been finding our way into thinking about media and the process of mediation through bands like The Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Roxy Music and The Art of Noise, then we’ve been discussing how art has often been closely associated with pop culture. So we’ve mentioned Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, and Italian Futurists – anything that connects the world of popular music with the world of ideas, alternative ways of viewing the world. I’m hoping that by looking back on some music movements of the past, these students might be inspired to create something for themselves. I wonder if any of them will form a band, or write a manifesto?

Likewise, I’m developing an introductory module to Community Media, which is something that has emerged from the ongoing PhD work. It’s a bit like building the railway line as the train is moving down the tracks. There’s a lot of trying things out and looking for live wires that can be used as a contrasting example between mainstream media, and community media’s more DIY and alternative approach. The students have hit on the idea quite quickly that community media is about giving a platform and a space for people who would otherwise not have a voice to speak and be heard.

We are experimenting with a story about people cycling on the pavement, and looking at how mainstream media in Leicester have covered it, and how alternative and independent media might look at this as a story. We’ll write blogs about it, perhaps put a news article together based on what we find out, and record a podcast based on the ideas and responses that can be collected and found when we talk with our friends and neighbours.

I’ve also been developing the final year social media module, that has taken the excessive use of sugar in our diets as a campaign issue, and is looking at ways that social media might be used to change peoples attitudes to the processed foods that we over-consume as a society. Our efforts where given a good kick this week when Keith Vaz MP told Coca Cola that their Christmas lorry wasn’t welcome in Leicester. This is a story that has stirred up a lot of controversy and has generated loads of comments on social media, and is a great example of how embedded attitudes to a consumer product and brand can be difficult to shift and change.

We are only at the end of week five, and there is some considerable way to go with these modules, with lots of marking and assignments to come in. So I’m going to use the week six reading week as an opportunity to get some reading done myself, start some marking, and maybe get ahead in preparing some classes, while also seeing if I can work through some of my PhD chapters that need writing. So no rest then, but at least I’m not on the hamster wheel for a couple of days.

Nov 062015
Music For Misfits BBC Four

Occasionally a television programme comes along that frames a discussion I’ve had going on in my head and allows me to give my students a wider view of the ideas I’m trying to convey. So when I say Music For Misfits – The Story of Indie on BBC Four, I nearly fell off my chair.

It’s difficult to convey a sense of connection and correspondence about a social and cultural movement when it is happening, so being able to look back at different periods of popular culture and make sense of them both retrospectively and from a broader viewpoint is incredibly useful.

Music For Misfits covers the story of independent music and the DIY approach to promoting media by people who are outside of the mainstream music industry. Bands like The Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Big in Japan and Orange Juice are all given a good airing. What’s fascinating is the way that these forms of media are all pre-digital, pre-Photoshop and pre-ProTools.

Bill Drummond Explaining Zoo Records

Bill Drummond Explaining Zoo Records

This was a form of media that was discovered rather than planned. There where no conferences about how to succeed in the music and media industries in the late seventies and early eighties. You couldn’t go and sign up for a course in digital photography, or live performance management combined with digital composition. This was a period when the rules and the conventions where created by a small group of chancers who tried something that felt good to them, but which wasn’t expected to make them into multi-millionaires.

I’m hoping that the students on TECH1002 Social Media & Technology gain a sense that the media tools and distribution systems that we have now put them in a privileged position whereby they can express themselves and make media so easily and consistently. Looking back at the pioneers, allowing for some distance and breadth of view may hopefully inspire some to push their own ideas, their own concepts more, rather than simply thinking that they are on an escalator into the creative industries – because it doesn’t work like that.

Nov 052015

As a way of developing a greater sense of sociability, I’ve been starting my workshop sessions for TECH1002 Social Media & Technology by getting my students to play cards. It’s been an interesting experience each week as the term has progressed, as students sit in small groups and share their knowledge of different types of games, such as Rummy, Pontoon, Bullshit and other games.

There’s an interesting dynamic as different groups take on different kinds of approaches. There is the serious group who look like they are sitting in a late-night poker session psyching each other out, then there is the fun group who want to play Irish Snap, with it’s loud interventions and calls. What’s certain though, is that each of the groups get talking and discussing the games, learning from each other and helping each other out to improve the games.

Based on the lecture that takes place in the middle of the week, I’ve been asking my students to discuss an idea while they play cards. This week, after talking about how ZTT Records based their notion of pop culture on the Futurist Manifesto, I wanted to know what they would include in their own manifesto of intent that they would use to guide how they produce media for themselves.

When we get back after the enhancement week, I’m going to ask if we should continue to play cards at the beginning of each session, and in what ways we can develop the use of cards as a quick way to relax and think about the topics we are covering in the module.

Oct 192015
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I’ve been updating my profile on the DMU Commons Wiki. I usually detest doing these things, writing in the third-person about myself, but somehow putting my professional information into a wiki is a lot easier and looks a lot smarter than I thought it would look. Although I’ve only just started to add information and links, it made me realise just how much work I’ve been doing over the last couple of years, and what an interesting and innovative academic base it stems from. As I write more and give more examples of the work I’ve done, I’ll keep posting them on the wiki.

May 142015
Email is a Tyranny?

I caused some consternation earlier this year when I told my students that I did not want them to email me unless it was an emergency. At the start of the academic year I made an announcement in one of my lectures and labs that I would not answer any emails unless the senders arms or legs where falling off – yeah, a genuine emergency.

This caused something of a rumpus, because it seems students are expecting, or have grown used to the idea, that a lot of their contact with their tutors will be done by email. When they have a question or need to solve a problem, often the first thing that students expect is to be able to email their tutor.

This seems reasonable on the face of things, but as Cary Cooper points out in an excellent article in The Guardian, we are in danger of allowing email to become an “unending electronic overload” that damages our work-life balance, and therefore our mental health.

I explained to my students that I would not be sitting at home checking my emails while I watch Strictly Come Dancing (not that I do). Nor would I be issuing guidance and instructions for the completion of assignments as I sit in bed with my novel before I go to sleep.

Instead, I suggested that we do what every other generation of scholars have done, and that any questions anyone might have gets written into a notebook, and then the questions are asked in our workshop sessions, either as part of our group discussion or in an individual basis. Or, if that wasn’t felt to be appropriate, students could come and see me at one of my three office-hour sessions I had available each week.

I can’t blame my students for their reaction, because like most workplaces and universities, email has become the default form of communication. The problem is that it has reached the level of absurdity, with thousands of emails being sent, complex instructions being issued, and a general lack of face-to-face contact as a result. As Gary Cooper makes clear

“Email and social media have served a very important purpose in the workplace, and have been an enabler in communications and virtual work relationships. The downsides, however, now outweigh the benefits, and these include: unmanageable workloads (when faced with an excessive email inbox), the loss of face-to-face relationships with colleagues; and the misuse of emails to avoid having face-to-face discussions about difficult work-related issues. As Einstein once wrote: ‘I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction, the world will then have a generation of idiots.’”

In ditching email as a primary form of contact with my learners, however, I’ve been able to focus on the direct, face-to-face interaction. This works so much better. Being able to speak directly with one another, being able to look in each other’s eyes, questioning and double-checking what’s being said, rather than assuming that we have understood each other in the flurry of electronic messages.

There is a very important lesson for us all in recognising that remote-control learning and email management doesn’t work, and so I will be pursuing this approach in the scholarship experiences that I design for next year’s learners. Lets get people talking directly to one another, then our learning will be less overloading and we can, most importantly, directly acknowledge our personal successes.

Mar 122015
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Are people who want to use selfie sticks getting unfairly treated in public spaces? It looks like the latest social media technology that has spread among users of camera-phones, are getting it in the neck for wanting to enhance their photographs when they go visiting public places and galleries. According to the BBC “The National Gallery in London has banned selfie sticks. The gallery says it has placed them in the same category as tripods, which are banned ‘in order to protect paintings, individual privacy and the overall visitor experience’”

It seems that users of selfie sticks have broken some kind of taboo? A taboo that says that we shouldn’t be so obvious when we take our self-images using our phones? But what are we expected to do, I’m not so sure? For such a simple piece of equipment, the radical change that the selfie stick affords is quite dramatic. Selfie sticks allow users to situate themselves within the place that they are visiting. In a way the selfie stick breaks the rules that means that people should be dutiful and respectful of the environment they are in, and that they should act with a high-degree of public decorum.

According to the Guardian, “a spokeswoman for the National Gallery said staff had been told to help enforce the ban. She said: ‘Photography is allowed for personal, non-commercial purposes in the National Gallery – however, there are a few exceptions in order to protect paintings, copyright of loans, individual privacy and the overall visitor experience. Therefore the use of flash and tripods is not permitted’”

Instead, the selfie stick allows an individual or a small group of friends to take control of the photo-moment for themselves in a completely inclusive way. Rather than one person being behind the camera to take an image, the selfie stick is inclusive and participatory, and allows the entire group to be included in the photo. No more missing mums or dads, taking turns to capture a picture of the family that they are a part of, but otherwise forced to be behind the camera.

“Selfie sticks are the wildly popular extending rods that can be fitted with a smartphone for a different angle self-portrait.” Time Magazine suggests that “they’ve been banned at a number of museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Washington D.C.’s National Gallery. The Centre Pompidou and the Louvre are considering bans”

The taker’s of these selfies become much more active participants in the environment that they are visiting. No longer determined by the dynamic of just snapping what’s in front of the visitors, we can now include ourselves in the vista and the setting. The wide-angle lens affords a wider view of the scene, and we can respond to one another in a more natural manner, rather than posing for a formal image in the traditional portrait manner.

USNEWS suggests that “’Selfie sticks’ have now been banned at a French palace and a British museum, joining a growing list of global tourist attractions to take such measures. The devices are used to improve snapshots, but critics say they are obnoxious and potentially dangerous. Officials at Palace of Versailles outside Paris, and Britain’s National Gallery in London, announced the bans Wednesday, saying they need to protect artworks and other visitors”

So before anyone wants to ban the use of selfie sticks in other public places, just consider for moment what you would be trashing. The active participation of people as a social group who have strong social ties, and that are embedded in a location or a venue. How can anyone complain about that?

Feb 192015

One of the best tools I’ve used online in recent years is Zotero, the web reference management tool that allows me to capture links and web pages for use later in my lectures, research and blogs.

The good thing with Zotero is it’s free and can sync to different PCs that I have. This means I can keep all my tags coordinated across all my devices and update them wherever I am.

Zotero is designed as a reference management tool, so I can create bibliographies automatically in different formats. I tend to use Harvard, so it’s a good tool for an exptended list of online articles I can share with my students.

It’s not difficult to get into the habit of using, and when I’m reading articles online each morning, I make a point of saving them in the different folders I’ve categorised in Zotero, so I know where I’m looking for stuff.

Zotero is no completely integrated into my daily routine, and I can band out a reference list at the touch of a button.