Archive for April, 2010

Visual Learning in HE

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

A special issue of on visual learning in Higher Education has just been published online, featuring a number of contributions from researchers at the Visual Learning Lab (VLL) in the University of Nottingham. Well worth a look.

It’s the first time I’ve come across this open-access online journal, in which contributors are encouraged to record a short video to introduce their papers (several of my fellow student interns filmed the videos for the VLL). Whilst providing a useful summary of each paper (a sort of visual abstract), the videos offer a more informal and personal engagement with the authors. A nice touch.

Digital Identit(y/ies): A Postmodernist Perspective

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

In researching approaches to digital identity, I recently came across a model which I found particularly interesting. In their schema of experiential learning, Usher, Bryant et al. (1996) describe how lifelong learning can be understood in relation to two continua (autonomy to adaptation, and application to expression) which create four specific contemporary social practices: lifestyle, confessional, vocational, and critical.

The idea of identity formation is particularly evident in the two opposing practices of the confessional and the critical:

Confessional Practice

Drawing largely on Foucault’s notion of the ‘confession’ – which they describe as a “ritual that unfolds within a power relationship” – Edwards and Usher (2001) argue that in a confessional practice, the learner adopts the dominant socio-economic environment. In a process where the “externally imposed discipline has given way to the self-discipline of an autonomous subjectivity,” (12-13) the learner is disempowered in accepting the dominant (or often solitary) model of learning, aligning his subjectivities with formal educational discourses to articulate his own learning needs. Here, the pedagogic emphasis is on self-improvement, self-development and self-evaluation, which Tenant (2009) observes is particularly manifest in learning plans and portfolio development. This promotes a modernist notion of identity; one that is stable, unified, coherent and developmental.

Critical Practice

Critical perspectives argue that – unlike in the confessional practice, where empowerment is illusory – practice authenticates empowerment through self and social transformation. Autonomy is achieved through questioning, challenging and potentially changing (rather than adapting to) particular learning contexts. Meanings are not a given, but are produced through discursive practices (Tenant, 2009). Corresponding literature on critical pedagogies emphasises the politics of representation in the cultural processes of learning and education, and sees representation of self as a socially and politically constituted agent that shapes identity formation. Edwards and Usher (2001) see critical practice as promoting a postmodernist perspective which understands culture as an ongoing process, in a state of constant flux, and recognises that identity can be multiple, fragmentary and pseudonomic.

So how does identity formation within these two practices translate to the formation of digital identities and reputations, and to the representation(s) of self on the social web?


Edwards, R., & Usher, R. (2001). Lifelong Learning: A Postmodern Condition of Education? Adult Education Quarterly. 51, 273-287.

Tennant, M. (2009). Lifelong learning as a technology of the self. In Illeris, K., Contemporary Theories of Learning. London: Routledge. 147-158.

Usher, R., Bryant, I., & Johnston, R. (1996). Adult Education and the Postmodern Challenge: Learning Beyond the Limits. London: Routledge.

Networks and Communities – Hot Seat Review

Monday, April 12th, 2010

I’ve just caught up with all of last week’s activity on Etienne Wenger’s hot seat; part of the online preamble to the Networked Learning Conference 2010. In his initial post, Wenger asked “what do the concepts of network and community mean to you?”

Whilst many of the early responses inevitably resembled kicking a semantic football around – networks as subsets of communities, and vice versa – some very interesting discussions emerged. Interestingly, several contributors assumed networks as personal, despite Wenger’s apparent original context – on two occasions he stressed “given a group” – requiring distinctions to be made between different types of networks. Theoretical concepts help define parameters necessary for research and developmental models, and Elvis Mazzoni stressed that our understanding of networks and communities is dependent on the theoretical perspectives and methods of analyses one adopts. But how useful are these in describing or explaining the messy reality of our academic or professional experiences?

I see myself as an increasingly active participant in what could be loosely defined as a community of practice; namely educational researchers at my University. We reside in different rooms, departments and buildings, and constitute a range of academic roles and foci, yet there is a sense of a collective endeavour defined by our academic discipline, and partly scaffold by institutional support systems. My trajectory is essentially one that started on the periphery, particularly having come into this from a different discipline.

At the same time I am equally, if not more so, engaged – in a largely self-directed way – in developing and maintaining highly distributed connections with students and professionals in my field and its peripheries, through the use of interrelated social media platforms and tools. Not only are these a core element of my studies, but also represent an extension to my immediate learning and research environments, challenging traditional academic practices of peer review and dissemination.

Rather than representing concrete reifications of community and network, I think these more resemble complex, shifting patterns of orientations. I think many of us operate like this, frequently negotiating between domains that are co-located and distributed, bounded and unbounded, formal and informal. In doing so, we are implementing and engaging in what can be loosely thought of as ‘community-orientated’ and ‘network-orientated’ activities. Similarly, Maarten de Laat referred to ‘aspects’ of community and network. These activities are interconnected, flexible and potentially conflicting (I liked Marteen’s idea of ‘convergence’ and ‘divergence’) – I’m not sure we are consciously distinguishing between the two, but they are both crucial.

Perhaps models like Activity Theory, with a focus on activities and processes, can provide workable analytic frameworks that cut across both concepts? Which reminds me that this week’s hot seat – hosted by Yrjo Engestrom – started today and should be just as interesting…