Archive for July, 2013

Site Building, Sample Content and Cultural Bias

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Recent work (in Moodle) has got me thinking about the role of sample content when developing online participatory sites/platforms. The inclusion of initial content (text, images, links, resources etc.) helps kick-start a new site – contextualising the functionality of specific components (such as a blog, a forum thread or a repository) and acting as exemplars for subsequent use. However, should we assume that what we choose to add, and how we add it, is neutral, or is it inherently biased? How much do we – intentionally or unintentionally – influence and potentially determine parameters for continued practice? It seems to me, there are a number of interrelated factors worth considering here:

Default vs. Bespoke
Platforms may incorporate default content added by the developer (think of a ‘sample post’ on a new blog), but creating bespoke sample content allows it to be relevant to the specific context of the site. However, it might sometimes be considered advantageous to fall back on ‘decontextualised’ content, to reduce risks associated with establishing cultural norms.

A single sample of content may be sufficient to demonstrate the functional role of any given component but fundamentally constrains the cultural diversity that multiple samples will enable. However, multiple samples that are similar or repetitive can serve to emphasise cultural norms by their uniformity.

The identity and the number of contributors is a related factor here. Sample content is often added to a new site by a single contributor, whereas multiple contributors will promote diversity. But how representative will they (choose to) be of the intended user group? This raises issues of authenticity. It is possible for a single contributor to fabricate multiple users and aliases.

If the site is intending to facilitate activities or resources that are replacing or updating current practice, sample content may be transferrable from existing sources.

As exemplars, sample content may be temporary; to be deleted at a further date in time once subsequent (and more contextually pertinent) content has been added.

The design and customisability of the platform will to an extent determine opportunities for creating sample content. Some platforms may have well-established norms of use that one may want to either reinforce or challenge. In addition, one has to be aware of the potential influence of participants’ familiarity with a specific platform – or with a similar site in another context – in engendering habitual practice.

There is a danger of launching and promoting a new site with minimal content and then sitting back and expecting things to happen. A more sustained timescale, in which sample content is added continually, might better create the appearance of an active, dynamic site.

Sample content is typically utilised in the components, processes and scenarios explored during prototyping or initial design stages, and helps facilitate decisions related to functionality, navigation and layout etc. Therefore the above factors are determined, to an extent, by the design process or framework one chooses to adopt. In particular, a participatory design model may involve participants in the selection and/or production of sample content. Indeed, beyond initial prototyping and the ‘launch’ of a new site, they may continue – either informally as ‘early adopters,’ or through formal ‘mentorship or stewardship’ roles – to be the principal content managers, maintaining the momentum of the site’s activity, and influencing cultural norms to the extent that they establish best practices.

Thinking about interdisciplinarity and compromise

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

In a new article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Nigel Thrift documents the apparent rise of ‘compromise’ as an emerging intellectual trend, driven by a new political pragmatism and the interconnectedness of increasingly globalized societies. He concludes with potential implications for Higher Education:

We can see the foundations being laid for a public conversation that unites universities’ academic discourse with a new appreciation of certain forms of political conduct, in ways that could ultimately prove genuinely productive.

There are clearly implications here for the nature of dialogue and collaboration between academics and external partners. But Thrift’s notion of compromise offers an interesting perspective with which we might equally view different aspects of interdisciplinary practice.

Terms such as interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are often used interchangeably, though these are distinct definitions (see for example, Dyer, 2003, Stock & Burton, 2011). In representing increasing levels of integration, each of these essentially describe what disciplinary values, beliefs and practices are contested, i.e. how much are participating academics willing to compromise.

If, as Thrift suggests, compromise constitutes “a set of productive alliances that are only ever loosely brought together through various acts of diplomacy,” two things occur to me.

Firstly, how the apparent ‘distance’ between participating disciplines is conceptualised. There is, for example, an increasingly rich heritage of collaboration between the Arts and the Sciences, though from my own limited experience, projects often explore largely abstract ideas at a thematic or conceptual level. Contrast that with, say, activities associated with the learning sciences, in which participating disciplines (typically education, psychology and the computer sciences) tend to engage in purposeful, problem-based practice, potentially exposing raw disciplinary differences.

Secondly, Thrift references Robert E. Goodin’s book, On Settling, which posits a ‘making do’ attitude; accepting when something is ‘good enough’. It may be easier to ‘make do’ with compromising disciplinary values in relatively short term, project-based activities than it is when committing to establishing sustainable long-term collaborative practice and generating new knowledge.


Dyer, J. A. (2003). Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary: educational models and nursing education. Nursing Education Perspectives, 24(4), 186-188.

Stock, P., & Burton, R. J. F. (2011). Defining terms for integrated (multi-inter-trans-disciplinary) sustainability research. Sustainability, 3, 1090-1113.