Alexa

image from https://www.amazon.in/Amazon-Echo-Smart-speaker-Powered/dp/B0725W7Q38

The family refer to Alexa as ‘she’ but there’s no sentience. Alexa is a form of artificial intelligence, built to respond to commands and presented as female. Unlike a sat nav, you can’t change the gender. This worries me. While some say the voice is androgynous, to me it sounds like a woman and I’m uncomfortable with this.

What also bothers me is how people talk to Alexa. The ability to demand an action, the lack of please and thank you, must be having an effect, in particular on young minds.

The family laugh at my concerns but the habit grows incredibly fast.  By the end of an hour I’m saying ‘Alexa, volume 4’ to turn down the music which she (see what I mean?) was told to find. It’s alarming how quickly new behaviours are embedded. You get in the car, and ask for the radio. This is how fast ways of being get altered.

Alexa is early technology.  This time next year it will have moved on, like the e-reader shifted from clunky keyboard to swipe screen. But where will Alexa move to?

image showing the first Kindle e-reader and a current one side by side

I’m beginning to feel I’m on the wrong side of the digital revolution.

Words like revolution and transformation should be used with care. Easy to throw into conversations, their significance gets diluted by repetition, but when it comes to the social impact of the internet, language like this is appropriate. However, the implications of digital development are not yet fully understood – or feared.

Sometimes it feels like we’re walking into dystopian futures with eyes wide open, but not seeing. Alexa is the beginning but do we really need apps linked to fridges to tell us when to buy milk, have remote control of household appliances or be so totally dependent on electronic systems for storing and accessing our hard-earned cash. Is it wise to have the administration of our lives resting on cables running under the ocean, in particular for accessing public services, health and welfare. Is it? Really?

I’ve long had concerns about the consequences of unequal access but even as I write these words, I’m aware they involve unspoken assumptions the digitisation of society is good. It has advantages to be sure. But what is it doing to relationships and the quality of interpersonal communication? How is it changing what it means to be human?

image showiing Siri logo
image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siri_icon.svg

I watch family interact with voice activation and the ways they use Siri on their devices. Actions which remove politeness and grace and replace them with commands. The technology we’re increasingly dependent on for the administration of day-to-day to life emerged from controlling weapons of war, the language of computers still reflect their military origins and remnants of this remain.

Failure to initialise. System error. Fatal exception. Corrupted file. This week I saw the message ‘You have aborted this video’. Then there’s the dreaded ‘Word is not responding’ followed by ‘Word is shutting down’ when you’re in the middle of a long document you haven’t saved for a few pages and Autorecovery is never as up to date as you need it to be!

image showing windows error message

We have less control over our devices than we think

If the machine was using us in 2007, think how much more it’s using us now!

Virtual reality is an artificial simulation but one at risk of being perceived as real. We think we know the difference but do we?

Spend an hour being disconnected. Extend the absence to a day or a week. How does it feel? I access my life through my laptop and struggle without it. This scares me but I can’t stop. Everything is online.

My Alexa weekend has got me thinking. Maybe we need to apply social theory to the digital domain. Revisit the social construction of technology. Theorise digital practice.

image showing steps on a pile of rubble
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/stairs-concrete-construction-1481394/

I drove to Manchester and where the M62 crosses the Pennines, the motorway becomes vulnerable to the weather. Its high up and exposed to cross winds. Snow quickly settles in the outside lane, where poor driving conditions increase risk of accidents as visibility worsens and the road surface is icy. Good drivers adjust their speed while others power on, feeling secure in their metal bubbles.

Motorway driving is dependent on individuals following the rules of the highway code. Keeping a safe stopping distance from the vehicles in front. Showing courtesy to other road users. A busy motorway is like an artery. So long as there’s no obstructions people should reach their destinations safely. But as we’re continuously told, hearts need to be kept healthy, with attention to diet and exercise supporting the free flow of oxygenated blood around the body.

image showing busy motorway junctions
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/architecture-buildings-cars-city-1837176/

Social life is not so different. It requires compassion. Care. Kindness. Understanding how little things matter, like when you’re driving and a stranger smiles as you stop at a pedestrian crossing, or a quick flash of the lights when someone les you out at a difficult junction, a hand raised in acknowledgement to say thank you.

Technology has long been a primary driver of social change. This can be good. Digital developments, where science, engineering and the arts come together, have the capacity to alter the world, make it a better place, one which supports individual health and happiness. So long as the ways in which the affordances aim to improve the human condition, not diminish it.

You can re-programme Alexa’s ‘wake-up’ but the default setting is a command.

‘Alexa’

Would it have been so hard to make ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a requirement of use? The ways in which technology usage can influence attitudes and actions are known yet it’s deemed ok to demand a service rather than request it.

People will talk to their device as they talk to others, and ‘Alexa’ can be said as a question as much as a command, but the lines are thin and blurred. Usage will be diverse and it seems a missed opportunity to build some kindness into what feels like an increasingly hostile world.

It bothers me that criticality appears to be waning and there’s an absence of digital mindfulness.

‘Alexa, what should we do?’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.’

image showing questions asking what, where, how, why
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/questions-font-who-what-how-why-2245264/

 


Kindle images from

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/Amazon_Kindle_-_Wikipedia.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kindle_Fire_web_browser_05_2012_1430.JPG

The week the internet was 30

image showing Sir Tim Berners Lee
image from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47524474

I’ve often wondered if what we call the internet keeps Sir Tim Berners Lee awake at night. Reading his open letter to the Web Foundation this week, it sounds like it might.

TBL writes ‘…the divide between those who are online and those who are not increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone.’ and calls for us to ‘…make sure it is recognised as a human right and built for the public good….making this happen should be a ‘priority agenda of our governments’

image showing the earth surrounded by digital networks
image from https://pixabay.com/en/network-earth-block-chain-globe-3537401/

I would suggest higher education also has a role to play. The undergraduates of today are the citizens of the future, which will be digital in ways we don’t yet know or understand. They should be given opportunities to develop digital graduate attributes which not only develop confidence with online environments but include opportunities to raise awareness of the impact of digital practice. This should be critically examined and promoted in ways which are accessible and inclusive because the digital is political.

The internet is about power and all students should have time to explore questions about who holds this power and what is done with it to affect the lives of others.

social media icons on a tree
image from  https://pixabay.com/en/tree-structure-networks-internet-200795/

Walk down any high street, take public transport, sit in a pub or a café and its clear how connectivity rules. The mobile device is ubiquitous. Not 100% but enough to represent social transformation.  In less than two decades we’ve become digitally connected, with everything done online being tracked, recorded and monitored. Data about our online activity underpins all internet transactions. Online lives are exposed through browser histories with all transactions leaving permanent digital footprints. Bentham’s panoptican has been reinvented for a digital society. The all seeing eye is virtual.

Orwell and Foucault were right!

image showing the panopticon
image from http://foucault.info/doc/documents/disciplineandpunish/foucault-disciplineandpunish-panopticism-html

The early pioneers of the world wide web saw it as an opportunity to create democracy and give everyone a voice, in particular those previously silenced. While  evidence shows there are places where this has happened, the fact remains that patterns of internet access mirror existing forms of marginalisation.  Digital exclusion is a 21st century form of discrimination where those without equitable access are disempowered. But this is not the only problem society faces.

TBL identifies three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web:

  • Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
  • System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of
  • Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

The Contract for the Web declares ‘governments, companies and citizens around the world can help protect the open web as a public good and a basic right for everyone.’ It calls for everyone to commit to a number of principles. Taking a few minutes to read and sign up is to make a commitment towards understanding what you do online matters.

google icon seen through a magnifying glass

image from https://pixabay.com/en/magnifying-glass-google-76520/

The contract is not only aimed at governments and corporations, there are individual responsibilities for citizens who can agree to the following.

  • Be creators and collaborators on the web so the web has rich and relevant content for everyone.
  • Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity so that everyone feels safe and welcome online.
  • Fight for the web so the web remains open and a global public resource for people everywhere, now and in the future.

For every advantage the internet offers, there are disadvantages. The internet is a mirror of society with all its benefits and horrors. If we want to make a positive difference, we can commit to ensuring our use of the internet prioritises those values which promote public good.

As internet users, we all have a responsibility to ensure not only equality of access but attention to the ways that access is used.

As the web reaches the age of 30, this week is an opportune time to raise discussion and debate about these issues. Visiting the Contract for the Web would be useful place to begin.

life ring against a stormy sea
image from https://pixabay.com/en/ocean-coast-spray-surge-2530692/

On the development of digital practice…

black and white image showing piles of paper files and documents
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/files-paper-office-paperwork-stack-1614223/

241 pages (without the front bits and bibliography)

77298 words (and rising)

My thesis is now in a single word file and beginning to look serious. But never mind the research; it’s the section breaks and captions which are defeating me.

In case you’re wondering, don’t rely on cross references transferring when you merge chapter files. The table links broke. Why? I have no idea but I have to recaption them again. As for trying to insert landscape pages within portrait ones or an Abstract page without messing up existing numbering or heading styles  – it isn’t happening.

My advice?

Good luck!

Each thesis will be different and if you don’t have a pre-formatted  template which expands and adjusts as you add content, then you’re on your own.

image from https://pixabay.com/photos/typewriter-mechanical-retro-vintage-407695/

I’ve been word processing since the DOS version of Wordstar and WordPerfect 5.1. Pre-windows. I thought I knew my way around the ribbons and menus of Word which I’ve been using since Windows 95 but I don’t.

l couldn’t achieve my aims, couldn’t keep asking colleagues for help, and could feel my confidence levels dropping. This reinforced how digital literacies are situational. We know what we need to know and this knowledge is only transferable if we want to do the same thing somewhere different. Even with the help of google, and years of working with programmes like Flash, Dreamweaver, and WordPress, I’ve struggled to format this document the way I want it.

Because I’m dealing with editing tools I havent used before.

I used to proofread research papers for medical journals. I didn’t understand the words but was good at spotting inconsistent spelling and although my supervisor might be surprised, I always thought my punctuation and grammar was good enough. When it comes to text I know my way around the alphabet but give me a page of numerical data and I break out in a cold sweat.

image showing black and white numbers
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/calendar-date-time-month-week-660670/

We know what we know.

When it comes to something new, education theory suggests effective learning comes through applying new knowledge to what is already known, in ways which make sense to us as individuals. Success comes from situations which are contextual.

I believe experiential learning is key to becoming digitally fluent.

For some time, I’ve been immersed in data. NVivo has been another challenge. Anyone whose used it will be familiar with ‘Environment Change Down East’, This is their in-package training programme. It’s well made and shows what can be done with regard to data analysis. However, the chances are your data will be different and applying the principles from these tutorials is not always as seamless as they suggest.

I never want to see NVivo again!

image showing sets of black words on a white background
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/social-media-media-board-networking-1989152/

My research is practice-led. Participants were enrolled on my online teacher education courses; Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age (TELEDA). This meant researcher and researched were all embedded within the environment being studied, which was digital practice. How do staff teaching and supporting learning conceptualise higher education? What influences their attitudes and actions? I was particularly interested to work alongside the later adopters of learning technologies, whose voices and experiences are often excluded from a literature privileging the innovators and early adopters. How did participants negotiate shifts in their digital practice? What could I do to encourage engagement in the digital world of teaching and learning in 21st century?

A 12 month HEA Change Academy programme exploring the adoption of open educational resources showed me how the most resistant of colleagues found new ways to engage with digital tools and platforms. Approaching digital development from a contextual position, and directly working alongside students, rather than an isolated technology-first training approach which focused on the how rather than the why, proved to be transformative. TELEDA emerged from seeing first-hand the power of experiential learning to support change.

image showing the words 'the next step' chalked onto a blackboard
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/board-step-each-other-following-1273117/

In these days of review and restructure, it seems investment in the digital practice of staff teaching and supporting learing is first to go. There appears to be a growing assumption that digital literacy is a given. After all, we live in an increasingly digital society, where public services are digital-by-default and everyone is going online to manage all the aspects of their lives. The need to address digital skill sets seems to be less of a requirement.

I get this.

My research suggested participants were in possession of digital capital. The later adopters could communicate and collaborate in online environments and were aware of the advantages for students of any-time, any-place access through devices of choice. But specific application of this digital capital to pedagogic development was not seamless.  My recent experiences with NVivo and formatting a large and complex document appeared to reinforce the situational nature of digital practice.

cartoon showing a person facing angry technology with the caption The Battle we all Face

If, with all my digital experience, I was struggling with section breaks and cross referencing because they represented areas I was unfamiliar with, then how can institutions expect their staff to make use of virtual environments for anything other than what they already know.

The literature of digital education speaks of independent student-centred learning through the construction of activities which support the co-production and co-construction of knowledge, but the scholarship of teaching and learning appears to be lacking a digital domain.

It seems there’s a gap between what could be done and the reality of day-to-day practice, while investment in the development of digitally confident practitioners appears to be returning to technology-first approaches.

There’s an increasing focus on measurement of engagement through counting logins and downloads of recorded lectures rather than creating time and opportunities to explore questions such as what do you want your students to do and which pedagogic approaches are best suited to achieving this – with or without technology but it’s 2019, the tech is going to be in there somewhere. It just needs a more situated view of developing digital practice, one which is embedded within individual context.

image showing technology and coffee
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/technology-tablet-digital-tablet-792180/

Experiential learning works but it takes time and resources. It needs a sociological imagination, one which makes the familiar strange through critical, reflexive questioning. We’re all digital citizens but with citizenship comes a responsibility for  to ensure equality.

I think the principles of inclusion can be usefully applied to digital development within higher education. Access appears to be a given but what’s too often missing is relevant and meaningful opportunities to critically examine the ways in which access is used.

In the meantime, I have section breaks to return to…

image showing the section breaks menu in MS Word

digital presence as an indicator of digital capital

image showing two sheet facing each other
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/sheep-bleat-communication-2372148/

The Community of Inquiry model suggests successful online education requires cognitive, teaching and social presences.  I’d agree that designing around this combination is a useful starting point for any online activity.

However, I’d also suggest another presence is essential.

Digital presence.

In a Community of Inquiry context, including digital presence would ensure staff and students were prepared for the digital dimensions of teaching and learning online, and in possession of the prerequisite digital capabilities.

But I see digital presence as more than practical knowledge because how we work online influences access to other resources. Opportunities for networking, publication, research, teaching and learning can all happen in ways which privilege those with digital connectivity and the confidence to use it. I’m still thinking it through – hence this blog post – but suggest digital presence can be aligned with digital capital.

image shpowing a hand holding a blue ball covered with social media icons
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/social-media-icon-hand-keep-2489594/

I use this in the Bourdieusian sense to extend his ideas around social and cultural capital to the digital domain. A digital society requires increasing amounts of digital practice, but how often do we stop and think about what is happening? How many times do we automatically log on without considering the implications of our actions, the extent of the divides being created or what might be missing through being digitally disengaged?

I have analogue roots. This means I don’t take connectivity for granted but I do appreciate the affordances of digital access at a time, place and device of choice, in particular how this offers genuine opportunities to widen participation. For all the ways in which higher education is changing, I still believe in its capacity for making a positive  contribution to individual lives, which in turn will influence the future society our graduates will make.

My career has been built around supporting digital education development. The lack of attention to the ways in which digital practice is understood has always concerned me. Digital diversity risks differential student experiences at a time when the development of digital graduate attributes should be at the heart of curriculum design.

image showing black open umbrellas surrounding a central yellow one
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/umbrella-yellow-black-white-1588167/

Considering digital presence as an indicator of digital capital may be one way to address this.

Digital difference has multiple layers in particular the ways in which online activity enhances or diminishes social and cultural capital, described by Bourdeiu as ‘the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.’ (Bourdieu, 1983: 249)

In other words, capital is the knowledge and skills which bestow status and power. Digital capital creates digital presence and in today’s society, this matters. Having digital presence creates tangible outcomes which relate to other forms of capital.

Society privileges the digitally fluent and marginalises others.

So digital presence is attitudinal as well as behavioural. It involves tangible qualities like identity and performance but also the ways digital practices are embodied, cumulative, transferable and potentially transformative.

Transformation in relation to digital practice is contentious. Claims which conflate them are risky. For too long, virtual learning environments have been presented as having transformational qualities when actual usage is more about management and control of administrative functions. In higher education, risk derives from focusing on technology-drivers rather than pedagogy-first pathways.

image showing a baby elephant being taught to go into the water
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/elephant-young-watering-hole-2380009/

Teaching is a complex, socially situated activity, dependent on multiple perspectives, skills and experience. Transfer the requirements of effective teaching and learning online and they multiply in ways which are not always fully addressed. The practical wisdom associated with the literature of educational practice requires digital dimensions which are too often excluded from traditional  approaches to supporting academic development.

Understanding and building digital presence could be a way to address this.

Bourdieu suggests the ‘peculiarity of cultural capital’ exists in forms which are ‘embodied, objectified, or institutionalized.’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 119). The word ’embodied’ always makes me think of Foucault and his conception of coercive power. Individuals appearing to willingly conform to social discourse through the adoption of daily practices and routines or ‘technologies of the self’ (Foucault, 1982).  even where these repllcate and reinforce disadvantage or disempowerment. Practice, in particular digital practice, is inextricably linked to the possession of social and cultural capital which in turn relates to power.

Back to Bourdieu who used the terms ‘habitus‘ and ‘field’ for this interplay between structure and agency. These relationships are often internalised. Like a fish takes water for granted, social and cultural positioning can be accepted because it operates below the level of consciousness. However, it can be known through critical reflection and analysis, which should be the heart of a higher education experience. .

image showing binary code
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/ball-http-www-crash-administrator-63527/

In 21st century, all social theory has digital dimensions and structures of power and control contain within themselves the possibility of change. Understanding the origins of discourse creates opportunities to challenge it. A society with increasing digital dependency should have equitable access at its heart. Teaching and learning is a great place to embed digitally inclusive practice which is not limited to accessing technology but is about the ways in which it’s used. Digital capital is made visible by degrees of digital presence.

Rather than assume everyone has the skills and confidence of the innovators and early adopters, we should pay more attention to the later adopters and the parameters of resistance. There is much to learn from studying the diversity of digital practice and the extend to which digital presence is developed may be a useful conceptual tool for supporting these discussions.

 

References 

Bourdieu, P., 1983. Forms of capital. In: Richards, J.C. (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Greenwood Press, New York.; Coleman.

Bourdieu, P., Wacquant, L.J.D., 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Foucault, M. Technologies of the Self.” Lectures at University of Vermont Oct. 1982, in Technologies of the Self, 16-49. Univ. of Mass­a­chu­sets Press, 1988.