You are #neverweird – thanks for a wonderful listen @feliciaday

imageHaving finished reading/listening to a new memoir by Felicia Day – You are never weird on the Internet (almost) – I wanted to note my thanks. So here goes:

I’ve never met you, Felicia Day, but I am grateful to you for adding your voice to the story of the Internet, of gaming, of women working in tech-focused industries and for sharing your story of incredible achievement against many odds.
It’s inspiring to read how hard making things happen can be and how the generosity and engagement of your community has made things possible. It’s important I think to tell stories about living, working and playing with technology both good and bad.

If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy it. I certainly did. The only draw back is that it will probably be a decade or two until the sequel is published…

Fictional learning places #blimage

#blimageIt’s been inspiring to follow people’s thoughts #blimage and with some encouragement for which I am grateful, I’m using this opportunity to make a contribution of my own. If you’re new to what’s happening #blimage I’ve included more info at the end of this post.

I’ve not chosen an image for my inspiration, I have ended up choosing stories instead. I hope that still counts and for me the pictures stories conjured up in my mind have been a powerful force for shaping my perspective on education. So here I am sharing some of my favourite fictional places/stories about places of learning:

First up, the Unseen University from the Discworld universe Terry Pratchett created. Over time, this university has been a fertile battleground for tradition and innovation, from the admission of women wizards to participating in community activities and its uneasy relationship with its home city and the world at large – the Unseen University for me is one of the richest reflections of Higher Education.

More traditional and still more peculiarly British is the Oxbridge of for example Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited, where sun-dappled quads are over-looked by student lodgings – or the stories of university life chronicled by Stephen Fry echoing Oscar Wilde. Or the starting point for the adventures of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. The setting of so many myths and stories of learning and living in an era which still comes to life at times in the Oxford I work in today when the streets fill with undergraduates in black gowns. Growing up and later when I was at university myself, the image of yellow stone and ancient libraries, of tutorials and essay writing, has always coloured my image of what a university can be.

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book meanwhile creates a tutorial system staffed largely by the undead for a human boy living in a cemetery. In this story he learns about the world, history, maths and how to survive his adventures guided by a vampire.

My most recent favourite discovery however is The University as imagined by Patrick Rothfuss in his ongoing series starting with the Name of the Wind. Not only does it contain the wonderfully expansive Archives (complete with a story arc about the competing classification systems used to catalogue its various collections) but it becomes one of the main sites for the adventures of the main protagonist, its rooftops, surrounds and not least its population of students and staff. It’s interesting that in order to learn what he must know, the main character ends up travelling in the world – seeking what he can’t find in books or lectures.

There are so many more stories that I haven’t mentioned that I think this thread may continue – but if nothing else I must carefully plan my own reading for the weekend. Suggestions for further reading always welcome 🙂

#blimage from the blog of David Hopkins:

“…if this is the first time you’ve come across #blimage, here’s a brief summary of what it is. In short, Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth), in conversations Amy Burvall (@amyburvall) and Simon Ensor (@sensor63), started the #blimage challenge, which is:

“a confection of Blog-Image. (Yes, we are now in the age of blim!) You send an image or photograph to a colleague with the challenge that they have to write a learning related blog post based on it. Just make sure the images aren’t too rude. The permutations are blimmin’ endless.”

– See more at:

Things I got #rhizo15 – thank you

#Rhizo15 Over the past few weeks I’ve been participating in an open course on rhizomatic learning #rhizo15. Now that it’s sadly come to an end this week, here’re some reflections on my experience – not really just of the course, but how participating has contributed to my practice:

Getting involved… well, I started a bit late and joined in at week 2, I think. I was curious mostly – that’s why I thought I’d get involved. I had a look around and decided not to use facebook, mainly because I don’t, and instead follow the conversation on Twitter and blog posts. I started doing some drawings and posts myself when I found I wanted to make my own voice heard, which I enjoyed. Being in the open… was a mixed experience for me. On the upside I made some great connections, found a lot of interesting things and got very generous feedback and comments. Confidence building and stimulating on the whole. However the kind of open conversation and thinking can be hard to get into when day to day your work isn’t like that and it took me some time to find the right space in my day and in my head to engage with what was going on. Being a learner on an equal footing… is probably what I found most difficult. In my day to day work I don’t often get to give feedback or collaborate with others as a peer on an equal footing and being a learner #rhizo15 made me more aware of my own mindset and how valuable it is for me to switch my perspective. That leads me to my last point, which is …not knowing things. Both the format and topic of this course were interesting in this respect and I enjoyed not knowing things, the freedom that this kind of approach brings with it.

Thank you… like many of the other participants that have reflected on their experience of this course I feel mine has been profound for me and my open practice. I am deeply grateful to have been part of it and I am also pleased to have made the effort to engage. It somehow brings to mind the game invented by Mary Poppins to tidy up the nursery, Well Begun is Half-Done. Having made a start, I’ve gotten further down the path than I had anticipated. It’s always good I think to end up somewhere you didn’t plan to go – and that has certainly been my #rhizo15 experience.

Time for #rhizo15: Follow the tortoise

Rhizo_tortoiseThis weeks post for #rhizo 15 is all about making time and finding your own way.  Or it’s all about one of my favourite stories. The story I am thinking about is a short book published by Michael Ende, author of the Neverending Story, in 1973. The book is called Momo (and you can find some information about it on Wikipedia). The main character in the story is a girl called Momo, but the character I like best is a tortoise called Cassiopeia. It’s s special tortoise. It can make words appear on its shell and it can see a little ahead into the future. But in the story it also uses its innate slowness to navigate through the adventure at is own deliberate pace.

How does this connect to being part of #rhizo15 things? Well – this week’s prompt, about building a practical guide, made me think about what I found most challenging about trying to participate and the two things I came up with were finding time and deciding on the pace and direction of my journey.

In the story Momo’s world is shaped by the frantic pace of the grown ups around her. Efficiency rules progress, time for stories, listening and caring disappears. Her fight against the the ‘Grey Gentlemen’ (who steal time) can only succeed with the help of the tortoise. Together they walk slowly, carrying their own time with them through the city on their adventure. In many ways that is what I have been trying to do, to set my own pace, to make my own rate of engagement slow down and to create space for things which are hard to do when you are in a hurry.

By trying to discover things at tortoise speed I’ve probably missed a lot of interesting things and conversations which I would have found valuable. But at the same time the freedom to take things slowly has stopped taking part from becoming an item on my mental to do list. Instead I have imagined those weekly prompts or ideas that I have come across as messages appearing on the back of my tortoise – and used them as a hint, a trail to follow. For me, that’s been what I wanted out of this experience more than other things. Space and time to think – sometimes in company. Like an imaginary friend from childhood I am hoping to keep my tortoise as a reminder that I have time and that I am free to decide my own path.

P.S. If you haven’t read the book, I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

#rhizo15 in the cemetery: borrowing from Anthropology to reflect on different learning spaces

This week I want to use an example from Anthropology think about space, method and discovery in learning. For that, I’m going back to draw on a subject about which I actually know more about than most people: cemeteries. It’s #rhizo15 thinking using the spatial and conceptual metaphor of Victorian cemeteries in Britain.

So, the prompt this week was getting me to think about the role of a teacher/facilitator or similar (appropriately this seems to coincide with “Thank a Teacher” week, which I hadn’t come across before) in different learning contexts and in particular in rhizomatic learning.

West Norwood PlateSome of the most well-known Victorian cemeteries are located in large cities such as London or Glasgow. Highgate Cemetery in North London is a particular favourite with visitors as it’s the burial place of many well known people including Karl Marx. But regardless of ‘dark tourism’ – which is becoming an increasingly popular activity – the principles on which cemeteries were built in the 19th century shared elements with learning landscapes.

They had indeed an educational mission of their own, constructed with practical as well as educational functions. While their primary function was to provide a place of disposal for the dead, cemeteries were also educational resources, usually constructed according to elaborate landscaping themes influenced heavily by theories around the picturesque and enlightenment.

For example, paths in a cemetery were often arranged in a pattern that drew visitors into the innermost part of the cemetery, leading them along a gently spiraling path usually to the highest, most central point of the site. Once you arrived at this elevated vantage point the view was intended to be significant, usually affording you a perspective that included a church or similar landmark. In London this was often Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

At any rate, the cemetery’s layout, expressed through paths, rows of graves and planting schemes, was designed to give visitors a sense of exploration and discovery, while at the same time guiding them, drawing them into, a narrative of moral and social dimension.

Walking along the main path you would see first and foremost the most spectacular monuments, usually with inscriptions that highlighted values such as a strong faith, worldly success, family, social status etc. You would also see the natural elements of the space closely kept in check by man. And at strategic points there would be a bend in the path creating a sense of surprise at the view suddenly encountered, intended to prompt visitors to wonder, to think of higher things than their daily existence.

Not unlike a learning experience we might design online or in a blended environment today, the act of visiting a cemetery for your usual Sunday afternoon walk, was an orchestrated experience in Victorian Britain. It didn’t involve a guide as such, but all the elements, the landscape, the paths, the monuments, the inscriptions and the view came together to produce a particular experience/learning process. Cemeteries weren’t just libraries carved in stone, repositories of memory. They were and are learning spaces that were designed to be experienced on foot, to give the visitor a clear sense of where they may fit in the social and moral order of things, to aspire to the example of their betters and to be proud of/curious about those who left the largest, most impressive marks of the existence behind.

I am pretty sure you could draw some interesting conclusions in regards to the pastiche of architectural styles used in Victorian monumental masonry, from ancient to futuristic, but we’ll skip that for now. In short, the traditional visit to the cemetery is a very rigid learning experience that doesn’t need a ‘teacher’ because the space itself fulfills that role.

On the other hand, many of the Victorian cemeteries that stood splendid a century ago are now in ruins. Their spaces turning from public exhibitions of the mastery of religion, art and gardening over nature and ultimately over death to romantic landscapes of decay and testaments of change. We have grown ignorant of the visual and spatial languages they used to communicate their message, the values of the society that created them. More of than not, they become visual curiosities or tourist attractions or most often inconvenient pockets of space that stand in regulatory opposition to progress and development through their sheer existence (you will always find it difficult to develop land that still has grave markers on it after all – even in a city like London where every square inch is at a premium).

Today the most common way to experience a popular Victorian cemetery is on a tour conducted by volunteers. Volunteers who are usually very knowledgeable about the history, the individual ‘inhabitants’ and the original architecture/planting scheme/sculptures. They try their best to translate the significance of the space for us, to re-create not the moral lessons, but the historic content of the cemetery. They act as a teacher, a guide to the past.

Friedhof 1In contrast to the volunteer led tours, one of the experiences I found most valuable was to explore one of the most famous Victorian cemeteries in London at the side of one of its employees, a grave digger and guide par excellence. You might think that sounds a little gruesome. Most people don’t like to think about what grave diggers do. But someone who works with the land, who knows every inch of it, who can show you the hidden paths, the secret spaces the guided tours don’t come across, is the perfect guide. In my case I learnt that when you leave the intended path, when you stop following the traditional patterns of experience, you can discover a whole new perspective. Following his shortcuts we discovered new elements of the space, wild flowers, rare butterflies, protected birds, that had started creating a new order of things in the cemetery. A new experience that communicated very different values to those originally intended. Instead of religious faith, nature had taken over. In place of a path of enlightenment the cemetery has provided a refuge from the industrial, urban reality of 21st century London. This new purpose of the space I wouldn’t have discovered without my guide. He taught me what to look for, where to step – how not to fall into a hole left by a collapsed burial chamber.

To get back to #rhizo15 and this week’s prompt, I’m interested in how we can create different ways of learning and teaching, some which can be more independent and some which are guided. The internet is an exciting space of ever evolving possibilities when it comes to learning and allows us to experiment with complicated simultaneous learning journeys all happening alongside each other in the same space. Thinking back to my post from last week, when I was thinking about curiosity and content, I think that discovery, whether it’s independent or guided, is still one of the things I am most interested in. In that spirit, I’m finishing this week with a picture of something I discovered in a cemetery this week in Stirling in Scotland.


The new LEGO house

[vimeo 67740255 w=500 h=281]
This is a short video about the new LEGO house (work in progress) in Billund, Denmark. Designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group, the approach to the design is part of the LEGO philosphy – “Inventing the future of play through systematic creativity” (you can read the full info here).

It’s a really exciting idea. Can’t wait to see it become brick-reality.

Some thoughts on data and a world made from LEGO

In Douglas Coupland’s book Microserfs there is a page with large print. The page looks at you and proclaims: Hello, I am your personal computer. When I read this in 1995, I didn’t feel that the generic welcome message my computer displayed or any other communication I received from it was personal. I didn’t use technology in a way that made me question whether it had a consciousness, either its own or one derived from what I was inputting. But today, the technology I use is largely designed to be personal both in the way it is constructed and the way in which it presents data to me. Unlike the personal computer in the story, which turns into a receptacle for the protagonists hopes and dreams in the form of diary entries, our digital devices, like those of billions of people across the world, are very personal to us indeed. Not just in the way we use them, but the way in which they facilitate a staggering amount of small packages of data about us and our activities to be generated.
Research shows the increase in the amount of data we generate as a species and the conclusion we come to is that is it a lot. The company that made it its mission “to organise the world’s information and to make it universally accessible and useful” is Google. To my mind, Google are the equivalent of a very ingenious individual sorting through an expanding box of all possible LEGO bricks and creating order in the multi-coloured chaos which allows us to build everything imaginable, with the added benefit that the box will never empty, as we are all just using copies of the data bricks and thus never run out.
Billions of people benefit from this endeavour to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible. Although a lot could be said here about the commercialisation of this project, what I am interested in is the final word in the mission statement: useful. Usefulness is both obvious and complex. You cold argue that by making the information accessible, it becomes useful. The more data is available to people, the more they can use it for a plethora of purposes. More people having access to more data must cause some useful application of the data and thus, usefulness exists.
In another way, more people using more data also generates more data in turn. We know of many ways in which our interactions with the world are recorded and this data in turn can be used by people and they can put it to use. Some of that data is universally accessible, some of it is not. Some of the data we are explicitly aware of, some of it we may not be able to imagine yet.
When I played with LEGO as a child, the best afternoons were spent making structures using the small coloured bricks, and then adding all sorts of other toys into the game. LEGO was the glue that kept it all together, but the addition of tiny duvets made from tissues and fabric cut offs with help from my mom made my characters brick-built beds infinitely more fun to play with.
I suppose I feel the same way about digital data. You can use it for all sorts of things, and there are no limits to what you can make with it. But in the end, its the things that exist outside of the digital dataverse that give it relevance and meaning – and make it fun to play with.