Old art and new media

In her talk on social media, Siân Bayne used two pieces of art to illustrate her points about the Uncanny and Second Life – Masaccio’s C15th fresco The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and Max Ernst‘s disturbing C20th The Clothing Of The Bride.  The combination of old(ish) art and new(ish) media seemed very appropriate, and more interesting than the hackneyed images usually used to illustrate that world.

I’ve long thought that my experience of the online world is a lot like Hieronymous Bosch’s C16th Garden of Earthly Delights:

Paradise on one hand, Hell on the other.  And a lot of fun in between.   A lot more detail than you can ever hope to take in.  Many stand-alone seemingly unrelated items, but with intricate inter-relations that it’s hard to extricate, although broad themes emerge quite easily.  An awful lot of stuff directly or indirectly to do with sex and sexuality. Almost endlessly  diverting. And the best fun is had when there is at least a temporary lifting of Authority!


Social media for learning: a virtual ethnography

Went to a fascinating seminar last week with this title, given by Siân Bayne on a flying visit from Edinburgh to the OU.

She talked about her work on a HE Academy project exploring at the whole Web 2.0/social media world and its effect on three different courses – in Divinity, eLearning and Engineering.

She picked out three areas:

1) New literacies – the stuff you expect, but also interesting takes on Barthes’ Death of the Author a) this is very straightforwardly manifest in a world of blogs and wikis, and b) never mind “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”, in this world, there’s no unity in the destination either – the Death of the Reader as it were, and not in the panicky “OMG nobody reads literary books any more” sense.

2) Appropriation and ‘taming’ – fencing off, assessment, embedding – containing the perceived risk of wild stuff like Web 2.0.   Interestingly, (some) students as well as teachers thought private blogs – although “not proper blogs” were a valuable space in which to think out loud without it going on your permanent Internet record.  In a way, the closedness enabled more openness.  This is a theme I keep seeing all over the place.  Though there were also some who turned up with their own proper blogs and were perfectly happy doing their intellectual laundry in public.

Another point I particularly picked up here – because it relates to another ongoing theme I see – was getting students to blog their  preparation for a seminar as a ‘forcing function’ to make sure they prepared ahead of time.

3) The Uncanny in the Freudian unheimlich sense – “the effect often occurs when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred” – Freud describing Second Life in 1899.  Wikis and blogs were un/familiar but probably aren’t any more; Second Life might be now.  Some of the quotes from the students were spectacular – e.g. “Avatars are nothing but corpses” and another having unshakeable feelings of being lost, drowning (there was a lake nearby) and even dying.  There was some good stuff about art but I’ll post about that separately.

She teachers her eLearning students about identity through a Second Life seminar, appropriately enough.  I thought it was particularly cunning to use the uncanny effect to problematise stuff that the students might not have (many people have a pretty straightforward conception of ‘identity’), which is a technique worth re-using.

Also some amusing stuff about the Edinburgh island and disciplinary stereotypes manifesting themselves virtually – apparently the Business School’s place is shiny, neat and essentially a corporate display stand; they complain about the neighbouring architects’ space which is a spectacular and utter mess; and the educationalists have a fluffy zone with spaces to sit in circles with lots of soft furnishings.

(Her slides – not available (yet?) – were a great example of stylish use of Flickr-found art, with a white flower motif popping up throughout. )

At lunch afterwards, during a discussion on open and closed environments, Peter Twining (of Schome fame) mentioned a time when he was giving a seminar in Second Life and had to studiously ignore a pair of inappropriately amorous cows who wandered through.

There was another surprise moment when one of my more distinguished colleagues – with a long track record of widening educational opportunities and going the extra mile and then some for learners – startled me by vigorously voicing despair about failing students.  “What can you do?”, they complained, “You can’t just shoot them!”

(Peter noted that you can in Second Life.)

The Computer knows what you’re thinking

Direct brain input could be with us sooner than I thought – this nifty brain-wave reading headset will allegedly be ready for mass sale next Christmas. (via Engadget)

It’s not a new idea at all, but a usable, widespread instantiation could change the way we interact with computers profoundly.  And raise all sorts of exciting new issues of privacy and openness.  I predict a health scare at some point.

Social:Learn breaks cover!

My colleague Martin Weller has at long last blogged about Social:Learn, the OU project formerly  known as Skunkworks – an attempt to explore what fully embracing the Web 2.0 world could mean for university learning:

It is born of the recognition that the OU (and higher education in general) needs to find ways of embracing the whole web 2.0, social networking world, and that the only way to understand this stuff is to do it.

It’s hugely exciting.  To my mind it’s at least as big a deal as OpenLearn – and if it works at all, even bigger.  Watch Martin’s blog for more as it comes.  I’m still not sure I understand what it is, but my guess is that this is true for the people more closely involved as well.  The journey is well worth setting out on, regardless of whether we reach the destination, whatever that might be.

(As an aside, the previous secrecy, followed by this semi-official leak, and a public announcement to come later, is another great example of how Web 2.0 openness isn’t total.  It’s more than before, but it’s still partial – and that is very important.)