David White: Big understanding – The value of typologies of engagement

David White, from TALL, gave a talk to the OU’s eLearning Community on Mon 7 February 2011. The billing was for a talk on the digital immigrant/native idea; he’s more on resident/tourist, and his title is more nuanced: Big understanding: The value of typologies of engagement?

(We both semi-independently came to the same idea some time ago that the immigrant/native distinction is unhelpful, and that we’d be better off talking about residents and tourists instead.)

David co-manages Oxford University’s Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL) Dept – do R&D and external-facing.

Based on several projects in progress at the moment – not finished projects with findings: very much areas thinking of at the moment and in the process of development.

When I said ‘typologies’ what I meant was ‘taxonomies’ … no, wait … actually macro thinking: large, over-arching ideas and how they relate.


(cc) Maggijumps on Flickr


Example of Myers-Briggs personality types – people enjoy being typed this way. Or Bloom’s taxonomy, Kolb’s cycle. Long tail. Scaffolding, Vygotsky. Very high-level ideas in our thinking, influence a lot of what we do. Bartle’s typology of gamer types: two axes players/world acting/interacting. Hierarchy of Digital Distractions from David McCandless. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Hats.

His model – Eventedness. Also technology diffusion from Pioneers to Players to Pragmatists to Phollowers.

Mark Prensky’s Natives and Immigrants – no way to get Flickr images without being offensive (!). The idea that there is a generation of people who’ve grown up with digital technology around it, so they’re native to it, so they instinctively understand it. But older people have had to learn that technology and so are immigrants in to that space, like learning a second language. A lot of academic/moral panic, especially in HE: look out, the kids understand this stuff but we’re dinosaurs and can’t do it. But students didn’t really expect it. Problematic because linking age and technical skills.

Most significant association between age and use .. is WebCT, used more by older people (!). Mark Bullen’s project. No association with use of lots of techs and age.

The net gen/screenagers etc – within academic community, not convinced the picture is as simple as was posited. Plenty of kids who don’t get it, and older people who are in to it.

David’s visitor/resident thing. (Mine here.) Some people treat activity as a visit – don’t leave a trace; they do use it, but don’t leave a trace. Resident lives out a portion of their life online to a certain extent, so likely to have a form of digital identity (e.g. Facebook). Even when logged off, a portion of their identity remains online.

Split within real students. The people who don’t want to have a profile online have decided not to – not that they can’t. Perhaps egomania, privacy concerns, and so on.

For the visitor, the internet is a messy toolbox: banking, holidays, Amazon, etc. YOu decide what you use, find it, put it back, close the box. For the resident, it’s more of a space, filled with people – somewhere you can have an identity, move between groups that are forming and breaking apart. Conceptual difference.

Is it about who we are, or how we act? Better the latter. It’s not that you are a resident, it’s that you act like one a lot of the time. Just because students are on Facebook doesn’t mean they want to do everything that way.

Point from audience: you don’t even need to be alive to have a presence online. And there are interesting legal issues.

Also, better for placing the individual than for defining groups. It’s dangerous to move from individual to group, you miss subtleties. Larger the group, the more tenuous and potentially problematic.

Layers of response – from course team, to curriculum, to institutional level of response, dealing with ever larger, more abstract groups of people. The broad ideas are appropriate at the top of an institution and go down through, rather than in opposite direction.

Visitors and residents study, in progress, looking at how learners engage with digital technologies, to get beyond problem of typing people – certainly by age. Split between stages: Transitional (secondary sch to 1st y u/g), Establishing (2/3rd yr u/g), Embedding (postgrads, PhD students), Experienced (scholars, lifelong learning)

Feedback improved version from the audience: Emerging, Establishing, Emebedding, Experiencing. All start with E, all gerunds, also has final stage as a continuous process not a final/happened one.

Didn’t want this to be defined by age, but currently it is; challenges to design here.

You have to make a choice as a young person, either you’re in Facebook, or outside – and outside has consequences of being a social outsider. The platform defines how people define themselves. A real problem in that territory because of the business models of social networks – the Pringles theory, flavour engineered to make you eat a lot of them. They want you to come back the site again and again, granulising attention, trust, right down to smallest possible unit (Twitter a good example). On the plus side, gives large community, on the down side, risk of undermining quality, alone together sort of principle.

The Social Threshold (‘a phrase that Googles very well, incidentally’) – as a visitor, you’re acting anonymously, in private. You might be encouraged to slide more to being a resident. That process involves you travelling across a social threshold with a certain width. Example Google Docs: to start with, simply like a word processor. But when other people come in, becomes more of a space, act knowing that there’s someone in there with you typing at the same time. As soon as it’s live, it switched from a tool to a space, he was dragged across a social threshold. Only within a group of a couple of people. Generally we like to think of public/private as hard-edged. We understand the boundary is shifting, but think of it hard, like a door. But these technologies blur the boundary. Another example – whiskey/whisky: technically, he knew you could Google for his Tweets. Was in the back of his mind, wasn’t going to Tweet anything outrageous, about 1000 people follow him, including funders. His mum rang him up about 20 minutes after Tweeting telling him he’d spelt ‘whisky’ wrong, the American way. She’s started Googling him. Technologically, he knew that functionality was there, but it wasn’t until he knew his mum was reading his Tweets that he had to redraw the map of his online digital identity. That knocked down a wall in the space, a social threshold had been crossed. It was the social dimension that made him rethink, moved Twitter use to being more residential than visitor(ial?).


(cc) jurvetson on Flickr


Phase 2 of the talk

Natives/immigrants was the tricky issue of the Naughties. Going in to the Tenties, the concept of ‘Openness’ is what we’re going to have trouble with. It’s crept up on us. ALT-C in 2009, listening to Martin Bean (OU VC) talking about open things the OU were doing. Couldn’t understand, but what was happening was that the philosophy of openness that he’d been part of a longstanding community with, was being reflected back from the top down. The nature of the language was slightly different. MIT Open CourseWare, no accident came out of MIT, had strong web community. Openness has emerged as an effect of the culture of the web, pushing from the bottom up, has reached the top, and is being reflected back down again.

Klout website – gives you a score for your online ‘influence’. He checked his Klout score, and Oxford University’s (@UniofOxford), and they were the same … so they are about the same influence online?! But it can’t mean he has the same influence as Oxford University. He acts very conversationally on Twitter, they don’t.

OER has ‘open’ in, has oppositions within: Institutional vs individual, broadcast vs conversation, marketing vs teaching/learning. Some institutions in to OER from a marketing perspective (could get blended up, though). Big/little OER idea from Martin Weller.

Grid, two axes – Conversation/Broadcast vs Individual/Institutional. In terms of open-ness, institutions tend to think in a broadcast mode. We’re giving you some of our stuff. For me, it’s I’m going to talk to you about things. Difficult to have a constructive conversation about this because there’s many different understanding. iTunes U activity (Oxford does a lot), but mentality is very institutional & broadcast stuff. Actually, OER – even in iTunes U – stretched right across to individual (from institutional), because of interest in an individual academic. Often, activity can suddenly jump from broadcast to conversation, then back down again – e.g. if Twitter response to a research output. Also, quite often people will watch iTunes U, and contact the individual academic with a response – so suddenly something which seemed like a broadcast becomes a conversation. Interesting that it can come as a surprise, or that we don’t think of it as a possibility when we open up. Institutions like to talk about engagement, giving things out, but don’t incorporate enough latitude to engage in conversations – broadcast mentality gets dragged in to a more conversational space.

Chris: By releasing stuff on iTunes U, get a lot of fan mail. Some people see that as an incentive, enjoy the media attention. Some find it a real turn-off. A downside potentially.

That’s what I mean: we have to be careful what openness means, because the culture of the web will turn it in to something else. Free at the point of use, you can get at our stuff – not worked through to other modes of engagement.

Chris: Also a feeling with repositories, people think have deposited, end of story. Users expect maintaining, updating. A problem.

We could be setting false expectations with our language. Institutions are constrained to act in particular ways. But there could be a mismatch. Interesting to explore what it means. A shame to give idea of engaging in lifelong learning … but don’t ask me a question – doesn’t seem quite right.

Someone: The right-hand side (institutional) is new, but the individual side isn’t. Institutions didn’t previously have a public presence.

In 2009 Demos report on the Borderless University. The web is blurring, smudging the edges of institutions. A little to quick to appropriate the language without the structure to deliver the goods. If I post on my blog, I’ll watch for comments and respond. Corporates have social media engagement officers, employed for some time; this will creep up and surprise institutions at the institutional level.

Wrap up

In terms of practice, large ideas are helpful to set in context of wider culture. Shouldn’t underestimate how much the culture of the web is influencing our institutions. ‘Openness’ wouldn’t have appeared without the web first. There’s also the ‘Thermometer of expectation’ – understanding expectations of what people come to your institution, in terms of modes of engagement. So for instance, in distance learning, people are as interested in contact as content; when people go online, if at all resident, expect some form of contact. Will find it alienating if it’s not there; an expectation it will happen.

Footballing analogy: Face the way you play.  (Footballing tip. Apparently works.) SOmetimes people use big ideas to predict the future – is an unwise thing to do. Best is to use the ideas to help you face the way you play. Point in a particular direction, face that way, know what it is.

In terms of research: Don’t type students or staff; use big ideas as a way of understanding how people are engaging, motivation, behaviours, why they appropriate technologies and to what end. Danger – people enjoy typing themselves. Important way of gathering the discourse – you sometimes see fractured arguments. But these macro ideas are a way of creating a framework for these discourses. A more constructive discussion. Helps create a vocabulary. The web creates scenarios we don’t have language for – like the term ‘openness’. Hides too much inside it. The macro ideas help with the vocabulary – so you know whether Dave and Martin Bean are talking about the same stuff. Don’t talk about semantics and definitions for ages and do no real work – but these frameworks can be helpful.

Martin Weller: Culture of the web. Are bloggers in different disciplines more alike, than non-bloggers and bloggers in the same discipline? There’s a certain culture with being a blogger. These technologies have an underlying norm that comes in.

A shared mentality to it. The norms are really interesting. As humans we’re quick to pick those in. Twitter has a different discourse, or dialect to blogging, but I know where the edges are. Which I learned by lurking. (Which is why successful technologies allow lurking.) Some of us who do blog and Tweet feel good about ourselves. Is easy to imagine that’s at the top of some engagement hierarchy and other people just can’t make it, don’t understand. But that’s a danger, you shouldn’t do that. A visitor can be just as high-tech as a resident.

May have a set of cultural norms. Makes this area very interesting. Still think we’re in the Wild West with all of this stuff.

Ruslan: Can you classify Wikipedia?

The micro/macro problem. Hard to pick apart. Interesting to see what’s compelled individuals to contribute to a greater event. Really annoys him when academics say ‘It’s amazing that Wikipedia happened, can’t believe people do this without being paid’ – implies only academics do clever stuff or find intelligent activity enjoyable. Why do they contribute? Because other people are there watching them – call it community, or audience. Did some research on World of Warcraft – one guy said he  wasn’t interested in the community, he just wanted to level up. But would you want to do it if nobody was there to see you level up?

Ray Corrigan: Impulse to type people – e.g. staff, students, administrators. How do you avoid typing them in practice?

I think I mean in terms of motivations to engage. In some places, technology reflects institutional hierarchies. Doesn’t have to be a bad thing. All for structure, need the formal for the informal. Once you’re in an online space, have to earn the right to be an expert. Found this in Second Life, have to re-establish why you’re the person leading. Can’t copy and paste offline hierarchies in to online ones without some friction. Even at the VLE level. More about the way a member of staff choses to engage, rather than whether they do. In SL, division between people dressing avatar like real life, versus something wacky – former group tended to have authority in real life they wanted to bring across.

Someone: Do we need to change the name of our university?

Wasn’t going to bring that up! The Open in Open University is an historical artefact. Not unlike our courses – they’re totally open, if you can pay for them. The name gives an additional set of expectations you need to take in to account. People assume Oxford University is closed, so anything we do that isn’t closed is treated as a surprise – e.g. iTunes U. But for you guys it’s the other way around. A lot of your activity is very deliberately open. But the open is in the problem space of ‘openness’.

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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

3 thoughts on “David White: Big understanding – The value of typologies of engagement”

  1. Coo-er, what a load of fascinating stuff! Thanks for the writeup.

    Just went & had a look at David’s blog too – also v interesting.

    I think about some of this a lot – what I put online & what I don’t, who my audience is, etc etc.

    Yes, digital natives is the wrong metaphor – none of this was around when I was born, so by that division I should count as an immigrant, but that’s not at all how I experience it. “Resident” doesn’t feel quite right either though. ::ponders::

    What feels more true to me is like: everyone has their valency bonds of social/practical connection with the rest of the world, and for some people a substantial proportion of those links/channels/connections go through the net, and for others not so much, or none, or almost none (i.e. a sliding variable not binary).

    For me the proportion is quite high, and I imagine an onlooker wedded to the resident/visitor metaphor would classify me as “resident”. But I’m iffy about it. Not convinced 🙂

  2. Many thanks Doug. I don’t know how you manage to capture all that. We’ve opted for having a public version of this podcast available – its not usually the case for eLearning Community events. But no questions and answers in this version (you had to be there!). Or you can get a feel for the conversation from Doug above.

    For the recording go to http://podcast.open.ac.uk/pod/1069


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