Digital space, focus and distraction: Issues in pandemic learning and teaching

Lawrie Phipps, in conversation with Rafe Hallett, explored some of the compelling issues facing educators in the 'pandemic' context of learning and teaching, touching on ideas around digital space, access, poverty and 'levelling-up'.

Professor Phipps, internationally respected for his work on digital learning with JISC and consultancy with many universities, also speculated on how the identity of tutors changes as they operate in a more challenging - but diverse - range of spaces and behaviours.

Reflector: Matt Street

Reflections of the Keynote

This year the Keele education conference drew together a breadth of examples of education practice and innovation from across the university with the Flexible Digital Education Framework and the Curriculum Design Framework setting the context for the event. The opening keynote a conversation between Rafe Hallett and Lawrie Phipps provided an honest and conversational tone setting the scene for the presentations and talks that followed.

This conversation covered key debates from across the Higher Education setting centered around four core themes spaces, abundance, poverty and confidence. These themes within digital education have been present in the sector for some time, they have an evidence base and a history, as a sector we are well placed to openly discuss and debate these as challenges and develop a response to them learning from the scale of digital education we are now seeing as a result the Covid-19 pandemic creating the need for education to be designed online at a scale not seen before.

Connection, space and place are closely woven together and can look very different for different people. We visit different digital places for different purposes and with different motivation in the same way we do physical spaces. We don’t consider all physically located spaces well designed or accessible for all, and we shouldn’t assume that access to online spaces is equal or consistent for everyone. The recent at scale use of digital places has brought into focus access to digital spaces and the physical environment people accessing digital places from, for example access to reliable internet, appropriate hardware, sharing hardware with others in the household, living in busy shared spaces are being drawn out factors affecting engagement with Digital Education. As a sector we should develop our approaches to understanding these differences and move away from creating a dichotomy between physical digital places, online and physical spaces aren’t necessarily better they are however different to each other and we need to draw from the historical evidence bases have access to and understand how we can use these spaces well to continually improve and develop the digital education experience. Creating well designed digital places that account for these differences is critical, the development of the Flexible Digital Education Framework (FDE) at Keele University provides a way to develop consistency. Combining the FDE with a learning design approach that has roots in design science and educational inquiry such as ‘the design inquiry of learning’ Mor and Mogilevsky (2013a) creates the opportunity to consider through the use of persona’s and an iterative design approach the needs of people engaging with the digital places being developed, particularly if we think about the impact of digital places on for example commuter students. This challenge intersects at a range of points across the university, can we provide more reliable access to students who need it, can we provide hardware to students and staff that need it and can we design a flexible digital education that addresses these challenges and is cognisant of the contextual factors our students and staff are living and working within. At Keele University we are developing approaches to address this through our flexible digital education framework, through research into understanding the factors underpinning the narrowing of the achievement gap, through using funding from Santander to help students and through work being done in our Information and Digital services to provide access to hardware.

Placing the points draw out above about connection, space, place and more fundamentally design are set in a broader educational context referenced by Lawrie ‘learning in a time of abundance’ Cormier (2017), Cormier defines abundance as ‘Abundance. Of content. Of perspectives. Of backgrounds. Of potential connections. This is the fundamental change the technology brings to us’.

Positioning rhizomatic learning as an approach to embrace this abundance (more info here). This approach highlights implicitly some the shifting role of the educator away from more traditional delivery focused approaches towards creating an active online presence in the digital places we now inhabit more than before. Develop a sense of community, engagement and social interaction across physical and digital places in synchronous and asynchronous contexts. With abundance follows the need for educators and students to be effective in navigating, critiquing and understanding this landscape. This is where our educators, library professionals and Digital education specialists can play a key role.