This year’s BERA conference took place at Sussex University outside Brighton. As ever it was a busy event – there were more applications than ever to present and that competition was as a result more fierce than ever.
The diversity of papers and presentations was exciting and provided a lot of space for discussion and interaction.
The final keynote was a high point. Drawing on a range of insights from his work and in particular his new book, The Rediscovery of Teaching, Gert Biesta talked about learning and how it has been hi-jacked by a policy view that draws on neoliberal human capital theory. In other words, the current focus on learning is learning for a purpose connected to skills and productivity: an economised version of learning.
For Biesta, learning has now become a problem. He connects this also to certain kinds of learning that involve ‘meaning-making’. In the worst cases, this becomes ego-logical – i.e. the (isolated) individual making sense for themselves (although he acknowledged that Freirean dialogical learning is collective rather individualised).
His provocative response to this situation, embedded in his philosophical position, suggests a return to a dynamic curriculum in which students and teachers stop learning. Learning spaces then become classrooms in which the world can be listened to. He presented the issue by posing these questions:
If we are sense makers – can the world speak to us in its own terms and on its own terms?
If we are just meaning-making beings, how then can we be taught?
There was a sense in this that the cultural and economic emphasis on individualism and entrepreneurialism that is having such an impact on our ways of living and on our world needs to be checked. Otherwise, learning will only support the further deterioration of our planet and jeopardise our collective attempts to achieve a good life for everyone.
Other than referring to Levinas, Biesta didn’t elaborate on what stopping learning might mean in our classrooms, but he did assert the importance of doing something other than focusing on the transmission of ‘bodies of knowledge’. He also developed the idea that we should try to ‘bracket’ learning to open up different ways of being in the world: a ‘non ego-logical’ way of being in the world.
For Biesta then being in the world in our times is filtered by the desires that shape who we are. There is a question about the provenance of many of these desires in our commercialised and commodified world. The suggestion is that the desires created for us by the forces of marketisation and commodification are displacing desires that could be more meaningful. Out of that thought emerges the fundamental question:
Is what I desire, desirable?
While he didn’t offer any pat answers to this last puzzle, Biesta cited Spivak and her idea of the individual ‘non-coercive rearrangement of desires’ as a way forward. Education he viewed as a space in which such a rearrangement could occur to support “grown-up ways of being in the world”.
There is something in that final phrase that brings us back to earth with a bang when we consider the current ‘common sense’ views on education that we are confronted by and also, occasionally, the level of debate.
Dr. Rob Smith is a Reader in Education at Birmingham City University. His body of work explores the impact of funding and marketisation on teaching and learning in further education settings. He has researched and written extensively in collaboration with FE and HE practitioners. Currently, Rob is involved in the FE in England: transforming lives and communities project with Dr Vicky Duckworth (Edge Hill University). This is a national research study focusing on the transformative qualities of further education. He is also developing an interdisciplinary research project looking at HE space and time focusing on the design and architecture of HEIs and their situatedness with urban settings.
In November 2016, Dr. Matt O’Leary and Dr. Vanessa Cui from C-SPACE were successful in their application for HEFCE Catalyst Fund: Innovation in Learning and Teaching. In this blog post, Matt and Vanessa tell us about the project and some of highlights of their recent activities.
Teaching excellence has been at the centre of debates about quality in English Higher Education (HE) in recent years. The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework has ratcheted up this focus even further. Fuelled by critiques of teaching as ‘the weakest aspect’ of English HE (Gill,2015), the government has argued that universities need to adopt a more evidence-based approach to learning and teaching (L & T) akin to that associated with research.
Traditional approaches to capturing and promoting teaching excellence have largely been shaped by a managerialist agenda that conceptualises academic staff as accountable suppliers of a product and students as consumers of that product, with an overreliance on reductive metrics that fail to reflect either the authenticity or complexity of HE learning and teaching. This raises some important questions for the HE sector.
How can we develop a greater understanding and improvement of L & T among academic staff and students? How can we combine scholarly knowledge, practices and our education ideologies to satisfy the demands of policymakers while generating data about L & T that is legitimate and worthwhile? What can we do to create and nurture an approach that sustains and enhances authentic L & T experiences?
About the project
A HEFCE-funded project at Birmingham City University seeks to use collaborative observation of L & T as a means of harnessing staff and student perspectives. Observation is a common method for staff development in HE, typically through a peer observation model. Some HE institutions have introduced teaching observation as a performance management tool in recent years. However, recent research (e.g. O’Leary & Wood, 2017; O’Leary, 2016) has revealed that assessment-based models of observation can often be a deterrent to developing L & T practice. Our project is built on the belief that improving student learning requires teachers and learners to develop an awareness and understanding about learning collaboratively in the context of their programme. It is our attempt to answer the questions raised above.
Underpinning this collaborative observation process is the principles of critical reflection (Brookfield, 1998), learning as collective consciousness (Bowden & Marton, 1998) and participatory inquiry. A key feature of our methodology is the reconceptualisation of observation as a method to enhance L & T practices through inquiry rather than as a method of assessment. Pairs of teaching staff and students come together in a collection of subject-specific case studies to co-investigate, co-observe and co-reflect on their own classroom L & T practices. Within our collaborative approach, student identity is reconceptualised from that of ‘consumers’ and ‘evaluators’ of teaching to co-researchers and co-producers of knowledge about L & T.
Our project started in November 2016 and it runs until April 2018. It is led by Dr. Matt O’Leary and Dr. Vanessa Cui from C-SPACE. The project works with five case studies in the Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences: BA (Hons) Early Childhood Studies, BSc (Hons) Nursing (Adult), BSc (Hons) Nursing (Child), BA (Hons) Primary Education with QTS and BSc (Hons) Radiography. Each case study is made up of two staff members and two first/second year students. On our project website, there is more details about our project, our methodology and each of the case studies: http://blogs.bcu.ac.uk/collaborativeobservation/.
During last summer, we were busy sharing our project and some preliminary findings at internal and external events. At our C-SPACE annual conference and the University’s Festival of Teaching, we hosted a symposium and a workshop where four of the case studies shared their experiences with the delegates.
Primary Education participants’ talk on their case study and their Cycle 1 experience at C-SPACE 2017 conference:
Staff from the Child Nursing case study talk about their case study and their Cycle 1 experience at C-SPACE 2017 conference:
Staff from the Early Childhood Studies case study talk about their case study and their Cycle 1 experience at C-SPACE 2017 conference:
We also ran an innovation session at this year’s BERA conference. During the session, we had really engaging and critical discussions with the delegates around issues on Ethics and power dynamics in staff and student collaborations like ours. We also discussed how this could be an opportunity for students and staff’s personal and/or professional development, and how this model could potentially be used in different types of HE educational project on student engagement and student learning experience.
To follow our project, please visit our website. You can also get in touch with Vanessa to add your contact detail to our mailing list.
Matt & Vanessa
Bowden, J. and Marton, F. (1998). The University of Learning: beyond quality and competence, London: Routledge.
Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gill, J. (2015). David Willetts interview: ‘What I did was in the interests of young people’. Times Higher Education, Article published online June 18, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/david-willetts-what-idid-was-in-the-interests-of-young-people. Accessed on August 28, 2017.
O’Leary, M. & Wood, P. (2017) ‘Performance over professional learning and the complexity puzzle: lesson observation in England’s further education sector’, Professional Development in Education, Vol. 43(4), pp. 573-591.
O’Leary, M. (Ed) (2016) Reclaiming lesson observation: supporting excellence in teacher learning. Abingdon: Routledge.
Becky Snape, a PhD student and Assistant Lecturer working with CSPACE, reflects on her recent experience of the 2017 BERA Conference.
I’m Becky Snape and I work in CSPACE as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD researcher. I’m just about to go into my third year of my PhD programme. On 4th September 2017, I travelled down to Brighton for the British Educational Research Association (BERA) Annual Conference. BERA is one of the largest conferences in the educational research world – I was one of 996 attendees – so I was keen to attend and disseminate my research at this event. In this blog, I will share some of my experiences of the conference.
When you submit an abstract to the conference committee, you can choose to affiliate your research with a particular SIG. I aligned my work with the ‘Creativities in Education’ cluster. However, two new SIGs caught my attention at the conference – ‘English in Education’ and ‘Language and Literacy’. My research looks at teachers’ perspectives of creative writing in GCSE English Language. Within that subject area, my research encompasses pedagogy, policy and philosophy (teachers’ conceptualisations of CW). Therefore, like me, you may find that your research aligns with different SIGs.
In order to present your research at BERA, you need to submit a 750 word abstract to the conference committee. The deadline is very early, so watch out for it (31st January). The abstract is then marked using a points system by experts in your selected SIG. The abstract is marked on its clarity, contribution, quality, and relevance. For an Early Career Researcher, this was a useful and gentle introduction to peer review.
My presentation was scheduled at 1:40pm on 5th September. I arrived at the room early so that I could get set up.
Before my presentation started, I took the opportunity to speak to the other presenters and delegates who had arrived early. The delegates were from a range of backgrounds, including teachers from Singapore and someone who worked in a research company. There was also a representative from one of the GCSE exam boards in the audience too, which was quite surreal!
My presentation ran fairly smoothly. Rather than focusing on one aspect of the research, I presented a whistle-stop tour of my project. Some people like to take one part of their work and look at it in-depth but I decided to present an overview of the context, literature review, methodology, and emerging findings. I felt that this was the best format as BERA is an international conference, so some of the delegates would not have an in-depth understanding of the English school curriculum.
Following my twenty-minute presentation, delegates were keen to know more about my perspectives on creative writing: how do I define creative writing? Do I have any recommendations for teaching creative writing? It was really nice to hear those sorts of questions, and to be able to share the insights I have gleaned from my research.
I returned from BERA enthused, having presented successfully and encountered some of the most prominent names in my field, including Professors Teresa Cremin and Dominic Wyse. On the final day, we were also treated to a fascinating keynote lecture from Gert Biesta.
I hope to attend BERA again next year (11th-13th September 2018, Northumbria University), when my PhD is at a more advanced stage. I would definitely encourage my BCU colleagues to attend BERA. It’s a great opportunity to present your research to a wider audience, and find out about cutting edge research in the field. You can find out more details about next year’s conference here: https://www.bera.ac.uk/event/bera-conference-2018.
On the 10th July 2017 the third annual CSPACE education conference took place at Perry Barr campus of BCU. The conference was a great success and it was wonderful to see so many engaging and exciting research contributions from colleagues from across the university. The conference was entitled ‘Connecting Communities: Spaces for Creativity and Collaboration in Education’ and presentations covered a diverse range of themes related to this.
The conference kicked off with a keynote from Laura Watts, Simbi Folarin and Liz Garnham (MBE) who run Dens of Equality, a not for profit community organisation which is focused on creating inclusive community play leisure and learning opportunities for disabled and disadvantaged children across Birmingham. Laura, Simbi and Liz discussed the strengths and challenges of working at a grassroots level engaging in community capacity building and embedding local partnership against a landscape where play work remains consistently undervalued. Conference delegates gave lots of positive feedback about the keynote and the inspirational work Laura and colleagues are doing with access to extremely limited funding and resources.
Presentations covered a wide range of topics at the conference, from the use of touchscreen technology in the early years to the importance of multi-agency working for young people’s creative musical engagement and lots in between! It was fascinating to see the work that colleagues are engaging in across the university and was great to see such a wide representation from both experienced academic staff and newer researchers and post-graduate students. Given the conference themes of community, creativity and collaboration it was important that students were included within this and so we were thrilled to include undergraduate student researcher awards for the first time.
There was also a great range of hour-long workshops on offer at the conference, including a symposium on improving learning and teaching in Higher Education through collaborative observation, a workshop on rhythm analysis and a performative ‘armchair discussion’ on practitioner inquiry into research supervision. During lunch delegates had the opportunity to view the impressive posters offered by colleagues and vote for their favourite one.
As first-year PhD students organising the conference was a steep learning curve! Each of us also presented at the conference and although we were all incredibly nervous it was wonderful to be able to share our work in its initial stages surrounded by supportive peers. The conference offered a real climate of collaboration and the questions and comments posed by colleagues were extremely useful in extending our thinking around our research.
It was also great to get to meet so many colleagues from across HELS and the wider university and we all agreed organising the conference really helped us to feel embedded into the community of BCU. It was also great to see some really positive comments on twitter from conference delegates, search #cspaceconf17 to relive some of the best moments of the day. We hope that you all enjoyed it as much as we did and are looking forward to #CSPACECONF18!
Bethany Sumner, Emma Nenadic, Bally Kaur, and Gail Kuppan
CSPACE Conference 2017 Committee
The conference will bring together practitioners, researchers and key figures in the field of Further Education (FE) and will cover a range of themes from apprenticeships and work-based learning to accountability and governance in FE.
Instead of the conventional ‘stand and deliver’ format of many conferences, ‘Reimagining Further Education’ will be organised as group conversations framed and facilitated by a discussant and chair for each of the 6 thematic strands included. By exploring positive, imaginative and creative ways forward that enhance agency, workforce development and the professional ethos of all FE practitioners, this conference aims to put the ‘confer’ back into conference!
For the first time this year CELT and CSPACE are joining forces to host our Annual Education Conference. In case you haven’t heard of us before, CSPACE is the Centre for the Study of Practice and Culture in Education, and CELT is the Centre for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning. The conference will be held on 11th July 2016.
Although 11th July seems like a while away yet, it’s the standard protocol for us to collect and select abstracts in advance. You’ve probably already received a call for papers from me via your staff email. If you haven’t received this email, please alert me to this on Rebecca.Snape@bcu.ac.uk and I will immediately rectify this. We need to receive all abstracts before 20th May 2016, so you have two weeks to get these in to us. We have a range of different formats for you to choose from to ensure that you can present your research in the best way you see fit.
We believe that this is a fantastic opportunity for researchers and teachers across the University to showcase their best practice. Whether you’re an emerging researcher who wants to present their work for the first time, or an experienced academic who wants to share their wisdom and receive feedback from others, we’re keen to hear about the work you’re doing. It’s also a good opportunity for networking, and, particularly if you’re an Early Career Researcher, it’s a great addition to your CV. We also strongly believe that it is a fantastic opportunity for faculties to come together and hear what others are doing, which is why we are opening this up to the entire University. So, come and get involved!
This year we are keen to open out our conference to students and academics across the University who would like to showcase the fantastic work they’re doing with regards to teaching, learning and educational research. Whether you want to talk about a theoretical approach you’ve utilised in your teaching, a style of teaching which has worked particularly well, or a piece of interdisciplinary research, we’re keen to hear about the work that is being done across BCU. Below is an overview of the general themes of the conference for your reference:
Pedagogy, Practice, Politics and Policy: Where to next in teaching, learning and research in education?
(a) Professional practices in teaching
(b) Formal and informal lifelong learning pedagogies
(c) Public and popular debates in education policy
(d) Researching education
Each strand will encourage papers from all education sectors;
Third sector /Voluntary provision
Aside from informing you about the conference via internal channels, we will also be promoting it via Twitter. If you want to keep up to date with the latest developments regarding the planning, preparation and running of the conference, please follow @BeckyS1993 or @CSPACE_BCU on Twitter. We now have our own dedicated hashtag for the conference on Twitter: #CSPACE16.
We look forward to receiving your submissions in advance of 20th May. If you have any questions please contact me on Rebecca.Snape@bcu.ac.uk. Remember to follow our updates on Twitter! #CSPACE16
‘Looking for the unexpected – Creativity and Innovation in Music Education’
On March 16th-19th a team of BCU music educators & researchers flew all the way to Lithuania to attend the European Association of Music in Schools (EAS). The title of the conference was ‘Looking for the Unexpected – Creativity and innovation in music education’, a hot topic for us in the UK with the uncertainty of creative subjects within schools due to the impending EBacc and forced acadamisation knocking at the door.
So Prof. Martin Fautley, Dr. Victoria Kinsella, fellow PhD student Samantha Clements, and I packed our warm winter clothes to prepare for snow and produced our presentations about our own research into creativity in music education. Director of learning and participation at Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Nancy Evans also joined us at the conference to present alongside Victoria and Martin on their action research project with ‘Music Maze’.
How is ‘creativity’ defined in other countries?
The conference kicked off with a keynote from Pamela Burnard talking about ‘diverse musical creativities’, an interesting terminology. In her keynote, Burnard discussed the links between ‘real world practice and industry’ and what is happening within schools and out of school. She also mentioned important aspects of being creative including risk taking, autonomy and enjoyment. Burnard explores musical creativity further in her book ‘Musical Creativities in Practice’ and talks about how some may view musical creativity as:
‘a particular type of practice, perhaps that of the Great Composers, rather than to multiple possibilities’ (p.7, 2012).
There were many incredibly polished vocal performances during the conference covering vast amounts of repertoire, including a lot of traditional Lithuanian folk music. Burnard asked if one of the performances that morning was ‘creative’. Many automatically nodded and said yes. It was a striking piece of musical theatre, they varied how they used the space on the stage and use of props, and the combination between traditional folk music with modern day themes was striking. The students were engaged throughout and the experience was immersive. However, had the students been creative? There is no way of telling just from the performance. Creativity is a process (Wallas, 1926) and we could not know if the students had co-created the piece, made decisions, rejected ideas, improvised, or if they had just followed a strict set of orders from the choreographer or music leader. How did the audience define creativity? What made a ‘creative performance’?
Wallas: 4 stages of the creative process
Whilst attending other presentations I was surprised by the diversity of practice happening in Europe, differences in what they valued in music education and how they defined ‘creativity’ in practice.
Is composing inherently creative?
My own research focuses on composing within schools and I have witnessed many music educators that believe composing is inherently creative because it is ‘creating something new’. However in practice composing can be a very uncreative activity, guided by stylistic rules, criteria driven direction. The assessment can lead to creating pieces of music with a set number of techniques thus creating very ‘unmusical’ works – a kind of ‘composing by numbers’. The three aspects Burnard spoke about in the keynote (risk taking, autonomy and enjoyment) are not always found when students are composing in the classroom or for exams. In other presentations focusing on composing there were interesting approaches to how people approached teaching composing. This made me consider the ‘skills vs creative’ debate:
Should you learn the ‘rules’ first before you can break them?
In one particular presentation the teacher had developed a step-by-step approach to teaching melody writing with young recorder players. The music was rooted in folk tradition but focused on limiting the students’ choice in pitch and using grids to develop a rhythmic pattern. It was also based in western classical notation. The presenter commented that it was a way for students to learn about specific folk music traditions and techniques as well as improving notation reading. His approach to introducing composing to young students was quite radically different to my own but there were some similarities in that we both were aiming to introduce stages and steps for students. For me, instead of choosing which of the two pitches to use I ask students to decide when there should be sound and when there should be silence, referring back to John Cage’s quote:
‘The material of music is sound and silence integrating these is composing’ (1949)
We would then move onto the next step asking them for either high and low, or loud or quiet sounds. For this teacher it would be the next pitch or rhythm. I would initially see my own approach as more ‘creative’ but on reflection we were both still asking our students to make a decision and go along a process, but it was framed very differently. This leads back to one of the fundamental questions of ‘how DO we teach composing?’ Both of our approaches in rooted in a cultural and musical background, and we are both limiting students decisions initially, however one was focused on melody and the other on timbre and texture.
An aspect of composing that was present in this presentation, and one that I see regularly in the UK, was an obsession around pitch as a starting pointfor composing. Why is it that deciding on what key a piece of music should be, or what pitch to start with, the most important thing for music? Why not the title, the mood, the structure, the timbral quality of the instruments, the way it looks when performed, the rhythmic quality or the ‘feel’. I am not suggesting every young musician or teacher starts with pitch when composing but it seems more common than other areas of music. This focus on pitch may also impact on what a young person might think composing is about – I remember telling myself at the age of 16:
‘once I know how to do harmony, I will be able to compose’
For a start that phrase doesn’t even make sense, but I felt at that time there were inherent rules that I just needed to learn in order to be a composer. The more rules I learnt, the better I would be. But who dictates these rules – Society? Examination boards? Culture? The teacher? In music and composing there are rules we can learn, but the act of being creative is deciding how and when to use them, when to not use them, and when to change them, do something new and make them our own.
Reflections on my presentation:
On the 3rd day I gave my presentation titled: ‘Loosing Faith in the System: The implications of inconsistent marking, of AS and A level composing, on creativity.’ My talk used the results collected from my KS5 composing survey on teachers’ experiences of marking in A level. Results from 71 teachers found that over 90% of them had been surprised by an examination grade and many did not feel confident with predicting grades. The first aspect of my presentation involved delegates looking through the raw data from the survey and talking about what they felt the data told them. I enjoyed this aspect of my talk as it allowed them to ask questions and open up a dialogue with the audience early on in the presentation. It engaged them in the research from the start. I was also keen to see how other researchers in the audience would react to the data; one even commented saying how the research was ‘gold dust’ and examination boards would be very keen to see the full research.
In addition to the qualitative data, my research used the free text answers on the survey and 9 telephone interviews. In this section of the presentation I presented some emerging themes into what impact inconstant making has in the school:
1) Downward Spiral:
This is when, due to unexpected poor grades, teachers restrict what students can compose so that it is closer to the marking criteria. However as a result of trying to second-guess the exam board requirements the students do not enjoy the experience as much and therefore do less well in the exam.
2) Trail of interpretation:
As mentioned before, there is a danger of trying to second-guess what the exam board of examiner wants to see in the composition. As a result a trail of interpretation of what people think ‘good’ composing looks and sounds like is developed, leaving the student at the end of this line trying to compose what they think others want.
3) Ripple effect:
The final emerging theme is this idea of a ‘ripple effect’ – that inconsistent marking has an impact on the teacher’s confidence, which effects their teaching of composing (potentially limiting creativity), which in turn effects the students’ learning and experience of composing. The wider implications are that students decide not to take music as a subject at this level which endangers music as a subject in the school and therefore threatens jobs. At the end of this it could have a negative impact on the music industry in the UK as a whole.
I enjoyed presenting my early findings at EAS. It has given me confidence to present at future conferences including ISME and BERA, and practice into how to present to a wider audience from across Europe where there are diverse practices in music education.
BCU team presentations overviews:
The BCU team covered a wide range of topics at the conference. Martin Fautley focused on creativity within lower secondary schools. His results from a survey of over 100 secondary music teachers from Birmingham and London found that assessment was based on matching school expectations of predicted grades. It was also noted that that assessment was reducing creative opportunities in the classroom.
Samantha Clements presented her PhD research methodology involving gaming software as a tool for critical incident charting. This experimental way of collecting data was used in her pilot study with 4 trainee music teachers. She asked them to create ‘fantasy worlds’ which charted each of their ‘critical incidents’ in their life influencing their aptitude for different aspects of music education.
Victoria Kinsella has been working alongside ‘The National Foundations for Youth Music’ on their ‘Exchanging Notes’ projects across England. Victoria reported, from the first year findings, on the importance of multi-agency working for increased creative engagement and intrinsic motivation of young people.
On the final morning Nancy Evans from BCMG, Martin and Victoria presented research from an action research project with BCMG’s composing group ‘music maze’ from 8-11 year olds. The research focused on how the students responded to open-ended composing tasks. Some of the finding included that the children’s starting points were very diverse, and the way they composed and how much adult support and scaffolding was needed, varied.
We all enjoyed attending the conference as it helped stimulated discussions and debates with each other and with other delegates from outside the UK. Lithuania has a rich musical and cultural background and a country none of us had thought to visit before but would be excited to go back to.
This is just a gentle reminder that we will soon be putting out a Call for Papers for this year’s Annual Education Conference, which will be held on 11th July 2016. This year, CSPACE will be teaming up with CELT to deliver an exciting conference which will encompass a broad range of aspects of research, teaching and learning in education across the university.
Regardless of which Faculty you work in, we’re keen to hear about the work that is being done with regards to education across BCU. You might want to talk about a teaching approach or technique that has worked well for you, or you may some interdisciplinary research that you’d like to share. Whatever you would like to talk about, we’re keen to hear about your work.
Below is an overview of the conference foci:
Pedagogy, Practice, Politics and Policy: Where to next in teaching, learning and research in education?
(a) Professional practices in teaching
(b) Formal and informal lifelong learning pedagogies
(c) Public and popular debates in education policy
(d) Researching education
Each strand will encourage papers from all education sectors;
Written by Beck Snape, Graduate Teaching and Research Assistant, PhD student.
Earlier this month, on 6th February, I attended the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House in London with other members of the Rethinking Creativities cluster group. Our aim was to learn about different ways of collecting, interpreting and presenting data, and to this end the exhibition did not disappoint. The more general aim of the exhibition itself is to ‘explore the issues surrounding the datafication of our world through the work of artists, designers, journalists and visionaries.’ In this blog I will write about some of the exhibits which caught my attention and how these observations have impacted on my view of data and creativity.
One of the most prevalent themes at the exhibition was how data can have both a positive and negative impact on our lives.
This argument often manifested itself in discourses relating to how data collected from social media can help or hinder our lives. Exhibits frequently featured the dominant social media juggernauts, such as Facebook and Twitter, which perhaps highlights its increasingly ubiquitous presence in our lives. Having grown up alongside the emergence of ‘Myspace’ and ‘Bebo’, my generation has seen the dominance of social networking sites increase. Many of us are conscious that our cyber footprints can be tracked and that our data is harvested by big companies to target us with advertising. Most of us know this happens but it’s just something that we accept as par for the course if we want access to the Internet.
Even still, news of undercover reports conducted by sites such as Facebook to try to understand our psyche can sometimes be a little unsettling, and this is something that came across at the exhibition. Photographic displays showed the massive storage systems which hold our data, serving as a very visual representation of the information we would like to consider to be private. These images really brought it home to me the real, physical presence data has in our lives. It’s every email conversation we have or Google search we make. It feels invisible but simultaneously tangible. One image in particular which struck me was that of an old Cold War bunker in Switzerland that had been turned into a data centre, which served as a poignant reminder of how society’s needs have changed over time. I got the distinct impression that data has started to eclipse our lives, at a rate where we need to build, or repurpose, new data centres to accommodate the growth. It also made me think about the purpose of my PhD project and how I can ensure that it is purposeful, with real impact. With all this data in the world, I don’t want to produce data for the sake of it, but rather something that will be effective and profound.
The exhibition also showcased ways in which data collected from social media can be used for ‘the greater good’. One tutorial I attended explored how the authorities used Twitter to catch those involved in the 2011 London riots. The live action data Twitter users create through ‘Tweets’, to boast about their activities or recruit more people to help, can be captured by the authorities to help them to prevent crimes or persecute criminals. This might seem to a bit naïve on the part of these criminals, but all too often it is easy to forget that something that takes a few seconds to post online can have significant implications for a person’s future. Another exhibition at the event captured this idea well. The exhibition – ‘#onesecond’ by Philipp Adrian – was a printed book with four volumes that captured users’ Tweets in a physical format, ‘allowing each author to emerge out of the abundance of anonymous data and become an individual again.’ To me, this served as a warning to social media users about what they post online, but it also reminded me of the importance of capturing individuals’ voices in research. While it is important – ethically at least – to allow participants to remain anonymous, at the same time we should allow individual voices to filter through in the write up of research.
So, I think it is fair to say that social media can be used to capture rich data, and as the private becomes increasingly public, the exhibition presented an opportunity for researchers to use digital technology to shape their research. Indeed, some even use social media as a data collection method. This approach is one that could be seen to make data more accessible; in theory, anyone could select a collection of Tweets and analyse them. Accessibility to data is an issue that was highlighted in the ‘Dear Data’ exhibition, which showcased how collecting and representing data can be treated as an everyday activity. Social media provides an extra outlet for this accessibility, but it also raises questions about ethical soundness and reliability. For me, the problem with using social media as a single method of collecting data is that it may strip away the context of a person’s identity and environment. Similarly, quantitative data sometimes does this too, and at Big Bang the idea of the so-called ‘quantified self’ was, to a certain extent, disparaged. It was argued that numbers do not tell the whole truth and can in fact be skewed and manipulated to tell a particular story. Nicholas Felton, however, portrayed a slightly different approach to using quantitative data in his exhibition. Instead of using data to tell a particular story he instead used it to specifically tell his story, by piecing together bits of information about his personality, habits and relationships to form a database. He then used this data to create narratives and annual reports about his life. This approach, while not without its faults, challenged my own perceptions about how I saw quantitative data. I have always been wary about the potential of quantitative data when conducting research with humans – particularly in education – but this exhibit provided me with food for thought about how participants’ stories can be pieced together using quantitative data too.
Overall, one of the most interesting ideas to emerge from our trip is how each exhibit had a different impact on us
So certain aspects of the exhibition were profound to some but less so to others. For instance, here I have focused on social media and the Internet, meaning that I have closed myself off to other themes which are less important to me but crucial to others. This highlights aspects about creativity and research that have been widely commented on before. Firstly, what constitutes a ‘good’ creative artefact? In a similar way to how we value exhibitions differently, the value we place on a piece of art, music or fiction also often varies. Secondly, I feel that it highlights the all too often interpretive nature of data. This is particularly prevalent in qualitative data but, as the exhibition presents, can occur in quantitative findings too. This serves as a reminder that it is pertinent to listen to different reactions to events and occurrences, as richness lies in the diversity of these opinions. Consideration can be given to this not just in the data collection process but also during data analysis too. What I consider to be an important line of enquiry or theme in data may differ from the next person, and these are dilemmas which are encountered by researchers all the time. A final observation to make is that I found the conversations that took place after the exhibition to be far richer than simply walking round it. As the exhibition itself argues, data by itself can only tell us so much, similar to, in my opinion, pieces of creative work. For me, the richness of human commentaries on creative and research processes are just as – if not more – significant than the data itself. I know that many people would disagree with that but, as Big Bang Data highlights, ‘by concentrating on data alone, we also ignore the fact that our society can thrive on more disordered mechanisms such as debate’, so perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Reimagining Further Education: One-day Conference on Wednesday 29th 2016, 9:30am-4pm at Birmingham City University
Overview of the conference
There is no more challenging time to be working in Further Education (FE). Having borne the brunt of the government’s austerity agenda more than any other education sector in England over the last 5 years, FE providers have endured repeated cuts to their budgets, resulting in the closure of departments, courses and ongoing mass redundancies across the sector. Yet FE practitioners, teacher educators, researchers and all those with an interest in FE cannot stand by and let others set the agenda solely around efficiency savings and market interests. It is time the agenda was driven by the needs of practitioners and the students they teach. It is time the agenda was informed by what research tells us about VET practitioners and how that practice gives a new vocabulary to the very work that FE practitioners are involved in. By exploring positive, imaginative and creative ways forward that enhance agency, workforce development and the professional ethos of all FE practitioners, this conference aims to put teaching and learning at the centre of its agenda.
On 29th June 2016, Birmingham City University’s Centre for the Study of Practice and Culture in Education (CSPACE) will host a national conference entitled ‘Reimagining Further Education’ at its City Centre Campus, the Curzon Building, located in the centre of Birmingham. The conference will bring together practitioners, researchers and commentators in the field of Further Education and will include a range of workshops, presentations and symposia exploring some of the latest practice, thinking and research in the sector. Some of the topics/themes discussed during the conference will be:
Lessons from work based learning: a new vocabulary of practice for FE?
New Communities of Practice: professionalism in FE
Sustainable models of teacher learning in FE
HE in FE: looking ahead
Leadership in FE
Intelligent accountability and governance in FE: supporting the FE workforce
If you are interested in attending the conference and/or would like to know more about it, please contact Louise.Brand@bcu.ac.uk.