From code literacy to robotics

KL2016B

KLCC, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Digital Education Show Asia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
18-19 April, 2016

It’s good to be back at the Digital Education Show Asia in KL for the second year running, especially given the heavy focus of this year’s event, the fourth in the series, on 21st century skills and digital literacies, including computational thinking and coding. Robotics, perhaps unsurprisingly, was also high on the agenda.

In my own paper on the first morning, Mapping the pathway from m-learning to digital literacies for ASEAN educators, I argued that in order for our students to get the most out of mobile learning, it is important for educators to help them develop their mobile literacy, and the individual literacies of which it is composed, including code literacy.

In his paper, Learning beyond boundaries – How coding shapes systematic problem solvers, Felix Lee suggested that coding and robotics have a role to play within the current context where we have to break down boundaries between subjects, develop creativity through problem-based learning, and let the students determine their learning paths through an interactive technology-enhanced curriculum.

In her talk, Advocacy of STEM education – Introducing computational thinking as the new literacy of the 21st century, Ng Puay San emphasised the importance of applied STEM education to support innovation in a global conceptual economy. She stressed the need for an integrated curriculum where different subjects like science, technology, engineering and maths connect with each other. She talked about computational thinking – which she described as a new literacy – as a framework within which students learn to reason about systems and problems, and which goes well beyond issues of hardware and software. She showcased the 3-year initiative Code for Change under Singapore’s Smart Nation Vision, designed to improve students’ skills in this area, and gave the example of a 4-year-old girl coding with Scratch. She wrapped up with an overview of the need for a quality and integrated curriculum, authentic assessment, leveraging of educational technology, continuous professional development for teachers, and partnership with the community, industries and home.

In a talk focusing on the Malaysian context, Digital.Tech@Schools: Empowering students to become digital innovators, Sumitra Nair opened by noting that 90% of all future jobs will require digital competencies, according to the EU Skills Report 2013. She indicated that there are currently initiatives to encourage digital innovation in Malaysia, but that these exist at the fringes of the formal curriculum; young people, she suggested, need to move from being consumers to creators of technology. The Digital.Tech@Schools initiative, piloted in 24 schools in December 2015, involves revising the ICT curriculum and training teachers; introducing co-curricular clubs; and running national-level competitions. The new curriculum focus is to be on algorithms, decomposition and debugging; coding and sequencing; and digital literacy – searching, analysing and curating content. The approach will involve thematic, activity- and project-based learning (combining unplugged and device-based learning). Co-curricular activities in the pilot included app development, Arduino and Scratch programming, and 3D printing. The initiative has now been endorsed by key decision makers. The focus in 2016 is on educator readiness for the curriculum roll-out.

In the follow-up panel, How do education leaders need to adapt according to a new technology-driven education system?, chaired by Eric Lam, a number of key points were raised, notably about the need to place pedagogy before technology; the centrality of the teacher’s role even within technology-enhanced education; the need to remember the human dimension of education; the importance of teachers employing creativity and design thinking to repurpose technological tools appropriately for learning; the advantages of having students sharing through online platforms; the need to have students use technology for communication and creation rather than just consumption, but to use more traditional tools when appropriate; and the key role played by the surrounding culture and context.

In his presentation, Visual  learning and emerging technologies – Rethinking 21st century literacy for a visual world, Emory Craig indicated, following Ron Bleed, that being visually literate is a must in the contemporary era. He noted the enormous potential of augmented reality (AR) in education, as well as of virtual reality (VR); at 90 frames per second, as in current high-end VR displays, he says, you cannot tell the difference between reality and visual media. He also described Facebook’s experiments in social VR, as well as Microsoft’s Hololens, which allows holographic teleportation. He concluded with some questions:

  • What new tools/vocabulary do we need to analyse visual media?
  • Can new media and VR create new ways of knowing? Can it create empathy? (And is this the final form of media, now that it has become immersive?)
  • What happens when media becomes as ‘real’ as the real world? (And how do we keep our critical distance?)
  • Will it foster new forms of collaborative learning?
  • How should current educational practices and institutions change in a highly visual and virtual world?

He also referred participants to the Digital Bodies site where he and his colleagues write about these kinds of new developments.

The roundtable discussion, Understanding how mobile and ubiquitous access technology can help to enable blended learning in your schools, led by Ian Pittman, began with a discussion of the wide range of possible definitions and interpretations of blended learning.  The topic of learning design arose quickly, as did the issue of the socioeconomic context and how the available technology impacts on learning designs, which always need to be customised to particular groups of learners in particular contexts.

Reflecting on less well-provisioned contexts in his paper, The burden of technology in education: Is there a more painless way?, Eric Lam mentioned that a key infrastructure  challenge is how to achieve e-learning with only short periods of stable internet access. He talked about the importance of downloading materials from the cloud when there is an internet connection, so they can later be used without a connection. E-learning should be afforded, he suggested, without the constant presence of the internet. While this problem may cease to exist in the future, it is a very real problem now. He showed a platform called PageWerkz designed to work under these conditions.

In his presentation, Outlining best practices on how to develop MOOC content, David Asirvatham suggested that the advantage of MOOCs is that they allow for on-demand and networked learning. It is important to begin by deciding whether to set up a cognitive-behaviourist xMOOC or a connectivist cMOOC, or to try to combine the two. MOOCs can be fully online, or used to support blended and/or flipped approaches. Creating a MOOC is a chance to explore new pedagogical approaches as well as new business models. He suggested that it would take 6-12 months to develop a MOOC from scratch, and that the cost might be around US $50,000. Ultimately it is a team effort involving the following roles: subject matter expert, instructional designer, script editor, graphic designer, camera operator, audio/video editor, and reviewer. He noted that learning objects, in the form of videos within a MOOC, should ideally be under 5 minutes long. It’s also important to consider how you will address the typical drop-out rate from MOOCs, which may be up to 80-90%.

In between the many papers, it was interesting to see how many companies are offering robotics hardware and associated programming software for education. Providers included Arduino Robotics (Malaysia), rero (Malaysia) and Pitsco Tetrix (USA), whose products can for example be used in robotics lessons and clubs in schools. There is also a push for the integration of robotics with STEM, such as by Abilix (China) and in the STEM with Robotics programme by CM Asia (Singapore). Meanwhile, the company Robotics Learning (Malaysia) was showcasing its programmes to help children learn to create robots in a problem-solving environment, combining elements of STEM and coding in an integrated learning context (see Figure 1). It was also interesting to learn about Malaysia’s annual National Robotics Competition for school students.

Robots2016B

Figure 1: Robots from Robotics Learning, Malaysia (2016)

My strongest impression of this conference is that, within a broader recognition of the importance of 21st century skills and digital literacies, there is a growing appreciation of the need to foreground computational thinking and code literacy, and to understand the role that can be played by robotics and programming in an integrated, STEM-oriented, problem-based approach to the curriculum. It will be interesting to see how these intersecting trends continue to evolve over coming years.

Mobile at home

ACTA/ACAL International Conference
Perth, Australia
7-11 April, 2016

Normally when I present at a conference, there is some combination of planes, trains, busses and taxis involved in getting there. So it’s a rare pleasure to be able to walk to a conference venue from my apartment, as was the case when I presented a keynote session, Yet another literacy? Mobile devices, mobile learning, and mobile literacy, at the well-attended ACTA/ACAL Conference in my hometown of Perth.

The theme of the conference was Diversity: Exchanging Ways of Being. Mobile devices are of course a technology that is opening up increasing diversity in educational approaches, content, and settings. In my keynote, I argued that, in order to help our students gain the most from learning experiences with mobile devices, and at the same time to prepare them for their future lives in a mobile, digitally mediated world, we need to support the development of their mobile literacy. In one way, it’s a newly emerging literacy. But in another way, as a macroliteracy composed of existing literacies – like information literacy, multimodal literacy, network literacy, and code literacy – it is not as new as it seems. It is, however, crucial to ensure that there is a level of critical awareness embedded in students’ mobile literacy, so that they learn to ask critical questions about about our mobile devices and their political, economic, social, health and environmental implications.

One of the disadvantages of attending a conference in your hometown is that, unfortunately, other commitments and obligations continue, so I was only able to participate in the conference for a couple of hours. That was enough, though, to have some interesting conversations with delegates, who were clearly inspired by the whole conference. It was great to see such a successful event taking place in Australia’s most isolated capital city.

Drawing together global insights

iCTLT
Singapore
30-31 March, 2016

Suntec City, Singapore. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Suntec City, Singapore. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The biannual iCTLT (International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology) in Singapore is always a great place to hear about contemporary trends drawn together from across the world of educational technology.

In his opening keynote, Coherence: Putting the right drivers in action, Michael Fullan spoke about the importance of whole system change, focusing on pedagogical improvement linked to measurable outcomes, and the need for practice to inform theory. He suggested the right policy drivers are capacity building (rather than accountability), collaborative work (rather than individual teacher and  leadership quality), pedagogy (rather than technology, which is just an accelerator), and ‘systemness’ (rather than fragmented strategies). Collaborative cultures in schools, he noted, have a greater effect on teaching and learning than teacher appraisal or professional development.

There is a need for an integration of  pedagogical knowledge, change knowledge, and technological knowledge to innovate effectively in schools. Exciting new learning should be irresistibly engaging, elegantly efficient, technologically ubiquitous, steeped in real-life problem-solving, and involve deep learning. He went on to speak about the emergence of students, and not just teachers, as change agents. Students can be catalysts for pedagogical change, partners in organisational change, and forces for societal change; they can become citizens of tomorrow, today. The job description for education, he suggested, should be ‘helping humanity’, which involves students in an integral way.

In the second keynote, Connected learning: Learning in an era of abundant connectivity, Mizuko Ito spoke about how learning is different in an era of easily accessible internet-based resources. Students will be sharing in ways many educators regard as positive (such as forming study groups) as well as less desirable ways (such as downloading essays or finding services to take online courses for them). The latter may be due in part to a lack of engagement in formal education, which is very different from the free-flowing ecology of demand-driven learning young people engage in outside the classroom.

One problem with new technologies like MOOCs is that they tend to advantage those who are already educationally and socially advantaged, rather than closing gaps, as Ito pointed out with reference to the work of Hansen and Reich (2015). She went on to present a model of connected learning, involving students’ interests, a peer culture, and opportunities tied to recognition. The last of these may be linked to school, civic engagement, or job opportunities, but it is difficult for young people to find these connections. For most youth, in fact, their learning experiences in and out of school are disconnected, and they have little idea how to connect their interests with career pathways. The challenge today is to build a more connected ecosystem for students’ learning, bringing together their formal and informal learning. While not all learning has to be of this type, and while there is no one size-fits-all model, every learner deserves to have this kind of experience, and to have it recognised by schools, education systems and employers. There is a key role here for ‘learning heroes’ who act as mentors to young people and help them to make these kinds of connections.

In my own spotlight presentation, Deeper learning and deeper engagement through mobile literacy, I argued that there is a pressing need to help students develop the individual literacies that make up the mobile literacy skillset, including information literacy, multimodal literacy, network literacy, code literacy, and critical mobile literacy. I suggested that at the same time, educators can seize the opportunity to deepen students’ learning experiences and deepen their engagement through tasks that simultaneously involve active, constructivist learning, and situated, embodied learning. In a follow-up presentation the next day on Designing mobile learning, I outlined the practical considerations that impact on educators’ creation of mobile learning experiences for students.

In her opening plenary on the second day, Rethinking the profession of teaching as a design science, Diana Laurillard began by stressing the importance of placing pedagogy before technology. She outlined the conversational framework (see figure below) and went on to discuss how technology can improve knowledge acquisition, inquiry, practice, discussion, collaboration, and production, while she constantly emphasised the importance of teachers’ guidance and curation.

The Conversational Framwork (Laurillard, 2016)

Figure 1: The Conversational Framework (Laurillard, 2016)

She explained some techniques for using technology to support collaborative learning in very large classes, involving pyramid discussion groups. The technology can handle the orchestration of large discussions of this kind to make the teacher’s task more manageable.

She then suggested some techniques for improving the use of multiple choice questions, including concealed answer MCQs (where answers to the question are initially concealed and some user-constructed input is required) or open MCQs (where students see responses and facts relevant to the responses, and must link responses to the relevant facts). Using learning analytics from large online classes can help us to improve MCQs, identify common misconceptions, and crowdsource wrong answers.

Teaching is now, more than ever, a design science. It’s more like engineering than performance, art, or science, she stated. It’s important to have a design-test-redesign cycle; and a professional community of practice is useful for innovating, testing, and sharing new ideas for effective pedagogical design. In this way, collaborative innovation can become viable for teachers. Teaching in the 21st century means teachers discovering new digital pedagogies, being supported in innovation, being recognised as design professionals, and engaging in professional development via peer collaboration.

In his presentation, Designing (multimodal) learning, Victor Lim spoke about the importance of teachers seeing themselves as designers of learning. Design starts with the customers, is divergent, is controlled by principles rather than rules, invites invention, and is aimed at transformation. The role of the teacher has evolved from being a transmitter to being a facilitator to being a designer. Design is about the centrality of choice: it involves educators choosing the best strategies for their learners in their context.

Learners also need to become multimodally literate. Referring to a wide range of developments, from digital storytelling to Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening dissertation, Lim discussed the shift towards multimodal representation in contemporary education and culture. He also flagged up the issue of subject-specific literacy, given that different subjects make different use of texts and other evidence types. It is necessary, he suggested, to develop complementary competencies in traditional literacies and multimodal literacy. When designing learning experiences through which students can develop multimodal literacy, teachers might draw on the FAMILY Framework – Form, Audience, Message, Integration, Link, Y (Why?) – in conceptualising their lessons.

All in all, iCTLT has once again proven to be a valuable forum for the exchange of views about new technologies in education, drawing together the perspectives and contributions of educators themselves, as well as government and the commercial sector. The fact that the audience has grown to nearly 2,000 people suggests that others find it valuable too! I’m already looking forward to iCTLT 2018.

Global gathering in Korea

GloCALL Conference
Daejeon, South Korea
13-14 November, 2015

Daejeon, South Korea. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Daejeon, South Korea. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

After an absence of a couple of years, I was glad to be able to get back to the GloCALL Conference, which took place this year in Daejeon, South Korea. As usual, it brought together a wide range of CALL practitioners from around the country, the region, and further afield. Key themes included an emphasis on situated and contextual mobile learning; the development of students’ intercultural competence; and the development of students as autonomous learners able to make judicious use of self-study resources.

In her plenary, Running wild: Out-of-class mobile learning, Agnes Kukulska-Hulme mentioned some common characteristics which may apply to mobile learning: mobile, informal, serendipitous, incidental, experiential, rhizomatic, ubiquitous, contextual, situated, augmented, playful, social, seamless, and/or self-directed. She spoke in some detail about the MASELTOV Project, which has recently ended. It produced an integrated collection of smartphone tools for immigrants to Europe learning local languages. The target learners include those with a low level of education, with cultural backgrounds that differ greatly from the host countries, or who are isolated individuals. There are some issues around cost, surveillance and privacy. While the resources include useful language learning and translation tools, it is still hard to show gains in terms of social inclusion. Many of the key points are summarised in the Mobile Situated Language Learning report.

She also spoke about a related project called SALSA (Sensors and Apps for Languages in Smart Areas), which is designed for English language learners in Milton Keynes as part of a local smart city initiative. It relies on beacons placed around the city, which trigger location-relevant content sent through an app to mobile devices in the vicinity. Thus, the beacons trigger situated language learning lessons, which are also available later on the mobile devices. Place thereby becomes significant for learners, who are sensitised to learning resources around the city. This encourages learners to think about their learning strategies and to better identify their own needs.

Overall, there is a need to harmonise formal and informal learning; we need to understand informal learning better, and to connect it better to formal learning. Language may serve as a bridge connecting formal and informal learning through mobile devices.

In his presentation, Mapping the city: Map-based tools for language learning projects, Stephen Welsh spoke about new literacies, geolocation and language learning. Students can get out into the community outside the classroom, and connect their learning with the wider world. He spoke of the spatial turn in the humanities, and the recognition that spaces contain embedded stories. He also spoke of deep mapping, which is the concept of mapping rich, everyday stories to geographical locations. He suggested that using common platforms like Google Maps and Wikispaces, students can be encouraged to create multimedia materials linked to real-world locations. He showed an example of a global simulation project called Ma vie parisienne, where students create an imagined walk-through geography of Paris, with their texts attached to a map of the city. He also showed a free tool called Cityscape created in the Language Resource Center at Columbia University in the US, where students are able to add a wider range of resources to maps. He suggested that the following are fundamental instructional design principles for these types of student tasks:

  • minimise student confusion
  • provide ample technical orientation
  • make objectives clear and manageable
  • provide good models for student work
  • get out of the way!

It’s also important to think about how structured or flexible the tasks should be, and whether they will be more instructor-centred or student-centred. Digital tools are needed for capturing, editing, hosting, geolocating, and sharing/reflecting on students’ work.

In their presentation, The complexities of digital storytelling: Factors affecting performance and production, Peter Gobel and Makimi Kano described a 6-month digital storytelling pilot project involving both group and individual storytelling. A more familiar or personal topic seemed to result in marginally better products. Students’ views of their own skills remained stable even as the project demands increased; there seemed little motivation to learn to use the technology better. In future, the presenters plan to experiment with interactive presentations, different formats (like movies, chat, and Google Maps), digital storytelling with mobile devices, and online peer review at each stage.

In my own presentation, Language and cultural exchange online: Lessons learned from running a Chinese-Australian digital storytelling project, I spoke about the successes and challenges of the Australia-China Council-funded Multimedia Stories for Language and Cultural Exchange project which ran in 2013-2014, highlighting the lessons learned by the project organisers in practical areas like motivation to participate, organisation and timetabling, and technology; and cultural areas like educational/school culture, and pedagogy.

In his presentation, Online social interaction: More interculturally aware and autonomous learners?, Pasi Puranen spoke about telecollaboration for autonomous learners in cultural exchanges. Telecollaboration takes learners outside textbooks, promotes critical awareness, and fosters awareness of cultural differences in communicative practices. Students can develop intercultural communicative competence, learning to interact with others who are linguistically and culturally different. He described a telecollaboration project where Finnish and Spanish students interacted with each other over 6 weeks on Facebook, working in English for 3 weeks and Spanish for 3 weeks. The project increased students’ motivation through dynamic interaction online, enhanced their understanding of each other’s cultures, and helped them become more autonomous learners.

In his presentation, The ICOSA Project – Creating interactive, integrated self-access English language exercises to enhance student learning while fostering inter-institutional collaboration, Mark LeBane spoke about the work of 5 Hong Kong higher education institutions in developing an  indexed repository (known as ICOSA, i.e., Inter-university Collaborative Online Self-Access) of online self-access English language learning materials for students. He spoke about the need to guide students in finding their own resources for self-study, helping them to draw on the ICOSA repository as well as seeking other appropriate materials from the wider internet.

In his presentation, Learner training in mobile language learning, Glenn Stockwell pointed out that there is a large gap between students’ intended and actual uses of mobile devices for learning, and that technology by itself will never lead to autonomy, which is dependent on a combination of motivation and skills. Referring to the work of Phil Hubbard, he suggested that teachers need to operate within principles-based learning frameworks involving the following elements:

  • experience CALL yourself
  • give learners ‘teacher’ training
  • use a cyclical training approach
  • use collaborative debriefings
  • teach general exploitation strategies

Referring to Romeo and Hubbard, he went on to say that we need to consider 3 domains of training:

  • technical training (how to use technology), which is where most of our training is currently focused
  • strategic training (what to do with the the technology specifically to learn a language)
  • pedagogical training (why to do it)

He spoke about a 2-year study where technical and strategic training only were used in the first year, and technical, strategic and pedagogical training were all used in the second year.  In the second year, students engaged in far more online learning activities, and used mobile phones for a much greater proportion of them. Students also became much more conscious of why they were making certain choices about using certain devices in certain ways. All in all, channels of communication were opened up between the teacher and the learners. Students took more responsibility for their own learning, and the teacher took on even more of a role as a motivator.

In her presentation, Exploring the concept of assistance in language learning, Agnes Kukulska-Hulme also focused on learner training, coupled with the notion of changing roles for teachers. Questions are now arising around configurations of human assistance combined with digital assistance through mobile devices like smartphones. After considering historical examples, she mentioned the development of a ‘mobile assistant’ in the MASELTOV project, which integrates a collection of tools and services including ways of finding local help, a social network, information resources, translation, a navigation guide, language learning guidance, and a serious game. These are all joined together by a recommender system which to some extent fills a traditional teacherly role, including the role of sequencing learning activities, as well as progress reporting. One challenge for language teachers is how to support students’ out-of-class language learning at a distance; another is how to support language learning in the age of digital assistants. She concluded with a list of different types of assistance that might be required by learners:

  • motivation
  • well-being support (including healthy studying)
  • progress monitoring (including feedback)
  • cognitive support (including noticing support, scaffolding and fading, and memorisation support)
  • organisation (including preparation and reminders)
  • individual requirements (including understanding individuals’ needs, e.g., for those with disabilities, and experience capture)
  • enrichment (including providing real-world contexts for practice, and augmentation of experiences)
  • direct help (including instruction, guidance, recommendations, and emergency help)
  • sustained help (including learner training and habit formation)
  • personal development (including support for imagination and creativity)

When we are developing new tools, we need to think about how these kinds of support can be built in, and how digital support can and should be balanced with teacher support. These are conversations that teachers need to be having with technology developers.

In her presentation, No more computer lab: Flipping your CALL classroom, Heyoung Kim explained that she has transferred lectures and readings to online-only sessions, complemented by online activities, leaving face-to-face class time free for in-depth discussions, group activities, and brief mobile-based reviewing of online resources. When working online, her students used Google Drive, and she was able to easily view their work folders. She reported that students were much more active in class because they were better prepared; task outcomes were better; students talked more in the classroom; and overall her classroom instruction was better organised and prepared. However, there was an increased preparation time involved in pre-recording lectures; an unfamiliar class sequence required lots of explanation; and there were technical problems with mobile quizzes and the learning management system (though Google Drive solved some of these problems). Some recycling of teaching materials should be possible in the future.

In the final plenary, Computer-assisted language learning: A reality check, Jeong-Bae Son noted that CALL is still not available in many schools, it is difficult to implement in many places, and there is a lack of teacher training in this area. He indicated that recent areas of particular focus in CALL are mobile learning and personalised learning. As more institutions move towards BYOD policies, there is a stronger connection between school learning and everyday life. There is also a broad move towards OERs, or Open Educational Resources, which are free and accessible to everyone. CALL, he suggested, can cover CMC (computer-mediated communication), WBLL (web-based language learning) and MALL (mobile-assisted language learning).

As always, GloCALL offered an eye-opening opportunity to pick up on the latest themes in CALL and MALL as they’re emerging from the practices and research of language teachers and learners around Asia and the world. It was interesting to have these conversations in the context of the country with the fastest broadband in the world. In fact, I’m typing the conclusion to this blog entry on the KTX train up to Seoul, and will shortly update it online thanks to the freely available wifi on the train … This, surely, is a glimpse of the future of internet connectivity around the world!

More on mobile language learning from a Japanese perspective

Gunma JALT Summer Workshop
Kusatsu, Japan
20-21 August, 2015

K-Centre1C

Kusatsu Town Centre, Gunma, Japan. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Following on directly from the JACET Summer Seminar, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Gunma JALT Summer Workshop, which likewise was held in Kusatsu, Japan, and which addressed the theme of Technological trends in education. I repeated my two presentations on Future mobile learning, given originally at the JACET Seminar.

In his presentation, From high-tech to low-tech environment: The challenge of introducing technology to ESL in the high school context, Stephen Howes presented an example of the technological context in a school in Australia as a comparison to those found in some Japanese schools. He showcased an Australian private high school environment with a one-to-one tablet programme where extensive use was made of cloud-based, schoolwide software platforms. Overall it was a blended learning context, but there was no obligation to use technology all the time, and teachers were encouraged to employ it when and where it was appropriate. Teachers, he suggested, need to be learners when it comes to new technologies and their implementation in education.

In his presentation, Handheld video games and English L2 learning, Ben Thanyawatpokin reported on a 2-month study of Japanese English major university students using video games to improve their English, where an experimental group of volunteers was compared with a control group who did not choose to play a video game in English. He found that the video graphics supported students’ text comprehension; that there was considerable incidental learning by students; that the daily conversational English in the game was perceived as useful by students; and that students’  initial motivation to learn English morphed into motivation to play the game. The experimental group also showed improvements on tests of reading speed and word recognition speed after the 2-month period.

In their presentation, The use of audio journals as an outside-of-classroom activity to foster L2 acquisition in college freshmen, Raymond Hoogenboom and Barry Keith spoke about their students’ submission of audio journals. After listening several times to a Voice of America news story of their choice, students record a 2-3 minute listening response journal (LRJ) entry in which they greet the listener, give the title and date of the news story, provide a short summary, give their opinions, and make a connection to their own lives. They are advised not to prepare a written text to read from, though notes are acceptable. The journals are submitted by email as MP3 or MP4 attachments, and the instructor drags them into the students’ iTunes playlists. Instructors can respond individually or collectively, although this is time-consuming. Through this process, the students are exposed to both meaning-focused input and meaning-focused output, and there can be a focus on form as well as fluency.

Overall, the Gunma JALT Workshop was a good opportunity to continue discussing mobile and other new technologies in language teaching with a different group of educators, and to hear their perspectives on the use of these tools in Japanese classrooms.

Mobile language learning from a Japanese perspective

Kusatsu1

Mount Asama, Gunma, Japan. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

JACET Summer Seminar
Kusatsu, Japan
18-20 August, 2015

I was privileged to be invited as a keynote speaker to the 42nd JACET Summer Seminar, held in the resort town of Kusatsu, some 200km north of Tokyo. It was great to be part of such a longstanding tradition of annual conferences, with this year’s seminar focused on Mobile learning in and out of the classroom: Balancing blended language learner training.

In my opening keynote on the first day, Framing mobility: What does mobile language learning look like?, I spoke about the importance of learning design and outlined the different designs seen in mobile learning projects, as well as the agendas that underpin those projects, before concluding with three brief case studies. Throughout the presentation, I stressed the importance of taking into account the context and balancing up the affordability and affordances of the available technology, before moving onto the learning design itself.

In my presentations on the second and third days, I looked at Future mobile learning from the point of view of technological developments and trends, and from the point of view of educational trends. I suggested that the future of learning will take shape at the point where today’s and tomorrow’s technological trends intersect with contemporary and emerging educational trends.

In his presentation, Mobile language learning: Examining the Japanese learner, Glenn Stockwell outlined the nature of technological affordances. Using technology, he suggested, must involve these steps:

  • Deciding what tools to use or not use (which needs a focus on technology)
  • Understanding why these tools should be used (which needs a theory of learning)
  • Deciding on how to use these tools in/out of the classroom (which needs practice)
  • Examining the relationship between these elements (which needs research and evaluation)

He stressed the importance of taking into account the context when implementing new technologies, including:

  • Individual factors
  • Institutional factors
  • Societal factors

With mobile learning, it is important to consider physical issues (screen size, input methods, storage capacity, processor speed, battery life, and compatibility), pedagogical issues (taking advantage of the affordances of mobile technologies, such as mobility, interactivity, portable reference tools, and push and pull mechanisms; and training in using mobile devices for learning purposes) and psycho-sociological issues (computers as business tools, or mobile phones as personal tools). He outlined the kinds of learner training that are necessary: technical, strategic and pedagogical training (with the last of these focusing on why students should use mobile technologies to support their learning).

He suggested that mobile learning should be about making learning a life experience: activities should take advantage of the affordances of the technologies, and capitalise upon the ubiquitous nature of technologies and their potential interactivity. He concluded that teachers have an essential role to play in helping students understand how to learn most effectively with their mobile tools.

In his presentation, Flipped and active EFL learning in Japan integrating advanced technologies: From automatic voice recognition to  mobile learning, Hiroyuki Obari suggested that nowadays teachers must act as facilitators, curators and mentors. In flipped classrooms, he went on to say, learning is more active and learners are more autonomous; there is no longer a teacher monopoly and students have greater control. He indicated that in order to develop students’ 21st century skills, teachers should invite them to work creatively with a selection of the Top 100 Tools for Learning. He showed a number of videos of his students making digital multimedia presentations to groups of peers. He reported on a research study in which he found that adopting a flipped approach where students watch lectures and prepare presentations outside class, and interact with peers in class, has led to improvement of students’ TOEIC scores.

In their presentation, Trends in the use of digital technology for assessment in language learning, Keiko Sakui and Neil Cowie spoke of the challenges of assessing web 2.0 projects. They suggested that rubrics might offer a solution. Based on the work of Stevens and Levi, they indicated that rubrics typically have 4 elements: a task description, a scale, dimensions to assess, and descriptions of the dimensions on the scale. Such rubrics can be used to set up project objectives, as well as to grade and give clear feedback on student work. They can help with difficult-to-measure features like participation, collaboration, collective tasks, digital literacies, and academic integrity. Thus, there seems to be a good fit between rubrics and web 2.0 projects. Some principles that could feed into rubrics include Bloom’s Taxonomy, and the CEFR and IB. The presenters are currently engaging in an action research cycle involving collaborative development of rubrics by teachers and students.

In his presentation, Blending mobile device-mediated collaborative tasks for oral production with traditional coursework, Hywel Evans discussed the value of highly structured mobile collaborative speaking tasks to get English learners talking in the Japanese classroom context. Mobile devices are used to distribute information (set up on the WordPress platform) to students who work in pairs on tasks of the spot-the-difference variety, which can be used to elicit any kind of spoken language desired. The mobile devices automatically assess students’ efforts, and award them points, so the teacher is free to circulate, monitor, and offer feedback.

In his presentation, Implementing a mobile-based extensive reading component: A report on student engagement and perceptions, Brett Milliner discussed the Xreading online system of graded readers, whose readers can be accessed on any device at any time. The system generates analytics on student reading, including book levels, number of words read, reading speed, and length of time to read a book, which allows the teacher to intervene to support students. Students can also see their own analytics data, helping them to reflect more critically on their reading progress.

In his presentation, Student perceptions of smartphone use for learning, Jeremiah Hall outlined research indicating the disadvantages of student multitasking as well as of secondary multitasking (that is, students being distracted by other students’ multitasking).  When surveying his own students, he found that most liked being able to use a smartphone in class, with most disagreeing that other students using smartphones distracted them. It is important to educate students about the potential for distraction, and to indicate the reasons for classroom policies around smartphone use.

In their presentation, Gonta de Tango – An experimental system development for enhancing learners’ vocabulary through extensive reading, Yoshiko Matsubayashi and Akemi Kawamura described a software programme which allows students to highlight unknown words while reading a story and add them to their personal vocabulary list. In this way, they can read without worrying about unknown vocabulary. One plan is to have students select or draw illustrations to depict settings in the story at the end of each chapter.

All in all, this conference brought together a range of global and local perspectives on mobile learning, with many valuable presentations and discussions on how international trends are intersecting with Japanese trends.

From mobiles to MOOCs in Malaysia

The Twin Towers, KL, Malaysia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The Twin Towers, KL, Malaysia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The Digital Education Show Asia
Kuala Lumpur
15-16 June, 2015

The third annual Digital Education Show Asia once again brought together educators from around Asia to discuss key themes in contemporary educational technology, from mobile learning to MOOCs, and big data to the internet of things.

In his opening plenary, What does learning mean?, Sugata Mitra suggested that the idea of knowing is itself changing, a point he illustrated with examples going back to his Hole in the Wall experiment in 1999 in India, which was repeated with World Bank funding across a number of other countries from 1999-2004. In every case, groups of unsupervised children working on computers in safe, public spaces were able to teach themselves how to use computers, download games, and learn some English. He found that generally they could acquire a level of computing literacy equivalent to that of an office secretary in the West in 9 months. Within 4-5 months after that, students had learned how to use a search engine to discover the right answers to questions set in their school homework. His conclusion was that groups of children using the internet can learn anything by themselves.

He found, moreover, that the process could be facilitated by an adult, not necessarily a knowledgeable one but a friendly one, who encourages the children. This is the grandparent approach, which differs from the prescriptive methods typically adopted by teachers and parents. The Skype-enabled  ‘granny cloud’, formed in 2009, doesn’t only consist of grandparents, but of a wide range of adults interested in the education of children. They are beamed into remote locations where there is a lack of good teachers. They don’t teach – they ask questions. This is effectively a self-organised learning environment, or SOLE, where the ‘granny’ amplifies the process.

A SOLE can easily be set up in a traditional classroom. The essential elements are broadband + collaboration + encouragement and admiration. The furniture gets removed and around 5 computers with large screens can be introduced, with students working in self-selecting groups to try to answer questions which are posed to them. This method began in Gateshead in 2010 and spread from there across England and into Europe, and by about 2012 it had gone viral across the world.

However, teachers complained that this approach doesn’t work well in the last few years of schooling, when they need to prepare students for final examinations where there is no internet available. Mitra suggested that the examination system was born to train office workers of the early 20th century in reading, writing and arithmetic; workers had to read instructions and follow them without asking questions. He asked: Why is the school system continuously producing people for a purpose that no longer exists? Nowadays, he said, employers are looking for creativity, collaboration and problem-solving, which are skills that reflect the office environment of the 21st century. Why should an examination be the only day in students’ lives when they don’t have access to the internet? Allowing the internet into the examination hall, he suggested, will change the entire system. He went on to discuss the kinds of questions being asked in exams, and suggested that many of them have little relevance to students’ future lives, and can in any case be answered easily with Google. The old system was a just-in-case learning system; but we don’t need much of this knowledge for our everyday lives or careers.

He used the analogy of cars doing away with the need for coachmen, because the passengers became the drivers. He asked whether it is possible, in the same way, for learners to become the drivers of their own learning. This, he said, is the idea behind the school in the cloud, or SinC. A number of these environments have now been set up to explore whether it is possible to implement SOLEs remotely around the world. Results so far suggest that: reading comprehension increases rapidly, students’ self-confidence and self-expression improve, aspirations change, internet skills improve rapidly, teachers change their approaches, and SinC works better inside school than outside school. SOLEs, he went on to say, also work for skills education, undergraduate education, and teacher training and professional training.

In his paper, Will learning analytics transform higher education?, Abelardo Pardo suggested that learning analytics can involve a wide variety of stakeholders: students, instructors, institutional managment, parents or policy makers. The term ‘learning analytics’ is usually used to talk about course or departmental analytics, while ‘academic analytics’ refers to institutional, regional, or national and international analytics: but these are different levels of the same process. One challenge is how to combine very different data sources for different stakeholders. Another challenge is finding the right algorithm to cover, for example, statistical prediction, clustering and profiling (identifying features of groups within a larger population), relationship mining, link prediction in networks, and text analysis. Finally, once we have conducted the analysis, we have to decide what to do about it: how will we act on the data? So we need to link stakeholders to data sources, forms of analysis, and actions to be taken.

Co-operation between different actors and sections within institutions is essential, meaning that leadership is necessary to set up a data-intensive culture which becomes a culture of change. The term ‘data wranglers’ is being used by some researchers to describe those who liaise between members of these multi-disciplinary groups. He finished by outlining 3 scenarios: a weekly student engagement report giving personalized feedback, strategic advice for the rest of the semester, and even advice for the year; a summary for instructors indicating what students have done over the week; and finally, feedback for the institution on degrees, infrastructure, and the student experience.

In his paper, Big data for the win, Eric Tsui suggested that institutions should not only focus on internally collected data, but should consider external, historical data. He extensively discussed the cloud, with its 3 kinds of connections: machine to machine, people to machine, and people to people. He asked whether we can draw more intelligence from the cloud. He gave illustrative examples of how systems like ReCAPTCHA and Duolingo crowdsource data. He also offered a detailed example of a cloud-based PLE&N platform using Google tools, which is scalable and robust. There are challenges in big data, he suggested, around privacy, what data to collect, and the fact that historical data haunts every instructor and learner.

In the paper, MOOCs – Where are we at now?, Dr. Daryono gave a list of reasons for implementing MOOCs, ranging from extending reach and access, through building and maintaining a brand, to innovation. He outlined the differences between cMOOCs (derived from the connectivist movement, linked to the development of OER) and xMOOCs (which are highly structured, content-driven, and largely automated). There are many types and versions of MOOCs curently emerging. In the future, more recognition is needed for MOOCs, and we should work towards collaborative, affordable, consumer-driven MOOCs.

In her paper, To MOOC or not to MOOC – Considerations and going forward, Dina Vyortkina noted that people who take MOOCs are generally not fresh to education, tend to be in their thirties or older, and need English to engage in the majority of MOOCs. Drivers for institutions setting up MOOCs include a desire to increase equitable access, to disseminate courses, to advance resarch, and to innovate technologically and pedagogically. From a global perspective, developing countries are underrepresented when it comes to the offering of MOOCs; government initiatives may help. Some see MOOCs provided by Western countries as examples of pedagogical or even cultural imperialism, with few local connections.

It has been suggested that MOOCs fit well with blended or flipped learning approaches. One German study suggests that bMOOCs – blended MOOCs – offer the best of both worlds, i.e., face-to-face and online teaching. However, it’s important that educators check the provider conditions, since some prohibit use of MOOC materials for tuition-based courses. It’s also important for educators to consider how the materials fit with their own teaching philosophies, and whether the content is entirely appropriate.

In my own paper, Creating the anytime, anywhere learner, I spoke about how capitalising on the full potential of anytime, anywhere learning generally involves exploiting a high level of affordances of mobile devices for learning, which correlates with a low level of affordability of those devices in the current context. Using a series of examples, I showed that anytime, anywhere learning may not be necessary in every context, but that where it is possible, there is considerable potential for transforming teaching and learning, and developing learners’ 21st century skills. (See the summary of my presentation recorded by the conference artist below.)

DigiEd2C

Summary of Mark Pegrum’s Presentation (2015)

In his paper, Mobile learning for language learning: Trends, issues and way forward, Glenn Stockwell talked about the challenges of mobile learning outside the classroom. He noted that learning in real-world contexts can bring external disruptions, but also disruptions from inside the learning device itself. He discussed pull and push learning; with pull learning, students need to take the initiative themselves, but in push learning, material is sent automatically to students and they are more likely to pay attention to it. All in all, however, teachers are more enthusiastic about mobile learning than students are, and some learner training (not to mention teacher training) is necessary. Based on research conducted with Phil Hubbard, he suggested that students need technical training (how to use mobile devices for learning), strategic training (what to do with them), and pedagogical training (why to use them). He reported on a study which showed that pedagogical training can dramatically increase students’ participation in mobile learning.

In her paper, How can mobile learning best be used for online distance learning?, Tae-Rim Lee outlined some lessons from the Korean National Open University, which has now progressed through three generations of mobile learning services, as devices and connectivity have evolved. It was found to be important not to depend on any one network or operating system. M-learning content has been shortened to be more atomic in nature; it was found that students preferred approximately 20-minute videos. Segmentation allows students greater control over the content through which they are working. Many changes have been implemented in response to student feedback.

Together with Glenn Stockwell, I moderated a roundtable in the final session of the conference, with the title of Driving success in mobile learning – Challenges and considerations. It was an opportunity to chat to participants in more detail about implementing mobile learning in their own particular contexts and, specific differences notwithstanding, to see that there are many similar challenges and considerations in this area across the globe.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable event, which offered a chance to hear the perspectives of educators from around Asia, and a chance to network with educators facing similar questions and issues around the world.

Conceptualising mobile learning

International Mobile Learning Festival
Hong Kong
22-23 May, 2015

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

I was only able to make it to second day of the International Mobile Learning Festival in Hong Kong, hosted by Hong Kong University at the Admiralty Centre, but it was great to take part in this dynamic event.

I opened the second day with my plenary, Mobile Design: 21st Century Approaches to Learning, where I discussed the importance of teachers seeing themselves as designers of student learning experiences which are aligned with transformative pedagogies and 21st century skills, while always remembering to take their own, and their students’, technological contexts as a starting point.

In his plenary, Designing, Modeling and Constructing: New Learning Paradigms, Michael Spector suggested that learning design must always be accompanied by evaluation at every stage. He went on to say that technologies change, contexts change, interests change, but learning does not change (when it is understood as a naturally occuring process inovlving changes in what a person knows and can do). It is the best and the worst of times at the moment: there are so many technologies available, but it is challenging for learning designers. He gave a detailed example of the work of the US National Technology Leadership Coalition in using 3D printing to support Next Generation Science Standards, with some positive results. He suggested that there is a whole hierarchy of components to support learning and instruction, as seen in the image below.

IMG_6583

Designing, Modeling and Constructing (Spector, 2015)

It is important, he noted, not to over-promise on technology. The gains due to technology since 1950 are not that great. We must keep our focus on teaching and learning, with the technology in a supporting role.

In their paper, Authentic Mobile Learning, Kevin Burden and Matthew Kearney noted that we need to interrogate what is meant by ‘authenticity’ when it comes to mobile learning. Authenticity, they suggested, may not just be about the context (which ranges from simulated to participatory), but about planning and design (whether teachers pre-define the learning experience, or give students more agency and allow the learning to be emergent) and personal relevance (whether students are detached from the learning, or engaged in the learning).

In her presentation, Flipping the MOOC Global/Local Collaboration: Understanding the Visual and Verbal Metaphors, Yilin Chen spoke about fostering 21st century skills (like creativity and visual literacy) through a flipped course based on the work of Shakespeare. For example, when studying Romeo and Juliet, the students were asked to look at manga adapations. They were also asked to create visual representations of key images in soliloquys, before considering how these could be represented creatively on the stage. Students later did Skype auditions, following which scenes were rehearsed and staged.

In his presentation, Transforming Outdoor Learning with the Use of Location-based Technology and Rapid Authoring Tool: Singapore Experience, Png Bee Hin gave an update on the work being done by LDR on augmented reality learning trails in Singapore. He outlined the growth of location-based technologies, which are expanding particularly rapidly in the Asian region. Pocket Trips is LDR’s new web-based authoring platform that can allow users to create learning trails anywhere in the world using a variety of triggers (GPS, image recognition or Bluetooth smart technology based on beacons, which now have a battery life of up to 5 years); a simulator allows users to test the app on their mobile devices without going to the actual location.

All in all, I’m beginning to sense a shift in the themes of mobile learning conferences. While there are still plenty of (necessary) case studies being reported, more and more presenters are beginning to tackle conceptual issues. It’s an exciting time, and a sign of the coming-of-age of a field, when foundational theories start to take shape. This is a shift we should keep our eyes on over the next couple of years.

Technological moves in the South

Colombo Symposium
Bogotá, Colombia
14-15 May, 2015

Plaza Bolívar, Bogotá, Colombia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Plaza Bolívar, Bogotá, Colombia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The Colombo Symposium in Bogotá, Colombia, brought together English language educators from across South America and further afield under the theme of ‘Challenges to Educators’ Professional Growth’. It was interesting to note the extent to which digital technologies found their way into a considerable number of papers and presentations.

In my opening keynote, entitled Mobile Language Learning: Designing for New Pedagogies, Skills and Literacies, I spoke about the need for teachers to conceive of themselves as designers of learning experiences for their students. In a mobile digital era, Mishra and Kohler’s TPACK framework provides a good base for learning design, but that design must take place within a particular social context. Thus, we must firstly ask ourselves what mobile devices our students have access to, and what affordances those devices offer for learning, before moving on to our TPACK-based learning design.

In his plenary, Unleash Your Experience: Being a 21st Century Reflective Practitioner, Micah Risher spoke of the changing expectations of new generations of learners who have had regular exposure to new technologies, as well as the changing needs of contemporary workplaces which require employees with 21st century skills.

In her presentation, A Teacher Training Blended Course in Pronunciation Pedagogy: A Case Study, Martha Ramírez described a flipped teacher training course on pronunciation with a weekly structure consisting of online preparation activities, a face-to-face tutorial, and autonomous follow-up activities; the last of these involved teachers making recordings of their own pronunciation (the learning component) and designing student activities (the teacher training component). She found that the flipped approach provided a baseline for situated learning to take place, because teachers came to face-to-face tutorials ready to put their learning into practice, and later put it into practice in their own classrooms. Working in a blended learning environment also allowed individual needs to be better addressed in a differentiated way.

In her presentation, Multi-Modal Feedback: Successfully Reinforcing Teaching Presence in the Online Environment, Carolina Rodríguez outlined the problems of online feedback, especially in the context of orally focused, interaction-based Latin cultures, including the possibility of misunderstandings in text-based feedback. In an online environment, she suggested, it is necessary to take into account flipped learning, effective practices of online learning (such as e-moderation), teaching presence, and screencasting and audio feedback. She found that screencasting and audio feedback led to students engaging better with the feedback, so that assignments became a springboard for conversation. She showed clips of her video feedback to demonstrate the role that facial expressions and voice can play in responding to students. Overall, students were more engaged in their learning, and responded well to the more personal nature of the feedback.

In her keynote, Revitalizing Your Classroom through Action Research, Anne Burns argued for a move away from top-down professional development and towards personal learning networks and action research. While not necessarily related to digital technologies, action research certainly provides an avenue for examining how digital tools can best be integrated into classroom processes. Action research is a democratising process, Anne suggested, because it puts ownership of change into the hands of the classroom practitioners who will carry it out. It is research with rather than on people, unlike much other research. Because the researcher is part of the action, learners can collaborate as co-researchers. It is highly localised and does not aim for generalisation. Finally, it can involve a range of qualitative and quantitative methods. She went on to say that teachers should share their action research where possible, because it is informative and motivating for teachers to learn about other teachers’ classroom experiences.

In his presentation, Reinventing the Teaching Profession: Dealing with Information and Communication Technology in Teacher Development Programs, Romero Ricardo suggested that changes in technology lead to changes in the world. He spoke about the changes brought about by text messaging and social media. He mentioned, and largely endorsed, key items extracted from a list of 21 things that will go obsolete in education by 2020 (based on an article in The Daily Riff on Dec. 10, 2010):

  • Language labs
  • Computers and CDs
  • Homework
  • The role of standardised tests for admission to college (replaced in part by e-portfolios)
  • Differentiated instruction as a sign of a distinguished teacher (as this will become a standard expectation)
  • Paperbacks
  • Centralised instruction
  • Organisation of educational services by grade
  • Parent-teacher face-to-face meetings (because teachers will be in constant contact with parents)
  • Paper

He went on to say that we need to move from a traditional model of education towards learner-centredness, student exploration, extended blocks of multidisciplinary instruction, active and interactive modes of instruction, collaborative/co-operative work, and teachers as guides. He suggested that when it comes to language teaching with digital technologies, we need to go beyond traditional conceptions of discourse competence to consider: Procedural competence – Socio-digital competence – Digital discourse competence – and Strategic competence. Yet at the end of the day, ICTs are just tools, that is, just a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. Teachers, he suggested, can empower students by becoming learners too, encouraging collaboration, enabling technologies, assessing students on their academic achievement and also on their effective use of ICTs, developing problem solving skills, developing media fluency, and promoting an interdisciplinary approach.

In my own workhshop in the closing session of the conference, Mobile Language Learning: Working Inside and Outside the Classroom, the participants and I workshopped several strategies for using mobile technologies to support English language teaching: using language learning apps as well as generic, productive apps; making multimedia recordings; and using QR codes to support situated learning. There was a real buzz generated in the lab as participants suggested and exchanged ideas on how to use mobile technologies in their own teaching. It seems clear to me that mobile learning is on the verge of going much more mainstream in English language education in Colombia!

All in all, it was fascinating to obtain a better sense of how mobile and other digital technologies are making inroads into education in Latin America, and to see that – as highlighted in other educational conferences worldwide – these technologies are becoming an integral part of our conversations around learning.

Connecting the digital dots

WUN Understanding Global Digital Cultures Conference
Hong Kong
25-26 April, 2015

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The WUN (Worldwide Universities Network) Understanding Global Digital Cultures Conference took place on 25-26 April at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, bringing together speakers from the WUN network of universities around the world. The local focus on Hong Kong and Chinese digital culture provided a fascinating counterpoint to a range of local and global presentations.

In his opening plenary, Imagining the internet: The politics and poetics of China’s cyberspace, Hu Yong argued that the Chinese internet is a space where the government is not able to interfere completely; its decentralisation and partial anonymity have allowed it to become an arena for citizens to exchange ideas and opinions. The people are increasingly trying to hold the government accountable according to the rights given them in the constitution. The internet has become a stand-in for face-to-face gatherings.

The government is now attempting to exert further control over the freedom of the internet, with a ‘control first, develop later’ strategy. The government considers people with different opinions as imaginary enemies. There have been new laws created and more arrests of verified users. Sometimes local government is sacrificed for the sake of the central government.

In fact, censorship is an intrinsic characteristic of the Chinese internet, as it is in all areas of Chinese life. It is not mentioned officially, but in private people will joke about censorship. The citizens have thus turned the internet into a platform for sarcastic spoofing of the authorities – this can be seen as the ‘poetics’ of Chinese digital culture, much of it based on a play on words and sounds (see image below). Those who lack power have been empowered, and those with power have lost it; the more you try to crack down on spoofing, the more it proliferates. But at the same time, this spoofing operates within a culture of fear. The use of this spoofing and the metaphors that underpin it have also reinforced the doublethink of Chinese culture, which is a culture of public lies and private truths.

The Chinese internet is not monolithic but rather the site of conflict between different levels of government, various departments, and between the impulse to block and the impulse to monitor citizens.

Grass Mud Horse & River Crab. Source: Tactical Technology Collective. http://goo.gl/RCOeJs

Grass Mud Horse & River Crab. Source: Tactical Technology Collective. http://goo.gl/RCOeJs

In his presentation, The urban/digital nexus: Participation, belonging and social media in Auckland, New Zealand, Jay Marlowe spoke about superdiversity as a diversification of diversity, which requires an analysis across different kinds of social differentiation. Participants in the reported Auckland study of migrants said that the digital environment augmented their existing social relationships and made new relationships possible. Different digital platforms provided different ‘textures’, with Skype for example allowing synchronous contact, and messaging apps being used in local spaces. Participants reported a gradual normalisation of ‘platformed sociality’, with considerable pressure to participate online. There was also a sense that real-life experiences need to be presented and demonstrated on social media platforms.

Overall, there is a transition from a participatory culture to a culture of connectivity; existing networks are reinforced but relationships may have migrated from face-to-face to online interaction. Greater connectivity does not necessarily mean greater connection – but it can. The landscape of access also matters; digital illiteracy becomes a new kind of poverty. It was clear that the participants were digital learners and digitally distracted at the same time, which has implications for education.

In her presentation, Material-semiotic particularity and the ‘broken’ smart city, Rolien Hoyng used the example of Istanbul and the Gezi Park protests of 2013 to contrast the development of smart cities through digital technologies and the facilitation of protests through those same technologies. There is a struggle over data ownership between the state and protesters.

In the presentation Everydaymaking through Facebook: Young citizens’ political interactions in Australia, UK and USA, Ariadne Vromen spoke about how young people use Facebook to engage in politics. She spoke of Henrik Bang’s  concept of ‘everydaymaking’, suggesting that political engagement is increasingly local, DIY, ad hoc, fun, issues-driven and based on social change, but not necessarily underpinned by traditional conceptions of such change. A study was conducted to compare young people’s usage of Facebook for political engagement in Australia, the UK and the USA. In all three countries, the greatest predictor of using Facebook to engage with politics was that young people were already engaged with politics. Everdaymaking norms were important, but pre-existing engagement was more important.

When asked about discussing politics on Facebook, most young people said they would avoid it in order to avoid conflict. In particular, they were afraid of disagreement, offending someone, or having the facts wrong. On the other hand, a small group of young people were more positive about their political engagement on Facebook. Often, they were comfortable with likes and shares, and obtaining information through political pages.

Overall, social media erodes dutiful citizen relationships with politics, but young people are wary of politics entering their social space. It is interesting to note that young people associate politics with (digital) conflict, while the like button on Facebook creates consensus.

Referring to the same research project, Brian Loader gave a presentation entitled Performing for the young networked citizen? Celebrity politics, social networking and the political engagement of young people, in which he addressed the notion of ‘celebrity politics’, where politicians use social media. There is an increase in both celebrity politicians and political celebrities, and an overall personalisation of politics.

When asked what they thought about politicians using Facebook and Twitter, a minority of young people were negative, but most were open to it, though not uncritically so. It was very clear again, as in the preceding talk, that young people do not like aggression and negativity online. Generally the young people were also positive about celebrities using social media to raise important social issues, though there were concerns that they might lack expertise or unduly influence young fans.

Overall, social media will continue to be an important communication space for democratic politics. Politicians will need to share this space with celebrities who play an important role in opening up discussions. Social media also facilitate emotional evaluation of politicians, so they may need to show more of their human side. There would seem to be an indication that political use of social media is more inclusive for young people from lower SES (socio-economic status) backgrounds.

In her presentation, Affective space, affective politics: Understanding political emotion in cyber China, Yi Liu suggested that political participation in cyber China is highly charged with emotions, especially negative ones. Digital politics in China are extremely ambiguous – people have tactics to cope with constraints; there is a positive influence of commercial forces; there are conflicts within the state authority; and there is politicised but marginalised overseas deliberation alongside a vibrant but constrained local discussion. She is undertaking a study to investigate emotional discourse within the Tianya BBS, Kaidi BBS, and Quiangguo BBS.

On the second morning of the conference, there was a fascinating set of papers about Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement, entitled Social media in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. It was a privilege for the international audience to hear local voices on the events of last year.

In the paper, Social media and mode of participation in a large-scale collective action: The case of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, Francis Lee showed that the number of protests in Hong Kong has been increasing annually, with protests having become somewhat normalised and therefore somewhat less effective. The Occupy Central movement was meant to be a short, disciplined intervention in this context. The Umbrella Movement that emerged in the wake of the police using tear gas against the Occupy Central movement was in many ways a networked movement which made extensive use of digital media, including the changing of social media profiles, dispelling rumours, etc. There were various ways of participating, with some 20% of Hong Kong adults saying they went to an occupied area to support the movement. He reported on an interview-based study of protesters, which revealed both their real-world activities and their digital media activities.

Some of the digital activities were expressive in nature and mainly involved showing support, but others were an important part of the dynamics of the movement in dispelling rumours and so on. Overall, the digital media activities were significant in the Umbrella Movement for extending participation from the physical urban space of the occupied areas to cyberspace. Mobile communication was particularly related to participation in occupied areas. Individuals could thus be selectively engaged in digital media activities and construct their own distinctive forms of participation in the movement.

In their paper, Internet memes in social movement: How the mobilisation effects are facilitated and constrained in Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, Chan Ngai Keung and Su Chris Chao spoke of the three key internet memes associated with the Umbrella Movement: the yellow ribbon (mostly used as a logo, e.g., as a profile picture on Facebook) , the yellow umbrella (suggestive of self-protection), and the slogan ‘I want real universal suffrage’ (which co-occurred with Lion Rock, and was widely reported by the mass media). They reported on a study where they investigated the use of these memes on Facebook (see image). They showed numerous examples of remixes of the three key images with pictures of famous characters, superheros, artists and politicians, and even gay-themed remixes (see image). Eventually there was a commodification of the images, which were available for purchase on clothing, umbrellas, and so on.

Hong Kong Umbrella Movement memes (Chan & Su, 2015)

Hong Kong Umbrella Movement memes (Chan & Su, 2015)

Overall, the memes primarily served the purpose of political persuasion and action. The commodification of internet memes does not necessarily serve political purposes. While Facebook spread these memes, it also constrained them in some ways, because on Facebook it is difficult to use hashtags or search engines to find related materials. Internet memes are often related to humour, but not necessarily – here they were about positive mobilisation.

Hong Kong Umbrella Movement memes: Gay remixes (Chan & Su, 2015)

Hong Kong Umbrella Movement memes: Gay remixes (Chan & Su, 2015)

In her paper, ‘It happens here and now’: Digital media documentation during the Umbrella Movement, Lisa Leung commented on the way in which Hong Kong people found their agency at the time of the tear gassing during Occupy Central. She noted the key role played by social media, not only in facilitating the protests, but crucially also in archiving and remembering. Facebook, she suggested, also functions as a space within which Hong Kong people can imagine a better future.

In the last of the papers in this session, Education, media exposure and political position: Mainlanders in the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, Zhao Mengyang noted that the Hong Kong protests had a spillover effect on the rest of the world. In Mainland China, some were supportive, and others were critical and saw the Hong Kong people as spoiled and disorderly. It was suggested that two crucial factors in the Mainlanders’ acceptance of the Umbrella Movement could be media exposure and education.

She reported on a Qualtrics survey of Mainlanders about the Hong Kong protests, which produced 2,184 valid responses. She found that: older people, males and non-CCP members were more supportive of the protests; more frequent use of newspapers, TV news and news websites was correlated with a lower level of support; more frequent use of social networking sites was correlated with a higher level of support; higher use of foreign media was correlated with a higher level of support; and higher education and full-time study were correlated with a lower level of support.

A few key suggestions emerged. Although overall internet censorship in China is strong, domestic social networking platforms might still allow moderate occurrence of alternative views. Full-time students might be more exposed to state discourse, and Chinese universities are part of the Chinese political apparatus. All in all, the chance of a spillover mobilisation effect might be slim in China.

In a later session entitled Behind the Great Firewall, several papers addressed the nature of the Chinese internet.

In their paper, Citizen attitudes toward China’s maritime territorial disputes: Traditional media and internet usage as distinctive conduits of political views in China, David Denemark and Andrew Chubb reported on a study of Chinese citizens’ attitudes to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, based on a survey of 1,413 adults conducted in five Chinese cities. Television was overwhelmingly the dominant source of information about the maritime disputes, with more than 90% of respondents obtaining information here; print media were used by around 2/3 of respondents; and 46% got their information via online sources; there was also crosscutting influence between different channels. The online sources were used by the young, the middle class, and the university-educated (but many of the last group also used print). This shows that the use of media is not monolithic. Overall, the two traditional media, newspapers and TV, have very similar effects on citizens’ political attitudes; the internet attracts a different audience, but it’s not enough to wash out the effects of the traditional media, which nearly everyone is using to some degree.

In his paper, The predicament of Chinese Internet culture, Gabriele De Seta noted that when we go beyond the anglophone media, it becomes much more complex to analyse the media landscape. He noted that Chinese memes such as the Grass Mud Horse can be interpreted in different ways. Online culture (网络文化) in China is very complex because it has so many layers. He showed that an anglophone concept like ‘trolling’ has many different translations and implications on the Chinese internet, and is highly segmented and differentiated, with differences found between China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. He went on to discuss a study of the Momo dating app, which was found to be used not mainly for dating, but for chatting with other bored people in the same locality, to set up a kind of online diary, or to explore the affordances of the app for self-expression. It is important, therefore, to examine situated media practices: complicating ‘cultures’ behind ‘firewalls’, downsizing the internet into platforms, services and devices; and accounting for content as small data.

On the second afternoon, a series of related papers were grouped together in a session entitled Storytelling individuals and communities.

In her paper, Automated diaries and quantified selves, Jill Walker Rettberg talked about the history of qualitative and quantitative self-representation and how it led up to the present era of self-recording through digital technologies, such as the lifelogging enabled by a device like Narrative Clip. She mentioned the term ‘numerical narratives’, used by Robert Simanowski to describe the sequencing of quantified data to tell the story of our lives. She concluded with a comment about ‘dataism’, the widespread belief in the objective quantification and tracking of human data as being potentially more reliable than our own memories of our life stories.

In our own presentation, Seeking common ground: Experiences of a Chinese-Australian digital storytelling project, Grace Oakley, Xi Bei Xiong and I talked about our experiences of running a digital storytelling project funded by the Australia-China Council from 2013-2014, where middle school students in China and Australia created and exchanged digital multimedia stories about their everyday lives. The key lessons we learned were all associated with the core theme of the need to seek common ground between the wishes and expectations of the project partners. This theme applied in the practical areas of motivation to participate, organisation, and technology (where our experiences reflected the commentary in the telecollaboration literature); and in the cultural areas of educational culture and pedagogy (where our experiences echoed the commentary in the anthropological and sociological literature about cultural differences).

In her presentation, ‘Are you being heard?’ The challenges of listening in the digital age, Tanja Dreher pointed out, with reference to the work of Jean Burgess, that it when it comes to democratic media participation, it doesn’t just matter who gets to speak, it matters who is heard. There is a lot to celebrate around affordances for voice on the internet, but this doesn’t mean that those voices are being heard. She spoke about the ‘listening turn’, where we are beginning to pay more attention to listening and not just speaking. Listening can be active and a form of agency. Key challenges include: overload and filtering (what is filtered in and out, and how does curation occur?); finding audiences; listening as participation (lurking in the sense of a listening presence is required to allow voices to manifest, as noted by Kate Crawford); and architectures of listening (how institutions and organisations might open up to listening more). We may need to think more about listening responsibilities: the proliferation of possibilities for voice online brings new responsibilities for listening.

In the closing plenary, Unstoppable networking: Social and political activism in the digital age, Lee Rainie described the Pew Research Center as a ‘fact tank’ which has no official position on the technological trends on which it reports. He outlined his two main points at the outset: Networked individuals using networked information create networked organisations and movements; and networking is unstoppable because people will always have problems they want to solve, and there are new technologies of social action that help them promote their causes. When the Pew Research Center surveys people, it generally finds that, despite the problems, people think that being networked is positive for their lives.

As individuals’ trust is shifting away from major institutions, their trust is invested more in personal networks. Our personal networks are segmented and layered, and composed largely of weak ties. It may be that, beyond strong and weak ties, we need a layer of ‘audience ties’ – people we don’t necessarily know, but who follow us on social media. There is more personal liberation in networks, but more work involved in rallying people to help you when needed. There is more importance now attached to factors like trust, influence, and awareness: our friends have become the information sentries and gatekeepers in our lives. People also turn to their networks to evaluate information, and meaning-making may start there with the help of friends.

We live in an unusual time in that we have seen three revolutions unfold over recent decades: the arrival of the internet/broadband; the arrival of mobile connectivity; and the arrival of social networking/media (which allow the reification and refinement of social networks). The trend now is to use two or more social networking platforms, making strategic calculations about which platforms to use for which purposes. The fourth revolution is now on our doorstep in the form of the internet of things, and it will have profound implications for our lives. In Western countries, Pew may soon stop asking people whether they use the internet, because it will be so embedded in everyday life.

For networked individuals, information becomes a ‘third skin’ (after our original skin and our clothes); it changes our experience of our selves and others, and how we think and remember. Secondly, ‘birth realities’ are complemented by ‘my tribes’. Thirdly, people participate in the ‘fifth estate’ (referring to social media, going beyond the fourth estate of journalism).

'My tribes'. Source: Rainie (2015)

‘My tribes’. Source: Rainie (2015)

Lee Rainie concluded with three examples of the kinds of social and political activism which are enabled in contemporary networked culture – a dying American boy who was able to obtain experimental drugs from a pharmaceutical company, which led to his recovery; environmental and anti-corruption campaigns in China, which have turned local issues into national issues; and US communities’ responses to Hurricane Sandy, which involved sharing local information on social media platforms. All of these demonstrate that the implications of networking are considerable. They also demonstrate that altruism runs deep in human beings and that new technologies can facilitate it in powerful ways.

All in all, the WUN Global Digital Cultures Conference succeeded in bringing together many ideas and themes from across disciplinary areas. I’ve no doubt that everyone left with their insights into their own areas of study and research enriched with insights from overlapping and parallel areas of study and research.

Skip to toolbar