Wednesday, 23 April 2014

ALDinHE Conference 2014: Learning Development spaces and places

Spaces and Places
This year’s ALDinHE Conference took place in – and was facilitated by Huddersfield University:
There was a full programme of workshops, events and fabulous Key Note speakers, including Lesley Gourlay and Etienne Wenger-Trayner – on the topics of:
  • Who owns Learning Development?
  • Changing Staff and Student Identities: the impact of Learning Development
  • Addressing the Marginalisation of Learning Development
  • Working Collaboratively to support Learning Development.

Communities of Practice?
Like many people in Education I have been aware of Etienne Wenger-Trayner (EWT) and his Communities of Practice arguments in theory and for many years. EWT in practice and in person was a revelation: warm, inspiring and profound in his outlining of the learning trajectory which takes us from peripheral encounters into the centre of various communities of practice – and various learning identities.

EWT locates his theory in studies of apprenticeship practice. Apprentices especially at the beginning rarely interact directly with a ‘master’ but engage more in apprentice-to-apprentice interactions. In this way learning is ineffably located in the group and in our group interactions: learning is social, embodied and whole person.

For EWT, learning experience models this apprenticeship trajectory. He described ‘learning’ as circled by complementary processes involving community (which offers belonging and a meaningful cadre with which to negotiate and define competence); practice (what we do – and how meaningful and valuable it is); meaning (that is rooted with relevance in the now – and not deferred to some indefinable point in the future); and identity (who we are becoming). In this model learning is not the transmission of a corpus of knowledge nor even a process or set of processes with which to engage with a corpus of knowledge; learning is how we negotiate a range of processes of becoming – that oscillate between the individual and the group.

The EWT model allows us to see learning as becoming: it involves a realignment of competence and experience; it is socially defined – but personally experienced. Learning involves negotiating identity in a complex dance in complex landscapes of practice that navigate multiple tensions and meaning.  It is identity-construction in a time of super-complexity: it is a learning relationship between the social world and the personal.

The community is the curriculum
As one who is still part of the ongoing MOOC: #rhizo14: the community is the curriculum, I could not help but see parallels between the EWT model and the rhizomatic model of learning espoused by Dave Cormier – and as poetically described by Deleuze and Guattari (1997, 2005) in A thousand plateaus. Cormier - who spoke at last year’s ALDinHE in Plymouth - gave birth to our radical un-MOOC. In #rhizo14, learning is/emerges from the connections, contingent or purposeful, between the participants in the different learning spaces we inhabit – Forum, FaceBook, Google+, Twitter, Blogs, Zeega… - and which are fruitfully complicated by the diversity and complexity and internationality of the participants. It is a tricky trickster idea – but actually very helpful when we take back to our classrooms whether F2F or virtual: for to enable learning to happen we must at the very least foster human relationships between the participants.

‘I Robot’? Voices from the margins: narratives of LD in a Digital Age
Following on from EWT, and after Julia Dawson and Peter Bray speaking on ‘Peer Support reaching out beyond the institution’, from Plymouth, it was our presentation where we asked: What are the stories that students and staff tell themselves and each other about studying at University?

‘We have developed creative blended learning practice and embedded this within our Becoming an Educationalist and its paired Peer Mentoring in Practice modules. We and our students write reflective learning logs and online blogs to engage with our materials - to write to learn - and to struggle with narratives of the self in times of transition… We wish to share narrative extracts from these places of struggle, voice and play (Winnicott 1971) and discuss the lessons that we can learn about our students and our own blended practice. We also want to explore how we can celebrate and sustain such creative practices.’

How cool is that?
We were very happy to follow on from Wenger and his arguments about learning as a process of becoming – and to talk about our Becoming module and its various practices which we think facilitate these processes: Role playing and simulations; creative and visual learning strategies; Inquiry Based and Problem Based Learning; Reflective learning; Visual practices development; Poetry and Prose analysis and discussion; Analysis of Case Studies; Real research and other projects; Digital artefact and resource development; Peer-to-peer learning: both face-to-face and virtual; Student contribution to the University’s annual student-facing Get Ahead conference; Blogging and other Social Network activities to support learning (Becoming Educational blog: and
Learning Development Blog:

Spaces and places/fissures and cracks
Our students swim in educational currents composed of the over-riding narratives of assessment, SATs, League Tables, OFSTED, moral panics about plagiarism – and the ‘dumbing down’ of education – for which they are personally blamed: There are Mickey Mouse students for whom Mickey Mouse degrees are quite appropriate (Starkey 2002/3). They are caught on a cultural cusp (Medhurst in Munt) negotiating tricky academic space which is more of a trickster space for them – for just how far are they supposed to lose themselves and become another in this alien landscape; and who gets to choose the transformation – and where do the boundaries lie?

Why writing? The essay – The blog
Arguably the academic essay as a genre exemplifies academic writing per se: it is non-polemical - yet invites certainty of argumentation. It is ‘your’ argument whilst excluding ‘you’: the personal, the emphatic, the confused, the flippant and the humorous. In many ways it can be seen as a metonym for the academic world our students have entered: implacable, reified, classed. It is the space where they most feel like ‘a fish out of water’.

We want our students to succeed in academic writing for it is the sine qua non ( of the University experience. But we wanted writing that was not the ultimate erasure of the self. We wanted a space where students could have something to say, could have their struggle to achieve authorship; but without the ‘jostling voices’ (Carter et al. 2009) asking them to ‘write and reference properly’ and to ‘be more academic’ – and less like the passionate, engaged and committed whole people that they are. We suggested blogging and wanted their blogs to be a powerful virtual tool – a quasi-academic, multimodal, public space in which to perform the self as it becomes academic – and to perform that more wholly than in an academic essay.

A little bit of Deleuze will do ya
Blogs especially can constitute the cracks – the boundaries – the borders - the space for disruption, irruptions and eruptions: the place of collision and encounter. Those representations become where space and time collapse – compressed – intensified – because finite – become finite – existing in a fixed place and time. Their composition emerges from a compressed space, time and setting: meaning and communication become one narrative. And as Deleuze might argue this offers an opportunity not to re-trace the compilation of the sign – but a moment – just before it becomes fixed – when all the potential and possibilities still exist. A moment of and for transformation – for recognition of the self… A crack in space and time to re-territorialise educational spaces – to become educational nomads.

And our student voices said:
‘Week 9 was all about my nightmare….drawing!
My drawings always mock me:
“Ha! I have defeated you! You may have many words, but give you a pencil, and watch the intelligence disappear! That’s not how you wanted it to look, is it? Is that a person or a tree? Dumbo!’’
In a class of five year old children, I am quite happy to display my ridiculous sketches. I explain to the children that drawing is not my strong point, and they assure me that I have done a very good job of representing the characters, props and scenery in the storyboard. However, if someone were to come in, they would be quite convinced that the children had drawn the pictures – and not the most artistically gifted children, either!
At the moment, I feel afraid of failure, but I have to remember that I have been here before. In 2011, I graduated with merit at the Barbican, from a Foundation Degree in Education: Primary Pathway. So I need to keep three things in mind:
Keep taking risks!
It will be worth all the hard work!
There are people to help me on my journey!’
‘In this week’s lecture, we were subjected to a 10 minute free writing exercise. If we stopped writing, then we were to write the reason why we did so on a separate piece of paper. Seemed easy enough, but the question given was very ambiguous to us: Winnicott (1971) argued that play is necessary to           counteract the implicit threat of transitional...
“What?” I asked myself. “Who is Winnicott? What does he mean by play? Implicit threat?” I started writing, even though I had no idea what the question was asking. It took three attempts to get my writing flowing.’

‘Today has been so proactive that I hardly had the time to take down any academic notes and just kept on listening. There was a guest speaker today, Chris O’Reilly, who spoke to us about the presentation and making of a short 3 minute film and what kind of research and methods go into making and preparing for it. I was so intrigued and fascinated throughout the whole piece that it just had given me so many ideas. I was bursting to how these ideas could relate to my research project Report.’ 

Nomads all!

Talking of re-territorialising: do we want a Learning Development MOOC?
And so to Andrew Doig, Becka Colley, Carol Elston, David Mathew, Sandra Sinfield and our workshop on the nuts and bolts and why and ‘what fors’ of a Learning Development MOOC. The session had a great energy and buzz - and we are hopeful that a positive working group will emerge from those present – and from others in the LDHEN if they want to join in.

There seemed to be two main approaches to our potential open online course emerging:
* Set the context: Where a group of us gather together to design and devise a course with quite formal and defined Aims and Outcomes. Different elements of the course might be 'owned', developed and delivered online by different people.

* What might be called the 'bring your own context' approach: a group gathers together and sets up a course that may or may not have formal aims and learning outcomes - but that can be experienced differently by participants depending on their own contexts, wants and needs. In this model, some participants may want to explore the philosophy, pedagogy and epistemology surrounding elements of the course - whilst others may just want a 'pick up and teach’ set of strategies...  Different elements might be delivered online by different people, with participants bringing as much to the table as the person 'running' the course that week/fortnight/month. I think that this community can manage that! 

To me this latter more of a #rhizo14: the community is the curriculum approach; and in actual fact, I do not think that these two approaches are incompatible if framed in a participative way.

Watch the list for developments - and if people are interested in taking part – could they email Andrew Doig: ?

End Notes: There was more, so much more to ALDinHE – but I reckon that this is enough for a blogpost. So if anybody else has blogged – can you put the link in the Comments below – and perhaps we can have a conversation of sorts to keep the LD flag flying?

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