Back on the Chain Gang

I don’t know about you, dear (RSS) reader, but I reckon an 8-hour working day seems about right for us humans. For me that’s a comfortable 3-way split – 8 hours working, 8 hours sleeping, and the remaining 8 chastising children, fiddling with iPhone apps and practising the banjo. Jeff and Artis have a different kind of work plan. They’ve decided to do all their banjo practice (or equivalent) when they get home (Norfolk and Latvia respectively). This makes for long days on the project, but does mean that they get to see their families sooner (and I start recording sooner! :-)). They wake up before everyone else (they’re staying in our spare room), hit Travis Perkins and greasy-spoon breakfast cafés before 8am, then start clinking/sawing/hammering straight away. They clock off around 7pm, shower and then go foraging into Bath. Bed by 9pm. Repeat 7 days a week. Rumours of builders’ legendary tea breaks have been greatly exaggerated.

See it from my angle

We found a bit more dry rot on the old garage facia, so that’s been fixed this morning (see stepladder picture above), and the guys are back onto the interior. The picture below shows the lengthwise struts that will form the back of the control room (the bit over the leopardskin or zebra-stripe sofa). This ceiling is in three sections – the baffle at the back (20-odd degree angle), the middle section (level) and the back lengthwise-timbered section (part-constructed, at the top of the picture – a 2 degree angle). Mad angles are the answer – not a standing wave or resonant cavity in sight.

Are you with me sofa?

If you’ve loyally followed this blog since the start of the garage project, here’s your chance to get involved. It is one of Howard‘s unwritten rules that all studios must have a ‘classy’ sofa. So I’m going to get one. And you’re going to decide which one. Take the poll – and I promise I’ll go with whatever decision the readers of this blog actually make. Vote now!

The heat is on – a rant about eggboxes

control-1The baffle (which will be above the planned twin Mac screens) is under construction – plasterboard and timber form the frame, and the final layer will be the same as the ceiling – rockwool and fabric. Behind this (at the bottom left of the vertical plan below) is the air circulation routing. This, again, is something of a trade secret, so I’ll confine myself to a description of the underlying physics and a plug for Jeff’s ingenuity (and Artis’ estimable craftsmanship). Basically, high frequencies are absorbed by ‘soft stuff’ and low frequencies are absorbed by ‘dense stuff’. But isolation and damping are two entirely different things. You may have heard of the urban myth about studios putting eggboxes on the wall. This does actually work to some extent in that it provides high-frequency damping and stops reverb (sound bounces less easily off rough non-uniform cardboard surfaces than it does off flat surfaces like tiling or plasterboard) but in my experience, this just has the same effect as a thick curtain or other soft furnishings. What eggboxes (or any similar lightweight materials) don’t provide is isolation – i.e. soundproofing – this can only be achieved through very dense/heavy materials that don’t resonate with uniform wavelengths; hence all the earlier variations in thicknesses and materials (rockwool, air, SterlingOSB, plasterboard etc).

picture-12This, of course, becomes a problem when you come to design air conditioning systems. Any air con system requires a duct – or hole – through which air of different temperatures can pass. And sound travels rather easily through holes! So the challenge is to create a construction that extracts air while preventing sound leakage into the rooms. The ducting needs to have some soft interior lining (to stop high frequencies) and a wavelength-averse construction (to stop low frequencies). And it goes without saying that the fans themselves need to be completely silent. Oh, and this studio is done on a very tight budget, so we can’t afford a top-of-the range air cooling system.

All of this secret construction cleverness is hidden behind the baffle in this picture – and you’re not allowed to see it, I’m afraid, but I’ve seen Jeff and Artis building the ducts, and it’s very impressive so far.

Will the guys solve all these problems and deliver silent aircon without breaking the bank? Tune in next time!

Standing in the way of control

The inner shells are in – this is the actual shape of the studio interior. You can now see the ‘V’ shape that forms the centre point between the midfield monitors. Above is the wooden frame for the panel that will contain some of the lights.
In the other picture you can see the lateral ceiling struts. These will have soft Rockwool between them then finishes with acoustic fabric (hessian). We’re on a tight budget so I will have to choose whatever fabric colour Jeff has left over from other jobs. Unlikely to be pink 😦

Talking of recycling, we had a catflap fitted this week in the kitchen. It needed a custom glass panel for the door, so the glazing guy took out the old double glazed door panel, which is about 60cm x 80cm. I was going to get rid of this, but thought I’d offer it to Jeff. Sure enough, he said “that’s perfect for your live room window, that is…”. I asked him “how big was the window going to be?”. He looked at the window panel and said “errr… that big”. Great music is all about improvisation, I guess.

You’ve been framed

All the isolation (on three sides, and floor/ceiling) is now complete, with the final layer of SterlingOSB providing (another) different density in the ceiling, which now consists of so much plasterboard, OSB, rockwool and timber that the ceiling is now almost as low as it was before the roof was raised.

This is where, according to Jeff, the ‘studio building begins’. Artis and Jeff have made the frames that will form the interior shell of the live room. Their construction methods and measurements are a trade secret, and I’m under strict instructions not to blog them – you can contact Howard if you want to discuss commissioning a design. I can tell you it’s a particular combination of rockwool, timber and plasterboard of various specified grades, thicknesses and measurements, with particular bracings. What you end up with is a dense/heavy stud wall, onto which, eventually, will go another timber frame, which will be filled with rockwool of a different grade then covered with fabric. There will be bass traps in the control room, but the dimensions of the live room may make this unnecessary – Howard plans to run spectrum analysis on it before we make this decision.

I’ve said too much. If you print this out, you must eat the paper. Don’t let it fall into enemy hands. In fact, I suspect they will be coming to get me right n

It takes two

The ceiling now has two layers of plasterboard – one widthways and another lengthways. Right now there’s noticeable isolation in the room, even with thin garage doors forming one of the walls.

Jeff pointed out that the raised floor in the lobby gives us a bit of a dilemma. If we raise the floor level, we won’t have an interior step up. This means the cosmetic/fake garage doors on the outside would have to be some two or three inches off the floor – creating a ‘lip’ at ground level that wouldn’t suggest to an observer that this was a garage for anyone but the owner of the most rugged of 4x4s – who liked a bumpy offeoad experience when putting the car away at night.
So in order to make the studio look suitably garage-like from the outside (to avoid advertising the nickable guitars therein) we may need to rethink the interior step.

In order to create the ceiling height specified in Howard’s drawings, Jeff has decided to raise the roof one more time. Not by a whole block’s worth, but just by a couple of inches. In the picture above you can see where the roof has been screwed to the wooden batons, and the batons fixed to the concrete with metal strips.
According to Jeff, the guys haven’t really started work yet; “All this is just basic construction – we haven’t made the boxes for the actual rooms yet. We’ll have this finished in a day or two – THAT’S when we’ll start building you a studio!”.

Isolation (plastic? Oh, no – banned!)

FlooringThe sand/cement (screed) floor is now dry enough to create the floor proper. We’ve deviated slightly from the drawings in terms of construction materials – Jeff describes Howard’s flooring drawing (right) as ‘just a guide’ (I’ll let them fight this out!). So we’ve used the following materials for the floor (from the ground upwards);

  • screed (with PVA to help it stick to original concrete floor)
  • damp-proof plastic membrane (stops damp soaking into the rockwool)
  • compressed rockwool (1 inch)
  • lengthwise chipboard
  • widthwise chipboard (these last two are for strength as well as isolation)
  • rubber-backed carpet

I’ve just, er, bounced on the floor, and it has that curiously springy solidity that you get in studios – feels like the bass drum/bass cab wouldn’t resonate at all, but there’s a feeling of ‘give’ underfoot.

Here’s a close-up of the membrane/compressed rockwool and first layer of chipboard..



floor-ceiling-isolation52Two and a half metres higher, the roof timbers have been wood-treated (with whatever the modern equivalent of creosote is – I shall call it creosote in tribute to the many Derbyshire chicken sheds I painted with the evil stuff in the 1970s). Artis has now added nearly all the lower-density rockwool – the stuff that actually looks like wool. floor-ceiling-isolation42Rockwool is, apparently, the best material for sound  isolation, because it contains a combination of rock and air (as, indeed, will the studio itself ;-). He cuts the stuff with amazing expertise – it’s a millimetre-accurate job because if the slabs are too thin, they fall out of the gap between the timbers; if they’re too thick, they buckle. The control room ceiling is now filled; here’s a picture of it, and of the half-completed live room timbers.

Spirit (level) in the sky

floor-levelling1We discovered that the garage was slightly sloping, front to back. No surprise there – it’s a flat roof and the water has got to run off somehow. More mysteriously, the floor was sloping in exactly the same proportion. As I didn’t fancy taking office-chair rides from the control room mixing desk to the sofa (not while anyone was looking, anyway), Jeff suggested that the floor should be completely level. So he’s started at the back of the building where the level is highest, and gradually poured in sand and cement to make a new floor.

floor-levelling2On a related note – here’s a link to my favourite application of the moment – the ‘A Level’ is a spirit level for the iPhone. Oh, the lengths to which human beings will go to make a better world…

Walls and bridges

wall-and-ceiling2The roof-raising is now finished – concrete blocks all the way around. The modern blocks we’re using are a lot slimmer than the original (1970s?) ones, and this works in our favour. You can see in the photo how the thin line of blocks at the top is set back from the interior wall, giving us a ‘shelf’ at the top of the lower blocks. This is where Jeff’s going to run the pipes for the (silent) air circulation system.

wall-and-ceiling1Meanwhile, the old dividing wall has gone, and the new one is complete. We’re keeping this little ‘stub’ of the old wall as extra support (the rear wall is soil-retaining on the other side) – the stub is going to be hidden by a bass trap in the control room. So the ‘stub’ in the photo is roughly where the left-side monitor speaker will be, in front of the corner bass trap. The music keyboard will go under the window, on the left of the picture, giving line-of-sight communication between keyboard player and vocalist (or drummer). I find this kind of sight/talkback/keyboard communication is really handy when doing a lot of backing vocals (50% of the job is teaching the singer the part IME).

Jeff and Artis are leveling the concrete floors today, but he won’t let me show you a photo until these are complete. Artists, eh?!!

Raising the roof!

In order to accommodate the air handling (and possibly the Sunpipe) we’re raising the ceiling height very slightly. It’s just as well that this was part of the project, because the lifting of the roof timbers showed some unexpected – and unwelcome – dry rot. So we’ll need to replace more roof timbers than originally thought.

Artis has been raising the height of the ceiling using four-inch blocks of wood as spacers – we’ll add a line of concrete blocks at the top soon. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t rain for the next couple of days!

Dividing wall and sound isolation

img_0806The first thing to go up is the dividing wall – the one-block high line that Jeff’s building at the moment. This is at a slight angle for acoustic reasons, and also to make the control room slightly wider than the live room. The cement mixer here is roughly where the drum kit will be. The main wall in the middle will eventually come down and be replaced by the new one.

Wall and window

In the picture above you can see where the glass wall is going to be. Both rooms will be sealed boxes, and this wall of concrete blocks will provide mass for (mostly low-frequency) absorption between rooms. The physics is all based around the principle that sound travels least well when it has to get through varying densities. So the dividing wall will have a sealed box, then an air gap, then a large mass (these concrete blocks) then another air gap, then another sealed box.

FlooringTo show the principle further, here (on the right) is one of Howard’s close-up discussion diagrams for the floor, using concrete (floor) ‘jablite‘ (insulation), 2 x ply (flooring) and rubber-backed carpet (click on the image for a larger version).

Vertical plan


And here’s the plan – live room shown here on the right of the picture; this shows the angled wall and window position more clearly.

Garage to studio in 3 months

img_0802I moved house this year, and the new place has a double garage. Not being a car lover, and having no garage-mechanic skills whatsoever, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to build a ‘proper’ home studio to replace the family-unfriendly spare rooms and attic hideouts I’ve used so far. So here, for posterity, and for fellow studio nerds who take an interest, I’m going to blog the building of the studio as it progresses.

The design

I’m using the StudioWizard organisation, who designed the MusicLab at Bath Spa, which has proved to be the most tutor-friendly teaching studio I’ve ever used. The design is taken care of by Howard Turner. These are the initial CAD pictures – live room and studio.

Working methods and tech

I tend to work purely at the Mac with the minimum of outboard apart from mic pre-amps. The studio is based around a Digi002 and an Intel Mac running Pro Tools and Logic Pro. The most important consideration was not tech (I already have most of the kit) but ergonomics – how would I move around the working environment. Typically I’ll be working on my own for most of the time, with one other person (session player, collaborator or co-writer). After much discussion, Howard and I decided we would try to squeeze in a tiny live room – just enough for a minimal drum kit. Live drums is the one thing I’ve always had to farm out, and although I don’t actually play kit, it’s going to be great to have the option of real drums for projects; once you factor in the time it takes to program (and produce) sampled drums properly, it can often work out cheaper simply to hire a kit player – and most of the time it sounds a whole lot better. BFD is great, but it’s like any other virtual instrument – it sounds amazing right up the moment when you compare it to the real thing! All of my projects (guitar teaching books and songwriting stuff) are based on creating a ‘live band’ sound in some form, and I don’t expect to get inspired by Techno any time soon, so having a live room (albeit an acoustically dry one) is going to be a real plus for future recordings.

Crows, Rooks and Ravens – the songs

crowsA year in the making, but it’s finally here. Crows, Rooks and Ravens is the album I co-wrote with singer-songwriter Andi Neate, released 19th March 2009. We started work on it in January 2008, and wrote/recorded around 25 songs, of which 10 appear on the album. It was a fascinating process, because Andi was in Edinburgh and I was in Bath, so we wrote all the lyrics online using Google docs, meaning we could update a lyric file separately or simultaneously. Inevitably it’s been a challenging journey, not least because Andi has never collaborated on a whole album before, and I have never written ‘remotely’ like this, but we both got a lot from it, and we’re proud of the result, and I think there are some finely crafted songs on there (but I would say that, wouldn’t I?!). The recording sessions took place in Bath and Edinburgh, with hard drives and musicians traversing Hadrian’s Wall by Parcel Force almost every week.

Andi and I started working together during the Burnsong project in November 2007 (see previous posts on the Vox blog) and decided to write and produce the album together a few weeks later. The demo process was as follows;

  • Initial MP3 vocal/guitar idea or lyric fragment emailed
  • MP3s backwards and forwards for a few iterations
  • Lyric sheet developed as a Google doc and edited throughout
  • I make a backing track and email MP3 to Andi
  • Andi sings a vocal straight to MP3 recorder, with the backing track in her headphones
  • Andi emails me this dry vocal MP3
  • I sync it up with the original backing track and create a demo, adding my own BVs and other instruments (and never pitch correcting – Andi is a fine singer and always does another take rather than let me ‘go digital’ on the vocal!)
  • We repeat this process a few times until we’re both happy with the demo, then we agree via email that the song is complete, and move on to the next one.

Sometimes we had three or four songs on the go simultaneously, which made things easier if a song wasn’t working, or we wanted to put one on the back burner for a while.

Here’s a video we shot during (a break in) the Bath studios sessions – an acoustic version of our song ‘Come Back Home’.

Hidden gems

GemsWhat makes a good learning experience? I’d say it all starts with people – the right student on the right course, working with the right tutor, where both parties have enough prior learning for the intellectual/skills transaction to be mutually useful. One of my favourite quotations (frustratingly unavailable on the Internet because it appeared only once in a National Teaching Fellowship print pamphlet editorial in 2005/6) was by Paul Ramsden, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy (and a blogger!).

Higher education is essentially a conversation – between more and less qualified learners.
Paul Ramsden, 2006

It follows, then, that (assuming a talented and knowledgeable/qualified staff team), getting the right students is key. If we have an over-subscribed course, with a surplus of applicants, our admissions process can be selective based on each applicant’s ability to benefit and thrive on that particular course. If we don’t have that surplus (i.e. if we’re merely ‘recruiting’ rather than ‘selecting’) then we may be forced into selecting the ‘wrong’ students, leading to a potential mismatch of curriculum, staff and students, and ultimately a weaker course. So that initial pool of applicants has to be substantially larger than the course places available, or we’re compromising the eventual student learning experience.

If you agree with my logic so far, you’ll also agree that it’s in everyone’s interest for that applicant pool to be as large as possible. And the tool we use to achieve this is, of course, marketing. Not just ‘promotion’, because marketing can include tangibles like RAE or NSS results, and these are part of building a reputation, which also counts for a lot among applicants, schools/colleges and parents. But promotion – providing interesting and exciting information about our courses, campus, staff and students – is certainly a large part of the chain of events that leads to a happy and successful on-programme student. My implication here is that marketing and promotion are, at one remove, a part of the student experience.

Studies (including our own) have shown that potential students looking for a course have three tiers of influence on their decision to apply for HE. They are, in order of effectiveness, open days, web searches, and printed prospectuses. Let’s discount open days (because these applicants are already interested in us; once a student has arrived at the campus they are likely to know a lot about the course/institution anyway). So the single most effective method for getting new students interested in our courses is the Internet.

The secret of excellence


Now to the anecdote. I met some visitors last week from a Further Education College, for some preliminary discussions around whether we might be able to run some courses together at some point in the future. We talked at length around their current FE provision (in Performing Arts), and the story was exceptional – partnerships with theatres, excellent student placements, European tours, high retention, and some advanced curriculum content that you might expect to find at HE (FHEQ) level 5, let alone at NQF level 3. The course was run by talented and charismatic staff with extensive experience as educators and practitioners.

The week before, in advance of our meeting, I Googled the course name, the college itself, and the names of the college staff who were to attend the meeting. The only thing I could find was a course page with three or four paragraphs of text, no images, no hyperlinks, and no reference to the estimable staff, industry partners or student performances associated with the course. In my case, this was not a problem – I met the staff and they filled me in on all this excellent activity (but they had it all to prove, considering my first impression of the course was actually fairly negative due to its poor web content). Now imagine I was an applicant, choosing between courses at different institutions. I might not even have applied. Drab, terse and pictureless prose is always going to lose out to dynamic, attractive and vibrant pages with links to projects, staff and student work. Truly, content is king.

The gatekeepers

Ask any HE or FE course leader why their web pages are unrepresentative of the quality of their curriculum or student/staff work, and you hear something like “that’s dealt with by the marketing/web people”, or perhaps “we’re trying to fix this, but the text has to be approved by marketing/committee/webmaster”. So we have a situation where people with an exciting story to tell (a story that would eventually directly benefit the student experience through solid recruitment) are not being heard.

KeysI think there are two reasons for this – a ‘gatekeeping’ mentality on the part of institutions, and a lack of tech knowledge on the part of some academics. The latter solves itself – (some of) those academics simply vote with their feet/mice and set up Facebook accounts, blogs and so on, but these are inevitably and rightly designed for on-programme students, rather than with recruitment in mind. And anyway, academics who are not engaging with these communication tools will eventually die out – in the literal sense – as a new generation of web-literate ‘natives’ become HE teachers.

The ‘gatekeeping’ issue reflects a one-to-many communication method that predates the web by more than a hundred years – that the institution ‘publishes’ online in much the same way it would print a prospectus – a single, annual ‘print run’ which is then set in stone until the following year’s recruitment cycle. This 365-day cycle is in sharp contrast to the way the web works – where pages and content is fluid and in a permanent cycle of change/development. JISC themselves have identified (in their Web 2.0 report) the average life of a web page to be between 44 and 75 days. I’ll post more on the JISC report soon, but for now you’ll find it in ‘links’ on the right hand side of this page.

If you limit the online communication (e.g. on the institutional website) centrally to a small handful of individuals (I call this the ‘print publishing’ website model), you achieve the following advantages for your pages;

  • maximum level of editorial control
  • accurate course pages (in terms of module content, admissions criteria etc)
  • technically correct and standards-compliant pages

But there are attendant disadvantages;

  • less content (a small number of gatekeepers have to do everything)
  • less relevant content (those gatekeepers don’t have the on-the-ground knowledge)
  • less up-to-date content (gatekeepers haven’t got time to update every page)

If you allow a free multi-user environment (let’s say where every member of a course team could update their own pages at any time), you achieve new advantages;

  • maximum relevance of content (the content comes from those with the most knowledge)
  • more content (the workload is shared)
  • more frequently updated content (the information is more up to date)

To achieve these advantages without descending into free-for-all chaos, some user management would be necessary, and this in itself is time-consuming. But a lot of this workload can be thrown back to the user – self-regulated password systems and levels of privs negotiated by line managers, not by ‘the IT department’.

ActorsOur own School website puts this philosophy into practice. 45 staff each have their own login, and all can upload student work, change course pages, add links to projects and so on, all driven by a simple browser-based content management system. Does this seem like a recipe for online chaos and contradictory ‘message’ to the world? It seems not. Since 2007, no-one has ever sabotaged a page or posted anything which is out of line with institutional or school strategy. Why? For the same reasons we don’t trash each other’s offices or turn up late for lectures and open days – because we’re professionals with respect for our institution and for each other.

Using this ‘wiki’ method of user administration, we have gradually built an archive of student work, which says more about our courses than any amount of prospectus blurb ever could. Our graduate stories (many of which we discover through Facebook) can be turned into news items quickly and efficiently, and our course pages benefit in similar ways. It’s not the best-looking website in the world (although it is fully standards-compliant) because it’s content-driven, not design driven, but it does have the advantage of being much richer than any centralised solution.

And that’s where Web 2.0 comes in. An academic School doesn’t operate as one monolithic ‘course’ – it’s a community of lots of talented staff and students putting their passions into practice via a plethora of courses, modules, taught sessions, research projects and performances. So its web presence fragments into semi-formal and informal Facebook pages, student blogs, applicant BBS posts, VLE pages, research project pages, FlickR/Picasa photo archives, and personal student websites. (You’ll note that I didn’t post a link to the VLE pages. That’s because you can’t see them, because they’re only available to people registered on that module). It’s never going to be possible to collect all these links completely – the web just moves too fast (Bath Spa’s web team manfully tried, but take a look at the attempt and see how many broken links you find – not surprising given the lifespan of a typical web page).

It’s all beautiful and mercurial chaos – you can’t control it, only observe it and join in. Like the world. And just as in the world, humans achieve greatness through working collectively.

Gatekeepers – you’ve lost your keys. But you can still join the team.

Keeping research locked away

Bank safeA colleague (let’s call him/her ‘P’) gave a research presentation the other day at the University. The subject was interesting, the research was a result of more than a year of work, and it was P’s first research seminar at this University. For all these reasons I was keen to attend and support P. Unfortunately a meeting over-ran and I couldn’t make it. Of course I sent P my apologies over email, and I learned that actually the presentation wasn’t very well attended because other interested colleagues had teaching commitments at that time.

Undaunted, I asked P if I could see some of the research outputs – a paper or other documentation of this work. Nothing was available – the work had been presented ‘live’ on that day, and had taken the form of a verbal lecture. I suggested that P could put some documentation of the work online and send out a link to interested colleagues – at our University and elsewhere in the subject, perhaps to network with those working in a similar research area, and build future projects. P asked me a question I’ve been asked many times about Web 2.0 skills – “Can I get some staff training to do that?”.

Let’s investigate this perfectly reasonable question. What would this staff training involve and what skills does someone need to put their work online? P already has standard/typical web browser skills, can type text onto screen, can cut and paste between MS Word and a browser, and can save/upload images and documents, i.e. all the necessary skills to get started with a blog. So I suppose we could run a simple demo of, say, Blogger – this would probably take less than an hour, then P would be ready to go. So we’d hire a ‘trainer’, book a room and ask the trainer to put some teaching materials together. They’d probably create something like this – i.e. a YouTube ‘How To’ video for Blogger. But these materials are already out there – and anyone who Googled the term ‘how do I start blogging?‘ would find it pretty easily. So P already has the skills, not only to create a blog, but to self-learn by using a search engine. No training necessary – only the will on the part of the trainee to investigate a new method of communication. Shouldn’t every academic exhibit this hunger to communicate as effectively as possible?

Now look at P’s work itself – it’s the result of more than a year of endeavour, excellent in its field, and ground-breaking in many ways. And no-one knows about it – the chosen method of research dissemination (a face-to-face seminar) has vanished into history, and anyone who wasn’t there has missed out. This research is effectively locked away in the memories of those who attended P’s seminar. The information has ‘died’ – all that work, down the drain.

Locked gateIn the ‘old’ (i.e. pre-Internet) research landscape, P could perhaps have published a paper or spoken at a conference. As we know, much of this culture still pervades in HE, perhaps because many academics remain Digital Immigrants (or even take obtuse pride in being ‘Digital Foreigners’ – personally I find this noble-savage approach irresponsible and even arrogant, given our pedagogical duty to our students). Papers are submitted to peer-reviewed/edited journals, printed, dutifully mailed by academic publishers and equally dutifully filed by libraries, and any suitably tenacious academic or student can discover them (though we know anecdotally that many students don’t do this in practice, preferring simply to use Wikipedia as the fount of all knowledge – it’s not hard to find a grumpy academic who will bemoan this trait). A lot of research content – actually, MOST research content – is still fairly difficult to discover through a simple web search, for a variety of reasons relating to copyright/IPR, but also, I suggest, through a lack of understanding by individual researchers of how to put their work online. Of course, many academic journals are available online, but just try posting an interesting Athens or JSTOR link on your Facebook page, Twitter feed or blog – and see how far the recipient gets without a login. Another locked gate.

LectureColleagues who present at conferences effectively ‘broadcast’ their work using the ancient Greek model of one-to-many speaking. Almost every academic has the skills to communicate using this method; the job title is ‘lecturer’ after all. But with the academic conferences, you’re left with the same problem as P’s seminar – if you weren’t there on the day, you’ve missed the boat. And realistically how many people can we reach in this way? A few hundred at most.

So, for the last ten years or so we have had a new and revolutionary method of communication available to us as professional sharers of knowledge. During this period it has been easier to publish content online without ‘tech skills’ i.e. HTML coding etc; this is what the world (and this blog) refers to as ‘Web 2.0’. Tim Berners-Lee, by the way, argues that the phrase is meaningless, and that there is really no difference between the two generations of the web.

“Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along. And in fact, you know, this ‘Web 2.0,’ it means using the standards which have been produced by all these people working on Web 1.0.” ( interview, 2006)

In practice, though, Web 2.0 (i.e. the world of blogs, free urls and wikis) is substantially different for us as teachers, because it’s possible for academics who are self-defined as ‘not very techy’ to publish material online using skills they already have. 20 years ago anyone who wanted to publish research on the Internet would, at the least, have had to learn about FTP and HTML. Now that’s just not necessary – anyone who can use a web browser can show their work to the world.

The gates are unlocked. All we need to do is push.

The VLE is dead?

VLE death?Read this post on The Ed Techie – Martin Weller’s blog (Martin is a professor of Educational Technology at the Open University).

This particular entry is going back a bit (2007) but its discussion points are even more relevant now that more sophisticated web tools are available. Weller identifies a number of pedagogical needs (discussion, content, virtual meetings, posting materials etc) then systematically lists the advantages and disadvantages of hosting them externally from the corporate/university VLE. He’s not a breathless evangelist, though (which Prensky could perhaps be accused of) – this is a measured discussion that deals with the issues of students’ engagement with ‘closed’ University VLE/IT systems, the relationship with student fees, staff awareness of technology generally, and DPA/user authentication.

Weller identifies the advantages of VLEs first;

  • Authentication – this is quite a big one. Students are authenticated via the University database and this feeds through to the VLE and related systems. Single sign on is obviously a big plus here. For small courses you could manually enrol your students on your wiki (if you didn’t want it to be open to all), but for some of our courses we have 1000+ students, so that isn’t scaleable. Having said that, this is not a problem that is insurmountable. Authentication isn’t really my subject area, but with openid, Shibboleth etc people are moving in this direction. What I want is to be able to apply the OU authentication to any site I want, so if I create a wiki I simply tell the OU authentication system to include that url. Maybe it can do this already? The issue of roles is more complicated, but again if we start on this now, it’s not impossible to crack.
  • Convenience – there is a degree of convenience for both academic and student in having all the tools packaged in the VLE. However, I think there is also an increasing frustration at being limited to these tools, and also an increased ability to cope with a range of tools.
  • Support – if you have one centralised system then you can offer centralised support also. If every academic is using a different collection this becomes more difficult. However, these tools are all pretty easy to use, and one could easily have a collection of supported ones.
  • Reliability – if we house the VLE then we can guarantee the server times and service level agreement. If it is housed on an external system you have no control if it goes down. This is true and something that keeps IT people awake at night, but this surrendering control is going to be one of those things we just have to get used to as we use more third party apps simply because they’re better.
  • Monitoring –  one of the tools that a VLE offers is the ability to monitor a student or cohort’s progress. These can be useful tools in identifying problems and offering support. While a loosely coupled system wouldn’t offer this at the individual level, there are an increasing number of sophisticated analytical tools available (as Tony Hirst repeatedly tries to get me to realise) which will provide much of this information.

But he then goes on to outline the pedagogical advantages of free web tools, thus;

  • Better quality tools – because offering each of these loosely coupled elements is what each company does, it is in their interest to make them really good. This means they stay up to date, have better features, and look better than most things produced in higher education.
  • Modern look and feel – related to the above, these tools often look better, and also their use makes a course feel more modern to a user who is raised on these tools compared with the rather sterile, dull systems they encounter in higher ed.
  • Appropriate tools – because they are loosely coupled the educator can choose whatever ones they want, rather than being restricted to the limited set in the VLE. This is one of the biggest draws I feel – as an academic if I want a particular tool I don’t have to put a request in to IT and wait a year to get a reduced quality version, I just go ahead and use it.
  • Cost – using a bunch of free tools has got to be cheaper hasn’t it?
  • Avoids software sedimentation – when you have institutional systems they tend to embody institutional practice which becomes increasingly difficult to break. Having loosely coupled system makes this easier, and also encourages people to think in different ways.
  • Disintermediation happens – this isn’t really a benefit, just an observation. If a services can be disintermediated then it will be. In this case the central VLE system is disintermediated as academics use a variety of freely available tools.

This entry led me to Scott Leslie’s term ‘loosely coupled teaching‘. Check the comments below the entry (this, too, is back in 2007). It’s clear that there are many others doing this sort of thing i.e. using free web-based tools as well as (or instead of) formal VLEs to deliver teaching. And in many of these cases the benefits of working externally are clear – including the very fact that we, as members of the wider HE community, can learn from looking at them.

Digital Immigrants & Natives – the backlash

There are some that argue that Prensky’s work is merely speculation – I would certainly agree with Jamie McKenzie’s assertion that his research methods are hardly exemplary. He cites no evidence for his claims, and has no primary research to back them up (apart from one mis-quoted, mis-spelled scientist’s work in a very different field of neurology). Like many over 30s, I find his vaguely disparaging descriptions of the ‘immigrant’ class to be irritating after a while.

But even though his expressions are sometimes glib and his methodology almost non-existent, I’m not so sure Prensky is wrong. I currently work with a class of around 45 Commercial Music students, and they certainly exhibit the behaviour Prensky describes, individually and en masse. Even the most diligent and motivated of them send me Facebook messages asking questions that have been covered extensively during the previous week’s lecture. But whenever I post a link to an interesting subject-related article on Facebook, they always seem to be familiar with it by the next time I meet them.

Wall of MacsI do get irritated when I see a wall of Apple logos in a lecture, because I know (or at least delude myself) that while some of the students will be ‘taking notes’ most will be, at best, checking out the Wikipedia entry on the band/track I’m discussing, and at worst emailing/IMing a mate about pub plans.

But this has led me to question the idea of the lecture itself. Is this ‘one-to-many’ pedagogical model really so relevant any more? There is a facetious university toilet graffito that states “A lecture is the process whereby the notes of the teacher become the notes of the student without passing through the mind of either.” I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of this in our work – where the eager-to-please student regurgitates our own PPT slides in an essay without triangulating them with their own research. I do agree with Prensky that the linear single-presenter model of teaching is actually alien to many learners… perhaps in the same way that an RSS feed is alien to some lecturers.

So Prensky has not, I would argue, presented primary research of any validity. But what he has done is to ask an important question about tutor/learner interaction, namely – should we maintain pre-Internet pedagogical models in our teaching, bring in new models alongside them, or abandon them altogether?

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

William Butler Yeats


ImimgrantsThe terms I used in the presentation – to describe most of our teachers as ‘Digital Immigrants’ and most of our learners as ‘Digital Natives’ – comes from writer Mark Prensky.

I strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in technology-based teaching and learning – no, anyone who teaches at all – should read his work. Here is a faintly damning but nonetheless thought-provoking excerpt describing characteristics of digital immigrants – i.e. us.

The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn – like all
immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain,
to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past.   The “digital immigrant
accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather
than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program
itself will teach us to use it. Today‟s older folk were “socialized” differently from their
kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later
in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

There are hundreds of examples of the digital immigrant accent.  They include printing
out your email (or having your secretary print it out for you – an even “thicker” accent);
needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it (rather than
just editing on the screen); and bringing people physically into your office to see an
interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL).  I‟m sure you can think of
one or two examples of your own without much effort. My own favorite example is the
“Did you get my email?” phone call.  Those of us who are Digital Immigrants can, and
should, laugh at ourselves and our “accent.”

But this is not just a joke.  It‟s very serious, because the single biggest problem facing
education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated
language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks
an entirely new language.

The quotation comes from this article. Oops. Looks like I didn’t use correct Harvard referencing there.

We’re in the blogosphere.

Get over it.