#MobilityShifts – 5 key trends for the future of education [guest post]

Mobility Shifts

I’m back in the UK after my first trip to the US for the Mobility Shifts conference in New York. This was made possible by Scott McLeod, Director of CASTLE and owner of Dangerously Irrelevant. Thanks Scott, it was fantastic!

5 key trends for the future of education

In this, my last post here about the conference, I want to give a quick overview of five trends which jumped out at me. These were mentioned by several speakers during the conference:

  1. Openness – This has been going on for a while, but there’s a real drive towards open access for academic research in particular.There is a feeling that education and public services should be open and transparent.
  2. Greater insight into the knowledge creation process – This is similar to openness but pertains to the creation of articles, books and other material. It’s not just the output that should be shared, but the context of how it was put together.
  3. Mobile learning. – The big movement at the moment outside the conference is BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) but the focus at Mobility Shifts was upon mobile for ubiquitous learning. It’s not so much about the mobility of the device but the multiple ways in which the learner is mobile.
  4. Alternative forms of assessment – This is a big one with Mozilla’s Open Badges leading the way. Because assessment often drives the structure of learning, this is key.
  5. Rethinking the classroom environment – This goes hand-in-hand with the curricula redesign necessitated by alternative forms of assessment. How should we build new (or reorganise existing) classrooms?

Catch up with previous posts from #MobilityShifts:

3 random things I saw on my last day in New York

  1. Several grannies standing on a busy street corner holding pink pom-poms. They acted as cheerleaders giving everyone wearing a pink top and running shoes a ‘woop!’ as the latter (presumably) walked to the start line for a run to raise money for breast cancer research.
  2. Three separate tourists asked me for directions. And I knew the answers! I must look like I know what I’m doing.
  3. A proper game of cricket going on in Queens, with proper ‘whites’ and everything. Who said Americans weren’t cultured? 😉

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Blog: dougbelshaw.com/blog  
Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf

#MobilityShifts – Day 5: Emerging Learning Environments, Peer to Peer Grading and an Interview with Cathy Davidson [guest post]

Session at #MobilityShifts

Starbucks on the corner of 29th and Park in NYC has to be the friendliest coffee shop I’ve ever been in. I’m writing this post in its cosy confines after telling my excited four year-old son via Skype that he’ll see Daddy again tomorrow morning. I’ve one more post in me after this one, but this will be the last one I write whilst in New York.

I know I say this every day, but Mobility Shifts is such a good conference. Yesterday I saw Michael Wesch speak, interviewed Cathy Davidson, and then saw her speak along with Geert Lovink and Manu Kapur. I also had some great conversations with Margaret Fiore and Sean Justice at the New School (and bumped into Matthew K. Gold again). 🙂

The three things I did yesterday, then, were:

  • Emerging Learning Environments
  • Interview with Cathy Davidson
  • The Future of Learning: Academic Publishing, Peer to Peer Grading and Text Books

I go to quite a few conferences and see a lot of people present. Can I ask you a favour if you present at conferences? Put your contact details (especially your Twitter name) on your first slide and provide links on your slides (using bit.ly or similar, if necessary) to the things you mention. If you can get them up on Slideshare before you start talking, even better.

Emerging Learning Environments (Michael Wesch)

Just before this session I got talking to Sean Justice who is involved in Art Education at the New School and whom I’d met in a previous session earlier in the week. We both got talking to Margaret Fiore, who teaches writing and then Karen DeMoss (one of the conference organisers) got involved. I mentioned how I was at the conference courtesy of Scott McLeod (Karen says hi, Scott!) and they’re going to write up my story for the New School newspaper. I also got talking briefly to Michael Wesch in the elevator after the session and he said he knew my work. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Unbelievable.

Mike Wesch is well known for his work on changing learning environments and focusing on New Media Literacies. He said that we need to stop focusing on students knowing ‘answers’ all of the time and inspire them to ask really big questions. Knowledge and meaning, after all, isn’t just ‘out there’ in the world but has to be created. The sad thing, Mike said, is that the questions students ask put limits on their learning, like “how many points is this worth”. He juxtaposed an image of his 400-capacity lecture theatre with the audience for American Idol saying that the problem isn’t generational but (to use a term that Mike didn’t actually use) attentional. This is very much a dominant theme of the conference, and point also made by Cathy Davidson (below).

“There’s something in the air” said Mike. “And that something is… wifi”. He got a chuckle from the audience, but he was deadly serious. Students can share and collaborate in ways never before available yet we give them a standardised test. That’s why we need to move away from hierarchies and groups towards networks; we need to get students using productively technologies that are currently viewed as ‘distractions’.

Our learning environments shape what goes on within them. What do our classrooms say about learning, wondered Mike?

  • To learn is to acquire information
  • Information is scarce
  • Trust authority for good information
  • Authorized information is beyond discussion
  • Obey the authority
  • Follow along

I can’t possibly cover everything that Mike said, but if you haven’t seen his stuff, just try typing ‘michael wesch’ into YouTube. The big take-away for me was that we should be empowering students to make a positive difference in their communities and the world. We have the tools to help them do so.

Interview with Cathy Davidson

Prof. Cathy Davidson

Over the last few months I’ve had my horizons expanded by coming into contact with people around Mozilla, HASTAC and DML Central. One of these is Cathy Davidson, a Professor at Duke University and author of the New York Times bestseller ‘Now You See It’. I recommend that everyone go and read it right now! Rarely have such important points about education, attention and the workplace been so cogently and persuasively argued.

You can find this interview (which was carried out with the assistance of Pete Woodbridge) below, or at archive.org:


The Future of Learning: Academic Publishing, Peer to Peer Grading and Text Books

Cathy Davidson was at the New School to speak about her book and peer-to-peer grading. She was one of three speakers at the final session I attended yesterday, with the other two being Geert Lovink and Manu Kapur. The former talked about digital publishing experiments at the Institute of Network Cultures whilst the latter focused on digital media and learning within the Singapore school system. Whilst Manu’s presentation about Singapore sounds like something that school administrators would be interested in (given their PISA scores) I’m sceptical. Having researched the Singaporean school system for my thesis I’m all too aware that a little bit of experimentation counts for very little when you’ve got one of the highest-stakes testing regimes in the world. This, after all, is a country where painkillers are routinely sold alongside study guides.

Geert Lovink, on the other hand, was interesting in the way that he pointed towards the future of the book (another emerging theme of the conference). The Institute he works for is now producing only digital books becuase of the rise of self-publishing services such as Lulu.com and print-on-demand machines such as Espresso. In conjunction with the Baker HTML5 ebook framework and Google’s Sigil (WYSIWYG ebook editor) the future of publishing is democratic.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Geert’s talk was his statement that the peer review system is “corrupt to its core”. He believes, obviously very passionately, that the current peer review system is destructive of self-esteem and make private and anonymous something that should be out in the open. The dialogue before an article or book is published should be as available as the work itself. Although he didn’t use it, the analogy that sprang to my mind was the ‘Talk’ page attached to every Wikipedia article.

Finally, it was Cathy Davidson turn to talk. Much of what she mentioned is in the interview above, but I’ll cover just a few of the things she said. Cathy made the point that there’s not a person – students, teachers, administrators – who believes the current education system is working. That, explained Cathy, is because we’re focusing our attention on the wrong things. If you haven’t seen this selective attention test video, it provides the context for Now You See It.

We’re privileging the wrong things because our education system is stuck in a previous information age. “Since when”, asked Cathy, “has ‘high standards’ meant ‘standardization’?” Like Mike Wesch, she used humour to make an important point. Grading, as in A, B, C, D, was introduced before the First World War in one college. The next people to take it up? The American Meatpackers Association. But they rejected it because it wasn’t a workable system. Cathy very persuasively argued (and again, I’d encourage you to look at her book) that the multiple choice test, the grading system and the IQ test were all historical accidents, not well-thought-through policies.

I think the most powerful thing that Cathy Davidson said came in the Q&A session after her talk. She looked at the room, which comprised progressive educators, and pointed out that almost every one of us would have been labelled as ‘learning disabled’ if we were at school today. Why? Long hours, narrow subjects, poor diets, to name but a few reasons. What are we doing to our children?

I’ve mentioned Mozilla’s Open Badges framework several times in these posts. Like me, Cathy’s a big believer in the power of alternative accreditation systems and technology. However, she gave an extremely important warning: you cannot simply drop a new form of assessment or technology into a classroom setting and expect everything to be made better. We’ve made that mistake with interactive whiteboards (for one). Rigour, Relevance and Relationships are Cathy’s new 3R’s.


Unlike in the UK where conferences, conversation and debate are siloed between schools, further and higher education, this conference is refreshing in looking at the bigger picture. Those children in nurseries and kindergartens will become teenagers, and then will go (hopefully?) to university. We need to think of the long view. What will the world be like in five, ten, twenty years’ time? Are we preparing them for it? What kind of world do we want to see? Gandhi’s famous exhortation to “Be the change you want to see in the world” is buzzing around my head this morning.

The most random thing I’ve seen in New York

Just before I started writing this, whilst on a (video) Skype call with my wife and children, what looked like a homeless guy came into Starbucks. He verbally abused staff, telling them off for touching his bag. Then he left. My wife now thinks that kind of thing goes on in New York all of the time when, given my (albeit limited) experience, nothing could be farther from the truth. I’ve found NYC to be friendly, welcoming and quite possibly the most civilised place I’ve ever been. 🙂

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Blog: dougbelshaw.com/blog Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf

#MobilityShifts – Day 4: Open Access, Mobile Devices, and Connected Learning [guest post]

Mimi Ito speaking at #MobilityShifts

This conference gets better and better. Given the quality and pace of thought coming from some of the speakers, I’ve been severely challenged (even at my reasonably rapid touch-typing speed) getting down some of the ideas to share here!

I attended three sessions today:

  1. Does What We Know Belong to All? The Intellectual Property Principles (John Willinsky)
  2. Mobile phones in learning (Various)
  3. Learning with Social and Mobile Media (Mimi Ito)

Does What We Know Belong to All? The Intellectual Property Principles

I hadn’t come across John Willinsky’s work before today, but having heard him speak I’m now a big fan. I think he and Mimi Ito are perhaps two of the best speakers I’ve ever heard – and I saw them both in the same day! John teaches at Stanford and is both engaging and persuasive.

His argument is a straightforward one: academic research should available to all. John began by highlighting something that’s a huge problem for professional people all over the world, something that he highlighted with a very graphic example. In the graduation ceremony for trainee teachers at his previous institution they used big scissors to cut up the (now ex-student’s) library card. What kind of message is this he asked? We need to give teachers access to the latest research, not tell them that they no longer need to engage in such activities.

I attempted in the Q&A session and the workshop that followed John’s talk to provoke him into saying that we don’t actually need academic journals. He was very careful, with a twinkle in his eye, to say that is not his aim. What he’s trying to do is make journal articles open access or, in other words, make sure that a Google Scholar search gives those outside the walls of the university access to full-text PDFs.

Delving into the philosophical and legal past, John showed how treating research differently from commercial interests has a long history. I won’t go into that here (it was mainly around Locke’s ‘On Property’) but suffice to say it’s difficult to argue against his contention that the wider our work circulates, the more it increases in value. Although I have slight reservations about trusting Google to serve up the world’s academic articles, I do use Google Scholar extensively and it’s a potential stepping-stone to a Wikipedia-like non-profit aggregation platform.

I’ve already demonstrated my commitment to open access publishing by not only sharing my thesis online as I wrote it but, now that it’s submitted, donating the text to the public domain under a CC0 license. Many other academics have released their work under other Creative Commons licenses. Ideas want to be free!

Mobile Phones in Learning

I ended up walking out early of the second session, unfortunately. The first of the three speakers, Bob Klein was excellent, clearly articulating his attempts to bring the book ‘up to date’ and make rich, multimedia publishing tools available to all. Bob is well known for his work on The Future of the Book and technologies such as CommentPress (now Digress.it) that allow readers to comment on individual sections of a work such as paragraphs.

Bob’s latest project is SocialBook, the private beta for which is due in November. I’ll certainly look out for that as I really liked the way in which Bob talked about how the book is a place’ where readers, and sometimes authors, gather in the margins. Changing the nature of the book, however, means rethinking the whole ecosystem. Just as with Amazon’s Kindle, you can highlight and comment on sections of the book, but SocialBook is entirely browser-based and based on the ePub3 specficiation. I think its got real potential in education.

Bob closed with a clip of Marshall McLuhan talking, over 40 years ago, about the ways in which we try and fit old ideas into new forms of expression. Instead of doing that, argued McLuhan, we should be thinking about the affordances of those new forms of expression. I think this applies partcularly to mobile learning.

Unfortunately, the second two speakers weren’t great. Giselle Beiguelman subjected us to about four minutes of video which was accompanied with a cell-phone generated ‘music’ soundtrack that eventually made me stick my fingers in my ears. Note to presenters: you only have to play clips of videos to make your point! I walked out shortly after Tomi T. Ahonen started. I couldn’t stand the self-promotion, generic presentation, lazy statistics and technological determinism. I wasnt the only one to leave.

Learning with Social and Mobile Media

Mimi Ito has two PhDs and is possibly the most eloquent speaker on the planet. She started with a conversation she had with her 13 year-old daughter in the car recently. “I wonder what it’s like to be a typical teenager” said her daughter, meaning those teens who are always on Facebook and texting. Mimi pointed out that conceiving of a ‘digital generation’ has a flattening effect with common-sense telling us that young people’s media use is as stratified as ours. It’s a technically determinist frame that ignores the diversity of young people’s experience of new media.

What’s more interesting than focusing on the outcomes of engagement, argued Mimi, is focusing on who gets to have those experiences. In other words, we need to close the equity gap. Mimi is well known for a book to which she heavily contributed, ‘Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media’. This shared the findings of MacArthur-funded fieldwork between 2005 and 2008, that found:

  1. There is a profound and resilient gap between young and older people’s attitudes toward online media.
  2. There are a variety of learning outcomes, such as baseline literacies/competencies, and technical skills, that result from immersion in new media.
  3. A minority of young people are doing truly extraordinary things with new media.

Mimi is particularly interested in this last group in the follow-up work she has started. Why, if anyone has the ability to broadcast to the world through YouTube, do more teenagers not have videos with 1 million+ hits? The answer, Mimi suggested, is the difference between friendship-driven and interest-driven participation. The former is the digital equivalent of hanging out and flirting, whereas the latter involves participation in ‘affinity spaces’. I should have taken a picture of Mimi’s venn diagram, which consisted of the following circles:

  • Interests, Affinity
  • Friendships, Community
  • Reputation, Achievement

The centre of all this is ‘Connected Learning’, something that YouMedia, the Quest to Learn schools and Mozilla’s Open Badges are trying to help facilitate. Mimi’s work now is looking at what it takes to take the learning from online communities and make it consequential in the offline world. Her research found that, for most people, becoming a really good gamer or fan fiction writer has little impact in other areas of power. Mimi wants to find a way to make this experience “relevant, visible and connected.” We need to find opportunities for young people to exploit what it takes to advocate for their own interests and passions in adult life.

Interestingly, in the Q&A session, Mimi indicated that her hunch for what it is that helps bridge the gap from the ‘Interests, Affinity’ bubble to the ‘Reputation, Achievement’ bubble is a caring adult who helps mediate between the two worlds. We need to focus on the quality of the social relationships. I wonder if she’s seen Sugata Mitra’s ‘Granny Cloud’?


I was inspired by the passion and enthusiasm of John Willinsky, Bob Stein and Mimi Ito today. All three are doing fantastic work in making this world a better place through opening up research, making books more social, and finding how to build on young people’s interests and talents. It would be a tragedy if their ideas are ignored, neglected or overlooked because of convenient excuses such as the financial crisis. I look forward to following their work more closely in future!

Three random things I saw in New York today

  1. Someone (seemingly asleep) in a shopping trolley
  2. A taxi driver jump out of his car and punch someone for jaywalking
  3. A coat hook that someone had turned into an octopus (see below!)

Coat hook Octopus

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Blog: dougbelshaw.com/blog  
Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf

#MobilityShifts – Day 3: Hacking, Playfulness, and Free Universities [guest post]

Mozilla Drumbeat session at #MobilityShifts

I attended three sessions today, with roughly half of this written in an empty room full of chairs before the third session and the remainder written by lamplight in my hotel room. Some sessions run until 10pm at this conference – there would be uproar about such scheduling in England! 😉

The sessions I attended today were:

  1. Hacking as Learning: A Slice of Mozilla Drumbeat Learning, Freedom and the Web Festival
  2. Playful & Digital Literacy? How Digital Media Shapes Our Biographies and Fosters Transformative Learning
  3. The Beginnings of The Free University Movement

If there was a common thread running through these three sessions it was that innovation necessarily involves letting go of the reins sometimes and not pre-supposing the outcomes of a particular activity or programme. This is an important lesson for us all to learn, I think.

Hacking as Learning: A Slice of Mozilla Drumbeat Learning, Freedom and the Web Festival

I’ve been fairly involved with Mozilla’s Open Badges recently and so have been finding out about some of the fantastic work that Mozilla have been dong more generally. The session I attended this morning focused on P2PU.org and Hackasaurus, the former being a place for running informal online courses, the latter about helping young people to understand the way the open web works.

This was a very interactive session, including some robotic dancing(!) and drawing of possible ways in which we could structure learning activities helping young people to understand ‘hacking’. Whilst in the popular media ‘hacking’ means some kind of criminal activity it actually means modifying something for your own interest or use. The Hackasaurus website is currently pre-beta, but it’s definitely worth checking out – even if only for the X-Ray Goggles!

Playful and digital literacy? How Digital Media shapes our biographies and fosters transformative learning

This workshop, like the Mozilla one, was mainly a hands-on session with some input from Konstantin Mitgutsch, a post-doctoral researcher at the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab (based on Boston). What I really liked about this session was that it forced us to reflect on our own experiences of media throughout our lives and then helped us make sense of them.

I and other delegates were encouraged to draw a timeline on a piece of paper upon which we charted ‘meaningful’ interactions with a particular form of media. It was up to us which form of media we chose and what we personally meant by ‘meaningful’. I chose video games, although I equally could have chosen books or the internet. I won’t bore you with the details of my particular timeline (see below) but suffice to say entering code into a BBC Micro to play Duck Hunt aged about seven years of age was a fairly formative experience for me. 🙂

Doug Belshaw's 'mediagraphy'

On the timeline the ‘bubbles’ represent how meaningful the experience was to us. We were also asked to divide these experiences into stages. The completed timeline was then used as a conversation starter with a partner to whom which we explained our visual representations. Just to demonstrate how different media timelines and experiences could be, my interlocutor was a Reformed Jewish Rabbi doing a PhD who had been a professional dancer and Hollywood writer! His formative experience was watching West Side Story on TV aged five.

Konstantin went through a lot of theory (which was really interesting) to situate our experiences in a theoretical framework. This would be difficult to rehearse briefly here but towards the end of the session he did put up a useful overview slide making these points:

  • Attention is the gatekeeper
  • Expectation as the door-opener
  • Content is queen
  • Context is king
  • Meta-context is not instruct-able (but essential and social)
  • Kairos – or the right point of time

The main thrust of the session was that context shapes everything that we do and that meaningful learning experiences are intrinsically social in nature. Konstantin summed this up in a nice phrase: “Transfer is NOT the transformation”. I think this resonates strongly with Cathy Davidson’s book Now You See It (which I’m currently reading in preparation for meeting her on Friday!)

The Beginnings of The Free University Movement

This session comprised of two short talks with lengthy Q&A sessions:

  1. History of DIY Learning (Kasper Opstrup Frederiksen)
  2. ElectroSmog: The Quest for a ‘Sustainable Immobility’ and the Tele-Presence Conundrum (Eric Kluitenberg)

I had really been looking forward to this as I think we live in very interesting and potentially-revolutionary times when it comes to re-imagining education. I was extremely disappointed then when the first talk was a real let-down. The speaker read his paper in a voice which varied little in tone or cadence to people sitting in rows of chairs. The Q&A session, which I hoped might provide some enlightenment or light relief, descended into a self-serving ‘look how much I know about this subject’ swamp of tedium. In short, I wasn’t exactly enthralled and directed my attention elsewhere, much as I did in school when the teacher made no particular attempt to make the material interesting. Here in 2011 my attention goes to my digital devices; in school I just used to look out of the window.

The second talk seemed to be about someone’s failure in organising an online conference. Again, for me Twitter and checking my email won out for most of it, although my ears did prick up towards the end when the words ‘education’ and ‘tele-presence’ were mentioned. The argument seemed to be that we lose something through ‘hard’ tele-presence when we try to replace physical interaction. Wow. I award it the 2011 prize for Most Obvious Conclusion.

Celebrating Jim Groom’s birthday

Pizza and beer at John's on Bleeker

I had fully intended to go to a late session entitled An Autonomous Alternative Accreditation Agency led by Thomas Gokey, someone I’d come across through interacting around Mozilla’s Open Badges. However, I met up with Joss Winn and Mike Neary, then Boone Gorges, and finally Jim Groom (who’s just turned 40!) and Mikhail Gershovich. We went for some fabulous pizza and beer, got talking and before I knew it I’d missed the session. I very much encourage you to find out more about these people as the quality of conversation and the ideas expressed were top-notch. 🙂


What I’m really enjoying at this conference is the space to discuss and explore ideas. Presentations can often be interrupted by clarificatory questions, and workshops sometimes go off at interesting tangents. Apart from the final session I attended today, I’ve found Mobility Shifts to be almost the opposite of the so-called ‘Continuous Professional Development’ (CPD) I was subjected to during my years as a teacher. The days of standing up to ‘impart information’ aided by a badly-formatted slidedeck are over: foster interaction and debate or go home.

3 things I learned about New York today

  1. Some people put their dogs in daycare.
  2. You don’t have to sign or enter a PIN code for small credit card transactions (presumably this is a US thing?)
  3. Contrary to the myths, New Yorkers are actually quite likely to hold doors open for you.

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Blog: dougbelshaw.com/blog  
Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf

#MobilityShifts – Day 2: Privacy, Surveillence and the Academic Commons [guest post]

Matthew K. Gold presenting at #MobilityShifts

I’m writing this in the lounge area of the Manhattan hotel at which I’m staying. There’s some people warming up for an evening out with a few cocktails and others, like me, busy on their digital devices. The whole scene is bathed in relaxing yet upbeat music. Happily, this matches the mood I’m in after attending two sessions at the Mobility Shifts conference today. 🙂

The Cryptopticon: The New Nature of Privacy and Surveillance

The first session I attended was led by Siva Vaidhyanathan (@sivavaid) who spent about an hour and twenty minutes (including questions) on the nature of privacy and surveillance. In a nutshell, he argued that Jeremy Bentham’s (metaphorical) idea of the State having a ‘panopticon‘ which keeps us all in line through fear is not, in fact, what we should be afraid of.


Instead, Siva argued, we need to be aware of the ‘cryptopticon’ and the data mining of private actors (i.e. the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon). This is particularly important in education for two reasons. Firstly, classrooms are simultaneously non-public and non-private spaces in which students can ‘try on ideas for size’. Individuals can venture opinions and then backtrack as needed without being held accountable further down the line. Secondly, educators can play devil’s advocate over a sustained period of time, effectivly ‘lying’ to their students in order to provoke a reaction. Siva gave the example of a class on politics where to shake up a ‘lazy unanimity’ amongst his students, he played the part of a classical neoliberal. This drew out nuances between the positions of students which were otherwise in broad agreement. The classroom, he stated, is a place for deliberation and therefore shouldn’t be recorded.

I won’t rehearse the entire session, but interestingly Siva mentioned that we have a ‘flattened vocabulary’ when it comes to ‘privacy’. Indeed, we don’t really know what it means. The definition Siva gives is, “the autonomy to manage one’s reputation among various contexts”. Such a definition makes statements such as ‘the death of privacy’ meaningless. We need privacy for twp main reasons, argued Siva:

  1. To protect our own dignity (we should be the ones that get to tell the world about ourselves)
  2. To mitigate harm and prevent extortion (for example, we should be able to get whatever books we want out of a library without fear of reprisal)

The State and private companies collecting (and mining) data have no interest, argued Siva, in the ‘panopticon’ model of surveillance. Why? Because it leads to individual self-censorship meaning that the information being collected is not accurate. The State wants the terrorist to act like a terrorist so that they get caught, and the private company wants the individual to display patterns of behaviour that will enable them to better serve up advertisements. It is the ‘cryptopitican’ of which we should be wary: the hidden surveillance that is practically invisible because it is layered with obscurity in ever-changing privacy policies. After all, unless you think there is a problem, there is no need to go looking for one.

In the Q&A session afterwards, I asked Siva what he thought about schools and universities adopting things like Google Apps Education Edition and Microsoft Live@Edu. He replied that his own university is going down this route and that he has campaigned for the administrators to enter negotiations with a list of demands and questions of Google. However, it’s difficult when what is being offered is powerful and free. The administrators talk, Siva noted, of ‘balances’ and ‘trade-offs’, a notion that he rejects. How do you measure ‘privacy’ and ‘security’? If they can’t be measured, they can’t be ‘balanced’.

Open Education: The University and the Commons

Matthew K. Gold (@mkgold) led the second session I attended today. He talked about:

  1. The CUNY Academic Commons
  2. The Commons
  3. New Models for the Networked Commons

Having spent the vast majority of my career thus far in schools I saw that this is just as much an issue for school leaders and teachers as it is for academics. How do we foster a sense of collegiality and experimentation whilst maintaining rigour? Matt, as Director of the CUNY (City University of New York) Academic Commons, has worked with others such as Boone Gorges (@boone) to create a decentralised, DIY space based on Open Source software for students and educators to interact.

There was much to like in Matt’s fast-paced presentation, not least his mantra that the ‘service model’ of IT provision disempowers and inhibits educators and academics. Partly due to funding, partly from underlying philosophy, the staff associated with the CUNY Academic Commons will only help educators and academics help themselves. They won’t do it all for you. Yes, they could have just used Facebook but to do so would have been building equity for a private company at the expense of empowering others.

Another refreshing thing to hear was that they wanted activity around objects rather than to be a repository for the objects themselves. The activity and objects would be open and public by default, with the option to make spaces more private. The structure of the spaces would grow organically, like a beehive with many entry points. Matt quoted with approval Tom Scheinfelt: “We judge our tools by one key metric above all others: use. Successful tools are tools that are used.”

CUNY Academic Commons uses a combination of WordPress, a ‘social networking plugin’ called BuddyPress and MediaWiki (the platform that Wikipedia runs upon). Small things, such as developing plugins that allow single sign-on between MediaWiki and WordPress/BuddyPress can be very important for gaining traction. The profiles, groups, and discussion spaces allow for improved scholarly communication, argued Matt.

After giving this overview of the CUNY Academic Commons, Matt gave an overview of the notion of a ‘Commons’ more generally. He stated that, in essence, it is a shared resource often to do with land. The debate and conversation around the Commons, however, has been skewed by a 1968 publication entitled The Tragedy of the Commons which argued that any such arrangement would collapse due to self-interest. Matt argued with Lewis Hyde (author of Common as Air) that “A true commons is a stinted thing”. In other words, all true Commons are bounded in some way. In fact, quoting David Harvey this time, Matt argued that the Commons is less a space and more a state of mind. We should be talking of a ‘cornucopia of the commons’ as the more people invest in it, the more valuable it becomes.

To finish off, Matt gave some examples of Commons that are in existence or will soon come into being:

Practices in this area are developing all the time with a recent development being ‘middle-state publishing’ (academic publishing in the liminal space between a blog post and a journal article). At the same time, Matt issued a warning about practices in new spaces. We shouldn’t just move existing conversations to new, more open and public spaces without thinking how and why we are doing so.

Perhaps the best reason to build an Academic Commons, however, was the reason given right at the end of the session. Invoking Zittrain’s notion of ‘generative spaces’, Matt argued that without open, emergent and organic spaces for people to come together we will never come across the unanticipated changes that make groups, organizations and societies better.


These two sessions had the potential to be heavy-going and quite depressing. However, there’s a real sense of hope and energy pushing towards a brighter future at this conference. What’s exciting is that, whilst we may be in the midst of the worst financial crisis in living memory, there’s people thinking about new, different and better ways for society and education to be structured. What’s necessary, however, for (positive) unexpected consequences to emerge is for those in control, the administrators, to facilitate experimentation.

Random things I saw in New York today:

  • A man carrying a sack of concrete on his back. Whilst riding a bike.
  • A baby wearing an If found crying, feed burgers babygro.
  • Special ice-creams for dogs (at Shake Shack, Madison Square Garden)

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Blog: dougbelshaw.com/blog  
Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf

#MobilityShifts – Day 1: Wikipedia and formal education [guest post]

Wikipedia session at #MobilityShifts

I’m writing this from my hotel room on 30th Street, Manhattan. Looking out of the window I’m confronted with huge buildings and more windows than I can count (if you’ve seen the film ‘Rear Window’ you’ll kind of understand what I’m getting at).

If this blog post was a Wikipedia article, that first paragraph would probably have been edited by now. The name of the hotel would have been included, questions would have been raised on the ‘Talk’ page about just how many windows there were (could I perhaps point to a reputable source?), and a link to the Wikipedia page for ‘Rear Window’ added. It’s not, and there weren’t, but this brings me nicely to the session I attended today led by Frank Shulenburg, originally titled Wikipedia and academia: friends at last?

According to the programme, Frank’s session should have been a presentation about the global education programme the Wikimedia Foundation have embarked upon in partnership with several universities. However, in an appropriately wiki sort of way, Frank skilfully accepted suggestions, amendments and tangents from the audience, turning the hour and a half session almost into a workshop. I love it when form and content come together and, if asked in future to give an example of what I mean by this, Frank’s session is what I shall recount.

Let me explain. Frank started off by saying that he’d prepared three things:

  1. A short presentation about what the Wikimedia Foundation do and what they’ve been up to with their global education programme.
  2. A closer look at Wikipedia (a peek behind the scenes, as it were)
  3. An opportunity for us to get in to groups and think about how we can integrate Wikipedia into our classrooms.

When asked, a show of hands from delegates demonstrated that most people were there for option 1 (Frank’s presentation). Interestingly, no-one voted for option 3!

How we got to where we are

As it was, Frank managed to combine all three points in a very partcipatory way. For example, he started by getting us all on our feet and turning the room into a physical continuum between ‘Strongly Agree’ on the right and ‘Strongly Disagree’ on the left. He proceeded to read out some statements about Wikipedia (e.g. ‘Wikipedia is a democracy’) and get us to move to a place on the continuum representing our views. Once in position, he asked each ‘camp’ why they had moved that way, never giving a judgement but instead teasing out points and allowing people to respond to each other. This was a great way to start as it got us interacting straight away and, without Frank having to tell us, demonstrated how philosophically complex it is to place online (and sustain) a freely-editable encyclopedia.

Once we’d done this, Frank gave an overview of Wikipedia’s fairly humble beginning to where it is now. Did you know, for instance, that the page for Physics originally read ‘Physics is a very broad subject’? Wikipedia’s success (it is the fifth most-visited website behind the like of Google and MSN) has been achieved with zero dollars spent on promotion, a very small team of staff (currently 89) and a non-profit structure. In fact, says Frank, he remembers a time when they used someone’s car for a conference room as they didn’t have enough space! So where does Wikipedia’s success come from? Answer: It’s users. There are upwards of 100,000 Wikipedia editors (known as ‘Wikipedians’) working towards fulfilling the vision of founder Jimmy Wales:

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.” (Jimmy Wales)

As Clay Shirky noted in his book Cognitive Surplus, the total amount of human effort (in hours) spent improving Wikipedia is huge, but tiny compared with the amount of TV-watching the human race does as a whole. It certainly got me thinking about the best use of my time!

Wikipedia and academia

Returning to the Wikimedia Foundation’s global education project, Frank said that they noticed a large and sustained increase in the numbers of professors using Wikipedia for projects with their classes. When they got in touch with them to ask how they could help, the professors’ response was that they wanted support, including printed matter for students. A 17-month pilot programme followed in which professors and their students worked through the following stages:

  1. Training
  2. Planning
  3. Introduction
  4. Analysis
  5. Research
  6. Writing
  7. Evaluation

Two of the most important stages, noted Frank, are Stage 4 (Analysis) and Stage 7 (Evaluation). The former helps deepen students’ media literacy skills by getting them to ask of a Wikipedia article, ‘What’s missing?’, ‘Is this from a neutral point of view?’, and so on. The latter, Evaluation, was took various forms at the different educational institutions involved in the pilot. Some gave credit based on a study of the Wikipedia page’s edit history, others asked students to give a presentation, yet others set a reflective essay. The results? From a response rate of 48% (pretty good!) they found that, all told, 72% of students preferred working on the Wikipedia article than on more traditional forms of assessment. Some of the reasons given included authenticity and ‘real-life’ work.

Finally, and with a Wikipedian in the room who gave Frank a hand, we were given a quick look behind the scenes of Wikipedia. During the discussions, one of the delegates had admitted to ‘vandalising’ Wikipedia whilst at school but she had always wondered how they had ‘caught’ her doing so. Frank put up on screen the ‘Recent Changes’ page and also demonstrated the way in which, if you ‘star’ a page once logged-in, you can have your own personal Recent Changes page. Hundreds, if not thousands of people, therefore, are monitoring their favourite pages for changes. Any alterations not improving the quality of articles are therefore picked up quickly and reverted to previous versions.


I came at this session with my experience of both using a wiki extensively in my everyday role at JISC infoNet (we use PBworks) and having asked students to edit the Simple English version of Wikipedia when in the classroom. To my mind, we have a responsibility to the young people of today to prepare them adequately for the world as they experience it now and will experience it in future. To do that, we need new forms of assessment (which is why I’m all for initiatives such as Open Badges and DML Badges). We do students a disservice by continuing unimaginative and potentially exclusionary grading practices.

As I argued along with Pragmatist philosophers such as C.S. Peirce and William James in my Ed.D. thesis ‘truth’ is what a community of inquirers agree upon in the long run. It’s like an asymptopic line with knowledge constantly in flux. Teaching students to use and edit Wikipedia responsibly can only help them becoming more fluent in Digital and New Media Literacies. It was an excellent session, and an auspicious start to the Mobility Shifts conference. I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the week!

3 Things I’ve Learned about NYC today…

  • A ‘block’ is not a standard length. Walking 50 blocks, even on a sunny day, is a very long way.
  • Don’t go up the Empire State Building on a public holiday (it’s Columbus Day)
  • Prices are confusing because they don’t include sales tax.

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Blog: dougbelshaw.com/blog  
Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf

Introducing Doug Belshaw, blogging at Mobility Shifts [guest post]

I’m writing this whilst waiting for my connecting flight in the fabulous Amsterdam Schipol airport. I’ve just arrived from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and am headed for New York where I’ll be attending the week-long Mobility Shifts conference. My presence there is a combination of determination, good fortune, and Scott McLeod’s generosity. Scott saw my request on Twitter for assistance in attending Mobility Shifts and made it possible for me to attend for the entire week. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to thank him adequately for the opportunity. 🙂

One thing Scott and I have agreed I can do whilst I’m at the conference is blog about my experiences for the readers of Dangerously Irrelevant. I’m more than happy to do this: there’s a plethora of interesting sessions at the conference and, whilst I can’t cover all of them, I intend to go to as many as possible reporting back in guest posts each day. I’m also fairly active on Twitter, with my main account being @dajbelshaw and my conference account @dajbconf.

The programme and further details about Mobility Shifts can be found on the conference website: mobilityshifts.org/conference.

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Blog: dougbelshaw.com/blog  
Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf