The Rest Is Noise: immersion in learning

I’m inspired, energised and brimming with ideas after attending another Rest Is Noise weekend at London’s Southbank. The Rest Is Noise festival (inspired by Alex Ross’ book) is running throughout 2013, and so far I’ve managed to make it to three of these superbly curated weekends of talks, debates, films and performances which “help to explain the relationship between classical music and the social and political changes of the last century”, allowing us “to see the music of that period ‘in the round’ – bringing in the history of science, technology, philosophical and political movements”.

While that (possibly) sounds a little weighty, the programme is so brilliantly put together and accessible that it’s far from elitist. All presentations are engaging, often with some weird and wonderful titbits of information that stick in the mind (“Nazi Porno Kitsch” anybody?). Expertly overseen by the wonderful Jude Kelly, who has an obvious passion not only for the audience experience, but also a deep grasp of the diverse range of topics in the programme, The Rest Is Noise is without doubt my favourite way to spend a weekend in the UK.

There are usually around 5 parallel sessions every hour, but to give you a flavour, highlights so far (for me) have included:

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Futures of Entertainment 2012 – #FoE6

audiences : culture : curation : spread : content : creation : innovation : activism : slactivism : remix : production : storytelling : engagement : copyright : collaboration

These are the words that I highlighted on the programme for this year’s Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT, from which I’ve just returned. I actually did this on the outbound flight, using a pen, on a paper programme. Obviously these would have been hashtags had there been wifi on the flight (and no, I’m not complaining).

Looking back at these tags now, I can safely say it more than lived up to expectations. Launched 6 years ago through the Convergence Culture Consortium and Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, Futures of Entertainment brings together leading media scholars and industry practitioners for an intensive 2-day programme of panels and debates focused on media and audiences. The blend of academics and digital media types is invigorating – not interdisciplinary in the strictest sense, but the mix in background/focus certainly leads to a uniquely rich and inspirational event. Always a stellar line-up, Futures of Entertainment is a real melting pot of digital media/audience/fandom/participatory culture researchers and practitioners.

This was the first time I’ve attended, although as I’ve followed past proceedings online I knew it would be a great experience. The reason I had to attend this year is that I’m working with both undergrad and postgrad students on a series of projects based around ‘spreadable media’. ‘Spreadability’ was the buzz-concept of FoE5, and I think it’s a brilliant and welcome challenge to the tired and misleading ‘viral’ metaphor. From a pedagogical perspective it’s incredibly rich as not only is there potential for all kinds of creativity in terms of learners producing artefacts, but also there’s real scope for critical thinking and theoretical developments around content, audiences, agency and networks. Gold dust as far as digital media literacies are concerned, therefore this was pure personal learning/development rather than a speaking gig – a welcome respite as I was able to immerse myself in everybody else’s thoughts and words rather than worrying too much about my own. I do believe that it’s crucial to keep abreast of what’s happening ‘out there’ in order to keep developing relevant, transmedia pedagogies, and I often find that I get the most of out conferences that aren’t necessarily focused on learning as it encourages me to contemplate, and frame, things differently.

Anyway, on to the conference… the standout sessions (for me) were:

Maria Popova and Joshua Green in a brilliant one-to-one conversation around The Ethics and Politics of Curation in a Spreadable Media World. This was an energetic and passionate discussion much of which focused on the definition of curation and the role of the curator i.e. semantics and power relations. Being a fan of brainpickings.org I knew this would be interesting, but both Maria and Joshua were so incredibly incisive in the way that they challenged one another and this was one of those sessions where one hour feels like ten minutes. Seriously good stuff.

Another standout session was Curing the Shiny New Object Syndrome: Strategy Vs. Hype When Using New Technologies. The panellists were Todd Cunningham, Jason Falls, Eden Medina, David Polinchock, Mansi Poddar, and it was brilliantly moderated by Ben Malbon from Google Creative Lab. The discussion was a great mix of laughs, scholarly musings and industry insights on innovation and I loved how @edenmedina brought a more academic slant to proceedings. While there was much talk of SNOS (Shiny New Object Syndrome), they also explored the fetishisation of failure and the problems of assuming that what works in one culture can be easily transported elsewhere – which led to the important point that for all our talk of the importance of being able to fail and not fearing failure, that failure is indeed a privilege.

I also loved the session From Participatory Culture to Political Participation. The panellists here were Sasha Costanza-Chock, Dorian Electra (new to me, and I was instantly blown away by her Economics music videos on YouTube), Lauren Bird from the Harry Potter Alliance (was already a fan of Lauren’s as I’ve known about her work for a while, and Bassam Tariq, the co-creator of 30 Mosques in 30 Days. Again the moderation was excellent thanks to Sangita Shresthova. This session was fascinating due to the conversation around activism and using fandom and fan practices to highlight issues, awareness and encourage action. However, what I found most interesting was the reluctance of the three (Dorian, Lauren and Bassam) to define themselves as political or as activist, leading the audience to question whether there was some kind of generational shift (very mixed views from the crowd as to whether their reluctance to define themselves as political or as activist was a help or a hindrance).

Finally, another session which remains deeply embedded in my mind (although not for the same reasons) was the panel on Rethinking Copyright, with T Bone Burnett, Henry Jenkins and Jonathan Taplin. Burnett and Taplin put forward the classic ‘music industry’ viewpoint, which wasn’t shared by the audience. This would be an interesting session to relive through both the first and second screen. Voices were raised and tensions were rising (although Henry stayed calm and reasonable throughout). The Twitter backchannel was going crazy, but kudos to Sasha Costanza-Chock for standing up on several occasions to offer well-informed perspectives on alternative revenue/licensing models – and also to the guy who stood up to admit that he was the one who closed down Napster. This was a pretty intense session, to say the least…

I’ve just chosen a few highlights here, but I urge you to watch the all the videos on www.convergenceculture.org when they become available. Rachel Clarke did a brilliant job of live blogging each session, while @huey pulled together tweets in Storify which also offer a neat perspective. My usual low-grade instagram pics are here, while there are much better pictures here.

While FoE brings together media scholars and industry practitioners who share the same passions around content, audience and participation, the diverse perspectives on topics such as copyright or activism (and the generational, political, or financial motivations) meant that this conference couldn’t be anything but thought-provoking and invigorating. At times, I found myself nodding vigorously at speakers who used particular terminologies/frame of reference, while I’d have an equally visceral (negative) reaction towards the few who spoke in marketing language and yet they were talking about the same phenomena. Terminology and meaning, ontologies and epistemologies… it was fascinating to reflect on what was being said from different perspectives, and what our choice of language says about us. The great thing about Futures of Entertainment is that it’s the kind of environment where you can say “oh, I’d say xxxxxxx to describe that” and there’s no jostling for position of battles of ownership, just insightful and positive dialogue. However, while we all might have been talking about the same things, jargon does matter. As @henryjenkins tweeted during a particularly lively debate: “it is NEVER just jargon!”.

Thank you, Futures of Entertainment 2012.

A new academic year: global, connected, creative – and not (quite) a MOOC

So, teaching starts next week – and yes, I’m excited. Been working on a new MSc module that will essentially be more of a class research project looking based around Spreadable Media (challenging the notion of ‘virality’ following Henry Jenkins et. al.). I think it could be a great way to be both hands-on creative and scholarly in approach, and for learners to develop a really deep understanding of networks, audience, culture – and of course, the social web.

However, semester 2 is going to be full-on in terms of teaching. I’ll have around 100 students on the Social Tech module, and there are so many things I want to do, amazing connections and projects to pursue – old and new – and it’s really exciting but also rather overwhelming. Having to wave goodbye to the possibility of being able to regularly engage with, and comment on, student blogs is quite a wrench (although in all honesty, following 70+ last semester really stretched me to the max…).

SO, I want to carry on developing our current model-which-has-no-name. I’m not sure what it is – it’s not a MOOC, but it’s certainly pretty open, multi-disciplinary, multi-level and networked, and builds on existing communities of practice and the mentoring that has emerged over the past 6 years (staff and ex-students -> current students). Most importantly, it’s creative, occasionally anarchic and relatively ad hoc (it would be wrong to not give a shout out to #ds106 at this point – #DS106!) – which is probably the best way to describe the way things work with our Social Tech modules…

For the past couple of years I’ve been working with @thomcochrane @mediendidaktik @marett @MaxMobile and a whole host of other people around the globe in a community of practice where we’ve had our students working together on creative social tech projects that cross disciplines, levels, time and space. I wrote about one of them here. However, to work on several international collaborations (which are essentially modules in themselves) at one time with 100 learners – hmm. Quite the challenge, unless I change the way I do things…

One of the difficulties when working on these types of projects is not so much navigating the timezones (although very early-morning/late-night hangouts when working on a few of these projects at a time does lead to a sensation of permanent jetlag…), but the staggered semester dates. However, we’ve decided to re-frame this, and so we’re now looking at the ‘tag-team model’ of education: the projects never end, as there is always a cohort to carry on, and lead into the next group, and when they overlap that’s great – that’s where the genuine collaboration happens.

I was recently most heartened to read about Anne Balsamo’s new DOCC: (Distributed Online Collaborative Course) – a project that ‘uses technology to enable interdisciplinary and international conversation while privileging situated diversity and networked agency.’ I’m a huge fan of Anne’s work (reviewed her book ‘Designing Culture’ last year, and have been recommending it to anybody with ANY kind of interest in interdisciplinarity ever since). This is the kind of model that I’m moving towards – globally connected, but with each cohort grounded with their respective institution (accreditation, QA, etc. etc.)

Alongside this, one of the (many) magical moments of 2012 was when some students who weren’t involved in ELVSS (the international mobile film collaborations) approached me at the end of July (yes, the SUMMER HOLIDAYS) with a brilliant idea for a film which required them to be paired up with ELVSS students in New Zealand – they set up a Google Doc, threw ideas around, and filming will start soon. Bear in mind, this is purely interest/passion-driven, nothing to do with an assessed module, but a genuine desire to create with people across the globe. This is the way I want things to go.

Traditionally, we deliver modules/courses, neatly chunked into 12 weeks, with units of assessment, leading to grades etc. and that’s the way things are (generally) done. I’m not saying scrap all of that, but I do think that modules are best served as springboards to other things. Increasingly, students are connecting across levels and cohorts through Twitter and now we have ex-students getting together with current students, undergrads coming to postgrad classes (and vice versa) as they’ve connected online and have a genuine interest in getting involved in other groups/further curricula outside of their taught modules (must give another shout-out to @ugfl and @watersidestudio at this point!). Obviously hashtags play a huge role in developing connections in this learning ecosystem, but it’s this move towards interest-driven projects, facilitated by network connections that really excites me.

So, the final – possibly serendipitous – piece of jigsaw (time will tell) was tonight’s Google Hangout with @courosa, @cogdog and others to talk about the #etmooc that Alec wants to set-up/explore. This was an initial meeting where we threw ideas around, and I must say it was great meeting Lenandlar Singh, who is a MOOC aficionado (as a student) and getting his perspective, alongside Valeria Lopes and @seani – always great to meet new people ☺.

Whether or not this goes anywhere (i’m sure Alec will make it work – he’s the ultimate networked teacher – i’m just not sure i’ll be able to be involved long-term due to all these other projects), it was a great convo, and I went away feeling excited by the possibilities of developing MOOC-like initiatives that aren’t really MOOCs – which is when we started talking about ‘un-moocs’. Alec went straight off and registered several ‘unmooc’ domains, and it all feels rather exciting…

Increasingly, educators are connecting; networks grow and overlap; we’re connecting diverse groups of students across the globe through both ad-hoc informal projects, and more formal approaches where they are assessed/accredited by their own institutions while working together on a common brief. It’s exciting and potentially rather messy.

I’d really love to know what you think – is it practical? How to cope with multiple projects where (for example) G+ hangouts at all hours of day and night are integral to the experience? Should we set up an informal ‘swap shop’ where our students can take courses from elsewhere, but are assessed from their home institution? For instance, I can easily imagine some kind of ‘virtual exchange’ with #ds106. But the burning question for me is: what the hell is this, and does it even need to have a name?

Running a module as an ARG a.k.a. The Rufi Franzen Mystery

So the secret’s out. We’ve had the Big Reveal.

#psvtam (otherwise know as the BSc Professional Sound and Video Technology, Advanced Multimedia module) was a game – an alternate reality game.

A game that took so many unanticipated twists and turns that I’m still trying to process everything. For the past 48 hours I’ve been replaying the past 3 months in my mind, thinking about every clue, red-herring, reaction… wow. Continue reading

The Joy of Teaching: Learning Journeys and Transformations

One of my undergraduate students posted his weekly course reflections earlier this evening, and I was really moved by this post – extract:

“I cannot shake the growing feeling of “loss” which comes from moving to another semester and the introduction of new lecturers and their module content whilst in the same breath saying goodbye to the friends I have made.”

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