All posts by Mark Shand

Alone / Together

You’re sat there again. Writing.

All alone.

The internet’s there. It always is. The distraction factory: a cacophony of noise telling you that everyone else is having much more fun than you. The world’s happening in some other place.

And you’re still sat there.

But what if it wasn’t just you? What if you were able to share the writing process with others? What if you weren’t alone?

That’s the premise behind Shut Up and Write Tuesdays, “a virtual writing workshop for academic folk”. It’s an extension of the Shut Up and Write premise that originated amongst the Californian creative writing community and grown in popularity here after being adopted by the student academic community.

Using the Pomodoro Technique that I’ve talked about before, it takes place across Twitter every Tuesday.

In practical terms it’s a Twitter exchange that comes to life through a hashtag (#suwtues / #suwtuk / #suwtna – depending on whether you’re following from the US and Canada, the UK and Western Europe, or the Asia-Pacific region).

There’s a countdown, people chatter and get ready to start – there might be the odd exchange about what you’re currently writing – then…

YOU’RE OFF! 25 minutes of writing. In Twitter silence.

When time’s up, you’ve a 5 minute break to visit the toilet, make that cup of tea, tell the world what you’re dog just did… Procrastinate as much as you want before… YOU’RE OFF AGAIN! 25 minutes more writing…

That’s the idea and it seems to work – at least judging by the enthusiastic global chatter every Tuesday morning. I like it too.

But what’s actually happening?

Erikson and Kellogg might say that participants are benefiting from something they call “social translucence”. Through the social networking platform we’re able to experience the activities of other visible participants that “support coherent behaviour by making participants and their activities visible to one another” (Erickson et al., 2002).

It’s translucent, rather than transparent, because information is selective (whether intentionally or not) and we can hide a lot behind those 140 characters!

Yes, of course participants may be manipulating and making visible activities that are not actually taking place through this “social proxy” on Twitter, but the common language and shared group aesthetic (tea, cake, casual and informal), as well as the low ‘risk’ nature of the activity (personally completing some writing), creates a reassuring environment where ‘trust’ isn’t a necessary factor for success. There’s no leverage to be gained by seeking to manipulate impressions – you’d only be kidding yourself!

We have a ‘sense’ that we’re sharing an activity with other similar people. And while, like the example I’ve given before about collaborating (while not collaborating), we’re not working together to achieve the same goal, we are working ‘together’ through sharing the same virtual space and experience.

The ‘alienating power of technology’ used to to unite.

Erickson, T., Halverson, C., Kellogg, W., Laff, M. and Wolf, T. (2002) Social translucence: designing social infrastructures that make collective activity visible. Communications of the ACM [online]. 45(4), pp. 40-44. [Also available online]

Image - V.H. Belvadi's desk by V.H. Belvadi - from:

Clouds Over Sidra

Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s multi award-winning documentary Clouds Over Sidra is a powerful demonstration of the 360 degree video format’s ability to engage emotions whilst addressing a serious issue. By allowing the ‘viewer’ to see through the eyes of 12-year-old Sidra, the piece explores the tension between ‘directed’ and ‘undirected’ narrative in its empathetic depiction of life in a Syrian refugee camp.

I think these notions of what we (the creators of these experiences) seek to convey, and what we leave open to discovery (or not), plays to a major concern when such technologies are utilised in immersive learning and journalism. Namely – to what extent do we allow our audience/learners the freedom to explore? And how much do we feel the need to ‘direct’ them towards (our own) desired outcome?

While not an explorable virtual environment (360 video allows you to ‘look’ around rather than ‘move’ around) the documentary works by completely wrapping the viewer in a visual landscape – with the mundanity and enormity of life playing out around them.

“Presence is still coming into a definition, but we know two things about it: It feels good, and it’s different from verisimilitude. With presence, you do get a profound sensation of space, causing you to forget you’re staring at a screen. Presence is fragile, but when achieved, it’s so joyful and sustaining that those who touch it tend to fall silent.”

– Virginia Heffernan, New York Times

Much more than a static or linear artefact, the documentary is structured around the editing of long scenes (or ‘situations’) with continuous flow conveyed through the young girl’s narration and Mckenzie Stubbert’s musical score.  It is very much Sidra’s story that pulls you through the experience, and when her friends enthusiastically gather close around, you really feel their warmth.

#cloudsoversidra #unitednations #syria #virtualreality

A photo posted by (@vrseworks) on

There’s great potential for this format in education. Not only are the results effective, but the workflows used to create them are significantly less taxing than those used to create purely 3D digital virtual environments. Indeed flat 360 video (which lacks full 3D’s depth of vision) can be produced on pretty standard digital cameras (albeit in a pretty elaborate setup) with some freely available ‘stitching’ software.

360 degree video is more than simply a tool for cautious storytellers who are nervous about giving up narrative control or digital designers who think any form of ‘storytelling’ is restrictive. It’s a challenge to the traditional view of documentary media – adding ‘presence’ to a set of existing film tools to create powerful immersive experiences.

You can view Clouds Over Sidra for free:

  •  through the flat 360 web viewer (with a mouse) using an HTML5 compliant web browser such as Chrome
  • or in 360 3D (using an Android or Apple device’s motion sensors) through the free Vrse app

Also, check out YouTube’s 360 Degree Video channel for a taste of the freely available 360 flat and 360 Google Cardboard-ready videos being uploaded.

Image taken from: a still from Clouds Over Sidra a virtual reality film created by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk in partnership with the UN’s advocacy at the World’s Economic forum in Davos

Collaborating (while not collaborating?)

Collaboration usually occurs along with such notions as assist, ally, fraternise – the implication that there is some form of two-way relationship with other members of a voluntary group. But what happens when this relationship is invisible to the group’s participants? Can you collaborate while not being aware of the collaborative process itself?

This interesting article on Crowdsourcing and Community Engagement prompted me to consider how the social relationships we commonly understand in collaboration are absent in this communal creation of artefacts – an absence rendered unnecessary by the use of technology.

Participants might be transcribing ‘analogue’ artefacts such as photos or handwriting into a digital “mineable” format for sharing, searching, tagging etc. Individual effort is automatically pooled without the need for teams or ‘social negotiations’ necessary within groups.


Some form of agreement is usually given regarding the future use of the (typically small) amount of data the individual produces, but, other than that, it’s entirely possible that they remain unaware that they are ‘collaborating’ at all. Nonetheless, collaboration is taking place.

As the article says, crowdsourcing works best with simple repeatable tasks – not necessarily with more complex collaborative problem-solving. For that we need teams and some form of social interaction. We know that technology is able to help here too (e.g. with rapid formation of groups and exchange of data) – and that it’s success depends on collaborators who are very aware of the collaborative process they are engaged in.

Header image is by Grant Miller for the Zooniverse (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Rhizomatic MOOCs

We can be so obsessed with trying to understand why MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) succeed or fail that we risk sidelining all else in pursuit of the ‘M’ in that acronym.

We want to know why that initial rush of interest so often dwindles to just a handful of dedicated ‘visible’ students by the end of a course’s run. That’s understandable, but do we place too much value on our ‘visible’ students interacting with our formal MOOC mechanisms compared with our ‘invisible lurkers‘? Should we be just as interested in the learning ‘outside’ of our (let’s call them) OOCs ?

As a MOOCer(?) the actual pedagogic structure for that new course we enrolled on might not become apparent until we’re well into it (there can be a tendency to hide the messy mechanics of education away from view) but it will probably fall into either one of two MOOC types:  the xMOOC (an extension of the curriculum with formal structured lessons, videos and assignments) or cMOOC (offering more in the way of peer learning and collaboration). Stephen Downes outlines the differences very well and addresses the cognitive and technological demands of both approaches.

It would seem that the cMOOC offers a lot less ‘control’ and more creative opportunities for learning than its straighter more formal rival. Our cMOOC discussion boards hum and our online course looks like it’s brimming with life as copious comments are made and replied to. But they’re still marshalled conversations inside a rigid top-down structure of “subject of the week”, some tuition, and some “now here’s some time to talk among yourselves…”

There’s rigidity in a cMOOC (not always a bad thing by any means), but for anyone wishing to extend these forms of online ‘organised’ learning it might be worth considering the metaphor at the heart of the Rhizomatic Learning approach which sees knowledge being constructed as an organic root might grow – “the interconnectedness of ideas as well as boundless exploration across many fronts from many different starting points”.

This blog post uses such an approach to inform the argument for something called rMOOCs.

Now, adopting yet another moniker might appear unnecessary, but there could be real value in the distinctive type of online learning it points to. It looks towards a massive online experience negotiated with tutors rather than dictated by them. A process perhaps similar to the Finnish ‘phenomenon-based’ teaching model which forms part of a move away from siloed ‘subjects’ towards interdisciplinary topics and projects emphasising student autonomy. It encourages and facilitates the use of spaces outside of restricting MOOCs – where students and ideas are free to burst out across the confines of platforms and social media to enable self-directed learners to group, collaborate, critique and assess on their own terms using what they find along the way.

We might not then be able to measure how ‘massive’ our organised learning is, but it might not matter.

Image of exposed mango tree roots: Aaron Escobar [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Pomodoro :)

I’ve been using the Pomodoro writing technique for a while and found it useful (for certain tasks at least ) and was interested to see it formalised as part of the activities of the UWE Student Union DocSoc social and academic support network.

The technique is simple: 25 minutes of concentrated writing, followed by 5 minutes rest – and repeat. Every 4th ’round’ you reward yourself with a longer 15 minute rest.

Quite a solitary act you’d think. Is it possible or even desirable to make this a communal activity?

Well it all depends on how you work, but I’ve found similar events (like the Learning For All  Writing Cafes) are a great opportunity to ‘feel’ you belong to wider community – whether that’s researchers, academics, students or teaching and learning support.

(DocSoc is a social and academic support network that is run by postgrad researchers, for postgrad researchers).