New article with Tim on evaluative judgement

Kudos to Tim for excellent first authorship, and many thanks to our reviewers and David Nicol for their invaluable insights.

IJET cover

Fawns, T. and O’Shea, C. (2018). ‘Evaluative judgement of working practices: reconfiguring assessment to support student adaptability and agency across complex settings’. Italian Journal of Education Technology, special edition.

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Some recent bits of writing

A couple of fun Teaching Matters blog posts related to my teaching on the MSc in Digital Education:

A couple of conference proceedings for the Networked Learning Conference, 2018:

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The Manifesto for Teaching Online 2015

A new version of the 2011 Manifesto for Teaching Online is up at

As Jen says on the blog: “the manifesto has been an important touchstone for the work of the Digital Education team at the University of Edinburgh, and an excellent source of discussion and debate with students, colleagues, and professionals in the field.”

This year we thought we’d revisit the Manifesto. This has been a really valuable and generative process – a great opportunity to spend time with colleagues just thinking through what’s important to us now, what still resonates from 2011 and what new challenges we’re tackling.  We found ourselves centring around themes like aesthetics, assessment, context, contact, multimodality, openness, power, and surveillance.

The Manifesto is meant to be open and interpretable  – something others can remix and reassemble for themselves.   This is a beast that should be growing and changing all the time!  So, check it out, let us know what you think and share your own versions with us!

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Things I’ve been up to

1.  Not blogging : )

2. A few conference presentations, some of which you can view here:

  • TALOE logo‘Reflections on collaborative assessment: materiality, dialogue and group connoisseurship’ on 22 April 2015 with Tim Fawns. For the Talks on E-assessment and Learning Outcomes series, The TALOE Partnership.  (You can watch this webinar via
  • SERA logo‘Dialogues and disruptions: developing group connoisseurship in online, collaborative assessments’ on 21 November 2014 with Tim Fawns. Scottish Educational Research Conference, Edinburgh, 20-21 November.
  • EADTU logo‘A new conceptual framework for group work: Group connoisseurship’ on 24 October 2014. The Open and Flexible Higher Education Conference, EADTU, Krakow, 23-24 October. (You can watch this presentation at )
  • Oxford Brookes University logo‘Group connoisseurship: creating shared understandings of quality in online collaborative assessments’ on 26 June 2014 with Tim Fawns. International Virtual Conference, Giving Feedback to Writers Online, Oxford Brookes University.

3.  A few bits of writing, all of which you can view via the link below:

4. Another aces Dissertation Festival:


Sherlock Foxington (aka Janet Benson ) presenting on her feasibility research study at the Dissertation Festival 2015.

The Dissertation Festival was held in across our MScDE programme wiki space and in Second Life and was, yet again, a really awesome experience.

We had sessions from tutors and alumni on academic writing, information hunting, and the dissertation process and with presentations from students across a gamut of topics (including games-based learning, mentoring, multimodality and digital scholarship).

It was a great opportunity for all kinds of conversations from dissertation topics, to tales from alumni and tips from tutors.

We also had our first ever “Visualisations Gallery” – with examples from students, alumni and tutors on how different forms of visualisation can help thinking through and articulating ideas.

The Visualisations Gallery

The Visualisations Gallery

You can find out more about the Festival at:

5.   A course update:

ALDE_logoOur Online Assessment course had a gentle re-design, becoming “Assessment, Learning and Digital Environments”.  Along with the new name, the course now has a slightly different assessment regime.  You can find out more at:

And that’s about it 🙂

Now to go and do some more stuff!

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Notes from a writing workshop

The other day I went to a workshop, “Writing your thesis”, run by Dai Hounsell (a guru in assessment, my much respected colleague on our Online Assessment course, and, it turns out, a bit of a guru on writing too).  I thought it might be worth jotting down a few notes from the session.

Leave things mid-task.  This goes against every fiber of my being (things must be finished and wrapped neatly in a bow!) but Dai’s logic makes sense to me – having something unfinished means there’s something you can pick up fairly easily.  I realize I do this all the time when playing World of Warcraft – I stop before I report in, because the reporting in icon helps me find my way back to what I was doing.

Write first thing in the morning.  I have a terrible habit of doing email first thing in the morning and suddenly that morning becomes the whole day.  Prioritizing writing, particularly when it feels it isn’t going anywhere is hard.  Doing it first thing makes sense though – my mind’s probably a bit clearer – and like doing yoga first thing, I can then hold on to a bit of smugness all day that I’ve achieved something productive and just for me.

Writing is many things.  It’s analysis, it’s brainstorming, but it’s also lots of tasks like referencing, formatting, different forms of writing.

From Holyrood campus to main campusThere’s a difference between a novice and an expert.  An expert can come up with many possible solutions to a problem.  Dai’s example was navigating traffic.  If there’s bad weather, road works etc., an expert will know multiple routes.  This got me thinking: what’s the difference then between being an expert and a novice at writing?  It’s not just practice, it’s having explore the ‘geography’ of writing.  Just as I know multiple routes to walk home from having had times where I’ve gone exploring, unworried about destinations and times, I need to give myself opportunities to explore writing without fears or risks hovering over each writing task.

The perils of perfection.  My particular difficulty is that I feel I can’t write until I know exactly what I want to say.  But then, once I know what I want to say, I become bored with the topic and feel unmotivated to write.  I think also I fear not writing the perfect piece (as if such things existed).  For my particular issue Dai suggested:

  1. Signing up to as many opportunities to present on the topic as possible.  This forces me to articulate my ideas and gets me talking about them with others (rather than cogitating in solitary silence)
  2. Making an audio of what I’d want to say.  Step 1: make voice memo.  Step 2: write that up pretty much verbatim.  Step 3: edit.  (I’m tempted to add “profit” in as a step!)

What’s the point of a PhD?  It’s a little different from other forms of writing (like a journal article) and reason 3 shows why that is.

  1. Fill in a gap in knowledge.  A PhD needs to answer:  What is the gap?  Why is it there?  How have you tackled the gap? What did you find out? What does that tell us about the gap? (and here we reach full circle on “gapness”) 🙂
  2. A signification contribution to knowledge.  Dai warned those writing up to keep in mind that what this contribution is needs to be articulated.
  3. A demonstration of expertise in research and scholarship (e.g. showing technique in action)
Dissertation Festival

If you zoom in on the bottom left hand side,
you can see an example haiku from our Dissertation Festival.

Dai suggested having a few folders on our desktops.  Things like “my story”, “me, the performing seal” and “my contribution” to help us keep in mind what we are aiming for and for tracking how that changes over time.

“My story” struck me as very important, something I see my own students struggling with at times.  It’s about capturing the narrative of what you’re saying, the argument you are trying to make.  In our Dissertation Festival on the MSc in Digital Education, we get dissertation students to write  a haiku summarizing their topic.  It’s a handy tool for helping them remember what’s most important as they get bogged down in the details of writing up.

Know ALL the memes!

Know ALL the memes!

Likewise, Dai suggest the abstract can perform this function.  The abstract is something that should be written ALL the time.   It reminds you of what you’re doing, how your ideas are changing. (I can’t help but think of this wonderful blog post every time I see “ALL”.)

The conclusion, on the other hand, is something that could be written at the beginning of the research (this might sound familiar for those who go hunting for funding) or that goes through the drafting and redrafting process closer to the end.  Dai’s very handy point about conclusions was how you could use them to capture new work in the field not captured in your literature review  or better methodological choices you only came to post data generation (i.e. “knowing what I do now, this is what I’d do differently” or “Future research could take in account…”)

The introduction has two diametrically opposed purposes (this blew my mind, I kind of knew it, but I didn’t realize it until Dai articulated it):

  1. A dry, factual overview of what the thesis will do. E.g. “In chapter 1, I ….” with around 3 sentences on each chapters; and
  2. A possibly very personal  account of why you are doing this research.

Dai’s most important parting message for me was never leave yourself with blank pages, ensure you have something you can work on and be ok with varying your tasks and working on other things.

my hunterEverything these days is reminding me of World of Warcraft but this one particularly did.  I have multiple alts across multiple types of servers and I choose which one to play depending on what I am in the mood for and feel capable of doing.  Sometimes I am up for the challenge of dungeons in random groups, other times I want to quest alone without guild chatter or with guild chatter, sometimes I want to do profession/skill building, sometimes I feel like playing a particular class (I find hunters utterly calming but rogues super stressful).

And pushing the metaphor further, I realized different classes might just capture different PhD activities for me. The hunter seeks out resources, the shape shifting powers of the druid might capture the different forms of communication (presentations, meetings with supervisors), the slow cast of some mage spells is like reading, and a warrior is the rough and tough melee of trying to read critically.  Oh, and sometimes I need a paladin’s heal or maybe a priest’s absolution for the sin of procrastinating 🙂

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Ian Hacking and the human kind

For my previous phd topic, Ian Hacking’s work was providing a useful frame.  I still think this applies for exploring learning in collaborative, digital environments, so I’m going to make a start here by outlining a bit of what Hacking is about.  Caveat: I still have much reading and thinking to do.  This is mainly drawing on what I did for my MSc in STS.

When thinking about learning in World of Warcraft, I think we need to think about what we are learning (ie learning to be, to become a thing). James Paul Gee’s stuff on projective identity is useful here for thinking about the individual learner, but I think Hacking’s stuff on human kinds helps us take a wider, sociocultural view on becoming.

Hacking has a few concepts that are useful here:

  1. The idea of the human kind
  2. The way a human kind emerges
  3. The way a human kind responds to being studied

1.  The human kind

The “student” human kind
(by D Services, 2012, flickr)

So, a human kind is something that relies on human talk and action to exist.

Lecturer, student, gender, marriage, authority are all human kinds.  If you wiped humans off the planet, human kinds would cease to exist.  This is in comparison to non-human kinds – like tigers, mountains, gold – which do not rely on human talk and action to exist. If humans disappeared, non-human kinds would carry on.

The “tiger” natural kind
(by stephenhanafin, 2009, flickr)

Others like Barry Barnes  (1983, 1996) and Martin Kusch (1999) talk about these two kinds as social and natural kinds.  But whether human/non-human or social/natural, these are highly idealized kinds.  When we construct knowledge about a non-human (natural) kind, we are doing something social to what comes under that description of a kind (imagine how different things might be for a species described as ‘endangered’ compared to that described as a ‘pest’.)

A human kind, I’d argue, is what we are learning to become when we undergo formal (or informal) learning.  I’m currently learning how to be the kind ‘academic’.  I’m also trying to be ‘marksman hunter’ in World of Warcraft.

Hacking (1995) proposes four criteria for being a human kind:

  1. the kind must be highly relevant to us
  2. it must be peculiar to people, sorting their actions and behaviours, bringing characterisation and classification
  3. it must be a kind of behaviour we want to have knowledge about (ie studied in the human sciences)
  4. it must be one where we have an inclination to project the kind of behaviour onto the person.

When Hacking talks about human kinds, he opens up interesting ways for us to think about where these kinds comes from, how we learn to take on a kind and what it means to be that kind.

2.  The way a human kind emerges:  Making up people

Making up people (“Peoplebrushes” by fotofilip, deviantart)

Hacking describes human kinds as a way of ‘making up’ people – it’s an act of production, of creation.  It’s a way of naming and understanding people.  He uses the term ‘dynamic nominalism’ to try and capture the iterative, dynamic process in which the names and the named emerge simultaneously and in interaction with each other.  What it means to be a ‘gamer’ for instance develops as the characteristics we see as making up a ‘gamer’ emerge.

While human kinds do not encompass all that we know of people as individuals, they do enable quantification and “digests of what matters in intimacy” that “acquire the abstraction of the sciences or impersonal management” (Hacking, 1995: 354).  This can have an affect at a personal, individual level – even when human kinds are presented as scientific and value-free they are laden with judgement.  There are serious social implications to a family member ‘coming out’ as homosexual or a colleague sharing the news that they have been diagnosed with depression. Importantly, while a human kind may be a cultural artefact, it isn’t any less real for members of that kind.

Hacking says that the process of making up people ‘changes the space of possibilities for personhood’ (1986:165).  Possibilities for people are bounded, determined by what is imaginable and articulable, what is named and described. A draenei paladin In World of Warcraft, for instance, what it means to be the ‘tank’ is different to what it means to be the ‘healer’. The tank’s job is to keep the big bads focused on him to hold the agro so no other players get hurt.  The healer’s job is to keep the tank alive (and after that, the other players).  The kinds of abilities each player gets is different based on the class and specification they have taken up.  For instance, a paladin could theoretically be a healer or a tank, but has to choose a specification which gives particular strengths for the one role and undermines the likelihood of doing a reasonable job in the other.  Choosing a Holy specification means the paladin is ideally placed to heal (its costs less energy, is more effective) but means they lose the crowd controlling spells the Protection specification would have to tank.  Coming under one description (Holy paladin) both limits and makes possible different things to coming under another description (Protection paladin).

Hacking also says making up a kind of person involves developing “systematic, general, and accurate knowledge” from which to “formulate general truths about people” that are precise enough to predict behaviour and enable effective intervention (1995: 352).  This is the name or kind that we might know (imagine, for instance, what it means to say someone is ‘depressed’ or a ‘gamer’ – we instantly have ideas and expectations about what it might mean to be that person, what kind of behaviours we might see from them.)  Arguably, a community of practice (a la Lave and Wenger, 1991) is about enculturating someone into that way of being.  A player needs to learn, if they want to be a healer and a paladin, not only that they need to choose the Holy specification, but also how and when to wield what spells.

3.   The way a human kind responds to being studied:  The looping effect

(by cubistscarborough, 2007, flickr)

For Hacking, there is a difference in the way human and non-human kinds respond to being made up, to how they exist under description and how they respond to being classified.  This is partly because human kinds are value laden and partly because human kinds are aware of their classification.  So, as Hacking (1995), while mud may not care if it is classified as ‘muck’ or ‘mud’, a person may care deeply about how they are classified.  For instance, to call someone a ‘depressive’ has moral connotations, it may make us treat that person differently, it may make them feel differently about themselves and to behave differently.  It changes the description under which they exist, enabling a re-description of present and even past experiences.  A person diagnosed as depressed can make choices, conscious or tacit, to adopt the ways of that kind or to reject the classification.  As Hacking (1995: 369) notes, “classifying people works on people, changes them, and can even change their past”.  This awareness and response to classification has implications for the classification itself.  Firstly, the changes of individuals within the kind can effect the kind itself.  Secondly, since the kind changes, new knowledge about the kind exists which then informs people of that kind.  This second point sheds light on the ever-changing definition of depression in formal classificatory practices such as the Diagnostics and Statistic Manual, as depressed people as a cohort developed particular characteristic behaviours, and in practices more informally, such as discussion of depression as being related to a poor diet after an Oprah Winfrey special.

What this means for my research is that things I am studying are ever-changing – the people under that kind are responding to the descriptions about them. In this way human kinds become what Hacking calls a ‘moving target’ – they’re hard to pin down, as they are categorized they respond to the categorisation in ways that may change what it means to be thing we are attempting to categorise.

There’s much much more to Hacking than these few paragraphs can cover.  So be prepared to hear more in due course! 🙂

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Changing my PhD topic: out with depression, in with WoW!

I’m interested in how people learn to take on particular identities in collaborative, digital environments.  Originally, my research was focused on depression and drew on the work of Ian Hacking to position depression as a social kind.  I am still very much informed by Hacking’s work, but I am now making a shift to look more broadly at learning online and am considering how formal learning in digital environments might contrast with informal learning, such as that of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft.

I’m inspired by something one of my supervisors said in a passing conversation – “the game is the purest form of education”.  This draws on Bernard Suits point that:

To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].
(from Suits, B. 2005. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia.  Broadview Press: Plymouth, pp. 54–55.)

In sum, we voluntarily submit to a set of rules in order to undertake a certain form of activity.  Both formal learning and playing a game are examples of this.  Indeed, I’d argue they might the same thing, because they are both about becoming something.

It is that ‘becoming’ that interests me.  How do we learn to take on a particular identity?  How do we know what it means to have that identity? What constitutes that identity (whether it be ‘gamer’ or ‘academic’)?

I see taking on this identity (and I’m broadly putting ‘identity’ into the same place as Hacking’s ‘human kinds’) as a collaborative endeavor – something that happens not just within an individual, but between individuals, between networks of individuals and in interaction with the environment.

I’m quite taken with the idea that MMORPGs can open up ways of thinking about learning to become a thing.  A game like World of Warcraft can offer us an opportunity to look at what’s going with individuals, between individuals, within and between communities and with the material, technological elements of the environment too. (We can’t just focus on the ‘social’, we need to acknowledge the technological has a role in this too.)   I think MMORPGs provide a useful way for reconsidering course and programme design, assessment, motivation and community (to name a few).

I’m currently thinking about the relationship between four different theories that might help frame this research: Ian Hacking’s work on human kinds, James Paul Gee’s work on projective identity, various takes on the concept of affordances and, very broadly, a sociomaterials approach (a la Tara Fenwick, but I’m yet to hone down on what approach works for me).

In my next post, I’ll tease out those theories a little more.

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