Reflections on the Next Generation Environments Conference 2008

Last week I was at the second Next Generation Environments Conference at Aston Business School, Birmingham. (Was it really only last week!?) It was an interesting, enjoyable and social event, and here are a few of my thoughts/reactions…

The set-up for the conference was excellent. As someone who’s been involved in the organisation of a number of conferences in the past, I know how hard this can be. But all at Aston and the JISC organising team are to be commended. The acoustics in the plenary room were excellent and the use of fixed and lapel mics was without fault – and much appreciated by me, as someone with less than perfect hearing! The use of music between sessions and during coffee was an interesting and effective addition.

One thing surprised me though… there didn’t seem to be any attempt to ‘amplify’ the conference. Perhaps this was intentional, but i’d have expected the conference to have a publicised tag to tie together any blogs, slides, podcasts, bookmarks etc. One thing that’s been emphasised to me by the development of the social web is that we all take away a different perspective to events we attend and sharing those phenomenological experiences enhances the experience. Also, given that the main session was mic-ed up, how hard would it have been to capture the audio?

Mark Schofield from Edge Hill acted as convener for much of the conference, and i’d be interested to hear more of his thoughts on users and innovation. His mention of “people in dialogue” and the benefit of “listening to other people’s voices” (users, evaluators, researchers) struck a chord with me. I know i’m energised by taking part in dialogue on a topic, forming (and re-forming) my opinions and stances based on those of others, either in agreement or not. At least Mark’s reference to the U&I programme being based around the suggestion that “smart people in dialogue get smarter” made me want to feel part of the community, if only as a desire to be included in his reference to ‘smart people’!

Many attendees at the conference were glowing about the two panel sessions, particularly the one with four current students. Their perspective was indeed interesting, but certainly not revelatory. From the practitioner’s perspective, i’d be really interested to hear more of Terry Wassall’s thoughts. Terry is a Principal Teaching Fellow in Sociology at the University of Leeds and talked lucidly and insightfully about his experiences with emergent social technology. What I liked was that he’s clearly aware of the bigger picture, noting how his initial use of another channel of communication and engagement with social media, has affected him, his identity, his writing style and other people’s perceptions of him.

I also attended a session on the TicTOC / GoldDust projects and one on the OpenHabitat project. The later was excellent, thought provoking and energetically delivered by Dave White. They clearly have sound research questions they intend to address regarding Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) and Dave gave some interesting pilot examples from people’s initial reactions to SecondLife and World of Warcraft. Early days, but i’ll be following this project with interest.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned that Steve Boneham and I ran a session too, titled ‘Too much of a good thing? Individual and institutional responses to emergent technologies’ … more on that in another post perhaps, (although see the News article on the Netskills website).

The main plenary was given by Eric Hamilton (Pepperdine University, USA). Someone commented to me that they hadn’t learnt anything from his session, saying “how are you meant to remember 8 principles?” But I reckon that a good plenary session should be more about challenging the (smart?!) audience to consider a new or innovative angle to a topic, prompting re-evaluation of their models and methods, more than learning something new. So, how was I challenged? Well, first of all, before I share what resonated with me from Eric’s talk, i’ll admit that i’m not heavily into pedagogy or e-learning. That’s not to say i’m not interested, just that learning theory isn’t one of my research interests. I am however, deeply interested in social interactions and the dynamics involved, whatever the environment (learning, social, collaborative…). Eric talked a bit about the “human craving for social knowledge, meaning and connections” in relation to the ever-popular Facebook. It’s easy to dismiss Facebook as being a time-wasting activity, but there’s a growing range of interesting research into the social meaning of its use, particularly given that you could argue that Facebook is an extension of our daily lives; (most of the time) we are who we say we are in Facebook, and don’t hide behind pseudonyms. (‘funkychic233’ etc.)

Eric also talked about “fluid contextual activities” from a social vs. solitary perspective as well as a virtual vs. IRL (‘in real life’) one. I need to do some reading to understand this more, but the example of getting a group of people to virtually mimic a a traffic jam made sense, highlighting the role of the individual in the process. My attention was also grabbed by Eric’s description of ‘collaborative flow’, the individual ‘in the zone’ needing to maintain awareness of the phenomenological* situation, giving the example of an orchestra – “losing a sense of time, whilst maintaining timing”.

Finally, Eric talked a fair amount about his passion for baseball, giving a number of interesting examples. Sorry Eric, but you lost me a bit there; baseball will always be a poor man’s cricket! 😉

So, at the conference there was lots of talk about ‘identity’, ‘social identity’ and ‘communities of practice’ but I was often left wanting to respond … “but this isn’t anything new, it’s what we do all the time!” What’s really interesting, and what we’re only just starting to explore, is the impact of a more connected, technologically enabled world, where we have the ability to be social more often. Do we need to learn how to switch from one identity to another? In fact, the question for us attending the conference is more, “do we need to re-learn how to switch from one identity to another? Answer – yes! During a discussion at a sociolinguistics conference about six years ago, regarding my research into language and identity amongst adolescents, a former colleague (Joan Beal) said to me:

“The thing is Will, adolescents are constructing and re-constructing their identities all the time … just like they try on Ben Sherman shirts!”

And I suggest that students are extending, expressing, massaging, constructing and re-constructing their multiple identities in online spaces right now, switching seamlessly from one identity to another. They engage in the practice of ‘doing’, so central to Community of Practice theory, with many of their communities extending over both a virtual and physical world.

* I’m distinctly aware that i’ve used the word ‘phenomenological’ twice in this post … and also that i’m not entirely sure what it means. If anyone (Aruna?) who knows more on the subject reads this post, please comment!