Monthly Archives: June 2011

Breda on screen.

Following up some recent posts on the Breda project, just a couple of notes on the next stage of the work. A fortnight ago I watched the students’ presentations from the Netherlands, while I sat in my flat in EH11. Breda live stream all their lectures and record them for later online viewing – some examples are here – which made it dead easy to tune in.

 

What with modern easy familiarity with technology you can probably picture me dialling in to Skype and offering my thoughts, asking questions and otherwise being a part of the event. Watching my face appear where once had been PowerPoint slides and Prezi animations can’t have been easy for anyone, but I resisted the temptation to abuse that highly visible position: think Sir Patrick Moore on Gamesmaster.

 

The students used a wide range of styles, approaches and technologies for their presentations, populating each short talk with the results of their research, their recommendations and some reflections on the overall project. It was great to see that each of the four chosen venues seems to have given them plenty to work with and scope to make some valuable recommendations. The written reports are in, are currently being marked, and should be available to the venues in a week or so.

Let me count the ways.

A late night in the offing in SW19 tonight: Andy Murray slugging it out under the roof at Wimbledon as the rain falls elsewhere. It wasn’t like that last night as I strolled along the South Bank under a crimson sunset, glinting off the London Eye and the Palace of Westminster.

This quick list is little more than information masquerading as literature, for these are some of the things I did:

  • British Museum: when I was very young I once asked my mum why there was so little of Britain in the British Museum – little has changed in two and a half decades. This was my first visit in a while though and I’m a fan of the central courtyard, which is a very large space indeed. The temporary exhibition on Australian art was good and took me back to some of the galleries I visited in Australia – I like a Sydney Nolan from time to time. The Parthenon Sculptures are still there, despite my measured analysis as an undergrad that they should head back to Greece. The rest passed in a blur, the continents and the centuries passing in as many paces as I tripped through the civilisations.
  • Apple Store Covent Garden: the biggest such store in the world I believe, a temple to the brand and the products. And what do you know, it’s a very pleasant place to spend a little time and a lot of money.
  • National GalleryCardinal Richelieu‘s eminence… say no more.
  • Eli Pariser at The RSA: it’s only a few days since I wrote about Pariser’s work on the ‘filter bubble’, so quite a fluke that my day in London coincided with his talk at RSA House. The material had developed a little since his TED talk, but the basic premise remains and there seems to be greater appreciation of the consequences it heralds. A treat however: this lunchtime talk was hosted by Aleks Krotoski, who sat three seats along from me when she wasn’t grilling the speaker on stage.
  • Scotch Malt Whisky Society, London: when in London why not call in on a society you’re a member of? Lovely stuff.
  • E4 Udderbelly: …where I spent a very pleasant hour with my friend, the general manager. Just as I used to get mighty confused when visiting the Famous Spiegeltent in foreign cities so it is with the purple cow: current residing near the South Bank Centre. (And to think Sarah’s first festival job was selling tickets for Jo, Laura and I at the Bedlam Theatre in 1998.)

London remains a city that will strip your wallet as soon as welcome you to its institutions and winding streets. But it’s a fine place to be… right down to running for the last train.

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In response to Eli Pariser and online ‘filter bubbles’.

In The Observer on Sunday 12 June, Eli Pariser sets out a vision of the web which is heavily influenced by the information we submit each time we visit a site, carry out a Google search and otherwise give away a little bit more of ourselves and our interests. In a passage from the article, which itself an extract from his new book, Pariser discusses three aspects of the ???filter bubble??? which surrounds each of us each time we go online. My comments below seek to discuss the bubble in relation to attendance at festivals and events, such that they also provide us with a distorted reality for the period in which we engage with them. The closing paragraphs seek to extract some value out of this comparison, for event producers their audiences and collaborators, and other stakeholders they seek to involve in their events.

Link: Pariser’s Observer article.

???An invisible revolution has taken place is the way we use the net, but the increasing personalisation of information by search engines such as Google threatens to limit our access to information and enclose us in a self-reinforcing world view, writes Eli Pariser in an extract from The Filter Bubble.???

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1. ??????you’re the only person in your bubble. In an age when shared information is the bedrock of shared experience, the filter bubble is a centrifugal force, pulling us apart.???

Live events can help overcome this, for they bring us together and provide opportunities for discussion, dispute and agreement??? but at least all attendees are in the same space and contribute to the debate. This could be a cultural performance, a corporate conference, community festival or collaborative happening. Each person???s contribution will necessarily vary, whether delineated along the lines of performer/audience, or something more akin to the Belbin test. Whatever the form of event, whatever your contribution, the in-person event is one which individuals can experience unmediated by the cookies on their browser and the constraints of their social networking site of choice.

2. ??????the filter bubble is invisible. ???Because you haven’t chosen the criteria by which sites filter information in and out, it’s easy to imagine that the information that comes through a filter bubble is unbiased, objective, true. But it’s not. In fact, from within the bubble, it’s nearly impossible to see how biased it is.???

The bubble shapes the environment in which we navigate the web and on which we make our choices: forms of entertainment, consumption choices and political opinions. It would disingenuous of me to propose that live events overcome this when so many are openly predicated on achieving those same goals: the Virgin-sponsored music festival; the slick Apple product launch; political rallies demanding revolution. Then there are the events which belie their deeper meanings and wider implications: witness the London Olympics and the work behind #media2012 to explore that festival in all its guises.

My scratch (naive?) argument here is that these events are generally less surreptitious in their attempts to shape the audience/consumer experiences. The savvy consumer buys into a festival or event knowing that the producer is trying to elicit a particular set of responses, many of which are perfectly agreeable to the consumer ??? else why engage in that transaction? Pariser???s argument above is based on the premise that we aren???t aware of these influences online and there???s little we can do to engage in that discussion. But with the Virgin festival we can react against excessive branding; Apple???s commercial message may or may not appeal and we can vote with our wallets. In a democratic society public funding is arguably relatively transparent in its support of particular events-based projects, with funding application forms and mission statements transmitting the values and goals of government agencies. Either way, the event attendee can target the producer and their funding partners with their questions and concerns, engaging with and interrogating the event bubble.

I tempered the paragraph above with a suggestion that the views are ultimately naive, whether through poor analysis of the information available, lack of appreciation for the deeper motivations of those guiding the events industry or in the degree to which consumers are indeed savvy in their choices. An alternative set of arguments, which reflected the altered reality of events and thus the ways we let our guards down and become open to covert messages, are equally appealing. So how should these views be reconciled: through a recognition that each event has the potential to build an exploitative bubble around its contributors, but that not all do? Perhaps, but then maybe each event is in fact part of a much grander project that few of its stakeholders are aware of.

3. ??????you don’t choose to enter the bubble.???

Pariser???s third argument is that in many instances the filters we view life through are actively chosen by us, ???you can guess how the editors’ leaning shapes your perception. You don’t make the same kind of choice with personalised filters. They come to you??????. The majority of events and festivals need some of this buy-in from audiences and contributors, hence an engagement with the objectives of the event and a choice about whether or not to engage: to buy the ticket, to sign up to the workshop, to march with the protestors. Very few events demand our attention as free agents: an employer may require ones presence at a training event, but a gig in a local club can pass us by unnoticed. The exceptions include events which visit us, landing in our neighbourhood and imposing themselves on our route to work and perhaps breeching the peace of a good night???s sleep. They also include revolutions and large scale happenings which capture the media???s attention (both traditional and ???new???): choosing to ignore half a year of protest and violence in north Africa and the Middle East, or a Royal Wedding, isn???t easy to do regardless of one???s engagement with society at large. The extent that an event is a bubble, shaping the information that reaches us, is one which we ??? generally ??? choose to enter.

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But why put forward these arguments here: after all, Pariser isn???t arguing about what it???s like to go to a concert or an agricultural show. It???s several months since Rohan of the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab put forward arguments on why the Edinburgh festivals are like the web, a theme he later explored at South by Southwest I believe. In a similar vein a comparative piece on the issues identified with modern web culture, placed alongside the experience of attending festivals and events, can help identify areas where they can enhance each other and the value users derive from engaging with either. The value to event producers of this approach is that potential concerns or opportunities can be identified and managed ??? the extent to which visitors feel exploited, or the authenticity of event is questioned, perhaps.

Pariser is encouraging us to question the honesty of the web, both in terms of the companies we engage with online and the degree to which the search results we view are ???true??? or limited thanks to our web history. Can some of this mistrust be overcome by in-person meetings? He draws on Putnam???s Bowling Alone for an analogy of where ???every
body expected??? the internet to take us: to the town hall meetings that Putnam felt were important in generating the ???bridging capital??? which binds a disparate society together. Instead we are shepherding in as much ???bonding capital??? as will squeeze into an online session: we associate with folks like us and to a larger extent than before, not so much destroying the disparate and complicated public space as neglecting it to wither away. We fail to engage and therefore we and our society are diminished as a result.

Pariser???s closing paragraph:
If “code is law”, as Creative Commons founder Larry Lessig declared, it’s important to understand what the new lawmakers are trying to do. We need to understand what the programmers at Google and Facebook believe in. We need to understand the economic and social forces that are driving personalisation, some of which are inevitable and some of which are not. And we need to understand what all this means for our politics, our culture and our future.

The internet and live events bring people together as a result of similar forces, arguably fostering the forms of capital discussed here and suffering the same limitations in terms of engagement with the public sphere. To what extent does our modern culture, which champions social media and social gatherings, reinforce our predilection for bonding capital at the expense of the more nourishing bridging capital which can bring powerful benefits to the individual and society? What are the implications of this for event producers, policy makers, marketers, the third sector and socially connected individuals like you and me in the network city?

Participation, engagement, identity and employment.

The module system that underpins Edinburgh Napier’s courses has strengths and weaknesses: it facilitates the breadth of topics our students cover and enables us to develop a range of single and joint honours programmes; but it also fragments the university experience for any given cohort as they bounce from one module to the next. The following post, coming as it does between the exam boards and graduation ceremonies which habitually round off the teaching year, puts forward some ideas to try and develop the current situation.

  • Increase student participation in the management of the programme.
    • Students have a vested interest in the effective management of their programme, but the systems in place to enable this don’t always prove particularly effective: poorly attended Boards of Studies for example. Opening up opportunities for more meaningful dialogue could well spur new ideas and innovations, as well as recognising that in many way the people who know the most about the modular degrees we provide are the students who follow.
    • Some potential ideas for development:
      • Giving greater recognition to the student reps from the beginning of the year: a meal for all Festival and Event Management reps perhaps, attended by a few tutors and funded by the School.
      • Provision of an online space for ongoing, sustainable discussion: Facebook, Posterous or Moodle based perhaps, depending on what makes most sense to the reps. Topics covered here can then be fed into the more formal Board of Studies.
      • Putting the online discussion to further use, it would provide a forum for staff keen to test new ideas and gauge student opinion.
      • Models of good practice may well be identified through this process, whether from within Edinburgh Napier or from other institutions – a form of ‘this worked well in my friend’s programme’ perhaps.

  • Better class attendance and engagement from students.
    • I fully appreciate that face-to-face contact is not the only way students engage with their courses, whether or not a given module is designed to be ‘consumed’ in that fashion. Some students do well in their summative assessments on the back of very poor attendance – perhaps a reflection of the lack of ‘added value’ the tutor brings to the classroom, yet also a signal that their regular contribution in class would have been very welcome. Attendance reflects engagement and it facilitates communication between tutor and student(s), which in turn means the module can be explained  to the student and tailored to their particular interests, especially in the upper years. I don’t have evidence to say whether offline contact between students begets online communication (or vice versa), but my hunch is that they feed off each other. (Hence my PhD interest.)
    • Some ideas:
      • Clear enunciation from the start of the year (especially at the start of university life) that the different elements of the student’s course fit together: a holistic view which lends each weekly topic a little more value on account of its place in the bigger picture.
      • More accessible online tools as part of the LTA experience, which in our case might have to wait until the successor to WebCT has become the norm. Smaller projects might be able to work with a more eclectic mix of social media, but for most module-based contact the standard platform rules. These contributions to then form a part of the classroom-based discussions around particular topics; this could prove very useful if the topic spans two or more weeks or is particularly topical at that time.
      • It needn’t be difficult to integrate a small amount of summative assessment into the mix: online participation as a prerequisite of coursework submission.

  • A stronger programme identity.
    • The modular system was cited above as a guilty party in the diminution of a stronger programme identity, by dint of the range of modules students study, often sitting next to colleagues from a wide range of other subjects. The ‘Festival and Event Management’ cohort (c60-90 students per year) is therefore rarely seen in isolation, more likely to be found among other flavours of Edinburgh Napier student. Is this important? …I would argue that it is important: clearer recognition of who’s studying the same course as you has important psychological benefits; the practical advantages that could come from better networks and connections could change people’s careers, particularly if they extend to recent graduates looking to recruit staff and be recruited.
    • Ways to try and bring this about:
      • Consult the student reps: do they perceive a problem, what could help overcome it?
      • Establish a social media base for past, present and future students to pledge their allegiance to the course – Facebook would probably be the easiest to work with thanks to widespread existing familiarity, although LinkedIn might appeal more for those with professional/career priorities. Programme leaders and other academic staff could provide a beacon for those looking to re-engage with their alma mater.
      • The graduation ball is due to make a reappearance in June 2011. Marketing was left relatively late in the term, but encouraging earlier involvement could make this year the first of many. (Possibly run by 3rd year students, if there’s a profit to be had.)

  • Establishing more meaningful connections between students’ employment and their studies.
    • While it’s true that modules exist within the university (delivered by my School) that do a great job of providing academic rewards for students’ part-time work, these aren’t taken by the majority of students. To my mind they’re only a starting point as well: they’re not embedded in the programme but could be said to isolate the issue. That’s not the fault of the module or it’s teaching team of course, but rather a challenge to those working on other parts of the programme to better reflect the students’ employment and make the most of the experiences they’re building up outside the classroom. Class discussions are a start, where students will readily draw on their own experiences, but could more be done?
    • How about…
      • An annual audit: who’s working in which area of the festival/event industry; what experiences, contacts and opportunities can they bring to the classroom; what ambitions do they have for their careers and what do they want to get out of the course?
      • Best practice seminars: a monthly chance for students to sit in a room, with their lunch and some School-funded coffee perhaps, and discuss their current projects. This could be very simple, and student-led, but if it helps reinforce the idea that university is a place that can offer assistance, ideas, support and contacts that’s all to the good. In an ideal world any tutors who attended would be no more than equal contributors (with perhaps a little facilitating to keep things moving).

These ideas have been formulating in my mind for the past couple of months and now seems the right time to put them out for further discussion. Rather than limit this to a discussion among colleagues at Edinburgh Napier I’ve posted it up on the blog to try and catch a larger audience. If you’ve tried some of these ideas yourself, or found alternative ways to achieve the same results, please let me know.

In an age of rising tuition fees and uncertainty over the direction higher education is heading in the UK it is right that students should take a keen interest in the management and development of their courses. Regrettably the opportunities to do this aren’t always taken up: there were no
student representatives present at our final Board of Studies, with only a couple sending their apologies. Is everything perfect already? Is there a lack of faith that engaging will change anything? Are the channels of communication simply ineffective and outdated? What more can be done to promote a little participation…?

Lessons from Holland.

When I was out in Breda I did my best to use ‘the Netherlands’ when talking about the country I was in. Holland is part of the Netherlands, not all of it, yet the man on the Clapham omnibus tends to use the words interchangeably. I asked for a local view… Holland seems to be used in general, but when the Dutch are being serious (or are in trouble) they reach for Nederland.

Being a serious type I kept with the extra syllables.
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With a couple of week’s distance since the students from Breda came to Edinburgh here are four bullet pointed lessons to take from their visit and what they value in their course:

  • As a university department, full of staff and students interested in events, there’s scope to develop closer links with local venues in order to support student opportunities to put on work. A more concerted, ongoing effort to encourage student events in appropriate venues could be a great way to further integrate what we’re doing at Edinburgh Napier with successful parts of the city’s events sector.
  • Project management and event design can be built into more elements of the curriculum, providing a framework within which formative and summative assessments can be developed, monitored and built upon.
  • There’s scope for me, in particular, to promote Erasmus exchanges, particularly with NHTV Breda.
  • Structured primary research has a place in the earlier years of the course than is currently the case, in my modules at least.

I’ll return to this post when preparing for the next academic year, but for now these are more thoughts to ponder ??? more grist to the mill. To some extent it’s a matter of degrees, or perhaps a formalising of existing activity, but small steps could yield meaningful rewards.