Curating learning lives: from personal data to learning resources

Have you ever wondered what to do with those millions of digital photographs you have saved on your computer but rarely share with anyone?  Or considered the data that institutions such as your doctor’s surgery, old school or last employer might hold about you?  What about those CCTV cameras that ‘track’ you as you walk to work and the data that you create about yourself as you interact with social media platforms?

Learning to dance the cha cha cha: recording of a live event

Keri Facer (Bristol University) and I have recently completed a piece of research, with Howard Baker at BBC Learning, exploring how the increasing amount of personal data gathered by individuals, institutions and by ‘intelligent’ environments might be used to support emancipatory learning.

We wanted to find out more about whether the possibility of capturing, mining, representing and reflecting on personal data might be a new means of making individuals’ (learning) experiences visible to themselves and others? How might we use data to tell new tales and make visible different accounts of our experiences across the lifecourse?

Through a series of workshops and in depth case studies with a wide range of people of different ages and cultures we found out about the (learning/ life) experiences that were important to them, the prompts for their experiences and the learning resources they drew on.  In addition, because we were interested in personal data, we asked our case study participants about current strategies for recording their lives and to collect data about their experiences over a period of a week using an ipod touch. We wanted to find out more about how the data that they were collecting might support reflection and recollection.

We observed four broad prompts for learning: personal events, practicalities, participation and pleasures.  Participants drew on 5 key types of learning resources; cultural, people, commercial, embodied and reflective.  Through asking about strategies for recording life experiences we found that all cultural artifacts can be used as a basis for reconstructing experience, that anything can ‘stand for’ anything else for recollection (proxies) and that such a ‘material’ proxy can evoke the immaterial (a sensory experience/ feelings and/or emotions).

A  collection  of  snowdomes:  telling  tales  about  a  learning life

We identified 3 ways in which participants used the artifacts, records and souvenirs that they gathered:

  • Collecting – collecting personal data, artefacts and records of past activities, combining with other resources
  • Telling Tales – ‘curating’ personal data, and records of past activities, and using it to share perspectives on ourselves
  • Audit and Reflection  – uncovering hidden patterns, telling new tales

The research emphasised the need for us all to consider the pressing need to guarantee our rights to view and use the personal data that is being gathered about us, and that this data has the potential to be profoundly educational.

We’d love to hear from other researchers interested in similar questions, and please do download the report to the BBC here.

Helen Manchester

7 thoughts on “Curating learning lives: from personal data to learning resources

    • Thanks Sandra – it was good to see you in Cadiz! I agree with you that one of the really interesting aspects of this work was the methods. In particular asking people to use ipods to record thier experiences made me think a lot about how we could use this kind of data to reflect on our own learning and life experiences and perhaps to help others to do the same.

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  2. This is great to read. Thanks Helen and Keri. I’ve been obsessing about a similar notion for the last few years – Curatorship as a new literacy practice. It was based on some work I did with autobiographical video by groups of primary school children. I also turned some of that into a manifesto for some kind of version of media education which takes account of this (see ) at the time I wrote that “I am not simply talking about archiving, though this is a subset of the skills which go into the new curatorship. Neither is this simply about arranging and presenting the texts in a pleasing way. Fundamentally, it is about knowing how the reflexive project of the self with its anchored and transient identities gets made and unmade over time in the various spaces online and how we live…” I think you do this in your work and it’s very exciting the way you are thinking about applying it to learning lives…

    • Thanks for this John – your work really chimes with our findings from this project and some of the ideas we’ve been thinking about. I like your notion of ‘curatorship as a new literacy practice’. We concluded that this should be a vital concern for educators and indidivuals in the context of personal data explosion, where data is increasingly being captured about the person from institutional, ambient and intentional data sources.
      There are many questions here that we find interesting including questions your manifesto starts to address such as: How do we use material resources to capture the immaterial? (Rowsell, 2012) Are there literacy issues here – what does ‘literate;’ look like, sound like, feel like?
      Is narrative always important? Or will new forms of navigation like modelling become commonplace? Who should educational researchers be talking to about this?
      And then a whole gamut of ethical questions such as how do we gain access to our own personal data? Who owns the material objects that we create to make sense of ourselves/ our learning?

      Thanks again John and hope we can get together soon to talk this through some more.

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