The role of digital media in sustaining epistemic engagement and belonging in higher education

Dr. Sue Timmis (University of Bristol) presented at the ESRI seminar “The role of digital media in sustaining epistemic engagement and belonging in higher education”. The talk focused on some incredibly timely issues relating to students engaging with learning and universities, academics and academia through technology but also the various day-to-day activities of studying at a university from the stresses of medical student, not having any meaningful relationships with academics, to spending one and a half hours trying to get something photocopied. As universities are increasingly positioned in a battle for students (read) these issues are becoming a matter of survival for higher education institutions.

The relationship between the student and institution has been conceptualised in terms of student experience but Sue explained that this is currently being usurped by a focus on engagement.  There are multiple ways of defining “engagement”.  Rather than using a normative definition, Dr. Timmis explained that she prefers relational definitions of engagement that go beyond a focus on activities and instead illuminate the relationships between students and the academic domain and discourses.  Ludvigsen (2012), for example, defines engagement in terms of the core aim of education to foster participation in specialised discourses.  Furthermore, engagement is a cognate issue to retention and belonging.  Sue described research that asserts the importance of a ‘culture of belonging’ with students developing supportive peer relationships and meaningful interaction with academics.

Technology has been positioned at the interface between the student and academic community, as a way of encouraging or mediating engagement.  Sue explained that previous approaches to understanding the potential of technology in such a role has been subject to either technological determinism or social constructivism, rather than engaging with the technology in a relational way that considers embodiment, action and usability.

The talk highlighted a series of potentially very serious problems building in higher education.  There has been a shift to mass-higher education systems, with increased student-teacher ratios and reduced contact hours in addition to the heavy debt burdens that students are required to accept for access to university exacerbated by the prospects of a reduction in the graduate premium in future earnings.  Technological innovation in this context presents the possibility of free, online courses for the masses and technologically-enhanced learning in elite universities for the few (read this).

Sue described a project that she is developing that will seek to develop a culture of attachment through digital media and new learner interactions. Reflecting on some of her earlier research projects e-SIGs and Tel-Me it seems that the most important factors will be students off-line relationships with peers and staff in addition to the learning environments they find themselves in. Rather than focusing on digital media as a plaster on existing problems in higher education, this raises significant questions beyond how the technology works, such as what is education for and how do universities re-design the context to improve student engagement, retention and belonging.

James Duggan

School-led partnerships setting the benchmark for high quality teacher training. Seriously?

Ofsted’s latest press release about initial teacher training is ‘misleading, inaccurate and inappropriately political’. Not my words, but the words of James Noble-Rogers, head of UCET, in a letter yesterday to Sir Michael Wilshaw. Apart from the numerous inaccuracies in the press release, Noble-Roger’s main charge is that:

The OFSTED inspection regime is now open to the charge that, far from reporting candidly and with impunity on the state of provision, it is concerned to seek to justify government policy on ITT. There must now remain a suspicion that OFSTED ratings are a reflection of bias against university involvement in ITT. 

This is a very sorry state of affair which, unfortunately, was entirely predictable. Whilst the HEI sector has worked tirelessly with schools to create partnerships where high quality teacher education can flourish, those very same schools and other organisations such as Teach First have benefited from ideological and political reforms which, in my view, are clearly unsustainable in the longer term.

Whilst anyone with a dose of common sense knows that Wilshaw is just Gove’s puppet, there is a significant risk of irreversible damage being done to the mainstay of our initial teacher education provision in the UK, i.e. our higher education institutions. Whilst I’m well aware that I am open to criticism of individual bias (being employed by one of these institutions), I can honestly say that this is not a concern driven by personal considerations.

Over the last 12 years I have worked with HEI (my own and others as an external examiner), GTP and SCITT groups. I have also had very close friends and colleagues work alongside Teach First (never a pleasant experience apparently and one best avoided, but that’s another story). Clearly, there are dedicated professionals working for the best of their students in every ITT context. However, the political bias in favour of SCITTs and Teach First is beyond a joke. Anyone with a genuine concern for the future of our teacher education programmes in the UK should stand up and speak up against Ofsted and this Government’s misleading and ill-informed propaganda about what works, and doesn’t work, in terms of quality initial teacher education.

The headteachers of schools who pander to Gove and support these politically driven reforms should take a serious look at themselves. Short term political favour and financial advantage will get them so far; but the longer term potential damage to them and their schools as these reforms are seen for what they are (unviable in terms of scale, unsustainable in terms of financial resource, and will result in poorer quality teachers) will come back to haunt them, and their schools, for years to come.

The leaders of our HEI ITT programmes should also get a grip on reality. Dancing to Ofsted’s tune is a dangerous strategy. A more robust response is needed by the sector as a whole. Gove and his SPAD attack buddies, Wilshaw, Wigdortz and others who are seeking to capitalise on the creation of ‘free’ market for ITT (or, in the case of Teach First, a ‘free’ market subsidised by millions of Government development funds), will not go away. By 2015 the damage will have been done and I’m doubtful that any future Government will reverse the damaging policies that are being inflicted on the sector right now.

These are sad times for those working within initial teacher education in the UK. Quality programmes are closing across the country, organisations that have worked in partnership for years are being turned against each other, individual academics are frightened to speak out about the truth because they are worried about their own and their colleagues’ jobs, and what counts as ‘quality’ has been turned on its head. The ‘nasty party’ has returned and is spreading its nastiness across the sector in bucket-loads.

By way of a footnote, a FOI request has been made to Ofsted and the DfE regarding the communications around this press release between these organisations. A copy of UCET’s letter to Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary at the DfE is available here. I hope a response is forthcoming but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Gove’s DfE doesn’t have a great record in this respect.

This blog was previously posted on Jonathan’s blog.

Prof. Harry Torrance responds to Michael Gove

It’s déjà vu all over again…

Michael Gove’s hysterical response (read here) to the recent letter published by a group of academics criticising the revised National Curriculum suggests that it’s a lot easier to rattle the cage of powerful politicians than might be realised.

Obviously all is not well in government. Our ‘impact’ narrative is writing itself on an almost daily basis at present. That reasoned criticism, from 100 academics representing a very wide range of views and empirical research on teaching, learning and the curriculum over many years, should be so instantly dismissed as ‘marxist’ is quite extraordinary. It’s also rather quaint and faintly reassuring to find out that ‘reds under the bed’ is still thought to sell newspapers.  Amazingly, the Tories seem to have forgotten their own history in this area.  They’ve been attacking ‘marxists’ in education, and indeed the social sciences more generally, for more than 30 years.  Successive reforms of the Social Science Research Council (remember that?), teacher training (‘recent relevant experience’, remember that?), the National Curriculum and Assessment system, etc. seem not to have vanquished this terrible menace.  Either the Tories are incredibly incompetent, or the marxists are incredibly resilient, or both? Or perhaps the marxists never existed in the way depicted in the first place – though the trope lives on – if it’s critical of conservative policy it must be marxist…

Plus ca change…


“the SSRC’s research programme on transmitted deprivation (1974–82) …it has been argued that it was the disappointment of Sir Keith Joseph with the research programme that fuelled his contempt for social science and his attempt, as Secretary of State for Education and Science, to abolish the Research Council.” (Welshman 2009).

“Following the election of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 general election, the Government expressed reservations about the value of research in the social sciences, and the extent to which it should be publicly funded. In 1981, the Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph asked Lord Rothschild to lead a review into the future of the SSRC. It was ultimately decided…that the Council should remain, but that its remit should be expanded…to include more ’empirical’ research and research of ‘more public concern’. To reflect this, in 1983 the SSRC was renamed the Economic and Social Research Council” (Wikipedia).

And the Open University tells its own story:

“In 1984, after being told that a social science course showed a Marxist bias and offered a critique of monetarism, the Secretary of State for Education, Keith Joseph read ‘all the relevant teaching materials’. .. Interviewed in 1995…Anastasios Christodoulou, the University Secretary, 1968-1980, recalled that Keith Joseph ‘didn’t like the OU at all ─ it was politically motivated, ideologically unsound and its standards suspect ─ and I’m almost quoting.’…In the 1990s the Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips expressed her concerns about bias. She described Open University course books for a post-graduate teaching qualification as: ‘not so much educational texts as ideological tracts

Harry Torrance

Play and Responsibility: Parenting in Denmark – Dr. Hanne Knudsen

Dr. Hanne Knudsen’s (Aarhus University, Denmark) talk ‘Playful hyper responsibility: Deconstructing parental responsibility’ described how parents are being encouraged to take on new obligations through playing of games with other parents.

Hanne described a series of historical shifts in how parental responsibility in Denmark was approached by the state.  From 1814 onwards responsibility was framed in terms of rules such as send children to school unless they are ill.  Then in the 1950’s expert advise and demands became more prominent, describing what parents ought to do, such as helping children with their homework. It was recognised, around the turn of the century, that the amount of advice offered was too great and so the emphasis was on encouraging parents to reflect and imagine how they could take responsibility to better take care of their child. profilephoto

The Responsibility Game is an example of how schools are encouraging parents to reflexively engage with being more responsible parents.  Parents play the board game in groups on parent’s evening.  They are given 30 sentences (e.g., Who is responsible for ensuring the child learns to lose a game with good grace?) and they have to decide where the responsibility lies between school, mutual, or home. Then the parents are asked to decide how these responsibilities will be met (e.g., Telling grandmothers not to lose games on purpose). Finally, the parents sign up to performing these responsibilities.

The key focus was what is going on in this situation where parents are made to play a game and in doing so in front of peers determine they will be more responsible, and effectively better parents in the future?

To answer this question, Hanne drew on Derrida’s (1996) notion of ‘classical’ personal responsibility as described in ‘The Gift of Death’, which identifies two forms of responsibility:  general responsibility (e.g., You respond to general obligations, rules, ethics, duties. You can account for your actions) and absolute responsibility (e.g., You do what you think is right. You stand alone, You do not respond to anyone, do not account for anything).  In Hanne’s analysis, there is always a conflict between absolute and general responsibilities, quoting Derrida,

“The ethical therefore ends up making us irresponsible. It is a temptation, a tendency, or a facility that would sometimes have to be refused in the name of responsibility that doesn’t keep account or give account, neither to man, to humans, to society, to one’s fellows, or to one’s own. Such a responsibility keeps it secret; it cannot and need not present itself” (Derrida 1992: 62).

The game attempts to align the parent’s absolute responsibilities with the child’s best interests but this creates tensions with existing general responsibilities and this leaves the parent unable to meet all their responsibilities and so either more or less responsible.


In practice it is likely that parents will agree to do something (e.g., read to their child more) but not actually do so. Thus as older forms of ethics are superseded by new ethics of play, this scenario in which parents are meant to become more responsible by agreeing in public to be better parents may lead to parents agreeing in public but break, have no intention of keeping, or fail to live up to these brief and public visions of their better selves.

James Duggan

Gove will bury pupils in facts and rules

A number of academics from ESRI were signatories to letter to Michael Gove published in the Independent on Wednesday 20th March so we are reposting it here.

Gove will bury pupils in facts and rules

We are writing to warn of the dangers posed by Michael Gove’s new National Curriculum which could severely erode educational standards. The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

The new curriculum is extremely narrow. The mountains of detail for English, maths and science leave little space for other learning. Speaking and listening, drama and modern media have almost disappeared from English.

This curriculum betrays a serious distrust of teachers, in its amount of detailed instructions, and the Education Secretary has repeatedly ignored expert advice. Whatever the intention, the proposed curriculum for England will result in a “dumbing down” of teaching and learning.

We believe our concerns are widely shared. A recent CBI report argued that “we need to end the culture of micro-management”, and (citing the Cambridge Primary Review) that “memorisation and recall are being valued over understanding and inquiry”. Further, “we have a conveyor-belt education system that tolerates a long tail of low performance and fails to stretch the able”. The new curriculum will only make things worse.

Mr Gove has clearly misunderstood England’s decline in Pisa international tests. Schools in high-achieving Finland, Massachusetts and Alberta emphasise cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity, not rote learning.

We urge parents, teachers and other stakeholders to respond to the Government consultation in its few remaining weeks, and demand a fresh start.

Signed by (from ESRI/ MMU)

Prof John Schostak

Dr Peter Hick

Prof Heather Piper

Prof Tony Brown

Geoff Bright

Dr Linda Hammersley-Fletcher

Helen Davenport

Sarah Dyke

Dr Gee Macrory

Judith Flynn

Dr Cathy Lewin

Debra Kidd

Pura Ariza

Daring to Diverge: the othering of deviant discourse

Following an earlier blog a few months ago, on the emerging story and furore around the posthumous exposure of Jimmy Savile as a serial abuser, who for decades managed to hide in full sight, this is a kind of follow up. Following extensive media coverage, a series of inquiries have been or are being conducted by/into the circumstances and organisations which (to varying degrees unwittingly) facilitated or masked his activities. Some have been rapid and self-lacerating (eg the BBC), while others appear suspiciously slow and private (eg the health service and prisons). Now we will begin to see a trickle, probably growing to a torrent, of books describing and discussing what happened and what the story supposedly tells us about our society, our culture, and the evils of paedophilia and sexual abuse.

An early tributary has just been published by Frank Furedi (read here), which is less concerned with the detail of Savile’s nefarious exploits than with the way in which our society conceives of and deals with the idea and reality of childhood risk and abuse. In a sense, the Savile case is adopted as a model upon which an argument can be usefully hung or developed: one which will hold few surprises for those who have read Furedi’s earlier work around fear, risk, and childhood. An early (and pretty hostile) review, is careless in suggesting that Furedi understands the Savile case in particular, or our approach to child abuse in general, as a moral panic. On the contrary, the distinction is made that once the terms of a moral panic have become normalised and taken for granted, achieving the status of a dominant discourse, the concept of panic is no longer adequate or applicable. Beyond this, it is not my purpose to defend Furedi’s rapid-response book in detail or in general, but to note what this review tells us about the difficulty and challenge of making any contribution to public discussion which deviates from the extremely powerful mainstream discourse around abuse and risk.

Beyond focussing less on what he (more or less clearly) says, and more on particular aspects of who and what he (more or less apparently) is, in terms which could almost themselves be construed as moral panic, Furedi is castigated for having the temerity to write about the Savile case without placing the horror of Savile’s acts, and the experience of his victims, at the very heart of the discussion. The fact that almost every other commentary has done and will do so is no excuse; there is only one way to understand and discuss these issues, there is no other legitimate priority, and anyone who diverges from the true path must expect to be dismissed and vilified, their motives called into question. Any number of unreflective and simplistic pieces will be published, based on dodgy assumptions, dubious evidence and naive arguments, in accordance with the blinkered discourse of child abuse and protection promulgated by the NSPCC and similar crusaders, but their authors will not be attacked McCarthy-style, in personal terms. When the powerful organisations which seek to control this discourse can apparently rely on independent and normally reflective and critical commentators to do their job for them and jump on transgressors, the task of conducting careful research, seeking real understanding, asking critical questions, suggesting alternative solutions, and seeking to contribute to positive practice around abuse and protection, is shown to have become extremely challenging.

Heather Piper

This was first posted on the blog for the ESRC Seminar Series on Moral Panics. To learn more about the series follow this link.

‘Aspirational’ Youth, The Craft of Interviewing, and Enforced Narratives

Interviewer: Is there anything you would like to be known for [in the future]?

Jason:   Um, no, not right now.

Our first phase of data collection is almost complete, and the team are currently working their way through pages upon pages of transcripts from 24 group interviews with year 10 and 12 pupils from six schools across England. In this post, Kim reflects on some of the emerging findings and the thornier methodological issues arising for us as a team.

In this first phase of data collection, we’ve been talking with participants about their thoughts about celebrity, focusing on the celebrities they like and don’t like and their feelings about these; their understandings of what defines a celebrity and distinctions between different types of celebrity; and how they engage with and access celebrity more generally. These group interviews were specifically designed to generate data on young people’s more general and collective understanding of ‘celebrity’ rather than young people’s personal aspirations and future plans which will form the focus of the one-to-one interviews we will be conducting this the summer.

Yet, the participants’ aspirational orientations and desires were present in these group discussions, produced and claimed through various ways and at various points albeit under the veneer of celebrity ‘banter’. In our initial work looking through the transcripts, we have been struck by the broader social and symbolic function of young people’s collective talk about celebrity: the claiming of gendered and classed positions; the performance of taste; and processes of identification with and through celebrity.  In participants’ seemingly mundane chat about the celebrities they like and those they despise, or about who deserves to be famous, this ‘celebrity talk’ enables them to say something about themselves and others. It has a performative function, providing a set of tools for young people as they construct their own (future) selves and navigate possible transitions and spaces of belonging in education, work and the wider social world.

kim-k-251x300For example, we’ve heard animated and heated discussions about which celebrities have ‘rightly’ achieved their fame through hard work, dedication, talent and a passionate commitment to their ‘craft’ (people like Bear Grylls or Jessica Ennis), and a repeated (though not always consistent) repudiation of reality TV stars, glamour models and socialites such as the Kardashians (‘What are they famous for?’).  We have also heard young people discuss other routes to fame, including critiques of nepotism in celebrity culture where ‘connections’ and money can get you success and fame regardless of talent, as more ‘talented’ individuals struggle to ever get noticed. It doesn’t take much to draw parallels between these injustices and the kinds of nepotism, cultural capital and powerful social networks that operate to police access to many top professional careers.  Discussions about whether participants would want to be famous themselves have also drawn out interesting themes around the ‘deservedness’ of fame and the difference between international renown ‘just for being famous’ and respect and recognition within local communities (such as sub-cultural music genres) for doing something that is ‘good’. In these discussions, participants draw on distinctions within celebrity culture – and broader moral debates about the rise of the ‘famous for nothing’ – to position their own future selves and ‘successes’.

In the one-to-one interviews which we will be conducting this summer, we will ask participants in more detail about their own educational experiences and ideas about who and where they want to be in the future.  We will then be looking across the data from the group interviews and individual interviews to trace the connections between young people’s talk about celebrity, and the ways in which they construct their own aspirations and imagined futures.  Such a project is rife with epistemological and ethical challenges for those interested in young people’s lives and the stories they (can) tell about themselves and their futures.

These challenges were helpfully evoked by Professor Les Back (Goldsmiths College, London), in a recent talk on ‘Dialogue, Ethics, and Authorship in the craft of ethnography’ as he spoke about his current ethnographic project on the lives of 30 young migrants, conducted with his colleague Shamser Sinha. Les talked about the kinds of techniques deployed  – or craft practiced – by him and Shamser as they sought to observe, record and ‘curate’ the complexity of young migrant lives. In particular, he discussed the challenges in attending to their lives in ways that did not reproduce the violence suffered by immigrants and asylum seekers as they are constantly made to account for themselves in immigration interviews, where survival – and permission to stay – means having to tell their stories to immigration officers in particular ways.

hanging-figure-183x300Echoing Carolyn Steedman’s work (2000) on how women and the working class have historically been made to give redemptive, confessional narratives to authorities and official figures of the state, Les warned that interviews in social science can bear the trace of the kinds of ‘rendering of self’ that are present in other spaces of surveillance, power and misrecognition. Stirring this sense if the interview as an intrusion and form of judgemet, interpellating subjects to account for themselves, Les showed us images of an evocative,  macabre sculpture by Juan Muñoz showing two human figures being suspended in the air by their tongues.

Les asked then, how his research could avoid those ‘enforced narratives’ circulating in the interview rooms of the immigration office. How, he asked, do we open up spaces for dialogue and representation within qualitative research that allow participants to tell their story outside of those bounded dominant narratives and ways of speaking? How can we open up the qualitative research project in ways which bring new textures to the story of the migrant – or in our case – contemporary youth?

Les’ talk compelled me to think about the tensions and epistemic challenges in our research, where an enquiry that is centrally and broadly about young people’s aspirations, carries the risk of demanding and eliciting similarly ‘enforced’ narratives.  As we have written about elsewhere, young people are surrounded by a discursive regime – reproduced by politicians and across popular culture – which compels them to be ‘good’ neoliberal subjects in which ‘being aspirational’ is key (Raco, 2009).  To be recognized as subjects of David Cameron’s ‘Aspiration Nation’, young people must aspire towards certain things and ways of being  (secure, professional jobs, university) and away from others (welfare dependency, unplanned motherhood, celebrity). They must produce themselves as responsible, reflexive and alwaysfuture oriented: as already knowing where they are going and how to get there.   These demands to produce and tell oneself as aspirational are part of a broader ‘autobiographical’ injunction – a technology of the self – characterizing the contemporary, where in order to be rendered ‘successful’ we must ‘have a story’.

Celebrity culture is central to reproducing these modes of self-production: the pervasiveness and power of the celebrity backstory which tells us how celebrities have, through will and sheer determination,  ‘made it against the odds’; the proliferation of the celebrity autobiography which provide ‘inspirational’ tales of becoming; and the redemptive narratives of transformation in the celebrity confessional interviews (from Lance Armstrong with Oprah to Jade Goody’s apology for her ‘racist bullying’ on Big Brother). Looking at the inter-connection between these and young people’s narratives of selves – present and future – will be fascinating.

jade210107_228x163-300x214Yet, modes of articulating or ‘telling’ the self are not equally available (Lawler 2002Skeggs 2004). They are also, as Les reminds us, informed by certain expectations and ‘demands’ rather than necessarily an ‘urge to tell’ (Byrne 2003). How then do we both interrogate these relationship between celebrity culture and the modes of self-production taken up by young people, whilst, in that interview encounter, avoid making similar demands of them? And how do we understand our role in producing that research encounter and its ‘discursive terms of engagement’ (Skeggs and Wood 2008), as participants read us – and our expectations of them – in particular ways?

Is it possible to open up the space for them to tell different stories, like Jason’s, above: of ambivalence and uncertainty about their futures? A space where being in the present rather than always accruing for and working towards the future is not simply written off as a sign of lack, failure and stagnation?  Or a space to articulate desires for belonging and being that fall outside of the frame of ‘desirable’ aspirations (such as for motherhood or fame)?

This dilemma is one of many that we, as a team, will be thinking about over the next few months as we prepare for the next stage of fieldwork.

Kim Allen

This is re-posted from the Celebrity and Youth blog which documents a research project entitled: ‘The role of celebrity in young people’s classed and gendered aspirations’. It is being carried out by Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey at Brunel University and Kim Allen at Manchester Metropolitan University between September 2012 and April 2014 and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.