Archive for the ‘Wales Wide Web’ Category

Things and social practices

March 26th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

One of the issues which intrigues me about the Learning Layers project is the role of physical tools and objects. We are seeking to develop apps to support informal learning in the construction trade. And one of the big things about construction is that they use a lot of tools, machinery and materials – things that can be difficult to represent in a digital world. Indeed, that is one the the reasons I think elearning has been slow to take off in the workplace, despite the increasing power of mobile devices.

In past work we have tried to understand the learning and work eco-structures through the lens of activity theory. To an extent it is useful, but the bucket category of tools fails I think to represent the central role that artefacts play in work processes.

This morning I stumbled on a paper called ‘Towards a Theory of Social Practices‘ by Andreas Reckwitz. It is not an easy read, at least for me with my limited understanding of social theory. But i find his section on things interesting, particularly the idea that the objects – are the place of the social insofar as they are necessary components of social practices.

This is an excerpt from the section of the paper entitled ‘Things’:

For practice theory, objects are necessary components of many practices – just as indispensable as bodily and mental activities. Carrying out a practice very often means using particular things in a certain way. It might sound trivial to stress that in order to play football we need a ball and goals as indispensable ‘resources’. Maybe it is less trivial, meanwhile – after studies of the history of communicative media – to point out that writing, printing and electronic media ‘mould’ social (here, above all, discursive) practices, or, better, they enable and limit certain bodily and mental activities, certain knowledge and understanding as elements of practices (cf. Kittler, 1985; Gumbrecht, 1988). When particular ‘things’ are necessary elements of certain practices, then, contrary to a classical sociological argument, subject–subject relations cannot claim any priority over subject–object relations, as far as the production and reproductions of social order(liness) is concerned. The stable relation between agents (body/minds) and things within certain practices reproduces the social, as does the ‘mutually’ stable relation between several agents in other practices. Moreover, one can assume that most social practices consist of routinized relations between several agents (body/minds) and objects. At any rate, the social is also to be located in practices in which single agents deal with objects (besides, also in practices in which a single agent deals only with himself, with neither other subjects nor objects) and in this sense also the objects – television sets, houses and brownies – are the place of the social insofar as they are necessary components of social practices. There is no necessary link between the observability of social orderliness and ‘inter- subjectivity’.

How can we make work in construction trendy?

March 25th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

For some reason the construction industry is not a sexy research area. Motor cars, yes, machine tools, yes, the computer industry, yes, yes, yes. But poor old construction, boring. Yet in economic terms, construction could be seen as the most important sector in Europe.

Our initial research under the Learning Layers project reveals some interesting contradictions. The construction industry is probably the biggest victim of the present recession. Even the neo liberal UK government is now taking actions to stimulate house building – through the partial nationalisation of mortgage debts. Probably an emphasis on infrastructure projects or on social housing would have had a bigger impact and would have avoided the risk of another house price bubble. But the fact they are doing anything at all shows the problem.

But whilst the recession has badly hit profitability and employment another concern has arisen in our interviews with construction companies. Managers are severely worried about the ability to recruit new trainees and particularly to recruit the better educated apprentices they see as critical to cope with the increasing use of technology in construction. Managers point to the major issue as being the image of the industry – just as in research they consider the industry not to be sufficiently sexy. They are less likely to discuss issues such as wages, opportunities for progression or just the sheer hard physical work involved in many construction trades. Having said that, reality may be very different from practice in other images which have a positive image. Work in the games industry can be hard, poorly paid and boring. And for every kid who makes a fortune out of a mobile app, thousands make no money at all.

Either way they are right in that there will almost certainly be demand for new skills to deal with technology – both in the uses of technology for construction but perhaps more important the changing materials being used in building today, not least due to ecologiocal and energy saving concerns and legislation. Whilst improving initial education training programmes is one response and attempting to improve the image of the industry, the big challenge may be to improve research and development and to develop more continuous training for existing employees. In this short extract form previous research, below, we provide an overview of the industry in Europe and Germany, together with issues in how training – or informal learning – might be improved.

The total turnover of the construction industry in 2010 (EU27) was 1186 billion Euros forming 9,7% of the GDP in 2010 (EU27). The construction industry is the biggest industrial employer in Europe with 13,9 million operatives making up 6,6% of the total employment in EU27. In addition it has a substantial influence on other industries represented by a multiplier effect. According to a study by the European Commission, 1 person working in the construction industry is responsible for 2 further persons working in other sectors. Therefore, it is estimated that 41,7 million workers in the EU depend, directly or indirectly, on the construction sector. Out of the 3,1 million enterprises 95% are SMEs with fewer than 20 and 93% with fewer than 10 operatives.   The level of investment in R&D in the European construction sector is low compared to other sectors. The construction sector only invests a small portion of its total production value in research, development, and innovation.

The developments of new processes and materials provide substantial challenges for the construction industry. The traditional educational and training methods are proving to be insufficient as the rapid emergence of new skill and quality requirements (for example those related to green building techniques) require much faster involvement and action on all three levels (individual, organisational and cluster) in order to react quickly to these changes and exploit opportunities. Without this the market potential is hampered by lack of innovation skills and training gaps (Dittrich, Deitmer 2003). The increased rate of technical change introduces greater uncertainty for firms, which, in turn, demands an increased capacity for problem solving skills (Toner 2011, 7). This situation is aggravated in some fast developing European Regions because skilled craftspeople are missing. Therefore there is increasing need for rapid re- and upskilling of the building workforce across the construction cluster.

The construction industry in Germany is one of the country’s most stable economic sectors. Providing jobs to more than 2,2 million people it holds a market share of 21% making the German construction sector the largest in the EU27 in terms of production value. In Germany the federal states, enterprises and the apprentices share the costs of the dual education system (practical training in schools and on-site training). The German compensation fund for construction industry SOKA-BAU reported a total of 270 million Euros of training allowances and job training costs in 2010 making it just a little more than 0,1% of the total production value. In fact, the building trade has one of the lowest participation rates for employees towards further training provision than any other sector (TNS INFRATEST 2008). This is because much of the formal training offering is only weakly connected with real work tasks. The cost pressure in building enterprises limits chances for time-consuming training measures far away from the workplace (Schulte, Spöttl, 2009). Any mobile support for learning and informing at the work place would be welcomed by companies as well as by building workers themselves. With enterprises paying for all the costs associated with the on-the-job training, SMEs need a cost effective solution to overcome the issues that occur with the rapid development in the technologies, processes and materials.

Working, Learning and Competence

March 20th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

As part of the Learning Layers project, I am working on a paper for the ECTEL Conference taking place in Cyprus in September. In the paper I want to look at the nature of different forms of knowledge and how competence is acquired through work based learning. I am also interested in the links between learning and innovation. That got me digging into papers and ideas about innovation. And by serendipity my colleague Jenny Hughes replied to a query from another partner working on the Layers project pointing to some work we did in 2001 on a project called DISC. I can’t quite remember what DISC stands for. Anyway DISC was looking at innovation but within one particular perspective – that of the development and evaluation of the innovation potential of organisations – and that from a viewpoint heavily influenced by Human Resource Development. However, we said, in order to develop a theoretical basis and underpinning for that work it is necessary to be able to locate project ideas and development within the wider framework of innovation theory. In other words in order to understand the work DISC is undertaking it is necessary to review the wider range of literature and project development at a national and European level.

There is some good stuff in that literature review (which I don’t think was ever published and I’ll post a few excerpts over the next few days. If you want a full copy just email me. The first excerpt is on Working, Learning and Innovation. I think I still agree with it. The most interesting point I think, is that whilst Communities of Practice have been criticised as inherently conservative bodies we say just the opposite: that they avoid the ossifying tendencies of large organisations.

“In a paper entitled “Organisational learning and communities of practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning, and innovation”, Duguid and Brown (1991) explore in some depth the relationship between communities of practice and innovation.

Working, learning and innovating are closely related forms of human activity that are conventionally thought to conflict with each other. Work practice is generally viewed as conservative and resistant to change: learning is generally viewed as distinct from working and problematic in the face of change; and innovation is generally viewed as the disruptive but necessary imposition of change on the other two. To see that working, learning and innovation are interrelated and compatible and thus potentially complementary requires a distinct conceptual shift.

Within society, formal descriptions of work and learning are abstracted from practice and education, training and technology design generally focus on abstract representations to the detriment of actual practices. Without a clear understanding of the details of actual practice, the practice itself cannot be understood or engendered through training or enhanced through innovation.

This is seen in studies of the variance between organisation’s formal descriptions of work through training programmes and manuals and the actual work practices performed by its members. Reliance on espoused practice can blind an organisation’s core to the actual – and usually valuable practices of its members (including non canonical practices). It is the actual practices, however, that determine the success or failure of organisations.

This is congruent with Lave and Wenger’s practice based theory of learning as “legitimate peripheral participation” in “communities of practice”. Much conventional learning theory, including that implicit in most training courses, tends to endorse the valuation of abstract knowledge over actual practice and, as a result to separate learning from working and, more significantly, learners from workers. The work of Lave and Wenger, and the empirical investigations of the practices of photocopying technicians undertaken by Orr, indicate that this knowledge-practice separation is unsound, both in theory and in practice. Learning takes place in practice through narration, collaboration and social construction. Communities of work and learning are often non-canonical and not recognised by organisations. Significantly, communities are emergent. Their shape and membership emerges in the process of activity as, as opposed to being creating to carry out a task. Therefore the central task in promoting innovation is not the design or creation of groups but more the detection and support of emergent or existing communities. The recognition of and legitimation of community practices is central to the process of learning in communities. This involves issues of legitimacy and peripherality which are intertwined in a complex way. If either is denied then learning will be significantly more difficult.

The composite concept of “learning in working” best represents the fluid evolution of learning through practice. From this practice-based standpoint, learning is the bridge between working and innovating. The periphery is an important site for learning and for innovation.

Small self-constituting communities evade the ossifying tendencies of large organisations. Communities of practice are constantly changing both as newcomers replace old timers and as the demands of practice force the community to revise its relationship to its environment. Communities of practice develop a rich, fluid, non-canonical world view to bridge the gap between their organisations static canonical view and the challenge of changing practice. This process of development in inherently innovative “maverick” communities of this sort allow organisations means and models to examine alternative views of activity, to experiment based on practice and to step outside their limited core world view and try something new.”

Involving users and scaling up applications for learning

March 18th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

I am spending a lot of time working on the Learning Layers project at the moment. There are two interlinked areas on which I have been thinking. The first is design processes – more particularly how we can develop a user centred or co-design process. And the second is how we can scale the uptake of applications and approaches to learning with technology to significant numbers of users.

the two are interlinked, I think, because if we involve users in every part of the design process, we have a reasonable chance of developing software which is relevant to users. However, having said that, we are realising that different users have very different interests. We are working in two main sectors – or industrial clusters – in the construction sector and in the health sector. Motivations and restrains on the use of technologies for learning vary greatly between the two sectors. In the construction sector there seems a general desire to use technology both to improve the image of the sector – and thus attract new trainees – and to update and improve the quality of both initial and continuing learning. In the medical sector, there is probably more concern on how to update learning and knowledge in a situation where time and opportunity for formal learning is very limited. But interestingly, attitudes towards technology also varies greatly between individuals, even in the same workplace.

The original EU specification for the project is that we focus on sectors where the take up of technology for learning has been limited and is lagging behind. This may be a misconception. In truth in both sectors we are finding plenty of examples of learning practice using technology. But we are also finding many examples where there is little use of technology and even where access to social networks or the use of mobile devices is banned. I suspect that we would find a similar pattern in other sectors. So challenge number one is how we involve workers in the codesign process. Should we focus on those who are enthusiastic – as early adapters – or should we try to involve those more sceptical about the potential of technology to support learning in the workplace?

Challenge number two is around the target to upscale to involve significant numbers of users. Although the project is targeted at workers in Small and Medium Enterprises, and we have a number fo these involved as partners in the project, it is clear that we will have to involve industry organisations in the upscaling. the original application was based on the idea of industrial clusters. There is a great deal of research on such clusters, which I will talk about more in a future article. Enough to say, that we are encountering different forms of organisations which bring together different SMEs. These include industrial clusters, usually around innovation such as the use of green technology in construction. But they may also include different networks and communities of practice which may be more or less fomalised. For instance, in Bremen the Electro Innung brings together over 120 SMEs in the electrical sector of the construction trade. It forms part of the structure of craft chambers through which craft trade companies in Germany are organised. And Communities of Practice can cut across more traditional organisations.

At the moment we are working on a User Engagement plan and looking at the potential interests of different stakeholders in the Learning layers project. The intention is that once we have such a plan we can work out a strategy for interacting with these organisations and for taking forward the user centred design process.

Interestingly Google searches on user engagement produce little of interest, mainly being driven by the concerns of social software companies to gain and retain more users. Hover changing the search string to stakeholder engagement yields far richer results. There seems a valuable tradition of research and development by economic and social development organisations and aid organisations seeking to consult with and involve users in various projects. In particular the Stakeholder Engagement toolkit (from which the diagramme above is taken), produced by the European funded REVIT project, provides a wealth of practical ideas.

I would welcome any feedback and ideas readers have found useful around both user centred design and user engagement.

Where we work and how we collaborate

March 14th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

This is the first of a new mini series of articles on the impact of technologies on how we work. I started thinking about it after Yahoo announced they were ending the practice of employees being able to work from home. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together.” Mayer has said the change in policy was necessary to foster more collaboration among employees and restore Yahoo’s competitiveness. A number of other companies have since followed suit.

I think Yahoo has got it completely wrong. When I first started work, working from home was virtually unknown, except for consultants or university researchers. The first signs of things changing came with the invention of telecottages, enabling internet access at a time when connectivity was slow, expensive and tenuous. With the availability of cheap and reliable bandwidth and apps, home working took off rapidly. I might be wrong, but my suspicion is that not only did organisations save on infrastructure costs – imagine what would happen if every university employee turned up on the same day, but with the blurring between home life and the word of work, many employees actually worked longer hours. Years ago Saturday and Sunday working or working in the evening incurred time and a half or double pay, that has long since gone.

In many occupations, work is changing rapidly especially because of the use of video, conferencing and networking applications. This includes not only research but occupations in sectors like construction. But coming back to the Yahoo decision the point is not whether people are at home or at work but how they are working. I used to work physically in a university but would rarely see others, individuals spent all day locked away ion their offices with closed doors. Equally, I now work from home and probably spend much too much of my time discussing with others on skype or in conference calls.

Developing collaboration, quality and innovation depend on work organisation. Technology is disrupting work organisation, both allowing new ways of working and challenging how we are used to doing things. This requires far more subtle interventions that just requiring employees to clock on at a set time in a set place each day. And to a considerable extent we are all still struggling to realise the most effective forms of collaboration. Research is lagging behind practice. So Yahoo needs to look at the process of collaboration within their organisation and the culture of the organisation. Maybe they are doing this but it doesn’t appear to be from their press releases. Rather than focus on where people work, they need to look at how the work is organised including how learning takes place at both a individual and organisational level. This is much harder but much more effective in the long term.

 

Wearable computers – the future of workbased learning?

March 8th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

Pivotheads

 

I have spent most of the week in Helsinki at a Learning Layers project Design Workshop (Pekka has blogged on the results on this site – I will add something about the process over the weekend)

But just for now, a side comment. At the workshop there was one stand showing off computer enabled glasses. They were not as cool looking as Google Glass (see picture above), but are available now. And a quick play suggest  to me these could revolutionise the use of technology for vocational education and training. These glasses just enabled you to video what is in front of you. And I see huge potential for quickly making all kinds of videos to show people how to do things. OK, you can do this now using a camera but the immediacy of being able to look at something, undertake a task and explain it at the same time is brilliant.

These glasses didn’t do much else. But of course Google Glass, and other products some of which are on sale now, allow you to see an internet stream at the same time. This unlock huge potential for augmented reality in many different work settings. A number fo years ago there was a project in Bremen with Airbus developing an augmented reality app to help electronic engineers who do the wiring for the Airbus. If I remember rightly it would show them an abstract of the wiring plans overlaid against the physical  working situation. As far as I know it is still being used. But the problem was that it was incredibly expensive to develop the hardware and software.

Google Glass, and other similar products will reduce these kind of approaches to a fraction of the cost. Already the use of smartphones is bringing Technology Enhanced Learning into the workplace and the working process. The new wearable technologies will accelerate this process and in my view could both blend working and learning and lead to an increased use of work base4d learning, rather than training in classrooms and workshops.

However, there are obviously going to be many issues. Already some workplaces ban the use of cameras. But with wearable computing it is going to be very difficult to see who is using these devices. So I suspect, at least at first, the reaction of many employers will be to ban them. This may well slow down their adoption and use for work based learning.

 

 

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