The straight lines or the asterix: some thoughts on time, space and place

On Friday 3 July I was delighted to be a part of the panel in the second of an occasional series of webinars hosted by SEDA. Theme of the webinar was educational technology and educational development:challenges and opportunities. More information and a recording of the session is available here. Many thanks to SEDA for hosting the session, to all my fellow presenters and everyone who attended and engaged so readily and thoughfully with all of my fellow speakers.

Speakers were given 5 minutes to share their views, which is not very long. I perhaps rather foolishly said that I would look at some of the broader issues I feel that everyone, not just educational developers and learning learning technologists, need to be giving really serious consideration to right now – time, space and place. It’s hard to to do justice to those themes in 5 hours let alone 5 minutes, so below is what I hoped to say – some of it I had to cut due to time. It should take less than 5 minutes to read.

I have the pleasure of being first to speak this afternoon, so please bear with me, and indulge me as I go backwards to think about how we go forward in relation to what I feel are our most pressing challenges – time, space and place.

Now the past few months have indeed been strange times – in all aspects of our life, not just in educational development. With lockdown everyone has forced to work at home – with the rest of our families.  Our traditional spaces, places and times of work were taken away from us as quite short notice, and it’s still unclear when and how we will get back to them. In the short to medium term if, and when we do, it will be in quite different contexts and times.

Time is always an issue in educational development – there’s just never enough time to try something new, to find out how to do that thing in the VLE,  to integrate more active learning, peer assessment, whatever . . . But over the past 3 months people have had to find the time to do all sorts of things, particularly with technology that they previously never had the time for before. That has meant moving into new and not so new spaces and places that many had previously never been too.

One of the ways I have been spending my time during lockdown is listening to more radio, podcasts and radio theatre, and one of the best things I have experienced is a play called Adventures with the Painted People (by David Greig) part of a series of works called Culture in Quarantine, from the BBC.

It’s set at the time of the Roman invasion/incursion in Scotland,  and it’s set in the village of Kenmore. It is a basically a two hander between Eithne, the village witch, and a Roman official and wannabe poet,  Lucius. who Eithne has got some local lads to capture.  Eithne wants to find more about the Romans and much of the play is centred around the differences between their two cultures.

One of the things that strikes Eithne about the Romans is their apparent obsession with straight lines, she says quite early on in the play

“ the world’s not straight, it wiggles”  When I heard that, I thought that is so true – how wiggly has our world been of late?

Lucius tries to explain history to Eithne, a concept that is quite alien to her.  To explain he draws a line, a time line, marking events. In response she draws her version of time and says  “time looks like this”, to which Lucius says, equally baffled  “that’s an asterix”  and then Eithne replies

 “everything that has ever been leads inevitably to one place – here and now”

Now this little exchange really resonated with me and has stayed in my mind since I heard it. Over the lockdown my notions of time have really changed – and I know I’m not alone. March seems, not like a couple of months ago but at times like years ago. I feel like I flit from one thing to another – and the connections between space, place and time have become far more fluid.

So as we go forward we really need to give far more serious consideration to notions of time and move away from our “straight lines’’  – of the default 1 hour allocated time slots, the dominant line from 9-5. 

Now if we were Pictish witches like Eithne, we would be able to free our minds and swim through rivers or fly over mountains to do that, but as we’re not we do need to look to technology help us do that. To help us find and understand the intersections between time, space and place, but most importantly to help us focus on people on connecting and sustaining our emerging hybrid communities of learning.  

I think we don’t  want to get obsessed with tech but I think moving forward, taking some time to reflect on how, where and when our staff and students are using and moving between spaces and places, both physical and digital, is going to be really important to help us rearticulate what the student experience (and ergo the teaching experience) is evolving into.

Maybe we should start to think about how to allow for digital desire trails or elephant paths to emerge. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, (and I always think of the wonderful Kate Bowles when I talk about them as she introduced their actual name to me)  desire paths or elephant trails, are those not hand- made but foot or boot- made paths you see that cut across the formal pavements or paths around green spaces on campus or actually around any building complex with green space -even parks. Are their digital equivalents?

But the straight lines can’t be kept at bay for long. The edtech companies, the bigger powers that surround us, that fund us, they want the straight lines – they can’t cope with the wiggles. The want to give us neat, ordered straight lines – to create new narratives, to help us fix and bring about our new normal. But going back to Eithne, she says history is our stories, our songs, it is all around us, constantly evolving.

We need to be sharing our stories, singing our songs more than ever and I know that many people are researching experiences of staff  and students during lockdown we need to be sharing the data from these projects as openly as possible so we can learn together, and evolve our practice.

So let’s look to the asterix not the straight line, and find ways to share our stories, explore new desire paths that allow us and our students to move in and around  spaces and places at times that work for all of us. Let’s  focus on our communities, and finding the ways  that lead us all  to our here and now, wherever and whenever that may be.

2 thoughts on “The straight lines or the asterix: some thoughts on time, space and place

  1. I am not going to say anything very profound here Sheila but just share what I have been thinking about for months. I am thinking about the data traces we scatter without noticing ( a bit like those pesky COVID particles that are there but invisible). We bump into the data traces when we are served an advert for something we don’t like and realise an inference has been drawn beyond our ken. I am thinking about the enormity of turning around the data exhaust juggernaut but I really want to have a go. Stepping back from that, maybe we can think about an equivalent to the fresh air that helps dispel COVID aerosols for data traces. What is our data fresh air?

    1. I love that idea of fresh air – I think that’s quite profound for a Saturday morning! How can we maintain and keep fresh air, in open and closed spaces? thank you – my mind whirring now!

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