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Spaces for skills:

Blending the physical and the virtual

In this blog post, CI researcher Ingi Helgason discusses some of the research and delivery hurdles faced by the CI team in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, and how they have been experimenting with innovative ways with which to overcome them.

Ingi Helgason in the E11 Studio at Edinburgh Napier

I’m writing this in the summer of 2020 as we are all trying to get used to the new normal and the Creative Informatics team is making tentative plans for the rest of the year in a context of ongoing uncertainty. During 2019, the Edinburgh Napier University partners of Creative Informatics were busy with the design and fitting out of our glamorous new research studio at Merchiston Campus. The idea behind this flexible, multi purpose space, the E11 Studio, was for it to be a base for Creative Informatics activities, offering a range of informal workshops, CI studios, meet-ups and drop in sessions. We want it be available to people working in the creative industries who would like to experiment with, and explore the potential of, digital and data-driven technologies in a friendly and supportive environment. We had exciting plans, and began hosting activities in the early weeks of 2020, making use of the newly unboxed tech such as; a big networked collaborative screen, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality headsets, audio equipment, robots designed for learning to code, boxes of Lego and a shiny new coffee machine. And then all of a sudden we had to pack up and leave.

Friday Forum – Online Events

One thing I have learned while working on Creative Informatics is how fantastic the team is at facing challenges in a positive and constructive way. Our planned programme of public Labs performance and talks events quickly morphed into a new collaboration with Visual Arts Scotland. These Friday Forum webinar events took place weekly between April and July, and each event featured contributors from a variety of creative backgrounds who showcased their work, discussed their practice and gave virtual tours around their studio spaces. Recordings of these events can be accessed here. Many of us are now getting used to these types of online events, and they do have some advantages over face to face events. They can be more inclusive, enabling many more people to participate whether because of distance – not everyone is close enough to attend events in central Edinburgh – or because of timing, other commitments and responsibilities.

The idea behind the CI Studio events however is for them to be hands-on, whether they take place in the E11 Studio, or in other venues such as the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop and The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Studio events are about learning in a collaborative, peer-to-peer manner. Practitioners and facilitators are there to structure and facilitate the sessions, but participants mainly learn through doing and sharing. The motto of the E11 studio is; explore, experience, experiment and this underpins our approach, enabling people with different levels of knowledge about a topic to get together, discuss and consider how a particular new technology might impact on their own practice. The studios give an introduction and provide a space to think about digital and data skills development that is specifically geared towards the creative practitioner. Each year the amount of freely available online learning material increases, some of it of very high quality, but navigating this sea of information in order to find the right offering at the right time is a challenge in itself. Our studios are intended to offer a way to make sense of this overload while also finding allies and collaborators.

One way to think about the studios is as a many-to-many model of communication, rather than the one-to-many or broadcast type of model that webinars tend to provide, even if they do include interactions with the audience. Informal learning and knowledge sharing takes place through chatting over a coffee as much as it does by having a go together at something new, but how can this type of environment be replicated at a distance?

There is already a lot of research going on in the area of online learning, and the effects of the current pandemic mean that all types of education providers are having to adapt to new methods and processes for the foreseeable future. I hope that the work we do in Creative Informatics will contribute to this research knowledge, especially in the area of peer learning for creative practitioners. So far we have tried out a couple of ideas that seem fruitful, and we will continue to work on these in the next few months.

In June we ran a CI Studio online workshop on making stop-frame animated movies. This activity was chosen as it is possible to make quite sophisticated stop-frame animations at home with only minimal equipment and a free app for smartphones. The event was timetabled around two online sessions with a day in between for the participants to work on their own creations. The first session introduced the topic so that everyone was able to get started. Following the spirit of peer learning, we were very lucky to have Elspeth Chapman on hand as a facilitator. She is a talented theatre designer and puppeteer who had recently made a short animation, “Avocado”. We wanted to include her because of her knowledge as a creative practitioner, rather than as a technical trainer, in order to give first hand advice based on her own experience. In our session feedback, some participants stated that this informal, relaxed approach was refreshing, and it did seem to support confidence in having a go. The emphasis was on encouraging creative people to share ideas on how a technology could be useful to them in their own practice rather than on becoming proficient within the short timescale. In the second, final session the participants shared the work that they had made and they discussed their experiences and plans for taking that knowledge further.

Another tentative and experimental aspect of the workshop was the use of a chatbot to support participants during the time that they were working on their own at home. The idea behind this is to find out how to use technology to provide an alternative to the informal support by given by facilitators during a hands-on workshop. Often useful conversations are initiated by a simple question like, “how are you getting on?” This research work is being carried out in partnership with InChat, a startup that combines design ethnography, chatbot technology, and data insights to support organisations. InChat has been successful in attracting funding from Creative Informatics for their novel approach.

hybrid, or blended spaces – spaces that mix the physical and the informational, or digital spaces.Benyon 2012

From a research perspective there are useful theoretical framings to build on to inform the the design and presentation of our future learning activities and how we think about spaces and places that expand past a single physical location. David Benyon (2012) provides an overview of the concept of: “hybrid, or blended spaces — spaces that mix the physical and the informational, or digital spaces.” Enabling all the participants in an event to feel present and engaged in the blended space involves thinking carefully about the whole constellation of elements involved and how they interrelate. The tangible elements might be; the particular technologies in use, the physical places where each participant is situated, the participants themselves, and any learning tools or materials that are shared. Just as important in the mix are intangible and conceptual elements, such as the cultural and social meanings, understandings and prior experiences that participants bring to the activity. If we think about activities that we participate in while in any urban space – a high street, a quiet square or a busy market, for example, those activities shape our understanding of this as a particular, meaningful place, and this idea also applies to blended, virtual spaces. We intend to run more events over the coming months in order to develop these framings further from both a theoretical and a practical perspective.