Sexting, Griefing, Piracy, Privacy and Massively Multiplayer Thumbwrestling

October 31, 2011

Last week I was fortunate to be at the First International Symposium on Digital Ethics hosted by The Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University, Chicago. The first keynote speaker, Jan McGonigal (author of “Reality is Broken”) had us playing Massively Multiplayer Thumbwrestling, a good way to boost oxytocin levels and a metaphor for online gaming. All the presentations were excellent indeed but for me there were several highlights: Jo-Ann Oravec talked about the ethics of sexting and
issues involving consent and the production of intimate content. Richard Wojak examined griefing through the virtual world and the moral status of griefing. Brian Carey took a controversial look at piracy and the times when it may be ethically permissible. Alex Gekker offered some fascinating insights into ‘Anonymous’ and the governmental oversight of the internet. A lunchtime treat
was Julian Dibbell reprising his seminal 1990s piece originally published in the Village Voice entitled “A Rape in Cyberspace“. Charles Ess provided an insightful view into privacy, the self and new media.

There is much to be learnt in this provocative and emergent area, and I look forward to hearing and sharing some further thoughts
on digital ethics.

An analysis of national patterns of learning platform use in schools

June 22, 2011

The United Church Schools Trust and the United Learning Trust comprise a national group of 12 independent schools and 17 academies across a wide range of geographic and demographic areas of England. In 2008, the decision to implement a learning platform (also known as a Virtual Learning Environment or VLE) across the group was made. Although a fully supported technical solution was provided along with a sustained programme of continuous professional development, the decision as to how the learning platform was to be used was owned by each individual school and academy according to its own priorities.

The learning platform chosen was itslearning©, developed in Bergen University College in Norway and now adopted across a wide range of educational establishments. As a cloud-based product, itslearning offered a number of attractive potential benefits

1. Ease of use

2. Speed of implementation

3. Enhanced collaboration

4. Continuity of curriculum anywhere and anytime

5. Minimal initial investment

6. Scalability

7. Reduction of operating costs

8. Reduction of hosting costs

Now that the learning platform is embedded in many of the schools and academies with consistent, sustained usage in areas of excellence, it was decided to undertake research into how the learning platform was being used and what strategic and implementation lessons could be learned so far. A survey was consequently undertaken of 1000 students into how they used the
learning platform and what their perceptions were about it as a vehicle for teaching and learning. The survey was based on the most commonly used features of the learning platform and was conducted online using the built-in survey
tools of itslearning.

The following descriptor preceded the survey:

To help us improve itslearning in UCST schools and ULT academies, we are asking you to fill in a survey.

We are looking at ways in which itslearning can help with students’ education and to see if there is anything we can learn from the way that you use it.

We would like you to do a short survey which will not take up too much of your time. You will not need to give your
name and no-one will be able to identify you from your answers.

We would like you to do this survey so we can look at what students themselves think and do. You do not have to do it, but we hope that you will help us in this way. However, we understand if you would prefer not to take part. It is totally your choice.

The following is a list of questions that were
asked using the survey:

1.         Which school or academy do you attend?

2.         Are you a boy or a girl?

3.         Which year are you in?

4.         How often do you use itslearning?

5.         Where do you use itslearning?

6.         When do you prefer to use itslearning?

7.         Which subjects do you use it in?

8.         What do you use itslearning for?

9.         What do your teachers use itslearning for?

10.       Have you ever used itslearning on your phone?

11.       Would you like to be able to change the colour and design of itslearning?

12.       How much does itslearning help with your learning?

13.       How much do you enjoy using itslearning?

14.       How easy is itslearning to use?

15.       Do the people who look after you at home have access to itslearning?

16.       What do you like best about itslearning?

17.       For which subjects do you find itslearning most useful?

18        What things in itslearning could be made better?

Tha data analysis will take place over the summer of 2011-2012 and will be available to inform our future direction at that time. A copy of the report will also be posted here.

YouTube and the Death of Nostalgia

February 10, 2011

Given my chrono/geodislocation I am particularly drawn to a time and geography that I am mythologising in the context of my current identity. Let me explain. I am an expatriate Australian who has lived in England for the past 11 years. I am also a child of the 1970s. As I reach the transient point of no-return I am drawn to the Kodachrome memory of Australia at that time with its colonial naivety and modernist sensibility embodied by the era of the triple-fronted-brick-veneer-nuclear-(free)-family.

I think with remembered adolescent affection about that Pre-Dismissal era of Nation Review, Gough Whitlam, Barry McKenzie, Auntie Jack, Pre-outed Patrick White, Moomba and the sample bags of the Royal (?) Melbourne Agricultural Show. How to revisit those times?

Ebay, YouTube, Flickr and Wikipedia let me revisit/reinvent these shabby romanticised times which of course is covered by the eternally ironic cloak of Edna Everage. I can even virtually and literally buy back the rusty toys of my childhood.
In the future, the past and present will be perpetually connected by the umbilical cord of social media, removing the spatial and temporal dislocation which nostalgia feeds on. Perhaps the only nostalgia we will have will be for nostalgia itself. Future generations may live as T.S. Eliot describes in Four Quartets.

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.”

Who would’ve thought that a modernist poet could be so postmodern. I relish the fact that social media happened during my middle age. I relish the gap between “What might have been and what has been”. It gives me a nice warm feeling. And listening to the theme song of ‘The Adventures of Barry McKenzie’ still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I look fondly back to an imagined time of Carl Ditterich, Sunny Boys, Happy Hammond, Zoot and Polly Waffles. Australia grew up and I never even noticed. But I can relive my past through YouTube on an endless loop. Social media in an intravenous feed. A place where I am doomed and blessed to recapture the mythologized past. Future generations don’t know what they are missing. For them, nostalgia may already be dead.

Digital Dharma

January 13, 2011

Digital Dharma

View from hotel

Mumbai Calling

I certainly was not expecting to see a satellite dish poking out of a Mumbai slum dwelling, but that probably tells you a bit about my bourgeois preconceptions. Why not, indeed? The view from the hotel terrace is amazing. Mumbai is big. Really big. Not Hitchhiker’s Guide big,  but big nonetheless. From one side I can see the Arabian Sea and on the other side, butting snuggling up against the hotel wall is a…..what? A shanty town? A slum? A community, certainly.

A colourful cartload of fruit is pushed through a group of teenagers playing cricket. A man builds an annex to his house with a sheet of corrugated iron. Children dressed like English public school girls walk through the dust. An elderly lady relieves herself under a tree. I look away quickly, realising that seeing these scenes through Western lenses is voyeuristic.

There is enough that is familiar here to unsettle an Australian/British middle-class sensibility. I found quickly that a temporary suspension of my preconceptions of order and logic is necessary. Yet I am drawn towards the use of ICT in this world that appears so strange to me. In the slums, everyone appears to possess a mobile phone. Denial of European concepts of housing, sanitation and clothing do not appear to preclude access to voice and data.

In his 1993 collaboration with Bob Neuwirth, John Cale referred to “Mozambique Electronique” as a forward glance to the way in which telecommunications would connect Third World (?) countries. The dynamics of the mobile phone in Mumbai are fascinating. Although one could describe the city as being languidly chaotic, the appropriation of contemporary telecommunications seems superficially at odds with the pulse of the place. Certainly it is modern, rational, capitalist, enlightened on the one hand, but also a sense of decay and growth not just at the edges but from the centre. Yet it represents one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

And through all of this, the unmistakable heartbeat of data and voice pump through all levels of this stratified society, connecting, reconnecting and helping define the rhythm of this ambiguous and contradictory city.

To Dadar and Back

It caused me to pause for thought when I realised that the hotel has 5 armed guards at all times. Getting a cab was problematic. It is not safe to flag one down as you risk getting run down in the process. One of the nice guards goes outside the hotel precinct and commandeers one for you. Then the fun starts. As with many things Mumbai, health and safety is an inconvenience that does not trouble this city. Traffic lights exist merely for decoration and the car horn is the major tactical instrument at the driver’s disposal. Several times I wondered if either the Australian or the British embassies would be obliging enough to repatriate the tangled mess of my body in the inevitability of my bloody demise in a Mumbai cab. Miraculously, I survived the ride, and after the cab getting lost several times (yeah, right) I was deposited marginally closer to the conference venue than from where I started out.

I was greeted by the charming conference organisers at the Navinchandra Mehta Institute of Technology and Development and I went through the bureaucratic business of conference registration filling in innumerable forms in triplicate one of which, touchingly inquired about my hobbies. I obliged by sharing my somewhat dull interests in excessive detail. Having received my conference pack and noting with a warm fuzzy feeling that my paper was published in the proceedings, I decided to take a walk in the surrounding area.

The Institute is in the university precinct and I enjoyed strolling around the campus dodging the motor scooters and lethal rickshaws. I suddenly found myself in a  market and every cliché came screeching into my head. Four sensory experiences occurred simultaneously.

Firstly, the noise. The rapid-fire chatter of bartering and street-talk provide a soundtrack like no other. Take a listen to the third part of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music if you want an approximation.

Secondly, the smells hit the inside of your nose and the back of your throat as if you had shoved your head into a spice rack and inhaled the entire contents. Coriander is the most prevalent. Chillies, onions and cardamom were also recognisable, but the air was infused with so many strange fragrances it made me lightheaded.

Thirdly, the colours are so bright and iridescent that they make your eyes water. Are tomatoes really supposed to be that red? The chillies that green, and the oranges that… Fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices piled high on trestle tables or on the crumbling pavement along with ubiquitous chrysanthemums in garlands and wreaths or stored as petals in large earthenware pots. Less visually appealing were the large portions of dead animals that punctuated the otherwise colourful vista. A fly-ridden goat’s head with a slightly annoyed expression on its face sat at a jaunty angle on the ground, its tongue turning slightly green and lolling gargoylishly from its mouth. I tried not to think too hard about what I had for dinner last night.

The fourth sensory assault was kinaesthetic, as street urchins tried to pick my pockets. Luckily, being reasonably tall I had cunningly placed my cash and phone in a top pocket which was out of reach. I half-heartedly waved them away and they gave up with remarkable good humour and went looking for other tourists, which I noticed, for the first time and with alarm, were absent. I must have stuck out like a sore thumb.

I moved on swiftly, choosing a road at random and walked towards what I guessed was the north. Five minutes into this walk I encountered a group of about 20 men walking towards me, a handcart at their centre. The man leading this procession was swinging what I assumed with my amazing powers of perception was a censer as it emitted a fragrant smoke. I stepped to one side and stopped as I realised this was a funeral procession. The deceased lay on the handcart, wrapped in white linen and with a garland of chrysanthemums around his neck. He had been an elderly gentleman with a white beard and hair and an avuncular expression on his face. He jiggled gently on the cart and seemed to be enjoying his last ride. I silently wished him good karma in his next life and waited for the procession to pass.

Further up the road I came across the Bengal Cricket Ground and stopped to watch the match for a while. A vendor was selling coconuts as refreshment nearby along with various brightly coloured and sweet-smelling snacks which I passed on, the image of the goat’s head still fresh in my mind. A small Hindu temple stood on the boundary of the ground where prayers were being offered, presumably to influence the outcome of the match. A couple of those might’ve been handy during the recent Ashes tour I thought with a sudden surge of bitterness.

Walking on, I entered what seemed to be a Muslim neighbourhood, the dead giveaway being the huge mosque towing over the neighbourhood with a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from a precarious looking minaret. It had been several hours since I had left the conference registration and I was flagging slightly in the heat. A roving taxi driver noticed me and touted for a fare. As I had been in Mumbai for 24 hours, I considered myself streetwise and haggled the cost. We agreed 50 rupees (about 70 pence). After getting in the cab he immediately upped the fare to 100 rupees and a good-natured argument began. By the time we had reached the hotel, we had settled on 80 rupees. However, as I had enjoyed the interchange I gave over the full 100 rupees and shook his hand. The last time I saw him, he was on his mobile phone, no doubt telling his mates what a twonk Westerners are. This one, anyway.

Fuzzy Logic

And so to work. Having been had by the naughty rogue cab driver yesterday I was not be caught again and sharing a cab to the conference with a professor from Korea (hi,  Byoung) I paid the metered fare and not a rupee more. At the conference we were greeted with cardamom flavoured coffee so sweet you could feel your fillings melt. Prayers for a successful conference were offered up to the Hindu god, Ganeesh accompanied by some chanting and incense burning. Ganeesh is the elephant god of plenty and a jolly chap he looked indeed, beaming across the proceedings and waving his trunk in a benedictory way.

The keynote speeches were somewhat mixed in quality and I was initially disappointed until one of the speakers said something that I violently disagreed with. That cheered me up no end. There was an interesting discussion around the four I-s of social media (involvement, interaction, intimacy and influence) and some interesting linking of web 2.0 with multiple intelligences. After some workshops on neural networks, fuzzy logic and mobile technologies sounded good but frankly went way over my head we paused for lunch. I was delighted to see some rather literal translations of English dishes which although sounding alarming were delicious as they were flavoured with spices I had never encountered before. My favourite was the mushroom omelette which was translated (rather poetically I thought) as “fried smashed eggs with inimitable fungus” and which in Bill Bryson style I took pleasure in ordering verbatim.

After some lively discussions on social networking as a disruptive innovation, it was suddenly my turn to present a paper on the effect of learner response systems on mathematics achievement in years 7 and 8. Despite the rather dull title it seemed to go down a treat complete with smiling faces and polite applause. I even had some questions that I was able to answer nearly coherently. It was a long day and I took a stroll by sea before dinner looking out over the Worli Bridge. The beach is filthy but people didn’t seem to mind, playing ball, strolling and sitting watching the spectacular red sunset. There were three distinct things that reminded me that I was not walking along an Australian or English beach (as if these were sandy extremities that could be classified within the same genus). The first was the herd of cows (presumably sacred) that wandered nonchalantly along the shoreline look for all the world as if at many minute they would grab a boogie board and engage in some bovine surfing. This was however, extremely unlikely as the sea was the colour, texture, shape and smell of a cow pat.

The second thing that drew my attention was a man wearing a loin cloth, a garland of flowers and with long plaited red hair. I assumed he was some kind of religious figure as he walked briskly along the sea wall accosting the canoodling couples and extorting rupees from them in exchange for a blessing after which he theatrically flagellated himself with a large bullwhip which I suspected was more for aural effect than self-mortification. Anyway, he seemed to be doing pretty well out of this scheme with a 100% success rate from the couples he approached. Good luck to him and them.

The third thing was very curious indeed to a Western eye. A large concrete platform bore the body of a dead person which was being eaten by a flock of crows and what looked like kites and possibly a vulture. I did not spend too much time on ornithological analysis. It later transpired that this was probably a Zoroastrian funeral. Given the level of pollution in the city, this was probably a greener means of disposing of human remains than cremation, although there was an “electrical crematorium” just around the corner as well. So much for a stroll along the beach.

The conference organisers had organised a delightful “evening of culture” for us. Traditional and modern Indian dance performed by students of the university was charming, entertaining and genuinely moving. A particularly dramatic dance about Shiva was even slightly alarming in its dramatic execution and the story of Krishna was executed in a devotional and touching way. It was a lovely performance.

The dinner which followed was unlike any conference I have ever attended. For a start, it was in a tent which was a nice touch. The food was far more delicious than any conference I have ever had. Curries, soups, salads and sauces that almost vibrated with colour and flavour. It. Was. Fantastic. The fact that they were served on plastic plates with plastic cutlery and there were insufficient (plastic) chairs and (plastic) tables did not detract in any way from the meal. It was a happy event indeed.

On return to the hotel, I ordered an Indian (Black Dog) whiskey  which was delicious but tasted more like rum. A very good day indeed.

About 20 metres down the road from the hotels another world. Noise and pollution from scooters, motorbikes, ancient taxis, trucks, motorised rickshaws again assault the ears. Children play in the dirt, women weave baskets, men stir large woks of curry. Teenagers stand around languidly using expensive mobile phones. There is a simultaneous sense of chaos and lethargy. Everyone seems exhausted and people are asleep everywhere. On the pavement, in the gutter, in trees, in the road, standing up and sitting down. It is very, very difficult to make sense of the apparent  poverty and indolence without bring a neo-colonial bias to the scene. Can one ever step outside one’s own cultural values and beliefs and fairly and sympathetically understand cultures that differ so greatly from one’s own.

I have learned a great deal from this conference. There were some wonderful presentations. I was introduced to a conceptual framework to support self-directed learning in distance education. I heard about e-learning on the semantic web and intellectual property rights in podcasting. I heard for the first time about e-learning and synthetic learning outcomes and online teaching using metaphors. I was intrigued by the concept of e-trust (“an attitude of confident expectation in an online situation or risk that one’s vulnerabilities will not be exploited”, Corritore).

I fear that I took more away from this visit than I brought to it.

January 2011

An evaluation of the contribution of the social perspective to our understanding of Language and Meaning and Gender and Sex.

March 26, 2010


This essay focuses on the social perspective of psychology referring Language and Meaning and Gender and Sex. It deals with the relationship between psychological theory and method in a range of material in both chapters, with particular attention to how social influences shape human development and behaviour.

Language and Meaning

 ‘Language and meaning’, is used to describe a social constructionist approach to language. There are several ways in which the social perspective has promoted understanding in this area. There are primarily two different psychological perspectives on language: cognitive and social. These approaches take evidence from different research bodies, each of which have a different focus As social beings, we continuously interact with other people, thinking about our use of language and how it may best serve us. The social constructionist perspective sees language as a way of creating meaning between individuals as they interact. The social psychological perspective defines the human world as being created through language, making it one of its most powerful and important features. This approach to language sees people using language to take action and achieve objectives. Language is seen as a means by which goals might be achieved. The social psychological approaches to language therefore focuses on understanding language and its meanings as a social process. It sees language as an interactive process between people. It is seen as social because it involves this very interaction, and it is through this social interaction that meaning is created. Social psychology argues that there is more to language than the knowledge of syntax, semantics, phonics and coding and other rules of language, even if these are described as being interactive within a cognitive approach. This argument helps define the contrast between social psychological and cognitive approaches to language. In social psychological perspectives, the purpose of language is not to reflect thoughts and emotions and convey them neutrally to someone else. Instead, the motivation for language is defined by the desired action brought about by the use of language. Social psychological approaches to language do not place meaning inherently in the constructions of language such as lexicon, grammar or semantics in the same way as cognitive approaches do. One of the methodological complexities involved in researching language is that we must use language itself as the means by which we research it as a subject in its own right. This issue is at the centre of the tension that exists between cognitive and social approaches to language. The paradox here is that the necessity of responding in language may predetermine what is said about language. The cognitive perspective assumes that there are separate cognitive processes that language can represent in communication to others, or in dialogue with the self. The accuracy of this depends upon how closely language communicates the cognition behind it. Cognitive psychologists believe that the thinking that underlies language can be studied accurately and in social isolation. However, discursive psychology argues that, when people use language, they do so in a social context, with an audience and for a reason. The social constructionist approach views language as the means for the socially produced meaning. It is the means by which people construct their world, interact with others and set out to achieve their objectives. The cognitive approach sees language as the part of the cerebral information processing. It can be argued that meaning is generated by people as they communicate. There is therefore a tension between the social constructionist and cognitive perspectives with respect to meaning and whether it is communicated between people or constructed between them. The social constructionist perspective on language is that it is a tool for social interaction. These different views of language have different implications – the cognitive perspective is that language underpins human thought. The social constructionist approach has no particular implication for the relationship of language to thought as it places language firmly within a socially constructed context.

Sex and Gender

‘The psychology of sex and gender’, is used to refer to the social constructionist approach to sex and gender. There are several ways in which the social perspective has promoted understanding this area. With respect to the two terms (sex and gender), there is a distinction between the biological and the social. However, biological sex may also be expressed in behaviour that is influenced by social factors and psychological meanings. Therefore, as labels, sex and gender may only be useful as theoretical constructs. However, gender is usually taken to refer to social constructs that pertain to biological differences. These sex differences can be the result of interactions between biological, psychological and social processes. Social constructionist psychology looks at how sex and gender have been constructed within particular social contexts. It examines these social constructions and their influences. The social constructionist perspective is based upon the theory that the construction of meaning through language and social practices as discussed in the section above has produced patterns of behaviour, cognition and emotions that are gender-differentiated. Social constructionism argues that behaviour cannot be directly explained solely by biological, reproductive sex. It also argues that the world is constructed to have two biological types (male and female) who have many diverse social and behavioural manifestations. This suggests that the many discourses of masculinity and femininity are socially produced. Social constructionism sees reproductive sex as being the visible difference between the sexes that provides the basis for a range of socially constructed gender differences. According to this perspective, biological sex is not central to explaining gender identity, but is a visible indicator to which a range of socially constructed gender differences are attached. Discourses about masculinity and femininity are therefore used by individuals to create their own gendered positionality. Gender is seen as being constructed throughout life, as behaviour and experience is defined through cultural manifestations of gender. Evolutionary psychologists also acknowledge social influences on sexual behaviour. However, they provide no systematic way explaining this in their experimental approach. The strength of the social constructionist approach to gender is its ability to take into account the social and cultural contexts of individuals. Evolutionary psychology however does offer some explanation of the origins of gender difference. The social constructionist perspective argues that sex is not central to explaining gender differences. Evolutionary and social constructionist perspectives have contrasting ideas about the relationship between sex and gender. Psychoanalytic psychology takes a different approach to social constructionism’s emphasis on external influences in determining people’s behaviour. However, both social constructionism and psychoanalysis are based upon the interpretation of meaning. Unlike evolutionary psychology, psychoanalysis, in common with social constructionist psychology, believe that the researcher’s positionality and subjectivity is inevitably involved in research. The onset of puberty is an example of the convergence of biological, psychoanalytic and social constructionist perspectives. The psychoanalytic and social constructionist approaches use methods that consider people’s beliefs and experiences, and focus on the interpretation of meaning by relying on the interpretation of symbolic data. The social constructionist perspective examines the importance of culture in the construction of gender. The psychoanalytic perspective acknowledges both the importance of biological difference and the social and cultural meanings inherent in this difference. The social constructionist and psychodynamic perspectives may be seen as complementary to each other in terms of methodology, as both use approaches are based on a hermeneutic theory to understand the meanings of gender.


 The social constructionist perspective underpins discursive psychological theories of meaning as emerging from context and interaction. Although the social perspective goes some way to addressing the influences of language and gender issues, there are some aspects which are also given a different perspective by other approaches. This can be seen in the sometimes useful linguistics frameworks of syntax, phonics, semantics etc. which is adopted by cognitive psychologists. In some instances the social perspective complements other perspectives. Such an example is psychoanalysis in the area of sex and gender. However, in other instances it more commonly just co-exists, for example in the case of social constructivism and evolutionary psychology. Social constructivism is in clear conflict with the cognitive perspective in the area of language as illustrated and argued above. Cognitive and social constructionist perspectives make conflicting assumptions about communication. The cognitive perspective sees language as an exchange of individually created meanings between people. Social constructionism sees language as creating meaning between people as they communicate. Although a clear tension exists between the two approaches, they both have a role in describing language and meaning from different perspectives.

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