BCM325 Future Cultures: Why Science Fiction?

BCM325 Future Cultures is a third-year subject in the major of Digital and Social Media, which is one of five majors in the Bachelor of Communication and Media. Previously the subject was called ‘Cyberculture’ and had a very techno-social focus, with an emphasis on regulation and policy. My revisions for the subject have responded to the attention that digital, social and emergent media already receives in earlier subjects in the major and even subjects in the core subjects of degree, after all these are ‘the’ media that graduates will be working, in, with and around. Future Cultures has been refocussed around the primary goal of challenging students to think about the future across three time scales: the short-term, the medium-term and the long-term. The subject has a student blog, which students contribute to here.

As the major is going to be offered across multiple campuses including Wollongong, Hong Kong, South West Sydney and Dubai over the next few years, I have transitioned to a blended learning approach, which provides the lecture material in a series of online videos. My approach to the three-hour face-to-face seminar time mixes a little of the old and a little of the new. One of my favourite experiences as an undergraduate was the screenings of movies that I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to or had the opportunity to view. Student’s today have more access to this type of content but don’t often choose to watch it. Similarly, classroom discussion in traditional tutorial mode is often hampered by an increased level of student anxiety, and less available time to prepare and do the background readings and research that would help them to speak from an informed position. Our students, however, are encouraged to use Twitter during their first-year lectures, deploying the hashtags #BCM112 and #BCM110 to develop their sense of a cohort and engage with the content, using memes, gifs and the obligatory shitposting.

Enter live Tweeting. One of my favourite experiences at academic conferences is the ‘backchannel’ conversations and coverage that comes from the rapid live tweeting of speakers and presentations. Similarly, some of the most interesting Twitter threads emerge from the live tweeting of events and especially from fans participating in the coverage of their favourite shows. Live tweeting is not an easy skill to develop, it requires advanced practices in note taking, listening and the ability to distil information rapidly, and in such a way that it contributes to the understanding of those not physically present. Even if students don’t go on to continue using Twitter, and many don’t, it is a valuable process that supports student learning, and confidence in engaging in real-time analysis, research and critical conversation that will be useful to their future careers in the media and communication industries.

This brings me to science fiction. Over the course of the session, students engage in the live tweeting of science fiction movies from the previous one hundred years. Beginning with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, moving through Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, both Blade Runners, the original animated Ghost in the Shell, and ending with Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime. The point is to consider the way the future has been represented in the past and to contemplate the tension between the representation of the future and its reality. Students must tweet during the screening, using the #BCM325 hashtag and are assessed on their ability to engage with each other and outsiders, who often comment on the live tweeting stream, and make sense of the films for a public audience.

In the above video, I explain why we are using Science Fiction to think about the future in more detail, drawing very briefly on the work of two SF scholars, Istvan Cicsery-Ronay and Darko Suvin.

taking entrepreneurship seriously

Australia is a stagnant nation, politically, socially, technologically and intellectually and it is really OK to admit this. We have great ideas, great talent, and an amazing environment that our creatives, experts, innovators and risk-takers have to leave in order to be successful more often than they should and more often that is healthy for those of us who remain. Our political ‘leaders’ on all sides have failed to understand, plan and build for this, and we need only look to the NBN for evidence; a world class national broadband network that would propel our little creative nation into the future was abandoned, settling for second sixteenth sixty fourth best because it’s too expensive, too hard, too politically messy to do better.

Wollongong is a city with a great deal of potential and the University of Wollongong is a university of students, academics and professional staff who all punch well above their budgets. I will excuse that mangled fighting cliche by doubling down on it and suggesting that ‘we’ are not prepared, as Ronda Rousey says (UFC women’s champion visiting Australia this week), to be a ‘do-nothing-bitch’. I’m obviously stepping out of the gender politics of that statement in order to appropriate the core elements of Rousey’s straightforward philosophy here to argue that we are not going to sit back and let others take care of our future and the challenges that will we face. We are not going to do nothing, but what are we going to do?

This is a crucial question for students graduating this year, and the next, and the year after. The only consistency we are going to face in the future is massive change and to be prepared for that means taking charge, forming networks, and solving problems. This includes divesting ourselves of the idea that the fields, industries and businesses that students anticipate working in, and being employed in, will be as stable (or present) as they were in the past. This is already the case for the students in Media and Communication  and Journalism degrees, witnessing firsthand the transformation of journalism, and is only a matter of time for others in the Creative Arts, Health, Science, Law, Engineering, and so on. Even if the disruption isn’t as massive, it will still require an appropriate response. Failure to change and adapt is failure (see our previous PM). The result is that we need to take student entrepreneurship seriously. Entrepreneurship isn’t something to aspire to following an undergraduate degree, it’s something that needs to become fundamental to what undergraduates, at least in the Creative Industries, must be aware of, embrace and experiment with.

This was my reaction following my first experience of Creative3, the QUT Creative Enterprise Australia annual forum, in Brisbane this week. Celebrating ideas and innovation, the line-up of entrepreneurs was exciting, passionate and creative yet almost entirely lacking in real radical thinking. There were very impressive success stories in business, retail, marketing, social media and new product dimensions; like the Shoes of Prey’s online shopping returning to bricks and mortar stores with their design-a-shoe product service; QxBranch’s quantum analytics of rocket science; and Bonza’s approach to user generated culture; but all of these are applications are iterations of innovations that originate elsewhere, and are perhaps most notable for their ability to attract investors (this is not a bad thing). As a side note it was interesting to hear of Brisbane’s last major game studio, Halfbrick, becoming a YouTube content producer, as their game ‘designers’ are let go following the department of Fruit Ninja’s primary developer Luke Muscat. Maybe games companies do need to stop thinking of themselves as content creators in only one medium, but that is not an excuse to endlessly recycle ideas and turn every game success into a animated YouTube series. Perhaps I am a little jealous that QUT students will get to potentially contribute content with Halfbrick retaining editorial control, and presumably the donated copyrights, but as one attendee noted with concern, that if the student’s work goes unpaid when it supports a revenue stream, then that is a textbook case of exploitation.

The most impressive presentation for me was Thea Baumann, the creative technologist and CEO of Metaverse Makeovers, and the augmented reality product Metaverse Nails, which uses QR codes and AR technology to produce interactive adhesive nails, which are pure cyberglam. What sounds like a gimmick is a triumph of 2D (if nail surfaces can be thought of as a flat dimension) and 3D design, app design and manufacturing. Metaverse Nails are a glimpse into the future of a world enhanced by virtual and augmented realities, but Thea’s presentation gave me that real mind blown feeling as she recounted the challenges in taking her ideas to Japan and China. She reminded us that while everyday Chinese internet users might be able to move around the firewall, this is not the case for businesses, particularly those working internationally. Perhaps most the powerful challenge to the Australian innovation ecology was the acceptance of China as a copycat culture and the need to let go of intellectual property concerns when trying to compete in the amazing technoculture of shanzhai, in which copyright and intellectual property means nothing and risk, speed, creativity, innovation, and expertise is everything. I’m also very fond of the Metaverse Nails as unsuccessful crowdfunded project, having first hand. experience of the intensive demands and extensive peer-to-peer networking involved in that model of investment.


Entrepreneurship isn’t just about business, investment and selling products, services and ideas, or at least we can’t keep imagining it to be so. Take the fictional lemonade stand that is often the case study, it’s not that we need to make the ‘ultimate lemonade experience’, as affective marketing trends and agencies might suggest, but rather we need to cut through the jargon, the trending patterns, the bad data visualisation and the elitism of investment culture, to make entrepreneurial options possible for students as effective and long lasting career choices. Business, investment and entrepreneurial culture, like political culture, is yet to properly address the problems facing us a nation, let alone a globe, and it is yet to stop treating sustainability as a buzzword. Dealing with climate change isn’t going to be a marketable ‘experience’,  it’s going to be painful, and it’s going to require risk.

What business and innovation culture can teach us is not to fear failure. Failure is the engine of innovation, and it was very reassuring to hear this message repeated throughout the event, perhaps most notably by CSIRO ‘strategy’ scientist Stefan Hajkowicz (@stefanhajkowicz) as the most necessary element of creative innovation, whether it be the next great product or marketing idea or whether it be in addressing the real challenges that entrepreneurs need to contribute to tackling from climate change, aging and over populations, to microbial drug-resistance, ocean acidity, disruptive technologies and refugee support. With the future of steel in real doubt in the Illawarra, the question is not what jobs graduates will be eligible for in the future, but what careers, products, and services will they create to employ, retrain, and support and how to best insure a successful strategies in funding, investment and innovation to meet these needs. We need more innovators like Shen Narayanasamy.

seeing through Glass

It would take a lot for me to shift from my iPad mini to an Android tablet but Google Glass would do it. I’m scaling up the use of G+ in my teaching this year after a successful trial of the Hangout feature and live online tutorials via my laptop in the tutorial rooms in 2012. I’ve lived with my (various versions) of iPad since launch and it’s been a marvellous extension to my brain, making my life that much easier just by being able to walk away from the PC and the laptop to research, write, communicate and play anywhere. Google Glass would mean getting rid of the laptop in the classroom and to bring the students at work, travelling or  just sitting at home in their pajamas a better ‘live’ online tutorial experience. Give me fives sets of these and the kind of research I could accomplish with an invested student cohort would be really amazing.

screenshots as digital tools and media objects

Now that I’ve had a chance to properly experiment with the open source social network overview and exploration tool, NodeXL, I’m finally finding some traction. I’d  tinkered with the plugin in the past and more recently managed to spend some time acquitting myself with a little graph theory and social network analysis methodology. Together with an updated version of the software and the Hansen, Schneiderman, and Smith’s (2011) Analyzing Social Modeia Networks with NodeXL, I was ready to explore the use of screenshots in social media.

The approach in my postdoctoral study of ‘indie’ and independent cultures of games production in Australia has, until now, featured a purely ethnographic methodology; interviews, participation, observations and combinations of the three. It was quickly made obvious by the research participants, however, that one of the long term effects of the global financial crisis on the games industry is the intensification of the role of social media in games development at three distinct levels: as means for communicating with a diverse audience populations (an evolution of the more traditional marketing/broadcast model modified for social media); as tools for facilitating actual game development remotely (using Skype, Google Docs, Facebook,Twitter, etc); and as processes and practices for the knitting together of a global games community of developers, artists, players, etc that spans the mainstream, that provides indie and independent with a powerful (but not equal) means for gaining attention to their games. It is this last feature of social media technologies and their uses that contributes to changing conversation about play and games, and has even produced a few global celebrities, like Minecraft developer Notch.

The well established ties to the global console ports, movie tie-ins, mobile- and web-based games markets were already jeopardised prior to the GFC with the rising Australian dollar which made local development more costly. A series of major studio closures from 2010 meant the turn to the iOS and Android platforms for Australian developers was inevitable. In part as a reaction to the convergence of web and mobile markets through smartphone and tablet devices and also in part a reaction to the new digital and social tools available to developers. The new generation of young graduates from specialised games development courses have emerged to start competing with much more established studios and major IOS Australia studio success like Halfbrick and the Voxel Agents.

Although it’s only speculation at this point there are signs that the rise of the indie developer and the growth of the small independent studio developers means an overdue shift in the industry’s entrenched problem of diversification, with women being underrepresented in the Australian industry. One of the data sets I intend to look as part of this research is the recent use of Twitter hastag #1reasonwhy that has been increasing attention to the conditions women face working in the industry (if they can get hired in the first place). It is clear through observing the highly profitable and expanding market in games paratexts (including websites and merchandise, YouTube channels, blogs and podcasts) that we already seeing a significant change with many more women’s opinions, perspective and thoughts on games and games culture being seen and heard, and not just from so-called ‘gamer girls’ or Booth Babes at the latest convention.

As social media takes hold at all levels of games culture the digital literacies involved for the humanities researcher attempting to understand these changes takes on higher stakes at the level of cultural production of media objects, such as screenshots. Learning to use NodeXL means having to correct a number of deficiencies in my repertoire, including a lack of knowledge and expertise in using Excel, and coming to terms with the discourses and terminology of social network analysis and graph theory. By no means have I achieved an expert status, but I feel confident graduating from padawan, especially as I begin to dig into the analysis of the use of screenshots in social media. This research intersects with a personal hobby and helps me expand on the analysis of the digital objects (like virtual hats and game screenshots) that are used as a means for building a mediated online persona. By persona I don’t mean avatars or individual profiles, but a collective and identifiable online presence, one that is often text based – blogs, profiles,Steam and Xbox Live – with important visual components and aesthetics captured on PCs, mobile phones, laptops and tablets and shared via sites like Flickr and Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and YouTube.

I’ve put together a Flickr set for the purpose of demonstrating NodeXL here and will be updating the blog with results and discussion as I progress further.  Below is a graph of my core Flickr user network, grouped by relevant cluster, you can see my two accounts Crypticommonicon (for game screenshots) and Moorenet (the family photo album) and you can see the links to close friends and family in the boxes on the left then move across to contacts I have added to my follow list but who have not added me in return.

NodeXL Flickr User Network Map
This graph represents connections (contacts and comments) in my Flickr user network, as plotted by NodeXL, using the Harel-Koren Fast Multiscale algorithm. The layout is arranged with the group by cluster function according to the Girvan-Newman clustering algorithm. Duplicate edges are merged,  Edge Width and Visibility are mapped to Edge Weight. NodeXL Version 1.0.1.229

one more thing

The final assessment for the first unit of the Graduate Certificate of Higher Education calls for a 500 word post answering the question:  What idea(s) explored in the modules have you found most useful and why?

The most personally affecting idea explored in this, my first module, has been that of the ‘student’. While some research skills and learning practices remain from my former experience of ‘being’ a student, the less sanguine memories of endless waiting in line for enrollment or for empty desks in the computer lab have diminished. Good memories of student life are, on reflection, all face-to-face interactions with peers, academics, causal and general staff, and librarians.

The faceless interaction of the ‘online’ unit has provided a much-needed perspective on the generally disempowering experience of ‘being’ a student today. To be fair, I’d already developed an acute sense of this while coordinating my first unit at Deakin earlier this year. The ‘first-person’ perspective of the student experience has reinforced the need to seek out and develop technologies and practices, assessment structures and participatory curricula design to help overcome the distance between student and teacher, and students themselves, that is somewhat achieved in the experience of co-presence, whether it’s the lecture or the tutorial.

My experience of this unit and the certificate in general has been extremely valuable in helping me develop insights into the changing nature of ‘being’, or perhaps, ‘becoming’ a student at Deakin and as a consumer in the Australian Higher Education industry. Failing to manage my own understanding of the course through reading the unit guide, was excruciatingly embarrassing, especially in my previous ‘beings’ of a student I was competitive, organised, driven, etc. I find myself far more sympathetic to new and newer generations of students, especially off-campus students, as they attempt to juggle studying with work and family commitments, and submit assessment materials ridiculously late, or incomplete.

The experience has planted seeds in my imagination as I plot to overcome the focus on student grading in the humanities, and re-evaluating the relationship between assessment, grading, feedback and student learning.  Even the idea of ‘trimesters’ and units, drops away as I review all the brilliant, compelling and interesting contributions from peers participating in the unit, that would be useful and productive to read, review and respond to in-depth, and in our own time, especially at this point in the year when teaching briefly winds down, which brings me to my concluding point.

Returning to the dialogism between constructionism and behaviourism, was also useful, but I’d also add to that mix, the principles of connectivism, coined by George Siemens and written extensively on by Stephen Downes (2012), that knowledge is quite literally the set of connections that consist between sets of entities or, in this case, people. Downes (2012, p11) writes:

“Connectivist learning is a process of immersion in an environment, discovery and communication – a process of pattern recognition rather than hypothesis and theory-formation. Learning is not a matter of transferring knowledge from a teacher to a learner, but is rather the product of the learner focusing and repeating creative acts, of practising something that is important and reflecting on this practice.”

The unit has been a wonderful chance to work through some of the assumptions I’ve made in my teaching and curriculum design, and my peers have presented a range of approaches and solutions to problems I hadn’t envisioned and encountered yet, but I have a nagging sense, a feeling, that the certificate, like other initiatives at Deakin, such as the new ‘cloud’ focus, are not fundamentally grasping the efficacy, openness and empowering experience that fully ‘connected’ learning can achieve.

Downes, S. 2012. Connectivism and Connective Knowledge:Essays on meaning and learning networks. National Research Council Canada. Available: http://www.downes.ca/files/books/Connective_Knowledge-19May2012.pdf [Date accessed: October 26, 2012]

effective assessment in higher education

The sixteen indicators of effective assessment in higher education is a useful checklist (link broken, new source needed!) that provides a timely opportunity to review the changes introduced to the unit I inherited at the start of the current trimester. I reflect here on a several, but not all the indicators and address their concerns in relation to the changes I made to the assessments for the unit.

Assessment is treated by staff and students as an integral and prominent component of the entire teaching and learning process rather than a final adjunct to it.

The content for the unit had not been revised since 2007, which for a Media and Communication subject is almost an ice age (and it proved problematic all trimester), but after babysitting a 200 level unit in the first trimester I was also less than satisfied with the general standard of writing, analysis, research and reflection demonstrated by the student’s approach to writing essays.

In the past I’d achieve fantastic results by removing traditional assessment practices like exams and essays, replacing them with a continuous blogging assessment structure with a peer review component, which then became the focus for the unit and influenced what elements of the course materials I reviewed on the fly.

The multiple roles of assessment are recognised. The powerful motivating effect of assessment requirements on students is understood and assessment tasks are designed to foster valued study habits.

Through previous experimentation I had found that a short weekly blogging task coupled with a peer review assessment, introduced students to a repertoire of digital literacy skills and help to encourage regular writing and reviewing habits to help foster better research and analysis.

Tutors cannot be expected to read all the blog posts each week, so the peer review eliminates the need for constant surveillance and encourages students to take on the responsibility of monitoring, evaluating and engaging with each others’ work through a compulsory comment requirement (each student must comment on two blogs per week) and a grading component (each student uses the same grading rubric as the tutors to to evaluate each other’s work).

As with previous years, I’ve found this approach draws on the students’ intrinsic drive for learning, and encourages the completion of their posts on time and to a high standard, as they contributed to a micro, but vibrant, public sphere in the awareness of the whole student cohort as their audience. Students often go well beyond the minimum effort required for the task.

There is a faculty/departmental policy that guides individuals‟ assessment practices. Subject assessment is integrated into an overall plan for course assessment.

The blogging assessment starts in the first week of the trimester, and students are required to read, conduct further research and compose their reflections from day one. This proved to be a challenge at Deakin, as the School/Faculty policy allows student to enrol in units quite late in the trimester.

Those students coming late into the subject had to work harder and with less feedback those those who started in week one, and of course there are always students who consider the idea of a weekly writing task daunting and find themselves catching up at the last minute in week five, week nine and week twelve when students nominate a single post to be formally assessed.

Assessment tasks assess the capacity to analyse and synthesise new information and concepts rather than simply recall information previously presented.

The students are required to review the lecture and background materials (including traditional readings as well as online video, podcasts, and other blogs), select a single concept to examine, discuss and expand their writing through the use of hypertext links and embedded media. The individual blog posts are limited to 250 words, and this is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the process for many students, as it forces them to think much more strategically about their writing choices. This constraint is countered with the final piece of the assessment which involves reworking one of their posts into an extended scholarly blog with a 1200 minimum word count

A variety of assessment methods is employed so that the limitations of particular methods are minimised. Assessment tasks are designed to assess relevant generic skills as well as subject-specific knowledge and skills.

There is a steady progression in the complexity and demands of assessment requirements in the later years of courses.

Each blog post must address the four elements of the task, which can be abbreviated here as concept, definition, discussion and exemplification. Each component of the overall assessment is essentially the same, but students are encouraged to use digital communication practices and media rich methods to approach the task differently each week: we have student’s video blogging, live podcasting, and using Pinterest, Reddit, G+ and other social networks and web sites to expand the connectivity of their blog and increase their audience via the affordances of the web. The extended scholarly blog also begins to bridge the gap between the critical, but often informal, voice that students adopt for the blogs and their writing in other units.

There is provision for student choice in assessment tasks and weighting at certain times. Student and staff workloads are considered in the scheduling and design of assessment tasks

The ideal version of assessment would allow students to submit their blogs for assessment by the tutor in their own time, but this places too great a demand on the time and availability of the tutor.

Excessive assessment is avoided. Assessment tasks are designed to sample student learning.

A delicate balance, more for the tutors than the students, and I will be reducing the number of times the blogs are assessed when I run the unit again, from three to two, in order to help alleviate the added administration and marking time caused by the fully online submission. I do like saving trees, but it can be more labour intensive for some tutors less used to providing feedback in digital form.

Grades are calculated and reported on the basis of clearly articulated learning outcomes and criteria for levels of achievement.

I spent a great deal of time at the start of the trimester aligning the activities of the blog and peer review assessment task with the explicitly and clearly stated grading rubrics matching the unit and graduate outcomes and attributes to the demands of the content but more recently I’ve began to doubt the effectiveness and perspicacity of grading. I don’t consider the need for a grade other than a pass/fail to be required for the situation and all students who fail the first two rounds of assessment are afforded the opportunity to revise and resubmit. Students are also encouraged to revise their blog posts at any stage in response to their peer and assessment feedback.

Students receive explanatory and diagnostic feedback as well as grades.

The submission of the blog fulfills multiple purposes, the student is required to copy their comment logs, grading rubrics and a single nominated pot into a word document that is uploaded to the DSO dropbox. Comments and feedback is marked up in the word document and the grading rubric. The brevity of the posts helps to ensure tutors are able to turn around feedback remarkably quickly and students can implement changes at any time.

Plagiarism is minimised through careful task design, explicit education and appropriate monitoring of academic honesty.

The blogging structure and peer evaluation makes direct plagiarism more difficult, although students do invariably find new ways to game the system. I did note a small degree of repurposed materials from other units, which I don’t discourage, and it was noted by other students who made recommendations on how to redraft these posts to better fit with the scholarly and critical blog genre.