Digital literacy: alternative virtual learning environments

Workflow e-portfolio digital environment

Workflow e-portfolio digital environment

In order to continue the exploration of digital literacy within an art and design HE setting, this post focuses on online distance learning. In particular it mulls over alternative perspectives and seeks fresh ‘ways-in’ that may help to adjust our collective e-Learning spectacles.  As such, it is hoped that a stroll around virtual learning environments (VLEs), and alternative online environments, will prove useful. Desire and virtual communities are the conceptual areas framing this swift adventure. So, one question might be ‘are there valuable insights to be gleaned from alternative virtual spaces that could influence the ways we provide for students online at Central Saint Martins?’

In his 2009 paper ‘Queer theory, cyber-ethnographies and researching online sex environments’ Chris Ashford attends to the subject of online research methods through the lens of queer theory. In doing so he shares a number of insights that might be useful to discuss when thinking about the development of online learning provision for art and design communities.

His opening line states that ‘both the act and the commission of the act of sex have been transformed by technology.’ Similarly, digital technologies have impacted massively upon the ways in which students learn, and how they engage with one another and with the university. The learning landscape is morphing, and technologies are playing a massive part. The rapid expansion of online learning through MOOCs, the phenomenal use of YouTube as a learning platform, Google’s new Helpout offering, and an array of other online initiatives such as DOCCs (distributed online collaborative courses) shaped by FemTechNet’s feminist principles.

A core tenet of art and design education is a theory that knowledge is socially constructed, whereby students learn by actively doing and making, and they learn through collective engagement. Part of their motivation to learn is a desire and passion for their subject. Web 2.0 brought us the opportunity to connect, create and collaborate, and recent personal mobile devices allow us to do so anywhere at any time; ‘the technology has transformed the way we conduct our lives as citizens’ and as educators and learners. What it has also meant is that individuals are constructing different online identities over multiple platforms, and their sense of their virtual self – or selves – is evolving. A question we could ask here is around conceptions of our virtual learners and emerging hybrid cultures. The relationships we have with those students we never encounter face-to-face will be different to those we see in the studio; they may be experimenting with their online identities, constructing alternative identities, and offering us a version of themselves. How might this shape our experience or their experience, and as hybrid cultures stratify in unique ways, would novel pedagogies develop?

Sex in the virtual environment may be discussed and engaged in by the minority but now the majority are able to look in, lurk, and observe the behaviours of these groups.

C. Ashford (2009)

The act of observation in cyberspace is variable, and anonymity and neutrality is an illusion. What is the affect on students when being observed by someone who is identified as ‘present’ in their virtual learning environment? Does it differ from a silent classmate in a group crit? Is this person perceived as an unwelcome lurker, or as discussed by Darren Gray in an earlier post, should the ‘outsider’ be welcomed and accepted as she may be benefiting from the act of dropping-by and watching?

Just as the studio space is open (in a way that a classroom is not) to people who may not be directly involved in the class, so the learning environment needs to be open to students across their levels and modules, into spaces which can be owned and utilized by them.

Renton et al. (2008)


Social presence is a critical social factor to be examined in distance education… social presence contains three dimensions, social context, online communication and interactivity, and privacy.

C.H. Tu (2002)

Akin to Japan’s Lovegety and ImaHima of the 20th century, Grindr is a location-based social networking service that allows members of an interest/desire based community to locate others within physical proximity. Within the Grindr community there are sub-cultures that have specialist interests and knowledge. As part of our thinking around online learning environments and blended learning provision, it might be useful to explore how the student and staff experience could benefit from an institutional location-based service that enables like-minded members to connect in the hybrid virtual-physical space. Subject specialist communities could identify one another globally, and the make-up of the university community could be extended through a location-based arts platform. As with some online sex environments, eg Gaydar (Ashford, 2009), there could be different levels of access and functionality dependent on membership status. If this form of location-based multi-user learning space were to be established, what new dialogues between teaching and learning will emerge?

Moodle image

So, to recap, in the same way as the university currently provides institutional tools such as Moodle, Workflow, MyBlogs and the Online Assessment Tool as part of its virtual learning environment, as more courses may be delivered through blended learning or distance learning models:

  • how do we frame the emerging hybrid learning spaces we may create and encounter?
  • how do we support virtual communities to learn and practice within and across these spaces?
  • how do we understand different forms of presence and fluid learner identities?
  • what is the impact upon our sets of pedagogies?


Links and references

Chris Ashford (2009) Queer Theory, Cyber-Ethnographies and Researching Online Sex Environments Information & Communications Technology Law, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 297–31

Tu, C.H. (2002). The Measurement of Social Presence in an Online Learning Environment. International Journal on E-Learning, 1(2), 34-45. Norfolk, VA: AACE. Retrieved January 31, 2014

Renton, L., Flint, R. and Shave, T. (2008) ‘The Reflexive Archive: contexts of practice in art and design’, York, U.K. Higher Education Academy. Available at


Workflow ePortfolio platform