In December (2015) I attended a highly stimulating event at Lancaster University (UK) and blogged about it.

Dark Matters – Interrogating thresholds of (Im)perceptibility through Theoretical Cosmology, Fine Art & Anthropology of science

At the event the research team, Rebecca, Sarah & Kostas, had a video running, explaining their project work from their different perspectives, but there wasn’t time during the event to watch it. At the beginning of this month, the team sent all attendees the link to the video.

Dark Matters – Interrogating thresholds of (Im)perceptibility through Theoretical Cosmology, Fine Art & Anthropology of science from Ourus on Vimeo.

This is a wonderful video, both for its content and its images. I can relate closely to it, because I have stood in the exact locations that the presenters were filmed in – but I can also relate to the idea of the imperceptible, the absent present, and what cannot be explained. I think these are very important ideas when thinking about learning and learning spaces.

If you have 25 minutes to spare, I can recommend watching the video.

There is also more information on their project website

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Last night, February 10, 2016, Iain McGilchrist spoke with host Iwan Russell-Jones, Carolyn Arends, and Krish Kandiah on how the brain’s two hemispheres are shaping our consciousness, our faith, and our culture. (Source of image and text. Regent Redux website)

This was an interesting hour – an hour well spent. All the speakers were well worth listening to. This was a discussion about the complexity and mystery of human life. You can find a recording of the discussion on the Regent Redux website   

The information provided on the Regent Redux website for this Google Hangout was:

Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World explores the nature of the brain’s two hemispheres, their relationship to one another, and their role in shaping our consciousness and our culture.

The effective functioning of the brain—and by extension, of society as a whole—is subject to a delicate balance between the two hemispheres’ distinct ways of interpreting the world. But over the past few centuries, states McGilchrist, we have favoured the left hemisphere’s rational, fact-driven approach at the expense of the right hemisphere’s emphasis on metaphor, paradox, and context.

What are some of the implications of this imbalance for contemporary culture in general, and for faith in particular? How do we go about redressing it? And what can theology contribute to this conversation?

The Hangout started with Iain Mc Gilchrist talking about his book. He told us that the brain exists only to make connections. Both the left (LH) and right (RH) hemispheres contribute to everything, but they do so differently and with different attentions. Attention is the foundation of our experience. It changes what we find. (See the RSA Animate video on The Divided Brain for more about this). The LH and RH create two different worlds beyond the level of consciousness. The LH focuses on little pieces to put together to make a picture. For the RH nothing is fixed and certain. Everything is evolving, changing, flowing. Ideally these two different views of the world would complement each other. In past history these two types of knowing worked well together, but now we are locked into a mechanistic, reductionist model of the world. We need to get back to embodied experience. Metaphor helps us to do this. Metaphor is the route back to the richness of experience. Christianity used to be a huge resource for mystical understanding, but in recent history it has been complicit in the triumph of the left hemisphere.

Carolyn Arends responded to this by saying that there are two ways of knowing: propositional knowledge (2 + 2 = 4) and experiential knowledge (I know my husband). These two types of knowledge have different words in different languages, but not in English, where we have resisted too many meanings. Christianity also resists too many meanings and has reduced everything so that we know only what we can articulate. Christianity has put God in a box, but religion is about disposition not proposition. It is about where your heart is and about inexhaustible and irreducible meanings. For Iain the things that can’t be articulated are the really important things. He pointed out how much we rely on measurement, but we can only measure what can be measured.

Krish Kandiah also thinks that there is evidence that Christianity now favours the left hemisphere. We have the science of theology, the four spiritual laws and so on. In his book Paradoxology: why christianity was never meant to be simple he discusses why many have lost confidence in the Gospel and said that this is because we have over simplified it. We have tried to domesticate God.

The discussion then moved on to the question of embodiment and why people seem to be frightened of the power of the body, imagination and emotion. There seemed to be agreement that the body is at the centre of spirituality. Iain pointed out that ritual is embodied metaphor and that you can’t separate the soul from the body. The right hemisphere is embodied in thinking and practice. Mental life isn’t just cognitive.

Whilst Krish and Carolyn were keen to discuss the world views of the left and right hemisphere from the perspective of their Christian faith, I did not get the sense that it is necessary to have a religious faith to benefit from their exchange. Iain’s view was that there are many paths to a more spiritual life, or a more embodied experience of life. The key points that I took away were that there is much in life that cannot be explained or articulated – that the left hemisphere dismisses. We need to get more in touch with the right hemisphere’s view of the world to appreciate what we are missing!

I will be hearing Iain McGilchrist speak again when I attend Field an Field’s four day course in August.

Exploring the Divided Brain: Understanding the relationship between the two hemispheres with world-renowned author, psychiatrist and lecturer Iain McGilchrist

I attended this last year and blogged about it: The Divided Brain: A four day course with Iain McGilchrist. It was a wonderfully stimulating and thought-provoking course in a beautiful part of the country. I am looking forward to going again.



I have never felt comfortable with mapping. It seems to involve a way of thinking that just doesn’t come naturally and interpreting other people’s maps seems to be beyond me. Three years ago I attended Howard Rheingold’s online course Towards a Literacy of Cooperation, where mapping was a weekly activity. I blogged about this and without realising it found I had the title Minding Mapping in the Social Media Classroom. I thought I had written Mind Mapping in the Social Media Classroom. It was only later when I came back to the blog post that I realised what the heading was.

But this year I am giving it another go, using the Think Tool Matthias Melcher has developed. I have been looking back through all my published papers and I wanted to see if I could trace my development of thinking through these papers, what the common threads are, what links there are between the papers and what the maps might reveal about my research interests and development as a researcher.

Matthias has made the tool freely available. Here is a direct link – http://x28hd.de/tool/ 

The tool can also be accessed from his blog where he discusses it further and provides a wonderful explanation of how it works in this video which you probably need to watch if you are going to make sense of what follows. (Allow 5.44 mins to watch the video).

As he explains in the video this mapping tool is particularly useful for:

  1. Maintaining an overview of multiple connections and not having to organise ideas into discrete categories.
  2. Maintaining the richness of the associated text alongside the map. The text does not have to be visible, but can be accessed with a simple click of an icon.

These two affordances seemed perfect for looking for connections between my own research papers.

I have created my own video to show how useful this tool is and how I have used it to date. (This is a 12-minute video. It is a bit blurred, but hopefully not impossible to follow).

From using this tool I now know that my 22 papers can be organised into six groups, which can each be summarised as follows:

Group 1: Implications of community tensions for communities of practice

Group 2: The affordances, tensions and constraints of open environments, notably MOOCs, for learning experiences and connectivity with reference to the theory of connectivism.

Group 3: The design and visualisation of emergent learning experiences within open learning environments, such as MOOCs, where learning is uncertain and relies on self-organisation

Group 4: Focus on a specific MOOC – FSLT12 – to investigate experiences of the learning community, course design and the implications for teaching and learning in a MOOC

Group 5: Whether and how learning design can be influenced by an embodied view of the world and a view of perception and action as enactive perception using all the senses

Group 6: Focus on a specific MOOC – Rhizo14 – with particular reference to learners’ experience of community and curriculum formation and the teacher/facilitator’s role in this

I have also been able to identify major and minor keywords that crop up across the papers and how methods and theory are referenced, again across all 22 papers.

Finally, as I worked on these maps, entering text from the Abstracts and looking for connections, some continuing cross-paper themes began to emerge. At this stage of the mapping process, I see these as:

  • Factors of open learning environments; factors that influence teaching/learning
  • The impact and consequences of ‘open’ – including an open mind and a more right hemisphere view
  • Emergent learning; research itself as emergent learning
  • Liminality – the space in between spaces for learning
  • Learner experiences – particularly ‘hidden’ experiences; what cannot be seen; the alternative view or people on the boundaries
  • Individual dimensions

As I say in the video, Matthias’ Think Tool has been extremely helpful in enabling me to see the connections between my papers and the common threads. For anyone looking for connections across a multitude of concepts/ideas, I can recommend giving it a go.


(Source of image: https://socialdigitalelective.wordpress.com/groups/rhizomes/)

Our second paper which explores how the rhizome metaphor was understood in the Rhizo14 MOOC (Rhizomatic Learning. The Community is the Curriculum) has finally been published by The Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

The paper was accepted following revision in response to reviewers’ comments last July, so it has felt like a long wait, but there have been some changes of the Journal’s staff and website so I think a bit of a backlog built up. The Editors were very patient with our ‘nagging’ :-)

The body of work we have developed in relation to the Rhizo 14 MOOC is now growing. The first paper was published by Open Praxis.

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

We have also given a couple of presentations and written many blog posts

18-06-2015 Mackness, J. & Bell, F. Teaching and Learning in the Rhizome: challenges and possibilities. Mackness & Bell Conference Submission 2015 . Blog post about the presentation

27-6-2014 Mackness, J. & Bell, F. ALTMOOCSIG Conference The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Learning in a MOOC. See also Emerging ambiguities and concerns for blog posts about this presentation and the related Prezi.

A third paper has just today been returned by the reviewers and will hopefully be published within the next three months.

The second paper about the rhizome metaphor was really enjoyable to work on as it introduced us to new authors and presented us with many challenges. As always we worked on a private wiki to collect, share and discuss resources and our thoughts, as well as paper drafts.

At the beginning we were inspired by this website – Nomadology  – and wondered whether we could present our paper as an interactive document in this way (with no beginning and no end), but it was not to be. Even our attempt to present the paper as independent sections (mimicking Deleuze and Guattari’s plateaus) did not work. Ultimately, we shared the concerns expressed by Douglas-Jones and Sariola (2009):

– we are recognizing the academy’s need to communicate ideas in writing, in a linear format. Even if methodologically and theoretically we become more rhizomatic, the imparting of knowledge currently requires some arborescence. (p. 2) ( cited in Mackness, Bell and Funes, 2016, p.87)

For now, I’m OK with that, but it would be good to see the development of more creative, multi-media and interactive ways of presenting research and discussion papers. If nothing else, it could make the papers more fun to work on and multi-media might help to explain the work more effectively.

I have taken up two new activities this year, with the intention of keeping mind and body in working order.

Re the body, I have joined the village circuit training group for an hour two nights a week. This is challenging – but my competitive days are over, so I just do what I can do.

The brain activity is drawing. Hopefully this will balance the left-brained activity which I seem to spend most of my time on. For the next nine weeks I will spend Monday afternoons in life drawing classes. I joined the class this week and I loved it. The first two hour class is Developing Life Drawing; the second is Experimental Life Class.

Both classes started with gesture drawing. This involved 10 different poses in 10 minutes, i.e. one minute to capture each pose. I found this very liberating. The focus was on observation. We had been asked to take a roll of lining wallpaper to draw on, so there were no expectations of the outcomes. We were told that we should ‘look’ for more than 90% of the time and when we were drawing, our eyes should be continually moving from the paper to the model and back.

Most interesting for me was that I was told to try not to line draw, to try not start on the outer edges and work inwards, but instead to start in the middle and work outwards and in particular to avoid lines and instead scribble. We were shown drawings by Maggie Hambling and Henry Moore to illustrate this.

Maggie Hambling:  Source of image




Henry Moore: Source of image

I can see the parallels between this approach and insider research. The idea that the form/figure will emerge from the scribble resonated with me, particularly since when doing this we were asked to tape our pencils to a long garden cane, so whilst scribbling from the middle, we were at the same time standing at some distance from the paper. This seems to me the same challenge as presented by insider research.

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Dark Matters is a 1 year interdisciplinary project funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Science in Culture Innovation Award ’which has been exploring the provocations presented to physics, fine art and social science/philosophy by entities, forces and dimensions that exceed human and technological modes of sensing and comprehension.’

The project team comprises Rebecca Ellis (anthropologist), Sarah Casey (artist) and Kostas Dimopoulos (cosmologist), all based at Lancaster University and supported by an Advisory Group made up of 2 theoretical cosmologists, 2 fine artists and 2 social scientists.

The end of project workshop was held at Lancaster University this week and was open (free) to the public, so I went along, despite the fact that I knew very little about the topic. Surprisingly it was not necessary to have extensive expertise in physics, maths, social sciences or art history to enjoy the day and learn a lot from the wide range of speakers.

Even if you don’t know anything about dark matter (matter that cannot be seen and accounts for most of the matter in the Universe – 95% of the universe is invisible), it doesn’t take too much of a leap of the imagination to realise how significant this must be for thinking about our social and physical relations to the world, and to speculate on what might be the impact of the imperceptible, the unseen. These ideas resonate with my recent thinking about the Absent Presence in online learning, unheard voices and questions about what it is that we don’t/can’t see, how this might influence or affect online learning and learners, and whether or not we can or should try to make the unseen, seen.

The project team’s questions for the workshop were more challenging.

  • Is there a way to formulate imperceptibility, invisibility, insensibility beyond anthropocentric conceptions of knowledge production?
  • What might be the role of intuition and imagination in accounting for the imperceptible?
  • What are the roles of ‘proxies’ or ‘sentinels’ for approaching the imperceptible and what are their ontological status?
  • How do different scales and locations of imperceptibility challenge human levels of receptivity and responsiveness to current planetary challenges?
  • What does it mean to account for the imperceptible beyond technological limitations?
  • What might be the contribution of the arts in enhancing a critical sensibility to spaces in-between touch-non touch, feeling – unfeeling, knowing – not knowing?

Rebecca Ellis started the day by telling us that the imperceptible is more than invisibility beyond the human mind. The imperceptible might never be detectable, but can be speculated by mathematics. She referred to the work of Karen Barad on entanglement and nothingness and Levi Bryant on Dark Objects.

Kostas Dimopoulos told us about his contribution to the project as a cosmologist and pointed us to his recent article in The Conversation.

Sarah Casey discussed how she had approached the challenge of drawing the unseen, and drawing as a tool of investigation, drawing as bringing an idea into presence, drawing as drawing out and leaving a trace. Her work for the project was exhibited on the walls around us.


The first keynote was delivered by Roberto Trotto (theoretical cosmologist) and bore the title Cosmological Intangibles. Having now looked at his website I know why his keynote was so good. He is used to working with 10 year old children, i.e. avoiding jargon and making complex ideas accessible. He told us that what is visible is a matter of convention, because only a very narrow part of the electro-magnetic spectrum reaches earth. Our experience of the universe is limited by:

  • Scale and distance
  • Wavelength and energy which as humans we cannot see
  • Time delay
  • Intangible messengers

We use visualisation techniques and mathematical models to simulate dark matter, but we have to remember that visualisation is not neutral.

The next keynote was by Martin Kemp, Emeritus Research Professor in the History of Art at Oxford University, whose presentation focussed on Light Beyond Sight. His talk was illustrated with paintings by artists such as Michelangelo, Malevich and Piero della Francesca, which depict spiritual light, shifting sensory perception and the optics of uncertainty. He finished his talk by alerting us to the notion of visual deception, telling us that the eye is a deeply slippery deceptive organ.

We also had a keynote on radical indifference from Nigel Clark. I had difficulty following this talk, but the main question I took away was about whether the Universe is out there doing its own thing and if so will this make us more responsible, more ethical, open, moral human beings. Clark referenced Isabelle Stengers who in her work on cosmopolitics wrote that the earth is indifferent to the questions we ask. He recommended reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Fugitives by Anne Michaels. Also in this session was mentioned the work of the light artist James Turrell. This video was not shown as part of this workshop, but perhaps it is relevant, particularly since Turrell says that light has different behaviours when we’re looking!

Other speakers during the day were all very interesting and all challenged my thinking.

Klaus Mecke and Aura Heydenreich – ELINAS, Erlangen. ‘How is the unknown conceptualised?’

Neal White – Bournemouth University

Jol Thomson, Technische Universität Braunschweig, and Sasha Engelmann, University of Oxford. Their talk was about neutrinos and the Ice Cube Neutrino detector. ‘The limits of our imagination determine what we can and cannot see.’

Fiona Crisp – Northumbria University. ‘How does art purposively engage with other disciplines?’ She talked about productive doubt and negative capability (John Keats)  ‘Meaning is shaped and constructed rather than received and observed.’

Finally, the keynote from Barry Smith explained that the purpose of the projects within the AHRC’s Science in Culture theme was to promote collaborative research between the arts and sciences to speed up innovation and promote new research agendas. He gave us an overview of the other projects that have been funded and pointed out that each project was subject to the 4 Cs of communication, confusion, conflict and collaboration. Interdisciplinary conversations have been challenging not only because dark matter is imperceptible, invisible and intangible, but also because we do not have a cross disciplinary shared language with which to discuss it. There are emotional connections to words in different disciplines. It was suggested that we need an embodied reaction to depict sense of something that is beyond our grasp.

This post has only skimmed the surface of the workshop discussion and conversation. Hopefully more information will be provided on the project website in time.

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The second Networked Learning Conference 2016 Hotseat was a much quieter affair than the first, but none the worse for that. The topic, facilitated by Sonia Livingstone was – Boundaries and Limits of Networked and Connected Learning 

Sonia posted 4 topics for us to discuss:

  1. Experience of networked and connected learning, their boundaries and limits
  2. Limits to connectivity – how much of it do we (students, teachers) really want, and what are the demonstrable benefits?
  3. Risks of connectivity and what kinds of privacy or control or independence could be lost if everything is connected
  4. Educators’ roles: should we as educators respect students’ concerns to limit or bound learning networks, or should we strive to overcome them?

Experience of networked and connected learning, their boundaries and limits

Discussion in this thread was wide ranging. Sonia’s research is into 13-14 year old young people’s networks and how they manage connections between home, school, their community and elsewhere. She has found that there is some resistance from teachers, parents and students, who want to maintain boundaries and that connections across home and school can become ‘classed’ leading to inequality in learning experiences.

There was discussion about the need to balance connected learning (dialogue and collaboration) with individual or independent learning (silence and contemplation). Too much connectedness is not conducive to learning. Participation can be experienced as suffocation. Private, off-grid, solitude and contemplation are key factors in learning and disconnection is a part of learning that needs to be rediscovered. Identity is an issue.

By the end of the thread we were no nearer determining how students can take control of their learning in and out of school in formal and informal learning.

Limits to connectivity – how much of it do we (students, teachers) really want, and what are the demonstrable benefits?

The point was made that technically there are no limits to connectivity, although physically connectivity can be variable according to bandwidth and geography. The manipulation of Facebook, Twitter and Google in controlling what we see can limit connectivity and digital literacy should include critical questioning of platforms and assumptions. Sonia’s research has revealed that younger people are more willing to change platforms than older people and younger people are more willing to use adblocker software. It was suggested that building digital connections across the age range would be beneficial.

Risks of connectivity and what kinds of privacy or control or independence could be lost if everything is connected

The question was raised of whether (with increasing visibility and traceability online), privacy is any longer possible. This led to consideration of the role of surveillance and monitoring and some discussion of Jose van Dijck’s book The Culture of Connectivity. I spent some time reading around this and writing my contribution to the discussion, but made the mistake of writing it in Word and then copying and pasting it into the forum. To my dismay it copied as an image which meant that none of the links worked – so I am attaching it here. Post about Jose Van Dijck’s work . The point made by van Dijck and Sonia, which was significant for this discussion, is that there is a difference between connectedness and connectivity. Connectedness is social participation. Connectivity is mediated by systems platforms.

Sonia pointed out that in their connections and connectivity young people are at risk of a double whammy of surveillance. In connectedness they are at risk of surveillance from teachers and parents; in connectivity they are at risk of surveillance from the state. I suspect we are all at risk in these ways, not just the young.

Further risks of connectivity were thought to be risks from unknown default settings and terms of use and the risk of context collapse when people try to maintain connectedness in different online spaces.

Mariana Funes pointed us to Dave Egger’s novel ‘The Circle’ and Michael Harris’ book – ‘The end of absence. Reclaiming what we’ve lost in a world of constant connection.’ These books address the question of what would be lost if everything is connected – the loss of lack, the loss of absence and the loss of a non-performative life.

Educators’ roles: should we as educators respect students’ concerns to limit or bound learning networks, or should we strive to overcome them?

This question was not really taken up and discussed other than to say that the answer would be dependent on resolving the tension between learning agency and autonomy, and the teacher’s need to intervene. It will be a matter of progression, topic and context, but learners need uncertainty to become radical sceptics.


The next Hotseat dates are: December 6-12, 2015 

Facilitator Steve Wright: What have the ANTs ever done for us? Packing your cases to follow the actors….


Selected references and further reading

Livingstone, S. & Sefton-Green, J. (2016, in press). The Class. Living and learning in the digital age. Nyu Press

Livingstone, S. (2015, June 11th) How the ordinary experiences of young people are being affected by networked technologies [Blog post] Retrieved from:http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/how-the-ordinary-experiences-of-young-people-are-being-affected-by-networked-technologies/

Livingstone, Sonia (2014) What does good content look like?: developing great online content for kids. In: Whitaker , Lynn, (ed.) The Children’s Media Yearbook 2014. The Children’s Media Foundation , Milton Keynes, UK, pp. 66-71. ISBN 9780957551824

An Agenda for Research and Design, A research synthesis report of the Connected Learning Research Network. Retrieved from http://dmlhub.net/wp-content/uploads/files/Connected_Learning_report.pdf

Connected Learning. An Agenda for Research and Design. http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning-agenda-for-research-and-design/

Loveless, A. & Williamson, B. (2013). Learning Identities in a Digital Age: Rethinking creativity, education and technology. Routledge

Strathern, M. (1996) Cutting the Network. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute,Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 517-535. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3034901

Light, B. (2014). Disconnecting with social networking sites. Palgrave Macmillan

Mejias, U. A. (2013). Off the Network. https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/pdf/off-the-network

Michael Harris (2014) The End of Absence. Reclaiming what we lost in a world of constant connection

Dave Eggers (2013). The Circle. http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/blog/post/the-circle-totally-transparent

Jose van Djick – Social Media and the Culture of Connectivity – https://youtu.be/x-mdi63Zk58

Facebook told by Belgian court to stop tracking non-users http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-34765937

Barry Wellman (2002).  “Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism.” Pp. 11-25 in Digital Cities II: Computational and Sociological Approaches, edited by Makoto Tanabe, Peter van den Besselaar, and Toru Ishida. Berlin: Springer-Verlag http://calchong.tripod.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/LittleBoxes.pdf

Implementing pbl online as a collaborative learning strategy for teachers: the cole https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256476854_IMPLEMENTING_PBL_ONLINE_AS_A_COLLABORATIVE_LEARNING_STRATEGY_FOR_TEACHERS_THE_COLE

Jaap Bosman (2015. Nov 7. Blog post) Connecting and StillWeb https://connectiv.wordpress.com/2015/11/07/connecting-and-stillweb/

Caulfield, M. (2015. Oct 17th. Blog post) The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral http://hapgood.us/2015/10/17/the-garden-and-the-stream-a-technopastoral/

Claxton, M. (1998). Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. Fourth Estate; New Ed edition

Bohmian Dialogue – http://www.david-bohm.net/dialogue/dialogue_proposal.html


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