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Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam

By Lisa Neal / May 2008

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Irene McAra-McWilliam, who gave the opening plenary at the recent CHI 2008 conference in Florence, Italy, is the head of the School of Design at the Glasgow School of Art. She specializes in cultural research for social innovation, creativity, new technology, and community. Lisa Neal interviewed her following McAra-McWilliam's keynote address and followed up by email.

Lisa Neal: In your keynote, you spoke about transformation design as giving people tools to create on their own. Can you elaborate on this concept and how it is relevant to e-learning course developers and to online teachers and students?

Irene McAra-McWilliam: Transformation design is about developing creative capability "beyond" expert boundaries. For e-learning, it may be a useful approach to consider online communities as being self-supportive and consisting of creative learners, and to consider to what extent an online environment can enable students to collaborate together throughout their learning.

LN: You said that a teacher's greatest gifts to his or her students are discerning quality and critical analysis. What are the differences in teaching these in the classroom and online?

IMM: I said "one" of the gifts…creative thinking means the ability to develop a range of possible options and directions. A second important skill is having the ability to judge which ones are the best to pursue—this stage takes the discernment and self-reflection I mentioned.

The benefit of the classroom in design is the "crit," where a group shares its individual works and criticizes it collectively and constructively in order to build up the faculty of judgment. This may be more difficult online as the sense, and presence, of the collective is weaker. An added disadvantage is that in my discipline—design—the work presented is often visual and tangible—textiles or jewelry, for example. It is difficult to convey material qualities online. We have found at The Glasgow School of Art that online learning needs to be complemented by intensive residential periods where students and staff work together.

LN: Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, described the value of imagining what it is like to be someone else. You say this leads to a richer understanding than a persona, which can be more of a stereotype or archetype. How does the use of imagining a person help in online course design?

IMM: In this example from Adam Smith, I was referring to the quality of empathy: We can imagine, or try to imagine, what it's like to actually be another person. This is quite different from imagining an imaginary person—or persona. A persona is an imaginary construct, and therefore does not have the value of the "real," nor does it entail active involvement with another person. Interaction with real people helps us learn about their world, and through empathy we can try to enter that world.

For course design, we have to imagine the students who will benefit from the learning. The more that we can extend that imagination, the more diverse the types of people who could benefit, the more non-archetypal is the definition. So while we may identify commonalities among people, we need to also accommodate—and seek—the differences. For me, the concept of "persona" may limit our thinking about people because it's standardized or archetypal.

LN: Italy's slow food movement focuses on the use of seasonal, local foods that are cooked in traditional ways, not zapped in a microwave. Building on this metaphor, what do you see as the educational equivalent of slow food, and the educational equivalent of fast food?

IMM: Slow food metaphor can be applied to how learning "ripens" over time when we develop and learn to appreciate a deeper understanding. Fast food metaphor is the commodification of learning-mass produced and identical everywhere. Unsustainable.

LN: You spoke of the choreography of time and the need for one's brain to have time to organize new information. How is time a factor in classroom vs. online education? While online offers more flexibility, doesn't it also have the problem of eating up all the remaining hours in the day? And what about optimal locations for studying—since you mentioned train travel as being your optimal work environment?

IMM: A curriculum—online or otherwise—can be designed with reference to the pace of learning, and indeed should take cognizance of the time that people have available. However, I'd also say that learning is rewarding, and if designed well, can be refreshing rather than tiring. So—as with all things—the effect is based on the quality.

I have a diversity of work environments—train travel is indeed a very good one—but many places are excellent spaces for thought.

LN: Finally, you spoke of the value of face-to-face interaction in education, and when asked if telepresence or any technologies are good substitutes, you said "no." You mentioned the importance of "creating materiality in the world" and the necessary skills in daily life, such as being social and planning a trip. At the same time, you spoke of the emotional content of voice as working over technology, not just in person. There are instances when face-to-face is considered necessary, such as for supervising a skill such as surgery. When do you believe face-to-face adds the most value and why? Can the rest be done online quite well?

IMM: The answer to this necessarily varies depending on the subject being taught—surgery, painting, embroidery, singing. Face-to-face allows for "whole body" learning, hands-on experience, and the opportunity to see the work of masters in the subject area first hand. Learning is embodied, I believe, in situations, and therefore online is complementary to face-to-face, but cannot replicate fully the quality of real interaction between domain experts and students. As telepresence develops, it will be able to support a broader and deeper interaction, but can nevertheless be perceived one learning tool among many, rather than the learning tool. All methods have their strengths and weaknesses and when we apply these appropriately, we provide better courses for different types of students. The point I'd like to make is that we need to design the "choreography" of learning, for many different platforms, places, and people.


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