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TRANSCRIPT: Tales4Teaching ep. 72 – Teaching threshold concepts through immersive learning

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Intro: Welcome to Tales4Teaching, a podcast where we explore stories with purpose in higher education. We will share expert insights, engaging interviews, and thought-provoking discussions that will inspire your teaching.

JOAN: On behalf of Deakin University, I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the unceded land and waterways on which you are located. I acknowledge the Wadawurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Owners on which this podcast was recorded, and I pay my respects to elders past, present, and future. My name is Joan Sutherland and this is Tales4Teaching brought to you by Deakin Learning Futures.

Hello, and welcome to today’s podcast on immersive learning to teach threshold concepts. Today I am joined by Associate Professor Toija Cinque who will be talking about their journey and how they’ve implemented immersive learning practices to teach threshold concepts. Welcome, how are you today? 

TOIJA: Well, Joan. Thanks for having me. 

JOAN: Thanks for coming on. Just to get started, I’d just like you to introduce yourself and what you actually teach.  

TOIJA: Thanks, I’m teaching communications in digital media, specifically. I look at the digital affordances of the technologies, and I’m interested critically in all the good and all the bad, and all the shades in between. I am keen to know what drives the technologies, the user engagement, and this is what I teach and this is what I research. I also advocate for more knowledge and digital literacy in and around the technology. 

JOAN: When you say you teach digital media, is that for educators or is it a particular stream that you teach for? 

TOIJA: That’s a great question. I teach digital media units in the Bachelor of Communication. My threshold concept and the work that I’m doing at the moment came out of unit development. I was a course coordinator for the communication stream when we were transitioning to a new suite of programs. There was the need to set up new content and engage with stakeholders in industry. Communications is changing all the time. We’ve got people that work in the field of public relations, in journalism, and using communication for all realms of work practice. It was really important to stay up to date with what was happening. I’m really interested in the technology and how it’s being used. And this is not what we call a means to see technology as solving all our problems. It’s not saying that technology is the utopian ideal to strive for, but how is it used? And how can we critically think about best practice? I guess as a way of saying it, I teach undergraduate units. I also have HDR students doing HD in the area, in some fascinating fields. I was supervising a student this morning that’s doing synthetic ornithology. They’re getting all the data, scraping it themselves, putting it through a system to generate birdsong to think about speculative climate futures. How cool is that as a project? Some terrific things to apply the technology in creative ways. How do we make sense of the world around us through the data that we collect and curate and share? 

JOAN: It’s really interesting how you put it. How do you make sense of the world around you and use technology I suppose to help you do that. You mentioned that you created this as a new unit and looked at different technology to evaluate and what you’re actually teaching through. How do you choose what technology is the technology to teach? 

TOIJA: That’s a great question. There are so many technologies. I quickly needed to temper my love for, I guess computing and information technology, to say students are not doing a computer science degree in my degree, however, it’s really interesting to have the capacity to look at some of the tools that can gather data to make sense of something that you’re really interested in. This doesn’t have to be something about spreadsheets or finance, although it can work really well. The course that I teach draws students in taking communication, digital media units as selectives across business law. We’ve had students from real estate, one from zoology to others that are studying criminology and subjects in social science and humanities. We also have IT students as well, having a unit that looks at this notion of quantified media and how we put it all together. What do we use through the lens of communication and media technology is important. There’s a little bit of the IT, what we call data scraping to get data, to make sense of an important issue or a topic that a student might be interested in researching that works really well increasingly for the likes of media journalism and public relations, advertising, where you need to know what is topical, what are the trends at the moment, what are people saying, so that sentiment analysis is really important. But then also looking creatively at the technologies for things like exploring ideas creatively through particular technologies. This can be a video essay, for example, or something like the Threshold Concept Film, where we can say, how do we unpack a particular topic in a way to share it that’s immersive. I’ve also worked with augmented reality and one of my research projects that I drew on for the threshold concept film was the idea of communicating science and how do we use science to look after environment. One of the examples was a little augmented frog that I’ve got that’s in a project for school students to teach them about science. The idea is that typically you wouldn’t take little kids out to a lake, and say splash around and look for a frog, that could be dangerous. The idea is to have this augmented frog that students can see on their phone. And they can still go outside, be in a space, in situ, as we say. And they would have a field, for example. They might see water in a distance, but they can use the phone and they can hold up their little frog, and they can hear the sound of the actual frog. And then that could lead to discussion with teachers, where do we think we’d find it, what does it eat? It’s also important thinking about our environment from the point that we don’t want people trampling around on some of the very delicate orchids, so how can we use technology to show people what is the best features, where to find it? And they might also see it in its actual environment through the screen. Using the screen is a really useful way to discuss the technology in media communication units for various topics. 

JOAN: I could see that and engage with different topics that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to see. You talked about the Threshold Concept Film. Can you touch on that a little bit more and expand on what you meant by the threshold concept film and what was actually created? 

TOIJA: Yes, absolutely. In part of the new suite, I’m always conscious to take feedback informally as well as use the evaluate data. Students would comment on how do topics all fit together? And I wanted a way to bring the key topics together. A unit like media ecologies is one that is about the media that we use in everyday life. And it goes across our telecommunications network. The implications of using the communication technologies for surveillance and privacy of individuals. How we collect and curate information. What we’ve lost in the process. How we move away from what we call legacy medium. The analog forms of our music records, cassette tapes, movies in a film canister, for example, photographs using cameras and having your film developed. Moving from that analog technology to the digital realm where everything is just a series of 0 and 1 digits. But that’s not the end of it. Increasingly, the conversation needs to turn to the fact that much of the technology that we now use draws from a natural resources we’re mining, which has implications for the environment. We’re using more power that has implications for our environment, similarly to we might be going into spaces, a natural environment that typically we didn’t. Can technology be used in a way to have balance as much as we’re looking at the technology, I wanted the students to think about what the implications are in a unit like media ecologies. There’s a lot to unpack. We will look at this introduction to what does a media ecology mean, and it’s drawn from this motion of the science. It’s not my term. Matthew Fuller and others have used this term of media ecology and it comes from a long tradition going Donna Haraway for example, Guattari, who talks about three ecologies and it takes a macro perspective to say all these things that we do using our phone, watching film, entertained in our everyday life, working on computers, et cetera, how does that form a culture, for example, just like in science, like a culture media, how are they all connected to each other? This idea of a media ecology was a good descriptor for that we unpack things like the media archaeology. It’s like sentimental layers of how we move from one technology to another and how we adapt it. For example, the telephone was originally conceived as something that might be used to deliver opera and music into people’s home. Not unlike a radio consumer, said, no, we’re not going to use the technology in that way. And it was adapted similarly. The mobile phone was initially thought to be something that would be a great advantage to say tradespeople that could take calls on the go and not be tethered to a wide device. And of course we can see. Mainstream media and our children have these devices. It’s very much the interplay of the development of technology and how consumers take it up. Unpacking the sedimentary layers, what we call a media ecology. To think about how we’ve now emerged with new forms and we continue through the future of media is something that I hope students will develop an understanding of. Through that, we look to the steps for an ecosophy media, appreciating the impact, the footprint that the media has, the context of are we living in an Anthropocene and what that means, again, what footprint is the human leaving? We have authors that have written on next natures and bio media for example. But it’s important that of the way First Nations people understand data and their media as well. In this space, this media scape of ubiquitous computing. Some of the key concepts of thinking about all of that can be around convergence, compression technology, digitization, globalization, and these are processes. These are some of the threshold concepts that I thought would be helpful for students for unpacking their reading and the content each week. Part of the content, I’ve got weekly discussion and I set up a study guide for the students to step them through these topics, as well as having the threshold concept film. I set up a data lab to bring them in to workshop with the data to say, how are we using this? How are we doing our assignments in this way? Again, the feedback around the threshold concept film has been that being able to see the topic rather than just read about it or rather than just hearing about it. We have people that learn in different ways has been an advantage. Developing the threshold film within 7 minutes a terrific. 

JOAN: Now that’s a 360 degree film. 

TOIJA: Yes, you’re right. 

JOAN: And it’s in our Nyall Studio, which for the listeners are familiar with the Nyaal Studio. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? 

TOIJA: Yes, sure. Being interested in technologies and screen technologies, I’m constantly looking at what are the tools that we’re using every day that be applied in a teaching situation to either enhance the learning or to offer skills, the practical skills that learners might need and within the Nyaal, as soon as I saw it, I thought this is going to be great for communicating the important ideas and showcasing some of these ideas and these threshold concepts through film. I was keen to make something and bring the students to it. You’re right. It’s a way to offer a film in 360 in the round. We call that being immersed in it, you have the sound and you feel like you are within the film as if you’re standing in this particular location. It takes the learner on that journey as if they were there in the best example. The Nyaal precinct, as well as having the screen area, there’s also a room that is available for breaking out into a discussion and deliberation so that after students have seen the film, we can go unpack it in a small group and connect to the weekly discussion questions that we’ve got there. After seeing it. 

JOAN: I notice with that room it is circular and people are facing each other. It does really lend itself to some robust discussion and conversations around things like a footprint of the media, which I mean would be quite contentious I would imagine. And what you’re actually choosing and what the impacts are, not just the output, I suppose.  

TOIJA: it’s a really interesting one. And I had different cohorts going through Joan, I found that one cohort, they came in and they sat down and they watched really quietly. And I had another group came in and they were wandering around and they were looking at the screen and they did chat. And then afterwards, rather than quietly going out, this group sat on the floor. And they were like, why have I never heard of this? Why didn’t we learned this at school? And because it now seems like such an everyday issue, environmental impacts of the everyday devices that they’re connected to. Why haven’t we thought about, as you say, the footprint, the privacy, the security implications. How we share? Are they conscious of the way that messages might be delivered to them? And the effects and affects. It’s a lot of fun and the reactions have been different for sure. In any case, it’s always sparked discussion. 

JOAN: I can only imagine it sounds exciting. I actually want to enroll in it just based upon what you’re saying. But things because we think about technology. And I know there’s a lot of discussion around the environmental impacts of AI, for instance, the new technologies. It’s fun, it’s exciting, you see these flashy new things. But what is under the hood and what does it actually mean for an industry? What does it mean for the environment, society? There’s other things that need to be considered, which is what you’re talking about today as we. 

TOIJA: Absolutely, this is where it’s critically important. Because it’s not a situation where society has an idea of how to make a better, more affordable, more functional tool. It’s the tool becomes immersed in mainstream society. And then, okay, how do we deal with this? Regulation is frequently playing catch up, or the implications often become known after a period of time. Being critically aware and engaging with this early on is important, as you say. It’s not just for university students. While we get into it deeply and do these deep readings, for example, critically discuss and work through the key ideas through assignment tasks. This is something that touches the lives of everybody. 

JOAN: That’s interesting, it touches the lives of everyone. I like that because it actually does. It’s true. You mentioned around that 360 degree video that you did. If not everyone has the capability or capacity to actually do the 360 degree video, are there any other ways you’ve talked about discussion and critically engaging with text? Are there any other ways that you teach those threshold concepts or is it mainly through the 360 video? 

TOIJA: Yeah, that’s a really good point. The affordances that we’ve got, unfortunately, we only have the Nyaal in the 360 at the Geelong campus. I’m hoping that there’s going to be a real move to bring that to the Deakin Burwood campus. If we can get a Waterfront, it’d be fantastic because as we’re talking about, it’s great to get out into a different space. I think that the newness of it can stimulate that critical thinking that we’re hoping the students will have. Not just the critical thinking, but the creative thinking as well. However, for those that are not able to be in the space, we have rendered the film so that it can be viewable on a screen view. What that means is on a mobile phone, yes. Irony of ironies, but as much as we critique the technology, it’s a great affordance for accessing it as well on the phone. And this can be in a cardboard headset so it can be worn similar to 360 immersive viewable experience or just in 3D through Deakinir. It is available in that manner as well. For other academics that are keen to use the technology, I’m happy to talk to them about this. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve really enjoyed the process of doing it and a great thing. Aubrey in communication and creative arts is a great support there as well. 

JOAN: You mentioned enables critical thinking and also creative thinking. How do you facilitate that in students? Because I’ve done a series of podcasts around AI and one of the biggest concerns is around the ability to creatively think and critically think about outputs as well. How do you teach your students to think in a particular way or question things and think creatively? 

JOAN: I’m hoping that the offering, the Nyaal experience gives the students a way to understand the key threshold concepts early on to appreciate how interdisciplinary the topic they’re researching or they’re studying is because we draw on so many different readers. We also point to those that are working creatively in the space to unpack the same issue, just in a different way. The assessment tasks are driven in different ways to offer students the capacity to do a critical essay or a creative option to spark that creative option. What I had done prior to Covid was to encapsulate the teaching trimester in a particular artist. One year we had a June Paik inspired exhibition and it was entitled Media Ecologies and Media Futures. The students were required to create their final assessment task as either a short story or a creative film. And then they would help to curate an exhibition to celebrate the end of the trimester. We shared the journey of that learning about the media ecologies looking at the history, the past, the present of media technologies, the ecologies and the various possibilities through envisioning the future possible and thinking about the future of our media environments. That was one particular theme to foster the students on that creative journey as practitioners, we had a number of these creative works, then as practice led research towards the public presentation in Deakin’s Phoenix Gallery. They produced the work, we created it, and then we had a celebratory event. I has dressed the scene for them. We’re talking about the environment. We brought in trees and plants and then screens in amongst that. We even had students that were doing spoken pieces. We had poetry reading. We had students that did creative work. I’ve got some of the creative work behind me. I’ll load the screen unfortunately. But visual images that students came up with to think about what could be quite a dry subject, media and technology, if you think of the science fiction dystopian version that it could be to creatively celebrate that with particular work. This is where I’ve used the feedback to try to think about different things that the students would enjoy and engage with through different assessment and learning tasks. 

JOAN: That’s amazing. I was just thinking as you’re talking, how are you coming up with all these ideas and thinking about new ways of engaging? And you just said it’s listening to the students and what they want and then iterating. It’s an iterative development side of things, which is fabulous as well. Do you find it hard or cumbersome to iterate it in this way? Because you’re on the forefront, I suppose, around digital technologies, digital communication, and there’s new things coming up all the time. How do you keep abreast of everything that’s happening? 

TOIJA: It’s not onerous. It is something that I’m incredibly interested in. That is my teaching, research, and advocate, all working in one. For example, if I do a peer review, I get the great privilege of the latest work with some technologies. One of them this week was around digital forensics and new tools for digital forensics and scraping data. This is fantastic. This is going to be a great reading for the students that goes straight into the cloud unit sites, for example, to unpack, it does constantly involve, having said that, it’s not looking to new media gadgets, which quite different. My sense is that we’ve got tools, we’ve always had tools. It’s just the way we apply these tools in different ways. To me that seems important. And not saying that this is the wonderful, shiny utopian thing that’s going to solve all our problems, but how do we make it work for us? You mentioned AI, and that’s another critical example at the moment. How take this tool and help it to work for us. Of course, that are saying that it might not work for humans have been resilient and creative for a very long time. It is the best of the thinking to think through the issues and find solutions that we can work on together. 

JOAN: Absolutely. And provide that premium teaching experience and learning experience. Because I know we focus on the students a lot, but it’s also the teaching experience as well. If we think about going back to the example, what the examples were in January versus now, it’s evolved so much and so quickly. And people are thinking of different ways and creative ways to use things like chat GPT. As you said, humans are resilient and they are creative and they’ll continue to be. So regardless of the tools that are out there and things will continue to evolve as you’re saying, you’re keeping abreast of things by peer reviewing and being part of a community of practice. Essentially, you’re so passionate about it and it really comes through, which is really exciting to hear. Thank you for that. 

TOIJA: Thanks, Joan 

JOAN: Finally, I’d just like to know what are the impacts from a student perspective that you’ve seen after taking a digital communication? After taking digital media in communication? 

TOIJA: I looked informally for feedback. And student feedback from the unit suggests that the content being taught through the immersive 360 film for the threshold concepts really did impact on them. Some of the students, and I’m quoting here, said I found that having the theories, the concepts and ideas in the film helped visualize these. And to really get immersed in the content, another student said, could be longer. I really enjoyed watching it, which is fantastic because we aim typically for no more than 7 min. We’re still engaged and still wanting more was I’ll take that onboard and I’m happy to make that longer in other iterations of the film. Others said it makes us pay attention more than usual. Presentations. Boring. Quite possibly. That’s fine. Whatever works, think it would be boring just by what I’m hearing. Another student said that it was visually impressive and they did like the immersive aspect of it. And a number, we’re saying that they were learning a lot. Others said that it was fun. Well, who said learning can’t be fun? 

JOAN: Well, that’s exactly right. Well, it sounds like you get really positive feedback which is fabulous, and that you’re iterating it anyway, So it’s all constructive. At the end of the day, I’d just like to thank you so much Toija for talking to me about what you’re doing in digital communication, in digital media, around media ecology, which is a term I haven’t heard before and thinking about the ecology of technology in teaching and learning. Thank you for your time today. Just before we have you got any last in comments or anything else you’d like to share with the audience? 

TOIJA: If anyone is interested inteaching the 360 space,give it a go, I’mhappy to speakto that wants to tryit out for themselves.And it can be somethingthat can work forthem and it’s agreat thing to do.Thanks for theopportunity Joan.It was great to talkto you about this.

27 July 2023

Last modified: 7 August 2023 at 10:03 am

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