Who Are You and What Are Your Superpowers? Creating Student Trading Cards

This term I am leading a “supermodule” (undergraduate and postgraduate students combined) on User-Centred Systems Design. We had our first session on Monday morning first thing.

Sometimes we may underestimate the importance of ice-breaking activities and of getting to know each other at the beginning of a course/module. I feel like the increased costs of higher education have created a perception that any activities done in class that do not appear to be immediately related to the content of the lecture are a “waste of time”. However in order to make the most of an educational experience we need to attempt to design such experience by helping to create the circumstances that will allow students and staff to make the most of it.

It is hard to expect student engagement (their focused attention, participation via comments and questions, effective working in pairs or groups) if we haven’t made an effort to learn about each other (even if to a limited degree) and try to create an environment of trust. This trust will need to be developed over the term but we can begin to do that by making the time to introduce each other and to learn a bit more about our general and specific expectations.

Activities where students are asked to meet each other (let alone work with each other) can be very hard for different students for a plethora of reasons (I won’t go into those here). In my experience it does help if the activity introduces them to the skills and strategies that are included in the module’s learning objectives. It also helps if the activity is structured, rather than left to the students’ own devices (“talk amongst yourselves”).

Since the module I am leading provides an introduction to User-centred Design Activities, I aimed to fulfill various objectives in one through a “student trading card” creation ice-breaking activity.

The motivations behind the activity were:

  • To contribute to breaking the ice between students and staff through a dynamic, engaging activity
  • To prompt students to talk to each other in order to get to know each other better beyond those they already know
  • To help me as module leader to know my students’ needs better
  • To prompt students to reflect on the relationships between information architecture and layout, and between form and content- how the design of a template demands a particular type of data entry
  • To introduce students to qualitative data collection via an in-person interview
  • To prompt students to reflect on three personal and/or professional “superpowers” i.e. something they feel they are good at, prompting the rehearsal of positive thinking by focusing on diverse skills
  • To prompt students to reflect on a personal and/or professional “weakness” i.e. an area of activity, knowledge or skill they wish to improve

With this requirements in mind I designed the activity reusing a very basic blank “trading card” template, which I printed out copies of, to hand them out to students, one each. I also had extra A4 blank paper to hand out and pens in case they were needed.

I introduced the activity and provided a summary of the instructions on the screen as a slide:

Trading Card activity slide

While I introduced the activity I got students to reflect on where they thought each answer should go on the form. No one, for example, suggested the name should go in the bottom box- but there were different views on what the top left circle and top right rectangle could contain. By doing this we were already very loosely anticipating content we will see later in the course, such as hierarchical analysis and user research activities such as semi-structured interviews, questionnaires and data collection.

What we meant by “superpowers” and “weaknesses” had to be defined- things we felt we were good at and things we though we needed/wanted to improve. It was important to not constrain these too much, allowing students to reflect on their own views on what their three “superpowers” and one “weakness” could be and to feedback each other about them. For example often during the conversations “weaknesses” could be turned into superpowers under the right circumstances. The main thing is to focus on the positives and to instill a sense that improvement is possible.

It was great to see the students engaged with the activity and ended up collecting more student trading cards than the single one I initially anticipated. As we were pressed for time we did not follow up the activity by getting students to actually “trade” the cards as a way to then find the students they represented, nor did I encourage students to draw “profile pictures” of their interviewees (some students did this without being prompted to).

I asked volunteers to feedback on the activity. They shared they found it enjoyable, had met colleagues they had not met properly before. I asked them about what they had found challenging about the activity, and indeed they shared that some had found it way harder to think of their own strengths and easier to think of their own weaknesses… or easier to think of personal “superpowers” than strictly “professional” ones. Feedback agreed that students “felt better” once they had their own cards read back to them.  Some students regretted we had not had time to be more creative designing each other’s trading cards, adding illustrations, colour, etc.

We discussed how even those “superpowers” we ourselves could think of as not relevant to our professional practice could be easily transferred or useful to enhance it. I emphasised how they all had collected data from fellow participants using a standardised data collection template following a semi-structured interview, and that though this was an informal exercise giving us but a tiny glimpse of what talking to people for research purposes could be like, the module will go into detail on how to conduct user research using a range of practical methods. We also drew parallels between the trading card template and other user-centred design activities we will cover during the module, such as personas and wireframing.

What I wanted to do was to apply interaction design principles to the activity. As in that session we would cover usability and user experience, I wanted the activity to be enjoyable, fun, entertaining, motivating, aesthetically-pleasing and rewarding. The positive feedback from students during and after the lecture gave me an indication we might have achieved precisely that!

For this activity all you need is sheets of paper and pens- students can sketch their own templates. Unidrectional, hierarchical, non-dynamic classroom activities can be disempowering- and students of different educational levels (for example undergraduate and postgraduate) can feel apprehensive about their own skills,  and most of the times do fail to make students become protagonists (“heroes”) of their own stories, making them feel dependent on external guidance and afraid of taking independent decisions. Allowing a safe space to reflect on our individual abilities (“superpowers”), to see each others as heroes of our own stories, without forgetting about those areas we would like to improve, can hopefully provide an initial step towards greater student empowerment.

Thoughts on University Module Evaluation

Update: I have now deposited a slightly revised version of this text (that has already gone various versions since its original publication) at figshare as

Priego, Ernesto (2019): Recommendations for University Module Evaluation Policies. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.8236607

Also available at City Research Online: http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/22318/

[Frequent readers will know I have a long-standing interest in scholarly communications, metrics and research assessment. The post below fits within my academic research practice, this time focusing on teaching evaluation (“module evaluation” in UK parlance). For an older post on metrics and research asssessment, for example, see this post from June 30 2014. As all of my work here this post is shared in a personal capacity and it does not represent in any way the views of colleagues or employers. I share these ideas here as a means to contribute publicly to a larger scholarly dialogue which is not only inter-disciplinary but inter-institutional and international].


tl; dr

This post discusses the limitations of University Module Evaluation processes and shares a series of  recommendations that could improve their design and implementation. The post concludes that regardless of staff gender, age, academic position or ethnic background, no metric or quantitative indicator should be used without thoughtful, qualitative social and organisational context awareness and unconscious bias awareness. The post concludes there is a need to eliminate the use of Module Evaluation metrics in appointment and promotion considerations.


Module Evaluation

“Module evaluation” refers to the process in which students feedback, assess and rate their academic studies and the quality of teaching on the module (in other countries “modules” might be known as courses or subjects). Below I  discuss the limitations of Module Evaluation processes and sharesa series of recommendations that I hope could improve their design and implementation.

On “Potential Bias”

Research has shown how internationally “potential bias” against gender and ethnic minorities is real. Holland has described how

“different treatment of male and female staff is increasingly well evidenced: some studies have found that students may rate the same online educators significantly higher if perceived as male compared to female (MacNell, Driscoll, and Hunt 2015), while other studies have shown that students can make more requests of and expect a greater level of nurturing behaviour from females compared to males, penalising those who do not comply (El-Alayli, Hansen-Brown, and Ceynar 2018)” (Holland 2019).

Research has also suggested “that bias may decrease with better representation of minority groups in the university workforce” (Shepherd et al 2019). However, even if an institution, school or department has good staff representation of (some) minority groups in some areas, it would be important that a policy went beyond mandating support for staff from minority groups to prepare for promotion. The way to tackle bias is not necessarily by giving more guidance and support to minority staff, but by re-addressing the data collection tools and the assessment of the resulting indicators and its practical professional and psychological consequences for staff.

As discussed above the cause for lower scores might be related to the bias implicit in the evaluation exercise itself. Arguably, lower scores can in many cases be explained not by the lecturer’s lack of skills or opportunities, but by other highly influential circumstances beyond the lecturer’s control, such as cultural attitudes to specific minority groups, demographic composition of specific student cohorts, class size, state of facilities where staff teach, etc.

In my view Universities need policies that clearly state that ME scores should not to be used as unequivocal indicators of a member of staff’s performance. The fact that the scores are often perceived by staff (correctly or incorrectly) to be used as evidence of one’s performance, that those indicators will be used as evidence in promotion processes, can indeed be a deterrent for those members of staff to apply for promotion. It can also play a role in the demoralisation of staff.


On Student Staff Ratios (SSR), Increased Workloads and Context Awareness

University Module Evaluation policies could be improved by acknowledging that workload and Student Staff Ratios are perceived to have an effect on the student experience and therefore on ME scores.

Though there is a need for more recent and UK-based research regarding the impact of class size and SSR on ME, higher education scholars such as McDonald are clear that

“research testifies to the fact that student satisfaction is not entirely dependent on small class sizes, a view particularly popular in the 1970s and late twentieth century (Kokkelenberg et al.,2008). Having said that, recent literature (post-2000) on the issue is focused heavily on the detrimental impact raised SSRs has on students, teachers and teaching and learning in general. The Bradley Review of higher education in Australia was just one ‘voice’ amongst many in the international arena, arguing that raised SSRs are seriously damaging to students and teachers alike” (McDonald 2013).

Module Evaluation policies should take into account current settings in Higher Education in relation to student attitudes to educational practices, including expectations of students today, communication expectations established by VLEs, mobile Internet, email and social media.

Raised SSRs do create higher workload for lecturers and have required new workload models. Raised SSRs imply that lecturers may not be able to meet those expectations and demands, or be forced to stretch their personal resources to the maximum, endangering their wellbeing beyond all reasonable sustainability. As I discussed in my previous post (Priego 2019) the recent HEPI Report on Mental Health in Higher Education shows “a big increase in the number of university staff accessing counselling and occupational health services”, with “new workload models” and “more directive approaches to performance management” as the two main factors behind this rise (Morish 2019).

Module Evaluation policies could do well to recognise that time is a finite resource, and that raised SSRs mean that a single lecturer will not be able to allocate the same amount of time to each student if there were lower SSRs. Raised SSRs also mean that institutions struggle to find enough appropriate rooms for lectures, which can also lead to lower scores as they impact negatively the student experience.


Who is being evaluated in multi-lecturer modules?

As part of context awareness, it is essential any interpretation of ME scores takes into account that various modules are delivered by a team of lecturers and often TAs and visiting lecturers. However, in practice the ME questionnaires are standardised and often outsourced and designed with individual session leaders in mind and generic settings that may not apply to the institution, school, department, module or session which is the setting and objective of the evaluation.

Regardless of clarification in the contrary, students often evaluate the lecturer they have in front of them that specific day in which they complete the questionnaires, not necessarily the whole team, and if they do the questionnaire’s data collection design does not allow for distinguishing what member of staff students had in mind.

Hence module leaders of large modules can arguably be penalised doubly at least, first by leading complex modules taught to many students, and second by being assessed for the performance of a group of peers, not themselves alone. Any truly effective ME Policy would need to address the urgent need to periodically revise and update MEQ’s design in consultation with the academic staff that would be evaluated with those instruments. Given who mandates the evaluations and their role in other assessment exercises such as rankings or league tables, a user-centred approach to designing module evaluation questionnaires/surveys seems sadly unlikely, but who knows.


Module Evaluation scores are more than just about staff performance

As we all know teaching is never disconnected from its infrastructural context. Room design, location, temperature, state of the equipment, illumination, level of comfort of the seats and tables, and importantly, the timing (stage in the teaching term, day of the week, time of the day, how many MEQs students have completed before, whether examinations or coursework deadlines are imminent or not) have a potential effect on the feedback given by students. ME policies would be more effective by acknowledging that academic staff do not teach in a vacuum and that many factors that might affect negatively the evaluation scores may have in fact very little to do with a member of staff’s actual professional performance.

Module Evaluation assessment done well

Members of staff potentially benefit from discussing their evaluation scores during appraisal sessions, where they can provide qualitative self-assessments of their own performance in relation to their academic practice teaching a module, get peer review and co-design strategies for professional development with their appraiser.

When done well, module evaluation scores and their discussion can help academics learn from what went well, what could go even better, what did not go as well (or went badly), interrogate the causes, and co-design strategies for improvement.

However, any assessment of module evaluation scores should be done in a way that takes into consideration a whole set of contextual issues around the way the data is collected. How to address this issue? Better designed data collection tools could address it, but it  would also be much welcome if module evaluation policies stated that scores should never be taken verbatim as unequivocal indicators of an academic’s performance.

In Conclusion…

University Module Evaluation policies should acknowledge module evaluation scores can be potentially useful for staff personal professional development, particularly if the the data collection mechanisms have been co-designed with staff with experience in the evaluated practice within the context of a specific institution, and the discussion takes place within productive, respectful, and sensitive appraisal sessions.

Policies should acknowledge that, as indicators, the evaluation scores never tell the whole story and, depending on the way the data is collected and quantified, the numbers can present an unreliable and potentially toxic picture. The objective of the evaluation should be to be a means to improve what can be improved within a specific context, not a measure of surveillance and repression that can potentially affect more negatively those who are already more likely to be victims of both conscious and unconscious bias or working within already-difficult circumstances.

Regardless of staff gender, age, academic position or ethnic background, no metric or quantitative indicator should be used without social and organisational context awareness and unconscious bias awareness.

To paraphrase the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, I would argue there is a “need to eliminate the use of [Module Evaluation] metrics in funding, appointment, and promotion considerations” [DORA 2012-2018].



Fan Y, Shepherd LJ, Slavich E, Waters D, Stone M, et al. (2019) Gender and cultural bias in student evaluations: Why representation matters. PLOS ONE 14(2): e0209749.https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209749

Holland, E. P. (2019) Making sense of module feedback: accounting for individual behaviours in student evaluations of teaching, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44:6, 961-972, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2018.1556777

McDonald, G. (2013). “Does size matter? The impact of student-staff ratios”. Journal of higher education policy and management (1360-080X), 35 (6), p. 652. http://0-www.tandfonline.com.wam.city.ac.uk/loi/cjhe20

Morish, L. (23 May 2019). Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff , HEPI Occasional Paper 20. Available from https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2019/05/23/new-report-shows-big-increase-in-demand-for-mental-health-support-among-higher-education-staff/ [Accessed 6 June 2019].

Priego, E. (30/05/2019) Awareness, Engagement and Overload – The Roles We All Play. Available at https://epriego.blog/2019/05/30/awareness-engagement-and-overload-the-roles-we-play/ [Accessed 6 June 2019]

San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (2012-2018) https://sfdora.org/ [Accessed 6 June 2019]


[This post is shared in a personal capacity and does not represent in any way the views of colleagues or employers. I share these ideas here as a means to contribute publicly to a larger scholarly dialogue which is not only inter-disciplinary but inter-institutional and international].

[…and yes, if you noticed the typo in the URL, thank you, we noticed it belatedly too but cannot change it now as the link had already been publicly shared.]


Open Access Outputs as Potential (Potentielle) Educational Resources

A word cloud of the most frequent 500 terms in the Conservative Manifesto 2017. Word cloud created with Voyant Tools.
A word cloud of the most frequent terms in the Conservative Manifesto 2017. Word cloud created with Voyant Tools.


Open Access is essentially a transformation in the way academic publications are licensed to individual users. One of my main motivations is the potential that open access to information (datasets, educational materials/resources, cultural heritage collections, research articles, books, all sorts of other academic/educational outputs such as slideshows, podcasts, video and audio) has to enhance and expand the reach and impact of academic work.*

A particularly important aspect of Open Access is that it aims to reach those not necessarily already within established academic networks (i.e those ‘within established networks’ have access to library collections or to colleagues who have access to them via their institutions’ paid subscriptions). Though the practical interconnections between ‘research’ and ‘education’ (in the sense of course ‘delivery’; pedagogical practice) varies from institution to institution and country to country, we cannot deny that both are necessarily interdependent.

Accepting the necessary interdependence between research and teaching in Higher Education, but also at other levels of formal education, means that when it comes to reducing the barriers to access the packaged results of academic/scientific/University work (call it what you will) in the form of ‘publications’, part of the ethos in devising strategies to do so comes from the assumption that education can take place outside the University (pay)walls.

Opening access to academic publications is also therefore motivated by the ethical belief that research, as an essential component of all learning and therefore of ‘Education’ with a captial e, contributes to the common good. Advocating for less barriers to education through strategies such as Open Access is also motivated by the belief that education should not only be a privilege of those already privileged enough to belong to the established networks of Higher Education, or who alternatively work for corporations or organisations that need research and can pay for it on an ad hoc basis. However,  when we advocate for Open Access in this sense we are not only thinking of those completely outside any formal educational context. Teachers and students at different levels of education, ‘here’ and abroad, can also potentially benefit.

As we have argued before, Open Data can be key in the development of transversal skills (including digital and data literacies, alongside skills for critical thinking, research, teamwork, and global citizenship) [see also this]. I think the development of ‘global citizenship’ skills is particularly important in this day and age, in which the general  trend is to return to political tropes of nationalism, ‘strength’, and the general isolationist exclusion of difference.

This is why I’d like to argue that Open Data (and publications from all disciplines contain data and constitute data themselves) should be seen as an opportunity for serendipitous discovery and creativity, including perhaps unforseen or unplanned uses. It’s been argued before that Open Access does not make sense because ‘the public’ would not be able to ‘understand’ what is published. I argue it’s not for us to prejudge that. What is certain is that what cannot be accessed cannot be understood.

In this sense I suggest that we must expand our arguments for Open Access publications and Open Data beyond ‘reproducibility’, citations and ‘Impact’. Perhaps a way of doing this is by thinking of outputs not only as research outputs, of interest to researchers alone, as the basis for more research, but as toolboxes for unexpected creativity. This ‘creativity’ can take place in unexpected places as well, but it may also take place in more formal settings like classrooms at all levels of education.

Sharing  ‘Counts and Trends of 459 Terms in ‘Prime Minister’s letter to Donald Tusk triggering Article 50’ (29 March 2017)‘ and ‘Top 300 Terms in the Conservative and Labour Manifestos 2017 (Counts and Trends)‘ made me think that we can think of open datasets (such as these ones which are basically lists of words and their counts in the analysed documents) as open educational resources for the development of various skills through guided tasks. These skills could be, but are not limited to, citizenship skills, interpretive skills, political discourse skills, composition and reading skills.

As I suggested in the posts linked above, one can imagine anyone (or, students in a classroom) using the words to write their own compositions. Here’s a set of words used by the Prime Minister in a letter: can you write your own letter using the same words? In my imaginary scenario the teacher/tutor could print each word on a card, including its count, and devises an activity where the student is asked to use the cards within constraints/guidelines in order to create something new. One can also imagine other activities based on those datasets, for example for students of English as a Second Language. I can also imagine a game of scrabble with the letters of each word… or art/design students doing collages, etc. Poetry, peformance art students could see what they could do by remixing the words… students learning programming and coding could write a Twitter bot; maths/stats students could practice quantitative skills, creating charts, etc.

Creative and educational ‘reuse’ of open outputs that allow modification can be considered a type of strategy akin to what the Situationist International called ‘détournement‘, a rerouting or hijacking of previous work (détournement Wikipedia entry here)**. Similarities and inspiration for activities with datasets can also be found in the work of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; workshop of potential literature) and similar groups. Perec et al defined the term littérature potentielle as “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy” (Oulipo Wikipedia entry here).

In previous articles we suggested talking of ‘Open Data as Open Educational Resources‘, but I’d like to suggest now Open Access Outputs as Potential Educational Resources. I like ‘potential’ as an adjective here because evidence shows that the openness of an output does not guarantee it will be accessed, read, cited nor ‘reused’. Openness is merely a precondition (as a form of availability). It is what follows what matters and what can turn an available output into potential ‘impact’. This impact cannot and should not always be pre-defined or anticipated.

There is potentiality in every output. Openness can be said to enhance the potentiality of widening reach, maybe reuse, maybe citations. But it can be much more than that. This ‘potentiality’ can be for the unsuspected and undevised, and it can very specifically refer, in some cases, to a resource’s potentiality to encourage users to seek new structures and patterns they might learn from, and enjoy.


Atenas, J., Havemann, L. & Priego, E. (2015). Open Data as Open Educational Resources: Towards Transversal Skills and Global Citizenship. Open Praxis, 7(4), pp. 377-389. doi: 10.5944/openpraxis.7.4.233 http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/13020/

Priego, E. (2017). Top 300 Terms in the Conservative and Labour Manifestos 2017 (Counts and Trends). figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.5016983.v1

Priego, E. (2017). Counts and Trends of 459 Terms in ‘Prime Minister’s letter to Donald Tusk triggering Article 50’ (29 March 2017). figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.4801591.v1

*Readers requiring a definition of Open Access can refer to the text of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (2002).

**Any students who took the Libraries and Publishing module in the last two years who may be reading this may remember the lectures where I talked about détournement as a creative and interpretive reuse strategy.

What was first, the VLE or the lecture? On ‘flipping’ attention back to the classroom


[Update: It took several slightly different drafts and published versions for this post to reach this finalish version. Since its original publication on 23 January 2017 I corrected typos, rearranged paragraphs, tried to remove annoying repetitions and attempted to make the discussion more concise. A blog is a sandpit… The latest changes, hopefully the final ones, were saved on 24 January 2017 11:24am 25 January 2017 12:23pm GMT.]

As the new year and the new academic term get under way, I find myself thinking again of the implications of the ‘Virtual Learning Environment’ (Moodle in  my case). As an exercise in reflective practice, I share the following notes from a personal perspective as a lecturer.

Some of you may be more familiar with the term ‘Learning Management System’ (Wikipedia definition here). Jisc defines ‘VLE’ as ‘a means to structure, manage and deliver learning activities and content. They are recognised as having strengths in student tracking and managing online assessments’ (‘Virtual learning environment’, 12 February 2016; my emphasis). An Oxford University Press resource defines it as ‘a system for delivering learning materials to students via the web. These systems include assessment, student tracking, collaboration and communication tools’ (‘Learn about Virtual Learning Environment/Course Management System content’, 2016; my emphasis).

I am interested in the cultural assumptions behind the design of educational tools, in relation to how much time and labour they require to be customised successfully and effectively. When design enables function customisation, the assumption is that (most or some) users will need, want and be able to use those features accordingly.  On Moodle, one thing is to merely drag and drop files onto a module, something else is to upload files adding relevant accurate metadata, attributes following accessibility guidelines, being mindful of licensing, customising for different cohort(s), permissions, roles and particular needs, etc.  If you add up enabling and using the collaboration and communication tools to your module, as well as any other ‘blocks’ we may want to add (widgets for reference managers for example), things get even more time-consuming. And if you add to that the fact that often notifications from message boards or submission areas are often forced subscriptions, with few users knowing it’s up to them to unsubscribe, the email workload added by the VLE is significant.

Under ideal circumstances the VLE can no doubt considerably enhance the learning that is supposed to take place during the classroom lecture. However, those ‘ideal’ circumstances are by definition not pragmatic ones and therefore it requires unusual effort to craft a successful and efficient VLE module. The result is that often VLEs are mostly used as file repositories. This means that rather than enhancement, what he have is a complement, an appendix, at best, a box of tools (those tools assist in functions, such as marking and feedback, that could be performed elsewhere or through different means). Apart from course documentation, the standard files in these ‘repositories’ are normally PowePoint or PDF files of the material shown or discussed during the weekly lectures. Given the current circumstances, using the VLE as a file repsository, rather than as a proper ‘environment’,  is a reasonable and pragmatic solution. Less is often more when setting up pages for courses.

My concern is that there is a growing gulf between educational technology (a field for which I have great admiration and respect) and the pragmatic conditions of teaching preparation, pastoral care and the actual lecture. Simple customisations can take many precious hours: on Moodle, there is no such thing as ‘frictionless’ editing… every item takes at least 3 if not 4 clicks to edit. Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow, wrote the poet. (For an important discussion of how VLEs or LMS  fit within infrastructures and social systems, I recommend this 2009 post by David Jones).

Something else that interests me are the cultural consequences of administrative and pedagogical decisions/requirements to use the VLE, and the behaviour and expectations the VLE contributes to develop in students. The VLE, even when used at its most reduced capability, is not merely a tool. Like all technologies, it should be commonplace now to say the VLE is never neutral. The mere existence of a VLE creates demands and expectations, develops situations and defines behaviour and culture. (This is why it is called an ‘environment’). Because it has been implemented and has been normalised as what must be used, even an unused or seldom-used VLE is doing things. The environment, indeed, defines us and the way we relate to each other.

I believe we have given too much importance to the VLE, and as a sector, those of us in UK Higher Education using VLEs as the centre of student learning interaction have contributed to creating a culture where programmes, syllabi, subjects, topics, disciplines and approaches are ‘sites’, places that can be entered in and exited, services where students are supposed to find everything they need. Real learning does not happen like this, and we all know it, including our students. There will never be a single place or single person that will deliver everything for you. One learns this.

It is a question of perceptions and expectations. The existence of a module (or series of modules) on the VLE can be perceived by students as synonymous with the existence of a course, and the slides file synonymous with the existence of a lecture. Synonymous with the lecture. In this sense the implications are that the lecture is not seen as an opportunity to think about specific situations but to be at the receiving end of information that will offer solutions to such situations. If students expect to get everything they need to meet learning objectives on the VLE, one fears (with evidence or not) that other valuable learning skills, such as independent research, search and information discovery skills, may get deteriorated, or remain unpracticed.

The challenge is therefore finding ways to make the VLE work for our students (and for us) without it replacing the prevalence of the presential learning experience. At the moment I suspect VLEs are more likely to be experienced by academic staff as an administrative burden rather than an exciting teaching too. For students, we have already an essential resource, the one point where they can go to understand what is going on, what was said in class and what they need to do. For lecturers today, presential classroom learning is increasingly resembling distance online learning, and pedagogic duties increasingly imply research and teaching data management duties. Important things (including not only academic staff wellbeing, meaningful academic student satisfaction and the future and sustainability of taught programmes) are at stake in being able to have wide skillsets, but at the same time it seems important to preserve pedagogical (and therefore technological) distinctions.

We should be able to communicate to students that a course or module is much more than its syllabus. Those fortunate enough to lecture and to attend lectures enjoy a precious opportunity for information (hopefully knowledge) exchange, in real time and shared space. The lecture can be that privileged learning space that can help organise and establish connections with other learning practices (information seeking online and in libraries, networking activities, public engagement, data collection methods, etc.) In terms of feedback, it should be possible to rebalance the current feedback/assessment/’student satisfaction’ culture back again towards the classroom. ‘Feedback’ is not only that which is given in grading and marking, on writing, or on personal tutorial sessions. The lecture should be a space for feeding back to each other, and an opportunity to test ideas, approaches and clarify doubts.

It might be time to ‘flip’ the attention back to the time-space of the classroom. This would fit a general need to reconsider what our actual function and goals are. This reconsideration would include issues of student tracking, management etc. that increase and expand, implicitly or explicitly, the current workload of the lecturer. I am old enough to remember what it was to study and teach without VLEs, email and even computers, so I have witnessed how educational technologies have in many areas increased workloads, not necessarily made things easier for teachers.

Part of the challenge is in making the lecture much more than the mere delivery of content included in decks of slides shared previously online. ‘PowerPoint karaoke’ is as damaging to the educational experience as an over-reliance on a site that is expected to provide you with everything you need to know. We should be able to lecture creatively and to expect our students to pay attention without the comfort of knowing that it’s OK not to pay attention (or to not attend the lecture at all) because they can always go back to the slides file. Lecturers should be able to introduce elements of surprise, humour, related conversational asides, intellectual and creative challenge, and to do it while also accommodating any students’ neurodiversity needs.

Given the real conditions in which presential higher education is practiced today in the UK, the VLE has the potential to support learning, but we should not let it replace the effort required in structuring and delivering a course/module by other means. In other words I suggest the main focus/centre of presential student learning should not be the VLE. Needless to say this gets harder the larger the cohort- getting 220 students sitting in a room engaged (and ‘satisfied!’) is not an easy feat. Regardless of class size the norm for lectures cannot be mere content delivery.

Perhaps it all comes down to a reconsideration of the role of ‘remediation’ in 21st century teaching and intersubjective relations (Bolter and Grusin 1998). Unfortunately, critiques of technological determinism in Higher Education can be caricatured as luddite resistance to innovation. Far from resisting technological change, a crtitical approach to educational technologies is a key component of reflective pedagogical practice. My gut feeling is that we need to be able to invite our students and ourselves to be mindful in real time and space, to be open to discovery, wonder and the unexpected, opening our learning horizons, and embrace the questioning, not just any answers provided.

The Questions Concerning Technology. A Critical Theory Seminar

‘Tangled Network’ photo CC BY SA Bruno Girin


I am excited to announce that this spring I will be leading an extracurricular research seminar for City University London postgraduate students (or alumni) titled ‘The Questions Concerning Technology. A Critical Theory Seminar for Beginners.’

I designed the seminar with Computer Science, Library and Information Science and Publishing postgraduate  students in mind.

When and where

Thursdays 31 March, 7 April, 14 April, 21 April 2016, 5:30 -8:00pm
City University London


Critical theory is often (but not always!) neglected in the study of information and communication technologies.

This extracurricular, multidisciplinary seminar seeks to provide an alternative space to introduce the reading of key works of critical theory as a means to discuss conceptually questions regarding technology.

The seminar seeks to complement the learning of postgraduate students interested in technology and to offer an opportunity to foster networking between students interested in theoretical approaches. Also, refreshments will be provided!

Who this seminar is for

This introductory seminar is addressed to City University London postgraduate students (MA, MSc and/or PhD) interested in developing critical theory interpretive skills by gaining exposure to influential 20th century theoretical approaches to technology.

An interest in philosophy, or in conceptual approaches to technology, is desirable, but no previous knowledge or specific background is required. The seminar is designed to introduce the topics to students who may be totally unfamiliar with the disciplines, approaches and authors included in the programme.

The programme

31 March – Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology

7 April – Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

14 April – Foucault: Enlightenment: Techne, Practices and Power

21 April – Kittler and Hayles: Networks and the Materiality of Informatics


The texts to discuss are not ‘easy’. Complete courses could be given on any of these texts! The sessions are meant to be introductory and to provide insights into the relevance of the authors and texts.

The texts to be discussed in each session will be:

Benjamin, W. (2009). ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in One-Way Street and Other Writings. London: Penguin

Heidegger, M. (1977). ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper Row.

Foucault, M. (1984). ‘Space, Knowledge and Power’, in P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader. London: Penguin.

Kittler, F. A. (1999). ‘Introduction’, in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (pp 1-19). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hayles, N.K. (1993). ‘The Materiality of Informatics.’ Configurations. Volume 1, Number 1, Winter. 147-170. DOI: 10.1353/con.1993.0003.

These texts will be provided to those registering to the seminar. Reading the texts before each session is not compulsory, but it’s important to bring them to each session.


[Registration has now closed]. City University London students and alumni can use this link to register. Attendance is free but registration is required. Deadline to register is Friday 18th March 2016. Capacity is limited and places will be allocated on a first come first serve basis.

Today: #LibPub Session 7: Learned Societies and Libraries as Publishers

Title: "[Illustrated Official Handbook of the Cape and South Africa. A résumé of the history, conditions, populations, productions, and resources of the several colonies, states, and territories. Edited by John Noble. [With a map.]]", "Miscellaneous Official Publications" Contributor: NOBLE, John - Clerk of the House of Assembly, Cape of Good Hope Shelfmark: "British Library HMNTS 010095.de.1." Page: 671 Place of Publishing: London Date of Publishing: 1896 Publisher: J. C. Juta & Co. Edition: Second edition. Issuance: monographic Identifier: 000598049
“[Illustrated Official Handbook of the Cape and South Africa. A résumé of the history, conditions, populations, productions, and resources of the several colonies, states, and territories. Edited by John Noble. [With a map.]]” Via the Mechanical Curator, British Library, Flickr Collection

Today in our Libraries and Publishing in an Information Society module at City University London we’ll have the opportunity to zoom in at two key issues in contemporary scholarly publishing. One is the role of Learned and Professional Societies and the other is the role of libraries and institutional repositories.

To guide the discussion we’ll have two guest talks:

  1. “The A-to-LPSP Guide to Scholarly Publishing: what does the future hold for learned and professional society publishers?”, by Suzanne Kavanagh (@sashers).
  2. “Libraries, Institutional Repositories and Digital Collections: What is ‘Publishing’ Anyway?”, by Neil Stewart (@neilstewart).

Suzanne Kavanagh is Director of Marketing and Membership Services at the Association for Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP). She has 20 years’ experience of working for academic and professional publishing companies in marketing and sales roles.

ALPSP works with not-for-profit organisations and those who work with them to publish scholarly communications. ALPSP’s members work closely supporting library and scholarly communities. Drawing on ALPSP’s own research into the challenges they face, as well as wider political, economic, social, cultural and technological factors, Suzanne will challenge the students to consider what the future holds for scholarly publishing.

Neil Stewart is the Repository manager at City University London, and a fellow member of the Library Tech Committee of the Open Library of Humanities. City’s repository is called City Research Online, it comprises CRIS (Current Research Information Systems) and an open access repository.

Neil will consider in which concrete ways libraries and repositories can be considered to be doing publishing, and will invite us to consider critically what the meaning of ‘publishing’ is.

Librarians and information professionals require a critical and informed understanding of the multiple aspects of the scholarly publishing landscape of today. How can libraries harness the experience of Learned Societies? How can libraries turn the current financial, cultural, political, and technical challenges that scholarly publishing faces today into opportunities to diversify and enhance their remit? These are some of the issues we can start thinking seriously about in our roadmap towards a librarianship of the future… for the present day.

As usual this post was also blogged at my City blog: http://blogs.city.ac.uk/epriego/2014/03/21/libpub-session-7-learned-societies-and-libraries-as-publishers/

#LibPub Sessions 4 & 5: Scholarly Publishing and Reference Books -and comics!

Screen Shot from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclopedia
Screen Shot from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclopedia

I‘ve been so busy I just couldn’t find the time/energy to write a post for the fourth session of our Libraries and Publishing module at #citylis last week. But here I am!

Blogging is a great way of leaving a public register -even if limited- of the module sessions; I also like to feel like we are sharing a little bit of what happens within the four walls of the lecture theatre with other interested parties out there. Blogging therefore is definitely well worth the effort, but sometimes it’s just very hard to do it as regularly as one would like to.

Anyway, our fourth session last week was about scholarly publishing, which is one of my favourite topics. I really enjoyed being able to dedicate a whole session to it. We focused on scholarly publishing in the UK and I aimed at presenting a general picture of academic journal publishing today, what it means and how it generally works, particularly in relation to libraries and users.

We looked at some reasons why libraries cancel journal subscriptions and went over the “serials crisis”, gradually moving towards open access publishing, the different options out there, the differences between editorial workflow, access type and business models; briefly mentioned institutional/national mandates, as well as challenges and opportunities posed by openness, including licensing and atttitudes towards intellectual property.

Gosh Comics London: The Culture of Comics
Gosh Comics London: The Culture of Comics

This week a group of us also did a “research field trip” to two Central London comic book shops, Gosh! Comics and Forbidden Planet. This was an activity related to our third session, on comic book publishing and libraries. Though both shops sell comics they are two completely different establishments, and we went there hoping to get some insights into what different strategies they use to organise, classify and display their stock. We also came out with some nice books! (Thank you to those who came last Tuesday or who visited the shops in other days on your own!).

Gosh! Comics window... The Encyclopedia... #LIbPub everywhere!
Gosh! Comics window… The Encyclopedia… #LIbPub everywhere!

Tomorrow, for session 5, the topic is the past, present and future of reference book publishing. I have preapred two case studies, Palgrave Macmillan and Oxford University Press, to present an overview of how these two major publishers work, focusing specifically on their online products.

We will also have the honour of welcoming Dr Katharine Schopflin who will talk to us about her research in book history on encyclopaedias as a form of the book. Her lecture is titled “Encyclopaedias: publishers, librarians and end-users”, and will provide an overview of the status of the encyclopaedia from its origins to the present, inviting us “to consider whether the encyclopaedia has a generic signature which carries beyond the material form of the book.”

#LibPub Session 3: Comic Books, Libraries and Challenges in the Digital Age

Watchmen – from comic book to graphic novel to folder… Image by Ernesto Priego. Watchmen © DC Comics
Watchmen – from comic book to graphic novel to folder… Image by Ernesto Priego. Watchmen © DC Comics

A book is a non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages, exclusive of the cover pages, published in the country and made available to the public.”

-UNESCO, 19 November 1964

My work is dedicated to the proposition that the academic enterprise as a whole needs access to appropriate historical documents.”

-Randy Scott, 18 October 2001

For our third session of our Libraries and Publishing module at City University London, we will focus on comic books as an interesting case study whose analysis might help us understand some key issues around publishing and librarianship in the digital age.

“But comics?” You might ask.

The history of comics  has been defined to a large extent by comics’ stigmatised nature as subcultural material. In turn, this stigma has been incorporated in the ways in which the language itself is expressed in the form of different types of publications, such as hand-made mini- comics or luxurious slip-cased hardback limited, signed and numbered editions, a phenomenon which is related to the medium’s struggle for cultural recognition (Groensteen 2007; Lent 2001).

Moreover, self-imposed or external stigmatisation is expressed as formal and thematic constraints that have generated specific and complex cultural phenomena, including types of texts (newspaper strips, periodical comic books, graphic novels), genres (superheroes, political satire, humour, horror, romance, pornography, crime, biography, reportage, etc.) and dedicated ‘subcultures’ -there must be a better term- around them. Paradoxically, what arguably started at the dawn of the 20th century as an art form of and for the masses has been in danger of becoming a niche market only for the initiated. The artistic complexity of the texts has reached very high levels of sophistication, and so has the expense at which the books have to be produced, therefore increasing the cover prices substantially.

As the comic book market has become more specialised, its products have become more expensive, and its audience more elitist. As seen in the development of comics inthe last few years since the first publication of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) onwards, digital technology would only further complicate things, sometimes in unprecedented ways.

The literature discussing the past, present, future and after-lives of books is considerable and increasing by the day, but comic books have been so far greatly excluded from the debate. With the notable exceptions of The Oxford Companion to the Book (2010) and Bettley’s The Art of the Book (2001), most literature in the fields of book history and topics concerning the history of writing and digital textuality, including studies of books as artistic objects and of the material page make no mention of comics at all, in spite of the fact they do refer to other forms of multimedia or text-and-image publications such as collage books and illustrated books.

The relationships between “content” and “document”, “text” and “publication”, “medium” and “message” are intricate, and today’s information professionals need to be aware of this. If, as Randy Scott puts it, comics “ can help librarianship as a whole break some new ground in terms of proactive information handling”, it is because they are examples of multimedia that defy previous forms of categorization and description, both as messages (that which could also be described as “content”) and as publications (that which could also be described as “medium”, “form”, “material support”, etc.).

Randy Scott, the head librarian and founder of the Comic Art Collection, Special Collections Division of the Michigan State University Library, remains one of the best-known comics librarians in the comics scholarship field. In his pioneering Comics Librarianship. A Handbook, (1990) he writes:

A major reason that there are not enough histories, analyses and reference books about comics is that collecting comics is a very difficult job, and libraries have not been collecting well enough. Although there are some significant university collections of comics material, there are very few libraries that routinely acquire the best of what is newly published, even of political and non-fiction comics (1990:9).

The Library of Congress has never provided cataloguing for comic books as it does for almost every other category of published material. Until the late 1970s, no librarian anywhere on Earth would have been able to prove, using any standard library catalogues, whether such titles as Wonder Woman, Superman, or The Amazing Spider-Man even existed as bibliographic entities (1990: 14-15).

The need for specialized skills, the needs of a specialized readership, and a sense within libraries that the time is right to begin giving comics more serious attention, all these things make it seem possible that comics is a field that can help librarianship as a whole break some new ground in terms of proactive information handling (1990:23).

Scott’s remarks are relevant because they offer the context in which comics as publications were  located in relation to academic information handling and humanities research at the time he was writing. During the same now-distant 1990s, George P. Landow, some seven years later, would argue that “any information medium that encourages rapid dissemination of texts and easy access to them will increasingly demystify individual texts” (1997: 84). If our understanding of “individual texts” has changed with the inception of the Internet (not to mention the Web), our understanding of comic books as “texts” (in this case as “publications”) should also change. How have things changed 24 years after Randy Scott’s Handbook was published?

The book Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives: Essays on Readers, Research, History and Cataloging was released in April 2010. Edited by Robert G. Weiner, includes an article entitled “Webcomics and Libraries”, by Amy Thorne (pages 209-213) and includes an updated take by Scott on the Comic Art Collection at Michigan State University (pages 123-126). However, the volume seems to me very ill-equipped to deal with the transformations in comics publishing and libraries brought about the digital age.

During the first part of the lecture we will discuss the challenges that comics, as specific types of publications, pose to librarians, publishers, and booksellers of today.

Comics, in any form or format, are of course an international phenomenon. Casey Brienza (@CaseyBrienza) is a sociologist and Lecturer in Publishing and Digital Media at City University London’s Department of Culture and Creative Industries. I am incredibly pleased to say she will be our guest speaker for the second part of the lecture tomorrow. She has done extensive research on different aspects of Japanese comics (manga) publishing, focusing on, amongst other topics,  the rise of manga in the United States and its implications for the globalisation of culture. Looking forward to tomorrow!


Bettley, J. (ed.) (2001) The Art of the Book. From Medieval Manuscript to Graphic Novel. London: Victoria and Albert Publications.

Groensteen, T. (2007) The System of Comics. Jackson: The University of Mississippi Press

Landow,  G.P. (1997) Hypertext 2.0. The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lent, J.A. (2001) “Comic Books”, entry for Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, A-D, Jones, D. ed. London: Fitzroy Daerborn

McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press

Priego, E. (2012). “Audio: Randy Scott on the Superpowers of Librarians (2001)”. The Comics Grid  [blog post]. 29 June 2012. http://blog.comicsgrid.com/2012/06/audio-randy-scott-2001/ Accessed 13 February 2014. Web.

Scott, R. W. (1990) Comics Librarianship. A Handbook. Jefferson and London: MacFarland & Company

Suarez, M.F., Woudhuysen, S.J. & Woudhuysen, H.R. (2010). The Oxford companion to the book: Essays, A-C / Vol. 1, Oxford University Press

Weiner, S. (ed.) (2010). Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives: Essays on Readers, Research, History and Cataloging. Jefferson, N.C. and London: MacFarland

This post is part of my residence during February 2014 as blog curator of the Digital Reading Network, covering the topic of “digital comics“.

Libraries and Publishing in an Information Society (#LibPub)

From "Mystery of the Million-Dollar Briefcase", author and source unknown, United States, 1960s. Panels 5-6. Via Nick Page (16 February 2011).
From “Mystery of the Million-Dollar Briefcase”, author and source unknown, United States, 1960s. Panels 5-6. Via Nick Page (16 February 2011). Click on image to go to source.

This term I will be leading the Libraries and Publishing in an Information Society (LAPIS) module at City University London.  The first session is tomorrow.

The purpose of this module is to facilitate an understanding of the ways in which the publication of recorded information is changing, and the impact that this will have on libraries and other information providers, and their users.

The module framework relates these issues to forces for change which are technical, economic, social and political.

Some of the topics we will discuss will be the “Information Society”, the “Knowledge Economy” and the “Sharing Economy”, we will attempt a a brief history of publishing, trade publishing and scholarly publishing, and will see how academic libraries and national libraries are facing challenges that are very much specific to the 21st century. We will look at scholarly journal and monograph publishing, trade publishing, comic books, reference books, social media, blogging and journalism, forms of measuring online attention, open linked data, disruptive publishing, repositories, open access, etc. 

This module considers that publishing, as an element of “the information communication chain” (Robinson 2009) can refer to the synthesis of two previously separated processes, creation and dissemination. LAPIS considers how changes in publication and dissemination of information (documents) impact on organizations and services – thus this module focuses on the corresponding parts of the chain; “publication/dissemination” and “organization”.

We will have a series of guest talks by professionals in the field, including Jean Liu (Altmetric); Casey Brienza (City University London); Katharine Schopflin (the MDU); James Baker (British Library); Geoff Browell (King’s College London); Suzanne Kavanagh (ALPSP); Neil Stewart (City University London); Nick Canty (University College london); Brian Hole (Ubiquity Press) and Alastair Horne (Pressfuturist).

The module will invite students to consider how users and their behaviour are changing, which clearly can be related to “usage” but also “creation”, the user as created. Do we need publishers in an age being defined by social media? Can the library be a publisher? What is publishing in the age of user generated content, and do publishers need libraries when every publisher and every user could potentially develop their own library systems?

I will be using #LibPub (for Libraries and Publishing, not Libraries and Public Houses!) on Twitter to share some resources related to the topics covered within the module, and I will aim to make regular updates here as a way of extending our activities beyond the four walls of the lecture theatre and the student Intranet. Hope you find it interesting.

The Web in Practice: Blogging at City University

3D rendering of a forming puzzle with the word Blog

At City University London I’ve been teaching a module called Digital Information Technology and Architectures. Next Monday we’ll have our sixth session, titled “Web Services and APIs”.

I have a blog hosted at City where I try to post updates about what we are doing in the course. In my latest post there I announce I have set up a new practice blog that only students and I can access, so they can practice without the anxieties of publicness.



At City University London: The Digital Humanities


Today I will be talking about “the digital humanities” (DH) for the Library, Publishing and Information Society seminar at City University London (#citylis).

We will go from the definitional debate and a bit of history to infrastructural issues; we will do an overview of major trends and terminology, talk briefly about the digital humanities in the UK and major international networks, and will aim at finishing thinking about DH in libraries and strategic challenges.

I am honoured to say Dr Lee Skallerup will be joining us live from Kentucky, thanks to that technology known as ‘the Web’, to discuss her views on DH, ‘the privilege of building’, access, etc.

Week 5: Digital Societies?

The final session of our Digital Societies module at City University London is today. If there is such a concept as “digital culture(s)”, what are some of the key issues around the “digitial society” or should we say “digital societies”?

Digital Cultures (AMM 421)

Time has flown and today we have the final session(s) of our Digital Cultures modules. We have attempted to offer a kaleidoscope of perspectives that might help us to re-configure the digital media/digital culture landscape.

If there is such a concept as “digital culture(s)”, what are some of the key issues around the “digitial society” or should we say “digital societies”?

If everything goes well the timetable for today will be:


  • Popularity vs. expertise:-Diego Beas, Oxtord Internet Institute
  • Outlining the emergent digital culture within Higher Education- Mark Carrigan, LSE Politics blog


  • Open Data- Janet Gunter, ReStart Project
  • Digital Exclusion- David Bawden, City University London

It promises to be a great day!

By the way this is the final list of the bibliography we crowdsourced amongst scholars on Twitter between the 26th of February and today… after the weekend I’ll make another post with it adding relevant hyperlinks…

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