Session 4 notes

Magnus opened this final session by saying he hoped to get two things out of this session: (i) to wrap up what we had learned during the day; and (ii) to talk about where we might go next (the discussion and this write-up were structured according to those two areas). He had hoped to pull together what he had heard into clear and logical framework, perhaps a unifying diagram, but had found this too difficult to do during the day. He hoped people might use this session to discuss what had come up for them during the day and what connections they had made to what others had said.

What was learned from the day

John Monk began by saying he felt on the edge of something rather than within it. He was intrigued by the use of the word ‘layers’, which he felt Kirstie had used in a quite different manner from the way he would use it in telecommunications, although Kirstie replied that by now she was unsure if it had been a good choice of word.

John continued that in his view we had been using sets of words in not quite congruent ways, and that he has much to learn about how other disciplines are talking about information. Paul Lefrere commented that we hadn’t discussed the drift in the way particular words are used over time, which is very important at the OU if you consider that some of our students may be with us for as long as 10-20 years. Sue noted that even within a single discipline such as her own (information systems), definitions of terms like information, data and knowledge tend to shift over time. She didn’t find it helpful to look for consensus in use of language, but rather to have conversations between disciplines that raise these issues, which might lead to something unexpectedly different. She noted that not only do disciplines have different uses of language, but also different purposes for using these terms and different levels at which they use them.

Sue also felt that in each presentation she saw two common themes arising: perception and context. The first was also described in terms of interpretation or worldview. She found this unexpected and helpful.

Liz noted that while in theory she subscribed to a view of information as a broad church, in practice she tended to equate it to what’s written down or captured in a database, so found John’s talk helpful (on signs and symbols) in reminding her that information can be conveyed in many different ways. Tony was also reminded of a chapter in Sue’s book with Peter Checkland where they discuss a radar system in world war 2 which is clearly an information system yet has no computers – instead people are dealing with symbols, have maps and are pushing aeroplanes around on boards, and there is a strong social dimension to their interaction.

This reminded John of the work of Ed Hutchins (of the University of California at San Diego), whose book “Cognition in the Wild” discusses sailors on the bridge of an American warship and how they navigate their way into harbour using tools such as parallel rulers, charts and dividers, with the relationship between the people and their particular specialisms and prior knowledge being crucial. Hutchins treats this as a process of computation and compares it with the traditional navigation methods used in the South Seas. He strongly recommended the book as a non-technical but fascinating piece of writing. Magnus also recommended this work, and noted that Professor Yvonne Rogers of the Computing Department at the OU had worked with Hutchins. Magnus saw strong links between Hutchins’ work and that of Gregory Bateson (who described the mind as being situated not just in the head but across a set of processes that also go on in the world) and actor-network theory, though Hutchins was especially interesting for the depth of his ethnographic fieldwork. John gave an example from the book of the way that the Mercator projection had turned straight lines into compass bearings, so that navigators could draw lines on charts rather than using bearings from stars, bringing in a completely different set of skills.

Mariano Rico said that this last discussion reminded him of social networks, and he was surprised these hadn’t arisen so far. For him, social networks are becoming really important as a way of making sense of how we use different words in different contexts, and also to look at drifts in terminology over time. Tony noted that the related area of communities of practice were of interest to some within the systems group at the OU, but that those who had particularly worked in this area were not present.

Paul Lefrere observed we had been bringing out individual perspectives through the day, associated with which are scenarios of use (from private, work or public experiences). In each case, our students have much the same range of very wide experiences. The question is one of managing multiple identities, which has both technological and emotional aspects among others, and is an issue for society at large. Importantly, information isn’t one thing – it doesn’t stay still. There is a lot of richness here. Paul also later talked about the reusability of information, which is a big focus for teaching in some corners of the OU. The approaches discussed at the workshop are very pertinent to this issue.

David said that while it was still unclear exactly what would come out of the workshop, he felt that for him there were new language, metaphors and concepts that he would find useful in the future in understanding information.

Where to go next

We now moved on to discuss follow-ups from the workshop. Discussion happened in a more conversational mode so this write-up does not attempt to capture every detail of who said what, although the write-up largely reflects the order of discussion during the workshop. The following future directions and possible outputs were discussed:

  • Recordings made during the workshop: David and Magnus will be using these to help them understand what came out of the discussions. They had previously promised not to circulate these beyond those present. Sue expressed an urge to have access to these recordings, but there was no general agreement about this.
  • PowerPoint presentations: those present agreed that it was fine to circulate these presentations to the group of those present, through some kind of protected website, but not beyond this group. A number of participants noted that if the presentations were to be circulated more widely, they would want to be able to modify their slides (not least to give proper copyright credit to third-party images they had used).
  • Publications: Magnus hoped it would be possible to collectively write some sort of edited book, special issue of a journal, or paper. David noted that there were gaps in the perspectives of those present (e.g. nobody with a biology background) which would ideally be filled in, though John felt that as long as the gaps were clearly noted this was not necessarily a problem. Kirstie suggested that we look at what’s currently on the market in terms of edited collections and see if we could pitch something different and unique to the OU that would both sell and make an impact. Magnus said this was very much his hope, if enough people would be interested to write up their presentation into a short paper, perhaps with additional papers from those who had not given presentations. Liz noted the importance of good editing for such a book, to make it feel like a single text and a useful read. This could include identifying gaps in the discussion and filling them with papers from those not at the workshop, or indeed for those present to produce joint papers.
  • Teaching: Steve hoped that some of the material might find its way into our teaching, given the tools that Moodle offers to put resources such as audio, PowerPoint etc on to course websites. He noted that making an impact on the world, through either teaching or research, was a good route to promotion within the university.
  • Process: Sue asked what process would be used to take things forward – it could be driven by Magnus and David leading it and asking others to participate, or by aiming to meet again as a group (not necessarily so formally, perhaps at lunch or the pub). Another participant suggested that a short seminar series might help. Liz observed that it is important to have someone driving the process and taking ownership, as however well meaning people are they will otherwise not get around to it. Kirstie said she would find it helpful to have more detailed information on people (such as their backgrounds, publications, past research and perspectives) as part of this, to help to get to know them better – perhaps circulated through some sort of email list.
  • Research proposals: Liz urged those present to share possible funding opportunities which they came across that might be relevant to another workshop participant, either for them to do or for some sort of joint work. She argued that collaboration in research proposals is an excellent way to work across the university, to get to know colleagues better, and take us beyond our usual colleagues and silos. Calls for funding proposals may be couched in other language than just that of information (such as in terms of innovation), but may well be relevant to many of us.
  • Listserv and website: Magnus suggested that the best way forward was that he and David set up an email list and website, using university facilities such as Moodle. In the first place the website would be used to host the presentations from the day (with access limited to workshop participants). The mailing list would be a resource for the issues of community building, sharing information about our backgrounds, sharing funding opportunities. It would also be a place to discuss how we take forward the book proposal and any further meetings of the group. We would aim to have the mailing list up and running in the next few days, and the website shortly thereafter.

Sue thanked David and Magnus on behalf of the group for taking the initiative to get the workshop going; Magnus thanked everybody for coming and being prepared to work in a free-floating way. He also thanked Derek and Tony (the sound engineers who had recorded the workshop), and Audrey and Michelle (the departmental secretaries who had organised the workshop over the past several months).