Higher Education After Surveillance – a transatlantic project

I’ve meant to post about this for a while, but things have been hectic! Higher Education After Surveillance is a new project that my colleague Amy Collier (Middlebury College) and I dreamed up last year, in light of work we are each doing around issues of surveillance, trust, visibility, digital sanctuary and more, and as a way of trying to think big about some of the challenges we are currently facing. We enlisted the help of a small but mighty group of colleagues around the UK, US and Canada  to get involved, and we hosted a virtual roundtable in March as a way of beginning to scope what such a group might do.

We’re aiming to develop this project in a sustainable way – it isn’t funded (or not yet, anyway), and everyone involved is already incredibly busy – so that it can become something genuinely meaningful, critical and impactful. We also need to think carefully about the scope (geographical and otherwise) of this work. It’s all very exciting, and timely, if daunting – it seems there are new stories, questions and areas for attention emerging most days (this week in the UK it was the announcement of a collaboration involving JISC and the Office for Students, led by Northumbria University, to ‘lead transformation in how the Higher Education sector identifies mental health issues in students‘. It… has not gone over well).

If you are or know someone who needs to be involved in what we’re doing, please do get in touch.

“Unlike a Version”: Exciting news about a funded PhD research opportunity with National Galleries of Scotland

The Madonna of the Annunciation, Francesco Allegrini, National Galleries of Scotland

UPDATE, 3 April 2019: The advert for this studentship is now live on the University of Edinburgh web site! Closing date is 3 May 2019.


We are so excited about this new PhD studentship that we want to let people know it’s coming. We’ll soon be advertising a fully funded AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) studentship, for a project we are (for the moment!) calling “Unlike a version: the lives of digitised artworks”. It was a working title, but we all found it so funny that we decided to keep it – and that probably tells you something about the team our lucky student will be joining (and in case you aren’t a 1980s-era Madonna fan, this is the reference (Youtube link) ). The studentship will start in October 2019.

If you don’t know about CDPs, these are amazing funded studentships that not only pay fees and a stipend (for eligible UK/EU students – there are some rules about this), but create really brilliant opportunities for students to be immersed in a cultural heritage organisation over the period of their studies, and support their professional development and scholarship with travel funding, a student development fund, and membership of a network of other doctoral students across the UK.

So: this project is the perfect opportunity for someone whose interests span art, digitisation, digital cultures, engagement and interpretation to spend a few years in Edinburgh working with a team of supervisors from National Galleries of Scotland (Christopher Ganley and Màiri Lafferty) and the University of Edinburgh (Jen Ross and Melissa Terras) on a project that will explore the meanings and movements of digitised artworks in the context of NGS’ collections. We think the right starting position here is that digitised artworks are more than merely versions of the ‘real thing’: they have meaning and value in their own right, and significance for sharing, interpretation, connection and inspiration. The project will develop a richer picture of digital objects and how they contribute to the shifting boundaries of the institution, to curatorial practice, and to NGS’ ambitions to open more of its collections to digital re-use.

The project and the supervisory team are obviously great, but this is also a magnificent time to be a creative/digital/data person in Edinburgh. Do you know about the Edinburgh Futures Institute? The Creative Informatics programme? The city-wide Data Driven Innovation programme? The Centre for Research in Digital Education? What about the festivals, the heritage organisations, the cultural scene? All happening here, with people, projects, networks and opportunities second to none.

If this sounds interesting to you, and you want to know more, please contact me! I’m happy to have informal conversations and answer questions.

new journal article: digital co-production, hospitality and mobilities

Carnival Scene, Francesco Montelatici. Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture collections, David Laing Bequest (on loan to the Scottish National Gallery).

My most recent article was published last week, and it bridges the recent Artcasting project with work I am currently developing about what ‘open futures’ for digital cultural heritage may look like, and why this matters.

Ross, J. (2019). Casting a line: digital co-production, hospitality and mobilities in cultural heritage settingsCurator: The Museum Journal, 61/4. 575-592.

I’m fond of this paper. It came about because of the co-production strand at the Association of Critical Heritage Studies’ conference in 2016, where I first talked about the idea of digital co-production and got really useful feedback from some fantastic researchers. Since then I’ve been developing the idea further, and refining the key elements of digital co-production.

In a nutshell, I argue that digital co-production:

  unfolds across multiple times and spaces;

  involves the ‘unknowable other’;

  challenges the stability of relationships;

  invites a rethinking of hospitality.

I use the example of the Artcasting project to illustrate these four elements. Ultimately, the theoretical contribution is the bringing together of hospitality and mobilities to consider hospitality as a ‘trajectory’, building on David Bell‘s (2012) notion of ‘host-spots’.

 In the context of co-production, trajectory invites us to consider movements of people into, through and away from the museum, taking up different positions in relation to shifting host/guest trajectories as they enter, leave, and reencounter it. A range of practices in relation to access and use of digital cultural heritage objects offers many possible trajectories of hospitality. The position of ‘host’ shifts from the museum to the aggregator web site to the user themselves as control over and location of the digital object moves. Guesting is constructed and reconfigured through timelines, searches, mentions, likes and upvotes. The user-as-host might even extend a welcome to the museum-as-guest by mentioning it on their personal feed.

All of these trajectories coalesce around an object whose meanings are shifting in the process. I think the role of the museum in this context is to set up co-productive situations that can allow for multiple hostings and guestings, and (following Doron 2009) inhabit more uncertain, less secure positions in relation to its role as ‘host’. (Artcasting was a very interesting example of this multiplicity.)




Bell, D. 2012. “Moments of Hospitality.” In Mobilizing Hospitality: The Ethics of Social Relations in a Mobile World, edited by J. G. Molz and S. Gibson. Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Doron, E. 2009. “At Hospitality’s Threshold: From Social Inclusion to Exilic Education.” Curator: The Museum Journal 52(2): 16982.


Shout outs to Melissa Terras, Smita Kheria, Christopher Ganley,  Mairi Lafferty, Ashley Beamer and Louise Rasmussen for all their contributions to the thinking-in-progress, to Phil Sheail for the work we did on hospitality that informed this paper, to Sian Bayne for reading and commenting, and to Jeremy Knox, Claire Sowton and Chris Speed for everything Artcasting related. 🙂 

‘Mobilising connections with art’ – a new open access journal article about the Artcasting project

Example of an artcast. Artwork: Self Portrait, 1975 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

My newest article has been published in the International Journal of Heritage Studies. Its focus is on interpreting data from the Artcasting project, a 2015-16 research project that was funded by the AHRC to understand how people’s connections with art can be visualised and used to enrich evaluation practice in museums and galleries. The article is open access and available now

Ross, J., Knox, J., Sowton, C. & Speed, C. (2018) Mobilising connections with art: Artcasting and the digital articulation of visitor engagement with cultural heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies.

The article looks at how digital methods in cultural heritage settings can help evoke and illuminate the richness of visitor engagement and interpretation. Through the process of analysing the Artcasting data, we found it really useful to look for ways to make sense of difference in visitors’ responses to artworks. We did that in this article by conducting both a thematic analysis, and a more mobilities-informed analysis of the same dataset. We argue that:

The Artcasting project focused on supporting visitors to articulate their responses to artworks using a method that was provocative, performative, and attuned to the mobilities of interpretation, engagement and ownership. This mobility, and the sparking of expressions of ownership through the question of where and when an artwork belonged, created new articulations… The capture of these articulations constitutes a contribution and valuable step forward in our understanding of how heritage is performed at an individual level through the production of memory and messages; and at a collective level through the hypermobility of interpretation. (Ross et al 2018, p.17)

I’m pleased and proud to see this article in print – many thanks to my co-researchers and -authors Claire Sowton, Jeremy Knox and Chris Speed; and to our research partners from the ARTIST ROOMS programme at National Galleries of Scotland, Tate and the Bowes Museum.

Assessment in a digital age: Rethinking multimodal artefacts in higher education

I presented a very short ‘pecha kucha’ style talk yesterday at the inaugural Learning and Teaching Conference at the University of Edinburgh. I was speaking on behalf of two colleagues, Dr Amani Bell and Dr Jen Scott Curwood, who are members of the Centre for Research on Learning and Innovation at the University of Sydney. This super quick talk was a summary of research we’ve been doing into how teachers and students understand the assessment of students’ digital multimodal work – work that incorporates multiple modes such as images, text, sound, video and hyperlinks.

(Jen is presenting a poster of this work at the Festival of Learning next week in London: https://www.londonfestivallearning.com/agenda/session/6811 (poster number 1900) – if you are there, do stop by to talk to her!)

Willi Heidelbach, Metal movable type https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typesetting#/media/File:Metal_movable_type.jpg

This research is supported by an Edinburgh-Sydney Partnership Collaboration Award, which funded travel between Sydney and Edinburgh and some of our research activity. The overall project is about methodological innovations for assessing learning in digital spaces, and it was designed to bring our two centres together to develop partnerships and research collaborations.

Our strand of the project took a closer look at how digital assignments are being assessed and how this is working for students and teachers. These kinds of assignments are pretty common in a lot of disciplines now, and they can range from making diagrams to making films, web essays, infographics and portfolios. In some disciplines this is well established, but in others it’s emerging as institutions look for ways to translate students’ engagement with visual, interactive media spaces outside formal education, to critical capacities within it.

However, when it comes to assessing these capacities, teachers might find their practices are still rooted in what Jen calls ‘a paradigm of assessment rooted in print-based theoretic culture’ (Curwood, 2012, p. 232). This can happen because of the constraints of assessment systems, or because of assumptions that teachers and students have about what constitutes legitimate knowledge production in universities, or a combination of things. So, we wanted our project to look specifically at how assessment – and particularly rubrics – takes account of multimodality.

Our research questions were about how students use assessment criteria, how teachers design and assess these kinds of assignments, and how theories of mobilities and place-based learning could inform our thinking about these issues:

  • How do university students use assessment criteria for self and peer assessment of multimodal work?
  • How do teachers in higher education effectively design and assess students’ multimodal work?
  • How can theories of mobilities and place-based learning inform research into and assessment of multimodal student work?

Exploring the literature around grade descriptors and rubrics, there is a wide range of student responses:

  • some students are able to use them to accurately assess their peers’ work, to guide and structure their own work, and as a checklist (Bloxham & West, 2004; O’Donovan, Price & Rust, 2001; Bell, Mladenovic & Price, 2013).
  • many students find the language used in rubrics and grade descriptors to be subjective and vague (Price & Rust 1999).
  • providing more detailed criteria can paradoxically increase students’ anxieties and “lead them to focus on sometimes quite trivial issues” (Norton, 2004, p. 693), with some students leaning heavily on rubrics and exemplars as ‘recipes’ (Bell et. al., 2013). As we’ll see, this was an issue in the course we examined this year.

The answer to the last research question is still very much in development. However, thinking about multimodality, it’s really useful to also consider how students are producing materials that reflect changing dynamics of space and time, and the significance of how these digital assignments circulate:

The multimodal production of culture [is] characterised by changing dynamics of space and time, dynamics that are changing the meanings and effects of cultural production and distribution (Leander and Vasudevan 2009, p. 130).

Production of assignments can feel even higher stakes when they are public in some form – for example, the course we looked at this year asked all students to upload their final videos to youtube. These kinds of mobilities intersect with technical skills, composition elements, modes and meaning to determine what ends up in these assignments, and a need for a nuanced understanding of the “complex ways in which technical skills, composition elements, modes, and meaning interact” in student work (Curwood 2012, p. 242). Greater attention to materiality, including artefacts (Pahl & Rowsell, 2011), movement (Leander & Vasudevan, 2009), and place (Ruitenberg, 2005) enriches this understanding.


Over two semesters we analysed the creation and assessment of a single assignment on an undergraduate course about film and theatre at the University of Sydney. About 130 students take this course each year, mostly study abroad or international students. The assignment we looked at was the final assignment – a three minute film made in pairs about some aspect of students’ ‘Australian cultural experience’. There were specific technical requirements for the film, and an emphasis on ‘narrative’.

  • Stage 1: analysing existing processes and assignments, conducting interview and focus groups with students, interviews with tutors, and developing an assessment framework.
  • Stage 2: redesign of the assessment task, building on the new framework.
  • Stage 3: comparative analysis of the old and new assignments, further interviews.

The original assessment rubric for the course was divided into three sections – cultural narrative experience, cinematic elements, and collaboration. The second section – on cinematic elements – had the most detail and specificity. The ‘narrative’ section referred to a ‘sophisticated’, ‘adequate’ or ‘not adequate’ narrative. The collaboration section talked about ‘high order’ personal statements. Unsurprisingly, students tended to focus much more on meeting the criteria in the second section than the first – this meant that while often very technically proficient, the narratives varied considerably in the extent to which they connected with the critical themes of the course, for example.


Here are some of the things that people said in our initial interviews. This first quote comes from a tutor, who talked about how he used the criteria, but also how he used his own judgement when something might not have exactly followed the technical criteria but was ‘absolutely brilliant’:

[one group] used one interview but used it extremely well. I’m quite flexible and adaptable when it comes within the criteria. So if something is absolutely brilliant, of which this one was overall, then I wouldn’t penalise them. They really still came up here in the ‘exceeds criteria’ which is why they ended up getting a high distinction. (Tutor, Interview 1)

The question of what can be contained within the rubric and what, by necessity, goes beyond it in these types of assessments, is a central one for this project.

One of the students on the course talked about struggling to understand what was meant by ‘narrative’ and what was expected in this respect. They were clear about the technical expectations, but unclear about what to do about the narrative dimension.

We knew we needed a lot of cool angles, and different shots, so we started thinking ‘What would be really neat and catching to eye?’ The thing we struggled with looking at the rubric was the narrative, having a narrative, but everything else we were able to look at and make sure was in the project. (Carla, Focus Group 2)

The rubric guided students in the use of discipline-specific vocabulary and highlighted the importance of collaboration in reflecting on the meaning of Australian culture and representing it within a multimodal composition. Students felt, though, that the rubric ‘left a lot of room for interpretation’. As Carla added, “The Australian cultural experience from the videos [viewed as a class after submission] meant so many different things. I liked that it was open…but then again that’s also the challenge…” This highlights the importance of agency and creativity, but a tension exists with the tutor’s responsibility to communicate expectations and fairly assess student learning. One student noted, after the marks were returned and she knew she had done very well on the assignment:

when it says ‘the video demonstrates a sophisticated Australian cultural experience narrative, I don’t really know what [the tutor] means by sophisticated. Personally our project was more humorous, I don’t think you’d look at our video and say ‘That’s a sophisticated piece of art’. …But I still got really high marks on my assignment, and so really vague words like ‘sophisticated’, I think really limits people’s creativity. …[the students] don’t exactly know what [the tutors] want.(Sarah, focus group 1)

She was clear that their assignment wasn’t ‘sophisticated art’, but it still did well – so what was going on here?

It was clear from the reflective interviews students included at the end of their assignments that they were trying to grapple with both form and content, and how these intersect. In looking at these artefacts and talking to students and teachers, we think there are five main things that teachers need to take account of in developing multimodal assessments.

  1. Students need support to develop multimodal assessment literacy. This means being able to parse rubrics and criteria to understand what is being looked for, and how to identify it, and also to understand this process as a dialogue rather than a fixed and objective measurement. So for example where teachers say ‘sophisticated’, they need to be clear what they mean by this, and how they judge it when they see it.
Screenshot from the video of the Manifesto for Teaching Online, James Lamb. https://vimeo.com/222406740
  1. Some students talked about feeling constrained by the language of the rubrics, or sometimes by the fairly rigid instructions about what kind of technology to use. Where constraints can be removed that might be a good thing, sometimes, but sometimes those constraints can interact with creativity in quite generative ways. Teachers might think about and keep an eye on how these creative constraints are operating in the assignments students produce.
  2. The intra-action of form and content – and I mean this in Karen Barad’s sense, in terms of how they create and shape one another rather than existing separately and interacting. This is a really important site of criticality in multimodal work – as my colleague James Lamb says, there is a need to consider the coherence between modes (and, where there is dissonance, to be deliberate about this). We should consider if our students know how to create a ‘multimodal argument’.
  3. Trying to look holistically at multimodal assignments is challenging if teachers are also working with rubrics. Those rubrics – especially where they specify technical elements – can easily tend towards what Bateman calls ‘multimodal decomposition’, and that can leave students trying to follow recipes, as Amani noted earlier.
  4. Last but not least, teachers have to consider what they are asking students to do, and how to value it appropriately. A digital assignment isn’t a throwaway task – it often involves substantial learning, work and creativity, and its weighting within the course – in terms of time and assessment – needs to be carefully considered.

We’re working now on our framework, which has four dimensions – criticality, cultivating creativity, taking a holistic approach, and valuing multimodality. More to come on this! Our next steps are to finalise this framework, write and publish from this initial stage of the research, and develop some new ideas and use cases. We’re having conversations with our colleagues who led the other strand of the project, about automating feedback. We think it would be really useful to explore the potential for supporting these kinds of complex assignments through automated processes – lots to discuss!


Bateman, J. (2012). The decomposability of semiotic modes. In K. O’Halloran and B. Smith (Eds.), Multimodal studies: Exploring issues and domains. New York: Routledge.

Bell A, Mladenovic R and Price M (2013). Students’ perceptions of the usefulness of marking guides, grade descriptors and annotated exemplars. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 38(7), 769-788.

Bloxham, S., and A. West. 2004. Understanding the rules of the game: Marking peer assessment as a medium for developing students’ conceptions of assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education29(6): 721–733

Curwood, J.S. (2012). Cultural shifts, multimodal representations, and assessment practices: A case study.  E-Learning and Digital Media, 9(2), 232-244.

Leander, K. M., & Vasudevan, L. (2009). Multimodality and mobile culture. In C. Jewitt (Ed.), Handbook of multimodal analysis(pp. 127-139). New York, NY: Routledge.

Miles, M.B., Huberman, A., & Saldaña, J. (2014). Qualitative data analysis: A methods sourcebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Norton, L. (2004). Using assessment criteria as learning criteria: A case study in psychology. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education,29(6), 687–702.

O’Donovan, B., Price, M. & Rust, C. (2001). The student experience of criterion-referenced assessment. Innovations in Education and Teaching International,38(1), 74–85.

Pahl, K.H. & Rowsell, J. (2011). Artifactual critical literacy: A new perspective for literacy education. Berkeley Review of Education, 2(2), 129-151.

Price, M., & Rust, C. (1999). The experience of introducing a common criteria assessment grid across an academic department. Quality in Higher Education, 5(2), 133–144.

Ruitenberg, C. (2005). Deconstructing the experience of the local: Toward a radical pedagogy of place. Philosophy of Education Archive, 2005, 212-220.


surveillance, trust & technology: higher education futures

Several of the research and writing projects and discussions I’ve been involved with this year have directly or indirectly addressed issues of trust and surveillance, and this is an area of work I’m planning to develop further, along with a number of great colleagues.

In several talks this year, at Strathclyde in Glasgow; the University of Sydney; and the Networked Learning Conference in Zagreb, I’ve been drawing on our Manifesto for Teaching Online to develop my thinking about plagiarism detection and attendance monitoring – two routine processes which are becoming increasingly intensive and often invasive in most universities. For example, Hamish Macleod and I recently argued that

Logics of surveillance are strongly at work in practices which attempt to regulate student behaviour through the exposure of their writing to algorithmic scanning and monitoring. These logics frame students as in need of careful monitoring to ensure learning and teaching runs smoothly, and framing academic writing as a space of dishonesty which is both rampant and solvable through technology. Routines of plagiarism detection intervene negatively in one of the central facets of student-teacher relationships: the production and assessment of student work. Where these relationships become risk-averse and mutually suspicious, trust is blocked or lost and not easily regained. (Ross and Macleod 2018, 235)

We end that paper by arguing that we need to find “ways to re-sensitise ourselves and our students to the values we want to prioritise in our classrooms, and offering means by which students can voice their responses to surveillance cultures in higher education; and [address] issues at strategic levels within our institutions and the sector more widely by developing robust mechanisms for engaging in critical debate, discussion about and review of technology platforms and practices”. This second point echoes one of the key observations made by Laura Czerniewicz at her keynote address in Zagreb last month:

My talk in Zagreb (Hamish couldn’t make it, being retired and all!) generated quite a lot of interest, and it’s clear this is resonating with people from across a number of higher education contexts:

I’ve been involved in a number of intense discussions on these issues, during my seminars in Glasgow and Sydney, and with colleagues in the UK and North America (including Amy Collier and George Veletsianos). A highlight was a discussion with David Lyon and Sava Saheli Singh at Queen’s University in Canada last month. David’s latest work on surveillance culture is greatly informing my thinking. Colleagues closer to home are also doing fantastic work in related areas – Sian Bayne on anonymity; Jeremy Knox on learning analytics, Phil Sheail on data bodies in the library, Ben Williamson on monitoring in the school classroom.

The relationship of trust and technology in higher education is one that, in my view, requires a lot more attention.

It’s emerging as a key issue not only in the context of technologies of monitoring and surveillance, but in other more surprising places – like the current blockchain craze, which is generating new discussions about all sort of things…

…but perhaps less than it should about what kinds of models of trust (or trustlessness) we are inviting into the academy with these new technologies. Helen Murphy, one of the participants on my Digital Futures for Learning course this year, developed an excellent Open Educational Resource on this topic: https://educationandtheblockchain.weebly.com

She says:

the blockchain is often described as ‘trustless’. We might think of what it means to be ‘trustless’ in two ways:
First, data.
The data in the blockchain is immutable and transparent, permanent and unalterable. Data in the blockchain is added by consensus, and because it is distributed there is no single copy of the data. In theory, it can be accessed by anyone. So it is trustless in the sense that no trust is required: it can be taken for granted that the data is accurate and permanent.
​Second, decentralisation.
With the blockchain, there is no need for a centralised authority (such as a bank or university) to verify transactions. Instead all of this verification can be done independently, by the technology and the mechanisms by which it works. So it is trustless because it does not require any trust in these third-party institutions.

(Murphy 2018)

I’m doing some work with colleagues in Digital Education and Information Services on exploring the potential and issues around blockcert technology, and these questions of trust and trustlessness are figuring strongly.

So, look out for more writing on this from me and others in the near future!

One of the most important things, I think, is beginning to speculate and design futures for higher education that are ‘beyond surveillance’. Importantly (and thanks to Peter Goodyear in Sydney for highlighting how important this point is), this doesn’t mean alternatives that require us to return to imagined better analog times  – instead, we need to develop trusting digital futures and approach our technologies critically and creatively to help us do so.  I, and others, will be working on this over the next year – get in touch if you want to discuss!


Lyon, D. 2018. The Culture of Surveillance: Watching as a Way of Life. Polity Press.

Murphy, H. 2018. Education and the Blockchain. https://educationandtheblockchain.weebly.com

Ross, J. and Macleod, H. 2018. Surveillance, (dis)trust and teaching with plagiarism detection technology. Proceedsing of Networked Learning 2018, Zagreb.