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Posted by on May 5, 2013

mLearning Workshop in Helsinki: Documenting the city through architecture, religion, sound, habitus

Helsinki mLearning: Field Activities and transforming space from Michael Gallagher on Vimeo.

I just wrapped up a weekend workshop with the good people of Otavan Opiston Osuuskunta in Helsinki, Finland exploring mobile learning and field activities. The general goals of the workshop were to collaboratively explore how mobile technology could be used to conduct learning activities outside the classroom and what those field activities might look like mediated through mobile technology. As far as I am concerned (I will let the participants confirm or deny this) it was a great success.  They were an amazing group of people from all walks of the educational sphere (including the spouse of a participant who was one of the more eager participants).  They understood the dynamics of collaboration from the very beginning of the presentation, were involved and inquisitive, and some of the most creative people I have ever had the pleasure of working with.

The Workshop

The workshop began on Day 1 with a quick introduction, my presentation and subsequent discussion, some nominal planning in groups composed of participants who shared similar interests (architectire, religion, etc.) and then they almost literally burst forth onto the streets of Helsinki to collect data (media, field notes, etc.).  I am fairly confident this group could have conducted the workshop without my assistance, but the initial discussion was critical as it positioned mobile learning differently or slightly askew from what seems to be the overriding understanding of it as a technologically-defined medium. There is a technological angle; one would be hard pressed to deny that, but it is about the meaning that is made there and the transformation of the space into a learning space, in short the transformation of habitus. We introduced and constantly circled back on this notion of habitus, how it is formed, how it is made visible, what is actually transforming. In general, the entire workshop was structured around this transformation of habitus, how this is made mobile and how that defines mobile learning (Kress, Pachler, 2007). One group even chose it is as their subject of observation: the transformation of habitus made visible in Helsinki. So we proceeded on Day One with this introduction, discussion, and data collection as a precursor to Day 2.

Day 2 (Saturday, mind you) began with a a few hours of taking stock of the data collected (media or otherwise), and collaboratively assembling that data into some sort of composition using tools we had discussed the dat before as well as from the participants own toolkit (which greatly expanded my toolkit). Once these were collected and composed, each group presented their composition and discussed what we trying to learn about Helsinki through our mobile activities. I was in awe of these compositions, composed more or less on the fly, with minimal time for group congealing (many of the participants knew each other, but there were a few new faces) and logistically planning the data collection. If this is Finland in a nutshell, I am most impressed. They immediately understood the nature of collaboration, immediately proceeded to tackle the discussion and activities, and convincingly brought all these elements together in a composition.

We finished with a brief review of findings, some discussion on what could have gone better, assessment, etc. and then we all exchanged social media contacts. I am not naming them by name in case they prefer to remain anonymous, but they are free to jump in here with discussion or clarification if I get anything wrong.

The Discussions and Findings

There were some surprising findings from the data collection and surprising elements to the compositions.  So we should list them first to give a sense of the breadth of what we were trying to do (in more or less an hour of field work).

Group 1: Architecture in Helsinki

This group explored the architecture of Helsinki and how that governed human behavior in some way. Their composition was truly awe-inspiring as it captured the emotional affect of structure,  how “buildings spoke to the other buildings” through shared electricity wires or streets and how all of that affected how we perceive and act within this space. Amazing. And they did use one of the songs from Architecture in Helsinki to drive it home.

Group 2: Religion of Helsinki

This group (with an impressive journalistic pedigree) chose to focus on religious iconography in Helsinki and to see if they could capture imagery from the world’s major religions. They were able to find, in the course of about 5-6 blocks imagery/symbols representing Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and various other religions or denominations. They then mapped this as their composition to demonstrate that Helsinki is full of diversity in religious beliefs if one is attuned to perceiving that.

Group 3: Helsinki Tram Sound Map

This group was wildly creative in their focus, methods, execution, and presentation. They chose to capture the sounds of the tram that ran from downtown Helsinki (the site of the workshop) to their respective homes at the end of the tramline. They recorded audio at three different stations, alighting (I live in London now so I say things like alight) at these stations to record audio without imagery. This was coupled with another 30-60 seconds of one of the participants who had closed their eyes the whole time describing what they had heard.  They also took some imagery as well to represent the location. It was a remarkable exercise in perception and how what we hear varies dramatically from person to person.

Group 4: Habitus 

I participated in this group and we wanted to discover whether we could observe the transformation of habitus in mobile learners, to make it visible in practice. So our objective was to scour the parks of downtown Helsinki mostly to observe how people used their mobile technologies to make sense of their surroundings. This quickly evolved into an exploration of how mobile technology had changed social practice, how people interacted with each other and their world. We began to realize we ourselves were the subject of transformation. We spent time collecting imagery, noticing how the young people in the parks weren’t using mobile technology when with their friends, only when seemingly isolated, using their mobile technology as a lifeline/connection to a larger sphere of social activity. It was a gateway to social understanding and it brought here to there and there to here. Yet this was occurring in ourselves. We walked and discussed and captured data and discussed and sat and had a beer and discussed all under the bright sunshine of a beautiful spring Helsinki day. We arrived at understanding, branched out, collaborated through dialogue. Heady stuff. It reminded me (again) of the flaneur as learning type, meandering and making meaning as if on a summer stroll. I pulled this Hjorth and De Souza e Silva (2009) quote to modernize it a bit in line with what we were trying to do:

“Within the domain of play, we can characterize the flâneur—and its transformation into the phoneur—as the ludic character by excellence. Unlike the flâneur that was ordered by the visual, the phoneur is structured by the information city’s ambience, whereby modes such as haptic and aural override the dominance of visual.

One hundred years on from the time of the flâneur, the spirit of modernity has dramatically transformed while still haunted by the specters of the spectacle. Although the contradictions of everyday are still palpable, the cityscape and its mediations have changed. The city, as with notions of work and leisure, has dramatically altered course, epitomized by the mobile phone’s “hyper” and “micro” coordination (Ling, 2004) of social, temporal, and spatial configurations. Mobile technologies have further embodied the contradictions inherent within everyday urbanity, becoming the conduit for the phenomenon of “full-time intimate communities” (Nakajima, Himeno, &Yoshii, 1999).”

e Silva, A. D. S., & Hjorth, L. (2009). Playful Urban Spaces A Historical Approach to Mobile Games. Simulation & Gaming, 40(5), 602-625.

I like that idea of full-time intimate communities.

The Compositions

This discussion would be half a post without the actual compositions. I don’t have all of them, but I am able to produce three of them. Most are montages are mashups of some sort, but all are amazing revealing about the place, the time, and our understanding as we pass through it.

Group 1: Architecture in Helsinki

Architecture walking in Helsinki; click the image to see the interactive version.

Group 2: Helsinki Tram Sound Map

Group 3: Habitus

Habitus transformation; click the image to see the full multimedia version

The People

Every person who has ever conducted a workshop has always had this to say, even when it wasn’t necessarily true. Some presentations go better than others; some workshops are more potent than others in terms of learning. This I can honestly say was the greatest group I have ever presented to and worked with. Such clearly articulated creativity, such curiosity, such fearlessness, such a desire to learn. As I said before, if this is Finland, what a marvelous place.

I want to thank my friend and colleague Pekka for arranging this for me as well as to Otavan Opiston Osuuskunta (especially Tiina Airaksinen!) for the marvelous organization and willingness to try anything. I was honored to be there, honored to have worked with those people, and sincerely hope we can collaborate on more in the future.

I leave with a quote I was literally reading on the plane back to London. It is by way of the tireless Pekka from John Shotter (2006) and it is particularly apt for what we were trying to do on our little adventures in Helsinki.

Dare to grope around, dare to be tentative, to hesitate, to try different ways of expressing the ‘it’ that seems to be ‘there’, awaiting our further creative development of it within our  lives together. Dare to creatively stumble around in words (p. 122).

Until next time.

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