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Presentation: Stories and Streams at the University of the West of Scotland Learning & Teaching Conference.

Stories and Streams was a project that I have blogged a lot about last semester whilst at Birmingham City University, where I have taught new media theory, alternative media and web production for the last 3 years. We (Jon Hickman, Paul Bradshaw and myself) were funded by the centre of excellent in learning and teaching within BCU to evaluate and transform the pedagogy of teaching media practice modules (such as online journalism, alternative media and web production) and to develop modules that reflect on the nature of the topic, rather than replicating traditional learning structures of classrooms, lectures and workshops. We also managed to hire some student research assistants to blog and capture the classroom activity. That’s the bit I particularly like.

Here is a (nitty gritty urban) video of me chatting about the project with David McGillivray:

Last week I was drafted in to the University of the West of Scotland Annual Learning and Teaching Conference to talk about this project. It has already toured to Winchester University’s Exploring Collaborative Approaches in Media Studies event in April with more outputs to be produced in the coming months for the Higher Education Academy and Media Education publications. Already, we are plotting the next year’s activity, where I am now living in Glasgow (and not able to work in Birmingham anymore) so we are giving up my teaching fee to be managed and spent by the students. Because as they say, students are customers and they obviously know more about what they think they need to know about media practice than me right?

I jest.

but I think it is important to think about what is going to happen in September with the fee regime changing and we are talking serious money/debt to do a degree. And the purpose and point of a university in this space. And all of that in the context of Scottish HE as well now. More to follow.

More on Stories and Streams:

Slides from UWS.
Link to project website
Audioboo with Cameron King about the presentation at UWS

Media2012 West Midlands, 29th-30th June (event born from Luke Seager (a student on the program) assessment brief)

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Project: Stories and Streams, week 5. “The module is not what I expected.”

A couple of days ago, I reflected on the move towards a student -led curriculum on the alternative media and web production course that I am running at BCU. Since the change of class structure this year to a ‘stories and streams’ format, some of the common issues that I have faced has been questions relating to the expectations of what the module might look like – and importantly, what it might cover.

I’ve skirted around the issues in a few of the previous posts, but I think today was a real break through in terms of how I take the management and integration of my students with the online journalism cohort in the coming weeks. Next week is a ‘directed study’ week -no classes but an expectation to work throughout.

Where are the students?

So far I have 8 students working as multimedia journalists as part of online journalism teams working on investigations around the Olympics and Education. Half of my students are competent web designers, especially in using WordPress, and have ended up in a content management role and/or a technical person to fix or answer questions relating to content. They work together well and tend to spend the class working on content management roles.

The rest are more focused on online media production, albeit videos, audio, design and bring different qualities to the group dynamics, perhaps in a contextual position or providing the ‘alternative’ to the story. In a rough way, I have some who would find sessions in technical aspects useful and some who would find it elementary. This happened last year as well, with the stronger developers powering ‘ahead’ and those who are focusing on different areas assuming they had to ‘catch up’ in the same way.

The assignment is individual so you are marked on the 120 hours of work that you contribute to the module – and as long as its related to the themes and the purpose of the module, then it is fair game in terms of demonstrating and making up those hours. Sometimes being the in-house technical person isn’t always the strongest position to be if you are only fixing other people’s mistakes.

Open learning, open curriculum

My concern after the reading week is to keep the web developers engaged in the bigger project and not getting trapped in another stereotypical role based in their or other people’s expectations. This is not just about web design, it is about understanding the concept of alternative media and where web media might fit in spaces such as development but also other media contexts as well.

We increasingly as expected to work in vacuums, but actually, being able to take on multiple roles can be much beneficial in terms of how you find and complete work. For instance, for @UWSInteractive festival plans, I’ve not only had to arrange a festival, it’s space and people, I’ve built the website, arranged press coverage, wrote press releases, communicate internally and externally, help recruit interns, run sessions on topics i cant find people for and manage the admin and other related opportunities that an event can throw at you. If I was to stick to my specialism, web and new media production, I still would be waiting to hear back from the room bookers, let alone be in a position to launch on Monday. Specialisms can be helpful but they can also be a distraction.

Towards student as producer. By stealth.

The irony of the alternative media is that it is informed by critical theory, even though it isn’t being directly delivered as such. Therefore, what the students end up doing could be set by a target framework that we wrote before we met them, or it can be guided by their own interpretation of the module. The module, as it’s stands, is my interpretation of a module that was designed by Jon Hickman that was passed to Jon through Prof. Tim Wall etc.

Each time a new person is passed a topic or a theme, they pass it through their own understanding of the subject area. I’m not offended when a student declares that the subject area is irrelevant to them- how could I be?- I think it has more to do with their own way of interpreting the subject area, and they tend to wrestle with that earliest definition throughout the whole course.

It is the coat hook to hang their understanding on. It can be tough to challenge that, especially as production being ‘practical’ therefore ‘good’ – because of how related graduate employment and experience and university education is linked these days, but that doesn’t mean it should be challenged.

Next steps, peer to peer learning.

I’ve set four of my students the task of running and deciding on the content being taught on the multimedia production ‘stream’ after the directed study week. That is 4 weeks of 20-30 mins sessions delivered around aspects of technical delivery on the web that they feel the other students should know, namely around the frequent requests for obvious technical support. They will produce a series of workshops around video, WordPress, audio and basic HTML for formatting. Funnily enough, somebody asked ‘how do you teach WordPress?’ – a question I’ve yet to work it myself if I am to avoid those god awful lab sessions that feel like you are teaching Microsoft word en masse.

Their own exposure to pedagogy of teaching digital media (or teaching/engaging itself) might be a good way to see the role of the alternative media facilitator come to life.

In turn, I will give them a separated session on more advanced uses of the web, to challenge them beyond the basics, and gives me time to support those who are probably not as interested in the technical side as much as the others.

I look forward to seeing what they come up with and helping them promote their sessions more widely. Who says they need to keep it in the classroom, or even in the university? ;-)

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Project: Stories and Streams, Week 3 – Incorporating Feedback, (27-4) Support & Learning Outcomes.

For more context and posts on the Stories and Streamsproject, check out the website.

Today’s class was the first week that it felt that the majority of the students had a clear understanding of their role in the group and how they are working as a class as a whole, with most of them having already published aspects of their investigation online, using a content management system and linking to distribution social media accounts (albeit a personal or investigation specific twitter or Facebook account)

There are three points of interest that have emerged on reflection of today:

Feedback and Evolving Streams

This allows us, as lecturers, to see and provide feedback on topic, style, presentation and format of the investigation and allow us to fine tune the future workshops and sessions to suit the needs and issues of the class as whole. The observation of practice is supported by student requests for workshops, working simply with post-it notes and selecting from most popular skill request (see below). A definite move away from defining and sticking to learning outcomes ahead of individual weeks and bringing the student’s negotiation of learning back into the dialogue around set curriculum of the modules.

24/7 Online Support

Often the most daunting question asked when I am discussing the use of social media in learning and teaching with other academics is the notion of 24/7 support, where the lecturer is expected to be “always-on” as part of their duty to the student and the module.

It is clear, if we believe the expectation that an academic role is similar to the 9-5, switching off when the clock hits 5pm, that a 24/7 online support module could be considered a threat to a particular way of working (especially if you are an hourly paid contract staff)-however- the process of working with the groups to get their investigation groups does require extensive interaction beyond the three hours of the class.

What remains and what is being replaced when you remove lectures and workshops out of the equation?

Well firstly, I already feel that I am much closer to the work that my students are researching and producing from day one, and I managed this (mentally and institutionally) in a way that allows me to see what their doing not as a student project that exists in a vacuum, that I will mark in May as part of my admin duties as a visiting lecturer, that will have no effect beyond the grade that they are given at the end.

Instead, I feel like each website and investigation is each as much a living breathing journalism project as any other that I follow on RSS, on twitter, on facebook (etc) and something that I can fold into my online media space in the same way that I can fold in any other news feed. This is partly one of the reasons as the module progresses that I can see myself engaging in their projects at anytime, not just set ‘teaching’ times.

Secondly, I have given students access and ‘permission’ to get in touch with me using my twitter account. This is not something that I’ve actively done before or in previous years, despite some students finding me and following me anyway. Not that I mind, often I have found it difficult to link what I am doing to what they are doing through pedagogy and/or influence I have in modules, this is the perfect opportunity to try.

I can understand the concerns about introducing a social media channel into official communications, it’s not something that you can switch off at 5pm and it is not something you can ignore as they can see clearly and publicly your replies to others.

There has to be an element of managing expectations. This year, because of the changing and evolving nature of the module, and where the students are in terms of researching, producing and displaying their work, it’s only fair and entirely unavoidable to not give them the opportunity to use me and my network to help them achieve the goals set.

Similarly, being able to tell the difference between communicating by email, communicating by module and communicating by twitter are important – and the fact that the students are being asked to communicate to others in different ways (such as pick up the phone) should give them an idea of what method works best for different requests through experience, not expectation.

Finally, If I am expect them to work as a functioning independent news room, producing quality and in-depth investigations in public, then I can’t put up a pretence that my own social media presence can exist separately from it. The case in point is the fact that I’m even blogging about the concerns of blogging, a module like this can only work if the theory is seen and worked through the practice on doing.

Therefore, I’m on and available through social media without a job role or a job title attached. I am me first online, then I fulfil the tasks I’ve been asked to do. And in this case, it is ensuring I can take my students through the process of learning -and if always-on social media/online contact is how I do that, and it can work, then there is a potential to explore that space further.

Web Production: what is it?

It has been a task over the last two years to define and present what the alternative media and web production module means as a concept. The word “web” is a clue, but often gets it mixed up with the expectation of web design and web development. The key words are “production” -and the key context is “alternative media.”

These are emphasised, because they are important.

Alternative media brings the politics. Alternative media brings the rhetoric -or the style- to the production -and alternative media brings the social and historical context, as what we are demonstrating and encouraging does not exist in a vacuum, devolved from politics, history and critique.

Production is the act of making something. It requires research, it requires creative and technical skills and it requires context provided in order to create something that has value to your and others experiences. Web production can be anything produced on the web, not just a web site.

So from week 4, I will be moving from the discussion and activity from producing a website and providing a technical support for the online journalists and setting new tasks for the alternative media and web production students, working as multimedia journalists.

The tasks will test them on the context of alternative media but also on their ability to illustrate and communicate a story for the web in a way that addresses issues provided by their other group members and is suitable for an audience/network of their choosing.


There are some themes that have emerged after three weeks of working on the stories and streams project. They are as follows:

  • clarification of role: the purpose of the student, the expectation of the student and challenging and defining expectations in the classroom.
  • learning outcomes: moving beyond rationalised, universal outcomes and using group work and individual roles to draw out key issues, skills and challenges in a way not previously possible through existing teaching methods in this area.
  • definition of terms: drawing down the role of theory and production methods in new media studies. Embracing student expectations but also challenging them. Working out new and transforming ways to introduce key concepts without losing sight of political and social context of work.

Anything else?

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Stories and Streams, Week 2: Exploring the Role of Alternative Media Workers @BCUMedia


See previous posts for context on the ‘stories and streams’ project at Birmingham City University.

Week 1
Stories and Streams blog [With all posts from Paul Bradshaw and myself, plus student bloggers from the module Luke Seager and Jennie Cosh and videos from Humaira Razzaq (all student-academic partners)]

This week’s Alternative Media stream focused on the roles and the mode of the Alternative Media worker, exploring the different formats and styles that can be considered as being ‘alternative media.’ As this workshop is part of a larger set of joint modules who are working together in a student-led investigative journalism working newsroom, the purpose of this short session was allow for those who are on the Alt Media and Multimedia Journalism stream to think critically about the political implications of their role as an independent media producer.

Discussion below are adapted from notes shared by Jon Hickman (module leader) on the subject area.

Nigg and Wade (1980) argues that there are three different modes of working in the Alternative Media sphere; the auteur, the enabler and the collaborator.

Modes of working

Auteur – authorship: media worker represents the subjects, tells the story through their own vision of the problem. This might be seen as problematic as it is closer to mainstream media ideas. The exception here is if the auteur is a representative of that which they represent – e.g. a feminist making feminist media. This can be see in examples of political shorts reflecting ‘issues’ such as the climate camp video “fences” that was shown in class.

Enabler: the media worker assists media subjects in creating their own media products. The example given in class was Citizen’s Eye, a community news agency based in Leicester. John Coster, the editor, explains the purpose and the history of the organisation in the short video below, where one of the aims of their work is to encourage people of the local community to become empowered to tell their own stories through online media. 

Collaboration: This is a combination of the two modes above. So some structure and authorial control put into place by a media worker, but the subject is also active in production. The example used in class was the ‘audioboo’ accent archiving project for the British Library, that was used to capture the accents of europe through ‘user-generated’ submission. The community who participated were engaged with the British Library previously, but got to contribute themselves and how they speak as part of the community generate project.

In addition to the modes of working, Nigg and Wade also reveals four different archetypes of media workers relating to alternative media. They describe who the media worker might be and how they consider personal politics through their motivation to create media content.

Alternative Media Archetypes

The Radical – has a political agenda they wish to put forward through their media work. They will seek projects that provide a platform for their politics. For example a campaigner for disability rights who uses social media to enable others to lobby. The example used in class was the Spartacus Report, relating to the campaign access the changes to disability benefits.

The Thinker – takes a broader approach than a radical (which can be targeted around specific issues), but still very much political. Concerned with issues of representation in the mainstream media, and would see alternativeness itself as their political aim. By producing and consuming alternative media, they may even actively reject the mainstream media through their decisions to participate in an alternative media space. The example used in class was ‘the fword uk‘ – an online magazine dedicated to discussion around feminist issues and sharing ideas between contributors.

The Operator – they speak to the political need for alternativeness, but may not consider themselves to be ‘political’ – removing themselves from the critique whilst critique other approaches (the mainstream media) in the process. Where they are political they may take a narrow political position (as the radical) or a meta position (as the thinker) but this will be articulated primarily as a means to produce profit making interventions: Activism for profit. They follow the money and thus we might expect their position to change. Two sub types here: 1) clearly corporate, works funders and public sector, looking for commissions for work. May use altruism as part of marketing approach. 2) May seem to be a radical or a thinker, but they use this rather cynically and may be funded through other means e.g. paid for blogging and amplifying of products that they use in their work.

The Hobbyist: a member of the community being served, or someone who just likes to play with media as part of hobby like projects. Perhaps a retired/unemployed media worker. There may be issues of sustainability in terms of community media groups as participation is down to the issues that they may personally effect them at particular times, rather than a wider community media context. They can also be the backbone to larger alternative media projects as they contribute scope and variety to interpretation that may be missed during single issue campaigning.


The role of the alternative media worker (and therefore the political approach and mode of working that is decided by each student) is very much to think about the personal as being political – where instead of presenting a uniformed approach in order to pass an assignment, students should be encouraged to think about their own political position towards what they communicate around and through their work practice. Therefore, through the next two weeks of workshops on the Alternative Media stream, students will be asked to develop and refine their own positions using the guidelines above.

It is also worth baring in mind that these roles were defined in 1980, a long time before we are to think about the role of the web and web production in this space. How does this reflect and change the social and political context of your work? How do they examples use new media to convey and amplify their causes and their stories?

Next week will focus on the discourses and conventions of alternative media, looking at what makes media content “look” alternative and how these rhetoric devices have been used in the mainstream media to present alternative media as a style rather than a political approach.

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Stories and Streams, Week 1: Exploring the Education and Olympic Context @BCUMedia #media2012

Today kicked off the first ever joint Online Journalism and Alternative Media 2nd year production module at Birmingham City University. After spending some time (re)developing the model for delivery, this morning was where we put our shared google documents into practice.

Process: News Conference and Forming of Groups

After an hour long news conference (video above shows format), where students were encouraged to explore the potential issues and research questions to aid their future investigations, they were asked to complete a short questionnaire (based on skills and interests) in order to establish which role they were be given for the duration of the module. Each group has 5-6 members, with each member having a different role in the group – which will be rotated at least once in the course of the semester so that everyone gets a chance to try a different job. These include the editor, the data journalist, the multimedia journalist, the network journalist and the community manager. The detailed job description of each role and their expectation for production are available here. The BCU newsroom etiquette charter is also the backbone behind the investigation principles and is available here.

From this roles, they were then asked to think about what they need to know and what workshop session they should attend during the breakout sessions. There are three streams, delivered by Paul, Caroline and myself and each session provides a different take similar themes for each week, where the student must not only think about what they need for the ongoing investigation but to in turn, relay back for they have learned at each session to the rest of their group, providing a peer-to-peer support network in their groups and challenges the one-to-many format.

Some snaps of the workings behind formulating research questions around the Olympics and Education.

Stream 2: Understanding the Alternativeness of Alternative Media (Multimedia Journalists)

The Alternative Media and Web Production theme has two core elements this week: 

1) the understanding the elements of ‘alternativeness’ in relation to the case studies presented – and being able to help the other members of their groups to find those stories as part of wider investigations. What is the dominant ‘mainstream’ message and how and where are the alternative(s) presented?

 2) producing content for the web, which might not necessary just be producing websites. These can include audio (podcasts and interviews), video (documentaries, news features, exposés, creative content, subversion and detournement) photography and graphic design, events and the coverage of events, live blogging and on-the-ground reporting (amongst other styles) – there is no limit on what and how things are produced using the tools that available to the students, it’s down to their own perspective and desire to create and learn how to carry such production out.

Some advised tasks (based on the week 1 workshop on Alternative Media) to be thinking about as Alternative Media students working as Multimedia Journalists:

Find the ‘dominant’ stories around Education and the Olympics this week (depending on group’s theme), read newspapers and listen to show’s such as Radio 4 Today show in the morning (or on bbc iplayer) that tend to break and spark the themes of news discussion of the day – including responses by bloggers. You need to be developing a research portfolio and background to the dominant reporting around the olympics or education so that you can understand the role of the web and alternative media in contrast – find the responses to these stories in the blogsphere and social media and keep a record of links and where you found them, what format they exist in and who is producing them. Recognize patterns that emerge, when and how are education/Olympic stories conveyed – how are they responded to? Who influences the responses and who and what are the alternatives to the mainstream approach? Where do you (and the rest of your group) fit in?

From now the students will be working in their groups to carry out an investigation around the best issues that they came up with this morning. They will be working as teams to carry out work relating to their individual roles in order to produce something more than just a ‘story’ – this will be the process throughout the entire term, where they will be expected not only to produce suitable responses to critical issues but also to combine the principles of research and practice throughout their different themes. These will feed into two key networks, #media2012 (through my involvement) and Help Me Investigate (Paul’s involvement.)

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