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Project: Stories and Streams, Week 7: Events-based learning: the west midlands #media2012 hub

When I started working on the Alternative Media and Web Production (AM&WP) module late-2010, it was with the intention of working towards embedding citizen journalism and the Olympic Games as a priority topic and theme for the module. It begin with #mc539, which then evolved into #MED5008, a course within another – online journalism. The first 6 weeks, my AM&WP students worked within groups of online journalists as multimedia producers that supported the ongoing investigations around the Olympics or Education areas. The first investigations were as follows:

After a directed study week where there were no classes, and the online journalists had to submit an assignment snapshot (AM&WP didn’t) the groups were reshuffled and given new editors (based on our observations and recommendation) and there was an ‘golden bunnies’ award ceremony for the class to showcase and peer-review the best work –which Paul blogs about here around morale and momentum. The groups were then divided up by role and we (Paul, Caroline and myself) took them away to discuss next steps in terms of investigation, new groups and new roles.

The thing is… it just wasn’t working for the AM&WP students. I have a grand total of 7 – and only 4 were present, meaning that anything that I deliver specifically to them, has to be repeated to nearly half of the cohort if and when they do attend class. It isn’t fair on those who are consistent in work and attendance – and it’s not fair to assume that what they do is the same as the online journalists, despite being part of the class giving them additional skills, context and briefs to work around that would be be possible in a classroom of 7 students on their own.

At the same time, I was given an opportunity through #media2012 and other networks through contacts such as Matt Lee from BBC West Midlands to allow a team of students to attend a local cultural olympiad event that same morning. I could have decided to remove the AM&WP students from the rest of the group and return to traditional format of lectures and workshops, using the reshuffle as an excuse to return them to normal in order to complete the class – or I could have used the flexibility that the format affords the space (being a working newsroom after all) to embed the students in their own project, working together as AM&WP students but still within and together with the OJ students in their roles. The event gave me a kernel of an idea – and space to come up with a solution that didn’t involve the AM&WP students getting stuck or pushed into the technical-only roles that they were encountering in the first half of the module. Furthermore, there is no excuse for any online journalist to not try out that role as a web developer and multimedia producer as it is as much as core skill for the trade as any other that they are being exposed to for the this first on this course.

Events-based learning

After identifying two OJ and two AM&WP students who were able to cover the launch of the West Midlands Cultural Olympiad Festival 2012 launch, I contacted the press officer on their behalf and managed to get them in as student journalists, simply to observe the event. I briefed them with details of what the cultural olympiad is and what the launch might entail, but also linked it to #media2012, a citizen media news environment where the content and curation may lead to the first citizen journalism legacy project of an Olympic Games.

I’ve already presented this heavily in class (this year and last), using powerpoints and other exercises to explain the alternative media context in this light. But actually, it is almost impossible to convey how powerful it can be until you attend your first event under the guise of a community/alternative media organisation. It is mainly to do with confidence, it can feel intimidating if you are trying to think like a journalist without an organisation or a title behind you (same as academia really) so #media2012, the organisation, can provide a identity and a purpose for writing/documenting/working towards.

For instance, I was told on the phone that it would be nearly impossible for the students to interview the main speaker, Jonathan Edwards, because of time restrictions on media access. Then this happened…

From a tweet late the night before, to getting students into an event, to capturing interviews and media content for the web in a way that I could have never imagined ever getting access too. After Vancouver, I learn that it was often not worth chasing the sport and the athletes because that’s where access was hard, but through the cultural olympiad, there is space to widen the cracks and ask different questions that often the mainstream, ’employed’ journalists aren’t able to. This is equally important as one of the new investigations that the OJs will be leading on is around following the money associated with the Cultural Olympiad, with a mentor from Arts Professional magazine. There is every chance that the students could produce important findings around impact and legacy that are not currently being discussed thoroughly by the mainstream media.

For me, this has became a real break-through in blending practice with theory – especially when topics such as the cultural olympiad and the arts council can seem incredibly complex to anybody outside of the spaces that it works within.

Next Steps

Student-led curriculum?

Last time I blogged about the student-led curriculum, and as I know there is at least one AM&WP student who wants the opportunity to build teaching experience, I will let them lead on preparing workshops around the technical aspects of the multimedia production. The problem is trust and reliability, not ability, and unless that I can trust that those sessions are going to happen, I can’t accept that they are going to happen, so will also have to prepare my own sessions of this nature. You can lead a student to become a producer, but you can’t make them produce.  Especially when you are constantly fighting the tide of consumer-demands.

#media2012 West Midlands as an Alternative Media project

The AM&WP students will not be part of any current investigation being held by that OJ students. Instead they will be working as a group, bringing together the knowledge and information that they learned from the first 6 weeks as working as a newsroom team to manage, produce content and attend and cover events on behalf of #media2012. They will essentially become the West Midlands hub for #media2012 and by the end of the module, should be produced a complete events guide for the area, attended and live blogged as many Olympic and Paralympic related events and interventions (both official and ‘unofficial’) as #media2012 citizen journalists and helped contribute to the website and multimedia productions for youtube, podcasts and liveblogging.

They will also liase with the other groups who are working on Olympic related investigations and work to push their findings and reports to wider audiences through the #media2012 and connected networks. They will need to get to grips with the #media2012 charter and understand the connected arts, education and community based organisations who are partnered in the scheme, as well as making attempts to formulate a strategy for the summer to ensure that there is a network of individuals/volunteers who will connect to the West Midlands hub once the module ends and the assignments are in. This could include visiting local community groups to offer training and support in using alternative media – or it could be to arrange a build a sustainable newsroom for the time during the Olympics.

This connects to the projects that were delivered by last year’s AM&WP students through #mc539, but also to the first year Olympic production event that is happening on the 10th of May. They will need to work hard to turn this kernel into a viable alternative media and web based project, that already has a history and a network, but its up to them how they take that forward as a opportunity to build on.

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Stories and Streams: Introduction to Alternative Media and Web Production @BCUMedia #media2012

Following on from last year’s #mc539 Alternative Media and Web Production (AM&WP) module at Birmingham City University, which I had an active role in developing as a course and was encouraged to be shared online beyond the classroom through a class blog and the #media2012 network – this year we (Jon Hickman and myself) have collaborated with Paul Bradshaw and his 2nd year Online Journalism (OJ) module to produce, what we hope, is an innovative approach to teaching both OJ and AM&WP as a working newsroom behind an online content management system, where both sets of students from each module will work together to research, develop and report on stories across two important themes for 2012; higher education and the London 2012 Olympics.

What makes the combination of these modules stand out is (what we hope) the innovative pedagogy- where we have decided not to follow the usual lecture/workshop model that mc539 (now med5008) still maintained. Each week will follow a structure of a news conference, an option to attend one of 3 streams (delivered by Paul, Caroline Beavon and myself) and a working newsroom – with students working in groups of 5 throughout. Within those 5, there are roles delegated to each individual: Editor, Community Manager, Multimedia Journalist (AM&WP students), Data Journalist and Network Aggregator. The editor decides what streams that their team should go to – and in turn, each member that gets to attend a workshop session has to feed it back to the rest of their group, much like how you are expected to feedback workshops in specific work situations – encouraging peer-to-peer learning.

My stream focuses on ‘stealth theory’ – that is, developing an understanding for the ‘alternativeness’ in contrast to the mainstream. I will be focusing on developing a critique of large media events and helping to guide where they might find the alternative story in the process. Importantly, it is about unpicking discourses and rhetoric in the mainstream media and being able to use that to research and construct stories that may not be covered otherwise. For instance, what does it mean when a corporate PR company contacts you to recruit students, to work for free on olympic related research jobs, in return for the ‘prestige’ of being remotely associated with that space?  I have a feeling that this is only going to increase as we raise visibility of the project, and the students begin working towards the Olympics in 6 months time.

To get them started, I am putting together an “Olympic Lead” sheet on google documents that cover some of the issues that are not covered in the mainstream media around the games. This is an open document and can be added to by anyone. I encourage anyone to add to it.

The module is also part of a wider research project where we will be blogging the entire process as lecturers, recruiting some students as part of the Student-Academic Partnership program with BCU’s Student Union to record sessions using a flipcam and adding to a public youtube channel and seeing this newsroom as being part of the West Midlands hub for #media2012.

More to follow as the week’s progress, following the category tag “Stories and Streams:MED5008” which will also be relayed on a class blog over on BCU Media blog.

Module Synopsis below: 

Alternative media is not new, but the web has provided an increased opportunity for alternative-ness. This course addresses alternative media practices, and explore how the web provides opportunities for alternative production in the context of wider media events such as transformation in the higher education sector and the forthcoming London 2012 Olympic Games . The module explores a range of alternative media opportunities, including the cultural programme, media structures and the process of developing citizen media outputs. Traditional media events such as the Olympic Games (the most watched television spectacle in the world) can provide a local and timely context in which to access the phenomena of alternative media. Beyond the sport events, the Olympics is an domain where geopolitical issues are played out by competing narratives between the Olympic movement, media institutions, politicians and the public -positioning the tension of alternative discourse as part of the Olympic experience.

You will be working closely with the MED5001 Online Journalism, working in cross-module teams to produce multimedia content as part of an ongoing news team covering issues around the higher education debate and the Olympic Games. The module leader’s blog will provide additional background reading. You will also produce blogs, Twitter feeds and social bookmarking accounts to support your learning and to exchange ideas and information with other students.

You will develop an understanding of “alternativeness”, social media, participatory and citizen media. You will demonstrate these ideas through producing and publishing blogs, social networks, podcasts and videos to the web. You will also explore alternative enterprise ‘models’ and work closely with local media practitioners to produce a web product suitable for dissemination through the #media2012 citizen media network – a nationwide development towards a cultural, digital and alternative legacy for the London Olympiad.

Teaching and learning will be based on lectures introducing key concepts, supported by workshops exploring those in practical exercises. Directed independent study will develop knowledge and skills further.The skills and knowledge learned here could form the basis for a final year project and provide an introduction to debates and themes associated with alternative media, mega-events and citizen journalism. Assessment is based on ongoing and visible web production and journalistic practice – you will be assessed on both alternative media as a community engagement process but also in the weekly creative media outputs that you produce. This is intended to give you an awareness of different forms of alternative media, experience in using online methods of research, and experience of being an alternative media worker engaged with online communities.

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What the hell is #mc539? (Week 1-9)

We’ve now hit week 9 of mc539 (the 2nd year web and alternative media module I teach at Birmingham City University), the last week before the end of term and the class go off to fulfil their project manifestos over the coming weeks. The entire course is available online and in public under creative commons. Here is a recap for those who are interested in the little world of #mc539, but may have missed it:

Course introduction:

“Alternative media is not new, but the web has provided an increased opportunity for alternative-ness. This course addresses alternative media practices, and explore how the web provides opportunities for alternative production in the context of the forthcoming London 2012 Olympic Games. The module explores a range of alternative media opportunities, including the cultural programme, media structures and the process of developing citizen media outputs.

Traditional media events such as the Olympic Games (the most watched television spectacle in the world) can provide a local and timely context in which to access the phenomena of alternative media. Beyond the sport events, the Olympics is a domain where geopolitical issues are played out by competing narratives between the Olympic movement, media institutions, politicians and the public – positioning the tension of alternative discourse as part of the Olympic experience.” (More here)

Week 1: An introduction to the theories of alternative media. A social media 101 (the (critical) basics) using social media platforms from both a technical infrastructure and a social context, exploring tools which can be used to help facilitate, support and enable alternative media.

Week 2: The second week introduced the #media2012 context (working towards a BCU media hub for the London 2012 Olympic Games), introducing themes of culture & art, resistance and protest and ceremony and spectacle to the mix. We ran a workshop on mixed media web production (audio in class, video for homework.)

Week 3: The 3rd week introduced the “client” and helped the students understand who their audience is and how that audience can drive a community project around it. The workshop looked at alternative media case studies and used virtual enthography methods to carry out  alternative media background research.

Week 4: The 4th week looked more specifically at promoting causes and focused on the case study of #purpos/ed as a social media campaign. The workshop focussed on the position of the alternative media worker and how it shapes a project manifesto.

Week 5: This week looked at networked power (introducing concepts of labour, history of work practice), with a focus on network analysis theory and network analysis tools. We also looked at production ethics for the alternative media workers and came up with a set of guidelines for the class.

Week 6 was a reading week – the students were working on their first assignment, a manifesto for an alternative media project.

Week 7: The class were given 3 hours to write, prepare and deliver an alternative media campaign of their own. my reflections of the projects are here.

Week 8: Last week we looked at the notion of sustainability from a variety of contexts, with an introduction to Zizek’s critique of cultural capital and concept of ephermal direct action and reaction to the spectacle. We also reflected on the activism project from the week before.

Week 9: An excellent guest workshop from John Coster of Citizen’s Eye – the videos are here.

The next 3-4 weeks will be student-led and used to carry out a full web project around a theme relating to #media2012. When they return after the Easter break, we will be spending time on critical writing, reflection and project write-ups. So far so good. For me, this has been an incredibly rewarding experience which has inspired me greatly to work on further teaching projects which explore radical/student-led techniques in education. That’s all for now!

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#mc539: The half-way point (reflection on yesterday’s activism project)

So this week was week 7 in to #mc539, the 2nd year alternative media and web production module I’ve been running at BCU. All the course content so far has been posted on the class blog (as I delibrately wanted to encourage ‘openness’ which required the course to lead by example) There is still a moodle “space” for the module – but it really only concerns assessment and to give the students a choice to engagement (as the majority of courses are delivered behind a moodle-wall.) 

Last week the cass submitted the first part of their assignment, a manifesto towards a web project to be delivered by the end of the term. Yesterday, we decided to try something different and left the day entirely open and free from lesson plans. They were asked to plan, prepare and deliver a social media activism campaign within the 3 hours of the class – based on *something* that was happening during that week. It was hard to predict that UCU would be on strike, that the government would have voted for action in Libya or proposed cuts in teaching grants at the University – but with so much to choose from, and the lesson to be led by the students themselves, they decided to pick a topic which was close to Birmingham – the infrastructure and public transport woes in the city. I live blogged the seminar whilst they were doing it so they could concentrate of the action (taken from the class blog):

Hour 1:

They have decided to focus on the cuts to services/staff (and public transport in general) in Birmingham. They have decided to approach the project in solidarity with the union – and will be drawing attention to poor service caused by cuts in budgets and staffing in local stations.

Their larger objective is to make people aware of the importance of trains in a world where resources are becoming scarer (and how one train could take x amount of cars of the road) and to do this they will making the services aware of how bad they are and how better they could be.

They will be defining what is ‘poor service’ – delays, cancellations, low staffing, frequency.

They will be drawing attention to the under-promoted “delay/repay” scheme which London Midland offer when the train is more than 30 minutes late, a refund is automatically offered. They do not promote this on their twitter account so the group will making a tool to make it easier to claim a refund.

They will be setting up a blog to share information about their cause and will be using twitter as their main vessel of promoting the cause. The hashtag to follow is #trainFAIL – which people already use to tweet their train woes.

Hour 2:

Having decided to go with a combination of posterous and twitter for their campaign, the group are now using research gathered from several members around their campaign.

Twitter account: @BhamTrainFail

Website: Birmingham Train Fail

Points of note:

  • Channel 4 Dispatches showed a programme called “Train journeys from hell.” last night which draw attention the poor service provided by train companies in the UK. Channel 4 were encouraging people to tweet using #TrainPain – however #TrainFAIL was also being used and picked up on. Therefore, the topic is relevant and timely in terms of “what people were talking about on twitter.” but also is seen as a ‘back channel’ to the back channel, provoked by general complaints on trains. 
  • They also found a press release from the last 24 hours regarding potential strike action from London Midland around pay and conditions which suggests that the staff are unhappy too.
  • They will be calling train company press offices to find out how many services were delayed in the last year.


  • Target the campaign specifically at Birmingham – and London Midland, who have a twitter account (responding to complaints) but they were unclear of the transparency of the account (i.e. where they just retweeting information from National Rail records, rather than looking at wider contexts of problems) It was also seen as a brand management exercise rather than something that can provoke change to practice.
  • It is also raises awareness to the issues which face Birmingham, especially with its city design being geared up for change. The group want to be able to use anger in a constructed way.
  • The blog will be seen as a hub which will be populated with information relating to the campaign and the wider context of problems.

Hour 3:

The blog and twitter account have now been set up. They have been listening to people who have 1) used #trainfail #trainpain (from the previous night) asking them to respond with their #trainfail issues. They also have been contacting people who have been using the @londonmidland service and not received a satisfactory response to their problem.

The group made a call to the London Midland press office to enquiry about archives of statistics relating to their services and access to a history of delays. The press office could not provide the statistics and said that “1.5%” were delayed over the last couple of weeks. The group were not satisfied with the response and decided to blog about it.

From twitter it was not clear what the objectives of the campaign was, so they decided to halt promotion until they had added those details to the blog. They needed to make clear exactly who they were supporting, why they were doing it and what they wanted from the project. They also decided to make all the objectives ‘tweetable’ so under 140 characters. 

The have also decided to create content around the delay/replay scheme and the union disputes. These will be shared before 1pm.


Overall I was impressed by the actions and the way in which the class worked together to get the campaign up and running – and it was good to see them refer to some of the themes we had discussed in the previous weeks. This class does have a wider purpose of course, as it gets them to consider what happens once a project is up and running and how it can be sustained (if it is to be sustained at all) in order to prepare for next week’s lecture on sustainability (in more ways than one!) I have asked them to consider the following questions in advance:

  • Give a brief overview of the project and your role throughout.
  • Provide the objectives of the group.
  • Detail what steps were taken to achieve the objectives.
  • How did you know it was a success/fail?
  • What surprised you about the result? 
  • What could you have done better?
  • How can the project be taken beyond the classroom?
  • What do you think ‘sustainability’ can mean in this context?
  • How can you relate the experiences to your own manifestos?

As an exercise, it was probably the most exciting that I’ve tried out so far – it reminds me of projects we did when I was an undergraduate and how I found it much easier to get a grasp on ideas and concepts when we were actually doing something, rather than simply discussing it in a classroom. Sure, that space is required in order to introduce the concepts – but several ideas and examples which I had demonstrated by lecture actually occurred during the project, which was pretty awesome but also showed how close we are to this world (there are no test runs!)

So now we are at the half way point, I look forward to reading and marking the manifestos and seeing them take shape within the #media2012 context – it feels very real.

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Some more thoughts on my research/teaching practice (and even more attempts at articulating social media in this context.)

I’m shit at titling blogs in a snappy, yet topical manner so if you can think of something better, feel free to rename it if you share it. 

The past weeks have been pretty epic on the scale of busyness. I remember looking at my diary at the start of February (just after I handed in an array of words for PHD submission) and thinking “bugger me, I’m crazy” for scheduling so much in a short period of time. I’ve been a number of events and activities in London, I’m been to Scotland and back, I’ve travelled from Bristol to Middlesborough, developed and began my own course for the first time, arranged a couple of workshops and all the while deciding it would be a good time to move house (renting is like a sweetie shop) Luckily for my PhD, from this week I’ve decided to settled down over the next couple of months to try and batter down another chunk of words. At least all this traveling around can be seen as the stuff that keeps me from climbing the walls when I feel like I’m in one place for too long. 

So today I was invited by Derek Harding at Teesside University to come up and speak about stuff around what I’m researching/teaching (that was my brief) it was a good brief – forced me to attempt to articulate the links between my research and my teaching (and how I’ve came at all this learning and teaching stuff by pure accident – but has began to play a huge part in my own learning and the influence media education has had on me.) 

Much of my recent ‘thinking’ has had been heavily influenced by protest action/movements of our own (and the discussions about the purpose of the University – which I’ve only encountered very recently but has opened my eyes to the sort of debates that we tend to only be able to have online (or as part of a backchannel), often when majority opinions of groups tend to shout down the periphery discussions. I’m making links between some of the strange things I’ve encountered people saying during the PGCert HE course I’m on and the work culture that has been introduced to me through working with people like my supervisor (who is everywhere & nowhere & is certainly not somewhere Microsoft certified.) In fact, my PGCert is possibly my only encounter of feeling ‘part’ of an institutional culture – partly because I’m not employed full-time by anyone, partly because I’ve always deliberately distanced myself from anything that might replicate the hell of working in the information society’s coal-face of the call-centre during my dropout days.

Institutionally a VT (or even PhD student) is pretty low down on the hierarchy – you have to work pretty damn hard to be paid attention to, and even then there is a no guarantee that people will give a shit (holidays? sick pay? that’s only for proper people, pal). Partly to do with the nature of the job (paid by the hour, in and out – not around for meetings and conservations) and partly due to the fact that it’s ‘always the way it’s been’ (it’s what is NOT being said is the worry) – when you are only getting paid a few hours a week, you don’t really have the time to run a part time awareness group on behalf of your comrades. When I speak to other VTs/PhD students there is a concession around their place in the hierarchy -some are happy to be on the edge, working on different projects and not bogged down with the day to day runnings of the place – others are quite accepting of the bottom of the ladder idea and reckon their time will come to ride the glory train (I’m generalising for effect here) Nevertheless, it’s on this edge where you can actually experience with cool, creative stuff and essentially carve your own purpose in the system. Rather than accepting that, yes, you HAVE to participate in certain rituals because ‘that’s the way it is’ – or becoming disheartened enough to just cut out the bits you don’t like (rather than responded critically to them) that there is a real, tangible space where stuff can actually get done. So there is a point where instead of putting my head in my hands & cursing the state of society, I can get away with trying new things – something I’m bursting to the seams about when it comes to #mc539 for example – or get to contribute my thoughts to my school’s learning and teaching strategy discussion. 

Ok, I know that some institutions are harder than others to have a direct influence on, there is a whole lot of context required here as well (much of which I’m not qualified to comment on – my only fixed term contract took 6 months of paperwork to achieve 3 months of actual work.) Nevertheless, working between 3 different places allows me to pick up similarities in discussions and approaches and attempt to see best practice attempts – this is not dissimilar from the hyper-reality that social media affords. Being able to dip into my network – and share/read thoughts in this way – is something that, if it wasn’t for those who I don’t regularly expose myself to freaking out about “laptop/mobile use is rude” camp, I take utter granted for. I’ve found myself working through the process and witnessed some of my colleagues going through the exact same emotions (it’s the only way I can describe it) about such a way of thinking. I guess it’s always been there but now there are tools which can amplify and visualise the experience. Let’s just say, if it wasn’t for me embracing my inane, messy and sometimes confusing inner monologue and flinging it out on the internet (because that’s essentially what twitter is, a constant stream of thoughts (even if some of the thoughts are those of the corporate), I wouldn’t get to do what I am doing. If I was still being faced with people who avidly campaign to ban websites, lock down systems and restrict use to laptops and mobiles in communal education then I wouldn’t be here. 

I’ve mentioned this before (in passing) but somebody else picked up on it to from an access perspective too – social media makes academia accessible to me. Take away my laptop, take away my phone and I’m useless – unless you have plans to keep me entertained for 8 hours straight, I need to be doing 15 things at once in order to engage with ‘whatever this this’. I’ve been like that since I was 2 – that’s why I was so attracted to computers and stuff at a young age. If I’m bored I shut down and turn into a self-destructing hermit. This links back to why I seem to function at my best when I’m busy beyond the point of sanity (the travel, the social media sites, everything) – it might also be a neat explanation why I can find myself working from 6am-11pm, all day long, la la la – I mean, what the hell else would I be doing? At least one thing I’ve managed to establish is how to sooth that beastie. 

(Slides and stuff to follow – I’m without internet at home and surviving only on hacking East Midlands Trains wifi. Can’t keep the connection open long enough to handle the size of slide monster.)


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