Life in this age of constant connection is interspersed with episodes of incommunication, in which spontaneous, “natural” conversation seems to stutter and fail. Here are four examples, all genuine.


Episode 1

I walk into the Transport Office at work. There are three employees, no customers.

“How can I help you today?”
“Could you tell me the procedure for getting a bus pass?”
“No problem. The information is all on line.”
“How much does it cost?”
“The prices are all on the website.”
“How long will it take?”
“You should allow 10-15 days at peak times.”
“Is mid August a peak time?”
“Could be. Waiting times are on the website.”
“Do I need a photo?”
“Is there a booth anywhere?”
(In a tone of amused condescension.) “Er… use your smartphone.”

In search of the appropriate white backdrop, I retire to the toilets armed with an iPad and hope that no-one will burst in on my improvised photoshoot.

Episode 2

I am outside on the square, strolling back to my office after a coffee break with colleagues.
A stranger addresses me in an earnest tone.

“Excuse me. You’re a TV personality, aren’t you?”
(Smiling.) “Hardly.”
(With insistence.) “You’re from Oxford aren’t you? They said you were from Oxford.”
“Yes, but I haven’t appeared on TV for about 20 years.”
“I saw you last night.”
“I don’t think so.”
“On Robot Wars.”
(Smile waning.) “Sorry, I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s the programme you were on. Your robot got knocked out.”
(Smile now wry.) “Well, that’s a relief.”
(Stranger shakes his head and disappears into a shop.)

Episode 3

I am reading on the bus going home.

A large woman is seated next to me, earbuds firmly in place. She rises purposefully to get off, knocking my glasses onto the floor.

I retreat rapidly into the corridor to make way and to retrieve my glasses before they cease to be. Bending over, I back inadvertently into another passenger, also advancing towards the exit smartphone in hand. The bus jolts, I lose balance and tread on her foot. She yelps. I apologise profusely. Neither she nor the other lady makes any form of acknowledgement.

I return to my seat to resume reading but feel numb and resistant to the insensitive clamour of the words on the page. I toy with the idea of proposing myself as a new Marvel comic character – the Invisible Bulk.

Episode 4

The bus has reached the end of the line and the driver is having a cigarette break. We are still four stops away from my destination so I remain on board. Silence reigns. All nine passengers are gazing into their smartphones or into the middle distance with their earbuds on.

The silence is broken by a loud and doleful whining sound emanating from one of the passengers with earbuds. The lament continues, wavering between loud and soft, for about a minute, without apparent rhythmic or melodic form.

The relief is palpable when the driver re-starts the engine and we continue on our way. At no point is there any reaction of any sort from anyone.

Cogs and pinions

“It should just work” – a common refrain of management teams overseeing the rollout of a new learning-enhancing technology. “Just show me which button to press.”

Few of us have any great desire to know what is going on under the bonnet. We just want something that gets us from A to B.

Yet, 101 years ago, in his 1915 book Schools of To-Morrow, John Dewey warned

image“Unless the mass of workers are to be blind cogs and pinions in the apparatus they employ, they must have some understanding of the physical and social facts behind and ahead of the material and appliances with which they are dealing.” (Dewey 1915 p.274)

As Jesse Stommel observes, translating Dewey’s comments into the context of TEL in the 21st Century, “the less we understand our tools, the more we are beholden to them. The more we imagine our tools as transparent or invisible, the less able we are to take ownership of them.” (Stommel 2016)

Knowing how a technology works is key to making it work for you, to appropriating it creatively for the benefit of learning.

One can of course take the view that it’s someone else’s job to make the technology work. “Just show me which button to press.”

Some of us may indeed welcome driverless motoring.

May script writers rest easy?

Sunspring is a short sci-fi film. It is nonsense, of the best kind, neither banal nor original, by turns hilariously funny and faintly disturbing. It was written by ‘Benjamin’, an RNN (Recurrent Neural Network) AI machine. Its makers, Oscar Sharp, of Therefore Films, and a trio of actors which includes the well-known Thomas Middleditch, manage brilliantly to impart meaning to Benjamin’s outpourings, adopting the familiar rhythms of sci-fi tropes while all the while having to play dodgems with nonsensical gems such as “I just wanted to tell you that I was much better than he did”. I wonder what Edward Lear would have made of it?

Sunspring was made for the Sci-Fi London contest, in which contestants are given 48 hours in which to make a movie from a given set of prompts. One of the judges commented “I’ll give them top marks if they promise never to do this again.”

To find out about the making of Sunspring, visit ‘Ars Technica‘.

Conference call

Dusting off the unintended digital debris of two web conferences yesterday, and in a fragile mood, I was prompted to re-visit the brilliant video spoof A Conference Call in Real Life by the comedy duo Tripp and Tyler to revive my spirits. Though over two years old now, it remains achingly funny and true to life.


red_balloonI read a short paper by a colleague, George, today which rightly argues that usurpation is a proper process for the inhabitants of universities continually to attempt. It can certainly result in transformation but is it necessarily transcendent? Does it have balloon-like qualities?

George opened his piece with the question as to whether transcendence and transgression amount to the same thing. I found the notion of adiaphora, adopted by Bauman (2002), to be a helpful way of addressing this question.

Transcendence, from its Latin root, conjures climbing, rising above, going beyond but implies no breaching, violation or infringement, as does transgression, in which the stem gredi carries the meaning of stepping across or over an acceptable line (legal or moral). From this derives the idea of erring, stepping off the straight and narrow.

In order for transcendence not to entail transgression, there needs to be a degree of adiaphorism at play, i.e. if the state/action transcended is not expressly forbidden, the going beyond it is treated with indifference by authority. The problem is that, in a time like ours of moral liquidity (Bauman again! – 2000), the laissez-faire economics of neoliberalism make both transcendence and transgression more difficult, as society becomes indifferent to (or fearful of) the space beyond. If we are numb, the urge to transcend is lessened. I think we see this in our increasing acceptance of legislation that is anticipatory as much as punitive.

Perhaps the question can be re-phrased. Are creative appropriation and creative expropriation (usurpation) equally effective tactics of resistance to academic closure? George takes a similar line when he notes that usurpation tends to be cyclical, the usurper becoming the usurped, all parties falling victim to the will to exert power. Over time, the will to usurp declines as the academy loses its social value and numbness and adiaphora set in.

Balloons, on the other hand, though inclined to transcend, are unlikely to transgress. We cling to them for as long as we can to prolong the sensation of freedom they convey. It takes courage to release our grip and let them float free.

This is the pain of the liminal state in education.

Bauman, Zygmunt (2002). Society under Siege. Cambridge, Polity Press.
Bauman, Zygmunt (2000). Liquid Modernity. Cambridge, Polity Press.

TEG mega meal deal

The TEG (Technology Experimentation Group) invites Wheatley staff and students to a

3-in-1 mega meal deal for digital gourmets

Thursday 5th May, 12:00-13:30, Wheatley Training Room (H.217)

Virtual Reality is here
Is Virtual Reality the future? No, it’s already here. Come and experience it for yourself with VR enthusiast Gerard Helmich.

3D Printing – the only limit is your imagination
Watch a hands-on demo of this exciting technology by Simon Llewellyn.

360º photography
Richard Francis takes spherical snaps (like this one) with his brand new panoramic camera.

All Wheatley staff and students welcome.
To be sure of a place please email Richard Francis (

There’s a digital hole in my bucket

With apologies to Liza and Henry.

There’s a bug in my PC, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
There’s a bug in my PC, dear Help Desk, a bug.

[Long pause]

There’s still a bug in my PC, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
There’s still a bug in my PC, dear Help Desk, a bug.

Then fix it, dear User, dear User, dear User,
Then fix it, dear User, dear User, fix it.

With what should I fix it, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk?
With what should I fix it, dear Help Desk, with what?

Our FAQs will have the answer, dear User, dear User,
Our FAQs will have the answer, dear User, our FAQs.

It’s a new bug, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
It’s a new bug, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk, it’s new.

Then try a reboot, dear User, dear User,
Then try a reboot, dear User, dear User, reboot.


My PC’s frozen, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
My PC’s frozen, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk, frozen.

Raise a ticket, dear User, dear User,
Raise a ticket, dear User, dear User, a ticket.

Tell me how should I raise it, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
Tell me how should I raise it, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk, tell me how.

Use our webform, dear User, dear User,
Use our webform, dear User, dear User, our webform.

Where do I find it, the webform, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk?
Where do I find it, the webform, dear Help Desk, find it?

Just Google it on your PC, dear User, dear User,
Just Google it on your PC, dear User, dear User, Google it.

But my PC’s frozen, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
My PC’s frozen, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk, FROZEN.

TEG lunch bytes – thinking outside the lunchbox



Digital delicatessen re-opens

The Technology Experimentation Group’s successful lunch byte sessions are back by popular demand.

Now served in a convenient yellow lunchbox, the items on our lunch byte menu for semester two are as varied as they are tasty.


Here is what you will be able to sample if you drop in to the Headington Library Help Zone Training Area this semester.

Tuesday 9 February 12:00 – 13:00 & Wednesday 17 February 12:00 -13:00
Padlets and Stormboards – simple-to-use tools for online brainstorming and collaboration
(Richard Francis)

Tuesday 23 February 12:00 – 13:00 & Wednesday 2 March 12:00 – 13:00
Digital well-being – how to thrive in a world saturated with technology
(Abi Ball)

Wednesday 16 March 12:00 – 13:00
Visual note-taking & feedback with a tablet and stylus
(Laura Novo de Azevedo)

Tuesday 22 March 12:00 – 13:00 & Monday 25 April 12:00 – 13:00
Infographics – trying to digest too much data? Wash it down with some infographics.
(Richard Francis)

Tuesday 5 April 12:00 – 13:00 & Wednesday 13 April 12:00 – 13:00
A Pop-up VLE – lightweight solutions for spontaneous, ultra-portable, online collaboration activities
(Greg Crichton)

Tuesday 19 April 12:00 – 13:00 & Wednesday 27 April 12:00 – 13:00 (t.b.c.)
360º Photography – from Google Street View and virtual panoramas to 360º spin photography, spherical imaging is changing the way we experience the world around us.
(Richard Francis)

Don’t miss out!

SPACE IS LIMITED (approx. seating capacity is 12). We’re offering repeat sessions on alternating days to give as many people as possible the opportunity to come but it’s advisable to book.

Please let Richard Francis know which sessions you’d like to attend.