Aesthetics of the Digital Landscapes: Emergent Lands of Possibility and Transformation

Aesthetics of the Digital Landscapes: Emergent Lands of Possibility and Transformation


I want to begin by underlining again the concept of the rhizome, as a root system that differs from the botanical image of the tree whose roots are connected to the trunk, with the trunk connected to branches to which leaves are connected in a linear and direct pathway that one could argue is upwards in motion and akin to a model of learning that is considered as progressional, upward, and mono-directional. The rhizome as argued by Deleuze and Guttari is multiple, evolves along ever replicating networks and angles where there is no direction or movement towards a specific end point. Instead it is a complex web of interaction, that is knotted and tangled with no specific entry or exit point just like as Loris Malaguzzi said, resembling a tangled bowl of spaghetti. It is a difficult image to comprehend in terms of children’s learning because ‘development’ is traditionally seen as this root and tree model where children are assessed in terms of rising upwards through universal bands and hierarchies of development. Indeed many methodologies of assessment are constructed on this model, where children’s experience is normalised and standardised against set progressional benchmarks.

This complex rhizomatic image can be used to describe the internet and the place(s) of the digital and offers educators working within the context of early childhood a challenge to re-see children’s meaning-making and representation as something rather more complicated than we currently consider it to be.   I write ‘place(s)’ to denote that it is both a place and places at one and the same time, it is both a thing and many things, it is not this or that, either/or but as Gunilla Dahlberg argues a state of AND, AND and AND.

10fe2d1In terms of children’s learning and making sense of the world around them, I consider the rhizome the best fit model of trying to understand the place(s) of children’s meaning-making and the role of the educator in their quest to try to understand this meaning-making. Often we try to over simplify, or to reach a single and shared interpretation of what we think is going on for the child. If we say, that we consider children’s thinking to be more complex than their vocabulary then we must also challenge ourselves to see that thinking itself is something far more complex too.


Working with young children now, I am interested and once again in a researchful and playful mode of trying to understand the landscape of the digital world in the hands and minds of children. There are many more tools in which to express oneself and to communicate with here. The digital paintbrush offers children a different way of applying paint, where paintbrushes can be loaded with self-replicating images. Scale and size can be explored, the macro and micro world, the surface of a tiny seed projected at an immense magnification where children can quite literally enter into an image blurring the physical and digital worlds. Tablets are a window upon which to see and research the world – information is out there waiting to be discovered and a critical eye is required to navigate the truths and untruths out there. Social media and digital photography offer ways to explore and manipulate identity(ies) and (re)construct knowledge whilst collaboration is increasing in potential as gamers share platforms to defeat enemies and over come problems (World of Warcraft, Destiny) and create new worlds of possibility (Minecraft, Simms, Little Big Planet).   The visual languages are expandable and sharable across time zones and continents, and images, sounds and patterns are beamed beyond our world and out into space. Where once the cave walls were our canvas of communication, now the global interface to the solar system and beyond are possible.

So where does this leave us in the classroom? From my observations and with conversations with educators across the world there is often a wide gap in terms of skills of using IT (and thus being able to see their potential) and in pedagogical understanding of such concepts as creativity, innovation, enterprise, critical thinking, imagination etc). If one still struggles to see the creative, thinking child then give that child an iPad and it will be foggier still. We jump too easily to devaluing them as mere entertainment centres, or that they are harmful to children’s communication and social skills. I challenge us all, myself included to begin to look again, at these new and emerging languages and tools, which means immersing ourselves into this digital world. We must ask ourselves what does the digital landscape mean, how does it feel in and of itself, and/or to be part of it, what can be done with it, how can we create with it, for it? Is it beautiful, ugly, worthy, worthless, how is that good or bad, how does it change us?

digital-connectivityI spend a lot of my time, training teachers and I often find myself saying ‘if you want to understand how children connect their ideas then spend your Saturday mornings watching what they watch, become immersed in the world of cartoons, animated adventures, desirable action figures and toys as then it might begin to make sense.’ I actually see this as genuine research, and essential too. At one particular school in Wolverhampton, UK, we held a pedagogy meeting to watch Ben 10 as it appeared to hold a strong identity with the children in the nursery school. How else could we begin to understand the concepts at the heart of their play, if we didn’t give value to what they found interest in?

And so the same is with the digital world. I have recently purchased Minecraft after watching a group of children engrossed in Minecraft in creative mode in a school in Singapore. I could just begin to grasp through my observation that something important was going on, but not understanding the game play itself was problematic to me being able to understand the children’s problems they were trying to solve and thus I was unable to know how to intervene in effective and beneficial ways.

In all of this I ask, what is the beauty in the digital that is harmonious with other aesthetic approaches and also those that offer something that is becoming something new. We need to begin to become familiar with these ideas if we are to understand how the digital landscape can be of benefit in the ECE context. The Digital world offers a new consideration of aesthetics, some of which I outline below.

digital-brain-1Network Culture

This is a relational concept, where individual and individualistic methods are relegated to the back of the cupboard. Relations are everything; it is what makes things happen. Relations between people, groups, materials, devices. It is a world of connection and mobility with those connections. It is no longer the world of the individual desktop computer plugged into its own dialup network, where one user inputs to their own system held on that computer. This is the world of DropBox and Google Docs with its abilities to construct and work upon things together, to share, and to collaborate. Connection is now more important than division; we can do more together than competing as individuals against each other. We connect through shared ideas, through people and via machines that move, are mobile, and are portable.

The Internet is a place of discovery of knowledge, where knowledge is connected, sharable, and transformable. Take a look at Wikipedia, a place of knowledge about people and places, or theories and experiences written by a network of people, who have not and will not meet in the real world. Knowledge is shared, cited by others, peer reviewed of sorts, amended and transformed with immediate affect within the Wiki community. With each click on a page, there are links that take you elsewhere, to other thoughts and theories that are connected. It holds the very possibility to become lost, and this becoming lost is not considered as a bad thing either, it is what it is, a tangled web of spaghetti like information and knowledge to be dived into at any given point. The network and community of Wikipedia enables you to jump out of that network and into the world of other networks that interweave and connect, orientate and disorientate as you seek understanding. Network culture allows you to collaborate when not even sat around the same table.

Collective Intelligence

The ability to be able to work not just collaboratively but as a collective group from diverse fields, in infinite ways and multiples of. An interdisciplinary approach that values the shared growth of knowledge of the collective rather than the individual. It can be understood as an outcome of the synergy between data-information-knowledge), the software-hardware, and experts i.e. those with insight as well as recognised in their field). The collective continually learns in a reflective and symbiotic feedback loop to produce immediate ‘just in time’ knowledge that is greater than what could be produced by any of the 3 elements working alone.

Crowd Sourcing

A way in which companies, institutions, organisations offer out an open call for help, opinions, or for tedious tasks to be done by a collective. A recent example I came across was for Cancer Research. An App was developed that appealed to gamers. It was based on the identification of emergent patterns. The gamer progressed through levels based on identifying colours, amounts and shapes in a given ‘slide’. The slide was in fact a growth pattern of cells from the urinary tract of people with cancer. The gamer was identifying patterns in the cells that helped to determine what would be the best treatment for the cell growth. It was a skill that could only be done by the human eye (and not the digital one). For the gamer, the benefit was interesting game play that was entertaining and valuable in terms of relaxation. For the outsourcer i.e. the cancer researcher, it enabled a process of ‘reading’ medical/biological microscopic slides that was unable to be produced in the digital world, and too costly to employ human endeavour. It is also another example of the blurring of digital and physical worlds identified below.)

Open Sourced

Refers to the design and distribution of digital tools that are free to use by others to share and contribute to the greater knowledge/experience of others. You are reading this blog on an open source coded program ‘WordPress’ which enables me to write and publish work without the need to know how code a program to chronologically order posts, keep text inline with images, create ways of enabling others to share what I write on their own blogs, or in different open source contexts such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google and Twitter.

From a workshop in Reggio Emilia.  Light, projection and video camera - materials in dialogue that invite exploration of digital/virtual and multiple/real selves
From a workshop in Reggio Emilia. Light, projection and video camera – materials in dialogue that invite exploration of digital/virtual and multiple/real selves

Digital and Physical World Relationships

The blurring of the digital world and physical world (often referred to as the New Aesthetic) e.g. Google Liveview maps, a digital resource and tool but blended with the real and very physical world. 3D printing transverses the two planes by creating a physical and real object that came from the digital world. Possibilities exist to print your own medicines (not prescriptions), print working guns, bone sections for medical grafts after accidents, skin.

For the early childhood educator there is much to consider. The landscape is complex. Emma Mulqueeny coined the term ‘the 97’s’ a generation born into the world of open source, collective intelligence and social media networks. They think different to us analogue types…in 3-4 years time they will be our new teachers and will approach things so differently. It requires for us now to become acquainted with this new landscape and for our children we cannot afford not too.

The digital landscape offers so much, digital projection, immersive environments, green screen transformation, networked global platforms, connectivity across continents and time zones with other children, in other classrooms. Communication is vast, viral and rhizomatic in form. It is more apparent and economical to write an email, to Skype than to write a traditional letter. The days of writing a letter and posting it in the postbox are long gone. I cannot remember the last time I licked a stamp. Gaming is play, we value play, we value traditional games but maybe we are reticent in our thinking about the value of Minecraft, Destiny or other collaborative game play. The hashtag is new symbol of the alphabet, a communicative code of itself that connects. Our challenge as teachers, educators, leaders is to see how the digital landscape can create new ways of expressing and constructing knowledge rather than replicating current ways of communication and expression. I for one am keen to explore these possibilities with our youngest of children, for they are born into it and cannot afford to wait for the generation of the 97’s to qualify as teachers.

More to follow on the digital aesthetic and the world of ECE as I begin to delve deeper into practice.

Pedagogy of the Digital World

Pedagogy of the Digital World

172e307-2 I write this blog post on a flight coming back from a week working in Singapore with UWCSEA. A fabulous school committed to values of education that recognise and generate contexts for Creativity, Innovation and Collaboration through an enquiry/inquiry-based approach to learning. One of many thoughts arising out of this week of complex thinking about meta-projects, learning contexts for discovery and the intelligences of materials we offer children was the pedagogical values and choices we make for approaching Digital Languages with young children. I am also a pedagogical point of connection and provocateur of thinking of a network of schools committed to exploring the digital world in relation to social, constructivist practice(s) in both the UK and in Sweden and questions of relevancy, ethics and pedagogy of the digital pervade my thoughts currently.

Opposing Points of View about the World of Digital Tech

The landscape of thinking about digital literacies, modes and tools of technology is as wide as it is diverse. On one side of the spectrum are the educators who see no place for the digital world in the classroom, where iPad’s for example are rejected in favour of exploring ‘real’ and not ‘virtual’ worlds and materials and where games, apps and screen time are relegated to appropriate use at home for their entertainment value and quasi educational benefit but not a tool of education in the classroom. Researchers at this end of the spectrum are concerned with the effect on children of excessive screen time, the effect on their interaction and social skills, their lack of being and exploring of the ‘real world’ and its materials as well as the quality of apps that appear highly addictive but yet offer little in content. There are many concerns. (See Aric Sigman, Sue Palmer for arguments against digital tech in early childhood education).

At the other end of the spectrum are the pro-digital advocates who consider technology and the digital landscape as rich, offering new ways of approaching thinking and the construction of knowledge upon collaborative platforms that enable connection between different time zones and geographical possibilities. No longer is it required to be in the same room, at the same desk to engage in a learning dialogue. Indeed its enthusiasts would have us embrace the digital world as a whole new way of being, not just one of becoming more efficient, able to share what we each do in easier ways, but offers a new way of collaboration that simply was not there before. Information is out there, both good and misinformed and it behooves the seeker to critically reflect and research wisely the available data. Advocates of the digital world include Jackie Marsh, Emma Mulqueeny, Guy Merchant and Dr Rosie Flewitt).


The Interests of a Digital Pedagogical Immigrant

My current area of research is upon the creative and expressive uses of digital languages and tools in the early childhood arena of education. For children with whom I am working with now, they are immersed into this digital rich context of social media, coding, research, platforms, and hacks, where books are downloaded and games played online with multiple players in different continents. They will have been digitally scanned in the womb, their birth records entered onto digital platforms and their first images of ‘self’ posted across social media sites by their well meaning parents before they were even born. Their social identity already public, multiple and complex.

At 41 (at time of writing) I am considered a digital immigrant, someone born prior to 1980 that was not born into the world of computers and tech. I was 11 when I dipped my toe in the digital water with a Commodore 64, a simple home computer used mainly for gaming which gave me my first glimpse into programming and coding where I would spends hours of my time entering lines of binary code to make a cursor jump across the screen or a line of text self replicate down the screen. The film War Games (1983) inspired me with ideas of becoming a ‘hacker for good causes’ and showed me the possibilities offered by the world of computers when hooked up to telephone lines. It was my Mum who, as a mature arts degree student, helped me navigate the world of spreadsheets and word processing and taught me to turn on my first PC that had significantly less power than the mobile phone I have plugged into my airplane seat which I can leave on and remain in communication across the globe as I travel from South East Asia to Northern Europe. If only I had the right cable, I could post this blog direct to my webpage before my feet actually touched down. (Next time!) I was 22 when I installed a dial up modem at home, and the landscape of the digital world opened up further for me.

web-30So it is into this world that our youngest children are born and by the time they reach 11, iPad’s will be a historical piece on display at the Design Museum in London and replaced with smaller, more intimate devices capable of so much more…maybe. What lies ahead in terms of new technology is a thesis in itself, and after watching the film ‘Transcendence’ on this flight and seeing the news headline from Stephen Hawkins on the BBC about Artificial Intelligence being the destructive end point of humanity, you can see why technology is an increasing and volatile subject.

The Research of the Aesthetic of the Rhizome of Digital Languages

I am not sure of my position in all of this, hence the need for research. I think everything has possibility for danger, abuse and desensitising of the human experience so the landscape of the digital is not excluded from this possibility. However, I want to seek out and research instead its possibilities for humankind to use technology to enhance our human experience, that gives us new (rather than replacement or more effective) ways of communicating and expressing our discoveries and that creates a new kind of aesthetic experience that has at is heart, a life and a connection to the human spirit.

DCF 1.0I have questions, of course that will frame my thinking. I don’t think it will be an easy task that will result in a clear decision of yes or no but one rather akin to the rhizome, an image of learning I am increasingly drawn to, resembling a tangled bowl of noodles (relevant to being in SE Asia or as Loris Malaguzzi said a tangled bowl of spaghetti). Indeed the internet itself is a model of the rhizome, with there being no sense of a beginning or end, no entry point or exit, rather it is a web of interaction and connectivity, a state of being, becoming and of in between things where materials are not easily ordered or navigated through but yet offer an immense, rich tableau of knowledge, practice and experience that is ever growing and evolving.

My questions relate to several areas and possible concerns including but not exclusive to:

  • Educators’ perceptions of technology and digital landscapes in the early childhood classroom.
  • Educators’ own knowledge and understanding of digital literacies and tools.
  • Children’s immersion into the digital world from pre-birth to early experiences of school.
  • Children’s practices of home based learning and development in the use and application of digital devices and apps
  • Children’s practices of school based learning and development in the use and application of digital devices and apps
  • The aesthetics and sensitivities of a technological/digital modality of expression and creativity in the early childhood classroom (and its relevancy to a increasing and wider world of a digital landscapes and possibilities).
  • The ethics of the digital world, for children, families, educators and end users.

Orientating and Articulating Thinking…

It seems a huge piece of work, a PhD even, but by the time of publication of such research, it will be out of date and irrelevant, such is the pace of technology. Our world is changing and the educational landscape will require new conditions of healthy growth. I need, as do teachers across the world need to embrace a type of research that is immediate and enables ideas to be shared quickly, worked upon in live contexts of exchange and dialogue, clarified and then reworked, constantly being co-constructed and ever evolving as time passes, in a state of constant motion. Why, because, our research, our pedagogy has to be relevant now to our children, it is too late when they are grown up.

There is a huge gap already in terms of educators who embrace technology and those who can’t and won’t because they are either opposed to it, or that they just don’t know how. This journey is as much about all of us digital immigrants who have much to learn from the 18 month old baby who can already navigate an iPad and who thinks a traditional picture book is broken. Or, the child whose fingers have by the time they enter school have developed a whole new vocabulary of gestures that help them in their world of data and digital research that is strange and unfamiliar to us. And of course the child who is comfortable and embracing of a social media based world where they can play with, manipulate and continually construct their identity(ies) whose knowledge of such worlds help them to encounter, seek out and apprehend the very dangers of it, rather than attempt to deny or block the use of it as ‘inappropriate”.   As Emma Mulqueeny of ReWired State said at TEDxBrum 2014 it is the children of this digital, social age that will seek out the perpetrators of international terrorism, paedophilia, and fraud who use such platforms to do harm to others and be the ones who can stop and eradicate it. By denying children and ourselves of digital possibilities we may be in danger of ending humankind through our fear and ignorance rather than artificial intelligence after all. Sorry Stephen Hawkins, but I think I disagree!