Conceptual Abstract for a forthcoming Practice based PhD

This is an abstract for a yet to be completed PhD which will be used to set and keep the focus of my research. This is a live document and will obviously change. I have also not included comments on the outcomes of the PhD as I do not know what these will be. I am confident it will not be a new off the shelf Blackboard or Moodle (MLE) however it will be a series of experiments and reports that culminate in systems and a manifesto ~1~, whether this be dropbox, seeing spaces (Victor, 2014) or something else.

The following conceptual abstract is designed to help inform my research and obviously hints at chapters that would outline the details of some of the statements I am making here. As such there are more references and concepts that I have not included at this stage as they will form the broader actual research and wouldn’t add value to this post at this stage. Comments are however very much welcome on points of research and practitioners that you think could inform chapters or experiments within this PhD, even if I am already looking at them, it does not matter.


New Ed-tech tools are being created almost daily however this is often driven by marketing, business or technology. There is a dearth of experience and design-led systems. Blackboard and other such Managed Learning Environments (MLE) promise to enhance education and yet there is very little evidence that this is in fact the case.

Despite the widespread application of digital technologies in higher education there is scant evidence to suggest that these have had a significant impact on student learning. (Bainbridge, 2014)

These outdated yet digital filing systems replicate paper originated practice and although some supplement teaching and allow for additional tasks such as lecture capture, wiki’s, blogs and quizzes they do little to embrace the medium they reside on. It is also worth noting that within Higher Education Ed-tech appears to have been driven by agendas that had little to do with enhancing education.

This imposition often reflects what amounts to a thoughtless approach to teaching and learning, in which pedagogy is side-lined by neo-liberal practices of efficiency and surveillance. (Hannon and Bretag, 2010; Holley et al., 2011).

The following PhD outlines a new approach to the MLE. This document provide methods to approach the needs of an institutional level art & design learning environment that extends well beyond traditional classroom learning and is far removed from the file and folder systems we currently endure.

We shape our tools then our tools shape us.  (McLuhan, 1967)

The Practice based PhD utilises case studies, an open source repository of materials, working prototypes and a manifesto that indicate new design approaches to run, adapt and create new hybrid learning platforms to foster new and innovative thinking specifically within the field of art & design higher education.

This PhD sets forth it’s manifesto and guidance via thorough testing, iteration and design thinking to create a new dynamic medium that truly enhances learning within UK Art & Design Higher Education. By taking a new approach to software as a service and creating a dynamic medium that encourages new representations, via contextual learning, adaptive and dynamic learning this PhD challenges the current conventions of an Ed-tech system.

Today many academics in humanities and social sciences still need to grasp this simple but fundamental idea. They continue to think of software as being strictly the domain of the Academic Computing Department in their universities — something which is only there to help them become more efficient, as opposed to the medium where human intellectual creativity now dwells. (Manovich, 2013).

Learners –– both students and professors alike — will be able to take this transparent and open system and create and connect to an edu-network with privacy, knowledge acquisition and networked learning at the core. A corner stone to this new way of thinking is to understand that the web has become centralised and that the web is now based on a database culture. Services such as Facebook dress themselves up as networked culture but are in fact databased culture (Gupta, 2015), with the sole purpose to data-mine information for profit.

Indie ed-tech underscores the importance of students and scholars alike controlling their intellectual labor and their data; it questions the need for VC-funded, proprietary tools that silo and exploit users; it challenges the centrality of the LMS in all ed-tech discussions and the notion that there can be one massive (expensive) school-wide system to rule them all; it encourages new forms of open, networked learning that go beyond the syllabus, beyond the campus. It’s not only a different sort of infrastructure, it’s a different sort of philosophy than one sees promoted by Silicon Valley — by the ed-tech industry or the (ed-)tech press. (Watters, 2015)

To create decentralised systems that are capable of serving large and small scale art & design learning, these prototypes utilise blockchain and P2P technology. Learners own their material and share this material in a distributed, secure, private and personally owned system, and all rights are controlled by the contributors. This new networked and decentralised system encourages proximal development, Vygotsky (1978) describes how individual learners can extend the amount they learn when they are connected to other more knowledgeable individuals. Thus they form a community of practice.

Throughout my practice based PhD I have been undertaking workshops and activities to create prototypes and materials with Art & Design students and staff at undergraduate level. The PhD discusses the work, the prototypes, the findings and the issues arising that help inform the ‘Hybrid Ed-Tech Manifesto’.

This manifesto, its examples and frameworks will provide an approach to create dynamic media for new networked education practices.

Key Influencers;

  • Bret Victor (Ivan Sutherland)
  • Lev Manovich (Alan Kay / Douglas Englebart)
  • Marshal McLuhan (Howard Rheingold)

Other important influences;

  • Audrey Watters — Ed-tech
  • Aral Balkan / Laura Kalbag —  delightful design / ethical manifesto / indietech
  • Steve Wheeler — Ed-tech
  • Doug Belshaw — Ed-tech
  • Vinay Gupta — Blockchain

Some suggested key further reading

  • White Night Before A Manifesto — Metahaven
  • 1985 GNU Manifesto — Richard Stallman
  • Deschooling Society — Ivan Illich
  • Blue Print for Counter Education — Maurice Stein, Larry Miller,
  • Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond — Eames

Short text on two key influencers

Bret Victor

Media for Thinking the Unthinkable

Bret’s concerns are that current software design are a ‘straight jacket’ to thinking.

Now we’re staring at computer screens and moving our hands on a keyboard, but it’s basically the same thing. We’re computer users thinking paper thoughts. (Victor,2014)

Bret suggests ideas live in representations and through great representations people are enabled to think new ideas.

Roman numerals, basic multiplication was considered this incredibly technical concept that only official mathematicians could handle. But then once Arabic numerals came around, you could actually do arithmetic on paper, and we found that 7-year-olds can understand multiplication. It’s not that multiplication itself was difficult. It was just that the representation of numbers — the interface — was wrong. (Victor,2014)

Software is a powerful way to represent information but we are currently limiting this within old paradigms and Bret suggests we now have the ability to enhance these with approaches that are not limited to tactile less screens and rectangles.

The important thing isn’t thinking about computers or programming as they are today, but thinking about moving from a static medium like marks on paper to a dynamic medium with computational responsiveness infused into it, that can actually participate in the thinking process. (Victor,2014)

Bret focuses on inventing on principle and inventing the dynamic medium. We can then break away from simply transposing current limitations of paper and pen to the screen (viewport) and mouse (finger).

Lev Manovich

Software takes Command

The following quote from Lev Manovich’s Software takes Command (2013) and his general concepts outlined and approaches support some of the theory within this PhD. I intend to explore this further in due course.

My all-time favourite book, however, remains Tools for Thought published by Howard Rheingold in 1985, right at the moment when domestication of computers and software starts, eventually leading to their current ubiquity . This book is organised around the key insight that computers and software are not just “technology” but rather the new medium in which we can think and imagine differently. Similar understanding was shared by all the heroes of this book who, with their collaborators, invented the computational “tools for thoughts” — J. C. R. Licklider, Ted Nelson, Douglass Engelbart, Bob Taylor, Alan Kay, Nicholas Negroponte. (Today many academics in humanities and social sciences still need to grasp this simple but fundamental idea. They continue to think of software as being strictly the domain of the Academic Computing Department in their universities — something which is only there to help them become more efficient, as opposed to the medium where human intellectual creativity now dwells.)(Manovich, 2013)

Next Steps

  • Solidify this abstract into aims, methods and outcomes.
  • Read a lot of design manifestos.
  • Get making more things and making them open source.


  • Bainbridge, A. (2014) ‘Digital technology, human world making and the avoidance of learning’, Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. 2014 edn.
  • Culkin, J. M. (1967) A schoolman’s guide to Marshall McLuhan. Saturday Review.
  • Hannon, J. and Bretag, T. (2010) ‘Negotiating contested discourses of learning technologies in higher education’, Educational Technology and Society, 13(1).
  • Manovich, L. (2013) Software Takes Command.
  • Victor, B. (2014) ‘Seeing Spaces’.
  • Victor, B. (2014) ‘The Utopian UI Architect — re:form — Medium’.
  • ‘Vinay Gupta on Techno-Social Systems, Meditation and Basic Human Needs’ (2015) ‘Vinay Gupta on Techno-Social Systems, Meditation and Basic Human Needs’, 12 May.
  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Watters, A. (2015) Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015: Indie Ed-Tech, Available at: (Accessed: 10 January 2016).
  1. For now I am using the overarching term of a Manifesto however this needs much more research as a concept, and maybe more in line with design Manifestos or design guidelines such as those currently provided by and London transport. An argument against a Manifesto is that

    a Manifesto suggests a statement, but it’s a loaded concept. Political in nature, non-conformist, counter-culture. Manifestos don’t infiltrate and aren’t really intended to impact the mainstream, so if you are looking at creating one, you are admitting that your ideas may be a niche thing rather than something embraced on a large scale. (Fox, 2016)