On Teaching Fashion: A Conversation on Social Interaction, Part I

A few months ago, I wrote a post about social interaction in the classroomDirk vom Lehn, a sociologist and lecturer at Kings College in London, was interviewed by Barry Joseph, the associate director for digital learning and youth iniatives at the American Museum of Natural History.  I based my post around this interview, comparing the learning environments of the classroom to that of a museum space.

This term, I am completing a training to teach online.  I’ve been increasingly preoccupied with ways in which to engage and direct social interaction in a digital classroom.   This led me to contact Dirk vom Lehn directly.  I was hoping he could share his experiences as an educator and expert on social interaction to shed some light on the matter.


Happily, he agreed to let me interview him.  He also contacted his colleague, Will Gibson to share some insights.  Gibson is a lecturer at the Institute of Education at the University of London. He teaches and conducts research. What I originally planned as an interview became a really wonderful discussion.  I will be breaking the discussion into several parts.  This is Part I:

  • What is you experience studying social interaction and how has it affected you as an educator?

Murgia:  I don’t have any formal training in pedagogy or social interaction.  I have a master’s degree to curate costume and textile exhibitions, so I’m always observing how people learn and interact with exhibition and classroom spaces. Part of what attracts me to the idea of social interaction and learning has to do with this training.  The other aspect is that I am acutely aware of the ways in which I learn.  Long, drawn-out lectures that did not allow me to be an active participant bored me to tears as a student.  I remember classes that were just terrible to attend because the environment was too passive. The best classes focused either on debating ideas or having activities directly in the allotted time.  This gave me the experience of learning, which I could then discuss with other students and ask questions immediately while they were fresh in my mind.

These experiences affected me as an educator because I started teaching at 25.  I was, for all intents and purposes, fresh out of the classroom.  It was a VERY difficult transition to make, personally and professionally.  I didn’t identify with being a teacher/professor, and was often times younger than my students. (This still happens!) However, because these experiences were so fresh in my mind, it guided me toward building classes that were hands-on.  Anything that allows me to experience and internalize concepts helps me to retain the information.  I try very diligently to structure every class in this way.  Sometimes it is not possible, but I incorporate it as much as I can.  

For example, I teach a textile science class that meets twice a week.  It has no required laboratory component.  The first meeting of the week, I lecture and go over the key concepts.  A lot of this material is very dry: monomers, polymers, performance properties of fibers, weave structures.  But the second class meeting, I bring in objects and create small activities that simulate a lab.  I will bring in fibers and show them how to conduct a burn test or solubility test.  I will bring in garments that illustrate specific performance properties that were discussed in the lectures.  I ask them how this relates to the end use of the object or garment.  We have a discussion, and the students interact with the objects and each other. My observations from having this type of learning environment is that the students can directly apply the material to everyday life.  They also feel confident explaining the material to one another, which translates into them talking coherently while at work or on a job interview.  
Gibson: My academic background is firmly in interactional sociology, but this is in terms of the sociological study.  I focus on interactional processes, not really on education or on pedagogy.  My real focus is on sociological enterprise.

As an educator, I did a professional training course where there was lots of professional reflection on interaction.  While we didn’t refer to this training as “social engagement”, it absolutely was.  We mostly talked about learning activities, learning design, learning outcomes, and assessment processes.  Whatever the label, the topic is the same  It is about how people do things together, engage with materials, interact with materials, and interact with you as a tutor.
My academic interests have certainly been directed towards studying (academically) interaction in classrooms. I have published a couple of papers (and another on the way) analyzing the discourse of online and face to face talk.  Those papers had some small reflections on the implications of the analysis for educational design.
I would like to think that I kind of have those ideas in mind as an educator all the time – a kind of sensitivity towards the particular affordances of learning environments as spaces for talking and interacting.  However, as a teacher ,the particular contingencies of the here and now (having to get through specific material, manage a discussion, manage time, deal with questions etc) is probably the centre of my thought.  The work in the actual moment of teaching, rather than any other abstract issues about interaction, is always on my mind.
A lot of my teaching is online though, and I use very interactive models.  I incorporate group activities and, increasingly, video conferencing.  In terms of the design of these activities and the design of the use of these resources, I suppose that my interest in and (perhaps) sensitivities to interaction have a role to play in thinking about what is possible and how to organise things.
But I have worked with excellent learning technologists who have much more sensitivity and expertise in these pedagogic areas than me and have no training or even real interest in interaction in the way that I do, so I would probably see these as different areas.
Vom Lehn: Like Will, I am trained as interactional sociologists. Over the past 12 years or so, together with my colleagues at the Work, Interaction & Technology Research CentreI have primarily undertaken studies of social interaction in museums, galleries and science centres. Thereby, my colleagues and I have often been interested in how exhibits and objects of exhibits come into the focus of the interaction between people; often for only brief moments in time.
 One of the interests with the studies has been to see whether we can come up with “design sensitivities”, as Jon Hindmarsh has called them, to develop technologies and environments that support or maybe even encourage interaction between people.

The research suggests that objects deployed in the right environment and context can help the emergence of interaction and collaboration. Hence, I often bring objects to class and ask people to examine them in interaction and discussion. For example, today I asked students to compare the design and content of stories in newspapers and on websites. For the purpose, I brought a stack of today’s newspapers to class and asked them to look for and examine particular stories, such as the new BlackBerry phone, the surprise downturn in the US economy, the closing of the transfer window in the British Premier League (football/soccer) and others. They then compared what they had found in newspapers with information on the same topics they found on the Web.


In Part II, we will discuss our experiences and observations about learning online.  We will talk about leading partial or full courses online and how we try to encourage social interaction when working remotely.  Commonts, observations, or suggestions about social engagement in teaching (online or offline) are appreciated in the comments below.


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