Reflecting on Visual Culture and Virtual Science

by Ronald Macintyre (OEPS project)

On the face of things this post is all about the links to the report and a paper presented at #OER15 on a pilot we conducted on the use of the OU developed Wolfson funded platform OpenScienceLab within Scottish Secondary Schools. The pilot looked at how a range of virtual experiments developed by the OU which, thanks to the Wolfson Foundation funding, have been released openly (82 at present) would work in the school classroom. We found they did work, that materials developed for self directed distance learners were effective in the classroom if properly contextualised, you can find the report here: Open Science Case Study . The most obvious thing to do in a post is to provide the reader with a summary of the report, and perhaps some informal insights into the process. Instead I thought I would take a complete departure and use this post to reflect on things largely absent from those texts, thoughts and reflections on the nature of virtual experiments and simulations and educational practice, questions that tend to arise when walking the dog along the shore below my house, when I am away from my own portal to the “outside world”.

Sir William Herschel's forty-foot telescope at slough.  Source:

Sir William Herschel’s forty-foot telescope at slough. Image source:

Observation is a key component of the process of scientific enquiry, science progress’s through empirical observation, at least in normative accounts anyway. One need only reflect on the importance of the magnifying lens, think of Herschel, whose status owes a great deal to his ability to manufacture powerful telescopes. As science “progressed” we shift from the eye itself as a data collection tool to representing things we cannot “see”. Geographers have often been very good at exploring what it means to move from the observational science based on what has been observed to representations of physical phenomena, the map itself being the first thing that comes to mind. But geographers have long understood that like Jorge Luis Borges famous short story of the map maker who seeks a 1:1 representation, the map is not the territory. It is an interpretation, and what is encoded within that representation tells us not just about the physical phenomena but also about the social and cultural aspects. The touchstone for a lot of this work is at the OU – Gillian Rose, see a recent article here. Just as things are encoded within images so the viewer’s perspective also changes. We can look back at the painting from the Medici period and see one thing, we probably have a sense that others see something different. We might argue that there is a “Period Eye” , and the meaning of images appears to change over time and between places while the image stays the same.

Why am I talking about art, why am I talking about the interpretive space between the viewer and the image. Perhaps it is because I am not sure how far apart Art and Science are, both seek to make sense to interpret, uncover and make visible the world, and both arise from and are embedded in social and cultural practices. Kuhn’s  work on the “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” highlights the social and cultural embedded nature of scientific enquiry, in particular his work on paradigm shifts shows the relationship between empirical observations and the acceptance of scientific theories is not straightforward. More recent work on Post Normal Science attempts to make visible the relationships between scientific enquiry, the public and private sector influence on science, and how science operates in the world.

This blog is not the place to explore all these threads, all I am suggesting is that visualising scientific data it not neutral and is itself a creative endeavour. Here, rather than a cartographers pen and considerations of the link between colonialism and representation, or analogue circuits, representations of science today are materialised, are visualised through streams of computer code, it is the code that collapses the space between the physical phenomena and the eye as it represents it on screen. We treat this code and these representations are somehow neutral as without agency. But these codes are political, economic, social and cultural, they are created by people and as educators we need to think carefully about the implications of this for our own practice. In particular as the work of these codes transduce the classroom, as the reach into and reconfigure the educational space, we need to be mindful of how they operate, what and how they represent, and the assumptions they make. Perhaps there is an interpretative space here, one that may be important for our understanding of how open educational resources work in for and through educational practice.

When we release these learning resources freely and openly we free them from their original referent, our own teaching practice, our ways of knowing and seeing the world into a range of other possibilities, into a range of interpretive spaces. We might think we have de-contextualised them, or even provided sufficient guidance on use practices to allow them to be used in different contexts, but traces of the social context in which they were created are left behind, within the structure of the resource assumptions about knowledge, and even within the code itself. These can make the interpretive space hard to traverse. The educational technology communities focus on interoperability attempts to make visible the assumptions hidden in the code. However, it is important to note as well as considering “does it work across platforms”, we also need to look at what else is hidden within the resources. I think we possibly need to look carefully at the materials themselves, we need to look at our own ways of seeing and what we might learn from disciplines more clearly focussed on the visual, what is encoded in visual representations, the partiality and contextual nature of knowing and how in designing for the open we account for the interpretive space between the object and the viewer.   When and how we choose to represent the unobservable or at a distance, we do so through familiar tropes, through common visual metaphors, we do so in ways that are meaningful to us, these are inscribed deeply and we ought to consider how this changes in different contexts.

I want to acknowledge the partiality of the account, in part it’s a whistle stop tour of my bookshelves, in parts is a mash up of ideas I have meant to “write up”. However, I do feel there is something to hold into here. We plan a phase 2 pilot in the Greater Glasgow area, we are looking at developing a purposeful sample which reflect a diverse range of school contexts. It is my sense as we move forward with our OpenScienceLab pilots acknowledging there is an interpretive space to be crossed within open educational practice will be important for our understanding of how to teach science, in particular as we move from science physically done to the representation of phenomena and virtual science.

Posted on May 28, 2015, in article and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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