Creativity through Knowledge Mobility and Virtuality
It's not lost on us the bit of irony that this post is being published almost a year to the day that the World Health Organization announced for the first time that the sudden and pervasive spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a pandemic. Please continue to be patient with us as we assemble some thoughts about this blog series that was originally written for a magazine article. We are taking our time to reflect on our thoughts over the year.
We wish you all well.
V + J.
For a reminder on where this post lies in this series and the rich relationship between compéTI.CA and Brilliant Labs, please feel free to play with the following interactive.
Facing a New Virtual Reality
As schools, businesses and communities began to shut down in March 2020, an inverse correlation between the number of our physical social interactions and those that were virtual began to emerge. That’s a fancy way to say many of us turned on our webcams, made sure we were camera ready, the mute mic button was clearly engaged and we settled in for another virtual encounter. Many of the qualities of traditional social experiences were kept intact--we still spoke to the same people, heard their voices and saw something. However, something felt different. Maybe it was the fact that we didn't feel much of anything other than the surfaces of our desk, the ridges of our keyboards and the scroll wheel of our mouse. Or perhaps, while it was comforting to continue to have social experiences, the lack of a physical connection to an individual caused the social experience to devolve into something that was similar but-- still -- different.
Having had such a dramatic change in vocabulary ultimately leads us to become a bit more curious about the word virtual. For instance, as the pandemic shutdown began, our calendar invites that were once labeled as a meeting, conference or coffee were now labeled virtual meeting, virtual conference or a virtual coffee. What change influenced these social experiences so much that it required the word virtual to be added? During a virtual meeting we still found a specific grouping of colleagues assembled to discuss a specific topic. During a virtual conference there was still one speaker delivering content while other participants listened and during a virtual coffee, there were still moments in which people who have an affinity for coffee and interruption-prone chats, gathered for a social experience.
As we continued to notice the similarities between these virtual experiences and their physical counterparts, it became clear that the use of the word virtual to describe meetings during a pandemic was an entangled descriptor of two related definitions:
Firstly, the use of the word virtual as an adjective to describe something as being almost the same but not completely, may provide clarity to someone in a meeting that despite not sharing a physical space, you can expect the same result of the meeting. This is similar to a statement like: “Try this sugar-free sweetener! It is virtually the same as actual sugar.” It’s still going to sweeten your coffee.
Secondly, the use of the word virtual as an adjective to refer to a context within the discipline of computing where something does not exist physically, rather it requires software to provide an appearance of existence. Think about the first time you thought of someone wearing a Virtual Reality headset -- we knew the headset didn’t create a new instance of reality, simply the appearance of some kind of reality.
These are tough definitions - ones that we still struggle with describing how they relate to each other. All we know is that something happened as we began to use the word virtual more in our daily conversations. Our curiosity for what constitutes a virtual experience evolved.
How Knowledge is Distributed through Virtual Spaces
Regardless of complexity that surrounded virtual experiences during the pandemic, we were captivated by the ability for ourselves, peers and students to convey knowledge as effectively as we would have during a physical meeting. The complexity of experience only seemed to emerge when there was an infrastructural limitation rather than this novel knowledge sharing experience. We were likely not the only individuals to be just about finished conveying a point in a video chat only to have our internet connection fail.
Once we developed a plan to address infrastructure limitations, then we became aware of how generative a concept could be when mobilized into a collective virtual experience. For instance, during a virtual meeting a colleague may offer a lengthy monologue that describes how to safely distribute activity materials for a remote learning session. Simultaneously, another colleague in the same meeting could be constructing an illustration that visually describes the same concept -- all while remaining attentive to the presenter. Depending on the skill set of those present, a third teammate who is a software developer may identify an algorithmic solution for the same concept ultimately leading to a redistribution of human resources. During a pre-pandemic meeting such an exchange may occur over time. The ability for individuals to apply their knowledge across different dimensions of experience has been described as knowledge mobility. In a virtual meeting, it may be possible for group members to co-create conceptualizations that evolve beyond traditionally physical material constraints.
Virtuality and Mobility in Making to Boost students’ Creativity
During this pandemic, we are often to think of most experiences as new. However, our inspiration for exploring the creative influence virtuality has on knowledge mobility and conceptualization was inspired by a pre-pandemic observation of two Grade 6 boys, Harris and Gray (both names are fictitious). We met these two students when they were in their Design Thinking class working on a solution for a problem that they had identified. Their project, entitled Frankenpencil, sought to create a mechanism in which two broken pencils could be joined to be reused rather than discarded.
It remains unclear if Harris and Gray were more motivated to complete their design since it provided a solution to their fellow classmates or that they were excited to share their admiration for the similarity their project shared with the horror classic, Frankenstein. Regardless, Harris and Gray produced an initial digital prototype of their Frankenpencil by learning to use the cloud-based computer aided design software TinkerCAD (www.tinkercad.com).
The process by which Harris and Gray constructed the virtual on-screen model of their Frankenpencil required them to recall their concept of a cylinder. As the two students sat next to each other, both with laptops open to a partially finished shared virtual representation of their design, they worked simultaneously. Harris discussed their next design iteration by outlining the cylindrical form of the Frankenpencil by gesturing around his pencil. It was interesting to observe Harris mobilizing his knowledge of a cylinder between the physical representation of the ‘physical’ pencil and the virtual dimensions of that same pencil on its digital on-screen model. Both the TinkerCAD virtual representation of the mechanism and Harris’ gesture were constructed using a regular right-cylinder with a circular base 90 degrees to the curved surface. Harris’ fingers traced perpendicularly away from the side of the pencil until a point at which he felt the Frankenpencil, once printed from a 3D printer would be thick enough to withstand the grip pressure when the Frankenpencil was in use. Harris then changed the direction of his gesture to simulate the length of the Frankenpencil’s curved surface.
While not in total disagreement, it became apparent that Gray’s conceptualization of their cylindrical design was different from Harris’. As Harris was gesturing, Gray constructed a design that focused on the creative application of the Frankenpencil. Initially, both Harris and Gray had the same representation of a solid cylinder in their shared TinkerCAD account. However, as Harris gestured, one possible representation for the function of their invention, Gray was seemingly inspired to iterate on their design. Gray noticed that while the cylinder was approximately the appropriate size, the design did not yet have an interior column in order to join the two broken pencils together. Within seconds of Harris developing this new virtual iteration Gray was also inspired to add conical protrusions perpendicular to the interior surface of the Frankenpencil mechanism in an attempt to provide resistance against either end of the pencil from shifting.
This observation lasted only a few seconds. There are many potential sources of inspiration for Harris and Gray’s actions including a computer-aided-design application that made the creative process of co-invention accessible to young learners. However, being able to observe the conceptualization as they mobilize their knowledge of a cylinder between what is virtual or physical has demonstrated that Harris and Gray’s concept of a cylinder was not entirely confined to a physical representation.
In their work on material entanglement and embodiment, de Frietas and Sinclair (2014) assert that in mathematics education, curricular concepts have a tendency to be abstracted away from the physical. Students are not often permitted to follow the beliefs of the philosopher Châtelet and actualize the virtual (de Freitas & Sinclair, 2014). In this sense of the word virtual, being a middle-school student, Harris’ concept of a cylinder may have been at least in part formed by a textbook equation that describes the volumetric properties of a cylinder. The symbols that represent the circular area of a base multiplied by the height of the curved surface may be accompanied by a classic illustration of a right cylinder oriented on the page with the circular base at the bottom. Prior to the instance in which Harris had the opportunity to create the Frankenpencil, his concept of a cylinder may have been constrained to a static concept with properties that could not be easily changed.
What do we Learn from Making Experiences?
Observations like the two listed above explore the influence virtuality has on knowledge mobility. This exploration comes at a time when prior to March 2020 students were constructing artifacts of their learning in materially diverse makerspaces across the province. Through collaboration between their fellow students and among their fellow school maker community, maker’s use the materials available to them to influence the knowledge concepts they require to fulfill their design ambitions. A maker’s ambition prevails as they casually persevere through their design goals, unaware of the complex abstraction they express as they move their knowledge from a physical dimension to virtual and back again.
It is intriguing to consider the conceptual knowledge space to which students and teachers will return in September 2020. Not only does a school maker community have pre-pandemic experience with expressive materials that influence knowledge mobility and concept generativity but they are also returning to a learning environment after 6 months in which virtual experiences were entangled with the physical. We are not naive to the fact that many individuals are not as enthusiastic about embracing virtuality. Virtual learning experiences are different than those that are physical - there are sensations that are missing. Our conceptualizations cannot benefit from the physical presence of someone in a space. However, perhaps our conceptualizations are not missing something, they are becoming something new — something more useful in a space — something creative.
de Freitas, E., & Sinclair, N. (2014). Mathematics and the body: Material entanglements in the classroom. Cambridge University Press.
Lingley, J. (2021). Mathematics, Making & Materialism. UNB: Unpublished MEd Thesis.
Dr. Viktor Freiman
Director of CompéTI.CA & Co-Author of these thoughts turned blog series
Director of Instructional Design at Brilliant Labs & Co-Author of these thoughts turned blog series