Monday, 15 July 2019

Reflections after 'Young black women curate visual arts e-portfolios': a South African cultural hierarchy versus local practices...

Written for media studies researchers and educators interested in the challenges that young people in Cape Town face when formally expressing identities as visual arts students.

My first sole-authored journal article is published in the Learning, Media and Technology journal at Young black women curate visual arts e-portfolios: negotiating digital disciplined identities, infrastructural inequality and public visibility addresses the special issue’s theme ’Global Technologies, Local Practices’, outlined here. Please visit to download one of the 50 free e-prints that Taylor & Francis has made available for download.

Dr Jeremy Knox and a few anonymous reviewers provided in-depth guidance that helped me to better address both the special issue’s theme and its international audiences. Over the course of two revisions, the article’s abstract became:

‘Despite the growing importance of digital portfolios for justifying creative work and study opportunities, little is known about arts students’ creative appropriation of online portfolios in secondary school. In particular, there is a research gap concerning the challenges that young black women face when curating portfolios as visual arts students. This paper describes the key challenges that three such government school students negotiated when taught to creatively appropriate an online portfolio software for curating showcase visual arts e-portfolios:

In formal contexts, art students’ e-portfolios are strongly shaped by assimilatory norms. Visual arts students who want to develop portfolios that follow local or global crafts and fandoms must negotiate their low status in, or complete exclusion from, the national syllabus. Students in under-resourced school and home settings may already be using other online portfolio solutions that suit their purposes better than the particular software prescribed in arts lessons. Online portfolios are public by default and young women negotiated this risk by using pseudonymous self presentations. Each student’s classroom practices were also constrained by a technology selected for its minimalist exhibition aesthetic. Students curated showcase exhibitions, but the prescribed service did not facilitate a wider exploration of contemporary digital practices.’

The case studies for three young black women revealed the diverse, yet overlapping, challenges each faced in expressing their creative identities and interests. It balanced the need to provide a full context with the special issue’s concerns in under 6,000 words. Following this article's publication, I felt I should use this blog post for reflecting more broadly on why so few local practices from Cape Town (and South Africa) became shared by visual arts students in their e-portfolios. 

Overall, such neglect of the local seemed strongly shaped by four cultural hierarchies in Cape Town communities, which may fall under a broader cultural hierarchy in South Africa:
  1. South African visual arts education is dominated by a Modernist tastes for expressing a traditional version of aesthetic distinction.
  2. Cape Town is an important creative hub in South Africa and there are many creative industries producing local content. However, students’ e-portfolios largely ignored it and other (South) African creations. This reflects how better-off homes typically prefer consuming global popular cultures versus local creative industries. Global media fandoms from the United States (such as Hollywood franchises) and Japan (Manga and Anime) influenced most of the fan art in students’ e-portfolios. 
  3. The lifestyle and vocational preferences of the middle-class dovetail with the cultural capital of secondary schooling. By contrast, working class culture was largely excluded in teens' e-portfolios.
  4. There are 11 official languages in South Africa. Despite several of the students not speaking English as their home language, all used English to present their identities and work.

As my essay describes, young black women did face obstacles in using the "global" online portfolio technology,, for expressing their artistic identities. This technology was not designed to accommodate their under-resourced contexts.

By comparison, the strong shaping influence of the dominant cultural hierarchy seemed to exert a much greater influence on all visual arts students in my PhD research study. Most did not spotlight uniquely local cultural interests and practices in their portfolios. This suggests how South Africa's cultural hierarchy is a great obstacle for those Cape Town visual arts students and their expression of local practices via "global" technology.

Kindly comment on this post, or contact me with your thoughts.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

How strategic design informed my research blog's 2019 update

Written for researchers interested in using design strategy and brand positioning for improving their online research presences (particularly via blogs, blogsites and websites).

Last year, Jon Whelan and I updated this blogsite to prepare for my post-doctoral reality as a media studies research fellow, who can contribute to scholarly publications and pursue new research opportunities. By contrast to our previous work focused on Blogger customisation in 2016, the latest design process was largely a strategic one. It drew strongly on insights from brand positioning, plus design strategy more broadly, for my blogsite's improvements:

A. Why Strategic Design?
Table 1. High-, mid- and practice level design disciplines.

HL  Design Management (i.e. brand & software & service design mx)
HL  Strategic Design (i.e. data analysis informing brand positioning)

ML  Design Thinking (meta-disciplinary)

PL   Surface design 
PL   Brand design management
PL   User-centred and experience design
PL   Software and information design
PL   Service design management
PL   Curricular and instructional design
PL   Legal design
PL   Business design management

As Table 1 illustrates, the disciplines of Strategic Design and Design Management are high level (HL) strategic ones. In business, these disciplines typically seek to define and improve the long-term, 'meta' design drivers. By contrast, Design Thinking is a mid-level (ML) meta-disciplinary approach that often seeks to tackle a ‘wicked problem’ space with varied perspectives in a short burst. At the bottom of the table are performance level (PL) practices whose designers' expertise is used for providing discrete, 'micro' solutions.

For an individual blog designer, strategic design considerations may be particularly helpful for answering a big personal challenge. For example, mine was 'How do I update my research blogsite to best support my post-PhD aspirations?' To answer this, I did a strategic design process that included data analysis, a review of my personal branding plus identity development exercises. These informed my creative brief to Jon, plus the ongoing development of this blogsite.

To improve my blog's usability and personal salience, I made the following design changes:
  +1> My roles were simplified;
  +2> I checked how each role and my research interests were reflected in my labels;
  +3> My publication plan addresses my diverse roles and interests;
  +4> I reordered my 'research' navigation to support the postdoctoral publication hierarchy;
  +5> I also took other measures for improved reliability;
  +6> plus security.

+1> Refined my personal brand positioning and roles
Online spaces can provide ready opportunities for individuals to experiment with digital personas. As part of my PhD's broader identity exploration project, my blog featured five roles in its navigation. These were 'researcher', 'designer', 'educator', 'public speaker' and 'volunteer'.

While accurate in terms of identity exploration as a PhD candidate, it made for a complex and potentially confusing navigation structure on the mobile phone (see left in Figure 1). It also seemed important to simplify identities to reduce that inevitable 'he's a jack-of-all-trades' perception!

Figure 1. navigations (version 2016 vs 2019) in mobile screen by Jon Wheelan, 2019.

To solve both challenges, I did an exercise for simplifying my identity by clearly defining the three roles I prefer to do. Such consolidation also supports a simpler overall online persona that is easier to keep coherent (i.e. I might describe the same roles on; LinkedIn for work, academic portals for research; Twitter micro-blogging or Facebook for friends). My roles were prioritised down to the big three of: 'researcher', 'design steward' and 'techné mentor'. Interestingly, researching design strategy introduced me to the unusual 'design steward' and 'techné mentor' roles: The former reflected how my career in design increasingly involved briefing designers and sharing their work, versus my own designs. As a ‘techné mentor’, I am involved in fluid, once-off educational interventions related to technology. My previous roles (such as speaker and volunteer) proved easy to re-house under the simpler navigation (see right in Figure 1).

+2> Checked that my Postdoctoral roles and interests are covered in Blogger labels
I've tried to make my blog easy to search by using Blogger 'labels' for each of its posts. By analysing my use of labels and how these relate to my roles, I learnt that there were far more articles that related to my role as a techné mentor, than as a researcher or design steward.
As a multi-disciplinary researcher, I also explored how well, or poorly, my label-use linked to my core research interests; 'online identity', 'cultural taste', 'connected learning', 'participatory culture' and 'design strategy'. The analysis (see Figure 2) foregrounded an opportunity for improving the labels I had used and the need to add key labels that were 'missing-in-action'.

Figure 2. label review
It'll be a lengthy project on its own to simplify them; these labels reflect ten years of history in terms of the varied interests and projects they reflect. A big benefit of doing such work lies in it improving viewers' label search options, whilst helping me to better strategise on the blog's content development.

+3> Plan for publications linked to refined roles and interests

Speaking of which, I have prepared a research publication plan that primarily includes research articles from my PhD, the online academic bullies and mobs project and this blog. Over time, I hope to feature more design-related posts on this blog, plus visual designs. This will create a clear shift with content previously dominated by my PhD research and related techné mentorship concerning e-portfolios.

+4> Reprioritised researcher publications

Another important shift lay in switching the priority of navigation options under my researcher button. Back when I was a PhD candidate, it was most important to get feedback via conferences on my manuscripts and presentations. However, both are near the bottom of a traditional academic publishing hierarchy. Postdoc application requirements reflect this hierarchy in spotlighting emergent scholars' publication of research articles (and/or chapters). My revised navigation reflected this hierarchy by first featuring articles and first chapters. It then provided a link to my thesis' abstract, my conference papers and Slideshare account. Overall, this structure is fairly future-proof, since it is easy to add new research material to and for users to follow.

+5> Improved research blogsite's reliability

Blogger's widget layout system makes it very easy to add functions to one's blog. A downside of adding content from third parties (such as one's researcherID badge...) is that these may not have been tested in Blogger widgets, nor on all browsers. One side effect can be that widgets alter one's layout (... which influenced this blog's body text layout after it exceeded a certain width in Google Chrome). Running Google Chrome error reports also flagged issues with select add-ins. In response, I updated all profile badges and combined them into as few widgets as I could to increase reliability Defunct services, such as my Google+ profile and related pages, were removed. In their place, I added the curatorial accounts of Pinterest and Diigo accounts.

+6> Secured research blogsite with the https protocol
When I started this blog ten years ago, securing it via the https:// protocol was not even a consideration due to the high cost and the technical complexities involved. By contrast, today it is affordable and Internet Service Providers provide FAQs on shifting to https:// protocols that are easy to follow. With assistance from the helpful staff of, transitioning this blog to a secure protocol proved a surprisingly straightforward process that took less than two days from purchase to authorisation and implementation.

I hope this post will inspire others to apply strategic design practices and brand positioning for improving their online research presences. 
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