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. 

Friday 12 April 2019

Five curricular changes to consider when teaching visual arts e-portfolios

Written for visual arts and design teachers who teach their students e-portfolio curation.

'Young black women curate visual arts e-portfolios: negotiating digital disciplined identities, infrastructural inequality and public visibility' was recently accepted subject to changes for a special issue of the Learning Media and Technology journal. Contributions whose perspectives challenge 'universal technological solutionism' were invited for the forthcoming 'Global technologies, Local Practices: redefining digital education with marginalised voices'.

My contribution foregrounded the key challenges that three young black women faced in creatively appropriating online portfolio software for showcase e-portfolio production. Each student had to negotiate (i) cultural and technical forms of exclusion, (ii) visibility versus privacy concerns and (iii) different forms of digital infrastructural inequalities. To reach the journal's 6,000 word limit for articles, I cut mine's initial visual arts e-portfolio curriculum recommendations, but cited this post. I trust its readers will find the recommendations below helpful, whether for reworking the visual arts showcase e-portfolio curriculum or refining similar curricula. Such changes may better accommodate young visual artists’ varied circumstances and creative aspirations:

Recommended changes when teaching visual arts e-portfolios

+1 > Provide examples of privacy protection that can address visibility risks
"Lesley Ann", "Melissa" and "Dina" all chose not to use their full first and last names for minimising risks of sexual harassment. Such measures were often not sufficient, since their full names were shown in their email addresses. E-portfolio curricula must guide students appropriately on how to protect their privacy by not sharing genuine identities. For example, a curriculum could include reflection of the potential negative consequence of presenting one's legal identity online, versus assuming that using one's genuine identity and legal name, as "the ('Modern gallery') artist" must be the norm. Alternative self-presentation strategies should be taught, particularly where vulnerable individuals would benefit from privacy protection.

+2 > Accommodate the roles in creative industry and digital identities that young people explore
Taken together, the case studies suggested a broader need for a more inclusive visual arts syllabus. South African visual arts pedagogy largely ignores the many and varied types of genres in visual culture that students may participate in. Despite affinity spaces in youth-, do-it-yourself and ethnic cultures potentially being valuable resources for young people's e-portfolio personas and projects, students reported exercising self-presentation strategies that hid participation in "unofficial", "illegitimate" genres. There was a missed pedagogical opportunity for challenging cultural exclusion and supporting greater e-portfolio differentiation by including teens' informal cultural interests. 

Educators could explore potential continuities between youth’s extra-mural affinities and the visual arts syllabus. This may better engage students’ interests, whilst also offering youth greater scope to share their varied personas. For example, presenting market-driven identities in creative industry proved a valued strategy for gaining economic capital amongst under-resourced students. E-portfolio curricula can also better house the existing social network and online content practices of students, which our curricular plans neglected. For example, the curriculum could accommodate students’ pre-existing digital portfolios by encouraging students to link link to theirs from within their e-portfolios.

+3> Cater for students who want to be seen as 'emergent creative pros', not "students"
An online identity as an arts student can be seen as undesirable to emergent visual creatives, who prefer to portray themselves as 'creative professionals' outside school. Examples of young creatives could be added to visual arts e-portfolio curricula for such students to learn from and experiment with.

+4> Foreground both process and product to make context explicit
My thesis revealed that students’ curation of disciplined digital identities and addition of other personas was strongly shaped by their levels of connectivity. In particular, under-resourced youth’s school and homes did not provide sufficient infrastructure for them to fully participate in e-portfolio design. The least resourced students were under-connected in lacking home internet access and having to share ownership of digital devices. Both were strong markers of class inequality. Under-connected students were at a severe disadvantage in being constrained to doing digital portfolio curation only in e-portfolio lessons. Youth with costly mobile internet access could workaround their computer lab’s slow internet speeds, but could not always work on e-portfolios at home owing to priorities related to mobile broadband costs.

The 'visual arts showcase' e-portfolio curriculum was taught as a capstone showcase exhibition project. This neglected sharing information related to students’ digital infrastructures. Their e-portfolios did not list the resources that each student used, which made it very difficult to compare the respective infrastructures youth used in e-portfolio curation. Teenagers from black, working class homes faced the greatest obstacles in accessing and using digital infrastructures. A danger lies in the increasing use of digital portfolios potentially serving as a new hurdle for these youth in accessing tertiary studies at elite institutions. This is allied to the rise of professional, digital self-presentation in spaces of creative production potentially serving as another gatekeeper to freelance projects.

+5> Provide workarounds for inequalities in digital infrastructures
E-portfolio teaching must accommodate the media ecologies of students who are under-connected to the internet. They should be identified and prioritised with classroom support, since other students can readily do such work at home. Our syllabi also neglected mobile technologies by focusing on desktop and laptop computer users. Resourceful teens used their mobile phones in class to continue e-portfolio curation and overcome school infrastructure constraints. Teaching should accommodate the mobile devices that students bring with them. Students must be encouraged to use these tools for creative production, as well as to make resourceful workarounds where there are problems with classroom infrastructure.

I trust these five suggestions will help teachers of visual creative e-portfolios to better accommodate young people’s different circumstances, repertoires and creative aspirations.

Saturday 6 April 2019

My Cursed Referencing = Google Scholar citation imports + legacy Refworks

A cautionary tale for researchers using legacy Refworks and importing citations via Google Scholar (hint: it's not a "shortcut").

The Academic Referencing Horror Story- a neglected genre?

There seems to be a dearth of blogposts that share academic referencing disasters in detail. This should not be surprising, since all the role-players in such dramas have little to gain from sharing their time-sucking examples: Scholarly search engines and referencing software conceal their flaws within legalese and support departments. Institutions will not spotlight their limitations in offering minimal support. Academics' reputations may suffer for sharing referencing mistakes. Even students who share their frustrations and experiences publicly (i.e. via tweets) seem to lack the motivation for elaborating these into lengthier narratives (e.g. a twitter roll). Further, since the costs are paid by the "free time" and suffering of individuals, there seems to be "no need" for systemic interventions that might address the attendant losses of scholars' time and morale.

On the flipside, students and researchers who lack examples of what to avoid MUST be widely repeating the errors of their peers, surely? This may range from colleagues within a particular university to software users globally whose experiences of a service's functionality differs from its promises. Just, maybe, the downside of sharing academic referencing horror stories SHOULD not trump the importance of providing important learnings for online audiences?!

In the spirit of being transparent about such disasters for others to avoid similar suffering, here's 'My Cursed Referencing'. It compiles key incidents with a cast of fellow researchers, an Apple laptop running Microsoft Word 2010, Google Scholar, Refworks Legacy and ProQuest versions plus support, the University of Cape Town, plus yours-victim-truly.


The internet was just becoming a thing when I completed my MA thesis using Claris Works in 1997, so I was pretty much an online referencing virgin when I returned to university 12 years later. In terms of this type of software, Refworks seemed the obvious choice. It was offered as a free tool at UCT and seemed easy to access and use. Besides, which PhD candidate can prioritise the time to: (i) research the universe of referencing software and compare their upsides and downsides, (ii) check they will install on Mac and integrate well with his or her university library's back-end, plus (iii) investigate if the support post-purchase will be sound? Doing the PhD reading on 'Diffusion Model of Innovation' and 'Concerns Based Adoption Model' was daunting enough, thanks...

The Unknown Evil of using Google Scholar exports for creating a bibliography
If Google Scholar valued 'Don't Be Evil', its 'import reference' function would be labelled 'import an (in)complete reference' as a fair warning. A bibliography made up of such exports for recent journal articles may well be accurate and complete. BUT should your sources range across old books, scholarly dissertations and online sources, be vigilant. Your citations are probably incomplete AND imported in the wrong format (i.e. a 'book section' can be indexed as a 'journal article' by default).

Evils is Even (bad things come in twos)
I was alerted to this conundrum after presenting a draft of 'Capital meets Capabilities' to the Technology in Education Postgraduate Researchers group in January, 2018. A senior researcher observed, 'You didn't generate your references with software'. Stunned, I answered that indeed I had. After requesting that he highlight the errors in my bibliography, I was mortified to see copious redlining that highlighted many of my references missing information...

This was horrific, because of the time it must take to correct. I was preparing my thesis for submission in early February and could ill afford prioritising additional work.  My legacy Refworks database had around 1,600 references in it. If I used 1,200 of those in my thesis and 1,000 required correction with six minutes for finding the missing information, I would need to find 100 hours to fix this giant mistake.

On a related note, my main supervisor flagged another major citation evil. The particular Harvard referencing style I had used (since my BAFA Hons in '94, ahem) might be flagged as 'outdated' by external reviewers. They might prefer me to use one of the other nine Harvard styles. Prof. Marion Walton recommended that I shift to the American Psychological Association, which has just one style. It's widely used in Media Studies, so would also prove useful in developing articles from my PhD. In response, I learnt this new style and restyled my in-line citations.

Enter ProQuest Refworks, enter light (yellow)?
By default, the UCT off-campus login (see Figure 1) points to the old version of Refworks . The option to upgrade was listed in a tiny box on the top right of Legacy Refworks (see Figure 2). I clicked on this link to find out what had changed... 

Figure 1. Screenshot of UCT off campus login at shows Refworks' high salience.

 Figure 2. Screenshot of the Legacy Refworks screen, which shows the low salience of its top left link to ProQuest Refworks.

Probably the most helpful change for my purposes was that the Legacy Refworks did not flag incomplete citations. By contrast, ProQuest Refworks did this in yellow for essential and blue for optional information. This proved helpful for Lungile Madela and I as we worked through correcting my Refworks database in one week.

Exported references with Missing Parts
We had taken considerable care to ensure each reference was as complete as it could be, but some references became incomplete on export. For example, the PhD and Masters dissertations (in which we tried variations for 'Faculty' and 'Degree' under the 'thesis' type) would not display all their information under the citation view, nor in the exported bibliography. At the time, the only UCT specialist who could advise on a workaround was on leave. I did learn from ProQuest Refworks support that the university and type of degree are not mapped from the old database into the new one. So, I did a *. search for all thesis entries, then manually cut-and-pasted the correct version of each citation into my bibliography. This points again to the importance of understanding the constraints of the referencing software you use, versus what it does.

The Disconnected Bibliography of the Damned
Another important constraint existed in my use of an old version of Microsoft Word that did not support the use a ProQuest Refworks add-in. In particular, it automatically generates a bibliography from in-line citations. By contrast, read-through the bibliography to remove sources that had become irrelevant. I then passed my thesis through Reciteworks, a free APA and Harvard citations checker. It proved super-useful for matching in-line citations with the bibliography and also identifying stylistic errors to fix.

The Summoning of my Legacy Refworks database and its Zombie Citations
I eventually had to update to the latest version of Word for handling my large thesis file (Word 2010 crashed repeatedly while I combined all chapters into a thesis). After submitting it, I started to use the Refworks Citation Manager for manuscripts from my thesis and the 'online academic bullies and mobs' project. This add-in worked well for me until a 'new projects' functionality upgrade was launched. Projects are a better way for organising references at a high-level; rather than showing all of them at once, one can associate a Word document with a particular project's references. I split my projects into two; one for cyberbullies, the other for my 'Inequality in Digital Personas' PhD.

Figure 3. The ProQuest Refworks add-in for Microsoft Word shows old folders from my Legacy Refworks database. 

At last on the leading edge of referencing technology, an unexpected downside was that my'PhD' project combined with my UCT proxy access to summon the Legacy Refworks database's return. The project's old database did not reflect the new folders, citations and corrected references in my ProQuest Refworks database. Thankfully, Rich and Jay from its support portal were very helpful in organising my Legacy Refworks database's deletion.

I sincerely hope that there will be no further episodes of 'My Cursed Referencing', but commit to writing a sequel post if they do... Here's to helping others avoid or overcome similar predicaments.

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