This is a working paper.
A lot of emphasis is currently being placed on the development of e-learning in Higher Education. Through innovations such as Second Life, Moodle, Blackboard, and other such developments, it would seem that e-learning offers the promise of interesting and innovative approaches to lifelong learning, Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and widening participation. E-learning, it seems, is a good thing.
In this paper I explore some of the pedagogic implications of the use of virtual learning environments. What might be the possibilities and limitations of such technological spaces and places with regard to qualities of relationship and learning? Could moves to emphasise the human face of online learning be a response to a degree of dehumanisation that may always-already take place when a move is made from face-to-face to online learning?
Further, what might be the implications of virtual learning environments for teachers, lecturers, and facilitators who privilege the affectual dimensions of pedagogic interactions? What might we mean by ‘learning’ when we speak of virtual learning environments? What might be the limitations and possibilities of virtual environments for thinking about helpfully transformative social, political, and personal education? What we understand as the conditions, limitations, parameters, and possibilities of learning as a process very much guide, and even at times determine, how we conceive of the structuring possibilities of virtual learning environments. An exploration of the emotional and political dimensions of pedagogy in virtual worlds is important for understanding limitations and possibilities in our negotiations of those worlds.
Introduction: towards a pedagogy of gentleness?
I remain fascinated by the possibilities of affect, influence, and power in online environments and virtual worlds. In my research and teaching I am seeking to understand power and agency in ways that allow an attitude of gentleness, rather than an attitude of control, to be my default baseline. I do not make much of a distinction between online environments and so-called Real Life environments in trying to understand either the politics of attitude or the politics of gentleness.
What I understand “gentleness” as the dynamic that happens when the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be eliminated does not dominate in our relationships and in the situations we negotiate. One of the specific notions that I have been exploring is a “pedagogy of gentleness”. I believe it is both possible and desirable to reduce the extent to which people, whether as teachers or students, might seek to control, manage, or eliminate uncertainty within learning environments. From practice-based research I have drawn the following principles for my pedagogic practice, among others:
1. There is nothing more personal, political, or relevant for me than attending to the character of my own emotional attitude in my role as an educator. How I feel on the day will have a major influence on the character of my teaching. This is what Teresa Brennan (2004) referred to as the “transmission of affect”. As Teresa Brennan outlines: “By the transmission of affect, I mean simply that the emotions or affects of one person, and the enhancing or depressing energies these affects entail, can enter into another” (3). This is consistent with the later work of critical pedagogist Paolo Freire and his insistence on the importance of “being with” (Freire 1998). I also find it important to note Megan Boler’s insistence that: “A pedagogy that recognizes emotions as central to the domains of cognition and morality need not preclude intellectual rigor or critical inquiry” (Boler 1999:110).
2. It is important for me not to seek to prescribe the outcomes or direction of a classroom. The character and quality of the interaction in the room is of greater importance to me than a clear trajectory, and the quality I am seeking to foster is consistent with Mark Smith’s characterisation of “local education” practices: “Instead of aiming for particular changes in individuals, we look to the nature of the interactions we foster – we move from a focus on product to a concern with process and praxis” (Smith 1994:36). The emotional climate I seek to foster in my teaching and learning is very much a conversational one, with an openness to detours and divergences in direction. As Smith notes, “The specific goal may not be clear at any one time, either to educators or learners, yet the process is deliberate. Educators in these situations seek to foster an environment in which conversation can take place” (1994:63). Learning outcomes, then, are used for the module as a whole but are not used for each session. I am reminded of the words of Derrick Jensen:
“I cannot control what my students want or are able to learn, and I have no desire to. Nor can I control whether the students like the class, and I have no desire to do that either. Nor can I control whether they are at a place in their lives to learn from anything I have to offer. … What I perceive as the direction they need to head may bear no relationship to the direction they actually need to head, the direction they’re capable to heading, or the direction they indeed end up heading. And I need at all times to defer to that uncertainty, that mystery” (2004:109-110)
3. Confusion can be fruitful. In my pedagogy I offer students an invitation to “trust your confusion” in expectation of the conversational quality of the interactions. This can be unsettling for students at times, but it can also facilitate a space of creativity and opportunity; Megan Boler speaks of a “pedagogy of discomfort” in which students are invited “to leave the familiar shores of learned beliefs and habits, and swim further out into the “foreign” and risky depths of the sea of ethical and moral differences” (Boler 1999:181). This is very much in the spirit of what a colleague of mine, Paul Devlin, advises his students, that they find their place of uncertainty and build a house there. One of the challenges, of course, is to find a way to match the exploration and generation of confusion with the generation and provision of stabilities (but not certainties) that will balance that confusion for the students.
These principles become important markers for me in trying to make sense of teaching and learning, whether face-to-face in a classroom or in online environments and virtual worlds.
E-Learning: triumph and disaster.
Lewis and Whitlock have declared that; “It is no longer necessary to argue the case for e-learning” (2003:xv). Would that this were so, but my own experience tells me otherwise. At the end of one semester at my university I was ready to throw my computer in the bin and declare online teaching and learning a lost cause.
As a mature student doing online courses for professional development, I have grappled with buggy software, wrestled with unruly hardware, screamed in frustration as I discovered that my serendipitous and fluid personal study styles developed over too many years as a postgraduate left me ill-suited to the scheduled delivery modes of online teaching and learning.
In the same year I served as a Course Director for an online course. I learned to do the following, among other things: listen to students with similar frustrations as myself; calm students with angry complaints; work with people who had suffered family bereavements, without the benefit of face-to-face contact; chase a tutor constantly for what seemed at the time like absence and neglect, but turned out to be more complicated than that; work with librarians mid-semester to scramble together online-accessible resource lists; and work with the university tech people to manage software difficulties.
After these experiences as student and as teacher I was certainly not inclined to give online teaching and learning the benefit of the doubt. My experiences generally in face-to-face teaching and learning had been very positive. I had become increasingly able to let classes happen, to respond to the conditions of the classroom and the mood of the students, in and around the themes I had prepared in advance for discussion. Silences, pauses, and an ability to stand, listen, and let it go, were becoming powerful tools in my arsenal of techniques for teaching. I was concerned that the parts of teaching I enjoy most would not be available to me in an online teaching and learning environment. I was concerned that what I was developing as my own best practice was not going to be available to me as an online tutor. To become a good online tutor would require me, horror of horrors, to start from the beginning again, to rebuild through the frustrations and the difficulties, to come to a constructive position for the development of online modules.
In short, I had come to a place where the onus was on me to either argue the case for online teaching and learning or to avoid it altogether. I didn’t really have the option of avoiding it, though, as there was an e-pedagogy module to complete for the PG CHEP (Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Practice), and I had just been commissioned to provide 4 units for yet another online module. Not only that, but I was due to start as Module Coordinator for the provision of another online course in the year to come. Online teaching and learning, it seemed, had become my fate.
“Look at the screen … and smile!”
It is easy enough to feel awestruck in the face of the new technologies in universities. This would seem to be the case for students; Lewis and Whitlock have written that, “E-learning has proved a dispiriting experience for some learners: slogging their way through unattractively presented content on a screen, unsure of where they are going and how long it will take to get there (if they ever arrive), aware only that it all seems to be taking a lot more time than they ever thought” (2003:xv). I would suggest that the same could be said for the experience of a lot of teachers, although I imagine many of them can make more of a positive difference to their own experience than they maybe realise.
A lot of emphasis is currently being placed on the development of e-learning in Higher Education. It would seem that e-learning offers the promise of interesting and innovative approaches to lifelong learning, Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and widening participation. The student populations of university campuses are increasingly diverse, and there is increasing pressure on university resources. By offering e-learning platforms universities can also ostensibly offer more learning in part-time, distance, and other flexible models. E-learning, it seems, is a good thing. Lewis and Whitlock again;
“E-learning is no longer new. It occupies a growing role in most education and training organizations. It is making the lives of individuals easier: helping people learn whilst at work or in the home, flexibly and at times that suit them. … As technology and software improve, e-learning becomes faster, more reliable, more portable and easier to use. So, not surprisingly, e-learning is playing an increasing part in the lives of learners and of learning and training organizations” (2003:xv).
Jane Knight (2003) describes e-learning as, “The catalyst that is changing the whole model of learning in this century”. In an ideal world, e-learning is claimed to offer “a student centred learning environment which can be tailored to meet the learning needs of individual students”, with approaches to learning that are described as “active” (Kenya Education Network 2007). E-learning promises increased student-staff and student-student communication, frequent individual feedback, collaborative learning, and greater student motivation.
One of the biggest challenges for the continuing development of e-learning is, I believe, to temper this unbounded optimism with a large dose of reality. Could all of this optimism be little more than rhetoric, feeding into tired progress narratives about the benefits of technology and our unquestionable need to follow the latest developments?[i]
We can celebrate the emancipatory potential of learning technologies all we like, but as of yet there has been little solid research to substantiate the claims that are being made. In the context of people with learning difficulties, for example, Abbott notes that, “There is little published, peer-reviewed research related to the use of digital technologies to assist those with learning difficulties to learn more effectively and efficiently” (2007:7). There are not necessarily more educational possibilities available to us simply because technology is involved.[ii]
E-Learning and the challenges of pedagogy
The pedagogic challenges we face in e-learning are in large part the same pedagogic challenges we face in any context of teaching and learning – teaching one, by one, by one … ; inviting people to make sense of their lives; providing educational opportunities. The non-technical personal competencies among the competencies required for online tutoring (see Salmon 2000) are little different from those required for teaching generally. Calder and Milne (Date unknown) suggest that:
“The most compelling reason for using learning Technology is that high quality resources, implemented effectively in courses, have the potential to significantly improve the quality of teaching by enhancing student’s learning experiences and involvement in the learning process through: interactive learning environments; assessment and feedback ; facilitating student-staff and student-student communication.”
But surely any pedagogy, online or otherwise, would, I hope, seek to enhance students’ learning experiences and involvement in the learning process though greater interaction, more appropriate assessment and better feedback, and better student-staff and student-student communication.[iii]
There is a case to be made for the benefits of online education, and many voices in the literature make such a case, from Jane Knight’s techno-boosterism (2003) to some more measured approaches found on the JISC website (e.g. Abbott 2007). Hawkridge and Vincent (1992) put forward a cohesive and closely reasoned argument for the use of computers by people with learning difficulties, while also recognising the limits of technological determinism in this field: “Computers can ease learning difficulties,” they write, “They can help learners to overcome their difficulties. They cannot work magic. They are not necessarily the best solution. Because each learner’s needs are slightly different, there are few standard rules.” (Hawkridge and Vincent 1992:21)
People are working to humanise e-learning. Throughout online educational practice people are encouraging less interventionist and more communicative tutorial support; encouraging more dialogue between students and between students and tutors; fostering community in whatever what they can. But these attempts may sometimes amount to little more than a back-pedalling response to a degree of dehumanisation that always-already occurs in institutional education of any sort, if Freire (1970), Illich (1970), Jensen (2001, 2004), and many others are to be believed. Maybe more, maybe moves to emphasise the human face of online learning is a response to a degree of dehumanisation that may always-already take place when a move is made from face-to-face to online learning. This was the argument made in early research on so-called computer-mediated communication systems. It was assumed that Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) restricted or limited the possibilities of human communication when compared to face-to-face communication (see Herring 2002:133). For example, Daft and Lengel (1986) proposed a theory of “information richness”. For them, “lean” text-based CMC media make use of a single channel of communication, thereby being best suited to linear, concrete tasks such as scheduling. In contrast, they proposed that multiple channel media such as face-to-face speech are richer, and are more likely to be appropriate to complex and ambiguous tasks. Short, Williams, and Christie (1979) and Spears and Lea (1992) make the case that the text-based nature of CMC results in low “social presence”, and is thereby less-well suited to relational communication.
Virtual Learning Environments give us little obvious opportunity as tutors to work with silence and pauses, often powerful tools in the classroom. E-learning gives us little obvious opportunity to work with the affectual dimensions of individual interactions or of a group interaction. To work with online technologies is for me to first of all acknowledge the limitations of those technologies with regards to relationship. As Brook and Boal have written, “… virtual technologies are pernicious when their simulacra of relationships are deployed societywide as substitutes for face-to-face interactions, which are inherently richer than mediated interactions” (1995:vii).
In acknowledging those limitations we can temper the enthusiastic hyperbole of e-learning evangelism and work towards more realistic and appropriate online pedagogies that recognise that online education is not a new dawn or a dazzling virtual reality separate from the dull one we ordinarily inhabit. Technology in and of itself does not constitute a revolution. It is important to stay grounded. Shapiro writes, “… it would be a mistake, conceptually and practically, to erect a barrier between online and offline activity. Cyberspace is not somewhere “out there,” a world apart from flesh and blood, asphalt and trees. Our actions online have (need it even be said?) a real impact on the lives of other human beings” (Shapiro 1999:31).
My own experience is that engagement with online teaching presents us with few opportunities for pedagogic reflection unless we explicitly allow for such opportunities. A JISC report from 2004 states that “Making the move towards new technologies presents practitioners with a complex set of challenges – they may need to develop new skills, embrace changes in the nature of their role, and then reassess the pedagogies they employ” (JISC 2004:7). But to be honest, very few of us get time to reassess the pedagogies we employ because very few of us get opportunities to really reflect on the implications of our pedagogies at all, whether online or face-to-face. We don’t really get the time or the headspace to reconceive our teaching roles or our understandings of pedagogy while we clamber awkwardly to cope with the latest online delivery software package or struggle to make sense of students who communicate solely through digital text. Administrating and monitoring online courses is hard enough as it is.
Yet, one of the key challenges in online learning is to remember that we are teachers and to underline the importance of the role of teaching. Online learning, or e-learning, is still online teaching and learning, but the dropping of the second word is significant. Erica Williams, back in 1991, warned of the bifurcation of teaching and learning, as ‘delivery’ was beginning to be preferred to the term ‘teaching’ and ‘instructional designer’ was increasingly being substituted for the word ‘teacher’. Pedagogy, paradoxically, was increasingly being used to erase teaching from learning. Voithofer applies Williams’ critique to online pedagogy where frequently, as Voithofer says, “a “teacher-proof” course that ensures predictable and exportable learning modules is part of the design objective” (2002:491). Passive tenses abound as teachers become less present in online environments, even to the point of becoming interchangeable – in this university, once we design units for modules they apparently become the intellectual property of the university and can be reused by any other tutor without consultation.[iv] So, in a very practical sense, the teacher could be anybody.
Deeply personal pedagogic approaches could easily become problematic as this happens, and people are likely to default to pedagogic approaches in which they are not terribly invested. This embedded interchangeability likely also encourages approaches to pedagogy which are more about information delivery than invitations to personal exploration and support of a journey of critical inquiry. This could, over time, profoundly distort the ways in which the possibilities of teaching are conceived in technological domains by teachers and also by students. As McConnell writes, “If tutors are moving towards a relationship that is peripheral, purely diagnostic and outside the actual productive work of the community, then they are likely to be seen by members as outsiders who exert control and unilateral power” (2006:194).
The Internet was not initially designed with teaching and learning practices in mind. As Talbott reminds us, “Often hailed as an unparalleled weapon against the establishment, the Internet actually grew out of a scheme for making military communications more secure.” (1995:1). Originally, the Internet was designed for the exchange of technical data, designed to facilitate computation and calculation. To use Internet and computer technologies unquestioningly in teaching and learning may be to risk allowing the quiet imperatives of code (see Lessig’s Code 2.0) and the powerful rhetorics of technological progress to determine the possibilities of our pedagogy. We do well to consider the words of Steven Jones, that “the Internet is a “piggy-backed” medium, one that follows paths we already know” (Jones 1997:8).
Blamires has noted that “the successful educational use of technology also requires rigorous thought about learning” (1999, p113). ‘What learning involves’ is often something which is very much taken for granted in discussions about online teaching and learning, even though our underlying assumptions about learning remain very influential but, most frequently, those assumptions also remain as surreptitiously silent partners in the development of online learning provision. As McConnell suggests, “our view of learning often determines the way we design e-learning events and courses, and … this has serious consequences for the learning outcomes of those students taking the courses” (2006:10). To quote Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, “Tools, of course, can be the subtlest of traps” (1997:141). What we understand as the conditions, limitations, parameters, and possibilities of learning as a process (i.e. our pedagogic approach) very much guide, and even, at times, determine how we conceive of the structuring possibilities of a virtual learning environment.
Take the following quotation from the JISC report, Effective Practice with e-Learning (2004:12); “A learning activity can be defined as an interaction between a learner and an environment, leading to a planned outcome. It is the planned outcome which makes learning a purposeful activity”. This is a very limited understanding of ‘learning’ which allows no room for learning to take place in a non-goal-directed manner, no room for serendipity, no room for exploratory detours, no room for the more interesting aspects of what the experience of learning can be.
Two aspects of this statement jump out for me: first, who has the power of definition in this instance? Undoubtedly the teacher. Second, who plans the outcome? Again, undoubtedly the teacher. Conceiving of learning activities in this way maintains a clear hierarchy between teachers who teach, plan, deliver, and students who learn as they are directed, get managed, and receive. There is nothing in this conception of learning which challenges tendencies within institutional education or e-learning towards ‘banking’ or ‘deposit’ educational models, where students are conceived of as containers to be filled with information. Online teaching and learning is always-already heavily circumscribed in terms of content and delivery. It is important that our conceptions of learning do not merely reinforce that circumscription with limited and limiting understandings of what it can mean for us to learn. As Voithofer writes:
“Following traditional instructional design models will lead to courses and curricula that teach standardized content through unresponsive pedagogies because they rest on assumptions that construct learners according to skills, knowledge, and performance rather than cultural factors that elude simple descriptions (conductive reasoning and ontological knowing), yet are no less significant to learning” (2002:494).
Students, in effect, can easily become interchangeable information clients, in a manner consistent with the increasing influence of neo-liberalism within the university sector[v], and in ways that facilitate views of education as little more than individually-oriented information processing or information management (as in ADDIE Instructional Design or Resource-Based Learning (RBL) approaches – see Mobbs 2003 and Maier 2000). It is crucial, therefore, that pedagogy in e-learning be understood as more than just the study of teaching practice or the promotion of best practice in teaching. E-learning practices are primed to spiral off into unrealistic and misguided rhetoric of a technoromantic (Coyne 1996) or technologically deterministic (Mackay 2001) character. Because of this, it is important that the need for critical questioning is not just located in the learning experiences of students but in our own reflections about the basic assumptions about learning, behaviour, time, and social change, that are always-already structured into the technological systems that we employ for our online teaching. These basic assumptions about the meaning and role of technology, the role of information in personal development, the nature of progress, and the place of the individual in society, in turn tacitly shape the limits of our pedagogic imaginations.
I am encouraged by some of the literature on online interactivity and course design (e.g. Clarke 2001). However, I do not regard computer interactions to be any more interactive than standard classroom interactions, indeed I regard them as much less so. It is commonly assumed by many that online environments are qualitatively or even essentially different from other non-electronic teaching and learning environments. Consider the following statement by Lewis and Whitlock, for example. “E-learning programmes should be interactive. This distinguishes them from textbooks, videos and other one-way media for transmitting information. The designer of the package achieves interaction by asking questions and posing problems” (2003:61). Again, as they frame interactivity, the designer initiates interaction, and frames the problems. Interactivity is assumed to be something other than that which ordinarily happens. E-learning technology is assumed to facilitate interactivity whereas other kinds of technology (e.g. books, videos, television) are assumed not to – computers are presented as essentially different in kind and consequence from previous technologies. Interactive learning, it follows, can only occur within an IT problem-based framework. I just don’t find that a helpful starting point for pedagogy.
David McConnell (2006) optimistically proposes that a new paradigm of learning is emerging in the development of e-learning, which he terms “networked collaborative e-learning”[vi]. For McConnell, two core features of this new paradigm are the emphases on both communities and identity formation as key features of attempts to make e-learning effective and productive. McConnell is concerned that the now orthodox focus on stand-alone e-learning packages that focus on individual student learning is too reliant on instructional system design [ISD] principles “that do not foster participative learning or critical analytical thinking” (2006:8). To encourage a broader pedagogic approach than that offered by “instructional system design” he draws attention to the work of the educational psychologist Vygotsky (1962, 1978). Vygotsky was keen to emphasise the importance of social context and the experiential dimensions of education in the development of understanding.
I’m not so sure that ‘networked collaborative e-learning’ (NCEL) constitutes a paradigm shift as much as it serves as a constant challenge to e-learning pedagogists. In my own experience it is easy to state that ‘networked collaborative e-learning’ or NCEL is occurring, and an awful lot more difficult to put it into practice. Talking about fostering community is a lot easier than fostering community; ask any UK government. To foster online community, it is important that personal contact be maintained at every opportunity, and that the tutor avoid at all costs the temptation to reduce the provision of a course to information delivery and merely interventionist tweaking of the course materials. As with classroom practice, online teaching and learning constitutes and is constituted by a series of relationships, which can be more or less disrespectful depending on the efforts made to maintain strong, clear, and frequent communication among the participants. Online teaching and learning always-already involves communication between and among people. The main issue is the quality of that communication and the texture of the attitudes and relationships that are facilitated by both that communication and by the collective level of virtual ‘social presence’ that the participants allow themselves to contribute.
Through the process of developing my online lectures I have become convinced that it is possible to work towards more humanised pedagogies in online learning. I am not convinced that the pedagogies of Instructional Design or Resource-Based Learning will get me where I want to go, but I do believe that there is plenty of scope for the introduction of radical or critical pedagogic approaches to online teaching and learning. I would say, though, that more helpful approaches would be facilitated by a more extensive consultation process among the people involved in the lecture design process, more consistent and explicit discussions of pedagogy generally across the university, and more time to prepare the lectures.
In my online work I aspire to, as Voithofer says, “… learning that is deeply personal and situated, taking into consideration local learning perspectives, while remaining historical within the narratives of the learner’s experiences” (2002:481). This will be difficult, I am sure, and may require considerable personal investment, maybe even more than in face-to-face teaching. Nevertheless, I am keen to explore the possibilities, at least for a while.
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[i] David Noble (1997) warns of corporate promoters of online education who seek to create problem-solvers and technicians through distance education that will be well-suited to fit into the pervasive neo-liberal logics of everyday life. He argues that the drive for technological transformations in online teaching and learning is a camouflage for the increasing commercialisation of formal education, “a disarming disguise”: “…behind this effort are the ubiquitous technozealots who simply view computers as the panacea for everything, because they like to play with them. With the avid encouragement of their private sector and university patrons, they forge ahead, without support for their pedagogical claims about the alleged enhancement of education, without any real evidence of productivity improvement, and without any effective demand from either students or teachers” (Noble 1997).
[ii] Indeed, it can be argued that technology has always been involved: “… the classroom itself is a technology, or comprises a set of technologies which we mostly take for granted – physical materials such as desks and chairs, black, white and green boards, chalk, pens, projection devices, worksheets, textbooks, notebooks, lighting and sound regimes and so on. It also includes social practices we have developed to manage these tools and settings: lectures, group activities, labs and field trips, for example. Technologically enhanced teaching and learning, in this view, is not new” (Murphy et al. 2001:2).
[iii] While I may have been more consciously aware of the interactivity of the lecture designs in e-learning, I do not regard computer interactions to be any more interactive than standard classroom interactions. Indeed, I regard them as much less so. It is commonly assumed by many that online environments are qualitatively or even essentially different from other non-electronic teaching and learning environments. Consider the following statement by Lewis and Whitlock, for example. “E-learning programmes should be interactive. This distinguishes them from textbooks, videos and other one-way media for transmitting information. The designer of the package achieves interaction by asking questions and posing problems” (2003:61). As Lewis and Whitlock frame interactivity, the designer initiates interaction, and frames the problems. Interactivity is assumed to be something other than that which ordinarily happens. E-learning technology is assumed to facilitate interactivity whereas other kinds of technology (e.g. books, videos, television) are assumed not to – computers are presented as essentially different in kind and consequence from previous technologies. Interactive learning, it follows, can only occur within an IT problem-based framework.
[iv] As Course Director of an online course I discovered this to be problematic, as the person who designed the course was not available for consultation.
[v] Note the increasingly common economic language with which discussions of pedagogy are framed, for example, “Learning outcomes help the various stakeholders” (Lewis and Whitlock 2003:62).
[vi] McConnell believes that this shift in e-learning pedagogy correlates with what some (eg. Sklar and Pollack 2000) have identified as a shift in Internet usage. Where once the Internet was deemed a vast reference source or virtual encyclopaedia within the framework of knowledge-based economies, now it is being predominantly used as the home for a myriad of virtual communities; “communication between people has become the dominant mode of use” (McConnell 2006:9).