Explore and Create Stories #21: Nicole Osborne

All things digital is a hot topic right now. I’m either hearing discussions about innovative practices or the other end of the spectrum which includes “people are stuck to their screens too much” or “digital detox” and “no one is talking to each other anymore in real life”. Well Nicola is a digital guru, and we met face to face after a mutual friend introduced us when I was in Edinburgh last year and have kept in contact thanks to various digital platforms…my favourite being Skype because we get to see each other as well as talk all things exciting on a project we are working on with the ace Louise Connelly. Nicola and I have shared multiple cups of tea, crafted together, been filmed together chatting digital and learning for a most successful MOOC called Digital Footprints, and have pondered and posed many questions leading to thinking more about the practices of social media and the digital in our educational experiences.

I’m so excited to share this interview with you. She is compassionate, kind, curious, multi passionate, always learning and hilarious - and all of these come through this interview (and her online profiles).

This interview offers a great insight into thinking about learning, digital and digital education with mindful moments and an approach to life that focuses on taking inspiration from the immensely varied and exciting work that is around one.


Tell us about what you do. 

I work as Digital Education Manager at EDINA, a centre for digital expertise based at the University of Edinburgh. My role sees me engaging in a lot of different projects, developing new ideas, and looking for opportunities to do new exciting things with educational technology. As an organisation we deliver services for the wider education sector which means I get to collaborate and learn from brilliant colleagues beyond as well as within Edinburgh. Indeed, we are really open to new ideas and conversations if anyone reading this is interested in getting in touch.

What are you passionate about?

When I’m working on a project I tend to get quite passionate about it and I’m really excited about several projects right now.  One of the things I have worked closely on since 2014 is the Managing our Digital Footprint work, led by my wonderful colleague Dr Louise Connelly (Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary, previously Institute for Academic Development). This work began with a research project (for which Louise was lead researcher, or Principle Investigator as it is called sometimes) and campaign focused on sharing best practices around social media, managing online tracks and traces, and encouraging thoughtful and reflective use of social media and the internet. We’ve recently launched a MOOC sharing much of the best practice and responding to demand and practices our research identified. It was thrilling to see the course go live and to see people around the world engaging, commenting, and reflecting on their own practice. (It was fun also to see the press reaction to the course – I never expected to be interviewed by The Sun!) The course runs every month so each new cohort is a new community to discover.

I am also really passionate about communicating, engaging people, communicating with others – and that tends to mean I get passionate about exciting work across EDINA and the wider University, whether that’s the fab work colleagues are doing bring geospatial information into schools, playful innovation work to discover how the university might use 3D room mapping and Pixel Sticks, or whether that’s phenomenal work by colleagues working the wider university are doing reimagining our interactions with literary texts. I’ve recently been to see our ECA (Edinburgh College of Art) degree show and that is always a source of inspiration and excitement. Basically, I feed off new connections, developing ideas, coming at a challenge from a new angle… I love to be challenged, stretched, and to make serendipitous discoveries.


A picture of Nicola scanning a room for the Strictly Come Tango project

A picture of Nicola scanning a room for the Strictly Come Tango project

The interview in the Sun

The interview in the Sun

Nicola at Matt Collishaw show in full VR gear and wearing that tricky pattern matched skirt I made

Nicola at Matt Collishaw show in full VR gear and wearing that tricky pattern matched skirt I made

What are you working on at the moment?

In my day job I’m working on developing consultancy and training around our digital footprint work –I’ve already had some wonderful opportunities to do this and have a summer of presentations lined up, including a one-off show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to prepare. The show will be part of the “Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas” – a brilliant collaboration between Edinburgh Beltane Network (a community built around public engagement of all forms) working with stand-up comedian (and an awesomely smart woman of many surprises) Susan Morrison, and the lovely folk at Fair Pley productions. Each year academics and researchers perform shows at CODI, turning their work into compelling Fringe shows with lots of audience participation. This year will be my fifth year and every time I learn so much from the experience, not only related to performance and engagement skills but also about my own work since there’s nothing like explaining a project to an audience to get you reflecting on your practice, questioning what your work means and focusing on what matters most. This year my show is “Is your online reputation hurting you?” and I have, for the first time, been given a primetime evening slot so my main creative challenge right now is to work out how to pitch the show so that it’s fun, appropriate for the evening crowd and just disconcerting enough.

What’s inspiring you at the moment?

It’s conference season and also art show season so I am taking inspiration from the immensely varied and exciting work that I am seeing around me. I’ve just been at the IIPC Web Archiving Week and found much to inspire my own project, but also to look at internet research from a different set of perspectives. As someone who finds creative sparks in being exposed to lots of new ideas and concepts I also found the combination of seeing Matt Collishaw’s VR installation “Thresholds” and the extraordinary Dennis Sever’s House really fascinating as pieces of storytelling, especially after participating in an ECA Queering the Seventies event earlier this year which really made me think again about context, archive, and engagement with recent histories of space and place and community. That whole area is really interesting to me right now, particularly as several projects of mine right now are thinking about data and the future – whether personal data, data on physical spaces, city data, or use of web resources in scholarly research. 

What led you to your latest project or focus?

I’m working across a number of projects in parallel at the moment, but the Digital Footprint research and consultancy is probably the more interesting one to focus on here. This work came about when myself and Dr Louise Connelly (PI for our research in this area) found ourselves increasingly asked for social media support, advice, and input to other areas associated with personal tracks and traces. Louise had the brilliant idea to turn this into both a campaign and research project, allowing us to work together to build on our existing work, training and best practice guidance. I came into that work through being Social Media Officer at EDINA (2009-2015), supporting and advising colleagues within and beyond our part of the University with social media best practices and planning online content.  That initial spark of a project has now led to follow on work, a huge variety of opportunities, and a wonderful and lasting working relationship with Louise, and with collaborators across the University, particularly Prof. Sian Bayne who was a partner in the research and leads our current related project on Yik Yak.

An image of University of Edinburgh's library cat (now lost and presumed dead though there is a successor kitten) which was taken as part of our Pixel Stick project using the Pixel Stick and long exposure.

An image of University of Edinburgh's library cat (now lost and presumed dead though there is a successor kitten) which was taken as part of our Pixel Stick project using the Pixel Stick and long exposure.

How do you approach creativity in your life?

I tend to riff around ideas I think – I try to think around a problem or idea from lots of angles, to think of lots of possibilities... It’s hard to come up with ideas if you don’t fling out some silly or unsuccessful ones so I tend to make big lists, jot things down, make Trello boards of stuff to come back to… Then I tend to critique and filter and see what has proper potential. At work I have one colleague in particular who I have fruitful idea-jamming relationship with, but I also really like working with new collaborators, finding out where there are new opportunities and ideas to be had. That’s one of the best parts of my job – kicking off something new then working out how to make it happen.

Creativity in my personal life takes a similar form but as I tend to be starting something new, rather than responding to something (like a funding opportunity), the focus is more on what is going to excite and sustain me, that I can make time for. That often means creative cooking and making tasks with my partner – usually doing something new that is intellectually stimulating as well as involving physical effort or skill, so hand making dim sum, trying new complex Thai recipes, sourcing ingredients and learning techniques for Pakistani dishes. Our one annual fixed creative task is around the Eurovision Song Contest – we have a party, make a zine, and each year that gives us a structured focus to play and invent and be silly. I’ve also been making jewellery for close to 30 years and so there’s usually something crafty happening year round – recently that has been experiments with jewellery based on lino printing and pen work on shrinkable plastics. I like to make things that are practical at some level, not just decorative, so I’ve just completed a rather wonderful flared tattoo print skirt with contrast pocket and yoke linings. 

An orange and orange blossom water cake made by Nicola's own fair hands

An orange and orange blossom water cake made by Nicola's own fair hands

A lino cut Nicola made of her cat (2017s festive card)

A lino cut Nicola made of her cat (2017s festive card)

We talk a lot about "being in the moment" or “being" when creating. What does this mean for you?

I would say that by nature I’m quite good at being in the moment in general – I lost my dad when I was young and for me that’s always meant that now feels much more real than the past or the future as you never know when things can change and it feels more productive to get things done in the best way possible, rather than fretting about what might/what has happened. Although I can also be overly analytical and am a bit of a perfectionist so that’s not always how I use my time. I do try to focus when creating – and I think taking art to A-level in school got me into the discipline of sitting down and being ready to focus on something entirely different and creative.

When I have a meeting, particularly around new projects and collaborations, I try to ensure that for the time we are meeting the other party/ies have my full attention, that I’m fully committed to the task at hand, that I am listening and actively contributing, that I make eye contact and pick up on others’ responses and reactions.

When I’m creating in a more personal craft sense then it’s about having an environment that lets my focus, although that may mean music, a podcast, a daft TV show or film (preferably one I’ve seen many times before), running in the background to give me a sense of time and pace.

What defines you in terms of balancing creativity and mindfulness for flow? How do you do this?

I was always a kid who was happy entertaining myself – I remember spending a Half Term week hand beading a 1920s style beaded skull cap which I think is perhaps atypical for a teenager – and I can quite easily get lost in a task. Once I am into a task I enjoy spending hours focusing on one thing and, usually helped by a deadline or a clear focused priority (I do much prefer a deadline to open ended tasks), can happily block out other things when I need to. The realities of my job means there are lots of parallel demands, activities, meetings and deadlines so I tend to carve out blocks of time to focus, or switch location (working from another University space or from home), or work further in the early evening (as it’s quieter) when I need to complete one big chunk of work without interruption

I do get into that state of flow quite easily so for me the challenge is doing that in a time-aware way and ensuring I have some way to finish up a task, even when I still feel productive and like I have something else to add. For me a good balance is a real mixture of demands and activities punctuated by regular blasts of concentration and time to find my flow.      

What’s the biggest challenge you find in approaching your creative endeavours? 

Having the time to do all of the things I’d like to. I’ve always found a lot of things interesting so focusing in on the right priorities, saying “no” to possibilities, and balancing what is possible from what is achievable at good quality and in good time is where my challenges lie. Like many crafters I always have a lot of half-finished projects and ideas on the go… And at work there are always things bubbling away as possible possibilities… I think a lot of creative people see possibilities, connections, serendipity all over the place, the tricky part is knowing which waves to ride and which to let pass. You can’t always get that right, but trying is always interesting.

How do you find your zen?

I am at my calmest completing a single complex task that requires a lot of focus and blocks out other stimulus – a long piece of writing (always done on a keyboard) or a physical activity like sewing, chopping, folding, drawing. If that can be with my partner and our cat nearby, that’s even better.

Experiments in shrinkable plastic - with drawing and lino printing

Experiments in shrinkable plastic - with drawing and lino printing

When you experience flow, what is the impact on your productivity? Tell us about this.

When I experience flow I really feel like I get a great deal accomplished very quickly and productively. I can sit down and type thousands of words – draft a new article, write a report etc. in one sitting, I’ll need to come back to edit, tidy, etc. but if I have that focused first go created, it’s relatively easy to go back and do that detailed editing, reorganizing and formatting. However, getting into a state of flow and concentration can disrupt my sense of other competing tasks and priorities, which is why I always have lists on the go, flag emails, add diary appointments for regular reports etc.

Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing creative/mindful work?

That’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. I think my first proper boss, an engineer called Tony Midgely, was a brilliant mentor to get my professional life started. He encouraged me to learn about every part of the BP Chemicals site I was working on, giving me a holistic picture of where my own role fitted in; he gave me a great deal of ownership of my work and trusted me to deliver; and he helped me make connections and build my network quickly. That Year in Industry experience I had under his direction was significant in terms of professional skills and openness that I still value and benefit from.

Mrs Churchman, my school physics teacher for many years, was also hugely inspiring. She never treated any response as a silly answer (even when they were scientifically dubious) and was just enthusiastic and passionate about what she taught. I think STEM subjects are undervalued as creative spaces – they are about questioning, exploring, understanding the world, and about trying things out to see what works and why. That is a hugely useful approach to use in any creative or academic career and has certainly benefited me and my outlook on creativity and problem solving.

EDINA’s former director Peter Burnhill asked me to create my own job description when I moved from a role working with library catalogue data into a new Social Media Officer tailor made for me in 2009. That is a privilege I think few people get to do in their professional life and gave me a chance to imagine a whole area of work that was new and innovative. That vote of confidence and freedom were hugely beneficial in shaping my career and opportunities.

Jen Ross, my colleague (now) but also my dissertation supervisor several years back when I was completing the MSc in Digital Education, was and is inspiring and energizing to work with. I was a rather undistinguished undergraduate but a very driven masters student so when Jen asked me directly about the kind of supervision I wanted she helped me to establish my own expectations and goals for my work. I found the whole programme and team inspiring, so I delight in the fact that I get to work on projects and ideas with Jen and the team at the Centre for Research in Digital Education.

Finally, I would say that my mum has been a constant source of creative inspiration. She was always incredibly supportive of artistic and creative activity, always up for playful and silly making and doing. She worked throughout my childhood, but she and my dad were both always doing DIY – tiling, carpentry, taking down chimneys at the weekend… Mum would sew clothes, curtains and cushions, costumes; I remember her carefully hand-colouring the maps for the covers of books she was publishing for a small economic publisher; designing and recreating the full décor and ephemera (posters, ration books, costumes) for a 1940s themed party… My mum has recently retired and I am delighted that she now has the time and space to return to drawing and painting, and other creative tasks she hasn’t had space to focus on for a while. All of that creative energy, ever-ready supply of art and craft materials, and tolerance for messiness and creation undoubtedly shaped us: my sister is a theatre designer, dresser and dramaturge and my own work in education and technology benefits hugely from that creativity.

How would you rate your level of happiness about your creative endeavours at the moment? (1 being sad, 10 being love it/awesome/BEST EVER.)


Tell us, who are you clicking on at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

I’m clicking on a lot of work and shared content from Melissa Terras, Jean Bauer, Michael Zimmer, Kate Crawford, Lilian Edwards, Audrey Watters, Padmini Ray Murray – all share fantastic mixes of academic work in my areas of interest and quirky interesting stuff from the web. I also click a lot on Ben Werdmuller and Brooke Gladstone’s posts and shares on the future of media. I also keep an eye on whatever Sha Nazir, BHP Comics, and Kirsty Hunter are up to – we collaborated last year on a comic book explaining the technical outputs of an EU FP7-funded Citizen Science project and it was an inspiring and wonderful creative process. I’m a huge fan of good graphic novels and comics and hugely recommend working with skilled writers and artists like Sha and Kirsty if you are looking for new ways to engage people in and re-imagine your own work. 

Tell us, who are you listening to at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

I listen to a lot of economics and media podcasts: NPR Planet Money; Reply All; WNYC’s Note to Self; Freakanomics Radio; BBC More or Less; Media Masters; On the Media; Gimlet Media’s Start Up, Pop Culture Happy Hour. Economics and media together give you such a picture of what’s there already, why, and what might be around the corner. I do listen to tech and education content but the first things I’ll catch up with are these media and economics podcasts. RadioLab, long established and well known though it is, continues to set the standard in terms of creative audio production, whilst 99% Invisible (ostensibly an architecture podcast) and Science vs. are also excellent and creatively minded. I also find Nancy, a new queer NPR podcast, a really inspiring and original take on the world which is well worth a listen, especially for those with an interest in intersectionality.

Sometimes I work in silence, but I like music that helps me set a tone or energy. I always have some past Eurovision hits on hand, but I like anything a bit crunchy – interesting instrumentation, layering, sounds and (less so) lyrics. Of late I have been enjoying an eclectic mix of Sports, Metronomy, London Grammar, The Presets, Santigold, James Blake and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. I’ve also been rediscovering my love of Prefab Sprout, Simple Minds, Prince and Nina Simone.

Tell us, who are you talking to at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

All sorts of people! It’s conference season so I’m out there meeting new people, looking for new collaborations, finding out what people have been up to over the last year or more, catching up with some established colleagues too. As we prepare for CODI I’m particularly looking forward to catching up with academics and researchers across multiple subject areas and institutions – new and unexpected follow up chats almost always follow. Right now, I also have five post graduate interns working on the Reference Rot in Theses: A HiberActive Pilot project so I’m also really enjoying talking and working with them.

Tell us, who are you are reading at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

For work I’m reading around digital identity and digital preservation. For pleasure I’m reading Eurovision! by Chris West, which is a history of Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s a signed copy sent my way from a fellow academic Eurovision fan who knew I’d enjoy the blend of pop nerdiness and politics. It feels like the right light contextual read for the Brexit negotiations right now. Lined up after that I have some Jackie Kay and Margaret Atwood lined up, also some Cory Doctorrow now that Walkaway is out. I also have Jessica Abel’s fascinating comic on radio production, Out on the Wire, to finish reading.

What’s some advice you would offer to someone who is struggling to find their creative spark? or What advice would you give to someone who thinks they aren’t creative? 

Firstly, I would say that no-one gets to tell you whether you are creative or not. Most people are creative in one way or another, whether that’s in how they work to and create fine work from tight instructions, or whether that’s in far more free form ways. I think if you are open to creative experiences, don’t worry about the final product of your creativity, and can find a safe place to play and experiment and fail then that can be enormously rewarding. Thinking about stuff isn’t the way to start – just do something, see how it feels, think about what you like and what you don’t, and then try again, try better, try a different medium or approach… When you go through formal artistic training you do a lot of things over and over again – sketching, generating ideas, throwing ideas out – so you shouldn’t expect anything creative to be perfect first time. Getting feedback and critiques can be brilliant but you get to decide how much weight others’ comments have. It can be really important to select when to take those comments seriously, and when to stick up for your own vision. Don’t be stubborn but don’t be a push over – most responses to creativity is subjective, but there is much to be learned from peers, mentors, interested others too.

What’s the best ever quote you have seen in terms of creativity or mindfulness or flow? 

I love Ira Glass’s (long) quote on the gap between taste and creation, and a lovely video interpretation. Although Ira Glass’ storytelling style is much parodied, he’s someone who really gets the benefit of assuming your audience or reader is smart, patient, and willing to listen if you can tell your story in an interesting way.