The post-lockdown springback & what it means for education


When we eventually limp out of lockdown, it will be interesting to see the range of reactions from everyone. I suspect there will be the full continuum of responses. Some people will have developed anxiety around others and operate largely in lockdown mode. Even if they feel ok about other people, more people will have had lifestyle revelations. The thought of commuting seems abhorrent, wearing anything but jeans and jogging bottoms feels extravagant and working in an office inefficient and constrictive. Working from home in a small-holding in Camarthenshire now seems like the dream.

But at the other end of the spectrum will be individuals who are desperate to be in proximity to others again. A crushed ride on the tube will feel life affirming and they’ll want to go to as many parties, theatres and restaurants as possible. They’ll buy 50 pairs of new shoes and adore dressing with the concept of some audience. They’ll relish the buzz and gossip of being in an office again.

And there will be everything inbetween. They are all valid responses. I think I’m towards the not-going back end. I can’t bear the thought of resuming commuting to Milton Keynes on the M4. I don’t want to be getting up at 5am to get trains to meetings in London. I’ll enjoy a couple of face to face conferences a year, but not the necessity of attending a stream of them.

Consider your own response on this range. And this applies to education also. Educators and learners will have similar attitudes. Some will want to be back on campus, in lectures and seminars, immersed in the spontaneity and bristle of face to face contact. Others will feel that the shift has now been made, and with it, a number of freedoms and a potential new way of teaching and learning to be explored. Inbetween most will want some of the benefits of online and the informal interaction of face to face.

This all presents a set of issues for institutions to grapple with. As I said all of these responses are valid, so insisting only one reaction will be accommodated is likely to lead to upheaval – staff or students will go elsewhere. How do they then accommodate this? The Hyflex model? The ‘take it or leave it’ approach? Diversification in the market place? A set of complex options to choose from?

The online pivot can be argued to have propelled online learning to centre stage and accelerated its uptake in higher ed by several years. But perhaps more significantly is the manner in which it will force flexibility on the sector, in terms of learners and staff. I mean, I’m not naive I know there will be the usual heavy handed approach from many institutions demanding on campus attendance, but flexibility will be the longer term trend.

The tech futures in 2000AD

So, confession time – I seem to be regressing to childhood in lockdown. As a kid I used to get the sci-fi comic 2000AD every week. I had numbers 1 to about 450, but when I went to uni my mum gave them away to the boy scouts, saying “you didn’t want them did you?” When I tell you Issue 2 (the first to feature Judge Dredd) sells for about £600 on Ebay you can appreciate this is still kinda raw.

I’ve bought a few of the collections and graphic novels over the past couple of years. Then I got issue 1 as a birthday present and this prompted me to casually start buying the odd job lot on Ebay. It’s kind of fun to do a bit of collecting again. But the other day I was lying on the sofa, listening to Echo and The Bunnymen on vinyl and reading a paper issue of 2000AD. I was basically 13 years old again. I could intellectualise it, and I don’t think it’s _just_ nostalgia, but I’ve decided not to analyse this too much, it’s lockdown, anything goes.

Two things about 2000AD still hold up – the Britishness of it, standing against the dominance of the US comic book superhero, and the moral ambiguity. The most famous character is Judge Dredd who is both someone we root for and are appalled by (although Strontium Dog is probably my favourite). He is a lesson in what happens when you give police too much authority and allow fascist rule. This is explored in stories like America, and in a couple of recent issues that use Dredd tangentially to comment on the gig economy and private health insurance. But he’s also a hero, and you’re on his side, say when he’s fighting a T-Rex in the Cursed Earth. Garth Ennis argues that US comic book writers didn’t put their heroes in these situations, although some of that darkness is present in more recent outings.

Some of those 1970s/80s issues don’t always hold up – women tend to be drawn rather sexualised, and there are a fair few racial stereotypes (black, Jewish, Mexican), but on the other hand characters like Halo Jones gave an early feminist sci-fi hero, and there has been good diversity and representation across stories.

Anyway, to try and make this relevant, one of the recurring themes of 2000AD is our relationship with technology. Ro-Busters and the ABC Warriors showcase the moral ambiguity of how we treat sentient robots, in Rogue Trooper companions live on in microchips, there are omnipotent surveillance tools in Dredd’s MegaCity One and in Robo-Hunter a planet of robots thinks humans can’t be real because they’re supposed to be superior.

If your childhood reading shapes your adult attitudes then I wish more ed tech entrepreneurs had read 2000AD instead of Iron Man when they were young. Maybe then they’d be less inclined to view tech as a universal beneficial force and more inclined to consider it’s relationship with people. Take a look at this breathless TechCrunch piece about the ed tech companies that are going to show universities how to do online education (again). I mean, wouldn’t a dose of the grungy, messy, dirty tech of 2000AD have done them some good in their formative years?

The joy of the Between the Chapters podcast

I blogged a while ago that Clint Lalonde organised an incredible community audiobook project, with different people reading a chapter of the 25 Years of Ed Tech book. Laura Pasquini got in touch over the summer suggesting hosting a podcast series that accompanied the audiobook. The podcast series, Between the Chapters, also focuses on one chapter, with different guests discussing a chapter, which is then released every week, with the audiobook chapter on Monday and the podcast on Thursday.

As an author it has been fascinating to listen to the podcasts. Whether it’s Clint and Bonnie Stewart reminiscing about the early days of blogs, Jessie Stommel raging about the concept of scaffolding or Lee Skallerup Bessette taking a deep dive into aspects of video, it is always fascinating.

There are several things I’ve really come to appreciate about this series. Firstly, the generosity of the guests both in terms of giving up their time, but also in their kindness about my chapter. Many of the guests are far more knowledgeable on the topic than I am (for instance it was great to have Mark Guzdial who was the first person I saw talk about wikis, guest on that episode). I am reasonably knowledgeable about ed tech across the board but as an author you have to accept that there will be elements (at least in a broad coverage book) where other people always know more.

Secondly, one of the claims in the book is that ed tech suffers from a kind of historical amnesia. The collection of people reminiscing about their experiences creates a form of oral history which is engaging and useful. If the book does nothing else other than act as a springboard for these accounts then it has gone far beyond my original aim.

Lastly, it has made me reflect on the nature of a book. We are accustomed to be recipients, or consumers of books. But that is changing in the internet years – we have fan fiction, social media interaction with the authors, open textbooks which can be adapted and forums dedicated to books, authors characters. These are all ways in which a book becomes more open – I like to think of the book now as an invitation to discuss, rather than an endpoint of the topic.

Clint, Laura and I did a podcast reflecting on some of this at the halfway point. We have also submitted a session for OER21/Domains conference so, if accepted, come along to that and hear how the process has been. I think it’s an interesting model for other textbooks, but it requires open licensing to get off the ground.

The tyranny of the timetable

“06553 (469) 24-11-1986 Passenger Bulletin Board (timetable) at the Railway Station at San Pablo, Laguna, Philippines.” by express000 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Scheduling and the creation of timetables is a fantastically complex task in the world of increasing degree options. But it is also one of those things we take for granted, and don’t question its implications. James Clay wrote about creating more flexible, smart timetables that adapt to student needs, but even this has the lecture/class as an assumption.

It has struck me during the pivot how much the lecture is still the default model, and the effort has largely gone in to shifting this online. This would seem to me a missed opportunity for a number of reasons (many pedagogic), one of which is that it recreates the tyranny of the timetable. One of the consequences is that inter/multidisciplinary study is necessarily restricted. While there are agreed electives and joint honours, these are tightly controlled because otherwise the complexity of timetabling escalates rapidly.

There are frequent calls to increase multidisciplinary thinking, research, skills and teams to solve complex problems in health, crime, climate change, etc. Yet the ability to realise these skills is limited by restrictions we are busily recreating in online learning. This has been exacerbated during the pandemic when face to face institutions have been attempting to limit cross-bubble transfer of cohorts.

If, however, you embrace more asynchronous study modes then, logistically, all combinations become possible. It may not be appropriate to have all of these as there are prerequisites, and considerations about students being adequately prepared, but the primary limitation is no longer just a practical one based on physical limitations. The Open Programme at the OU allows for students to create their own pathways through our largely independent modules, which can be studied in sequence or simultaneously, because they are not attempting to align a rich matrix of synchronous events. This also gives power and agency to students rather than these choices being determined by an excel spreadsheet.

I appreciate that all HEIs won’t become asynchronous distance ed providers, but now that we’ve had to rethink education provision, simply replicating the lecture model with its inherent limitations would be a shame, and multidisciplinary richness would be one casualty.

Like an extinct fish: January review


Seeing as January seemed to last about a year, I may as well do a review of themes over it as if it was an end of year review. I may attempt one of these at the end of every month with the same headings.

Highlight: I sent the complete draft manuscript of my book Metaphors of Ed Tech off to the publisher, Athabasca University Press

Teaching: In IET under the tireless direction of my colleague Leigh-Anne Perryman we continue to develop Microcredentials for the FutureLearn platform. We have a new one, Online Teaching: Accessibility and Inclusive Learning, starting in March which joins these as part of our online learning suite: Online Teaching: Creating Courses for Adult Learners; Online Teaching: Evaluating and Improving Courses; Teacher Development: Embedding Mental Health in the Curriculum

Theme: If there is a theme to January in higher ed and ed tech in general, I think it is best summarised as ‘Pandemic fatigue’. This is manifest in several ways – tired of all the conferences and journal call for papers looking at lessons of the pandemic; exhausted that it is still going on; frustrated that much of the initial empathy has gone and now it’s just workload; frighteningly inured to governmental incompetence. It’s January, it’s dark and miserable (in the UK anyway) and it’s just going on and on and on.

Lowlight: Related to the above, I think I felt overwhelmed this month more than any time in my 26 years at the OU. I also think I just wasn’t very good at my job. If your workload is 130% and your capacity is hovering around 70% it doesn’t take long to feel overwhelmed.

Vinyl highlight: Purchasing records is my retail therapy, don’t judge me. In keeping with the general melancholia of the month I have been listening to a LOT of Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co/Jason Molina. I particularly relished the box set of Love and Work with natty postcards, plectrum and letter.

Book: I read Samantha Weinberg’s A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth in a day. It’s a rollicking good yarn, full of interesting characters and who can fail to the love the coelacanth, the fish that just carried on doing its thing when everyone thought it was extinct (insert your own educational metaphor here).

Distance ed lite


Now that we are into the second semester of this academic year, with nearly all higher ed teaching taking place completely online, and many students studying from home, we are in effect seeing a nation of distance learners.

I know educators are working very hard to keep the process going, and don’t want to criticise anyone, but from things I’ve heard, I thought ‘d suggest some things that can be done fairly easily which will help students enormously. It is unrealistic to expect face to face providers to pivot online and to be operating with the same distance ed provision of a specialised provider like the OU. What needs to be developed effectively is a form of distance ed lite that doesn’t require a complete shift to the distance model, but provides some of the benefits for the learners. None of what follows is resource free, particularly in terms of time, but neither does it require a complete institutional overhaul. Here’s my list of some examples that might help:

  • Get resources/courses/assessments posted early – a greater element of organisation falls to the students when studying at a distance so they need as much information as early as possible to help them plan. 2am the night before is not helpful.
  • Ensure reading lists are online or open access – when students can’t access the physical library, a lengthy reading list of physical books housed there is just irritating and if you expect them to buy them, costly and elitist.
  • Assessment rubrics – conducting new types of assessment (eg prolonged open book exams/essays) is difficult for students and it really helps to know how they will be marked. Vague instructions such as ‘give a brief account’ or ‘you can include this if you wish’ are confusing. Let the know where marks will be given and how many.
  • Assessment feedback – when operating at a distance the feedback given on assignments becomes much more significant in learner progression. Give detailed feedback and also positive comments as well as areas for improvement.
  • Don’t underestimate how much informal information you provided face to face – for example, it may seem that you give a presentation on exam tips every year, and providing the powerpoint is sufficient, but you probably provide a lot of clarification and extra points in that presentation which won’t be clear to the distance students.
  • Use polls/interactive tools in place of asking for verbal responses – this is especially true in large lectures. In a lecture hall someone may stick their hand up and you can have dialogue but that might be less likely online. In addition using tools like Vevox and PollEverywhere are useful ways to break up a lecture and add interaction.
  • Clarity, clarity, clarity – not only is it more easy to get the wrong end of the stick when you’re studying at a distance, it’s also more frustrating. However much clarity you think you provide in instructions, double it and add some more.

And institutions need to ensure that educators have the time and support to implement these actions. Fairly simple tweaks can make a big difference to students.

Death Star vs Storm Trooper investment

Let us put aside the whole being evil and blowing up planets part of the Empire for now (although, admittedly that is a large part of their brand), and simply focus on the most efficient use of resources. Imagine you are Chief Imperial Budget Setter for the Empire.

Over Christmas I rewatched the Star Wars movies. And boy, do those Empire guys not learn the lesson about centralisation of resources. Three times they create an epic planet destroyer only to have it blown up by someone pressing the ‘Destroy Death Star’ shiny button. There has been some good work on the economics of the Death Star and Rebel Alliance. But what came to mind when I was watching the films was the legendary poor aim of all Storm Troopers. They even joke about it in the Mandalorian.

So, let’s imagine you are that Chief Budget setter. The Death Star would apparently cost $7.7 Octillion per day to run (think of all the energy for all those light bulbs and sliding doors). Apparently an octillion has 27 zeros (48 here in Britain), so it’s a big number. And that’s per day?! What do you get for this outlay? Well, if it doesn’t get blown up, you get a very powerful symbol of dominance, an effective planet destroyer and you also gain clarity – you know where the money goes and can channel resources that way. Let’s assume that they manage to build one that doesn’t have a disastrous flaw for a moment, and consider if that is the best use of resources?

How much would it cost to give storm troopers really good shooting training? It is reckoned there are about 1.1 Billion stormtroopers. So how much would it cost to train them all to a standard where they could reliably hit a barn door with a banjo? Well, it costs £130,000 to train a Royal Marine, who we can assume are pretty good at shooting. My calculations mean that would cost £13 trillion or about $18 trillion (maybe though you just need to give them better designed helmets). That is a lot of money, but considerably less than the running and construction costs of the Death Star.

Would it be a better spend of resources though? In the Star Wars story the answer would seem to be yes. The story would have been snuffed out right at the start by an accurate shot at any of our heroes. And while the Death Star carries more potent symbolism and is likely to drive fear into more people, it is also a one action solution. There may be problems for which “blow up the planet” is not the best solution. Well trained StormTroopers give you this flexibility.

So, yes, of course it’s a metaphor. In the online pivot there may be a temptation to reach for a Death Star type solution – centralised, technological solution. But a more effective solution may be the StormTrooper investment, ie developing staff skills and enthusiasm for online learning. But with fewer lasers.

Creativity space


One of the claims I make in the metaphors book I’m about to send off is that they provide a much needed route for creativity for practitioners in learning technology. I think this is important for two reasons: 1) it lets us think about ed tech in different ways; 2) people working in learning tech are creative people, often from other disciplines, who need some release from the daily grind of releases, roadmaps, support, etc. As Jim Groom likes to argue, the original open web was a creative space, and we can all do with a bit of creativity in our approach to teaching.

So, it’s rather ironic for me that the writing of this book has demonstrated how much creativity is under pressure in the current context. I booked a not unreasonable 15 days study leave to complete the book. But, like so many people, I have a number of different roles at the OU. Each of these needed attention, with the result that of my 15 allocated days, I managed just two devoted to the book.

Part of the reason I write books is because I like the process of writing books. In the past I’ve taken myself off for a week or two to somewhere romantically windswept and hunkered down in a creative burst, accompanied only by my dog and big box of wine. This is a productive way to work, I wrote my last two books pretty much in two week sprints like this. But perhaps just as importantly, it provides an antidote to the less creative, more quotidian aspects of the job. These aspects are important and necessary, but I like to balance them out. But this recent attempt at writing illustrated just how dominant they are now. This transformed the writing process from something I relish to yet another task I needed to fit in around meetings. This feels like both a personal and systemic failure, and in pandemic time it’s rather done me in. Higher education shouldn’t become a system designed to eradicate all traces of joy.

I know how whiny and privileged this sounds, compared with people with horrendous working conditions (eg imagine working for Arise), my life is luxurious. But it’s something I hear from lots of colleagues across all universities. We know meetings, reporting, quality monitoring, etc are all important, but people need some space for creativity, for their benefit, students and the institution.

Why use metaphors in ed tech


I’m just about to complete a new book, Metaphors of Ed Tech. It’s sort of an accompaniment to 25 Years of Ed Tech (although entirely stand-alone) – it’s been argued that stories and metaphors are the two main modes that humans use to make sense of the world. So 25 Years was the story mode, and this is the metaphor mode. In the intro I set out why I think metaphors are an important way to think about ed tech.

The online pivot has highlighted for me the paucity of models we have around online education. It has been framed as a deficit model of the lecture and that’s about it. I feel that offering a range of metaphors that explore positive and negative aspects of ed tech is worth developing. Metaphor provides a means of considering ed tech that does not rely on a direct comparison with the existing model (it’s also kinda fun).

But more significantly it is because ed tech now, particularly since the pandemic, plays a central role in education. Ed tech is a multi-billion dollar industry and the role of companies and technology will have an influence on how education is realised in the coming years. The future of education and change within the sector are nearly always couched in terms of responding to the challenges proposed by technology, developing skills in students to function in a digital society and economy, and implementing technology or associated business models. The manner in which ed tech is framed and presented is often manufactured to suit the needs of those with a vested interest eg disruption. Understanding and thinking about ed tech, its implications, issues and context will be essential in shaping how it is used and our relationship to it. Metaphors are a means of achieving this, and in this chapter I want to set out why I feel they are important, and therefore why they can be significant in our relationship with ed tech.

Metaphor allows us to reason in a different manner about technology. By using a metaphor, particularly an unusual one, we can come to see different aspects of something, which can challenge our original thinking. Through metaphor we can think creatively when considering ed tech. I would argue that much of our relationship with ed tech is a quotidian, pragmatic one. A practical approach to technology is fundamental, but there is also room for  imagination and even playfulness when we consider it. Lots of practitioners who work in learning technology are worn down by the grind of it all, and metaphor allows some space for creativity, and that should be encouraged.

Blog review 2020

Bryan Mathers captured the feeling of many of us

At the end of last year I wondered if I was losing my blogging mojo. I had a plan to try and kick start it in 2020 with a 25 Years of OU series, reflecting on my 25th Year of working at the Open University. I completed this just in time for the end of the year. It was ludicrously self-indulgent and of little interest to anyone else, but now that’s it complete I am fond of it as a record of my own career at one institution.

But, like everything else, my blogging plans were interrupted by Covid. When the implications of the pandemic became apparent for higher education, the role of online learning became central. I blogged my first post on the online pivot on March 9th, and over the hectic few months that followed, I wrote a further 22 posts on the pivot. These started out mainly offering support (through some drop-in sessions), resources and advice. As the year progressed, all the old complaints about online learning that you thought had faded away around the time of Brit pop were dusted off and presented as hot takes by people who had just realised it was a thing. So I spent some time railing against these.

Overall though, 2020 once again illustrated to me the value in having your own space and identity. When the pandemic hit, lots of colleagues in IET were inundated with requests for help. The OU itself would put in place a number of formal responses, but these things inevitably take a bit of time to get coordinated. In the interim having my own platform meant that I could (with the kind help of a number of colleagues who joined the drop-in sessions, or coordinated OpenLearn content) undertake some quick and dirty informal support. Online learning (and what was effectively distance education) is after all the Open University’s area of expertise.

This meant that I blogged more this year than I have in a long time, with 71 posts. There were 75,628 visitors and 604,427 visits. The most popular post was that initial one on the pivot.