What the ALT survey tells us about the online pivot

The Association of Learning Technology conducts an annual survey. This is always a useful tool to track learning technologists (and their institutions) attitudes towards different technology. This year though they had a special section on Covid, and the results of that are worth noting. They provide an interesting historical snapshot, at the end of 2020. It will be informative to see how we feel about them this time next year.

Here are the key findings:

  • 87% of Members feel Learning Technology is more positively perceived.
  • Infrastructure and technology has won most investment over recruitment and CPD (with 53% reporting a reduction in permanent posts funding)
  • Learning tech budgets often increased (45%) but 41% reported no change.
  • 58% of respondents felt the changes were sustainable
  • Wellbeing has been impacted as Members have supported over 90% of provision online, although 70% responded positively to the statement “I have felt cheerful and in good spirits”
  • 67% of policies relating to use of Learning Technology have been revised, or new ones created.

There are a few interpretations and take-aways from these findings. Firstly, I think many learning technologists have felt some sense of vindication over the past year. A sort of “see, I’ve been telling you this stuff was important for years!”. Hence the finding that they feel learning technology is more positively perceived and many felt in good spirits (I’m assuming this didn’t mean gin). It might be understandable but the investment in infrastructure perhaps points to a ‘get me a technology to fix the problem’ mentality, rather than the longer term fix of increased CPD. A reduction in staff in these posts seems very counter productive. The finding that many felt this approach was sustainable I found interesting, and perhaps contrary to the view I’d formed viewing online discussion.

I think revisiting these next year will provide a good comparison. The data is openly available also, so you could use it as a comparison point for such a survey in your own institution also.

Rising – March review


Highlight: In a time when fun is in short supply, it was a ball to be a guest on Terry Greene and Anne-Marie Scott’s podcast “Check the O.L.: Liner Notes from Groundbreaking Online Learning”. I discussed 1999’s Open University course, You, Your Computer and the Net (which I’ve mentioned on here several times). With apologies for my audio quality, it’s a good chat, and we each choose a song from 1999 also. As well as being an informal, friendly listen, what Terry and Anne-Marie are doing here aligns with the aim of 25 Years of Ed Tech, and the accompanying Between the Chapters podcast, namely that there is a recent history to ed tech, which is worth exploring.

Teaching: I didn’t have much to do with this, but as the nominal head of Curriculum in IET, it was great to see colleagues launch the latest microcredential. This one is Online Teaching: Accessibility and Inclusive Learning. Accessibility and inclusion is something the OU’s distance ed approach has been developed to address, with a high percentage of students declaring a disability. Now that there is an increased shift to online learning, ensuring course design meets the needs of all learners is something a lot of educators will be seeking to improve.

Theme: Now that lockdown is coming to an end – I have my first vaccination appointment, local travel restrictions have been lifted in Wales, people are talking about face to face meetings again – I am mostly filled with optimism, but there’s also this sense of being in a grey zone. Having to relearn socialisation (I mean, I was never very good anyway), getting to grips with what has changed, etc – it’s like people who got killed when we knew the war was ending or the Berlin wall was going to come down. There’s still peril in this interim period. The theme then is negotiating these end days of one regime while we’re unsure what comes next.

Lowlight: For reasons I don’t know, but which I believe to be valid, the OU had to cancel the implementation of the Associate Lecturer (what most of you know as tutors) contract. The contract has been planned for a long time, and something that the OU should be proud of – when the rest of the sector is moving towards casualisation it would put part-time tutors on a contract as permanent members of staff. For many of our tutors this means the difference between being able to get a mortgage, feeling secure and making plans. The reasons are, I think, tied up with the implementation of the necessary IT system rather than any shying away from the contract itself, and it will be implemented eventually. But after a year when all the staff at the OU have pulled together, and Associate Lecturers have provided such valuable support to students, it led to a very sudden change in feeling around the institution. This had echoes of the OU crisis of 2018 with distrust and a sense of betrayal. I don’t have any particular insight on it or any inside knowledge, but seeing this division and the sense of anger and despair amongst AL colleagues was a low point for sure. Hopefully there can be a resolution to this soon, but even if there is, trust and love take a long to build and are not an infinite resource.

Vinyl highlight: Finally the Sault albums that came out last year – Untitled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is) – got a proper vinyl release. These are both amazing – it’s kinda greedy to release not one double album that is the best thing that year, but two. They have that quality of being both completely current and also seeming like they could have been released any time over the past 40 years.

Book: I usually opt for non-fiction but this month I have loved David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow. It’s the tale of Charlie who leaving school after his GCSEs falls in with an amateur theatre crowd, in order to pursue a relationship with a girl he meets accidentally. It is laugh out loud funny (someone should invent an acronym for that), with so many apt metaphors and similes on each page you feel rather punch drunk at the end. It also perfectly captures the sort of non-existence familiar to many of us who attended comprehensives, and had no clue what we were doing or wanted to be.

Educators are not risk averse and complacent


I know the article was clickbait, but this THE piece, entitled “Risk-averse academy needs to get on board with new tech” was a classic of a sub-genre that has been around for at least 30 years. It contained all the requisite elements of the “why are educators stuck in the past (unlike me)?” articles. These are:

  • Based entirely on a small set of anecdotes – this one is based on using VR for a small group of students. Issues of scalability, access, privacy, replicability are too uncool to bother with.
  • Uncritically embedded in start-up culture and language – the “cool factor was off the charts”, “Experimenting with truly immersive VR is mind-blowing”, “A company like the Glimpse Group can create just about any scenario we can imagine”, “Lyron Bentovim, CEO of the New York-based Glimpse Group, which is a king among start-ups in the realm of VR.”
  • Sweeping generalisation – “I’ve heard time and again how university IT departments invest in technology, from software and hardware to new apps, but then grow frustrated because faculty don’t use it”. Really? I’ve heard the opposite, that educators want to use new tech but are often blocked by IT or admin.
  • Ignorance of any history – “We can’t keep teaching the same things in the same ways.” I’d suggest taking a look at maybe a recent history of ed tech to see how educators have been innovating all this time. Even the example cited (VR and AR) is being widely deployed. For example, my colleague Fridolin Wild would be surprised to hear that no-one in HE is using these technologies.
  • Education hasn’t changed in X years – “the business model of higher education hasn’t changed much over the years, even though the wider world is changing at a rapid-fire pace”. This trope is as old as the number of years for which education is deemed not to have changed. As I’ve discussed before, this is only true if you don’t look very closely, and wilfully ignore all the change.
  • Insulting other educators – this article really goes for it on this one: “faculty and administrators alike are by and large risk-averse and generally complacent”; “dear professors, why are you so hesitant to learn something new? You are educators. Don’t you also love learning? Don’t you love challenging yourself to think in new and different ways?” This is certainly a bold approach by THE to insult their core readership, with an article that basically says “why are you so shit?” (and they must take the blame here, the article will have been through an editor who could have suggested tempering the language). As Benjamin Litherland commented on Twitter:
  • A focus on the elite – the author is from Fordham University, a prestigious, wealthy HEI in New York. As I’ve argued before, elitism is not innovation.
  • Over-simplification of context – the blame for a perceived lack of technology adoption is placed on the fuddy-duddy ways of educators. Apart from there being many educators who use all manner of tech in intriguing ways for the benefits of their students (maybe check out an ALT-C conference for example), there are even more who are hampered in doing so by institutional constraints. These can be excess workloads, tenure and reward structures, excessive administration, or barriers to innovation that make any attempt to play with new tech a distant dream glimpsed from under a mountain of quality assurance, business case and risk assessment forms.

I am being a bit unkind – I genuinely admire the enthusiasm of the author, and I bet the students really did enjoy it, so by all means others can learn from this experiment, I think VR has a lot to offer, even if it’s just making learning more playful and providing different experiences. And to be fair we all do know academics who don’t regard any of this digital stuff as worthwhile and can be very conservative. It is the conclusion that we should a) fully embrace start-up culture and b) that educators are incapable of innovation and using tech that grates.

[UPDATE – The Times Higher doubled down on this with a piece the next week which started with ““If you dropped a surgeon from the 16th century into a modern-day operating theatre, they would be astounded at how medicine had advanced,” a former vice-chancellor explained to me recently. “If you dropped a 16th-century academic into a modern-day university, they would wonder why so little had changed.”]

Wellness washing in higher ed

Created by the Historic Tale Construction Kit (thanks to Fi Daisy G for sending the link – I saw the gag on Twitter but couldn’t find the original so recreated it)

When the OU was going through its crisis in 2018, staff were suffering because of unrealistic demands, and in witnessing the institution they loved be undermined. Around this time we all received an email informing us that senior management were aware of the mental stress, and here were a bunch of resources on Resilience to help us cope. The implication of course was not that they should stop destroying the university, but that we should develop some more grit to cope with it. Let’s say it wasn’t well received.

Thankfully things at the OU have changed a lot since then and it is now a much more sympathetic environment. But this was the first time I’d experienced what might be termed “Wellness Washing”. Like greenwashing and openwashing, wellness washing is taking something that is generally perceived as good and desirable and cynically deploying it to one’s benefit.

Fast forward to the pandemic and this type of approach seems abundant in higher ed. A version of the meme I posted above did the rounds recently, but it’s about the fourth such one I’ve seen shared widely, which indicates it strikes a chord. They all suggest that higher ed doesn’t really want to grapple with the fundamental issues of mental health and wellbeing, but instead wants to use the sticking plaster of seminars and resources. Something has then been done, but you know, nothing has really been done. It seems like the Neoliberal Advice Bot is sometimes too close to the bone:

For instance, in a meeting the other day, I suggested that if we accepted staff were struggling because of the pandemic, and maybe operating at sub-optimal rate, then we could reduce the research income generation targets for this year. How everyone chuckled.

I genuinely appreciate that it’s complex, some staff still want to develop career paths and don’t want to slacken off, the institutions need to maintain finances and there are external pressures such as the REF. In addition, the wellness seminars are themselves often very useful for people, and it at least makes talking about these issues permissible. But they’re not the solution and all of us need to find creative ways to balance the different pressures on institutions and staff, otherwise I fear there may be a ‘stress debt’ which will impact later on, particularly in campus unis that have switched to online and been in emergency mode for a year. Then I fear that no amount of Wellness Wednesday emails will help.

Woolf University – whither the blockchain?


Some of you may remember a few excited announcements back in 2018 about Woolf University, a startup that was, and I paraphrase, going to blockchain the shit out of higher ed. The founder described it as “Uber for students, AirBnB for Professors”, thereby combining two terrible business models in one unholy mess.

David Gerard noted that by 2019 they had quietly dropped the whole blockchain tag, no longer describing themselves as The First Blockchain University. Founder Joshua Broggi had stated at the outset that “We literally could not do what we are doing without a blockchain,” so presumably it still figures in their system.

Looking at their site now, it’s hard to see what they do. They seem to offer courses from their own made up Ambrose College, and a couple of other institutions. Courses cost around $1500 each and offer personalised tuition with weekly video calls (attempting to replicate the Oxbridge seminar model). There are no student testimonials I can see. They haven’t tweeted anything since last October. In April 2020 the founder tweeted that “More than 20,000 universities have been forced online by COVID-19, and that has put Woolf in a unique position. So, after two years in development, Woolf University is now opening its platform to non-profit colleges and universities.”

I’m not sure what the ‘unique position’ is here, but it begins to look as though it may be a pivot to providing a platform for online learning rather than the world changing university model. That sounds kinda familiar from MOOC days.

Maybe Woolf are busy developing stuff and are about to launch in a new phase. I understand that this takes time and effort. But I would like to propose that when journalists run puff pieces on the latest thing that is going to kill the university, they are legally obliged to follow it up in 3 years time to see how it is all actually going. Maybe some more sober pieces might actually be useful in understanding how ed tech should, and should not, be implemented.

Welcome to dial-a-view – February review

Following on from last month’s hugely successful (ie completely unread) monthly review, here is my February one using the same categories.

Highlight: Puppy! After going through the home improvement and the cutting your own hair stage, we entered the puppy stage of lockdown. Welcome Posey! Not very work related I know, but come on, it’s a puppy.

Teaching: With my colleagues I completed a 40 page document document for the Periodic Quality Review exercise at the OU, for the Open Programme which I chair. This takes place every 6 years for all qualifications. It’s a lot of work, but a good opportunity to reflect and suggest improvements. I’m always impressed by the professionalism of staff in such complex undertakings. It’s the sort of administrative task that people moan about as an example of universities spending too much money on admin, but then complain if such quality assurance isn’t undertaken.

Theme: If the January theme was ‘Pandemic fatigue’, then February was “A new hope”. It got sunny, work settled down a bit with book out of the way, there is a route hopefully out of lockdown, I got a puppy.

Lowlight: I gave one of the keynotes at the annual H818 student conference. This course is part of our MAODE, and ends with students presenting at an online conference (we were doing them before they were fashionable) about research they have undertaken on a topic of their choice. It is always a real delight and produces high quality output. The reason it was a lowlight was because this year’s was the last one – as I’ve blogged before, the MAODE was a victim of the curriculum review at the OU. It’s a shame to see such an innovative, successful course fall victim to some poor decision making, but I have been powerless to prevent it. Anyway, my thanks to Simon Ball who hosts the conference every year and the students who have made it such a success.

Vinyl highlight: I was a big fan of Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump when it came out in 2000. It was sort of a concept album about alcoholic robots and mining far off planets, but really it spoke to a feeling of technology disappointment and ennui (it’s been listed as one of the saddest albums). It was rerecorded by Jason Lytle on a wooden piano for this anniversary, and that adds a plaintive, lockdown overlay to the technology dystopia.

Book: Candacy Taylor’s Overground Railroad uses the history of the Green Book (the travel guide, not the crap film) to trace racial issues in the US. It’s extremely well researched, and following the annual publication of the guide is an ideal (ahem) vehicle to trace this history. Taylor makes a powerful connection to modern incarceration rates and economic red-lining. It’s a powerful, multi-faceted and intriguing take on modern US history.

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.