How edtech should react to the next Big Thing

WILD PIKACHU APPEARS!

This week has all been about Pokemon Go. Inevitably there are pieces about Pokemon Go for education. This happens with every technology that makes a popular breakthrough. I’m not going to comment on Pokemon here, I’m sure it’s fun, and it does raise lots of interesting sociological questions about Augmented Reality and physical space intersection. Instead though, after a good discussion on Twitter last night, I thought I’d look for more general principles regarding how educational technologists should react when the same thing happens again in three months time with some new piece of technology. Off the top of my head, here are my thoughts on what to do when the next “Future of learning” innovation arrives.

Pick the narrative battle carefully – a common reaction (well from me anyway) is to be dismissive. MOOCs, learning analytics, augmented reality – none of these are new. But just saying “it’s not new” doesn’t mean it’s not relevant, and can make you look a bit pompous. Sometimes though there are battles around narrative that are worth fighting. I bemoaned this the other day about the manner in which MOOCs are now seen as the first generation of online learning. The narrative here is worth defending not just for accuracy, but because the new narrative has implicit intentions: to establish the tech industry as innovators, not education; to promote commercialisation of education as a result; to control the narrative and therefore direction of development.

Extract what is actually interesting for learning – I feel there is a tendency to focus on surface characteristics, and rush off to replicate those. Instead, take a moment to reflect and think what is actually interesting about this development, and why it has people engaged. Then map that onto what we want to do with education (developing a generic “Aims of education” scoring sheet might be a useful thing here). It may be that, despite some surface similarities, once you do this, there isn’t much that is relevant for education. In which case, be prepared to ignore it.

Recognise the opportunity – while it is often the case that the things that make the headlines are not new (museums have been playing with AR for years), they do represent a breakthrough moment. There is no point decrying this, and saying “it should’ve been me (or this project over here)”. This sudden attention means things you might have wanted to do are now possible. Which brings me on to the next point.

Be experimental – the very worst thing to do is simply ape the commercial solution (hello MOOCs). So, just sticking Pokemon in your library might get some people through the door, but it won’t make them engage, and they’ll probably just leave litter in your nice atrium. Use the attention the new buzz has created to do different things that only universities can do.

I’m sure you will have other factors, but whatever they are, taking this higher level approach to every new technology will allow us to engage meaningfully, ignore hype and develop useful ed tech. I’m off now to capture a Jigglypuff in my garden.

Brexit silver linings

the world through one rose tinted lense

Ok, this is my attempt to get out of the pit with this one, and find some positives. I don’t suggest all of these things will happen, but they might, as a result of the Brexit decision. They largely arise from the fact that it has been a disaster. Within hours the country was in financial and constitutional crisis, there was a Tour de France of backpedalling from Leave campaigners on their promises, it became apparent there was no plan and Britain had become the laughing stock of the world. By lunchtime after the victory the Brexit dream was dead, making it a contender for the shortest lived revolution in history. It now looks as though Johnson will seek a Norway deal. My guess is this will end up costing as much as we currently give and involve free movement of labour. Which pretty much makes the whole thing a monumental waste of time, but from the crisis we’re in now, a monumental waste of time begins to look like a pretty good deal.

So what might be the positives then? Here’s my attempt at happy face:

Closer EU union – rather than emboldening many exit feelings across Europe, I think they will now have a concrete example to look at and be able to say “that was a disaster, maybe this being in Europe thing isn’t so bad”.

The US is saved from Trump – in the US they may have thought there was no way a populist campaign based on lies, and targeting immigrants could be successful. Now they know it can and so can learn how to combat it.

A retreat from racism – there have been reports of an increase in racism as those elements feel emboldened by the result. However, it’s possible that once people actually see it, they will feel repulsed by it and rather than seeing a rise in racism, we are actually witnessing its death rattle. Okay, maybe this one is wishful thinking.

Political engagement of the young – many young people have felt very upset by this result (my own daughter is very despondent), but I think it will be a defining moment for many of them. They have been betrayed by politicians who have blatantly lied and used their futures for their own ambition, so they will need to get engaged themselves.

The last hurrah of newspaper influence – many who voted leave are already feeling tricked by the newspapers that promised a bold new future. In the future, Brexit will become a by-word for being duplicitous with the public and people will be more wary.

Being nice – I have been deeply touched by the nice comments from people around the world, sympathising with us in the UK. As Jo Cox commented we have more in common than that which divides us, and certainly I have felt this. At the same time of course there have been very painful divides and we will need to work hard to repair these. But to be reminded of decent humanity is a good thing.

The end of Europe as a topic – this has been such a divisive, unnecessary campaign that I don’t think anyone will want to go near the subject of Europe as a political topic for a generation. This will hopefully mean the end of Farage, one of the most despicable political figures in the last 50 years.

Now, I know there is quite a lot of wishful thinking in the above, and there is no need to tell me about all the negative issues, I’m very aware of them. But in the spirit of trying to have a group hug, my challenge is to post a positive possible outcome in the comments. We’ve got the rest of the internet to be angry in.

Yours, in despair

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The unthinkable has happened and Britain has voted to leave the EU. The nation stared into the abyss last week and I had hoped that would be enough to make it pull back, but no, it seems that 52% of my fellow Brits decided the abyss looked just fine and plunged in. I feel for my European colleagues who work and live in the UK. They must feel very uncertain about their future now in a country that has shown itself to be so aggressively anti-European.

This is a personal post, I’m not going to dissect the campaigns or implications here. I feel lost. It is not just the decision itself, but what it has revealed about the country I live in. Every aspect of the Leave campaign has illustrated that Britain is now a place where you cannot feel any sense of belonging. It demonstrated that being openly racist was now a viable political tactic for the first time since the 1930s. It was anti-intellectual, as experts were widely dismissed in favour of slogans. It was distinctly Kafkaesque when a rich city banker and aristocrat talk about fighting the elite, when a Prime Minister hopeful proudly boasts “I don’t listen to experts”. It was post-truth, with deliberate lies told repeatedly and no rational argument or model proposed. It was selfish, with most young people wanting to Remain, the over 65s who will the least affected, voted to Leave.

As a liberal, academic who tries to do research gathering evidence with European colleagues, this is pretty much my anti-society. It feels very different to when your side doesn’t win in a general election. I could always understand, even if I didn’t agree with, those choices. But my country has just voted gleefully for hatred and economic ruin. What am I supposed to do with that fact?

There have been many casual nazi references thrown around in this campaign. But the similarities are horrible – right wing demagogues coming to power by blaming the current financial problems on immigrants and employing hate based tactics. No-one in Britain ever gets to ask again “How did Nazi Germany happen?” In The Drowned and the Saved, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi talks about letters he received from Germans. One of them seeks forgiveness, saying “Hitler appeared suspect to us, but decidedly the lesser of two evils. That all his beautiful words were falsehood and betrayal we did not understand at the beginning.” Levi replies angrily highlighting that Hitler’s intentions were always obvious. This sentiment will be expressed by the people who voted Leave in a few years time when the economy has worsened and things have lurched to the right too far even for them. “How could we have known we were being tricked?” they will cry. Yes, you were tricked, but only because you wanted to be. The facts were there but you chose to deliberately ignore them in favour of indulging self pity and rage. I will find it very difficult to forgive anyone who voted Leave for what they have done to this country and to my daughter’s future.

I know I should feel emboldened to fight on for the things I believe in, but at the moment I need to find personal tactics to get through it. This whole process has brought the full, boiling, rage of Brits to the surface and it’s been like living with YouTube commentators for the past few weeks. It has made me feel quite ill, and so I need to find tactics for dealing with the new reality, as the only thing I have at the moment is curling up in a ball in the corner. I’m taking a social media and news break for a while, I’ll walk my dog and try to tell my daughter that things will be ok.

Waking up on a Brexit morning

european-union-flags-olga, olga shulman lednichenko, lednichenko, lednichenko-olga, olgalednichenko, lednichenko-olya, olya lednichenko, IMGAES AND PHOTOS OLGA LEDNICHENKO

In order to get people to think through complex issues, one technique is to get them to envisage waking up the day after it has happened and imagining their feelings. Bizarrely, inexplicably, insanely, it seems that a British exit from Europe might actually be on the cards, so here is my attempt to imagine how I would feel on the morning of the 24th if that did occur. Note it is not an attempt to make reasoned argument (the Leave campaign seems largely post-rational and immune to any factual arguments anyway), but entirely a personal assessment. I think the emotions I would experience are as follows.

Anxiety – most observers seem agreed there will be a short to long term negative impact on the UK economy, with possibly an extra two years of austerity. After eight years of austerity, the thought of a deeper recession fills me with dread. In terms of universities we have just about accommodated the impact of fees, which has hit part-time study particularly hard. More uncertainty and lack of finance is unlikely to be a good thing. In addition a good deal of research funding comes from Europe, and although promises have been made to compensate for this, I feel the same money has been promised several times over, and in the end university research will be at the back of a long queue. I will also feel anxious about social cohesion – if we do enter a long, deep recession as a result of this national self-immolation, it will be difficult not to resent those who brought it upon us for no real gain.

Shame – I did my PhD as part of a European project and have been engaged with numerous research projects over the years. I collaborate and communicate with European colleagues on a regular basis. These interactions have been socially, culturally and intellectually enriching. I will feel a sense of shame that my country has chosen to abandon the European project.

Isolation – if you’re a large nation (the US, China) you don’t need to be part of a larger group. But generally it helps to be part of a collective social, economic, geographical group. Snubbing our local neighbours will make us more isolated in the world, as a nation. As an individual I feel that the campaign has not been one of project fear, but project anger. I’ve been dismayed by the casual racism, small minded mentality of many in the Leave camp (not all, there are justifiable reasons for being anti-EU). I will now feel trapped on a small island with angry people, grimly clutching their Tesco carrier bags and attempting to make a living by selling Royal Wedding souvenirs to each other. It doesn’t feel like a forward looking, progressive place to be.

Grief – like the end of a marriage there will be a sense of grief following the break-up. I am fully aware of the dubious history of Europe, but I do classify myself as a European. I like being with other Europeans. I appreciate that I am in a privileged position working in a university on joint research projects, so my experience is not the same as everyone else’s. Also I understand that the European Union isn’t devised for my entertainment. But in those European research projects is a microcosm of the grander European Project – people from different countries working on goals of joint interest, with shared values and celebrated differences. Whatever shape our relationships take with Europe following an exit, it will be much more difficult to realise this.

Of course Europe won’t disappear, I can still go on holiday there and attend conferences. But undeniably we will all wake up after a Brexit a lot less European. That is the point of it after all. And that fills me with sadness.

What’s in a name?

word

Yesterday I had a bit of a pedant tantrum, when following the announcement about FutureLearn MOOCs offering credit, Leeds Uni tweeted they were the first Russell Group university to offer credit for online courses. They deleted the tweet after I complained because online courses aren’t the same as MOOCs, and of course many universities have been offering online courses for credit for years. I fully appreciate it was the demands of twitter and communications that caused this, there wasn’t anything sinister in their intent, and I apologise if I seemed a bit grumpy about it. But it was the latest example of a move to conflate MOOCs and ‘online courses’ that has a number of negative effects. It’s not just historical pedantry that wants this clarification, there are other issues at stake also. Here are the implications of this confusion:

It’s disrespectful – say you’ve been creating innovative online courses for years. Suddenly all of this work is dismissed because MOOCs represent a year zero for online education, and therefore everything you have done previously cannot be counted.

It’s a landgrab – some of this confusion is accidental (as I believe the case was with the Leeds tweet), but in other cases it is more deliberate. By claiming that MOOCs invented online learning they look to be the inheritors of its future.

It underplays the role of universities – this quote from a piece in the Times Higher captures this I think:

“If we have learned nothing else from the move by universities worldwide to be part of the massive open online course (Mooc) movement, it is that education or research development can easily be shared without the need for time and place dependencies.”

The piece has the title “Moocs prove that universities can and should embrace online learning”. I mean, really? Universities have been embracing online learning for at least 15 years. And yet this view makes it seem that we needed those silicon valley types to make us notice the internet. This adds to the landgrab. Similarly FutureLearn’s Simon Nelson stated “our platform means that they can achieve meaningful qualifications whilst still being able to work”. This rather seems to downplay the 40 year history of the OU which was designed for that very purpose, and once again makes it appear as a MOOC invention.

It limits our options – if MOOCs and online courses are synonymous then MOOCs become the only way of doing online learning. Let’s not limit ourselves again, now that we’re just emerging from the VLE restrictions. You can see some of this in this NYT piece: “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought”.

This conflation of MOOC and online learning means that MOOC failures become the failure of all online learning, and MOOC future becomes the future of all online learning. It’s more important than that, so we shouldn’t cede the ground to lazy terminology. That’s why I’m pedantic about the use of the term. Or maybe I’m just pedantic.

[UPDATE]:
Lying in bed last night I remembered this post from Seth Godin. It pretty much encapsulates all my concerns above. He declares MOOCs to be the “1st generation of online learning”. Then he invents a solution to the problems of MOOCs, which is a fee based, small cohort course, based around assignments and group work. Now that sounds an awful lot like the type of elearning many universities have been doing for at least a decade, particularly at post-grad level. But that wouldn’t allow him to portray himself as a visionary, so all of that has to be dismissed. MOOCs were year zero, and now he’s making it better. What we do without gurus?

Appropriate use of MOOCs

cores

One of the unfortunate downsides of all the MOOC hype is that it pushed people into opposing camps – you either buy into it all or reject them absolutely. And of course, MOOCs are not going to kill every university, educate the whole world, liberate the masses. But they can be used for some purposes effectively.

Today the OU, FutureLearn and University of Leeds announced a mechanism by which you can gain credit for studying MOOCs and transfer this to count towards a degree. Getting this set up is the type of thing that just takes ages and lots of negotiation (we never cracked it with SocialLearn), so well done to all those involved.

Some will suggest this marks the beginning of the much heralded unbundling of higher education. But I am increasingly inclined to always resist big claims, and instead focus on more modest, realisable ones. I don’t think this model will appeal to everyone, and is unlikely to massively transform the university sector. But what it does allow is more flexibility in the higher education offering. One of the claims the OU has always made for OpenLearn, who are also working in accrediting learning, is that it helps smooth the transition into formal learning. For lots of learners, committing to a three year full time degree is off-putting. This was partly why the OU was invented in the first place. But even signing up for a course complete with fee commitment is a high threshold. MOOCs with a smaller accreditation fee offers a lower step down still.

I suggested a while back that MOOCs might offer a first year replacement, thus reducing some of the financial barriers. The OU itself has run programs where students can study with us for two years and then complete on another campus. More of these hybrid models in education is generally a good thing – students come in many different shapes and sizes now, and will have different needs. But loads of students still want the traditional, 3 year campus model. And that is the key – stop trying to replace one universal model with another one. It is less about blowing up the core and more about fraying the edges productively.

The role of policy in open ed

I was invited to give a talk at the Dept of Business Information and Skills for a meeting organised by ALT, on the role of policy in open education. I looked at OER policies at the institutional, regional and national level and open access policies. I argued that open policies are a good example of how policy can influence practice, and also some of the issues. But the same applies to other areas you might want to consider. The Open Flip I argued will be significant, and policy offers us a means of reallocating resources and encouraging new models, such as Open Library Humanities.

Putting these slides together was a good example of what I was talking about in my last post. Creating a new talk forced me to pull together the different strands on open policy that I have gathered over the past year. The slidedeck is below:

The new or reused keynote dilemma

James Clay wrote a post about ‘the half life of a keynote‘ recently in which he pondered how long you should keep giving the same talk for. I know people who always create a new talk, and people who give the same one for almost their entire careers. This year I decided I would create new talks for every keynote, so it’s something I’ve been thinking about. I think the initial reaction is that creating new talks is better. But now I’m through my new talk phase, I’m less convinced. To add to James’s conversation then, here are my pros and cons.

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The advantages of giving the same talk multiple times are:

You get better. As anyone who has seen me talk will attest, I’m not a great public speaker. Giving the same talk allows me to tighten it up, as the first version is often a bit rambling. You take bits out, strengthen other points, know which jokes work, etc. It’s a bit like a comedian going on tour, if you only give new talks each time then it is always the equivalent of the pre-tour show when material is being trialled, compared with the 15th night when it is finely honed.

People want that talk. I have given versions of my digital scholarship talk since 2011. I keep retiring it and then people ask “can you come and give that talk I saw, to my team”. It feels a bit like that group who had one hit in the 70s and every gig they play, people just want to hear the hit and not their electro jazz fusion material.

It saves time. This is not just me being lazy, but is a real consideration for people who have a substantive job. Creating a new talk can take a day, giving the talk takes at least a day out of your normal work, and if you don’t want to be rambling you will practice and refine the talk beforehand, which might be another day. That’s at least 3 days per talk. Most talks I give are unpaid or there is a small honorarium, but the OU doesn’t get anything. If I give 5-10 talks a year that is 15-30 days out of my job. Now there are benefits (see below) so it’s not all lost time, but even so, that is a sizeable chunk of workload. If you reuse talks then you can cut that amount down by half probably.

I don’t really have that much to say. I mean, come on, one or two decent ideas every couple of years is enough surely?

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The advantages of giving new talks are:

It really helps pull together your thinking. Often you have lots of ideas and content but it’s not until you create a talk for others that it helps shape your thoughts. There is real scholarly benefit in creating a new talk.

It makes you think about the audience more. There is a danger when giving the same talk repeatedly (usually modified) that you don’t tailor it sufficiently to the audience.

It keeps you fresh. The flip side of the advantage given above of getting sharper with familiar material is that you can also be complacent and not really engaged with it.

It avoids repetition and gives you online content. Prior to the internet you probably could get away with giving the same talk forever. But now you share content on blogs and slideshare, or it is livestreamed. So people may have seen it in some form already before you even get there. Creating new talks help feed the online beast, if that is important to you.

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I’ve created new talks where I’ve been mildly incoherent, and given old talks where it has not really been appropriate, so there are merits to both. I usually come down in the middle and adapt, remix material from previous talks, but I’m finding this year of refreshing my presentation stock very useful and quite challenging.

The open ed landscape

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I gave a presentation for the Disruptive Media Learning Lab in Coventry last week. This year I’m trying to do new talks each time (I’ve another post on that), and was asked to give a talk to an audience who weren’t that aware of issues of openness in education. So I tried the metaphor of thinking of different places on a map. This gave me:

  • Open access – a well developed, sustainable city with infrastructure
  • OERs – a friendly, well populated town, that could expand into a city, or may just stay the way it is. Has nice schools.
  • MOOCs – these are reminiscent of the ‘ghost cities‘ in countries such as China. They have been developed quickly, and they may become populated over time, or they may remain largely empty
  • Open educational practice – stretching my metaphor here, my argument was that this is a very mixed, broad category that is really about people, so think of it as a large open market on the outskirts of a city
  • Open data – the metro system in a city that keeps everything flowing
  • Open citizenship – open education takes place amidst a broader context of open citizenship, so we should view this as the overall map or landscape.

Using this analogy allows some comparisons between the various areas in the open ed landscape. For instance some were more formalised and others more experimental and some are more fragile and others more robust. But there are common elements between all of them, which make them part of this landscape:

  • Enabled by the network – obvious but digital technology drives all of these areas, so we have to understand the key aspects of the digital, networked environment
  • Reallocation of resources – many of the models rely on spending money or using time in different ways, for example in producing open content rather than purchasing copyrighted works.
  • Practical benefits of open – they bring the practical benefits of openness to the fore, eg more citations, different learning approaches
  • Sharing as default – the base assumption underlying them is that sharing stuff is the starting point
  • Moral argument – there is often an ethical dimension to the arguments for adopting an open approach

Like all metaphors (at least all of my metaphors) it is flawed and only takes you so far, but I feel there is more to explore in it. And yes, I am considering a Game of Thrones version.

Slidedeck is below:

Nothing is deserved, everything is accepted

Estatua a Marie Curie

In a recent post I mentioned how I’d been at two conferences and academics had bemoaned the state of the relationship with IT services. At the risk of making academics seem like a bunch of whingers, a second theme occurred (perhaps people just like moaning to me) which was the precariousness of the academic researcher. I write this as a tenured Prof (whatever tenure means now), so it is not a self pity or self serving motivation that drives this but concern at the direction universities are hiccuping their way to.

I’ve become increasingly disturbed by the way universities (in the UK, but I suspect it’s commonplace) treat researchers. For nearly all forms of employment there is the 4 year rule which states “Any employee on fixed-term contracts for 4 or more years will automatically become a permanent employee, unless the employer can show there is a good business reason not to do so”. Lucky, lucky researchers are exempt from this however. In 2008 people were saying the fixed term contract was a thing of the past, but with austerity, the introduction of fees and general uncertainty in the higher education sector, its use seems to have increased. This is particularly true for researchers who are employed on external funding. Researchers are employed to a specific project, and when that project ends, unless there is another project, their employment is terminated. This may make sense for a big 3 year project, where you don’t want to employ a large team after the funding ends. But many researchers exist on a diet of short and medium term projects, hopefully with no gaps in between. My understanding, but I’m no expert in employment law, is that the project manager would have a good case for being made permanent at the end of a 4-year project, whereas the researcher would not. I appreciate project managers and researchers equally, but it seems non-sensical to have a surfeit of permanent project managers and a deficit of full time researchers.

The Research Concordat proposes that: “Research posts should only be advertised as a fixed-term post where there is a recorded and justifiable reason.” However, making that ‘justifiable reason’ is not difficult for universities, and the Concordat is not the same as employment law. In 2014 67% of researchers were on fixed term contracts and 39% have been at their institution for more than four years, which indicates that since the Concordat introduction in 2012 we haven’t really seen a significant reduction in the use of fixed term contracts.

Effectively universities are deploying a legal loophole in employment law to keep researchers on a series of short, fixed term contracts. I want to argue that this is bad at an individual, institutional and universal level.

For the individual, it is no way to live, being continually only 6 months or so away from being unemployed. Getting a mortgage, deciding to put down roots, and just feeling secure is very difficult in this context. It also means focus and loyalty to any one project or institution is difficult – if you’re sensible you are always looking for the next job.

At an institutional level the short-term approach can be costly. A project ends, you lose the staff, the three months later you get a new project. You then have to recruit new staff, which with advertising, and interviewing timing often takes 3-6 months. That’s 3-6 months of your new project that is lost. It is estimated that it costs £30K to recruit a new member of staff. That’s pretty much the salary of a researcher for a year, when they could be doing other things for you anyway. It also makes the establishment of a research culture much more difficult, community is a very nebulous thing, and can be easily undermined with the loss of two or three key individuals (and the full time researchers are often the ones who give most to the local community because they are unencumbered with many of the other duties and roles of senior staff).

At the more universal level it is detrimental for research at universities as a whole. This lack of a readily available research staff makes universities less agile and flexible, since everyone is either fully employed on an existing project or they need to employ new staff, with the difficulties described above. If you have a one year project, you don’t want to lose 3 months of it recruiting staff. Increasingly we are seeing independent researchers or small research companies offering services. As more research involves using IT rather than expensive equipment then it can be done by a few people working at home. Without the need for the large overheads of universities, they can be cheaper, and offer researchers better contracts and pay. Apart from the heavy duty STEM projects, research then becomes outsourced from the university, or the university is simply bypassed. This would be a shame, research is an integral part of the university identity, and is often allied with teaching. You want your best teachers and researchers in the same space. But the short-term gains universities are opting for with fixed term contracts undermines their longer term viability.

My feeling is that this has become habit and confused with employment law and best practice. It is possible to make the situation better for individuals, institutions and the overall research environment, but it requires some effort to address it. Now is the time, before it becomes too embedded and the damage at all levels too substantial.

The title comes from Martin Amis’s essay on Kafka. As internet kids like to say, I’ll just leave this here: “He deals in savage inequities that are never resented, pitiful recompenses that are tearfully cherished.”

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