Annual book post with added pointless lists

In 2018, 2017, 2016 & 2015 I did this with pointless graphs, but this year I am adding a new twist to the visual aids and going for the pub bore’s favourite weapon of mass irritation – the list.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am now almost entirely converted to audiobooks (blame Josie Fraser, she got me started). Don’t judge me, instead revel in just how many of those beasts I got through – currently 93 and I will add one or two more over the holiday period, although I expect I’ll fall short of reaching 100, like a massive loser. Here they are broken down by genre:

Crime was the biggest category with 29, followed by Non-Fiction (22) and Literary Fiction (21) then a smattering of Sci-Fi, Horror, and spy novels.

In terms of author gender, having been evenly balanced in previous years, this was a clear victory for women, 56:37:

I much prefer women writing crime than men and a lot of the non-fiction I read this year was by women as we are living through something of a golden age of feminist science writing. Which brings me onto my first list.

6 non-fiction books I’d press upon you until you felt obliged to read them to shut me up:

  • Inferior – Angela Saini. A look at the many, and inventive ways that science has got women wrong. Saini is an excellent writer who has a deep understanding of the various branches of science involved. She is also fair, and thorough. This is an exemplar for how to use science to refute bad science and to convey a powerful message.
  • Invisible Women – Caroline Criado-Perez. Everyone read this book this year. What Criado-Perez does so expertly is take something we all sort of knew, that women are under-represented in all sorts of data sets, and methodically, remorselessly exposes it across diverse examples. In one book she has settled the argument and given something for every tech bro to be gifted.
  • The Five – Hallie Rubenhold. This book explores the lives of the five victims of Jack the Ripper, but it is not about their murderer (or murders). It is a meticulously researched account of the social, economical and legal structures in Victorian England that put those five women in that position. By deliberating avoiding any account of their deaths, and instead detailing their lives with sympathy and reality, it powerfully reclaims these women from their misogynistic fate.
  • Midnight in Chernobyl – Adam Higginbotham. After watching that TV series, I read this. It deftly weaves together complex economic, social, political and scientific threads with a human perspective.
  • Superior – Angela Saini. Following up the laser dissection of sexism in Inferior, Saini turned her attention to race science. Again, her ability to combine different aspects of science, to explain the flaws and bring these together in a compelling argument should act as a full stop to any of this nonsense ever being spouted again (sadly it won’t though).
  • Empty Planet – Daniel Bricker, John Ibbitson. I blogged about this, a challenge to the convention that population crisis, I appreciated how it made me think about so many things from a different perspective once you change one underlying assumption.

4 fiction books that are reasonably new and you’d enjoy

  • A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles. I was a big fan of The Rules of Civility, and Towles new book did not disappoint. It tells the tale of Count Rostov, sentenced in the Russian Revolution to never leave the Hotel Metropol. In a depressing year for most of us when cruelty is the new political directive, this is a gentle book full of kindness and humanity.
  • My Sister, The Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite. This short novel focuses on Korede’s continued attempts to cover up for her Instagram inflencer sister, who has a habit of being forced to kill her boyfriends. It’s a refreshing, wickedly funny voice.
  • Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie. As with the previous entry, this novel centres around the relationship between two sisters, Isma and Aneeka. They are drawn into an international weave of terrorism, politics and family tensions. This might be heavy handed by another writer but Shamsie keeps the focus on the individual characters to create a powerful, moving story.
  • American Spy – Lauren Wilkinson. When so many spy novels are dominated by hard drinking men, this account of Marie Mitchell, a black woman caught between her country and her lover, Thomas Sankara the President of Burkina Faso provides a much richer, humane account of the consequences of espionage.

4 books I didn’t like as much as other people seemed to, but that’s okay.

Maybe not classics, but 6 books I just enjoyed

And finally, all 93 for you to be judgemental about

  • Master & Commander – Patrick O’Brien
  • The Adversary – Emmanuel Carrere
  • Dying Fall – Elly Griffiths
  • The Murder Room – P D James
  • My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
  • The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths
  • The Wood – John Lewis-Stempel
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K Le Guin
  • Ivon – Michael Aylwin
  • The Happy Brain – dean Burnett
  • Our Mutual Friend – Dickens
  • A Distant Echo – Val McDiermid
  • Ordinary Thunderstorms – William Boyd
  • Emma – Jane Austen
  • Dead Water – Ann Cleeves
  • Dune – Frank Herbert
  • Joe Strummer – Chris Salewicz
  • Inferior – Angela Saini
  • The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton
  • Mabinogion – Sioned Davies
  • Notes on a Nervous Planet – Matt Haig
  • Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie
  • Nutshell – Ian McEwan
  • The Tattooist of Auschwitz – Heather Morris
  • Invisible Women – Caroline Criado-Perez
  • Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
  • Take No Farewell – Robert Goddard
  • The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
  • Heroes – Stephen Fry
  • In the Woods – Tana French
  • The Seasoning – Manon Steffan Ros
  • Milkman – Anna Burns
  • The Salt Path – Raynor Winn
  • The Stranger Diaries – Elly Griffiths
  • The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante
  • The Gendered Brain – Gina Rippon
  • Redbreast – Jo Nesbo
  • The Owl Service – Alan Garner
  • Wild Fire – Ann Cleeves
  • Superior – Angela Saini
  • My Sister, The Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite
  • The Elements of Eloquence – Mark Forsyth
  • One Moonlit Night – Caradog Prichard
  • The Life of Rebecca Jones – Angharad Price
  • The Leopard – Jo Nesbo
  • The Fog – James Herbert
  • A Murder of Quality – John Le Carre
  • Why be happy when you could be normal? – Jeanette Winterson
  • The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Melmoth – Sarah Perry
  • The Company of Liars – Karen Maitland
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John Le Carre
  • Exposure – Helen Dunmore
  • Taxidermists daughter – Kate Mosse
  • The Woman in Blue – Elly Griffiths
  • Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood
  • An Honourable Schoolboy – John Le Carre
  • The Girl who fell from the sky – Simon Mawer
  • The Passage – Justin Cronin
  • In Her Wake – Amanda Jennings
  • Codename Villanelle – Luke Jennings
  • The Porpoise – Mark Hadden
  • Midnight in Chernobyl – Adam Higginbotham
  • The Wych Elm – Tana French
  • Empty Planet – Darrell Bricker, John Ibbitson
  • She Begat this – Joan Morgan
  • An American Spy – Lauren Wilkinson
  • Smoke Gets in your Eyes – Caitlin Doughty
  • The thirteenth tale – Diane Setterfield
  • White Nights – Ann Cleeves
  • The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
  • The Five – Hallie Rubenhold
  • Gut – Giulia Enders
  • Oranges are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
  • The Zig Zag Girl – Elly Griffiths
  • The Bat – Jo Nesbo
  • The Woman in Black – Susan Hill
  • The Last Witness – Denzyl Merrick
  • The Thirteen Problems – Agatha Christie
  • The Lewis Man – Peter May
  • The Hoarder – Jess Kidd
  • The Beatles – Hunter Davies
  • The Chalk Pit – Elly Griffiths
  • A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie
  • Normal People – Sally Rooney
  • Call for the Dead – John Le Carre
  • Close to Home – Cara Hunter
  • A History of Britain in 21 women – Jenni Murray
  • Dead Beat – Val McDiermid
  • Dracula – Bram Stoker
  • Lost Dog – Kate Spicer
  • The Janus Stone – Elly Griffiths

40 years of ed tech at the OU

cover of the book Educational Visions

My colleagues in IET at the Open University have published an open access book with the lovely Ubiquity Press people. It is free to download in various formats here (or you can buy the hard copy, order it for your library etc). It celebrates the work of the CALRG research group.

I like a bit of ed tech history on this blog, which I think is interesting in its own right. But what I particularly like about this book is that they use this history to then consider future developments. So there are four themes, and each has two chapters: Foundations and Futures. As Ann Jones, Eileen Scanlon and Rebecca Ferguson say in the intro, the book:

informs future developments in educational technology, by reviewing the history of computers and education, covering themes including learning analytics and design, inquiry learning, accessibility and learning at scale. The lessons from these developments, which evolve, recur and adapt over time give an indication of the future in the field. The book informs readers about what is already known and demonstrates how they can use this work themselves.

The reason I think this is important is what also drove me to write my 25 years of ed tech book, namely that there is a wilful historical amnesia in much of ed tech. In the intro to 25 years, I pick on Clay Shirky’s quote about MOOCs in 2012: “higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or mooc), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup”.

To be fair, I could have selected from any number of quotes from a range of ed tech futurologists particularly around MOOCs, but this one is telling and gets at why I think ed tech history is important. Firstly, it is (perhaps wilfully) ignorant of the long history of e-learning at universities and posits that MOOCs are the first flush of online learning. This in itself highlights the need for a broader recognition of the use of ed tech in higher education. Secondly, given this history of e-learning implementation, the quote is not so much about the technology of MOOCs, but rather the Silicon Valley-type business model being applied to higher education. It was the large-scale interest of venture capitalism and a seemingly palpable example of the much-loved disruption myth (although, as usual, these predictions proved to be false) that generated much of the media interest.

I think it is important to argue that while the start-up based culture is certainly one model of ed tech innovation, it is not the only model. By first ignoring its own history, and then allowing a dominant narrative to displace it, higher education fails to make the case that there is another model, which operates to different demands, timescales, and metrics. The CALRG book is a good example of this mode of operation.

Thirdly, this combination of historical ignorance and imposed narrative necessitates that much of the existing knowledge established over years of practice and research is ignored. In order for disruption to take place, and Udacity to be “our” Napster, it is a requirement that the incumbents in an industry (in this case, universities and colleges) are incapable of engaging with the new technology and unaware of its implications.

I would suggest that understanding the history of ed tech is a method to refute this narrative. So, grab yourself a free download and get refuting.

2019 blog review

via GIPHY

Warning: Blogging as therapy session follows

I usually end the year with a review of my own year on blogging. Not a review of ed tech blogging as a whole and the themes of the year, but just me. And in that is something of my current identity doubts with my own blog. This is my 44th post of the year, down on my usual 50 or so, which hints at that questioning also. The thing I’ve been struggling with is that a lot of the bloggers I admire have effectively become very good ed tech journalists, writing very well researched, thoughtful essays. These are excellent, but working in academia, blogging performs a different function for me – I write research papers and books which is the place for the carefully argued work. My blog felt like an antidote to that in a way – a place to put out half baked ideas and quick posts that are knocked off in-between other things.

This is exacerbated by the political situation and general crapness of things. I used to comment on this stuff, but increasingly I feel that it’s more useful to just STFU and let people who are better informed and write about such with a greater depth than I do have the space. Don’t add to the noise (this is also a useful approach to being a man asking questions at conferences I find).

These two aspects – of wanting to write in an informal manner and not wanting to distract from better placed voices on many issues means I often find myself thinking about a post and then going “nah”. And once you start doing that in blogging, the threshold to post becomes greater, and the inclination to do it declines. I didn’t comment on the demise of the OpenEd conference or the recent arguments about Instructure, for example because I felt others had said it better.

The result of this can be a solipsism – the thing I do know about, which other people won’t blog about, and which I can do quickly and informally is me. Although there has always been a personal aspect to blogging, one that’s just me, me, me quickly becomes tiresome (as this post attests). Anyway, no answers to this, just working it through. I do have plans for a series next year but it has a Martin-centric focus, so we’ll see how it goes.

Get on with the review!

In terms of blogging this year, I had 320K visits from 118K visitors. I started the year with my 1000th post. The most popular post was my confessional Academicing with Depression. This also attracted the most comments – which shows that people are nice. I had fun playing with the Ed Tech Metaphor (and Open Degree) Generator which reminded me of the old days of blogging, when Tony Hirst and Alan Levine would patiently explain stuff to me. Perhaps the most EdTechie post of the year was VAR lessons for Ed Tech. A random one I’m re-bigging is Situated degree pathways.

On a professional front it has been a good year for me and I have a lot to be thankful for. I feel a tad guilty about this given the general chaos the world is descending into, but it’s a reminder that personal and global tides can operate at different frequencies. Some people meet the love of their life during war time after all. I started the year with my (rather belated) inaugural lecture. I have sort of become one of the unofficial spokespeople for the OU, and in our 50th year got to present at the Hay Festival which was a real privilege. I became Chair of the Open Programme, and this really provided an opportunity to bring together different strands of open education. We managed to secure funding for a further three years for the GO-GN project which is simply a delight to work on. I completed my 25 Years of Ed Tech book and had it accepted by Athabasca Press, so it will be out early next year. And towards the end of the year I was awarded a Commonwealth Learning Chair in OER, which will allow me to help expand the GO-GN network.

I can’t imagine we’ll look back on 2019 with any fondness more generally though. But I am thankful for what I have. And look, it’s hard to be down when you get greeted by this enthusiasm every day. See you all in 2020.

The GIF(t) of Impact

Back in 2017 I blogged how ALT had taken a different approach to developing strategy which had made the often dry, boring process more engaging and meaningful. Well, it’s now nearly 2020 and we’re developing a new strategy, so ALT have handily updated on what they achieved over the last strategy period. And as well as a nice report, we have GIFs! It may seem trivial, but I think being able to boil your outcomes down to some GIFs may be both a useful exercise in practising clarity of message, and also make them more social media friendly. It’s a practice I may adopt on other projects too (although one should be aware of accessibility issues and ensure this is not the only method of dissemination). Don’t worry if you can’t grab the info from the gifs, it’s all in the report.

So here are the GIFs. First up, some big numbers, that show the range of communications, including youtube videos (mainly conference presentations), blog posts, webinars and a very active twitter community.

Then one which highlights the ALT members activity and how we celebrate different voices in ed tech (this is particularly important when more conferences sell keynote slots to big vendors – providing a diverse, independent voice is needed more than ever).

And lastly, the professional body aspect as embodied in CMALT.

Gif of ALT impact report

2019 – Films of the year

Beginning my end of year series of posts with my annual film round up for no real reason. I don’t feel it’s been a great year for movies, I struggled to find ten I really rated, but I must confess I missed quite a few at the cinema that coulda been contenders. In the end though there are some great films in this list. So in no particular order, here they are:

The Favourite – Yorgos Lanthimos’s delightfully sordid, sweary account of Queen Anne and her competing favourites was as if Kathy Acker wrote an episode of Downton Abbey. It was also a reminder that the idealised version of Heritage Britain is a myth. And with Brexit we see the danger of that myth. But mostly it was a lot of fun, with three amazing performances from Colman, Stone and Wiesz.

Joker – a Scorsese love-fest with very direct nods to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, the best thing about Joker was that it acted as a reminder that moral ambiguity can be part of mainstream cinema. The subversion of the comic book genre was the perfect vehicle to do this. And of course, Phoenix’s performance and the steps dance is already part of the cinematic lexicon.

I Lost My Body – it wasn’t a great year for animation, and the Disney live action remakes were mostly a disaster zone, but this charming French Netflix movie was a delight. Beautifully drawn it tells the combined tale of Naoufel’s fledgling relationship with Gabrielle, and the journey of a severed hand across Paris to be reunited with its owner. Definitely the best severed hand odyssey film you’ll see.

Crawl – apparently this was Tarantino’s favourite film of the year, but don’t let that put you off. Sometimes you just want to go to the cinema and see a tense movie, well constructed. In this creature feature, alligators are coming to town when a Category 5 hurricane hits. Haley, conveniently a competitive swimmer, is trying to rescue her father, trapped in his basement. There is no subtext, it’s just alligators trying to eat you, but it’s a blast. As trash horror actor Mary Woronov put it, “I knew what was art and what was shit. But sometimes the shit was more interesting.”

Avengers: Endgame – as Game of Thrones evidenced, bringing multiple storylines to a satisfactory conclusion is not easy. The culmination of years of those end credit teasers delivered for all. It was not quite up to the standard of Infinity War, but it was the only big summer film to deliver.

If Beale Street Could Talk – Barry Jenkins follow up to Moonlight was moving, angry, and absorbing. A love story set against all manner of institutional racism it was politics and humanity in a rich mix with a luscious soundtrack. But we all know what film won the Oscar. As someone put it on Twitter, If Beale Street Could Talk, Green Book would interrupt it.

Border – there was a decent clutch of films your accountant might classify as a “bit too weird for my tastes”: Under the Silver Lake and In Fabric are worth a watch. But my choice in this category is the Swedish tale of a customs agent who can smell emotions. She meets someone who shares her distinctive physical features and from this unrolls a modern take on Nordic fairy tales.

Booksmart – this film is perfect, from the moment we are dropped into the world of high school nerds Amy and Molly you immediately wonder why we haven’t seen characters like this before. Their cultural references, in-jokes and worldview are all authentic, and the film neatly plays with the high school movie cliches, veering towards them and taking just enough from them.

Midsommar – Ari Aster’s follow up to Hereditary was the best horror of the year, particularly when IT Chapter 2, and Pet Sematary disappointed. It slots effortlessly into that canon of movies about growing dread in perfect settings. What Aster manages so well is to ration the violence carefully so when it does occur in a graphic form, we feel the shock of the characters. Florence Pugh who was excellent in Lady Macbeth really cemented her position as one of the hottest talents around as the central character Dani, coping with family grief and a lousy boyfriend.

Knives Out – I love a murder mystery but they are almost impossible to realise without falling into absurd cliche. Rian Johnson’s smart movie embraces all the cliches, plays with them, flips some on their head, and still makes the overall conceit of a whodunnit work. The best fun I had at the cinema all year.

I may be getting old but I struggled to get through two films that have cropped up in a lot of end of year lists, namely Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman. I get why people like them but I would prefer to see Crawl or Booksmart over either of these cinematic heavyweights. But as I mentioned, I don’t feel it’s been a great year for films. If 2019 was in my class I would be staring at it disapprovingly over my glasses and saying “I’m just disappointed”.

Questions for the new kid on the block(chain)

via GIPHY

There was an article in October’s Chronicle of Higher Education entitled How Blockchain Technology Will Disrupt Higher Education. (It’s in the Chronicle so of course you can’t actually access it, even my university library access does not permit the current edition to be viewed.  The Chronicle – where articles go to rest in peace). Now, I’ve knocked blockchain before, but my problem with this article is not so much the blockchain part, but rather that it is indicative of the almost wilful historical amnesia that besets so much of ed tech.

In the article the author, Richard DeMillo, claims that blockchain will disrupt (no, I’m not going to bite on that word either) higher education:

It will do so by solving a problem that few of us realized we had: There’s no reliably efficient and consistent way to keep track of a person’s entire educational history. That’s why a worldwide effort is underway to use blockchain technology to tame the internet so that it can become a universal, permanent record of educational achievement.

Well, speak for yourself. This is a problem many people thought they had, and indeed one they thought they had solved in the format of e-portfolios. The benefit of blockchain DeMillo claims is that it will open up what we recognise as assessment:

Students are more than transcripts and test scores. The college transcript is a 19th-century invention that has little do to with the educational institutions and workplaces of the 21st century.

Well, ok, but let’s look at how Helen Beetham summarized the benefits of an e-portfolio back in 2005:

  • that provide evidence of an individual’s progress and achievements
  • [are] drawn from both formal and informal learning activities
  • that are personally managed and owned by the learner
  • that can be used for review, reflection, and personal development planning
  • that can be selectively accessed by other interested parties e.g. teachers, peers, assessors, awarding bodies, prospective employers. (p. 3)

That sounds a lot like what DeMillo wants from blockchain. They developed standards to allow eportfolios to be written to by different providers and transported between systems. I have been critical of eportfolios, and they perhaps haven’t had the impact once envisaged for them, but they are very popular in some areas. Some of the issues in their uptake are not related to the technology, but to the context within which they operate. For instance, employers generally say they would like to have a complete portfolio of applicants work, but when it comes to it, they tend to fall back on CVs and interviews. Similarly, eportfolios require assessment in universities to be reshaped so they are based around discrete tasks which are more usefully added as a stand-alone piece of evidence.

Now maybe blockchain represents a better way of achieving this result, but for an article declaring how it will change the method of assessment, to not even acknowledge the existence of eportfolios is odd. How will blockchain do it better? How will it overcome the problems that over a decade of eportfolio work has not quite managed to address?

This goes for any new tech being declared to solve a problem in education. You are unlikely to be the first to have come across this issue, so what is in existence already? If that wasn’t successful, why? How will your solution overcome those issues? These are the questions any new ed tech kid on the (ahem) block needs to answer. And yet…

Confessions of an audiobook addict

via GIPHY

I’ll write my annual books review post soon, but one comparison I won’t do this year is format: from a mix of physical books, ebooks and audiobooks in previous years, it is now nearly all audiobooks (I’m not counting reading for work). I came to audiobooks in 2016 after Brexit pretty much ruined listening to the Today programme (as lots have commented, the BBC is incapable or unwilling to deal with false equivalence and flagrant, unabashed liars). Screaming at the radio is only viable for so long. And once I had stopped listening to the Today programme, my Radio 4 listening fell away all together (I still listen to 6music when I’m working).

So I switched to audiobooks. And it turned out I had a lot of time they could fill – my drive to Milton Keynes is about 6 hours, I walk the dog for 90 minutes a day, and I listen for half an hour going to bed. I can easily rattle through 1-2 books a week. Compared with time which you can devote to sit down and actually read, and well, a physical book can hang around for ages. I have sympathy with Hugh McGuire who jokes of his own struggle to read more books:

I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters. Chapters often have page after page of paragraphs. It just seems such an awful lot of words to concentrate on, on their own, without something else happening.

But I feel guilty – we have been raised on the purity of reading as a pursuit. Listening to an audiobook isn’t the same as reading I feel, and I’ve experienced people be snooty when I say I’ve read a book and then reveal it was an audio version, like “oh, you haven’t really read it then.” I asked a neuroscientist at a conference recently if there was a difference and she said we form an auditory loop when reading so there is no difference in the way the brain processes the two forms (but perhaps she was just telling me what my little pleading face wanted to hear). Unsurprisingly people have written a few opinion pieces on this. Some studies have shown no difference in comprehension from people who have listened or read and are tested afterwards. Whereas others show that for more complex text, the sort of thing you study, there is a benefit for readers. I’d disagree that audiobooks are passive and reading is active though, I can listen or read passively or actively.

What I did find interesting is that we haven’t always made this distinction and regarded reading physical text as superior. Jack Goody characterised societies as oral or literate, (although that is a simplification) but the distinction may not be clear. In ancient Rome, Starr emphasises the importance of Lectores – these were people who were paid to read texts aloud to wealthy people, while they went on with other business. Not to perform them, but to do the reading when the aristocrat was otherwise occupied and could not physically do it for themselves. They were pretty much manual audiobooks. And they did not make a distinction between this type of reading, and sitting down in your toga and curling up with a good codex yourself.

The prevalence of wifi, smart phones and unobtrusive earphones, combined with abundance of audio content in audiobooks and podcasts, makes me feel that we are entering a similar combined oral/literacy phase socially and moving away from a largely literate dominated one. Given the number of other tasks that only require partial attention (from playing Candy Crush to having your dad talk to you), the opportunity for orality to become prominent is present. And I for one, welcome our new audio-overlords.

The rootless ed tech units

Woman at the back of a camper van on a laptop
Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

One common complaint when I hang around with ed tech/learning technologist people (to be fair, we have a few) is that often universities don’t know quite what to do with them. They know they want them, but they’re not quite sure what for. If you look at where learning technology units are placed in organisational structures, this uncertainty is highlighted – sometimes they are aligned with the library, other times they are part of IT, or inside the education faculty, or sit on one side under the direct aegis of a PVC.

My own unit, IET at the OU, has been reviewed at least six times since I’ve been there. We have been with the PVC students, now with the PVC research, we’ve been in with a bigger grouping including learning technology production and the library, and briefly, in a faculty. With each move comes a new set of priorities and direction. Most people I speak to have similar tales of being moved around organisationally (and sometimes physically).

This results from three causes I think. Firstly, as technology is increasingly viewed as the means by which strategic change is realised, and its significance has increased, where units sit and what they do is subject to political, financial, and tactical changes from senior management. The second factor is that ed tech doesn’t really have a long history for many campus universities, therefore people are still exploring how best to view their role, so this is still evolving. The last factor is the most significant, which is that learning technology units often perform a strange mix of functions, which varies across different institutions, and so there is no agreed structure. In some institutions they are a service unit, responsible for ensuring things like lecture capture & the VLE work. In others they may also have a role in learning design, or researching new technology, or being experts in pedagogy, or staff development in technology.

This means there is probably no single solution for overcoming the rootless, shifting nature of learning technology units, but if I was to offer some suggestions for at least making it less of a problem, I’d go for:

  • Involve the team in any decisions – they will understand how best to realise many goals.
  • Trust them to have ideas about effective implementation
  • Think longer term rather than immediate responses. Ed tech isn’t going away, so what you need is a unit that understands what is happening and can respond appropriately.
  • If you’ve implemented a new strategy, direction or organisational structure, leave them alone for a few years to do it before deciding on a new one. Nothing wastes people’s time, energy or enthusiasm more than continuous reshuffles.
  • Give them lots of money (ok, it was worth a shot).

25 Years of EdTech: 2019 – Micro-credentials

This is year 27 in my 25 Years of Ed Tech series (no – YOU do the math). The book is scheduled to come out next year, but I thought I’d add one for this year which won’t make it in to that.

For 2019 the educational technology I would choose would be micro-credentials. I was at OpenEd and WCOL conferences recently, and micro-credentials were a common topic, plus in my place of work, IET at the Open University, we are busy developing courses for these. So it seems I can’t turn anywhere at the moment without bumping into them.

Micro-credentials are smaller, certified chunks of learning, often allied to a specific, vocational skill. In New Zealand the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) have teamed up with EduBits to recognise and promote them, and FutureLearn are proposing a Common Microcredential Framework to allow for standardisation. So they have some high level backing and are beyond just the ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ stage.

Micro-credentials are a good example of how in ed tech several technologies and concepts align in to one commonly shared idea. They have their roots in OER, MOOCs and digital badges, all of which promote the idea of learning chunks that are smaller than a degree, and focused on specific areas that some people want recognition for. They also grow out of the lifelong learning drive that was prominent in much of the 00s, and more recently issues about employability and skills in a digital economy.

Like so much of ed tech, micro-credentials induce mixed feelings. On the positive side, higher ed needs to be more flexible to appeal to the different needs of as many learners as possible. Dominic Orr and colleagues in the AHEAD project have a nice summary of four different educational models, which they characterise around toy metaphors:

  • Tamagotchi – the current dominant model where education in one block at the start acts as preparation for subsequent employment.
  • Jenga – a chunk at the start and then smaller pieces that build on this
  • Lego set – a more disaggregated version, acquiring different aspects of learning from different providers across a lifetime but with no foundational chunk.
  • Transformers – students who come into higher education later and may have different requirements from that system.

These are summarised below. I quite like this model for thinking about the different formats of education, and also for emphasising no single model is ‘correct’. All can co-exist and will meet the different needs of different learners. Higher ed doesn’t need to be precious about making it a Tamagotchi only world (the OU has implemented Transformers successfully for instance, but much of the discussion in higher ed policy occurs in a Tamagotchi world).

For the second and third models to be effective then something like micro-credentials is required. In general, I feel that different takes on what constitutes higher ed for different people is a positive thing.

But I have some reservations (of course I do!). First amongst these is that I stated micro-credentials were the culmination of several ed tech developments, but there is also a sense in that they are driven by these very developments in order to validate themselves. The argument goes something like “we’ve spent all this money and made all these claims about MOOCs, we’d best show some value for them.” And lo, a market for MOOC type credentials is manufactured. This is not the same thing as there being an actual need or demand for them, and it’ll be interesting to see if learners and employers embrace them with the same enthusiasm.

A second reservation is around cost. Since around 400BC I, and others in the field have been trying to tell people that elearning is not a cheap option. But alas, this lesson needs to be relearnt every 5 years or so. Developing shorter courses is problematic because many of the costs remain fixed, so a standard 60 point undergrad modules is cheaper to produce than 4×15 point courses. Once the initial enthusiasm to experiment and accept losses has worn off, universities will need to make micro-credentials cost effective. Inevitably this means those costs will be passed on to students. So while a micro-credential course will be cheaper than a three year degree, in order to stack them up they may be more costly over time. It’s like the shopper who can’t afford to bulk buy their washing tablets so buys a small box every fortnight – they are paying more per wash. So micro-credentials may disadvantage poorer students.

The last reservation is an old one that we’ve seen with learning objects, OER and MOOCs, which is whether higher education can be effectively broken into discrete chunks, and what is lost without that synthesis across a longer time period and integrated curriculum. But while this may be true for some subjects, it may not be the case for all learning requirements.

In short, micro-credentials represent the latest chapter in the attempt to make the shape of higher education more amorphous and flexible. In this, I am in favour of them, because if you want education to be inclusive and diverse then it needs to come in various formats to meet those needs. Whether micro-credentials are the means to realise that, or another attempt to bend higher ed to mythical needs of employers which turn out to be ill-defined and unwanted, remains to be seen.

Open degree generator

I’ve mentioned before that I’m the Chair of the Open Degree at the OU, which is our multidisciplinary degree. Bar some excluded combinations, students can combine modules from across the complete range of OU offerings. This creates some interesting combinations, and as I’ve reported before, it turns out that students really take advantage of the flexibility, with many different, often unique pathways.

I had with the metaphor generator, which randomly selected a metaphor topic from one list and applied it to a randomly selected educational technology in another list to give metaphor prompts such as: “How is your favourite film an analogy for academics use of Twitter?”. I thought I could do a similar thing with module combinations for open degrees. So, using the list of modules eligible for inclusion, I created three lists, covering level 1, 2 and 3 modules to create an Open Degree Generator. I generalised a lot of the module titles to make sense to a broader audience (we like a cryptic, clever module title at the OU), and combined a few, so it’s not an exact listing of modules. Nevertheless, all of the suggested combinations of topics can (I think!) be studied in the open degree.

I’ve used three different sentence structures: “Your degree could be a combination of …”; “Would a degree containing … be interesting?”; and “In order to solve complex problems we need degrees that combine subjects like…”. The last is my favourite as it makes you consider how novel combinations can be used to address complex, or wicked problems.

It’s fun to see the different combinations that it generates. Sometimes the suggested mixture looks a bit random, but usually after some consideration you think “there would be some interesting connections between those subjects”. And if you don’t get anything from the combination, just click the button to get another set. Obviously this is just a bit of fun, and not an actual course recommendation, but I think it offers some interesting prompts.

[The code for the metaphor generator which I used for this is available here, and Alan Levine’s write-up on how he developed it here.]

[Slightly modified version of this also published over on the Open Programme blog]

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