Oh no, it’s another metaverse hot take

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Following on from my late to the party Twitter hot take, here is my even later to the party one on the metaverse (next week – learning objects).

I think for many of us who have been in and around educational technology for a while, the idea of a shared 3D virtual world brings back memories of SecondLife and even earlier excitement about MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) and MOOs (MUD, object-oriented). And while it easy to dismiss another attempt at the virtual world as universal education platform, it’s probably worth revisiting why SecondLife failed and evaluating if those reasons hold true for the Metaverse.

Firstly, we are seeing very similar over-hyping of Metaverse. So, as an antidote to that, here is a quote from a 2009 paper on SecondLife “Gartner … estimates that by 2012, 80% of active Internet users, including Fortune 500 enterprises, will have a ‘Second Life’ in some form of 3-D virtual world environment” … “these virtual worlds are expected to have a large impact on teaching and learning in the very near future with pedagogical as well as brick-and-mortar implications”.

Yeah, that didn’t happen, and in 2015 a tour of deserted campuses found:

I didn’t see a single other user during my tour. They are all truly abandoned . . . . They mostly are laid out in a way to evoke stereotypes of how college campuses should look, but mixed in is a streak of absurd choices, like classrooms in tree houses and pirate ships.

So why did all that promise of SecondLife fail to materialise? I’m no VR expert, but I think there are three main contenders:

  • A lack of purpose – online campuses tended to give online lectures. Once you’ve gotten over the excitement over having different avatars for class mates, it’s difficult to know what this gained over simply live streaming a real lecture.
  • Technical and accessibility issues – the rendering of the 3-D world could be slow, and glitches in navigation could arise. Accessibility was a significant issue with no screen reader support, so they were difficult, if not impossible, for visually impaired learners to use. Navigation also required continual manipulation, and so students with dexterity problems found the environment difficult to use.
  • High user investment – to get good use out of SecondLife you had to invest a lot of time in it. There was a significant threshold to getting set up, navigating and feeling comfortable in that space. Many users, and particularly students who just wanted to study their subject, were averse to doing so.

Looking at Metaverse then, it is worth considering if these barriers still exist. Let’s take accessibility first. Metaverse doesn’t rely as much on small mouse based movements, and there are stronger accessibility teams in place at Facebook. It is likely to still raise issues for many users, but we can expect some improvement from the SecondLife days. Similarly, technical capability will have improved since the days of the SecondLife (although Horizon Worlds has been problematic), with better broadband and rendering capabilities, although it will still require a good connection, and headset, which will not be available everywhere.

In terms of the high user investment, there has been an increase in 3D worlds, from Minecraft to Animal Crossing. There is a fairly high familiarity with gaming, creating and navigating an avatar through a virtual world in a significantly larger proportion of the population. The threshold is thus not as high for participation. And indeed, there may be more of a desire from learners to use the type of tools they play around with elsewhere in education, whereas SecondLife felt more like enthusiastic educators foisting it upon learners.

Which brings us on to the issue of lack of purpose. This one still pertains to a degree. For example, this image seems to show people in a meeting in Metaverse, having a meeting in Teams. Much like the lecture in SecondLife, this begs the question “why, though?”

Where the Metaverse is persuasive is in more specialised application in education. These can be simulations (revisit ancient Rome!), augmented reality (see the historical structure of your street), or digital labs (manipulate molecules by hand). And these will be genuinely useful and powerful I think.

On balance then, the Metaverse stands a better chance than SecondLife in becoming a useful technology for specialised aspects of education. But here the problem arises as I see it. With its huge financial backing from Zuckerberg, the aim is not to be a useful tool that is implemented for one session in a semester. As with Facebook the intention, I suspect, is to be the only place you hang out online, to become the virtual world for all education, shopping, entertainment, work, etc. And this lack of focus is partly responsible for the billions it is chewing through and the frustrations of employees. What is it for exactly? The answer is, seemingly, everything.

But that desired ubiquity is its downfall too. One of the issues with Second Life was that it very strongly divided people into pro- and anti-camps, with little balanced perspective. We are seeing this pattern of overenthusiastic initial adoption, when it is applied as a universal tool, when in reality it is better suited as a more selective and appropriate application. But Meta are not interested in being a specialist tool, they are very much of the “have it all” camp, and this central tension may be its undoing.

One final aspect about all VR and how it is often portrayed in media, is that it seems to downplay our existence as physical beings. We may become absorbed in a game, or a film, or in social media, but we retain some physical sense. We think of learning as a cognitive pursuit largely, but I wonder how much of learning is tied with our physical reality also. Maybe there isn’t the desire to spend hours learning in a virtual world compared with being in the ‘real’ one, even when you are online. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my physical office space is a real boon for me. There’s no such thing as satisfying virtual biscuits after all.

Oh no, it’s another Twitter thought piece

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I didn’t want to write this, you don’t want to read it, but here we are…

I used to play a football manager game in the 90s (gaming was all downhill after Championship Manager 98), and once I learned the best players to sign, and how to keep rebooting until I won a game, I could get to the stage where Southend were winning the Champions League. There’s nowhere else to go after this triumph, and so my designs turned dark. As a Spurs fan I took a childish pleasure in taking over Arsenal and doing all I could to ruin them before getting the sack. I would sell the best players (as cheaply as possible), sign terrible players, put them out of position and field the weakest team. Relegation was my goal.

I don’t buy into the conspiracy theories that Musk is deliberately trying to ruin Twitter (for Putin or something?), but seeing his catastrophic takeover definitely makes him a contender for the Liz Truss award for the most catastrophic decisions in a short period of time (current holder: Liz Truss). Like many others I have rebooted my Mastodon account (this is my main one, or a Wales one if you prefer Cardiff/Ice hockey bants). I’m not sure I’ll stay, or if it will replace Twitter as the main social media platform, but it’s probably not a bad thing to have a rethink every now and then anyway.

It is, of course, absolutely hilarious to see Musk make such an idiot of himself on such a public stage, but it is no surprise. I was watching Ron Howard’s entertaining account of the the Thai football team that was trapped in a cave in 2018, and it brought back to mind the deluded intervention of Musk in that event. If you recall, 12 boys were trapped in a cave system in Thailand when it flooded. A team of experts assembled to try and rescue them. Musk piped up saying he had designed a submarine that could get them out, he sent it and a team of Tesla engineers to Thailand. The actual experts who had done this work before said it would not help. Musk then called the lead diver a ‘pedo-guy’ on Twitter and got sued (but apparently it’s ok to call someone that if you’re a billionaire). In this sordid little cameo we have a model for how Musk operates, a Template of Musk if you will. It goes something like: Overestimate his own solution, dismiss expertise, cause chaos and distraction, abuse those who disagree with him, and then storm off. And it has played out exactly so far with Twitter, we now just awaiting the storming phase.

And while Musk failure schadenfreude is to be relished, I feel really sorry for the people who have carefully constructed a business through the network they’ve created on Twitter: comedians, small retail, consultants, community projects, etc. Twitter isn’t just a slightly annoying place you doomscroll through while on the loo for these people, it’s vital to their operation. Mastodon is a long way off being a replacement for many of these. When I was thinking about it from my perspective I can use Facebook, Instagram and Mastodon for social connection, but what I’ll miss is more of the broadcast function. How will everyone know I’ve written a blog post about Twitter if I can’t post it on Twitter? (for now, I’ll still post it on Twitter).

In 25 Years of Ed Tech, I wrote about how large internet corporations want to become infrastructure:

Achieving infrastructure-like status is the primary goal for Internet giants such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. For instance, for a significant number of users, Facebook is viewed as the entirety of the Internet. Reporting on surveys in Indonesia and Nigeria, Farrell (2015) stated that “large numbers of first-time adopters come online via Facebook’s proprietary network, rather than via the open web” (para. 8). Similarly, Amazon has the goal of becoming the sole global retailer, and Google and Apple contest the battle to be the sole technology provider in people’s lives, embedding their platforms and technology in their home, car, phone, and entertainment systems. Such a monopoly means that any provider who desires access to the markets they control must abide by the rules determined by these companies, whether that is in what type of content they permit, the data they have access to, or the revenue they require. In addition, they are unlikely to permit any company that acts as a competitor to flourish within their domain. So, while these corporations have inveigled their way to infrastructure status, we should remember that providers of physical infrastructure systems such as water, roads, and power have responsibilities and accountability placed upon them. This is relevant to ed tech, because it highlights the responsibility in mandating the use of such systems and thus increasing their infrastructure-like status and stresses the importance of developing a critical approach to technology in all subject areas.

As much as this is a business failure (that business schools will teach for years), it is also a legislative failure. We have failed to create the appropriate models of governance that prevent internet giants from realising digital infrastructure status, with all the related economic benefits, without the responsibility and appropriate regulation of behaviour. If we accept that such governance shouldn’t exist (that was always one of the attractions of the internet after all) then we should also be more circumspect about allowing any one platform to become dominant and so vital to so many people.

Revenge of the kid’s art

(Image from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170202-whats-so-wrong-with-dressing-up-your-desk)

As a (mainly) home worker, I’ve been tweaking my home office set up over the past few years until I’ve made it an ideal working space for me. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to online learning also, so here is an attempt to tease out some of that (probably unsuccessfully).

First, I should stress that I know having a good space of my own at home is a privilege – I don’t have children at home, live in an area where I can afford a house with spare rooms, have a decent job, etc. This post is not to celebrate how awesome my office is (although it is pretty awesome), but rather to use this as an instance to examine some of differences between home and online. So, if your response is ‘well that’s fine for you, I have to work from a messy bedroom with a four year old outside’, I get it, but that’s to miss the intention of this post.

So, to my awesome office – I reclaimed my daughter’s bedroom now she has left home, so it’s a decent size. I have book shelves, a record player with a small collection of vinyl, a fish tank, and a dog bed where Teilo keep me company during the day. My walls are adorned with cool Bryan Mather’s art, and I have photos of family dotted around. I’ve got a comfy chair, plants and easy access to a kettle and snacks. It is a great place to work, think, read, relax, and write indulgent blog posts.

Now let’s compare this with my old on-campus work space. I used to have a specified desk in an open plan office, with one pedestal assigned to me for storage. There was a ‘no personal effects’ rule in place so we weren’t meant to put up photos of family, etc, but this wasn’t strictly enforced. Now we have moved to hot desks. It is a nice modern building, but getting the temperature right is always a challenge. What it does have is of course, access to other people, joint social spaces, and meeting rooms.

We are seeing many organisations now suggesting/urging/demanding employees to come back to the office (the OU is quite relaxed about this so my home set up is safe). But for those who can have a nice home set up, the offer has to be quite strong. The power balance has shifted somewhat – are you really going to demand that people can’t put up their kids drawings around their computer monitor, or that everyone operates a clear desk policy? The office is going to have to draw on its strengths and not rely on being the default assumption any more. And to reiterate, it is the default for many people who do not have a good home set up, but across the company profile there will be a range of home comfiness. There is also a distinct possibility that by not making the office more attractive a division occurs between those who have no choice but to go to the office and those for whom it is a distinctly inferior choice, but there are people better qualified than I to write about this.

To turn to online learning then, and maybe there is a similar dynamic in operation. The lecture and campus can no longer rely on their monopoly position. Students like face to face, but they also like the flexibility of online, and have been exposed to some of this possibility now. An obvious example is lecture capture, which was already underway prior to the pandemic, but now students have experienced the flexibility of being able to get out of bed five minutes prior to the lecture, fire up their laptop and have toast while during the talk, those are freedoms not easily relinquished. So, as with the office, the campus needs to restate its benefits and to focus and elaborate upon these. As with the ‘no pictures’ rule, this might necessitate a lessening of control now that other options are on the table.

I think what both the office and learning case highlight is the importance of our physical selves and our relationship to space. The Metaverse fans may not want to acknowledge it but we are situated in physical bodies and these aren’t just inconvenient biological transporters, but have a profound impact on how we act and learn. The physical sense you have whilst working or learning is not immaterial, ask anyone whose tried to read something while having an irritating bite that you must scratch. Maren has written about improving your space, and Jim is a BigFan of the importance of being happy in your set up.

Anyway, I’m off to feed the fish.

The Pedagogy of Crisis

One of the themes of the OER22 conference was “Pedagogy of Crisis” (I think this was Rob Farrow’s suggestion). I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently. I posted about the cost of living crisis, which follows the pandemic crisis, which came hot on the heels of the Brexit (or Trump) crisis, which arose in part due to the economic crisis of 2008. And climate crisis has been gaining momentum alongside each of these. I kept waiting for a return to normal, for crises to be done with. But I’ve come to the realisation (if not quite the acceptance) that we are in a state of perma-crisis now. If it’s not the next pandemic, it could be geopolitical fallout from the Ukraine conflict, or energy concerns, or cost of living, or climate emergency. If none of those will do, then in the UK the Conservatives will create an economic crisis for no reason, just to keep us on our toes.

During the pandemic, education adopted a form of crisis pedagogy, which was often based around the Zoom lecture, with some elements of distance learning sprinkled in as time and resources allowed. As I’ve banged on about repeatedly, online learning saved much of education here. With the cost of living crisis, this may be reversed and we may see the function of a physical campus become more useful over the distributed model. If students (and staff) can’t afford to heat their homes then opening up warm study spaces for all students to work in will become a key offering. Factor in potential power failures which will affect internet access and home study, then access to physical resources may become more desirable again. But then again, in some versions of this it will make more sense to stop heating big, inefficient campus building and just give students money to heat their own homes.

The next crisis (choose a crisis, any crisis) may flip this again and see the distributed model become attractive again. If we accept the notion of continual crisis then higher education (probably all education, but I’m no expert on schools and teachers have enough non-experts offering advice to last them a lifetime) will need to think about what a pedagogy of crisis looks like. There are a number of elements to this off the top of my head:

Embedding a pedagogy of care – students and staff are not automata. The emotional and practical impacts of living through crises take their toll (I don’t know about you, but I find 12 years of a Tory Government just exhausting). We will need to get better at exercising care and embedding it within our course design, whether this is more flexible assessment, adaptable study patterns, access to support.

Resilience in course design – the pandemic revealed some brittle elements in much of higher education, such as the face to face exam. Incorporating elements into course design that are likely to be more robust given the arrival of crises needs to be done by looking at all aspects of a course (or whole degree) and determining where potential weak points arise.

Developing educator expertise – it is difficult to put more emphasis on educators, but institutions will need to invest in staff who can easily switch modes of delivery as situations demand.

Agile governance and administration – related to the previous point, if an educator feels they need to switch the delivery mode, or change the media mix in their course to deal with a crisis, it is counter-productive if this then necessitates approval by three separate boards that meet at 6 monthly intervals.

Flexibility in delivery – HEIs are going to have to get accustomed to operating a set of complex sliders that effectively dial up or down aspects of face to face and online delivery, access to resources, homeworking support, IT demands, etc. These will have different financial requirements and support models, but by having options already in place the continual emergency mode can be avoided.

Depressing and tiring to even think about isn’t it? But I feel we’re at the stage now where waiting for normal to come back is like hoping Oasis will get back together. It’s not going to happen, and would probably be terrible if it did (a lack of crisis would create a vacuum for a new crisis?). Anyway, here are some cute penguins embracing the crisis lifestyle.

Ed Tech’s failure? Not so much

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I came across this paper by Justin Reich recently, which has the title: “Ed tech’s failure during the pandemic, and what comes after”. In it he argues that many had been promising a lot from ed tech, and then during the pandemic when it had the chance to shine, the experience was pretty miserable for lots of learners. His claim is mainly laid against the ed tech hype merchants (Christensen et al) who have been promising some tech driven revolution in learning for so long, and the Mitra Hole in the Wall, autodidact myth. These are what I referred to as ‘rapture’ solutions – emphasising the need for wholesale apocalypse and change rather than incremental solution.

In the pandemic these evangelists got a version of the apocalypse they have long talked of, but the payoff was not there. Reich emphasises that the problem with technology solutions is that they require a long time to develop skills to use effectively. he sums this up neatly as “every technology solution is also a human capital problem: New education technology tools are only as powerful as the communities that support their use.”

The title of Reich’s paper caused some initial hackles to raise, but the paper does a good job of setting out a more incremental, tinkering approach: “It may not be ideal to teach via email and Zoom meetings, but it’s better than calling students on the phone and mailing them packets of materials. And for all of the ways that math tutoring apps fall short of providing a comprehensive mathematics education, they can make positive contributions to student learning, both during the pandemic and after”. I’d agree with all his conclusions, so the paper is worth a read.

Beyond the paper, I’d phrase it more as a reality check for the Prensky/Mitra/Kahn simplistic view of technology revolution. But it also gives us a chance to frame what ed tech got right. It scaled up massively, almost overnight, with over 80% of the world’s population suddenly learning online. Complaining that this experience wasn’t always great is a bit akin to moaning about the customer service in the NHS at the time. The scaling up of response was the achievement, and that demonstrated the robustness of many of the underlying (rather boring) technologies and also the flexibility and commitment of educators. The failure was in the robustness of face to face education, and yet that is the model that must be adhered to in the view of many.

So, it’s about sharks, right?

In my previous post I talked about my uneasy foray into self promotion for my book, Metaphors of Ed Tech (did I mention I have a book out?). One key aspect of this is to have a clear visual identity. This makes posts on social media immediately recognisable and makes the book stand out from stock imagery photo type covers of young people pointing enthusiastically at computer screens. The GO-GN project has managed this better than almost any project I’ve worked on, through the theme of penguins, as drawn by Bryan Mathers.

25 Years of Ed Tech had a great Bryan cover (and remixer), so it was natural to call upon his services again for Metaphors. In conversation with Bryan we came up with a few options, that I thought I’d cover here and why we arrived at the Jaws themed one. These were just sketches so not fully worked up ideas.

DJ

The DJ metaphor refers to one mentioned in the book. I liked this one a lot (and the joke on the t-shirt). I think it would have worked well, but worried it might have “middle aged man trying to look cool” vibe to it. In a similar vein, there was this one:

Edupunk

This relates to the edupunk metaphor, and I loved the badges on the jacket for this one. But as a cover I felt it was perhaps off-putting to some. The following one was more general:

Spaceship

I liked the future and retro technology vibe of this one, but didn’t feel it really captured the book.

Collection

This one represented a number of the metaphors and in that sense, was very representative. We could have played with the different icons, but I felt that it lacked a distinctive punch.

USSR

This one in classic Soviet block style was a big favourite aesthetically. The brave new world of metaphors and a touch of space race.

Jaws

In the end we went with the Jaws themed cover. Mainly this was because I wanted a Jaws themed cover (and Bryan encouraged me to go for it if I liked it and AU Press said they would trust my judgement). It was also very distinctive, and would work well on social media I thought. It relates to one chapter but is also open to other interpretations: the shark is the danger of metaphors; the shark is technology coming for you; metaphors are the means to tackle the danger, etc. It also captures the playfulness of the book I hope, and sets the tone for the reader. It looks good on a t-shirt too.

You may think one of the others would have been a better option, and I flip-flopped like a Tory Prime Minister on them a few times. I feel in general though that as academics we often underestimate the value of such a visual identity.

Enduring self promotion

As you may be aware (I think I mentioned it once or twice), my book Metaphors of Ed Tech came out last week. Unless you’re a major author or published by a publisher with a massive marketing budget, it means a certain amount of self-promotion falls to the academic. For (some) academics this is extremely uncomfortable, and goes something like this “cough, oh, sorry to bother you, I appear to have published a book, it’s probably nonsense, no need to worry, thanks, sorry again”. Which is a shame because books take a lot of time to bring to fruition, and readers may even like them.

I follow a Facebook group, Books of Horror, which many independent horror authors contribute to. Through this I’ve come to appreciate how much hard work the modern author has to put in to getting their book noticed. It’s not enough to write a good (or not-so-good) book, authors are required to engage in multiple online communities, develop websites, attend conventions, run Tik-Tok, Instagram, Twitter accounts and generally be their own marketing manager. So with this partly in mind, here’s what I attempted for my own book:

Podcast with Terry Greene on Gettin’ Air. To be fair, Terry contacted me and it’s always fun to talk to him.

Edsurge podcast and article – I discuss how metaphors shape ed tech with EdSurge’s Jeff Young

DS106 radio show with Maren Deepwell. We had a lot of fun playing tenuously related metaphor tunes and chatting on DS106 radio:

Social Media. With the aid of images created in Canva by Maren, I posted something every day last week on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I apologise to those who follow me, but by the end of the week, you would at least be aware the book was out there.

Spreadshirt shop – a non-profit (to me) shop where you can buy mugs, t-shirts etc with that lovely Bryan Mathers artwork. Be the envy of your friends.

Blogging – I mean, no surprises there.

I don’t know if this was too much, not enough, or not the correct activities. I’m up for more suggestions. I’m not sure we’ll do an audiobook or podcast series this time, like that for 25 Years of Ed Tech. People really liked it, but that was down to Clint Lalonde and Laura Pasquini and took a LOT of organising. As academics we sort of engage in a form of slow-burn marketing through conferences, research papers, citations, networking, etc. But there is probably something we can learn from the more social media adept authors out there also, while not being toooooo annoying.

Metaphors of Ed Tech is out!

My 6th book (yes, we’re keeping count like Tarantino movies) is out now, published by Athabasca University Press. It’s openly licensed, with digital copy free to read (the print version should be available next month). It looks at a range of metaphors relating to educational technology, divided into the following sections:

  • General thoughts about Ed Tech 
  • The field of Ed Tech itself as an (un)discipline
  • Looking at specific technologies 
  • Criticism of ed tech approaches
  • Looking at elements of open practice
  • Specifically focusing on the Online Pivot and the relationship with ed tech
  • Metaphors relating to pedagogy 

I like to think there’s something in there for everyone, even if you don’t like or agree with all the metaphors. I had three main intentions in writing the book (apart from the ego kick of writing a book):

  • Understanding – educational technology is still a relatively new field, and one that changes a lot. Like with any new area, metaphors provide a powerful means to develop understanding.
  • Defence – how metaphors are used (by ed tech companies, academics, management, politicians, the media) shapes how that technology is deployed. It is important to be aware of, and critical towards, any metaphor that is used to describe technology and its usage.
  • Fun – Metaphor allows us to reason in a creative manner about technology, in a field that is often a bit, well, dry.

I think it’s a useful book, but hey, don’t take my word for it, look what Mark Brown said:

Weller provides an insightful analysis of competing and co-existing ‘ed tech’ metaphors and our complex relationship with them in a widely accessible manner anchored in both practice and critical scholarship. This refreshing and thought-provoking volume will be particularly valuable as we look towards the post-pandemic future.”

Or how about this fab quote from Maha Bali:

I love metaphors, and this book does something that very few ever do: it simultaneously invites creativity by inviting the reader to imagine, and criticality, by using metaphors to expose hidden aspects of educational technology not tackled by dominant discourse. It gives the reader the opportunity to step back and look at things differently, and in so doing, can potentially transform the conversations we are having

And lovely Dave White describes it as fun and robust:

A fun and robust read. Using the entertaining lens of metaphors Weller has deftly unpicked much of the dangerous ‘tech will save us’ thinking which surrounds digital education. This book will be fuel for papers, talks, and strategies across the education sector for years to come

So, I hope you give it a read, and find something in there.

Energy crisis and hybrid learning

First of all, the implications of the energy crisis for hybrid learning are waaaaaaay down the list of priorities. Many people in the UK are going to face incredible hardship this winter essentially choosing between food and heating ( this will happen elsewhere too, but the UK has uniquely managed to combine a set of factors such as Brexit, contemptuous leadership, lack of investment in renewables, a failed market approach, over-reliance on imported gas, etc to make this a real catastrophe). We have also seen many small businesses such as cafes and pubs facing incredible energy bill increases that mean they will have to close or start selling a cup of coffee for about £18.

So, yeah, let’s get it into perspective. But there will be implications I think. For a start, it will intensify the culture wars I mentioned in the previous post. Those who view online learning and working as essentially faking it, will use the energy crisis as a means to press this argument. It will be along the lines of “we’re heating these buildings because we have to, so get in and use them”. Alan Sugar, essentially a pickled onion belch given human form, is symptomatic of this view, as all people who work form home are ‘lazy gits’. So expect a ramping up of this rhetoric both from a general working from home angle but in higher ed more specifically about making more use of the campus, if it’s being heated with no-one there.

A consequence of this will be a hardening of position on both sides I expect. Those working from home and delivering online learning will see it as a response to the energy crisis, but at the cost of shifting expense to the individual. The home worker or home learner are paying for their own energy costs and will want recognition of this. The counter to this will be that institutions can’t afford to support both models, when their estate’s energy costs will more than triple.

This brings to the fore an economic tension at the heart of all hybrid operations. In some respects, hybrid seems the ideal solution, getting the best of both worlds, for example, the flexibility of online with the social connection of face to face. But from an investment perspective it puts many HEIs in a difficult position. They know that they need to be investing in a future that incorporates online aspects alongside face to face. But they are still largely in a face to face model, and that is what students, parents, politicians, funding bodies and the media demand from them.

The pandemic and online pivot highlighted the need for the emphasis on the first of these demands, building a more robust hybrid offering that could flex to fully online if needed. The post-pandemic backlash against online however has created an environment where they need to promote the latter demand of face to face provision. So they were already dancing on the horns of a dilemma before the energy crisis. This now exaggerates the claims of each, and drastically reduces the budget HEIs had to invest. Schools are facing a funding crisis with rising energy costs and HEIs will likely be hit hard also.

An example of this heightened dilemma might be something like: Many buildings are old and inefficient – should a university invest in constructing a new, more energy efficient building, or should they invest in a technical infrastructure and staff development for better online? They will probably try to do both, but as budgets are hit there may not be that freedom to do so. What would you do?

The fake online vs in-person culture war

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If there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past few years, it’s that the media and politicians love a fake culture war. There are several reasons for this: distraction (“Hey, why were you partying when we were all observing lockdown?” “Don’t worry about that, what about trans women using ladies loos eh?”); diverting blame (“Why is the NHS so underfunded?” “It’s all those greedy doctors”); making people feel superior sells (“Young people can’t afford houses” “Young people don’t work hard and save like you did”).

No group is safe from a culture war it seems: migrants, women, POC, young people, LGBT people, poor people, liberals, etc. So, it’s no surprise I guess that ‘being online’ would get caught in the net. For those of us in ed tech this comes in two guises: home working and online/hybrid education.

We’ve seen that after being the means that effectively saved education during the online pivot, it has now become the enemy. It’s strange the way this narrative repeats – front line workers were all praised during the pandemic, but are now often pilloried for being greedy (train workers, nurses) or lazy (teachers). That gratitude, respecting everyone attitude sure didn’t last long did it? So, having worked hard to help education keep on track, many educational technologists found themselves rewarded with a ruffle of the hair and a “thanks, now it’s time for the adults to take over” response. HEIs, educators and educational technologists were derided for not running back to the campus quickly enough. And in general any online learning was deemed to be inferior now that we’re back to the real thing.

This is also being played out in most sectors with regards to virtual or hybrid working. Unsurprisingly, Victorian turd monitor, Jacob Rees-Mogg, declared that civil servants must all return to the office full time (the mistrust that they were actually working otherwise was a special thank-you for all their hard work during the pandemic). Even Elon Musk, the tech-bro’s Gordon Ramsey, demanded that Tesla staff return to the office or ‘pretend to work somewhere else” (he really is the asshole’s asshole).

The message is clear – online is pretend, in-person is real. Of course, it’s a false dichotomy, aimed at provoking the reactions I mentioned at the outset. But nevertheless, it is a narrative that is easy (see this more innocent Transport for Wales ad for a version of it). And simple narratives are powerful for many people, so even if everyone involved knows that it’s nonsense, you can still end up spending a lot of your time refuting it (for example, responding to monitoring about face to face time, or writing pointless blog posts).

I don’t have anything profound to say here, but the combination of online learning and online working (whether wholly or hybrid) is likely to give this culture war momentum. And for those of us in ed tech, it’s a storm we will be at the centre of, so be prepared to have rational, well thought arguments to counter it. And then for those to be completely ignored.

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