Maybe more isn’t better

Pondering

In education (and ed tech especially) we have a number of assumptions that seem obvious and they drive a lot of our thinking, particularly around change and implementation of technology. They usually get positive responses when you ask people about them, and often they are valid, but I’ve had a few examples recently that highlight the value in questioning some of those unspoken beliefs.

The first assumption is “Personalised learning is better” – I mean, that seems obvious right? It’s better to have something tailored to your needs rather than one size fits all? That’s probably true, but this report found that students in personalized schools feel less positive about their experience. I don’t know enough about how the programmes are implemented to say whether this is a problem with personalisation per se or just poor implementation. But we should pause anyway – personalisation erodes the sense of a cohort and shared experience with others, which is a significant part of the educational process. It may also place stress on the student to feel like they need to direct their own learning as well as undertake it, maybe doing just one of those is enough.

The second assumption is that “People want more flexibility”. Again, this seems obvious, and indeed may well be correct in many instances. But at the EADTU conference I was struck by a presentation from Rieny van den Munckhof, from the OU Netherlands. They found that, echoing some of the sentiment around personalisation above, that their previously highly flexible model (start any time, take exam when you want), was in fact, too flexible. It worked for highly independent learners, but they’ve switched to a more structured approach. This has improved retention and allowed for more interactive pedagogy.

My last one is that “more feedback is always better”. I don’t really have any evidence on this, but here’s an anecdote instead. I recently had real time energy meters installed, which came with a handy display to show my current gas and electricity usage. This became a source of some anxiety for me, and in the end I unplugged it and hid it in a drawer. In some sense it did it’s job, making me more conscious of energy usage. For the planet, that’s good, but putting that aside as it less relevant for our student analogy, I’m not sure it was worth the cost. I may save a few pounds on each bill, but not drastically, and the stress of seeing that monitor continually telling me not to cook a Sunday dinner removed enjoyment from it. Might the same be true for students with learning analytics? Receiving continual feedback on page dwells, scores, contributions, creates a stress to monitor the monitoring rather than engage in the activity. The research on immediate and delayed feedback is mixed, so maybe for some students a general “you’re doing ok” is sufficient.

In all three of these cases(personalisation, flexibility, feedback), I’m sure you can find examples where they have improved satisfaction, performance, retention, etc. But we shouldn’t let these unspoken assumptions pass unchallenged, because huge industries and major university strategies which will affect thousands of learners are based on them.

Mapping the open education landscape

This post follows on from the previous one, which focused on the Open Education Beginners Guide. In this I want to look at the citation network in more detail. To restate, this work arose from some initial research Viv Rolfe did, exploring the references for open education. Using a bibliographic search for “open education” and related terms, she identified a set of publications in the 1970s and 80s, which referenced earlier foundational work. This work was largely a product of the growth of open universities and distance learning. However, what is more latterly often meant by open education (particularly in the US) rarely relates to this earlier work.

Katy Jordan then did some excellent citation network analysis, whereby each paper links out to its references, creating a spreading activation network. We started by using an initial sample of 20 articles based on the following search: ((“open education”, “open learning”, openness)AND(history,definition)). She then:

  • extracted references from each article into a spreadsheet listing ‘source’ and ‘target’ items, removing duplicates
  • imported the CSV files into Gephi for network analysis
  • conducted a further iteration of references that were cited by at least two of the original articles.

We then identified any gaps in the literature based on our collective expertise, and suggested further key references which might provide useful ‘seeds’. This gave a final network of 5,217 references from 172 articles. This gave the overall network shown below. You can explore a very fun and useful interactive version of this at Katy’s site which allows you to select each node (which corresponds to an article) and get citation and network info.

This network provides a means of visualising the broader open education landscape. What does it tell us then? Firstly, it reinforces the sense that Viv had from her work, and our grumpy old people’s conversation later, that the main references for ‘traditional’ distance/open education (the bottom right) are rarely referenced by ‘later’ open ed movements of OER, MOOCs, etc. But it also highlights that there is not much overlap between any of the areas, that is they rarely share references, and as a result any common understanding. Open education in schools seems worryingly out on its own also, with little connection into the broader OER or Open Practice community. Some clustering is understandable, for instance the area of open access publishing has developed on its own path, and often relates to very specific issues of library practice. Similarly social media (academic use of Twitter for example), is probably a bridging topic into other areas, such as digital scholarship, network society, etc. You could imagine this network expanding from here into other areas.

My two take-aways though would be:

  1. There needs to be greater overlap and shared understanding between these groups
  2. Open practice seems to be an emerging area, and this may provide some of this ‘connective’ tissue between the various domains.

It’s worth stressing some of the limitations of this study (the starting sample could be bigger, the starting references will influence the resulting network, further iterations could be implemented) – it should be seen as a starting point, rather than the definitive mapping. But nevertheless it provides a useful means of both approaching a topic, and thinking about the broader open education community.

Openness & Education – a Beginner’s Guide

At last year’s OpenEd conference Viv Rolfe gave an interesting presentation on how Open Education had forgotten its past. She found that many of the early papers which explored pedagogy, the social function of open education and critical perspectives was largely unreferenced. She got talking to Irwin DeVries, and they pulled me into their side project also. We were interested in seeing whether we could in some sense ‘reclaim’ this past and broaden some of the references and understanding within the broader open education movement.

Back home I brought Katy Jordan on board, and she developed a citation analysis approach to try and map the ‘open education’ landscape. We seeded this with references, which Katy then scraped, and followed up, scraped their references, etc, and fed this into Gephi, to produce a network of citations. I’ll talk more about this in another post. From this we went back and tried to make sure we weren’t missing any large areas or key references. You can see the network that arose from this approach over on Katy’s site.

The groupings in this network are highlighted below (the boundaries and labels are a subjective interpretation). There is also a timeline view.

Using these groupings we then created a Beginner’s Guide, which gives an overview of the topic and summaries of some key papers in that area. We tried to provide a range of papers, not just the big hitters, and also type (eg some blog posts). This was created primarily as a resource for our GO-GN students, but I also think it’s a useful document for any researcher or practitioner who comes into open education. One of the characteristics I like about open ed is that people come to it from multiple disciplines, there are philosophers (so many philosophers :), psychologists, computer scientists, historians, educationalists, etc. But this diversity added into an area that itself is an umbrella term for many different interests as the network diagram illustrates, means that we are often missing key points of understanding. It’s our hope that the guide allows some more interdisciplinary dialogue between these different groupings and also helps those new to the area make connections between their own interest and some of the historical and theoretical underpinning (I’d also suggest it’s useful for anyone joining an open university as a staff member to know where their institution is located in this space).

I’d like to emphasise this is not an attempt to create a discipline (I’ve learnt that lesson 😉 ). And there are dangers in this approach – although we tried to have a range of references, any such approach can end up reinforcing existing biases in the system. There is something of a Matthew Effect which a collection of recommended reading can only add to. We hope the network can expand and it would be useful in a next stage to take Katy’s approach and automate it so that we can seed the network with different articles to create different flavours of network, which would foreground other literature. Anyway, we hope you find the Guide, network and timeline are useful tools, which the community can build upon.

My part in the battle for Open (universities)

The Open University Northern Ireland

Last week I was at the ICDE conference in Toronto. Here I attended a meeting of the OERu, and gave papers on our OOFAT work, and reclaiming open history, as well as running a workshop for the GO-GN/Global Doctorate network. There was a common theme (beyond my bumbling) running through all of these, which was the nature of open, distance education.

Prior to Irwin and I talking about the work on reclaiming open history (I’ll blog this later), Ross Paul talked about the history of Open Universities and their future. He stressed the influence that the UK OU, and open universities in general had in higher education in general, in changing the narrative around who higher education was for, and how it could be delivered. But single mode universities now face an uncertain future. Our own Vice Chancellor has been writing about the impact that fees have had on part-time students. The approach to fees arises from a mindset that still sees full time, 18-22 year olds on campus as the norm, with degree completion the sole aim. The retired 65 year old, studying one or two Spanish courses for interest (say), isn’t well served by a model designed with the former in mind.

This, plus competition from other universities (in this open universities have been a victim of their own success), has created a challenging environment for the OU. This has led to much soul searching and significant reorganisation, which may be required but also creates an uncertain context for those working there. Many of my colleagues have left, or are looking for jobs. I confess, while I haven’t been actively looking for jobs, I’ve not NOT been looking either. But the combined effect of these discussions provided me with a mini-epiphany: The OU is my kind of institution, and I should stay and fight for its future (and open universities in general). You’ve got to believe in something, right?

The reason I believe in the value of a single institution provider (rather than distance ed being covered by a range of HEIs) comes largely down to scale: a large scale, national provider gives many benefits you simply don’t get when part time is devolved to lots of smaller departments in other universities. Those providers will hardly ever prioritise part-time, distance ed over their main cohorts, it is always a nice extra. A single, large scale institution provides some counter-balance to the dominant narrative and perception of higher ed students mentioned above. Scale also makes some things possible that are unviable when diluted, or at least operate better at scale: some niche courses can only operate at a national scale; expertise in distance and online ed can be focused (and, no, MOOC providers haven’t replaced this, they just have a range of more or less unicorn business models); student community and body; national employment initiatives (eg apprenticeships) support services; a national presence in international forums.

So whatcha gonna do about it Martin? I pondered this a lot (while running very slowly around the Toronto marathon, running a long distance is good for thinking, bad for hips). I’m going to borrow from Catherine Cronin’s work on sharing practice for individuals and repurpose it. Catherine suggests four levels: macro (global level), meso (community/network level), micro (individual level), and nano (interaction level). Putting these levels to work in how what I do can be shaped to a broader goal of helping the OU, I get:

Macro: Reclaim and refresh the broad Open narrative – I write a lot about open education in general, and how the OU sits in relation to this. As I’ve often bemoaned, there is sometimes a sense that open ed was created in the US with the invention of OER (or MOOCs). The work I’m doing with Irwin, Katy and Viv Rolfe on reclaiming the open history explicitly attempts to locate the different elements of open ed in a broader context. We are creating a starter pack on literature and through projects such as GO-GN I intend to not just raise awareness of open universities in this context but attempt to bring together the sometimes disparate research/practitioner fields. If I can be immodest, I think I’m well placed to do this sitting in the intersection of a lot of these communities, and there’s benefit on all sides to doing so. It might also help new OU staff also to understand where their institution sits.

Meso: Continue redefining what constitutes an Open University – the OU defined a model of what ‘open education’ meant. Over the years this has been tweaked and new elements have been added and emphasised. Open source software, OER, MOOCs – the OU has managed to stay abreast of these and adapt what it means to be an Open University accordingly. The next challenge to incorporate is open educational practice – how do we operate more openly, in terms of teaching, research, administration. I have a sense that whatever the OU tries to become, it won’t go far wrong if it has open values at the core. Without those it’s just a big provider and loses any sense of distinctiveness.

Micro: Advocate for OER use internally to the OU – the OU has been very good at creating OER (through OpenLearn), but less inclined to use it. I feel there is an opportunity through projects such as Open Textbooks UK to raise the profile of OER use within the OU. This has some practical benefits – reduced production of bespoke material, courses that can be adapted more readily, but also helps better locate the OU in some of this field which aids its profile.

Nano: Helping module design – using the hypothesis and evidence approach we developed on the OER Research Hub we are looking at examining hypotheses around OU course production and providing an evidence base that will help increase elements such as student retention.

That’s all I’ve got for now, and some need fleshing out more. I reach 23 years OU service next year, and the past week has made me realise afresh how much I value it as an institution. Maybe in the future they won’t want old timers hanging around saying things like “I remember when we used to do two weeks summer school every year” but for as long as it’s possible, I’ll  do my best to ensure the OU continues to provide a model for open education, and feel reinvigorated to do so. Of course, there’s a strong possibility that like a toddler ‘helping’ their parent with a task, the OU doesn’t want, or need my help, but there you have it.

 

 

Cellini’s blood of digital scholarship

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I was invited to Florence last week to give a keynote on Digital Scholarship. After the talk I had a walk around that beautiful city, and saw Cellini’s Perseus in the Plazza della Signoria. Looking at the statue with digital scholarship thoughts in my head, I regretted not having made it the springboard metaphor for my talk. It is, also I’ll admit, an attempt to irritate Jim Groom further with ridiculous metaphors. Like any great work of art Cellini’s Perseus can bear many different interpretations, many of them contradictory, and also suggest meanings that were never intended. So here is the talk I should have given: “Cellini’s Perseus – the Lessons of Digital Scholarship”.

The first of these is about representations of power, and more explicitly misogyny. If you’ve ever seen Cellini’s statue of Perseus you’ll know that it’s a visceral, dynamic, challenging piece of work. But it’s also a blatant representation of misogyny. Even at the time, Christine Coretti argues that the statue was intended to legitimize patriarchal power, and was in response to the growing power of Medici women. But further, the Medusa has long been a symbol of male oppression of female power. As Elizabeth Johnston argues the Medusa is a recurring theme, and can be seen as the original ‘nasty woman’.  Cellini’s statue was a major technological achievement, according to Cellini’s own account it was a Frankenstein act of insane, life-giving creation. This new use of casting allowed for a more realistic, vital medium, challenging the lifeless form of marble. This offered new possibilities, new means of interpreting and representing the world. But, as with online platforms we find that this new technology and representational form reinforced existing power structures, and indeed sought to legitimise them. When Rose McGowan is banned from Twitter while Richard Spencer continues happily it is easy to conclude that as with Perseus, so with Social Media.

The second interpretation is to view Medusa more straightforwardly as a monster, but one of our own making. When we look into its gaze, we are made inhuman. This is an obvious metaphor for the dark side of the internet. We created this platform and for all of its potential and positive elements, we have also unleashed the monster of trolling, fake news, alt-right, gamergate, etc. But Perseus can be seen as hope in this sense, we must slay the demons we have created by reflecting its own gaze back at it. The role of education is to act as Perseus shield in this respect, to develop literacies, tools and communities that use the communicative power of the internet as the means to take power away from the trolls.

The third lesson for digital scholarship relates to the famous blood of Cellini’s Perseus. Michael Cole has a whole article devoted to the discussion of the portrayal of blood, which was deemed shocking at the time, the John Carpenter gore merchant of its day. What the simultaneously realistic and otiose representation of blood flowing from the head and neck do is posit the viewer at the moment of death, the transition from the living state. The blood “reveals what life drains from the face and the limbs” as Cole puts it. In this Cellini’s Perseus reminds us what death really means. This continual connection to reality, to what our actions mean, how algorithms manifest themselves in people’s everyday lives is lacking from much of the ed tech industry. They all need a constant reminder like Cellini’s blood running through software coding sprints and venture capitalist huddles. It is the social impact of ed tech that we need to be grounded in.

Those are my (yes, tortuous) lessons for digital scholarship that can be found if you spend too long hanging around Florence with a head full of keynote and discussions. I’m sure given enough time I could extract some more. It’s a reminder to me to try and connect my talk with location anyway – or maybe not.

The privilege of risk

Swim at your own risk

Another of those values that has seeped into everyday life from start up culture is the cherished status of risk. You know the inspirational quotes people like to post on Twitter “the biggest risk is not taking a risk”, “those who will not risk, will not win” etc. And I get it, personally and professionally it’s useful to take risks. But I’ve also been struck by how this deification of risk is really a proxy for justifying privilege: I deserve it because I was willing to take the risk. But risk is itself, often a privilege.

The research that concludes that entrepreneurs don’t have a propensity for risk, they just have wealthy parents backs this up. It is less of a risk to start a company if you can be supported while doing so, and have fall back options. But it’s not limited to taking risks with your own career, it means they’re happy to risk other people’s welfare too. Sherri Spelic highlighted this piece in which a US senator talks about how he had no idea healthcare reform could be so difficult, and had no experience in doing it. But he went ahead and tried anyway. You just know that rhetoric around risk would have been bandied about, “we can only make great change by taking great risk”, that kind of thing. But of course, he wasn’t taking any risk. What he was risking was the lives of many americans. A senior manager once told me they loved risk, and I remember thinking, ‘but you aren’t affected by it’. They’d go on to a well paid job elsewhere, and not only would they be untouched by any failure of their risk but it would likely boost their status. They become a person willing to take risk, which has increased currency. This is not the case for someone who may be made unemployed in their late 50s with little chance of re-employment as a result of the change they sought to introduce.

Risk is also a privilege of age. When I worked on T171, the OU’s big elearning course, I did so without it being sanctioned by the OU. After it’s success John Naughton publicly praised the risk I’d taken in doing this, as I was on a temporary contract at the time and could have taken more secure routes to getting a permanent post. But while I felt flattered to be portrayed as brave, the truth is I was young, not yet married and didn’t have any idea that I should be doing anything different. I was naive more than courageous. I’m sure we all have similar stories. And yet, it is tempting as you get older to confer a status of glory to this, that is unmerited.

Risk becomes a vehicle by which privilege reinforces itself – only the privileged can take risks and only risk is rewarded. Which is not to say we should all be cautious and people or institutions should never venture to do unusual things. But I always have a suspicious antenna twitch when people glorify risk and ask “who was really at risk?”

What I learnt from being a student

The Student

Yesterday I submitted the thesis for my MA in Art History at the Open University. I completed the MA in History a couple of years ago also, so I’ve had about four years of experience of being a part time student. At the risk of being like one of those ‘woke’ pieces where proper students will scream “yes, we’ve been saying that for years!’, here are some of the things I’ve (re)learnt, from the perspective of being an educator while also studying:

Everyone should do it – I don’t mean study a subject for career development (although that’s nice), the content isn’t the important part. Do it for the experience of being a student again. Particularly if you’re developing online or part-time study then definitely do it (and hey, we’ve got lots of nice courses at the OU in all disciplines).

Small stuff is big – for all the talk of revolutionary pedagogy, personalised learning, disrupted education, what really matters most of the time is the straightforward, everyday matters: do I know what I should be doing at any given time? Can I access the material? Is it clearly written? Can I get support within a reasonable timeframe? Is it set out so I can plan my time effectively?

Don’t design for the perfect student – I’ll be honest, I was not a model student. I was what is often termed a strategic learner. Partly (and a tad ironically), work pressure at the Open University meant my study on an Open University course was compromised. I needed to find the most effective path through a course (basically focussing on assessment). But that is not to say I didn’t get a lot from it, so ensuring there are paths through the course that don’t assume full capacity but are still rewarding is essential.

Engaging and challenging – apart from the small things mentioned above, what I also wanted from my course was for it to be challenging (in that it made you think about things differently, for instance the first block of the Art History course really dismisses the whole ‘lives of famous artists’ approach to art history, which is the naive view I had of it). And I want it to be engaging, in that there is enough there for me to dig into (without getting lost). I’ve mentioned before that I came to like assessment because this forced me to engage with the content and bring it together. So it’s not just about making sure as educators we cover topics A to E but also that the student wants to learn about them.

Give me a reason to interact – given my time constraints, I didn’t do much interaction in the forums. And this was fine with me, I was glad the course didn’t make lots of interaction compulsory just for the sake of it. But also without a major prompt to do so, it was easy to avoid interaction all together, and if this was my first time studying, that would be a shame.

It made me vulnerable – and not in a cute puppy way. I am from a science background and so don’t have any art history knowledge. I was therefore winging it a lot of the time, and didn’t have the vocabulary or the depth of knowledge most of my fellow students had. I would have been reluctant to have been forced to display this scarcity of knowledge in the open, so I was grateful for a closed environment, and careful feedback from tutors to scaffold my learning. Having said that, I think some of the stuff I’ve written is mildly interesting, so maybe we could have found ways of sharing it more openly. But the important aspect was to be reminded of how vulnerable the whole learning process is.

Looking over those, I have a renewed appreciation for why education is often perceived as being conservative. I wonder how many radical educational change gurus have actually been students (particularly in an unfamiliar subject) recently? Which is not to say students aren’t up for trying something new, but often in a limited, controlled manner. And my take away as an educator is that we should focus on improving these elements rather than demanding their wholesale replacement (but that’s always been my line I guess). Also, breaking news – education isn’t broken, kinda works ok, and is rewarding. I don’t expect that’ll be a headline anytime soon though. Seriously though – as an educator, the best thing you can do is go study again. Mind you, I’m looking forward to spending my Saturday mornings just listening to vinyl and looking wistfully out of the window again.

When this is all over, we still have to clear up

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Let’s be optimistic (remember optimism?) and assume that US and UK politics will return to some sense of normality within the next five years, and, you know, actual competent politicians will run the country. Only then will we really see the damage of the current period. For a start, I worry about the mental health of people having to endure this period. Waking up to a new piece of insanity and attack on humanity every morning is wearing. Being perpetually angry, frightened, vulnerable, confused is just exhausting. When we’re in it you keep going, but like looking after young children or going through a painful divorce, it’s only afterwards you look back and think “how did I do that?”. A lot of people will carry the toll of this period for a long time.

Then there is the social cohesion impact. Families and friends have been pushed irrevocably apart in a way that normal left/right divides never achieved. This is no ‘on both sides’, the rhetoric has been pushed by the right to a point of no return. The new right portray themselves as brave, free thinkers, but I’m guessing the old right just knew you couldn’t push it this far – they knew there was no coming back if you did and from there no-one wins. You don’t go on a Nazi rally at the weekend, and then come in to work on Monday like it was an outing to the mall. And you don’t say you support someone who backs that rally, then move onto talking about the football. There are no gentle comedies waiting to be made of this era which portray family members initially arguing bitterly but coming to understand that each side has a point. When one side wants to deny you or your friends’ right to existence, there is no common middle ground.

And then there is the damage to democracy, politics, the media and the role of the public figure. If lying is just ‘meh’ now, what does that mean for any of this?

But from our perspective, what is the role of education after all this? I’ve talked about combatting the unenlightenment, but the whole role of education will be shaped by how we look back on this period. These are some of the areas we will need to address:

  • Educating network savvy students – dealing with fake news, engaging in meaningful debates, understanding the role of tech companies, data, privacy and the social impact of all this will be cross cutting. Computer science degrees can’t operate now without understanding how algorithms shape power, and social scientists can’t work without appreciating how platforms shape identity. Pick a subject and the social element of the network needs to be part of the curriculum.
  • Digital scholarship – I’ve been updating my digital scholarship talk for someone recently, thinking about what has changed since I wrote the book in 2011. Then it was a case of ‘hey you should try using this stuff, it could be interesting for education’. Now it’s more a case of ‘we have a duty to use this stuff to help shape its future’. That’s a very different context for an academic.
  • Public engagement – how do academics and universities help shape the public discourse and politics so that facts, truth, knowledge, experts and research are no longer dismissed as irrelevant?
  • Building platforms and communities – interdisciplinary work involving tech experts, psychologists, designers, social scientists etc must help inform the next wave of platforms so that they facilitate the sort of discussion and community we once hoped for on the open web.
  • Policy – helping shape policy that makes democracy functional again.

This is quite a big shift in education, far beyond the ‘let’s get digital’ mantra. Maybe that’s too much to ask for education, but we need to start looking to a time when we’re not just firefighting but actively learning the lessons from this period and helping to shape a more functional, and hopefully positive, future. Assuming there is still a world with people in it by then, of course.

Rewilding EdTech

Wolf Park - BW Howl

At ALT-C I was having a conversation with Amber Thomas about our mutual friend Ross MacKenzie’s interest in rewilding in Scotland. There are many different approaches to rewilding it turns out, but the two main ones are top down – reintroducing the big fauna such as wolves into a habitat, or bottom up, where you start at the bottom of the food chain and reintroduce small scale flora (and remove invasive species). Anyway, that’s my very basic understanding of it, my apologies if I’ve got it completely wrong.

This got me thinking that rewilding might be an idea we could take to ed tech. Much of the early enthusiasm around ed tech was that it was, as Brian Lamb used to characterise it, fast, cheap and out of control. But as it gained significance and a more central role in the university system it became more robust, and controllable. This is a good thing – students don’t want the system they need to submit an assignment at midnight to be flaky. But inevitably there has been a loss of some of the innovation that was prevalent when there were greater freedoms, as university processes and regulations have solidified around enterprise systems.

Rewilding offers a metaphor here, so I went searching to see if others had written about it, and came across this piece by Aaron Davis where he talks about rewilding education. In ed tech terms we would want to introduce tools into the ecosystem that would encourage some of the innovation we saw previously. But as with introducing wolves, it has to be done carefully, you don’t want tourists attacked and you don’t want students caught in frustrations with unusable systems. The two approaches to rewilding offer pointers here. A bottom-up approach might be to introduce some small scale, low impact tools, such as SPLOTs which encourage some of the pedagogic innovation, without becoming a system wide tool (as Jim Groom says, “let’s get small“). The more top-down approach is not to introduce a big system, but rather to tackle the policy issues – incentivise the use of such tools, make the IT infrastructure capable of supporting them, allocate resources and remove barriers. I’m convinced there’s a more interesting ed tech ecosystem out there.

A mixed data tools diet

World's Fair Food Circus, 1962

I was at ALT-C this week, and enjoyed Sian Bayne‘s keynote on using Yik Yak to explore ideas around anonymity, data privacy and ephemera. Sian made the argument that while abuses certainly happened on Yik Yak, the experience of Edinburgh students was largely a positive one, and one of the key aspects of this was the anonymity of the user. And non-persistent id anonymity in particular, so you didn’t have the same identifier every time, which adds to the ephemeral, temporary nature of the discussion. For students, and young people, (but hey, maybe for all of us), I can see how anonymity allows you to explore different aspects of your personality, as this is still forming. But also it just made asking questions and being open easier for many students.

Sian made the point that for companies that ant to make money selling our data, anonymity is bad news. They need to know who you are, and for you to have a persistent identity. She had a very nice summary which was along the lines of ‘when we promote the moral panic around anonymity, we are doing the work of data capitalism’.

Some of the questions afterwards concentrated on the benefits of not being anonymous, and downsides of anonymity. But I think this is to view it as an either/or. In reality those students using Yik Yak would have had a reasonable collection of tools (I’m not calling it a PLE), including Facebook and others that rely heavily on not being anonymous. What we might like to promote then is encouraging students to avoid a monoculture in relation t how platforms use their data and id. Imagine it being like a healthy diet infographic. Platforms could be colour coded as to how well they handle things like transparency around data, dealing with anti-social behaviour, user ownership of data, persistence of data, anonymity, etc. If you’re just using the big bad ones, it’s like being on a burgers only diet. A burger may be fine for some occasions bit you want to make sure it isn’t all your having. This would include university systems also, such as the VLE.

In the Virtually Connecting session afterwards Anne Marie Scott joined us from Edinburgh, and she has been writing some interesting stuff about platforms and ephemera. We discussed whether ephemerality might make anti-social behaviour more or less likely. It might reduce it in that trolls seek the notoriety of having their name known, and want to persistently attack someone, so if it disappears and they can’t find the same person, then the attraction is decreased. But then again it may increase it because the impact and risk is removed, it could be a way of trialling being a troll. I don’t know, and expect it would be a mix of the two, but it’s an example of how we don’t consider some aspects of platforms, such as how persistence might influence behaviour, and take them as just how things are. So I was grateful for Sian’s talk to remind me of how we always need to be examining these aspects.

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