The VAR lessons for Ed Tech

I’ll apologise up front that this subject probably warrants a deep dive into VAR (video assisted referee) history and the role of technology in sports, rather than some quick thoughts. But watching the roll-out of the technology at the Men and Women’s World Cup tournaments, and now in the Premier League, it strikes me there are some general lessons to be learnt. Both ed tech and VAR involve the application of technology to fundamentally human enterprises, with the intention of improving them for those involved. There are of course, many differences too, education is not the same as a ninety minute game of football, but at this very generic level there are sufficient similiarities to bear consideration (and apologies if football/soccer is not your thing).

Firstly, on a positive note, there are aspects where it does help. Goal line technology for instance has removed the infuriating disallowed goals when a ball has clearly crossed the line. These very practical applications of technology in education, such as being able to submit assignments online, or conduct tutorials at a distance are benefits that are tangible for students.

However, it also provides a false confidence around aspects that are not reducible to minute measurements. VAR decisions where a ball has brushed a hair on someone’s hand, or a player is offside by a fingertip may technically be correct, but really the game and the rules were not developed to be so finely measured. Analytics in education can similarly give us so much data about student performance that it provides us with a belief that we can pinpoint exactly how the student is learning, whereas the process is much more inexact.

It makes us consider the role of humans in the system. Arguably, the application of technology in cricket has been more advantageous, with Hawkeye and a developed video review system to support increasingly complex decisions for umpires. In this it is similar to education, if the technology is used to support the humans in the system, it can be beneficial. There is a danger though that VAR makes the data the most important aspect, the decision could go to an AI system, just as tuition could be deemed a task for AI.

Much like a lot of ed tech, VAR didn’t solve the problem in the manner people envisaged. There had been an increasing desire for video technology to be applied to football, to solve bad offside decisions, missed penalty calls, goals that should have been disallowed. “If only we had video technology, this wouldn’t happen!” everyone declared. And that is sort of true, but instead we have arguments about whether decisions should or shouldn’t have gone to VAR, and then whether the fine calls I’ve mentioned above really should have been given. The controversy has just moved location it seems. Like the original injustices, one suspects that roughly these things will even out. But it’s difficult to say that in the end it’s really been worth it.

VAR relocates the areas of concern – for VAR it becomes not so much was that movement legal, but what about that incident in the build up? It goes back up the sequence in the search for justice. In education, technology can make us focus on doing things that are measured by technology, say activity in online forums, but ignore things like mental health issues.

As a Spurs fan, I think the use of VAR to rule out any Man City late winner is to be applauded and should be made compulsory in all their matches, but overall there is a danger that VAR dehumanises aspects of football. The point of our enjoyment in sport is that it is not an exact science, it is undpredictable and conducted by humans. Technology can certainly improve it, but its application needs to be cautious and our expectations for its results need to be measured. It will not lead to a sporting nirvana devoid of errors. Enjoying and accepting the messiness of it is part of its inherent appeal, and so it is with education.

Want to be a paperback writer

I’d been pondering recently that when I was young, my sole ambition was to be a writer. My fifth book is about to be published, I blog, I write course material, produce reports and publish papers. Writing is pretty much all I do, and yet I would never describe myself as a ‘writer’ if someone asked what I did.

Partly it’s because when I had in mind being a writer I dreamt of fiction, not ed tech books no-one reads. And also making my living from those books. But ambition is a peculiar beast, you get what you desire but don’t recognise it sometimes. I’ve managed to carve out a career which mainly revolves around writing, and yet ‘writer’ isn’t how I identify.

Then I read Kate Bowles piece today in which she reflects on the reasons she’s been finding writing difficult, and concludes that it’s because “I write too much of the wrong thing”, by which she means reports, proposals, updates – all of which “could fall into the sea tomorrow without loss”. I sympathise here – words are not a finite resource obviously, but our time is, and more significantly our intellectual focus to engage in writing. If you’ve spent all day writing bullshit words, then you’re used up for more writing, even if it’s writing good words. I suspect Kate may suffer from a higher quality threshold with her writing than most of us also, which makes it more difficult to just bang something out (witness my entire blog history).

I saw someone on twitter once comment something like “pretend you only have a handful of exclamation marks to use in your life, and allocate accordingly” (as an antidote to the fashion to add them to everything!). Thinking of writing similarly as a finite resource may not be a bad mental trick to deploy for yourself. Where are you going to use that allocation up today? Is that what you want to do?

This line of thinking also brought me back to some conversations we had on the back of Maha Bali’s post about whether we own our own domain, or merely rent it. Audrey Watters followed up on this, setting out how a domain of one’s own was about owning a space to write and think, “To own is to possess. To own is to have authority and control. To own is to acknowledge.” What Kate’s post reminds us is that a domain of one’s own is also about having your own space conceptually, and stylistically. As a writer that is essential.

In the days when I used to advocate for blogs unambiguously, I used to make the claim that they were a space where you retained much of the freedom to think and explore ideas which attracted you to academia in the first place. That claim is modified now by the more toxic aspects of online, but some such outlet is still required. It needn’t be public (some of the writing I enjoyed doing the most was when I kept a journal of being a father from when my daughter was 2 through to about 13, but I never wanted to share that), but there may be benefits in making it so. For one, it can make the need to allocate time to it easier or more valid – you are producing public outputs for all to see. And it helps shape the writing, and the connections – such as this one riffing off Kate’s post – make writing easier since you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting.

Maybe we’re pretty much all writers these days. If you described yourself as such, I wonder if we would treat that craft with more respect? Anyway, Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?

Your house is a very fine house

Generally I’m adverse to Twitter Quit Lit pieces (“How I turned off social media and learned to love life again”). I find them a) patronising (I’ve seen the truth and you poor suckers are caught in the trap), b) insulting and shallow (like when people live on minimum wage for a month and then make judgements about it) and c) egotistical (“I need to let my fans know I’m going offline, look everyone, I’m going offline!”). But with all that said, I have been thinking about social media usage, and taking more control over it recently.

As the world turns ever more into a bad parody of a satire written by a nihilist on acid, we all need to find ways of managing our own self care. Social media, and Twitter in particular, plays a not insignificant part in all this. You can only go so many days of being outraged 100 times before breakfast without it affecting you. One antidote to this is the more extreme full on quit, and I admire anyone who does that. But for many of us there is still value in it, and also a good deal of our professional and personal identity is wrapped up in those connections. So finding ways to manage it and make it a better environment for yourself are important.

With this in mind I am experimenting with the following:

Deleting Twitter from my phone – I tend to check twitter too much, and often when I should be doing something else (watching TV, listening to a conversation, walking the dog). So by deleting it that constant urge to check is removed, and by using Tweetdeck on my laptop, it places Twitter firmly in the ‘work’ category. I’m not removed from it but I have recategorised its use.

Muting words and phrases – Heidi Moore posted a pic of all the words she has muted:

You can do this via Settings – Privacy and Safety – Muted. She commented just how much it made her stream feel cleaner and less full of bile.

Blocking/Muting – I don’t get much hassle on Twitter (being a white male who writes about fairly uncontroversial stuff, I am not the recipient of regular death threats or unsolicited pictures of genitalia). But even then there are some instances I’ve had where people seemingly want to argue about something which is largely unrelated to anything I’ve written, but is clearly AN ISSUE for them. The sweet, sweet relief of just muting a conversation or an account is not to be understated. The aforementioned Heidi Moore has an ‘instablock” strategy for any jerks and enforces it rigorously.

Being fluid – you can mute, unmute, block, unblock, reinstall, etc. These are not permanent decisions. I have some misgivings about myself being over-zealous with muted words – could I really mute “Brexit” for instance? Would that mean I am living in a sanitised, detached version of the world? I haven’t muted that word yet, but there are days when I might. And that is fine. Which brings me on to the last tactic…

Taking ownership – all of these are really instances of one larger approach is that you can take control and shape your own social media environment to an extent. Educators often feel guilty about this, blocking people is not part of the socratic dialogue, and this sense of guilt is often used against them, so you’ll hear people reply “I thought education was about debate!”, if you’ve decided not to engage with their hot contrarian take. But don’t feel guilty, it is your space, and like a garden or house you construct it to bring you reward.

In general we have been learning how to use social media as individuals. It is now at such a pervasive and significant part of all components of society that turning it off is both difficult and not practical. But we can be more active in ensuring that our experience of it is better. The sort of social media training and development we give to staff and students needs to have this as a focus rather than increasing followers or brand. Because, as Lucinda Williams who I saw this week, puts it “I don’t need Donald Trump in my life”:

To re-know the known

I’ve had a couple of experiences recently that have made the familiar be seen in a new light, which if not exactly as new, is certainly fresh. The first was watching the film Yesterday with my daughter. This is a cheesy, cliche-ridden rom com with all the usual Richard Curtis tropes (what is it with him and public declarations of love?). And yet, the basic premise – that everyone forgets the Beatles existed except the main character – is quite profound despite all the other stuff. It makes you, the viewer, also hear those songs as if they are new. Occasionally you might find yourself somewhere, a European city in the summer say, and a busker will be playing a Beatles song. And just for a second or two you hear it afresh before realising what it is, and in that moment you appreciate the quality of those songs. This is what parts of the film do and it is enhanced when watching it with someone who has an awareness of their music, but not a big knowledge of their catalogue.

The second experience was also film related. As many will know I am a huuuuuge Jaws fan. But I’ve not really seen it on the big screen, I was only 8 or so when it came it, and the first time I saw it was at a holiday camp when I was 11, projected onto a wall. I’ve seen it a couple of times in similar circumstances since, but it currently has a proper, digitally remastered, cinema release. Watching this very familiar film on a big screen was both an exercise in nostalgia (I wanted to cheer as “SHARK ATTACK” is typed out), and it also allowed me to see it differntly. For instance, in the scene where Hooper visits Brody with wine, I found myself watching Scheider open the wine bottle rather than Dreyfuss talking. It struck me that this was a brave directorial decision, because he has to cut the foil off, and uncork the wine, which could easily go wrong and ruin the scene, but it makes it very natural.

What both of these examples illustrate is the possibility to re-know the very well known. Jaws and Beatles songs are amongst the most familiar of modern cultural artefacts that it might seem impossible to find anything new in them. While walking the dog I have been pondering how these examples had some resonance with a couple of experiences with education recently (you are correct – there is NOTHING I won’t pressgang into use as a metaphor for education). As someone who has worked in higher ed, writes about ed tech, and through TEF and ALT has a reasonable (although not David Kernohan-level) understanding of the sector, higher education as a whole becomes difficult to see anew.

The first of these experiences is signing up for another course (in Classical Studies). It doesn’t start until September, so I’m trying to get up to speed, not having studied it at undergrad level. I’ve written before about the value in becoming a student again. One of these benefits is that allows those of us who work in education to experience it from a different perspective, both practically (what is it like to navigate university systems?) and emotionally (how does it feel to be out of your depth in a subject?).

The second is the experience of visiting university open days with my daughter who is in the process of choosing where to study. From these I have I have come away impressed by the resilience of the university system as a whole. Despite being a political football, having REF and TEF thrown at it, fees, precarious labour practices, the impact of new technology, and numerous metrics and policies it needs to support, the core offering of higher education is still attractive. I came away wishing I was studying these courses. None of this is to gloss over the issues in higher education, but rather to recognise that despite all of these, educators, administrators and all staff are still enthusing people to want to study. That is something to be acknowledged and cherished, and seeing the system from the eyes of a prospective newcomer to it made me appreciate that.

Both of these are about the HE system as a whole, but more local versions exist also. For example, we found that using OER caused educators to reflect on their own practice. In my 25 Years series, I argued that the shift to online made people question appropriate pedagogy, often for the first time in their careers.

via GIPHY

The benefit in doing so is to gain a different insight into your own practice, and in something as slippery and varying as education, that is always useful. My conclusion then is roughly twofold: it is possible to see familiar things anew given the right impetus; it is useful as educators to find ways of realising this within higher education. Mind-blowing, right?

Flexibility as a key benefit of open

Fringe on the Mile 2016 0203

I was at a posh event in London last week, hosted by the Open University (I even wore a tie, people!). It was launching an OU report “Bridging the Digital Divide” which looks at some of the skills gaps in employment and how education can address these. It’s a good report, which avoids the trite “60% of jobs haven’t been invented yet” type statement and builds on some solid evidence.

As I chatted to Dames and Lords and fiddled with my tie, I reflected on that what is needed for many of these future employment scenarios is flexibility. This comes in various forms, and people often talk about personalisation but it is more about institutional and opportunity flexibility that is important. And this is where open education in its many guises has a lot to offer. I am not falling in to the trap of suggesting that the sole function of education is to gain or improve employment, but it is one aspect of the purpose of education. So, let me count the ways in which open education provides flexibility:

  • Mode of study – obviously one of the big innovations of the OU was to create a distance education, part time model that worked. Being able to study anywhere, and at your own time makes the whole prospect of study much more flexible. This is within some constraints, eg course start and end dates, assignment submissions, some collaborative activities. Complete flexibility may not always be advantageous but, this type of flexible mode opens it up to people who need to work or care and study simultaneously.
  • Pattern of study – as well as being able to study a course in a flexible manner, the period over which this occurs can be flexible in an open model. You can pause study, or just take one or two modules as you need. It is not a 3 year degree or nothing. However, if economies want this type of flexible learning then fee structures need to accommodate it, and our current UK fee system and associated metrics (eg TEF) is heavily geared towards the complete degree.
  • Degree structure – another aspect of openness is the Open Degree, whereby students can create their own degree structure, by selecting the modules they wish to study. In a shifting job market having a broad range of skills could well meet the needs better than specialisms.
  • Elements of learning – open education realised through MOOCs, OER and informal learning allows for a greater flexibility in what we recognise, different size chunks, and quicker responses.
  • Course production – use of OER & open textbooks to create courses, or accrediting MOOCs allows institutions to be more flexible in the courses they can provide, to suit changing needs.
  • Learner needs – while I am dubious of many of the claims for personalisation in learning, having multiple ways to approach a topic for many learners is undoubtedly useful. It has been prohibitively expensive to do this when you are creating courses from scratch (why produce three times the amount of content you need?), but entirely possible when you utilise OER.
  • Context – by using open content, it can be adapted by learners or specific communities to their context, which may well suit the needs of employers.

There are of course, many other reasons to study, and many other reasons to adopt open approaches, including learner satisfaction, performance, ethics, ownership, identity, dissemination, etc. However, if we constrain ourselves in this instance to look at the employment perspective then open ed makes a pretty good claim to being the route through which the type of flexibility we will need can be realised. In the new vein of open education however, the first three of these don’t really get mentioned, which is why I think we need to bring the strands of open ed together.

IET, the OU and identity

We had cake!

This week we held a celebration to mark 50 years of the Institute of Educational Technology, and also to say goodbye to a colleague who has been immensely influential for me and IET, namely Patrick McAndrew. I’m going to work both of these together into a post about institutional memory, history and greek mythology.

First up, some history of IET. I’ve blogged this before, but in being asked to do a short presentation (see below), I reflected on how educational technology was not some after thought or something that grew out of interest after a few years. It was embedded and deemed essential to the OU from the outset. The recommendation of the consultants who advised on the establishment of an Applied Educational Sciences Unit in 1969 stated that “emphasis was laid upon creating a staff that incorporated not only academic personnel distinguished in their respective disciplines, but also staff with special skills in all the methods of educational technology.” Bear in mind this is not ed tech as we know it now, but paper, assessment, TV, summer schools.

What this highlights is how central educational technology is, and was, to the OU’s operation. Appreciating the significance of people who might now carry titles such as instructional designer, learning technologist, learning designer or educational technologist and placing them on an equal footing to academics was as revolutionary as anything else the OU did. Here is my presentation:

(brief) history of IET from Martin Weller

Now, a brief complaint – I joined IET from the Technology Faculty in 2002. Since then we have been reviewed five times, been put in with different units, had our name toyed with, our priorities changed. The initial aim for IET was very clear. The approval to make the applied educational science unit permanent as IET in 1970, stated that it would:

“A group of educational technologists has been established within the University to assist in setting up, refining and extending the unusual instructional system to be employed. The instructional resources at our disposal (written texts, radio, television, study centres, regional tutorials, summer schools, etc.) should be developed in due course to have the following characteristics:

They will all have been extensively tested and validated on representative samples of students and volunteers.

They will make provision for individual differences, by permitting some choice of route and rate towards the course objectives.

They will utilise the various media and supporting services to best advantage.

They will demand participation from the student, and will provide him with frequent assessments of his progress.

They will provide the Course Teams with continuous diagnostic feedback as a basis for remedial guidance, revision and recycling.

Not only is that a reasonably clear list of objectives, it would also be a pretty good set of actions for the Institute now. IET has (I think) an excellent reputation externally, and some of the best ed tech researchers in the country with expertise in learning analytics, AI, mobile learning, assessment and open education. But these continual reviews and restructuring play with that at their peril. They are also enormously time-consuming and distracting.

Amateur philosophy time!

Which brings me on to Patrick’s departure. Under the previous VC there was a voluntary severance scheme introduced. So toxic had the environment become under that regime that many people have availed themselves of it, even though things have now improved. So many of my colleagues and friends have left over the past 6 months that I wonder if I will be the only left sometimes – we are witnessing the equivalent of a Thanos finger snap on campus.

There is a thought experiment about identity that you probably know, namely the Ship of Theseus. Upon returning from his labours, the ship of Theseus is kept in the harbour as a monument, but it must also be kept sea-ready. So over the years, planks are replaced, until eventually no original planks remain. Is it still the same ship is the question? According to Aristotle it is, because its form and purpose remain the same. If, as the planks were replaced they had reshaped it into a tower, then it wouldn’t be. The rate of change may also be significant, because it happens gradually there is no definite point where it ceases to be the old ship and becomes the new.

The same is true of organisations (yes, people as planks). The OU of 2019 is still identified as the same organisation because its purpose and approach have remained the same, even if actual buildings and most personnel have changed. But also, there has been continuity in staff over this time. The radical removal of many key staff in one stage is not catastrophic, but it worries at that notion of identity.

This is not to set change and constancy in competition. Both are essential (the ship would have rotted and fallen into the harbour if those planks were not replaced), but we often fetishise change and downgrade constancy. I acknowledge that simply having been here a long time is not sufficient in itself, us old timers need to be contributing too – I’m not suggesting the OU pays me for sitting in a rocking chair and occasionally barking out acronyms of long forgotten projects (although I am game for this if they are willing). But at the meeting this week it was clear how much we haven’t recorded of things we’ve tried, what worked, how to get things done, etc.

My takeaway I guess is firstly be wary of the type of wholesale change culture that was undertaken by our previous VC, which caused so many people to feel that leaving was an option. You toy with the devotion people have to an institution at your peril, because once they give themselves permission to think about leaving, it becomes inevitable. Secondly, to recognise value in what you have, because as I concluded in my talk, if we didn’t have an IET we’d now be spending a lot of money to establish one. Lastly, don’t be dismissive if you’re the newbie, I was the young guy thrusting for change when I started but, someday you’ll meet your rocking chair…

via GIPHY

Valuing emotional intelligence

Free Hugs, Coachella 2013 -- Indio, CA

I have the real privilege of being the lead on the GO-GN project, which if you don’t know, is a global network of OER doctoral researchers. It is by far the project I get the most from, since you see the real impact it has on people. Our members often talk about how much joining GO-GN has meant to them, using phrases like ‘finding my tribe’, ‘feeling like a member of a family’, ‘I no longer felt alone’.

A very important aspect of GO-GN is helping researchers develop intellectually, such as selecting conceptual frameworks, refining their methodology, sharpening research questions, etc. But, as the quotes above indicate, as important (if not more) is the emotional component of the project. Recently our fantastic Project Manager, Natalie Eggleston, left the OU, and this has made me reflect on the significance of this role. I’m sure all GO-GN members would acknowledge how significant the contribution is of people like Nats, and also the members themselves who offer this support to each other.

GO-GN is a project that supports doctoral researchers, and it’s a cliche but nonetheless true, that a PhD is a personal journey. So maybe the emotional aspect is greater in our project than others, but I would argue that is a vital element in all projects. If you’re conducting a European research on, say, credentialing guidelines for informal learning across Europe, then the manner in which those project partners connect with each other will have a significant impact on the overall performance of the project.

Yet, emotional intelligence is rarely an acknowledged part of any project. In truth, it’s easier to replace me in GO-GN than Natalie. Part of the problem is that measuring non-emotional stuff is easier. This brings us back to the issue around recognising certain types of labour because we can measure them, and (surprise!) the work that is less well recognised is often more likely to be undertaken by women. What is the KPI for emotional support – Number of hugs given?

I don’t have a solution to this (that seems to be a common refrain on here), but I want to recognise the contribution of people like Natalie who are often not those listed on publications, and the significance of emotional intelligence in a project.

Open Unis & Open Ed

Sometimes you read a post that encapsulates something you’ve been worrying at for a while. I had such an experience the other day when I read Tannis Morgan’s account of my own inaugural. In it, Tannis asks “But here’s the thing: how many people in the OER community in North America even know that Canada has three open universities, all of which were modelled after the UK Open University? And to what extent are open universities in Canada visibly inserting themselves into the broader open movement?”

The first part of her question is something I have asked more broadly on this blog. Or moaned about anyway, that the open ed movement as more commonly conceptualised in North America (OERs, Open textbooks, MOOCs) is largely ignorant of much of the open education movement that arose elsewhere in the form of open universities. But it is the second part of her question that struck home. Open universities globally have perhaps been guilty of being a bit aloof from engaging in the new emergent open education movement.

And there is mutual benefit in this exchange. For the OER/open ed movement there is much to learn regarding supporting diverse students, widening access to education (what is the aim of open ed after all?), developing education material that can be studied independently, understanding the needs of non-traditional learners, etc. But for open universities there is also much to gain. The new open ed movement has been more technologically driven, and the use of tools such as annotation, open textbooks etc can be used for traditional open ed students too. Similarly, there is innovation around open pedagogy, decolonising the curriculum, student agency, means of improving equity for students, and so on.

Bringing these two variations of open ed together more meaningfully then is worth pursuing. Tannis has done a lot of the heavy lifting in this area, but we can’t leave it all to her. This has helped me frame my own focus for the next phase of my work. As I mentioned an earlier post, I am now the Chair of the Open Degree Programme at the OU. This can be seen as old interpretation open ed, but I think it has potential to bridge into the new version also. Whether that’s the push for adoption of open textbooks, a domain of one’s own, open pedagogy etc in house is yet to be determined, but also the translation of open degree programmes in arenas where it could be a useful device. In short, I’m going to stand around at OpenEd/OER conferences with a badge saying “Ask me about Open Universities” and at Distance Ed conferences with one saying “Ask me about OER”.

Academicing with depression

D and Me

I’m going to blog some thoughts on being an academic with mild depression – I have no framing if that constitutes a big revelation or a ‘whateva’ moment, but thought I’d write it anyway. I say mild, I know it’s not a competition, and I know people who have really severe, debilitating illness far worse than mine. While I don’t suffer from bipolar or to anywhere near the same degree as Carrie Fisher, I can relate to her statement that “Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like weather—independently of whatever’s going on in your life.” While a bout can be caused by some (often trivial) trigger, it is soon not about that trigger, but rather an all pervasive degradation of mood, energy, focus. Luckily for me this period is rarely longer than a day or so, not prolonged, but could be deep when it came, and increasingly frequent.

Mine has always come and gone, I had been a pretty depressed teenager (but back then it was diagnosed as “being a miserable shit”), and while I’m of a melancholic disposition (I have the Joy Division & Smiths albums as evidence), I had mostly been ok through most of my adult life. In quick succession though I experienced divorce, combined with predictable mid-life crisis, living through Brexit crisis and then OU crisis, which led to a serious slump. I figured this was a reasonable, almost inevitable reaction.

But it persisted after the cause had faded and with increasing frequency and depth. I’m no expert but Yuval Noah Harari’s analogy in Sapiens resonated with me – we all have an internal air conditioning system (based on serotonin levels). For some people it ranges from 7 to 10, while others are set lower, say 4 to 6. This was what it felt like for me, if my normal range was, say, 5 to 8, it had now been recalibrated to 3 to 6. Then a couple of years ago it culminated when I found myself crying in Amsterdam Schiphol airport for no reason (although on reflection that may in fact be a perfectly reasonable reaction to Schiphol), and decided I should do something about it. I went onto some low dosage Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors. I appreciate that antidepressants are a contentious issue, but they worked for me. It felt like times when I might have previously gone into a spiral, my mood dipped down, bumped along the surface of that pit and then carried on.

But they made me kinda lethargic too, so I came off them at the start of this year. I felt my internal air conditioning levels had been reset. By the way, coming off them gives some trippy brain zaps for about a week. And mostly that’s been good, but I had a dip a few weeks ago, as if to just remind me “hey, I’m still here.”

Not so famous five

I believe that it’s different for everyone, and a lot will depend on individual circumstances, so this is no ‘how to’ guide. I deliberately haven’t made myself an expert in depression, so it’s just some tales from a sample of N=1. Here then are five thoughts on being an academic with this occasional problem.

I found that some of the bad stuff is also good – for example, the much talked about work-life balance, with people working at weekends being a contributory factor. That was true, I really needed to force myself to switch off. However, I have a pretty strong Protestant Work Ethic thing going on, so I feel guilty if I haven’t done the work I should do, particularly if that is a result of having a slow day due to depression. So sometimes, fitting in 3 hours on a Saturday morning clearing some tasks was a real benefit and alleviated rather than contributed to slump. It also made ‘having a slow day’ more bearable as I knew I could catch up, so I could afford to indulge it for a day often.

Now, let’s talk dogs, I had always loved dogs, but I didn’t appreciate how much of a boon they were. Seriously, dogs should be available on the NHS. The unconditional love is a much needed boost, but also, as a home worker, having a dog means I have to get out every day. With Teilo, my current dog, this is about 5 miles a day. The amount of times I have been heading for a slump, taken him out in the forest (often listening to a good audiobook) and by the time I come back, it has all shifted. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that my previous dog, Bruno, saved my life. But a dog is a commitment, so I would ask indulgence from work colleagues when I sometimes have to arrange things around my dog (I don’t like going away for more than a week for instance). I can see them thinking sometimes “it’s not a child, it’s only a dog for Chrissakes”. But it isn’t, he is doing so much more work than that, he’s putting in the hours.

Immersion in a self-enclosed, separate world was also hugely significant for me. In my case it was sports, and specifically, ice-hockey. I had an interest before then, but I really indulged it as antidote – getting a season ticket, travelling to away games, going on holidays based around it. I could make a case for why ice hockey in particular is the ideal choice, but in reality it doesn’t matter what it is – painting, music, ultra-running, volunteering – it just needs to have two components: to be entirely absorbing so you are focused solely on that enterprise; to be independent, hermetically sealed, so it stands separate from everything else. Sport is ideal at meeting these requirements – it is of course entirely trivial and pointless in the grand scheme of things, but yet if you are into it, then it is your sole focus for that duration and it allows for endless discussion, debate, and conjecture. It is also free from any connection to work or regular concerns – the people we have made friends with at hockey really don’t care about the venture capital ambitions of MOOC companies. And that’s fab.

Social media is another of those good/bad dualities. It’s been an enormous benefit to sometimes just pass an evening chatting to people online, and to have such a thoughtful, interesting network of people to make you see the best of life. But at the same time, you can start your day and have seen 50 things that make you outraged before breakfast, to which you are mentally composing responses and sustained imaginary arguments. That is a tough vale to climb out from for the rest of the day. So I have started to use with care, and sometimes mute people who are only angry, even if they are justifiably so, and I agree with them.

I’ve mentioned the drugs, and that is always a personal choice, but what going to the doctor (who was super understanding, thank you NHS GP), signified was a recognition to be proactive. Being British, male and of a certain age is a triple whammy of emotional repression, so doing something rather than ‘just getting on with it’, was a big deal. I felt better immediately after taking the first pill, and that isn’t really how they work biologically, so I know it was a psychological effect. Simply acknowledging that something could be done was in itself a cure, I’m not sure it mattered really what that thing was. Similarly, I informed a couple of line managers (who again were very supportive), and that act in itself was therapeutic. I never had to claim time off from depression (see the benefits of flexible working above, which I acknowledge is a huge privilege and many people don’t have the kind of work that allows that), but it was comforting to know that if I did, it wasn’t coming from nowhere.

All this offers no big insight I’m afraid, but for me that combination of making flexible work adapt to my advantage, having a dog, immersion into a separate world, judicious use of social media and the positive action of getting medication was an effective, if not foolproof, combatant. Mainly the dog though.

PS – I appreciate and understand that people can be sensitive about this, so just to clarify, don’t take the breezy tone of this piece to be an indication that either a) it isn’t a shitfest when it hits or b) I don’t take it seriously. It’s just how I choose to write about it.

Open as in choice


(Made with Bryan’s lovely remixer)

I’ve recently taken on a new role at the Open University, as the Chair of the Open Board of Studies. This means I’ve got responsibility for our Open Degree. When the OU was founded you could only get a BA(Open) – there were no named degrees. This was an explicit attempt by the OU’s founders to make an OU degree different not just in mode of study but in substance. Students constructed their own degree profiles, meaning our modules were truly modular, you could pick and mix as you saw fit. My colleagues Helen Cooke, Andy Lane and Peter Taylor give an excellent overview of the history, philosophy and approach of the open degree in this paper. The OU’s first VC put it like this:

a student is the best judge of what [s]he wishes to learn and that [s]he should be given the maximum freedom of choice consistent with a coherent overall pattern. They hold that this is doubly true when one is dealing with adults who, after years of experience of life, ought to be in a better position to judge what precise studies they wish to undertake

Sure, most universities offer options and electives, but a truly flexible, open choice is very rare. Specialism is of course, a desirable mode of study in many areas. But the reasoning behind the original open choice was that the changes in society and work places in the 70s meant that a wide ranging degree was suitable for many vocations. If that was true at the founding of the OU, then it is doubly so now. While we should be sceptical of the “preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet” claims, it’s fair to say that flexibility and breadth of understanding will be useful attributes in an evolving, digital economy. Let’s take my own area (field/discipline/rag tag bundle of vaguely connected ideas) of educational technology. You can create a degree programme that covers much of what you want, but actually it’s a varied domain, and half of the work involves having an understanding or appreciation of the demands of different subject areas. So a degree that has rich, and unpredictable, variety in it might well be exactly what you want for an educational technologist. And that is increasingly true for roles that evolve around tech, but are not necessarily TECH.

It is often claimed that in order to solve the complex, ‘wicked’ problems that the world faces, such as sustainability, climate change, social inclusion, then interdisciplinary thinking is required. But our degree profiles continue to prioritise narrow specialisms instead of encouraging students to develop knowledge and skills across a range of topics. This gives them empathy with other viewpoints and a broader toolkit of conceptual models.

Perhaps more significantly than the employment argument though is that constructing your own degree profile and taking responsibility for your pathway gives agency to learners. George Veletsianos asks “in education, what can be made more flexible?”, to which I would respond the whole degree structure.

Coming to this from a broader open education perspective, I see the work of OER, open textbooks, open access and MOOCs as laying the necessary groundwork for a wave of more interesting exploration around what open approaches offer. Open pedagogy and Open educational practice are examples of this. I would argue that although it is already 50 years old, the truly open choice of the OU is another one and it’s time has come round again.

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