The online pivot – student perspective

Again from Bryan’s remixer

I posted a piece yesterday on what it will mean for educators and institutions to shift online as a result of COVID-19. And most of the articles and advice out there is aimed at educators, but we should bear in mind that it is an unfamiliar experience for many students too. One of the functions of face to face education is that it does a lot of the organising for a student: here is a timetable, here are locations to be in, here is where the resources can be found, etc. The physical structure of a campus is also a time and planning structure. When you move online (depending on how it’s realised) a lot of that structure is removed.

This can be a benefit, if you’re not a morning person, no more having to struggle to get to that 9am lecture on a Thursday. But this increased agency brings with it increased responsibility. It also presents lots of different problems which access to campus spaces usually solves, such as do you have a place you can study? Do you have access to technology? Will others around you respect your study time? This is something we spend a lot of time thinking about at the OU, preparing students to be distant learners.

Here are some useful links:

I’ve been an student as well as writing lots of courses, so my advice would be:

  • Get organised! – specify a time slot every week (eg Sunday evening for 30 minutes) to plan the study you have coming up that week and other commitments. You may have to take on some of the role of being your own timetabler now. It doesn’t take long but it does pay off.
  • Get agreement from those around you – if you are studying at home or in shared accommodation, let people know that when you are studying (put a big “I’m studying” sign on the door) they should respect that. No “come on, let’s go to the pub” requests.
  • Get your study space sorted – if you can set up or rearrange a physical space in your home, do that. Make it comfortable. If that is not possible, then find somewhere you do feel relaxed, whether it’s the library or the nearest Starbucks. But make it feel like a good place to be.
  • Engage in online discussion – studying alone can be isolating, so there will be forums for discussion, and if there aren’t try and create some (yes, even if it’s a Facebook group, Slack channel or whatever).
  • Read carefully – what you need to do should be explained. But make sure you read what is actually asked of you, and not what you thought was asked of you. And..
  • If unsure, ask – you are likely to need more clarification online than in a face to face setting, and you can bet if you aren’t sure, then others are in the same boat.
  • Be strategic – I probably shouldn’t say this, but we know a lot of our students are strategic studiers. Particularly if you start to fall behind, then you probably don’t need to do and read everything. Determine the best path through study that will get you a grade. Any grade is better than no grade.
  • Be patient – this may be new to you and your educators. Things may not work first time. It will be better if you take it in a spirit of co-exploration.
  • Enjoy it – there are lots of benefits to studying online, so try to make these work for you.

Good luck everyone, welcome to the fabulous world of distance education. It was waiting for you all along.

The COVID-19 online pivot

From Bryan’s marvellous Remixer of my book cover

The outbreak of COVID-19 has seen many universities closing campuses and shifting learning online. It’s unprecedented and suddenly puts ed tech front and centre in a way it hasn’t been before. For those of us who have been doing online learning or distance ed for a while it can seem a bit irritating to have been seen as second class for so long and then suddenly deemed worthy of interest. So I tweeted over the weekend:

It was kinda snarky, but I’ll come to it later. I saw later that Lee Skallerup Bessette tweeted this, which I think is a fairer response:

So, in the interest of pulling together, I’m splitting this post into two parts, the (possibly) useful bit, and the moany bit. You can take your pick between them.

The (possibly) useful bit

It will be tough for lots of academics to teach online if they have little or no experience of it. Without the necessary support or development required in such a small time frame it is likely to be frustrating and full of potential errors, which makes educators and students feel vulnerable. So we should be helpful and show solidarity in this period. Here are some useful resources:

And here are just some thoughts from my own experience, many of which are obvious, but I’ll state them anyway:

  • Activities that can be done quickly face to face take much more time online, particularly collaborative activities.
  • In discussion forums you may find that people who don’t speak up in class, have more to say.
  • Things you think are obvious, won’t be. If something can be misinterpreted, it will be. So if you can run things by critical readers, do so. If not, add in layers of explanation and be ready to clarify.
  • Related – once a mistaken belief takes hold, it is very difficult to rectify, much more so than face to face, so get on top of it quickly.
  • A distant, aloof air in classroom may be acceptable, but seems even more cold and remote online. Be friendly!
  • Structure different types of activity and engagement. “Read this for two hours and then watch this for an hour” is hard going.
  • Encourage peer to peer interaction, but you will need to monitor this if in public forums. Things can flare up quickly online.
  • If you can, get people to meet f2f now – it helps later online working (I pinched this one from Doug Clow)
  • Don’t try to just replicate the lecture course (if you have time), think about what the new medium affords you – asynchronous discussion, different resources you can draw upon, a range of tools, etc
  • When this immediate crisis is over, take time to reflect on how, given longer you might change your pedagogy.

Good luck!

The moany bit

One of the problems of this sudden pivot to online learning, is that as with much more serious infrastructure issues such as health, employment, and social care, it exposes the lack of investment and being taken seriously. So while we’re at this moment, let us consider what could have been done better at institutional level and then how this might be better going forward.

  • Treat ed tech/instructional design units better – I complained before that such units in institutions are often shifted around, given new priorities and not involved in the discussion or direction of ed tech. The expertise of these units needs to be taken into account more, and they need to stop being the plaything for the latest Pro-Vice-Chancellor’s big idea, if we are to put the appropriate infrastructure in place.
  • Stop treating online as second class – there is often an attitude, both at senior management level and amongst many academics, that distance, or online learning is not ‘the real thing’. The Open University experienced this snobbery when it was founded and it is still in evidence today. When done well, the online experience, performance and quality of distance ed is the same, if not better than f2f. So start treating it like that.
  • Don’t go for the shiny – too often it is the glamorous, disruption side of ed tech that grabs the attention of senior management and the media. Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, MOOCs – these might all have their place, but what is needed is a focus on using the boring, mundane tech effectively.
  • Make it human – related to the above, staff development should focus on how to construct engaging, fun, meaningful learning online for students. This is rarely much about the technology and more about thinking what works effectively.
  • Read 25 Years of Ed Tech to have a better understanding of tech usage – oh come on, allow me this one!

In short, most HEIs have the technology they need (maybe some extra server capacity will be required), but they lack the experience and practice. That could have been addressed long ago, but now we’re here it is time to ensure it is done properly.

25 Years of Ed Tech site

Ok, I know I’m going on about it, last post on the book, I promise (well, maybe not actually last one). I created a small site to accompany it:

It gathers together the various bits, like images, playlist etc. Plus there is a fun timeline for you to explore. I may add bits to it as I go along. Any suggestions for fun things (I started doing a wiki, but ran out of time/will), plus if anyone else does anything I can add it there too.

25 + 25

February is quite the month for 25 Year related events in the Weller household. For a start I celebrate 25 Years at the Open University. I joined in February 1995 on a 3 year lecturer contract, contributing to a course on Artificial Intelligence. At the time I had romantic visions of being a wanderer, an academic factotum, drifting from job to job as if precarity was cool. “I’ll only stay for 2 years, max” I confidently predicted. (Narrator: he stayed longer).

It is also the month when my book 25 Years of Ed Tech comes out, this Friday in fact. My copies turned up today. That Bryan Mathers artwork really ties the room together.

Anyway, this post is really to give you fair warning – there is going to be a lot of related content to these two events coming up, so you may want to judicially use that mute option on various channels.

Because I just KNOW you’ll be hosting your own 25 Years of Ed Tech launch party on Friday, I have created a playlist. It takes a track from each year, which maybe, if you look at it in a certain light, has a connection to the ed tech choice of that year. Enjoy the soundtrack to the book and the list of technologies is below:

1994 Bulletin Board Systems
1995 The Web
1996 Computer-Mediated Communication
1997 Constructivism
1998 Wikis
1999 E-Learning
2000 Learning Objects
2001 E-Learning Standards
2002 The Learning Management System
2003 Blogs
2004 Open Educational Resources
2005 Video
2006 Web 2.0
2007 Second Life and Virtual Worlds
2008 E-Portfolios
2009 Twitter and Social Media
2010 Connectivism
2011 Personal Learning Environments
2012 Massive Open Online Courses
2013 Open Textbooks
2014 Learning Analytics
2015 Digital Badges
2016 The Return of Artificial Intelligence
2017 Blockchain
2018 Ed Tech’s Dystopian Turn

Digital mudlarking

I spend too long and for too little benefit thinking about ed tech as a field/discipline/subject/hot mess for it to be healthy. I am not as interested in the business of ed tech but rather what it feels like as a practitioner in a university or college. One of the things that often strikes me is that terms we use for other areas don’t quite fit: as we discussed before, discipline isn’t right, and that is how we tend to frame much of higher education. So I end up trawling around for metaphors, like suitcases.

Here is another then, that of mudlarking. I was enamoured by the stories my mother (a cockney) told me of growing up using the Thames as a beach, playground and treasure trove, so I always found the idea of mudlarks intriguing. Mudlarks have a decidedly Dickensian feel, but we shouldn’t let the romantic images of this detract from the dangerous and decidedly grim reality, as this post reminds us. Wikipedia describes a mudlark as:

A mudlark is someone who scavenges in river mud for items of value, a term used especially to describe those who scavenged this way in London during the late 18th and 19th centuries

I read Lara Maiklem’s hugely enjoyable and informative book on modern mudlarking recently and it got me thinking about ed tech as discipline again (seriously, there is nothing I won’t bend into that service). There are a few useful aspects of the analogy that help us (okay, me) think about ed tech.

One of the elements about ed tech that makes the idea of a discipline an ill fit is that it does not have the foundations of other disciplines. People come into it from different fields, what it actually is may not be clearly defined, and there is no shared sense of history. So thinking about a history of ed tech is less akin to the archeological dig one might undertake in other fields. It is also very dynamic and constantly in flux. If you are an ed tech practitioner then, the sense is less of a excavation, and more one of hurried gathering. Ed tech practitioners operate like mudlarks, gathering artefacts that have been exposed by the last technology tide (see below reservations on this). These artefacts can be seen as nuggets of good practice, research or concepts that have application across different technology. Things like how to support learners at a distance, how to effectively encourage online dialogue, ethics of application, etc.

Over the past 20 years we have seen the initial elearning interest, web 2.0, MOOCs, AI and data as substantial trends in ed tech. We can view each of these as tides, depositing knowledge artefacts that will be washed away by the next big wave, unless they are carefully gathered and restored by the digital mudlarks. After each of these waves there is a space momentarily revealed, where reflection and research can be found. These artefacts are shaped by the tide, but have value and currency independently. The trouble with ed tech is that it doesn’t value them, it only recognises the tide and so each time these contributions are forgotten or lost.

Metaphors are also interesting for where they don’t quite fit. One aspect of this one I am uncomfortable with is some of the connotations of a tide. It plays into notions of technological change as inevitable and irresistible. We could argue that it is our job to shape the direction or flow of the tide as much as to gather what is deposited. I fully acknowledge this weakness, but would also add that as a practitioner it sometimes does feel like a tide – you have little say on whether your VC is going to adopt MOOCs, say. So what you need to do is ensure value can be gathered from it, and that is preserved and shared.

Open programme art work

At the risk of making this blog a Bryan Mathers fanboi site, I am devoting another post to his work. As I’ve mentioned, I’m the Chair of the Open Degree Programme at the OU. We got Bryan in to help us think through our joint principles. The aim was also to create some artwork we can use in presentations, that are social media friendly and illustrate key benefits about the open degree.

So here they are with some thoughts:

Woman holding a shield with the OU logo, reading The Open Programme, Perfect for Brave Learners

Brave learners – we like to suggest that open learners are brave, in that taking control of your own learning path requires a sense of responsibility. It is easier in some ways to follow a prescribed pathway for a named degree – you know if you do these modules they will give you an understanding of topic X. But choosing your own path means you have to make those decisions for yourself, which is a lot of freedom – and as we know, with great power comes great responsibility.

3 Footsteps with the works interest, career and passion. Text reads The Open Degree: walk your own path

Walk your own path – the freedom aspect is highlighted in this image. But it also emphasises factors which can influence a student’s choices. These are not necessarily the same for everyone, some people will be purely interest driven, others career focused and others will balance a mixture of these elements.

Fist holding aloft a degree certificate. Text reads Rebel Degree

Rebel degree – I like the idea behind this one, that open programme students are rebellious to some degree. It is likely to appeal to people who find the conventional pathways too constraining.

Astronaut on the moon, text reads Since 1969. Open Degree Programme

Space cadet – this one tied in with the OU’s 50th anniversary in 2019 which was also the moon landing 50th anniversary also. It helps us stress that in fact the OU designed its courses to be multidisciplinary, specifically because the architects of this new university felt that it needed a new type of degree structure.

Person at base of tree path, each leaf is a person. Text reads choose the path of greatest interest

Path of greatest interest – this ties back to my idea of situated degree pathways, in that students can change their degree pathway as interest or context suggests, rather than having it pre-determined from the outset. It also emphasises the many, many different pathways possible.

Pick n Mix

Pick n mix – I sometimes refer to the open programme as our pick n mix degree, because a) I LOVE pick n mix and b) it is a useful shorthand for a lot of people. But it is probably worth noting though that some don’t like the metaphor because it implies a lack of connection between the components and perhaps a randomness in choice (they’ve obviously never gone through a pick n mix with me).

Pic of man with dog over his shoulder. Text says Prof Martin Weller, saying If we didn't have an open programme we'd need to invent one

Prof Weller – Bryan added in this one as a freebie, and I’ve adapted it as my Twitter avatar. It also features Teilo, so is obviously the winner here. I wanted to stress that Open is in our title and the open programme is central to our identity. And also that it is a concept that is particularly timely now and so if we didn’t have it, we’d invent it.

The Ed Tech suitcase

Some of you may remember the hoo-ha we had around Ed Tech as discipline a while ago (re-reading this, the comments are incredibly rich). The general feeling was that a discipline was ill-suited to ed tech for three reasons: a discipline ends up excluding some and prioritising other voices; ed tech is multi-disciplinary by nature; the way it operates is more networked and fluid.

However, not being a discipline leaves it with some weakness, namely the kind of historical amnesia we see so often, and a vulnerability to commercial ed tech setting the narrative.

So while it seemed that a a discipline wasn’t appropriate I wondered if there were better ways of framing ed tech that might highlight its strengths and overcome its weaknesses. One I’ve been toying with is the suitcase metaphor, so allow me to test it out on you.

an open suitcase with camera, laptop and sunglasses next to it
Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

Consider packing a suitcase for a trip. It contains many different items – clothes, toiletries, books, electrical items, maybe food and drink or gifts. Some of these items bear a relationship to others, for example underwear, and others are seemingly unrelated, for example a hair dryer. Each brings their own function, which has a separate existence and relates to other items outside of the case, but within the case, they form a new category, that of “items I need for my trip.” In this sense the suitcase resembles the ed tech field, or at least a gathering of ed tech individuals, for example at a conference.

If you attend a chemistry conference and have lunch with strangers, it is highly likely they will nearly all have chemistry degrees and PhDs. This is not the case at an ed tech conference, where the lunch table might contain people with expertise in computer science, philosophy, psychology, art, history and engineering. This is a strength of the field. The chemistry conference suitcase then contains just socks (but of different types), but the ed tech suitcase contains many different items. In this perspective then the aim is not to make the items of the suitcase the same, but to find means by which they meet the overall aim of usefulness for your trip, and are not random items that won’t be needed. This suggests a different way of approaching ed tech beyond making it a discipline.

Techniques for making the suitcase items mutually useful to the overall aim then might include running primers for people new to ed tech, explicitly bringing multi-disciplinary perspectives to bear on tech issues, having agreed problems to address, crowd-sourcing principles, and so on. The approach is to reach some form of consensus but that consensus is itself fluid and changeable, varying over time and location, just as the suitcase contents will vary depending on specific trips. This perspective of ed tech allows it to remain more fluid and malleable than a discipline.

Old suitcases arranged together, some bearing stickers
Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

A second framing of the suitcase metaphor is to view it as not the container for the field, but the individual ed tech practitioners case. They will bring items in that case which will be unique to them, and the case itself becomes customised over time. Just as people add stickers to their cases, it becomes a record of the journey itself. There is a German metaphor for a case, a Reisebegleiter, which translates as travelling companion, but also carries connotations of something that comes with you through life. This creates an interplay between the temporary and longevity of travel. I enjoyed Maren Deepwell’s recent post which explores this interplay by referring to a Travelling Monument Kit, stating it explores “the relationship between travelling and permanence (she kindly gave me the German metaphor above too). Travelling is all about leaving things behind, discovering new ones and changing perspectives… it’s about change. Monuments are normally fixed in place and time, permanent markers of things to be remembered.” The Travelling Monument Kit is a suitcase that contains permanent objects, or monuments of travel. This “explores how we can create lasting meaning amidst change… It’s about creating something solid and strong, a connection, to bring things into perspective.”

For the individual ed tech practitioner the suitcase becomes something akin to the travelling monument kit across their career. The monuments will include original disciplinary knowledge, and as they progress to unknown areas in ed tech, they seek to make these connections, and gather more monuments. These might be technology, conceptual frameworks, methodologies, or connections with other individuals, events, projects. This perspective emphasises two aspects that ed tech should seek to preserve and cherish. The first is that it recognises previous experience as valid in this context, the second is that it is unique and unpredictable. Everyone’s kit will be different, and it is by developing that kit that they bring understanding to an area that is often new to them, but is also changing itself. Again, such a perspective might suggest ways of thinking and facilitating this in ed tech. We can provide the equivalent of travel guides to help navigate in these travels without prescribing the actual journey, and portfolio accreditation such as ALT’s CMALT process which operates around a portfolio allowing recognition of different experiences.

Disruption’s legacy

Clayton Christensen passed away yesterday. I never met him and he was by many accounts a warm, generous individual. So this is not intended as a personal attack, and I apologise if it’s timing seems indelicate, but as so many pieces are being published about how influential Disruption Theory was, I would like to offer a counter narrative to its legacy.

I think to give it fair credit, the initial idea of disruptive innovation was both powerful and useful. Coming as the digital revolution really began to impact upon every sector of our lives, people were looking for theories to explain the new logic of these businesses that seemed to arise from nowhere and achieve global domination overnight. How could Kodak disappear? Why did Microsoft become bigger than IBM? The concept of sustaining and disruptive technologies offered a means of explaining what was happening. I confess that used it myself a few time back in the 00s.

But some time around the web 2.0 boom, disruption shifted from being one possible explanatory theory to a predictive model, and then to a desirable business plan. These are very different things and they carry with them different responsibilities. Every start-up wanted to ‘disrupt’ an existing business. It shaped Silicon Valley thinking more than any other theory, and in 2020, I think we can review that and say it was almost entirely harmful in our relationship with technology. Here’s why:

  1. It legitimised undermining of labour – the fact that Uber, Tesla, Amazon etc all treat their staff poorly is justified because they are disrupting an old model. And you can’t bring those old fashioned conceits of unions, pensions, staff care into this. By harking to the God of Disruption, companies were able to get away with such practices more than if they had simply declared “our model is to treat workers badly”.
  2. It is a bad theory that didn’t know when to die. I know I said it was useful, but once it became over-stretched and applied everywhere it rapidly began to fall apart. Disruption as originally described rarely happened, but once it didn’t happen people just went looking for the next thing to disrupt. Like the appeal of transmuting base metals into gold, it was so powerful an idea that they didn’t question whether it was fundamentally flawed. As I’ve argued before, not only is it destructive to apply to education, it’s just a really poor explanatory framework in that sector.
  3. It dismissed existing experience and expertise. I won’t lay all the blame for the current distrust of expertise and veneration of ignorance at disruption’s door, but it played a part. Disruption demands that incumbents cannot make appropriate innovation (because they are focused on sustaining technology), and so it requires outsiders to make real change. They must be untainted by the old fashioned thinking that hampers the incumbents.  It explicitly prioritises an absence of domain knowledge and seeks to undermine expertise.
  4. It was uncooperative. When disruption became an aim, instead of a rare outcome, then it shaped how silicon valley approached business. If you want to disrupt a sector then the intention is to effectively eliminate it, as I said before, it’s an extinction event. You replace that sector or industry with a new monopoly. This model does not allow for cooperation and collaboration. There can be only one. It is essentially an ultra-capitalist theory, and could have only really come from the US. Who knows what a more socialist theory of technology might have given us?
  5. It wasted so many resources. Given all of the above, the amount of time, money, human effort that has been wasted in seeking disruption above all else is incalculable. It framed so much of the Silicon Valley mindset that they could not fathom different models, which might have been more collaborative, more empathetic, and more realistic.

You could argue that this is just an unfortunate side effect of people taking a good theory and mis-applying it. But Christensen was no innocent bystander in this, and actively sought to push disruption beyond its narrow limits. He is a warning of what happens, particularly in the US, when an academic gets superstar status. If you desire wealth, influence, your own institute then that desire works counter to many academic principles. It is not in your interest to carefully prescribe the limits of your theory, to seek contrary evidence, to be cautious about its application.

With the passing of its founder, I hope we can now also lay this theory and mindset to rest.

25 Years of Ed Tech book – get those pre-orders in!

25 Years of Ed Tech cover

Next month my book 25 Years of Ed Tech is published by the lovely people at Athabasca University Press. It will be available under a Creative Commons license, with the digital copy free. But, look at that lovely Bryan Mathers cover – wouldn’t you want a physical copy of that in your hands? If so you can pre-order via Athabasca site or via Combined Academic in the UK.

I expect there will be a flurry of self-promotion over the next couple of months. Bear with me. I will reveal the highlight of the book now, which is its dedication, which screams “I have no friends”:

To my two canine writing buddies, Teilo and Bruno, on whose walks most of the ideas in this book were developed, and who listened patiently to my musings on MOOC and metadata.

If that isn’t enough to convince you, here is an excellent review from Gill Ryan, which contains the phrase “A must read”.

Also, extra bonus, here is the back cover that Bryan designed, which we kept the glasses from but didn’t use the text:

back cover of 25 Years of ed tech book