Books, charts, lists, 2020

Now in it’s 7th year, my annual book post with bonus pointless charts and lists.

One might expect that given that EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD WAS CLOSED, I would have read more books this year than last year. But I managed 59 this year against 2019’s high water of 93. Partly this was the impact of not commuting – a 6 hour round trip to Milton Keynes weekly certainly chunks through a number of audiobooks. But also habits changed and I didn’t devote as much time to books as previously. But more than one a week is acceptable.

In terms of genre, I pretty much completed my transition to being leisure reader, with crime dominating:

As I mentioned in the film post, this may be a function of the 2020 emotional hangover, but also a function of getting older and just not worrying so much anymore.

By author gender, women were in the majority:

And audiobooks were my main format. I’ve defended this before, so don’t @ me:

Here are 5 newish fiction books I enjoyed this year:

  • Sweetpea – CJ Skuse
  • Stay with me – Ayobami Adebayo
  • Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier
  • The Fishermen – Chigozie Obioma
  • Savage Season – Joe Lansdale

And here’s 7 non-fiction ones which I will drop into conversation as if I’m now an expert on the subject:

  • Emperors of the Deep – William McKeever
  • indian Summer – Alex von Tunzelmann
  • Misbehaving – Richard Thaler
  • Other Minds: The Octopus and The Evolution of Intelligent Life – Peter Godfrey-Smith
  • Mudlarking – Lara Maiklem
  • Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker
  • Underland – Robert Macfarlane

Here is the full list if you want to judge me:

  • Sweetpea – CJ Skuse
  • Original sin – PD James
  • Murder at the vicarage – Agatha Christie
  • Wilding – Isaballe Tree
  • Well of the Winds – Denzil Meyrick
  • With Our Blessing – Jo spain
  • Rome: A History in 7 sackings Matthew Kneale
  • Grimm Tales – Philip Pullman
  • Underland – Robert Macfarlane
  • Little bones – Sam Blake
  • Dirty little secrets – Jo Spain
  • Shroud for a nightingale – PD James
  • indian summer – Alex von Tunzelmann
  • The outcast dead – Elly Griffiths
  • The lighthouse – PD J ames
  • a mind to murder – PD Jjames
  • The dutch house – Ann Patchett
  • From doon with death – Ruth Rendell
  • At the edge of the orchard – Tracy Chevalier
  • The dark angel – Elly Griffiths
  • Misbehaving – Richard Thaler
  • Greetings from bury park – Sarfraz Manzoor
  • The turn of the screw – Henry James
  • Ttay with me – Ayobami Adebayo
  • Death at la fenice – Donna Leon
  • Remarkable creatures – Tracy Chevalier
  • The order of time – Carlo Rovelli
  • The outcasts of time – Ian Mortimer
  • Beneath the surface – Jo Spain
  • Mudlarking – lara Maiklem
  • My Life In Horror Volume One: Paperback edition – Kit Power
  • Savage season – Joe Lansdale
  • Mucho mojo – Joe Lansdale
  • The two bear mambo – Joe Lansdale
  • Antidote to venom – Freeman Wills Croft
  • The stone circle – Elly Griffiths
  • Emperors of the deep – William McKeever
  • Leviathan wakes – James Corey
  • Into the blue – Robert Goddard
  • The Zombies are Coming – Kelly Baker
  • The Tales of Max Carrados – Ernest Bramah
  • Other Minds: The Octopus and The Evolution of Intelligent Life – Peter Godfrey-Smith
  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World – Peter Wohlleben
  • The Glorious Life of the Oak – John Lewis-Stempel,
  • The Hog’s Back Mystery – Freeman Wills Croft
  • The Fishermen – Chigozie Obioma
  • The Boy Who Fell – Jo Spain
  • Big Sky Kate Atkinson
  • The Lost World – Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Why we sleep – Matthew Walker
  • Garden of the evening mists – Tan Twan Eng
  • The Sisters – Dervla McTiernan
  • The Black Tower – PD James
  • No Mans Nightingale – Ruth Rendell
  • Frogkisser! – Garth Nix
  • The Franchise Affair – Josephine Tey
  • A Room full of Bones – Elly griffiths
  • Wanderlust – Rebecca Solnit
  • The Skull Beneath the Skin – PD James

Films of 2020 (yeah, I know)

So, cinemas eh? The last film I saw before lockdown at the cinema was Birds of Prey. I then managed to pop to see Unhinged in the brief 5 minute window where cinemas were open again, before we went into local, then national, then sorta lockdown again. So, it’s. not going to be a bumper crop and some of the films I wanted to see eg Saint Maude, haven’t come out on streaming yet and I am too old to bother with torrents.

Here are ten films then that were released this year, which I managed to see and weren’t terrible:

The Hunt – the old people are kidnapped as hunting sport for rich folk storyline, given a modern social media twist. The hunted are conspiracy theorists and the hunters the liberals whose jobs were lost when they thought they’re jokes about The Hunt were real. Not sure if it was a parody on both-sideism, a piss take of the liberal elite, a cautionary tale about giving social media theorist credence, or a messy, having its cake and eating mess of all of them. But it was a lot of fun.

Host – conceived, shot and delivered in lockdown, this short horror about friends performing a Zoom seance and invoking a vengeful spirit was a taught POV thriller and will also serve as a time-capsule entry.

1917 – the last big ‘cinematic’ film before lockdown. Given the fate of cinemas since, and the move to direct streaming, who knows, Sam Mendes ‘one-take- romp through the WW1 trenches might be the last big cinema event for a while, perhaps ever. It was certainly an impressive technical feat to end on.

Birds of Prey – getting the tone right for this film was a difficult task. There are so many tensions that could have gone the wrong way: the psychotic – sympathetic character; sleazy trash aesthetic – sexualisation; independent strong female – connecting to Joker’s universe. That Cathy Tan got the balance right on all of these and made it an absolute ball, is no mean feat – this is perhaps best exemplified by the glitter shotgun raid on a police station. Quinn needs to be kickass and an outlaw, but she can’t actually kill cops. The famous hair tie scene encapsulated aspects that a female director brings to action movies in one neat line.

Mank – there’s a clip on social media of Gary Oldman dancing to James Brown while wearing his Winston Churchill makeup (inbetween scenes in the Darkest Hour). That sense of Oldman just having a blast with a character is what pervades Fincher’s tale of Henry Mankiewicz. Seyfried is almost as good as Marion Davies, continuing the reclamation of Davies’ reputation as a great comic actor that was destroyed by the depiction of Suzan Kane in Welles’s film. But it’s the mix of politics and parties of old Hollywood that make this such a treasure.

Parasite – I think this was still this year, right? I mean it seems so long ago. Bong Joon Ho’s savagely funny account of a family of loafers and chancers who claim the identity and house of a rich family seems to have hidden interpretations. It started out as a critique of capitalism, then when Trump reacted against its Oscar became a barometer for racism, and when the pandemic struck became a parable of living in lockdown.

Queen and Slim – the eponymous heroes are two professionals out on a first date when they are stopped by a racist cop, practised in all the skills of escalation. That encounter goes south and they go on the run. The rest of the film details their getting to know each other in sweet detail. But more importantly what it portrays are the small ways that they begin to take control of their own narrative. From the moment the cop stops them, they are, like so many POC in the US, powerless to control the narrative – regardless of what they do, things will change irrevocably for them from this point on. As they grow to know each other on the run, they find ways to reclaim this and frame their own story.

The Vast of Night – set over the course of one night in the late 50s, this centers on Sierra McCormick’s switchboard operator and Jake Horowitz’s Radio DJ as they seek to uncover strange occurrences. It is an affectionate, but entirely sincere throwback to the 1950s’ sci fi era of Twilight Zone, and the Day the Earth Stood Still.

Da 5 Bloods – while not quite as successful as BlackkKlansman, Spike Lee continued to demonstrate how he is right at the top of his game and can combine different entertainment genres with cutting racial politics. And Chadwick, farewell Chadwick.

Color Out of Space – this year’s bonkers Nic Cage movie was a Lovecraftian affair with a meteor mutating the lifeforms around a farm. It uses colo(u)r to portray alien sense and features some strong Nic Cageisms, who as his son notes “I think the freaked-out-abductee look suits you pretty well.”

Overall though I think in 2020 I wondered more than ever, what is a film anyway? Is it just length? In that case does Host count or is it just a one-off programme? Is it having a cinema release? Evidently not as most of these were made for streaming services. Perhaps movie and TV series are artificial divisions now. Empire magazine for instance, spends more time covering the Mandalorian than Tenet.

I didn’t watch that many films strangely enough, and tended to prefer entertainment over meaningful. I think when I became concerned about the lives (and livelihoods) of people running the local cafe, or the delivery guy, or the checkout woman at the supermarket, or the staff in the pub then I probably had a care deficit to devote to fictional characters. In this respect the best movie wasn’t a movie, but a limited series on Netflix: The Queen’s Gambit. It hit the perfect tone of entertainment, care, hope, strength and style without leaving me angry and frustrated. That’s what I wanted in 2020.

Best albums of the year (that I’ve purchased)

I’m restricting my top 10 to records released this year, and which I have purchased on vinyl, which means both of the excellent SAULT albums are excluded because they are tricky to get hold of, and one of my favourite albums, Michael Kiwanuka’s Kiwanuka was officially released in 2019 so can’t be included either. In no particular order then:

Soccer Mommy – color theory. It was a fine year for dreamy, ethereal, cool female singer-songwriters. Phoebe Bridgers released the also amazing Punisher, which was an almost include, but in this ‘category’ I’ve opted for Nashville’s Sophia Allison whose second album was chill, slacker, edgy pop.

Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers. A classic breakup album from the American country singer, which was full of heartbreak. Perfect for drinking whisky and bawling to. Margo Price’s That’s How Rumours Get Started was also a much listened to country album this year.

Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison. The National’s front man followed up last year’s near perfect I Am Easy To Find with a solo album that could have been taken from the same sessions. Produced by Booker T of MGs fame there are some occasional organ flourishes and overall his influence lifts the tracks out from Berninger’s tendency to mumbling and sentimentality. It also had a beautiful cover.

Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas. The British soul singer-songwriter’s follow up to 2015’s Blood combined R&B, acoustic, indie and rock. Her luxuriant vocals and surprising changes in each track (including a cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes) are all realised with aplomb. She’s not exactly unknown, but if she was North American, La Havas would be HUGE.

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Angry, feisty, funny, quirky, touching, tuneful and experimental. Apple’s fifth album defied categorisation and constantly shifted direction and surprised the listener. It was a perfect 2020 album. Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud is also a worthy mention.

Jason Isbell and the 400 unit – Reunions. Isbell is one of those artists who has found his groove and now seemingly puts out a blinder every year and we just shrug and go “oh yeah, another one”. Any one of his four releases from 2013 would count as a career high for anyone else. So it is with Reunions. Is it as good as Something More Than Free? No, but it’s better than nearly everything else released this year.

Laura Marling – Song for Our Daughter. I seem to have mostly listened to female singer-songwriters this year. Perhaps it’s a 2020 thing, and Marling released this album early in the pandemic. It’s beautiful and the perfect accompaniment to sitting in your house, staring wistfully outside and trying to remember the Before Time. Laura Viers My Echo was also a strong contender here.

Zara McFarlane – Songs of an Unknown Tongue. There is a thriving British jazz scene which I don’t know enough about but occasionally dip into. McFarlane is one of its real stars and in this album she explores her Jamaican-British identity through personal lyrics and a range of styles. It’s a very smart, but also accessible album.

El Goodo – Zombie. The Welsh psychedelic band produced a cracking album which sounds both as though it would have been a solid 1968 release but is also purely 2020. Loads of good tunes, and my favourite cover of the year. Well done lads, well done. If you prefer your (partly) Welsh artists slightly more bonkers, prog-rock and about Space Golf, then Hen Ogledd’s Free Humans is for you.

Thundercat – It Is What It Is. The bassist and pitch perfect singer produced a laid back, breezy album this year which wasn’t quite as epic as Drunk, but felt like you had spent an afternoon sipping gin at the house of the most talented musician in the world while his mates breezed in and out and collaborated on tunes and you kept thinking “how did I get to be so lucky to hear this?”

[Edit: At Scott Leslie’s suggestion I’ve created a Spotify playlist with a couple of tracks from each of these:

25 Years of OU/Ed Tech – 2020: The Online Pivot

via GIPHY

A “2 for the price or 1” post! As part of the ongoing 25 Years of Ed Tech project, I do one post that is based around the ed tech of that year that would have been included (the book stops in 2018 – oh and while you’re here, remember to check out the audiobook and podcast series of the book). I’ve also been doing my 25 Years of OU series reflecting on my career over 25 years at one institution. For this final post in the latter, and the 2020 entry for the former, there is a crossover of these two series, it’s like the time Magnum and Murder She Wrote combined.

There could be only one choice for both of these this year – the online pivot. Back in January we were all making aims, targets and setting workplans. LOL. When the real impact of the Covid-19 virus became apparent, it was quickly apparent that online learning would be a major player, even if the actual way it would pan out wasn’t clear (and still isn’t).

I know people like to say Ed Tech won’t save you, and that is a good antidote to the ed tech saviour hype, but in 2020 educational technologists really did save education (by which I don’t mean silicon valley profiteers, but the small teams within unis, colleges, schools, etc). People who were often buffeted around an institution, not treated with appropriate respect and under-resourced were suddenly called upon to keep the whole thing going. That’s a hell of a spotlight shift. ALT made the 2020 Community Award for all learning technologists and rightly so – I’ve seen so many peers working all over the summer, putting in hours way beyond the call of duty, supporting vast numbers of staff and students on ridiculous timeframes. I salute you all.

Like many with a history in the area I blogged and ran online workshops, and the sense of collegiality was strong, particularly back in the early days of April-June. It also led to a lot of innovation in a low scale, get it done mode, which reminded me of the early days of blogging, for instance Dave Cormier’s Online Learning In a Hurry site.

From an OU perspective it was a (re)validation of the distance learning model, which as I’ve argued, is more resilient. Lots of organisations sought our advice, and the response varied from informal webinars, provision of microcredentials, openly licensed OpenLearn content, agreements with other providers, invited speaker slots, etc.

There is a lot to come out from the pivot still, and most predictions will be wrong, but 2020 will be a significant year historically for the OU and for ed tech. For now, take a breathe and reflect on having made it through.

25 Years of OU – 2019: The Open Programme

My advice is have a Bryan Mathers graphic for every point you want to make

In 2019 I became the Director of the Open programme at the Open University. The open programme covers our ‘Open’ qualifications, such as the Open degree. When the OU was founded, you could only get an open degree, there were no named ones. This was part of the deliberate policy to imagine a new type of university and education. The OU’s first VC, Walter Perry 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. …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…”. (Perry, 1976). 

The Open Degree allows students to construct their own pathway by selecting from the OU’s full range of modules – there are some prerequisites for some courses, but generally they are designed to be studied independently. We are the UK’s largest multidisciplinary education provider, partly because we are freed from the constraints of timetabling. It is very difficult to create multidisciplinary degrees in most unis because they can’t schedule all lectures not to clash with at least some others. And our students do create the full range of combinations, so it is not restricted to obvious ones.

As education shifts to addressing complex, wicked problems and focuses on personalisation and choice, the Open Degree is, as the Bryan Mathers cartoon above suggests, an entity whose time has come again. If we didn’t have it we would invent it and make a big hurrah about it. Sadly, as so many things that have been around for a while it is rather under-appreciated in the OU – I mean had you heard of it? We don’t market it directly or promote its benefits.

But we do have about 20,000 students studying on the Open programme, and often they switch to it having started on a named degree with us. Either that degree isn’t what they thought it would be, or their interests or circumstances change. We also have students coming to us from other universities for similar reasons – they may have started studying one degree and found it wasn’t for them. They can transfer that credit into us (so it is not wasted), but choose from a wide range of modules. It’s really a beautiful and useful degree structure and also an aspect of ‘open education’ that gets overlooked when we talk of MOOCs, OER, etc.

Covid 19 bit: There are two elements relating to the pandemic that I think are worth identifying. The first is that in order to solve complex problems like the pandemic which have medical, social, political, educational and economic factors you need specialists AND people who can work across disciplines. The need for multidisciplinary knowledge was demonstrated by the complexity of the pandemic’s impacts.

Second, the social distancing regulations put in place in many institutions hit cross-disciplinary study hard. It was easier to maintain bubbles and track infections if students were within one discipline. Multidisciplinary study is like a little virus spreader around campus, so many such programmes were restricted or closed. Online and asynchronous study of course removes these restrictions, so the impact on multidisciplinary study is another example of the fragility of the existing higher education model.

25 Years of OU – 2018: The OU crisis

via GIPHY

And thus we arrive at 2018, a pivotal year in OU history. Under the leadership of then VC, Peter Horrocks, the OU was making the headlines for all the wrong reasons – regional centres were closing, staff were striking, the finances were in a bad shape and the people at the top were disconnected from staff and students. It all came to a head in 2018 with the VC finally resigning.

I’m not a brave or particularly militant person, and I’m very loyal to the OU as an institution, so I refrained from joining in much of the criticism publicly. Privately though there were a number of underground resistance groups operating via Twitter DMs, email, newspaper briefings and secret tunnels beneath Walton Hall. Helen Bowes-Catton relates how she was part of such a group on WhatsApp – I wasn’t in that group but I was part of many similar ones.

I wasn’t heavily involved in the disastrous Students First project (which presumably was in contrast to our famous hitherto Students Last philosophy) but I used to meet so many colleagues who were, and they were good people, exhausted, frustrated and just broken by it all. Not that they were resistant to change but the constantly shifting (sometimes from one day to the next) priorities and lack of understanding of how a university operates made it impossible to realise. Many of these people left during this period or soon after.

My loyalty finally cracked when the VC famously declared that OU academics weren’t doing teaching, and they should be ‘bloody well teaching’. This was a betrayal of the whole history of the OU, and marked the final straw for Horrocks. My Twitter rant at the time went semi-viral. I received a lot of private messages from people who were relating how broken they felt, sitting at their desks crying with a sense of loss and deprofessionalisation.

I blogged about what I thought were the lessons at the time, and I’d stand by these still. Thankfully the OU has definitely turned the corner now, and Tim Blackman, the current VC, understands the institution, values staff and can manage the change we need while still keeping people on board. I am hugely grateful for the change in culture that has occurred. I guess the big lesson from all this was that those of us who survived it emerged with a greater sense of appreciation of our colleagues and connection with the OU itself.

Covid-19 bit: The pandemic is a crisis that has been forced upon all of higher education, and as such many institutions will be trying to implement significant change and requiring more of their staff, which may not be dissimilar to the OU situation in 2018. The lesson from the OU experience is that staff understand the need for change and are not resistant to it, but it is necessary to respect them and bring them with you. As soon as you get in expensive consultants who have no higher education experience to tell them what they’ve been doing wrong all this time, using W1A pseudo-language then start preparing for retirement.

25 Years of OU – 2017: TEF

In 2017 I applied to be an assessor for the new Teaching Excellence Framework, and was appointed. I wanted to be part of it because I felt that the process would not represent a distance education establishment like the OU very well, and as someone who likes to promote widening participation I feared it would favour the usual Russell Group suspects.

In the end, my role as assessor had little impact on those areas, the OU did a lot of consultation with the TEF team, although the metrics still proved problematic for us. Before I list some of the criticisms, I will also highlight just how well the process was conducted. The TEF team, led by Chris Husbands genuinely cared about the process being fair, and the OfS team really, really understood data. I’m pretty confident that had they been consulted the problems with the A levels algorithm in the summer of this year would have been avoided.

So the good parts of the process were that we all got together for a few days in Manchester and worked in teams to assess the submissions. These had been evaluated by two independent assessors prior to this, and over the course of the days we would come to a decision that the entire team were happy with. Experts in employment, widening participation and statistics were on hand for any queries we might have.

It was an intense couple of days, and you could find yourself suddenly passionate about whether a small FE college deserved a Silver or a Bronze. There is one college (which shall remain anonymous) that was the hill I would die on, as I felt the PVC of a posh university wanted to mark them down. Similarly, there was at least one prestigious uni/college that deservedly ended up with a Bronze because their submission was basically “we’re X, fuck you”. But when you looked at the data, they really didn’t do a very good job of supporting students. So there was a sense of democracy about the outcomes. The process was very thorough and I’m confident that within the parameters of the exercise, all institutions ended up with a fair assessment.

But the process was inevitably problematic. At its very core it is the epitome of a neo-liberal approach to something as complex as education. That it could be reduced to a bunch of scores and then a rating. But even accepting this fundamental issue, the problem I have with it, is that it operates in distinct opposition to other desirable directions for higher ed. For instance, there is often talk about the need for a more flexible education system, where people can study what they need, in different sized chunks, or meeting the needs of different audiences, or experimenting with new approaches. All of these will have an adverse effect on your TEF rating however. Politicians, commentators, employers etc can’t complain about a system being slow to change while a system is foisted upon it that directly rewards a lack of innovation in many respects.

The OU for instance scores poorly on some metrics, such as student continuation because our students often take a break between study or may only study one or two modules. This is because that was all they ever intended to study, and so our offering has entirely met their needs. But in TEF metrics that counts as a failure.

On the plus side though, I was doing the round of university open days with my daughter last year. One of them had a Gold TEF which they proudly declared on banners around campus and the VC boasted about in their address to the prospective students. I nudged my daughter and whispered “I gave them that Gold”.

And also it allowed me to dig out this classic 1980s quiz show theme:

25 Years of OU – 2016: Being a student

Man with piece of paper

One of the benefits of working at the OU is that you are eligible for a staff fee waiver to study OU courses. When I first joined I studied one module in Shakespeare, but since then I had always found reasons to postpone further study: I had a young child, or a big project, or was focusing on something else. Around 2014 the personal stars aligned – my daughter was now older, I was single and work was well established, so I studied over the next four years or so.

I completed a Masters in History, and then, because MAMA are good initials to have after your name, I did another in Art History. I have mined both of these areas heavily for metaphors on this blog (and an upcoming book on metaphors of ed tech).

But as I blogged at the time, perhaps as important as the topics themselves was the experience of being a student. This is particularly the case studying in an area you are unfamiliar with (I hadn’t studied either of these topics at undergrad level). It reminds you of the frustrations and vulnerability of being a student. The fear of being exposed as being stupid or feeling like you don’t belong. The resentment of the bloke (it’s always a bloke) who responds to every forum post with 1000 word essay containing at least 20 words you’ve never encountered before.

Institutions often focus on improving relevant skills in staff development, but actually getting lost in unknown territory is its own reward for understanding students and developing your teaching approach. Don’t build on expertise you already have, but instead start from near ignorance again. It’s enlightening.

Covid 19 bit – although it might not be as easy on many campus based institutions to study as a conventional student (timetabling for one presents an issue compared with asynchronous study), there would be a lot to be gained in experiencing the online provision from a student’s perspective. I genuinely think that intrusive exam proctoring for instance would be less readily adopted if staff had to experience it. All the things you think are obvious as an educator are barriers when you’re on the other side and appreciating that even simple things like making plans available, and the location of resources or assessment requirements obvious make a big difference.

25 Years of OU: 2015 – GO-GN

I mentioned that the OER Hub was probably the defining research grant of my career, but GO-GN is probably my favourite. It is also the most fortunate to have come my way. It was set up by Fred Mulder from the OU Netherlands. Fred, who sadly passed away in 2018, was an absolute force when it came to pursuing funding for things he deemed good ideas. He had the belief that OER field would benefit from research, but as the field was in its infancy the research community needed support to grow. By establishing a global network of doctoral researchers the reach and impact of OER could be increased.

He got the UNESCO OER chair on the basis of this proposal and acquired funding from the Hewlett Foundation. The main activity was an annual seminar held in conjunction with OE Global. When Fred left the OUNL, they didn’t wish to continue the project and he was seeking a home for it, and contacted us. The reputation we had in OER research and global community projects such as TESSA, made the OU a good fit and after some discussions with Fred and co-founder Robert Schuwer, we took over the funding, which Hewlett have maintained until 2022. The best project you could hope for was gifted to me – try not to hate me too much.

We added to the project, particularly with online activity, through the leadership of Bea de los Arcos and Natalie Eggleston. When Bea and Nats left I took over as Director, and work with Beck Pitt, Rob Farrow, Kylie Matthews and former GO-GN student, Paco Iniesto. Since then we’ve seen a shift to more OEP focused remit and producing outputs for the community as it has reached a level of maturity.

This Monday saw the launch of our annual report which details what we have been doing in this most unusual of years. It continues to be a supportive, caring and, yes, fun community. There is a cost for all this, and what I appreciate about the Hewlett grant is that it acknowledges the value of emotional support. In higher ed we spend a lot of money, a lot of it wasted, on trying to produce products or approaches that operate as businesses and generate revenue, but smaller amounts focused on support can have more lasting impact.

25 Years of OU: 2014 – Battle for Open

As an academic, part of the expectation is to publish journal articles and book chapters particularly with the REF in mind. I’ve always managed a reasonable level of output without being one of the people with an h-index of 60. But I would say my preferred output methods are at opposite ends of the effort continuum – blogs and books.

I had written three books previously. When I published my first, Delivering Learning on the Net, I sat back and awaited the new lifestyle of riches, yachts and fame that would ensue. I am still waiting. It was with 2011’s The Digital Scholar though that I began to feel like I was finding my voice as a writer, helped a lot by having a blog through which it had developed. That was also the first open access book I had published, with the realisation that if my books aren’t going to make me rich, I may as well try to make them free so they can be as widely read as possible. In 2014 I published the Battle for Open with Ubiquity Press and this felt like I was developing a coherent argument for the first time (readers of the book may disagree about the coherent part).

But why write books at all? A colleague once dismissed them in my field saying “why write one book when you could get five good REFable papers from the same material?” He had a point in terms of return on investment for metrics, but putting that aside, I think part of my attraction to writing books is because they counter the blogging immediacy and small chunks. The blogging style appeals to me (obviously), but the bite sized approach does not led itself to the construction of a connecting narrative or argument. The point is, I often don’t know where I’m going with a book’s theme, but it emerges when I revisit blog posts and weave these together. Rebecca Solnit says of walking that it allows you to ruminate and find what you didn’t know you were looking for. The same is true of writing a longer text I feel. It is only when you are putting together different chapters in a concerted effort that the connections become apparent.

So, my reply (several years too late) to my colleague would be that, on the contrary, I often don’t see the point to journal articles. A blog post is sufficient to get across a key finding or point and a book is the best means to construct a meaningful argument. The article sits awkwardly between the two. Of course, I do know why and when articles are useful, but their role as the dominant form of academic discourse is questionable.

I also like writing books primarily to annoy Jim Groom.

css.php