Let’s go to the ocean – April review

Cool Bryan Mathers intros

Highlight: The OERxDomains21 conference was a big highlight this month. When we’ve all become accustomed to online conferences, it is difficult to make any of them feel different. They are in the same platforms (Zoom/Team), they have the same structure, and they don’t feel different from your everyday work. What I admired about OERxDomains21 was the thought, and successful implementation, of an overall aesthetic. Beyond a logo, not many conferences do this. The Community TV theme was carried through in the programme (like a TV guide), the platform (StreamYard and YouTube), the intro and end credits to each talk, and the old adverts shown in breaks. In addition Discord came the closest I’ve seen online to recreating the genuine informal hallway chats at conferences, and the instant recording offered by StreamYard meant that if you missed a session it was instantly available. And it could then be released openly a couple of days after the conference ended. It’s not often you attend something that makes you rethink the format of the whole genre. Oh, and the sessions were amazing.

Teaching: Not exactly teaching, but I’ll include presentations under this heading too. Following on from the triumphant session last year, Tom Farrelly got the band back together for one last job, to do Gasta 2021. For those who don’t know, Gastas are lightning presentations (5 mins) preceded by a communal countdown in Gaelic, led by Gasta Master Tom Farrelly. The theme for these was the pandemic one year on, and I did a version of my Jaws and the online pivot piece (also a chapter in the upcoming Metaphors of Ed Tech book).

Theme: I had my first vaccination jab this month, like so many others. Pubs in Wales reopened outdoors, I visited my parents for the first time since August, my daughter returned to her uni accommodation, we got to visit beaches again. While not quite fully open, the theme was one of emerging this month. I found my vaccination a strangely moving experience – in a big leisure centre, everyone queuing patiently, aided by helpers it was like partaking in a big social success. It’s odd that so many Brexiteers are anti-vaccine as this is probably the nearest they’ll come to the blitz spirit they so idolise. It’s been tiring though doing that going out thing again, like learning how to be a social human in the world all over again.

Lowlight: The creepiness and mendacity of the Proctorio lawsuit reached new depths this month, and is I fear, part of a pattern we will see more of as ed tech companies strengthen their hold on higher ed, and are led by people with no understanding of, or sympathy with, education.

Vinyl highlight: I’ve been listening to Cassandra Jenkins’ An Overview on Phenomenal Nature a lot this month. It’s part trippy folk, part jazz, part transcendental therapy session. When she sings dreamily “go to the ocean/
The water, it cures everything” it makes you want to get in your car and drive to the sea.

Book: I read in one sitting David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count. His central argument is that for those on the progressive left (where he places himself), anti-semitism is somehow seen as a lesser form of racism. He cites a number of persuasive arguments for this, which you can make up your own mind on. What I admired about the book in particular was that it set its boundaries clearly (for example, he’s not talking about far right anti-semitism here, on the assumption we know that is wrong), makes his points clearly, counters any arguments, and then gets out in about 28K words. There was no need to extend chapters, to add in a whole section on cancel culture, or provide a detailed history of Israel. I wish more authors would do this.

Proctorio – Unis as custodians


During the recent European Super League furore there was much talk of football club owners being ‘custodians’ of the game (see, for example Everton’s statement). This might be a romantic, quaint notion in a world of aggressive capitalism, but it captures something about being in charge of institutions that have been around for a long time, will likely persist beyond the current owners, and contribute to something larger in society.

Universities and all HEIs occupy a similar role in society in many respects (although without the same pay as footballers it should be noted). The Principals and Vice Chancellors of these institutions are similarly in a custodian role – not only to their own institution but to the preservation and development of higher education in general. This comes with a commitment to protect and uphold academic values I think.

We can have a long, probably endless, debate about what such values are, and how they reflect broader society. But a commonly agreed one amongst them would be the freedom of legitimate academic criticism. That’s kind of the point of being an academic – to either provide evidence to reinforce existing theories or find ways of critiquing work that make us see it anew. Without this trait we’d all be teaching Phlogiston 101.

Universities often take ethical stances, although one might argue they need to be more robust against the interference of the UK Government. But to concentrate on a smaller, more ed tech focused example – many of you will have followed the story of Ian Linkletter, who is being sued by proctoring software company Proctorio. Ian’s ‘crime’ as I understand it, was to share the links to unlisted YouTube videos from the company (I’m no legal expert, this is not a legal but ethical case I’m making). It seems more likely in my view, that this is not really about what he did but rather about silencing any criticism. If you fear you will face a lawsuit from a company with deep pockets, even if you eventually win, the stress and cost is likely to be damaging. Better not to say anything.

Ian has a Go-FundMe page to help cover the costs of his legal expenses. It is mostly individuals who have donated, and some of the good ed tech companies like Hypothesis and Reclaim Hosting. This brings me back to the custodian argument. Like the football owners, uni presidents have a duty to protect the values in our domain that are essential to its identity. I’d like to see unis donating to Ian’s fund, but there may be legal restraints on that. They should at least be boycotting Proctorio. This is not necessarily because they are a proctoring company – the ethics of that are a different argument, and they can make judgements on that. Rather it is about the intent to undermine a fundamental academic practice. Just as the Blackboard patent case seemed to go against the very concept of innovating in teaching, so Proctorio’s lawsuit feels like an attack on practice every academic engages in – criticising shit. It’s Ian Linkletter and Proctorio today – it’ll be you and a large conglomerate tomorrow.

ALT are developing an ethical framework, which will be useful in highlighting the considerations of deploying any ed tech. It probably focuses more on the implementation of a specific technology than the practices of the company, and this is an element I think senior management in HEIs need to consider in their custodian role. Universities ethically source the coffee in their cafes, they should also ethically source the technology they use in their institutions.

For the last time


I was considering the other day, that after a complete year of lockdown with no travel or conferences, I wonder who I have met for the last time? Over the past year I’ve seen a number of people I know take on different roles, or find the pandemic traumatic or withdraw from the worlds I occupy professionally. You get in a routine of attending the same conferences and meetings, often seeing the same people across some of these. And of course, at some point you will meet them for the last time, although you rarely know it then. But we’ve never had a global Ctrl-Alt-Delete before and when it all eventually restarts so many of us will be in different places – professionally, personally, geographically – that it won’t just be an unpausing.

And this naturally led to contemplation on what else may some of us have done for the last time? Commuting? Going to conferences at all? Ironing? Purely face to face teaching?

I have seen a fair bit of people dismissing the desire to return to normal, and I agree there are lots of elements that we used to view as normal that we now have an opportunity to rethink – international business travel, working in an office, campus based education, etc. But I also have a lot of sympathy for folks who want some return to normality. If by normal we mean kids back in school, secure(ish) employment, being able to visit family, going out with friends, attending sports/theatre/cinema, and a reduced anxiety about catching a lethal disease – generally having some sense of control over your life. It seems a bit privileged to admonish people who want to achieve these. So, yes, let’s return to that normal. But there will be aspects, large and small, that we did before lockdown that we now realise we have done for the last time. What’s yours?

What the ALT survey tells us about the online pivot

The Association of Learning Technology conducts an annual survey. This is always a useful tool to track learning technologists (and their institutions) attitudes towards different technology. This year though they had a special section on Covid, and the results of that are worth noting. They provide an interesting historical snapshot, at the end of 2020. It will be informative to see how we feel about them this time next year.

Here are the key findings:

  • 87% of Members feel Learning Technology is more positively perceived.
  • Infrastructure and technology has won most investment over recruitment and CPD (with 53% reporting a reduction in permanent posts funding)
  • Learning tech budgets often increased (45%) but 41% reported no change.
  • 58% of respondents felt the changes were sustainable
  • Wellbeing has been impacted as Members have supported over 90% of provision online, although 70% responded positively to the statement “I have felt cheerful and in good spirits”
  • 67% of policies relating to use of Learning Technology have been revised, or new ones created.

There are a few interpretations and take-aways from these findings. Firstly, I think many learning technologists have felt some sense of vindication over the past year. A sort of “see, I’ve been telling you this stuff was important for years!”. Hence the finding that they feel learning technology is more positively perceived and many felt in good spirits (I’m assuming this didn’t mean gin). It might be understandable but the investment in infrastructure perhaps points to a ‘get me a technology to fix the problem’ mentality, rather than the longer term fix of increased CPD. A reduction in staff in these posts seems very counter productive. The finding that many felt this approach was sustainable I found interesting, and perhaps contrary to the view I’d formed viewing online discussion.

I think revisiting these next year will provide a good comparison. The data is openly available also, so you could use it as a comparison point for such a survey in your own institution also.

Rising – March review


Highlight: In a time when fun is in short supply, it was a ball to be a guest on Terry Greene and Anne-Marie Scott’s podcast “Check the O.L.: Liner Notes from Groundbreaking Online Learning”. I discussed 1999’s Open University course, You, Your Computer and the Net (which I’ve mentioned on here several times). With apologies for my audio quality, it’s a good chat, and we each choose a song from 1999 also. As well as being an informal, friendly listen, what Terry and Anne-Marie are doing here aligns with the aim of 25 Years of Ed Tech, and the accompanying Between the Chapters podcast, namely that there is a recent history to ed tech, which is worth exploring.

Teaching: I didn’t have much to do with this, but as the nominal head of Curriculum in IET, it was great to see colleagues launch the latest microcredential. This one is Online Teaching: Accessibility and Inclusive Learning. Accessibility and inclusion is something the OU’s distance ed approach has been developed to address, with a high percentage of students declaring a disability. Now that there is an increased shift to online learning, ensuring course design meets the needs of all learners is something a lot of educators will be seeking to improve.

Theme: Now that lockdown is coming to an end – I have my first vaccination appointment, local travel restrictions have been lifted in Wales, people are talking about face to face meetings again – I am mostly filled with optimism, but there’s also this sense of being in a grey zone. Having to relearn socialisation (I mean, I was never very good anyway), getting to grips with what has changed, etc – it’s like people who got killed when we knew the war was ending or the Berlin wall was going to come down. There’s still peril in this interim period. The theme then is negotiating these end days of one regime while we’re unsure what comes next.

Lowlight: For reasons I don’t know, but which I believe to be valid, the OU had to cancel the implementation of the Associate Lecturer (what most of you know as tutors) contract. The contract has been planned for a long time, and something that the OU should be proud of – when the rest of the sector is moving towards casualisation it would put part-time tutors on a contract as permanent members of staff. For many of our tutors this means the difference between being able to get a mortgage, feeling secure and making plans. The reasons are, I think, tied up with the implementation of the necessary IT system rather than any shying away from the contract itself, and it will be implemented eventually. But after a year when all the staff at the OU have pulled together, and Associate Lecturers have provided such valuable support to students, it led to a very sudden change in feeling around the institution. This had echoes of the OU crisis of 2018 with distrust and a sense of betrayal. I don’t have any particular insight on it or any inside knowledge, but seeing this division and the sense of anger and despair amongst AL colleagues was a low point for sure. Hopefully there can be a resolution to this soon, but even if there is, trust and love take a long to build and are not an infinite resource.

Vinyl highlight: Finally the Sault albums that came out last year – Untitled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is) – got a proper vinyl release. These are both amazing – it’s kinda greedy to release not one double album that is the best thing that year, but two. They have that quality of being both completely current and also seeming like they could have been released any time over the past 40 years.

Book: I usually opt for non-fiction but this month I have loved David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow. It’s the tale of Charlie who leaving school after his GCSEs falls in with an amateur theatre crowd, in order to pursue a relationship with a girl he meets accidentally. It is laugh out loud funny (someone should invent an acronym for that), with so many apt metaphors and similes on each page you feel rather punch drunk at the end. It also perfectly captures the sort of non-existence familiar to many of us who attended comprehensives, and had no clue what we were doing or wanted to be.

Educators are not risk averse and complacent


I know the article was clickbait, but this THE piece, entitled “Risk-averse academy needs to get on board with new tech” was a classic of a sub-genre that has been around for at least 30 years. It contained all the requisite elements of the “why are educators stuck in the past (unlike me)?” articles. These are:

  • Based entirely on a small set of anecdotes – this one is based on using VR for a small group of students. Issues of scalability, access, privacy, replicability are too uncool to bother with.
  • Uncritically embedded in start-up culture and language – the “cool factor was off the charts”, “Experimenting with truly immersive VR is mind-blowing”, “A company like the Glimpse Group can create just about any scenario we can imagine”, “Lyron Bentovim, CEO of the New York-based Glimpse Group, which is a king among start-ups in the realm of VR.”
  • Sweeping generalisation – “I’ve heard time and again how university IT departments invest in technology, from software and hardware to new apps, but then grow frustrated because faculty don’t use it”. Really? I’ve heard the opposite, that educators want to use new tech but are often blocked by IT or admin.
  • Ignorance of any history – “We can’t keep teaching the same things in the same ways.” I’d suggest taking a look at maybe a recent history of ed tech to see how educators have been innovating all this time. Even the example cited (VR and AR) is being widely deployed. For example, my colleague Fridolin Wild would be surprised to hear that no-one in HE is using these technologies.
  • Education hasn’t changed in X years – “the business model of higher education hasn’t changed much over the years, even though the wider world is changing at a rapid-fire pace”. This trope is as old as the number of years for which education is deemed not to have changed. As I’ve discussed before, this is only true if you don’t look very closely, and wilfully ignore all the change.
  • Insulting other educators – this article really goes for it on this one: “faculty and administrators alike are by and large risk-averse and generally complacent”; “dear professors, why are you so hesitant to learn something new? You are educators. Don’t you also love learning? Don’t you love challenging yourself to think in new and different ways?” This is certainly a bold approach by THE to insult their core readership, with an article that basically says “why are you so shit?” (and they must take the blame here, the article will have been through an editor who could have suggested tempering the language). As Benjamin Litherland commented on Twitter:
  • A focus on the elite – the author is from Fordham University, a prestigious, wealthy HEI in New York. As I’ve argued before, elitism is not innovation.
  • Over-simplification of context – the blame for a perceived lack of technology adoption is placed on the fuddy-duddy ways of educators. Apart from there being many educators who use all manner of tech in intriguing ways for the benefits of their students (maybe check out an ALT-C conference for example), there are even more who are hampered in doing so by institutional constraints. These can be excess workloads, tenure and reward structures, excessive administration, or barriers to innovation that make any attempt to play with new tech a distant dream glimpsed from under a mountain of quality assurance, business case and risk assessment forms.

I am being a bit unkind – I genuinely admire the enthusiasm of the author, and I bet the students really did enjoy it, so by all means others can learn from this experiment, I think VR has a lot to offer, even if it’s just making learning more playful and providing different experiences. And to be fair we all do know academics who don’t regard any of this digital stuff as worthwhile and can be very conservative. It is the conclusion that we should a) fully embrace start-up culture and b) that educators are incapable of innovation and using tech that grates.

[UPDATE – The Times Higher doubled down on this with a piece the next week which started with ““If you dropped a surgeon from the 16th century into a modern-day operating theatre, they would be astounded at how medicine had advanced,” a former vice-chancellor explained to me recently. “If you dropped a 16th-century academic into a modern-day university, they would wonder why so little had changed.”]

Wellness washing in higher ed

Created by the Historic Tale Construction Kit (thanks to Fi Daisy G for sending the link – I saw the gag on Twitter but couldn’t find the original so recreated it)

When the OU was going through its crisis in 2018, staff were suffering because of unrealistic demands, and in witnessing the institution they loved be undermined. Around this time we all received an email informing us that senior management were aware of the mental stress, and here were a bunch of resources on Resilience to help us cope. The implication of course was not that they should stop destroying the university, but that we should develop some more grit to cope with it. Let’s say it wasn’t well received.

Thankfully things at the OU have changed a lot since then and it is now a much more sympathetic environment. But this was the first time I’d experienced what might be termed “Wellness Washing”. Like greenwashing and openwashing, wellness washing is taking something that is generally perceived as good and desirable and cynically deploying it to one’s benefit.

Fast forward to the pandemic and this type of approach seems abundant in higher ed. A version of the meme I posted above did the rounds recently, but it’s about the fourth such one I’ve seen shared widely, which indicates it strikes a chord. They all suggest that higher ed doesn’t really want to grapple with the fundamental issues of mental health and wellbeing, but instead wants to use the sticking plaster of seminars and resources. Something has then been done, but you know, nothing has really been done. It seems like the Neoliberal Advice Bot is sometimes too close to the bone:

For instance, in a meeting the other day, I suggested that if we accepted staff were struggling because of the pandemic, and maybe operating at sub-optimal rate, then we could reduce the research income generation targets for this year. How everyone chuckled.

I genuinely appreciate that it’s complex, some staff still want to develop career paths and don’t want to slacken off, the institutions need to maintain finances and there are external pressures such as the REF. In addition, the wellness seminars are themselves often very useful for people, and it at least makes talking about these issues permissible. But they’re not the solution and all of us need to find creative ways to balance the different pressures on institutions and staff, otherwise I fear there may be a ‘stress debt’ which will impact later on, particularly in campus unis that have switched to online and been in emergency mode for a year. Then I fear that no amount of Wellness Wednesday emails will help.

Woolf University – whither the blockchain?


Some of you may remember a few excited announcements back in 2018 about Woolf University, a startup that was, and I paraphrase, going to blockchain the shit out of higher ed. The founder described it as “Uber for students, AirBnB for Professors”, thereby combining two terrible business models in one unholy mess.

David Gerard noted that by 2019 they had quietly dropped the whole blockchain tag, no longer describing themselves as The First Blockchain University. Founder Joshua Broggi had stated at the outset that “We literally could not do what we are doing without a blockchain,” so presumably it still figures in their system.

Looking at their site now, it’s hard to see what they do. They seem to offer courses from their own made up Ambrose College, and a couple of other institutions. Courses cost around $1500 each and offer personalised tuition with weekly video calls (attempting to replicate the Oxbridge seminar model). There are no student testimonials I can see. They haven’t tweeted anything since last October. In April 2020 the founder tweeted that “More than 20,000 universities have been forced online by COVID-19, and that has put Woolf in a unique position. So, after two years in development, Woolf University is now opening its platform to non-profit colleges and universities.”

I’m not sure what the ‘unique position’ is here, but it begins to look as though it may be a pivot to providing a platform for online learning rather than the world changing university model. That sounds kinda familiar from MOOC days.

Maybe Woolf are busy developing stuff and are about to launch in a new phase. I understand that this takes time and effort. But I would like to propose that when journalists run puff pieces on the latest thing that is going to kill the university, they are legally obliged to follow it up in 3 years time to see how it is all actually going. Maybe some more sober pieces might actually be useful in understanding how ed tech should, and should not, be implemented.

Welcome to dial-a-view – February review

Following on from last month’s hugely successful (ie completely unread) monthly review, here is my February one using the same categories.

Highlight: Puppy! After going through the home improvement and the cutting your own hair stage, we entered the puppy stage of lockdown. Welcome Posey! Not very work related I know, but come on, it’s a puppy.

Teaching: With my colleagues I completed a 40 page document document for the Periodic Quality Review exercise at the OU, for the Open Programme which I chair. This takes place every 6 years for all qualifications. It’s a lot of work, but a good opportunity to reflect and suggest improvements. I’m always impressed by the professionalism of staff in such complex undertakings. It’s the sort of administrative task that people moan about as an example of universities spending too much money on admin, but then complain if such quality assurance isn’t undertaken.

Theme: If the January theme was ‘Pandemic fatigue’, then February was “A new hope”. It got sunny, work settled down a bit with book out of the way, there is a route hopefully out of lockdown, I got a puppy.

Lowlight: I gave one of the keynotes at the annual H818 student conference. This course is part of our MAODE, and ends with students presenting at an online conference (we were doing them before they were fashionable) about research they have undertaken on a topic of their choice. It is always a real delight and produces high quality output. The reason it was a lowlight was because this year’s was the last one – as I’ve blogged before, the MAODE was a victim of the curriculum review at the OU. It’s a shame to see such an innovative, successful course fall victim to some poor decision making, but I have been powerless to prevent it. Anyway, my thanks to Simon Ball who hosts the conference every year and the students who have made it such a success.

Vinyl highlight: I was a big fan of Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump when it came out in 2000. It was sort of a concept album about alcoholic robots and mining far off planets, but really it spoke to a feeling of technology disappointment and ennui (it’s been listed as one of the saddest albums). It was rerecorded by Jason Lytle on a wooden piano for this anniversary, and that adds a plaintive, lockdown overlay to the technology dystopia.

Book: Candacy Taylor’s Overground Railroad uses the history of the Green Book (the travel guide, not the crap film) to trace racial issues in the US. It’s extremely well researched, and following the annual publication of the guide is an ideal (ahem) vehicle to trace this history. Taylor makes a powerful connection to modern incarceration rates and economic red-lining. It’s a powerful, multi-faceted and intriguing take on modern US history.

The post-lockdown springback & what it means for education


When we eventually limp out of lockdown, it will be interesting to see the range of reactions from everyone. I suspect there will be the full continuum of responses. Some people will have developed anxiety around others and operate largely in lockdown mode. Even if they feel ok about other people, more people will have had lifestyle revelations. The thought of commuting seems abhorrent, wearing anything but jeans and jogging bottoms feels extravagant and working in an office inefficient and constrictive. Working from home in a small-holding in Camarthenshire now seems like the dream.

But at the other end of the spectrum will be individuals who are desperate to be in proximity to others again. A crushed ride on the tube will feel life affirming and they’ll want to go to as many parties, theatres and restaurants as possible. They’ll buy 50 pairs of new shoes and adore dressing with the concept of some audience. They’ll relish the buzz and gossip of being in an office again.

And there will be everything inbetween. They are all valid responses. I think I’m towards the not-going back end. I can’t bear the thought of resuming commuting to Milton Keynes on the M4. I don’t want to be getting up at 5am to get trains to meetings in London. I’ll enjoy a couple of face to face conferences a year, but not the necessity of attending a stream of them.

Consider your own response on this range. And this applies to education also. Educators and learners will have similar attitudes. Some will want to be back on campus, in lectures and seminars, immersed in the spontaneity and bristle of face to face contact. Others will feel that the shift has now been made, and with it, a number of freedoms and a potential new way of teaching and learning to be explored. Inbetween most will want some of the benefits of online and the informal interaction of face to face.

This all presents a set of issues for institutions to grapple with. As I said all of these responses are valid, so insisting only one reaction will be accommodated is likely to lead to upheaval – staff or students will go elsewhere. How do they then accommodate this? The Hyflex model? The ‘take it or leave it’ approach? Diversification in the market place? A set of complex options to choose from?

The online pivot can be argued to have propelled online learning to centre stage and accelerated its uptake in higher ed by several years. But perhaps more significantly is the manner in which it will force flexibility on the sector, in terms of learners and staff. I mean, I’m not naive I know there will be the usual heavy handed approach from many institutions demanding on campus attendance, but flexibility will be the longer term trend.