Yeah, but what do _we_ know?

I hosted a series of seminars here at the OU, with the intention of sharing research we have in various aspects of ed tech, prompting the OU to ask questions of itself and also to showcase that we have lots of internal expertise (and, ahem, don’t need to pay consultants to tell us how to be a good Open University). They’ve now finished so this provides an opportunity to summarise the series. Firstly, here is a recap of the topics and speakers:

For the record, we had more planned on MOOC research, informal accreditation and student surveys, but for various reasons these didn’t materialise, but would make good topics for any future series.

So, what can be gleaned from these talks? I gave each of the speakers the same brief, which was to highlight research, give an overview of the field and bring it back to the OU context, but beyond this they had a free hand. Given this, there are still a surprising number of similarities that arise. Firstly, in most talks it is evident that the work at the OU is amongst the world leading research in that area. It is often the case that when you are inside an institution you see only the barriers or problems, and when you are external to an organisation, you see only the positive aspects. Of course, the truth always lies somewhere in-between these two, but it is worth acknowledging the excellent work of colleagues and how the OU continues to lead in many of the pertinent issues for open, online education. But while this is true, nearly all presenters gave a mixed picture. There was more we could do, and many things that had not worked as well as expected. It can be painful to acknowledge this sometimes, but part of the problem with the internal/external perspective is that it can appear that everywhere else is only having success because we are not all honest about the problems.

Another recurring theme was the sensitive, appropriate application of these approaches. None of my colleagues were advocating mass revolution, or some fully automated university. The issues were all around how to use such tools to effectively support students and educators. It is this understanding of how ed tech operates within an existing system, and the complex nature of those interactions that sets apart academic ed tech in my view from much of commercial ed tech, which seeks to reimagine the education system so that many of the problems disappear. Imagining your technology working effectively in a technology-centric education system is easy, it is getting it to work in the messy, ill defined world of humans that is difficult.

Lastly, the series as a whole provides a model for how senior management  can think about the issues facing their own institutions (not just here at the OU). Lawrie Phipps has an intriguing post on how most technology vendors don’t want academics in the room when talking to senior management, because they ask awkward questions. However, what this series demonstrated is that the asking of those awkward questions is part of the process of thinking through a solution. Having staff present on such topics and then couch them in terms of strategic possibilities provides a much more context sensitive approach, and also highlights that an institution trusts its own experts.

Automating assessment to understand assessment

In the last of the series of seminars I have been hosting at the OU, my colleague Professor Denise Whitelock talked about her work on assessment. Denise takes us through a number of projects she has worked on, which have automated aspects of assessment. These have always had a strong conceptual underpinning, for instance Dweck’s work to develop Open Comment which provided feedback to Arts students. With Open Mentor, she used Bale’s work on interactive categories to help tutors develop effective and supportive feedback. And SafeSea allows students to trial essay writing before taking the sometimes daunting step of submitting their first one, using analysis based on Pask’s conversational framework.

What I found interesting about this work was that it provided an example of how technology is situated in the human education system. None of these systems were designed to replace human educators, instead they are intended to help learners and educators in their current pursuits. It can be seen as an iterative dialogue between the technology and the people in the system. For example, with Open Comment Denise reports how she acted as a student and did not perform well, having come from a science background. She effectively had to learn ‘the rules of the (Arts education) game’. By making these explicit for the tool, they could then help learners develop them, when before many educators had been doing this only implicitly. This seems to me the appropriate way to approach educational technology, to see it as a component in an ongoing dialogue.

I’ll let Denise detail each of the projects and future developments in the talk below:

Learning design – the long haul of institutional change

The latest in the seminars that I’m coordinating at the Open University was held recently. I was delighted that this one was presented by my colleague Rebecca Galley, talking about 10 Years of Learning Design at the OU. I was part of this project, building on the excellent work of Grainne Conole. Learning Design is a good example of how you implement institutional change in higher education. The project developed tools, worked with ‘friendly’ course teams, became integrated into the formal course approval process, developed standard workshop and support, refined practice, and then adapted to particular needs, eg using LD to focus on retention.

It is not easy, but we now have a uniform design process across the university, and are one of the world leaders in this approach. It has allowed us to then match analytics against designs, and to develop a common language and representation.

Rebecca talks through the approach, the successes and tensions and possible directions. What this whole project highlights for me is that change in higher education is possible (contrary to the “things haven’t changed in 100 years” trope), but it requires patience and sensitivity. Had we said 10 years ago “everyone is doing learning design now” the project would have met with resistance (it met with enough anyway, I have the scars to attest to this). That’s the price for working with academics and not robots. But by getting people on board, working to solve real problems, talking in their language (not management speak) and being able to demonstrate benefits the OU is now in an excellent place with Learning Design (which is not to say it can’t be a lot better).

Here is Rebecca’s talk:



The criteria for a Vice Chancellor

The OU is seeking a new Vice Chancellor, with our acting one Mary Kellett, having done an admirable job in halting the chaos, and beginning the healing process following the disastrous previous regime. The UCU has put together a very good list of criteria they would want to see in a future VC. These are all very reasonable, and I would support all of them, particularly the type of criteria which are important but don’t often get listed in formal job descriptions and headhunting procedures, including:

  • Wholeheartedly support the OU’s mission statement
  • See the university first and foremost as a public institution for learning, research and the development of critical knowledge
  • Love our students and consider Higher Education a fundamental right for all

Their list got me thinking about what we want in Vice Chancellors in general. While some of their criteria are OU specific, many are applicable across the sector. I would add only one criteria to their list, which I feel gets at something fundamental about the difference between higher education and other sectors. My overriding desirable quality from a VC is an educational equivalent of the hippocratic oath: First, do no harm (although I was today years old when I learnt that isn’t actually part of the hippocratic oath).

This is not as trivial as it sounds. The recruitment of VCs is often undertaken by professional recruitment agencies, who work across sectors. The language of technology start-up has permeated (or if you prefer, contaminated) much of this world: disruption, revolution, challenge, digital, innovative, are all the types of words one sees in the CVs of successful applicants. I get it – saying “I’m just going to tweak a few things, be good at formal occasions and let you lot get on with what you’re good at” is not a very dynamic sales pitch for a 400K salary.

But universities and tech start-ups operate to different timescales and require different approaches. Unless you are being called in to save a university from imminent collapse, the kind of high pressure institutional transformation and ‘reorg’ so beloved of tech companies is disruptive (in the actual, original sense) to the functioning of a university. Universities operate over long time frames, have often been around for 100s of years (or in our case 50), and their very function is based on their longevity and adherence to core principles rather than rapid changes and then obsolescence. Think of it as different frequencies. HEIs operate like a low frequency sound, such as a bass drum, whereas tech startups are high frequency, like a whistle. Over the same time period, there will be waves in both, but far more in the high frequency one. So think of change in startups is the red line, and that in HEIs the blue line in this diagram:

The point is that both are required within a band or within society. Universities shouldn’t try to be tech start-ups anymore than tech start-ups make effective universities. While it is indeed worrying that a number of HEIs in the UK are facing possible bankruptcy, the fact that this makes a headline is telling in itself. In contrast “Three tech startups may face bankruptcy” would be greeted by a shrug – after all approximately 90% of startups fail. The management required in this context is very different – here you need to produce rapid products, get through to next year and then hopefully get bought by Google. This is an entirely different context to dealing with steering your 100 year old institution through the current educational climate, while pondering its route over the next 100 years.

Rather than prioritising dynamic, (often ego-driven) change programmes, HEIs need people who understand the low frequency, longue durée approach to management. And that starts with: first, do no harm.

Innovating Pedagogy 2019

As you may know, a group of academics in the Institute of Educational Technology at the OU, produce an annual report looking at innovations in teaching and learning. Led by Rebecca Ferguson and Mike Sharples, we collaborate with a different educational research unit each time, and this year it was the Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology (SLATE), University of Bergen, Norway. We skipped the 2018 one and nudged it into 2019, so here is the new report. It proposes ten innovations that are already in currency but have not had a profound influence on education in their current form. These are:

  • Playful Learning
  • Learning with Robots
  • Decolonising Learning
  • Drone-based Learning
  • Learning through Wonder
  • Action Learning
  • Virtual Studios
  • Place-based Learning
  • Making Thinking Visible
  • Roots of Empathy

I didn’t have much to do with the report this year, but in early rounds I was keen for ‘decolonising learning’ to be included, but I didn’t feel qualified (as a white, European male) to write it, so I am grateful that made the cut. One thing I’ve noticed as we’ve continued with this series is that it has become less technology focused – sure ‘drone based learning’ may catch the eye (and we were surprised how much of this was going on), but a lot of the innovations are very, well, human. It has also gained enough of an identity that it is not an uncritical view of these approaches, so has less of the breathless admiration you find in similar reports (mentioning no names). Anyway, it’s always a useful read, so I hope you enjoy it.

The 1000th Ed Techie post!


This is the 1000th post on the Ed Techie blog. It took me over twelve years to get here, so I don’t think I’ll qualify as prolific. Steady, that’s the word. When I started, we still called them weblogs, Queen Victoria sniffed that they would never last, and they were put online by Cockney chimney sweeps, so let us now be all smug that it’s still here. I’ve blogged about blogging many times (it’s a blogger’s favourite subject), but it’s fitting on this auspicious occasion to reflect on what I’ve learnt, or come to believe, about blogging and its role in ed tech. So while we crack open the champagne, here are some thoughts:

Blogging highlights the process, not the output – one of my early blogging chums was Tony Hirst here at the OU. He has commented that blogging reveals an ongoing process of research, but that much of our formal systems (promotion, REF, research funding) are focused on outputs. That’s not to say outputs aren’t important, but the longitudinal picture that a blog gives you allows for a better representation of developing ideas.

Blogging is ideally suited to academia – related to the above, blogging is complementary to traditional academic processes, but it also adds something that was hitherto absent. It is complementary in that you can use it to promote outputs, amplify keynotes, conduct research, build your network of peers, etc. It adds something in that it allows for an informality, additional material, thoughts, queries and smaller pieces of research that previously had no outlet beyond discussions with peers. It acts like the fine grained sand that fills all the gaps between the bigger pebbles.

Discoverability has changed – in order to find blog content, you used to have to work at it through things like blog rolls, links etc. When the publication filter was removed through the advent of the web browser, it was entirely predictable that along with the new release and useful, funny, informative content would come hateful stuff. But back in the early days of blogging it required an active effort to seek this out & so its impact on wider society was limited. What social media did was to transform discovery into a passive rather than an active process. This opened up a whole new audience for racist, misogynistic, conspiracy theory sites. And this passive presentation helped to normalise these views. If they’re presented regularly and alongside reputable news sources then for a number of people who lack the critical abilities to see through them and the networks to contradict them, they begin to take on legitimacy. While we could predict the publication of vile content we couldn’t as easily predict the power of social media algorithms & bots to convert that content into the mainstream for many people.

It has real impact – for both good and bad. In purely academic terms it can boost your paper’s citations, get you keynote invites, be the route to a research collaboration – ie. all the proper academic things your Vice Chancellor cares about. I have also seen its power in helping academics who may be alone in their own institution connect with others, and develop a powerful, global reputation (of which their own institution is often blissfully unaware). But, blogging is also a favoured tool of the Alt-right, nazis, misogynists, climate change deniers and flat-earthers, and has empowered these movements.

But let’s end on a positive note – many of the people I met through blogging have gone on to become real friends, some of them have even stayed at my house. The conversations I have had through blogging have been invigorating, exciting and nearly always polite. It’s still the place I turn to when I need to work things out. As my daughter (cruelly) commented “I wrote a blog post about that” is one of my most over-used phrases. Long may it be so.

Tell me lies about ed tech

In school one of my favourite poems was by Adrian Mitchell, entitled ‘To Whom it May Concern’, it centred around the refrain ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam‘. It came to mind this week, when I read Audrey Watters’ post The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology. So here, for a bit of fun, and in appreciation of all the work Audrey has done over the years, is a remix of Mitchell’s poem for ed tech. Don’t tell me it doesn’t scan, I did it in 10 minutes, okay?

I was run over by AI one day.
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way
So suck up all my data
Tell me lies about Edtech.
Heard Alexa screaming with pain,
Couldn’t find my iphone so I went back to sleep again
So fill my ears with bitcoin
Suck up all my data
Tell me lies about Edtech.
Every time I shut my eyes all I see is VR games.
Made a blockchain and I entered all the names
So coat my Google glasses with butter
Fill my ears with bitcoin
Suck up all my data
Tell me lies about EdTech.
I smell something burning, hope it’s just my mindfullness
They’re only selling guns and safety vests
So stuff my nose with grit
Coat my Google glasses with butter
Fill my ears with bitcoin
Suck up all my data
Tell me lies about Edtech.
Where were you at the time of the MOOCs?
Down by the library reading e-books
So chain my tongue with analytics
Stuff my nose with grit
Coat my Google glasses with butter
Fill my ears with bitcoin
Suck up all my data
Tell me lies about Edtech.
You put your algorithms in, you put your ethics out,
You take the human teacher and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with Facebook
Chain my tongue with analytics
Stuff my nose with grit
Coat my Google glasses with butter
Fill my ears with bitcoin
Suck up all my data
Tell me lies about Edtech.

Here is the powerful original:

The benefits of a writing retreat

I’ve been in a cottage in Cornwall for the past two weeks on a writing retreat, turning my 25 Years of Ed Tech series into a book. First of all, I need to acknowledge the privilege of this – many jobs do not have the type of work that allows this, and in education many people don’t have the time or money to do so, or home life makes two weeks away impossible. I am lucky to have this opportunity, and I appreciate it greatly.

With that accepted, I want to set out how beneficial such a retreat is. I am returning with approximately 46,000 words written. I started with about 20,000 from the blog post series, so I haven’t written all that 46K from scratch, but it means the bulk of the book is written now. I need to do a few more chapters and it’ll need a good tidy up and revision, but those can be done in smaller chunks.

What the solid two week chunk has given me is focused time on this alone. The weather here has been pretty awful with Storm Deirdre hitting, which means I’ve been holed up, only braving the elements to walk the dog 3 times a day. This in itself is worthwhile, but there are added benefits to being away from home. Firstly, I told lots of colleagues I was going away, and this in itself puts pressure on me to deliver. I can’t come back from a writing retreat having spent the much vaunted break playing solitaire. Also, by coming away from home many smaller distractions disappear, and a new routine is established around writing alone. The change in location makes this easier to develop, just as you quickly create a holiday routine.

I also struggle to say no to things, so usually when I’m on study leave I end up attending online meetings. These may not be that long but they break up the routine and the concentration on just the writing. Having told everyone I was going away made saying no easier, and also not responding to emails. Similarly, allocating a very specific period of time meant that people are more willing to indulge it, like a holiday, rather than an ongoing vagueness. It also helped me to know that I had this definite period coming up so beforehand I could focus on other things without feeling it was distracting from writing.

So, while it seems a luxury, if you can manage it, then a writing retreat is really a very effective way of working. If I had been trying to fit this writing in normal time it would have taken months. Clear delineation of tasks is so rare in normal working life, with multiple tasks, priorities and demands. But it is so refreshing when you have it.

Inaugural lecture klaxon!

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Open University and as part of the celebrations they have organised a series of inaugural lectures. I am honoured to be one of those selected to give one of these, on the 19th Feb, 18.00-19.00 GMT. If people want to attend in person (and after all, what better way to spend a Tuesday evening) there is an Eventbrite page (only sign up there if you’re definitely coming to the face to face event, no need to register for online). They’ll provide a live stream link nearer the time also and it will be on the OU Facebook live page.

It’s actually about 15 years since I became a Prof, but at the time there was an inaugural backlog so I never got invited to give one. I like to think, that like a particularly smelly cheese, I have matured in that time, so it will be a better talk now than it would have been then.

Given the nature of the OU anniversary I’m going to talk about aspects of open education, and explore the idea of what an Open University founded today would look like. Anyway, I hope some of you can make it in person or, more likely, online for some inaugural lecture LOLs.

Annual books and charts time!

As I’ve done over the past few years, (2017, 2016, 2015) I’m rounding up my reading for the year with some lists and pointless graphs. I’ve managed exactly 52 books so far (may squeeze in another before year’s end), the full list is at the end, and not counting work related books. This year I read a lot of crime, which worries me a bit. I used to challenge myself with books, but I have a concern that I’m doing this less now, and crime novels are kind of comforting and escapist, with their neat resolutions. I don’t want to disparage them as a genre, after all, I read them. But my concern is that either because I’m getting old, or because of the shit storm the world is right now, I’m not quite as adventurous in my taste as I was. As if to demonstrate this, here is the first graph, with breakdown by genre:

I read many more women writers than men this year, partly because I find women to be better crime writers but also because when I wasn’t reading crime, the books that I felt had the most to say were usually by women.

In terms of format, I was all in for audio books this year. I had a spate of reading physical books in the middle of the year. Interestingly, in comparison with a few years ago, I read no kindle books this year.

I re-read a few classics this year, so I’ll exclude them from my top ten as it’s probably not fair. So although most of these weren’t published this year, here are my favourite reads from 2018:

  • Wire in the Blood – Val McDermid
  • Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
  • Notes on a Scandal – Zoe Heller
  • Just Kids – Patti Smith
  • Mythos – Stephen Fry
  • The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
  • Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Wise Children – Angela Carter
  • Snap – Belinda Bauer
  • Circe – Madeline Millar

Of these, if I was to pick one, I’d go for Circe. Madeline Millar’s fictional take on the life of the witch in the Odyssey had a lot to say about the portrayal of women in myth, how they deal with powerful men children, as well as being beautifully written and a lot of fun too. Mind you, on another day, it’d probably be Wise Children.

If you’re interested here is the full list:
1. White Silence – Jodi Taylor
2. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
3. Cosmos – Carl Sagan
4. Wire in the Blood – Val McDermid
5. The Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
6. Prisoners of Geography – Tim Marshall
7. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
8. Fatherland – Robert Harris
9. Pompeii – Mary Beard
10. The Last Testament – Val McDermid
11. October – China Mieville
12. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
13. Jamaica Inn – Daphne Du Maurier
14. The Muse – Jessie Burton
15. Out of Bounds – Val McDermid
16. A Brief History of seven killings – Marlon James
17. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen
18. Belonging – Simon Schama
19. London – Peter Ackroyd
20. Enemies of the System – Brian Aldiss
21. Notes on a Scandal – Zoe Heller
22. The Snowman – Jo Nesbo
23. Even Dogs in the Wild – Ian Rankin
24. Mysogynation – Laura Bates
25. Doughnut economics – Kate Raworth
26. The Welsh Girl – Peter Ho Davies
27. 1984 – George Orwell
28. just kids – Patti Smith
29. Bring up the bodies – Hilary Mantel
30. Deep country – Neil Ansell
31. Otter country – Miriam Darlington
32. Raven Black – Ann Cleaves
33. Zombies, a cultural history – Roger Luckhurst
34. Murder Underground – Mavis Doriel Hay
35. Mythos – Stephen Fry
36. Death comes to Pemberley – PD James
37. The Germans and Europe – Peter Millar
38. Splinter the Silence – Val McDermid
39. Silent Voices – Anne Cleeves
40. Bulletcatchers daughter – Rod Duncan
41. The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
42. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
43. The clocks – Agatha Christie
44. Wise children – Angela Carter
45. Snap – Belinda Bauer
46. The house at sea’s end – Elly Griffiths
47. Circe – Madeline Millar
48. Crow trap – Ann Cleaves
49. Babylon berlin – Volker Kutscher
50. Faceless killers – Henning Mankel
51. The relentless tide – Denzil Meyrick
52. The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain