Online pivot – the Past


I thought I’d do a series of posts on thinking about the past, present and future of our current situation. I don’t want to go the full Downes, and say “what this pandemic is really about is me”, but in terms of thinking about the past, I thought I’d riff off my 25 Years of Ed Tech book.

What the pandemic has revealed is the role of ed tech not as a funky, disruptive side hustle, but as boring, mainstream provision. In physical architecture terms it is less the cool, digital drop-in space with bean bags but more akin to the standard lecture halls and old refectory. It’s been around for ages and just kinda works, but you can’t quite remember why it was designed that way.

There is now a shift to outsourcing to OPMs for content, and senior management in universities have to decide how to negotiate an online shift for September and possibly beyond (and whatever you may think about some senior management, this is an impossibly difficult path to plot with so many unknowns). One aspect that hinders them, and which has been ongoing probably before the current people were in their positions, so it’s not really their fault, is the Year Zero mentality of ed tech. The approach of much of commercial ed tech, is (as a subset of tech generally) to sell the idea that the past is quaint, error ridden and largely irrelevant. When people talk of “future facing” as a virtue, they usually mean _exclusively_ future facing.

The problem this generates is that when the pandemic shit hits the fundamental business plan fan then we are building on foundations of sand. I don’t mean to bemoan “why doesn’t everyone have a detailed knowledge of ed tech?”, I know there are lots of competing interests for people’s time. But when the sector itself actively works against any historical legacy by always declaring the latest thing the very first instantiation then a bit of appreciation of its history goes a long way.

So, if for example, someone had written a book on recent history of ed tech, or someone else a review of the ed tech failures over the past decade, then it at least helps provide a basis for considering what to implement and some of the issues that have arisen before. What has surprised me about the pivot online is the way we have found ourselves revisiting the same sort of questions we thought we answered in 1999. Can you teach effectively online? (yes). Is it good quality? (yes). Is it cheaper? (no). Can we do widening participation this way? (yes). Is it easy? (no), etc, et bloody cetera.

This is partly because large numbers of people have suddenly been forced to engage with distance/online ed who didn’t have to previously, and the same presumptions exist. It’s like a mass emergency migration. But it’s a migration to a neighbouring country and if your current country hadn’t been denying the existence of the neighbour for so long, then it’d be an easier shift.

Even without going off and learning a history of ed tech then there is a benefit of understanding an institutional perspective about what has been tried, why things didn’t work, where the pockets of good practice are, etc. Audrey Watters also makes a convincing argument for thinking about the future as historians: “I think it’s interesting to consider this history because we can see in it what people in the past hoped that the future might be. Their imaginings and predictions were (are) never disinterested”. An understanding of the past helps inform the decisions of the present, even in unprecedented times.

Digital resilience in the time of pandemic

Gastateer host Tom Farrelly

I took part in a very fun session last week, hosted by Tom Farrelly. It was an online version of the successful Gasta he runs at ILTA and ALT-C conferences which consists of a series of 5 minute talks with Tom acting as compere, getting the audience to count to 5 in Gaelic and cutting you off if you dare go over. The tone of all the talks was just right – playful, fun but also very informative and engaging. Congrats to Tom and all the team for a great evening. You can watch all of them here:

I built up my post on the robustness of distance ed for my talk. I argued that the pandemic had revealed inherent weaknesses in the higher education system, including:

  • It’s based on bringing people (staff, students) to one main location
  • There are time crucial points without which the system fails, most noticeably exams
  • All aspects of education are co-located, including content (lectures), resources (library), support, socialisation, accommodation
  • There is a reliance on other fragile systems such as entry exams

I argued that the internet was built as a robust system, designed to withstand elements of it being destroyed and still continuing. In order to realise this it had three key design principles:

  • Openness – any appropriate device could be added to the network, it did not require special approval, and was thus not reliant on other systems
  • Decentralisation – it does not focus around a central hub, and so there is no central point of weakness
  • Distributed – it is geographically and technologically distributed.

This is what I argued in the previous post, that distance education replicates many of these characteristics. Post-Covid, when higher education reflects there is likely to be a desire to construct a more robust system, and so some of these aspects will be implemented in future higher ed systems.

I then revisited a paper I wrote a while ago with Terry Anderson, entitled “Digital resilience in higher education“. Before the term ‘resilience’ was co-opted by awful lifestyle gurus and Ayn Rand devotees and associated with even worse terms such as ‘grit’, it had a useful meaning from ecology. Holling described it as “a measure of the persistence of systems and of their ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state variables.” Other’s then expanded it to apply to climate change in particular.

We then used Walker’s four aspects of resilience:

  1. Latitude: the maximum amount a system can be changed before losing its ability to recover.
  2. Resistance: the ease or difficulty of changing the system; how ‘resistant’ it is to being changed.
  3. Precariousness: how close the current state of the system is to a limit or ‘threshold’.
  4. Panarchy: the influences of external forces at scales above and below. For example, external oppressive politics, invasions, market shifts, etc

In our paper we used a scoring approach to examine these four aspects for a higher ed institutions resilience to a digital change:

This analysis can be summarised in a subjective scoring, allocating a score of 1 (weak resilience) to 10 (strong resilience) for each of the four factors. A score of 20 or lower would indicate an overall susceptibility to this particular digital factor,

But it could be an effective model for thinking about an HEI or HE in general’s ability to cope with pandemic. Consider your own institution if you are at one. How would they score in terms of conducting the online pivot:

  • Latitude – can the institution change how it teaches and still operate?
  • Resistance – is there a history of adapting to change?
  • Precariousness – what state are finances, resources and staffing currently in?
  • Panarchy – the virus is a panarchic effect in itself, but it brings with it many others, such as research funding, political shifts, travel, etc. Different institutions will have different susceptibilities here

As a strategic exercise this framework is worth using to consider how ready an institution is to cope with the pandemic and where its weaknesses lie. It is at least useful in a group session to frame the discussion I’ve found.

Here is a video of my gasta talk:

Jaws and the online pivot

Unless you are very new here you will know that I like a metaphor, and I also like Jaws. So, here it is, the Jaws/Covid19 online pivot analogy you didn’t ask for and don’t want.

Jaws is a movie in two acts, much like our Pandemic response thus far. The first act takes place on the island of Amity, gearing up for its summer boom of the 4th July. Our central character, Chief Brody, wants to close the beaches, because people being eaten by a shark is a bad thing. The sartorially exemplary Mayor Vaughn wants to keep the beaches open because of the economy. People have been having some fun with this with regards to Trump and Johnson. But in higher ed terms there is a more stylistic analogy with this first act (although the second act is where I’ll focus). Amity Island is presented as idyllic by Spielberg, all bright sunshine and picket fences. The shark lurks out there in the deep, the dark, the unknown. This might be how some in higher ed have been operating too – the pandemic (the shark in this analogy, obviously), is bringing into focus many issues that have been downplayed. The reliance on overseas students for income is akin to Amity’s reliance on summer dollars. There are frailties everywhere in Amity that the shark’s presence exposes – minor corruption, class, incompetence, distrust of outsiders and precarious employment. You can map most of these on to higher ed also, as the weaknesses in a fragile system have been exposed.

After the body count rises, the Mayor is forced to face the inevitable consequences. The first act ends with Brody hiring fisherman Quint to kill the shark, accompanied by shark expert Hooper. Despite desires to carry on, higher ed reached a similar switch in the mood and tone of its narrative when the online pivot began. We’ve been through the “the beaches will be open on the 4th July” phase, when higher ed thought we could carry on business as usual, and now we’re into the unknown waters..

The second act focuses solely on the Orca boat and the three protagonists. For this part of the analogy to work, it’s important to accept that Jaws is not really a movie about a shark. It is in my reading, a movie about three aspects of humanity (or at least masculinity). It can also be interpreted as a patriarchal myth (men killing the symbolic female, we’ll come back to this) or an attack on capitalism. In the more straightforward three aspects interpretation, each core aspect of socialised masculinity is represented by one of the main characters: Brody is the family, domesticated man, Hooper, the intellectual and Quint, machismo. If you like Freud in your summer blockbusters, these can be interpreted ego, super-ego, and id. These three are in competition on the boat, and ultimately only two can emerge from their confrontation. They essentially form a triangle, with each element in tension with the other, but just maintaining a stable pact.

Along comes the shark and this fragile balance collapses. As anyone who has balanced cards to make a triangle will know, a collapsed line with two points is more stable and it will revert to this with the slightest disruption.So what has this to do with the online pivot and ed tech? In our analogy Brody represents learners – we want to do right by them. Hooper, the intellectual represents the academy and educators. This leaves foul mouthed man of reality, Quint who here represents ed tech vendors and OPM. Prior to the arrival of the shark they can exist in uncomfortable co-existence, like our three characters, but this is fragile. With the arrival of the shark, only two can survive ultimately. It can be any two from these three but not all of them.

You can have educators and ed tech vendors in a mutually, financially beneficial relationship that treats learners just as customers with a wallet. Post-pandemic there is a rush to vendors to create online courses and universities do this to ensure their income, particularly from overseas students. Alternatively, after the pandemic the lack of agility in universities and their frail finances sees many collapse, and learners turn to commercial providers. Vendors and learners engage in a form of deprofessionalised, unbundled education market. The third scenario (and the one which plays out in the film with Hooper and Brody surviving), is that educators and learners exist in a higher education system which after the pandemic and its reimagining of socialist intervention is based around education as a social and public good. The shark won’t let all three emerge from the crisis, now we get to decide which pair it is

A further perspective is that in all three of these scenarios, women and people of colour are excluded, and given recent thought leader battles this might be telling, but that would require a dedicated interpretation to do it justice.

Of course, none of this actually inevitable, and you can do your own analogy with any film you choose, in which vendors, educators and learners all co-exist for mutual benefit. But in this scenario, only two paddle back to shore. Jaws 2 gives us the perfect tagline for 2021 also – just when you thought it was safe to go back to campus…

OU drop-in session – long term vs short term

Last Wednesday I held the last of (for now) the OU drop-in sessions for the sector. We looked at immediate solutions versus longer term ones, and issues of care and avoiding burnout. The video of the session is below. We looked at questions such as:

  • What is acceptable now? – Students and institutions will accept a more rough and ready offering now, given the immediacy of the crisis. Now the emphasis is on doing whatever it takes, helping students complete, and offering support and care.
  • What is acceptable in September? – Come the new semester however, course offerings, particularly for first year undergrads, will need to be more substantial and planned. However, this is still an impossibly short time frame to develop good quality online courses.
  • What about 2021? – If the pandemic flares up again, or there is a decline in on campus demand, then the sort of courses and infrastructure required for 2021 will be more akin to a distance ed establishment.
  • What are the short-term priorities? – at the moment it is help and causing the least harm.
  • What are the medium term approaches? – we talked about learning design, and multi-disciplinary teams to develop courses. This kind of infrastructure is expensive, and particularly so if an institution is running a dual mode of campus and extensive online.
  • How to promote care for students? – We revisited some of the issues around student support, and exams. The need to be clear and avoid ambiguity for students at a distance is often underestimated.
  • Who is liable to burn out? – Not just teaching staff, but also the instructional design/ed tech team, or those with any expertise in this area, library staff, student admin and support. While some elements of work may decline there will be unexpected peaks in new areas.

What I learnt from these sessions is that I was surprised how much we had to offer from an Open University perspective. That may sound odd, of course we would have a lot to offer, but as I stressed in every session, it’s a very different exercise taking a course online in a matter of weeks without the requisite infrastructure, compared to carefully crafted course developed over a couple of years. But there’s a lot we take for granted in distance ed courses that is novel to anyone accustomed solely to a face to face teaching context. That is no judgement, lecturers are busy enough with so many demands, there’s no reason why they should have developed expertise in delivering courses in a manner which is never required of them.

The types of things I mean include use of asynchronous communications, structuring activity around third party content, explicitly foregrounding social interactions, sensitivity to student’s home arrangements, online forms of assessment, and establishing care and rapport with students at a distance. None of these are rocket science, but they are different in the online context. While I think there are some solutions out there (for example, formalised learning design approaches) a lot of what is needed is ‘just’ helping educators to appreciate these differences and getting them to ask the right questions of their own courses.

Online pivot & the absence of a magic button


Now we’re getting into the online pivot more substantially, higher education institutions are coming to terms that it may not be a short-term emergency shift. It looks like the first semester of the 2020-21 year may be online, and if Covid-19 flares up again, who knows how long it may continue. While you could get away with “sticking classes on Zoom” for the immediate emergency, that won’t cut it in the medium term.

More long-term, the pandemic will make many HEIs review the overall robustness of their offering, and seek to move portions online as a possible response to any future crisis. In a lot of senior management this induces something akin to panic. They have spent their careers advocating the superiority of the campus experience over distance and online versions. They have a lot of personal capacity invested in this, and a lot of construction projects based upon it. Shifting online, partially or wholly is not a problem they want to have.

In addition, time frames are short and financial pressures are heavy. This leads to something I’ve seen online and in personal communication – the desire for the magic button solution. An overly simplified version is something like “How do we push the Go Online button? Can you push it for us?” I’m sorry to tell you – there is no Go Online button. The good news is that it is entirely possible to create good, online courses in just about any subject, and students will do well in them and their performance and long term understanding of the topics will be as good, if not better, than those taught face to face. So that’s the good news, higher education isn’t going to die.

But I have some bad news too. In order to create the types of courses that achieve this the following is true:

  • It is not cheap
  • It is not quick
  • You need to invest in building up your own staff expertise
  • It will bring additional problems that you didn’t have before
  • Students will need different types of support

What this means is, once the absence of the Go Online button has been realised, the temptation will be to outsource this headache to companies that offer, nay guarantee, a really fine, but expensive, Go Online button. See Durham’s alleged approach for example. The leaked accounts of this sound like Magic-Buttonism, although the actual plans may be more nuanced – they are right to review their strategy and conclude that some courses will be online. Like many institutions that have not invested in this hitherto however, this can result in a desire to turn to an external provider, thus failing to develop the expertise they need. Disappointingly some of the backlash against the Durham proposals has been along the lines of online isn’t as good quality as f2f. That false binary is not helpful – the main issue here the outsourcing of expertise. Invest in your staff.

These OPM solutions are going to be pitched hard. There may be some use in them in the short term, but a better solution is to invest in staff (and here institutions might want to get expertise in to help), use OER for content, and make strategic decisions that have as their basis the belief that online, distance ed is a useful, valid form of education.

[Updated – I changed some of the references to Durham as a lot of that is based on presumption about the proposal, and we’d need to see the detail to be fair to them]

OU drop-in – Assessment issues

As part of the pandemic response I’ve been running informal weekly drop-in sessions offering Open University experience to the sector as colleagues in other universities seek to shift to an online & distance mode of education. Last week we focused on assessment. This is not really my area of expertise, but I’ve developed enough courses and we had sufficient others in the webinar to make it a useful discussion. Amongst the topics we looked at were:

  • Is this the end of exams as we know it?
  • Moving to project based assessment
  • Demands to retain exams (eg professional bodies)
  • Ungrading
  • eportfolios
  • Plagiarism/cheating

The video (with me attempting to use the Question Mode setting) is below.

The next (final?) session is Wednesday 15th April 3-4pm BST, and the topic is Emergency vs longer term plans, implementing care & avoiding burnout. Usual link:

Time converter at

OU sector drop in – student support

I hosted the second of the OU sector drop in sessions on Wednesday. The focus was on student support. You can see a recording of the session below, but here are some thoughts:

Icebreaker activities – sometimes those activities that work well face to face can be intrusive or less welcome online. Nigel Gibson told how he doesn’t use the “here are two truths and one falsehood about me, guess which is the lie” icebreaker. This can make people reveal things about themselves online they are not comfortable with.

Recreating social interaction – there is research that suggests students who form social bonds with others are more likely to continue with their studies. At a distance this social interaction happens less spontaneously than on a physical campus. Like so much of distance ed you have to explicitly design it in, and not just assume it will happen because through architecture.

Motivation – staying motivated when you’re studying on your own, surrounded by much of your conventional setting can be difficult. We discussed ways of helping this, which can include providing early and regular feedback. Structuring courses around discrete and achievable tasks and goals provides some of the gaming psychology on progression and motivation.

Group work – we discussed ways of getting learners to work collaboratively, including very structured activities with specific roles and outputs, to ‘lighter’ methods. These can include use of wikis, shared docs, aggregated blogs, assessed forum contributions, etc.

Being human – when you’re in a room with people, you’re automatically (a bit) human. Online though,§ you can be just disembodied text, and it’s easy to forget this and just dive in with the academic stuff. So making an effort (particularly now) just to check in, ask how everyone is, share something, connect with learners.

Go easy – don’t make learners sit down for 7 hours a day zoom, don’t grind them on assignment submission dates, rethink what plagiarism means – this is not business as normal, so cut them and yourself some slack.

Next week’s session is Wednesday 8th April 3-4pm UK time at – the topic is Assessment

Time converter at

Here’s the video of last week’s session:

Online Pivot questions – online completion rates

I’m responding to queries from a number of different routes, so I thought I would post responses to them here also.

This one came via Contact North’s Ask an Expert site.

Question: I am worried about completion rates in online learning – I gather that they are really low. What do we know about completion rates?


It depends on what is meant by online learning. That is sometimes equated with MOOCs, ie free, open courses that are unsupported. Here the completion rate is very low – about 10%. But in this case the learner has no investment in the course (they often sign up and never even attempt one element), and no human tutor or teacher support. For more carefully designed distance education courses where there is active human tutor support (such as we have at the Open University or Athabasca), the completion rate is much higher. Here there can be a number of other factors also. For instance, we operate open entry at the OU, so no entry requirements. This can mean people are not prepared for study and so completion rates are lower than for courses where there is a formal entry. But that is unrelated to the ‘online’ element.

But it does generally require more self-motivation from the learner to learn online, away from the physical cues that prompt learning. It also requires more organization of their time and study environment. But there are lots of things you can advise students to do to help here (eg see these tips

The level of study can also be important – people in the final year of a degree are more motivated to finish for example.

So, yes there are some added complications for the learner when you switch to online delivery, but these can be alleviated to quite some degree by good design, advice and just providing contact. Being online doesn’t necessarily equate to a low completion rate.

2026 – the year of the face to face pivot

This came via Clint Lalonde and a super cool drawing from Amanda Coolidge’s son. It has nothing to do with the post

When the current crisis is over in terms of infection, the social and economic impact will be felt for a long time. One such hangover is likely to be the shift to online for so much of work and interaction. As the cartoon goes “these meetings could’ve been emails all along”. So let’s jump forward then a few years when online is the norm. We can imagine the following:

  • Hip start-ups rediscovering office working – but they won’t call it this of course, it’ll be something new like “cooperative physical co-location”. They’ll rave about the physical water cooler moments around the, erm, water cooler.
  • Unis will offer advice on “physical literacies” with things such as “you can’t always have time to consider in a face to face setting as you do online, so you can gain some thinking time by developing some stalling tactics, such as saying “errrrrm”, “That is a very good question” or “could you elaborate a bit further”
  • Schools will offer advice on safe face to face practice, and guidance to parents on limiting face to face time which can be damaging for children’s brains.
  • A new Californian school consortium called “DeFlipping Education” will set up a number of face to face schools with teachers physically colocated and set to a convenient and regular time frame to help structure students’ learning.
  • Consultants will help unis pivot to face to face by shifting their online courses and how to UnZoom their current provision to comfortable large halls where the students can focus on just the lecturer.

I just want to get in first with the predictions, so I can say “I told you so” later.

The advantage of your own platform in a crisis

I joked with Bryan Mathers that we are living in the action movie version of ed tech, where this kind of thing happens, and he drew me this.

So here’s my Covid-19 conspiracy theory – Jim Groom started it all to demonstrate how useful it is to own your own domain and tools. And also to relaunch DS106 Radio.

Allow me to elaborate. Organisations, particularly higher education ones can be slow to react. Someone commented once that the OU was like the army or the health care system, it took its time but when all those elements aligned it was powerful, robust and effective. The OU, like every other HEI, has been dealing with the very immediate issues of the Covid-19 crisis, and doing it very well. This is where those industrial systems pay off.

However, like many of my fellow academics, I’ve been receiving individual requests to help. This is difficult to manage, but also something we definitely want to do. And this is where having your own platform comes in useful. It is another instance of the principle I outlined with Guerrilla Research, namely that of not needing permission. By having a blog, Twitter and other tools (I have a licence for clickmeeting, but could be Zoom) you can effect some form of Guerrilla Support without needing to seek permission to use official tools, to check server loads, ask for IT set up or removal of existing access limits. You can just do stuff like impromptu drop-in sessions or gather resources, offer advice, etc.

When the OU and other HEIs can focus beyond the immediate pivot and get their responses together it will be better than anything those of us with individual can do. But in the interim, a quick, agile response is facilitated by having your own domain and identity. So, yeah, thanks Jim.