Books, charts, blah

Because Christmas is the season to be selfish (that’s right isn’t it?) I continue my annual self indulgence in December of blogging some personal reviews of the year. First up the third of my books review with pointless charts.

It’s been a really good year for my own reading with 51 books (I expect I’ll fit one more in before year end to make it one a week), so in this top ten I’ve excluded classic books I read or re-read this year, but that doesn’t mean these are all new releases this year.

It wasn’t intentional, but looking at that list it is heavily influenced by the social and political context of 2017. Three of the books are concerned with the Nazis, their rise to power and the consequences of normalising bigotry. It is also impossible to read these accounts without making parallels to the current situation, both here in the UK and particularly in the US. Reni Eddo-Lodge and Colson Whitehead both provided blistering attacks on structural racism in different forms and similarly Cordelia Fine and Naomi Alderman tackle sexism from non-fiction and fictional perspectives (they’re also wildly entertaining writers).

On to the first chart, breakdown by genre. As usual, contemporary literature was the largest category, but a lot more non-fiction this year (and I’ve randomly selected out music/film as a separate category). Because of my new found love of audiobooks (see the format chart below), I also read or reread a lot of classics.

Which brings me on to format. I signed up for Audible at the start of the year, and I am mildly addicted to audiobooks now. I ran three marathons this year, and doing a long, slow run on a Sunday morning listening to a good reading of Dickens or Zadie Smith is a marvellous way to pass a couple of hours. I also drive to Milton Keynes regularly, and suddenly being stuck on the M4 doesn’t seem as painful when you’re listening to Stephen Fry read the Complete Sherlock Holmes. I also started buying physical books more this year, and kindle saw a decline from previous years. It is a year I got back into vinyl coincidentally. Maybe there’s something about the precariousness of the times we live in that makes you crave comfort in physical objects, as if I can build my nuclear shelter from Sarah Waters novels and Echo and the Bunnymen albums.

Lastly, breakdown by author gender. Almost an even split, with 26 men to 25 women. I actively try to maintain an even balance, and sometimes a particular route means you have read more than one, for instance I read a few film industry books at the start of the year, which ended up being a very male area. However, in terms of impact, my top ten is largely dominated by women writers (and unlike the book editor of the NYT I managed to find great women writers all on my own, by you know, reading them).

Here’s the full list if you’re interested:

1. Wishful Drinking _ Carrie Fisher
2. Postcards from the Edge – Carrie Fisher
3. Ways of Seeing – John Berger
4. Agatha Christie on the Screen – Mark Aldridge
5. Cant Stop Wont Stop – Jeff Chang
6. Pietr the Latvian – Georges Simenon
7. Hip Hop Generation – Bakari Kitwana
8. Jaws – Peter Benchley
9. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls – Peter Biskind
10. You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again – Julia Phillips
11. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
12. Homo Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
13. On Beauty – Zadie Smith
14. Bowie – Paul Morley
15. Complete Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
16. Playing to the Gallery – Grayson Perry
17. The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien – Georges Simenon
18. Set the Boy Free – Johnny Marr
19. Swing Time – Zadie Smith
20. The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane
21. The Death of Expertise – Tom Nichols
22. The Fish Ladder – Katharine Norbury
23. White teeth – Zadie Smith
24. Secret Life of bees – Sue Monk Kidd
25. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails – Sarah Bakewell
26. Istanbul – Bettany Hughes
27. The Siege – Helen Dunmore
28. Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
29. Fugitive pieces – Anne Michaels
30. Fingersmith – Sarah Waters
31. Good Behaviour – Molly Keane
32. The Holocaust – Laurence Rees
33. SPQR – Mary Beard
34. Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
35. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
36. Birdcage walk – Helen Dunmore
37. Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maude Montgomery
38. The Dogs Last Walk – Howard Jacobson
39. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
40. Night Watch – Sarah Waters
41. North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell
42. Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan
43. Testosterone Rex – Cordelia Fine
44. The Power – Naomi Alderman
45. The Man Who Knew Too Much – G K Chesterton
46. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
47. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
48. Napoleon the Great – Andrew Roberts
49. Autumn – Ali Smith
50. Period Piece – Gwen Raverat
51. Silas Marner – George Eliot

Innovating Pedagogy 2017

The Open University’s annual Innovating Pedagogy report is out, this time in collaboration with the Learning In a NetworKed Society (LINKS) Israeli Center of Research Excellence (I-CORE). It’s the sixth year we’ve done one (well done to Rebecca Ferguson and Mike Sharples on pushing this through). When we started the intention was to make it distinct from the NMC New Horizon reports by focusing on pedagogy. I think, to be honest, in those early ones there was probably a technology focus still, but as it’s progressed it has really moved away from this to more pedagogy, socially focused issues.

I’d also add I’ve found it increasingly useful as a resource. I’m occasionally asked to contribute something on current developments in ed tech, and I use the IP reports as a good starting point. Basically, they allow you to sound very knowledgeable, and impress people.

The ten trends covered this year are as follows (you can guess which one I contributed). The Times Higher take is here.

Spaced learning
Based on research into brain activity and human learning, this involves teaching in short blocks with breaks between them. This fast-paced approach has been tested, showing that 90 minutes of spaced learning could have the same outcomes as months of study.
Learners making science
Experiencing how science is made can enhance skills and develop critical thinking. Taking part in crowdsourced activities and participating in citizen science projects have the potential to change how young people think and act in relation to their surroundings.
Open textbooks
Initially established to reduce costs (HE books can account for a quarter of a student’s expenses), Open Textbooks are a form of Open Educational Resource, providing adaptable content which students can add to and edit.
Navigating post-truth societies
New information sources diversify the information available but have created new challenges as people make daily decisions about where to get information and who to trust. Taking account of this in the curriculum helps people evaluate information, reflect on their own assumptions and seek a diversity of knowledge to cut through ‘fake news’.
Intergroup empathy
Projects such as ‘Humans of New York’ show the value of constructive contact between people from various cultural backgrounds. New approaches use technology and gaming to develop empathy with people from different groups.
Immersive learning
Fast-developing technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality offer learners opportunities to immerse themselves in situations that would be difficult, dangerous or impossible in everyday life. Learning in this way can be engaging, stimulating and memorable for learners.
Student-led analytics
Moving away from teachers and institutions using analytics to help students, this trend focuses on analytics helping learners to specify their own goals and ambitions. Particularly useful for those with limited study time, this approach puts learners in control and allows them to, for example, shift their goals and priorities or request feedback.
Big-data inquiry
In today’s data-driven world, students need to learn to work and think with data from an early age so they are well prepared with the skills society needs. To do this, they need opportunities that encourage them to be active in exploring data, managing and analysing it.
Learning with internal values
People are motivated to learn when they have important questions to answer or problems to address. When learning is linked to goals that learners value, they take ownership of their work and put in the effort needed.
Humanistic knowledge-building communities
This unites two approaches to learning, encouraging students to be creative and open to experience as well as willing to work together to develop new ideas and knowledge.

Oh, so that’s what that meant


Because the internet, and particularly the web and social media, are so pervasive now we have a tendency to overlook how recent it all is, and how rapid the change and associated social adjustments have been. If the founding of the pre-web can be seen as the gestation of the internet’s role in society, then since the 90s we’ve been going through its childhood. This was a time filled with optimism, charm, naïveté, and rapid development. We’re now in the teenage years – it can be dark, moody, but also positive, engaging and realistic. It is a stage where it seeks meaning and its role in the world (and by it, I mean us and the tech).

One way to demonstrate this is to think back on some of those early beliefs and sayings about the internet. These often turn out to be true in ways we didn’t appreciate then.

For example, it was commonly said “we’re all broadcasters now”. By which people meant, of course, that publishing content was no longer the privilege of those who worked in the media or owned a newspaper. Which is true, but thinking on this in 2017, what we didn’t appreciate was that it should have meant ‘we have the responsibility of broadcasters now’. In a world where Fake News, and the labelling of Real News and Fake News is disorientating to any notion of truth, how everyone contributes to this becomes significant. Like broadcasters were supposed to, we have a responsibility to check the veracity of stories that we share, to not put people in danger, to be reflective and sober. Sadly, many broadcasters abandoned these principles also. But the point remains, the liberation that we initially perceived masked the responsibility that came with it.

James Boyle proposed an “Internet Holy Trinity“, which are like the three laws of the internet back in 1997. Each of these has a similar reinterpretation in the current context I feel.

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” This was, and remains, a powerful metaphor. But its flip side is ‘trolls will find a way’. Mike Caulfield has a section in his excellent newsletter entitled “Gamergate: The Dry Run for the Apocalypse” in which he details how coordinated misogynistic attacks were how much of the concerted mal-information and systematic trolling techniques were developed. Effectively they learnt how to route around censorship in order to put nazis in power. It doesn’t seem such a cool slogan now, does it?

“In Cyberspace, the First Amendment is a local ordinance.” Similarly, Boyle states that “the postulate that a global Net cannot be regulated by national governments has been seen as an unequivocally positive thing.” However, he points out, this can have negative as free speech is only a local ordnance. This failure to create a constitution of the internet, the romantic wild west notion, has meant that we have both state regulation in many places, increasing data surveillance and a lack of a real regulatory (compared with a technical) framework to defend it.

“Information Wants to be Free.” Yes, it does. But maybe Misinformation wants to be free more. And that poses real problems for a society.

To return to my initial point, from a long view perspective it’s not surprising we’re now going through these struggles with our relationship with the internet. It’s all so new and we really haven’t had anything like this before. Which makes it more important that we seek to address the issues now, and reflect on where the internet is heading rather than see it as neutral or something beyond our control.

Maybe more isn’t better


In education (and ed tech especially) we have a number of assumptions that seem obvious and they drive a lot of our thinking, particularly around change and implementation of technology. They usually get positive responses when you ask people about them, and often they are valid, but I’ve had a few examples recently that highlight the value in questioning some of those unspoken beliefs.

The first assumption is “Personalised learning is better” – I mean, that seems obvious right? It’s better to have something tailored to your needs rather than one size fits all? That’s probably true, but this report found that students in personalized schools feel less positive about their experience. I don’t know enough about how the programmes are implemented to say whether this is a problem with personalisation per se or just poor implementation. But we should pause anyway – personalisation erodes the sense of a cohort and shared experience with others, which is a significant part of the educational process. It may also place stress on the student to feel like they need to direct their own learning as well as undertake it, maybe doing just one of those is enough.

The second assumption is that “People want more flexibility”. Again, this seems obvious, and indeed may well be correct in many instances. But at the EADTU conference I was struck by a presentation from Rieny van den Munckhof, from the OU Netherlands. They found that, echoing some of the sentiment around personalisation above, that their previously highly flexible model (start any time, take exam when you want), was in fact, too flexible. It worked for highly independent learners, but they’ve switched to a more structured approach. This has improved retention and allowed for more interactive pedagogy.

My last one is that “more feedback is always better”. I don’t really have any evidence on this, but here’s an anecdote instead. I recently had real time energy meters installed, which came with a handy display to show my current gas and electricity usage. This became a source of some anxiety for me, and in the end I unplugged it and hid it in a drawer. In some sense it did it’s job, making me more conscious of energy usage. For the planet, that’s good, but putting that aside as it less relevant for our student analogy, I’m not sure it was worth the cost. I may save a few pounds on each bill, but not drastically, and the stress of seeing that monitor continually telling me not to cook a Sunday dinner removed enjoyment from it. Might the same be true for students with learning analytics? Receiving continual feedback on page dwells, scores, contributions, creates a stress to monitor the monitoring rather than engage in the activity. The research on immediate and delayed feedback is mixed, so maybe for some students a general “you’re doing ok” is sufficient.

In all three of these cases(personalisation, flexibility, feedback), I’m sure you can find examples where they have improved satisfaction, performance, retention, etc. But we shouldn’t let these unspoken assumptions pass unchallenged, because huge industries and major university strategies which will affect thousands of learners are based on them.

Mapping the open education landscape

This post follows on from the previous one, which focused on the Open Education Beginners Guide. In this I want to look at the citation network in more detail. To restate, this work arose from some initial research Viv Rolfe did, exploring the references for open education. Using a bibliographic search for “open education” and related terms, she identified a set of publications in the 1970s and 80s, which referenced earlier foundational work. This work was largely a product of the growth of open universities and distance learning. However, what is more latterly often meant by open education (particularly in the US) rarely relates to this earlier work.

Katy Jordan then did some excellent citation network analysis, whereby each paper links out to its references, creating a spreading activation network. We started by using an initial sample of 20 articles based on the following search: ((“open education”, “open learning”, openness)AND(history,definition)). She then:

  • extracted references from each article into a spreadsheet listing ‘source’ and ‘target’ items, removing duplicates
  • imported the CSV files into Gephi for network analysis
  • conducted a further iteration of references that were cited by at least two of the original articles.

We then identified any gaps in the literature based on our collective expertise, and suggested further key references which might provide useful ‘seeds’. This gave a final network of 5,217 references from 172 articles. This gave the overall network shown below. You can explore a very fun and useful interactive version of this at Katy’s site which allows you to select each node (which corresponds to an article) and get citation and network info.

This network provides a means of visualising the broader open education landscape. What does it tell us then? Firstly, it reinforces the sense that Viv had from her work, and our grumpy old people’s conversation later, that the main references for ‘traditional’ distance/open education (the bottom right) are rarely referenced by ‘later’ open ed movements of OER, MOOCs, etc. But it also highlights that there is not much overlap between any of the areas, that is they rarely share references, and as a result any common understanding. Open education in schools seems worryingly out on its own also, with little connection into the broader OER or Open Practice community. Some clustering is understandable, for instance the area of open access publishing has developed on its own path, and often relates to very specific issues of library practice. Similarly social media (academic use of Twitter for example), is probably a bridging topic into other areas, such as digital scholarship, network society, etc. You could imagine this network expanding from here into other areas.

My two take-aways though would be:

  1. There needs to be greater overlap and shared understanding between these groups
  2. Open practice seems to be an emerging area, and this may provide some of this ‘connective’ tissue between the various domains.

It’s worth stressing some of the limitations of this study (the starting sample could be bigger, the starting references will influence the resulting network, further iterations could be implemented) – it should be seen as a starting point, rather than the definitive mapping. But nevertheless it provides a useful means of both approaching a topic, and thinking about the broader open education community.

Openness & Education – a Beginner’s Guide

At last year’s OpenEd conference Viv Rolfe gave an interesting presentation on how Open Education had forgotten its past. She found that many of the early papers which explored pedagogy, the social function of open education and critical perspectives was largely unreferenced. She got talking to Irwin DeVries, and they pulled me into their side project also. We were interested in seeing whether we could in some sense ‘reclaim’ this past and broaden some of the references and understanding within the broader open education movement.

Back home I brought Katy Jordan on board, and she developed a citation analysis approach to try and map the ‘open education’ landscape. We seeded this with references, which Katy then scraped, and followed up, scraped their references, etc, and fed this into Gephi, to produce a network of citations. I’ll talk more about this in another post. From this we went back and tried to make sure we weren’t missing any large areas or key references. You can see the network that arose from this approach over on Katy’s site.

The groupings in this network are highlighted below (the boundaries and labels are a subjective interpretation). There is also a timeline view.

Using these groupings we then created a Beginner’s Guide, which gives an overview of the topic and summaries of some key papers in that area. We tried to provide a range of papers, not just the big hitters, and also type (eg some blog posts). This was created primarily as a resource for our GO-GN students, but I also think it’s a useful document for any researcher or practitioner who comes into open education. One of the characteristics I like about open ed is that people come to it from multiple disciplines, there are philosophers (so many philosophers :), psychologists, computer scientists, historians, educationalists, etc. But this diversity added into an area that itself is an umbrella term for many different interests as the network diagram illustrates, means that we are often missing key points of understanding. It’s our hope that the guide allows some more interdisciplinary dialogue between these different groupings and also helps those new to the area make connections between their own interest and some of the historical and theoretical underpinning (I’d also suggest it’s useful for anyone joining an open university as a staff member to know where their institution is located in this space).

I’d like to emphasise this is not an attempt to create a discipline (I’ve learnt that lesson 😉 ). And there are dangers in this approach – although we tried to have a range of references, any such approach can end up reinforcing existing biases in the system. There is something of a Matthew Effect which a collection of recommended reading can only add to. We hope the network can expand and it would be useful in a next stage to take Katy’s approach and automate it so that we can seed the network with different articles to create different flavours of network, which would foreground other literature. Anyway, we hope you find the Guide, network and timeline are useful tools, which the community can build upon.

My part in the battle for Open (universities)

The Open University Northern Ireland

Last week I was at the ICDE conference in Toronto. Here I attended a meeting of the OERu, and gave papers on our OOFAT work, and reclaiming open history, as well as running a workshop for the GO-GN/Global Doctorate network. There was a common theme (beyond my bumbling) running through all of these, which was the nature of open, distance education.

Prior to Irwin and I talking about the work on reclaiming open history (I’ll blog this later), Ross Paul talked about the history of Open Universities and their future. He stressed the influence that the UK OU, and open universities in general had in higher education in general, in changing the narrative around who higher education was for, and how it could be delivered. But single mode universities now face an uncertain future. Our own Vice Chancellor has been writing about the impact that fees have had on part-time students. The approach to fees arises from a mindset that still sees full time, 18-22 year olds on campus as the norm, with degree completion the sole aim. The retired 65 year old, studying one or two Spanish courses for interest (say), isn’t well served by a model designed with the former in mind.

This, plus competition from other universities (in this open universities have been a victim of their own success), has created a challenging environment for the OU. This has led to much soul searching and significant reorganisation, which may be required but also creates an uncertain context for those working there. Many of my colleagues have left, or are looking for jobs. I confess, while I haven’t been actively looking for jobs, I’ve not NOT been looking either. But the combined effect of these discussions provided me with a mini-epiphany: The OU is my kind of institution, and I should stay and fight for its future (and open universities in general). You’ve got to believe in something, right?

The reason I believe in the value of a single institution provider (rather than distance ed being covered by a range of HEIs) comes largely down to scale: a large scale, national provider gives many benefits you simply don’t get when part time is devolved to lots of smaller departments in other universities. Those providers will hardly ever prioritise part-time, distance ed over their main cohorts, it is always a nice extra. A single, large scale institution provides some counter-balance to the dominant narrative and perception of higher ed students mentioned above. Scale also makes some things possible that are unviable when diluted, or at least operate better at scale: some niche courses can only operate at a national scale; expertise in distance and online ed can be focused (and, no, MOOC providers haven’t replaced this, they just have a range of more or less unicorn business models); student community and body; national employment initiatives (eg apprenticeships) support services; a national presence in international forums.

So whatcha gonna do about it Martin? I pondered this a lot (while running very slowly around the Toronto marathon, running a long distance is good for thinking, bad for hips). I’m going to borrow from Catherine Cronin’s work on sharing practice for individuals and repurpose it. Catherine suggests four levels: macro (global level), meso (community/network level), micro (individual level), and nano (interaction level). Putting these levels to work in how what I do can be shaped to a broader goal of helping the OU, I get:

Macro: Reclaim and refresh the broad Open narrative – I write a lot about open education in general, and how the OU sits in relation to this. As I’ve often bemoaned, there is sometimes a sense that open ed was created in the US with the invention of OER (or MOOCs). The work I’m doing with Irwin, Katy and Viv Rolfe on reclaiming the open history explicitly attempts to locate the different elements of open ed in a broader context. We are creating a starter pack on literature and through projects such as GO-GN I intend to not just raise awareness of open universities in this context but attempt to bring together the sometimes disparate research/practitioner fields. If I can be immodest, I think I’m well placed to do this sitting in the intersection of a lot of these communities, and there’s benefit on all sides to doing so. It might also help new OU staff also to understand where their institution sits.

Meso: Continue redefining what constitutes an Open University – the OU defined a model of what ‘open education’ meant. Over the years this has been tweaked and new elements have been added and emphasised. Open source software, OER, MOOCs – the OU has managed to stay abreast of these and adapt what it means to be an Open University accordingly. The next challenge to incorporate is open educational practice – how do we operate more openly, in terms of teaching, research, administration. I have a sense that whatever the OU tries to become, it won’t go far wrong if it has open values at the core. Without those it’s just a big provider and loses any sense of distinctiveness.

Micro: Advocate for OER use internally to the OU – the OU has been very good at creating OER (through OpenLearn), but less inclined to use it. I feel there is an opportunity through projects such as Open Textbooks UK to raise the profile of OER use within the OU. This has some practical benefits – reduced production of bespoke material, courses that can be adapted more readily, but also helps better locate the OU in some of this field which aids its profile.

Nano: Helping module design – using the hypothesis and evidence approach we developed on the OER Research Hub we are looking at examining hypotheses around OU course production and providing an evidence base that will help increase elements such as student retention.

That’s all I’ve got for now, and some need fleshing out more. I reach 23 years OU service next year, and the past week has made me realise afresh how much I value it as an institution. Maybe in the future they won’t want old timers hanging around saying things like “I remember when we used to do two weeks summer school every year” but for as long as it’s possible, I’ll  do my best to ensure the OU continues to provide a model for open education, and feel reinvigorated to do so. Of course, there’s a strong possibility that like a toddler ‘helping’ their parent with a task, the OU doesn’t want, or need my help, but there you have it.



Cellini’s blood of digital scholarship


I was invited to Florence last week to give a keynote on Digital Scholarship. After the talk I had a walk around that beautiful city, and saw Cellini’s Perseus in the Plazza della Signoria. Looking at the statue with digital scholarship thoughts in my head, I regretted not having made it the springboard metaphor for my talk. It is, also I’ll admit, an attempt to irritate Jim Groom further with ridiculous metaphors. Like any great work of art Cellini’s Perseus can bear many different interpretations, many of them contradictory, and also suggest meanings that were never intended. So here is the talk I should have given: “Cellini’s Perseus – the Lessons of Digital Scholarship”.

The first of these is about representations of power, and more explicitly misogyny. If you’ve ever seen Cellini’s statue of Perseus you’ll know that it’s a visceral, dynamic, challenging piece of work. But it’s also a blatant representation of misogyny. Even at the time, Christine Coretti argues that the statue was intended to legitimize patriarchal power, and was in response to the growing power of Medici women. But further, the Medusa has long been a symbol of male oppression of female power. As Elizabeth Johnston argues the Medusa is a recurring theme, and can be seen as the original ‘nasty woman’.  Cellini’s statue was a major technological achievement, according to Cellini’s own account it was a Frankenstein act of insane, life-giving creation. This new use of casting allowed for a more realistic, vital medium, challenging the lifeless form of marble. This offered new possibilities, new means of interpreting and representing the world. But, as with online platforms we find that this new technology and representational form reinforced existing power structures, and indeed sought to legitimise them. When Rose McGowan is banned from Twitter while Richard Spencer continues happily it is easy to conclude that as with Perseus, so with Social Media.

The second interpretation is to view Medusa more straightforwardly as a monster, but one of our own making. When we look into its gaze, we are made inhuman. This is an obvious metaphor for the dark side of the internet. We created this platform and for all of its potential and positive elements, we have also unleashed the monster of trolling, fake news, alt-right, gamergate, etc. But Perseus can be seen as hope in this sense, we must slay the demons we have created by reflecting its own gaze back at it. The role of education is to act as Perseus shield in this respect, to develop literacies, tools and communities that use the communicative power of the internet as the means to take power away from the trolls.

The third lesson for digital scholarship relates to the famous blood of Cellini’s Perseus. Michael Cole has a whole article devoted to the discussion of the portrayal of blood, which was deemed shocking at the time, the John Carpenter gore merchant of its day. What the simultaneously realistic and otiose representation of blood flowing from the head and neck do is posit the viewer at the moment of death, the transition from the living state. The blood “reveals what life drains from the face and the limbs” as Cole puts it. In this Cellini’s Perseus reminds us what death really means. This continual connection to reality, to what our actions mean, how algorithms manifest themselves in people’s everyday lives is lacking from much of the ed tech industry. They all need a constant reminder like Cellini’s blood running through software coding sprints and venture capitalist huddles. It is the social impact of ed tech that we need to be grounded in.

Those are my (yes, tortuous) lessons for digital scholarship that can be found if you spend too long hanging around Florence with a head full of keynote and discussions. I’m sure given enough time I could extract some more. It’s a reminder to me to try and connect my talk with location anyway – or maybe not.

The privilege of risk

Swim at your own risk

Another of those values that has seeped into everyday life from start up culture is the cherished status of risk. You know the inspirational quotes people like to post on Twitter “the biggest risk is not taking a risk”, “those who will not risk, will not win” etc. And I get it, personally and professionally it’s useful to take risks. But I’ve also been struck by how this deification of risk is really a proxy for justifying privilege: I deserve it because I was willing to take the risk. But risk is itself, often a privilege.

The research that concludes that entrepreneurs don’t have a propensity for risk, they just have wealthy parents backs this up. It is less of a risk to start a company if you can be supported while doing so, and have fall back options. But it’s not limited to taking risks with your own career, it means they’re happy to risk other people’s welfare too. Sherri Spelic highlighted this piece in which a US senator talks about how he had no idea healthcare reform could be so difficult, and had no experience in doing it. But he went ahead and tried anyway. You just know that rhetoric around risk would have been bandied about, “we can only make great change by taking great risk”, that kind of thing. But of course, he wasn’t taking any risk. What he was risking was the lives of many americans. A senior manager once told me they loved risk, and I remember thinking, ‘but you aren’t affected by it’. They’d go on to a well paid job elsewhere, and not only would they be untouched by any failure of their risk but it would likely boost their status. They become a person willing to take risk, which has increased currency. This is not the case for someone who may be made unemployed in their late 50s with little chance of re-employment as a result of the change they sought to introduce.

Risk is also a privilege of age. When I worked on T171, the OU’s big elearning course, I did so without it being sanctioned by the OU. After it’s success John Naughton publicly praised the risk I’d taken in doing this, as I was on a temporary contract at the time and could have taken more secure routes to getting a permanent post. But while I felt flattered to be portrayed as brave, the truth is I was young, not yet married and didn’t have any idea that I should be doing anything different. I was naive more than courageous. I’m sure we all have similar stories. And yet, it is tempting as you get older to confer a status of glory to this, that is unmerited.

Risk becomes a vehicle by which privilege reinforces itself – only the privileged can take risks and only risk is rewarded. Which is not to say we should all be cautious and people or institutions should never venture to do unusual things. But I always have a suspicious antenna twitch when people glorify risk and ask “who was really at risk?”

What I learnt from being a student

The Student

Yesterday I submitted the thesis for my MA in Art History at the Open University. I completed the MA in History a couple of years ago also, so I’ve had about four years of experience of being a part time student. At the risk of being like one of those ‘woke’ pieces where proper students will scream “yes, we’ve been saying that for years!’, here are some of the things I’ve (re)learnt, from the perspective of being an educator while also studying:

Everyone should do it – I don’t mean study a subject for career development (although that’s nice), the content isn’t the important part. Do it for the experience of being a student again. Particularly if you’re developing online or part-time study then definitely do it (and hey, we’ve got lots of nice courses at the OU in all disciplines).

Small stuff is big – for all the talk of revolutionary pedagogy, personalised learning, disrupted education, what really matters most of the time is the straightforward, everyday matters: do I know what I should be doing at any given time? Can I access the material? Is it clearly written? Can I get support within a reasonable timeframe? Is it set out so I can plan my time effectively?

Don’t design for the perfect student – I’ll be honest, I was not a model student. I was what is often termed a strategic learner. Partly (and a tad ironically), work pressure at the Open University meant my study on an Open University course was compromised. I needed to find the most effective path through a course (basically focussing on assessment). But that is not to say I didn’t get a lot from it, so ensuring there are paths through the course that don’t assume full capacity but are still rewarding is essential.

Engaging and challenging – apart from the small things mentioned above, what I also wanted from my course was for it to be challenging (in that it made you think about things differently, for instance the first block of the Art History course really dismisses the whole ‘lives of famous artists’ approach to art history, which is the naive view I had of it). And I want it to be engaging, in that there is enough there for me to dig into (without getting lost). I’ve mentioned before that I came to like assessment because this forced me to engage with the content and bring it together. So it’s not just about making sure as educators we cover topics A to E but also that the student wants to learn about them.

Give me a reason to interact – given my time constraints, I didn’t do much interaction in the forums. And this was fine with me, I was glad the course didn’t make lots of interaction compulsory just for the sake of it. But also without a major prompt to do so, it was easy to avoid interaction all together, and if this was my first time studying, that would be a shame.

It made me vulnerable – and not in a cute puppy way. I am from a science background and so don’t have any art history knowledge. I was therefore winging it a lot of the time, and didn’t have the vocabulary or the depth of knowledge most of my fellow students had. I would have been reluctant to have been forced to display this scarcity of knowledge in the open, so I was grateful for a closed environment, and careful feedback from tutors to scaffold my learning. Having said that, I think some of the stuff I’ve written is mildly interesting, so maybe we could have found ways of sharing it more openly. But the important aspect was to be reminded of how vulnerable the whole learning process is.

Looking over those, I have a renewed appreciation for why education is often perceived as being conservative. I wonder how many radical educational change gurus have actually been students (particularly in an unfamiliar subject) recently? Which is not to say students aren’t up for trying something new, but often in a limited, controlled manner. And my take away as an educator is that we should focus on improving these elements rather than demanding their wholesale replacement (but that’s always been my line I guess). Also, breaking news – education isn’t broken, kinda works ok, and is rewarding. I don’t expect that’ll be a headline anytime soon though. Seriously though – as an educator, the best thing you can do is go study again. Mind you, I’m looking forward to spending my Saturday mornings just listening to vinyl and looking wistfully out of the window again.