Diving for pearls

Mercury Close-up: Hovnatanian Crater (NASA, MESSENGER, 01/16/12)

For the upcoming REF, the OER Hub are one of the possible impact case studies for the OU. We applied for a small bit of internal funding, and last week all decamped to a cottage in Gloucestershire for five days to put in an intensive writing session. This is not a commentary on the REF, an analysis of the neoliberalisation of education or the dangers of metrics, just some reflections on that writing process (so lower your expectations).

Firstly, a dedicated (isolated) week is definitely the way to go. We had been provided with a set of documents to complete by our excellent REF advisor, Jane Seale. But without a dedicated, prolonged period to devote to these, it would have taken months to complete. Also, the intensity of focusing on only this, rather than fitting in amongst other pressing demands, meant that the quality of what we produced was greatly improved (I think). So, a week away may seem like an indulgence, but was probably more productive and efficient in the long run.

Secondly, impact in higher education research is difficult, and often indirect. The dream type of impact is you do research, it leads to a change in Government policy on health or schooling. But that’s actually quite rare. In the last REF they didn’t allow impact within higher education to count, which is especially problematic for us, as part of our aim has been to work with researchers elsewhere and build OER research capacity. This time they may be a bit more lenient, but impact on other researchers is still frowned upon.

Thirdly, we’re all collaborative and supportive in the OER community (yes we are). Claiming impact sometimes seems like you need to ego and lack of shame of Donald Trump. We were solely responsible for everything that has happened and invented it all! This rather grates with the collegial, sharing network we are part of. So there is a tension in the process between needing to promote yourself and claim impact while also wanting to acknowledge the diverse, distributed nature of influence.

Lastly, we wanted to stress how the process by which we have conducted research, namely making openness (through social media, open access publications, open data, our open researchers pack, open courses, etc) is as impactful as the research itself. I feel that we made a good stab at this, but I wonder how much it will mean to assessors who are from a ‘traditional’ approach.

We’re writing this up now, and have identified lots of bits of evidence and testimonials we need to gather. Which means we may be coming to you for some input soon. I guess if I was to offer any advice, it would be to definitely try and carve out a dedicated chunk of time, to clearly work through some distinct messages you want to convey and then match these with evidence. You may need to then go through several iterations of this to find the best match of evidence to message.

Alone in Blogistan

Berlin under snow

One of the books I read last year was a happy confluence of factors. The book was Hans Fallada’s war time tale of quiet German resistance, Alone in Berlin (aka Every Man Dies Alone). It related to the political situation and rise of the right (the frothing demand of British newspapers to crush opposition to Brexit was straight from this era), a trip my daughter and I took to Berlin, and my academic interest in online communication. And it is this last element that I’ve been pondering on and off since reading it last October.

For those who don’t know the story, it follows the tale of a nondescript Berlin couple, the Quangels, whose only son dies early in the war. As an act of resistance they start writing postcards with anti-Hitler messages such as “The Führer has murdered my son. Mother! The Führer will murder your sons too, he will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world”. These are deposited in different places for strangers to find. This is their small scale stand, an “irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it.”

It is a largely gloomy, hopeless book since most of the messages are handed in to the authorities immediately, through fear of being caught in possession of them. And anyone associated with the Quangels ends up detained and executed. Their campaign has no impact and causes misery. But yet the act of resistance, of communication is itself worthwhile.

It is this central theme of what it means to communicate that resonates now. I don’t pretend to make comparison between the Quangels (based on the real life couple the Hampels) and tweeting your anger at the latest Trump nonsense, but rather to highlight the universality of their need to say something, to counter oppressive narratives. That’s why people still try to conduct rational debate online, to present facts, to write blogs and tweets that highlight hypocrisy in the alternative facts and noise deliberately created by those who seek to undermine our sense of reality and justice. Like in Fallada’s novel this nearly always seems futile, occasionally dangerous and largely irrelevant in the bigger scheme. But it’s the act of continuing to communicate, even in to a void, that keeps us human. As Fallada puts it, “we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone.”

Happy new year.

2017 blog review

Skynda dig hem...!

This is not an edtech review of the year (why do that, when Audrey does it better than anyone?), but rather a review of my own blogging over the year.

First up, some stats:

  • Number of posts: 50 (including this one)
  • Comments: 202 (including ones from me)
  • Visitors: 231,081
  • Visits: 2,123,507 (mainly bots plus me)

I try to blog on average about once a week, so maintained that pretty well. I don’t have a strict policy on this (eg, blogging every Thursday afternoon or something), but the rough goal does prompt me to blog on occasion when I feel there’s been a gap. And in the way of the unpredictability of such things, it is often these ‘filler’ posts which end up being the most popular. So a loose goal seems to work for me in this regard.

I don’t know how to interpret the stats, I know from my other aborted blogs on films and ice hockey, which get about 20 views a year, that this is a lot of traffic. I suspect though that it’s largely bots (certainly in the visits count) generated by having a certain amount of google juice. Even bot love is a form of love.

In terms of themes that emerged this year in my own writing (which is not necessarily representative of anything broader), I would suggest the following four.

Trying to make sense of it all – after the dumpster fire of 2016, this year lurched further into farce and insanity, so there were a few posts on what does it all mean? And in particular what does it mean for education? I toyed with the unenlightenment theme for a bit, but I don’t feel I ever really got that to a meaningful conclusion. Perhaps it didn’t have the legs in the end. The intersection and role of technology in the dystopia we’re creating was also a concern. This theme demonstrates the use of a blog to work things through for yourself as much as sharing ideas – blogging is frequently the means by which I approach a new topic or issue, as its format helps me develop my own thoughts on something. So, I’m always tremendously grateful for those who help me work this through, and especially for the generosity in interpretation of half formed ideas.

The role of open universities and openness – this theme looked at questions such as: what is the future of single mode open universities? What topics does the term open education cover? What are the ways in which openness is being deployed by universities? This is a recurring theme on this blog, as its pretty much my Venn diagram intersection as an academic of research interests (OER, OEP, etc) and institution (OU veteran). This year I felt however that it was a topic that came up a lot more at conferences. Maybe it’s the after effect of MOOCs.

Study & personal metaphors – I completed my Art History MA this year with the OU, and I like to try and make connections between my study and ed tech, even if its very tenuous. Reflecting on being a student is always useful, and  metaphors allow you to be playful in a way that formal academic writing doesn’t. More people came up to me to chat about the Barnaby post or the privilege post than ever do about my academic papers.

Professional amplification – when you have a reasonably popular blog or twitter account you sometimes get asked to broadcast stuff: events, job adverts, projects, etc. I try not to do too much of this, but this year I have used the blog to try and promote some of my own research or others. The key to this not just being a broadcast which I think would be boring for everyone is to find ways in which they speak to broader trends. Having a ‘voice’ (whatever that means) is a bit of a privilege so using it to boost projects or organisations I’m associated with is something I can offer.

Those four categories don’t cover all the posts, but ‘miscellaneous ramblings concocted while walking the dog’ doesn’t convey the right sense of analysis does it? I would say I hope 2018 is better than 2017, but I don’t see much hope for that. Mike Caulfield’s predictions seem pretty on the nose for me, and that doesn’t look like a fun place. But I’ll keep blogging my way through it, as it’s the only thing I have (well, that and a penchant for naps, but that won’t help anyone).

Oh, and thanks Reclaim Hosting for another great year of service.

The zone of proximal depravity

Despair # 1

In the digital era it’s always a difficulty to discern the difference between behaviours that have always been present, but we just notice them differently, and those that are fundamentally changed by the digital environment. Often it’s a bit of both. One such aspect I’ve been thinking about recently is our exposure as individuals to extreme views. It’s one where I think the digital world has caused a significant shift for all of us.

In the analogue world, it’s been usually pretty easy not to find yourself exposed to extreme views, or targeted by extremists, or caught in the middle of a conversation with fascists, terrorists, conspiracy theorists, and assorted undesirables. This was because you can usually spot them, and also because conversations go through stages, it rarely goes, “hello, pleased to meet you, let me tell you about white supremacy”. I remember once I was travelling to Germany in the 80s via coach. I was on the ferry with a group of construction workers (it was Auf Wiedersehen, Pet time), and I got drinking and chatting with them. One of them was clearly intelligent and amiable and we chatted over a couple of Stellas. And then from a conversation about football, he was telling me about the global Jewish conspiracy, the research he had done, how they controlled everything, etc. Like many conspiracy devotees, he was intelligent and erudite, but completely monomaniacal and twisted. The reason I remember this encounter is because it was a failure of my radar. You get blokes (and it’s usually a bloke) like this in the pub, but you quickly detect it, either in their aggressive tone or the direction of the conversation and move away. But in this case I had been caught out and found myself in the middle of this guy’s derangement before I knew where I was.

I raise this memory because it is now what we all face on a daily basis. Mike Caulfield gives an intriguing and terrifying account of how quickly the algorithm on Pinterest takes you from recipes to full on conspiracy theory and fake news:

It is this way in which algorithms now actively seek to bypass our previous defences against extremism that is new. For example, Facebook’s “pages you may like” algorithm suggest Britain First to me (I mean, wtf?). Or the time my daughter came downstairs visibly shaken because a misogynistic video from Milo had popped up in her timeline and not knowing who he was, she had watched it. Or when a friend of a friend on FB decided to dump an offensive meme in the middle of a conversation. You’ll ALL have similar examples, and they happen every day.

To borrow slightly tongue in cheek from Vygostky, we can think of this as a collapse in our zone of proximal depravity. Before you get to the real zealots and extremists, you had to go through a layer of protection and increasing signals. You rarely got embedded in it by accident:

But what the algorithmic feed does is effectively collapse this protective layer, so our previous signals, defensive mechanisms and means of establishing distance are no longer effective. So now it’s just a thin membrane:

There are implications for this. For the individual I worry about our collective mental health, to be angry, to be made to engage with this stuff, to be scared and to feel that it is more prevalent than maybe it really is. For society it normalises these views, desensitises us to them and also raises the emotional temperature of any discussion. One way of viewing digital literacy is reestablishing the protective layer, learning the signals and techniques that we have in the analogue world for the digital one. And perhaps the first step in that is in recognising how that layer has been diminished by algorithms.

The Digital Scholar revisited

I’m writing a paper at the moment which is revisiting my 2011 book The Digital Scholar, and asking ‘what has changed since then?’. Back in 2011, although elearning had entered the mainstream with widespread adoption of VLEs, much of the focus was on the potential of digital scholarship. A number of studies at the time indicated that adoption of new technology by academics was cautious and often greeted with suspicion. Proctor, Williams and Stewart (2010) summed up the prevailing attitude, finding ‘frequent or intensive use is rare, and some researchers regard blogs, wikis and other novel forms of communication as a waste of time or even dangerous’. Since then a lot has changed, so it was interesting to revisit. In thinking about what has changed since, I’ve ended up with five themes:

Mainstreaming of digital scholarship
The use of digital, networked technology in all aspects of scholarship has become part of the mainstream of practice. Not only is it no longer unusual to meet an academic with a blog or a Twitter account, but online identity is now seen as a central part of what it means to be an academic. Research projects will make use of twitter accounts to both disseminate findings and recruit subjects, online digital databases now form part of a researcher’s toolkit and tools for analyzing social media, VLE and geo data have generated new insights and approaches. In teaching, the advent of MOOCs may have been accompanied by hype but it also raised the profile of online education in general. Digital scholarship is now just part of scholarship in many respects.

The shift to open
Closely allied to digital scholarship is the development of open practice, which can be seen as a third component in the requirements for digital scholarship, building on digital and networked aspects.
In education ‘open’ has become a modifier for many terms, giving rise to open textbooks, open data, open pedagogy, open science and open educational practice. The increase in profile of open practice then underpins many of the subsequent themes, to the extent that open scholarship may in fact be a more descriptive term than digital scholarship.

Policy development
A further aspect of this mainstreaming is the development of institutional, regional or national policies with respect to different aspects of digital scholarship. Most prominent of these are the development of open access mandates which state that the outcomes of research funded by a particular body need to be released openly. ROARMAP tracks such policies at the funder, research organisation and multiple organisation level. It indicates that in 2011 (when the Digital Scholar was published) there were 387 such policies in total, compared with 887 at the end of 2017, in 68 different countries.
Related to open access publication mandates are policies relating to open data, which state that, as with publications, data arising from publicly funded research projects should be openly available. This area is less well developed than open access publications, but growing rapidly, in part because such policies can build on the work established by open access mandates. For example, SPARC Europe found that 13 European nations had open data policies at a national level, with most having been implemented recently. About half of these used the existing open access policy to expand coverage to open data.

Network identity
Perhaps the area of digital scholarship that has seen the most growth, both in terms of practice and associated research, is that of networked, academic identity. Veletsianos & Kimmons refer to Networked participatory scholarship (NPS) to encompass scholars’ use of social networks to “pursue, share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and further their scholarship”. This has been an area of growth as social media use in general has grown in society.
However, researchers are also increasingly identifying the negative aspects of networked scholarship also. Stewart comments that ‘network platforms are increasingly recognised as sites of rampant misogyny, racism, and harassment’. The initial promise of digital scholarship has often turned dark.

Criticality of digital scholarship
Following on from the recognition of the drawbacks of developing an online identity, is the last of the major trends, which is a growing body of work that examines digital scholarship through a critical lens.
This comes in different forms, but one prominent strand is suspicion about the claims of educational technology in general, and the role of software companies in particular. One of the consequences of digital scholarship and open practices entering the mainstream of education is that they become increasingly attractive routes for companies to enter the education market. Much of the narrative around digital scholarship is associated with change, which quickly becomes co-opted into broader agendas around commercialisation, commodification and massification of education.

While there has been considerable change, it is worth indicating that much has remained unchanged also. The ‘approach with caution’ attitude towards digital scholarship that was prevalent in 2011 still prevails to an extent.
What has been realised then is not so much a revolution in academic practice, but a gradual acceptance and utilisation of digital scholarship techniques, practices and values. This means that depending on your particular perspective, it can seem to be simultaneously true that radical change has taken place, and nothing has fundamentally altered. Much of the increased adoption in academia mirrors the wider penetration of social media tools amongst society in general, so academics are more likely to have an identity in such places that mixes professional and personal.
The relationship between digital and traditional scholarship is best viewed as one of dialogue and interaction between the two, rather than competition and revolution. Using these five themes provides a model for considering how this symbiotic progress will develop. Mainstreaming, the shift to open and policy development will act as drivers for the uptake of digital scholarship across all aspects of Boyer’s framework. Network identity can be seen as the lived experience of these drivers for many scholars, which can act as both an inhibitor and promoter of further uptake. Criticality provides a much needed check on unquestioning adoption, and analysis of the impact on learners and scholarly practice.

Of course, if things had really changed, I wouldn’t be writing an article at all, and instead would just submit a naff meme:


Annual film review

I didn’t get to see as many films this year as I’d hoped, but it turned out to be a pretty good year. After a few years where the blockbusters have been uniformly awful, this year’s batch contained some movies that finally understood their role as entertainment (Thor, Wonder Woman) and even had people discussing narrative structures (Dunkirk). Either side of these were films that, like my book choices, couldn’t be divorced from the current climate.

Many of the films that follow were officially released in 2016, but I’m going on when they got a cinema release in the UK. So, here’s my top ten, because who doesn’t love a list:

  • The Handmaiden – Chan-wook Park takes Sarah Waters’ sublime LGBT-erotica-meets-Oliver-Twist novel, Fingersmith (also in my top reads of the year), and relocates it from London to 1930s Korea. He ramps up the sensuality and drama (from a pretty high starting point) to create a sumptuous, beautiful, twisting film that’s like eating all your food from a Belgian chocolate fountain. It’s also a lesson in how to do book adaptation, retaining the central core narrative elements, and more importantly the tone of the book, while creating something wholly its own.
  • Get Out – like They Live or The People Under The Stairs, (or even The Night of the Living Dead), good horror can be an effective social commentator and in Jordan Peele’s claustrophobic tale of white control and liberal appropriation of black values, this movie was so 2017. Sometimes horror that wants to be an allegory forgets to serve its primary focus of being a horror, but Peele’s film spins both plates effortlessly – it’s both straight up terrifying and also a scathing social metaphor.
  • Baby Driver – whereas La La Land was meant to instil you with a joie de vivre, it all seemed too forced, as if accountants had researched the jazz scene. But the joy in Baby Driver is not in life so much but in cinema itself. Every scene seems to be declaring “isn’t this shit great??”
  • Dunkirk – I didn’t rate Nolan’s World War 2 epic as highly as some (I mean how many times can the same guy nearly drown?), but it had plenty to recommend it, in Hans Zimmer’s score, the cycling narrative timeline and the realistic portrayal of air battles. It was a film that made people appreciate the cinematic experience and that’s always worth acknowledging.
  • Raw – I loved Julia Ducournau’s French extremism take on social conformity, family secrets, coming of age, and yes, quite a bit of cannibalism. While the furore focused on people passing out in the cinema (have they never seen any French extremity cinema?) this overlooked what a beautifully shot film it is, with bold use of colour and modernist, painterly structured scenes. Ducournau is a talent to be reckoned with.
  • Lady Macbeth – this bleak tale of Katherine forced into an oppressive marriage in 19th Century rural England is a slow, grinding build to an amoral climax, that makes the viewer complicit in the final act.
  • Wonder Woman – Patty Jenkins’ interpretation of the comic book format was nigh on perfect. Gadot stormed to prominence as easily the best superhero around, the pacing was like an exact 4/4 rhythm, and the tone provided a welcome return to enjoyment away from the Nietzschean angst of the dire comic book adaptations that have gone before.
  • My Life as a Courgette – while the studio Ghibli metaphysical magic realism tale The Red Turtle gained all the plaudits, if I’m to include an animation, I’d opt for this Swiss/French stop-motion tale of redemption in an orphanage. It starts with the eponymous Courgette accidentally killing his abusive, alcoholic mother. I mean, that sounds like a fun movie, right? But it’s incredibly sweet, with a definite, unique visual style.
  • Death of Stalin – Armando Iannucci’s hilarious take on the final days of Stalin finds its way to truth by coming at it indirectly. The actors speak in their native accents, but there’s a strange veracity in, for example, Jason Isaacs gruff northerner portrayal of Georgy Zhukov, that an accurate depiction would not capture. It’s a hoot.
  • For the last selection, choose your preferred one from The Battle of the Sexes, The Beguiled, The Big Sick, Thor Ragnarok, I am not Madame Bovary or Toni Erdmann. Yes, that’s a cop out, but while I liked all of these, none of them particularly clamours to merit the last spot.

As a horror fan the revisiting of It was enjoyable, prosaic post apocalytptic movies had a bit of a run with It comes at night and The Survivalist, and there were some inventive low budget productions such as I am the pretty thing that lives in the house, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, A Dark Song and Devils Candy..

Overall it was a good, but not great year. Perhaps the most noteworthy trend is the growth of decent female representation both as central characters and directors. Nowhere was this more evident than with a comparison of the two films to feature Wonder Woman. Whereas Jenkins’ film was a delight, Snyder’s was ponderous and mediocre. Of the films mentioned above I think Wonder Woman, Raw and Get Out are the ones that will have staying power.

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.