One of the potentially positive aspects of the online pivot has been the manner in which it has forced educators and institutions to at least consider whether the face to face exams is the only method of assessment. Even quite conventional universities have decided that online exams (eg giving students a set time period to complete essays which can range from a few hours to a few weeks) is going to be the default mode from now on.
In less imaginative forms this has has taken the form of remote proctored exams, with AI or remote proctoring replacing the exam invigilator. This is problematic in a number of ways I won’t go into here. It’s also missing an opportunity to rethink what assessment is and how we do it (although I have sympathy when professional bodies demand it for accreditation). Replacing the 3 hour timed exam with the longer time period to complete an essay, that allows for online research is a more realistic task approximating to what a student might have to do in ‘real life’. Although it does raise the spectre of plagiarism, and with time and access students swarm to places like Course Hero (which is in no way an essay ponzi scheme, no sir).
This creates drivers for people to rethink assessment – the face to face exam is unpopular now that its alternative has been tried, and the standard essay based exam is subject to cheating when access is allowed. There are huge disciplinary differences here, and sometimes I think advocates for radical assessment overall (or complete removal) come from a liberal arts perspective and are not always appreciative of the different assessment requirements of say, maths or physics where definite right and wrong answers exist.
But for now, let’s consider some of the alternatives once you move beyond the traditional in-person exam. If students are studying completely online, and remote from a campus, then assessment arguably becomes more important. At the Open University, our tutors (Associate Lecturers) spend a good deal of time giving very detailed feedback on assignments, as these form the main point of contact often. Without the regular interaction students find assessment feedback essential to know if they are on track.
In a similar vein, use of automated assessment, while it can seem pedagogically unsatisfactory (the game of trying to come up with wrong answers for multiple choice can have you questioning your life choices), they fulfil an important ‘checking progress’ function.
More significantly, if students are learning in an online environment then it naturally lends itself to more ‘internet native’ forms of assessment. Here are some examples:
None of these are an answer for every topic, and they are not without their own issues and concerns. But they do demonstrate how the shift to online can open up other avenues for assessment. In higher ed, the exam, like the lecture, has become such a default model in higher education that we don’t often question why it was devised that way in the first place. The answer is in part because it fulfilled a number of logistical constraints. Online learning removes many of those constraints, so why wouldn’t we take the opportunity to reconsider?
Learning design is one of those terms that you instinctively have a feel for what it means, but for which there can be a wide variety of definitions. For some it is synonymous with instructional design (which I think is more of a North American term). Obviously, as academics we like to debate the definition endlessly, but let’s keep it simple for now. From a lot of the work that JISC led in the 00s, a common definition is:
“the practice of planning, sequencing and managing learning activities, usually using ICT-based tools to support both design and delivery.”
And so on – there is a lot of LD to choose from out there. Sometimes it can feel like that whatever your educational problem is, then learning design is the answer. Let’s not over-promise for it, but for me the key point about learning design is that it is an intentional design process. The actual learning design model you choose is probably not that important, as long as you choose one.
At this point, many educators will be snorting “what do you think we’ve been doing all this time, just showing up and ad-libbing? Of course we design learning!” While there is of course, some truth in this, the distinction in adopting a specific learning design approach is to consider the what and the how of teaching. The how is often predetermined – a conventional campus based lecture course will have X lectures, Y seminars and maybe Z lab sessions. This wasn’t restricted to face to face education either, at the OU when I joined it was quite common to think of a course in terms of the stuff it was constituted from – printed units, summer schools, home lab kits.
What learning design attempts to do is throw a pause in the implementation, where an educator can consider questions such as: “if I want to teach topic X, what is the best method to do so?”; “I have had a lot of activity type Y, maybe I should vary this?”; “what is the workload of these different approaches on students?”; “what can I do with this new technology that I couldn’t do before?”.
Many educators undertake that sort of analysis instinctively anyway, without the need for a prescribed framework. Adopting an LD approach across an institution has the benefits of legitimising that analysis and also standardising it. By doing the latter, practice then also becomes shareable.
So, while learning design isn’t only applied to online education, the familiarity of the lecture based model means that people tend to operate with an innate LD model that is never made explicit. The transition to online learning requires that these design choices are surfaced, but more importantly it provides an opportunity to rethink how a course can be delivered. The adoption of a specified learning design approach can therefore be seen as both a requisite for online learning and also a benefit.
Following on from the last post about group work, I’m continuing my series (2 posts constitutes a series, right?) on trying to counter the negative views of online learning by highlighting positive aspects. In this post I want to look at an element that is, in my view, often overlooked – the ability to structure learning that is asynchronous in delivery but retains aspects of interactivity, collaboration and community.
Much of face to face learning is based around the often unquestioned assumption of synchronous delivery. A student has to be present at a set time for a lecture, seminar, lab session, or exam. Traditional distance learning (largely print based) started from an assumption of asynchronous study (with some synchronous events such as tutorials and summer schools). This has then followed through into the design of early online education. The online pivot in contrast was largely defined by the need to replicate the synchronous model online.
It is interesting (to me anyway) that we used to talk of Asynchronous Learning Networks (ALNs), and a lot of early elearning literature was focused on the asynchronous nature of online learning. This was partly a product of the limitations of the technology (you couldn’t do reliable video chat back in 1998), but also speaks to some of that early desire to rethink what education would look like online. The advent of reliable video streaming has meant people have become lazy and just shifted existing practice online.
It might not be overstating things to say that asynchronous vs synchronous is a more significant consideration than face to face vs online. And this gets to one of the issues with the criticisms of online learning, the lecture deficit model, which is simply attempting to replicate the synchronous model. Before we look at blending the two (which is probably optimal), let’s consider how asynchronous online education is realised.
It makes use of extensive (if not exclusively) online material – VLE content, videos, blogs, podcasts, etc, often creating a rich mix of media and sources. It will use text based forum discussions, which may be split into different levels – for example ones for whole cohort discussion, tutor groups, specific group work projects, etc. Blogs, wikis, and other tools can be used for co-creation and commenting.
None of that is rocket science of course, but it does require a higher degree of intentional learning design than the conventional lecture series. See for example, the considerations around group work I mentioned in the last post. But asynchronous delivery offers a number of distinct advantages over the synchronous model, for instance:
Greater student control – related to the above, asynchronous study allows students to spend as long or as little as they need on certain subjects.
Time to interact – asynchronous discussion gives students time to construct and research answers, making interaction more productive for many.
Increased curriculum flexibility – one of the limiting factors in multidisciplinary study is the tyranny of the timetable. This is under-appreciated I feel. We can’t combine many combinations of subjects because the logistics of creating timetables for lectures becomes exponentially complex. Asynchronous study does not have this limitation, so for instance on our Open degree, students can combine over 250 different modules to create their own degree. You can’t do that with synchronous based study.
I am over-simplifying things here to make a point – it is not really asynchronous vs synchronous. In reality it is usually a blend – lots of on campus education is asynchronous already, for instance reading lists, lecture capture, VLE content. And a lot of asynchronous online content has synchronous (or semi-synchronous) elements, for example online tutorials, guest speakers, assessment.
This is all sensible design and making the best use of each medium. The point here is rather that online learning offers a greater opportunity to implement effective asynchronous learning, and that has a number of advantages. So we shouldn’t just replicate the synchronous model online and disregard those opportunities.
Like many of you I’ve been getting rather exasperated by the “online = bad, face to face = good” narrative that seems to have arisen post-pandemic (Tim Fawns has a good thread on this by the way). So I thought I’d try a series on some of the ways in which online learning can be done effectively. I mean, I know it won’t make any difference, but shouting into the void can be therapeutic. They’ll be a mix of research and my own experience.
First up, every student’s favourite way of working – group work! Going right back to the early days of e-learning, group work has always been a hot topic. Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework was influential in helping structure online learning, and Gilly Salmon’s 5 stage e-moderating model was used by many to structure online group work. There are many other models also – you can go rhizomatic, connectivist, communities of practice, and so on. In some respects, I don’t think it matters too much which one you choose (as long as it’s not one predicated on digital natives or hole in wall). The point is to use a well established model to help you construct online interaction in a way that is different from face to face. So when I hear people say things like “we don’t know what works online” I do wonder what it is they actually want to meet their needs.
Some basic things to say about online group work first of all:
Synchronous vs asynchronous makes a big difference, so not all ‘online’ is the same
It takes muuuuuuuuch longer to realise, especially if you are operating asynchronously. Activities you might have scheduled for an afternoon can take 3 weeks online by the time negotiation happens, people disappear, you wait for responses, etc.
Like nearly all online learning, it requires careful design, detailed instructions and guidance. More so than face to face where you can modify things on the fly.
Some of the social glue necessary for groups to work well may be missing online (Salmon’s model establishes the importance of this). This highlights the value of intentionally establishing social connections early on in an online course, as it will reap benefits later.
Operating in the online medium at the start means group activities based around co-creation of media, finding resources, commenting, etc are readily achieved. Students are in that space already.
Asynchronous can provide flexibility and reassurance for many students who struggle in face to face groups.
Retention in online courses is generally a bit lower than face to face. Group work presents a sometimes stressful component of any course, and thus can act as a risk area, where students may decide to drop out. It needs careful design, support and handling to prevent it becoming the ‘skid patch’ on an icy road.
Students hate it about as much as they hate face to face group projects, but also kind of appreciate it afterwards.
This is not intended as an in-depth review of online group work literature. It is not a topic short of research. But my take-aways would be that it is completely achievable, and will give all the same benefits you would gain from face to face group work, therefore it should be implemented for the same reasons. It does require more thought, design and time to get right than face to face group work. Simply translating group activities you did in a seminar to online is not going to work. It can create stress for students, but then so does face to face group work (introverts will feel this), but these may be different ones, so the type of support required may vary.
In general though, do it, but design carefully. I’ll end with this quote from Curtis and Lawson, who researched online collaboration back in 2001. It could have been written as advice to people in 2022, and pretty much sums up what I’ve said:
there is evidence that successful collaboration as described in face-to-face situations is possible in online learning environments. The medium does influence the interactions that are possible and that student familiarity with the medium and the ease of use of the interface are important factors. Instruction for students in the use of the software and better preparation for the challenges of collaborative learning, especially negotiation and other group skills, are likely to produce a more effective learning system.
We were discussing the new Open University strategy recently, one strand of which calls for innovation in teaching. This has been a constant thread in nearly all strategies that I can recall in my 27 odd years at the OU. And, to be fair, it is something the OU and colleagues have largely delivered on. However, based on my own experience and that of nearly all colleagues I speak to, the university (and it would seem, all universities), often acts to counter and thwart such innovation. From delivering all online courses in 1999, to establishing the VLE in 2004, to introducing Learning Design, to trying to establish microcredentials more recently, the university seems to operate a rather split personality approach. At a senior level it promotes and encourages these initiatives, but at a more day to day, governance and operational level it often actively works against them, providing blockages, delays and endless compromises, that feel as though they seek to undermine the initiative.
To rehash John Gilmore’s First law of the internet trinity, that “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”, it feels like “the university interprets change as harm and seeks to eradicate it.” When you are trying to implement change it can feel like the organisation is actively folding around it, making progress difficult and seeking to limit its impact. This is found in much of the culture and practicalities of realising change. It is also because education is a precious thing that needs to be treated carefully, that involves people. It’s not a new washing machine. There is a general risk adverse culture, that arises from this appropriate caution.
The OU is by no means unique in this – my experience in talking to colleagues at other universities is that it is a feature, not a bug of introducing change in higher ed. This is one of the reasons why people who come to higher ed from elsewhere often bemoan its ability to change. However, while it feels like that, I think that is a misunderstanding of how universities function.
Universities operate on a longer time frame than many businesses. While businesses may desire to be around for decades, they often aren’t. Universities operate on long time scales and promote stability, not rapid changes to immediate concerns. It would be inappropriate for a university to behave like a start up (those that do, don’t last very long). So this isn’t just curmudgeonliness in resisting change, it is part of the character of what it means to be a university.
But it is necessary to implement some change, right? Maybe the metaphor of damage can help here. We live happily with many things such as viruses that could cause harm after all. So one way to implement change is to do it slowly, so it doesn’t cause the adverse reaction. This is the point Rebecca Galley makes in implementing learning design across the OU over a decade – institutional change takes time. By giving it the appropriate time, the university acclimatises to it and accommodates.
Another corollary of the metaphor might be that it is best to convince the university that this is not harm – organisms don’t reject viruses that look familiar to them, or animals don’t respond aggressively to things in their environment they don’t interpret as a threat. So, change is best couched in terms that are meaningful and recognisable to those within the organisation. When the OU was going through its crisis, this could be characterised as an excess of change that created an appropriate rejection by the University. Part of the problem was the change was often couched in terms that were antagonistic to existing practice and values. Whenever I sit on boards that are implementing changes my one piece of sage advice is to communicate in terms that are meaningful to educators.
Another aspect might be to reduce the threshold for what is interpreted as harm, to try to prevent the excessive reaction every time. This might arise through greater flexibility and autonomy, to reduce some of that risk averse culture. I’ve found this often arises by using outsourced staff for areas such as finance or legal advice. They do not have any particular buy in or knowledge of the context, so saying no is the safest option. Making administrators more involved and part of a team, and giving them more freedom to be creative can alleviate many of the barriers. Academics often moan unfairly about administrators, they become a convenient scape goat, but I have been fortunate enough to work with great administrators throughout my career, and when they get creative it is a thing of beauty. We need to establish a culture that promotes this.
So, in summary, universities often react to change in the way an organism might react to harm and seek to limit it. This is not however, necessarily a negative thing, given the nature of universities and the roles we want them to perform in society. They’re not WeWork for chrissakes. If we accept this, then there are ways of approaching necessary change then that are more likely to be effective and productive for everyone involved.
My next book, Metaphors of Ed Tech has got a release date – June 2022 from the awesome Athabasca University Press. It’ll be open access again, CC licensed. It can be seen as a sort of companion piece to 25 Years of Ed Tech, but stands alone. It’s a collection of metaphors about ed tech, but also a plea to reframe how we think about technology in education. It is also, I think, erm, fun.
Mainly though it is a vehicle to get Bryan Mathers to draw a Jaws-inspired cover. I love this so much that I have set up a Spreadshirt shop where you can buy mugs and t-shirts with it on (I have these and let me tell you, all my friends are jealous). I’m not planning on retiring on the profits of these – I’ve set the shop as non-profit, it’s just for the sharkie LOLs.
In case you’ve missed it, OER22 is back with a mix of face to face, online live and asynchronous online this year. Everyone’s favourite conference (yes it is), is co-chaired by our lovely GO-GN team of Rob Farrow, Beck Pitt, Paco Iniesto, Kylie Matthews and me (although I’ve been firmly in the slacker category over the past month).
The papers are in, the reviews have been done and the decisions sent out. It’s going to a great event, so I’d encourage you all to register. The themes are:
Theme 1 – Pedagogy in a time of crisis: what does an ‘open’ response look like? How has the word of open education changed since we last convened in person in 2019? What role do open approaches play in shaping a (post) pandemic pedagogy?
Theme 2 – Open textbooks: with the crisis for students and institutions deepening in the UK and across the globe, and renewed calls for new policies for open textbooks being issued, this theme is for research, practice and policy submission exploring their potential and impact;
Theme 3 – Open in Action: exploring open teaching, educational practises and resources, we are looking for submissions that show openness in action in different contexts and from a range of perspectives.
Theme 4 – Open research: this theme focuses on the importance of open scholarship or research around any aspect of open education;
Theme 5 – Wildcard proposals that demonstrate fun and creative practice in relation to openness are very welcome.
Combining GO-GN with OER also means a chance to commission more penguin images from Bryan. And maybe even some animated bumpers. I’m coming to the conclusion that ‘finding excuses to commission work from Bryan Mathers’ is now my guiding principle in work.
As an aside with my interest in metaphors, Bryan and Rob explored the use of penguins as the images in this paper. Penguins are cute and as Bryan says “Who doesn’t love a penguin? Curious, collaborative, and playful: but also vulnerable, exposed, on a yearly pilgrimage through the bitter Antarctic desert, surviving against the odds”. Well, people who spend time with them are less keen (ask my colleague Mark Brandon who has shared time in Antarctica with them). My daughter sent me a link to this article that related how when zoologist George Levick observed the Adélie penguins in 1910 he was so shocked by their behaviour that he only wrote about it in coded Greek in his notes. He comments “There seems to be no crime too low for these Penguins”. Proving the point that what is a good metaphor for some, may be a bad metaphor for others. The GOGN penguins are universally lovely though.
I know you hadn’t noticed I was gone – there has been rather a LOT else going on after all. But after a bijou, hipster style breakdown, I’ve been offline (and off work) for about a month. During this time I did use a different blog as a kind of therapy, based around walking my dog. So if you like reading the thoughts of a self-pitying, middle aged man (it’s an undercrowded field after all), then you can at Walking with Teilo.
Anyway, some things I (re)learned in my absence:
It’s ok to not be ok. I have a strain of that protestant work ethic, British stiff upper lip thing going on. I don’t think I’ve had more than a couple of days off sick over the past decade. So, it felt just plain wrong to be taking a prolonged time off work. But, over a long career it’s naive to think you’re not going to have at least one such episode. As one of my favourite Electric Magnolia songs puts it, “no-one gets to be all right, all of the time“.
Quitting social media is easier than you think. With the exception of the lovely Books of Horror group on Facebook, I didn’t engage and once you stop then starting seems effort. I’m stepping back into that zone now, so this is not a quitlit post, but hey, giving up is not all that difficult.
You’re not as important as you think you are. I have lovely colleagues, and they carried on in my absence. It may have caused them extra work (sorry) but the OU didn’t collapse because I wasn’t there. This is a valuable lesson I think.
We’re still doing the ‘online learning is evil’ thing aren’t we? Sigh. When we live in an economy where people make their living playing games and streaming it on Twitch, it seems somewhat out of touch to feel that online learning is beyond the pale. I may start a ‘good things about online learning’ series, just for my own sanity.
Dogs are good. That is all.
Anyway, it’s good to be back. I think. Now, where were we?
I mean, it’s weird, right? On the one hand, all Governments like to berate education for not fully preparing students for the modern workplace. They unveil plans about how they will be a modern, 21st century, digital economy. And yet, successive education secretaries have berated online learning, which one would think was an essential component in realising both of the previous aims. And not just offer up some valid criticisms around issues of retention or engagement, say, but they use terminology that portrays online learning as, at best, a lazy, cheap option and at worst, some form of abuse.
Gavin Williamson exerted pressure on universities to return to face to face or they would be fined, and viewed online as a cost-cutting measure and they didn’t justify full fees. It seems that Nadhim Zahawi can barely type the words “online learning” in an open letter, without retching. He mentions ‘face-to-face’ eight times in his letter, and in case you don’t get the message: “We expect face-to-face teaching to continue” & “We all know that face-to-face education is the best way for children and young people to learn”. And in an interview with GBNews (not going to link to it) he gave the gammons what they want when he declared “there is no excuse for online teaching”, in the manner that someone might declare there is zero tolerance for abuse within their organisation.
And similar opinions have been voiced in other countries, so in order to save myself potential damage from excessive eye-rolling and heavy sighing, I’ve tried to pick through the reasons behind this seemingly irrational distaste. Here are my contenders for reasons, some more valid than others:
A genuine concern about the validity of online learning – I’m not here to pretend online is always done well, or that it suits everyone or that there aren’t issues. So maybe they’re just concerned about it. If so, I would suggest not painting it as a cheap option (it isn’t), or lazy (definitely not) and instead focus on promoting the benefits and funding areas to overcome the issues.
Playing to the voters – this is probably a strong one. GBNews, the Daily Mail – these are core constituents who are generally sceptical of online things and anything invented after 1955. They will definitely view an online degree as inferior, and many of them may be parents, or grandparents of university aged children, and so it makes sense to play to them.
Concern for students – this may also be a valid frame, particularly if one views students as customers. The customers have paid for a face to face education, and that is not what they are getting. Therefore they should get a refund. The ‘product’ view makes sense with washing machines, but has always been a difficult perspective for education.
Faulty generalisation – nearly every Education Secretary seems to feel that their own experience of education is the only dataset they need to draw upon. They want Latin, discipline and Oxbridge type higher education. Online learning does not look like any of these things, so is, ipso facto, a bad thing.
Ignorance – I haven’t seen any desire to engage with what online, or blended, learning really looks like in a positive sense from any recent education secretary. And so they operate in a state of wilful ignorance about how effective it can be, and what is required to make it so.
What all of the above combine to do is to create a lack of motivation to engage with online learning in any meaningful sense by consecutive education secretaries. There is nothing to be gained, politically, from doing so. But there is a real potential for some nations to grasp this opportunity and make online a central part of higher ed provision, and that will do more to prepare students for any workplace or society of the future than any number of cosy seminars with Oxbridge dons.
End of the year posts inbound! Starting off with my vinyl selections of the year. I bought a lot of records this year, hey, it was 2021, whatever it takes. I’m restricting choices here to a) records I own and b) that came out this year. I’m too much of a radical, free thinker to go with a top 10, so I’m going with some random categories instead.
Pop is art dammit – Claud: Super Monster. Claud is the type of artist who might have chosen political punk or avant-garde for their outlet, but instead has selected the perfectly crafted pop song as the artistic form of choice. Classified as ‘bedroom pop’ these 13 tracks document teenage confusion, coming of age, falling in love and worrying about your role in the world. But in a dancey, boppy kinda way.
Alternative choice – Self Esteem: Prioritise Pleasure. Self Esteem’s (aka Rebecca Taylor) debut album is a delight. She’s a witty lyricist (“Sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive”) & it’s big, brassy pop – no slinking off to a cabin in the mountains for our Rebecca.
Lockdown therapy – Cassandra Jenkins: An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. Part folk, part jazz, part psychotherapy session, part hippie mysticism, Jenkins album was a soothing balm to the existential dread of lockdown that dominated much of the start of the year. It contains two bona fide classics in Hard Drive and New Bikini, but it’s the album as a whole that will save you hundreds of pounds on therapy. While it may not be the best medical advice, when she softly sings that the water cures everything, it makes you want to get in the car and drive to the ocean and think that maybe it will all be ok.
Alternative choice – Still Corners: The Last Exit. If Jenkins album has you heading to the beach, then the Still Corners album provides the perfect soundtrack for a drive to the mountains. It’s like a Lynchian road movie – deserts, wolves, deserted highways abound. Written in lockdown it provides a cinematic escape to a bigger world when we couldn’t go further than 5 miles from home. It may be a bit cliche in this at times, but when going to the bottom of your garden seemed like an adventure, this was a perfect antidote.
Ridiculously talented multi-instrumental woman – Emma Jean Thackray: Yellow. Thackray is a jazz bandleader and on her debut, her philosophy seems to have been “sod it, let’s include everything”. It feels like Earth Wind and Fire at times, the Mama and the Papas at others, and some drugged out 60s Monterey jazz festival at others. It’s full of mysticism, but don’t let that put you off, it’s a blast. Pitchfork called it ‘supremely impractical’ and, for someone whose favourite Clash album is Sandinista, that sounds like a badge of honour.
Alternative choice – Jane Weaver: Flock. This could also have been a contender in the Pop is Art category. Weaver brings together Prince like funk, psychedelia and cheeky bounce to produce a pop album with edge and charm.
Rock’s not quite dead – Wolf Alice: Blue Weekend. This is an album I would have listened to endlessly as a teenager. It comprises a range of styles from the indie-folky “Safe From Heartbreak” to riot girrl “Play the Greatest Hits” and dreamy “The Beach”. It’s eclectic, but all within their range, and feels confident and mature. Lead singer Ellie Rowsell uses several songs to take elegant swipes at the laddish rock n roll world and creepy guys in the music world.
Alternative choice – The Middle Kids: Today We’re The Greatest. Aussie indie rock band The Middle Kids released an album full of sing along in your car at full voice tunes, including the joyous “I don’t care”. It’s a shame so many festivals were called off, this album would have been perfect and propelled them to megastar status.
Indie attitude – Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg. Featuring the droll, bored vocals of Florence Shaw over Stoogesesque bass lines and discordant guitar, and some of the oddest lyrics this or any year. She sounds like she might die of ennui as she intones about the Antiques Roadshow and eating hotdogs. When she does occasionally sing it’s slightly off key as if singing is for losers. Dry Cleaning would probably be mean to you at a party but they’re so cool you’d want to be their friends anyway. Do everything and feel nothing indeed.
Alternative choice – Snail Mail: Valentine. Expanding on the indie sound of her debut, Lush, Lindsey Jordan’s second album documented heartbreak, anger and defiance (all three emotions captured in the lyric “Why’d you wanna erase me, darling valentine?”). Snarling and tender by turns it has definite attitude.
Smart and funky – Little Simz: Sometimes I Might Be An Introvert. Being an introvert is not a subject that often features in rap, but in her breakthrough album Little Simz explores different aspects of her identity, including introversion. It has dramatic orchestral arrangements, sweet harmonies, Nigerian rhythms and clever rhymes. Lauryn Hill, with whom she toured, is perhaps the closest comparison, but she’s also very much her own thing. An extraordinary record.
Alternative choice- Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams. Parks has been so lauded and this album has become such an established soundtrack, that it’s easy to forget it was released this year. The 20-year singer songwriter breezed in with an album of all killer, no filler, full of pop culture references (Nikes and Robert Smith). In a roundabout way, her songwriting is reminiscent of early Arctic Monkeys, a form of casual reportage, whether it be about helping a friend with depression, seeing a couple argue in the street or falling for someone who’s a friend (and of the same gender).
We’re all Secretly Canadian – Faye Webster: I Know I’m Funny Ha Ha. In which Webster answers the question “what would someone raised on Marvin Gaye and the Smiths sound like?” It’s on the fabulous Secretly Canadian label for a start and is a mix of alt RnB, with country twinges and indie lyrics. Pitchfork said it was the “sound of the saddest person you follow on social media”, but it’s also mellow, and full of self-deprecating wit. This is the album I tried to force on other, but no-one listened. As she says, it’ll make you want to cry in a good way.
Alternative choice – Le Ren: Leftovers. Also on the Secretly Canadian label was this timeless folk album from Montreal’s Lauren Spear. It could have been recorded any time from the 70s to now and sometimes you just want a woman with a great voice singing some heartbreaking folky bluegrass tunes.
When you get a bit older it’s often the case that people decry the music of today, declaring that it isn’t as good as 1983 or whatever year they hold in nostalgic reverence. But this year has been great for music. I would have loved to have had this array of music when I was 15. So no crankiness and shuffling off to play your Jam albums, revel in the best of 2021…
You can listen to a couple of tracks from the new release vinyl I bought this year (also allowing reissues) on this Spotify playlist.