Too much bloody vision

There’s a scene in This Is Spinal Type where they visit Elvis’s grave and after some failed harmonising, Nigel says “It really puts perspective on things, though, doesn’t it?”, to which David responds “Too much. There’s too much fucking perspective .”

It’s a line that often comes to mind, replacing “perspective” with whatever there seems to be a current abundance in. Recently this has been “vision”. It’s a strange one, because I think we all say we want a clear vision from any leader in an institution. Maybe it’s just me, but I currently feel Vision Fatigue quite strongly. We have an overall University set of priorities. Then we have research vision, teaching and learning plan, EDI priorities, Department plans, knowledge transfer goals, more local research theme, student support theme, business income targets, etc.

These are all good things. We want these things. But every single document you complete has to state how it will support the five (or whatever) themes of the [Insert topic] Vision. It is impossible, for me at least, to keep all of these in mind (and often they are assumed to be something you wake up every morning reciting so no need to remind you what they are). But also, it often feels completely fictional. We’re doing what we’re doing anyway and we find a way to match it to the existing vision. This is borne out when a new PVC or senior manager is appointed, creates a new vision, and we carry on doing the same activities, which now miraculously meet the demands of the new vision.

Maybe everyone has become too proficient at creating Vision Statements with priorities and targets. We said we wanted them, and now we have them in abundance. But for a while I’d appreciate a “we trust you, get on with it” vision.

I’m not sure what the solution is, as I’m guessing “I plan to have no vision” is not a winner at the job interview stage. But I think some acknowledgement that your vision is not the only one academics will be engaging with would be useful. Academics typically operate across many different roles – research, teaching, admin, scholarship, technical, public engagement, policy, etc. Vision switching is not a cost-free activity for an institution. I, like many of my colleagues, spend a lot of time relearning each vision whenever we have to engage with it and then often completing largely meaningless forms about how our current activity satisfies this.

Anyway, maybe it’s just January grumpiness. By the way, do you think I’ve used the word ‘vision’ enough in this post?

The pandemic response and the OU

(some VisualThinkery from the course mentioned)

I’ve just had an article published in the OTESSA Journal, entitled “The UK Open University COVID Response: A Sector Case Study“. I wrote it last year as I was interested in the various actions the OU took during the pandemic. Lots of people in other unis came to us formally and informally seeking advice as they were required to shift their teaching online. You may remember I ran some drop-in sessions on different topics back in 2020. The OU also set up a research fund, developed teaching content and gathered resources on openLearn (most notably, the Take your Teaching Online free course).

In the paper I categorised the different responses as curriculum, research and outreach. Of the different responses, I identified six different, but often overlapping aims:

  • Support –offering support to students, researchers, teachers, and learners during the pandemic
  • Understanding –undertaking research and analysis to understand the impact of the pandemic on education.
  • Proactive Knowledge Sharing –through formal courses such as microcredentials or more informal means, the UKOU undertook a considerable knowledge sharing role during the pandemic, based on its expertise in online and distance education.
  • Replacement –some activities were undertaken as direct replacements for ones that could no longer occur during the online pivot, such as the use of virtual field trips.
  • Resources –allied with knowledge sharing is the development of resources aimed at supporting educators and learners, as evidenced by the increase in traffic to the OpenLearn site.
  • Capacity Building –a more targeted form of knowledge sharing, working with specific audiences and tailoring bespoke content to meet their needs

While this is all very interesting from an OU perspective and maybe a bit back-slapping, what is more relevant I think is that as we face the demands of building a more robust higher ed system to deal with future crises and demands, these areas of activity are arguably what the sector more widely needs to be undertaking. Any institution looking to develop hybrid or online offerings that can accommodate a new pandemic, cost of living crisis, or even changes such as the impact of AI and increased student need for flexibility, will need to develop solutions across all of these areas I feel. It’s a starting point anyway.

It was useful to look back at the various actions people in my own institution undertook. I expect most HEIs will have a range of actions they can reflect on also. It felt like that time is already part of ancient history, so even if you want to shy away from the grand claims I make in this paper, it’s worth recording what happened now before everyone forgets.

The Haunted Lecture Hall

Some of that AI art from NightCafe

A ghost story… (not really, it’s about higher ed)

As I mentioned in my last post, one of my favourite book genres is the haunted house. There are many variations on this, but at some point the authors of all such books face a dilemma – how do they keep the narrative moving towards the scary finale, when all sensible people would leave? This calls on a literary or plot device of some sort that keeps our protagonists in situ, while ratcheting up the horror. It can be that they simply are not allowed to leave (for example, the old escaping and after hours walking ending up back at the same place approach), they are bound to the property by some reason (financial, emotional), the need for an answer (some element in their past needs resolving), time running out (‘we’ll be picked up in 24 hours), isolation (cut off in a snowstorm in the forest) or that the haunting follows them wherever they go. Often though it is just lazily ignored or brushed over with excessive scepticism – sure the walls were bleeding last night but hey, that stuff doesn’t happen, let’s ignore it. Breakfast anyone?

These reasons for staying and seeing it out came to mind recently when I was reading various twitter threads and articles on the empty lecture halls that many educators are encountering. Not reduced numbers turning up, but absolutely no-one there. The Twitter thread from Peter Olusoga is very thoughtful and gives many possible reasons – fatigue, mental health, lecture capture, etc. It’s a thorny dilemma for universities – students, parents and government say they want face to face lectures, but then nobody is turning up for them. There’s a meta and a micro thing going on here I think – at the meta level everyone seems to agree that universities with lecturers giving lectures is what should be happening and is desirable. But at the day-to-day level students are making micro decisions about attendance – if the lecture capture is good enough, then maybe that commute to the uni, getting out of bed, or giving up extra time is not a worthwhile trade-off. Throw in to the mix that many students have to work or have care and support responsibilities and it seems entirely predictable and understandable not to attend.

It would be interesting to see data on time of lectures and timetabling effects. For instance are 9am lectures more severely affected, and does have a significant gap between two lectures on the same day have an impact? It might be worth going in if you have two lectures back to back. Also are certain disciplines or student demographics more affected? There is a tendency to still think of all students as full time 18-22 year olds with no other commitments, and that simply isn’t the case: Non-traditional students are now the majority.

Higher education is now at the plot device point in the haunted house story, where the essential question is – why stay? Like in fiction, one reason is the financial imperative to do so – just as our newlyweds have sunk their money into this old house and cannot afford to move simply because there is a portal to hell in the basement, so universities have been investing in lecture theatres and new buildings. And as with the ‘can’t escape’ option there is a lot of socio-cultural baggage also that keeps bringing everyone back to the same point. It’s what we know, it’s what people expect, it’s what our infrastructure and financing is built around.

I expect there are multiple responses to this (I’d be wary of anyone suggesting there is one simple answer). It may involve altering the nature of lectures to make attendance more worthwhile, implementing punishments for non-attendance (not a fan of this one), looking at timetabling from this perspective, providing increased support and flexibility for students, making the campus more attractive as a location, implementing hybrid options that swap online and face to face, etc.

Interestingly, as I was writing this list, it occurred to me how similar it was to the sort of responses we need to consider for assessment in the face of AI generated content. And that’s not surprising I guess, we are asking the same sort of questions in both instances – should we keep doing what we’ve been doing? If so, why? How do we adapt practice to recognise the new reality while still providing students with good education? And as with assessment, the options range from hardline retreating to established practice, for instance face to face exams, no lecture capture, insistence on face to face attendance, to more fundamental change, including no assessment or fully online. And there is everything inbetween. What I don’t think is valid is the equivalent of the lazy option in the haunted house, let’s pretend it hasn’t happened and carry on. I’ve read a lot of those books and seen a lot of those films, and I tell you, that never ends well.

A year in horror

No, it’s not a review of the news this year, but rather looking back over what I’ve read over the past 12 months.

I am a horror film fan, but since my late teens I haven’t really read much horror. I’m not sure why, there was probably some genre-snobbery applied to books that I didn’t hold for movies. Maybe I associated it with youth and now I was a Grown Up Adult, I should read literary fiction. And, to be fair to my past self, I wanted to expand reading tastes, understand the appeal (or otherwise) of classics, struggle with some ‘difficult’ books and generally develop those reading muscles. But over the past few years I’ve been much more content to simply read for pleasure, although those years of literature mean I can’t abide any sloppy writing.

So, at the start of 2022, I decided this was the year I would revisit horror. I signed up for Kindle Unlimited, joined the Facebook Books of Horror group, looked through GoodReads recommendations and set off. And what a great year it’s been! I read 108 books, of which 83 were horror, the rest being a mixture of crime and non-fiction. Here are some thoughts and highlights.

Finding your sub-sub-genre and preferences is important. Anything goes in horror, and there are categories such as extreme and splatterpunk which hold no interest for me. There are also many elements I don’t like in books – animal torture, sexual violence, etc. I found that I veered towards haunted house, monster, literary and cozy horror. However, one of the things I’ve appreciated from the Facebook group is that no judgement is passed on another’s taste. It is a broad church, and I think all horror fans have experienced their tastes being derided, so they tend to be very accepting of others.

There is a sub-sub-sub-genre for whatever you want. I went on holiday for a week to the coast and decided to read Lighthouse themed horror. Of course there was a wide range to choose from. Similarly I went on a riff around monsters from the deep, creepy forests and urban myths. People put in VERY specific requests to the Facebook group, and there are always a ton of recommendations.

Lots of men are very bad at writing sex. Oh my God. Maybe they’re deliberately writing for the target audience of 14 year old boys, but I DNFd (Did Not Finish) a few otherwise well written books when it got to sex scenes which you felt were more about the adolescent desires of the author than for the plot. It’s not a guarantee of course, but women tend to be better at writing this, and also, just not bothering to shoehorn it in when not required.

There are lots more women writers than there used to be (although Shirley Jackson was always the absolute pinnacle of horror fiction), but I still found it to be male dominated. You could happily read only women authors though if you wanted, and probably my go-to writer for always reliable quality was Darcy Coates.

There is a thriving, and well supported independent book industry. If you go into your local Waterstones, there may only be half a shelf devoted to horror, of which 80% will be Stephen King and the others will be Vampire love stories. But through groups like the Facebook one and Goodreads, there are very well received and successful horror authors publishing through small independent presses. The influence of reviewers and support from the internet audience creates a completely different perspective than the one you would gain from mainstream retail. This year books like Stolen Tongues, Hex, Hidden Pictures and the Exorcist’s House all benefitted enormously from this word of mouth endorsement.

Here’s ten of my favourites that I read this year:

So, let’s hear for it diving deep into genre fiction and still only touching the surface.

My ten (work-related) highlights of 2022

via GIPHY

Maren has done a Ten Milestones of 22 post, so I thought I’d tag along and think back on my highlights on what was not always an easy year. So in no particular order:

Publishing Metaphors of Ed Tech – I think that of the books I’ve written, this is the most ‘me’. It was great to get it out this year, through Athabasca University Press. It’s obviously brilliantly written and insightful (ahem), but what I like most about it is that I think it’s also playful and kind of fun. Not many books on ed tech meet those criteria.

A new Masters in Online Education from IET – although I didn’t do that much on this, it’s been a long, sometimes screaming into the void sort of journey to get a new Masters launched. So it definitely feels like an achievement for all of us in IET to have it real.

Resourcing the Open Qualifications – I’m the director of the open programme at the OU. This is probably a bit internally focused to mean much, but we had a 6 yearly quality review last year. One of the recommendations was to put in place proper resourcing and support for the programme. Many of you will be aware of how much it takes to negotiate such approvals through university systems, so that we end the year with this now set up is big tick in the To Do list.

GO-GN activity – we kept up a good year of activity with GO-GN including co-chairing OER22, publishing numerous reports and running webinars. Next year marks the 10th anniversary of this penguin themed OER community.

Blogging – I only published 31 blog posts this year, so it definitely took a dip, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve written (it’s quality not quantity, right?). The Good Online Learning series was a useful means to think through some post pandemic criticism of online ed.

The (slight) return of travel and face to face – I only went to two conferences this year (OER22 and I-HE2022). That feels like enough, I have no desire to go back to continual travel, but it was a delight to see people again and engage in some of that face to face stuff.

Establishing home office – in contrast to the above, I also really enjoyed getting my home set up organised. Working from home has now become the default for much of the OU and I no longer feel like the inconvenience joining a meeting remotely, or enjoy the delights of sitting on the M4 for hours at a time.

Podcasts and fun stuff – around the book in particular I got to do some fun promotion, including guesting on a few podcasts and doing a DS106 radio show. This reminded me of the playful stuff we used to do when this blogging lark was all new.

Keynotes and talks – I gave 5 or 6 invited talks this year (all online), and it’s always pleasing to be active outside of your institution. I organised a webinar in conjunction with the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and the OU, where we presented different perspectives on delivering distance learning. Over 800 educators in the Ukraine attended, much to everyone’s surprise and delight.

Getting over a wobble – I had a bit of a crisis this year, which meant I was off work for the first time in years. It was touching to get lots of individual messages from people checking in with me, and the support of colleagues meant I have come back even more annoying than ever.

Of course, I could do a 10 (or more) completely crap things relating to work this year too, but let’s go out of 2022 on a positive note. I hope you can find ten things that brought you pleasure and satisfaction at work this year.

Vinyl of the year

Yes, it’s time for the least anticipated post of the year. I’ve been doing this daily countdown over on Instagram (pity my followers) so here it is all gathered into one self-indulgent post. I’ve gone for a top 15 this year, with the caveat the entries and order would probably change if I did it all again tomorrow. My criteria for inclusion is albums I think I listen to a lot over the next few years. This isn’t always the same as critically interesting albums. So, here goes pop pickers:

No 15 – First Aid Kit: Palomino.
First Aid Kit’s release this year is a good case in point. It doesn’t branch out in any new directions particularly but it is a mature, confident record after a break since Ruins. Every track is a winning, carefully crafted pop folk tune. It is a brilliant First Aid Kit album & sometimes you want an artist to do the thing they are good at and do it really well.

No 14 – Beabadoobee – Beatopia.
Bea Kristi created the imaginary world of Beatopia when she relocated from the Philippines to London as a child & this apparently frames her second album. She’s 22 and it’s interesting for an oldie like me to hear an artist influenced by & reinterpreting the music of their youth (the 00s) which still seems recent to me. I guess this would be classified as grunge pop, but it’s also rich and varied. Pitchfork described it as “simultaneously heavy and light, dense and playful, melodic and dissonant” which sums it up well. It may be a bit too Gen Z for me to get all the references but I love an artist creating a world and sound of their own.

No 13 – Mitski: Laurel Hell.
Big grand pop with lush synths, all overlaid with a darker mood than her previous outings. Some belting tunes on this (the only heartbreaker, working for the knife) as Mitski struggles to answer the question of what do you do when you get what you wanted?

No 12 – Florence + the Machine – Dance Fever.
In which National Treasure Florence Welch returns with a vibrant album. The first 3 tracks are amongst her best, as she reconnects with the feeling of being together again post pandemic. She’s very much a performer but had struggled with touring & the lockdown provided an opportunity to rediscover the pleasure in performing. As such it’s a very celebratory album & a perfect post pandemic mood shaker.

No 11 – The Ezra Collective: Where I’m Meant To Be.
Joyous, life-affirming hip hop infused jazz. Every note is vibrant and full of the love of music. If I was ridiculously rich then the Ezra Collective would be the band I’d pay a ludicrous sum to perform at my birthday party.

No 10 – Beth Orton: Weather Alive.
It was a good year for Ortonites (I made that term up) with the reissue of Central Reservation & Trailer Park, and then in September a new album. This was her first self produced record, and it sees her meditating on motherhood, loneliness & the weather (you can tell she’s moved back to the UK). It’s fragility as a mood scape and probably the best thing she has done since those two folktronica albums.

No 9 – Soccer Mommy: Sometimes Forever
I was a big fan of Soccer Mommy’s (Sophie Allison) last outing, color theory, but this year’s release really developed her sound. There is her trademark indie rock but smeared across it all is a darker, industrial undertone. Sort of My Bloody Valentine meets the Primitives, with some moody synths. It’s great to witness an artist maturing and developing their sound while still retaining their core elements.

No 8 – The Smile: A Light For Attracting Attention
The addition of Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke & Jonny Greenwood is key to the success of this project. It sounds about 2/3rds Radiohead but with enough other influences to be it’s own thing. Like Radiohead but they’re enjoying themselves (which is not to say it’s a light album – it’s angry & moody & funky by turns).

No 7 – Arctic Monkeys: The Car
The Arctics could be releasing the 10 version of Whatever People Say, but they continually try to take their sound in a new direction. This is borne out by searching for rankings of their albums which all disagree with each other.
This year’s release continued the falsetto lounge lizard take Tranquility but with added 70s grime & funk. Can we please be absolutely sure that there’s a mirrorball?

No 6 – Big Thief: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You.
Certainly the winner of oddest album title of the year. I have a few Big Thief/Adrianne Lenker albums & they’re worth a listen, but I find they can get a bit samey. Not so Dragon – it’s their White Album in that they’ve opted for “let’s chuck it all in the mix” approach. There’s the usual indie folk rock, some pop, some disco tunes & even some honky tonk. And they all work to give their best album to date. It’s all surprisingly upbeat and downright boppy in places.

No 5 – Hurray for the Riff Raff: Life on Earth.
They describe their sound in this album as Nature Punk. It’s angry & also hopeful, documenting topics the immigrant experience at the hands of ICE & surviving an abusive relationship. That sounds heavyweight & it is, but they craft the music so carefully that you find yourself bopping along to lines like “We sleep on the floor for 17 days/ We sleep on the floor like a dog”. As if Crass decided to release a pop album. It’s great stuff.

No 4 – Toro y Moi: Mahal
Effortlessly hip, these album glides smoothly from one laid back dance number to the next. Console yourself that no matter how cool you are, you will never be as cool as this album.

No 3 – Julia Jacklin: Pre Pleasure.
Aussie singer songwriter Jacklin’s release this year was full of charm, wit & singable tunes. Not many people can get away with middle-aged lyrics like “Please make sure you have got a little savings/
We have to try to be prepared for things changing” but she makes it work as she dissects the joys of being in love. A delightful album amongst the chaos of 2022.

No 2 – Damien Jurado: Reggae Film Star
We’re deep into “albums Martin liked more than most people” territory here. For Jurado’s 18th album he created a loose concept around faded 70s TV stars. This gives his lyrics a focus but the themes are universal,such as on the heart breaking “Roger”. Little slivers of everyday life that render the whole.

No 1 – The Delines: The Sea Drift.
About 18 years ago I bought Richmond Fontaine’s Post to Wire on a whim. I absolutely loved Willy Vlautin’s literate tales of low-lifes and losers. It remains one of my favourite albums.
After Richmond Fontaine formed the Delines with vocalist Amy Boone, describing themselves as a retro-country band. Their 3rd album continues Vlautin’s narrative style, told with disarmingly simple lyrics full of pathos (I could lie and say I’ll get a thicker skin/I’ve been trying my whole life to get a thicker skin). Boone’s bluesy voice is perfect to render these little slices of Americana.

It turned into a good year, after a slow start I thought. Here is a playlist of these and all the other new release vinyl I bought this year if you fancy a listen:

Give me an M! Give me an A!

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One of the things I have enjoyed working on the most during my 375 year career at the OU, is the Masters in Online and Distance Education (MAODE). I’ve blogged previously about how I was saddened when this was closed down at the OU. Since then we have continued to produce curriculum in IET, most notably very successful microcredentials, under the leadership of my colleague Leigh Anne Perryman.

We have also been working on developing a new Masters in Online Teaching (MAOT). This will comprise of the existing course H880 Technology Enhanced Futures, then 60 points chosen from the array of microcredentials (or a module from the appropriate Education postgrad selection), and then an exciting new module we’re busy writing this year, H890 Research and scholarship in digital education. And today the MAOT was announced and made live so students can now register for it and count modules towards it.

Given the pandemic and the centring of educational technology, lots of people need to develop expertise in this area, and it felt like a real gap for the OU, and IET in particular, to not have a qualification in this space. Well, that gap is now filled. And a jolly exciting gap filling it is too. More info and involvement to come, including new shiny MAOT blog.

25+ Years of Ed Tech: 2022 – AI Generated Content

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Despite the book 25 Years of Ed tech finishing with 2018, I’ve kept it going with one entry for each year since. The criteria for selection was the year I think they became significant, in that people talked about them a lot. And your annual reminder that inclusion does not denote approval (some people struggle with this).

So, AI generated content eh? The year started with fun AI generated images and ended with ChatGPT promising the end for humanity as we know it. This can produce genuinely decent outputs, and so the phase of just dismissing it as inferior is not a valid approach. The obvious potential victim of decent AI generated content is the student essay. All those years we’ve been paying TurnItIn to build up a massive database of student essays really paid off for higher ed, I guess?

I’m not going to review the technology here, but rather what I think it is interesting about it is the questions it makes higher ed ask of itself. That is significant, regardless of whether you’re an AI advocate or rebel. There are several such questions I can think of, but you may have more:

What does assessment look like with easily generated content? This is the main focus for many. The initial reaction from many HEIs will be to clamp down I fear – more in person exams, increased proctoring, death penalties for using AI. And that will solve the problem for a bit, but it doesn’t really get at the issue. What will be more interesting is to acknowledge the existence of such tools and potentially build them into assessment, for example having students generate AI answers to essays and then critique them.

But more significant will be how do we change assessment? This raises the further question, of what is assessment for? It’s interesting to me that current AI tends to produce effective, but slightly bland answers. For decades we have been instructing students to remove their personality from their writing, to be coldly objective. But it transpires this type of writing is something AI can do pretty effectively. What it struggles at is the individuality or personality in writing. Having spent so long carefully extracting aspects of humanity in HE content we may now need to find ways of reinserting it.

Then there is the question of not what form assessment should take, but should we assess at all? The ungrading movement argue that much of it is detrimental to learning anyway. Even if we don’t witness widespread ungrading we may see a move to more authentic tasks and a softening of the high stakes exam (although as noted above we’ll probably see a rise in this initially). We’re now at the stage where AI can generate decent essays and a different AI system can do a respectable job in marking them. The students and lecturers can then retire to the cafe and get on with discussing the interesting stuff.

Then we might ask how can we use it for teaching? If reasonable essays, OERs and teaching content can be produced automatically, why spend ages crafting material? It may be better, but is it the cost of 50 person hours better? As with assessment, the approach may be to generate content and then teach around it, supplementing, explaining and supporting. For example, Mike Sharples has a nice story generator that would make a useful English writing aid by generating stories and then deconstructing them.

There are a whole host of ethical, privacy and sector questions also. What biases are built into these tools? What commercial enterprises will take over aspects of HE as we’ve seen TurnitIn and Proctorio do in places? Is it ethical for students to use these tools? Is it ethical of academia to create situations where doing so is useful?

It’s a messy world, but certainly the output of such systems had a breakthrough moment in attention this year. Shouting “go away!” is probably not a viable reaction now, and so the sector needs to get to work asking and answering the tricky questions. In an odd way, I find it quite positive – the answer to many of the questions seems to be: Be More Human. And that’s no bad thing, surely.

MOOCs and the Upside Down

The OU in London

You will have no doubt seen that the Open University has sold its share in FutureLearn, and found a buyer in Global University Systems. This has followed a few years of difficulties and strategic redirections in the MOOC world generally, but happening a decade on from the year of the MOOC definitely prompts some reflection. MOOCs were going to destroy higher education, remember that?

Others will do more detailed analysis, but here is a small anecdote which I think reflects some of the strange logic that underpinned the whole MOOC saga. Around 2015 (I think) the Open University went through a process of closing many of its regional offices. One of these was based in Camden. At the time FutureLearn were operating in the basement of that building. So when it was ‘closed’ as a regional centre it made financial sense to move the FutureLearn team in (I think there was a lease on the building, I stand corrected if others know better). These two events were sort of separate, the OU was closing regional centres as part of the disastrous regime in place then, and they also had a commitment to build and host FutureLearn. So it was a rational choice to put them in the Camden building I expect.

But the symbolism of that move was difficult to ignore. I visited the FutureLearn offices soon after – it was swankily decorated, buzzing with staff and (I’m still not over it) a fridge full of beer. I have often complained about the biscuit travails at institutions so this stuck in the craw a tad. But more significantly, let’s look at that decision – we moved out staff who supported our students directly, and student fees represent the main source of income to the University. Having sent those staff to work from home (or lost them), we then moved in (often expensive) staff who supported students who generated very little income for the OU (there is a low follow through from FutureLearn study to formal registration).

Only in the upside down world of MOOCs does that decision make any sense. And it is a small example of the wider distorted economic model of MOOCs. In this universities provide free content to another platform, for learners to study for free. The life time of MOOC courses is quite short and after 3 or so presentations they tend to plateau in terms of numbers. This creates a hungry beast – MOOC providers need more and more content to maintain numbers. This soon represents a drain on any university. And with no firm business model (We’re selling certificates! We’re selling data! We’re selling microcredentials! We’re selling vocational pathways!) this becomes unsustainable. This was always obvious from the start but such concerns were dismissed as not understanding the new digital economy grandad. Inevitably that upside down logic has caught up with MOOCs.

I suspect what GUS are buying is the platform. And it’s a very good platform, it was a privilege to see the FutureLearn development team work on this and I learned a lot from them. Mike Caulfield argued long ago that the endgame for MOOCs was to essentially become content providers to higher ed. With many unis struggling to operationalise hybrid learning post-pandemic this might be even more apt. But MOOCs, the door to that alternate universe is closing.

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Analogue micro-rebellions

It was Spotify Wrapped week last week, when those of us who didn’t do the honourable thing and decamp to Tidal following the Joe Rogan fiasco, had some data on our listening habits summarised in a nicely shareable format. It’s kind of fun of course, but it was interesting to look at mine as it was largely unrepresentative. I buy vinyl, so most of my music listening is in that format. It seems I mainly use Spotify to listen to Songs:Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co (top 1% of listeners worldwide folks), when I’m driving on my own or feeling a bit sad.

I buy my vinyl in a physical record shop (Spillers!) so even that purchasing activity is largely hidden from the algorithms. As this piece argues, Spotify are selling surveillance as fun, so it feels like a micro rebellion to dodge the accuracy of the algorithm. Of course, in reality I am spending hundreds of pounds to stick it to the man but slightly messing with the data for an algorithm I don’t need to sign up for in the first place. But it’s an example of why we should remember that more important algorithms (eg ones that determine credit scores, immigration status, benefits, job applications, etc) only report part of the picture and huge chunks which could be relevant may be missing.

There is a whole movement of living off the grid, but even without taking such extreme measures, it seems that young people are more aware of privacy and surveillance that is often assumed. So let’s hear it for the occasional analogue micro-rebellion. I’ve even taken to wearing my automatic wristwatch and shelved the Apple watch for now. But yes, I’ve got an iPhone in my pocket at all times. Let’s not go overboard, eh?

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