Academicing with depression

D and Me

I’m going to blog some thoughts on being an academic with mild depression – I have no framing if that constitutes a big revelation or a ‘whateva’ moment, but thought I’d write it anyway. I say mild, I know it’s not a competition, and I know people who have really severe, debilitating illness far worse than mine. While I don’t suffer from bipolar or to anywhere near the same degree as Carrie Fisher, I can relate to her statement that “Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like weather—independently of whatever’s going on in your life.” While a bout can be caused by some (often trivial) trigger, it is soon not about that trigger, but rather an all pervasive degradation of mood, energy, focus. Luckily for me this period is rarely longer than a day or so, not prolonged, but could be deep when it came, and increasingly frequent.

Mine has always come and gone, I had been a pretty depressed teenager (but back then it was diagnosed as “being a miserable shit”), and while I’m of a melancholic disposition (I have the Joy Division & Smiths albums as evidence), I had mostly been ok through most of my adult life. In quick succession though I experienced divorce, combined with predictable mid-life crisis, living through Brexit crisis and then OU crisis, which led to a serious slump. I figured this was a reasonable, almost inevitable reaction.

But it persisted after the cause had faded and with increasing frequency and depth. I’m no expert but Yuval Noah Harari’s analogy in Sapiens resonated with me – we all have an internal air conditioning system (based on serotonin levels). For some people it ranges from 7 to 10, while others are set lower, say 4 to 6. This was what it felt like for me, if my normal range was, say, 5 to 8, it had now been recalibrated to 3 to 6. Then a couple of years ago it culminated when I found myself crying in Amsterdam Schiphol airport for no reason (although on reflection that may in fact be a perfectly reasonable reaction to Schiphol), and decided I should do something about it. I went onto some low dosage Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors. I appreciate that antidepressants are a contentious issue, but they worked for me. It felt like times when I might have previously gone into a spiral, my mood dipped down, bumped along the surface of that pit and then carried on.

But they made me kinda lethargic too, so I came off them at the start of this year. I felt my internal air conditioning levels had been reset. By the way, coming off them gives some trippy brain zaps for about a week. And mostly that’s been good, but I had a dip a few weeks ago, as if to just remind me “hey, I’m still here.”

Not so famous five

I believe that it’s different for everyone, and a lot will depend on individual circumstances, so this is no ‘how to’ guide. I deliberately haven’t made myself an expert in depression, so it’s just some tales from a sample of N=1. Here then are five thoughts on being an academic with this occasional problem.

I found that some of the bad stuff is also good – for example, the much talked about work-life balance, with people working at weekends being a contributory factor. That was true, I really needed to force myself to switch off. However, I have a pretty strong Protestant Work Ethic thing going on, so I feel guilty if I haven’t done the work I should do, particularly if that is a result of having a slow day due to depression. So sometimes, fitting in 3 hours on a Saturday morning clearing some tasks was a real benefit and alleviated rather than contributed to slump. It also made ‘having a slow day’ more bearable as I knew I could catch up, so I could afford to indulge it for a day often.

Now, let’s talk dogs, I had always loved dogs, but I didn’t appreciate how much of a boon they were. Seriously, dogs should be available on the NHS. The unconditional love is a much needed boost, but also, as a home worker, having a dog means I have to get out every day. With Teilo, my current dog, this is about 5 miles a day. The amount of times I have been heading for a slump, taken him out in the forest (often listening to a good audiobook) and by the time I come back, it has all shifted. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that my previous dog, Bruno, saved my life. But a dog is a commitment, so I would ask indulgence from work colleagues when I sometimes have to arrange things around my dog (I don’t like going away for more than a week for instance). I can see them thinking sometimes “it’s not a child, it’s only a dog for Chrissakes”. But it isn’t, he is doing so much more work than that, he’s putting in the hours.

Immersion in a self-enclosed, separate world was also hugely significant for me. In my case it was sports, and specifically, ice-hockey. I had an interest before then, but I really indulged it as antidote – getting a season ticket, travelling to away games, going on holidays based around it. I could make a case for why ice hockey in particular is the ideal choice, but in reality it doesn’t matter what it is – painting, music, ultra-running, volunteering – it just needs to have two components: to be entirely absorbing so you are focused solely on that enterprise; to be independent, hermetically sealed, so it stands separate from everything else. Sport is ideal at meeting these requirements – it is of course entirely trivial and pointless in the grand scheme of things, but yet if you are into it, then it is your sole focus for that duration and it allows for endless discussion, debate, and conjecture. It is also free from any connection to work or regular concerns – the people we have made friends with at hockey really don’t care about the venture capital ambitions of MOOC companies. And that’s fab.

Social media is another of those good/bad dualities. It’s been an enormous benefit to sometimes just pass an evening chatting to people online, and to have such a thoughtful, interesting network of people to make you see the best of life. But at the same time, you can start your day and have seen 50 things that make you outraged before breakfast, to which you are mentally composing responses and sustained imaginary arguments. That is a tough vale to climb out from for the rest of the day. So I have started to use with care, and sometimes mute people who are only angry, even if they are justifiably so, and I agree with them.

I’ve mentioned the drugs, and that is always a personal choice, but what going to the doctor (who was super understanding, thank you NHS GP), signified was a recognition to be proactive. Being British, male and of a certain age is a triple whammy of emotional repression, so doing something rather than ‘just getting on with it’, was a big deal. I felt better immediately after taking the first pill, and that isn’t really how they work biologically, so I know it was a psychological effect. Simply acknowledging that something could be done was in itself a cure, I’m not sure it mattered really what that thing was. Similarly, I informed a couple of line managers (who again were very supportive), and that act in itself was therapeutic. I never had to claim time off from depression (see the benefits of flexible working above, which I acknowledge is a huge privilege and many people don’t have the kind of work that allows that), but it was comforting to know that if I did, it wasn’t coming from nowhere.

All this offers no big insight I’m afraid, but for me that combination of making flexible work adapt to my advantage, having a dog, immersion into a separate world, judicious use of social media and the positive action of getting medication was an effective, if not foolproof, combatant. Mainly the dog though.

PS – I appreciate and understand that people can be sensitive about this, so just to clarify, don’t take the breezy tone of this piece to be an indication that either a) it isn’t a shitfest when it hits or b) I don’t take it seriously. It’s just how I choose to write about it.

Open as in choice


(Made with Bryan’s lovely remixer)

I’ve recently taken on a new role at the Open University, as the Chair of the Open Board of Studies. This means I’ve got responsibility for our Open Degree. When the OU was founded you could only get a BA(Open) – there were no named degrees. This was an explicit attempt by the OU’s founders to make an OU degree different not just in mode of study but in substance. Students constructed their own degree profiles, meaning our modules were truly modular, you could pick and mix as you saw fit. My colleagues Helen Cooke, Andy Lane and Peter Taylor give an excellent overview of the history, philosophy and approach of the open degree in this paper. The OU’s first VC put it like this:

a student is the best judge of what [s]he wishes to learn and that [s]he should be given the maximum freedom of choice consistent with a coherent overall pattern. They hold that this is doubly true when one is dealing with adults who, after years of experience of life, ought to be in a better position to judge what precise studies they wish to undertake

Sure, most universities offer options and electives, but a truly flexible, open choice is very rare. Specialism is of course, a desirable mode of study in many areas. But the reasoning behind the original open choice was that the changes in society and work places in the 70s meant that a wide ranging degree was suitable for many vocations. If that was true at the founding of the OU, then it is doubly so now. While we should be sceptical of the “preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet” claims, it’s fair to say that flexibility and breadth of understanding will be useful attributes in an evolving, digital economy. Let’s take my own area (field/discipline/rag tag bundle of vaguely connected ideas) of educational technology. You can create a degree programme that covers much of what you want, but actually it’s a varied domain, and half of the work involves having an understanding or appreciation of the demands of different subject areas. So a degree that has rich, and unpredictable, variety in it might well be exactly what you want for an educational technologist. And that is increasingly true for roles that evolve around tech, but are not necessarily TECH.

It is often claimed that in order to solve the complex, ‘wicked’ problems that the world faces, such as sustainability, climate change, social inclusion, then interdisciplinary thinking is required. But our degree profiles continue to prioritise narrow specialisms instead of encouraging students to develop knowledge and skills across a range of topics. This gives them empathy with other viewpoints and a broader toolkit of conceptual models.

Perhaps more significantly than the employment argument though is that constructing your own degree profile and taking responsibility for your pathway gives agency to learners. George Veletsianos asks “in education, what can be made more flexible?”, to which I would respond the whole degree structure.

Coming to this from a broader open education perspective, I see the work of OER, open textbooks, open access and MOOCs as laying the necessary groundwork for a wave of more interesting exploration around what open approaches offer. Open pedagogy and Open educational practice are examples of this. I would argue that although it is already 50 years old, the truly open choice of the OU is another one and it’s time has come round again.

Attack of the Learning Engineers

A term I’ve seen on the increase is that of “Learning Engineer”. Job descriptions using it seem to be pretty similar to a learning technologist, so maybe it’s just this year’s label. Saxberg asks “where are the learning engineers? The sad truth is, we don’t have an equivalent corps of professionals who are applying learning science at our colleges, schools, and other institutions of learning.” I get his point, what is the point of doing all this research into education if we just shrug our shoulders and go “it’s complicated.”

However, like others I have discomfort about the term. I was part of the ‘learning design’ field in the 00s, and I felt that ‘design’ captured some of the complexity around learning. Design is both a precise, technical approach but also a creative, artistic endeavour. This reflects the messiness of education, through which an educator is trying to devise an effective path for a learner.

Learning engineer has different connotations. It is in some respects an attractive term – who wouldn’t want to perfectly construct learning like a bridge from ignorance to knowledge as you reliably engineer a bridge across a river? This is not just about semantics however, but surfaces fundamental beliefs about education. For some it is a precise science, where education can be reliably and repeatedly constructed in the same manner for everyone. For others it is complex field where different approaches have desirable outcomes for some learners but not others and one that is continually negotiated. This dichotomy represents the manner in which education will be shaped in an AI/Data/Networked world. If the engineer perspective dominates (whether it is true or not is not that relevant, it’s whether the narrative becomes dominant), then education is something that can be reliably captured in algorithms. If the design perspective dominates then technology works in service to the human educator who seeks to adapt and modify educational experiences.

So, not to be overly dramatic (but yes, I am going to be overly dramatic), learning engineer vs learning designer represents the battleground for the soul of education. Choose wisely.

25 Years of EdTech book – website suggestions?

via GIPHY

As you may know, I turned my 25 Years of Ed Tech blog series into a book manuscript over the winter. This is my 5th book (does that make me ‘a writer’ now?), and like the previous two I wanted it to be published open access. Athabasca University Press were an open access publisher I had long admired but not worked with before, so I sent the manuscript to them. AUP work slightly differently in that it is not a book idea they are commissioning but rather publishing a completed manuscript – it’s akin to journal article publishing. The manuscript was sent out for review, and bar some minor amendments, has been accepted for publication! The two reviews were anonymous, but were very diligent and useful, so my thanks to whoever they were. Also thanks to George Veletsianos and Connor Houlihan for allowing a non-maple syrup drinker onto their turf.

AUP is open access, so the book will be CC licensed, the digital version freely available. I’m not quite sure when the publication date will be, we’re just finalising the process. I intend to create a website to accompany the book, and on this I’d appreciate any thoughts. I’ll host it here on Reclaim, and I expect it’ll be a plain WP site. Bear in mind, that it’ll be me doing it with very limited tech skills and zero design aesthetic. I’ve thought of a timeline, an annotatable version and maybe a wiki timeline version to allow alternative suggestions for each of the years. But I’d appreciate any thoughts on things that might be useful or interesting? Or WP themes, plug-ins, “Site under construction” gifs… that sort of thing. I found Anne-Marie’s advice on setting up a WP site very helpful.

A core of immutability

Hay Festival sign

As part of the OU’s 50th anniversary celebrations, they have a slot at the Hay Festival, and I’ve been invited to be part of the panel.

Sorry, I tried to play that cool, but as a book nerd – I’m speaking at the freakin’ Hay Festival people!

Anyway, the premise of the panel is what will education look like in 50 years time? That’s a ridiculous notion in a way, but it does allow us to talk about how things might change. I’m bringing the ed tech angle along with my colleague Eileen Scanlon, but I’m glad the Welsh Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams, will be there also, as policy shapes this as much as technology (if not more).

It is a challenge to think about, because although I’m fairly sceptical about the claims of ed tech revolutionaries, it would be foolish to assume we won’t see some major changes in that time. Having just completed a look back over 25 years, I’m well aware of how much technology has influenced education, for good and bad. But I will preface any conjectures I make about future visions with the point I made in a post on the future of education, which is that in HE especially it is true that nothing much changes while simultaneously radical change occurs.

As it’s the Hay Festival there is a good analogy with reading to be drawn I think. If you were to look at reading 50 years ago and today, on the surface, nothing much has changed. It’s still someone (often) reading a paper book, in quiet solitude. And yet, it doesn’t take much examination to appreciate just how wholly different is the context within which that reading occurs. In terms of technology (audiobooks, ebooks), retail (Amazon, online, open books), publishing (self publishing, crowd funding), writing (use of blogs, fan fiction, online research) and dissemination (authors using social media, online accompanying material). The business of books and the society within which books exist is almost unrecognisable from 50 years ago.

So how to reconcile these two elements of seeming resistance to change and yet large scale innovation? I would suggest that both books and education have what we might call a ‘core of immutability’, that is some (perhaps indefinable) aspect at their core which does not alter. Indeed, this essence is part of the reason we hold them in high social value, they echo back through history, and evoke generally positive emotions. I can’t quite say what that core is, for both of them it is something around the individual focus on task that is conducted largely in the mind – the indulgence in what is essentially a cognitive art form. They are both fundamentally human – maybe AI can write decent books in the future, and maybe it can provide a reasonable level of support, but they could never quite capture that human element that is part of their appeal (or if they could, then the AI would be indistinguishable from a sentient being anyway).

Recognising, cherishing and protecting this core of immutability then allows us to engage in technological experimentation around it, without threatening to remove the essence that makes it valuable. That’s my pitch anyway.

By the way, did I mention I was speaking at Hay?

Connectivism and scale

via GIPHY

In his recent post criticising the Creative Commons Certificate, which I won’t comment on, Stephen Downes repeats a claim he has made before about the scalability of the connectivist approach, stating:

One of the major objectives of our original MOOCs was to enable MOOC participants to create interaction and facilitation for each other. This is because there is no system in the world where a 1:30 instructor:student ratio will scale to provide open and equitable access.

In my view, this model worked very well.

I’ll preface what I’m going to say with stating that I’m a big fan of connectivism for two reasons: it is an example of educators thinking about how learning can be undertaken differently in a networked world, and I feel that all learners should experience different modes of learning during their degree or life. I’ve given Masters level students experience of connectivist courses, and some loved them, and others detested them. That’s fine, it makes you reflect on your own way of learning.

But I’m uncomfortable with this over-reaching of connectivism. Open universities across the world have been operating large scale, open, equitable learning for decades. As I’ve bored you all with on many occasions, I chaired a course with 12,000 online students (many more than the CCK courses). We operated a model with around 600 part-time tutors on a ratio of around 1:20. Students had access to student forums which were replicated so as not to overcrowd (this was in 1999 before social media), and tutors had access to a forum where they could raise questions. There were then Super Tutors who moderated these and raised questions up to the module team. It was hard work, but to quote Downes, in my view this model worked very well.

As I’ve mentioned before though, support is not cheap, at the time the Government paid most of the student fee with a small contribution from students. It was open, in that it was level 1 with no entry requirements, but someone definitely paid. So perhaps what Downes means is connectivism is the only way to realise cheap, or free, large scale learning. That is a very different claim.

If connectivism is to be as broadly applicable across domains and levels as its advocates seem to want, then support needs to arise from somewhere. Most of the successful learners in the cMOOCs were already experienced learners. But for a level 1 undergrad, open entry course, this is palpably not the case. It seems to me to underestimate the value of support to assume this could all be accommodated by other learners. The sort of support required for new, often unsure learners requires experience and expertise, and to suggest the network will accomplish this diminishes the value of the knowledge in my view.

There is also a danger that in devolving support to the network we place a labour cost on the learners. I agree that getting students to teach each other is a very valuable and effective pedagogy. But for many learners their issues are not with content (even when they appear to be), but with confidence, identity and other skills. A person experienced in the support role can identify this. This is often in conjunction with the support a student receives through peer to peer routes such as student forums and social media. They’re not exclusive, but complementary. But to require other learners to take on all of that burden is to potentially create a lot of hidden labour. Someone still pays, but we just don’t see it.

Downes criticises the CC Course for charging $500 (and I think he has some good points, for example around the Fellowships model), but at least that is an explicit, if you like, honest, charge. We know what it is and it is visible. Establishing a model that relies on hidden costs is not necessarily a solution.

So, yes I think connectivism has a lot to say about ways of learning, and definitely offers an alternative model to scale. But to suggest that it is the only (or even the best) way to realise large scale online learning is simply wrong.

Liminal spaces, folklore and networks

At OER19 Kate Bowles’s keynote set me thinking, as she always does. She made the point that if we value things we should recognise them, so for example valuing ethical behaviour by institutions is encouraged by tables such as the Times Higher’s recent one linked to sustainable development goals. This chimed with recent thoughts on the invisibility of certain forms of academic labour. We don’t value much of the work that is done in social media, ephemeral spaces, networks, etc because we don’t recognise it in the same way as, say, books and articles.

Straight after Kate’s talk was a session by David White in which he was encouraging us to consider what would be the drivers to get people to adopt open methods of practice. And one such driver would of course, be to count them, in the way we count everything else (TEF, REF, h-index, etc).

And this leads to a dilemma. In a distinctly neo-liberal (I know, I went there) environment, if you want the sort of labour that many people do (often women, or people on precarious contracts or early career researchers) then you have to surface it and make it count. It would be nice if we could trust HEIs not to exploit hidden labour, but we can’t. But, we also know how that ‘counting’ gets used to create the anxiety and pressure in the system, and that just reinforces the whole game.

It would also pretty much kill the whole point and appeal of alternative outputs for academics. Imagine if producing X number of blog posts, acquiring a certain number of Twitter followers or achieving a requisite number of views were linked explicitly to promotion, or financial reward. It would be a gamified mess that makes the citation chasing metrics seem positively dignified. And as nearly always turns out to be the case, any formalisation of the system would benefit existing power structures, and not the people we might hope it would.

Talking to Dave after his session, he mentioned the notion of liminality as a way of thinking about this. Blogs and social media are a liminal space – that is a space that is inbetween others, a threshold. Stairwells, hallways are examples in architecture. Liminality is often concerned with transition – moving from one state to another, eg this paper suggests blogs are a means of student teachers moving to becoming experienced teachers.

In mythology however, liminal spaces aren’t necessarily about an individual becoming something else, that is there is no desired end state after the transition. Instead they are revered as spaces that operate at the threshold of worlds – the betweeness itself is valued. For instance, in the Welsh folktale of the Mabinogion, liminal spaces are those that connect to the otherworld. In the First Branch Pwyll sits on a mound that “whosoever sits upon it cannot go thence, without either receiving wounds or blows, or else seeing a wonder.” He sees, and meets the mythical Rhiannon who will become his wife as a result.

So my vague combination of all these things is that rather than surrender online networks to the machine – but while still recognising that they require real labour to be made effective – we seek to establish ‘liminal spaces’ within our institutions and work loads. That is, there is work which is recognised as valuable (as the mound is prized), but that we do not require to excavate it and examine it too closely. How this works exactly I remain unsure, many universities still have some notion of ‘research time’ so perhaps it is about allowing this work to be recognised as a valuable component of that, without then micro-managing it. But I concede it’s a dangerous game, sometimes the transitions in liminal spaces are not always welcome ones after all.

GO-GN, UK OpenTextbooks and OER19

[Repost from the ALT blog]

In this post I am going to attempt to weave together three aspects: the UK Open Textbooks Project, the GO-GN network and the evolving nature of the OER conference. This year, we sponsored the OET19 project through the UK Open Textbooks project. This project investigated whether the successful North American model of open textbook adoption would transfer to the UK. We partnered with OpenStax and the Open Textbook Network, who provided different models of textbook adoption.

We have a fabulous shiny report on the project coming out next week, so look out for it on the website and twitter. The conclusion, was ‘sorta’. I was surprised by the interest in open textbooks in the UK FE/HE sector, but cost was less of a driving factor. It’s often been my experience that OER conferences in N. America are too focused on open textbooks, but it may be that the UK OER conference doesn’t give them enough coverage. They are sometimes portrayed as the boring aspect of open education, who wants a textbook when you can do so many other things? But the interest they generated in our study was not so much related to them being free but the pedagogic possibilities they opened up. Whilst it is true that content is not everything, that doesn’t mean it’s nothing, and the creative use of open textbooks is an area ripe for development in the UK.

The Global OER Graduate Network (GO-GN) is a project the OER Hub team at the OU have been running for several years. It is a network of doctoral researchers in the broad field of OER. Every year we bring about 12-15 of them together for an intensive two-day seminar. The focus here is on developing their research, and giving them a chance to network with other researchers from around the world. In an emerging field such as OER a researcher may be the only one in their institution looking at open education, and so the connection to a network like GO-GN has proven invaluable. We usually coincide this seminar with the OEGlobal conference, but with their move to a November slot we decided to link it up with OER19. This was particularly apt as one of the co-chairs, Catherine Cronin, is a GO-GN alumnus.

Although the GO-GN started with a focus very specifically on OER, it has evolved over time to include more aspects of open pedagogy and open educational practice. All of the researchers presented over the two-day seminar and the range of topics was diverse and rich. In this the GO-GN reflects the evolution of the OER conference itself, from one focused very deliberately on the development and implementation of OER, to one concerned with a wide range of issues which open education and resources have an influence upon.

The GO-GN researchers past and present were well represented throughout the OER19 programme, with over 30 presentations, which is evidence of this mutual development in areas of interest.

All of the GO-GN participants came away from Galway enthused (if a little tired), and with renewed vigour for their research. For the OER Hub team, this marks the end of one phase of GO-GN and with the next phase we hope to develop some of these ideas further.

This leaves me somewhat conflicted as my first takeaway was ‘don’t underestimate the importance of resources’ and my second one was ‘the evolution away from a resource-centric focus in OER is to be applauded’. Perhaps the way to reconcile these is to argue that in the past the ‘R’ in OER has stood taller, and we are now looking at a rebalance of attention across all three aspects of OER.

50 years of IET

At the OU I work in The Institute of Educational Technology (IET). This year the OU is celebrating it’s 50th, and thanks to some excellent historical research from my colleagues Lesley McGrath and Patrick McAndrew, we think we have a date for when the first proposal for IET went forward too. Apparently it was fashionable not to put a date on documents back in 1969 (thanks past people!), but Lesley proposes the following dates:

June 1969 – establishment of An Applied Educational Sciences Unit
Mar 1970 Proposal for this to become IET
Jul 1970 approval of IET staffing and costs

The role of IET is explained in this 1973 clip. Then there is a fabulous 1976 video here of David Hawkridge detailing what IET did back in those early days.

So, June this year can be said to be the 50th for IET in some respects. It was an important step, because educational technology didn’t really exist much before then. There were lecture halls, and research on the efficacy of labs maybe but in the face to face model which pretty much had a monopoly in higher ed, what was the need for educational technology research? But the OU of course needed to evaluate how different approaches worked, and what technology worked effectively at a distance. So, if you were feeling generous, you could sort of say they invented ed tech (or at least gave it prominence and legitimacy). Yes, it’s all our fault. Anyway, I was asked by those nice people at Wonkhe to write a piece on this, in my unofficial role as “Old Man of OU Ed Tech”.

(In a more official role, VC Mary Kellet also has an excellent piece on 50 years of the OU)

The great support mystery

This is sort of a companion post to a previous one on recognising different types of labour, particularly work associated with women. I enjoyed this article in Wonkhe from Cath Brown, the President of the Open University Students Association. She talks about the difficulties of supporting distance ed students, but also the importance of this support, stating ‘A feeling of being supported – that someone out there knows about you and your studies as an individual, will look out for you, and share your highs and lows – can make a real difference’.

But, as I’ve commented on here previously, support for distance (which in most models translates to ‘online’) students is rarely something that garners interest, headlines or investment. Indeed, given how valuable we know it is, the concentration of effort seems to be on finding ways to remove it. MOOCs, AI, learning analytics, automated assessment – these are often framed in terms of scaling up online learning by removing the need for human support. This is taken as a given to the extent that people don’t often question it. So, let’s question it – why is human support in online education undervalued and deemed replaceable? I propose it is a result of the following four reasons:

1) It’s costly. Much of the motivation for new models of education is couched in terms of the cost of higher education. This is particularly prevalent when students themselves bear the cost through student loans. Then it is framed in terms of a return on investment or democratising education. Someone has to pay for education, that is true, but these questions are rarely asked in countries that view higher education as a civic mission, for example Germany. Seeking a technological solution to the question of cost is missing the more fundamental issue as to how a society funds higher education. If the Bill Gates, Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos of the world turned their resources to adequately funding higher education, then the view might be different.

2) It’s messy. Technological solutions that remove the need for human support are, well, neater. People have problems, illness, dips in performance, and so on. Algorithms don’t. But beyond this trite comparison there is something deeper in our psyche maybe, which is a desire for a clean, definite solution instead of acknowledging an ongoing vagueness. Despite all our study and research, education remains a slippery beast. We sort of know what works, but not always, not for everyone, not every time. And that just grates against our desire for a clear resolution, like a Scooby mystery that doesn’t have an unmasking. By seeking to formalise the support element through technology, this becomes a more controlled aspect.

3) It’s undervalued. A tautology, but part of the reason the support role is undervalued is because it’s undervalued. The significance of support in education is not realised often, partly because it’s messy as we’ve seen but also because it can be hidden. So because it’s not seen, its value is underplayed, which allows other components in the educational offering (content, assessment) to be seen as central. That’s not to say they’re not important, but as we proposed in our OOFAT model, content, recognition and delivery (which equates with support in this sense) are all equally significant. And if it seen as less important then it receives less attention, and thus can be replaced, in a way we would not consider for the other components.

4) It’s not technological. I’ve been reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and she makes a point we all know, that men tend to seek technological solutions to problems. Her example of clean stoves in developing nations is telling – the mostly male developers kept trying to ‘fix’ (educate) the women who weren’t using them. But when they actually paid attention to how they were being used they found that the new stoves couldn’t accommodate the logs women were using, and as chopping logs fell to them also, they didn’t want to take on extra work in their busy schedules. This is relevant in two respects. First, support is probably perceived as being a more female role. This is not necessarily true, there is nothing innate between sexes to make a difference, but it is about perceptions and investors and education innovators probably perceive of support as ‘soft’, ‘caring’, ‘nurturing’ – all aspects they would associate with women. This automatically gives a bias (see being undervalued) in a male dominated industry. Second, like the stove designers the technologists don’t talk to educators, but rather they want to develop a technological fix to the problem.

All of which is not to set up technology and support in opposition. Ed tech can help support be more effective, for instance, attendance at OU online tutorials is around 50% more than face to face. Learning analytics can be an additional useful tool to help tutors know when to intervene. Social media provides meaningful support networks for many learners. And so on. But all these examples start from a premise of valuing and recognising support. So, let’s be those pesky kids and stop those venture capitalist ed tech evangelists from getting away with it.

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