“Good central location”

Map

This is my fourth role in a central department and every single one has been an experience. I don’t consider myself an expert and I’m still trying to ‘do it right’. So I thought I’d write down some tips for developing a successful working relationship.

A bit of context

I am the manager of the Extended Classroom Support team which is in the Academic Technology department which is a dept. in IT Services. My team supports the use of teaching and learning (T&L) technologies in our Extended Classroom suite, Moodle, Mahara etc. for all staff and students within the University. We do 1st and 2nd line support, training, guidance and consultancy. We work closely with our colleagues in the technical team who are responsible for the technical support, maintenance and updates for our technologies and others. I am as central as you can get.

Within departments we have Academic Technologists who are employed by the dept. to support their use of T&L technologies and are completely independent to us. We call them Super Users as they have heightened responsibilities and access to the technologies we provide. Although we group them as Super Users they are all very different in the level of responsibility they have, their goals and objectives, knowledge and experience. Some call this organisation ‘hub and spoke’ and to some extent I suppose it is.  We try to strike a tricky balance of not stepping on their toes but being there when they want us. 

For me, this is the largest ‘hub and spoke’ set up that I have been a part of. At my previous institution there was only one other dept. who had their own Academic Technologist equivalents. We also used a different VLE in which developments are limited/non-existent. At Warwick we use Moodle, which gives the impression of flexibility and easy customisation. What it doesn’t say in the marketing materials is there are huge sacrifices to be made if you want flexibility and customisation. This results in a lot of requests that we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t fulfill. At my previous institution, the VLE was what it was and you worked with it. The VLE is still relatively new here too, only 6 years old, so every dept. is at different levels of use/depth. This means we have a broad spectrum of users to support.

Participate in the community

The Warwick campus is spread out and it’s not the kind of place where you just bump in to one another. Since I began this role I’ve wanted to develop our community of Super Users so that they have a space to share knowledge and experience with one another. We organise events and have an online community space in Moodle with forums for discussions and knowledge sharing. A community only works if people participate in it.

Work in partnership

Many see central depts. existing solely to serve. That is a very reductive mindset. Yes, we provide a set of services but we can do much more than that. If you can see us as more than the people you go to when you have a job you can’t or don’t want to do, then we can start to actually work together. If you see our relationship solely as transactions then we’re not working together we’re working for you. Little of value will be achieved through this.

Understanding

We need to understand one another. We do a lot to try to understand depts. so underestimating how we work, our constraints and our challenges will help to build a relationship. 

Transparency

One complaint I hear is “we don’t know what’s going on”. Rest assured, if we had something to tell you, we’d tell you. However, I have been endeavoring to make our thought processes, procedures and plans more transparent. If we share something with you, please read it. If you know something is coming, tell us. 

Everyone has priorities, they may not match yours

This is the most difficult challenge of a central department, balancing the priorities of multiple stakeholders. Each stakeholder I work with thinks theirs is the most important. When you’re looking after 30+ depts. you have at least 30+ priorities to balance, add to that your own priorities and the priorities of the institution, and you end up with more priorities than you can ever take in to account. A clearly considered rationale behind requests will help us prioritise effectively. However, that doesn’t mean yours will always be top of the queue!

Patience

We can’t do everything we’re asked. There are only so many hours in the day. We’re trying to do the work we know we need to do, the work you want us to do and the work we didn’t know was coming. You may be frustrated with our pace but we’re doing the best we can.

Shouting the loudest

Linked to the above and partnership, if you’re not happy with the pace, shouting louder won’t help. There are reasons, whether you think them legitimate or not, behind everything. Shouting louder, rallying and calling us out in public won’t make anything happen any quicker and it doesn’t engender collegiality.

Work WITH us

If we can’t meet your needs then help us advocate for more provision, time or resource. Support is more effective than complaints. We need voices to back up our arguments. Help us do something about it.

Power plays

I’ve seen this a lot. Person A isn’t getting what they want so finds person B who is higher up in the dept. Person A asks person B to email person C, who’s higher up the dept. they’ve been dealing with, to add pressure/hope for a better answer. Often, this escalates until high enough people, who often have no idea what they’re asking for, apply enough pressure. It’s not helpful and actually ends up being incredibly disruptive. It’s a ploy used to shame and pressure people in to doing things. It’s not collegiate, it doesn’t encourage trust and it certainly doesn’t make you popular.

Control

Like you, we work and rely on other teams to do what we do. They suffer the same pressures as we do. I can’t tell them what to do and when. All I can do is present an argument. They have their own priorities and work to do. We work in partnership and have (I hope) developed a balance between give and take. 

Feedback is welcome

Let me caveat that, constructive feedback is welcome. If you don’t tell us, we can’t improve.

Have a little faith

Honestly, we are doing our best. We’re not twiddling our thumbs. We’re working to improve things, we just can’t do it all at once.

Share the love…

Reconciling VLE Minimum Standards

Judges Gavel

I am torn by VLE standards. On the one hand, I see their purpose and utility and on the other, I see a tool of management implemented primarily for the purpose of compliance. It is with this in mind that I titled this post ‘Reconciling VLE Minimum Standards’. Yesterday, I took part in a UCISA Digital Education Group webinar discussion on VLE Minimum Standards. An hour is not enough time to discuss the complexities of this subject, so this post is an attempt to answer the questions we didn’t get time to cover and to reconcile my internal conflict.

A recording of the webinar VLE Minimum Standards – Lessons from the Sector and Padlet containing the questions and resources are available.

For context, the University of Warwick does not have a VLE minimum standard. It is the direction we are moving in but are yet to begin. Our VLE is still young, having been in ‘pilot’ around five years ago. We’re at a stage now where its importance is recognised by the ‘University’ and an appetite is growing for increased consistency. The answers to the questions below are based on my experience of implementing minimum standards at my previous institution.

How do you monitor and measure compliance with the standard? Are there any automated ways of doing this? What, if any are the consequences or sanctions for non-compliance? What flexibility do your standards offer?

Monitoring – We took a sample across the faculties.

Automation – Can data gained through automaton be meaningful? We can automatically trawl the database and say module x contains a forum, x number of files, a quiz etc. But what can’t be measured through automated means is whether those things were meaningful or successful. Is having a forum with nothing in it enough to pass the standard? Often, it is. But that’s a tick box measure, not something that will change practice. There are too many variables, too much context and too much open to interpretation to automatically to measure whether a module page has met the standard.

Consequences – We thought it best to allow each department to decide how they enforced the standards. It was their decision to determine what the consequences would be for non-compliance. We wanted to position ourselves as a source of support, as the carrot, not the stick.

Flexibility – We used lots of phrases such as “as appropriate” and “where necessary” to enable staff to apply only what was relevant to their teaching context. There were standards that were not optional that were applicable to the institution regardless of context.

How have you evaluated the impact of the standards?

This is where standards fall down. What is the measure of success? What is the desired impact? This needs to be clear early. Is impact to be measured by looking at the measures of student satisfaction? Is 80% of the modules meet the standard success? We hadn’t got that far and I’m not sure we really had this clear either. Sadly, standards are often something we have to do so thinking about this stuff can become a lower priority than delivering a standard.

How have your standards evolved over time? What would you change about them now?

I think minimum VLE standards have to be part of a wider holistic approach to improving the student experience. All VLE standards do is improve one small aspect of the experience. The VLE is a small part of a big picture, if you’re clinging on to the hope that improving the VLE will fix the student experience, I fear you’ll be disappointed. I like this description from Reed and Watmough.

If these are truly hygiene factors in Herzberg’s use of the word, they will not necessarily make students’ HE experience completely satisfactory; rather, they will reduce the likelihood students will be dissatisfied in a preventative sense. These factors could be present but other aspects central (or intrinsic) to the teaching and learning experience could be missing, thus preventing students from extreme satisfaction. Reed, P. Watmough, S. 2015

I found a dichotomy between compliance and use which I still find difficult to reconcile. I found the more time I spent developing and auditing the standards the more I felt they needed to be broader to suit different disciplines. BUT whilst auditing them, I thought they were too open to interpretation and needed to be more specific. How do you measure for example “Appropriate learning content available through a structured content organisation”? My interpretation was different to my colleague.

What sort of approaches to reporting on the standards have you done?

We performed an audit from a sample of modules across all faculties. We created an infographic that showed 3 positive areas and 3 areas for improvement which was visible to the whole University. We also sent the raw data to the Head of Department. We felt it was important for departments to decide on the best approach for monitoring and taking action.

What have institutions found successful in raising adoption of the standards, including staff development and communication approaches? Do staff really understand the impact of meeting/not meeting the standards on students?

How can they understand the impact of not meeting them if there are no consequences? If we want compliance then there should be a compliance mechanism and we should be honest that they will be measured and reported on. We can use the student experience as a motivator but without seeing that surface or demonstrated in a tangible way, e.g. module evaluations or NSS (by which time it’s too late) where are they going to see the impact? So we’re back to someone policing them and there being clearly articulated consequences.

Have you updated your standards? Do you have a schedule as to when they will be updated?

I didn’t get that far at my previous institution but I would expect any that we develop would be reviewed and updated annually. Technologies, policy and focus may change from year to year and the standards should reflect where the institution wants to go, not where it is now.

What balance have you taken in producing minimum standards for your VLE between functional standards e.g. put up the handbook and broader pedagogic or principle base standards e.g. accessibility

This is a question that has stuck with me. I want to create a standard, baseline or whatever you want to call it that changes behaviour and practice whilst improving consistency, student experience and use of the VLE. I don’t want to create a tick list of things to do to avoid getting scrutiny from the institution. Would a standard be more successful if it was focussed on the change in practices we want to achieve than just a tick box list of things that should be on the module page?

It can still be linked to specific measurable criteria and further guidance but the emphasis would be on pedagogy and practice first. The platform, features and functions are immaterial. For example “Teach inclusively – Ensure your materials follow accessibility guidelines. Ensure a variety of assessment types and materials etc.”. We can combine VLE compliance with pedagogical practice. I’m thinking along the lines of nudge theory. So watch this space, the University of Warwick VLE minimum standard might be a little different.

Ultimately I want to support good teaching whether that is through the VLE or not. Online practice can be beneficial to the face to face and vice versa. We want to get people thinking about practice not about ticking a compliance box.

 


Reed, P. Watmough, S. 2015 Hygiene factors: Using VLE minimum standards to avoid student dissatisfaction. E-Learning and Digital Media
Vol 12, Issue 1, pp. 68 – 89. First Published January 29, 2015.

Defining digital leadership: a debate

I am currently participating in a debate at Digifest 2018 in Birmingham. This post is details my thoughts on what makes a good digital leader. I don’t know what questions we are going to be asked or what conversation will naturally arise from the panel, so these are my initial thoughts. These are the traits of the best digital leaders I know.

The blurb for the debate is as follows:

The Jisc digital leadership programme helps delegates to look closely at their own practices. This will be a debate around what makes a good “digital” leader, discussing some of those practices. It will draw on the content of the Jisc digital leaders programme and the panel speakers will be alumni from the course.

I’m not sure what the ‘digital’ bit means.

I really don’t. I can’t work out if it’s a buzzword thing or if there is a genuine difference between a leader of any other kind and a digital leader. So I’ll do my best to talk about ‘digital’ leadership but to some extent, I’m just talking about leadership in general.

A good digital leader…

…knows that technology is not a solution

Technology solves some problems but not all. A good digital leader knows that there’s more to fixing problems than plugging stuff in.

…seeks understanding

It’s tempting after a long time in this profession to think one knows it all. I certainly don’t and I don’t think HE and technology are things that can ever be fully understood. Good (digital) leaders know that there is always something to learn are not so self-absorbed as to think they have all the answers.

…knows that barriers are often cultural, not technological

Technology is a thing we use to do a thing. The barriers to technology use are actually very easy to break down. Skills can be trained. Processes can be refined. Technologies can be integrated, developed and improved. Culture, however, is not easy to change and, in my experience, is the biggest barrier to the use of technology. Culture being the ideas, attitudes, feelings and behaviours that a group of people might display. Changing something so deeply entrenched as the culture of an institution is a long, hard game.

…is able to play the game

In HE there is always a game to be played to get something done. An angle to pursue, money to be scrounged or getting the people with the right influence on board. A good (leader) knows how to play those games to their and the institution’s advantage. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game’ and all that, but thangz gotz to get done y’all.

…is quick to get to know the right people

Influence, influence and influence. A good leader is able to gain the confidence of those in positions of influence. It’s so important to know who your decision makers are and to get to know them.

…develops credibility

If people think you’re a tool, they’ll treat you like a tool. Credibility is so key when instigating change at an institutional level. If they have no faith in you, how can they have faith in what you’re trying to do? How can they have confidence in you?

…sees where the organisation is, and should, be going

Keeping an eye on the future, as well as the here and now, is a skill. Knowing how to get there is a talent.

…accepts that change doesn’t happen overnight

A good leader is patient. Real change is hard work. It takes time and commitment. The ‘bull in a china shop’ approach does not go down well with your immediate team or the rest of the institution.

…will say they don’t know

It’s hard to trust anyone who acts as though they have all the answers and never asks for help. These people are usually exposed for the charlatans they are. Asking people who know something, or will be affected, by your work is not only polite, it’s sensible. Arrogance does not instil confidence.

…is able to say they’re wrong

Reflecting on your mistakes and where thing’s didn’t go quite as planned should be a must.

…knows that changing everything is not a sign of success

Changing all the technology you don’t like is a cop out mate. It’s not really change, it’s just a change. It’s the lowest common denominator and if it’s your first port of call, then you’re more worried about looking like you’re doing something than actually doing something meaningful. Doing stuff ≠ success.

…puts people first

This should be at the forefront of their mind. They shoul be thinking about everyone in the institution, their team, the students etc. They do what they do for them. They are their champion.

…is realistic

Digital stuff in HE isn’t all VR and raining money. Often, all you can do is make the most of what you have, therein lies true skill.

Immiscible Learning

Here’s some stuff I said at ALT West Midlands meeting at the University of Birmingham. The theme was “It’s all in the mix: new blended learning opportunities for educators”. So, I thought I’d reflect on a blended learning programme that I was a student on.

You can find the slides below. I explain what I felt didn’t work and how that could be better. Oh, and I made up a term for an unsuccessful blend.

The delegates have collected their experiences, positive and negative, and their advice on Padlet.

Made with Padlet

The HE Bullshit Dictionary

Here’s a list of things that, when I hear or read them, make me say rude words. Enjoy.

We only use 10% of our brain

Citing this as evidence would suggest you are using significantly less than 10% of your brain. There’s no evidence. Any company that claims their tech will help to unlock the rest of the brain has been rolling in cow excrement.

Blue sky – Marcus Elliott

When the apocalypse comes, the skies will be red, but it won’t matter because you’ll be dead. First.

They’re just ideas mate.

Change Agent – Marcus Elliott

Saying you’re an Agent of SHIELD doesn’t make you a superhero. Saying you’re a change agent just makes it sound like you work in the booth at an amusement arcade (incidentally, one of life’s real superheroes)

It doesn’t empower anyone.

Customer – Marcus Elliott

If you think that HE should have ‘customers’ then maybe you need to head to the private sector where money rules. Do not pass go. Do not take £200 (just as a kicker).

Education is not a transaction. It’s a privilege.

Delivering Learning – Phil Barker

I hope they have Amazon Prime, I like the convenience.

Digital – Lawrie Phipps

Making something digital does not make it big or clever.

Digital Natives and Immigrants

Oh, come on.

Disrupt

It’s either just an organic change or improvement, or you’re being a pain in the arse. You choose. Marcus Elliott

Buzzword city.

e- words – Viv Rolfe 

Think elearning, eassessment, eeducation et al. Mate, it’s just learning, assessment and education. Sticking a computer into the process doesn’t make it better or special.

Engagement

What is that? Define it for me. How shall I measure it? Oh, you don’t know, then don’t tell me X increases engagement. Let’s slap it all over our strategy and marketing materials though.

Employability

Yer ’cause whether you’re desirable for a job can be boiled down to simplistic measures.

Framework

Well done, you wrote some stuff down.

Future Ready – David Honeybone

When is the future? How should I ready myself? I’ve always been of the belief that everything will stay exactly the same forever so I hadn’t prepared. WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!??

Futurist – Lorna Campbell

Generation X, Y, Z (and every other letter of the alphabet yet to be ruined)

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Homogenising groups of people to sell products is not helpful. NEWSFLASH not everyone is the same.

Innovation

Just what? See Engagement.

Learning Styles

REALLY? I can’t even be bothered to explain myself. Just no.

Management diagrams – Viv Rolfe

Might I add a section on management diagrams? Anything with hexagons?

Yes, Marcus, it is.

Millenials (and all other ‘ials’)

See Generation X, Y, Z. One of the most irritating and insulting phrases of recent years.

Although, I’ve been toying with the idea that anyone born during WW2 should be called “Blitzkriegians”, categorised by an aversion to Hitler, quick reactions to air raid sirens and knowing all the words to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”. Ridiculous right? A bit insulting yer? SO STOP IT.

Models – Marcus Elliott

Aka

REMOVED Paradigm – Lawrie Phipps

Paradigm has been saved!

Obviously, there are genuine times when the word paradigm is rightly used.

Paradigm Shift

Nor have I but apparently one will be happening real soon.

Serious Experiment – Anne-Marie Scott

Like experimenting, but with all the joy and light in the world sucked right out of it. Serious experiments can only be carried out wearing grey protective clothing.

Serious Play – Marcus Elliott

Does that mean some play is ‘not serious’? I’ve shed blood over lego. And, why the hell does learning and education need to be serious? Maybe that’s why people don’t engage.

Its just play, mate. Juxtaposition doesn’t make it clever.

Skill, Skillset et al. – Marcus Elliott & Viv Rolfe

When Liam Neeson said he had a ‘particular set of skills’ in the film Taken, he was so damn cool. When you say skillset, you sound like a prat. Skills are not like Pokemon, you don’t collect them then sell the complete Skillset on ebay

More ultimately meaningless words. That I feel should always be spelt “skillz” because “I haz mad skillz”.

Step-change – Joel Mills

But how do we say the change was significant? WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN?

The student experience – Anne-Marie Scott

No arguments that students should have an enjoyable and worthwhile time at uni, but can you define for me in less than 1 page what “the student experience” is?

I think Anne-Marie needs to be a bit more of a thought leader.

Thought leader – Marcus Elliott

Trotted out when management want Innovation (the rehashing of an old concept with a fancy new name) and decide to outsource to an evangelical ‘expert’.

Thought leaders sound like they should be running cults. And they always die during the FBI sieges.

Asking for better thoughts doesn’t really work.

You are Right or left brained

Nope. You’re not using either side.

To conclude.

Do not be insulted if you have ever used the phrases listed. We’ve all done it. But I would suggest you take some time to reflect on your life.

Add your dictionary entries to the list in the comments!

 

Academics are for life…

not just for Christmas. That should have been the title of the presentation I gave to the IT Services department at Leeds Beckett University last December. Instead, I called it “It’s all Academic”. Serious title regret.  I was asked to talk to the department about how to work better with Academics.

First of all, I want to say a big thank you to Sally Bogg for the invitation and to the organising committee, Mark Wood, Rob Moore, Tracy Russell, Matt Page, Ian Pette, Kieron Piercy and Tanja Lichtensteiger, for organising by far the most entertaining internal conference I have been to. The programme was informative, with excellent speakers, and incredibly fun. It was clear the team put in a huge amount of work and they completely pulled it off.

Take a look at the #ITSEvolving2017 hashtag to see the conversations delegates were having. My slides are available here and the results from the in-session polling are here. Fill your boots.

The reason I called the presentation ‘It’s all academic’ is that to me, it is. Universities exist because students want a degree. Students get degrees by learning and demonstrating that learning through assessment. To learn they must be taught and someone has to assess whether they are worthy of a degree. That is where academics come in. If there were no academics there would be no students and without students, there would be no University. We would, therefore, all be out of the job.

You will never please everyone

Fact. If you work in any kind of service or support role accept it. Move on. You’ll feel better.

An unrealistic, but effective, list

If I were a consultant who made their money speaking at conferences, peddling my 5 step programme to effective working relationships, I would have arrived at ITS Evolving with a definitive list of dos and don’ts to earn my scratch.

I’m not a consultant. I don’t get paid to speak. I don’t consider myself an expert on anything. I share my thoughts based on my experience only. But for fun, I made one up.

Unrealistic list

If you do all (the very tongue in cheek) things on the above list you will be well-liked by everyone, not just academics. But over here in the real world, we know that list is unrealistic. See my previous posts I am the harbinger of doom and The silent majority vs the deafening minority. There are legitimate things that get in the way:

In the real world

Academics are for life, not just for Christmas

There were some *ahem* interesting responses to my question “what do you find most difficult about working with academics”. We’ll leave “window lickers”, “old” and “lizards” to one side for a moment as the first is a disgraceful way to describe anyone, the second a lazy stereotype and the third makes no sense at all.

Word-cloud ITS Evolving 2017

To boil them down, academics are stubborn, arrogant, resistant to change, haughty, unrealistic and demanding. I will allow you to decide whether this is an accurate description based on your own experience.

I will share something with my IT colleagues, sometimes their behaviour is justified. You’re trying to do your job and guess what? They’re trying to do theirs! Given you often conflict with that, it’s hardly surprising that you are at loggerheads occasionally. That is no excuse for the rudeness of course.

If you don’t like academics, go work somewhere else. As I say at the start of the post, if there were no academics there would be no University. Learn to work with, not against them. Accept their existence or jog on.

Academics are sceptical by profession

It’s their job mate. They spend their days analysing and drawing conclusions. It’s hardly a surprise that these people will expect some evidence behind your decisions. They have a superhuman ability to smell bullshit so you better know what you’re talking about.

Their scepticism around technology is not unfounded. We are constantly reading about data and privacy issues in technology. Educational technologies are not immune to these issues. Technology can be seen as an exploitative tool of management. Check out Audrey Watters and any of Neil Selwyn‘s books for some excellent analyses on the issue.

Academics are under enormous pressure

They have ever increased (rarely decreasing) responsibilities. They are constantly being measured (module evaluations, NSS, REF, TEF et al) and monitored. They have job insecurity, a lot are hourly paid some are on probation for 5 years. Give them a break people. They have a lot to worry about.

Academics are not IT professionals

What do you want from them? Want them to maintain your SSL Cipher Suites and protocol versions over lunchtime? Yes, a basic level of capability is absolutely necessary but be reasonable people. Your job, the thing you’re paid to do, involves having expert knowledge of IT. Academics are here to teach. That’s why Universities exist.

Guess what? Not everyone likes technology as much as you! Technology is not neutral, it’s incredibly emotive. What IT depts. do has an effect on the daily lives of every person at University. Switching from one email client to another may be an insignificant change to you but to others, it’s a huge change.

 

Academics are people

There is no special formula you can apply. Academics are not a homogenous group. They are all different. They have good and bad days. Some of them are not very nice. But you know what? I’ve met plenty of very unpleasant IT professionals in my time.

All they want is to know what the hell is going on and to talk to a human being. Is that too much to ask?

Academics have different priorities

To me, this is the main reason IT and academics don’t get along. It may not be a priority but often IT depts. spend resource and time on support departments like HR, Registry and Finance, whilst teaching is pushed to the back of the queue.

They want you to support them with the most important part of their work. Working with students. Teaching. Helping students to learn. They want systems that enable, facilitate and improve that process. They don’t care about a new finance system.

The realistic list

The Realistic List

I don’t think there is anything revolutionary or unachievable on this list. I don’t think there’s anything particularly difficult either, yet, we continue to have this same conversation. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I know I don’t get it right all the time but if we all try, that’s a start.

All the IT team at Leeds Beckett can do is try and they have taken the first step by acknowledging a problem and being open to change.

P.S. I’m still looking for an IT Department that will take up my idea for IT <> Academic shadowing. As Tenessee Williams put it

“I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding.”

P.P.S. I used ResponseWare for my in-session polling and it was a painful experience. Opening and closing the poll was hit and miss. The essay question in to word cloud didn’t display and on the whole, it was stressful. But it was appreciated by the audience, so I wouldn’t avoid using polling again. I’d just prefer to use something like PollEverywhere.

I am the harbinger of doom

The one thing I hate about my job is disappointing the people I ‘serve’. I guarantee some choice words are said about me. I am often the bad guy, a necessary part of managing a service, but no one likes being the bad guy.

Last week I published a post, or a piece of therapy, about the different pressures and tensions that dictate how I work. A focus being who we should listen to The silent majority vs the deafening minority. Then I read a post from Anne-Marie Scott titled Passivity.

I’ve been reading articles (old and new) and watching videos (old and new) this week which are replaying familiar EdTech tropes and I’m sick of it. Anne-Marie Scott 2017

The tropes she goes on to describe can be paraphrased as the [insert system here] is rubbish, IT departments are evil, vendors/suppliers are evil, no one understands us, we’re being forced, x is a closed system (so evil) and no one does what I want. Her post is mainly in reference to senior people within the education sector. She goes on to describe how we can influence institutional choices and culture.

What does her blog have to do with me? Well, I am part of those tropes.

I am not your enemy

I wrote a blog along these lines some time ago. I am not your enemy was a response to a particularly unpleasant training session my colleague and I attended. People were unhappy at being forced to use something, we weren’t the people forcing them but we were the focus of their irritation. It was a desperate plea for people to think beyond their own perspective.

Rest assured, I am not here to make your life more difficult, despite what you might believe but that doesn’t mean I will roll over and do everything you want. I am not part of some big conspiracy against you. I’m just doing my job the best I can. Same as you.

What do I mean by the harbinger of doom?

I am the person that says “yer that’s great, we would if we could, but…”, “we can’t right now” or “no”.

I don’t understand. I am ignoring you. I am the laggard. I am unimaginative. I am uncreative. I am the dictator. I am the oppressor. I am part of the broken system. I am the bringer of no, nope and Nah. I am the quasher of dreams. I am the destroyer of enthusiasm. I am the omen of the apocalypse. I am Zuul.

Who am I really?

I have good intentions. I’m a realist. I don’t promise more than I can deliver. I don’t take uncalculated risks. I work to make things sustainable. I want to help. I am listening. I understand. I do care.

But I do have to say no.

No is necessary

I can’t say yes to everything. IT’S NOT PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE. Read the previous post. Remember, a no usually means there was a yes to something/someone else. Also, sometimes I have to say no to save you from yourselves. Sometimes I have to say no and it’s not even my decision. Sometimes I have to say no because it’s not a sound technical solution.

If you want services and systems that are unsustainable then let me know. I’ll give you yes’s and you can explain why none of it works.

I’m not saying you have to like nos. I’m not saying you have to accept them. I’m just asking you to understand that I have to say no sometimes. Please reciprocate the empathy and respect I have for you.

Haters gonna hate

No matter what I do, I will never win. I have come to accept that. No one contacts people like me to say that everything is going well and I’m doing a good job.

So to the haters, I make this promise.

I will help you despite how you treat me. I will treat you equally. I will be transparent. I will work to get you what you want. I will listen to your feedback and act on it. I will empathise and try to understand you. I will be disappointed in myself every time I say no. I will be your champion.

Of haters, I ask that you understand there’s a lot more to every no than you think. I am not the pantomime villain, I’m the good fairy who can’t always grant your wishes.

The silent majority vs the deafening minority

Angry Man

 There is an ever-present tension in the provision of technology in Education; who should we aim to please? The innovators and early adopters, who are the vocal minority? Or should we be seeking out the late majority and laggards, the silent majority?

Who is the silent majority?

By silent majority, I refer to those staff who you never hear from. There might be lots of reasons for that. They might be fine, they might be happy doing what they’re doing. They could be people who are not at all interested. They could be people who don’t see the point in engaging with you. Whatever their motives for silence, they are the people we desperately want to hear from. They are still the majority.

Who is the deafening minority?

The deafening minority, are those innovators and early adopters who have explored what is on offer and are looking for ways to enhance and extend beyond it. They are usually the same faces who come to user groups or provide feedback. They are the people who shout the loudest (sometimes because they are the only people you ever hear from). They are the groups that want to leap ahead whilst the silent majority are still far behind.

Update: My former learned colleague Marcus Elliott has rightly pointed out that:

The old senior management switcheroo

It is a sad fact of life in professional services that “he who shouts loudest gets what they want”. Also true is, “department that brings in the most money gets to do what it wants”. These situations usually follow a familiar pattern: make request, don’t receive the desired answer, stress importance of request, name drop important company partnerships or senior management, get other people to ask, department head contacts department head, escalate up management chain until senior enough manager is found to force the fulfillment of the request. I have seen this pattern too many times in my career. This is not a collegial or supportive approach. It does not engender a feeling of reciprocal respect or understanding. No’s are not bandied around lightly. There are a myriad of things taken into consideration

NEWSFLASH: University Professional Service Department has already got work to do BECAUSE OTHER PEOPLE EXIST.

Despite the rumours, we are not sat in our offices with our thumbs up our butts. You are one department of many and you all want something and it’s never the same thing!

Maintenance is a thing

I’ve seen this best articulated by Anne-Marie Scott from the University of Edinburgh in her blog post Some more thoughts on the NGDLE, for what it’s worth. NGDLE being the next generation learning environment. As she so eloquently puts it:

Managing the information flow, the release schedule, the updates to training and documentation when change happens – this stuff isn’t sexy innovation, but it’s over 50% of what any team will need to do just to keep the lights on, and it’s the work that is constantly being squeezed to free up more resource for “innovation”. July 2017 Anne-Marie Scott

I would love to do more “sexy innovation”. I’d love to turn on, develop and buy all the cool things people want. (I googled sexy innovation (IKR? Blowing raspberries at the user acceptance agreement) and found this Slideshare  How to: A sexy innovation team by Nick Demey). The sad fact is most of my time is concerned with updates, documentation, change management and just generally trying to get our ‘house in order’.

Updates are a necessary evil. Some are more time consuming than others but no update can be done without a lot of initial work. Finding a suitable time (never easy), submitting changes, working out what will change, testing, reviewing advice and guidance, doing it, fixing anything that broke, snagging, testing again and then finally you’re done. Oh and then you better start planning for the next one.

Then there’s just the things you have to do to keep everything ticking over. These are silent tasks people often don’t hear about.

Oh and every new thing means we have another thing to maintain. There’s a finite number of people and a finite number of hours in the day. We have to balance adding new things with being able to actually support them.

Here’s something I just made up for how we assess each request.

widespreadBenefit = PerceivedBenefit/StudentNumbers
impact = WidespreadBenefit
resource = Time + People + Cost + MaintenanceRequired + SupportNeeded
checkWorkloads = People/whatTheyAreAlreadyWorkingOn

if impact ≥ resource

then CheckWorkloads

if checkWorkloads < resource

then doTheThing and maintainTheThing

I could get into the long list of things doTheThing actually involves but let’s not. Essentially we have to look at the impact versus what it will take to actually do and maintain the thing. If the impact isn’t going to be great enough then we can’t always prioritise it over the day to day firefighting.

Trust me, I’d love to have 20 people who can jump on all these things but we don’t. We have to be sustainable. A service is better than no service at all.

Stuff breaks and we have to fix it

Fixing stuff is a thing. If we’re fixing something, we probably not able to do anything else. Oh and if we don’t want it to break again then we have to do some work on that too.

Support is a thing

Answering helpdesk incidents, enquiries and fulfilling service requests are a thing. Creating documentation is a thing. Developing and delivering training is a thing. Talking to you is a thing. Consultation is a thing. Emailing you back is a thing. These are all things we have to do and they take up time that can’t be dedicated to new stuff.

Boring is essential

I’d love to say working in learning technologies is all fighting off killer AI robots but the reality is it’s often just supporting people to do the basics. These basics, the boring stuff, is absolutely necessary. It’s what the silent majority needs. This stuff is valuable.

It might not be what the deafening majority see the value but it has to be done.

How do we appease the deafening majority whilst getting to the silent minority?

This is a question I constantly ask myself. I really want to get to the silent majority. I think that’s an important part of what we exist to achieve. However, I don’t like upsetting the deafening minority. They were willing to take risks, they’re all in and I don’t want them to be disenfranchised.

But I don’t see any way to avoid it. There’s too much to do to please everyone.

Field of Dreams and other EdTech fallacies

This was the presentation I did, alongside fellow learning techs Rosie Hare and Marcus Elliott, at the Association of Learning Technologists (ALT) conference 2017. The full title was Kevin Costner is a liar: Field of Dreams and other EdTech fallacies. The session culminated in a discussion around the question: Is limited innovation, impact and staff engagement our fault?

The abstractslides, video, Padlet and Storify are all available online. Fill your boots.

What the hell was it about?

Obviously, you can go and read the abstract if you want, but in short, we wanted to ask a difficult question. We wanted to irritate people by making provocative statements and then make them talk about it. We could have been academically rigorous and presented a balanced argument but who’d want to watch that? Also, we’d have done all the work for the audience.

I’ve been to a lot of conferences recently, ALT is a particularly fine example, where people show all the clever shiny things they’ve done and we all pat each other on the backs for a job well done. Then follows the inevitable question, “how did you get academics to engage”, or even worse the inevitable comment, “my academics won’t do that/aren’t interested”. This presentation was an attempt to challenge some of that thinking. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are often inclined to blame/complain about our academic colleagues.

If we were doing it right, would we still be asking these questions? Something to consider.

That title though?

The title is a good hook to get people to come to the session. We could have called it “Exploring the attitudes and assumptions of learning technologists and their effect on engagement, innovation, and impact”. I got bored writing that. So we decided to base it on something fun and the theme really made the session. It also was an excellent basis on which to begin our fallacies.

Check out Marcus’s excellent intro:

Fallacy 1: If you build it, HE will come.

The brilliant but often misquoted line from the movie Field of Dreams is “If you build it, he will come”.  We decided to misappropriate that line and say “if you build it, Higher Education (HE) will come” (snarf). This is the idea that if you plug something in, people will immediately want to use it. But wait, no one really thinks that do they? In an ideal world no, but the reality is, there are some out there who do. IT departments are a good example. They seem to think they can replace the email system without providing any help.

In my experience people have lots of motivations for using or not using technology.  There are very few academics who will use something just because it’s there and fewer still who have the knowledge and confidence to use something new effectively.

We can plug stuff in, but there’s a lot more work to be done to get people to use it.

Fallacy 2: Technology will solve everything.

I think, those of you reading this, will already know that this is not the case. However, there are still those who think it can. I’m referring to the Government, senior management, and even some learning technologists. It is seen as a panacea to fix all ills. “If it’s broke, throw some tech at it”. To quote David White and Donna Lanclos:

“We go to technology to be the solution and everyone is disappointed” Lanclos, D. and White, D. 2016.

Fallacy 3: We don’t need evidence.

This relates to a couple of my earlier blog posts The Criticism of Criticism and In defence of technology . The idea that we don’t need to provide evidence to staff about the benefits of educational technologies. James Clay suggested:

“the problem is not the lack of evidence, but one of resistance to change, fear, culture, rhetoric and motivation.” James Clay 2017.

This is endemic of the blame culture that I really can’t stand. People’s reasons for not using technology are far too complex to be summed up in a sentence. I have no doubt there is some truth to what James said but I felt it removed any responsibility from us to ‘up our game’ to get them on board. To prove the worth of what we ask them to do.

I thought the line was defensive. It reduced skepticism to mere hysterics. Not the expression of genuine concern.

It implies THEY don’t get it.

Fallacy 4: They don’t get it.

I love this quote from Audrey Watters:

“many, I’d argue, misconstrue what the Luddites in the early nineteenth century were actually so angry about when they took to smashing looms.” Audrey Watters 2014.

We behave as though our academics are missing something. That they just don’t see what we know to be true, technology is awesome and they should use it. How often do we really bother to find out why they feel as they do? How often do we take the time to understand their motivations?

Matt Cornock put it best:

Should I decree a particular approach without discussion or justification, this would unduly elevate my position beyond that of the discipline being taught. Matt Cornock 2017

I don’t know what’s best for their subject. I don’t know what’s best for them. To assume is arrogant and lazy.

Fallacy 5: They’re not interested.

Maybe they’re not? Maybe we haven’t done a great job getting them interested. They only see us when we’ve plugged something in. Or when they have to seek us out. Or when we want to flog the latest thing. Or when we are enforcing the latest institutional mandate.

Are we surprised they’re not rushing to work with us?

Is limited innovation, impact and staff engagement our fault?

Unsurprisingly, the feeling was that it’s a far more complex issue than a yes/no. Obviously, we were deliberately black and white to get some discussion going. The Padlet gives a good idea of the debate and what people thought.

It is a joint responsibility. But we can always do better. Try harder. Talk to them. Listen to them. Be human.

Links

Clay, J. 2017. Show me the evidence… 13 February. e-Learning Stuff.
http://elearningstuff.net/2017/02/13/show-me-the-evidence/

Cornock, M. 2017. Don’t be an authority on meta-meta learning. https://mattcornock.co.uk/technology-enhanced-learning/dont-be-an-authority-on-meta-meta-learning/ 

Lanclos, D. and White, D. 2016. Keynote: Donna Lanclos and David White – Being Human is Your Problem #altc. https://youtu.be/OUw0RKDiWHE 

Watters, A. 2014. The Monsters of Education Technology. https://s3.amazonaws.com/audreywatters/the-monsters-of-education-technology.pdf

The criticism of criticism

When  is critique just negativity? Is criticism banned? Is technology above reproach? Do we have to constantly espouse its virtues? Is there no room to consider negative aspects?

This post relates strongly to my previous post In defence of technology in which I rant on about the attitudes of ed tech people around evidence. I will endeavour not to repeat myself here.

Like a broken record…

On one of my random trips around the internet I found this “Top critical review” of a book.

AmazonReview
Amazon Review

I stumbled upon it whilst reading this excellent article The Myth Of The ‘Digital Native’ by Jess Frawley from the University of Sydney. As expected she cites Marc Prensky’s 2001 ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’ paper and his later work ‘From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays on Education‘. I wound up on Amazon looking at the latter and found this top-notch piece of reviewing. You can see it here.

Let’s start by thanking Jill for her comprehensive review of this work and let’s not forget to thank every deity for making it arrive in “great condition”.  I can only assume that it’s condition compelled Jill to give it an extra couple of stars. This was a review not worth the time it took to write. I must confess that I haven’t read this book. I don’t know if Marc is being negative or not. However, I would imagine that a book titled ‘hopeful essays’ would offer some glimmers of hope. Our library has the book so I’ll have a read and let you know.

Why does it bother me?

I’m  not bothered about the review itself. I doubt Marc is losing sleep. It’s the implication that you can’t be negative that I don’t like. If you don’t say something positive about technology use in education it’s a bad book. Is there no room for criticism, scepticism or negativity in critical discourses of technology? Should we not be considering all opinions, feelings and perspectives?

We look at anyone who doesn’t drop to their knees at the altar of technology as Luddites. We are the next evolution of humanity, able to see the virtues of technology and embrace it, whilst they scurry around in the dirt throwing bones in the air. We see them as frightened, resistant to change and closed-minded. We feel they must be missing something but are too belligerent to know it. We think there is something we need to do to make them change. That change is the only option. Everyone must look at technology positively. That it feels, is the only perspective that is acceptable.

many, I’d argue, misconstrue what the Luddites in the early nineteenth century were actually so angry about when they took to smashing looms. Audrey Watters 2017 ‘Education Technology’s Completely Over’

Alternative Perspectives

I go to lots of conferences and we spend a few days slapping each other on the back and telling ourselves just how well we’re all doing despite ‘them’ getting in the way. We console with one another on how difficult our jobs are, how none of our staff are engaged and how they don’t seem to agree that technology is the best thing since sliced bread. That we don’t have senior management buy in or any money. We watch people telling us just how well they’re doing, how clever they’ve been having found this fancy bit of technology and they’ve actually got some academics using it! Clap, clap, clap. We gorge ourselves on coffee, biscuits and conference lunches. We remind ourselves just how important technology is, how fundamental it is to whatever the latest flavour of the month is. Is it student experience, employability or digital skills this week? All the while browbeating anyone who might have a different view. We shoot down their questions, roll our eyes, berate them on Twitter and then, we stone them to death with stale conference pastries. I’m being facetious again. It’s not that bad. I had someone approach me after speaking at a conference saying they were too frightened to comment. That is not the environment for discussion (or lack thereof) we should be creating.

Last week I went to see a talk by Audrey Watters on Ed-Tech trends. At the start of her talk she had to be clear that she wasn’t going to give us a list of the next big ed tech technologies to look out for or give us a 3 year plan on how to solve education. Very astute, given that’s what we all want. Audrey writes about the relationship between politics, pedagogy, business, culture, and ed-tech. I’d be interested to know how well received some of Audrey’s views are in our community. To poorly paraphrase she asked us to question the influence of politics, business, money etc. on the technology used in education. She doesn’t mince her words, take this snippet for example:

Education technology is the Trojan Horse poised to dismantle public education, to outsource and unbundle and disrupt and destroy. Those who tell you that education technology promises personalization don’t actually care about student autonomy or agency. They want surveillance and standardization and control. You have been warned. Audrey Watters (2014) The Monsters of Education Technology

I can imagine Audrey’s views are seen  by some as paranoia. As OTT. As heresy. As blasphemy. How dare she consider, let alone point out, that technology might not be the benevolent saviour of education. After-all, if you’ve got a problem, slap a USB port in it. Sorted.

Since drafting this post Audrey has written another excellent post ‘Education Technology’s Completely Over’ in which she explores ownership and control. What did Prince actually mean when he said “the internet’s completely over” in 2010.

All Audrey is asking us to do is think about what educational technology is ACTUALLY doing. To resist the hype. To stop looking at it through rose-tinted glasses. To be critical. To be sceptical.

Education technology requires our love and our care so as to not become even more monstrous, so that it can become marvellous instead. It demands we resist and we fight and we build and tell a different story. Audrey Watters (2014) The Monsters of Education Technology

Perhaps even to consider that it might not be wholly positive…