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…

We got 99 problems…

dinosaur

and the TEF is one. Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with the TEF.

Sorry if you came here looking for a scholarly article on the TEF. I’m afraid you will not find that here (or anything scholarly for that matter). Instead I will reflect on my Higher Education journey. I’ve recently moved institution and it seems like a good time to take a moment and think.

(The featured image for this post has little to do with the content but I liked it. I’m sure there’s some joke about dinosaurs and technology use at HEIs but I can’t be bothered to think of one. But a T-Rex chasing you would definitely put your problems in to perspective. But remember what Meat Loaf tells us, objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are. (Caution, this video contains some hard-core mullet game.)

As a student

I was terrible. I put no effort in to my a-levels and my results certainly reflected that. I originally applied to do ancient history but decided “I’d never get a job doing that” and took a year out to decide what to do with my life. It was the expectation that I went to University although careers advice at sixth form was poor at best. So I decided, in my infinite wisdom, that media was the right path for me. I like TV shows and film so why not do something I enjoyed. I naively thought it was really easy to become Steven Spielberg. I applied to a few places with my terrible results and eventually got in somewhere.

I did not become the model student. Despite being amongst the first cohort to have tuition fee loans. I am still paying that back now and will do so for what feels like the rest of my life. I imagine the Student Loan Company will be knocking on the coffin lid. Anyhoo, I turned up to most of my lectures but if I couldn’t be bothered I certainly wouldn’t force myself. I ‘phoned it in’ for most of the first year. I think it’s easy to underestimate how difficult it can be to make the transition from a-level to ‘academic writing’. I was really disappointed with my first essay mark. I’d always been good at essays. I really don’t remember there being much help with that but that might be my memory or more likely I just didn’t look for or take any of it up.

Second year I did put in more effort but again I wouldn’t say I pushed myself. I eventually came up with a bit of a formula for writing essays that seems to have helped me through to present day. I would admit that I approached every essay, project and took every test with the question “what’s the bare minimum I have to do to get a decent mark”. I did nothing in my spare time. I didn’t gain any of what we would now describe as employability skills. I didn’t practice, I didn’t make a showreel and I didn’t get involved in any voluntary projects. I did the bare minimum. I do kick myself for not trying harder on a couple of projects which would have pushed me up to a first but I got a high 2:1 without putting much effort in so I guess I got a good return on investment. By the end of my third year I was very ‘done’ with education. I did not want to do a Masters or step foot in education again. I was going to be a successful director don’t you know (despite not deserving or earning that success).

Working in Higher Education

So how ironic it feels now to be sat in a University and having worked in them ever since. Despite my sincere belief that the world owed me my dream job I was summarily disappointed. Surely the path to greatness is paved with negligible effort, a non-existent showreel and no experience? Apparently not. It would seem that a degree isn’t enough to be the next Steven Spielberg. Apparently you might also need talent. So devoid of talent, armed with only a piece of paper claiming some level of competency and with no clue what I was doing, I put forward my CV. You will not be surprised to hear that I had no success. So a change in approach was required.

I turned to graduate internships in the desperate hope that someone like the BBC would be stupid enough to employ me. When you’re going up against hundreds of other graduates, who are more talented and went to a better University than you it’s unlikely you’ll succeed. But I had the good fortune to get a job at Harper Adams University. A stop-gap I thought before Hollywood calls. Hollywood did not call.

It was this job that got me hooked. I enjoyed talking to academics about teaching. I enjoyed talking to them about technology and how they might use it. I even liked training. I was able to combine my love of making stuff with a wage. Like Honey Nut Corn flakes Higher Education was ever so moreish. I was hooked.

So here I sit writing this post in my fourth HEI and despite MANY challenges over the years I still love it.

So how did I get here?

At Harper Adams I was part of a team of graduates who were tasked with introducing new tools and assisting staff to make effective use of them. I also learned more than I’d ever need to know about sheep. I’ve worked at the University of Portsmouth as an Online Course Developer and Assistant IT Trainer. At the University of Lincoln as a Digital Education Developer. I am now an Academic Technologist at the University of Warwick.

I think I am here more through luck than judgement. I realised after my internship at Harper Adams ended that I would be more likely to get a similar role at another University. I was lucky that the University of Portsmouth Business School was looking for someone and on the day of the interview a load of people dropped out. So with little competition I got the role there. After a while a job in IT services came up and I thought, “Hey, I like training so I’ll give it a go” and I did. It gave me so many skills that I am so grateful for now. Confidence to stand up in front of people, techniques to persuade the most negative trainees and the opportunities to work on other projects. After a couple of years I felt it was time to move on. I also knew I’d never be able to afford a home in Portsmouth (ironic given where I now live) and needed to find somewhere more affordable.

After a search of areas we settled on Lincoln. As luck would have it the University had already tried to recruit three Digital Education Developers. The lucky part was they had only recruited two. So they advertised the third vacancy again and they were silly enough to give me the job. I had a wonderful time at Lincoln, and while every place I have worked has shaped me in some way, Lincoln has by far had the biggest effect on me. I joined a new unit tasked with improving all aspects of teaching and learning, including the digital aspects. The digital element was a part of teaching and learning not adjunct or as a ‘thing’. I worked with the most dedicated, hard-working and intelligent people. They were also great fun and pleasures to work with. Each one of them has shaped me in some way, challenged me and supported me. I would not be who I am today without them. They made me question my assumptions, made me read and broadened my knowledge. Sadly after a review of the department and other changes, that I will not detail here, I felt Lincoln was not the place for me anymore.

I selected a number of Universities that I wanted to work at and Warwick was one of them. Again as luck would have it an internal promotion resulted in the perfect vacancy for me. So here I am, in my 7th week at the University of Warwick. I am very comfortable here. I work with great people. The biscuit banter is top notch…

Is the grass always greener?

Nope, but as someone said to me, the grass is always greener if you have no grass in the first place. Moving jobs is scary. You have no idea who you are going to be working with, interviews are no indication as everyone’s on their best behaviour, but in my experience people in this ‘business’ are usually lovely people. You have no idea what you’ll be walking in to but everywhere has its challenges. I don’t think you’re ever going to walk in to a University that has it all figured out. If anything  I would find that quite boring.

99 problems…

So, after that long read, I finally get to my point. Every University I have worked at, this is my fourth, has the same problems. Every person I speak to at conferences etc. has the same problems. Fundamentally our problems are all the same. When I came to Warwick everyone would tell me something then say “oh I don’t mean to put you off” and I would laugh and tell them it didn’t. It didn’t. In HE “you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps” should be on the job descriptions. You have to embrace the lunacy or you’ll lose your mind. If I had a Pound for every time I’ve asked why something is done that way I’d be a millionaire. Rarely does the explanation make sense but hey, you have to live with it.

Few of us have enough funding to do anything interesting. Few of us have the senior support required to really make fundamental change. Few of us have enthused and engaged staff. Few of us have technologies that work perfectly for everyone. Few of us have it all figured out. Few of us have got it all sorted.

Culture is a hard thing to change. It is an incremental thing. Small victories. It’s gentle, it’s thoughtful and it’s supportive. Some are braver than others but I’d rather make change the right way and it take longer than do something knee-jerk and ill-conceived to get the job done quicker. Here is the challenge we all face. How do we bring about change quickly, to satisfy management, but do it the right way? We’re all working this one out at our different institutions. Our approaches will differ but we can all learn from one another.

I’ll let you in on a little secret, every university is weird. Every university has its problems. Every university is still working on it. Some are traditional, some are running before they can walk but their problems are the same. Some have managed to cover the poop in a little glitter but deep down they’re still wallowing in the poop with the rest of us.

In defence of technology

The defence of educational technologies can be so vehement that any question of its importance or impact is met with a barrage of indignant responses, as though ed tech is somehow above questioning. It is perhaps the default position of those of us who work with learning technologies after-all, that work pays the bills. I would argue that it is our job to question, to be critical of and more importantly think impartially about educational technologies.

The Background

This post is a response to an email thread on the ALT mailing list where my former colleague Sue Watling asked:

During my research I’ve found a host of reports critical of the claims of TEL and the quality of TEL research.

Calling on Surowiecki’s ‘wisdom of crowds’ I wondered who on the list could point me to evidence of TEL enhancing learning/teaching.

Her question related to the ‘quality’ of TEL research (we can argue what constitutes quality another time) and asked for people’s go to evidence that they use to underpin/evidence TEL practice. The responses she received were…interesting. Some reiterated the issues that surround TEL research. For example that ‘quality’ research can take many years but our work is changing as technology changes. Others pointed to the existing journals that are available. What I noted was Sue having, or feeling she had, to defend herself and defend asking the question. As though educational technologies are beyond reproach. I now feel it necessary to make the same defence and you know that makes me really sad.

Allow me to be clear from the beginning, before the mob starts sharpening their pitchforks, that this post is not saying that educational technologies have no value. I am not saying they haven’t changed education (although the level remains debatable).

giphy-1
(I know that’s a trident)

Reality vs. Idealism

I think we can be guilty, and I know I have been many times in the past, of looking at technology from an idealistic perspective. It’s not surprising given our job is to promote and increase engagement. However, are we actually being realistic about what technology is capable of or are we overselling because we feel that’s what we’re supposed to do?

I would argue that we need to be realistic about technology and what it can actually do. Let’s not oversell and disappoint. However, enthusiasm and inspiration has it’s place. We have to acknowledge the limitations.

Evidence

People like evidence. If I said to you that this blog was the best blog ever, you’d probably ask me to defend my position. You might ask whether other people agree or what criteria I use to make that assessment.

From my experience when an academic asks for the evidence, then the problem is not the lack of evidence, but actually something else. James Clay, 2017

James Clay  has written a blog post Show me the evidence… where he argues that the problem is not a lack of evidence around the benefits of using learning technologies but a “resistance to change, fear, culture, rhetoric and motivation”. He argues it is that we need to change not provide evidence to academic staff.

You really need to solve those issues, rather than find the “evidence”, as even if you find the evidence, you will then get further responses such as, wouldn’t work with my students, not appropriate for my subject, it wouldn’t work here, it’s not quite the same, not transferable…. etc…James Clay, 2017

Our job is to show how it would work with their students, their subject, on their institution etc. Yes, there is an issue with change, fear, culture, rhetoric and motivation etc. But there is also a matter of academics simply wanting to see the pay off for their efforts.

Let us not be so arrogant as to forget the pressures our academic colleagues are under. Teaching, marking, research, meetings, paperwork, curriculum development etc. How dare they expect us to show that taking time out of their busy schedules to learn how to do something, adapt their teaching, create materials etc. will be worthwhile. I mean really? How very dare they expect to see some evidence that it actually works. Surely they should blindly follow what we tell them?

I’m being facetious but come on people, take it down a notch. It’s not like they’ve come in to your house on Christmas day and slapped your kids. They’re asking a valid question. Yes, James is right, it may be masking deeper rooted issues but there’s nothing wrong with that question. It’s right to ask, that’s scholarly practice.

Is it personal?

Donna Lanclos made the following comment:

I can see where Donna is coming from here. There is a lot of academic snobbery in HE. “Who are you to tell me what to do” and “what are your credentials”. I suppose that is a result of scholarly practice, peer review, evidence based practice etc. I have not been an academic, I’ve not been doing this job for a long time, I don’t have a long list of qualifications and I am not a Dr (though all these things are relative and in my experience have a varied impact on skills, knowledge and competence). I don’t get offended by their skepticism, on paper I don’t really know much at all. Part of my job is gaining their trust and confidence. That starts with small successes and builds. It can’t be rushed.

I can’t speak for Donna, I would love for her to elaborate on this further, as I don’t walk in her many pairs of fabulous shoes. All I can say is it might feel personal, and it is a little, but life is full of people trying to one up you. I know what it’s like to be belittled, to have your confidence taken from you but you don’t have to let them win. Here’s the evidence, take a look mate and in the words of the Dowager Countess:

giphy

Critical Reflection

I would argue that reflection and particularly critical reflection is an important part of any job. We should reflect and look carefully at the effectiveness of all our offerings to ensure we are providing staff and students with what they need. If we do not reflect on what we do how will we enhance it? How will we know what to improve? How will we know what works and what doesn’t? We have to look critically at what we do, it would be pointless not to.

Take a moment to look at the activities in teaching and learning. Consider the degree to which they have changed those activities. Are learning technologies living up to the transformation we have been promising for years? Are we guilty of bigging them up?

Impartiality

It is our job to make recommendations, to show what exists and what is possible. I don’t think it is our job to peddle our personal preferences. We make technological recommendations based on evidence and prior experience. Not because that’s the thing I like or is easiest for me to support. We have to look at learning technologies not as our babies but as tools used to reach an end. It should never feel personal. If someone says the VLE is rubbish I have to nod and ignore it. People are entitled to their opinions. We are entitled to our opinions but again our opinions are based on experience.

Better Research

I agree with Sue. We need to get better at gathering the evidence behind what we do. Yes, I get frustrated with the prove it culture too but we’re in an academic environment. Perhaps we need to think academically as much as we think technically.

To conclude

We should stop defending technology use in HE and put as much effort in to creating a body of proof. If we’re having to defend it clearly there is something to prove. I don’t think learning technologies have proven themselves yet. I do think there is a long way to go. Are there other issues surrounding use of technologies? Yes and James points them out. I would argue that proof will remove barriers. Show me something works and I’ll use it. Tell me it works and I’ll ask you to prove it.

Technology: the wrong conversations

Technology is people. If we were saying (and doing) the right things technology would be embedded in teaching by now. You wouldn’t need people like me.  I have spent years encouraging and supporting staff to use technology in their teaching. I have delivered and watched others deliver ‘technology’ training, CPD, presentations etc. with varying success.  Something isn’t working. I would suggest our conversations are wrong.

In his latest post, It’s an extra, but does it need to be?James Clay questions the perception some staff have of technology being an extra rather than embedded part of their practice. He suggests that

Part of this has to be down to the way in which staff are introduced to or trained in the use of learning technologies. James Clay 2017

I think its important to acknowledge that there are a lot of complex issues that have limited the extent to which technology has been embedded in teaching practice. I agree with James that the way I, and people like me, present technology can be a barrier. Our conversations are wrong. So how should we speak to staff? What I have I learnt?

Technology is all about people!

Smarter people than me have been banging this drum for some time.

Digital is about people, it is about a set of behaviours; it is about a perception of others and self; it is another way of being present with those around us. Lawrie Phipps (2016) Presence, Digital, Well-Being, People

Donna Lanclos and Dave White discussed the humanity of technology in their keynote Being Human is Your Problem #altc at the Association of Learning Technology Conference in 2016.  To paraphrase technology is not the answer. Technology will not fix human practices. It will not fix problems. It will not solve everything. Watch their keynote here.

Technology is just a thing. It’s a piece of apparatus. We use it to meet our ends. If it has no use to us we do not use it. If people don’t use technology then it becomes another cool thing someone made. It is only useful when people are using it. If you do not consider the people in technology then you are doomed to failure.

Start with what they want to achieve

There was a time I would go and speak to academics and just list all the technologies they could use. That didn’t result in a great deal of success. So instead I began by asking questions.

  • Why were they speaking to me?
  • What was driving them to explore technology?
  • What was it they hoped technology would achieve for them?
  • What are the problems they are trying to resolve?
  • What are they hoping to improve?

The list goes on. I have found I am better able to make suggestions based on their answers. I am made aware of any prejudices, preconceived ideas, misinformation, attitudes and feelings that they have about technology. I understand their motives. I know if they are being realistic. I know what level of experience and skills they have. I know if its a mandate from above. I know if they’re receptive or resentful. At its most basic it shows staff that I am interested in their work and I respect them. I am interested in their opinion. I am interested in their ambitions and am here to help them achieve them. I am not here to shove technology down their throat and make them feel inferior. I am here to enable them to do want they want to do because that is my job.

Make it relevant (context)

There is a lot you need to understand before you can truly make good suggestions. Even the most basic application of technology to teaching should be considered carefully. There are a lot of variables to success, and if there is one thing you want to avoid, it’s failure.

I always like to understand how the module fits within a programme, how the students are taught, how the assessments measure learning, the skills and experience of the teaching team, what the students are like and how they teach their subject. There’s a lot more I could list but that gives you an idea. I try to know as much as I can. It’s impossible to know everything about the programmes you support, I am rubbish at maths but I don’t need to know anything about maths to help them. I need to know about learning and how to enhance that in ways that are relevant to their discipline. I am not there to comment on their content. We need to adapt everything to the particular context of the person we are speaking to. “Different strokes” and all that.

The more I know the better suggestions I can make and the more relevant they will be. If I can make relevant suggestions that will bring tangible benefits to the learning of their students they will listen. If I suggest something that worked somewhere else without taking in to account their unique needs I may as well prepare for failure.

Get to know them

Not everyone can use technology. If I had a pound for every time someone says “students/staff know how to do that” I would be a billionaire. That attitude is wrong. It’s a lazy and dangerous assumption. What do we say when designing a teaching session? We say we should leave time to get to know the students previous experience, their likes, dislikes, abilities and skills. Why are we not doing the same with our staff? If we know nothing about someone how can we adapt our conversations to most effectively reach them? We need to speak directly to them, to empathise with them and share in their aspirations and fears. Only once we know ‘who’ we are dealing with can we hope to truly enable and support them. Otherwise, we are speaking for the sake of it and it falls on deaf ears.

They have a lot to do

Academics have a lot to do. Their time is precious. Generally, they are looking for things that will bring maximum benefit with limited input. they do not want to spend 6 months learning how to use a piece of technology to only use it once. They also don’t want to be shown something that’s hard to access. I watched a presentation the other day where the speaker was evangelising a piece of technology that only had 2 licences for the whole school. Don’t waste their time by showing them something they can’t easily access. Show them things that will save them time, will bring tangible benefits, that they can easily access, that is easy to learn and that is easily reused. It’s better not to show people things that will take hours for them to edit every time they need to make a change.

Be sensible. Be considerate. Be realistic.

Tech vs pedagogy first

I am an advocate of the pedagogy first approach however, there is still a place for technology first. I believe pedagogy first is best because teachers don’t necessarily want their time wasted hearing about an awesome piece of technology that simply does nothing for them. I saw a presentation the other day where at no point did the person presenting say WHY you would use the software, they failed to show any examples or, even when asked directly, present any evidence of the benefits. This is technology first at its worst, “here’s a shiny thing I like, I hope you think it’s shiny too”.

I know the feeling of disappointment having spent time showing people something, because you know it will help, but then they don’t use it. If they don’t see why they should use it and how they apply it to their practice they won’t use it. A big weapon in our arsenal is our memory for examples, “I have seen X used like this”. Examples are real, they can visualise it, they can understand it and apply it to themselves. If you don’t keep it real technology is just an abstract, albeit very shiny, concept.

Technology first works if you want to show people what’s out there. People don’t know what they don’t know. Tech first is a great way to inspire people. It’s a way in. What must be avoided is the sales pitch. We’ve all been to sessions where promotion equates to “it can do this, and this, oh and it can do this which is cool”. No, no, no. Show examples. The finished articles. If people want to know how to use it then come to a session on that. If we take the tech first approach it should be to inspire, to show the wealth of possibilities technology affords and to help staff keep abreast of the ever-changing technological landscape.

Technology is not the destination

Good teaching is the destination. A quality, effective learning experience is the destination. To steal the words of the brilliant Peter Bryant

Technology is just ONE way to enhance, support and perhaps bring efficiency.  I know staff who do not use technology at all in their teaching. Their students don’t mind and module evaluations reflect that. Should we sack them?

It is interesting that in some institutions money is readily invested in the support for digital technologies whilst less is investment is made in the support and enhancement of fundamental skills that underpin teaching. In some instances this support has been totally removed. With TEF on the way should we not be ensuring we have a strong foundation of teaching before we push staff to include technology?Poor teaching practice will not be improved by the use of technology, usually it draws more attention to it.

We are here to teach. If that teaching can involve technology in a way that supports it, enhances it, brings efficiency and is done appropriately, then brilliant. Too often I see technology shoe-horned in for the sake of it. No. Let’s change the conversation. Let’s stop making people feel like they have to use technology and start making people want to!

A Learning Technologists Dilemma

To lead or not to lead? That is the question. How radical can you be? That’s also a question. How much change is too much? That’s another question. To find our professional equilibrium we need to find the answers to these questions.

 

So why am I writing this post?

My colleague, and at work sanity saver, Marcus Elliott is leaving us at the end of this week. As he prepares to move on he has been considering his approach at his new institution in his post Singing along, but I don’t know the words.

If I went full ‘Marcus Mode’ from the beginning, instead of inspiring a throng of revolutionary educational change agents, I would probably scare people into their offices and they’d lock their doors. Marcus Elliott (2016)

He’s certainly not wrong, people on the whole have a tendency to avoid change. So this post contains my thoughts and advice on the subject of change and leadership.

To lead or not to lead?

Here I will defer to someone far more knowledgeable than myself. What Lawrie Phipps doesn’t know about change and leadership is not worth knowing. He has watched, advised on and been involved in hundreds of change projects in HE. His opinion is one I treat with deep reverence.

He recently directed me to a post he had written earlier this year, Leading Change in Libraries: A keynote for UXLibs 2 in which he talks about effective change and leadership.

One of the lessons that I have learnt from working in HE is that a lot of people abstain from leadership. Lawrie Phipps (2016)

He talks about the barriers we often cite as the reason for our not leading and completing our projects. I would call this phenomena the “them” effect. It’s very easy to use the “them” or the “that wouldn’t work here” excuse. I’ve said it. We’ve all said it. Sometimes there might be a tiny grain of truth in it.

We, understandably, often see barriers as ‘Them’. Lawrie Phipps (2016)

The one thing I have learned is if you can’t get it done, try doing it differently. If you’ve tried one angle, then try another until you find the right one. Find something that resonates with as many people as possible. Get them on board. Create what Lawrie calls a collective movement. After-all, if enough people agree with you (even better if they are ‘important’ people) then how can anyone argue with you?

This allows for leadership to be a collective movement, spreading and enabling a commitment to change projects. Lawrie Phipps (2016)

How radical can I be?

Marcus describes it as “full ‘Marcus mode'”. I rather enjoy full Marcus mode. His passion, his vision for education and his dedication to making education better are the things I respect most about him. He has shaped my views of education and is the major reason I no longer see myself as a passive member of the institution. I can and should want to make this a better place. Thankfully Marcus knows he is not alone. There are many like us out there who want to do good.

It is a reassuring feeling that “I’m not the only one”. Marcus Elliott (2016)

Amy Collier puts it perfectly in her post Chapter 3 WMTRBW #HortonFreire #OpenEd16. See also: The immorality of service organizations. The post resonated with me, it was like reading your own thoughts.

This is what keeps me up at night. I worry that too many people I admire because they broke the mold and too many centers for teaching who transformed themselves to be more critical, those people are either being squeezed out, or their groups are folding or centering because our campuses are hostile to critical approaches. Amy Collier (2016)

This is my worry, Marcus’s worry and the worry of so many others. If I push too hard, will I be pushed out? Its not an irrational fear. I have seen it happen. In trying to do good, to do the right thing, we somehow manage to annoy people and are told to simmer down or asked politely to leave. It’s totally illogical but people fear change, even if it’s for the right reasons, and they most definitely dislike anyone “sticking their noses” in.

How much change is too much?

That will depend on what you are trying to do, the people you need to involve and the institution that you work at. Surface change, as in change that on the surface looks like change but in reality will change nothing long term, always goes down well. Usually because it’s quick, easy, cheap and satisfies someones vanity. Real fundamental change is hard, takes time and commitment. Unfortunately, the stuff that will really make a difference is usually the stuff that gets enthusiastic nods in meetings but never actually happens. Lawrie cites an inspired analogy from Amber Thomas to explain it. I won’t ruin it for you, read his post.

So what is the answer? I’ll go on to describe a few things I do to keep myself sane.

Learn as much as you can

This is another piece of sage Lawrie Phipps advice. Find out as much as you can about the institution. Information is power. If you understand your institution, if you know all the players and you know all the history, you can make much more informed decisions. Your approach will be adapted to be most successful and you’ll know what you can and can’t get away with.

Working in isolation, from your colleagues, from your managers, and especially from the institutional aspirations and strategy will not create widespread change, in any context. It’s just another dead bird. Lawrie Phipps (2016)

Trying to instigate change without knowing anything is a lot like running in the dark. You can’t see where your going, you can’t see the detail of the topography and you will most likely end up running in to a lamppost. My advice is don’t just go running in with your great ideas and expect people to rally round. Take your time. time is something you have, buy-in is what you need.

Find a balance that will keep you sane

You cannot simply put aside your ideas or your ambition. You will end up frustrated and dissatisfied. What you must do is find something that will allow you to scratch that itch. It might not be the all singing all dancing project you imagined but it’s something and something is better than nothing. Little projects, that contribute to a larger goal, will help keep you sane.

Find a way to channel your energy

In a way this relates to my point above. If you can’t go big, channel your energy in to smaller, but nonetheless worthwhile, change projects. My advice for Marcus would be to continue to write. Become an advocate. His ideas are ones that should be shared, they are worth hearing and should never be locked away to die. Of course action is more satisfying but sometimes we have to work within our confines. Writing your ideas down is cathartic. It will help.

Play the long game

You might not be able to get what you want done in a week. That is a fact of life. Sometimes you have to accept that change will take time. Not only is this due to the slowness of change in HE but also because incremental change is often more effective.

you need to remember that Incremental, Cumulative change is also Transformative. Lawrie Phipps (2016)

Little things add up. Little things make a difference. Sometimes we have to put our egos aside to get things done.

Never give up

Most importantly I would ask you never to give up on what you want to achieve. You might have to put it aside for a while. You might have to scale it down. You might have to change it slightly to work. You might even have to chip away at it a little at a time. But the minute you give up “they” have won and you will feel rotten for it. Be dogged, be ambitious but most importantly be clever. You can do it, don’t give up.

You will note the feature image for this post. Will you chose the red door or a grey door? I’m more inclined to go for the red…

The VLE works just fine

But just because it does the job, doesn’t mean we can’t seek something better. Should discussions about next-gen digital learning environments be restricted by a “what we have now works” mentality?

The conversation so far

Jisc recently began a Co-design consultation which seeks the next big ideas on their six challenge areas. Details of the challenges and rationale behind the consultation can be found on the Jisc Co-design consultation 2016-17 page. The 2nd of the six challenges asks

What should the next generation of digital learning environments do? Jisc 2016

In response I wrote a blog post Why won’t the VLE die? in which I question why we still have VLEs despite the dissatisfaction that often surrounds them. I took part in a live debate, (I daren’t watch it back to see how much I waffled incoherently or the unflattering angle it was filmed from) which you can catch up on YouTube #codesign16 Learning Environments and Intelligent Campus. There have been lots of blogs on the subject of next-gen digital environments, my colleague Marcus Elliott puts forth his thought-provoking proposal for student centred systems in his blog Next generation digital learning environment – my thoughts.

Let’s put the student in the centre of our system. In fact, let’s put the student’s learning at the centre. Marcus Elliott 2016

Lawrie Phipps (Jisc) has collected some of the best posts in his blog #Codesign16: The story so far – Next Gen Digital Learning Environments.

I took part in a tweetchat today that encouraged me to write this follow-up blog. You can see the tweets under the #codesign16 hashtag. It lead me to respond to something that troubled me. The conversation seems to be in a loop. We keep returning to tech bashing, being restricted by the possibilities available to us now and not seeing a problem with what we have now. To me, we are missing the possibilities that bringing together so many great minds to discuss could offer.

We need a problem to solve

Do we? Where will “there’s nothing wrong with what we have now” get us? Well it’ll keep us exactly where we are now. There may not be a problem with the VLE, although the amount of dislike for them suggests otherwise, but do we really need a problem to solve to improve it? There’s no denying the VLE does a job, how well and what job it’s there to do is debatable.  Whilst I strongly believe technology should always be led by pedagogy there is an opportunity for technology to open up new ways of working and interacting. Donna summed it up nicely:

We need to free ourselves from problem = solution thinking. We are looking in to the future, what’s next, how do we prepare for that? What does that future look like for learning and teaching? We need to think big, dream big, otherwise we may as well not think at all. VLEs have remained largely unchanged since their inception. Clearly, they must be doing something right or it’s just we don’t know what the alternative is. I strongly believe we can and should strive for something better.

We’re stuck in the ‘what we have’ loop

Discussion keeps getting caught up in the ‘what we have’ loop. We are stuck in what we can do now. We shouldn’t limit our thinking just because what we want might not be technically possible now. I believe if you have the idea the tech will follow, to steal a phrase from a Kevin Costner classic “if you build it they will come”.

The features we have now are not important. What we want is important. It may be that what we want looks very similar to what we have now. There’s nothing wrong with that but lets not start out with that mentality. Forget what we have now, put it aside, think about what you could have if there were no barriers. That is what we are doing in this discussion, we are escaping the realm of possibility. It’s hard to think beyond what we have now, but to do anything meaningful, it must be done.

Tech bashing achieves nothing

Look a lot of us don’t like the VLE. A lot of us are frustrated by its shortcomings. But lamenting over its failings is not what this discussion is about. We can go over all the things that are wrong or right with the VLE but that ain’t gonna get us anywhere. It helps to think about shortcomings but only when followed by a solution. If you see something is wrong, what would you like to see instead? How would you solve it? How would you make it better? We can keep bashing the tech all day long but we need to get on with the job in hand.

What is it we think the VLE does?

I think we need to go back and think about this. Marcus does so nicely in his recent post Next generation digital learning environment – my thoughts. Here Marcus tries to go back to the essence of what a VLE should be for and he rethinks its focus and design to be student centred.

The next generation digital learning environment should be an enabler, not a service. It should allow us to join all these things together. The walls we built to keep our students in our existing VLEs need to be taken down – not just made a bit more porous. Marcus Elliott 2016

I would argue current VLEs do nothing more than replicate what we do in ‘real life’. Tests in class can be done online, papers handed in to an office are submitted online and conversations had face to face in class can be done in online discussion forums. Is this what we want? A replication of what we do? Or something that helps us think of new ways?

The VLE is essentially a piece of software nothing more, it has features, links to other services, internal and external, but it has somehow become a feature of the institution. One so powerful it should not be questioned. Some of us like it, some hate it, others tolerate it but we all (academics anyway) have to use it. Just because according to the ICT feature list it does the job, does not mean it can live in our universe unquestioned. We are held to ransom by its size and it’s power over us but that does not mean we should comply to its whims. We shouldn’t have to bend our teaching and learning strategies because “that’s the way the VLE works”. Perhaps the VLE should start bending to our whims and our needs. It can do better. It can do more. It can do what it does already better. So let’s stop having the same old conversation and start looking forward. What do you want it to become?

Digital = People

To find the next-gen learning environment we must focus on people. Not technology. Let’s look at what people want to do, how they want to interact with their students and how technology can support and facilitate that. If you want a problem concentrate on finding out what is stopping people from using tech and what is restricting their use. People are key. They use the tech. They are the priority.

Why won’t the VLE die?

Ever since the inception of the VLE it feels like we have been asking ourselves this question. We await the next generation, the technology that will save us all from the tyranny of the VLE. VLE (or LMS for my American friends) systems are a divisive technology in education. Some people hate them, others love them, most tolerate them. The benefits of their use are still questioned and explored. So if we’re not convinced that they are beneficial, why won’t they die?

If you haven’t read this post, titled Christ, I hate Blackboard written by user Davenoon please do.  Not only is it hilarious, it demonstrates the level of loathing the VLE can produce.

“These are the words, if I could shit them into being, that I would use to catalogue the depth of my loathing for Blackboard.” Davenoon 2014

The comments that follow the article demonstrate the dichotomy of feeling that surrounds the VLE. This post will not debate the virtues of Blackboard, Canvas or Moodle. What I am interested in is why we are still using them. How, given the speed of technical innovation in all other areas, the VLE remains very much unchanged from where it began.

We are asking the wrong question

We constantly ask what the next generation of each technology we use should do. Therein lies my issue, what it should do. What features it should have, what functionality we expect. But this narrows our thinking. Boils learning to a series of tasks and processes. Learning is much more complex than that.

So the question ought not to be why won’t the VLE die, what the next generation should do; rather what do we want to explore. What pedagogies? What teaching methods and strategies? How will technology support or enhance those things?

We allow ourselves to be technology lead

This point really relates to the one above. We spend so much time worrying about the technology, why it doesn’t work, why we hate it, what we want to see, what’s next, that we miss the most fundamental thing.

Technology use is about people. Technology would be nothing if we didn’t use it. It is that interaction between teacher, technology and student that we should be concentrating on. How can technology help to facilitate this interaction, how can it support or enhance it? We should ensure that the technology enhances, not detracts, from the humanity of the learning process.

Technology is created the wrong way

We are feature focused. Probably because that is the way our minds work. We think about activities, “I want students to do x”, because really most technologies just replicate what we do. They rarely fundamentally change our activities, they might make something easier, sometimes technology even enhances an activity but it’s rare that it replaces it entirely.

It’s hard to escape this way of thinking and I’m not smart enough to suggest how we can do it. It is easier to think about features, “I want to be able to do x”, as that is how we are conditioned. Imagine if we could. If our ideas were unbound from reality, to what currently exists and what is currently possible.

When VLEs were first created I’m sure they were answering a teaching need, chiefly the ease of access to materials for students, sadly since then ‘the problem’ appears to have been forgotten and what has been created seems to be a feature heavy unusable beast. Lots of features are being added without rationalisation or thought about how people actually use them or how they interact with ‘real world’ teaching.

We like things that reproduce what we already do.

VLEs were supposed to be a revolution. According to many the VLE would replace the lecture and, in the opinion of many doom mongers, the lecturer too. Students would all learn online without once meeting face to face and the University would crumble in to oblivion. That hasn’t happened (yet) and I can’t see any evidence of an appetite for that amongst the majority of the student body.

Neil Selwyn, in his 2013 book Digital Technology and the Contemporary University: Degrees of Digitization, describes technology as replicating what we do in the real world. The thought had never occurred to me but as I reflected I realised how true that is. We do in class tests, now we do them online. We used to hand in paper assignments, now we do that online. We ask students to discuss topics in class, now we use online discussion boards. We carry out our lectures and seminars online using video conferencing but we’re still largely following the same format as a face to face session, it’s just online. Yes in all of these examples the technology may have brought some efficiency or flexibility but it has made little fundamental change to our processes.

Change is easiest accepted when it’s incremental and I have always found explaining the use of technology easiest when I relate it to something people are already doing. I’m not entirely sure we are ready for a revolution.

Adoption is a matter of culture change

Even if we had something different. We would need to change the existing culture and processes. If you’ve ever introduced something new in to HE, you’ll feel the pain of this process. It is not quick, it’s not painless and it certainly isn’t easy.

Because we will never win

Even IF we could think of something different, some incredible revolutionary environment, I can absolutely guarantee someone would say it doesn’t work for them. It doesn’t suit their needs or their teaching style. So what we end up with is a bloated, mangled, customised behemoth to make sure that everyone is catered for. Then we receive complaints that it’s bloated, mangled and customised and no-one wants to use it.

In my experience, when it comes to technology, we are never going to win.

ICT dictate what we do

Related to the points below, ICT in my experience largely dictate what we can and can’t have. Rightly so, they need to make sure it works with their infrastructure, is sustainable and reliable. But why should we be shackled by their infrastructure? Should we be held back because they do not have the staff with the necessary skills?

Controversial I am sure but it has to be asked. Why do ICT think that they are experts on the learning process? On teaching? On students? They are the experts on technology, on infrastructure, networks etc. but they have limited experience in any other area. If this is what we need to move forward why should they be allowed to hold us back?

Other technologies hold us to ransom

Related to the point above the existing infrastructure will often not allow us to explore what we need to. We are limited by student management systems, timetable systems etc. that we want to plug-in to our environments but won’t work with one another. This is the ICT departments headache and one of the reasons they can be dictatorial about what we adopt.

Our processes hold us to ransom

Neil Selwyn describes the VLE as a tool of management and surveillance. Another way for management to keep an eye on teaching staff. Again, I had never thought of it that way. It helps to explain the scepticism and mistrust that surrounds it. As the VLE has become part of management it has resulted in a high number of processes being integrated with the VLE. In many instances the VLE has become an absolute necessity for these processes to be completed. Once a technology is part of a process it’s very difficult to remove it and even more difficult to persuade people that they can change it. We are creatures of habit.

We don’t like change

And mostly because…

change

 

When does inclusive practice become preferential treatment?

A recent Guardian Higher Education article titled It’s hard being a carer and a PhD student. My university couldn’t care less has inspired me to ask the question; when does inclusive practice become preferential treatment?

I love the Guardian Higher Ed articles, they are always thought-provoking. So what compelled me to write about this one in particular? I think it was how torn I felt when reading it. Based on the title I fully expected to sympathise with this student. I thought I would be compelled to vilify the University. That some terrible injustice had occurred. What I actually felt when reading it was not the overwhelming sympathy I expected.

The article

The article is written by a PHD student and parent to a disabled teenage son for whom they are a carer. They describe the incidents at school, the meetings and hospital appointments they have to manage as part of their sons care. However, they do feel that they are successful in their research but they have not been able to secure funding.

I am starting to win awards for my research and I feel like a success story. Almost. There’s just one problem: I can’t get funding.

In particular the student feels that they are being overlooked when applying for funding and that priority is being given to younger students with top grades and traditional academic backgrounds. They also feel under supported by their University and that the alternative funding routes are used as an excuse for universities not to support students in her situation.

This is discrimination and it is self-perpetuating. We only fund those who have already achieved, and we fund them to continue to achieve.

The student feels discriminated against. It’s a bold word to use and it is the accusation of discrimination that I wish to explore in this post.

The importance of inclusive practice

Let me start by clarifying that this post is not questioning the importance of inclusive practice. I wholeheartedly agree with the principle that all students should have an equal opportunity to excel in their studies.

Inclusive learning and teaching recognises all students’ entitlement to a learning experience that respects diversity, enables participation, removes barriers and anticipates and considers a variety of learning needs and preferences – HEA Academy

What I am questioning is the murky area that exists around inclusive practice. At what point does inclusive practice become preferential treatment. When does ensuring one student isn’t disadvantaged disadvantage the other students? Where is the line?

Support

Clearly the students University is not supporting carers and students in their situation. The student had to explain to every department student advice, student union, graduate school, vice deans and chaplain what a carer was and what that role entails. Rather than helping the student with the issue they were most concerned about, their study and their roles impact on their future, they helped the student with information on benefits. No department was able to help this student with advice on improving their funding applications or academic profile. Instead the student was pointed to the Alternative Funding Guide.

I had to tell them what a carer is. You get the picture. I was invisible

I can completely understand why this student is frustrated. The people who should be able to help are not. I can also see why the student feels being pointed at the Alternative Funding Guide is an easy way for the university to appear to be helping without actually having to help. It reminds me somewhat of the DSA. It’s existence meant we didn’t have to do anything, we had someone else we could fob students off to. The same appears to be the case here. Where can we fob this student off to rather than actually working to introduce the structures and processes that would actually help them.

Academic Achievement and Age

The main points raised were that the funding goes to ‘younger’ students with top grades and ‘traditional’ paths in to academia.

But the funding tends to go to students half my age with straight-A academic results – not to people like me, who have taken an unusual path to academia.

I have to ask what is wrong with that? The student asked why they were turned down for funding and was told it came down to academic results.

“it all comes down to stellar academic results”

This is where I lost sympathy. Funding is provided to support research of significance to its field, given to those who have a proven ability to complete that research to a high standard. Apparently that’s not written on the application forms? Surely someone who has chosen to work in the academic field knows how important academic achievements are?

They don’t say this on the application forms; it’s all about the originality of your project, your research statement, your supervisor’s supporting statement, the panel that considers you, the level of competition.

So even if it came down solely to the criteria listed above originality, research statement, supporting statements etc there is still a huge chance that the students work is not original enough perhaps their statements aren’t as strong as the other students. Perhaps the panel does not feel their area of research is as relevant to their field as another students.

The competition

So why shouldn’t the funding go to the students with the best record of achievement? They too work hard, they too have their own challenges and they deserve to be considered in the same way as all other students. A principle of inclusive practice is that all students should have the opportunity to excel. Yes, this students personal life may make that more difficult but she has the same opportunity to apply for funding as all the other students and should be measured on the same criteria as all other students.

So because this student has a difficult time should the other students miss out on the opportunity, miss out on the fruits of their hard work, because the students personal life and background is unusual. Should we just be giving them funding because they have had a hard time rather than because they actually deserve it?

Positive Discrimination

Would creating funding pools solely for students with diversity and inclusion characteristics be positive discrimination? Would we not be creating a system that favours those students over others. We’re not supposed to discriminate against anyone.

In conclusion

I really found this article divisive. On one hand I felt the student should be getting funding and their circumstances should be considered. But on the other hand, the student is seeking funding alongside students, who for all they know, may have challenges themselves. Sometimes in life you simply have to acknowledge that other people are better than you. Perhaps their circumstances mean they can’t apply themselves in the same way as some of their competition. But that doesn’t mean they should be favoured over the others. We are in academia. Academic skills count.

Funding applications are like job applications. Are you the best person on the day? If you’re not you just have to live with it. That is life.

So what do you think? Where does inclusive practice become preferential treatment?

Our Digital Capabilities Journey

I am passionate about staff and students being supported to develop their digital capabilities. So I thought I’d write a follow-up to the presentation Marcus Elliott and I gave at ALT Conference 2016 ‘Creativity takes courage and digital capability‘. I’ll provide some extra detail that we couldn’t include and answer some of the questions that arose.

Why did we start the digital capabilities project?

So what made us start this journey? I’ve always been interested in supporting staff to use technology properly.  Having spent my entire career trying to encourage staff to use it, training them to use it and seeing first hand the mixture of ability levels, I realised we really need to do more. What we could do and how was not so clear.

Marcus and I attended a lot of conferences over the past two years where digital capabilities were discussed. Jisc Digifest, UCISA’s Spotlight on Digital Capabilities and we were lucky enough to get a place on the Jisc Digital Leaders Programme. What attending these conferences gave us were many ideas and approaches we could take back. They convinced me more and more that we weren’t doing enough

So is it the responsibility of the institution? Or, should staff be making sure they are fit to work? These are questions that have been raised a couple of times. I wrote a blog along these lines a while ago Should we employ staff who don’t have digital skills? To me there is an equal responsibility, staff should take responsibility but the institution should ensure the opportunity to develop is available. We strive to ensure our students leave here with more skills and aptitudes than they arrived with, shouldn’t the same apply to our staff? An institution dedicated to developing their staff is one that will attract and keep the best staff. As the featured image for this post says

Passion led us here

What did we do?

  1. The project began very informally. Marcus and I had many conversations about digital capabilities and I had always been shocked at how little support there was at the University. So I decided to take the bull by the horns and spoke to my manager. I told her we needed to do something, I told her about the experiences Marcus and I have had dealing with staff and the huge leap using technology is for some staff. Luckily she was very open to the idea and agreed to use her influence to gather a group.
  2. We brought together representatives from Educational Development, ICT, HR, Library, Student Services, a representative from all colleges and other interested parties. I presented the Jisc project and emphasised the impact of digital identity and well-being. I have always felt that senior management know that support surrounding technologies are important but often other considerations drop this issue to the bottom of the pile. When we leverage digital capability to the impact on well-being and identity we create a better more persuasive argument. If you can link it to real world examples, for example we had a student who did something naughty on social media, it becomes even more pertinent. Everyone agreed that we needed to do ‘something’ and a group was formed.
  3. We formed the Digital Capabilities Group and began to consider what we could do to make a quick impact.
  4. We decided to pilot Lynda.com. A number of schools were paying for a licence and it seemed wasteful to spend almost as much per school as it would be to have a site licence given the difference was nominal. The added value for staff and students seemed huge so we asked 100 staff and students from across the University to consider how Lynda.com could be used to support their personal development, their students and in their teaching. We had very positive responses and we hope to secure the funds to roll it out for September 2017.
  5. We had been considering how we might gather a baseline of capabilities across the University and were toying with the idea of creating a needs analysis survey. We looked at a few drafts but found they tended to be full of questions about specific software and features. Lots of questions like “are you confident using x”. It was too constraining. Technology changes all the time, list one application in a survey and the next day there’s a replacement. We didn’t want to know whether they could use Microsoft Word, what we were looking for was whether they were capable of handling the changes. Did they have the broad capabilities to handle a variety of technologies. So when we heard at the Jisc Digital Leaders Programme that Jisc had developed a beta discovery tool we were very excited! James Clay, project manager for the building digital capability R&D project, visited us and talked us through the plans for the tool. It was in beta when we joined the pilot and there were a number of improvements that would be made to it in the future. We were sold!
  6. James created an instance of the tool for us. We crafted a carefully worded email and sent it out to all staff. We asked a senior member of staff to send it out in the hope it would have more gravitas and we titled it “How digital are you?”. The title was really hard to decide on. I’m still not sure it worked but we didn’t want some tedious title that people would scroll past. We left the tool open for 2 weeks and sent out a follow-up email to encourage the last few people to complete the tool (although that email was sent about an hour before it closed on the last day, thanks Marketing). We had 422 respondents which equated to a 25% response rate at the time. All participants completed the tool which shows it wasn’t too onerous to complete. We were really happy with the response given we did no promotion whatsoever! We received some helpful feedback which we passed on to Jisc and they have improved the tool based on the feedback from all the pilots.
  7. We interpreted our results, with the help of James, and have a list of areas we know we need to work on. For example there is work to do around the benefits of social media, copyright and open content etc. Overall we were really pleased with how capable our staff are the results showed we had staff who were willing to try to resolve technical issues themselves, who saw the benefit of collaborative working tools and are interested in new technologies. Obviously I understand that 25% is hardly representative of the entire university but it has given us some areas for development and an insight in to our staff.

How does the Jisc Tool work?

The tool is completely anonymous the only identifying information is in the designation of the type of role and area of work the user selects before they begin. They can select whether they are in an academic or profession role in FE or HE etc. There are currently 48 questions in the tool grouped in to the areas of capability from the 6 elements framework. There are four options per question each assigned a weighting from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Once submitted the results create a graph which shows the level of capability in each of the areas. The results also provide some recommendations which help to give staff ideas on how they might improve that area of capability. In the future we will be able to link to our own resources, 3rd party resources and even lynda.com tutorials. Participants can then send the results to themselves. We received the results from the whole survey in an Excel spreadsheet but Jisc are developing a results dashboard which should help to make the interpretation and access to the data.

Jisc Discovery Tool or build your own?

So should you use Jisc’s Discovery Tool or make your own?

That entirely depends on what you want to know. If you want a list of they can or can’t do this then make your own. The Jisc tool does not give you the answers it’s very much about interpretation of the data and understanding what the questions mean. We were lucky that James was able to help us interpret our results, otherwise I am not sure we would have got as much from it as we did. The tool has improved vastly since we used it and I’m excited to try it next year. For example we would like to be able to better narrow down the areas in the university the respondents are from and that feature has been added without losing the anonymity. It’s also nice to compare yourself against other institutions.

Personally I think the Jisc tool offers something that would be hard to replicate in-house. Firstly it’s hosted and maintained by Jisc so you don’t have to worry about development costs and maintenance etc. Also they have avoided the pitfall of getting caught up in the ‘can you’ type questions. It’s also based on research within in the sector so you know you are getting something that has been rigorously tested and  researched.

What is the future?

We need to get the hidden 75% how are we going to do that? I don’t really know. We’ve had a lot of changes her so the future is uncertain at the moment. The University is committed to improving digital capabilities and that is wonderful to see. I think our work will be formalised and a more coherent plan of what we will be doing will emerge. The group will be changed and membership widened to ensure that as many staff and students are represented as possible.

I think the Discovery Tool will continue to be improved and we will use it again next year.

Things to consider

Digital capabilities are not a quick fix. They are complex. They are time-consuming. There is no one size fits all solution. If you’re going to start something you have to be committed and doggedly determined. You’re going to have to push and keep pushing to make sure it doesn’t lose momentum. You’re gonna have to be prepared, and prepare others, for a long piece of work. This isn’t something you can fix in a year-long project. It’s a lot more complex than increasing your CPD offerings. The institution needs to be committed both in time and financially to making a difference. Focus on small initiatives that you can achieve quickly (senior management like to measure progress right?) whilst keeping the huge goal in mind. Get the right people involved who will support you, you can’t do it alone.

If I could leave you with one piece of advice it would be that you only need one person to join you in your fight. That one person needs to be the right person, someone with influence, but once you have them you’re set. Get one and the others will follow.  Check out this lesson in leadership

Further reading

There is sooo much I could link to so I’ve tried to gather a few of the thought-provoking ones I have read:

Building digital capability project

Jisc digital capability codesign challenge blog

Sarah Davies: So what’s the challenge?

James Clay: Engaging the invisibles

James Clay: It’s still not easy

Sue Watling : The invisible tribes and territories of the TEL-People

Marcus Elliott: How PAW Patrol saved my life

Lawrie Phipps: Mapping for Change

Lawrie Phipps: Perspectives on Digital: Change isn’t coming, it’s here and it’s permanent

Donna Lanclos: Ta Dah! The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Doing a Visitors and Residents Workshop

Dave White: Visitors & Residents – navigate the mapping

Peter Bryant: It doesn’t matter what is in your hands

Helen Beetham: Framing digital capabilities for staff – deliverables

Helen Beetham: What is ‘Digital Wellbeing’?

Helen Beetham: Revisiting digital capability for 2015

Kerry Pinny: What is institutional digital capability?

Kerry Pinny: But what about staff that wont or don’t want to engage in cpd?

Kerry Pinny: Stop moaning, start doing