#OpenBlog19 Are we the baddies?

Baddies

I’ve been thinking a lot about critical digital literacies and how I, as a supplier and ‘evangelist’, balance my professional role and my personal views. It has lead me to ask “are we the baddies?”.

Before you read on, watch this brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch:

I don’t have a cap with skulls on…

Who’s we?

Well, I suppose I’m talking about those of us who make decisions about technologies, promote technologies or supply them. Particularly, institutionally-provided technologies. Those of us in the dreaded center *insert villainous laugh here*.

I am a supplier of services. Those services involve technologies. I am party to, although rarely the ultimate decision maker on which technologies are implemented at my institution. I am a peddler of technological wares. My job is to ‘encourage’ people to use them. I am judged/measured on that usage. If I had a £ for every time someone asked ‘how many people actually use X’, I wouldn’t work at a University, I’d own it.

What are critical digital literacies?

5 dimensions of critical digital literacy – developed by
Juliet Hinrichsen and Antony Coombs at the University of Greenwich. Taken from Teachthought.com

Critical digital literacy is a broad church but I rather like the model above or at least it’s a good place to start. To do a poor job at paraphrasing, digital literacy is the understanding, analysis and reflection on digital tools, data and information. It’s about context in every sense of the word. It’s about ownership and motive. It’s about critical reflection. I once heard Teresa MacKinnon describe critical digital literacy as “digital wisdom”. I rather like that.

A recurring HE conversation is around Turnitin and it’s use of student data and intellectual property. For more background, and a far better exploration of the issue, see Jesse Stommel‘s article A Guide for Resisting Edtech: the Case against Turnitin. I weighed in on Twitter and it is on Turnitin that I will focus in the rest of this post.

Further Reading:

ALT West Midlands – Resources and Presentations

Jesse StommelCritical Digital Pedagogy: A Definition

LSE Blog by Gianfranco Polizzi – Critical digital literacy: ten key readings for our distrustful media age

“Just following orders”

Forgive the over the top analogy but sometimes an unsubtle point has greater impact.

I encourage, and if the University mandated it would have to enforce, the use of Turnitin.

My professional head says, for the reasons outlined in my tweets, we can’t just stop using it. Which forces me to ask:

Are we the baddies?

Am I complicit in something that is, to my critical heart, ‘wrong’? Am I forcing people to use something against their better judgement? Can I stand idly by and say I’m just following orders?

This is where I become frustrated with critical digital literacy discourse. We can all wag the finger and say “you shouldn’t do that”. We can all say that company is bad and we should boycott it. There needs to be more in the discourse to consider the impact of ‘practicalities’ (things we must do) with the things we’d like to do. We make choices in our personal lives daily. Which technologies we use and how much we’re willing to compromise to use them. Personal data being a perfect example, there’s no such thing as free, read the Ts & Cs. The same applies to Turnitin. It doesn’t work as well without a pool of student essays, therefore, to get the benefit they have to be relinquished. We could argue about what they do with them afterwards but I’m not going to here. Other people have done it better. I’m merely illustrating the point that technologies often come with an inherent compromise.

Anne-Marie Scott wrote a brilliant and thought provoking blog on the recent sale of Turnitin and a student’s understanding of how they make their money. Read Meaningful Networking here. It was this post and discussions at ALT West Midlands that made me sit down and start thinking about this.

Sometimes my critical heart has to take a backseat to my professional head. Something needs to be done and I have to do it.

What I need is alternatives. I need collective action. I need an education sector who has the power to change company policy. I need some way for my critical heart to intervene in decision making.

So I’ll leave it hanging here, like a fart in a lift.

Are we the baddies?

This blog was written in response to Amber Thomas‘s call for #openblog19 posts. See Amber’s Change and Transformation contribution here.

Impostor Syndrome is a Superpower

Impostor Syndrome (IS) is a ‘phenomena’ in which an individual doubts their abilities and lives in fear of being exposed as a fraud. Severity varies between individuals but impostor syndrome is perceived as negative. Ironically, as a shortcoming. I propose embracing your impostor syndrome. Your doubt is your strength.

This is my first post in 2019 and I thought, to make a change, I would write something positive.

Forbes released a good piece on this recently “Why Imposter Syndrome Is A Good Thing“. I have meant to write a post on this for some time, so here we go. (Annoyed I spelled it wrong in the tweet but NVM)

What is impostor syndrome?

I can only describe how IS manifests itself in me. It’s not something I feel all the time. It’s certainly not something I am always consciously thinking about but when I do, I have noticed a physiological reaction. If you’ve ever thought you’d lost your phone, then found it in a pocket other than the usual one, you will know what I mean. It’s a kind of dropping sensation in the pit of your stomach. Fleeting but palpable. Like a load of adrenaline has been released in to your system all at once.

Then comes a brief but all-consuming wave of self-doubt. “You’re rubbish”, “you’re going to screw this up”, “you’ve no idea what you’re doing”, “how did you even get this job” and other similarly critical thoughts.

I feel IS most acutely in relation to my management skills. I’m new to line management so this is an area I’m particularly conscious of. I think management is an area where it’s very easy for you (and for others to make you) feel deficient.

What makes impostor syndrome particularly troubling, is the ingrained belief that everyone else knows it, is saying it behind your back and will at some point (they are waiting for when it would be most devastating/embarrassing) expose you for the incompetent fraud you are.

How IS manifests itself in Learning Technologists

I think learning technologists are particularly susceptible to IS. We constantly compare ourselves to other people and institutions. We have awards, qualifications, publications/research and conferences that make us feel inferior. “I don’t have X qualification”, “I’ve never won X award”, “I’ve never written a book/journal/done research” and “I’ve never been asked to speak/keynote at X conference”. These are all measures of success in our world and we presume, if we’re not doing any of them, we’re not worthy of the learning technologist title. Don’t underestimate the value of good, solid hard groundwork. Not everything needs to be innovative or disruptive.

There is also the issue that nobody quite knows what a learning technologist is. We all have different titles, areas of responsibility and levels of technical skills. With such an undefinable role, is it really surprising that we question whether ‘we are one’ or not? There’s no ideal. No shining paragon of how to do this job. Revel in your accomplishments, however small they may feel. That’s the good stuff.

Why we need to re-frame IS

Not everything in life is a problem to be solved. Not everything is a weakness that we need to eliminate to succeed. We need to re-frame IS so it doesn’t control and consume us. IS shouldn’t hold us back. It shouldn’t make us cautious to the point of paralysis. Instead, we should look at it for what it is.

Impostor syndrome is not a fault in an individual.

We should also consider that IS is exacerbated and caused, by external factors. By societal expectations or behaviours. It can be born of workplace culture. It can simply be caused by the way other people treat us. I could name three people right now who I feel consciously and deliberately contribute to my work IS. Some people get a kick out of making other people’s lives difficult. Some people draw their power from dragging down other people. Some people are just dicks. IS should not be framed as a problem of the individual, instead we should be asking why our colleagues, friends etc., feel IS at all. What is causing it? Who is causing it? Is there a culture that perpetuates it? What’s the root cause? IS is being pinned on the individual as something they have to deal with, to avoid the more difficult and worthwhile task, of finding and dealing with the root cause.

Put far more eloquently here by Rosie and Valorie. Great comments follow.

Consider the opposite. What would someone devoid of impostor syndrome be? I imagine they’d be an insufferable egomaniac with little self-awareness. I bet we’ve all met someone like that. I don’t want to be like that.

IS causes a lot of positive behaviours (although they are born in a negative place) that we should embrace.

IS as a positive trait

Here are a few reasons, I think IS is a positive thing.

  • You are empathic, you care about other people and your impact on them,
  • You are able, and willing, to reflect on what you do,
  • You are self-aware, you think about who you are, what you’re doing and what impact you have,
  • You care about doing a good job,
  • You strive to improve.

There’s a belief that without confidence you can’t succeed. There’s some truth in that. You do need the confidence to push yourself to take risks but I would argue feeling IS means you’re already doing that. Confidence can often be accompanied by lethargy. If you’re in your comfort zone, what are you learning? How are you challenging yourself? There’s nothing to be gained in your comfort zone.

If you’re feeling IS, it’s because you’re pushing yourself, it’s because you’re challenged and that is something to be proud of.

If you’re feeling IS, it’s because you care about what you’re doing. Don’t underestimate the value of that!

How to cope with IS

First, embrace it. Don’t try to fight it, see it for what it is and make sure you put it in perspective. Are you really the worst? Are you really that terrible?

Remember, everyone has to do something for the first time. No one’s born with all the necessary skills and experience to do everything in life. So why should you be any different?

Find a confidant. I’m really lucky that I work for, and with, people who I am comfortable saying that “I’m struggling”, “I need support” or “am nervous” about doing something. I’m equally lucky to work for, and with, people who would want to help me not shame or abandon me. I also have a lovely network of other people in similar positions to me who I can go to for advice, help or for a good rant. I think this is so important. Bottling these feelings up won’t do you any good so find someone who you can talk to about it. It really is cathartic!

Get to the root of the problem. Is it you? Or is it something else? Is it a combination of many things? Once you know the root of it, you can see it for what it is.

If you’re feeling IS, go and put your (clean) pants over your trousers/tights.

We need to talk about Jisc

See Speak Hear

Jisc has been a huge part of my personal and professional development. Jisc offers us access to a wealth of expertise and has created networks of professionals that would otherwise be unlikely to exist. But in the last year or so, I have begun to worry about what Jisc is becoming.

Like all things in the public sector, Jisc are having to reduce their costs and align to other external priorities. Which is likely one of the main reasons for the change in the organisation that are visible to those who work closest with it, and rely on it.

Let me be very clear. This is not an attack on the individuals who work in Jisc who, in my experience, are extremely dedicated, hard working and knowledgeable. They continue to work to aid the sector but like all of us, they are subject to the priorities and values of their employer. When they change, they must change with it.

We are not blameless either. For years we greedily lapped up their funding and, more often than not, did very little of value with it. We took and took and took. We benefited from their experience, from their networks and their prominence.

I was one of these of people. I have benefited from their free pilots, their development programmes, from their free visits and most of all, from their expertise. I have taken everything I can and given nothing back.

The irony is, we’ve taken everything we can get but the minute Jisc asked us to pay for some stuff, we lost our sh*t. We became so used to taking from them. “But Jisc stuff has always been free” we exclaimed. “Where’s the funding? Surely, there’s some funding? Won’t somebody think of the funding?” we cried. I defended Jisc when they began charging for a VERY worthwhile development programme. I have no problem with that and Jisc should be able to charge a reasonable amount for this aspect of their work.

They have now moved in to being a service provider and charging for those services and this is where I become troubled.

Jisc has some…interesting…partnerships with vendors.

Jisc feels like a vendor.

If you want to know how I feel about vendors, read this.

Take for instance, the Digital Capability tool. I used it, read about that here, and found it useful. We raised some good conversation, we found out some useful information. We had a 25% response rate. Feedback was mixed. It hasn’t changed much since. Would I pay for it? No. (I’m not speaking on behalf of my institution here, after all, who’s going to listen to me!?) It’s a survey with ‘personalised’ results. Yes, you can customise it, bla bla bla but it doesn’t do anything I couldn’t do. I would rather spend the money on doing something about the things I already know need attention. I know there are areas for improvement, what could it tell me that I don’t already know? What does it tell staff? Our feedback was, not a lot. Jisc has fallen in to using the ‘problematise a thing and make a thing to fix it’ technique of the vendor. The project was built on sound research by people I respect. They continue to work hard. If this were the old Jisc and a vendor were peddling this solution, would they support it? I don’t think they would.

I valued that Jisc was on our side, they represented us and fought for our interests. Now, I feel their interests are in making profit whether or not that’s in our best interest.

I valued Jisc’s impartiality. Now, I feel their need for profit has put impartiality at the bottom of their list of priorities.

I valued Jisc’s criticality. They wouldn’t recommend something they didn’t believe in themselves. I don’t think that’s the case now. It’s all a forced positive message. Even the people involved with them temper their criticism when talking about projects they’ve been working on.

I valued Jisc’s knowledge. Where is the understanding of higher ed, where is the scholarly approach, where is the grounded thought leadership? Where have all the people who worked in education gone?

I valued Jisc events. I have been to many Jisc events over the years and there was always an element of self-promotion. Rightly so, since they were funding them for free. But now there’s more sales than value. It’s soundbytes, stats and the same faces.

I’m sorry to be so blunt but I miss the old Jisc. I worry about the talented people who work there and most of all, I worry that education is losing one of its most important allies.

*** This post reflects my views only.

You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps

There is a knack to applying for jobs in Higher Education. I’ve been involved in several vacancies this year from short listing and interviewing, so I thought it might be helpful to write down some of the pitfalls applicants fall in to.

This is also a cathartic exercise. There is something incredibly frustrating about a candidate who should be interviewed missing out because of a poor application.

Whilst there will be advice that can be applied to any role in any sector, I am solely talking about professional or support service roles in Learning Technology/ICT.

Seek and ye shall find…

The best place to look is jobs.ac.uk as it provides the broadest and most comprehensive list of vacancies across HE, FE and beyond. It is split in to disciplines/field as well as department/job areas so you can really hone in on your expert areas. If you have a specific institution in mind, sign up to that institutions job alerts (most have them).

Not all Universities are created equal…

Do your research. More to follow…

Money is the root of all evil…

University salaries are based on pay/grade scales. For example, a role could be advertised at Grade 5. It may be advertised like this “Grade 5 starting from £25,000 rising to £32,000. What this generally means is the grade starts at £25k and will go up a scale point each year until you reach the top of the grade at £32k. The grade numbering/lettering and boundaries differ from one University to the other so a grade 5 in one university won’t necessarily be the same as a grade 5 in another.

A mistake applicants often make, is thinking that salaries are negotiable. On the whole, for professional/support services, there is little to no room to maneuver. Most Universities will have a policy of starting you at the starting scale point of the grade. Unless you are an incredibly impressive candidate, you’re unlikely to be able to push them any higher. If you do, it’s likely to be a scale point or two at most.

There are reward and recognition schemes but you’re unlikely to receive any bonuses or performance pay. You don’t get to renegotiate your salary every year. If you think you deserve a pay increase or a regrade to the next grade, you are going to have to have some very strong evidence to demonstrate why. It’s never a guarantee.

If you’re paid £50k a year and the job is advertised at £30k, assume you will be paid ~£30k. Don’t waste people’s time applying for a job at a salary level you aren’t able or willing to accept.

The devil is in the detail…

READ THE WHOLE ADVERT. READ THE PERSON SPECIFICATION. READ THE ROLE DESCRIPTION. PAY ATTENTION TO ESSENTIAL AND DESIRABLE CRITERIA.

I’ve seen a lot of applications, and even interviews, where the applicant clearly has no idea what they applied for or has totally misunderstood the role.

The person specification will detail what kind of person they are seeking. What are the skills, qualifications, attributes and experience they are seeking which could be split in to essential and desirable criteria. In short, if you don’t meet all of the essential criteria you’re unlikely to be shortlisted for interview. Desirable criteria are things they’d like the role holder to have but are not essential to the role, so they might give you an advantage over another candidate but they shouldn’t stop you from applying.

Most adverts have a suggested contact who you can get in touch with to discuss the role so if you’re not 100% sure, get in contact.

Forms, forms everywhere…

If you decide to apply, prepare yourself for a long ass form. Most universities will use an online system but not all. There’s a lot to fill in so make sure you leave yourself time. The most important part of any application is the personal statement.

Up close and personal…

If I could, I would scream this in to the face of every applicant. THE PERSONAL STATEMENT IS REALLY IMPORTANT.

The personal statement is your opportunity to demonstrate how your experience and skills are relevant to the role. The key here is relevance to the role. It doesn’t matter if you can swim 100 meters without arm bands if the job you’re applying for is in software development.

Top tips:

  • Everything you say should demonstrate how you meet the essential and desirable criteria.
  • If it’s not relevant, don’t put it in.
  • Structure your statement based on the essential and desirable criteria.
  • Back up everything you say with an example from your work.

Let’s look at an example. An essential criteria is “Experience of software development”. Which is the stronger of the two statements:

I have extensive experience in software development.

I have extensive experience in software development. I recently developed a piece of software which…

The latter is the strongest statement because you are directly referencing the criteria whilst backing it up with an example.

In a non-competitive recruitment you may get away with the former statement. However, if you are up against a lot of candidates, the second statement will pus you higher up the invitation list.

I can’t stress this enough. Make sure the statement covers all of the essential and desirable criteria. For a higher chance of securing an interview, make sure you back everything up with examples. Your invitation to interview relies on your personal statement.

Pudding is in the proof…

Please, if you take away nothing else, pay attention to this. Proofread your application.

We all copy and paste applications but you must read it afterward. Make sure what you’ve used is still relevant to THIS application. You may need to reword it to make sure it fits. We can tell when someone has just thrown something in from elsewhere especially when the formatting makes that obvious.

Spelling and grammatical errors are to some extent, forgivable. But don’t think they’ll go unnoticed. If you’re communication is that poor, it’s hard to overlook. I’ve read applications where someone has used text message abbreviations. I mean WTF? I mean TBH we’re unlikely to consider you a credible candidate. ROFL.  

Please also get the name of the institution or sector right. you’d be surprised how many applicants are keen for a career in the NHS. If you’ve not bothered to check

Not checking your application, says a lot about you.

Failure to prepare is preparing to fail…

If you’ve been selected for interview, now is the time to research the job, the institution, the local area, the people on the panel. If it’s a technical role try to find out what technology is in use. Preparation like this, really impresses a panel.

There’s no excuse for not knowing information that’s publicly available. I find it very irritating when a candidate has done no research. 

Interview with the vampire…

Interviews are designed to suck as much information from you as possible. The idea, however flawed, is to ask questions to ascertain whether your knowledge, experience and skills demonstrate that you are suitable for the role.

The interview panel will ask you a series of predetermined questions. Part of your interview may include a presentation or test which will be detailed in your invitation. You may be able to prep before the interview or time is often allocated on the day. You may have no prior warning about what you’re going to be asked to do so this is where your research will pay dividends.

Top tips for presentations:

  • Make sure you understand what you’re being asked to do
  • Stick to the time limit
  • Refine it to your key points
  • In slide design, less is more
  • Practice, practice, practice.

Presentations are designed to assess not only what you’re saying but also how you’re saying it. Your body language, tone of voice and language you use will all be taken in to account. Clarity is key. You may only have a short time to get across the information so make sure you prioritise the most important points. You don’t want to be filling the last 30 seconds with as much as you can. If you’re including slides or any other presentation media, make sure they are concise and clear. None wants a 1000 word essay on a slide. I like to use presentations solely as a reminder for me about what I need to say next, highlighting my key point only.

If you can practice, practice. Your communication skills, under pressure, are being scrutinised so practice will help you to calm down. Practice will help you articulate what you want to say.

Tests are more difficult to predict or prepare for. They might be scenario based “what would you do if”, data based “what does this data tell you” or technical “how would you fix X” ” if a user has X issue, what would you do?”. 

Something else you can do, that helps you to feel prepared, is write down the kinds of questions you might be asked and how you would answer it. Some of this work can be done as part of the your evidence in the personal statement. Write down projects you’ve worked on, work your proud of, work you’ve found challenging. Think about teams you’ve been in, what worked well, what were the challenges. Always think about what you’d do differently, especially where there was a challenge. By all means write it down and bring it to the interview, have a read through before you go in, but don’t plonk it on the table and spend the entire interview staring at it.

You will have the opportunity to ask questions at the end so consider carefully what you’d like to know. This is your opportunity to find out more about the role so use it. Although there’s no requirement to ask questions, it’s always a bit of a mystery why people don’t. If nothing else asking questions shows you’re interested and that you’ve taken the time to think about what you’d like to know.

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it

There is a balance between saying too much and too little. Candidates who ramble on without getting to the point, don’t get very far; nor do candidates who give short curt answers.

Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity…

Whether you get a job depends on lots of things. You can’t do anything about the competition your up against all you can control is your application and interview. Those are all down to you.

If your application is poor, that’s on you.

If you don’t mention something that might have got you the job, that’s on you. (The panel isn’t psychic)

If you say too much, or too little, that’s on you.

If you didn’t prepare, that’s on you.

It’s about what you know, not who you know…

This is a note for internal candidates. Just because the panel knows you, just because you work in the same place, doesn’t mean you can get away with any of the above. Although I’m sure there’s a fair amount of dodgy dealings that do go on, you will be treated like any other candidate. So approach the interview as though no one knows you and you don’t work in the same place. don’t fall in to the trap of failing to explain something. Answers without evidence are going to do you no favours! If you’re internal, you have fewer excuses so don’t expect to walk in to jobs.

Missed Opportunities

The Thin Negative Line

If you went to this years ALT conference, you may have noticed the “EdTech will not save you” badges worn by delegates. Unsurprisingly, given the audience of ALT, they were met with some criticism (ironic). This post relates to the thin line we tread between critique and negativity.

‘tech wont save us’ brings unwarranted negative connotation. Be critical, not extreme. 

I won’t say who said this but I bet you can guess what industry they work in.

Where’s the line?

I’ve written about this rather tedious attitude in The Criticism of Criticism blog post. This reductive idea that criticism, if you don’t agree with it, is negativity and should, therefore, be dismissed. Technology it seems, is beyond reproach. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. I think describing the badges as extreme is ridiculous because it’s actually true. EdTech will not save us.

So what’s the point?

This is purely my interpretation, you would have to ask Lawrie Phipps and Donna Lanclos to explain the ideas behind the badges for accuracy, but it relates to the positioning of edtech. Edtech has for many years, been positioned (by us and vendors alike) as a solution to teaching and learning ‘problems’. As a quick and easy means of  improvement. Teaching and learning is not a problem to be solved and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

Vendors are their own worst enemies

Vendors of EdTech products like to posit their wares as solutions to problems you didn’t even know you had. They like to appropriate pedagogical language and, to some extent, have been surreptitiously driving the development of digital pedagogy. For some reason, we’re not worried about that. Similar to handing over our data to a faceless company for the affordances of their technology we continue to feed this industry despite the damage we may do ourselves and our discipline.  They like to speak to senior management, the people with the £, and espouse how their tool will revolutionise the institution. They peddle their snake oil with outlandish promises that their technology will save us. It won’t, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

Digital placebos

Very much linked to the above, some senior management see technology as a solution to problems (even without the influence of vendors) that are long, hard and messy to improve. Instead of investing the organisational development, instead of fighting those long and hard battles and rather than tackle a culture, technology can be seen as a quick fix. Problems with assessment? Slap a bit of tech on it. Problems with student retention? Slap a bit of tech on it. All this does is mask a problem. All it is is a placebo. It makes people feel better whilst nothing is actually happening to the route cause. Of course this is a generalisation and technology can bring genuine improvements, but that’s not always where or how it’s used. We walk around ALT C patting ourselves on the back and reveling in our ‘achievements’. Only a few ask the really important questions about whether what we are doing is good or right or ethical. A placebo may make us feel better but it’s not solving anything, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

Calls to action

Sometimes you have to be blunt. Sometimes, a point is better made simply. Sometimes, caveats and context get in the way of the point. If the badge said “EdTech is useful and a positive benefit in many situations but we should make sure we are critical of it and the motivations behind it” it wouldn’t have had the same impact. Also, it would be a massive badge. Provocative statements make you think, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE

There are negatives 

There are lots of negatives around technology. if yo can’t acknowledge them, then you’re fooling yourself. Negativity is warranted, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

I will wear mine with pride.

*Image credit Lawrie Phipps, 2018

“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…

Happy Galentines day!

So, I’m a bit late to the party but better late than never. This post is a dedication to my Galentines, the women I admire and who inspire me.

Amber Thomas

Patient. Caring. Persistent. Smart AF. Advisor. Confidente. Advocate. Has shown faith in my abilities that I aim to deserve.

Rosie Hare

As awesome in person as online. The living embodiment of Leslie Knope. Advisor. Gossip buddy. Crushing libraries one day at a time.

Donna Lanclos

Knows her own mind. Not afraid to say what she thinks. Strong. Kicking ass and taking names internationally.

Ann-Marie Scott

Filthy and irreverent. Kindred ranter. Smashing all things TEL north of the border.

Sally Bogg

Hard working. Tenacious. Inspirational AF! Killing it (it being IT) all damn day.

Karin Crawford

Hard working. Patient. Intelligent. Supportive. Formative AF!

Kelly Sisson

Works harder than she should. Cares too much. The teacher I aspire to be. Dedicated AF!

Aileen Morris

Nutter. Loving to a fault. Unwavering beliefs. A teaching and learning encyclopedia. Just awesome.

Sue Watling

Clever. Calm. Gentle. Thoughtful. Endlessly curious. A beautiful soul.

I’ve probably forgotten a lot of people. Please forgive me, it was not deliberate.

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.