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

A woman in tech

I am a woman in tech. Despite having boobs, I am just about able to use a computer and, despite my gender, am able to spend my days at the office free of neuroses and hysterics. Although, the temptation to do a Mrs Rochester is always bubbling below the surface. I felt compelled to write this having read the 10-page memo sent by Google Engineer James Damore titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber“, the author argues that the reason women are underrepresented in technology roles is not due to discrimination or bias, but because of inherent psychological differences between men and women.

I have just finished reading the full memo which is available here. Be warned I am going to use the same black and white classification of gender as Mr Damore although I am fully aware that gender is not black and white. What struck me most about the memo was the irony. It starts with:

I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes.

And goes on to list a series of sexist stereotypes. Sigh. His main points being what he describes as personality differences including the various reasons a woman’s personality is better suited to artistic, people facing roles due to our open, feeling, emotional personalities. Our increased neuroticism (I think someone has been reading too many 19th century novels) and an agreeableness and less assertive personality which makes us incapable/less inclined to negotiate for higher salaries etc. Oh and apparently we’re not as interested in success than men for whom:

“Status is the primary metric that men are judged on[4], pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail.”

So, to paraphrase, women are neurotic but agreeable, good with people and “aesthetics” but too afraid to negotiate and unwilling to put aside their ‘lives’ for success.

Not all women are agreeable, I’ve met my fair share of arseholes (both genders). I know very assertive and driven women who are seeking success but driven women are not always welcomed. I’ve met plenty of ‘neurotic’ men and I think evidence demonstrates that mental health is an issue for all genders that has not been given the attention it deserves. Perhaps, women are less likely to negotiate or push for salary rises etc. Perhaps we only ask for what we think we deserve? Perhaps, we don’t put aside our work life balance for success because we can’t. He seems to ignore the most obvious difference between men and women. WOMEN HAVE THE BABIES.

Until Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenneger get back to their research, men can’t have babies. So women, inevitably, have to take some time off to produce offspring. Some take more than others but all women should have time to recover if they want it. Equally, despite the more ‘enlightened’ times we live in, on the whole women take a high proportion of the child care responsibilities. Perhaps then, men are able to pursue success and put aside their ‘lives’ because it’s much easier to do so.

Men have always had opportunities, and women are only just catching up. We only got the vote in 1928. Every single attempt at equality has been met with the same nonsense espoused in his memo. EVERYONE should be equal.

Oh and apparently the reason people are worried about gender pay gaps, sexism etc is that we’re evolutionarily inclined to protect women.

I’m going to leave it here, there are a lot of smarter people who have analysed the arguments of this memo.

He has ‘some’ good points

Give me a minute, I’m just swallowing the sick after writing that.

To be fair as he states, there should be support for all genders in the workplace not solely for women. Stress, anxiety and mental health issues are not exclusive to women (despite his earlier implication that women are more inclined) and men need career development help as much as women. Equally attempts to encourage diversity through specific programmes, hiring practices and organisation objectives that exclude others is not diverse and can lead to positive discrimination however subtle. As he describes it:

As with many things in life, gender differences are often a case of “grass being greener on the other side”; unfortunately, taxpayer and Google money is spent to water only one side of the lawn.

He also raises a good point about expression and freedom of belief. Should we silence those who don’t agree or have a different opinion? I get the feeling that his problem is that he leans to the right and feels unable to express himself in the ‘leftist’ world of Google. I don’t have a problem with an organisation having a set of values that they expect their employees to share. He advocates:

I’m also not saying that we should restrict people to certain gender roles; I’m advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).

Fair point. Shame he didn’t just stick to these good points instead of straying into pseudo-science territory. So he also contradicts his own argument by saying we should treat people as individuals having spent the preceding pages generalising about the personalities of every woman in the universe.

My detrimental female personality

I am a woman in tech. I am not very good at programming/coding. I don’t think that’s because I’m a woman. I’ve never been good at remembering rules, I was rubbish at maths and science and, as you can see from this blog, my grammar needs some work. My brain doesn’t want to hold these rules. I’m serious, it won’t stick, I’ve tried. I even had to visit a psychiatrist as a child because I couldn’t do maths and science but I could do everything else. I still have that report somewhere, conclusion “she can’t do maths and science”, money well spent.

I know what I’m good at, I know what I can and can’t do and yes, I reckon this has stopped me from applying for jobs. I am realistic, I’m not prone to exaggeration and I won’t lie about it. I will not risk disappointing people. If I’m hired I want it to be for what I can do and my potential, not based on lies.

I am realistic to the point of cynicism. I love inappropriate humour. I will only socialise if I want to. I’m my own worst critic.

These are MY personality traits. NOT those of all ‘women’.

My experiences

Until recently, I never gave a second thought about being a woman. I never worried about whether that would hold me back, whether I would be looked upon differently or treated differently. I have always worked in teams where the majority are men and on the whole, have never had any issues. I never had to think about being a woman until someone ‘treated me like one’.

I don’t think having a vagina or boobs makes any difference to any of my abilities. Although, occasionally my boobs do get in the way of my reaching things on my desk. Quick, alert the press! I imagine the Daily Mail would lead with “Woman can’t do job due to boobs”. The comments would be great, “she should cut those tits off instead of sponging off the state”.

Discrimination is subtle. This was my experience, it wasn’t overt or obvious and was only confirmed when another female colleague, without prompting or prior discussion, told me she had the same experience. Discrimination might be too strong a word for what I experienced but it’s the only one that fits.

What I experienced was a series of comments and behaviours that singled me out from my male colleagues. If I was with a male colleague the individual would look and speak mainly to my male colleague (this is the experience I shared with another female colleague). I was called out for things that my male colleagues also did but I was the only one who was spoken to about it. There were implications about my professionalism and work ethic that related to things my male colleagues also did. There were comments about my becoming pregnant, made in front of male colleagues, that were wholly inappropriate and made me extremely uncomfortable.  Sorry for being so vague but I can’t detail particulars. Suffice to say it got to the point where I was noting down incidents in case I needed them for evidence. I lost my confidence. I felt worthless. I was ‘in the way’. Don’t worry, everything is OK now.

I also worry about having children and what effect that would have on my career. Would the time out mean I’m starting from zero? Would someone usurp me a la The Replacement? Will childcare get in the way of my doing my job? All ridiculous worries I know but I worry about them because I’m the woman. I know my employer will support me, that the mechanisms exist to make it possible but I can’t help analysing every possible outcome.

I don’t do the real in depth techy stuff. Chiefly, because it bores the hell out of me. I’m not inclined to do it, my skills lie elsewhere but if I wanted to apply myself I could learn it. I like working with people, not because I’m a woman, but because I find meaning in those interactions. Plus, I don’t think the tech part is the important bit. I do sometimes get the “oh my, you’re a woman” look, one I imagine female mechanics get, but it doesn’t last.

I don’t think repeating pseudo-scientific nonsense is helpful. Nor regurgitating stereotypes. Arguments about recognising individuals and ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity and is treated equally are important and he was right to raise them. His approach was more than a little off.

But sexism does exist and I have no doubt it stops women from getting where they want to in their career.

Why do fewer women work in tech than men? It is still a bit of a ‘boys club’. There’s also the IT Crowd effect. But it’s too complex to analyse in a blog and I am not smart enough to tackle it.

I am a woman in tech. I am in tech.

(I am always reminded of this when I talk about being a woman)

ICT vs The World #ussc17

I was invited to present at the UCISA Support Service Group #ussc17 conference in Bristol. I went to the conference last year with some IT colleagues and we presented a 20×20 called ICT vs Academics and I wrote a blog post whilst there called ICT vs Educational Technologists. This year I was invited to expand on the presentation and blog. This post summarises my main points from my presentation.

Slides here. Video here.

A deliberate d*ck

I warned delegates at the beginning of the presentation that I was going to be deliberately provocative, or as I put it, a deliberate d*ck. Why?  Because being deliberately provocative makes people think. They may not like it, they may not like me, but you can guarantee they’re going to sit there arguing with me in their heads. In doing so, they’re considering what I’m saying rather than passively accepting it.

Also, if we were doing it right we wouldn’t be having a conference dedicated to it, would we?

We are prone to finding reasons why we can’t do something. Money, buy in, time etc. the list is endless. I asked the delegates to put those things aside. The people who use your services don’t know about your internal politics and why should they? Think about what you would do in an ideal world. If there were no barriers? That’s what we should be aiming for.

Who was my intended audience?

I didn’t have any one audience type in mind. The quality of service is as much the responsibility of those at the top as it is those at the bottom. It’s all interlinked. I was speaking to anyone who works in an IT role. The people who use your services don’t care about your hierarchy and nor do I.

Let me begin with a question.

I didn’t have time to pose this question during the presentation so, to those of you who work in IT, in an education institution, what do you say when people ask you what you do?

A. I work in IT.
B. I do IT in education.

Have a think dear reader, we’ll return to it later.

Who they, what do and why?

If you get that reference I should give a prize or something.

I always start off by explaining who I am. Suffice to say I am not the usual attendee; beautifully put:

I do work in the IT department but I am in a little separate department which is not only geographically separated but also feels philosophically separate too at times. So I am a member of IT services, a colleague within IT services, a user of IT services and more often than not I become the target of academic’s IT frustrations. ‘Cos I obvs work in IT innit.

I’m not an expert (in anything really). I don’t fully understand what IT services do but I would say I know enough. I’m just someone who has made a few observations over the years. I’m also a great believer that everyone deserves a champion, someone who fights for them, and I see myself as a champion of academic needs. It frustrates me to see the relationship break down because it shouldn’t and there are easy remedies to improve it.

Things

I sit in the middle of both worlds. Academic and IT. It is a blessing and a curse. I am neither one or the other. But I am able to see things from both sides.

Acknowledging the ‘challenges’

It’s unfair to start a presentation of this kind without acknowledging the challenges IT peops deal with every day. I work on a helpdesk so these are just a few of the things I regularly get:

  • The people who send in a ticket at the last minute for something absolutely essential. Often happening in the next 30 minutes that they’ve known about for weeks.
  • The people who have emailed 3 minutes ago then email again to chase it.
  • The people who say they have emailed you repeatedly for something but when checked there is no record of contact from them (often when asked who they contacted, they completely ignore the question)
  • The people who worked as an x in the 90s. Who explain how to fix the issue, what you should do and why what the department has done is completely wrong.
  • The people who use all the latest tech at home, then think they should automatically be able to use that at work.
  • The people who email with an issue that is vital and must be fixed immediately but doesn’t reply to further information when asked.
  • The people who have their own money, buy something without consulting you, then expect you to make it work.
  • The people who provide no information e.g. I have an issue with Word.
  • The people who will not accept that their issue is a result of their lack of knowledge.
  • The people who could just Google the answer (since that’s exactly what you will end up doing anyway).
  • The people who are just downright rude…

In my slides, I used the word customer. *Hand slap* for not following my own advice.

IT is the broad side of the barn

You are an easy target, no a HUGE target. Chiefly because what you do affects people’s everyday lives. IT underpins every single process at a University. I can’t think of a single example that doesn’t involve IT. People get into work and spend the day using the services you offer them. Expect them to be laid back about it? Think they’re gonna be chilled when it breaks? Think again.

The buck stops with you. Fair or not.

Plus you’re never going to win. Noone knows what they want. Nobody wants the same thing and you’re always going to upset/disappoint someone. Accept it. Let it go.

Technology won’t save us

Two brilliant quotes about technology from smarter people than I. Technology won’t save education. There is no single solution. But there is a perception that technology is the panacea to solve all ills. This is what IT departments are faced with and why the pressure on them continues to rise.

“When you decide [there is] a problem, then you naturally start looking for a solution…and then you go to the technology to be a solution and everyone is disappointed.” David White and Donna Lanclos – Being Human is Your Problem ALTc2016

Kill the witch

If you don’t understand it, it’s magic.
If you practice magic you’re a witch.
Kill the witch.
James Holden – July 2015

IT is a dark art. Few people really know what you do and even fewer understand it. I don’t suppose we need to. If we all understood and knew how to do what you do, then we wouldn’t need you. I sometimes get the feeling that IT people like to nurture that mystique. IT is hidden away in offices as far away from people as possible and ITSM tools are introduced to avoid dealing with anyone directly (sorry, to effectively manage…zzz). All people want to know is who to contact and what’s happening. They hate ticket ping pong.  IT processes are complex and convoluted usually obscured by mountains of paperwork and meetings. We get it, they don’t. The people who use your services are not ITIL experts.

Mine, mine, mine

IT departments often feel they own the ‘thing’ they support. It feels like products and services are selected based solely on IT preference and what’s easiest for you.

“systems are setup to meet ICT needs rather than academic needs.” – anonymous academic 2016

If someone says they need something, who are you to decide whether they do or not? Who are you to decide whether it’s worthwhile or not? You have become the gate keepers.

A noteworthy response on Twitter:

It’s ours when it breaks. Yes, it is, because YOU ARE THE PEOPLE PAID TO MAKE IT WORK AND KEEP IT WORKING. If we could all maintain our own IT infrastructure (a terrible idea) then we wouldn’t bother with an IT department. You are the experts in all the technical aspects of technology, how it integrates, how to install it, how it needs to be maintained, however, in my experience, IT departments know very little about how some technology is used or why and worse, they spend very little time finding out.

Computer says no

Not a lot to say here that you don’t already know. The people who use your services don’t understand the complexity behind what you do. They don’t know about service level agreements, security, integration, data management, change management etc. and you don’t do a very good job of explaining it.

When you say no you never explain why it’s a no.

Where innovation goes to die

Universities are under enormous pressure to offer students an ‘excellent’ experience and outcomes. Thanks to module evaluations, TEF and NSS staff are under increasing pressure to ‘perform’. Sadly, technology is seen as the magic bullet to solve every aspect of Higher Education and innovation is the way to do it. Innovation appears in every strategy. Innovative pedagogies, innovative research, innovative use of technology in education etc. Technology is your department. Expectations are rising and you’re the first in the firing line. “I wanted to innovate but IT said no”.

I’m not listening

A key part of communication is listening. You show people you care by listening and acknowledging them. You can’t do your job properly unless you get to know people. How can you say you understand people if you don’t talk to them? Do you know what people do? Do you understand the pressures on them? How can you prioritise something without understanding it first?

Empathy is key. If you employ people on your service desk who can’t empathise then you’re asking for trouble.

The best thing we can do is listen and not make assumptions about what is right or best. Neil Milliken

Francesca Spencer, a project manager at Leeds Beckett University, did a fantastic parallel session called ‘Technophobe testing – an experience of providing a service to those who fear, dislike, or avoid technology’. It was a fantastic demonstration of project management going wrong. The team created a brand new learning space with all the bells and whistles but the users of the room hated it. Why, because they didn’t speak to users to understand how people actually use a teaching space! They learnt their lesson. The presentation is available here.

What’s teaching got to do, got to do with it?

EVERYTHING. Otherwise, what the hell are we all doing here? I don’t think a University will survive when the students stop turning up and why do they come to University? To be taught, to learn and, if they put in the effort required, receive a degree. I have heard an IT employees say “we have nothing to do with teaching”. Do people use your services as part of teaching, as part of the administration of teaching and management of students? YES. Then you have everything to do with teaching. Any thoughts otherwise are ill-informed and ignorant.

You remember I asked you what you say when you’re asked what you do? THIS IS WHY. I have often had the feeling that IT people see themselves as IT professionals. On the whole, this is fair, you do IT one place it’s relatively similar everywhere but I see a distinction. The problem with IT people is they don;t see themselves as IT people in education. There is a subtle difference. If you see yourself as the latter you will understand your context and context makes a difference. IT in a business is different to IT in a University. The technology may be the same but the people, the drivers, the pressures are not.

People what a bunch of b*stards

People are messy, complicated, rude, impatient, and tiresome but people are the reason we’re here. They are not homogenous. They are real people with feelings and needs. They are not users or customers. They are people. Get to know them, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find out:

“corporately there is little feel for the academics’ problems…so no ICT member builds an empathy with the academic regarding the particular issue.” – anonymous academic 2016

“I don’t generally feel well supported, but the personal contact is good. It’s not that I want to bad mouth individuals but am happy to blame a faceless organisation, but systematically, it fails to support me.” – anonymous academic 2016

Our weapons against evil

Come out of the basement. Stop hiding from people. Be seen. Own the good, the bad and the ugly. People will respect you more.
Prioritise people skills. Employ people with people skills. ICT skills can be learnt. Learning how to deal with people is much harder. Ensure a people skills ‘test’ is part of your recruitment process.
Support your Service Desk. Service Desk is often the first to get the blame. Support them. Provide them with the information they need, if they don’t know, they don’t know. Thank them. Be grateful they bear the brunt of your disgruntled customers.
Reward and recognise people. Find a way to recognise and reward those who go out of their way to provide good service. This will help develop the people first culture. It will become the norm.
Don’t sell tech as a solution. I am guilty of this. So are tech companies. Don’t join in. Technology is not a solution, it can only be part of the solution. Don’t oversell what it can do. Everyone will be disappointed.
Support innovation. Find a way. Have a team who deal solely with ‘new’ requests and ideas. Get the resources. Your University is full of evidence to back up what you need. Start using it. Create a process for pilots, for trying stuff out and then how those pilots are assessed and become production. A clear process will be beneficial to everyone.
Advocate not oppose. Linked to above. Help people achieve, be their champion. You’ll find they will become your champion too. Facilitate and help. Don’t just say no.
Create a feedback loop. Could be as simple as ‘you said, we did’. Show you are listening and acting on it. People will wait patiently as long as they know something is being done.
Drop the jargon. Stop using phrases like customers. They’re people. Use their names. Don’t use your ITIL jargon either. Speak to people in a language they will understand.
Assume nothing. There are lots of false assumptions out there. People don’t need training – they do. Students can all use technology – they can’t. Don’t fall for them. Don’t be guilty of promoting them. When you assume you fail.
Learn about people. You can’t do a good job if you don’t understand the people you are here to help.
Be transparent. Be honest. Show your workings. Explain things to people in a language they understand, expose your processes and limit the documentation barrier.

Good ‘customer’ service is not the same as saying yes.

This thought occurred to me as I wrote this post. Often, we conflate good service with saying yes to everything. No’s are a necessary evil of our job. You can’t avoid saying no although, if you can find a way to say yes, you should. Good customer service, no let’s not use that phrase, let’s say treating people well is free. You can still treat people well when saying no or when a resolution is taking time. Be transparent about your decision-making process when saying no. Be clear from the outset what your process will be, what hoops you need to jump through, what you need from them, try to give a timescale and most importantly keep them updated especially when timescales move. When dealing with someone having an issue the same principal applies. They just want to know. They want to be considered. They want to be important to you.

So how’d it go down?

Well other than my having forgotten that I had used a custom font and having hideous slides it went OK. I forgot to say everything I wanted to but it was not a complete dumpster fire and I can live with that.

For the audience, I imagine it went down like a cup of hot sick or it was taken in the spirit it was intended. I’m not a highly paid consultant, I’m just a person sharing some thoughts. Take them or leave them. If a handful went away thinking about the way they treat people then we’re all winners.

I am not your enemy

I am not your enemy. I’m the mug who has been thrown into the lion’s den covered in rump steak, to demonstrate the VLE. I don’t know what I’m walking in to. I do not make decisions. I do not create policy. Frankly, there are times I don’t care if you use the VLE. I’m just here to show you. I am not the enemy.

I should be clear that strong anger and hostility is rare.

VLEs are a bit disappointing

To be fair VLEs are a bit of a disappointment. Actually, let me qualify that. Technology is a bit of a disappointment. As David White says “if you go to technology to be the solution…everyone will be disappointed”.

I think we all hope that technology will just work with very little/no interference from human beings. At least sometimes that’s how I think academics hope it works. I may be being unfair here but there are times I see the “oh I have to do something with this to make it worthwhile” look in their eyes. Sadly the VLE does not know what you want to teach. It cannot absorb your teaching materials through osmosis and organize them correctly for you. It cannot create a quiz for you. It can’t facilitate a forum for you.  It can’t decide the best way to present your learning materials and activities to best aid student learning. Unfortunately, like all technology, it requires some human intervention. More importantly, it requires human intervention to make it meaningful. Technology on its own is meaningless.

Technology gives the impression that anything is possible. That’s true to an extent. Technology has opened up endless possibilities. In a way that is a blessing and a curse. Reality does not always live up to expectation. I hear “surely it can do this”, “surely they can do that” but the reality is there is a LOT of work behind even the simplest idea. You don’t see that, perhaps we ought to show you more?

VLEs are designed to do a job. You might be able to plug stuff into it. You might be able to adapt it but on the whole, it does what it does. Can they be better? Oh of course. But they serve a purpose and do that adequately. I hold out for something better but I can guarantee no matter what comes I’ll still be asked: “can it do this”.

Can it do…

Whenever I demo the VLE it get’s compared to other systems. Can it do x? Can it do y? Can students see z in here? I find myself saying no a lot in these situations. Usually because rather than looking at the VLE for what it is and what it can offer, it’s compared to existing systems, some wholly incomparable. I sometimes wish I had that device on Men in Black so I could remove their memories of whatever system they were using previously so they could look at the VLE with fresh unprejudiced eyes. I don’t have that.

I should add that I always want to hear these questions, as they feed into ongoing developments.

We’re doing everything we can…

Sometimes I feel like people assume the reason it can’t do something is that we can’t be bothered to make it do that. We can. We want to. But what they don’t see is the huge amount of thought and work that goes into every decision around the VLE. Even seemingly simple things like turning on plugins. Although sometimes the functionality just isn’t possible or doesn’t exist. We have to consider each request on its merits. It’s not like switching on a light switch. I wish it were quicker. I wish it were simpler but NOTHING about technology is simple (despite what the marketing people would have us believe).

I promise you it’s added to the list. We’re trying to get through the list but it only gets longer. That’s the problem with technology the work never stops. Everyone wants something, because “surely it can be done”.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Unfortunately, we often become the focus of anger for decisions that we have nothing to do with, made by people we have nothing to do with over which we have absolutely no power. Do I think you should use the VLE? Yes because it can do great things when used well and consistency is something students want and deserve. Do I care if you use it? Ultimately no, that’s your choice but you’re missing out on something. Or more accurately your students are.

I didn’t say you had to use the VLE. Someone else did. Sorry. I’m just here to show you. Am I really the person you should be angry with? Do you really think I can do anything about what’s happening to you? Do you think making me feel uncomfortable will help? Do you think talking down to me will help? Do you think it will help to make me feel small?

No. It won’t help.

Why are people still hostile?

The world of ed tech seems to believe that everyone wants to use technology. That it’s obvious that people should and those who don’t are Luddites and dullards. Often anyone who dares questions the use of technology in education is met with much belligerent, disapproving responses. They are an enemy of the state who must be indoctrinated.

The reality is there is still resistance. People do not believe in the use of technology without question. Unlike the majority in the Ed Tech world, they look at it with a critical mind.  There is legitimate criticism of the VLE (not that anyone can agree on the perfect alternative). They are bloated and feature heavy. They never quite work how people want them to. There’s always something missing. Put enough academics in a room and they will find a reason to dislike it. I believe there is legitimate criticism of the use of technology in education. In fact, I think we are obliged to consider every aspect of technology positive or negative.

I suppose we need to change our sales pitch from “you can do a quiz” to “you can scaffold student learning by creating a formative test each week and displaying feedback and content based on their results. The data can also be used as an indicator to show which concepts are proving difficult to understand and may need to be covered again the following week”. There’s a longer blog post in the “can do, should do vain”.

So what do we do?

We grit our teeth and we bear it. If there was universal acceptance they wouldn’t need people like us. Try to always be their champion. Listen, really listen. Respond when they ask you a question. Remind them that you’re here to support them, not get in their way. Smile. Respond kindly. Be patient. You don’t know what might be driving their behaviour, it could be wholly unconnected with you or what you’re there to talk to them about.

Always, always remember:

Jack of all trades…

“What do you do?” *Deep breath*, “I’m an academic technologist”. *Blank stare*, “So, what do you do?”. *Deep breath* [attempts to explain]. I have had this conversation regularly with family, friends and people who work outside of the ‘biz’. If I had a pound… That, I find, is increasingly difficult to define.

“I help teaching staff use technology in their teaching”

This was my go to answer. Recently I find this answer woefully simplistic.

At its core the above description is a fair representation of my job. Essentially that’s what I’m here to do. I am here to help staff to use technology in teaching. In the rose-tinted world of what I’d like my job to be that’s what I’d be doing day-to-day. In reality my day-to-day job is much more indirect than the above implies.

Jack of all trades (and master of none)

^ that’s how I feel a lot of the time. What I find reassuring is that I am not the only person who feels like a fraud. In 2001 Helen Beetham conducted a study of learning technologists and others in similar roles/responsibilities and identified the 10 activities below (the original report seems to no longer be available). I will now explain what the 10 activities mean to me.

Actively seek to keep abreast of developments in learning technologies

So we have to keep ‘abreast’ of developments in the technologies we already have, such as new features, upgrades and enhancements, as well as emerging technologies. Essentially we have to be able to ‘see what’s coming’ and from that decide what’s going to be worth looking in to. Considering the exponential growth of technology that is no easy feat.

Facilitate access to learning technology expertise and services

So we have to make sure the technologies are actually working and, if the mighty Odin looks upon you favourably, they work well. It includes organising downtime for upgrades etc. which largely involves paperwork and discussions about when the best date would be. This is always followed by the realisation that we’ll have to inconvenience someone and we need to find the people who would be least inconvenienced. We need people to know we’re here so we search for every possible way to shove our faces in to other people’s faces and screech “we’re here to help”. We also have to ‘advertise’ the services we offer and the technologies we offer. Again, much head scratching and many conversations are had about how exactly to do that. We make a website and redo it fifty times because no-one seems to be looking at it so it must be the website’s fault.

Some learning technologists are software and web developers some are network and server engineers. Some are all of the above. So not only do they do all this stuff but they also MAKE and MAINTAIN it!? There’s another post in here somewhere about how techy you need to be but we have no time for that here.

Liaise and collaborate with other units in the university having related interests & objectives

So this includes the Library, Student Careers and Skills, Learning Development, HR, Registrars Office, Health and Safety, Quality, Estates, Accommodation, International Office, Student Support, Wellbeing, Security, Finance etc… There are a whole load more that I could add. Now to be clear, we don’t always work with these people because they are active users of our tech. Sometimes we work with them because what we do overlaps considerably. We might want to consult them, get their opinion or help and vice versa. What they are doing affects us and vice versa. Although, working with professional services to create learning materials is an increasing area of work for us.

Act as consultant, mentor or change agent for other staff

I would like to do ^ this more.  Working directly with individuals to achieve their teaching goals, acting as coach/mentor, is a time-consuming but effective way to bring about change. A lot of the time I act more as a consultant. Someone wants to do something and you’re there to say how best to achieve it. Then I equip them with the skills they need and step away. I want people to be self-sufficient, I don’t think technology is worth using if they need to have their hands held, but I do enjoy the direct contact. I just don’t have time to do that enough.

Advise and assist with introduction of new technology into learning & teaching programmes

This is easiest when people have something they want to do. What’s more difficult is getting people to do something they have no interest in. This is where we earn our money. Finding that ‘hook’. We are usually involved in one or all of the procurement, project board, change management, project management processes etc. We gather the evidence for needs analysis, we write the budget requests and project documentation. It’s not as simple as seeing something fun and clicking install. Great Odin’s raven, it’s not that easy.

Increase colleagues’ awareness of best practice in learning technologies

^ see above. Training, advertising, consultancy etc. We also need to know best practice ourselves. This is achieved by keeping up with developments in the sector. Projects, initiatives, case studies, blogs, conferences, literature etc and we have to do this whilst doing everything else. Oh and that’s not just in relation to technology, that’s pedagogy too. You shouldn’t look at technology in isolation. I feel you must have a strong grounding in pedagogy. Technology and pedagogy are not separate they are inextricably linked.

Enable exchange of ideas and experience in technology-based learning and teaching

This is the ‘little black book’ of learning technologists (usually kept in our head). Our list of people/authors/blogs/articles/case studies, our arsenal of evidence and experience, we call on that list when someone says “I’d like to…”. So we trawl our mental black book for something relevant. We tell them about the people/authors/blogs/articles/case studies they should look at or talk to. We put people in touch, sometimes we’ll act as chaperone. If we know someone who’s done something noteworthy we ask them to write a case study/article/blog or present on their work so we can point people at that. We are the enablers.

We run forums, training, workshops, coffee and cake meet ups, lunch and learns etc. in the hope that we might get to know more people. The more people we know the more connections we can make.

Those of us who work within a network of other academic technologists in other departments know how important it is to build a working relationship with them. This is another avenue for adding to the little black book, for gaining feedback and ideas.

Facilitate & support access to computer-based learning resources

We manage the systems, provide the training and consult on the best tools for the job and how to make them.

Consult with support staff on appropriate use of learning technologies

I would remove support staff from this sentence and exchange it for staff and students. Sometimes this feels less like consultation than a witch hunt. We consult with staff, and students (thought not as much as we should) on how to improve current technologies and what they would like to see in the future. If you ask 100 people what they want you’ll get 100 different answers, it also assumes those 100 people know what there is and what is possible. So we also have to evaluate what is possible, what is worth pursuing and what will have widespread benefits. Sometimes it comes across as dismissive but it’s not meant to be. We simply can’t do everything. We take flack. We listen patiently. We try not to take it personally.

Identify needs & opportunities for development/deployment of learning technologies

^ see above. We identify opportunities. We spot where technology will enhance. We see the holes in provision. We plan ahead. We research. We keep our ears to the ground.

Learning technologists are:

Strategists, project managers, helpdesk operatives, 1st, 2nd, 3rd line support, incident managers, problem managers, operation managers, service designers, service managers, change managers, testers, developers, UI designers, web designers, trainers, teachers, writers of guides, makers of screen casts, mediators, enablers, facilitator, mentors, coaches, change agents, friends, enemies, psychics, futurists, clairvoyants, encyclopedias, librarians, experts, academics, support staff, students, writers, authors, researchers, readers, analysts, critics…

I have been told I also need to add – magician, star, life saver, fixer and Jedi master

Thanks Carrie Foster and Alecia Owen

 

Hence, jack of all trades

We wear a lot of different hats and I would say not one hat fits better than the others. I know the bits I enjoy most but I can’t abandon the rest. ^ these are the things we have to do to keep the lights on. It’s not as simple as it first appears.

I help staff to use technology in their teaching, sort of…

The trouble with Moodle…

I ought to have called this post ‘The trouble with VLEs’ as everything here applies to the VLEs I have experienced. This post has arisen from my moving institutions, and VLEs as a consequence, and attending MoodleMoot last week. It was my first Moot and an ‘interesting’ experience.

MoodleMoot 2017

This was my first visit to MoodleMoot. The conference does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a 3 day festival of Moodle. There has always been a ‘those who use Moodle and those who don’t’ mentality in VLEs. If I had a pound for every time I heard Moodle is better I would be a millionaire. I used Moodle for several years, used Blackboard for two and am now back with Moodle again. I expected MoodleMoot to convince me of the superiority of Moodle. I expected to be indoctrinated in to the Moodle cult.

Was I indoctrinated? No. If anything MoodleMoot served only to highlight the issues inherent in Moodle (and other VLEs). I saw people doing interesting things, clever things but I saw nothing that wowed me or anything ‘new’. Nothing persuaded me of its superiority (I know this is not the aim of the conference but that’s the culture that seems to surround Moodle in my experience). It struck me that much of what was presented at MoodleMoot was the work people had done to get Moodle to do what they needed it to do.

We are the wrong people

There were no students and very few teachers at MoodleMoot. I know we technologists are an important community to engage with but I can’t help feeling we are the wrong people.

I can see when something doesn’t work. I can see where things can be improved but I spend my time telling people how to use Moodle. I know how it works and I tell people how to work within the system. I don’t use it in earnest. I don’t teach. I don’t set up and manage multiple sites. I don’t support hundreds of students. I don’t use it along side my other duties (it is my job). I don’t submit assignments. I don’t mark assignments. I am not a real user.

I know how to use the system so it’s quirks make sense to me. I know ‘that’s just how it works’ so I don’t always consider how it could be improved. I don’t do the same processes over and over again so I don’t see the ways it could be made more efficient. Our students and our teaching staff do. Perhaps they are the people we should be speaking to?

The Learning Enhancement and Development team from City, University of London did a very interesting presentation on their review of Moodle with staff and students. They ended up with 95 recommendations on a variety of improvements to their Moodle which included changes to the theme amongst others. They have made their slides available here. You can look at that number in two ways, one ‘they just don’t know how to use it’ or two ‘there are still a lot of usability issues in Moodle’. I look at it as the latter. Yes there is something to be said for training but isn’t there even more to be gained from getting it right the first time, rather than training people around the problem?

A review is time-consuming, it’ll throw up things we can do nothing about whilst inadvertently raising expectations. So we don’t do them. I wonder whether the answer would be for MoodleHQ to arrange a review with users from different institutions (not technologists, actual teachers and students) and listen to the right people. Something to assist in the focus on usability of existing features promised for 3.4 perhaps?

Held to ransom

A lot of the presentations were about developments institutions had made to their Moodle installations. Lots about improving assessment processes and grading for example. One presentation talked about syncing Moodle with SITS the student record system, something we’d all like to do. So if it’s a problematic area for so many then why are we all doing our own thing? When asked whether people were able to share (a principle on which Moodle is based) they couldn’t because it was so highly customised to their own environment. We are duplicating efforts! MoodleHQ these are issues can they not be fixed at source?

Moodle survives largely because of a community of selfless and dedicated developers who maintain it. It is a free, open source VLE but free never really means free. Someone has to sacrifice something. So developers create plugins, fix bugs etc. but they have no responsibility to do it. So many things go unfixed and undeveloped. MoodleHQ has added more and more functions (like badges and competencies) without improving the fundamental tools. This is not intended as a criticism of the developers who contribute to Moodle, I am grateful for their work and I contribute nothing, but we are held to ransom by the way Moodle is developed.

If MoodleHQ don’t see something as important then nothing is done. If the community of developers don’t have time to maintain Moodle and plugins then nothing is done. That’s not to say a paid for service is any better. Having used Blackboard I can confirm they are not better. You have to wait for the next update for things to be fixed and the ‘support’ is flaky at best. Usually problems will be fixed in the next update, by which point you have 100s of helpdesk tickets, annoyed staff and students, or you fobbed off with ‘it’s your configuration’. It wasn’t quick or responsive either. So I assure you that support and maintenance are not just a problem in ‘free’ tools.

There are attempts to make the way developments are dealt with more joined up through initiatives like the Moodle User Association but MoodleMoot seemed to be more of a celebration of the things Moodle isn’t doing than what it is doing well. So MoodleHQ ought to look at MoodleMoot as their opportunity to identify and prioritise issues. Adopt developments other people have made in to core. Come on MoodleHQ there’s a pool of stuff out there already being done, stop introducing new features and make the ones we have better! Other people are doing it! To the Moodle community, let’s work together to get those major issues fixed, let’s stop working in isolation and only coming together once a year. Let’s share.

Core vs plugin

Moodle, for those that don’t know, is made up of core tools and plugins. This flexibility is lauded by the community but it has its disadvantages as mentioned above. Many very useful plugins that are highly used should be part of core but aren’t. A lot of plugins are no longer being developed. A lot don’t quite integrate with core. MoodleHQ need to develop a ‘plugin to core’ development life cycle so those plugins that are found to be useful can be adopted and developed as part of core.

Blackboard vs. Moodle

I think this argument is a little redundant now. The issue goes beyond this silly rivalry. That’s why Jisc started the #ngdle discussions and a debate at Digifest17. The problem is not about which one has the best features, we need to talk about what we want from our VLEs. Do we even want them anymore? Do they still serve a purpose? Are they supporting and enhancing learning?

I can assure you they both have their advantages and disadvantages. I used to long for Moodle. Now I find myself occasionally longing for Blackboard.

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).

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(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:

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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!