The silent majority vs the deafening minority

Angry Man

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

Who is the silent majority?

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

Who is the deafening minority?

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

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

The old senior management switcheroo

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

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

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

Maintenance is a thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

if impact ≥ resource

then CheckWorkloads

if checkWorkloads < resource

then doTheThing and maintainTheThing

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

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

Stuff breaks and we have to fix it

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

Support is a thing

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

Boring is essential

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

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

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

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

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

Field of Dreams and other EdTech fallacies

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

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

What the hell was it about?

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

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

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

That title though?

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

Check out Marcus’s excellent intro:

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

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

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

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

Fallacy 2: Technology will solve everything.

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

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

Fallacy 3: We don’t need evidence.

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

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

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

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

It implies THEY don’t get it.

Fallacy 4: They don’t get it.

I love this quote from Audrey Watters:

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

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

Matt Cornock put it best:

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

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

Fallacy 5: They’re not interested.

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

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

Is limited innovation, impact and staff engagement our fault?

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

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

Links

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

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

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

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

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)

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.

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!

The VLE works just fine

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

The conversation so far

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need a problem to solve

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

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

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

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

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

Tech bashing achieves nothing

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

What is it we think the VLE does?

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

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

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

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

Digital = People

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

Why won’t the VLE die?

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

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

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

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

We are asking the wrong question

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

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

We allow ourselves to be technology lead

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

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

Technology is created the wrong way

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

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

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

We like things that reproduce what we already do.

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

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

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

Adoption is a matter of culture change

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

Because we will never win

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

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

ICT dictate what we do

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

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

Other technologies hold us to ransom

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

Our processes hold us to ransom

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

We don’t like change

And mostly because…

change

 

Our Digital Capabilities Journey

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

Why did we start the digital capabilities project?

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

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

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

Passion led us here

What did we do?

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

How does the Jisc Tool work?

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

Jisc Discovery Tool or build your own?

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

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

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

What is the future?

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

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

Things to consider

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

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

Further reading

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

Building digital capability project

Jisc digital capability codesign challenge blog

Sarah Davies: So what’s the challenge?

James Clay: Engaging the invisibles

James Clay: It’s still not easy

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

Marcus Elliott: How PAW Patrol saved my life

Lawrie Phipps: Mapping for Change

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

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

Dave White: Visitors & Residents – navigate the mapping

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

Helen Beetham: Framing digital capabilities for staff – deliverables

Helen Beetham: What is ‘Digital Wellbeing’?

Helen Beetham: Revisiting digital capability for 2015

Kerry Pinny: What is institutional digital capability?

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

Kerry Pinny: Stop moaning, start doing