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.

A Learning Technologists Dilemma

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

 

So why am I writing this post?

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

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

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

To lead or not to lead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How radical can I be?

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

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

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

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

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

How much change is too much?

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

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

Learn as much as you can

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

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

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

Find a balance that will keep you sane

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

Find a way to channel your energy

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

Play the long game

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

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

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

Never give up

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

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

Blogception: A blog about blogging

I’ve been asked by Emma Flint, Birmingham Law School lecturer and lovely lady, to write a blog about blogging. So this blog is full of my thoughts, hints and tips for good practice when starting a blog. (I leave it up to you to decide whether I am qualified to give such advice)

blogception

Make time to write

This is not easy by any means! Maintaining a blog whilst trying to balance work and life commitments isn’t simple. If you can set yourself an hour a week to write a post all the better. It does require discipline and if you can’t commit to it, ask yourself whether there is any point in starting. There’s something eerie about stumbling on someone’s blog that hasn’t had a post on it since 2013. It’s a bit like the opening scene of 28 days later.

What are you writing a blog about?

Is it about you and your life? Is it about travel, food or politics for example. Is it about your work/job? Once you know what your blog is going to be about it makes answering the following questions a lot easier.

For Who/why are you writing a blog?

I’m not asking about your audience here, that will be addressed shortly. I am asking why you are writing a blog and who you are writing it for? Are you writing it just for you? Are you writing for pleasure or reflection? Do you care who reads it? Are you blogging for your employer? Or for potential employers? It’s important to think about this as it will influence your tone and style, the kind of posts you write and even how candid you are.

Who is your audience?

Similar to my first question but subtly different, once you know why and for whom you are writing your blog you need to think about your audience.  What are they interested in reading? What tone will be appropriate? How honest can you be in your writing?

How much of ‘you’ are you comfortable sharing?

What I mean by this is how much personality are you comfortable with showing online. Remember publishing online is very exposing. It can make you feel very vulnerable. You are exposing yourself to potential criticism especially if you are sharing your ideas and opinions. You may get comments that criticise or disagree with you. You do need to ready yourself for that possibility. You need to decide how much of yourself you want to protect.

I share where I work and what I do for a living (only because that’s publicly available on the web anyway). I share my opinions and ideas on topics in Higher Education. I do not share anything about my personal life and that is a conscious decision I have made. I know plenty of people who blog about their personal lives and do so without incident. I share these posts with people who are frankly more intelligent and knowledgeable on the subjects than I am. I am prepared for the fact that they may disagree. But I am doing this for me, not for them. How candid are you going to be with your opinions? I have to strike a careful balance between giving my opinion and not saying anything that criticises my employer or others.

Inspiration

I can’t tell you where to find ideas for your posts. Read, keep your eyes peeled, talk to people and go out into the world. Inspiration can come at the most unlikely moments. You might be out and about and suddenly think “that would be a good blog post” but you don’t have time to write it there and then. So if you have a notepad or mobile device write it down and make a few notes about what you want to say. Then go back later and write it. I use WordPress which has an app which I use on my mobile phone. If I have an idea I can quickly write it down. I’ve even written a post whilst in a car on the A1.

Content, content, content!

What your blog looks like is fairly immaterial. Yes, they need to be able to navigate and read it but seriously don’t spend hours making it look pretty it. It’s a waste of time. Spend that time on your posts. Honing your writing, reading and re-reading. Adding references, linking to useful pieces of information and creating some multimedia is a far more worthy use of your time. People are here to read what you have to say not judge your web design skills.

Also if you refer to someone else’s site, materials, tweets, images etc. remember to attribute and link to it directly! Pay it forward guys!

Enticing titles

As you will see from this post, I like to give my posts stupid titles. Firstly because it’s a bit of fun for me and also I hope it might draw people in. I don’t know if it works but I enjoy it.

Timing is key

If you want people to read your posts timing is key. There is no point posting it at midnight. No one’s going to see it. Also talking about news, changes to legislation etc. are most interesting to read about at the time. If you’re writing about an event you’ve been to, writing about it before you forget what happened and whilst people are interested in reading about it. Writing about something months after the ‘buzz’ has cleared is not an optimum way to get people to read it. If you do, write about the effect the event/legislation etc. has had. That kind of analysis can be really interesting.

Getting it out there for people to read

How are you gonna get people to read it? If you don’t care about anyone reading it then move on to my next tip. If you do then think about where you are going to share it there are loads of options, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. The more places you share it the more traffic you will drive. Twitter is great because of retweets and likes. Plus you can tag other people, companies, organisations, hashtags etc. in the tweet and broaden your audience!

 Which platform?

To me, this is the least important decision but one you do need to make. There are loads of blogging sites out there a lot are free, some you have to pay for. You also need to think about the URL or domain your blog will be accessed by. I pay to have my kerrypinny.com URL and I pay WordPress.com to map my domain for me. It equates to around £20 a year. I am happy with that. You can have a totally free account but you will have to use their URL/domain and will be limited in terms of media storage etc. You could download the full WordPress platform and host it yourself on a server or pay someone else to host it. You get a lot more freedom and storage than on WordPress.com but I certainly couldn’t be bothered with the hassle. Whichever one you chose they will all give you slightly different features and pricing options so research carefully and choose whichever will make be easiest for you to use.

Below is a list of free options:

  1. WordPress
  2. Contentful
  3. Jekyll
  4. Tumblr
  5. Blogger
  6. Medium
  7. Svbtle
  8. Weebly
  9. Postach.io
  10. Google Sites