I am not your enemy

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

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

VLEs are a bit disappointing

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

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

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

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

Can it do…

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

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

We’re doing everything we can…

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

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

Don’t shoot the messenger

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

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

No. It won’t help.

Why are people still hostile?

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

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

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

So what do we do?

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

Always, always remember:

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…

Jisc Digital Leaders Programme

​I have seen a worrying amount of criticism recently for this programme. Not criticism of the speakers, topics or validity of the programme, criticism solely of the price. So, as someone lucky enough to have been a part of this programme I thought I would share my honest feedback on it. 

(Please forgive any typos and grammatical errors. This post was written on the A1)

The price

Is it expensive? Yes, on the face of it. But, as my esteemed colleague put it, let’s not confuse price with value. Remember what you are being offered. You are being offered the opportunity to listen to industry experts who will give you practical strategies to instigate change at your institution. Tell me how much are you willing to pay for that?

Jisc used to be free

Education has long taken advantage of Jisc. Before successive governments stripped these kind of organisations of their funding we took full advantage of whatever Jisc had to offer. Greedily guzzling up funding and attending their workshops. Sadly in the current climate that’s not sustainable.

We don’t need to listen to experts

Recently there has been a lot of anti-expert feeling floating around. Thanks Brexit. What you are paying for here is the advice, experience and knowledge of experts. These programmes are not formed on a whim. They are created based on years of research and hard work. The people who speak are credible and knowledgeable. Again, how much would you pay for that?

You will learn something valuable

I took away a number of things from the programme. Donna Lanclos and Dave White facilitated an exercise around the concept of digital residents and visitors. Remember, much like digital natives these theories are not fact. They are simply helpful ways of visualising a concept. Visitors and residents is a way of helping you think about your digital practice and behaviours. It is a useful tool that I will use when talking to students and staff about their digital lives.

The whole programme is facilitated by James Clay and Lawrie Phipps. What they don’t know about institutional change is not worth knowing. The featured image for this post is a drawing I did at the event, showing a change anchor. This is what Lawrie and James focussed on. How do you make change happen?

This was invaluable. Without it we would not have a digital capabilities project and I wouldn’t have had the strategies in place to get people to listen to me.

It was fun

My abiding memory is of having great fun. I met so many people at other institutions that I am still in touch with. It broadened my horizons and gave me the confidence to try and effect change. I can’t put a price on that.

Full details of the programme are available on the Jisc website.