I am the harbinger of doom

The one thing I hate about my job is disappointing the people I ‘serve’. I guarantee some choice words are said about me. I am often the bad guy, a necessary part of managing a service, but no one likes being the bad guy.

Last week I published a post, or a piece of therapy, about the different pressures and tensions that dictate how I work. A focus being who we should listen to The silent majority vs the deafening minority. Then I read a post from Anne-Marie Scott titled Passivity.

I’ve been reading articles (old and new) and watching videos (old and new) this week which are replaying familiar EdTech tropes and I’m sick of it. Anne-Marie Scott 2017

The tropes she goes on to describe can be paraphrased as the [insert system here] is rubbish, IT departments are evil, vendors/suppliers are evil, no one understands us, we’re being forced, x is a closed system (so evil) and no one does what I want. Her post is mainly in reference to senior people within the education sector. She goes on to describe how we can influence institutional choices and culture.

What does her blog have to do with me? Well, I am part of those tropes.

I am not your enemy

I wrote a blog along these lines some time ago. I am not your enemy was a response to a particularly unpleasant training session my colleague and I attended. People were unhappy at being forced to use something, we weren’t the people forcing them but we were the focus of their irritation. It was a desperate plea for people to think beyond their own perspective.

Rest assured, I am not here to make your life more difficult, despite what you might believe but that doesn’t mean I will roll over and do everything you want. I am not part of some big conspiracy against you. I’m just doing my job the best I can. Same as you.

What do I mean by the harbinger of doom?

I am the person that says “yer that’s great, we would if we could, but…”, “we can’t right now” or “no”.

I don’t understand. I am ignoring you. I am the laggard. I am unimaginative. I am uncreative. I am the dictator. I am the oppressor. I am part of the broken system. I am the bringer of no, nope and Nah. I am the quasher of dreams. I am the destroyer of enthusiasm. I am the omen of the apocalypse. I am Zuul.

Who am I really?

I have good intentions. I’m a realist. I don’t promise more than I can deliver. I don’t take uncalculated risks. I work to make things sustainable. I want to help. I am listening. I understand. I do care.

But I do have to say no.

No is necessary

I can’t say yes to everything. IT’S NOT PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE. Read the previous post. Remember, a no usually means there was a yes to something/someone else. Also, sometimes I have to say no to save you from yourselves. Sometimes I have to say no and it’s not even my decision. Sometimes I have to say no because it’s not a sound technical solution.

If you want services and systems that are unsustainable then let me know. I’ll give you yes’s and you can explain why none of it works.

I’m not saying you have to like nos. I’m not saying you have to accept them. I’m just asking you to understand that I have to say no sometimes. Please reciprocate the empathy and respect I have for you.

Haters gonna hate

No matter what I do, I will never win. I have come to accept that. No one contacts people like me to say that everything is going well and I’m doing a good job.

So to the haters, I make this promise.

I will help you despite how you treat me. I will treat you equally. I will be transparent. I will work to get you what you want. I will listen to your feedback and act on it. I will empathise and try to understand you. I will be disappointed in myself every time I say no. I will be your champion.

Of haters, I ask that you understand there’s a lot more to every no than you think. I am not the pantomime villain, I’m the good fairy who can’t always grant your wishes.

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!

ICT vs. Educational Technologists

Relationships between departments, in any sector, can be difficult and HE is no exception. But this came as a bit of a surprise to me whilst enjoying a tipple in the evening at the UCISA Support Services Group conference. Apparently some ICT staff are not keen on the educational technologists at their institution.

I’ve used the name educational technologists though I know full well there are hundreds of different job titles. You may call yours digital education developers, learning technologists, elearning technologists, technology enhanced learning advisers, online content developers and so on.

I’ve never felt any animosity (or any extraordinary animosity) from my colleagues in ICT. There is the usual “that’s not our job” tension but that’s nothing unusual. Perhaps I am oblivious to it or we never work with people who feel this way. I imagine it is an equal mix of the former and latter. So it came as a shock to hear how negatively the Ed Techs are thought of by ICT staff in some institutions. So I thought I’d write down a few thoughts about why this might happen and how we can avoid it.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT are busy

ICT departments are incredibly busy places to work. They have a very broad customer base who pull them in a number of directions. Students, academics, professional services etc. are all vying for their attention. Not only that but they actually have to maintain all of the systems as well as put new ones in. None of these things are easy. We should remember and be mindful of that.

Dear ICT: We are busy too

There is a perception, rightly or wrongly, that Educational technologists float around messing about with new fun technologies. That we spend our days thinking up ways to make ICT’s life more difficult. I assure you we don’t mean to. Whilst we occasionally get to do fun stuff we are most often bogged down in supporting staff in how to use the VLE. Most often training staff on the basic functions.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT are under pressure

I have already mentioned the pressures that a diverse customer base causes ICT. Often it is whoever shouts loudest that gets heard. How many times have staff emailed your ICT Director to complain they weren’t being dealt with quickly enough?

Dear ICT: We are under pressure too

Technology in education has become more and more important. The TEF puts innovation at the heart of teaching. For some reason institutions think by sticking some technology in to teaching it will somehow become innovative. We all know there is no quick answer. Therefore, ed techs are seen as the people to transform teaching. That we can make everyone innovative with a click of our fingers. Unfortunately, we have to start making a significant change. To do that we need to have the infrastructure in place and ICT, that’s where you come in.

Dear Ed Techs: Stop asking for seemingly random stuff

To ICT it probably seems like our requests come out of nowhere. Sometimes they do. We know our rationale. We remember the conversations we have had with staff and students on the subject. We have looked at the alternatives. But ICT have a process they go through and trying to avoid it, because it’s usually long-winded and laborious, is not going to get it done any quicker.

Dear ICT: Let’s not argue

Sometimes it would be nice for us not to have to argue. Filling out your long-winded paperwork and endless meetings. Unless you plan on sitting down and testing all the options I’m sure you’re going to go with whatever we suggest anyway. Also we know our users so we may not go for the shiniest thing with all the features we might just go for what we know they’ll use. That may seem odd to you but we have thought it through I promise.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT have a limited budget

Although ICT budgets appear huge to an outsider they are not and they are usually allocated for specific projects. Enterprise infrastructure is expensive. So when you roll up with “its only 2k” that may seem insignificant but it’s not. It’s a lot of money when every penny has been carefully allocated at the start of the year. Find out when the budget run is and try to get your requests in as early as possible.

Dear ICT: We don’t have a budget

Our team doesn’t have a budget for technology and licensing. That doesn’t seem to be something the University thinks would be helpful. So we rely heavily on ICT. When we say we have no money, we really mean it. Let’s work together to secure an ‘innovation’ fund. So when we ask you for stuff there is some money set aside already.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT don’t want to install stuff just because it’s cool

We all want to play with the latest thing. If anything that’s kind of our job but ICT have enough to do. They can’t just install stuff because we think it’s cool.

Dear ICT: We need a way to play with the cool stuff

Technology changes quickly. Educational technology changes quickly and we need to be able to move with that change. If it takes a year to get something installed it’s often out of date by then. What would be great is if we could have some way of installing things, testing them and, retiring them if they are not well used or rolling them into production if they are.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT have a process

ICT sometimes appears to be being difficult for the sake of it. I know that is not the case. Many ICT departments use a framework called ITIL which help to process the vast number of tasks they have to complete. It also helps to prioritise what they are doing, when they do it and who does it. ICT go through a demand management process. They get so many requests they have to prioritise and schedule them.

Dear ICT: We can’t do it without you

We are not able, nor should we, nor would you like it, if we started building up servers and installing anything we like willy-nilly. Nor do you appreciate it when people buy stuff without your knowledge. So we need you to do stuff for us. Trust me there are times where we’d much rather just do it ourselves but we can’t. We have to go through you.

You know we need you.

Dear Ed Techs: What you think is important may not be top priority

Sometimes there are pressures on their time and activities that have to take priority. We may not agree with them but we have to be mindful that our priorities may not always be aligned. Take a deep breath and don’t chuck your toys out of the pram. Try and work within the existing systems rather than outside them. You’ll probably get somewhere much faster.

Dear ICT: Please acknowledge that teaching is important

I have acknowledged the diverse needs that constantly pull on ICTs time. But I will finish with my biggest frustration. That you don’t acknowledge that teaching is important and ultimately why we are here.

If teaching is terrible students won’t turn up. If students don’t turn up we won’t have jobs. Yes I know that the finance system, HR system and WiFi are all important. They underpin everything. But if a lecture theatre computer is broken that’s not a big issue in the grand scheme. But it’s a massive issue for that member of staff and those students. Acknowledge that when they call you. Fix it quickly. Don’t leave it for days.

Dear ICT: Let’s work together

You play a crucial role in the University. What you do, day-to-day, affects everyone. There are few departments who have such an impact on people’s lives. We rely on you. So let’s just start working together. Let’s talk about how we can work together. What we need from you and what you need from us. What we can do together to make a difference. Let’s stop focusing on problems and start finding solutions.

 

Students: I’m worried about you

I’m worried about students and I’m worried about education. There has been a move over the past few years that has seen students lose site of the reason they attend University. Perhaps I’m just an idealist.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Nelson Mandela

Learning to Pass the Assessment

This is the shift that frightens me most. I have heard a number of students, undergraduates and postgraduates, question why they are asked to complete assignments and work that do not contribute to their final marks. For example, a student was quite affronted that they had been asked to create a blog when they only needed to pass the dissertation to complete the course. There seemed to be no understanding of the skills that a blog develops. Particularly those of reflection.

Another student stated that they could only be tested on the content delivered in their lectures. Therefore, there is no point doing the extra reading and activities suggested by their tutors.

We can find the roots of this attitude in secondary and further education. I remember being told we’ll learn about this today because that will be something that may come up in your GCSE exam. We have been conditioned to learn to pass tests that assess very narrow, specific knowledge.

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. Michelangelo

Independent Learning

The amount of work students are supposed to do independently seems to affront them. “Why am I paying 9k a year to not be taught by someone”. The idea that they should not be spoon-fed is seemingly new to them. Yes, all independent learning should be guided. Students shouldn’t just be left but they must develop the skills to learn independently. Maybe we need to make that clearer to them on application to manage expectations.

We are supposedly developing people to be productive members of society and in their employment. A big part of that is independence and initiative.

Tuition Fees

The introduction of Tuition Fees saw a change in the approach of students to their studies. I have heard many times “is that what my 9k a year is paying for”. I started university in 2007 and was one of the first cohorts of students to pay tuition fees. Granted mine were a more reasonable 3k a year with the additional grant repayments.

Tuition fees have introduced the idea of education being value for money. That University is better because with that course I get an extra hour of contact time, a free coffee and a hug once a week. Yes I’m being facetious. What happened to learning for learning’s sake?

I have always enjoyed the gym analogy. You don’t become Arnold Schwarzenegger simply by having a gym membership card in your wallet. You join the gym, work hard, put the effort in and you might become Arnold Schwarzenegger. It won’t be quick and it certainly won’t be easy.

You get what you put in to education. If you work hard, you’ll see results.

NSS and League Table culture

The NSS and the multitude of league tables have compounded the tuition fee effect. Students are now balancing their course choices with the overall position of the university. When you look at the numbers there is often a hairs breadth between universities on the table.

It has led to a number of knee jerk initiatives, often ill-conceived, with the aim of driving universities up the table. Yes there is the desire there to increase quality, never a bad thing, but it has a worrying dark side. The Guardian has suggested that  University staff will be held to ransom by student consumers.

We’ll do what they want, however unreasonable, so we don’t upset NSS.

Monetisation and the “Knowledge Economy”

The current government is hell-bent on monetising education. Creating what they describe as ‘choice’ for students. Given there are 127 institutions listed on the Complete University Guide do we really need more choice?

We’ve seen some of the controversy surrounding private providers with University awards statuses. If you didn’t see it watch the dispatches investigation on YouTube.

Choice does not denote quality. Will it force universities to up their game. Definitely. It may even result in more specialised courses and widened participation. Though a serious question mark still hangs over how they plan to ‘police’ and measure the quality of Higher Education institutions.

I spent an hour at one of our open days talking to a student about which university they should go to. I’m not a career councillor so I talked from my experience of choosing a university and the sort of things she should consider in her decision-making.

I don’t think more choice will lead to quality and I don’t think it will make students decisions any easier.