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.

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.

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).

giphy-1
(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:

giphy

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.