We need to talk about Jisc

See Speak Hear

Jisc has been a huge part of my personal and professional development. Jisc offers us access to a wealth of expertise and has created networks of professionals that would otherwise be unlikely to exist. But in the last year or so, I have begun to worry about what Jisc is becoming.

Like all things in the public sector, Jisc are having to reduce their costs and align to other external priorities. Which is likely one of the main reasons for the change in the organisation that are visible to those who work closest with it, and rely on it.

Let me be very clear. This is not an attack on the individuals who work in Jisc who, in my experience, are extremely dedicated, hard working and knowledgeable. They continue to work to aid the sector but like all of us, they are subject to the priorities and values of their employer. When they change, they must change with it.

We are not blameless either. For years we greedily lapped up their funding and, more often than not, did very little of value with it. We took and took and took. We benefited from their experience, from their networks and their prominence.

I was one of these of people. I have benefited from their free pilots, their development programmes, from their free visits and most of all, from their expertise. I have taken everything I can and given nothing back.

The irony is, we’ve taken everything we can get but the minute Jisc asked us to pay for some stuff, we lost our sh*t. We became so used to taking from them. “But Jisc stuff has always been free” we exclaimed. “Where’s the funding? Surely, there’s some funding? Won’t somebody think of the funding?” we cried. I defended Jisc when they began charging for a VERY worthwhile development programme. I have no problem with that and Jisc should be able to charge a reasonable amount for this aspect of their work.

They have now moved in to being a service provider and charging for those services and this is where I become troubled.

Jisc has some…interesting…partnerships with vendors.

Jisc feels like a vendor.

If you want to know how I feel about vendors, read this.

Take for instance, the Digital Capability tool. I used it, read about that here, and found it useful. We raised some good conversation, we found out some useful information. We had a 25% response rate. Feedback was mixed. It hasn’t changed much since. Would I pay for it? No. (I’m not speaking on behalf of my institution here, after all, who’s going to listen to me!?) It’s a survey with ‘personalised’ results. Yes, you can customise it, bla bla bla but it doesn’t do anything I couldn’t do. I would rather spend the money on doing something about the things I already know need attention. I know there are areas for improvement, what could it tell me that I don’t already know? What does it tell staff? Our feedback was, not a lot. Jisc has fallen in to using the ‘problematise a thing and make a thing to fix it’ technique of the vendor. The project was built on sound research by people I respect. They continue to work hard. If this were the old Jisc and a vendor were peddling this solution, would they support it? I don’t think they would.

I valued that Jisc was on our side, they represented us and fought for our interests. Now, I feel their interests are in making profit whether or not that’s in our best interest.

I valued Jisc’s impartiality. Now, I feel their need for profit has put impartiality at the bottom of their list of priorities.

I valued Jisc’s criticality. They wouldn’t recommend something they didn’t believe in themselves. I don’t think that’s the case now. It’s all a forced positive message. Even the people involved with them temper their criticism when talking about projects they’ve been working on.

I valued Jisc’s knowledge. Where is the understanding of higher ed, where is the scholarly approach, where is the grounded thought leadership? Where have all the people who worked in education gone?

I valued Jisc events. I have been to many Jisc events over the years and there was always an element of self-promotion. Rightly so, since they were funding them for free. But now there’s more sales than value. It’s soundbytes, stats and the same faces.

I’m sorry to be so blunt but I miss the old Jisc. I worry about the talented people who work there and most of all, I worry that education is losing one of its most important allies.

*** This post reflects my views only.

Why won’t the VLE die?

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

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

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

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

We are asking the wrong question

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

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

We allow ourselves to be technology lead

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

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

Technology is created the wrong way

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

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

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

We like things that reproduce what we already do.

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

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

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

Adoption is a matter of culture change

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

Because we will never win

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

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

ICT dictate what we do

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

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

Other technologies hold us to ransom

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

Our processes hold us to ransom

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

We don’t like change

And mostly because…

change