Author Archives: howsheilaseesIT

The Ikea Approach to “digital”⤴

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Photo by billow926 on Unsplash

Warning, this post might be stretching a metaphor a bit too far, but there is something that has been bubbling in my head for the last week so this post is an attempt to make some sense of it.

Last week I joined the Jisc Joint building digital capability and digital experience insights community of practice online event. Co-hosted with the University of Derby, it was a really useful day with lots of presentations from colleagues across the sector around what they have been doing to support staff and students over the past 8 months. There was also a preview of this year’s Jisc Digital Insights surveys, but lips have to be sealed on that one. It was a really useful event, so thanks to all at Jisc and Derby for organising and running it.

Anyway, as I was listening to the keynote presentations from Derby – a really comprehensive overview from strategic vision to hands on implementation, it suddenly struck me that in education, we might be suffering from a bit of an Ikea situation when it comes “the digital”. Bare with me as I try to explain. Apologies in advance for this very western metaphor.

So we have our shiny, glossy strategies that layout the vision, mission purpose and the high level overview of the where, what, why and when of “stuff”. They’re a bit like the Ikea catalogue, where every room has that look of if not perfect, but attainable, useful, organisation, practicality and comfort. If you’re anything like me, there’s always something in the layout of the rooms in the catalogue that appeals, alongside that nagging worry if anyone does actually live in that wonderment of perfectly organised storage . . .

So we have our catalogue and we can see the vision for the “perfect” and practical home. We all want a bit of that don’t we? That’s like our strategies – they all make perfect sense, who wouldn’t want to do all the things they set out. The implementation of the strategies – not always so straightforward. Perhaps a bit like when we actually go into an Ikea store.

Despite the homogenous layout, the friendly arrows, you can get very easily get lost, (I spent what felt like 2 hours trying to work out how to get back downstairs once) or distracted, or (in precovid days) get caught behind a family of 20 having a day out with no way to overtake them. It strikes me that this is a bit what has happened as we have tried to develop digital capabilities across universities.

Everyone has seen the shiny catalogue and has seen what they want or how they could possibly improve what they have. So they build their digital strategy. And then they let staff and students go into the store. Many get caught in an endless loop in the market place deciding on just what and how many digital bits and bobs they need. Others are a bit more strategic and know not to get distracted in the market place and just move to where they really need to be. Others are even more experienced (perhaps battle-scared) and know at least one short cut to get to where they need to be. They might even be able to do self check out without having to get assistance!

So I’m not saying that our institutional systems are built like Ikea wardrobes, tho’ at times it might feel like that! I think it’s more in terms of how we use technology, it’s like we all have a “billy book case”. We’ve past the test of finding and buying it we’ve built it but since March this year we really had to use it. I think pre covid, there were many people who treated the VLE (and lots of other learning technology) a bit like the Billy bookcase Ikea flat pack. Only use if you really have to, never read the instructions when you are building it, and you know as long as it sort of looks ok, and it doesn’t fall over, you can live with a degree of wonkiness and let’s just not worry about the left over screws and nails . . . they weren’t that important anyway . . . the shelf will stay up if you carefully balance things on/under it . . .

Thing is we’ve had the instructions for quite a while, it’s just that not everyone saw how important and quite often, how easy they actually were to follow. Now people are having to engage with “the instructions”, and can’t really get away with wonky shelves. Not just at the event last week, but over the past 8 months I see /read/hear so many similar stories of how TEL/academic development units have become front and centre of the ‘pivot’ and the response to the pandemic. People are engaging in ways they never did before, accessing material, resources/support/courses they never thought to before. I have said it before but I’ll say it again, it’s quite sad that it took a global pandemic to get some staff to engage with their institutional VLE.

To me this highlights a couple of things. One is the gap between strategy and actual practice. Having a shiny catalogue doesn’t mean that all your ‘rooms’ will actually look (and work!) like that. Developing digital capabilities for all staff and students needs to to be centred in all university practice and strategic development, and units that support this can’t be seen as optional extras or something to forget about when we “get back to normal”. We can’t just provide instructions that no-one reads, we need to be helping people out of the market place, finding the shortcuts and routes they need and ultimately giving people the confidence to build all the furniture or make an informed decision about why they might just want to go to another shop.

Anyway, this might all be a metaphor too far, but would love to hear what you think in the comments.

A time of equity and care?⤴

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On Friday Maha Bali included me in this tweet for an upcoming keynote she is giving. She asked “what is care without equity? what is equity without care?”

As ever Maha’s open practice drew out some very thoughtful responses, some of which she has selected added to her slidedeck .

During the covid pandemic, I have been heartened to see that issues and discussion around care and equity have increased, particularly in my professional network, but also in wider society too. After what seemed like a slow motion couple of days from Tuesday’s US election, the networks “called it” yesterday for the Biden/Harris Democratic ticket. For millions of people in the US and world wide there seems to be a palpable sense of hope, of care and equity.

I feel I have to write something today, but not being a US citizen I can’t comment with any authority on the political situation there. However, as a citizen of the world, and being firmly entrenched in the global north, what happens in the USA does have an impact. And so much of what has happened during the past week highlights many of the issues and tensions around care and equity.

I feel that at his victory speech , President Elect Biden gave threw out a blanket of care:

It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again, . . . this is the time to heal in America“.

However reassuring millions of Americans (and others) found this, there is (as I write) still a deafening silence from President Trump. His rhetoric of distrust around voting procedures and observers are all lacking any evidence, but are a huge signal of a type of care – self care. Denial is how he protects his ego and his actions when they don’t go as he had hoped.

There are many who have benefited from Trump’s version of care during his Presidency. He “cared” for the conservative right, and skewed the balance of the US Supreme Court. How equitable that will be remains to be seen, but will have consequences for decades to come.

I have no words to describe some the interviews I have watched where Trump supporters have parroted unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. These people care deeply about the election result, unfortunately President Trump doesn’t seem to care about them. His actions aren’t equitable, they are, and always have been focused on self care, and self preservation. He has got away with so much for so long, is this finally the time that his actions catch up with him?

Who knows, but I do hope that the narrative of his Presidency doesn’t follow this tradition and that his defeat is the start of a return or resurgence of more equitable approaches to government across many countries (the UK included), and and the beginning of the end of easy 3 word slogan, right wing rhetoric and a resurgence of debate, discussion, recognition of the need for comprise, of knowledge sharing, of care and equity.

The role of public pedagogy, open education and information literacy in a rapidly changing world: CILIPS 2020 keynote⤴

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Earlier this week I had the pleasure of giving the closing keynote to this year’s CILIPS conference. Like all conferences this year, it changed from a face to face meeting to an online conference. The conference team at CILIPS did a great job moving everything online. I was lucky enough to be able to dip in and out of the conference over the 2 days it ran. It was both inspiring and humbling to see some of the work that delegates shared.

In my keynote I wanted to focus on the role of information and public pedagogy and the direct relationship they have on each other. In our increasingly confused world ensuring that everyone has the capacity and opportunities (both in digital and physical spaces) to find, share and critique information is increasingly important, if not urgent.

During her keynote, Dry Jenny Peachy (Senior Policy and Development Office, Carnegie Trust UK) mentioned a phrase that really struck me. She talked about the need for libraries to play a central role in ‘resetting the relationship between citizens and the state”. Now if there was ever a time to hit reset it is now! However that is quite a challenge particularly at a time when the state is imposing restrictions on everyday life, without a really well thought out communication strategy. What is happening with the UK government’s lockdown announcement for England. this weekend is a classic example of miscommunication, leading to the further erosion of trust between citizens and the state.

I can maybe draw some solace from living in Scotland where we have actually been in varying states of lockdown for quite some time. There maybe a little bit more trust here in the Scottish Government (even more so I suspect as people realise the benefit of allowing non essential shops and business to stay open). But the longer “all this COVID stuff” goes on, the more feed up, confused, angry, exasperated and exhausted we all get. And then we have the US election . . . which will impact us all eventually.

I know that I have in so many levels switched off, as I don’t actually feel that I have an agency in this situation. I don’t want to shout at politicians on the radio or tv so I limit the amount of news I watch/listen too. I do wonder how, when, and if we can actually hit reset.

In my talk I spent a bit of time talking about how we are negotiating our various states of “normal” just now. Any reset seems obsessed with resetting back to pre covide times. I don’t think that’s realistic. I think we are going to be in various states on restricted living throughout the rest of this year and next. So what we need to be doing is making more time, space and places to develop more shared understandings of the different contexts we are all living and working in now, the science, the data, and interpretations of COVID 19 and again how these are impacting our contexts. Approaches based in public and critical pedagogy are crucial to doing this. It also seems to me that libraries are natural spaces to support these approaches.

However, as funding forces difficult choices around what spaces and services (physical and digital) can and will survive, it is a challenge to carve out time for “service users” needs as active, engaged citizens, instead of desperate, unsure, challenged citizens trying to negotiate the complexities of digitally enabled state benefits.

Although I admit to switching off, I am so fortunate that I can switch myself on again and have the capabilities, platforms and opportunities to have conversations with others about what’s going on. Not everyone has that opportunity.

As I’m don’t work for an institution anymore, I can only have limited impact. That’s why speaking events such as the CILIPS conferences is so important to me. You can access my slides here and the recent paper on public pedagogy co-authored with Keith Smyth and Bill Johnston from which much of the presentation was based here.

Stack ’em up, zoom ’em down⤴

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Spoiler alert, this post is a mini rant! Don’t expect anything balanced, and because I didn’t get round to writing this last week it’s probably out of date.  
So last week I spotted this tweet from Vicki 

which was a reaction to this tweet from Lawrie 

about the new immersive scenes Zoom are adding to “allow the host to set a custom background theme for their meetings or create layouts where participant videos are embedded within a scene that everyone shares, like a classroom . . .” 

Why? Just why? If you are running a virtual classroom then you and your students are not all in the same room, so why pretend? Why create a false visual hierarchy?  What purpose does it serve except to extend and enhance a false sense of “normality” and control with students neatly staked in rows and the teacher at the “front”. Why try to re-create an old fashioned notion of a classroom and badge it as the “future now”.  

It does kind of remind me of when Second Life was all the rage and there was a trend for universities to build virtual campuses that replicated the physical campus including huge (mostly empty) offices for senior staff.  . .    

But back to Zoom. The newly enhanced creation “thingys” (my choice of technical term)  might be more useful.  They will apparently provide  “animated reactions to make nonverbal communication more noticeable and fun. These animations will also include an audio element (e.g. sound of clapping)”.   Sound of clapping might be nice, for a bit, particularly at online conferences – but I just wonder how long it will take for “noticeable and fun” to become ‘annoying and bland”?  

I just wish companies like Zoom would think out of box just now and not try to stuff us all back into them.  When we do all get back into rooms again, lets hope we don’t just go back to rows of desks . . . I’m now thinking even more about the need for asterisks not straight lines . . .

Teaching in Higher Ed podcast: Time, space and place⤴

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A couple of weeks ago I was delighted to spent a really lovely hour or so chatting with Bonni Stachowiak as part of her amazing Teaching in Higher Ed podcast.

We covered a myriad of “stuff” around some of big questions around time and space and how we are all “being” at university just now. I really enjoyed the conversation – I hope you do too.

We need to talk about “normal”⤴

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Six months after we went into full lockdown in the UK, Covid-19 infection rates are rising, we are under restrictions again, and there is a horrible sense of deja-vu in the air. It’s the same but different. The disease seems closer as halls of residence very close to me are shut and students are told to self isolate as hundreds test positive for the virus.  Questions are being raised as to why the halls of residence were allowed to open in the first place, why did universities open when as one student I have just heard on the radio said “we are just getting everything online”  

Meanwhile I’m still watching Battlestar Galactica. I knew there would be more analogies in it! In the opening mini-series, there are a couple of scenes where the new President of the Colonies meets the military leadership of the battleship. Both are hellbent on “getting back into the battle”.  Laura (the President) says ( a bit of paraphrase here)  I don’t know why I have to keep pointing this out to you, but we have lost the war. ( for those of you not familiar with BSG – all 12 planets of “the colonies” have just been well and truly  nuked by the Cylons, and less than 50,000 humans remain alive.  Bare with me there is a point to this!  

As I watch, read and listen to the news, many commentators are pointing out that COVID-19 and halls of residence were a match made in rapid community spread infection heaven so why did unis open them without testing? Why were they hell bent on getting back into battle or “normal” so to speak? I think it’s time to have some serious discussions about what normal actually is in (higher) education.  

I have had a quote above my desk since lock down start, it says “it the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to”.  After some conversations last week I think that perhaps we have rushed back to our formal curriculum (aka normal) without really considering the wider context in which universities are now operating.  

I can see why, the curriculum is a key focal point to getting teaching back on track. After rush of  the great online pivot, the harsh reality of the transitions is suddenly upon. Getting teaching back to as close to normal delivery of the curriculum as possible is an obvious goal, as is getting as many students as safely as possible back in halls and maybe on campus.

I can’t comment with any authority on the situation in halls of residences just now. I’m sure lots of people have worked really hard to make sure that they were as safe as possible for students. Of course universities wanted them to open again – for one thing they need the money as well as start to “get back to normal”. But things aren’t normal just now and they won’t be for quite a while yet. I suspect we will  have at least a year of various levels of lockdown. Even with a decent testing system in place, everyone is liable to be in and out of work/study for the foreseeable future.  

I don’t think our formal curriculum represented this “new normal”.   We need to start planning for now for no exams next year, making provision for alternative assessment method, taking online learning really seriously and exploiting the benefits and flexibility of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

In couple of keynotes over the lockdown period, I put forward the notion of rethinking the first year experience to allow students and staff to adapt to our new context. To have a focus on well being, developing digital research skills and capabilities and adjusting and sharing how we can adapt and “be” at university in  our new context, the ever changing “new normal”.  

The experience of university for staff and students is different now.   We need to recognise and develop ways to understand and support a whole new set of seemingly smaller (or micro) transitions we are all making now. For example, the transition from you laptop/phone/tablet on the kitchen table when you are “at uni”, followed the transition from your laptop to your laptop/phone/tablet for catching up with friends and family. Same space and device, completely different context.

Where are the spaces where people switch off, socialise. Where are the “leaky” space and places of the formal and informal curriculum? You know the places where you have those serendipitous discussions about one thing that lead you on a completely different direction for your study/teaching/work.  How open are/can we going to be about what we are doing, what we are learning, what we are really struggling with if we hide behind a drive to deliver the “normal ” formal curriculum.

I don’t have any answers to these questions, and obviously not working a university just now I fully acknowledge I am removed from the reality on the ground. But I do think that not being obsessed with getting things as close to possible as they were ( but just online!!) isn’t doing anyone any favours. We need to be creating the new narrative about what the university experience is now, not what it used to be.  

We need to be discussing the digital university in a different context now. And dear reader, with my colleagues Bill Johnson and Keith Smyth I am doing exactly that just now so look out for a new publication in the not too distant future

News from the other side⤴

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Please indulge me as I share some news from the “other” side of my professional life. I am launching a newsletter to share updates about my artistic practice, with updates on I’ve been doing, work in progress, exhibitions etc and where and how to buy my work. So if you would like something in your inbox that isn’t about managing 27 zoom calls a day, or how to keep students engaged during 3 hour live online lecture, then this is the thing for you.

The first edition will go out over the weekend. To get your copy, all you have to do is subscribe to the mailing list on my art website (obvs all GDPR compliant).

All this has happened before, all this will happen again – not quite back to the lockdown diaries⤴

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Well dear reader, it’s been a funny old week or weeks maybe. Here in Glasgow we went back into a partial lockdown last week meaning that we can’t have anyone visit our homes – but we can go out an meet people and go to restaurants etc.  I totally got my head around this as the levels of infection do seem to becoming from infections via home visits not through commercial venues. To me going to a restaurant is safer as it has all the safe measure in place, unlike most of our houses. Not saying there not clean or anything but you know, you do tend to relax and maybe not keep to strict physical distancing in your own living room.  

So far so good, but now we are faced with “the rule of six”. Meaning from Monday, only up to six people from 2 households can meet anywhere.  So, we aren’t quite in total lock down, but social restrictions are definitely ramping up. Meanwhile the UK government  continue to use the cover of Coronavirus to deflect attention from their outrageous behaviour around flagrantly breaking international law around the Brexit agreement.  I have a feeling all this will not “all be over by Christmas.”  

All this will give me  (and anyone else with access to the BBCiplayer) the perfect excuse to re-watch one of my most favourite TV shows of all time – Battlestar Galactica (not the original one but the more recent 21st century TV show). Fellow BSG fans will probably have spotted a reference in the title to this post. 

BSG was one of the most interesting (sci-fi) dramas of its time. It was one of the few, if not only US tv series to directly comment on the American invasion of Iraq. It drew really powerful analogies around the concepts of: insurgency, the role and place of invading forces, collusion and related moral/immoral justifications.  I watched much of it via DVD on long train journeys back in the days when I spent a lot of my time traveling between Glasgow and Birmingham in particular!

As we often say context is key, and this time around I will be watching in a completely different context. For one thing I won’t be on a train!  I know “the plot” but this time around the battle to save c.50,000 humans left in the universe will have a completely different context. Will I see the Cylon threat more as the the threat from Coronavirus (not just COVID-19 but all its past and future strains)?  How will I perceive the human refugees in light of our current refugee crisis? 13,000 people  were made homeless again in Greece this year when the camp there were living in was destroyed by fire. Yet I feel too numb to fully comprehend this tragedy as my main media messages are full of “the rule of six”  and “Brexit”, and our UK governments seemingly unstoppable corruption under the guise of “making Britain great again”

What about climate change? PPE, masks, disposable plastic is back with a vengeance under the guise of protection and personal safety – despite them adding our increasingly out of control pollution problem.   Where is our humanity now? what are our shared values?  In our rush to get back to “normal” it seems that closing borders are more important that opening up and sharing. That first rush of compassion and care that the pandemic engendered seems to be evaporating.

BSG has a fair bit of its own mythology and mysticism in it too, including an arc about finding Earth , the fabled 13th colony, that some rogue ancestors founded. The phrase “all this has happened before, all this will happen again”, is quoted in the series. I think it’s from one of “the scriptures”. It’s a line that has stayed with me, and as we move in and out of stages of lock down, it seems apt to our current context.  When and how we will get out of the lockdown cycle I don’t know, but at least I have something to watch and think about for a few weeks, and maybe a new stream of posts . . .

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Care (and some anger) as an energy – a few thoughts from the ALT-C Summer Summit #altc #altcSummit⤴

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In another change to the normal this year, the annual coming together of the UK learning technology community at the ALT (f2f) conference, was postponed and instead last week saw the ALT Summer Summit. ALT is really evolving its online conference capabilities and ways of keep the community engaged and sharing practice. The winter online conference has been growing steadily over the past few years, this years OER event, was an amazing success given the circumstances and incredibly fast turn around from a full blown face to face conference to an online edition.

Of course participation in online conferences is slightly different.  Due to other commitments, I only managed to join the keynotes and final panel discussion live. However, that was more than enough to feel connected with the community, engaged in key issues facing everyone in education (and wider society) just now.  It was just the coming to the end of summer energy boost I needed. 

The theme of the conference, learning technology in a time of crisis, care and complexity was of course perfectly pitched.  Like many during lockdown I found the emphasis on care, for each other, for our families, our communities, our societies, was an unexpected positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. At various times it gave me, hope, a sense of connection and community, and a focus on the really important parts of learning and teaching – human interactions.

Care can manifest itself in many ways, from a simple checking in on people by saying “hello, I’m here if you need me”, to designing learning experiences that take account of changing contextual circumstances.  One example of this was the decision to move to open book exams that many universities took early on in the crisis. The stress caused to students by online exam proctoring was, imho, the antithesis of care  Technology can mediate care but there are complex issues in its use.  The keynote from Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier foregrounded care for both students and staff. 

The zoomification of all aspects of professional and personal lives is “the” example of how technology can bring people together. Its ease of use and I guess really being in the “right” online place and price point (40 mins for free – yes, dear reader, I took that!)  at a terrible time negated the security issues that many were highlighting, particularly in March/April.  

Our need to communicate seemed a fair trade off to access to data about where, how, when and with who we were communicating with. What could anyone do with that data anyway? Even the UK government were having Cabinet meetings via Zoom – what more of a seal of approval could you need. They would have checked out all the security issues, all the implications wouldn’t they?  

Our focus on technology during the crisis has also highlighted the many, and sadly growing inequalities in our society around access to data and technology. We may all be in the COVID ocean, but we are not all in the same boats, or even in a boat at all. 

The Q&A session with Angela Saini (btw loved that format) raised many questions and discussions around race, the history and context of scientific and wider history and accountability. There was also discussion around how the current UK government seem to be in thrall of technology, without actually always fully understanding the consequences. The recent exams fiasco in both Scotland and the rest of the UK has highlighted what many in the ALT community and beyond have been saying for a long time around the bias of algorithms.

Algorithms are not neutral, they are the constructs of the many biases of the people who develop and build them.  Diversity is crucial not only in the development of algorithms but in the decision making process around how /when they are used, the interpretation and use of the results.  We need to constantly question the need for, and the use of algorithms and any form of AI.  

Charlotte Webb’s keynote addressed issues of structural inequality in relation to COVID-19 head on as well as illustrating some alternative, feminist based approaches she has been involved in developing such as redeveloping Alexa from a feminist perspective. Both sessions are really worth catch up on if didn’t get the chance to see them live. 

The final panel session  Learning Technology beyond the crisis: Policies for a sustainable future excellently chaired by Keith Smyth, was more focused on the day to day realties for many of the ALT community are facing around policy and, more importantly its implementation, or as Anne-Marie Scott said how can we start to develop policies as “permissive tools”?  Again really worth catching the session if you. 

If you are like me then your emotions will have been all over the place over the past 5 months. I sway from mild panic to almost despair around the apparent rush to get back “to normal”, despite the virus still being in circulation, despite seeing that alternative approaches can work, that “traditional” exams really are high stakes and too often don’t have a back up plan that doesn’t involve chaos, that care is slipping further down the agenda as money and profit assert themselves as the real priorities. However, from events like the summer summit,  I do also get rushes of joy, of care, of a sense that there are better ways for us to live, learn and work together and not go back to the “old normal”.    

I’m also quite angry at times. We all should be angry at lots of things just now and that was brought up in the final panel session too. We need to hold on to that anger too and use it as focus. And as Keith quoted in the session “anger is an energy”  – and angry energy can be a form of care too. 

A practical guide to digital teaching and learning⤴

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Earlier this summer I was delighted to be asked to contribute to a special feature by Times Higher Education on digital learning. The guide was published last week and includes contributions from a number of international contributors and covers some relevant topics including course design, technology, safeguarding, participation and inclusion. My contribution focuses on where staff can turn to for help in preparing digital learning and teaching.

“Being” at university in the new academic term is going to be very different for both students and staff, and we are all going to have to learn together about what works, where, when and why. Lots of our old assumptions have and continue to be challenged, we all need to adapt.

The good news is that there is lots of support available, from inhouse teams to the wider sharing of practice from communities such as ALT and individuals like Sally Brown and Kay Sambell who have curated a fantastic set of alternative assessment resources.

Another recommendation I make is to become an online student and see things from “the other side”. Again there are lots of options out there, including Creating Courses for Adult Learners, a new course from the Open University which provides a really solid overview of online course design and delivery.

You can access the full guide here ( behind usual THE paywall I’m afraid . . .)