Author Archives: howsheilaseesIT

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 . . .)

The upside down and in-between: the uncertainity of where I am right now⤴

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Image: https://strangerthings.fandom.com/wiki/The_Upside_Down?file=Upside-Down-S2.png

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I have been finding the last few weeks as we have moved out of lockdown very unsettling.  Whilst lockdown wasn’t easy, it seemed simpler, with just a few big messages and guidelines to follow. A walk a day, no mixing with other people, just going to the supermarket, moving the majority of personal and professional interactinos online, a rhythm of weekly blog posts.

That has almost all gone. Now, we can go more places, see more people. There is a veneer of “normality”, but it is very fragile.  Whilst others around me seem to embrace this, I am finding it hard. Life isn’t what it was pre lockdown, and it hasn’t yet formed into whatever the “new normal” will be. We are in this strange in-between place, where some things seem almost normal but aren’t. 

For example I went to the supermarket this morning, it was quiet, it was fully stocked, they were clearing out small bags of flour for 15p a packet – no-one was filling a trolley full of that.  Apart from wearing a mask, hand sanitiser and disinfectant spray at the entrance, screens and physical distancing at the check outs, it felt the most “normal” since early March.  I went out for lunch last week, which entailed going into the city centre for the first time in 5 months. Again it was almost normal, bar the face masks on the waiting staff, the hand sanitiser spray at the entrance,  and the physical distancing in the restaurant.

But it’s not normal, and I am finding it all unsettling. I keep thinking of “the upside down” from the TV series Stranger Things. That parallel dimension where all the spooky things live, where something very, very bad wants to destroy “our world”. You really don’t want to get dragged into the upside down

The emphasis on care that was so tangible during lockdown seems to be slipping too.  In our efforts to protect ourselves we are using more disposal plastic than ever, encouraged not to use public transport but our cars. Disposal face masks and gloves are not bio degradable but some people seem to think that they are, just dropping them wherever and whenever they have served their temporary purpose. I have found an outlet to express some of my reactions to this here. But once again it is all very unsettling. The consequences of not looking after our environment are even more dangerous for us than covid, but I feel that  climate change seems to have disappeared into the upside down.

Is the explicit emphasis on care for our students, colleagues, courses going to be just as prominent in the new academic term as it was during lock down? I hope so, but I don’t know.  Will the emphasis on staff support and development in online delivery be sustained or have we “all done the VLE training” now? Will the level of sharing of resources continue or will the drive to survive promote a culture of closed resources? I hope not, but I don’t know. 

I’ve been very fortunate that during lockdown I have had a steady amount of work (that you to all who have employed me over the last few months!)  I’ve had some great speaking opportunities that seem to have resonated and have got good feedback.  At the same time, I have had conflicting emotions of guilt because I’ve not been working 15 hour days, having days full of online meetings, that I’m not doing more or as much as many of my peers seem to be doing coupled with relief that I don’t have to do 15 hour days and have days full of online meetings, etc, etc.

Now I just have a gnawing worry that I might not get any work again as university budget cuts start to hit home.  Am I too far away from the reality of contemporary university life to be of any use?Am I slowing being sucked into the upside down? I can feel myself withdrawing from networks, not contributing. It seems to take more of an effort some days than others to go on twitter, to write a blog post, to voice my opinion. But in order to eat I need to be doing that to let people know that I am here, that I have experience to offer, that I am not an imposter, that I am not going to be trapped in the upside down. 

I’m not quite sure where I am right now, like everyone else I’m just figuring it all out. I hope that in trying to explain and share my feelings might help not just help me, but someone else too. And of course if you think I can help you, please do get in touch and maybe we can save ourselves from the upside down as we navigate our way into whatever our new normal might be.  

Time, space, models, AI and exams – a (few not so original) thoughts.⤴

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Oh my goodness, what a right old mess the UK has gotten into over this years school exams. Cancelled exams, statistical models, algorithms to ensure that the dreaded “grade inflation” didn’t happen all conspired to make what can only be described as an omnishambles.

Last week, the Scottish government did a swift U-turn on their results which has put pressure on the rest of the UK to do the same. As I write this a news alert has just popped up on my phone saying the PM has confidence in Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Ofqual. Back in “normal” times that language was a signifier of a resignation or a sacking, however these days it may well mean that the PM does have confidence in his minister, and the agency despite the mixed messaging from them both over the weekend.

Perhaps one positive thing to come out of this mess is the start of a public debate about statistical modelling, the development and use of algorithms and the implicit and explicit bias that they almost always promote.

However, this is a very messy business and there has been a huge amount of human complicity and error here too. In was pretty obvious in March that these exams would not go ahead. 

Students themselves have (quite rightly) been very vocal, and visible in their anger, dismay and outrage at the overriding ‘logic” of the bigger pattern and the curve taking precedence over them as individuals. w.

The blame games have already started, with opposition parties seeing huge political capital to be made.  Calls for public inquiries , discussions about what to do next year are all I fear detracting from what is the fundamental issue – our over reliance on exams.

 If we had more continuous assessment and less reliance on final exams, if/ when another pandemic strikes or covid-19 has another spike, we wouldn’t have to worry about exam results or models to moderate grade inflation. Students work could be judged on their merits, there would be confidence in the marking through a shared learning outcomes (which if I am not mistaken do already exist). A more holistic view of students as people, with ideas, with agency, with the ability to express. share and reflect on their views would emerge.  

We could allow students to exploit digital technologies to develop their portfolios, to share their work more openly, to develop more cross curricular activity, to develop agency and critical thinking skills.  Much of this does happen in schools but still, the only thing that really counts are those final exams.  That incredibly stressful, unfair and to be honest quite archaic way of testing memory not knowledge and understanding.  

It’s said by many commentators that our current PM is a “crammer”. Had jolly japes at Eton, crammed for exams and through his loquacious use of slightly arcane language (see what I did there!)  got the grades and the interview patter to get into Oxford and sustain his career in politics and journalism.   The final result is what matters – Brexit, the last UK election, the ‘war’ on covid. . . . unfortunately we all have to suffer the chaos of the this period of uncertainty as we rumble from disaster to disaster. 

We could change the way we assess our children as they leave school. Teachers already have the skills, knowledge, understanding and technology to do it, we just need to rethink time, space and place for on going assessment. It would be cheaper and more effective imho to spend money on that than on a public inquiry into what has and is still happening with this years results.   

I have quote above my desk from a post I saw on social media early on in lockdown, it says “in the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to” (attribution Dave Hollis). I find it so sad that we seem to be rushing headlong back into exams instead of seriously contemplating the alternatives. Is this not is the perfect time to change that old “normal” to a far more equitable “new normal” for assessment?

saw this on twitter today - think we should all have this pinned up somewhere

Supporting an open covid pledge for education⤴

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One of the positive aspects of the whole covid-19, lockdown experience has been the refocus on care – care for ourselves, our families,our community, our learners, our colleagues. This manifestation of what I would describe as open educational practice is exemplified in the ALT community resources page which is an ever growing, international resource bank of practice sharing.

Today I am delighted to see the launch of a new initiative ( the brain child of Helen Beetham) to try and ensure that this open sharing of practice, research and data continues. This is what this initiative is all about, and I can’t really put it better than this from today’s ALT announcement.

we need more than shared content: we also need credible evidence on which to base day-to-day decisions in practice and policy. We need urgent research into the experiences of teachers and learners. We need shared know-how, especially from experienced online and distance educators and learning technology specialists. (This summer has seen a generous flowering of blog posts, webinars, infographics and how-to courses – but more will be needed as the ‘new normal’ takes root.) Education globally faces many challenges, not only for the people who work and learn in the sector but for whole organisations and modes of learning. Societies depend on education to improve lives, widen economic participation, and support civic life. Education will be critical to the long-term response to the pandemic crisis.”

So please, if you, your colleagues, your institution is/has/is planning to conduct any relevant research, do join the many individual and organisations who have already signed up, and sign the pledge and help everyone in the education sector and beyond focus on cooperation, not competition so we can all really build a better, research informed, future.

You can find out more and sign the pledge here.

Love in the time of covid⤴

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Cover and my pages in the zine

Just a short post to highlight, Love in the Time of Covid, a community driven and crowdsourced project developed by The Alchemy Project in Glasgow. This digital and physical zine shares a wide range of diverse responses the the lockdown caused by COVID-19. It’s a powerful exemplar of just how lockdown has affected a diverse set of people, and also how central community and our localities are to us. Many of us (re) discovered our own surroundings during lockdown.

I first heard about the project in early June from Joe Wilson, and was intrigued by the idea and by the thought of being included in a zine. So I was delighted when my submission was included in the final version. As well as giving a platform for local creatives, the project is raising money for two really fantastic local projects; feed the nation in isolation from Social Bite and the Black Scottish Business Fund. If you would like to help out with the fundraising, donations open until 12 August.

My contributions are my a couple of my responses to lockdown and my growing fascination with images of the covid-19 virus, its structure, patterns, and colour and the patterns I was seeing in nature around my – particularly along the Forth and Clyde canal as I took my daily walks. You can find out more here.

I’ve also just issued a limited edition set of notecards featuring six of the images from my “covid canal” series. I always knew that the artistic side of my working life would have to be subsidised by my consultancy, but I do want to try and share my work a bit more widely. One of the images is part of a work featured in the current Thoughts are Free exhibition at the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts.

Not so easy, and not just on Sunday morning: easing out of lock down⤴

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As you’ll know, dear reader I have tried to document the lockdown with a series of weekly “lock down diary” posts.  After 16 weekly posts, I decided that it was time to move on from that series so I had a bit of break from blogging last week.  

Lock down restrictions are easing not quite daily, but at least weekly.  I suspect there will be more  lifting and res-instating of restrictions  over the coming months as we all are able to do more and more.

I’m finding this hinterland between lockdown and not quite “back to normal” more stressful that the lockdown itself.  I worry about a growing air of complacency, the loss of community caring and support so evident at the start of lock down, the increased lack of safe physical distancing by many, about travel, about the abuse of our countryside , about larger group socialising.  Yet I realise that we can’t live in lockdown forever, children need to get back to school, businesses need to be open.  Maybe I’m just too cautious, but I do worry about the blasé nature of some people I know, and some I don’t.  

That said I am slowly starting to do more myself. I went for a haircut last week, sort of normal but really not that normal at all. Temperature taken before I was properly let into the salon, wrapped up in semi-PPE,  wearing a mask, agreeing to personal data being stored for a short length of time before leaving.  But all worth it for a refreshed head of hair and a proper blow dry! 21st century, global north new normal indeed.  

I also worry about the lack of debate about wider issues in the world just now.  Covid 19 is the ultimate way for governments to shut down debate, to use “national unity in a crisis”  to provide distraction around what they are doing and not doing.

The recent debacle around the report into Russian interference in UK elections is a case in point. The current UK government has stifled,  and try to close down democratic processes and debate like no other I can remember.  It holds one unelected senior advisor  above the standards it expected its citizens to follow and seems to be living in a fantasy world around trade negotiations. Keeping the population obsessed about where they can and can’t go holiday is a very handy distraction.  The normal summer silly season for the media will not doubt be made up of “jolly” quips and pics of the UK Prime minster getting on his bike and jogging to loose his “fatty fifties” blubber

Am I just being paranoid? Maybe . . . maybe I just need to do more too. I am going away next week to visit my Mum. So a full day of travel by car and ferry  – again normal but not so normal with restrictions on ferry passenger numbers and wearing of face masks.  I also worry about work, will I still be able to survive in the coming months? but that’s for another post.

On a more positive note, I had a piece accepted for the current RGI’s first online exhibition, Thoughts are Free which is online until 10 August.  So I’ll leave you with that and I’ll go and try not to worry so much . . . for a bit anyway.

Covid canal 2 – mixed media on paper